Wednesday, 5 July 2017

In Love With Paris

Tricolore and Eiffel Tower

This is my favourite photo from my holiday in Paris. As the Batobus left the pier, the breeze caught the Tricolore and it was just a case of waiting for it align itself beneath the Eiffel Tower on the way past. It's a majestic picture that embodies how I felt about the city; bright, vibrant, colourful.

I had the same feeling the day after as I cycled along Rue de Rivoli and onto the Champs Elysses, following in the wheels of the professional cyclists who ride the stretch on the last day of the Tour de France. I was on a hired Velib bike that you can ride in the city and despite the large volume of traffic, cyclists are given right of way and some great cycle lanes within which to safely navigate the city. I was able to see parts of the city that would have either taken much longer on foot or have required several underground rides.

Riding the Velib up the Champs Elysses

I had been up the Eiffel Tower on a previous trip so this time I went up the Arc du Triomphe and it gave a different perspective on the city but one which was just as grand. Whereas the Tower is higher, there is something very regimented about all the avenues radiating out from the Arc. You also ascend it through an internal staircase so that you are unaware of the outside world till you emerge. Again, this gave me further insight into how that last day of the Tour de France plays out as the peloton completes several laps of the Elysses.

Champs Elysses from Arc du Triomphe

I knew about Paris' literary connections but they were often to authors like Hemingway that I didn't like and I certainly didn't want the experience of George Orwell from Down and Out in Paris and London.  However, Paris had a few surprises in store for me beginning with the well stocked apartment I was staying in which had a copy of Bukowski's Women, an old favourite of mine. Although I didn't have the time to read it again, the opening paragraph hit home even if I wasn't the same age as the anti-hero Henry Chinaski. It was comforting to take the book with me to the local cafe for breakfast.

Chuck, café and croissant.

When walking through the Marais, a district known for it's connection to arts and philosophy as well as being the city's gay and Jewish districts, I saw a book left on a small ledge on a wall. It did not appear to be forgotten in the way that trashy books are but more left in the hope that some like minded reader would pick it up and give it a new home. Sadly, I had already read it and cannot read French so I left it. It was Colin Thubron's wonderful travel book, Shadow of the Silk Road.

I have limited interest in art so did not spend much time in either the Louvre or the Picasso Museum but on my last day I saw a piece of art by a local vendor that caught my eye and it seemed to speak more of Paris.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Swans - Òran Mór, Glasgow, 18th May 2017

I don't review every gig I attend and in the case of Swans, it never crossed my mind. But in the days after that gig, it seemed to take on greater meaning and significance. My life was spinning around at the time and that gig seemed to be the eye of the storm and a moment of peace, which is quite strange given their music.

I first saw Swans at Glasgow's Art school back in summer of 2015 with my friend Ian. We hadn't seen each other for some time and so I often go along to gigs with him just for the sake of a night out. His music taste is very underground but I can always rely on him to introduce me to something I will enjoy and that gig was an eye opener to a band I came to love very quickly.

I missed their 2016 tour but when I heard that the 2017 tour would be the last with the current lineup I knew I had to attend. This time it would be at Òran Mór in the West End of Glasgow, my first time at this particular venue.

And yet I very nearly decided not to go as my life had been thrown up in the air and I was still reeling from the effects to the point where it became easier to not do something and just wallow in my thoughts. However, that night I felt I had to get out and away, even if it meant being alone on the night.

A moments confusion at the venue almost had me walk into a Graduation Ball but that was in the main part of the building whereas the gig was 'round the corner and down the steps' as the security guard kindly pointed out. I was immediately struck by the venue which seemed to be perfect in every respect with a fantastic view of the stage. I went to the merchandise stand to purchase the new live tour CD, Deliquesence, limited to 3000 copies worldwide. Three songs on the CD would never be recorded in the studio and so it also helped to identify them in the set.

Based on my experiences at the Art school, I wanted to stand in a place where I could stand all night in comfort so placed myself next to a supporting pillar and enjoyed the support act, Little Annie who was basically a jazz/lounge singer from New York. Her music was very laid back and I really enjoyed it.

Swans first song was a new one called The Knot, clocking in at 45 minutes in length. It was huge, starting gently and then going through a whole sequence of movements and variance in volume. In the weeks after it became a song that I would use to go to sleep at night with headphones on. The rest of the gig was very much the same and I was glad I had my earplugs as it was extremely loud. During the course of it, I felt hidden in my little nook and observed all the couples and friends who were enjoying it, feeling melancholy at being alone as a result of recent events in my life.

When the gig finished I knew that band leader Michael Gira would be signing albums. He is clearly a musician who respects his audience and wants to give something back to them for buying his music and coming to see his band. Even though it was late and I really needed to go home, I didn't want to miss this opportunity. I was immediately struck by how tall he was and his softly spoken voice. Unlike others, I got him to sign his photo on the booklet as opposed to the CD sleeve itself.

In the days after the gig, I played this album a lot and reflected on where I was in life. It was a good gig and night out but also one tinged with sadness. I would have liked to have been at it with someone or to have enjoyed it without being weighed down by the emotions of the last few months. On the other hand, both the gig and the album will be a marker for that time in my life and what I was experiencing.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Booker Prize 2016 - From Longlist to Shortlist

In 2008 I set myself the task of reading the Shortlist for the Booker Prize, discovering many great reads in the process such as Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture which should have won, but ultimately being angry that the eventual winner was by far the worst of the nominees. Never again would I do that and in the subsequent years I tended to only read those books that interest me, beginning a trend of me favouring Booker Losers over Booker Winners. in fact the only winner I enjoyed out of the few I read was Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North which is now one of my favourite books of all time,

So in 2016 I had no long or shortlist aspirations and merely set out to read the one book that caught my eye on account of the fact that it was American fiction and set in the interwar period (my speciality at University). Work Like any Other by Virginia Reeves was a superb read and reminded me of a mix of Cormac McCarthy's barren novels and the prison environment in the film Cool Hand Luke starring Paul Newman.

As it happened, one of the other longlisted titles was at that time on offer on the kindle and although I wasn't seeking to read any other listed titles at that point in time, it was too good an offer to pass by. It turned out, it was to be one of the best books I had read that year and certainly one that I hoped might win the Booker Prize. The North Water by Ian McGuire was another blend of a literary great and a critically acclaimed film, this time bringing together Moby Dick with the Leonardo Di Caprio film The Revenant,  itself based on a book.

So two down already and looking a little closer at the longlist I selected the next pair, both with dark undertones. His Bloody Project by Graeme McRae Burnett on account of being a crime novel set in Scotland but based on historical events much like The Revenant. Another book that suggested crime was Eileen by the wonderfully monikered Otessa Moshfegh and it had a wonderfully woven plot and a strange but compelling main character.

So I gone through the ones I liked the look of but there was still time before the longlist was whittled down to a shortlist so I sought out some of the others, going for double Booker winner J.M Coetzee's The Schooldays of Jesus  on account of it's short size. This one was disappointing and very much in line with the pretentiousness that one often equates with The Booker Prize. Was it meant to be Jesus as in Christ or Jesus as in a South American forename. Either way, the main character or boy in question was incredibly annoying.

At the time, the public library only had one other book in stock and despite the less than favourable reviews on Amazon, I decided I would give A.L Kennedy's Serious Sweet  a crack for the same reason I had read Coetzee in that I had never read her before and this seemed a fitting moment. Set over a 24 hour period and told as stream of consciousness, much like Joyce's Ulysses,  this proved to be a pleasant surprise and I devoured it even though it was the biggest of the longlisted titles so far.

Hystopia by David Means was definitely another one that appealed to me and having bought that one, I could keep it, maybe even for after the shortlist announcement, whilst I sourced more titles as they slowly became available from the library.

As I finished Serious Sweet,  I got that satisfying email to say that my new reservations were available. The seamless transition from one book to another meant I was halfway through the longlist before the shortlist was announced. My next choice My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout, again with it only winning over All that Man Is by David Szaly for the fickle reason of it's shorter size, even though the latter appealed to me more.

Strout's book is essentially a novella and being so short, I read it over 3 hours one evening making it only the second book I have read in one day, the other one being On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan,  itself was a Booker nominee. I read a large portion of it in Molly Malone's Irish Pub in Glasgow on a wet tuesday night whilst drinking a pint of Guinness and not once did I feel out of place for doing so, perhaps because this pub felt more homely than most.

Whereas Strout's book is a single novella, Szaly's is essentially 9 short stories supposedly united under a common theme of what it is to be a man. Inevitably with reading a longlist, I was bound to come across some books that I didn't enjoy and this was the first. The theme didn't exist as far as I was concerned and instead I felt no empathy towards any of the characters who all engaged in some wayward sexual activity from affairs to younger men with older women. They felt like semi-autobiographical tales or fantasies of the authors, taking place across all the places in Europe that he appeared to have visited on a Eurorail pass.

It's worth pointing out at this stage I was getting into that uncomfortable position of having created rules for this reading challenge that I would have to abide by. I was hoping I may not have to read some of the titles but should they be shortlisted, I was bound by my own rules to read them. The only consolation being that if I had read a majority of the shortlist by the time it was selected then reading my least favoured books would not be too much of a burden.

Three days before the shortlist was announced I started Hystopia by David Means and it felt like a poor man's Philip K. Dick or Kurt Vonnegut, so much so that I hoped I wouldn't have to finish it. It turns out I wouldn't, not would I have to read Wyl Menmuir's novel as neither was selected for the shortlist. I was disappointed that North Water hadn't made the shortlist but His Bloody Project did and as time went on, I began to view it as one of the best Scottish novels of recent times.

Despite reading 9 of the 12 longlisted titles, only 3 made the cut for the shortlist so I was going to have to find and read the remaining three but they were ones that I was quite keen on reading in any case: The Sellout by Paul Beatty; Hot Milk by Deborah Levy; and Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Medeleine Thein. I bought The Sellout in Waterstones in Glasgow the day the shortlist was announced, the first time in a long time that I had bought a book in a shop and started reading it that night, already laughing out loud on page 5 at the following passage:

"I stared in awe at the Lincoln memorial. If honest Abe had come to life and somehow managed to lift his bony twenty-three foot, four-inch frame from his throne, what would he say? What would he do? Would he break-dance? would he pitch pennies against the curbside? Would he read the paper and see that the Union he saved was now a dysfunctional plutocracy, that the people he freed were now slaves to rhythm, rap and predatory lending and that today his skill set would be better suited to the basketball court than the White House? There he could catch the rock on the break, pull up for a bearded three-pointer, hold the pose, and talk shit as the ball popped the net. The Great Emancipator, you can't stop him, you can only hope to contain him."

This rapid fire wit was to continue throughout the book as the story slowly developed but the story never seemed to form, feeling like an ongoing soap opera and towards the end I was tired of the humour. Whilst some books feel so pretentious, it's almost as if they were written with the Booker Prize in mind, this one seemed so far removed from the normal standard of Booker Prize novels that I questioned why it had even made the longlist, regardless of it's merits and the humour.

Until now I had been reading Booker listed books almost non-stop but a delay in getting the next ones from the library meant I had to take a sabbatical for a week, during which time I read a bit more of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose which I was enjoying.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien instantly felt tedious, with too many anecdotes, memories and stories by characters who, like those in Szaly's book, were difficult to differentiate from, Music seemed important to some of the characters but no matter how much the author mentioned Glenn Gould playing Bach's Goldberg Variations, it was difficult to see how this related to the story. I gave up on page 160 once Hot Milk  by Deborah Levy arrived at the library and whilst it started well, I had my mind focused on the other book I got from the library, Bruce Springsteen's autobiography Born to Run.

So my Booker experience had started with a bang, resulting in two of the best books I had read all year, a few more good ones and then a slow dying out of the quality as I reached the end. From the shortlist I would say that His Bloody Project  and Eileen were the best but I have little faith that they will claim the prize as inevitably it will be of the books I despised that takes the prize.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Everything Must Go

Almost 20 years to the day when I first saw them live, I recently saw the Manic Street Preachers again in concert. Like many an established band these days, they were doing an anniversary show in the form of playing an iconic album in it's entirety, 'Everything Must Go' from 1996. As with Pearl Jam in 2012, it was also a time to reflect on the 20 years that had passed, my music tastes and my personal life.

For a number of year I had been a fan of the Manics, coveting an early 12" single of 'You Love Us' from when they were still signed to an independent label in 1991. Although I don't have it as such anymore, the sleeve now hangs in a frame in my brothers house.

Their debut album 'Generation Terrorists' was basically the return of punk rock and antidote to a lot of lame British music for most that decade. In 1996 I saw them at Glasgow's iconic Barrowlands prior to the release of their fourth album 'Everything Must Go'. which had a more commercial sound than it's predecessors, a sound lapped up by radio, tv, indie clubs and student unions, putting them in with the Britpop crowd and resulting in a new audience for the band.

One year later and we were down in Manchester for the first time to see them play what was then known as the Nynex arena, an indication of how big they had become. Again it was another solid gig. Give it another year and things had moved forward in a bad way. This was no longer a punk rock band, but a soft rock outfit. The gig in Decmeber 1998 at the SECC failed to excite, partly because of the notoriously bad venue, a mediocre album and a weak audience. Two things stand out: youngsters up the front of the gig objecting to the usual push and shove of a rock gig and then me just walking out before the encore because I had seen enough, to date the only gig I have left early.

It took me some years to listen to the Manics again. Their album 'Journal for Plague Lovers' was a return to the style I enjoyed and there were songs like '1985' from Lifeblood or 'Postcards from a Young Man' that were good but which alone would not justify a gig. The gig actually came about because I was enjoying the latest album from another British band, Editors.

Editors' 'In Dream' album from 2015 was probably my favourite from that year and I regretted not going to see them live in the autumn so decided to check out future dates and was pleased to see they were supporting the Manic Street Preachers. Editors would never play the SSE Hydro on their own so it would be good to see them in an arena as opposed to a smaller Academy style venue. As for the Manics, I felt they owed me and started to listen to them courtesy of streaming services, discovering a whole raft of songs that had passed me by in the last 10 years.

Editors confirmed themselves as one of the best British bands of this century with a setlist that covered most of their albums. Although only 8 songs in length it felt like a gig by the time they had closed with the majestic 'Marching Orders'.

The Manics began their set with Everything Must Go and it was an interesting experience to hear a crowd favourite like 'Design for Life' so early on in a set when it would be the kind of song that would suit an encore. It was strange hearing middle aged people now singing a song that used to be an anthem from 1996 with lines like 'we only want to get drunk'. It got he crowd going but playing an album in it's entirety has peaks and troughs.

'The Girl Who Wanted to be God' was such a peak but I felt Wire's bass was low in the mix when it is quite a major sound on record. The song did have some fantastic rhythm guitar playing from James Dean Bradfield and for me this was to be the highlight of the gig. A powerful vocalist capable of delivering neo-punk rock to more sedate songs like 'Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head', he is equally at home playing stunning solos or acoustic guitar.

Everything Must Go was never my favourite Manics album - I always tended to prefer a wide selection of songs from across all their albums so I knew the second half of the show would be more to my taste consisting of old classics and more recent discoveries such as 'Walk Me to the Bridge'. My personal favourite was 'You Love Us' which was still bristling with energy nearly 25 years on from it's original release.

By the end of the gig and on the way home I had time to reflect on it and I felt that it had been a consistently good gig with some notable highlights, both in terms of the songs and the atmosphere. I don't think I have ever been to a gig that had confetti but it was a fantastic touch. As well as being consumate musicians, the band themselves endeared themselves to the audience with their introductions to songs and the respect and thanks they showed to us for coming out to see them, both at this gig and over the years.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Mechanical Advantage

I had never heard the term mechanical advantage until it surfaced on various guides on how to remove pedals from your bike. Essentially it was the law of the lever as proven by Archimedes and also applied to how gearing works

I never did physics at school but here was a real life application as I sought to remove the pedals on my first road bike, now going under the moniker of 'Winter Bike'. Although I had extended their life by fitting new pedal body covers, they weren't gripping my shoe cleats well enough and no longer had that satisfying click as I stepped into them.

Unfortunately, my first attempts at removing them proved futile as they did not yield to a standard wrench and so I was looking at buying new pedals, chainset and bottom bracket unless I could get them off. Videos and how to guides suggested various techniques but the common one was to use a good pedal wrench with a long handle to apply sufficient torque.

After reading some reviews, I went for the Park Tool PW 4, a wrench described as a professional one for use in bike shops. It was more expensive than other ones, including those by the same manufacturer, but the agreement was the same amongst reviewers - this one would shift anything, even the most stubborn pedal.

 I started out by practising on my good/summer bike where the pedals were only two years old. If they came off then they could be my new(ish) pedals for the winter bike and I could find an excuse to get better pedals for the summerd bike. A handy picture demonstrated what mechanical advantage looked like in this scenario and after getting the wrench attached to the pedal, the first one came off quite quickly. The other side, the non drive chain side, actually proved harder just by dint of holding the opposite crank now it was without it's pedal.

Would the wrench be effective on the older bike where I feared the pedals may have rusted on after 4.5 years?
It didn't take long to feel the movement of them unlocking which bode well but just to be sure I sprayed the threads with PTFE to ease their removal and just slowly unwound them, probably taking about 5 minutes on each pedal. New(ish) ones were duly fitted, giving a new lease of life to my winter bike.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Ride Around Town

A big event in my town is the annual charity bike ride that raises funds for the local scout group. It has grown over the years form a small event to a large one, attracting cyclists from all over Scotland and some from the north of England.

One of the main attractions is that it is not a sportive and so is suitable for all cyclists, from leisure cyclists, mountain bikers to road racers.There are also several cake stops for riders to refuel which adds to the social nature of the ride.

The route is billed as a 50 mile route but in continental terms more like 75km. Two years ago I completed it in just under 3 hours which was pretty good for my first effort on an alloy road bike.   Although it was a social event, my intention this time was to ride at pace with some of the other seasoned road racers and do it on my Felt Z6 carbon bike.

It was a beautiful morning and I made my way to the start at the local primary school with plenty of time to spare in order to gain a good place at the start. If I could get away from the slower riders, it would make the negotiation of the roads easier as the first 25km were the hardest in terms of road surface and space.

This was the first time I had ridden in a bunch and it was exhilirating listening to the hum from all the bikes and I kept my position well. As we dropped down to a crossroads before a steady climb this photo was taken by a roadside specatator.

I stayed in the bunch until a tricky bit of road. I knew it well and could not get into place which meant that in order to avoid potholes I had to take a different line and slow down whilst the bunch forged ahead. One guy went through and shortly after had punctured.

I was actually happy to ride on my own for a bit but later on caught up with some of the members of the bunch who had been dropped. One of them organised the four of us into a little group and we rode as a group, taking turns to ride on the front. I learnt important lessons about riding in a group and made a few mistakes at first but I realised that it was helping massively to ride in this fashion.

I got dropped again on the big descent back to the town, not on the climb funnily enough but thankfully caught up with the other three just as we rolled over the line to some applause form more locals who had gathered there. There was plenty of cake on offer but I plumped instead for a corned beef sandwich which was gorgeous.

As for my times, I smashed my previous effort by nearly 18 minutes, thanks to a better bike, greater fitness and riding in the bunch.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Endless River

The announcement earlier this year that there was to be a new Pink Floyd album consisting of tracks reworked from The Division Bell sessions from 1993 was big news for me. This was a band I rate above all others and so I was naturally excited, but I didnt expect it to become the reflective and emotional experience that it quickly became.

The new album is called Endless River, a line from the final song on The Division Bell called High Hopes. The Division Bell was a pivotal moment in my music listening. I had lived through gothic and electronic music and in 1993 had seen new albums from my two favourite bands from my youth, New Order and Depeche Mode, the latter delivering a an album and tour that made them the biggest band in the world along with U2.

But I was moving on in 1993, leaving school and starting University. My music tastes were expanding and the following year I discovered Pink Floyd courtesy of a friend who had just bought The Division Bell. I was eager for more and delved into a greatest hits live package called Delicate Sound of Thunder and their classic, The Dark Side of the Moon (DSTOM). 

I vividly remember an advert for their residency that year at Earl’s Court but opted out, thinking that I would see them next time around.  How wrong I would be and a grave error given how much I would come to love the band in the decades to come. We did however see David Gilmour play guitar with The Who during their massive gig at Hyde Park in 1995 and which prompted my one piece of rock journalism, an article in the pink Floyd fanzine ‘Brain Damage’ on the session musicians that had featured on Floyd albums and the band members solo works.

My brother and I each spent a lot of money on The Shine On box set, which gave us most of their best selling albums in one fell swoop. I don’t have the box but I still have the CDs whose spines line up to make the famous prism from DSOTM. 

Incidentally, I think most hard core Floyd fans can recite the albums as acronyms. Meddle became my favourite for a long time and me and my brother would watch the film Live at Pompeii, marvelling at their use of including the VCS3 synthesiser and the manner by which they constructed DSOTM.  

Another live album called Pulse had elaborate packaging with an LED in the spine and Floyd fans round the world would proudly announce years later that theirs was still going. Unfortunately the packaging was a pain for actually getting to the music so I replaced mine years later with a standard jewel box.

My Floyd collection stayed as it was for a number of years but my brother completed the collection and we lived in the hope of a new album but it became apparent in 2004/5 that it was not to be when David Gilmour announced a solo album. We did get huge surprise though. In 2005, Bob Geldof put together a benefit concert called Live 8 to raise awareness and money for Africa. Headliners were to be Pink Floyd. Not the three piece Floyd of the late ‘80’s and ‘90s but the classic lineup featuring estranged band leader, bassist and lyricist Roger Waters.

The story of their arguments is well documented but for me I had grown up on Gilmour led Floyd and Waters had always come across as this angry, disgruntled foe. But over time I had come to appreciate his involvement in the band which seemed to go hand in hand with a thawing in his relationship with the others. Geldof made the call to Waters who in turn suggested to Gilmour that they play Live 8. When the night came, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing; this bunch of elderly gentlemen, once young long haired pioneers of music in the ‘70’s playing together for the first time in decades. I wasn’t there but seeing it on TV was enough. To this day I don’t think my brother forgives one of his friends for not giving him the tickets that he had won in the phone lottery.

Tragically the band’s keyboard player Richard Wright died of cancer in 2008, spelling the end for any full scale reunion but In 2011 Roger Waters took his magnum opus, The Wall, onto the road. What had now become my favourite Floyd album, translated into one of my favourite gigs of all time in Manchester and the last time that myself and both my brothers spent any time together. Another surprise was that Gilmour agreed to play one gig in London with Waters, performing his famous solo from one of their greatest songs ever ‘Comfortably Numb’ and appearing onstage for the encore along with drummer Nick Mason who played tambourine!

More re-releases and I bought some albums that were outstanding from my collection including The Final Cut which I rate quite highly, despite many thinking it’s a Waters’ solo album. There were new editions of DSOTM and Wish You Were Here (WYWH) with unreleased live tracks, including some of the material from the proposed Household Objects album which ended up being used on WYWH.

This year there were rumours that Gilmour was working on a solo album but it was actually a ruse as he and Mason, with long Floyd alumni Andy Jackson and Youth from Killing Joke were working on the tapes from The Division Bell sessions and putting together what was to become The Endless River, a predominantly instrumental album done in homage to the deceased Wright and which would likely be the last Floyd album.

My first few listens were digitally as I waited on the CD arriving and I was immediately struck by the musical references to not just the Division Bell but the whole Floyd back catalogue.  When the CD finally arrived I played it 6 times in one evening. It was a majestic piece of music but I also felt melancholy about it, looking at the photos from the ’93 sessions and thinking not only on how Mason and Gilmour had aged but also the loss of Wright and how I had aged as well. A lot had happened in the intervening years but in all that time I had continued to listen to this band. I thought they would always be there and even though there was this new music, I realised as I am sure they do as well, that the end is near.