Travels

Recent highlights:

Three days working at Masonic Hall in Bradford, surrounded by robes and symbols and a bookcase full of masonic history books. The building is for sale, a mile out of Bradford city centre, in its own grounds, backing on to a wood, potential for arts centre/commune/cafe/community hub – I spent the whole week fantasising about it, if only I had £500 000 – but it would be quite a commitment.

Two days in St Ives – classic steep hill leading down to narrow cobbled streets, chips and curry sauce on the harbour, sunset on the beach.

Then a day on St Mary’s, the largest of the Isles of Scilly, blissfully peaceful, hardly a car to be seen, strolling along country lanes always in sight of the sea, a dip in the water, chips and curry sauce on the harbour. Flew there on an 8-seater plane (four rows of two plus a pilot) – hardly enough room to sit up. A proper flying experience.

Three days in Liverpool, old-style veggie cafes (Egg Cafe) and new-style hipster cafes (Golden Square) – beards compulsory. Still a feeling of edginess and opposition and alternative cultures – daughter was staying in an old 5-storey warehouse in old industrial wasteland colonised by bike nerds and tattooists and other representatives of entrepreneurial counter-culture. I was staying in a slightly worn business hotel near the catholic cathedral. Liverpool gets high marks.

And a gig at the Barbican, depping with the Moog Ensemble, twiddling knobs in the dark, sometimes producing deliberate sounds. It is still pleasant to play music in public, occasionally.

Meanwhile, the EU’s treatment of Greece makes it very difficult for an (idealist) anti-austerity left-wing democrat to support the EU in any shape or form. Blatant capitalist dictatorship/repression/oppression. No question.

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Fail to plan = plan to fail?

I’m sure that’s a quote from someone, perhaps an old politician, perhaps a wise old football manager – if you fail to plan, you might as well plan to fail. It goes along with – the harder I work/practise, the luckier I get – which was Gary Player, the golfer, I think. For now, the pithiest wisdom I have gleaned from nearly six weeks in Singapore is the importance of planning, by governments, from above, perhaps for the benefit of the wider people. And, it seems to me, that Britain is the proof of the reverse, ie thirty or more years of denying the importance of government planning, of shrinking the state, of worshipping the so-called free market, of trusting that somehow all will be for the best if we bow down to the demands of private profit in all areas, above any other consideration. In the name of austerity, the current Conservative government has joyously forged ahead with outsourcing more and more responsibilities to private companies – education, prisons, healthcare, social care, probation, the post office, on and on the list goes – so that all of these services are managed by companies whose first duty is not to provide a decent service, but to provide profits to their shareholders. We need to have the confidence, the vision, the self-belief, even the self-esteem, to say that we, as a country, as a people, are worth ensuring that these services are provided to each and every one of us fairly, generously, and that the only organisation that can ensure that this happens is the state – not profit-seeking private companies. Will anyone stand up in this election and argue for this?

Lee Kuan Yew was Singapore’s first Prime Minister, for thirty years, then remained in government for another twenty years – his son is now Prime Minister (coincidence?) – in fifty years of independence, opposition parties have won a total of about twelve seats in parliament. He was able to plan unashamedly, fifteen-year plans, in a small geographical area, but with undeniable results. Debates after his death: was he in any sense a democrat? A benevolent dictator? Or not so benevolent? A founding father of a nation? Clearly the wealth of Singapore is in international financial trading (above and below board) – not so different to the City of London then – symbolised now by the casino-funded Marina Bay Sands complex, and thus at the heart of rapacious, conspicuous capitalism, surrounded day-to-day by all-pervasive vacuous consumerism, shopping centres full of unaffordable luxury goods.

So now I’m arguing against myself – Singapore is a city-state distinguished by aggressive government planning to provide a centre for international capitalism – I’m looking for aggressive government planning in a large but fragmented islands-state to promote social justice/fairness/equality and education/culture for their own sake – a centre for international socialism, if you like. That’s looking a bit optimistic, even in Scotland. But I think there’s something to argue for there, still, even now, in 2015. But who might argue for it?

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Reading – Self and Iris

Away in Singapore for six weeks, with much time to read. So far I have devoured a couple of older Will Self books (My Idea Of Fun and Dr Mukti), addictive, disturbing, entertaining – I hadn’t realised that he’s been using some characters for twenty years, interlocking somehow, without it being necessary to know the backstory from each one. Looking forward to Liver next, but you can have too much of a good thing. So I’ve just read Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea – 500 pages of high class theatrical soap – I’m sure Iris M is meant to be very deep and spiritual, but the narrator was an obnoxious obsessive theatre-luvvie, who never really developed any self-awareness – most peculiar indeed. And yet gripping, once stuff started to happen, if only to see if he would ever realise how deluded he was. I can see it as a period adaptation on a Sunday night – Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry would have to be in it, it would be laughable.

Found a really nice independent bookshop (Books Actually) in Tiong Bahru, what seems to be quite an arty little area, low-rise art deco flats from the 1920s/30s – bought some local poems and a book of noir crime stories set in Singapore – I’m trying to find the sleazy underbelly here, or the radical ferment bubbling up, but it’s not become apparent yet.

And then a few books on psychoanalysis, for light relief – a little gentle Freud; Adam Phillips on Missing Out, how we shape our lives around our ideas of what we haven’t done yet, or what we might have done, or what we imagine everyone else to be doing. And other stuff.

Enjoying listening to Henry Threadgill, new and old, as ever – and Matana Roberts – and right now, Scritti Politti. At some point, all these random inputs will coalesce.

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East

This is night six in Hong Kong, three days of work completed, twenty-two to go. For someone who’s never been east of Copenhagen, it’s an interesting experience, particularly to have arrived during interesting times, occupations in the streets, an “Umbrella Revolution”, which is dissipating slightly but not fading away. Last night I met some resident poets at a poetry cafe event, a broad selection of freshly-hewn poems on a wide range of topics, from the implications of the protests to a veritable cornucopia of genitalia. Most entertaining. Staying in a smart hotel, it’s easy to bypass any sense of real action or engagement, but talking with and listening to the poets gave a clear impression of the tensions around, and particularly the likelihood of a consequent crackdown instantly on any smatterings of something similar in China itself.

So I sat in the lovely Lai Chi Kok park at lunchtime, eating my Subway veggie roll, a few locals dotted about doing their keep-fit and their tai chi, and wrote a couple of poems, and read some Zizek. Having only one job to focus on for a few weeks allows much more space than usual for contemplation. But generally Hong Kong is packed full of people, tower blocks everywhere, some old, some new, some falling down, a conurbation unlike anything in UK, and in the hotel area, endless parades of high-end luxury branded shops, and I assume people with money to spend in them. The air outside is hot and sticky, the air-conditioning is cool, and ecological concerns seem far away, out of mind, here.

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Autumn approacheth.

So many things to reflect upon – wedding music of all kinds, Truffleshack gigs in Bristol bars (small but perfectly formed), Jonny Fluffypunk in Stroud, Richard Hawley DJing, Napoleon IIIrd blowing away cobwebs at Wakefield’s reopened Unity Hall, Nick Cave’s film premiere last night – plus forthcoming travel to the far east. The most entertaining moments of the Nick Cave experience were provided by Warren Ellis and his astonishing violin/electric guitar playing, as well as his general persona – with the whole film, I was never fully convinced whether anything was true, or perhaps merely exaggerated for the purposes of building a mythology. The other highlight was Ray Winstone, who, in his character as cockney geezer with a touch of menace, is very endearing, but who, in his character as hard-sell betting huckster in every football broadcast, needs to be challenged and given a very hard time. Transitional times, as autumn approaches! Apparently the message the film was trying to convey was to just get on with it, don’t procrastinate or wallow in self-doubt, just do it. Er, okay then…

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Lost futures

Sitting in a cheap B&B in Kenton, a previously unknown suburb of London between Wembley and Harrow, preparing for a week of music exams, but an ideal area for reflecting on the book I’ve read today – Mark Fisher’s Ghosts Of My Life – reflections on “hauntology” and other stuff, mostly magazine articles, reviews and blogs, and thus surprisingly easy to plough through on the train. His basic thesis – we are in an age haunted by the ghosts of lost futures, the liberals have lost their myth of effortless historical progress towards liberty, the socialists have lost their belief in the possibility of an actually-existing alternative, a communist future – we are haunted by the absence of the modernist futures we used to believe were imminent, and dulled by the over-stimulation of incessant cyberspace, ceaseless self-invention in the virtual world, signifying nothing. And always negating any wider public sense of responsibility, or improvement, or even the existence of a real public space.
Is that at all clear?
Part of it relates to music, eg Burial, Joy Division; part of it to films eg Inception, Memento, The Shining; the books of David Peace; and JG Ballard hanging over everything.
– The triumph of capitalist reaction and neo-con liberalism since 1979 = the slow cancellation of the future.
– Regeneration = modernisation = making London safe for the super-rich. To resist modernisation is to consign yourself to the past.
– London – a city of pinched-face drones plugged into ipods.
– Capital demands that we always look busy, even if there’s no work to do – any time not spent hustling or hassling is time wasted.
(some quotes lifted from the book)
So how do we build a collective resistance? Dream a new future? Fight capitalism?
Good questions!
Published by Zero Books, who publish some fine books on contemporary philosophy and popular culture in an oppositional way – Owen Hatherley, Nina Power, Richard Seymour. The traces of opposition were so much clearer back in the 80s – finding them now feels like a more obscure project, let alone finding a practical movement as well.
Viva agitprop.

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Those were the days?

Continuing my travels courtesy of the ABRSM – last week I visited Letchworth Garden City – I was expecting dull commuter suburbia, but found a remarkably spacious 1930s planned town, with space, greenery, a suggestion of art deco, public spaces – surprisingly idyllic. And then this week I’m in Birkenhead – not promising material, but this evening I’ve experienced Port Sunlight, an even more idyllic village planned out by the founder of Unilever for his workers 120 years ago – stunningly beautiful in a kitsch kind of way, mock tudor estates, lawns, fountains, bowling greens, trees wrapped in knitting – all very paternalistic, reminiscent of Trumpton, if not “The Prisoner”. Part of me wanted to live there. Or to work for a company that wanted to provide a complete lifestyle and environment for their workforce (in an idealistic 20th century almost totalitarian way). No such planning today on any area of the political spectrum, no benevolent conservatism, no wishful socialism. So many steps backwards.

And, like Saltaire in Bradford, Port Sunlight is probably now prime property speculation territory, for the bourgeoisie, not the workers.

Musically, this week I am mostly looking forwards to hearing Steve Lehman’s new octet album next week.

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