Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Merry Christmas!

Invader gets approximately festive in a group exhibition at Lazarides on Rathbone Place, unleashing a simultaneous balloon invasion. All the very best for 2010.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Hair today

A little over a year ago I wrote about Belgian band Hooverphonic for Little White Lies magazine. Not long afterwards, lead singer Geike Arnaert quit the group.

Now main songwriter Alex Callier is back with a new project, a very different sound and one of the worst band names ever: Hairglow. Hooverphonic's psychedelic feel has been replaced by a very '80s sound; Callier is programmer, producer and mixer here, and has taken over the vocals, a move that always seemed to be on the cards. The trippy lyrics (Hooverphonic album titles include Blue Wonder Powder Milk and The President of the LSD Golf Club) have given way to more mainstream pop concerns: song titles include You're the One, Is It Love, I Do Love You and One Night Stand. No doubt we'll hear from Arnaert soon.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

This used to be the future

I must recommend pop documentary Synth Britannia, which screened (four times!) on BBC4 over the weekend and is available on iPlayer until 26 October. Not only is it the best programme I've seen on the scene director Ben Whalley tracks loosely from The Human League to the Pet Shop Boys, but it boasts some amazing archive footage of England in the 1970s and '80s. The visuals are beautifully assembled, almost as if remixed with the music.

Talking heads include Daniel Miller, Phil Oakey, Alison Moyet and Vince Clarke (all very good), plus there's some great footage of Shoreditch in the period (and now). John Foxx, who comes across very well, talks about how he moved from Lancashire to find something 'sinister' in this then-decrepit area built on plague pits.

While Whalley focuses on British synth pop's alienated pioneers - individuals who disparately formed a movement - there's less room for their decline, and none for their influence, unfortunately. There is, of course, a lot of Ballard.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Get your texts out

Sampling, of course, has had its place in pop music for some time. In art or literature it's usually couched in the form of homage, but a few of my favourite authors seem to have taken to dropping in quotes, and more, in their books as a form of literary parlour game. Though Geoff Dyer's Paris Trance was described by Tim Pears as 'A Tender is the Night for the ecstasy age' on its cover, Dyer took instead to dropping lines from Fiesta (The Sun Also Rises) by Ernest Hemingway among his pages. 'It was amazing champagne' (p120), 'He took a big gulp of coffee...' (p218) are among the book's handful of what Dyer refers to, typically engagingly - and in his engaged manner - as 'samples'.

Arthur Phillips notes of his latest, The Song is You: 'beginning with its title (Kern-Hammersmith), this book incorporates in its text several song names'. He namechecks such estimable - and notaby UK-centric - sources as the Beloved, the Blow Monkeys, David Bowie, of course, Leonard Cohen, the Dream Warriors, EMF, Haircut 100, the Pet Shop Boys, Swing Out Sister and They Might Be Giants in his book of pop voyeurism.

And now The Escape, by Adam Thirlwell, 'contains quotations, some of them slightly adapted, from works by WH Auden, Mel Brooks, Alfred Hitchcock, Groucho Marx, Marcel Ophuls, Saïan Super Crew, Tupac Shakur' [my editing, again, of his much longer list]. Considering its form, verging on pastiche of the elderly lothario's antics in a generic mittel-Europa spa, there's also Saul Bellow, Bohumil Hrabal, Ladislav Klíma as well as Mann, Nabakov and Tanizaki.

Most appropriate of all, though, is probably the quote from Milan Kundera on The Escape's cover - and perhaps most important to the potential buyer of this very readable work. Credit, also, the book's designer, who seems to have spent some time matching the breasts of the cover's model with the description of the novel's gamine central character, Zinka: 'Her nipples were long, and almost black, with stained pools of areolae.'

Friday, 18 September 2009

Pocketful of riches

Two new French films reflect the flipside of long movies. Born in '68 examines the legacy of that year's protests on the next generation while Rien dans les poches ('empty pockets') takes a 17-year-old post-punk popstrel and follows her through to her forties. So, roughly the same time span, just a decade later.

The two movies touch on some of the same themes: the Mitterand and Chirac years; the threat of the far right and, notably, AIDS. You might expect Born in '68 to be the weightier, considering its starting point, but it struggles; director-writers Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau fail to find convincing parallels between the revolt of the late '60s and the fight for access to HIV drugs a generation on. And while their hearts are very clearly close to the latter battle, they fatally lose their sense of humour at this point in proceedings.

Both films are nearly four hours long and focus on a central female figure but Emma de Caunes' turn in Rien dans les poches hopelessly outstrips vapid model Laetitia Casta in terms of presence. Born in '68 seems to think that ensuring Casta looks stunning on screen throughout is enough to keep us hooked, but it makes everything that passes look like a shallow fashion spread.

Conversely, and somewhat ironically given its early setting among TV shows and cover shoots, Rien dans les poches feels much more real. Even its fictional pop songs are spot on. Director Marion Vernoux says she wanted to make a 12-hour film originally so this is virtually a trailer; I would happily have more of its world of Plastic Bertrand and Rubik's Cubes. Best of all are the performances, notably de Caunes, who's never less than watchable, but watch out too for producer Alain Chabat, best known over here for his roles in comedies (I Do and The Science of Sleep), as a wonderfully understated drag queen.

Vernoux's film is reminiscent of some of the best episodic family TV dramas; BBC2's adaptation of Tim Pears' In a Land of Plenty springs to mind. She makes us care about the characters and shows, rather than telling. So avoid Ducastel and Martineau's dry thesis and turn instead to the much more fun Rien dans les poches.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

May the cube be with you

Late notice, I know, but the Invader exhibition at Lazirides on Rathbone Place is due to finish; the website variously has the closing date as 12 or 17 September. The show features some of his Rubik's Cube versions of classic album covers and, as I mentioned last month, it's heralded another wave of alien sightings in the capital, the most stunning of which is behind the Holiday Inn on Old Street.

Monday, 10 August 2009

East meets East

I love these colourful pictures by BR1. As a statement on the Wooster Collective site makes clear, these images are especially appropriate for the Brick Lane area. In breaking news, I'm happy to report a Space Invader sighting at The Foundry, on Old Street. Welcome the new aliens, as it were.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Walls of nothing

I'm quitting Shoreditch soon but before I go I wanted to commemorate some of the most popular graffiti sites in the area. It's somewhat minimalist, as I've deliberately caught them when they've been painted over, but aficionados will no doubt recognise these street art hot spots.

Unfortunately this is what the area is going to look like as it becomes increasingly developed and landlords take greater interest in keeping their properties pristine as rents go up. I began photographing graffiti in the area nearly one-and-a-half years ago; I suspect EC2 will be almost unrecognisable in another 18 months.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Your Song/myPod

I’ve just started American writer Arthur Phillips’ fourth novel The Song Is You, which is published in Britain by Duckworth. Phillips’ first novel, which shot him to fame in the US although it was largely overlooked here, was the lovely Prague. About a group of bright young American expats, Prague is set in Budapest; the characters just wish they were in Prague.

Phillips is the sort of writer I would aspire to be like. Of course we’ll none of us ever write like Dostoyevsky or Proust and, among contemporary authors, I could never be as disarming as Geoff Dyer, as fluent as Michael Chabon, as out there as Haruki Murakami or as sharp as Douglas Coupland (and certainly never as clever as David Foster Wallace). But – if I could write really well – I’d want to be as bright, witty and warm as Phillips.

I haven’t got very far, but The Song Is You has already captured the role of music in our lives brilliantly – especially its cathartic qualities. I love having my iPod on shuffle when walking in London and nothing beats that moment when an uplifting song intro comes on, the sun breaks through the clouds and the crowds part in front of you. (In the main I’m not a great advocate for being plugged into music when wandering around as you can miss little glimpses of conversation.)

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Shoreditch: one neighbourhood under a rainbow

It's the last one I'm most worried about.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Look East

Kuniyoshi at the Royal Academy is probably one of the best major art exhibitions so far this year. If you missed it you could head instead to Curtain Road, EC2, for some inspiration, including a touch of Hokusai.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Weekend makeover

Contractors arrive on Monday morning to discover their plywood hoarding is looking a little more colourful than when they left it. Laser 3.14 is back too, by the way…

Friday, 29 May 2009

City scents - or, just for the smell of it

1. There are those who contend, with some justification, that London stinks but there are some scents that make up for it. Probably my favourite London smell is produced by the Costa Coffee Roastery just outside Waterloo – exactly what you need to brace yourself on a gloomy journey into work.

2. When I lived in Battersea, I was often met by a warming malty smell as I left home in the morning, presumably from the Young’s brewery in Wandsworth.

3. The hot food at BLT Deli on the corner of Great Eastern Street and Curtain Road always smells lovely although, oddly, I’ve never eaten there. I think I was put off by the idea of a roast beef and Yorkshire pudding wrap – with all the trimmings! That can’t be good for you.

4. A popular one, I think, is the scent after a summer rain shower. Similarly, there’s the slightly fuggy damp smell of the wettened paths along Richmond riverside when the tide goes out.

5. Certain London Underground stations – notably the corridors to the Central line at Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Circus, strangely – smell as if someone’s cutting plywood with a jigsaw (perhaps it’s the brakes). I have to admit, I really only like this one because it reminds me of the Paris Métro.

6. The smell of laundry from the B&Bs between my flat and the station, and the dry cleaner's next to work.

7. When you can smell the sea at the South Bank.

Alien invasion thwarted

A couple of these have gone missing from Brick Lane in the last few days. According to the Space Invader website, there are more than 100 of the tiled extra terrestrials around London, though perhaps more are now on eBay?

I've picked up some street art myself in the past (deliberately left out by MisterMN – more of that another time), but these had become part of the environment. I doubt the council or developers can be blamed as the pieces had been up for some time. It's inevitable that street art will become a target as it becomes more collectable – a victim of its own success – but the loss of these likeable visitors does take some of the colour from the area.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

The collector collector

There comes a point where documenting graffiti can become obsessive: how often do you wander the streets in the hope of capturing something new? Do you photograph every example of a new tag/paste-up/spray art that you see? At what point does it change from being a way to pass the time to a collection, and should you then start cataloguing it? (The pictures above are just some of Eine's shutter letters that I've photographed.)

This reminded me of meeting Robert Opie, the man behind the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising in Notting Hill. In more than 40 years of collecting, Opie has amassed half-a-million odd objects, from cereal packets through shampoo bottles to space helmet-shaped TV sets. The first item in his collection was a Munchies wrapper – bought from a vending machine at Inverness railway station back in 1963, when he was 16.

"We have this innate instinct to collect things that's very much part of our human psyche," he told me. "I guess it's something to do with, the corn is going to run out some day, we must gather it in and have something to survive the winter. Manufacturers have used this instinct to collect things as part of their promotions, such as cigarette cards."

He started with the things many of us might collect as children – stamps, postcards, toys – he just never stopped. "A lot of people do give up because other pressures of life take over, so collecting things tends to be a childhood hobby but by doing that you're learning about life; I remember when I was collecting stamps you learnt about other countries. I'm sure it instilled in me an appreciation of commercial and graphic art as well because you've got these wonderful miniaturised versions of graphic designs as opposed to the modern variety, the majority of which are photographs."

We might associate collecting with men, something Opie again thinks has ancient roots, though his views betray something of his age. "There are huge numbers of women who collect but by comparision to the number of men it'll be 80 per cent men; it's partly instinctive, it's the hunter gatherer component of the male. It is also that women tend to be more preoccupied with running the home, children and everything else."

Opie's tips to collecting are relatively simple: focus your resources because once you've acquired the items you want you have to look after them; keep things in their boxes; keep the price and other information which helps place purchases; and avoid sunlight and glue. Then there are things that even he might not have thought of: "Someone gave me a collection of wine labels where they had written on the back what they thought of the wine that they'd just drunk – that's a very subjective analysis but it's an insight I wouldn't have had otherwise."

Thursday, 21 May 2009


For the footloose and fancy free of EC2 – I'm assuming there's a point to this?

UPDATE: This report from the BBC in New York also features an Eine 'E' in the background.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Shoreditch menagerie II

Seems I'm not the only one who thinks it's a jungle out there.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Shoreditch menagerie

EC2 has had a rep for its wildlife for a while, but all sorts of wallflowers have been emerging at night in the last month (this is just a small selection). While 10 Foot's "art fag" war and the DEPS invasion continue apace, there's still room for all sorts of rats, cats, some foxy urban foxes and, of course, tits. If this menagerie isn't your thing, the good news for font fanatics is that Eine's not only been sprucing up some of his old shutter letters, but several new ones have gone up too. And pity the street cleansing department the stickers that continue to go up on every street sign, hehe.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Furst-class travel

My favourite author for a good read on a long journey is Alan Furst, who has now written 10 spy thrillers all set in the run-up to World War II. In his latest, The Spies of Warsaw, the aristocratic hero, Jean-François Mercier, decides to take a 17-hour train trip from the Polish capital to Belgrade in the hope of meeting up with a woman he has fallen for. He takes with him a copy of Stendhal's The Red and the Black; "[Mercier] had always had an instinct for something improving, demanding, but by page 14 he gave up and brought out what he really wanted to read, a Simenon roman policier, The Bar on the Seine…"

Now Simenon is a great choice but perhaps better for when you reach your destination – and in omnibus edition – because his books are, as Mercier finds, "all too soon finished". (The Bar on the Seine is an early, very good, Maigret novel, set in the guingettes Simenon would no doubt have known from his days sailing around France with his first wife, Tigy, and her maid, Boule, who was also his lover.)

In his latest book, Nothing to be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes admits that as a young man he, like Mercier, used to carry an impressive book with him, though in different circumstances – Barnes was terrified of flying; "The book I would choose to read on a plane would be something I felt appropriate to have found on my corpse. I remember taking Bouvard et Pécuchet on a flight from London to Paris, deluding myself that after the inevitable crash a) there would be an identifiable body on which it might be found; b) that Flaubert in French paperback would survive impact and flames; c) that when recovered, it would still be grasped in my miraculously surviving (if perhaps severed) hand…"

Perhaps I am a reverse snob and happy to be caught reading a good thriller; certainly, if I am found in a crash clasping the latest Alan Furst, at least you can count that I died happy. There is another question here, too, of reading in public, being seen to read. A gentleman on my daily commute into Waterloo gives up his seat every morning to women passengers (never men) and is always grasping CS Lewis on Christianity (the same book for months); I can only assume this is some sort of pose. (And then there are those books you don't want to be seen reading: the Traveller's Companion Series of books were essentially pornographic novels published by the infamous Olympia Press within plain green covers.)

I've always found Arturo Pérez-Reverte reliable for a good travel read, though I haven't tried his Alatriste books yet. I can also recommend Philip Kerr for his Bernie Gunther mysteries, largely set in wartime Germany, though now going beyond; and Stieg Larsson is unmissable. It sounds as if I ought, also, try Polish crime writer Marek Krajewski who, like Kerr and Larssen, is published by Quercus – they're on quite a roll.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Three Belgian bands recommended by Hooverphonic's Alex Callier

Alex Callier is the songwriter and mainstay of Belgium's Hooverphonic. They've released six studio albums since 1996 and deserve to have a greater following on this side of the Channel. Unfortunately, late last year, lead singer Geike Arnaert announced she was leaving the group to go solo.

"The Go Find – it's very intimate music but I really like the tunes. They make very nice, moody music; their second album [Stars On The Wall (2007)] is really beautiful.

"Goose is a bit more electronic, they have a couple of cool tracks on their first album [Bring It On (2006)].

"The first three albums [I'm Seeking Something That Has Already Found Me (1996), This Last Warm Solitude (1998) and Birthmarks (2001)] of Ozark Henry – the name comes from a movie – are really good, very filmic."