Sunday, 24 November 2013

Hearing difficulties

I’ve been listening to music for 40-odd years now. Ask anyone who knows me what my favourite activities are, and they’ll put ‘listening to music’ high on the list. But it’s only recently that I’ve realised that, despite all those years of practice, I’m actually rubbish at it.

Thinking back, the clues were there at school. In music lessons, the teacher would put a record on the turntable – something by Beethoven or Britten, say – and tell us to listen to it so that we could discuss it afterwards. You then had three choices. You could look around the classroom while the music was playing, but you risked being distracted by your classmates who were doing the same, some of them doubtless up to something they shouldn’t have been, like flicking bits of rolled-up paper at each other or trying to write in chalk on the blazer of the boy in front without them noticing. You could stare out of the window instead, but again, there’d be something going on which would catch your eye. Or you could just rest your head on your folded arms, close your eyes and absorb the music – and risk nodding off. I usually favoured the latter method, but it didn’t really work. Even if I didn’t fall asleep, my thoughts would soon turn away from the music onto something else entirely.

And it’s been the same ever since. Essentially, I am incapable of simply listening to music. I can sit in a chair, will myself to concentrate – and within a couple of minutes, my mind will be somewhere else entirely and the music will have passed me by.

So the answer is to do something else while listening, obviously. Except that if it’s anything that requires any mental activity, that automatically shuts down the part of my brain that’s in charge of listening. If I’m reading, surfing the web, doing a crossword, whatever, there’s no point even putting a CD on; it really will go in one ear and out the other.

The best solution I’ve found is to occupy myself with something that requires minimal brainpower. Mindless computer games (the kind that involve clicking on brightly coloured shapes) are good. So is ironing, though it’s not something I do a lot of. Driving isn’t bad (which is a bit worrying, when you think about it), though for some reason I prefer to listen to people talking when I’m in the car these days.

Part of the problem, I think, is the way my brain is wired. It favours activities that involve the eyes, particularly reading. Even when I’m just listening to someone talking, I sometimes catch myself looking round the room for visual stimulation, rather than focusing 100% on what they’re saying.

So it seems that I’m simply not a good listener, in any sense of the term. Whether that’s genetic, or something that developed while I was growing up, I can’t say. It is a bit of a paradox for someone who loves music, though, isn’t it?

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Always the traffic, always the lights

“I opened a notebook, it read ‘The Darlinghurst Years’
I snapped it shut, but out jumped some tears”

So begins the song that I’ve been mildly obsessed with recently, ‘Darlinghurst Nights’, from the Go-Betweens’ final album, Oceans Apart, released in 2005. It’s one of those songs that only reveals its mysteries gradually, over repeated listens.

As the opening lines suggest, Robert Forster’s lyric is an (autobiographical?) exercise in nostalgia, looking back to his student days, or maybe just afterwards, living in a shared house where “people came and went”. But rather than a straight narrative, the song is a series of disjointed memories, deeply personal. He remembers “gut rot cappucino, gut rot spaghetti”, and the exaggerated way he pronounces the last syllable, to rhyme with ‘say’, suggests a private joke.

There’s more obvious humour, too, in the way he takes the mickey out of his ambitious, and quite possibly pretentious, former self. “I’m going to change my appearance every day/ I’m going to write a movie and then I’m going to star in a play,” he sings. I remember people like that at college.

As for the music, it starts with a strummed acoustic guitar, then builds slowly after the first verse to incorporate electric guitar and drums as the rhythm gradually becomes more insistent. But what I really love about it is the brass section that you start to notice in the background from about two minutes in, and that slowly becomes more prominent until it dominates the last couple of minutes, like a mutant New Orleans jazz band freeforming over Forster as he repeats the song’s refrain, “Always the traffic, always the lights” until the fade.

Why a horn section? A less imaginative band would have used strings, both because they’re the classic signifier of nostalgia, and because the lyric repeats the line “Joe played the cello through those Darlinghurst nights”. But the horns contribute perfectly to the weird, skewed atmosphere of the song, adding an extra layer of mystery.

Like I say, I love the fact that Forster makes you work to get into the song, and leaves so much unresolved. Above all, I still can’t decide if the tears that jump out are tears of joy or sadness. I think I’ll just go back and listen one more time...

Sunday, 27 October 2013

All change!

When I started this blog in 2009, it was essentially a marketing exercise. The conventional wisdom was that self-published authors like me needed to find ways to connect with potential readers, and the internet was the perfect vehicle for this.

So I started a blog in which I would write about my novel, First Time I Met The Blues, and matters relating to it; places and people who had inspired it, the blues music which forms the basis of my characters’ journey, the process of self-publishing, other writing projects and so on.

Four years on, that flame has pretty much burnt itself out. My full-time job has taken precedence over my part-time writing to such an extent that I’ve had less and less to write about, and less time in which to write about it. From a peak of 26 posts in 2010 (that’s one a fortnight, on average), my output dwindled to 12 posts in 2011 and just 6 in 2012. This is only my second post of 2013.

But I still want to keep the blog going, and I’m finally finding the time to make progress with my fourth novel, so I’ve decided to tweak my editorial policy. From now, I’ll be writing about music in general, and books in general, as well as my own writing and anything else that takes my fancy. It’s not a complete change of direction – I’m not going to start blogging about politics, or ranting about the public transport system – more of a broadening out of the original themes. At the same time, I may play around with the look and feel of the blog, to reflect the change of emphasis. Stay tuned…

Saturday, 5 October 2013

An Olympian effort

I’m not sure what the ethics are of reviewing a book that you’ve contributed to, but what the hell – I’m going to anyway. Besides, my contribution to From the Slopes of Olympus to the Banks of the Lea amounts to two pages out of 200, so I reckon I can still be reasonably objective.

FTSOOTTBOTL (as no one is calling it) is the first book from the team behind the late lamented Smoke: A London Peculiar, a lovingly produced magazine that was effectively a fanzine for London. It stopped publishing a couple of years ago, but lives on as a website, and this is the first of what will hopefully be a series of books.

The subject, in case you hadn’t guessed, is last year’s Olympics, as seen through the Smoke prism; that is, tangentially, quirkily, occasionally movingly, but usually with a certain wry humour. Contributions include short stories, autobiographical snippets, reportage, poetry, cartoons, photography and unclassifiable snippets of silliness. (Special plaudits for the footnotes, by the way, which are simultaneously useful and splendidly daft.) None lasts more than a few pages.

This isn’t a book about the Games, as such: it’s a compendium of Londoners’ reactions to hosting the event, starting with the award of the Olympics in 2005 and ending in late 2012. The Games themselves don’t feature a great deal, so if you want to read about running and swimming and stuff, this isn’t the book for you.

Certain themes recur. The early section of the book is heavy with a bittersweet nostalgia for the area of East London that had to be razed in order to create the Olympic Park, however rough and down-at-heel it may have been. Co-editor Matt Haynes lives in Greenwich, so there’s a lot of material (possibly a tad too much) about the disruption caused by staging the equestrian events in this genteel village, and the outrage felt by the locals at the prospect of horses churning up the grass in their park. Later, there are various musings on the cultural collisions between Londoners and the influx of foreign athletes and spectators. If there is an overall theme, it is that of habitually cynical Londoners learning to relax and enjoy the spectacle.

Matt and his fellow editor, Jude Rogers, wrote a sizable proportion of the pieces, which does occasionally make it feel like a vanity project. Then again, they were probably short of suitable contributions – which might explain why they included mine, an autobiographical sketch with only the most tangential connection to the Olympics. No matter; I’m glad they did, and honoured to be part of such an unusual, and enjoyable, anthology.

To find out how to get hold of a copy, click here. You won’t regret it.