Tuesday, July 29, 2008


If, back in 1995, one of us made a mixtape of British music and sent it back a decade, the recipient in 1985 would have been shocked, surprised and baffled at much of what they heard. Jungle, for example, was quite unforeseeable in the mid-80s, however many of its component parts were in place, and an album like Maxinquaye would have sounded, if not completely alien, then certainly unfathomable. Guitar music, so fertile a source of pop culture 15 years earlier, had begun its terminal decline (though anti-retroists Pulp, PJ Harvey and Black Grape were flying high in the charts), but there was much of interest and novelty to be heard in 1995.

The situation in 2008 is rather different. What contemporary music might have taken the late 90s listener aback? A friend of mine suggested glitch and microhouse, but (a) they are hardly new genres, (b) their sound is only a variation on previous genres of techno and ambient and (c) Akufen, Ricardo Villalobos and Isolee ain’t household names, not even in this household. Guitar music is in an unsalvageable rut – soporific, solipsistic, and utterly disengaged with the world around it – so that indie and AOR have become interchangeable terms. Dubstep is admittedly of its time – depressive, yearning, phobic, womblike – but its most obvious inspiration is Tricky himself.

The world that receives Knowle West Boy is different, therefore, to that which first heard Maxinquaye – different in that it is very much the same. Nothing has changed in the last decade; the world has not moved on. Contrary to claims that Britain climbed out from its furrow of conservatism when New Labour came to power in 1997 and strode into the twentieth century with its head held high, the country is now politically, attitudinally and aesthetically more conformist than at any time in living memory. Prejudices, especially around race and class, are nearer the surface now than they were in 1995. There is a lot more injustice to be angry about, and a lot fewer people who seem to be angry about it. As Tricky says in his interview with the Wire this month, “What have kids got to do except hang out? No youth clubs; kids hanging out on the streets are called ASBOs. I’ve seen a judge put a pregnant woman with two kids in prison; she was in court before me, she couldn’t pay her fine, he still put her in jail. He doesn’t get it, what it’s like to struggle.” Class politics may be off everybody else’s radar, but it’s back on the agenda for Tricky.

Maxinquaye is like most albums by brilliant, eccentric and popular black artists – cherished by those who remember it, forgotten by most, usurped in the popular mindset by the lumpen white dadrock so cherished by the middlebrow rock press. It was voted the best album of the year by Face, the Wire and the NME; the second best by Iguana, Rock de Lux, Spin, the Village Voice and Melody Maker; and the third best by OOR, Select and Rolling Stone. When Q magazine did their infamous Greatest Albums Ever list three years later, Maxinquaye was at number 95, one place below Cast’s All Change and 87 places below What’s the Story Morning Glory. In more recent polls, it hasn’t featured at all. As Carl at the Impostume wrote a while back, “He’s completely mainstream, or would be if it weren’t for the Britpop counterrevolution. In an alternate and much more interesting Universe he’s headlining Glastonbury instead of Jay-Z and Liam Gallagher is still roadying for the Inspiral Carpets.”

Tricky fans typically make one of two claims: that while every elpee since Maxinquaye has been written off by the critics (not, actually, quite true), that album is actually only one of several Tricky masterpieces; or that every Tricky album is brilliant except the last one. Here’s my claim: Maxinquaye is by far his best album. Pre-millennial Tension, Angels with Dirty Faces and Blowback are interesting (the singles off the first two are terrific), but they don’t come close to Maxinquaye. And his last one, Vulnerable, is pretty poor.

Portishead have already come back this year with an album that saw them turn into This Heat. It’s a decent enough record, but the transformation didn’t quite work because Beth Gibbons’s rather contrived emoting felt passé. Conversely, in maintaining the oblique strategies that have seen him become a marginal figure, Tricky has made an album that sounds more contemporary than anything else I’ve heard this year.

“Puppy Toy” is horrible – the sound of shit-faced shame, as Tricky the romantic gets kicked back by a girl at the bar, the nauseating sounds of a fruit machine ringing in his ear. “Bacative” views the same kind of night with a stung resignation – all shuffling rhythms, pizzicato strings, pedal steels, the jaded voice of Rodigan blankly recalling a night of violence in the casino, the inaudible croak of Tricky choking and echoing into nothing, an untouchable girl’s voice chanting “There’s no exit, I can’t stand still, keep on running.”

Jesus features throughout – as reluctant martyr, star-crossed dreamer, avenger, the prophet who has absented himself from the world – but the superstar of Knowle West Boy is the Knowle West boy himself. Using the same vibrato chords that opened Portishead’s “Roads”, a grazed guitar and pounding bassline lead “Council Estate” into an ecstatic portrayal of the vicious circle of life of a kid born into an estate.

In my mother's belly and I'm starting to kick
Nine months in the womb and I'm making her sick
Squeeze through the womb and I land in the room
Don't know who we are, can't really tell

We do the council flats and we do some jail
We don't like school, in a week we go once

Don't like the police, 'cos they kick and they punch
God bless what a stress and the stress comes at once
But remember, boy, you're a superstar

There won’t be a more vivid illustration of British society than that to hit the top 40 all year. Alas, it failed to dent the top 75. And Knowle West Boy is so culturally out of kilter with what’s going on in British music in 2008, it is unlikely to exceed its initial album chart placing of number 63. But never mind that he is 25 years older than his intended audience, his return and his egress from the disquieting Americana that began to surface on Blowback are cause for celebration. As he concludes his Wire interview,

It’s a good time for musicians. If you do yourself and be true to yourself you are going to stick out like a sore thumb, and you’ve got everything to gain because there is nothing out there.

"Overcome" from Maxinquaye

"Council Estate" from Knowle West Boy

Thursday, July 24, 2008


A wonderfully iffy video, complete with toe-sucking and petit filou yoghurt, for a little bit of buried indie treasure.

Cornershop, "England's dreaming"

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


The most famous transport diagram in the world is Harry Beck’s London Underground map. People who have never stepped foot on a tube train will recognise it immediately; people from other countries of the world will see its forms in the diagrams of their own metro systems. However much one might hate the sweaty, grubby Northern Line, one cannot resist its black, hemipterous trail across London; how its tail rises from Morden, its bloated body reclining over zone 1, its feelers stretching under Finchley and Golders Green.

As we all know, the London Underground map began life very differently. As the Metropolitan Line extended into embryonic suburbia, the need to design a diagram which could contain stations up to 60km apart became apparent. A 1925 pocket map demonstrated the challenge starkly: interchanges are vague, arrows vainly try to show extensions, and the whole thing is thoroughly cluttered.

In 1931 Harry Beck had only recently been made redundant from his job as an engineering draughtsman for London Underground. Nevertheless, he began to sketch out a design which, by 1933, had developed into a diagram still largely in use today.

In his book Metro Maps of the World, Mark Ovenden notes that at first Beck's diagram was hardly championed by London Underground: “The masterpiece ... was diffidently issued by a sceptical management in 1933. [But] the sheer simplicity of the diagram ... gained instant public approval. By using an octagonal grid it allowed lines to meet at right angles. In describing the relationship between lines, interchanges and stations, it gives you all the information you actually need when travelling underground; which stations follow which and where lines meet.”

Beck’s map is, in a way, the perfect example of modernist art: it fulfils a function, and its graphic appeal derives from its functionality. It is more aesthetically pleasing than its sprawling predecessors because it uses techniques (erasure of above-ground features, distortions of distances, straightening of lines, regularity of angles) which solve the problems of urban navigation. It has created a new reality for us, so that the earlier to-scale representations of the Tube just look wrong. Never mind what goes on above ground – this is what life looks like below ground.

Beck eventually achieved the recognition his diagram deserved. But spare a thought for the German draughtsman who Ovenden suggests may have made the first “brave step into pure geometry” to illustrate the Berlin S- and U-Bahns. A 1931 diagram in Ovenden’s book pre-dates Beck’s use of horizontals, verticals and 45 degree angles. This 1931 diagram (which I can’t find on the web) distorts the circle of the S-Bahn as a hub around and into which the lines of the U-Bahn flow. Stations are evenly spread out, their names neatly stacked in horizontal lines. It is not known who drew the 1931 S-Bahn, but they should sit alongside Beck as the original cartographers of 20th century city transport.


Modernism is seen by the parochial as a particularly European sensibility: a fanciful notion of the sort with which equable Englishmen needn’t trouble themselves. But as we have seen, Beck’s common-sense diagram is a superlative modernist work. It is doubtful whether Beck (and his German counterpart) was familiar with Eight Red Rectangles or Suprematism or Black Square, but Kasimir Malevich’s Suprematist paintings derive from the same vision as the Underground maps: that forms, rather than objects, should take precedence.

The development of photography in the 19th century had forced artists to look beyond objective representation, and Suprematism took Cubism’s interest in abstraction to its logical conclusion. Malevich later recalled:

In the year 1913, in my desperate attempt to free art from the ballast of objectivity, I took refuge in the square form and exhibited a picture which consisted of nothing more than a black square on a white field. The critics and, along with them, the public sighed, "Everything which we loved is lost. We are in a desert .... Before us is nothing but a black square on a white background!"

By using a limited palette of shapes and colours to paint pure forms, Malevich strived for an art of "pure feeling" which went beyond the banalities of representation. Malevich lamented that "the square seemed incomprehensible and dangerous to the critics and the public ... and this, of course, was to be expected". But some early critics recognised the revolutionary impact of Suprematism. Ernst Kallai wrote of Malevich's work in the 1927 Great Berlin Art Exhibition, "it is quite difficult to imagine what further development in painting is possible beyond what has been achieved."

This is certainly the impression I got when I looked round the From Russia exhibition at the Royal Academy earlier this year. We went on a Saturday afternoon, having spent the previous evening at the Duchamp / Man Ray / Picabia show at the Tate Modern. Aside from the Surrealists' dream-visions of psychic space, it does not appear that art has advanced beyond Suprematism and Dadaism. With no political programme to pin its flag to, the postmodern art world is immersed in an endless rehash of old questions and debates. Our age is not so much postmodern times as premodern; what we need is another Malevich or Duchamp to wake us up.

Suprematism rendered the specialist artist irrelevant, and its legacy lies in the aesthetics of diagrams, pictograms and practical graphic design. Malevich suggested that "the appropriate means of representation is always the one which gives fullest possible expression to feeling as such, and which ignores the familiar appearance of objects." Harry Beck unwittingly translated this for Mass Transit Railway passengers: "If you're going underground, why do you need bother about geography? Connections are the thing".

Almost all metro maps use Beck's clean, geometric model, and almost all are informed by the "liberating non-objectivity" of Suprematism. Malevich's own home town of Kiev has a diagram representing "the existing three line system common across the entire former Soviet bloc". Moscow's diagram does away with lines in favour of "beading" - i.e. just showing the stations and interchanges. The Buenos Aires and Montreal diagrams favour a black background. Rio is still able to illustrate its subway alongside the scenery of Sugarloaf Mountain and Ipanema beach. Along with graffiti, these diagrams are the most democratically consumed works of art on the planet.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008


Good news for a bad world - Darling Vicarage has returned to our cybershores! Her comeback post is called "historical materialism and ljubavi". Let me put that into context for you. Grace Jones is a true legend, and her devoted fans have been waiting for a new album for nearly twenty years. Grace Jones has named her comeback album Hurricane. Hardly in the same ballpark as historical materialism and ljubavi is it?

I shall keep my lips sealed about her taste for Balkan Europop and Alphabeat, and refer you instead to this (a terrific oldish post about Rodin's "Burghers of Calais," which DV took me to see on my birthday) and this (an intriguing newish post - the first, I hope, in a series about Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie's Lost Girls).


She was in town, driving down a hilly street of frame houses, and saw a man sitting on his porch, ahead of her, through trees and shrubs, arms spread, a broad-faced blondish man, lounging. She felt in that small point in time, a flyspeck quarter second or so, that she saw him complete.


She saw something out of the corner of her eye. She turned her head and nothing was there. The phone was ringing. She decided to find an optometrist because she thought she'd seen something a number of times, or once or twice, out of the corner of her right eye, or an ophthalmologist, but knew she wouldn't bother. The phone was ringing. She picked it up and waited for someone to speak.


A doppelganger is a living ghost. In Norse mythology, it precedes the living person, seeing everything that happens to him or her in advance, so that one is forever in the shadow of one's double. When we see it, we are not sure whether or not it is alive, animate, whether it is ahead of us or behind us. Schelling and Freud thought it was a psychic manifestation of something which should have remained hidden or repressed, but which has burst through to haunt us.

The strange, malformed geekish man-boy that Lauren Hartke finds upstairs in the holiday home she recently stayed in with her dead husband in Don DeLillo's The body artist (quotes above in italics) is such a figure: a primitive being which, by tics and splutters, articulates the brokenness of her relationship. The blond man on the porch turns out to be a paint can placed on board that was balanced between two chairs.

I might write more about The body artist soon. In the meantime, via Run Away Home, here's a three-part public information film from the late 70s. Its moral (all PIFs have one, after all) is dreadfully neurotic and fatalist whichever way you look at it (anything less than an obsessive attention to perfection will get you killed OR the perpetual search for perfection will get you killed - either way you can't win). Our shadowy superego will be forever on our tail, waiting for us to make a mistake, always judging us, and leaving us for dead when the time comes.

Night Call - part 1
Night Call - part 2
Night Call - part 3

Monday, July 07, 2008


So, Robin Hood Gardens will be demolished - none of us can be too surprised about that.

My immediate query is whether the existing tenants will be guaranteed Council tenancies elsewhere in Tower Hamlets. It would surely be wrong to place them in the hands of the market, yet if they are prioritised to the top of the Housing Register, what about the other people in TH who need Council housing? The argument for keeping RHG was, after all, as much pragmatic as aesthetic, though my recent summery trip to the two blocks was something of a revelation after my first visit earlier in the spring.

I had assumed the demolition would mean that Hunstanton School was the last relic of the Smithsons' architectural career. But apparently they designed and built a country retreat in Wiltshire:

The Smithsons bought the property in 1958, part of a group of farm buildings including a stone cottage that had been served with a demolition order. Instead of razing the existing building, the new two-storey pavilion is superimposed on parts of the old structure. The old stone doesn’t just give texture to the new building - it also makes us look at the past with fresh eyes, as old parts are found in surprising places. A massive chimney wall - once the end wall of the cottage - now cuts through the upper and lower living spaces. The outdoor terrace was once inside the old house, so that a cottage window is now set in the garden wall to playful and slightly surreal effect.

The remains of the original cottage not only provide a framework to anchor the new wood and glass structure, they also root the new building in the local history. It is a wonderful illustration of the Smithsons’ ‘as found’ theory, where instead of the earlier modernist pursuit of gleaming newness, the architects reuse and reinvent the existing.

The startling aspect of Solar Pavilion is its utter basicness.

A few years earlier, in 1956, for the seminal pop art exhibition This is Tomorrow at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, the Smithsons contributed Patio and Pavilion, a shed made of second-hand wood and a corrugated plastic roof. They intended it to be read as a symbolic habitat embracing what they considered basic human needs - a piece of ground, a view of the sky, privacy, the presence of nature. Solar Pavilion embodies such thinking about the fundamentals that nourish not just man’s physical but also spiritual needs.

And thus a new genre is born : let's hear three cheers for Bucolic Brutalism!


EAST MARSH, HACKNEY MARSHES - a city park to be replaced by ... a city park



Among the tasks of a politics of morality [is] to work incessantly toward unveiling hidden differences between official theory and actual progress, between the limelight and the backrooms of political life.
- Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002)**

Two years ago, on 6th July 2006, the International Olympic Committee announced that London had won its bid to host the 2012 Olympics. The following day, 52 people were killed after four men detonated bombs on London transport. The attacks were seen, somewhat bizarrely, as a response to the Olympic announcement. The bombers had tried to divide us, but they had failed. We were united, and the Olympics proved it.***

Two years on, and things feel rather different. The collapse of the property bubble has made developers question how viable some of the biggest capital projects will be. Some are getting thoroughly cold feet about the greatest spectacle on earth. Our Olympic resolve is being severely tested.

The developers are not the only ones who should be worried. As Panos Garganas explained at Marxism on Saturday, the legacy of the Olympics is never as bright as the organisers make out. The total cost of the 2004 Athens Olympics was €13bn, around three times the annual budget of the Greater London Authority. It contributed to a national budget deficit of more than 3%, which caused the European Union to intervene with “austerity measures” – i.e. privatisation and cuts to public services. The Greek government has responded with some rather squalid financial practices (using state pension funds to buy dodgy bonds, that sort of thing). And it’s not just the accounts which are seamy – Athens’s air is now the most polluted of any city in Europe.

In Beijing, meanwhile, 1.25m people have lost their homes in order to make way for this year’s event (see here). Many locals even give the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, usually noted for leaving its host city a pretty decent legacy, a muted response).

So what can we expect for London? We are promised more jobs, more housing, better sports facilities (and, therefore, better health) and a sustainable environment. We may live in hope, but the portents aren’t good. Much of the construction workforce is being imported from Europe and, while there will be some employment created during the Games themselves, much of it is likely to be low-paid and short-term. Moreover, the dislocation of local business to make way for the Olympic sites has led to 209 businesses (with 4964 staff) being displaced from East London, and 25 companies going out of business altogether. This is reminiscent of the disaster capitalism that Naomi Klein so epicly describes in The Shock Doctrine.

Things don’t look much better for housing either. Most Local Authorities sacrifice affordable (and, God forbid, public/social) housing when faced with the bright lights of a property developer’s mission statement. The developers have loosely promised between a third and a half of housing in the Stratford Village to be affordable, yet apart from the fact that the rising cost of land in East London will inevitably force all rents up, the Chief Executive of the Olympic Delivery Authority, David Higgins, announced last week that the overall number of homes will reduce from 4,200 to 3,300 as a result of the credit crunch. We can expect further statements like this in the months to come.

I don’t know about the increased health benefits of hosting the Olympics, but I tend to agree with John McLoughlin (the other speaker at the Marxism meeting) when he notes that research has consistently shown that sitting on the couch, drinking lots of beer and watching the high-jump does not make you any healthier (the McDonalds sponsorship stickers on the Olympic Wall – see above – are hardly inspiring either). And much of the funding for existing sports projects around the country are being siphoned off to pay for 2012 – one guy from Leeds had seen the budget for his small sports group decrease from £4,000 last year to £500 this year. But if the new stadia and facilities are to be used by the public after the summer of 2012, they will have to fight for them. As a BBC London report has noted recently, there is no guarantee that Olympic facilities stand the test of time.

But perhaps we should not be downhearted. After all, Olympic Games tend to be remembered for the one-offs, the things that break the illusion of the spectacle. The actions of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Games in Mexico illustrate this perfectly. This, rather than the bland rhetoric of the IOC, is the vision we should aspire to in 2012.

* the phrase used by the Greek press to sum up the 2004 Athens Games.

** the frontispiece to the Games Monitor website - a useful tracker of all things Olympian

*** There is an interesting parallel here to the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, which the USA famously boycotted. The 7/7 bombers were driven to blow up themselves and 52 commuters in part by the US-UK invasion of Afghanistan. The reason for the US boycott in 1980 was … the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.

(All photos, except the black power salute, from this Flickr pool)


“When we hear debates about Ireland’s high-cost base and an alleged squeeze on profits, let’s remember – it has little to do with wages.”

Unite’s report into Irish wages and profits (found via Lenin’s Tomb) busts the myth that economic growth is being hampered by high wages. In fact, Irish companies make around €46,000 of profit annually out of each employee. The growth of profits has recently outstripped wage growth in the non-financial sector by more than 2:1, in the banking sector by 2.5:1, and in the business sector by nearly 3:1. The transport and communications sector has experienced "extraordinary profit growth", outstripping wage growth by nearly sevenfold.

Although British firms fare less well, they still squeeze an average of £18,000 out of each worker – that’s not far off the average annual salary in the UK.

Clearly profits are achieved by paying workers far less than the value they create. But, as Costas Lapavitsas described at Marxism on Saturday, modern capitalism exploits workers twice over. As a result of stagnating wages during the last decade, many people cannot afford to buy consumer goods from their salaried income alone (the privatisation of public services means people often cannot afford even the basics). But a neoliberal economy requires consumers to buy commodities with gusto (witness Bush’s exhortation to a traumatised public after 9/11 to “keep spending”). The gap between income and expenditure has therefore been filled by credit – lots of it.

Financial institutions have made their profits by selling individuals credit and enabling them to buy assets. The fees and interest payments associated with these transactions have provided banks and mortgage companies with their profits. But in recent years (since around 2001), banks have increasingly sold loans and mortgages on quickly to other organisations, who buy them using cheap credit. Because the banks do not hold on for the loans for long, there is less interest in assessing individuals’ credit-worthiness. This murly, barely-intelligible circulatory system has come back to bite the financial industry.

Financial institutions would use cheap credit to buy new securities. Still other financial institutions would combine several of these securities to create even more complex, “synthetic” Collateralised Debt Obligations, which give their holders the right to interest accruing on the earlier securities, and so on. In this baroque and opaque world, fuelled by cheap credit, it did not take long before just about all the major financial institutions across the world found themselves holding securities that contained bits of subprime mortgages.

What was originally a small sickness within the US economy grew enormously because of the way capitalist credit works. Since it has spread so widely—assets being created on the back of other assets that ultimately go back to the subprime market—the valuation of bank assets, and ultimately bank solvency, has also become deeply problematic.

The sub-prime crisis will hurt the financiers, but it will hurt the average or low earner more. Unless somebody somewhere can create another bubble to absorb the exploding property bubble, it is likely that the phrase “negative equity” will return to our lexicon before too long. Millions and millions of people who were persuaded to buy too much cheap credit will lose many of their assets. We should feel sorrier for these people than for the City boys and girls who will fall flat on their arses as a result of moronic decision.

But the current crisis is not the result of individual or corporate errors as such. It is the fault of the system – neoliberalism, of course, but the capitalism structure itself. Capitalism has evolved so that a small number of massive global corporations can invest using their own retained profits, or other forms of loans where necessary. Now that the banks have been left to make their profits from individuals, they have, as Lapavitsas points out, “an almost inbuilt incentive to create bubbles.” The generation of profits from the spectral world of finance, rather than from direct production and accumulation, is a dangerous game whose consequences we all may suffer.

Sunday, July 06, 2008


"In Italy, the audience would start arguing during our concert," says Hosono. "You had these very serious-looking men with beards and long hair, having a symposium about our music while we were playing." "They looked like Greek or Roman philosophers," says Sakamoto. "It was so funny."


Thursday, July 03, 2008


I really am sorry for the inactivity in these 'ere parts. I have plenty to write at the moment, plenty of posts in progress, but I've been lucky enough to have had wonderful people distracting me with wonderful birthday celebrations during the last few days. Give it a few days and I should have something to say on the Thames Gateway, and on ideas of madness too.

In the meantime, we have a feast of lectures and discussions to look forward this weekend in the shape of Marxism 2008.

A while ago, I wrote a little piece for (get ready for this) the Ipswich Hospital Radio magazine (of which my step-dad is editor) about how much more exciting history would be at school if we employed older people to speak to students about their experiences during the twentieth century - that way, we might hear a bit more about real, lived history, rather than the sanitised version that makes up the usual syllabus. I suppose this would be called "history from below". Well, tomorrow evening Christian Hogsbjerg is speaking about how the journalist and Marxist theorist CLR James contributed to our ideas of "history from below". I know little about James (Christian introduces him succinctly here), but the idea of a rebellious middle-class Trinidadian writing and fighting in a Britain caught up by Mosley's fascists and the CP's Stalinism intrigues me.

Barring fire, flood, disaster or Lambeth Housing Services, DV and I will aim for an 11.45 start on Saturday to see Lindsey German, Sally Hunt and Melissa Benn discuss women's liberation - which should be interesting, given the recent facile debate about so-called positive discrimination (for more on this see here). I'll go to the debates on the Olympics and the credit crunch too I think. But alas, birthday celebrations (I spread these celebrations as far as I can, you know) will prohibit me from going to the John Hegley gig in the evening. John is really, really wonderful - if you're anywhere near SOAS this Saturday evening, go and see him.

A Federer-Nadal tussle and a woozy head are likely to disable me somewhat on Sunday. But debates on Bolivia, economics, abortion, Morris, Orwell, Chile and (oh!) Miles Davis will surely lift me from hungover self-pity.

The whole thing looks terrific. Looking forward to meeting kindred bloggers. Meantime, here's a hopeful-regretful-alienated-attached hit for the summer...

XTC, "King for a day