Saturday, 23 January 2016

Girl In A Band - Kim Gordon


I suspect there's a reason for Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon writing her memoir and that reason is 'therapy'. It doesn't matter whether it was written on the advice of her therapist, or the advice of her manager, or of her own volition because the end result reads like a therapeutic exercise and if it reads like that - then that's what it is.
Sonic Youth's whole musical career has always been like one long Arthur Janov primal scream therapy session so it's hardly to be expected that Kim's memoir is going to be more of the same method. It's not. Girl In A Band is calm, reflective and in a way rather subdued; the noticeable detour from this course being when she writes of her ex-husband Thurston Moore in regard to his infidelity and their marriage break up and it's only at these times in the book that the groove changes and revenge is confirmed to be a dish best served cold.

For the best part of the last 30 years Sonic Youth have been the darlings of (for want of a better term) American 'alt-rock', with Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore being the uncrowned king and queen of that particular milieu. Their speciality has been 'dissonance' coupled with an enigmatic coolness that they somehow managed to maintain into middle-age.
They were hipsters from the start, years before the term had ever been invented, and as well as keeping a lot of their original audience from when they first started, have never had any trouble in picking up new, younger audiences along the way. They've no doubt been indulged over the years and have had sins forgiven but for all that, they deserve a certain respect. It's a pity, then, at least in regard to their progress as a band, that Kim and Thurston separated after 27 years of marriage and in doing so brought Sonic Youth to an end.

Were it not for Kim Gordon, Sonic Youth would have been just a bunch of American boys kicking up a racket whilst desperately trying to be arty. Kim made Sonic Youth into an actual group of both American boys plus girl, still kicking up a racket but being genuinely arty.
What's interesting in reading her memoir is how this is all so very apparent but has been hidden in plain sight all the time and so never fully acknowledged. The book also makes it very clear just how completely American Sonic Youth were. For example, for all their familiarity with British and European alternative culture, only an American would refer to Mark E Smith of The Fall as being 'Marxist', which Kim at one point does.
She also goes in for a lot of name dropping, it must be said, particularly when writing about the New York art scene. Personally, I was unfamiliar with most of these names but thanks to the wonders of the Internet and Google Images, I kept pace and gained an insight.

When Tracey Thorn reviewed Girl In A Band for The Spectator magazine, she intimated that Kim was making a mistake in writing about her marriage break up so openly and so soon after the separation, but I disagree. Those who listen to Everything But The Girl might like their music to be soothing and well mannered but those who like a bit of Sonic Youth are obviously after something completely different. They want openness, harshness and raw thought and emotion; which is what Kim delivers in her book but in a much more considered manner than when she's communicating via music.

The book isn't just about the marriage break up either, as Kim also opens up about her childhood, her parents, and her schizophrenic brother. She also paints very good pictures of how California was in the Seventies and how New York was in the Eighties. And of course, she also writes about Sonic Youth.
The reason for writing it remains, however, and Kim returns to that reason in the final paragraph of the book where having split up from Thurston, she describes being given a ride back to her home by a charming guy who's super attracted to her, and she likewise to him. Their good-night kiss turns into a full-on grope before she pulls away from him as she has to catch a flight in two hours.
At first it seems a very strange note to end the book on until you realise this particular little anecdote isn't really meant for the reader. It's meant for Thurston.

All four ex-members of Sonic Youth have continued performing and creating music (or noise?) to this day but under separate, individual projects. It's unlikely there'll ever be a band like them again, especially one lasting for 30 years, which is why it's a shame they came to an end in such an ugly fashion. Life goes on but it just goes to show how a dream can be so rudely interrupted by the stupidity of reality.
                                                                                                                                                                             John Serpico

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Exmouth Bound Soundtrack (Part 2)


We travel up and down the Avocet rail line, in and out of Exmouth. Day in and day out, reading our books or gazing out the train windows with our iPhones providing the soundtrack to the world passing by outside.

And when we sometimes turn to look around at our fellow passengers, anyone might think we were all in worlds of our own. Set back from one and other, distant and atomised. In altered states, beatific, elegiac, stoned immaculate...

Anyone might think we were all out of our brains on cocktails of  drugs....

Friday, 15 January 2016

Woman As Revolutionary - Frederick C Giffin


Having recently read The Girl On The Train bestseller by Paula Hawkins where women are depicted as mentally unstable lapdogs to their controlling husbands, I was in need of an antidote, so what better book, perhaps, than Woman As Revolutionary edited by Frederick C Giffin?
Basically a collection of short synopses of women throughout history who have all gone against the grain of how a woman should be during their specific lifetimes (or at all, even), it lists 22 women in total all of whom in some way have acted selflessly and heroically.

As we should all know, there's a difference in being a revolutionary and being a reformist so some of those included within this collection are out of place just as there are many that are not included who so easily could have been. Having said that, however, it's still an inspiring read.
If a lot of the names are unfamiliar to the reader it's worth wondering why this might be? So let's list them:
Christine de Pisan, Joan of Arc, Saint Teresa of Avila, Olympe de Gouges, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mercy Otis Warren, Maria Weston Chapman, Susan B Anthony, Sofia Perovskaya, Annie Bessant, Jane Addams, Helen Keller, Emma Goldman, Rosa Luxemburg, Alexandra Kollontai, Isadora Duncan, Margaret Sanger, Dolores Ibarruri, Elizabeth Kenny, Maria Montessori, Joan Baez, and Francoise Parturier.
I wonder how many of these Paula Hawkins might know?

Joan of Arc is a name most people would know, of course, but might they know enough about her? Helen Keller is renowned for her work with the blind but are people aware she was also an ardent champion of the working class and a vigorous anti-war campaigner? People should know about Montessori schools as there are nowadays hundreds of them throughout the world but do people know anything about Maria Montessori, the originator of the Montessori education method?
A favourite of mine is Emma Goldman, the so-called 'mother of anarchy in America', once labelled by J Edgar Hoover as one of the "most dangerous radicals in the country". My most favourite, however, is Dolores Ibarruri, the Spanish Communist leader, who at the start of the Spanish Civil War took to the radio to exhort the Spanish people to resist the fascists, ending her message with the slogan "It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees! They shall not pass!"
As for those women not included in the book, I would have put in Boadicea, queen of the Iceni, who took on the might of the Roman Empire; Lucy Parsons, the American anarchist who once declared "We must devastate the avenues where the wealthy live"; Ulrike Meinhof, co-founder of the Red Army Faction; Hilary Creek and Anna Mendelson of the Angry Brigade; and Simone de Beauvoir if for no other reason than for being the partner and lover of Jean-Paul Sartre, a heroic and selfless act if ever there was one...

 someone had to do it...

In the preface to Woman As Revolutionary, editor Frederick Giffin states the purpose of the book is not to support by examples the assertion by Guido di Biagi that 'at the bottom of every revolt, every overthrow of a kingdom, or upheaval of the classes, every attempt at change of government, we shall find the martyrdom, the vengeance, the passion and inexpressible will of a woman'. For all that, however, this is what the book does.

On reading a book such as this, it's clear to see how very reactionary The Girl On The Train is. So much so, in fact, that it's enough to make any reasonable reader despair at the enormous success of it and the subsequent praise that's been heaped upon Paula Hawkins by critics far and wide.
What I want to know is why none of these critics have pulled her up about the way women are depicted in her book? I accept the fact that it's a work of fiction but in light of the number of copies sold, shouldn't someone at least mention or query this? Am I out on a limb here in criticising The Girl On The Train yet applauding Woman As Revolutionary? Down here in deepest, darkest Exmouth am I - literally - a voice in the wilderness?
And what I would also like to know is who Paula Hawkins might consider to be a revolutionary woman? Margaret Thatcher, perhaps? Ha ha ha...

We must devastate the avenues where the wealthy live

Friday, 8 January 2016

Knulp - Hermann Hesse


'I want to break free', as Freddie Mercury once said and don't we all, eh kids? Apart from George Michael, that is, who doesn't want your freedom but that's a whole different story.
Knulp, by Hermann Hesse is a meditation on the subject of freedom; of what it might mean and of the consequences of pursuing it. Does being free mean being fulfilled? Does freedom bring happiness? Is freedom in itself a large enough reward for what might be lost in gaining it?
Hesse's genius was in the way he was able to ponder such questions and convey meaningfulness through beautifully written stories. He's one of my most favourite writers.

First published in 1915, Knulp is the story of a young German tramp who has opted to drop out of society; not through misfortune or misadventure but through choice. He spends his days wandering from village to village, always being offered food and a place to lay his head by strangers and old friends alike. Men enjoy his company and women love him. Knulp is seemingly a happy soul.

We learn that he was once a model student and if he had only continued with his studies could have become a great man and achieved great things. When he views the lives of those who have married, worked and built worlds around themselves - though he holds them no malice - he knows that this simply isn't for him.
Knulp, however, is a haunted man and reveals this during conversations with old friends and fellow tramps. He recognises a loneliness within himself and though he sees it in other men too, within him it is much more acute.

Come the end of the book, Knulp as a much older man but still a tramp, is dying and has returned to the village where he was born to view it for one last time. For all the roaming he's done, for all the adventure, the singing, the dancing, for all the friends he's made and the girls he's loved; Knulp understands that it was in the days of his childhood that he was the most happy and the most fulfilled. In those days of innocence now long passed, before knowing anything of the world beyond the garden, the woods and the fields in which he played; it was there that he was most free.

Knulp heads off to the woods in the mountains to be alone with his thoughts and it's there that he wrestles with the idea that the life he has led has been a botched and futile one. In his thoughts he converses with God who reassures Knulp that whatever happened in his life was good and right, that nothing should have been any different. Moreover, that Knulp was a wanderer in God's name and wherever he went he brought the settled folk a little homesickness for freedom.
Contented that everything is as it should be, Knulp lays down in the snow... and sleeps...

Knulp is a very beautiful book that deserves to be read at least once and deserves to be contemplated. And on contemplating it you'll realise that the cover painting on the Picador edition as painted by Guernsey artist Peter Le Vasseur, depicting a man looking over into a garden at a boy (or the boy looking over the fence at the man, or just both simply looking at each other?) is brilliant, poignant and perfect.
John Serpico

Sunday, 3 January 2016

The Girl On The Train - Paula Hawkins


The book that's been impossible to avoid: The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins. For the last 12 months, every time anyone's stumbled into a Waterstone's (or WH Smith) mistaking it for some strange, new pub that's opened, this is the book that's been there on display. The biggest selling book of 2015, top of the New York Times hardback bestseller list, debuting at number one in book lists and holding the position for weeks and weeks, soon to be made into a film... Etc, etc.

In the face of such sales and the amount of words already given over to it on the Internet, it doesn't much matter what I think of it but for the record I think it's....
... a modern day, old-fashioned thriller concocted from bits and pieces from all kinds of thrillers; written in the same way as Quentin Tarantino makes films as in using different time lapses and different perspectives.
What I'm interested in, however, is the fact that it's such a successful book, clocking up sales going into the millions. What's its secret, I wonder? Well, it's not a difficult read at all and I suspect that helps. The chapters are short, there's a limited number of characters, a decent twist at the end, and though it tends to starts sagging around the two thirds mark, there's a momentum to it that keeps the reader engaged.
It is flawed, however, and the flaw that I see in it is a disturbing one though I'm unsure if many other readers have paid much if any heed to it?

The fact that none of the characters are particularly likeable is neither here nor there. The fact that they're all just as bad as one and other (apart from the killer, who's obviously a bit worse) and that they're all hypocrites and liars is probably just a literary device.
No, it was one particular line that leapt out at me that made me question this book's position in the real world and that line was: 'I liked my job, but I didn't have a glittering career, and even if I had, let's be honest: women are still only really valued for two things - their looks and their role as mothers. I'm not beautiful, and I can't have kids, so what does that make me? Worthless.'

I understand that this is a work of fiction so a line such as this shouldn't be taken as representing the author's views but the problem is in the fact that throughout the whole book Paula Hawkins is going for realism, even to the extent of mentioning real life stories such as paedophile celebrities in the news and what not. So when she disempowers women in a single stroke through a line like this, you read it as another nod to realism within that realm of realism that's being created. You don't read it as a sudden lurch into fiction that has no bearing on reality.

If this particular line was thought to be a nonsensical one, a stupid one, an unrealistic one, would Paula Hawkins have planted it in her story? If this line was recognised as having no ring of truth to it in the slightest would Paula Hawkins have had it said by the main narrator? If Paula Hawkins thought no woman would ever think like this in this day and age, would she have had it included in the narrator's monologue?
I think not.
Would any woman reading this line flinch at it or would they not bat an eyelid and just keep on reading?
I would hope they might flinch.

And then it struck me: All the men characterised in the book are at best shallow, lieing, manipulative cheats and at worst they're monsters. The women, however, are worse because they're all in thrall to these men and define themselves through them. The men deceive their wives and lovers but the women deceive their husbands, their friends and themselves.

This is the dark flaw at the heart of the book and it's a political one. The fact that The Girl On The Train was written by a woman is no excuse. This is a very conservative, misogynistic and misanthropic book but for all that - paradoxically - it's still an enjoyable read because the substance of it is overshadowed by the style.
I don't want to spoil the party but this book has sold millions and I'm not sure that's a good thing?
                                                                                                                                                                              John Serpico

Friday, 1 January 2016

Under Exmouth Skies (Part 30)


You might think Exmouth, in Devon, wouldn't be the most exciting place in the world to see the new year in and you'd be right but as Bananarama once observed: It ain't what you do it's the way that you do it. So, in it's own way Exmouth on New Year's Eve can be like the last days of the Roman Empire and what goes on here would make Caligula blush.
I guess I ought to start apologising for my behaviour, my crudeness, my lewdness and for all the insults I threw but fuck it, I was shitfaced. Fuck it, we were all shitfaced. Just... fuck it.