... but I stopped. Now I'm a dad, and may blog again...

Saturday, July 30, 2011

358: Andy Broadey, The View From Here @ BLANKSPACE

Andy Broadey's works, currently showing at BLANKSPACE Manchester (Blank Media Collective), are installation-based experimental photography. As a description I think that works ; despite experimentation being a neccessity in keeping contemporary art fresh and new. Perhaps if it wasn't experimental I wouldn't be writing about it and Andy wouldn't be making it. The guy is an accomplished artist, and The View From Here is his PhD final show ; all goes well and he will be Doctor (of Philosophy) Artist, with a camera lens instead of a stethoscope and photographic paper instead of x-rays.

Three installation pieces comprise The View From Here: Day Room, Shadow Box and Display. The first you encounter is Display, a series of close-up clip-framed photo prints examining clear acrylic leaflet holders (of the sort you can buy at extortionate amounts from Ryman). "This piece emphasizes the way gallery contexts and display conventions allow audiences to see otherwise innocuous and familiar objects as something worthy of artistic appreciation," writes Andy. I interpret it as being an artistic display focusing on functional display units, almost as if the clip-frames had been left empty.

Shadow Box
The leaflet holders are designed to remain inconspicuous and invisible, but magically become visible once the leaflets are gone. I don't consider them to be everyday familiar objects however; they are not something people have in their homes and rarely if ever have need for. I worked in Ryman a while back, and they were not big sellers, however they looked quite alluring and mysterious all lined up, unsold, on the shelf. Like unborn ghosts of businesses as yet unstarted.

In four parts spread across BLANKSPACE's four upstairs studios is Shadow Box. Photographs of empty perspex boxes are created by shining the light of a desk lamp directly through the box and onto photographic paper. Exposure lasted about two seconds before the paper was printed ; entirely cameraless photography. The result is an image resembling scorching or smoke damage, like the pattern rising up the brickwork above a window where fire has torn through. The light has burnt the box onto the paper ; the mathematically predictable bending of the light through the box is sealed and seared in black and white. The images are displayed with the lamp and box used to create them. The lamp is unlit and the photo is set and developed. Although a three-dimensional installation, the scene is still as dead and captured as an old portrait of the long-forgotten. Strangely creepy. My favourite in the exhibition.

Day Room is the documentation of a private endurance performance (attended only by the artist). Andy photographed the empty main gallery of BLANKSPACE every two and a half minutes for an entire 24 hour period. He used these photographs to reproduce the gallery, within the gallery, as a cross between serial art and sequential art – moving both through time in two and a half minute jumps, and space a few inches at a time.

Day Room
The View From Here is subtle, sophisticated and challenging and a very well conceived series of related installations. Excellent for BLANKSPACE's first solo exhibition, and best of luck to Andy in his PhD.

Read further thoughts on The View From Here from
Valerie O'Riordan at Not Exactly True,
Sarah-Clare Conlon at Words & Fixtures, and
Manchester School of Architecture students (Jack and MSSA) at Look Up Manchester.

Updated with photos on 3rd August 2011.  All pictures by Gareth Hacking.  To see the complete set of pictures go to Gareth's flickr here.

Friday, July 29, 2011

357: Toilet mat.

Photos of La Bonne Vie Guest House, St Helier
This photo of La Bonne Vie Guest House is courtesy of TripAdvisor
Who has carpets in the bathroom; what's with that? (Observational comedy, innit, airplane food, peanuts, etcetera.) Those little toilet mat thing-carpets; disgusting. Erm.. they get peed on and absorb it, don't they, don't they? And so ends my foray into observational comedy in which I discovered it's not as easy as it looks. Trying to work out what is missing from my 'act' ; can't be punchlines cos the observation is the punchline ; I think the absent element might be a nice suit. And a microphone to lean on. Perhaps I need to pull off a cheeky nod and a wink and get a floppy hairdo. If I could do some voices and robot noises that'd be great too. But it's not me; I'm too serious. But I really hate toilet mats and bathroom carpets ; I really hate them, I do. (You know who loves them though? Richard Herring, he can't get enough, and unironically enough he is a real stand-up comedian of a not particularly observational kind.)

By the way, I'm not trying to lull myself into the requisit self-confidence to become a comedian. I am a thouroughly unconfident unfunny human being with no desire to be stared at by a room full of people. The only reason I'm going on about this is cos I really hate toilet mats. Who the hell came up with the idea of putting an absorbent pissrag on the floor around the toilet for you to splash about in in your stocking feet? Even worse, who thought of expanding said pissrag across the entire floor, nailing it down and calling it a carpet? Why oh why oh why oh why would anyone want the wateriest, steamiest, pissiest, smallest room in the house to be clothed in an absorbant unwipe-cleanable piece of material filth? Answer me.

Not that I often encounter them. I never do. The furnished flat I live in has one, but it is never used for toileting. I sometimes find it hugging the sink, but it knows I wont have it anywhere near the accursed toilet. Toilet mats are one step down from the monstrous abomination that is the toilet brush, eek that is nasty. Both of them go sailing out of the window into the alley below. The door is double-bolted to halt their persistent return ; no matter how they whinney and howl they shall not pass. Yeah, that's right, fuck 'em.

Last night's post was short, and surprising. Surprising in the sense that I had completely forgotten I wrote it. Post gallery drinks at SandBar, followed by a gentle stroll home I remember. But blogging and falling asleep I had forgotten. Of course I remember now, and that is one good reason to carry on blogging. Next up: my impressions of the current show at BLANKSPACE.

356: Short/Here's a cow

Right, ok, and let's begin. Tonight was a good night, and being the drunken exhaust that I am this will not be the best blog evar(!), it will circle the drain like a pigeon plop blasted off the pavement by the council. However, proscribed poor blog aside, tonight was full of quality people whom I will thank via the medium of links ; here goes to the good people of this evening: Mark, Liz, Andy, Val, and Paula. And that was that was the night and there was the beer ; and tonight I have given my card with this blog emblazoned boldly upon it, and hoo-lah-lah, hip-hip-hizzle, this here shizzle is the first crap these people will read.. I refer you backwards or forwards to better days.

Erm, and that's that : a new precedent of shortness. But I'm five foot five ish, so I'm used to that. Here's a picture of a cow:

Thursday, July 28, 2011

355: too many tabs not enough anything else

first image in google search for
"drawing shoe horse face wink train mask pot plant"

Groan and goodmorning ; let's do this in no more than twenty minutes. Is there a website with some futuristic online stop-watch facility ; you know I just bet there is. I'm gonna find me one, set it to twenty minutes, and then type away until it beeps, peeps, or ring-tones. Ok... GO! It's tewnty minutes ticking down I'm like a clock when I tick and I tock, yeah, Dre, are you? http://www.online-stopwatch.com/ is helping and hindering this endevour and Run by Surreal Knowledge is rampaging like a stampede of elephants ; elements of unarticulated ideas are arranging into unpredicted strange and unconvincing sentences. I doubt this whole timing thing is going to lead to a consise, beautifully constructed article about something you are interested in.

My flatmate has popped to the toilet (interesting, eh?) and I am trying to hammer out as many words as possible in as few plopps and pssss's as is do-able. If it takes him twenty minutes then that is perfect. His normal voice (coffee, fasting and inexplicable sleeping patterns) is louder than my drunk voice ; I hope my sleeping fiancee appreciates our important discussions on comtemporary Pakistani art, Juxtapoz magazine, the confusion between cultural, political and personal aspects of Islam, and various other bollocks. The more we shout the more we know what we are talking about. I have had a few whiskeys and am an insufferable know-it-all at the best of times ; and he manages that without a drop of the good stuff. He lives of that hot black Columbian or Ethiopian water.

princess leia 
That is a good nine minutes gone. Two paragraphs is probably about 250 words.... in nine minutes. Is that good or bath I mean bad ; you do the math I mean mad I mean maths. Tonight tonite I have been doing an innernet searching for the arts wot I likes and foun all the stuffs dat's good. Because I know that I'm unlikely to be able to write properly I'm just yammering instead, and saving the liddle art profiles for when I am in a serious and organised mood. Tomorrow? Dunno, but BLANKSPACE is hosting an exciting exhibition by a talented experimental photographer called Andy Broadey.

I've got too many tabs open. I don't want to close them. Hanging on to open tabs for prosperity. When I close them they are destroyed ; obliterated. Gone and gone. It's a shame really. I wish the internet could hang on to them when I am not looking.. Take this page for example: You're looking at it now, but as soon as you stop, plap!, it's gone. Innit a shame; shame on a ... who tries to run game on a ... Indeed. Enough already.

Anyone want to go play knock-a-door-run, or British bulldog? Tag, you're it. Just over two minutes remaining. Red wire, green wire, blue wire ; red lorry, yellow lorry. Just keep swimming, just keep swimming. Mine mine Mine mine. Time time time ; time gentlemen, please. Yes, this is definately one to preserve for the future generations. Isn't it great that I have written all this down so my grandchildren can read it when I'm dead. Will it beep, or will it splutter? Oh it rang ang clanked and stopped in a single beat. Byeybye.

second image in a google search for
"hubble drain spam beans bubble lane monkey drum song"

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

354: blah, blah and blah

There is a clickidy and a clackidy constantly clapping and clocking from the corner of the sofa where my fiancee surreptitiously solitaires on her smart-phone. For over a week now she has been glued to that little screen, moving around those little pixel-built playing-cards, and all I can do to get attention is play solitaire alone on my laptop and hope she happens to notice. The solitaire on my screen occassionally catches the corner of her eye, and she glances over momentarily to tell me she has won again. I'm begging for scraps but the solitaire app is getting the lion's share. Proper pathetic, innit.

Yesterday – I can't remember why – I said distractions are good, and was countered with sometimes. Not sure what point I was trying to make – not sure I understood it or believed it – and don't have a clue why I'm bringing it up now. Distractions are the bane of my life – all plans, projects, plots and schemes end in a trickle as the distractions of flashing lights, drying paint, and pickled cabbage pull me away from whatever I should be doing.

For instance, right now I'm doing a blog but instead of concerntrating I'm looking and listening over at Geordie Posh Bird's Finishing School or something – as a result of this mind-numbing tosh I cannae complete a single thought or a. You know I was sure I had written more than this ; turns out I was looking at a book and there were more words in that than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

So this daily blogging project has hit a snag – but in the larger scale of things it doesn't really matter. The only real downside is that instead of triumphantly bounding over the one year mark, I am limping lamely across ; repeatedly tripping and falling like an unsecure catwalk model tottering on twelve inch heels and bound for YouTube glory. The one year anniversary has, I think, passed, and yet I am struggling to reach out and touch that magic number three-six-five. Oh, three-six-five come to me. I promise here and now that when I arrive at the two year anniversary I will also arrive at the seven-three-zeroth post. And all will be good and proper ; all will be right and decent ; all will be safely alligned ; all will be prim and trim.

Yeah, so – sorree everyone, but some days the blog is just going to be shit. Not my fault ; apparantly it's got something to do with the tide or the moon. I heard it was because of fluctuating nitrogen levels in the air, or too much pixels in the electricity. Hit me up with a cure. Peace out.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

353: Please donate to MSF

CLICK HERE (not on the picture)

It's a dark weekend in the news and in the lives of many innocent people the world over. There is the national tragedy of the massacres in Norway (committed by a egotistical fucktard whose face and name will never appear on this page); the personal tragedy of the passing of Amy Winehouse, the beautiful, talented and tragic singer; the terrible train crash in China; and the unfathomable horror of widespread famine across war-torn, backward, superstitious, lawless Somalia. This is just too much for this little blog to properly contain ; how can events in Norway and Somalia properly be addressed with the right amount of care, sensitivity and seriousness. I have no desire to make tasteless jokes ; no insight ; no answers. Only intangible questions unable to form into anything worthwhile. But this is not about me. This is about the mass death of innocent people for poor reasons of misguided political idealism and natural disaster.

All I can contribute to this mess is to hopefully send as many people as possible over to the Doctors Without Borders (Medecins sans Frontieres) and scream DONATE NOW PLEASE. Doctors Without Borders (MSF) are an international aid organisation entirely free from political or religious affiliation ; their sole aim begins and ends with offering medical aid where it is most needed and least available. Doctors and nurses, engineers and administrators, doing the most important and difficult work in the world's most inhospitable and dangerous environments ; work a million times more worthy than anything you or I could achieve in a hundred lifetimes.

MSF does not take sides in wars or prioritise one political, social or religious group over another ; they simply offer unbiased aid to victims of war, famine and natural disaster. This is the charity ideal and deserves to be a million times more well known and better funded than the Red Cross/Crescent, Muslim Hands or Christian Aid. As excellent as these charitable organisations are, I can't help but feel they are tainted by their inherent sectarian nature. For me the existence of MSF is a positive step closer to a united planetary human race and a truely egalitarian society.

So please donate what little or large you can ; come on, it's the least you can do. You probably live in a developed country, like me, and despite the economic downturn – even if you are unemployed and on benefits – you are still living in relative luxury compared to most people in the world. Yes, Sir Alan Lord Sugar and your dentist are richer than you ; but you are richer than five to six billion other people. So click here to donate to MSF's Somalia appeal, and remember to tick yes to Gift Aid.

There is a selfish reason to give to charity – it might make you feel a tiny bit better about the money you (and I) waste on clothes, food and drink over and above those needed to keep you warm, dry and alive. It might ease your liberal guilt of living in a prosperous and safe country. But mostly it will actually help treat malaria, malnutrition, diarrhea, AIDS, and many other terrible diseases tearin apart the lives of your fellow human beings. By all means say a prayer if you want ; if that makes you feel better then do it. But don't think for a single second that it helps anyone else. The money helps ; words muttered to yourself but not acted upon do nothing.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

352: Surreal Knowledge at the O2 - c'mon!!!

They are Surreal Knowledge ; and I make no pretence to impartiality or journalistic integrity (I couldn't if I tried). They are my friends and I'm biased. However, I know good music when I hear it, and if Surreal Knowledge wasn't good (or better) I'd just quietly pretend nothing was going on and get back to blogging about scraps of paper I found on the bus and goofy people I've seen in shops. The fact is Surreal Knowledge are a world class hip-hop band, combining original (and in the case of Looking for Answers occassionally beautiful) lyrics, diverse combinations of music influence, live instrumentation, an exciting performance, and bloody good tunes. To top it all of they have a high level of production far exceeding what could be expected of an unsigned band.

Usually the words "do you want to listen to my mates' band?" would rightly be met with horror ; OMG, how will I tell this poor idiot that his mate's band are a shit rip-off of Nirvana? Well, believe me this is not a problem with Surreal Knowledge – this is a band to be proud of loving. Oh and before you say anything, the reason they are not a shit Nirvana rip-off is not because they are in actual fact a shit N.W.A., Beastie Boys or Jurrassic 5 rip-off. No, if they were I'm sure I would have noticed by now.

Surreal Knowledge have been recording amazing music, and trooping around playing empty clubs and crappy support slots for 10 years now. They have paid their dues, refined their art, and developed their sound and working methods. They have gone through line-up changes and internal squabbles, and even the occassional break-up ; but all this drama has only made them stronger. Hopefully tonight will mark a significant turning point towards deserved and well-earned success. After many gruelling auditions and knock-out rounds Surreal Knowledge have finally made it to tonight's Live and Unsigned grand final at London's O2 Arena. The prizes are mega: tours, a record deal, investment: mega!

Surreal Knowledge are proper sophisticated music for grown-ups (like Beethoven or some shit, innit); grown-ups who love hip-hop, silliness, and having a good time. Anyone in the house like having fun? No way, you like having fun? Me too! If you like fun then vote for Surreal Knowledge by texting UNSIGNED60 to 84222. Do it now ; quickly ; schnell, schnell. A vote against Surreal Knowledge is a vote against fun, life, happiness, music, and all that is right and decent in the world. And don't think about not voting either ; that counts as a vote against and will be noted in the great ledger in the sky. You have been warned.

My word on the quality of Surreal Knowledge should be enough for you. If it isn't here are some musics for your ears to do a hearing on. And some links for the clicking of.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

351: Midwifery at the Mall

Sometimes art can be most exciting when it appears unexpectedly, such as it did to me yesterday at the Lowry Outlet Mall when I was invited into a temporary exhibition in an unused unit. Words to the effect of we've got an art exhibition and we need people to look at it so it looks like people are looking at it... we're second year midwifery students drew me in. How could they not?

Not being made by professional artists, or indeed by art students, the work struggled to communicate to me. The general message put forward fell into two catagories: being a nurse is hard word; and, this is what a pregnant woman looks like. Very little of the work captured well the aesthetic or life-giving beauty of the pregnant woman - however an image, of a pink pregnant torso frontally and in profile, by Danielle (surname missing from my notes) comes close. Two tiny images - one of a linea nigra, the other four simple paint-dabbed images of enlarged bellies and breasts – were perfect. Beautiful and expressive – I'm ashamed I didn't get the artist's name or photos of the miniature masterpieces.

My fiancee enjoyed Water Birth by Becca Marsh – a well constructed but deceptively peaceful image (again of breasts and belly) of what happens in the birthing pool. I say deceptively peaceful because none of the work in the exhibition attempted to communicate the pain, the blood, the shit, the tears and the tearing of the act of child birth. A large painting (I think also by Marsh) depicted a woman kneeling in a scream of paint and pushing. This came close to being about pain, but the bizarre addition of curled paper and feathers stuck on the woman's head silenced the art with silliness.

The struggle of the nurse and the midwife – and their day to day balancing act of responsibility, timekeeping, and human life – was depicted well by scrawled sketches on small scraps of paper, done as though stretched for time. I would have liked to have seen many more of these, exhibited close to each other. Ideally they would be made by nurses and students whilst working on the ward, dashing out a quick sketch in the heat of a single spare moment.

A photo collage on one wall explained with text some of the ideas behind the project, and contained some very interesting historical pictures of nurses and students on past wards. The project is a very interesting one, in the early stage of development, in need of expansion, focus and curation; but one that deserves all those things.

As well as a selection of images of pregnant bellies, I would love to see more work about the act of child birth, more about the day-to-day of midwifery, more technical information about pregnancy, and more photos from the vault. Also of interest to exhibit would be teaching materials – used for students, and to explain birth to expectant mothers – such as diagrams, scans, models, etc.

Although I see plenty of room for improvement, I fully support and respect the project, and it was absolutely the last thing I expected to see while visiting the Lowry Outlet Mall to see the new Harry Potter movie.

all images (c) Salford University Art of Midwifery student project

350: Cara B=Side B at #BLANKSPACE @BlankMedia

Time for a postmortem. BLANKSPACE recently hosted an incredible exhibition, cara b = side b, in collaboration between Manchester's Blank Media Collective, and Barcelona's Untitled BCN. The masterminds behind this exciting collab were BMC's Mark Devereux and BCN's Jessica Casey. The opening night was an exciting event of live art, some retrospective work from participating artists, beer supplied by SandBar and cocktails and tapas supplied by Sandinista (mmm @ the chili).

As the opening night kicked off the walls downstairs and the smaller studios upstairs contained some interesting pieces, but the main draw was the big open room up top. A raised platform was equipt for a DJ of some digital description, and a visual artist using the computer stuff and a projector aimed at a large blank wall. The same blank wall connected to a floor covered by painting sheets, and was armed with paint tins, brushes and a step ladder.

Against another wall leaned two wooden blocks supporting a large canvas. Next to this was some industrial builders spotlights and a bunch of painting stuff. Finally, on the opposite wall, a massive roll of paper spilled from the ceiling to the floor and halfway across the room. This was surrounded by a keyboard and drum set-up, and a guitar set-up, both amplified and with a wide array of effects pedals.

First to perform was Naomi Kendrick and her two accompanying musicians making wild effects-heavy noises on synth, guitar and drum. They played lost in the music, paying no heed to the drawing being create before them, and Naomi crawled around her paper stage, on her hands and knees, dragging patting and snapping her chunks of charcoal as she danced her improvised contemporary choreography. The result was a mesmerising performance and a beautiful drawing.

Next Xanu and eeeex began their attack on the wall ; armed with black and white paints and house-brushes they fought an ever changing war of monsters, fuck offs, laser beams and devil eyes. Improvised projections splash light on the increasingly less white wall, chasing, informing and disturbing the actions of the two painters.

Finally Takahashi's Shellfish Concern, combined live painting with electro-acoustic music, in the night's purest combination of performance painting and music. A blank canvas had been mic'ed up and the sounds produced - by paint, brush, water, splats, drips, dabs, pulls, pours and sponges – became amplified, echoed and distorted while travelling through a range of effects pedals and wires.

All three performances left behind a finished painting or drawing, however the performance was the real art; the resultant images are merely shadows of what happened. My personal favourite of these remnants was that of Takahashi's painted by Angela Guyton. Her work reminds me of Cy Twombly (although it is in no way derivative); aesthetically pricks my art-ears (and minces my metaphors) as well as being borne from a unique process.

All-in-all an excellent event of fine art, finger food and friends.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

349: Dark Materials and Dæmons

Leonardo da Vinci, Lady with an Ermine 

"Sisters," she began, "let me tell you what is happening, and who it is that we must fight. For there is a war coming. I don't know who will join with us, but I know whom we must fight. It is the Magesterium, the church. For all it's history [...] it's tried to suppress and control every natural impulse. And when it can't control them, it cuts them out. Some of you have seen what they did at Bolvanger. And that was horrible, but it is not the only such place, not the only such practice. Sisters, you know only the north: I have travelled in the south lands. There are churches there, believe me, that cut there children too, as the people of Bolvanger did – not in the same way, but just as horribly – they cut their sexual organs, yes, both boys and girls – they cut them with knives so that they shan't feel. This is what the church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling..."

This quote comes early on in The Subtle Knife, the second book of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. It is the first explicitly spoken summation of a major sentiment expressed within the plot of the first book, Northern Lights. In Northern Lights we meet the General Oblation Board, a dangerous and powerful Christian council obsessed with bizarre and cruel experiments. They have devised a method of severing children from their dæmons (physical manifestations of their souls expressed as companion animals). The result is hideous mutilation, dispair, shock, and death. This is done in the name of persuing an interest in an elementary particle known as Dust which may or may not be material evidence for Original Sin.

So clearly is this an accurate analogy of the place and purpose of religion in the real world that it may not have needed to have been stated so explicitly. The complex and intruiging plot, I think calls for a bit of occasional overstatement to add occasional spots of clarity to the mist and the intreige. The direct statement is that male and female genital mutilation (sometimes euphemised as circumcision, and widely accepted as normal when inflicted upon baby boys) is an obscene evil, and any person or organisation that practises it must be punished and destroyed.

Earlier in the trilogy Lyra, the main protagonist, is told about the old Catholic practise of creating castrati singers by cutting off the testicles of a young boy. Most grow into fat deformed half-men, but some retain a bizarre, delicate singing voice. This, apparantly, is what god wanted to hear, and his followers in the church were more than happy to butcher young boys in order to do so.

But the cutting that is done to children and their dæmons in the His Dark Materials universe is easily and obviously interpretted to mean more than that obscene attack on child's genitals. The cutting experiments are, via some twisted dogmatic unthink logic, intended to preserve a childs innocence by proventing them from growth into adulthood and the accompanying feelings. The cutting that real-world religions do is always intended to stifle and control humanity. Feelings that make us human such as love, lust, greed, jealousy, are condemned as sinful and banned. To add to that is the disgusting concept of Original Sin; thanks to our earliest ancestors desire for knowledge and disobedience of god, we are all born sinners – the sins of the father. So religion cuts away our humanity with laws and punishment, in this life and the fabricated next.

The speaker of the quote at the beginning of this post is a newly introduced character, a witch called Queen Ruta Skadi, speaking as a guest at a council of witches we have already accepted as goodies thanks to their actions in the first book. As yet I know nothing about this Skadi witch ; her motivations and eventual fate remain a mystery to me, so although I firmly agree with her opening words, I still retain my healthy skepticism. I find this wise especially with regards to her continued words:

"...So if a war comes, and the church is on one side of it, we must be on the other, no matter what strange allies we find ourselves bound too."

This is an evil I see as great and misguided as religion itself. It is the attitude that makes Western lefties oppose the toppling of Middle Eastern dictators by Western governments ; taking the side of any evil as long as it hates the West. It is the attitude that makes Western liberals afraid to condemn practices such as female genital mutilation, and female veiling in Islamic countries, because of a pathetic adherance to cultural reletivism.

It is also the seed of a weak argument used against atheism ; that which states that atheist societies are best summed up by the practices of Stalin's Russia, Hitler's Germany (which out of these four examples can immediately be ignored because it wasn't atheistic and had close ties to the Catholic church), Mao's China, or North Korea. Communist Russia, China, and North Korea, although constitutionally atheist, can more accurately be summed up as personality cults. God is replaced by the general, the supreme leader, the chairman. His picture adorns every wall, his word is final and all-knowing, he is not just a god, he is superior to god.

So although these societies are not churches, they should not be sided with against churches, as they are an equal or perhaps greater evil. Through their pretence towards communism, great leaps forward, and extreme-left greater-goodness they create such an evil that Queen Ruta Skadi would be a vicious fool to side with them.

I have no wish for spoilers and will not google or wikipedia for hints as to this new characters eventual fate, but I fear that unless she sharpens her thinking, she will not achieve her goals. If a lesser evil topples a greater evil, the lesser rises to fill the vacuum.

I'm not sure I have ever read an adults book as rich and complete as this supposed kid's trilogy.

-both quotes from Philip Pullman, The Subtle Knife.

Satan struggles through hell in a Gustave Doré illustration of Paradise Lost.

348: Mmm, Catholicism.

Long have I held a desire to own a small piece of Catholic tat. Stewart Lee, in one of his stand-up acts, speaks of lolly-pops bearing the image of Pope John Paul II's face. He asks the question whether sales of such a lolly went up or down immediately following the death of that particular minister of Christ. Did devote Catholics think that the best way to commemorate the death of Pope John Paul II would be to suck a sugar effigy of his face, or did they think that would be in poor taste. He goes on to state (one of my favourite quotes), don't get me wrong I love Catholicism; It's my favourite form of clandestine global evil.

Unusual Catholic tat is awash in the seaside markets and souvenire shops of southern Spain. Mostly it takes the form of ceramic tiles bearing the image of the sacred heart, that grotesque bleeding heart pinned to breast of Christ's robes. Occassionally you'll find an especially precious tile where Jesus is so disfigured he seems to be being portrayed as a zombie. Although carrying a wooden cross to his death after a life of poverty he, and his crucifix, are heavily emblazoned with gold and precious stones.

I am still yet to purchase one of these tiles, worried as I am about damage in transit home, but I have got myself a small pocketsized wooden triptych. The wood is light in weight and colour, basically carved on the outside, and feels easily snappable in the fingers. The hinges are flimsy and the three painted panels inside are slightly chipped and worn. I chose it over all the other undamaged ones because of a certain extra special something in the quality of the artwork.

The middle panel is of the virgin Mary holding in her arms the weird adult-shaped baby Jesus. The background is gold but with weather-worn patches spotted about, and the figures are of an unusual light-blue hue. Other triptyches bore the same image, but with much more vibrant shiny colouring to the figures ; I prefer the subdued tint. The left image is of a southern European man with a beard, presumably Jesus, holding a book in his left hand and contorting his right hand into what I think of as Buddha-fingers. The right panel is of an older beardy man, maybe Saint Paul or some shit, holding a thingumyjig in his right hand.

It's going to sit somewhere on a bookshelf in the office at home ; when choosing my first piece of Catholic tat I felt it was important to get one with a book depicted somewhere. Some had no book, and some showed a book closed. On this the book is wide open and the text clearly displayed (although it's in Greek, or some shit).

When you close the triptych, it looks a bit like a biscuit.

Want to worship this guy?  Weirdo.

347: Moaning about internet connection on holiday

Every time I check the internet connection it has slowed ; starting at 56Mbps, then down to 28, then 16, 8, 5.5 ... soon it will be 2 and the connection will be functionally useless. Also the wi-fi signal has declined from excellent, to very good, all the way down to very poor, but now hovers somewhere around good. I put this down to the wind direction, as the internet connection, for the apartment block I am holidaying in, is across the way on an opposite building. From where I am sat, leisurely typing on the balcony, I can see the green of grass, the blue of the circular pool, and the yellow of patio and apartments. I can hear the splash and play of children and adults gabbing away in a variety of European languages and accents. I put the declining speed of the internet connection down to the encroaching midday sun and siesta time sending a few fellow sun haters indoors to the friendly gentle glow of the computer screen.

With my hat, my bare chest, burnt skin/patches of tan/pale, and my can of beer I feel like a real writer. Sitting in the sun, shaded from it by a friendly patio parasol, tapping away at my laptop ; this is almost that beautiful, simple, perfect life described by Hunter S. Thompson in The Rum Diaries. I could stay here forever, drinking alcohol and cooking spiced meat on the barbeque behind me. My skin would become think and tan like an old wallet, and I would gradually become more and more relaxed, yet conversely more focused and productive. Forget notions of buzzing about like a bee at work. Sitting, sweating and scribing is where it's at. Nothing else matters.

As well as the up/down annoyance of the strength and speed, there is the threat that every time I move my laptop a millimetre, the power cable will finally give up the ghost. Currently it takes the most minute of adjustments just to allow it to conduct electricity. One way or the other it does not work, and now it must be twisted in just the right way to make the connection. Soon the moment will pass whereby it will never work again, regardless of the amount of twiddles and turns.

Some sticky tape of some description will prolong the life shortly, but not indefinately. Eventually I will have to part with the few quid needed to by an unofficial hp laptop charger and, if I'm feeling especially fruity, a new battery, and the same for the other laptop. Then it'll be like in the future where people have two old laptops that charge and hold the charge, but otherwise are sort of slow and glitchy. And wear silver helmets and eat pills instead of pasta.

346: Real rock from the Rock

I heart Gibraltar. From La Línea in Spain we step through the land border, passports on display, back home to a previously unvisited portion of good ol' Great Britain. Winston Churchill Avenue, the sole road in and out of Gibraltar, takes you across the centre of Gibraltar airport's only runway. When the runway is in use the road closes, the green man turns red, and some flimsy barriers go up. Further along Winston Churchill Avenue are red phone boxes and post boxes, red double-decker buses, and British beep beep beep pedestrian crossings. Gibraltar is Britian and Gibraltans are British. They've even had referendums ; almost unanimous votes to stay British.

The rock itself is mostly a nature reserve – enter at your own risk, don't feed the monkeys, they bite – and around the base is cluttered a tightly packed mass of people, honking vehicles and tiny single lane roads pressed against crumbling buildings. Are the people Spanish, Gibraltan, or British? Well, the referendum provides a basic but unsatisfactorily descisive answer. But who lives there, and who is tourists or booze-cruisers. Spaniards and expats in Spain flock in and out to buy duty free booze and fags. Tourists come for the monkeys, and locals drive taxis to the monkeys and back.

A taxi up the rock and back, with four stop-off points, costs 25 each, mimum of four people per trip. We went up with a family of five, possibly South African, possibly German, the father spoke perfect English to the driver. First stop is purely fuctional so the driver can get our tickets, and we see one of the least impressive views from the rock, and a statue monument to the Pillar of Hercules that lay at the edge of the ancient world. Then further up we encounter the wonderful St. Michael's Cave and see our first monkeys on the way in.

St Michael's Cave is only one of many many cave systems riddling the rock. It is only a very short walk in and out, and the exit is through a cavern that has been transformed into an amphitheatre with stage and seating, but the stalactites are perhaps the most intricate and beautiful I have ever seen. We had a measelly fifteen minutes in the cave, dictated to us by our driver, but it was time well spent, gazing in awe up at the rock formations.

Upon leaving the cave there was the obligatory gift shop selling fridge magents at five quid a pop and sausage rolls at three pound fucking fifty. We got a sausage roll to share, and the lady behind the counter warned us to beware the monkeys. We gobbled the warm pastry and reformed meat sludge before leaving the shop, and bought four postcards at a surprisingly reasonable price (25p each). Upon leaving we saw an unaware idiot unwrapping a Kit-Kat with her back to a large gate. Atop the gate was a massive monkey preparing to pounce. He leapt directly onto her head and fought for the chocolate before a manly man chased her off. Moments later the monkey was back on her head successfully taking the chocolate she had effectively offered up.

Our driver said don't touch the monkeys, they bite and then who wants a monkey on them for a picture. He controlled a juvenile monkey with bribes of nuts, taking it from the bonnet of his vehicle on to the shoulders of photo-op seekers. A girl from the family took the opportunity as did I. I felt happy and peaceful with the young monkey on my shoulder. Having just finished Northern Lights and started The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman I think I must be yearning for my own dæmon to accompany and advise me. I have no soul.

Further up the hill we stopped again for a fuller dose of monkey fun. The drama of monkey life unfolder, almost as though prepared and rehearsed for our arrival. As our taxi pulled up one before us set off ; a monkey leapt from its roof onto the windscreen inches before my eyes. As we got out a territorial or defensive squabble was taking place with a large male sending a smaller monkey-fella scurrying. We saw babies at play, exploring close to their parents protection; juveniles venturing further affield; lovers and friends engaged in mutual grooming; feeding; slouching; sitting legs akimbo and scratching. They are us and we are them.

Last week a lady, she was holding a monkey. It was up on her shoulders and on her head, and then it grabbed her hair and it was a wig, and the monkey, it ran away with the wig. She had no hair and the wig went over the cliff. It was funny. The driver's story which I assume he has been telling for years ; it may be true or fictional, or have a grain of truth somewhere.

The final stop was The Great Seige Tunnel, a manmade cave with windows for cannon fire aimed at the mainland of Spain. The cannonfire reached as far as the town on the mainland, hence its name of La Línea, the line of fire. Historically the construction of these tunnels is fascinating, but with only fifteen minutes to spare, and the pretty pathetic waxwork displays, make for an underwhelming site, especially after the human beauty of the social monkeys.

The journey back down the rock is tight twisty roads, with hairpins that cannot be taken in a single maneuover. We are supposed to have our breaks tested every four months informed our driver as he forged the nose of the vehicle perilously close to a toppling cliff. But I don't do that because I am so lazy came the punchline. See the little wires of the fence, he pointed out. They will prevent our falling.

Back into the town and after navigating the random web of tiny streets built without thought to motor vehicles, we are stopped by the huge queue of cars heading for the border. I hope you left your cars in Spain, said the driver, because that queue is two and a half hours long. Later we would walk it in fifteen minutes, back across the border to our car in Spain. Heading through customs, despite us each carrying a litre of alcohol and a carton of cigs, there was not a single person who could be arsed looking at our passports. They couldn't even be arsed lazily waving us through.

Before we left I bought a wee fridge magnet of a monkey sitting on a red British post box, and some rock (real rock from the rock), leaving a few pieces of now pretty useless Gibraltan Sterling in my pocket (they can go in the souvenire pot). I took some paper ephemera from the tourist information – mainly local maps, magazines, and fliers – but also a poster advertising the Rock the Rock festival, which I am pleased to see is headlined by The Alan Parsons Project ; he produced The Dark Side of the Moon, you know (oh and Abbey Road, and Let It Be!!!).

Then we done go home. Bye bye Britain; hello Spain. On approaching the border back to Spain is a road sign showing a roundabout where all three exits lead to Spain.

I kept a small lists of firsts to mark the occassion:
On the way to La Línea I saw my first road signs in Arabic script.
Entering Gibraltar was the first time I have crossed an international border on foot, and the first time I have walked across an airport runway as if it was a level-crossing.
I saw my first busker playing a keytar (although my future father-in-law, probably correctly, claims the busker was merely miming along to the instruments demo setting).
My fiancee went into a cave for the first time in her life.
The first interesting conversation with a taxi driver, whilst sober.
First visit to a British Overseas Territory. Only thirteen more to go, then I can start on the Crown Dependencies, then the Commonwealth...

345: So buy me beer and whiskey 'cause I'm going far away

Let us begin with a poem. Strictly speaking they are song lyrics, but the author of them – Mr Shane MacGowan – is undoubtedly one of the finest modern poets, and his words are a joy to read, and to hear. They have power depth meaning (all that stuff) – they can make you drink and make you die:

Well Jimmy played harmonica in the pub where I was born
He played it from the night time to the peaceful early morn
He soothed the souls of psychos and the men who had the horn
And they all looked very happy in the morning

Now Jimmy didn't like his place in this world of ours
Where the elephant man broke strong men's necks
When he'd had too many Powers
So sad to see the grieving of the people that he's leaving
And he took the road for God knows in the morning

We walked him to the station in the rain
We kissed him as we put him on the train
And we sang him a song of times long gone
Though we knew that we'd be seeing him again
Sad to say I must be on my way
So buy me beer and whiskey 'cause I'm going far away
I'd like to think of me returning when I can
To the greatest little boozer and to Sally MacLennane

The years passed by, the times had changed, I grew to be a man
I learned to love the virtues of sweet Sally MacLennane
I took the jeers and drank the beers and crawled back home at dawn
And ended up a barman in the morning

I played the pump and took the hump and watered whiskey down
I talked of whores and horses to the men who drank the brown
I heard them say that Jimmy's making money far away
And some people left for heaven without warning

When Jimmy came back home he was surprised that they were gone
He asked me all the details of the train that they went on
Some people they are scared to croak but Jimmy drank until he choked
And he took the road for heaven in the morning

-Shane MacGowan, The Pogues, Sally MacLennane

This wonderful song came straight to mind when I saw a bottle of Powers on sale in Gibraltar. A rare sight for me dwelling in England, but my love for this song has, by simple association, created a love for John Powers Gold Label Irish Whiskey. I snapped it up and now, unopened, it provides an exciting motivation for going home at the end of my holiday.

It may be trite (it is) to compare the words of this Irish writer to those of another , but in the heat I'm baking in right now I don't think I can think further than that. So hear goes: The epic scale of the small events of Sally MacLennane bring to mind the size and scope of James Joyce's Ulysses. The mundane and the daily, the inconsiquential and unknown, become vast in scope, monumental, staggering and wonderful.

The men who drink in the wee little boozer become mythical figures with great and terrible deeds attributed to them – The Elephant Man breaks strong mans backs when he's had too many Powers. That Irish whiskey – uisce beatha, water of life – grants the strength, the power to those who imbibe it, like Asterix the Gaul taking a wee dram of Getafix's magic potion; and the Elephant Man, about whom we know nothing else, defeats untold numbers of men of strength. We learn of this deed but hear no details.

Men leave to travel far to distant unnamed lands, they fall in love, they fight, drink, create beautiful and brutal music, drink too much and drink some more, talk of whores and horses – but always returning to that hub of activity, the centre of life, the grand ol' boozer. The mythical Irish or Catholic or Celtic spirit has never been summed up so perfectly as in the lyrics to a 1980's pop song with soap-opera lyrics, written and sung by a toothless drunken old punk and backed by a double-speed folk band.

My fondness and folly for this song and the spirit it embodies comes both from my love of the literature, the language, and the drink – but primarily for my love of a beautiful Irish woman. I'll have a wee dram to that. The years passed by, the times had changed, I grew to be a man and learned to love the virtues of sweet Sally MacLennane ; I went to Japan (to the boozers and izakaya of Osaka) and something similar happened. And I returned to the boozers of Lancaster and Manchester, and discovered some in Belfast. The only difference is I can't pull a pint, know nothing of whores and horses, have never worked a bar...

There is death in the song, but no birth. Instead we have those long gone returning to the place where their journey began ; an optimism about the unending cycle of life, despite the omnipresence of death.