Radiohead – The Bends; and my litany of grievances against Thom Yorke

Brit lists his complaints about his long-standing enemy Thom Yorke, composer of the greatest album by any British rock group…

Objectively speaking, Radiohead are the second best rock group that Britain has produced, after the Beatles. This doesn’t mean that the Beatles and Radiohead ought to be your favourite bands. God knows Radiohead aren’t my favourite band, and I speak as someone who owns more or less every piece of music they’ve ever released including B-sides and C-sides and has paid to see them perform live on three separate occasions.

Radiohead have an unusual contempt for their fans. The first time I watched them in concert in the mid-1990s they bailed out of their big hit Creep mid-song because they were bored of the paying customers who liked it. This, I felt, was really a bit early in their career for such Dylan-esque disdain. The second time I saw them they made me go to a stupid big blue tent in a cold field in Wales. It rained. And on the third occasion they forced me to endure the worst support act in the world: something called Asian Dub Foundation which shouted political slogans of mind-numbing inanity over a tuneless, seemingly unending dirge.

This does not complete my litany of grievances against Radiohead. In 2001, knowing full well that I would buy any CD they put out, they inflicted upon me a collection of boring electronica called Amnesiac, just when I needed it least. Then in 2007 they made a sublimely brilliant record called In Rainbows but decided to release it not on a CD available from the ring road Asda for a tenner, but as a download via an online ‘honesty box’ which ‘allowed’ to you pay whatever you thought was the ‘right’ amount. This irritating conceit was presumably meant to be some sort of moral experiment, but, thankfully and consolingly, the majority of downloaders paid the millionaire musicians the princely sum of zero pounds and zero pence, which was the correct answer.

They’ve been plaguing me for years, then. By ‘they’, of course, I really mean the band’s frontman and songwriter Thom Yorke. Yorke is one of those anti-everything Greens who is quite open about his misanthropic loathings. When the Occupy movement finally takes over and enacts the Population Matters manifesto, with Julian Assange as President, Billy Bragg as Minister for Truth and Stephen Fry as Queen, they’ll definitely put Yorke in charge of the torture chambers to which all we small ‘c’ conservatives, climate change sceptics and ring road Asda-shoppers will be hastened. You can see him cackling over his levers and knobs, can’t you? On Paranoid Android Yorke sneers “When I am King you will be first against the wall,” and by God he sneers it like he means it.

I first encountered him when we were both horrible teenagers. I was a greasy Trot sixth-former, Yorke an unloveable Oxford moptop with a song that Continue reading

Primordial Soup

Worm makes a proper Dabbler soup…

Yesterday was the first properly bitter and miserable day of winter, and when it’s shivery cold and I’m driving home through the gloaming, I’m always thinking about rib-sticking winter food for dinner.  This soup recipe is just the thing for cockle warming – very hearty, simple and hands down the best soup I’ve ever tasted, so it’s my great pleasure to share it with you. I first came to it via Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who calls it Butternut Nutbutter Soup, but it would appear to be originally of West African origin.

What’s really good is that you can go off-piste and substitute the butternut squash with similar amounts of pumpkin, sweet potato or even tomatoes if you like.  From my experiments it would appear that the more you turn up the chilli and seasonings, the better it tastes. So be daring! After all, it was pyschologist Abraham Maslow who said that “A first-rate soup is more creative than a second-rate painting.”

Cooking time

  • 20 minutes

Ingredients

  • 1 large butternut squash
  • Big knob of butter
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 red chilli, deseeded and chopped, or a Continue reading

Elberry on the Hood Rats

Following Jon Hotten’s review of Hood Rat - Gavin Knight’s new survey of Britain’s gang culture – Elberry takes on the underclass…

One of the great pleasures of living in Germany is not living in England. In Germany disaffected youths scrawl pointless graffiti and dress in bright primary colours; in England, they take and sell drugs, they torture and murder and rape, and upload these crimes to youtube. My students often ask if my horrible tales of England are exaggerated; I smilingly encourage them to go to Huddersfield, Bradford, Leeds, or Manchester on a Friday night, and judge for themselves. It isn’t that Germany has no criminality or gang culture, but that the English variety is more pervasive, more of an everyday spectacle. Gang culture is the default role model for the young in England, regardless of background; they aspire to dress, walk, talk, think, and act like characters from a gangster rap video.

Knight’s book is a grisly and plausible account of gang life in Manchester, London, and Glasgow. The Manchester scenes are familiar. No need to live in Longsight: in my old home of Didsbury (a posh suburb) I passed a chav, screaming “I’m gonna bleep cut your bleep face, you bleep bitch!” into his mobile phone at about four o’clock in the afternoon. Everybody walked by as if this was normal; and in England, it more or less is.

But onto the book. Knight researched it the hard way, talking to street level crooks, following elite police units. Prefaced with a flat “Hood Rat is a work of non-fiction”, it nonetheless takes some liberties, to present inner mental states as in a novel. Overall, however, it rings true (to my experience). The first part, set in Manchester, begins with Anders Svensson, a cop on the elite anti-gang X-Calibre unit, picking up a low-level gangster from prison, the fittingly-named Whippet:

Whippet’s muttering to himself, running his hand back and forward over his Jamie Foxx buzz cut. ‘I don’t need no babysitter,’ he says, glaring ahead. The side of his mouth twists back as if snagged by a fish hook. ‘I’m respected. Old school.’

The detail with the fish hook; I immediately remember just that vicious, involuntary snarl, the orclike malevolence – not from Whippet, but from hundreds like him, in the city centre, on the bus home, hanging around the hospital where I worked. Svensson employs Whippet as an informant; he is after the big players, Merlin and Flow – both under 35, both lethal. Seen principally through Svensson’s eyes, the Manchester section is grisly and Continue reading

Book Review: Hood Rat by Gavin Knight

Hood Rat - Gavin Knight’s new book about Britain’s gang culture – makes for uncomfortable reading. We have a double-bill for you, kicking off with Jon Hotten’s review…

In 1991, David Simon published a book called Homicide: Life On The Killing Streets, that followed for a year the work of three murder squads – 18 men – in Baltimore. It was where Martin Amis got his often-ridiculed first line of Night Train: ‘I am a police’. Poor old Mart, besmirched again, for what David Simon had produced in Homicide was a work of forensic accuracy: if you wanted to know about murder in America – without having to get personally involved in one, obviously – here it was, laid out cold as the slab.

Amis championed Simon, whose immersive reporting had soon blossomed into the Homicide: Life On The Streets TV show, another book of year-long observation called The Corner, then The Wire and Treme and a position as America’s premier tell-it-like-it-is-down-there writer – without all the writerly frou-frou on top.

His success posed a question: why, with the Americanisation of British crime, had no-one done the same over here? Because we’ve got the ghettos and the no-go areas, we’ve got the underclass, and beyond that we’ve absorbed the sheen and glamour – ludicrously, for example, kids in London refer to the police as ‘Feds’.

What we don’t have, at least not yet, is the murder rate, although to judge by the most illuminating and alarming passage of Gavin Knight’s Hood Rat (Picador), we might get that soon, too:

Ten years ago, it was about the high-level drug dealers, older gang members brutally exploiting the younger ones. They taught them that all that counts is who can become the most brutal, the most violent, the most feared. Now the drug trade has become more fragmented, the violence is all the kids are left with. The older gang members who want to make money in organised crime, fraud or money-laundering can’t control them. They are too chaotic, too volatile. A twelve year old cannot wait to step up, shoot a general and get a reputation for himself. It’s like X-Factor.

Modern crime, it seems, is now too criminal to control itself. Knight’s book is in three parts, and three places. The first, and best, section is set in Manchester and features – zeitgiest-ly enough – a half Norwegian detective called Anders Svensson, and his long pursuit of two dangerous drug dealers, Merlin and Flow. Svensson’s greatest gift is patience, and he needs it. It’s apparent that the law is not on his side; it is, importantly, a Continue reading

How to Dress for the Country

Nige prescribes the correct attire for gentlemanly perambulations…

Strolling on Blakeney marshes, I couldn’t help but notice that everyone I passed was kitted out for Walking, as it is conceived in these car-bound times – not walking as in the most basic natural activity known to creatures afflicted with bipedalism, but Walking as a specialist activity requiring specialist kit.

This usually consists of unbecoming forms of anorak or windcheater in garish colours, with boots made of various fusions of synthetics, and ugly trousering – sometimes even (God help us) shorts – with pockets in unlikely places. Worse, more and more people now seem to feel they’re not Walking unless they’re powering themselves along with a couple of metal poles. Dear oh dear…

The effect one aims for when out walking is ideally that of a flaneur taking a stroll down Piccadilly before dropping in at the club. Only minimal concessions need be made to the rural circumstances (spats perhaps if the going’s soft). A raincoat or tweed overcoat of conventional cut is adequate to most weather conditions – or, if preferred, the Norfolk jacket, as pictured below, with a fetching trilby, worsted gabardine trousers and a decent pair of Oxfords.

That, gentlemen, is how to dress for the country.

The Dabbler Book Club Review: Apricot Jam by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Gaw ruminates on the significance of Solzhenitsyn’s final work in a world where even disaffected and idealistic Occupiers no longer really seem very sure of anything…

In a little less than a month we mark the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union. I haven’t seen a single mention of this fact. Perhaps there will be a flurry of documentaries noting the occasion closer to the date. However, one can’t imagine there being any sort of ceremony or thanksgiving. The twenty-sixth of December 1991 is clearly no VE Day.

On finishing Apricot Jam, Solzhenitsyn’s final collection of short stories written largely in the ’90s, I wondered whether there might be anything new to say about the Soviet experience. I suspect not, for the immediate future at least: historians have made excellent use of the relatively brief period when the Soviet archives opened and, before them, the odd historian and a rather greater number of memoirists and novelists laid bare the violent and mendacious nature of Soviet Communism. But now I’m rather wondering whether, even if there were something new to say, anyone would be listening.

Why is this? Despite Soviet communism’s existential threat to the West, I suspect any feelings of celebration, or even relief, at the anniversary of its demise are mitigated by guilt. What have we done with our victory? Right now it feels as if we’ve squandered it on dodgy mortgages, bank bonuses and wide-screen TVs (it may well be that people in the BRICs and CIVETs have a different view).

I also suspect that for many a progressive leftist intellectual the end of the Soviet experiment was not an unalloyed joy. After all, the event should mark the end of about two hundred years of abstract philosophical speculation on how we might break through to an earthly paradise. The project still provides an end-of-the-pier show for the odd intellectual clown, such as Žižek. But, on the whole, the futures we are presented with by the idealistic and disaffected today are either rather dark environmental visions, which deliberately reject Enlightenment optimism, or whatever can be meant by the demand to ‘replace capitalism with something nicer’. Not so much fun for an intellectual in that thin gruel.

This is as it should be. Our ‘capitalist system’, as we persist in thinking of it, doesn’t exist as one of a number of radically different options. As Kenneth Minogue put it (much more pithily than I did): ‘capitalism is what people do if you leave them alone’. The lack of specifics in the programmes of the Occupy movements – indeed, their lack of programmes – is a result of the exhaustion of credible alternatives. Post-’91, radical economics, as a galvanising, potentially popular basis for change, is mined out. As far as I can see, what we’re left with to fuel criticism and reform is old-time morality, but cut-off from much of the religious underpinning that gave it general meaning and applicability.

Apricot Jam, like the work of other honest and genuine writers marked by the Soviet experience, isn’t political polemic. It relates the experiences of individuals. As such it blows away the abstractions to reveal the lies and the violence that underpinned them. What’s more the stories come from all perspectives: my favourite is a potted memoir told as interior monologue by the epically effective Soviet general, Georgi Zhukov. One doesn’t just learn why people hated Soviet communism, one comes to understand why some felt huge loyalty to it.

However, Solzhenitsyn’s work doesn’t seem simply a warning from history, a sort of literary inoculation that will help stop such political experiments happening again (though it certainly may be this: A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, read as a schoolboy, haunts me still). What I find really interesting about it from today’s vantage point, is that it sets up the question of where we might go next. Once you’ve told all these individual stories, and once the story of the country they inhabited has been told, and for Solzhenitsyn, once your own story is coming to an end… the question that hovers at the end of the book is ‘what’s next?’. You won’t find Apricot Jam spoon-feeding you an answer – Solzhenitsyn is too much the artist for that.

For Solzhenitsyn, post-Soviet Russia is a moral wilderness, where people struggle to make coherent and decent choices. But the hope lies in individuals continuing to struggle: his characters may be repeatedly compromised but they’re simply not capable of escaping a sense of morality.

Apricot Jam, then, has special interest for us right now. Whether we choose to mark it or not, we in the West live in a post-Soviet world, one in which we are assailed by problems but surrounded by doubts. Apricot Jam contains a subtle, profound and damning critique of Soviet communism. However, whilst we can hardly help interpreting it as an implicit justification of liberal democracy, this certainly wasn’t the conclusion Solzhenitsyn himself came to. The truth of his observation, made in 1978*, has only become more pertinent:

I have spent all my life under a Communist regime, and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale but the legal one is not quite worthy of man either.

* Commencement address at Harvard University.

Behemoths (Four different ones)

Last week Mahlerman gave us some meaty musical Behemoths to munch on, so – having already covered the specky four-eyeses – I thought it might be apt to turn to those other playground unfortunates, the fatties.

Gobble-gut, garbage-guts, guzzle-guts or gully-guts – I leave it to Jonathon Green to list the many names we can call a glutton, but it seems that in the world of American jazz piano they insisted on Fats. I have two for you. First, here’s Thomas Wright ‘Fats’ Waller, a prodigiously gifted pianist from Harlem who copyrighted over 400 melodies – including the evergreen Ain’t Misbehavin’ – before his death in 1943. He was 39 years old and died from pneumonia on an eastbound cross country train in the vicinity of Kansas City.

Antoine Dominique “Fats” Domino Jr. was 15 years old when Waller died, but he’s still going strong in his eighties. Born and raised a native Creole speaker in New Orleans, he continues to put on and perform in post-Katrina benefit concerts. Here is an absolutely blissful Ain’t that a Shame. I defy you not to be cheered by it.

Mama Cass Elliot, contrary to popular belief, did not choke to death on a ham sandwich, but died from a heart attack in a London hotel room. Born Ellen Naomi Cohen she had a short, colourful life which included: a platonic marriage to a band mate, later annulled, in order to keep him out of the Vietnam draft; a non-platonic marriage to an heir to a Continue reading

Omg! Do you feel utterly powerless in our increasingly high-tech world?

A couple of months ago, our building suffered a series of power cuts due to a faulty circuit breaker. I hadn’t realized quite how much we depend upon electricity. The first outage struck at around 10.30 am. My laptop had about half an hour’s charge before it went dead. I found an old digital notebook which worked for a while… until that, in turn, ran out of battery power. My mobile phone was all I had left – and I needed that to make calls in the absence of a landline.

Almost immediately, I was struck by how bored and frustrated I felt without access to a computer. I went to turn the radio on, only to realize it wouldn’t work without power. I thought I’d make a cup of tea, but that wasn’t possible, so I turned on the tap to get a drink… There was a loud gurgling sound, and a few drops of water sputtered out. The other taps were the same. And the loos weren’t flushing either. Great.

I decided to go to the gym. The lift wasn’t working, so I walked down 8 flights of stairs to the car park. The electronic security gates were held open (rather unnervingly after the recent riots). At the gym, I was at least able to use the shower facilities. Returning to the car park, I was surprised at how dark it was. The emergency lighting (which lasts for three hours) had gone off. What I hadn’t bargained for was having to walk back up 8 flights of stairs in complete darkness. I used my mobile phone, but it did little to light the way. I had to feel for the riser of each step with my foot. It was not only dangerous, but very scary.

Once back indoors, I found a torch, though I was worried the batteries would run out. I trekked downstairs to the local shop to buy some more, as well as matches to light candles later. The staff at the Italian restaurant in the building were going home. They’d not only lost a day’s trade, but the perishable contents of their fridges – including gallons of ice cream.

When it got dark, I duly lit my candles. It was actually rather romantic watching the flames flickering all around the room. Less so the prospect of salad for dinner as well as lunch, and getting ready for bed in a non-operational bathroom. Luckily, I remembered a wind-up radio that I’d squirreled away in a cupboard – but I soon discovered the damned thing needed to be wound up every few minutes to keep playing – so I quickly gave up on that. When the power was miraculously restored at around 8.30 pm, I was utterly jubilant – until the next power outage, anyway.

All I can say is, at least I didn’t have to rely on an e-reader too. I am currently awaiting delivery of Bryan Appleyard’s (mysteriously delayed in the post) book from Amazon. Much like Mr A, I too am bothered by the internet cutting “not just attention span but one’s ability to live in and enjoy the real world.” Yahoo’s new omg! feature perhaps typifies this trend? Although it’s not just celebrity culture: treasures of art and nature are being turned into photo and video opportunities, and people being rated as social networking contacts. Meanwhile, mobile phones with language translating predictive text, universal QR codes and an increasingly virtual reality are set to unite us in a phony worldwide community. Our unique selection of apps will eventually define us to niche advertisers, potential partners and government agencies alike.

Call centre automated answer systems are one of the many ways in which we’re being increasingly asked to do everything for ourselves – as are online Q&A instructions (these days employed more often than not, instead of a human operator).  Of course, we still require generalist skills and knowledge to know what to do when technology fails us, along with a sense of humour, especially in the case of dysfunctional texting and voice recognition software.

The other day, I certainly required all the common sense I could muster to work out from many pages of troubleshooting tips that my printer was very definitely kaput. At Currys, I found the relatively new model had already been superceded by a wireless version. It took me a whole afternoon to upload the software, get the printer functioning and work out how to use it.

Then I went to dinner with an old friend who shared stunning iPhone images of his holiday in the Okavango Delta with me. Proof, if any were needed, that technology does have an upside too…

Book Review: Fire Season by Philip Connors

Elberry reviews Philip Connors’ much-hyped chronicle of a season spotting wildfires in New Mexico…

I came to this book via the usual marketing soundbites: masterwork, unforgettable, profoundly absorbing, absolutely compelling, and so on. Not many books can live up to such praise, and Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout (Macmillan)  falls short. While I enjoyed the book, I did so in a grudging and slightly pissed-off way, as having been defrauded of my time and attention. I had expected something on the lines of Tintern Abbey or Weekend at Bernie’s – a sublime, almost religious work of art. This was too much to expect.

It certainly has potential. Connors abandons the city for a summer in a fire lookout, Kerouac-style. He circles around his solitude, the sublime; and the day to day details of fire watching: clearing rat shit, calling in fires, crawling like the serpent across a snow drift; encounters with bears, hikers, lightning, fog. He also dips back into Kerouac, Thoreau, and the history of firefighting in the American wild.

Despite my disappointment, it’s a worthwhile, sound read. I was only really disappointed by the attempts to describe solitude and the sublime; these sections never moved beyond the obvious, not surprising since they have been so abundantly treated in, for example, Wordsworth, and there is little left to say. So, of a mystic hiker we read: Continue reading

Bernard Levin’s Guide to the Beat Combos of the Sixties

Key's Cupboard
Following the appearance of Bernard ‘Massive, unflagging, moral, exquisitely shaped, enormously vital, enormously funny, strong, supple, human, ripe, generous and graceful’ Levin in Nige’s post about the inflation of hyperbole in book blurbs, Frank remembers the great critic’s take on pop music…

Given that it was published in 1970, Bernard Levin’s The Pendulum Years : Britain In The Sixties is a remarkably clear-sighted view of the decade, and most of his observations and conclusions would hold good even with the benefit of forty years’ hindsight. But pop music (sorry, make that “pop-music”) was not exactly Levin’s strong point, though he makes a tremendous effort to address the phenomenon…

The growth of pop-music groups – many, no doubt, inspired by the gigantic commercial success of the Beatles to believe that the lightning might strike them too, if they only formed fours and began to perform, but many, also, clearly in the business of self-expression – was the most extraordinary phenomenon in the world of entertainment of the whole decade; long before its end there were literally thousands of them, in Britain and America, and though many flourished only briefly, many displayed surprising endurance, and in any case there were always ten to take the place of one which fell. Some were almost as famous, and successful, as the Beatles; some were known only to the most devoted aficionados. But all added to the atmosphere of the decade, and the isle was full of noises as never before, coming from, among others, the Rolling Stones, the Bee Gees, the Monkees, the Doors, the Cream, the Mothers of Invention, the Seekers, the Who, the Small Faces, the Pretty Things, the Animals, the Pink Floyd, the Scaffold, the Grateful Dead, the Tremoloes, the Family, the Supremes, the Holding Company, the Four Tops, the Led Zeppelin, the Shadows, the Exploding Galaxy, the Editors, the Fugs, the Gods, the Kinks, the Hermits, the Paper Dolls, the Breakaways, the Greaseband, the Casuals, the Amen Corner, the Big Sound, the Flirtations, the Herd, the Marbles, the Status Quo, the New York Public Library, the Hollies, the Foundations, the Electric Havens, the Four Seasons, the Bachelors, the Seychelles, the Love Affair, the Fifth Dimension, the Three Dog Night, the Equals, the Vagabonds, the Marmalade, the Mindbenders, the Moody Blues, the Mirettes, the Tuesday’s Children, the Plastic Penny, the Procol Harum, the Troggs, the Fruit Machine, the Union Gap, the 1910 Fruitgum Co., the Beach Boys, the Fairport Convention, the Vanity Fair, the Harmony Grass, the Aces, the Young Tradition, the Nice, the Dubliners, the Tinkers, the Fleetwood Mac, the Incredible String Band, the Web, the Little Free Rock, the Blodwyn Pig, the Liverpool Scene, the Spooky Tooth, the Third Ear, the High Tide, the Mamas and Papas, the Carnations, the Pacemakers, the From Genesis to Revelation, the O’Hara Express, the Pentangle, the Chickenshack, the Blind Faith, the Fourmost, the Searchers, the Four Pennies, the Bar-Kays, the Unit Four Plus Two, the Hedgehoppers Anonymous, the Applejacks, the Box Tops, the Edison Lighthouse, the Blood, Sweat and Tears, the Vibrations, and the Rada Krishna Temple.

The bulk of the output of all these, including that of the Beatles themselves, vanished, quite rightly, down the memory-hole of instant oblivion.