Return of the native

Really thoughtful article here from the BBCs Stephen Sackur on his return to the UK after 15 years of foreign jaunts.

Until I was 18 years old, I had never met a black man or woman. Nor, knowingly at least, a Jew nor a Muslim.

I was a farm boy born and brought up in Lincolnshire – among the whitest of white English counties.

I remember the stir in my primary school when a family of Vietnamese refugees was housed in Toynton All Saints.

We stared and we prodded and we mimicked because these were people with whom we could make no meaningful connection. They might as well have come from Mars.

They were not threatening, they were not aggressive, but to us they were overwhelmingly weird.

For the past 15 years I have been living far away from my homeland – in Cairo, Jerusalem, Washington and Brussels. And while I have been gone I know that things have changed.

Watching and Reading

Watched Shaun of the Dead last night, an Amazon Rental DVD. The only one of the three that arrived on Friday without a crack in it.

Shaun of the Dead

Still, it was an excellent, funny film and I recommend it.

I emailed Amazon on Friday night about the bust DVDs, and got an email back saying replacements were sent out on Saturday, which means I should get them Monday, which shouldn’t be too bad I guess.

Am reading Chaucer by Peter Ackroyd now. It’s interesting stuff and really well written, and delightfully short, so I will hopefully get it finished today.

Chaucer, Ackroyd

ITunes Frenzy

Just bought a few tracks on ITunes:

  • Razorlight’s brilliant new single Somewhere Else
  • A few tracks by mid ’90s brit poppers Shed Seven: On Standby, Chasing Rainbows and Where Have you Been Tonight?
  • The Boo Radley’s great Wake Up Boo!

There will proabably be more…

Rip It Up and Start Again

How good does this look exactly?

Cover of 'Rip it Up and Start Again'

From The Guardian:

The problem with popular culture is its popularity: if lots of people like something, it is by no means a guarantee that it is going to be any good. And the music that I loved as a teenager went, quite often, out of its way to be unpopular. What I liked in the years covered by Simon Reynolds’s book was, basically, everything that John Peel played (except, very guiltily, the reggae). The songs would cover such subjects as alienation, capitalist exploitation, misery, mal de siècle, totalitarianism, murder, suicide, the nuclear threat (quite a lot about that, obliquely or directly), every conceivable degree of angst, and a hundred other subjects whose lyrics were either too vague or distorted for their message to be clear – although one could be fairly confident that they were not about girls or fast cars, unless the girl concerned was Myra Hindley or Eva Braun. There were even a few about Northern Ireland for good measure.

Paradoxically, I was not alone: hundreds of thousands of people my age listened to Peel and read the New Musical Express, and, for a while, Sounds, which in print more or less endorsed Peel’s tastes – and, in the words of its unusually gifted critics, gave a voice to our own tastes, or gave good reasons for changing them. But the music of Public Image Ltd, the Gang of Four, Joy Division, The Raincoats, and innumerable other bands with names either sinister or bizarre or pretentious or any combination of the three, was in no way designed or intended to ingratiate itself with the mass of the record-buying populace. It was avant-garde, open to any musical possibilities that suggested themselves (within the limitations of the bands’ musical abilities, of which, anyway, they often made a virtue, if virtue is the word), united only in the sense that it was very often cerebral, concocted by brainy young men and women interested as much in disturbing the audience, or making them think, as in making a pop song.

But – or rather so – the genre (so multifarious that only the broadest use of the term is possible) resisted overt absorption into the national cultural life, which was a pity. Sales were respectable in many cases – quite respectable by today’s standards – but top 10 hits were rare and besides, outrageous success was for most not a priority. Simply being played on Peel was enough. When bands like Devo or Magazine got the chance to approach the mainstream via Top of the Pops, they would deliberately sabotage their chances with alienating mannerisms. They would not be asked back. “Stifled by acceptance” is one of the very many telling phrases Reynolds uses.

A lot of that music was rather good, and even if some of it wasn’t, the ideas behind it were very much worth airing. If you liked electric guitars but hated heavy metal and had even a hazy notion of what Derrida was about, it was a marvellous time. There were collisions, naturally. When The Ramones went on tour with Talking Heads, an unlikely combination in retrospect, the former were, as Reynolds puts it, “freaked out” that the latter read books on the coach, rather than do what bands are meant to do.

In 2001, Reynolds, in a piece for Uncut, wet his finger, stuck it in the air, and cautiously suggested that a revival of the independent music of 1978-1984 might be a possibility. He accepted the unlikeliness of the proposition: retro culture, happy to pillage anything it can be affectionately ironic about, could not cope with that period’s seriousness, let alone its sheer eclecticism.

And yet it has come back, first, in 2002, in the homage to Manchester’s extraordinary contribution to the scene in 24 Hour Party People , and then, two years later, in the shape of Franz Ferdinand, a group of clever young men who have obviously been listening to quite a few of the bands honoured in Reynolds’s book, and yet whose album, more than a year after its release, is still at number 35 in the Amazon charts, and has sold more than 2m copies. Even Franz Ferdinand’s cagey interview technique (“everything you do should have an air of subversiveness to it”, they carefully tell the Sunday Times reporter) pays homage to the attitudes of that era.

As Greil Marcus pointed out, and Reynolds acknowledges, the Situationists and Futurists may have provided the template, but the modern catalyst, though not the presiding genius which he might have wanted to be, was John Lydon; and to his enduring credit he did it twice, first by turning the Sex Pistols into a much more interesting beast than Malcolm Maclaren ever wanted them to be, and then by using his position to effect an aural and conceptual assault on conventional rock by forming PiL, which might not strictly have been at the very forefront of the avant-garde but which was as close to it as dammit.

Lydon may have been genuinely working class in a way in which other independent bands of a more political bent could only have dreamed, but he and Levine and Wobble, at their peak, used the studio as an instrument which would have satisfied the most rigorous conceptual artist.

For this, as Reynolds’s book amply demonstrates, was a fusion of art and music, or, more accurately perhaps, the co-opting of an artistic sensibility into the production of rock music – to the extent that “rock” itself became a dirty word, or the basis for the supreme insult: “rockist”. With this went a strong anti-corporatist streak, and when Buzzcocks (no “The”, please note) released their self-financed and distributed Spiral Scratch EP in 1977, bands were alerted to a new way of getting their music out. Reynolds makes even the business deals sound interesting.

With the bands themselves under the influence of so many ideas, it is hardly surprising that this book is, too. But commandingly so. In more than 500 pages Reynolds dissects the careers, and marks the connections and correspondences between, in my very rough estimate, at least 200 bands; and while in one sense I feel supremely qualified to review this, having a sizeable proportion of them in my own record collection and, moreover, having been to quite a few of the gigs he mentions, his scope is so vast that no one but the most ardent and committed fanatic is going to be able to check off every single one on their own personal list.

Whether this will appeal to a more general readership is another matter. The book certainly gripped me, and, apart from the chapter dealing with the New York scene – a rather indigestible collection of quotes from the major players – is unimprovable. With so much ground to cover, so many stories to tell and, moreover, so many contradictions to resolve (take, for instance, Green Gartside’s provocatively radical decision to turn his group Scritti Politti from a weird, experimental noise factory to a hit-making machine), it is a wonder he has managed to produce so coherent, illuminating and readable a work as this.

An influence, undoubtedly, is the rock press of the time. If people learned one thing from it, it was that good writing was a reliable indicator of good taste. You would assent to give propositions room, whatever your personal reservations, if the prose was good. And Reynolds’s prose is very good indeed. He follows in the line of descent from Lester Bangs to Greil Marcus to Ben Thompson: startlingly thoughtful, gracefully illuminating, in command of an anarchic subject because the will, the knowledge and the technique conspire to place some kind of order on the unorderable. I had never expected there to be a book on this subject; had I done so, I would never have dared hope it could be as good as this. But then, now that Reynolds has reilluminated the period for us, shown us how fascinating and rewarding it was, I begin to suspect that, properly done, it could hardly have failed to be as good as it is. And this is very properly done indeed. You might even like it if you don’t care for the music it chronicles.

In Defence of Microsoft

Thoughtful piece here by Vic Gundotra about Microsoft ( he work for them).

It’s currently in vogue to discuss the “End of Microsoft”. A stock price that has remained flat for some time, recent high-profile departures, repeated slips in schedule for major products, the success of companies like Apple and Google, the emergence of the web as a platform and other very compelling arguments are all used as evidence to point to the decline of Microsoft.

Yup. They are all causes for concern. No wait. Let me be clearer before someone thinks I’m being flip. These *are* very serious issues that we need to address and react to. I’m not blinded to the reality of the situation. I too get depressed when friends who I’ve worked with for years make decisions that indicate they believe that some other company offers them a better financial future. This didn’t happen as often in the old days.

This is Vic’s first major posting on his blog. I hope he keeps them coming.

New Books

Just bought 3 books for the price of 2 from Waterstones, my first book purchases for some time. Here’s what I got, along with a relevant review from The Guardian.

Small IslandAndrea Levy

Andrea Levy’s narrative switches between four protagonists. The first, Queenie, is Gilbert’s white landlady; they met during wartime when he came over as an RAF recruit. Returning on the SS Empire Windrush, he looks her up and takes a room in her house. Hortense, the Jamaican girl whom Gilbert married immediately before boarding the boat, arrives later to share his crumbling attic room; and Queenie’s long-lost husband, Bernard, finds his way back, a year after his demob, shortly after Hortense has taken up residence. The year is 1948.

The interaction between the couples is, to a certain extent, predictable, but a notable feature of the book is that the entire narrative and the stories within it clearly emerge from the memories of the period’s survivors. If ever there was a novel which offered a historically faithful account of how its characters thought and behaved, this is it. But the sheer excellence of Levy’s research goes beyond the granddad tales of 50-year-old migrant experience, or the nuts and bolts of historical fact. Her imagination illuminates old stories in a way that almost persuades you she was there at the time.

Her grip on the language of the characters is another surprise. There is an almost universal confusion in Britain about the nature of Caribbean dialects, and black authors reared in London or Birmingham have tended to reproduce the speech of every sort of Caribbean, regardless of region or class, as the same kind of pop music-inflected street slang, complete with missing consonants and apostrophised accents. Levy has no truck with this sort of gimmick. Instead, she creates a style which reproduces the rhythm and content of her characters’ speech. Even more impressive, she does the same for her English characters. Queenie sounds like a Londoner brought up in the early part of the last century. Bernard sounds like a man who has served in the Far East.

Levy’s immersion in the period seems an illustration of the fact that in recent years, 1948, marking the arrival at Tilbury of the Windrush, has taken on a new significance in the lexicon of Britain’s social history. A few years ago, the commemoration of this event sparked off a small explosion of interest in the consequences of mid-20th century migration. Artists and writers of migrant origin, especially Afro-Caribbeans, have responded to this historical platform with a new confidence and interest in exploring both their own roots and the circumstances of the time. The result is a growing conversation about the effects of Caribbean migration on British identity.

Levy’s authorial platform is balanced squarely in the middle of this conversation. The novel records some of the most un-pleasant racist aspects of the period, without displaying any sense of polemical intent, partly because her reliance on historical fact gives Levy a distance which allows her to be both dispassionate and compassionate. The history also offers an opportunity to construct the characters in patient and illuminating detail.

As you read on, however, it becomes apparent that her relentless layering of their personalities has a more subtle purpose. Hortense, for instance, is the least sympathetic character. Brought up with the consciousness that her “golden skin” makes her a superior creature in a country of darker skins, she is a village snob, insecure, narrow-minded, and more or less ignorant. Arriving in England with the expectation that it will be an upmarket version of her teacher-training college in Jamaica, she begins by despising the apparently feckless Gilbert and the circumstances to which he has brought her. She looks down her nose at working-class Queenie, and firmly rejects the notion that she has anything in common with the other slum-dwelling migrants. But she soon discovers that her precious qualifications have no meaning in the British education system, and that her status is precisely the same as that of any other black migrant. The revelation almost destroys her self-esteem, but it also sets her on a path to self-discovery. She ends by beginning to understand Gilbert’s strength, Queenie’s kindness and the sympathies she shares with them.

If I have a complaint about the novel it is related to Levy’s rigorous adherence to historical fact, which occasionally gives you the feeling that she has been so interested or moved by a particular incident that she’s manoeuvred her characters into the right place at the right time. For instance, Gilbert and Queenie are involved in a wartime incident where the US army attempts to impose a segregated seating plan in a local cinema. Gilbert resists and sets off a riot in which Queenie’s father-in-law is shot dead by American military policemen. The story is a truthful rendering of several recorded incidents, but in the context of the narrative it has an incongruously melodramatic feel. In much the same way, Bernard’s involvement in a mutiny in India, which, once again, fits with recorded fact, also feels, within the context of the book, a little over the top.

False notes of this kind, however, do not detract from the excellence of Levy’s narrative. Apart from everything else, Small Island is a great read, delivering the sort of pleasure which has been the traditional stock-in-trade of a long line of English novelists. It’s honest, skilful, thoughtful and important. This is Andrea Levy’s big book.

How We Are HungryDave Eggers

It is almost impossible to read Dave Eggers without the cult of Dave Eggers intervening. The hype surrounding this counterestablishment literary entrepreneur has spread so rapidly since the publication of his memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, that both iconic status and the inevitable backlash have been achieved within the space of five years.

His role as showman, publisher of the literary magazine McSweeney’s and cliquey philanthropist now well-established, there’s a chance that the focus will turn away from the personality and back to the writing: How We Are Hungry comes at an apposite point in his career, proving that beneath all the pop-lit posturing, Eggers can deliver the goods.

The man can simply write extraordinarily well. This collection of 15 stories, ranging from the one-paragraph Short Short Stories featured in Guardian Weekend to a 60-page nod at Hemingway, is inconsistent but intensely pleasurable to read. Despite a paucity of payoff and the odd blank experiment, Eggers is technically virtuoso. He can play with language and casually pin down psychological truth, while his pacing is so exquisite that he is more than capable of creating a page-turner in which next to nothing happens.

The collection starts with “Another”, a story of a middle-aged divorcee galloping through the Egyptian deserts and subjecting himself to the pain of the relentless jolting of the horse’s gait until he finally learns to absorb its rhythm. His search for more sights and further experiences is endless, and on he goes, disappointed but insatiable, streaming into the wilderness. It’s hard not to read these tales as miniature allegories, surreally humdrum fragments of life that encapsulate the human condition. Eggers’s characters, as the title suggests, are searching and almost uniformly hungry for intimacy, for meaning or foreign travel. Variants on the travelogue and road story provide the backbone for a collection that veers between hyperactive exploration and more meditative mental migration whose slower pace is equally compelling.

Eggers writes in a kind of formalised stream of consciousness, his prose eccentric and occasionally tricksy, but striking in its beauty. The horse in “Another” is “alive everywhere, restless, its hair marshy with sweat”, its breath emerging in “hydraulic bursts”. Light is vividly present: “Morning comes like a scream through a pinhole”; “living under that sun made me lighter and stronger, made of platinum”.

The author sometimes cannot resist extreme gimmickry: “There Are Some Things He Should Keep to Himself” consists of five blank pages. But the longer stories showcase a more accomplished and mature writer who can afford to junk the jokes and temper the experimentation in the sure knowledge of his own powers. “The Only Meaning of the Oil-Wet Water” is a superbly crafted long short story in which Pilar, a dermatologist, flies to Costa Rica to meet her friend Hand, an export from Eggers’s novel You Shall Know Our Velocity, in the knowledge that they’ll end up having sex, but uncertain what emotions will bind them beyond lust and friendship. Eggers sets animals speaking in cameo appearances, expresses his protagonist’s thoughts as a song, and punctures his own tension with narrative interventions: “There is almost no sadness in this story”; “The horses had no symbolic value”. But such eccentricities are skilfully placed in a story driven by anticipation.

Almost nothing happens to Pilar and Hand. As Hand points out, a man they’d met earlier could have come into their room to commit murder, but he didn’t. Eggers eschews any sign of a conventional plot in his determination to demonstrate that life can be mundane, disappointing and bewildering, and our search for symbolism and significance may be only that. “It was an uncomplicated day,” he states. To complicate the uncomplicated, his young Americans take their solipsistic quests out of their own country and search for answers everywhere from Scotland to Egypt to Tanzania.

The collection’s undoubted masterpiece is “Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly”. Thin-lipped 38-year-old Rita puts herself through physical torment to climb Kilimanjaro through the rain. As she progresses, the heartbreaking story of the children who have been carefully removed from her care drip-drips through the narrative in a series of bald statements. Eggers’s great skill lies in the statement as opposed to the understatement, his apparent dissociation only thinly disguising a core humanity.

How We Are Hungry is a triumph of both form and content and proves that beyond the intellectual pranks and the distracting cult of personality, Dave Eggers is the real thing.

Chaucer – Peter Ackroyd

…which I can’t find a review for at the moment…

Amazon DVD Rental

I joined the new (to the UK) Amazon DVD rental scheme this week. Here’s how it works:

Amazon take £10 a month from my debit card each month. In exchange, they send me 6 DVDs a month, I can have 3 at home at any one time. I also set up a rental list of DVDs I want to see, and as I return them, Amazon send me the next available one to me. All the postage is covered by Amazon, so it really does only cost about £1.60 per DVD.

I ordered the following for my first three this month:

  • Fargo
  • Kill Bill Vol. 1 and
  • Shaun of the Dead

Will update on how it goes. I have often thought I don’t watch enough films, and this is a great way to catch up on some really good quality ones – the selection available at Amazon is amazing and offers far more choice than you could ever get at Blockbusters or Choices or wherever.

Adobe Purchase of Macromedia

Jason Kottke provides a very thorough roundup of the various views being put forth here.

For background, here is the BBC online article:

Adobe buys Macromedia for $3.4bn

Shares in Macromedia have risen 10% on news its US rival Adobe is to buy it for $3.4bn (£1.8bn) and integrate its software with its own.

The agreement marks the latest move in the consolidation of the software industry. In December Symantec agreed to buy Veritas in a $13.5bn deal.

Under the terms of the acquisition, US-based Macromedia’s shareholders will own 18% of the combined business.

It will be run by Adobe’s chief executive, Bruce Chizen.

Better together

With the addition of Macromedia’s products – which include computer animation, and Dreamweaver and Flash web-design software, for use on the internet and mobiles – Adobe hopes to meet the need from businesses for more integrated software.

The deal will be an all-share transaction in which Macromedia shareholders will get 0.69 of an Adobe share for every share they own.

This represents a premium of 25% a share to Macromedia’s $33.45 closing share price on the US’ Nasdaq market on Friday.

Although Macromedia’s shares rose on the news Adobe’s were down more than 11% early in the day.

Some analysts see Adobe’s move as designed to strengthen its position against Microsoft, which is working on software that could challenge Adobe’s Acrobat document display software.

Separately, Adobe said it would buy back $1bn of its shares after the Macromedia deal was completed in the autumn.

Big deal

Microsoft and Adobe could go to head to head over office-document creation software for businesses, because Adobe wants a larger share of this market, analysts said.

Moreover, Macromedia’s web-design software is one of the leading products for creating websites and both Adobe and Macromedia are starting to put their products on mobile phones.

If Adobe’s and Macromedia’s cultures meld well, they could present Microsoft with significant competition.

“Management is quite capable, but I think it is quite a big deal to be swallowing,” said Robert Sellar, a technology fund manager at the UK’s Aberdeen Asset Management, which owns Adobe shares.

However, he added that Adobe does have a very good cashflow situation.

The company also has a large presence in the consumer market through the use of its Photoshop photo editing software, as well as a growing stake in the magazine and newspaper design business with Indesign.

“Customers are calling for integrated software solutions that enable them to create, manage and deliver a wide range of compelling content and applications – from documents and images to audio and video,” said Mr Chizen, Adobe’s chief executive.

The firm said Macromedia’s president and chief executive Stephen Elop will become president of worldwide field operations at the enlarged company.