Thursday, 28 June 2012

Bande à part

The French film director Jean-Luc Godard has often been a major influence on my writing and way of thinking. I don’t always understand his movies – I don’t necessarily need to understand his movies – and sometimes I fall asleep, but invariably I come away from watching his films with a raging desire to write. As examples: I wrote the short stories “Ennui” after watching “2 ou 3 choses que je sais d'elle”, “Cinemad” after watching “Le Mepris”, and “Unchained Melody” after watching “Bande à part”. All of these have been published; “Ennui” in an anthology titled “Art From Art”, a book that specifically explores the idea of creating art from another piece of art.

The movie Bande à part has an American title of “Band of Outsiders” and the French title derives from the phrase faire bande à part, which means, "to do something apart from the group”. Doing something different is something I’ve always strived for – not that I have to strive as such because it’s more of a natural process. Even when I’m amongst a comparable ‘band of outsiders’, I still feel an outsider within them. And I think it’s fair to say that my partner, Sophie, feels the same way: to paraphrase Groucho Marx, we find it difficult belonging to a club that would have us as a member.

Of course, it’s not only us who are open to outsider influence. A Band Apart Films is a production company founded by Quentin Tarantino and Lawrence Bender, and Tarantino famously showed the impromptu dance sequence from Godard’s  movie to John Travolta and Uma Thurman when directing their dance moves in Pulp Fiction. Tarantino being another outsider intent on worming his way beneath the mainstream.

So, what am I rambling about? I guess it’s that sometimes you find yourself wanting to do something creative even though you know the outcome will appeal to a limited audience and yet you are compelled to forge ahead - ignore the mainstream – and do it anyway.

For some while Sophie harboured a desire to run a magazine showcasing the kind of writing that she likes but rarely finds. (Her own writing is in a style of it’s own: in one word she can encapsulate everything she wants to say whereas I would use thirty. For those interested, she maintains a website at: What was needed was the impetus to go for it. Then one ordinary Saturday morning we woke and just kicked around names for the magazine. Fur-Lined Ghettos stuck (there is no prize for guessing where it came from, suffice to say you won’t get it right). Once we had the title, it was impossible not to run with it. Within twelve hours we had a website and were reading our first submissions. Five months later and issue one is mailed out today. The point being that I would say we have found a bunch of writers who are also – even if they don’t know it – a band of outsiders. These are Valentina Cano, Angharad Davies, Matt Hemmerich, Ian Hunter, Travis McCullers, David Spicer, Kate Tattersfield, Douglas Thompson, Harry Wilson and Paul Woodward. With cover art from Jordan Pundik (lead singer with pop punk band New Found Glory). Get a copy and see if you agree.

Finally, I’ve been listening to the most recent Art Brut album: “Brilliant! Tragic!”. Art Brut were named after French painter Jean Dubuffet's definition of outsider art - art by prisoners, loners, the mentally ill, and other marginalized people, and made without thought to imitation or presentation. So perhaps appropriately I should end today’s blog with a quote from the song ‘Clever, Clever Jazz’ from that album, because it applies to me, to Sophie, and to the principle underlying Fur-Lined Ghettos:

“We’re working in a genre you don’t understand”


Wednesday, 20 June 2012

The Pig-Nosed Turtle

Continuing my affection for long-snouted animals here is the pig-nosed turtle:

It's a species of turtle native to the freshwater streams, rivers and lagoons of Australia and New Guinea and the only living member of its genus. The nose looks like that of a pig, having the nostrils at the end of a fleshy snout, hence the common name. Not the best angle in this photo I admit, but even so just look at the length of that snout!

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

The True Meaning Of Punk

I watched an old Arena programme about Poly Styrene yesterday evening, which has recently been re-broadcast. Sometimes it's hard to believe that punk happened 36 years ago. For a start, I remember being much older than the 9 years that I was. And of course, it seems like yesterday. Watching stuff from the past could be all about nostalgia, but X-Ray Spex are just as relevant now than they ever were. Songs about the bombardment of consumer products, questions of identity and genetic engineering. These topics have remained vibrant but no one has heeded Poly's warnings and mankind's drive to attain 'product' as social status is worse than it has ever been.

Punk wasn't just about music. It wasn't just about fashion. It wasn't just about a sense of belonging. Whilst it incorporated these things, punk was really about being an individual and doing what you wanted to do despite the odds. I doubt I would be a writer if it wasn't for punk. I doubt I would have started publishing (Elastic Press, 2002-2009, RIP) if it wasn't for punk. And I doubt I would have recently started a new magazine (Fur-Lined Ghettos, if it wasn't for punk. First and foremost, punk had a 'go for it' attitude - and one that held more of an artistic bent than the capitalist 'go for it' attitude of the 1980s. The point with punk is that you weren't in it for the money - despite what the Pistols might have told you. You were in it because you had to be.

Of course, with my 9yr old perspective there was much about punk that passed me by. I bought my first single in November 1978 (The Stranglers, Five Minutes) at the age of 11. My first album (The Stranglers, Black and White) shortly afterwards. And it wasn't until November 1981 that at the age of 14 I went to my first gig (again, The Stranglers, at the Norwich UEA). Yet, in those formative years, watching Top of the Pops and through school playground conversations, punk and the DIY ethic obviously made an impact. And foraging through the Andy's record store secondhand racks a few years after punk's hey day I remember pulling out Germ Free Adolescents and knowing that I'd scored both a classic and a bargain.

Germ Free Adolescents remains one of my favourite albums. It has a raw infectious energy. And Poly's lyrics speak to me directly: both poetically and vibrantly. Plus it's damn good to sing along to. Watching the Arena documentary, Poly comes across as easily bored. She adopts the Poly Styrene persona for the stage, yet backstage is unassuming - she wants no part of the 'pop star' lifestyle and is wary of being drawn into conversations with people she doesn't want to talk to. She wants to remain herself. Not to be sucked into the rock 'n' roll cliches. That's boring. She doesn't want others to have a part of her: it's the music and lyrics which are important. And the messages within. It's a refreshing and candid portrait of the artist as a young girl.

I was fortunate enough to see X-Ray Spex live at the Roundhouse for a one-off gig back in 2008. It was a shambolic performance but it was worth it. It was punk. It was a reminder of how disgustingly professional the music business has become and how important it is to get back to basics beyond branding and commercialism. Of course, Poly died through breast cancer on 25th April 2011, just as a solo album, Generation Indigo, hit the shelves. It's not the greatest album, but it is punk (not in any recognisably musical sense that people expect, not 'branded' punk, but punk in that it is Poly and Poly was punk). Because punk - true punk - isn't about nostalgia. It's about being you, now. And being you, always.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Life & Death

Maybe it's because I'm a writer but I always expect the unexpected. I watched the Woody Allen film "Midnight In Paris" recently, and wondered if some people would have doubted the main character's acceptance of the surreal situation in which he is plunged into the past. I didn't. And if such a thing literally happened to me then I know I would also accept it without question. Writers are embroiled in fantasy - they make things up on a daily basis and coincidence can easily be seen as plot. In some ways, I expect it to happen. Even so, sometimes something happens which knocks you for six. Hence today's post.

On the 10th May this year our daughter Cora was born. That, in itself, was a surreal experience. The fact that my partner Sophie had grown this fully formed person within her body for nine months due to the conjunction of a minuscule part of me with a minuscule part of her is frankly mindblowing. Birth is supposed to be the most natural thing in the world. Trust me, it's one of the most unnatural, unbelievable experiences imaginable. If there's anything to knock your individual sense of immortality then it's the creation of a person out of almost nothing. It made no sense to us at all.

Unfortunately, what also made no sense was the news that my first wife (the mother of my 12yr old daughter) died the following day. The two events are - of course - completely unconnected. Yet the juxtaposition of the two creates 'story'. The circumstances of the death are also unclear - there is to be an inquest and currently it is inappropriate to mention any details online - but what I want to focus on is the burial.

Born in Thailand she was naturally Buddhist, but in the last nine months of her life she married someone from Bangladesh and was in the process of converting to Islam. At least, this is what we were told. Her life was full of mixed-up craziness in any event: she was never the easiest person to live with. She was driven to extremes. Not much that she did made sense. We were together for ten years and divorced for ten years. I knew her well without knowing her at all.

We were notified of the funeral only 18 hours before it happened. It would have been awkward attending the prayers at the mosque beforehand, especially as all the detail I had came from someone whose English was difficult to understand, so we pitched up at the cemetery, worked out where the plot was, and waited. Cars approached. Around twenty-five men turfed out of the vehicles and between them they hauled out the coffin and wandered up to the grave. There was a Carry On Funeral moment as it was manoeuvred correctly so it lay at the right angle, with people popping in and out of the hole. Then each of them took it in turns to fill it. Cemetery staff supervised from a distance. Mobile phones rang on and off unanswered. Languages were spoken that I didn't understand. There was a real sense of community but there was no sense of it being her community. Other than her husband I can't imagine she knew many of the people there. Prayers were said and then most of the mourners left - it felt like a perfunctory, anonymous occasion. Suddenly, more people appeared in the distance - the Thai community - as if they came out of mist or were waiting for the others to leave (as I said, a writer will make a plot out of coincidence). Unlike the Muslims, who had been all male, all but one of the Thai's were female. Again, it weaved a weird web around the event itself. My daughter's comment that one of the flowers laid still had a "25% extra free" label attached seemed to sum up her mother's life.

So, like the subversion of reality in "Midnight In Paris", did I find it odd standing at my ex-wife's graveside in a Muslim ceremony twenty years after we had first met amongst the Buddhist temples in Bangkok? Not really. Other than it being a dislocating experience - as all funerals are - it seemed par for the course. And just as there seemed to be no real correlation between a pregnancy bump and a baby so there seemed no correlation between a coffin and a body. We are born out of one box and exit in another. How fantastical is that?