Momus is currently writing Far-Flung Japan, a book about Japan for Sternberg's Solution series.The story is simple. Twelve idiots -- possibly conspirators, possibly visionaries, possibly liars, or possibly the most privileged and valuable future-witnesses the world has ever seen -- have found a way to the future of Japan. It's a messy business, involving crawling into a calving cow, and, after the initial twelve idiotic visits, nobody has been able to reproduce the feat. A commission of enquiry is established, and the idiots duly give accounts of their voyages to a panel of Japan experts who try -- not without exasperation -- to match the extraordinarily idiotic things they're hearing with known facts, likely scenarios and extrapolated outcomes.
The book will be funny but also serious. Amongst other things, it'll make a case for the rehabilitation of the idea of the "far". We live in a time when difference and distance have been eroded and eradicated by globalisation, the internet and cheap jet travel. "Far-flung Japan" will try to restore a sense of wonder -- along with a plethora of imagination-triggering inaccuracies, clouds of interference and globs of barn ectoplasm -- by taking the reader on a trip not just through space but time.
Momus is also currently curating "Aftergold", a major exhibition of Japanese art to be held in the UK Midlands in the run-up to the 2012 Olympic Games.
Published by Sternberg Press in late 2009, The Book of Scotlands is a series of delirious speculations about the future of Momus' motherland. Commissioned by German editor Ingo Niermann and modelled on his book Umbauland, The Book of Scotlands was well-received in Scotland.
"I don't think I am over-stating it," wrote Gerry Hassan, "to say that The Book of Scotlands will be read and reread, studied and assessed centuries from now for what it says about early 21st century Scotland". And Pat Kane in the Scottish Review of Books said: "The Book of Scotlands is a considerate, deeply generous take on the life of this country and its possible futures."
The Book of Scotlands was one of sixteen titles shortlisted for the Scottish Arts Council's SMIT Book Awards 2010.
The Book of Jokes is Momus' first novel. Commissioned originally by french publisher La Volte, it was published first in English in September 2009, followed in October by the french edition Le Livre des Blagues, and will appear in German in the autumn of 2010 through Blumenbar.
"Most of the book's story lines orbit around taboos, including scatology, pedophilia, bestiality and talking, chess-playing penises," said the Los Angeles Times. "One of the book's central conflicts poses the question of whether two men can be each others' uncles, which can be answered only with some of the most lurid, labyrinthine incest in literature."
"The Book of Jokes is not a collection of punchlines or tension-building schemes," wrote Adam Novy in Dossier Journal, "it's a flexible and sensitive solution to the problem of how to invigorate conventions like the novel using overlooked materials. Momus is a slyly articulate stylist with a lovely flair for syntax and the lexical."
The most recent album from Momus is Joemus, released in November 2008.
Culturedeluxe called it "the best album from Momus in years, a brilliant, hallucinatory Nintendo arcade gloop of analogue pop and retro lounge as performed by two Space Invaders posing as human beings". "A great precis of where Momus's current musical fascinations lie", wrote Prefix magazine.
A collaboration with Berlin-based Scot Joe Howe, Joemus is available in the UK and Europe from Cherry Red and in the US from Darla. Other Momus releases are listed on this page. Six albums Momus released on the Creation label are available as free downloads from ubu.com.
Pretty much from its inception, Momus has used the web to communicate. From 1995 to 2003 the Momus website entertained visitors with frequently-updated content: monthly essays, daily photos, accounts of Momus albums, some portraits of Momus, collections of podcasts, a CV, audio clips and tour diaries. Then, from January 2004 until February 2010, a LiveJournal blog called Click Opera took over, adding Web 2.0 functionality and a lively comments section.
In February 2010, for a series of reasons outlined here and here and in this radio interview, Momus completed the Click Opera project and came back to iMomus.com, bringing a touch of blog influence back to the old Web 1.0 site in the form of a new yellow notebook column called Zuihitsu.
Meanwhile, news and status tweets -- for those who like that sort of thing -- from Momusworld can be found at wolon, the Twitter feed of Momus' faithful personal digital assistant, Maria Wolonski.
Over the years, the Momus website has had an ever-changing sequence of front covers. They haven't all been preserved, but here are a few. You can click the images to get to the actual pages.
June 1995. The very first design I put online. Best viewed in Netscape 1.1, people, yeah?
A pleasing design from August 1995 featuring Shazna's wallet.
September 1995. The legendary Maoist Index.
From November 1995. A welcome page with a grid of linked photos.
December 1995. I wear horns stolen from Japanese prodigy Cornelius.
January 1996. "Momus is a mask that anyone can wear. This week, Shazna."
March 1996. The background image blinks! Blimey!
Mean and moody. From April 1996.
A schizoid Robert Louis Stevenson-like profile design from May 1996.
June 1996. Metallic lettering and an inverted grandfather clock. Odd.
July 1996. Two animated gifs, one of the top half of my face, one of the bottom. Odd temporary email address.
October 1996. Simple portrait on a black ground.
December 1996. Be a trendy, not a stinky: use frames.
Early 1997. Classic cliche of UK music journalism: our plucky little group conquers the New World.
It's June 1997 and I'm into Pong and releasing a record called Ping Pong With Hong Kong King Kong (A Sing Song)
April 1998. A slideshow in which the background of each page matches a colour in the image. Made after a trip with my then-girlfriend Riho to Amsterdam.
July 1998. Eye treatment, Japan trips to appear on Music Station, diaries of American tours.
Mid-1998. Meister Sad Pierrot v. Bodycon Explosions, it says here. I think this was about the time I was planning an EP called Sports Pierrot.
August 1998. Everything's Analog Baroque, even the Edinburgh Festival. Bach has a camcorder.
It's January 1999 and I'm selling portrait songs and dressing up as a "gorilla of letters".
February 1999, and I'm snapped at the opening of Tim Noble and Sue Webster's New Barbarians show at the Chisenhale Gallery.
Millennial! January 1st, 2000. I lead with a fan-made portrait of me, Toog and Kahimi onstage in America, but inside I'm raving about spending New Year 2000 with Gilbert and George.
Amidst 8-bit folktronic lettering and digital teepees I promote Zoop, a compilation of New York Electroclash bands that never actually materialises.
December 2001. A good vintage. Shuttling between London, Tokyo and New York, I'm writing about electroacoustics and telling you, in poetry, about my kitchen.
Spring 2003, I'm in Berlin (and London) meeting new people at White Trash, Fast Food, planning a laptop tour of Japan. War is in the offing.
Early 2003. Getting more esoteric and oblique, and showing the influence of fashion student Ayako, my partner at the time.
December 2003. A nice, mysterious design. A couple of months later, blogging would begin and the website would lie dormant for six years with this design:
What will debt be like?
The logic of risk and the logic of fairness are at odds, and we live in a world in which the system of risk (that is, the capitalist system) has won out over the system of fairness (that is, the communist system). We operate in a system which, instead of levelling differences between rich and poor, amplifies them in monstrously unfair feedback loops. Within the logic of risk, the poorer you are, the more expensive everything gets, because there's a big risk you will default on your loan repayments. Any sign of economic weakness and speculator sharks move in, short-selling your currency and betting against you, lowering your credit rating to junk status, making it impossibly expensive for you to borrow your way out of your crisis. The only way is down.
We're used to the victims of this system being, to some extent, out of sight, hidden away at the margins of our global picture in the nations not yet covered by Google Streetview. But something remarkable and scary is happening. The feedback loops which force rich and poor apart are coming closer to those of us who live in rich western nations. They recently reached Greece, but won't stop there. This article in Der Spiegel spells it out: Huge National Debts Could Push Euro Zone into Bankruptcy. Currently we're talking about "the Greek debt crisis", but there are danger signs from Ireland, Portugal, Italy and Spain as well.
But the Spiegel article extends the danger zone even beyond that: "The current government debt bubble is the last of all possible bubbles. Either governments manage to slowly let out the air, or the bubble will burst. If that happens, the world will truly be on the brink of disaster," it says. "When Greece faces a possible bankruptcy, the euro-zone countries and the IMF come to its aid. But what happens if the entire euro group bites off more than it can chew? What if the United States can no longer service its debt because, say, China is no longer willing to buy American treasury bonds? And what if Japan, which is running into more and more problems, falters in its attempts to pay for its now-chronic deficits?"
This is the way empires end. In a recent New York Review of Books review of This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly (Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff), Paul Krugman and Robin Wells answer the question "what does this mean?" with some rather grim answers. It means a long recession with high unemployment, with no real recovery at the end. The effects are permanent: nations which crash and burn after debt crises never get back to the levels they would have reached if they hadn't been so spendthrift. And unlike the aftermath of the Great Depression, there is very little political will to fix -- really regulate -- a corrupt financial system, so a mightier crash will happen sometime in the future.
The Spiegel article reports Rogoff and Reinhart's formula for debt's dangerzone: when a nation is indebted to the sum of more than 90% of its GDP, things are critical. The US will go over 100% within the next two years, and debt will hit 300% of GDP by 2050. Japan already has a debt burden of almost twice the country's annual economic output. Greece's debt-to-GDP ratio is currently 115%.
So what would our daily lives look like, if we all went really bust? Would it matter much? The sun would still shine, plants would still grow, we'd still breathe. The documentary African Railway shows one possible consequence. The Tazaran Railway runs between Zambia and Tanzania. It was built by the Chinese to transport copper, but the company running it is now bankrupt. So each journey the train takes is beset by derailments and delays which can last for days. The train employees have trouble buying fuel with credit nobody believes in. Employees are paid almost nothing, and work all the time, and live in the train; one compares it to being in prison. But the sun still shines, and people still smile, and vendors take advantage of the delays to sell their wares.
Watching Lost Kingdoms of Africa, I snapped the beautiful outfits of people in the Ethiopian city of Harar which decorate this page. Harar is the place where poet Arthur Rimbaud ended up, trading in ivory and arms. It hopes to relaunch itself as a tourist destination, and recently won a long battle to become a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. But, as an article entitled Cruel Ethiopia shows, Ethiopia is rife with malnourishment, disease and "medieval poverty". That's what being bust means. No wonder the Greeks are invading TV studios and staging general strikes. They may just be a kind of political avant garde for all of us. We should be watching carefully.
It's hard to find a silver lining in the current debt crisis, which is really only just beginning. But if there is one, it may be that we've finally seen the need to replace the irrational roulette wheel we currently call "the world system" with something organised around a completely different set of principles. Wednesday May 5th 2010
Il Maestro di Violino
From 1988 to 1994 my main theme as Momus was "strange forbidden love". In a body of work many listeners found increasingly disturbing, I described love between the living and the dead (The Cabriolet), between teachers and pupils (The Guitar Lesson), between gay step-fathers and their step-sons (Bishonen), between woman and woman (Amongst Women Only), between doctors and patients (Trust Me, I'm A Doctor), between people who speak English and people who speak Cantonese (Shaftesbury Avenue), even between animals and humans (I Am A Kitten). The rationale of these songs was no mystery: I spelled it out explicitly in a song called Love in Contravention: "love outside the law is the strongest love of all".
Why is love outside the law the strongest love of all? Because it has its eyes open. Because it has to fight for unpopular values it nevertheless believes in. Because it isn't just sleep-walking through conformist formulae. Because it's -- yes! -- subversive: transgressive love is to love what the avant garde art is to culture; a demand to rip up all the rules and start again, to move somewhere else. Ironically, I was writing these songs just at the moment when the gay movement was making efforts to normalise itself, and the artistic avant garde was about to become a comfortable establishment. In the ultraconformist age which followed, the provocative questioning of social mores would become even more suspect than it was in the 1980s, and get bundled, in the popular imagination and the popular press, with kiddy-fiddling, trolling and terrorism. Be normal, or fuck off!
But I was a romantic. And one thing about transgressive love -- very useful for a certain kind of writer, romantic but also realistic -- is that it makes society visible. There's a temptation to believe that love is just a matter of aligning the wills of two individuals. Transgressive love not only reveals the limitations of this arrangement (how do you align wills when everyone is against you, when loving x means also having to fight a to z?), but shows that love exists within a cat's cradle of bureaucratic and behavioural limitations which embody the mores of the societies we live in. I'd read Bataille, of course, and listened to Serge Gainsbourg, and knew the power their kind of writing could have. I was particularly interested in setting ugly subject matter within beautiful arrangements, too; there was a hidden class compensation in my strategy. I thought I sounded too mild and middle-class, and that my music had a tendency to be too twee and pretty. The way to offset that perceived limitation was to whisper truly disturbing, transgressive stories over it.
There was also a strong sense -- it came, perhaps, from living as a child in several different countries, under political systems ranging from social democracy (Canada under Trudeau) to fascism (Greece under Papadopoulis) -- that in different times and places society works in different ways. There is no "universal", only local and arbitrary structurations, local and temporary divisions of the permissible from the impermissible. No societies have "got it right forever", and the most dangerous societies are the ones that think they have. So another thing I was doing, during this period of Momus, was visiting different cultures and different times, and -- through translation and transmutation -- bringing their very different values into the anglospheric context I was operating in.
Sometimes the distances involved were minimal, and the time gap was zero. Just across the channel Serge Gainsbourg, in the 80s, could sing about a semi-sexual love for his own daughter in Lemon Incest. It was inconceivable that a similarly-sized British or American star would do that. But I also liked to jump millennia and thousands of miles, revisiting, on my debut album, Lot's incest in the Bible or the rape of Lucretia.
Here's an example of the kind of song I was interested in (thanks to Nick Halliwell of The Granite Shore for drawing my attention to it). Have a look at this video, which shows the 1975 San Remo song festival. The Italian cantautore Domenico Modugno performs El Maestro de Violin, which is a Spanish-lanugage version of his Italian song Il Maestro di Violino (mp3 here).
Like my song The Guitar Lesson (a collision of Balthus' painting of the same title and something like the chord sequence behind Leo Ferre's song Avec Le Temps), Il Maestro di Violino tells the story of a music teacher and his pupil. There's a thirty-year age gap between them, and there's a certain physical intimacy involved in explaining how to hold the instrument and so on. There's also, in the music, a parody of the didactic, pedagogic music of scales and exercises and classicism. Into this dry, careful and austere landscape explodes something messy and human: Modugno's pupil tells her teacher she's going to stop coming to the lessons. Not because she's decided to stop studying, but because she's fallen in love with him.
In the YouTube enactment, the teacher and pupil stand far apart, and after the declaration of love is made the pupil and teacher exit the stage on opposite sides. Nothing will come of this love: society condemns it, and society is to be obeyed without question. The camera pans across the smiling, applauding audience. One old lady looks disgruntled, but everyone else seems delighted to see a taboo evoked and observed. And yet even this -- to evoke the social limits of love in a song -- is a little too dangerous for our time. As one commenter puts it under the YouTube video, confirming Freud's later, darker view that society and human instinct are finally irreconcilable (but paying very little attention to the song itself): "pederast motherfucker". Monday May 3rd 2010
First and Second Delphic Hymns to Apollo
Joulia Strauss' First Delphic Hymn to Apollo, god of the sun.
Second Delphic Hymn to Apollo. May you have much joy of the May. Saturday May 1st 2010
Some photographs to cut out and keep
Malcolm Clarke at work in the BBC Radiophonic workshop, a webcam duvet, squatter artists from the forthcoming NGBK exhibition Goodbye London: radical art and politics in the seventies, some dome-dwellers in California, Momus with a photoshopped Grace Jones window blind, and Bobby Mouat, the last "real" occupant of the building which is now the Shetland Croft House Museum. Thursday April 29th 2010
Can you spot what these two songs have in common?
Well, they're both from noughties Momus albums that begin with the letter "O", sure; the Beowulf song belongs on Oskar Tennis Champion (2003), the Robin Hood song on Otto Spooky (2004). But what I was really hoping you'd say is that they're both tales of classical warrior heroes who become, in my telling, disabled.
So why do these heroes become disabled in my versions? Because invincible heroes triumphing is a bit "dog bites man", as narratives go. Because fit, able-bodied heroes seem, frankly, a bit fascistic. Because the bastards really do grind you down, and life and strength don't last long; heroism may be epic, but disability is realism. Because a disabled hero is all the more heroic. Because a fragile hero is more poignant than an able-bodied one. Because the means at the disposal of ancient heroes are a bit like the RAM available to ancient computers; laughably feeble. And because it's interesting to examine the limits of political correctness. Tuesday April 27th 2010
"I remember once Karlheinz Stockhausen came to see Peter's studio, and they collaborated for quite a while, and they spent a long time making a box the size of a fridge, insulated from a sound point of view, all so that they could record the sound of a fly screaming."
Monday April 26th 2010
Oshare Bijyo Chronicle File No. 3 Jun Togawa
Oshare Bijyo Chronicle File No. 3. From Zipper mook special edition Hair Make Book 2001, featuring Togawa Jun. Friday April 23rd 2010
Vintage postmodern television design
My thesis here is simple. If you want to grasp the gaudy essence of postmodern design, don't look at architecture. That stuff is too expensive, too timeless, too colourless, too slow-to-build to reflect -- to the excessive degree required -- the fads, fashions and visual tropes of a particular year. Look instead at cheaper, more magpie-crazed, shape-shifting forms: product design, interior decoration, TV studio set designs, graphics, idents, logos. These things are easily changed, trendy, effervescent and evanescent. They reflect their particular year. They evoke best the strangeness of... well, say, 1984.
Here's a studio set I admire very much; pure spirit of 1984. It was built for Danish TV show Sommer Pa Toppen, but it still looks great today. (I don't mean "still", implying timelessness. I mean it looks great again today, just for now. For much of the intervening period it would've looked terrible.) Here's Lou Reed being interviewed on the set that year, and actually being upstaged by it:
And here's a very annoying clown called Jango Edwards getting in the way of my enjoyment of that same set, that same year:
It seems pretty obvious to me that the designer of that pomo Danish set was a fan of Ettore Sottsass' work with Memphis Milano:
Postmodern TV studio sets are sort of fascinating. Here's how the UK's Wogan Show looked in 1984; there's a lot less design clarity and brash primary colour there than in the Danish set (this being Britain and Wogan and all), but the same diagonal forms and cross-hatching appear, and there are some interesting squiggles and lozenges:
Now here's Yasuda Narumi singing on a Japanese variety show in 1984. I find the colours and forms very beautiful here: as usual, Japan dovetails its postmodernism with its traditional cultural forms, leading to something fresh and dignified:
Now here's a weird 1985 set for a weird song from Mexican singer Luis Miguel. Italy is really the birthplace of postmodern television set design: for centuries its churches boasted trompe l'oeil ceilings and false fronts:
Let's stay in Italy and end with two gorgeously 80s pieces of animated television graphic design. The first, from 1981, is for educational TV, the "Dipartimento Scuola Educazione":
Finally a succession of Sigle Tg2 idents from 1970 to 1990:
My main feeling about television is that it's an electronic inferno of towering foolishness, a terrible waste of human time. But insert 25 years of alienation between your own time and a TV studio, and suddenly the sense of emptiness and alienation that TV engenders (seconds after the rush of interest) can become -- with the right set designer, anyway -- peculiarly attractive. Wednesday April 21st 2010
Haunted by the future
In 1990 Louis Philippe asks me to contribute a song to a compilation he's curating called Fab Gear, to be released by Keigo Oyamada through Polystar Japan. Since it's a Japanese release, I record a newly-written song about a land I haven't, at that point, visited, but have seen in films like the haunting Summer Vacation 1999, directed by Shusuke Kaneko in 1988:
The 1990 version of the 1999 song is recorded at F2 Studios in London's Clerkenwell. Louis Philippe and Vicky Bogle sing backing vocals, and Mika Goto (a student of french literature visiting London) contributes the spoken-word Japanese parts. I remember the song as the first I wrote using my new Akai S900 sampler; you can hear the primitive Akai percussion sounds, which aspire to sound like Soul II Soul, but don't quite carry off the funkiness (I like their robotic clumsiness, though):
As I explain in this Click Opera entry, this track really becomes the foundation for the "science fiction melodrama" style I employ on the Voyager and Timelord albums. By the time I re-record the song in 1992 for Voyager (you can hear that version of the song here), I've actually been to Japan, though not Hokkaido. The Japanese vocals this time are supplied by androgynous Chiharu Watabe (then an art student, later a journalist for magazines like Composite). I re-sample bits of the original version (notably the funky synth squiggle).
The lyrics in the middle (the lovely lines about longing to see someone's face "like a Cubist composition") are something my very first Japanese girlfriend Junko told me in a letter in 1989. They seem to fit with the idea of "a machine that let you feel all his emotion", and with the combination of emotion and technology which becomes my goal at this point in my songwriting. I'm also influenced by the pathos of The Man Who Fell To Earth, mounting a space program and making a record just to contact his far-distant wife, and by a dramatised Mishima short story I've seen at the Edinburgh Festival.
The futuristic year of 1999 comes and goes, and I re-record the song in 2001 in New York for a Japanese compilation the comedian-singer Roman Porsche is putting together. The 2001 version is hauntological: the future has become the past, and technology now contains not just longing, but ghosts (as Kaneko's film does; one of the boyish girls has committed suicide).
Now I've made a fourth version of the 1999 song for yet another compilation, the forthcoming A Very Magistery Summer on LGM. This new version actually samples (or "is haunted by", if you prefer) all three of its predecessors, whilst adding new elements (Ariel Pink seems to have replaced Soul II Soul as the sonic ideal). The video is made up of things I saw when I finally visited Hokkaido in early 2005:
Looking back in 2008, I thought that Summer Holiday 1999 might be "my Ashes to Ashes". I'm not sure about that, but it's a key song, one worth recording four times; a song that started off being about the future of a place I hadn't visited, and ended up being about the past of a place I had. Maybe that's why Summer Holiday 1999 now sounds so haunted. Tuesday April 20th 2010
Please enjoy analog baroque!
There's a little exhibition alongside. Just scroll down and on the white lefthand side you'll see a chronological sequence of some of the front pages the Momus website had between 1995 and 2003.
They're all still fully functional, animated gifs and all! Monday April 19th 2010
Churchill in sandals
Something is afoot. The tectonic plates of British politics are shifting. Political terror sprinkles the lawns of Middle England like volcanic dust from somewhere foreign. The Times declares that, following last week's televised debate, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg is nearly as popular as Winston Churchill. The Daily Mail mongers fear the best way it knows how: by invoking the image of an army wearing beards and sandals.
"Mr Clegg has the great good fortune to look (and dress) very unlike the party he leads," declares the paper's leader writer. "Behind him in the shadows stand dense ranks of beards and sandals". Aha! Sandals are afoot! The Mail leader is entitled "The charming Mr Clegg leads a loopy army". This bearded, sandaled army holds "beliefs so loopily Left-wing that even New Labour long ago abandoned or rejected them".
With Britain staring down the barrel of a flower, and William Hague warning people that the Lib Dems want to introduce the euro, stop taxing anyone who earns less than £10,000 a year, and scrap nuclear weapons, it might be time to re-read Paul Laity's excellent Cabinet article A brief history of cranks.
Surprisingly enough (or perhaps unsurprisingly given that Orwell, later in life, had a shabby history of betraying his leftist comrades), the Daily Mail's cliche checklist could have been lifted directly from The Road to Wigan Pier, as Laity reminds us:
"Socialism," George Orwell famously wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier (1936), draws towards it "with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, 'Nature Cure' quack, pacifist and feminist in England." His tirade against such "cranks" is memorably extended in other passages of the book to include "vegetarians with wilting beards," the "outer-suburban creeping Jesus" eager to begin his yoga exercises, and "that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of 'progress' like bluebottles to a dead cat."
Cranks, as Laity points out, are seen as unmasculine. They're sexually incontinent. They're "only superficially committed to the socialist cause, and ultimately concerned more about their own moral purity than about the exploitation of the working class." Along with "shock-headed Marxists chewing polysyllables", they "give socialism a bad name".
"The journalists at the Daily Mail," says Laity (writing in 2005), "may keep alive the time-honored association of cranks with near-naked feet, but the long queues outside Birkenstock shops should make them think again. The simple life may be as far away as ever, but we are all sandal-wearers now."
But are we? One reason sandal-wearers are so eagerly derided by British commentators to the left and right of them is that -- insofar as sandal-wearing is a political metaphor for post-materialism -- they still constitute a relatively insignificant proportion of British population: according to the "potato graphics" of market research firm Sinus Sociovision, just 11%. So the idea of a Nick Clegg who is both a sandal-wearer and almost as popular in the UK as Winston Churchill flabbers, quite frankly, all gast.
But Middle England, if you really do wear a secret inner beard -- and I certainly hope you do! -- now's your chance to get it out. Sunday April 18th 2010Volcanoes as architects
Watching Michael Palin's New Europe (part 2), I was amazed by the post-volcanic architecture of the "fairy chimneys" of Goreme in Cappadocia.
In the centre of Turkey's Anatolian region, formerly referred to as Asia Minor, this town of Mervyn Peake-like architecture came about thanks to a mixture of human and natural forces. A massive volcanic eruption created lava which then became a soft rock called "tufa". The elements -- and refugees in the form of early Christians -- then sculpted the tufa into these fantastical shapes.
Timely evidence that volcanoes are good for more than just messing up your flight plans. Saturday April 17th 201030 years of wrong
Tony Judt's new Penguin book Ill Fares the Land (the first chapter is extracted in the current New York Review of Books, and a must-read) is part of an emerging narrative tendency (it sits well with books like Affluenza and The Spirit Level); we're seeing more and more clearly now that the social and economic policies of the West during the past thirty years have been disastrous.
Judt's thesis is that progressive gains during the 20th century started to be reversed from about 1980 onward, as government began to be seen as the problem rather than the solution, privatisation became a gormless panacea, and the pursuit of private property and material wealth -- not just for its own sake, but also in order to enable competitive individuals to avoid the fate of the disadvantaged in increasingly stratified societies -- came to dominate people's lives. Judt says that this has all been not just unfair and misguided but bad for us, physically, mentally and spiritually: "inequality rots societies from within".
Judt arrays an impressive and irrefutable set of figures to demonstrate this. In the six graphs that accompany the NYRB article, the more neo-liberal nations (notably Britain and the US) score particularly poorly on factors from mental health to social mobility. The more social-democratic nations (Japan and Scandinavia in particular) do better. I found these graphs -- and the political messages they contain -- fascinating. Despite some Band Aid-type corrections since the collapse of 2008, we haven't really restructured our societies. We haven't sufficiently demonised the neo-liberal ideology that's wrought such havoc since 1980. It starts with recognising the problem, and continues with changing the way we think about life.
The moral inference here: in more horizontal societies it's easier to have a different status than your parents did. But isn't that difference also less different in those societies, at least materially speaking?
Easy. America was getting more equal until Ron Reagan arrived in the White House.
Blindingly obvious: inequality is bad for your health. (One of the interesting findings of Oliver James' Affluenza book was that inequality is almost as bad for the health of the rich in unequal societies as it is for the poor, which is pretty counter-intuitive.)
Murder is much more common in highly stratified societies.
Inequality drives you crazy.
Want to live a long time? Don't spend money on private health care, make your society more equal. Thursday April 15th 2010Nice person in horror movie
Somehow I managed never to see Stanley Kubrick's The Shining before now. But I had seen the film's victim-heroine Shelley Duvall before, notably in Robert Altman's Three Women.
I seem to be immune to the charms of most Western actresses and celebrities, who -- in a weird inversion of the cliche about Asians -- "all look the same" to me; blonde and busty, with killer grins and sassy attitude. But Shelley Duvall always seemed different. There's something slightly extra-terrestrial about her, and yet something very down-to-earth at the same time. She's beautiful but awkward and gauche; her onscreen presence is sexy in the bluestocking way Joyce Grenfell's is. Above all -- and this is important -- she seems like a nice person.
It was Shelley Duvall's niceness (even her name is super-nice) which would inevitably land her one day in a horror film; the genre exists, it seems, to menace the nice with threatened mincings. Duvall's eyes go Bambi-big, and her ears go Bambi-pointy, when there's an axe coming after her, and her splayed Bambi gait is ideally suited -- in the minds of sadistic film directors, anyway -- to running in terror from a killer.
I lost interest in the second half of The Shining, when it descends into a rather generic chase. What really interested me, to be honest -- and at the risk of sounding a bit like Andy Warhol -- was Miss Duvall's wardrobe.
I really like the way Duvall is dressed in The Shining. It's a very poignant time, 1980, culturally speaking, and you can see that in what Duvall is wearing. The liberal-Scandinavian 1970s are represented by flat shoes (very Whole Earth Catalog) and overalls (workwear) and smocks with Amer-Indian motifs on them, as well as by bright colours like red and purple. But you can see the 80s coming in a certain Return-to-Order puritanism -- schoolmarmish blue-checked gingham or striped aprons seem to refer back, in a retro-postmodern way, to the 19th century, as do the frilly puff-shouldered blue blouses Duvall wears.
In the typewriter scene where we first see Jack's withering contempt for his wife, Wendy is wearing red moonboots and a high-collared purple maxi dress -- very 70s, and possibly (like Danny's space-rocket sweater) a wink in the direction of Kubrick's 2001. Her clothes, of course, also connect her to the semantics of the plot: the Indian smock connects her to the Indian grave the hotel is said to be built on, and her red clothes to blood.
Interested to see how Duvall's Wendy was perceived back in 1980, I turned to the review the New York Times ran that year. In it critic Janet Maslin describes "the raggedness and dowdiness of Wendy's wardrobe" and calls Duvall's Wendy "an almost freakish cipher" with "a certain ironic homeliness -- as when Wendy sits in the hotel's elegant lobby, propped before a television screen during a blizzard. She's watching Jennifer O'Neill play the ultimate in sweetly mindless femininity, in Summer of '42".
Associating Duvall's character with "sweetly mindless femininity" seems a bit harsh -- it's as if Wendy is being slashed not just by Jack's axe but by Maslin's barbs as well. But I guess that's what you have to expect as a nice person trapped in a horror movie, or a 1970s person heading into the 1980s. Wednesday April 14th 2010In the future, the strange country
I'm currently writing my book about the future of Japan, which in some ways is a combination of the two videos below. Try hitting play on both of them and muting the sound in the second one. Presto! A multiscreen presentation about the future of Japan!
Monday April 12th 2010
Earlier Zuihitsu scrawlings (zuihitsu means something like "random fragmentary brush-jottings" in Japanese) are here.