Thursday, 29 October 2009

An Apology To Veronica Read

When we lived in London, a yearly ritual was for us to take my mother to the Tate. These visits invariably followed a set itinerary, we’d weave our way through the exhibits I'd get excited by the various new contemporary works on show and rambling about art history while my mum would make non-committal umming noises. Eventually one of two things would happen, either my mum’s patience with “this sort of nonsense” would run out, sending Pete scurrying to hide behind a Damien Hirst to avoid being associated with the fierce exchange of views that would then ensue, or she would amaze us both by suddenly getting incredible enthusiastic about something that both Pete and I would have thought fell firmly into her ‘this sort of nonsense category.

In 2002 one such piece to inspire a cessation of hostilities was The 4 Seasons of Veronica Read by Turkish installation artist Kutlug Ataman. Four screens hung in the obligatory darkened space, across which a series of face to camera interviews were conducted with the eponymous Veronica, a collector and expert cultivator of Amaryllis plants, which charted her life across a year. What fascinated us was the way in which Veronica’s emotional and physical state seemed to be inextricably linked to the seasons and to the wellbeing of her plants. In Spring she was gleeful and bursting with enthusiasm showing off her plants with the pride of a new mother. In Winter she was more sombre and guarded, seemingly uncomfortable with the whole process and when an infestation of mites devastated her plants she seemed to disintegrate in front of us.

At the time it struck me as a document of a particularly English piece of eccentricity, of becoming so involved in a passion that it takes over your life. Having said that I must confess I’ve always been affected by the seasons, never quite to the extent of those who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, but there is a fundamental shift that takes place in my nature when the clocks go back or forward. It’s manifested in the books I read, the music I listen to, the food I want to eat. From March to September I’m a Mad March hare guzzling Woodehouse, Waugh and Harry Potter, my Ipod sparkles with The Byrds, The Stone Roses and three minute pop songs, I munch mountains of fruit and crave the bustle of the South Bank or Bristol’s Floating Harbour. Come the winter and I transform into an altogether more serious animal, my bedside table groans under the weight of worthy tomes of non-fiction, horror and crime novels, my musical tastes become glacial and minimal, Coil, the Aphex Twin, Nyman and Glass soundtrack my ventures into the outside world where routes are planned to avoid as many people as is humanly possible.

Don’t get me wrong I don’t get miserable or maudlin – a touch more grumpy and prone to ranting perhaps, but I actually generally like winter. I love the crunch of frost under my feet, the interesting shapes of skeletal trees. I even love fog. I just get..well, different I suppose. The tricky bit though has always been the transition from one state to another – a few weeks of borderline multiple personality disorder that my beloved other half has to weather with good humour, never quite knowing whether he’s going to come home to a garrulous chatterbox full of gossip and babble or a misanthropic reptile curled up on the sofa spitting venom at News 24.

But now, for the first time in my life I’ve got a garden, and I’m beginning to understand Veronica Read. Previously my horticultural record has not been good, houseplants would wither before my eyes in shops if I even entertained the notion of buying them. Over the years I’ve left a trail of dead yukkas, cheeseplants and kitchen herbs in my wake. I even once managed to murder a cactus. But now on Windmill Hill I have a vegetable patch – and it not only has living things in it, it has edible things in it and I’ve become obsessed. Gardener’s Question Time is no longer something that burbles quietly away unnoticed in the background like a spoken word Orb album, I actually listen to what’s being said and take notes. Every day brings a new little triumph, or defeat whose impact on my state of mind is far greater than I ever could have imagined. Yesterday I discovered that the slugs has decimated a couple of my dwarf bean plants and I was in a foul mood for the rest of the day – this wasn’t particularly helped by the fact that the shops, in their wisdom, have now put all their gardening merchandise away for the winter to make way for aisles and aisles of Christmas tat (Do garden pests take the winter off? Can I kill slugs with tinsel?) Today though, the sight of my first purple floret of sprouting broccoli poking it’s way through the leaves put such a spring in my step that I’ve been incredibly productive today.

So Veronica, my apologies for branding you as eccentric all those years ago, my green-fingered passions may only just be beginning, and I’ll never reach your levels of expertise (I doubt very much that I’ll ever cultivate anything that will win a gold medal) but now I understand. Oh and to my long suffering other half – if you want to know whether you’re going to be greeted by Jekyll or Hyde when you come home, check the garden before you step through the door.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

On AA Gill, Baboons and Criticism.

Everybody’s a critic. We can’t help it, we do it every day, sometimes publicly, sometimes in the privacy of our own homes or brains. Just in the last week via Twitter I voiced my less than flattering opinion of the new sci-fi series Defying Gravity and recommended the School of Seven Bells track Half Asleep to a friend. At no point in either of these did I recount the tale of beating a ring tailed lemur to death. When I once threw a Patricia Cornwell novel across the room after two chapters it was because I found the prose style infantile and the plot stupid, whether or not I’d once poisoned a pygmy marmoset was neither here nor there. When I walked out of a Sisters of Mercy gig at The Forum in Kentish Town it was because it appeared that the sound was being mixed by a man with his head in a bucket of porridge and socks, the possibility that I’d once strangled a howler monkey had no bearing on the matter.

This may seem strange to some, particularly AA Gill, but the reason for these omissions was in part that I have never knowingly wilfully maimed a primate but more importantly that they would have had nothing to do with my opinion of the cultural artefacts being subjected to my critical judgement.

Now I’m not going to get into the moral ins and outs of shooting a baboon, I’ve never been overly sentimental about animals, after all I eat and wear the things on a regular basis and once buried a mole that I’d found in the garden (already dead I hasten to add) up to its waist in one of my mum’s houseplant pots as a joke at a family gathering (She got her revenge by serving it to me as starter between two bits of bread). Oh and don’t get me started on the various molluscs and arthropods that regularly lay siege to my vegetable patch. Still, for the record, the notion of killing anything purely for sport strikes me as an act of testosterone-fuelled cockishness and killing something ‘to feel what it’s like to kill someone’ seems not only doubly cockish but also both zoologically and philosophically flawed at almost any level you care to view it.

Cockishness aside though, surely the point of a restaurant review is to review the restaurant – its food, the ambience, the service, the d├ęcor, the wine. I’m not averse to a bit of context that helps flesh out the review whether it’s Sue Perkins’s playmate Giles Coren explaining why he rarely orders pudding or Peter Griffin look-alike Charles Campion (he’s the one who huffs like a hypertensive bison if his pudding is 30 seconds late during his guest judging spots on Masterchef) giving us bit background on a chef and the logistics of his latest venture. These opening paragraphs can give us a sense of the reviewer’s tastes and let us work out whether they’re likely to match our own and that’s great, that’s relevant, that’s useful, that’s good criticism.

So to give Gill the benefit of the doubt (although God knows why – I actually read Sap Rising and thus feel I owe him no favours), is there a relevance to the baboon hunting reminiscences that take up more that half of the review? Are London’s finest eateries now largely patronised by strange hybrids of Hemingway and Johnny Cash? Probably not. Well not unless the demographics of Tower Hamlets and the great and good of Shoreditch have significantly changed since I was last there.

Perhaps as suggested by some commentators, Gill is holding up a mirror to the hypocrisy of those who are happy to munch their way through “some frogs, a pig, a cow and a chicken” but would really rather not connect the artfully prepared fillet in front of them with the realities of the life and death of the animal it came from. Now I’m of the Fearnley-Wittingstall school when it comes to knowing about where your food comes from. I once spent a summer in my teens working on a rare breeds farm getting hands on experience of the piggy life-cycle from artificial insemination to slaughter (the former admittedly more hands-on than the latter) and I’m perfectly aware that the pork steaks I’ve just guzzled were once snuffling around and rolling in the mud. That’s not to say that I’m claiming a moral superiority by virtue of witnessing the former life and demise of a very tasty sausage, nor do I think for a second that I enjoyed my supper any more than the other half, who, at least to my knowledge, has never given hand relief to a boar. But there is an important issue here, that if more people gave some time to researching the realities of food production and used the economic laws of supply and demand to change the behaviour of our food retailers, animal welfare would improve and consequently the quality of our food, which, oh I don’t know, might have some, you know, health benefits or something.

I’m getting a nice view up here on this soapbox (largely of the shiny and sweating tops of the heads of Daily Mail readers mooing ‘Nanny state’ and ‘Political Correctness’ – careful there, you’ll have a coronary due to arterial bottleneck of accumulated fats from those ‘Connective Tissue and Hormone Nuggets’ that nasty meddling liberals like me don’t think you should eat.) but to return to the matter in hand if Gill is showing us the fine diner’s nature red in tooth and claw, the argument falls at the first hurdle by his own admission, baboons aren’t good to eat, he wasn’t about to tuck in to Confit of Baboon with an Agave coulis and fondant yams.

So….what was the bloody point? And what’s my point? I suppose really that to my mind, aside from the various moral and ethical issues that I’ve lightly grazed and sidestepped, it was a lousy piece of criticism, half a review whose word count was bolstered by a few paragraphs of swaggering, preening braggadocio diluted with pointless wittering about hats. There’s a place for Gonzo journalism, there’s a place for shock journalism. but a restaurant review really isn’t it.

Oh and by the way I swatted a fly while writing this and then stared at its twitching oozing corpse. Aren’t I clever?

On Grant Morrison's 'The Invisibles'

(One from the archives – a bit of a cheat. Easy this blogging lark – give me a couple of weeks and I’ll be sticking up old shopping lists…

Back in 2008 a dear friend celebrated her 50th birthday and was looking for something new to challenge her. Knowing that she had an interest in things of a sci-fi nature, and that she’d never read any graphic novels I decided to chuck her in at the deep end and sent her the first volume of Grant Morisson’s ‘The Invisibles’. By way of an introduction to the books, and to the form of graphic novels generally I wrote the following.

Reading it back a year later it strikes me as a touch pompous, and it should be clear to the reader that I was still only just emerging into the sunlight after a few years spent locked in rooms with noting but academic books. Hopefully though, amidst all the references to Brecht, gratuitous uses of the word ‘text’ and the possibly slightly inaccurate details of this history of Graphic Novels, it still conveys something of my enthusiasm for The Invisibles. Enjoy.)

Wake Up!

I'm on a train to London and I'm yawning.

I’m yawning because of Grant Morrison. Last night I finished my fifth reading in as many years of The Invisibles, and I’ll admit that I thought I’d cracked it – I knew what BARBELiTH was, I knew who (or what) the Archons were and most importantly I’d finally managed to visualise the mental map of the conceptual universe that King Mob, Lord Fanny, Boy, Ragged Robin and Jack Frost inhabit. (It was two interlocking circles like a Venn Diagram with another circle enclosing them – imagine that in four dimensions and you’re close.) Such thoughts do not lend themsleves to a restful night's sleep.

But then came what King Mob might describe as the ontological shock – the moment of clarity, an instinctive feeling that you’ve made some sort of breakthrough, a breakthrough that becomes more and more preposterous as you struggle to frame it in the insufficient resources of language.

So far so metaphysical – I’m getting ahead of myself, but that’s what the Invisibles does, it gets into your mind like an itch. You can be sitting doing a crossword over a coffee and suddenly it dawns on you “Hang on a sec….that means that Tom O’Bedlam is really…”.

It’s a neat trick, don’t expect easy answers or plot resolutions with Grant Morrison – he has too much respect for his readers than to spoon-feed them, the majority of first time readers will often find themselves scratching their heads in confusion at the end of a chapter only to have a “road to Damascus” moment when you should be doing something else. If Grant Morrison is the Author/God of The Invisibles universe, his message to his creation is (to borrow from Robert Anton Wilson) “Think for yourself Schmuck”.

At the heart of The Invisibles, then, as with many comic books and graphic novels since the publication in 80’s of V for Vendetta, Watchmen and the success and increasing subversion of the medium by magazines such as 2000AD and Deadline, is the desire of the writers and artists to “activate” the reader, to change them from a passive receiver to an active participant in the narrative.

The eighties Graphic Novel Renaissance has been characterised principally in terms of writers such as Moore, Morrison, Pat Mills and Neil Gaiman deconstructing the mythic figure of the Superhero. Gone were the clean-cut defenders of Truth, Justice and the American way to be replaced with scarred, ambiguously moralled, sexually dysfunctional, tortured vigilantes. Consider Moore’s Killing Joke which culminates with the Joker and Batman sharing a joke and agreeing that all things considered the two had more in common than they’d like to admit, the hero and villain as two sides of the same scarred coin.

Certainly the ‘super-heroes’ in The Invisibles conform to this non-conformist redrawing of the ‘masked adventurer – a transvestite shaman, a fetish clad ruthless assassin, a psychic witch with a hidden past (or possibly future) and a ‘chosen one’ who just wants to indulge in booze, pills. a touch of anti-establishment arson and let Armageddon take care of itself. Unlike the ‘Golden Age’ DC and Marvel comic heroes it’s hard to imagine King Mob pausing mid adventure to advise kids to stay in school, to spike to teachers lounge coffee with peyote or to cover it in Situationist slogans possibly, but to stay in it, never.

This redrawing of the super-hero as a less-than-super human has been so successful that it has made its way into the mainstream, Batman Begins, X-Men and Spiderman mined this seam of damaged heroes to both critical and commercial acclaim.

It would be easy on first view to dismiss The Invisibles as another in the long line of “dark and gritty” comic books that now fill the bulging shelves of “Androids’ Dungeons” throughout the world, but there is more to it than that. The other aspect of the medium that has been explored in the post-Watchmen world is the subversion of narrative structure.

These days reading a graphic novel is not simply a matter of following a nice simple line of frames from left to right and down the page. These days frames dissolve, collapse and overlap. Often you find noticing symmetries, discontinuities and apparent non-sequiturs whose significances either may not be revealed for some chapters or, more abstractly, may act as what Berthold Brecht termed ‘distanciation’ – a pause or gap in the narrative to ‘shock the viewer into remembering that he is reading a text, for Brecht (as, it seems likely, for Morisson) such techniques were a political strategy, drawing his audiences attentions to similarities between what was going on on-stage and in the ‘real’ world. Gaiman and Moore use these devices extensively in their work, but it is Morrison whose work takes the structural warping of the graphic narrative further than anyone else.

In his earlier DC series Animal Man, Morrison broke new ground in comic booksby allowing is central character to slowly discover his own fictional status gradually coming to the realisation that the events in his life were guided by one GodAuthor for the entertainment of the GodReader, breaking the fourth wall, the hero turns shocked to the reader, looking out of the page in shock – “My God – it’s all for you!”

Of course direct address to the reader is nothing new – in Watchmen, Moore uses a number of devices to involve the reader – Rorschach’s journal, Hollis Mason’s autobiography and the interviews with Adrian Veidt, Sally Jupiter and Dan Drieberg that form the thematic epilogues of each chapter. Here, though, the address is to a fictional reader – one who inhabits the world of the alternate 1980’s New York.

Morisson’s reader however is not positioned as being of the Invisibles world, although frequently the characters seem aware that they are fictional in some reality or other, they also create new realities within their own, fictional, multidimensional worlds at whose borders the conflicts arise which raises the possibility that they may be creating our reality.

So, how does the reader approach The Invisibles? Simple answer…. “slowly”. Over years of lending Graphic Novels to friends, some of whom have been converted, some who haven’t, it’s occurred to me that there is an art to reading comic books. Pitched somewhere between literature and cinema, comic books require a different engagement to both. Frequently people make the mistake of paying scant attention to the pictures and charging through the words. This is natural of course, since it’s the way we’ve learnt to read since we discarded picture books in our childhood – we ‘read’ words but we ‘look at’ pictures.

Yet if we consider a frame of a comic strip as a accomplishing the same as a scene in a film or a paragraph in a book, moving along the plot through action or dialogue or action within the fictional world and providing a context within which these events take place, we can lose a great deal of the information that is necessary to understanding the narrative. The way we learn to read, focuses, naturally enough, on the words, pictures are somehow downgraded as we learn; our first books are nothing but pictures and as we graduate through the age-bands of children’s books, young adult books and finally adult fiction pictures disappear from our reading, bar perhaps a flashy illustration on the cover.

We are essentially trained to ignore the image in favour of the word, which to a 21st century Western eye holds the ultimate authority.

It is perhaps unsurprising then that the first encounter for the novice reader of graphic novels can often be an unsatisfying one – largely because he or she is putting all their energies into reading the dialogue, the thought bubbles, the sound effects and paying scant attention to the images. In the early days of comic strips this wasn’t a bad approach really – early cartoon illustrations do little beyond illustrate the dialogue which in turn makes sure that the reader doesn’t miss anything.

In the post-Watchmen world however, life isn’t so straightforward, these authors expect you to work, to examine the background of individual frames and indeed to look at the relationship of the frames to each other – often in Watchmen a similar arrangement of frames on the page is frequently used to draw parallels between the actions and motivations of different characters at different times.

The way that time unfolds in The Invisibles also throws narrative conventions on their heads. Again in the pre-Watchmen era following the sequence of events unfolding in a graphic narrative was a straightforward business – you were confident that whatever happened in the bottom right of a page happened after the events depicted in the top left. These days causality isn’t necessarily a matter of one event following another – flashbacks, flashforwards and, for want of a better term, flash-sideways’s are layered on top of each other and this is especially true of The Invisibles. We’re often introduced to characters out of order, events that seem to occur simultaneously at one point of reading are later revealed to be taking place hundreds of years in the past or future making keeping a diary of the events and adding in the dates later a quite helpful (albeit admittedly geeky) strategy for unravelling what’s going on - I must confess on my third reading I actually ended up with an XL spreadsheet in an attempt to map the timelines. Also worth bearing in mind is that fact that, since time travel becomes a central theme of the piece, events may happen in one order to one character, but in a completely different one for another (Keep a particular eye on Ragged Robin…)

So there we go – some rather garbled thoughts on how to read The Invisibles. The one fundamental rule is take your time – a rule of thumb that I try to use is to spend as much time on a frame as I would a piece of prose describing the events depicted. Keep an eye on signs, odd bits of graffiti, look carefully at characters in a frame outside the main action – most of the time they’re just window dressing but on occasions they may be playing their own part in what’s going on – although you might not realise until several editions later.

But above all enjoy it – The Invisibles will frustrate you, intrigue you and bamboozle. It’ll send you racing for Wikipedia to fill out gaps in your knowledge; it’ll make you laugh, cry and gasp. Most of all, it’ll make you think.

Welcome to The Invisible Kingdom – all that’s left to decide is “Which Side Are You On?”

Monday, 26 October 2009

Bristol, Blogs and Blurting.

So the Italian Diary (like many previous attempts at blogging) bit the dust pretty quickly. Unfortunately, shortly after we returned from our holiday, life saw fit to deliver a series of great big kicks to the danglies and somehow neither my heart nor head were in the right place to revisit memories of a great holiday. I could I suppose have blogged about the ongoing saga of the universe weeing on our cornflakes, but my default setting in such circumstances is to go into hibernation rather than share my misery with the world.

But, as is often the way, good stuff came out of the aforementioned cackstorm - a new life in Bristol, the discovery of the joys of gardening (and the realisation that not all plants turn up their roots and expire when they see me coming) and, after twelve months of creative torpor, a sudden tsunami of ideas and, more importantly, the energy and motivation to shape the gush into your actual concrete things.

So, to the subject of Blogging. Please excuse this lapse into navel gazing - I've always thought that amateurs writing about writing is indicative of someone with very little to say. Professional writers have every right to hold forth on the ins and out of their craft; I've greedily guzzled some great books on writing, Russell T. Davies's The Writer's Tale being a recent (and inspiring) favourite and of course my favourite author, William Burroughs, writes about little else, well he writes about weird sex, weird drugs, sentient diseases, ancient gods and enormous talking insects, but at its heart all his work is about writing. In the blogosphere I greedily consume the fascinating and insightful musings of Stephen Fry, Neil Gaiman, Paul Cornell and others, but really, I ask myself, who is interested in me whining "Writing's sooooo hard"?

So why am I about to ramble away on that very subject? I suppose to an extent it's a part of my attempt to motivate myself, to put the various excuses I use to avoid this writing lark down on paper (well, screen) to see just how daft they are. Of course it's also a matter of practice, to get myself into the habit of writing and it seemed that a good starting point to exorcise my inky demons. So please excuse this exercise in self indulgence, it won't happen again.

I'll start from the inside and work out. Like many creative types I walk a fine line between total extrovert egomania and a crippling shyness. My early ventures into the public exposure of my creative side were all as part of bands, and somehow that collective approach to creativity suited me well - partly as a result of the shared responsibility of putting on a group performance - if it was a disaster, it couldn't be all my fault, and partly through not wanting to let others down - after all when there's five of you, one of you can't suddenly mumble "Noooo I don't want to do it" and lock yourself in the bathroom - well, at least not until you've got a couple of successful albums under your belt anyway. Flash forward a decade an a half or so, to putting on my first solo exhibition of paintings a couple of years ago and it was a very different story, a terrifying experience of exposing myself, feeling like a fraud and, following the financial failure of the show, finding my confidence shattered to the extent that I didn't pick up a paintbrush again until three weeks ago. With the benefit of rational hindsight perhaps an exhibition of homoerotic Pop Art with implicitly kinky undertones wasn't exactly going to be a blockbusting sell-out in a small rural village in North Somerset - but trying telling that to the little 'suffering artist' inside whimpering "Nobody loves me!" Of course in this age of the web, social media and instant feedback that potential for having your fragile little creative self bruised and battered is magnified and accelerated to an alarming extent - a cursory glance of YouTube, fills me with admiration for the skill and resilience of teenagers, now equipped with the same levels of technology that produced Dark Side of the Moon on their bedroom PC, who upload their first songs complete with home-made videos to be instantly greeted by a torrent of "LMFAO. Epic FAIL!!!!1111!!" comments and similarly articulate criticism, yet are able to shrug it off and soldier on to produce better and better work. It really puts my wafer thin skin into perspective.

The next hurdle/neurosis/excuse is the issue of doubting that I have anything interesting to say. I'm full of envy for those who have found themselves a niche on their blogs, those who comment wryly, wittily, intelligently and with fierce passion on life, culture, politics and the media, people like, to name two recent and welcome discoveries, Anton Vowl and Army of Dave whose blogs have, in the last couple of weeks, become as much part of my morning ritual as an espresso and a fag. Part of the problem for me, you see, is lack of focus, my mind flits from subject to subject like a hummingbird with Attention Deficit Disorder, bouncing from high-brow to low-brow, from the fantastical to the mundane and back again. For example, a peek at the headings of my mental agenda this morning would have revealed Aubergine Plant (Why is it dying?), Life on board 19th Century Whaling Ships, Dexter Season 2, Goat's Cheese (Calories in.), Daily Mail (Idiocy of), Junk Mail, Robert Rauschenburg's White Paintings, The Unthanks, and Socks. And that was before I'd had my toast. Of course access to the Internet doesn't help, once, in the days when my magpie curiosity could only be satisfied by whatever books happened to be on the shelf, such subjects would have knocked around for a bit, questions would have remained unanswered and finally a level of prioritisation would have occurred and something useful might have come out of that strange little torrent of brainspasms, but now that I can pretty much get a half decent answer to any question my fevered mind can come up with in the click of a mouse, my cranium is full of an overly rich sloshy thoughtsoup of opinions, facts and figures before my bodily functions are fully conscious.

So what the hell do I write about? In the past I've tried writing about: 1) Giving up Smoking - I didn't. 2) Reviewing every episode of Doctor Who in order - got halfway into the first episode and realised that as an idea it was both mad and dull (not to mention the potential for attracting hate mail for saying how unrelentingly grim and uninteresting I find a certain poll winning Peter Davison story) and 3) The sadly unfinished travelogue below. So going on past experience the focussed one-subject commentary is clearly beyond me. Perhaps I just have to accept that I haven't got the mental discipline to stick to one subject and accept that this blog will just be a series of random blurts offering nothing more useful or meaningful than a window into my strange little world. Who knows? - perhaps there are people out there who have equal interest in goat related dairy produce and bleak Northumbrian minimalist folk music (actually that particular combination doesn't sound that unlikely now that I come to type it).

So there we are - excuses out of the way and I'm back in the saddle. From now on my navel shall remain unexamined and I shall turn my attention to the big topics like aubergine horticulture, tv serial killers, art, life and many subjects in between. I was going to pen a couple of paragraphs about displacement activities, but I've suddenly noticed that the sock drawer needs sorting out and the throws on the lounge sofa won't straighten themselves out, oh and I really do need to find out who apart from Rod Steiger was in the film of The Illustrated Man.