rfm’s 2011 round-up: culture outside the bubble

December 3, 2011 at 9:53 am | Posted in art, musings, not bloody music | 2 Comments
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So on to culture outside the confines of the no-audience underground…  Again, I remember the equivalent post from last year being quite long and comprehensive and again, this year I may try and keep it more to the point.  Frankly, I’ve been so busy with music and with writing this darn’d blog that my experience of culture at large has been relatively meagre.

Television has passed me by completely.  I didn’t even watch the adaptation of The Walking Dead, preferring to keep it on the pages of my beloved comic.  I’m not against TV – what a tiresome position that is – we just use it as a sedative, an analgesic or a window through which to watch sporting events.  Comics I trimmed back on for financial reasons and, apart from the aforementioned soap-opera-with-guns-and-the-undead-in-it I haven’t missed the medium at all, which surprises me a little.  Well, to be fair, my heavily-thumbed collection of Maakies books is rarely off the bedside table…

The best film I saw at the cinema this year, by some distance, was Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy which, despite having an arch style that occasionally overwhelmed the content, was pleasantly close to being proper adult entertainment.  In fact, I was so impressed that it inspired me to read the other two books in John Le Carre’s ‘Karla’ trilogy: The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People, both of which I relished despite an almost Dickensian wordiness (they total 1000 pages in the editions I have) that would put me off a story less gripping.  And seeing as we’re talking about the written word…

Here are the books that I read in 2011. Far fewer than last year, and mostly polished off in the first few months.

The best book I read this year was Wuthering Heights, with Madame Bovary running it a close second.  There is obviously no need for me to write another word about these universally acknowledged classics, so instead I will draw your attention to my favourite book of the year: The Conman by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo.  This is an intriguing account of a systematic, large-scale and long-term art fraud conducted by charismatic liar and fantasist John Drewe and his unwitting – at first at least – stooge John Myatt a talented ex-teacher with a knack for fine art forgery.  I am fascinated with ideas of provenance (the word used as title of the US edition of the book) and authenticity and this is an irresistible window onto the art market where those notions are at their most mystically powerful and philosophically interesting.  It is written in a pacey, journalistic style and, in its way, is as exciting as the Le Carre spy thrillers.  Very funny in places too.

(Grumpy Aside, 1 of 2.  The worst book I read this year is World War Z by Max Brooks.  It is an account of a Zombie plague and, despite the promising subject matter, is relentlessly boring.  This is a structural problem.  Being an oral history, collated after the ‘war’, we know that every person being interviewed survived. Thus, although the situations described may appear perilous there is no actual jeopardy, that is: no danger of death. So what you have is a book about a zombie apocalypse that affected the whole of humanity for ten years during which time millions died yet none of the dozens of characters we are introduced to are among them.  What kind of bullshit ‘horror’ story is that?  The other issue is, given that we spend no longer than a few pages with each person, we have no time to get to know them.  Thus all we have is a catalogue of one damn thing after another featuring people we don’t care about and who survived it anyway.  I dragged myself all the way through it and ended up thinking: who gives a shit?  This failure is currently being made into a film starring Brad Pitt.  Whoo boy.)

Now onto some unarguably genuine visual art…

The best exhibition I went to was the Henry Moore at Leeds Art Gallery in the Spring. At the risk of stating the bleedin’ obvious: it was a joy to examine these sculptures in three dimensions.  To see, for example, the exquisitely carved back of a mother and child piece familiar to me only from reproductions, and thus only from the front, was almost magically moving.  Likewise the grain of the wood or the texture of the stone never comes across adequately in pictures and the light reflected by a bronze, immutable in a photograph, is alive ‘in the flesh’.  Further thoughts on this topic, plus a ‘sublime-to-the-ridiculous’ comparison with the Damien Hirst show that replaced it, may appear in a short article for The Jackdaw in the New Year.

(Grumpy aside, 2 of 2.  Some people are surprised that I am so dismissive of contemporary visual art, especially conceptual, award-winning gallery art, given that I am so keen on sometimes difficult experimental music.  Are not the scenes akin?  I would argue: absolutely not.  Whilst the music I write about is inventive, emotionally resonant and created by a crowd of clever, irreverent, self-sufficient polymaths purely for the joy of it, the art scene is stuffed with venal, pompous idiots creating ‘work’ of no aesthetic worth that is meaningless without reams of accompanying verbiage.  Not only that but they demand subsidy and praise whilst they do so.  The two scenes are polar opposites.)

Finally, the best, as tradition dictates, has been left until last…

Our trip to Venice provided all the greatest visual art experiences of the year.  In fact, it isn’t an exaggeration to say that, as a whole, the city was the greatest visual art experience of my life so far, nor can I imagine it ever being bested.

As with Wuthering Heights, I wonder if there is anything I could possibly add to the millions of words already written about Venice.  However, the experience was so wonderful that I feel compelled to offer a little at least.  My bit of guidebook-style advice is to go for as long as you can afford.  Most visitors seem to come for a day or a long weekend but we decided on a week and that allowed us the time to acclimatise to the rhythms of the place, to figure out its mazy geography and to take in a sizeable number of the main attractions at a pace leisurely enough to thoroughly soak it up.

Next, if a place charges an entrance fee then pay it gladly and, if when you are inside there are additional little fees to see extra bits and pieces then pay them too.  It is an expensive city but this is not the area in which to scrimp – the return on your investment can be huge and any kind of fee, even a couple of Euros, cuts the number of visitors sharing the experience exponentially.  We wandered through parish churches the size of English cathedrals filled with exquisite Renaissance art and we had them more or less to ourselves because either a) they were more than a few minute’s walk from the tourist hotspots and/or b) they charged a few Euros to get in.

And what masterworks.  As well as visiting must-sees such as the Byzantine mosaics of the Basilica di San Marco (the pre-booked queue-jump – at one Euro each – was the bargain of this young century), the unrivalled collection of pre-19th Century art at the Gallerie dell’Accademia and Titian’s ‘Assumption of the Virgin’ in the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari (pictured above, possibly the most perfect man-made object I have had the privilege of seeing) the luxury of being there for a week allowed us to seek out less renowned marvels.

We wandered about the Sala Superiore of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco using the handheld mirrors provided to view the terrific Old Testament scenes painted by Tintoretto on the ceiling.  We visited the Chiesa di San Sebastiano to see the paintings by Paolo Veronese, went through an unobtrusive side door and found ourselves in a sacristy filled with his work.  So stunned were we that we sat in absolute stillness and silence, completely alone, until the movement-sensing light went out and we had to wave our arms around to get it back on.  We sat on the steps of the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute and marvelled at the view of the Grand Canal (see photo above).  We took the waterbus over the lagoon, through the hazy sunshine, to the eerie remains of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta on Torcello and walked past a restaurant hosting a noisy convention of gondoliers.  And so on.  A series of near-perfections, perfected by sharing them with my beloved. 

On that happy (soppy!) note, I’d like to officially call Radio Free Midwich’s 2011 to a close.  I may write one more post with some details of a live show and new midwich product to look forward to in the New Year but aside from that the reviewing and commentary will recommence after the festivities.  Have a lovely Christmas, comrades.  Ho, ho, ho.

the cost of free things part two: initial guilt audit

January 30, 2011 at 4:40 pm | Posted in musings, new music, no audience underground | 2 Comments
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So what have been the consequences of my New Year’s resolution to lay off the indiscriminate net-based consumption and pay for/think about my cultural intake instead?  Well, the most entertaining bit has been the charming response by Simon of the mighty DDDD but I will deal with that in its own post following this one (I just want to note in passing that his coining of the phrase ‘mechanically recovered guitar slurry’ in the latest issue had me snorting with laughter).  What we have here are the results of my first stock take…

Words: spoken mainly, some written

The greatest difference my decision has made is to my guzzling of audiobooks and podcasts.  I cut the latter in half just by being stern about whether they were worth my time.  A lot of whimsy went by the wayside.  The remaining list was split into two camps.  Those podcasts supported by sponsorship or advertising or paid for by the license fee could remain guilt free.  For the rest I had to make my first payment decisions: donate or ditch.  A couple more went to the wall.  I was left using the birthday money my dear ol’ Gran sent me to subscribe to Left Business Observer, thus allowing me to listen to Behind the News, to donate to The H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast and to Skeptoid, and to buy a couple of DVDs at Go Faster Stripe thus excusing my inexplicable addiction to the Collings and Herrin Podcasts.  I’m sure Nan would be proud of my principled stand.

Rather wonderfully, I’ve discovered that Librivox will not take donations even if you want to make ‘em.  Thus this amazing resource is a truly guilt-free treat.  As such I have been spanking it hard and have listened to D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow (all 20 hours of it), Joyce’s Dubliners and lots of proto-SF by H.G. Wells.  And to think, before Xmas I was listening to endless podcasts where a stoned Kevin Smith laughs at his own jokes.  Life has been ratcheted up a notch.

The written word, mainly in the form of blogs, is something I’ve yet to get under control and may be the subject of further musings later.

Music, TV and Film

Well, obviously I’ve done no illegal downloading from blogs and I haven’t touched any peer-to-peer gubbins.  Following my mentioning OFF! in my end of 2010 review I felt compelled to buy the mp3s and, at 7quid for a 19 minute album this felt like a proper test of my resolve.  It’s great, of course, but I am still in pre-Xmas lurching from one new thing to the next mode and so haven’t given it the time to grow on me yet.  I’m keeping it handy – more on this in my next post responding to Simon.

I’m continuing to make the most of FACT magazine’s regular mixes.  Given that my main musical interest for twenty years has been electronic dance music, the prospect of one or two hours a week of free hipness cannot be passed up.  As this is supported by advertising I have no qualms about downloading, though it does feed my unfortunate craving for newness so will have to be monitored.

My talented friends have provided a couple of highlights.  John Tuffen has pointed me at another new 20 minute namke track, bass-exp, which takes a while to get rolling but is a proper head-down chug once it hits a stride.

Regarding TV and film, as I’ve never really downloaded either in the past, this one is easy.  Nowadays if I want a film I’ll buy it or go see it at the cinema or borrow it from the great library I’m blessed with at the Uni where I work.  TV is boring.

So that’s where it’s at.  More to come.  Yes, I know it is massively self-indulgent but enuff with the eye-rolling: I’m having fun.

you know space invader? best of 2010 part three – film, tv, comics

December 12, 2010 at 8:14 pm | Posted in musings, not bloody music | Leave a comment
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My favourite film of the year was Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop: part survey and history of street art, part hilarious and intriguing character study, part wry satire of the art establishment.  Some have grumpily complained that these parts don’t add up but I reckon the tongue-in-cheek final act just adds to its considerable charm.

Inception deserves praise for proving that a successful mega-budget Hollywood blockbuster can also be smart and demand that the audience pay attention.  You’d think that should be the norm but, given how low standards for most alleged ‘entertainment’ have sunk, it came as a revelation.  What an old tutor of mine used to describe as ‘the higher pulp’.  I’m hoping Santa will drop off a DVD of this.

The Disappearance of Alice Creed is a little gem.  A tough, three-handed kidnap thriller with an amazing turn from the incomparable Eddie Marsan.  I will watch literally anything that has him in it.

Finally for film a trio of new wave ‘creature features’: Cloverfield (2008), District 9 (2009) and Monsters (2010).  Over the last few years the ability to knit together digital effects and live action has reached a level of almost documentary realism.  I love the idea that a monster film can be ‘shot’ with a hand-held camera and that a film can be made where the monsters are simply background to the world the characters inhabit.  I’m hoping that, as the software allows films to be made without ridiculous budgets and thus out of the grip of the studios, this could be the dawn of a new era of socially aware, philosophically interesting science fiction.  Like the early 70s but with more tentacles!


Mad Men is the only thing on television, isn’t it?  I admit that Season Four had a couple of makeweight instalments but episode 7, The Suitcase, was possibly the best 50 minutes of television I’ve seen since, well, Deadwood.  I have no higher praise.


(if in Leeds, please spend money at RFM’s approved supplier: OK Comics)

It has been a largely underwhelming year with a couple of notable exceptions.  Early on I found myself bored with the more academic end of the underground and unmoved by the clear-line melancholy of broadsheet darlings like Chris Ware.  Previously reliable creators dropped the ball: Jason’s Werewolves of Montpellier was merely mediocre, the eagerly anticipated finale to Scott Pilgrim was dreadful.  The violent, pungent vulgarity of Johnny Ryan’s Prison Pit made me laugh but could be read through in five minutes.  Having finished the magnificent Goon story arc, Eric Powell gave us a few all-too-short mini-series.

I was jonesing for some storytelling.  What to do?  My usually robust ability to suspend disbelief twitches when it comes to superheroes, so I went for a few well-thought of books on the fringes of the mainstream: American Vampire, Scalped, DMZ, Unwritten, Sweet Tooth.  None lit my fire.  Well, apart from…

Daytripper is a ten-part meditation on the glory and fragility of existence.  We accompany writer Brás de Oliva Domingos on key days in the various alternate universes in which he/we are living.  The periodic jolts caused by its audacious structural weirdness only ramped up my admiration.  An ambitious piece of South American magic realism in comic form.

Other than this, it was left up to that unbeatable end-of-level boss Robert Kirkman to show how it should be done:

The Walking Dead remains the current best example of what can be done with a monthly comic format.  Beautifully paced, thrilling storytelling.  Strong characters reacting believably, hard decisions made in impossible situations, realistic emotional strain, tragic deaths, heroism and cowardice.  An epic of survival horror that both respects and transcends the tropes of the genre and, in its own modest way, asks what it means to be human.  I’m hoping that the recent television adaptation will encourage more people to investigate the source.  And on that positive note, here endeth the best of 2010 round-up.

Happy Zombie Apocalypse!

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