Tuesday, 7 February 2023

Three Poems

I've recently had three poems published in Spinozablue Journal: Astronaut, The Things We Saw on the Way and Off-Course.

Saturday, 14 January 2023

Grizzly Bear

Just had a poem published in International Times. Great to be sharing a page with silent screen star Theda Bara.


Sunday, 8 January 2023

The Caves

Just had a short story, The Caves, published in SETU Magazine. I suspect it's the kind of first-person story which gets people wondering, is it autobiographical? To which the answer is, no. However, where autobiography and fiction are concerned, I'd say this: fiction tends to bear a similar relation to the life of its author as the cut-out letters pasted onto a kidnapper's note bear to the articles they were cut from.


Monday, 2 January 2023

Making Coffee

Before the pandemic I was a sucker for coffee shops. There's nothing like sitting down in a conducive space with a cup of the hot, black stuff. Before you realise it, what was intended to be a few minutes has turn into an hour. I went decaffeinated a long time ago. When I did, I quickly realised that – for me, at any rate – coffee wasn't about caffeine. The source of the kick comes from the strong, bitter but silky taste of the stuff. Get it right, and the thoughts crowding out your head evaporate, to be replaced with a timeless sense of infinite possibilities. There are other reasons why they did, too, but it's no coincidence that Jean-Paul Sartre and his ilk gravitated to cafés.

The pandemic knocked all that on the head. Coffee shops struggled to survive and sales of DIY coffee machines went through the roof. Everyone became their own barista. Of course, drinking coffee on your own at home isn't the same. It's not quite as sordid as drinking alcohol on your own, but that doesn't mean there isn't a social aspect to it. When those every-day thoughts dissolve, you need someone to talk to about those infinite possibilities. Going right back to the first British establishments in the eighteenth century, the coffee shop has always been a place of avid political and cultural discussion.

Talking about your plans and putting them into action, though, are two different things. One can waste a lot of time sitting in a café. From where you sit, everything seems possible. Drink up, pay your bill, step out into the street and all those quotidian thoughts come crowding back into your head. That novel you never wrote, the shape of which you'd dimly begun to grasp over a steaming Americano, has faded like the dreams you dreamed last night that dissolved on waking.

Learn to make a good cup of coffee at home, though, and once you've made it you can shut yourself away with nothing but a laptop or an A4 pad and ballpoint for company. You're in the best of both worlds. Anything becomes possible – and there are no distractions. Like now. I pause to drink the dregs of the mug of coffee I made before starting work on this. It's gone cold. I consider, momentarily, making myself another, but there's no need: the coffee has done it's job. I make no claim for this being the greatest article ever written, but I feel at ease, and able to think clearly about what I want to say. And I'm saying it to the laptop and not to my coffee-drinking pals in the coffee shop in town.

Of course, when you stand back from things you can see them more clearly for what they are. What is the modern coffee shop experience all about? As well as the contemplation and the camaraderie, there's the hiss of the machine, the light reflecting off its shiny metal surfaces, the rich smell of ground coffee. Making coffee for yourself is a much more sedate affair. The best way, in my opinion, is the filter cone. No fancy machine. All you need is the said cone, some good, ground coffee and a supply of filter papers. It takes a few minutes. The fact that it does is interesting in itself: it highlights the fact that everything surrounding coffee made in a coffee-shop is about selling coffee. The fancy machine behind the counter isn't there because you need one to make a good cup of coffee, it's purpose is to make passably good coffee fast. Everything is geared towards the (usually low-paid) barista making as many cups of coffee as possible in an hour. All the things we tend to associate with a 'good cup of coffee', the aura that surrounds it, are merely qualities designed to sell us that cup of coffee: principally, the big shiny machine, the clattering and hissing that goes with it, and the outrageous names for the various available concoctions. Without really thinking about it, we derive pleasure from being able to walk in and demand, say, a skinny decaf cortado. We can demonstrate familiarity with the language of the initiated. We feel part of something which, although we're not quite sure what it is, we want to be part of.

And it's not just coffee. So much of what we consider to be real is in fact synthetic, constructed to make it seem alluring to us. You might say that's obvious, and you'd be right. What is slightly less obvious is how we tend to normalise the fact and often dismiss it with a shrug. And it's hard to separate things which are actually authentic, necessary parts of reality from things that have been dressed up as such and sold to us on that basis. It's confusing: the world's absurd enough, without the relentless, omnipresent hard-sell making it more so. And it's worrying: we're living at a time when we need to see the world for what it is more clearly, not less.

Wednesday, 21 December 2022

From A to B and Back Again

I went for a walk the other day. I wasn't just walking for the sake of it: I had a mission to fulfil and I had to get from A to B and back again. There were only a few days to go to the winter solstice so, even though I set out not long after lunch, the light was beginning to fail.

It had snowed a day or two before. It had rained since, but, since the temperature had hardly crept above zero, it hadn't melted the snow. Instead, the rain had frozen on top of it and the ground was now covered with a slippery, two inch-thick layer of snow and ice which crackled as you walked across it.

My destination lay in the next village. I could've taken the road, but there's hardly any verge, let alone a footpath to walk on. Added to that, the road's quite hilly. I didn't want to risk getting knocked down if any cars lost control and started sliding about.

The path I took instead lay across the fields. There's a farm round the corner from where we live and, just to one side of the farm buildings, there's a gap in the wall and the usual public footpath sign. It took me round the edge of the farmyard, which was deserted save for a few cows stood about in an open-sided steel shed. I met a couple of people coming the other way, one of them picking their way gingerly over the icy ups and downs with a pair of walking poles.

Beyond the farmyard, the path goes off along the edge of first one field and then another. The farmer has helpfully spray painted an arrow on an old board, telling you which way to go, but in this weather it's unnecessary: so long as it's light, all you need do is follow the densely-overlaid trail of frozen footprints. Locals use this path a lot.

At the end of the second field you come to a stile. The path crosses a minor road. It's long, straight and disappears into the distance. The path resumes on the far side, crosses a boggy (now icy) stream before hugging the edge of another field. I found myself walking through a small group of sheep, doing their best to find something to chew under the snow. To my left lay what was once probably a farm but which is now more a caravan site. I could see that the field where the vans usually park was, predictably, empty.

I imagined what it must be like to come here on holiday. I was a child of about ten, staying here in a caravan. I imagined walking down this path with my family, perhaps on the way to eat at the village pub. It struck me how exciting it would seem, especially if I lived in a town and hadn't spent time in the country before. Walking down this path into the unknown, in this weather and at this time of day (my imaginary ten-year-old, it seems, was on an improbable late-December break) would be like climbing some wild mountain. The memory of it would stick with them. They might even come back as an adult to retrace their steps. Do you remember the time when...? Strange, the different views people can take of the same thing. To me, if I go out for a walk, just for the pleasure of walking, this would be the last route I'd take, I thought. This is the rural equivalent of the pavement between home and the corner shop: pleasant enough, but hardly a voyage of discovery. Thinking these thoughts, I immediately found myself questioning them. Perhaps my imaginary ten-year-old was right and I was wrong. Why shouldn't you have an adventure on the way to the corner-shop?

Beyond the caravan site, the path struck out right across the middle of a large field, known locally as the 'show field', as this is where the local agricultural show is held every year. On a late afternoon in December, it's merely a bleak expanse, its edges indistinct. The whole area is criss-crossed with the tyre marks of tractors, any of which can deceive you, in the gloom, into thinking you're following a path that might lead somewhere. As I crossed it, I kept turning round to look at the lie of the land behind me, looking for any feature that might help me if, on the return journey, I found myself crossing it in the dark.

By the time I was making my way back from B to A, the sun had set but, although I'd put on my head-torch, I never needed to switch it on: the light held, just, until I got home. The sheep were still picking their way round the field. The long straight road I had to cross now disappeared into the gloom. At the farm, a brightly-lit tractor was roaring up a track into the farmyard: the cows in the shed were being fed.

Thursday, 13 October 2022

Cosey and Delia

Cosey Fanni Tutti's latest album – a solo album – is based on the soundtrack she created for the film Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and the Legendary Tapes. The film, directed by Caroline Catz (best known for her role as the headteacher in the TV series Doc Martin), is about the life and work of the electronic music pioneer Delia Derbyshire, who worked at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in the 1960s. CFT gives a fascinating account of how she created it in the book, Re-Sisters. Having spent time talking to people who knew Delia, she then visited the John Rylands Library in Manchester to listen to digital recordings of the 'legendary tapes' themselves, which are held there (tantalizingly, they're not freely available because of copyright complications). I get the impression that the tapes are a kind of 'sound diary' of Delia's working life. CFT managed to assemble a collection of old, analogue equipment, which allowed her to explore Delia's way of working:

I'd made copious notes on how I'd go about composing and finding the right sounds that would reflect Delia's style while staying true to myself and to Delia's ethos of obtaining previously unheard sounds. Re-Sisters, p.119

She also had access to Delia's VCS3 synthesizer 'patch sheets' (diagrams showing the positions of the controls and the ways different parts of the machine were interconnected to produce a particular sound). As she said, recreating one of Delia's 'patches' was unlikely to produce the same sound but was at least an interesting starting point. (Elsewhere in Re-Sisters, she talks about Keats' idea of 'negative capability' and the importance to artists of just letting things happen). One should stress that the end result is very much the work of CFT and definitely not a recreation of Delia's music. I suppose one could describe it as a dialogue with Delia's ghost.

I've been a long-time fan of Throbbing Gristle but, until now, I'd not taken the time to get to know the work of Cosey Fanni Tutti outside of the band. It's a voyage of discovery for me, it's still in progress, and I'm enjoying every minute of it.

In addition to her music and performance art, CFT has written two books: an autobiography, Art Sex Music (2018) and, most recently, Re-Sisters: The Lives and Recordings of Delia Derbyshire, Margery Kempe and Cosey Fanni Tutti (2022). 

Monday, 3 October 2022

Full Circle

Full Circle is the latest album by Cate Brooks, working under the pseudonym of The Advisory Circle. It's the sixth album she's produced under the name, the first, Mind How You Go, going back to 2005.

Brooks' music has always owed as much to the music of 1970s public information films as it has to the world of kosmische musik. Poignantly impersonal, and with an edgy sense of unease, it invokes that 1970s world of electronica, sci-fi film and library music. It seems to hover between the past and the present and it's easy to see how it came to be labelled hauntological, evoking an imaginary present, based on the past, that never came to pass.

If you want to know what 1979 felt like, play this music on a Sony Walkman and close your eyes. Part of the magic then, I think, came from the fact that electronics back then had not quite lost its mystique the way it probably has now: people today tend to take it for granted that a chip in a smartphone can hold 170 billion transistors, but back then, a simple circuit using a couple of transistors could invoke a sense of wonder. A synthesizer was something else.

Full Circle is still intent on exploring the hauntological world of uneasy nostalgia explored in the first Advisory Circle album. This is not intended as a criticism: indeed, my first impression is that this album might well become my favourite of the six Brooks has produced so far. Perhaps one could describe it as meta-hauntological? Listening to it, I must say, as much as the 1970s, it invokes for me a poignant nostalgia for the early 2000s and a future based on that time which has never come to pass. Perhaps this is intended. Perhaps the clue is in the album's title?

Full Circle is issued by Ghost Box Records.

Three Poems

I've recently had three poems published in Spinozablue Journal: Astronaut , The Things We Saw on the Way and Off-Course . https://spino...