Monday, 28 November 2011

Electro Swung

A few friends of mine from the Goth world attended White Mischief a couple of nights before Halloween. White Mischief has been a predominately Steampunk event since 2008 but the last outing had (so I'm led to understand) a considerable dollop of music that has come to be called Electro-Swing, some of which, some of which I stress, I find myself quite fond of as well.

How people come across new genres and styles is always interesting. In my case I was sojourning with my parents over Christmas in 2008 and caught the festive edition of Jonathan Creek which featured in a garden party scene a trio of close-harmony singing ladies in vintage hairstyles. These were the Puppini Sisters whose Myspace profile I swiftly looked up. The song they were singing was 'Spooky', and they also did (and do) both covers of modern pop and classic songs from the swing and big-band era in a fairly staightforward style - though their version of 'Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy from Company B' is so fast, a full minute quicker than the Andrews Sisters', that some vintage fans can't take it. Some of their stuff, however, came under the category they themselves, lacking any other label at the time, referred to as 'swingpunk': music that took a swing-era idiom and updated it with modern rhythm and production. 'Crazy in Love', with its initial sample of 'Puttin' on the Ritz', was a prime example. Eventually I got around to buying a couple of their albums on Amazon, which, in its helpful way, suggested I have a look at White Mink/Black Cotton as well.
Obviously what caught my eye was the reference to the iconic ER Richée photograph of Louise Brooks, 'Kansas Cleopatra'. What caught my ear when I actually listened to it, however, was a number of pieces that, like 'Crazy in Love', melded vintage music samples (and sometimes more sophisticatedly musical motifs played in a vintage style) with contemporary instrumentation. In particular I found myself rather adoring Gry and FM Einheit's 'Princess Crocodile' and 'Jolie Coquine' by Caravan Palace. I now know that White Mink/Black Cotton was crucial in consolidating and spreading the whole idea of Electro-Swing beyond a few experimental tracks and turning it into a genre.

Of course it's begun taking off hugely and feeds into the burgeoning vintage scene as well. A lot of electro-swing is heavy and strongly rhythmic, and can be seen as a close relative of house or hiphop, but Caravan Palace and other bands do play real instruments. I've just come across Michael Biboulakis and Nina Zeitlin's 'Is That Too Much To Ask' which, as well as the heavy beat, features a clarinet, bass and trumpet/. The closer an interest you take in the music of the past, of course, the bigger the temptation is to adopt other aspects of the past's styles too, especially when there are pre-existing organs such as The Chap encouraging you to do so. Have a look at Caravan Palace's video for their second single, 'Suzy', to see how they succumbed. It's rather gorgeous.

'After an evening of Steampunk and Electro-Swing it's good to get back to Goth basics', commented a friend on Facebook after coming home from White Mischief, linking one feels with some relief to an online deathrock radio station. Other Goths can't get enough of the stuff; another friend talks of 'rescuing electro-swing from the house crowd'. I suspect it's the genre's tongue-in-cheek quality which appeals so strongly to the mischievous side of Goth as well as its creativity and references to the past, and elides very smoothly into other varieties of dark-tinged music such as Sepiachord and Dark Cabaret: compare both the sound and look of The Scarring Party performing 'No More Room' and the Diablo Swing Orchestra, for instance.

On its edges Electro-Swing goes very poppy, and shades into some of Caro Emerald's brilliant output, most notably 'That Man' which I've even heard being played on Radio Co-Op in the local Swanvale Halt branch; or The Correspondents who, I'm afraid, are slightly too soft for my tastes. This is bound to make Goth fondness for it a controversial matter in the scene. But we've been there before, and will be again.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Against Nature (1884), by JK Huysmans

I've just finished Against Nature, the great decadent classic novel which Oscar Wilde lifted into the narrative of Dorian Gray as the pestilential book which opens up to Dorian a world of sin and decay. I actually found it rather fun. Le Comte Des Esseintes's efforts to alleviate his boredom through obscure Latin literature, perfume-making and liqueurs, obstructed all the while by migraines and a gippy tummy, are amusing, bordering on the hilarious, provided you don't mind the overwrought prose (which the introduction assures us is an attempt to imitate Huysmans's French). It all seems faintly ludicrous - although real-life eccentrics have been known to go to parallel lengths in the pursuit of their enthusiasms - and Huysmans packs his anti-hero off back to Paris for a more sensible way of life at the end, though how well he will take to it is doubtful. A charming little confection.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Martyrs in Hackney

I thought I was never going to get to the Elevator Gallery, with only 20 minutes to go before it closed and White Post Lane in Hackney Wick winding darkly down from the station. Finally there was an A4 notice pointing the way and, just as I was again despairing, another which meant I did, finally, locate Unit 9 on the Hamlet Industrial Estate and the exhibition I'd come to see, having had to miss the opening night a few days before. 'Martyrs' looks at the theme of martyrdom and suffering for a cause - or just suffering - with especial reference to some of the more extreme stories of Christian saints. Some of the work on show was cathartic mental-illness art, all very well but nothing technically special. The highlights were the treatments of saints produced by Consuelo Giorgi whose lurid photography decorates the exhibition poster, and by Matteo Alfonsi. Their styles are very different but as both are Italian Goths you can guess where they're coming from.

Consuelo's images are ultra-glossy, brightly-coloured photographs with an awful lot of blood in them: the poster has St Apollonia in the process of having her tongue cut out by an unseen torturer whose arms reach from behind her. There is a rather witty statement in her picture of St Cecilia: Cecilia is patron saint of music and musicians, supposedly not-quite decapitated in a botched execution and left dying for three days, and if you go to the catacombs in Rome you can see the statue of her laid in the position she died in. Consuelo poses her Cecilia in the same way ... only lying on a piano with music ready. Matteo's saints are depicted in a strange, stylised pop-art style and look like they've stepped out of Slimelight moments before. I like his St Apollonia with her halo tipped with torn-out teeth; the only problem is that he's seen a pair of what he thinks are torturer's pincers and doesn't realise they are sugar nippers, but then I don't suppose he's ever worked in a small local museum with a whole box of the wretched things.

Despite all the blood and dismemberment, like the Catholic iconography they draw on, these Gothic treatments of saintly martyrs don't really involve any real pain; pain is hard to depict in any case, but these ladies (there is one St Sebastian in the show) are serenely beyond physical feeling. I'm not sure that's what happens to genuine saints.

Monday, 14 November 2011

We Shall Remember (most of the time)

At 9.20am on Sunday I opened up the computer file containing my Remebrance Sunday sermon, to find there were only two paragraphs of sermon there. God alone knows where the rest of it was; I'm now unsure I even wrote it. Consequently I had to busk it from a quarter-page of scribbled notes, not that it seemed to damage the occasion too much.

As I've said before Swanvale Halt doesn't have an outdoor war memorial and some of the congregation (including the children who are in uniformed organisations) were away taking part in the great civic extravaganza in Hornington. That notwithstanding, we had 100 people there yesterday morning; I don't know where they came from. Actually I do and none of them were there solely for Remembrance Sunday, though I've no doubt people made a special effort to turn out. Very good, anyway, and a good few children to lead our Act of Remembrance complete with Last Post. The organist played Crown Imperial as the recessional which really gave the instrument a going-over. Jocelyn's organ-ising always sounds magnificent but it only ever blows a gasket when he's playing it, too.

Going, Going, Goth

I was at Reptile again on Saturday evening, and it was quiet. There were a number of other things going on that night which diverted people elsewhere, but it was noticeable that the Minories was remarkably less busy than it was back in October, even taking into account the fact that I left early, as I always have to.

Somebody told me there that The Coven in Luton has closed, and another alternative rock night at a pub in, I think, Abingdon or somewhere that way is also coming to an end after fifty years as an off-centre music venue of one sort or another. Back in the capital, Vagabonds, another Goth night which has had a rocky time after moving from the very pleasant surroundings of the Barrowboy & Banker near London Bridge last year, is struggling on until New Year's Eve and then giving up too. The alternative scene waxes and wanes over time, and of course tough economic conditions also encourages a shake-out, but this is a lot to lose around the same point.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

St Seiriol's Well, Penmon

Here's something a bit nicer. On holiday in Wales I went to Penmon, on the eastern tip of Anglesey (or Ynys Mon as they insist nowadays), having wanted to go for a long while. This was the monastery of St Seiriol, one of those shadowy holy men of the Dark Ages who founded religious communities through the Celtic lands. It feels as though it takes a long while to get to, though Penmon isn't really all that isolated and Anglesey isn't all that rough. Before long there was a daughter settlement over on Puffin Island a mile or so out in the Irish Sea, and that must have been a bit more challenging, as though the monks felt life on the not-quite-mainland wasn't tough enough. The legend was that whenever the brothers fell out with each other a plague of mice would eat all their food, so perhaps Puffin Island was where they sent the specially fractious ones.

Today Penmon is an odd sort of place. You park in a rough car park and a rotund cove in a beanie hat toddles out of a hut to collect your fee. All around are the monastic relics, including ruins, a very grand dovecote, and the church with some more modern cottages built onto it around a little yard, and beyond them remains of quarry workings and derelict houses. Then there's a little path which takes you round the corner towards St Seiriol's Well.

This is one of the loveliest religious landscapes I've ever visited. The rock forms a natural enclosure, the well huddling beside them, and the remnants of what may be circular monastic cells scattered around. Were they the actual dwelling places of Seiriol himself and his early companions? Well, that may be wishful thinking - and certainly the well-house itself was substantially rebuilt in the 1700s - but it at least has the feel of those remote times. It is a bit neat and tidy, a bit like a theme park display of Dark Age monasticism, but there is a beautifully romantic sense of contact with antiquity. And, after all, St Seiriol did walk this greensward even if he may not have laid these precise stones.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Sad Day

My dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease about two years ago and since then the progress of the disease has been shockingly rapid, although looking back we realise he had the first signs of confusion, of something not being right, eight years ago. Last May my parents came to visit and stay with me for a few days, managing to negotiate the train journey from Bournemouth (not having done such a trip for forty years or more); today my mum decided she couldn’t cope any longer, and has booked dad into a room at a local care home with every expectation that he will not be back again.

Of course she feels appallingly guilty, but there isn’t any realistic alternative. She can’t manage, I and my sister can’t do it either, live-in help wouldn’t work, and dad now needs someone watching him all day and night. At Beech House he won’t be able to hurt himself or damage anything, and can either sit or wander as he wants, which is all he does at home. We will be able to take him out on walks and as the GP told my mum, ‘your relationship will actually improve’.

My relationship with my dad has never been terribly close, and the shame is that as I’ve got to an age and state in my life that I feel I could perhaps have got to know him better, that’s no longer possible. Despite not being a believer he was so proud when I was ordained, and I will try to remember that. Last year when mum had an accident and I had to stay and look after dad for a week was I think when I came to terms with the state he was in, so now I have a degree of equilibrium about it.

Doubt only sets in when I think about something that can’t be answered, which is the question of what is actually going on in his mind. Now and again I can have a short conversation with him that seems to make sense, before confusion takes over again, but what does confusion mean? Is it simply an inability to express or process thought, or is he really unaware of who is around him or where he is? He certainly seems to have forgotten after a couple of days back home after his last period of respite care that he was ever away. What is it really like for him? He can’t tell us.

"Somebody as intelligent as Jesus would have been an atheist"

You read this headline and the first thought is how completely self-parodic it is. Then you reflect and think, well, you know what Dr D is driving at. Jesus is, in many ways, a great sceptic, a great questioner of tradition and observance, a rationalist. You can understand a degree of fellow-feeling the good Doctor might experience when he contemplates our Lord.

And then you think a third time. The trouble with the proposition of ‘Jesus the Sceptic’ is that, if that’s how he appears, that’s how the Church represents him, because the Church’s representation of Jesus is all we have. We only have the Bible stories to judge his 'intelligence' by, the same Bible stories that insist he was the Son of God and came back from the dead. As Christian scholars have generally accepted for some time, there simply is no ‘real’ Jesus who can be pitted against the Jesus of scripture and tradition – at least, none we have access to – quite apart from how silly it is even to imagine as a game lifting a human being out of their own time and context and dumping them in another one. Jesus, in atheist terms, isn’t alive today and couldn’t be, because if he was he wouldn’t be the Jesus we think we know. But Dr D, nothwithstanding his other virtues, does have a simplistic approach to anything outside his field – especially, as here, historiography and philosophy.

On Not Being Able to Tell

The Family Service always worries me: even if the subject is heavy the children need to be involved in some way and it helps if it’s something people can’t remember us doing twenty times before. The games or illustrations usually involve me making something rather frantically on a Saturday afternoon after a trip to the art shop in Hornington.
This Sunday I began, got a couple of children up to the front to help me, and realised having got part of the way through that I’d left part of the stuff at home. This was after having had to start the service late because I thought I’d sent the reader the text being read, and discovering I hadn’t. There was no rescuing it: I had to send the youngsters back to their places and carry on as best I could. The congregation found my discomfiture very amusing – ‘It makes you human’ was the kind remark though when Mad Trevor referred to my talk, a very sketchy and knockabout take on the history of interdenominational relationships, as ‘the entertainment’, I felt I should have torn my alb. I really don’t like the idea of worship, even the more informal and unstructured kind, as ‘entertainment’ rather than something which directs us towards God.
Yet during the talk I mentioned how all human organisations can split and divide, from political parties to knitting circles, and how the fact that churches usually manage to keep going despite all the differences between their members is little short of a miracle. One lady told me her parents were nearly in tears having just begun re-attending their own church after a particularly acrimonious and horrendous falling-out. There’s no predicting where and how what you say is going to hit.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Hawksmoor (1985) by Peter Ackroyd

I recently finished reading Peter Ackroyd's Hawksmoor, a narrative woven around the figure of 18th-century architect Nicholas Hawksmoor and the very strange churches he built in the fast-growing London of the early 1700s. Poet Iain Sinclair had speculated ten years earlier that the Hawksmoor churches formed an occult pattern in the London landscape pointing to hidden and dark meanings. Peter Ackroyd took this idea and turned the historical Hawksmoor into Nicholas Dyer, secret Satanist intent on encoding his beliefs into the churches he was commissioned to build and consecrating each one with a blood sacrifice. Meanwhile, in our own time, the novel shows detective Nicholas Hawksmoor investigating a series of incomprehensible murders centred on those same churches and gradually becoming unhinged by his findings. Hawksmoor is an elusive, nightmare-like story in which nothing is really resolved, no answer provided for the mysterious interweaving and mirroring of times and events, and the only information we are provided with is that there is an unseen pattern behind the visible world which shapes what happens into recurring forms. The book is thin on plot, heavy on atmosphere, but moves compulsively towards a doom-laden conclusion. It reads very well, in a horrible way; a love-letter to Fate.