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I remember the drip of water into water. Or perhaps I’m making that up, since it is such an inevitable feature of any scene involving a cave in film? It’s hard to know how much I have mentally rewritten at this distance of years. But anyway, the drips, the hush falling on the chattering group as our boat slipped through water into the dark, even our pompous Maori guide (“Now we will reveal the hidden wonders of Waitomo”) silent for the moment – these are in my memory. And then the thousand lights of the glowworms starring the roof, as though the sky had been buried in New Zealand. I thought about chthonic deities, the boat of Charon crossing to the underworld, the ships of the dead in Egyptian tombs, the mystical death and rebirth of the sun-god. I thought about the agonisingly patient calcite drip of the stalactites and about how the glowworms were carnivorous and their lights meant they wanted to lure and eat something. I thought that if I unbuttoned your fly and slipped in a hand probably no-one but you would notice. But I didn’t do it. In retrospect, it was a turning point.

Continue reading “Glow”

Questions for the artist

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What have you hidden?

What did you expect me to ask you?

What part of your art would you like to press into my brain, like a seal into wax?

Have you made a monument more lasting than bronze, or just a cake?

If I could eat it, what would it taste like?

Did the past speak in you, as you made this? Were your hands your own?

To what king, what leader, what politician would you present this art and would it honour or scorn them?

If similar societies produce similar art, what revolution would help you reach what you were straining for?

When you were frustrated, making this, labouring over details you eventually erased, did you think of me in the future, loving your work and misinterpreting it?

Are you sad that I am your audience, since you did not make this for me?

Ta-Ku and Wafia / Longitude

Dot writes: perhaps it’s a good thing I’m writing up these two events after such an interval (I saw Ta-Ku at the Button Factory on Thursday 14th July and Ken and I attended the third day of the Longitude festival in Marley Park on 17th July). It’s easy to drown in detail, especially where the festival is concerned. After two weeks, what stands out in the memory?

Ta-Ku and Wafia

I bought tickets for Ta-Ku’s gig because of Wafia and yes, it’s her voice and her performance that I most retain, and not solely because I was more familiar with the songs she sang than with the rest of the set. It was quite a gentle gig, despite amplification, with kaleidoscopic patterns and unfurling flowers softly mesmerising us on the screen behind the musicians, and in the parts using pre-recorded vocals it felt especially unassertive. I know Ta-Ku was busy at his laptop and his faders, but we weren’t privy to what exactly he was doing. There were a live drummer and keyboard player too, but the passages of live singing were the parts where one had more of a sense of drama and communication between audience and performers. Ta-Ku himself has a pleasant, soulful voice; Wafia, at the centre of the stage for five numbers, has a soft, unforced, and yet wonderfully expressive and technically controlled sound. She didn’t speak and was dressed in a long coat and a hat as though she’d prefer us not to see her at all, but without histrionics she gave her performance an element of passion – turning sideways from the mic when not singing, looking imperiously down her fine nose. I don’t want to sound lukewarm about this gig. The textures and melodies were lovely, and the style in any case isn’t a pumped-up hit-you-over-the-head rock thrash but something much more mellow; it invites you to slide in and get lost in it. The crowd was more dressy than the band and danced by bending their knees and swinging their arms.

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I was quite excited about getting to see Christine and the Queens at Longitude, but I didn’t see Christine and the Queens at Longitude. She was performing in a large tent and the crowd was so enormous I couldn’t see a hair of her charismatic French head. There were no repeater screens on this particular stage, just the backdrop, and since the act consists not just of singing but of dancing this was quite a loss. So we gave up and went early to see Shura on the small Whelan’s stage (Shura’s set partially overlapped), and we had an excellent view and enjoyed the performance very much. Shura is what you’d get if you crossed Madonna and Courtney Barnett – strong echoes of early Madonna production, but Courtney’s down-to-earth quality and practical musicianship. Courtney was also playing and we caught part of her set on the main stage, but Shura was the part of the festival I enjoyed the most – pure energy and love of the music meeting a small crowd who were delighted to see her. At one point the audience cheered especially hard and Shura said “When you do that it makes me feel shy.” She’s lovely and I hope her life involves many warm hugs. (Her debut album Nothing’s Real was released earlier this month.)

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Another highlight of the day was the band who were playing on the main stage as we arrived, HamsandwicH. I’ve heard of them before – they’re a local Irish act, from Meath – but not investigated them particularly. They have a faintly trad-influenced guitar band sound with some use of a horn section. What really caught me was their stage presence: the lead singer, Niamh Farrell, and the male frontman/guitarist/singer Podge McNamee were brilliant communicators, projecting a sense of enjoyment, energy and humour even to that picnicking summer-afternoon crowd. Their tunes have a sunny, light, sweet quality a little like Belle and Sebastian. Ken and I have been checking them out since on YouTube. We’ve also been investigating an Irish band we saw more briefly, All Tvvins. All Tvvins are more obviously my thing than HamsandwicH as they play texturally saturated, emotional pop-rock with big resounding guitar chords and a hairy drummer. Well, HamsandwicH also have a hairy drummer as all the men in the band have beards and look like dads. But All Tvvins have the type of hairy drummer who, at least from a distance, seems to be channelling Animal from the Muppets. Perhaps I’ll decide after a bit they lack depth, but in the meantime they’re promising candidates for playing very loudly and singing along in the car, and I need more of that in my life. (Why the vv thing? Tribute to Chvrches, whom they don’t resemble at all? And for that matter why HamsandwicH not Ham Sandwich or indeed hAM sANDWICH or hAmSaNdWiCh or… bandnames are odd. Please can we go back to The + noun.)

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It was a tiring day in the sun. I cautiously packed raincoats and spare clothes because I’d seen a forecast for a thunderstorm, but it was gloriously sunny and warm and we used the raincoats for sitting on. There were many young girls at the festival wearing backless lace tops and no bras, but Ken didn’t notice until I pointed it out. We saw someone wearing a pretend Native American headdress, even though everyone knows you’re not supposed to do that these days. I ate a very delicious curry. Ken looked at the huge tent selling Heineken and remarked that no craft brewery could possibly supply enough beer for a festival like this.

The headliners on the main stage were The National. We were with friends who were keen fans at this point in the day so we were very near the front. We left a little early to get home to bed, but stayed long enough to be impressed and swept up with their sombre tunefulness.

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Captain Cutlass, illustrated by Frank

[Words by Dot]


Captain Cutlass was a fierce pirate.

He was sailing along in his boat powered by a lampshade, when something tapped on the gunwale. It was a tentacle.


He found himself face to face with a hideous sea monster.


Well, this is awkward, thought Captain Cutlass.


In fact it was more than awkward.


The End


[I know the comment about the lampshade is slightly mean, but I am very proud of Frank. His pirate and monster are so full of character and although he has drawn the boat in a rapid, stylised way he has clearly also taken some notice of the different parts of boats – note the cabin at the back of the deck and the bowsprit at the front, as well as the railing. I am a proud mum.]

The consolations of music

And so, consoling myself in this soup of political awfulness and despondency, I turn to the music I’ve been listening to. This is a selection from the albums I’ve bought. As always, I’ve also been getting a lot of pleasure from regularly tuning into Something More and feasting on all the loveliness and oddities Tim Shiel digs up.

Let’s start with a British band, Arthur Beatrice, to remind us that good and beautiful things still happen in Britain. Their album Keeping the Peace came out at the end of May and I’ve been playing it a fair amount, and would have played it even more if I weren’t constantly assailed with other brilliant music I want to listen to. (And if I didn’t sometimes turn the music off and try to concentrate on something else, such as riding my bike without dying under the wheels of a bus.) In style they’re similar to London Grammar, but more dramatic and emotional. Listen to this single and get swept up by how the music takes off just after 2:00.

Why We Run are a band from Sydney who’ve just released their debut album. A debut it may be, but it’s an incredibly mature and subtle record, full of the kind of songs that wriggle under your skin and stay there. In an age of deliberate recreations of 70s and 80s styles and self-conscious genre alignments, they don’t have obvious affiliations, just a lovely, integrated sound, writing that’s musically varied without hitting you on the head with it (they have songs in compound and triple time as well as the standard 4/4, and the song in the clip below goes into 7/8 near the end)* and, ahem, a really cute drummer. (I’m banking on Ken not reading this.)

N.B. The cute drummer is Ed Prescott, who also makes music as Edward Deer. I think he must be a good deal older than he looks. He looks about 22, which to be honest is too young for me, but one shouldn’t be narrow.

While we’re on things with ‘Run’ in the title, I’m also enjoying a new electronic album of that name by Olaf Stuut, whom I heard of because he remixed a track by Floex, who is another of my enthusiasms this year. I particularly like the title track with its interesting vocal effect (heavy autotune?) and the way it moves chords around over a constant bass note, and then changes the bass under otherwise constant chords – I enjoy the tension and suspensions that creates.

On Thursday I’m going to The Button Factory with my friend Tara to see Ta-Ku and Wafia. I loved Wafia’s gorgeous EP of late last year and now she has collaborated with Ta-Ku on another EP that will be out in August (I know it says 24th June in the article I’ve linked to, but it’s August on my iTunes pre-order). In preparation I’ve been listening to Ta-Ku’s album from last year, Songs to Make Up To. The style is far more R & B than I’d normally go for and I’m enjoying an excursion beyond my core genres of rock, alt-pop and electronica. On this track I especially like the coda at 4:25 where vocal layerings give way to a delicate piano phrase over a deep, moody drum’n’bass line.


*The 7/8 passage was the suggestion of a certain Wouter De Backer. He has fingers in a lot of pies (how unhygienic of him). If only he would finish another pie of his own…**

**Especially as De Backer means The Baker – but then he hates to do anything half-baked. I’ll stop now, shall I.

The woe of Brexit

Dot writes: it’s been a whole month since I last posted. In that time I’ve written and given a conference paper, the boys have finished school for the year, Frank has learned to ride a bike (go Frank!), Ken has made a huge amount of beer, the UK has voted to leave the EU, and I’ve listened to some more records. I started to write a post partly about Brexit and partly about the records. It’s getting so long I’ve decided to publish it in two parts – so here’s the miserable political part.

I’ve chewed over the Brexit vote so relentlessly and extensively on social media and in conversation – it’s been a big topic both at work and at the conference I attended – I feel exhausted. I can’t go back over it all again here. But I will say that I started, when the referendum was announced, as a mild Remainer – generally thinking the European project was, on balance, a force for good, a force against insularity, and the only way small European countries could have a voice loud enough to shout against super-powers like the US and China. I was very unhappy with the brutal economic policies enforced against Ireland and Greece in the wake of the global financial crisis, but I still felt that it was better to be part of the EU than not.

As the campaign progressed my views sharpened. I registered for a postal vote, which I hadn’t done for UK general elections. I wanted my voice to be heard on this: it was about not just economic welfare and international power, but values of inclusiveness and co-operation, and indeed my own identity as a British person living in an EU country. I also became more acutely aware that Brexit could have grave consequences for Ireland. The Irish economy is closely linked to the British one; more seriously, the open border between the North and the Republic, and heavy EU investment in the North, are two of the lynchpins of the Northern Irish peace process. Northern Ireland has receded from British consciousness, I think, but there are still bomb scares, there are still marches: this is a place with an incredibly painful history in recent memory. I can imagine people saying that Ireland shouldn’t be able to blackmail Britain with its history of violence. Well, Britain bears a heavy responsibility for that history and will have to continue to deal with its consequences.

When I saw the news on the morning after the referendum, it was with a sinking feeling of inevitability, the same depressed, believing disbelief I felt on the day after the general election that returned the Conservative Party to government. Of course. Of bloody course. I should have known that this would happen. I should have known that the majority of people in Britain would not be like me; that I don’t share their assumptions, their approach, their prejudices (I have my own prejudices); that I just don’t get it; that I don’t belong, or rather that I belong to a minority – leftwing educated people with an international outlook. I had thought carefully, read up extensively, and voted in accordance with my convictions and my understanding of the issues. Other people had – well, they’d come to a conclusion that just seemed wrong. I knew many of them had thought about it at length and were not simply racist or casting a frivolous protest vote, but to me their conclusions were, clearly, wrong. Then I felt increasingly angry. Because now we all have to try to clean up the mess. And it is a mess, a dreary stupid mess. It is the fault of the politicians who should never have submitted such an insanely complex issue to a brute plebiscite; they have been atrociously irresponsible.

No, the sky hasn’t fallen. The pound has fallen a long way, the major UK political parties have fallen to ugly squabbling, Britain has fallen in reputation in the eyes of the world, but the world turns on (getting rapidly hotter, of course, and that’s another thing everyone is going to ignore again while they try to work out the endless legal, political and economic ramifications of this idiotic event). Nonetheless everything has got that bit meaner, that bit more depressing. Ugly fissures of hostility are exposed. And I feel decreasing hope that we will tackle any of the truly huge and urgent issues we face – global warming above all, but also inequality both within countries and internationally. It is ironic that what was surely in large part a gesture of anger from the poor within Britain will probably result in further austerity visited on the poor.