21 Mar 2017


So, I sometimes find I bring interesting things back from a trip. This particular lot is a nicely eclectic collection, even more noteworthy because of the industrial action at Helsinki-Vantaa airport which forced me to take only carry-on luggage. And I'd paid extra to check it in. The original plan, as per normal for trips to Finland, was to fill another bag with sweets and stuff for the suomikoulu to sell from the school's shop. Frustrating. I threw a lot of things out in my room at Hotel Helka the day before the flight. On top of the nearly finished toothpaste, shaving gel and shampoo, out went a variety of oddments like nail clippers and assorted foodstuffs. Unimportant, but wasteful.

Here's the Finnish cultural loot from my March 2017 trip. You might want to click on the picture to embiggen it. Somehow, I gathered rather more than I'd expected. You'll quickly spot the biggest challenge as far as the cabin bag is concerned. That's right, an actual vinyl lp. Although I did get a new record deck a while ago, because I didn't want to get rid of my lp collection, I never imagined I'd ever actually buy a new lp. It's Adrian by The Hearing, which is Ringa out of Pintandwefall - that's her in the pic - who I saw singing Life On Mars at that David Bowie tribute concert last year. I have her first album, Dorian, a cd, so I thought, why not ask about the new one (the title is almost an anagram, isn't it? Makes one speculate what she'll call her next album, mixing up the letters...) ?  I was told at Record Shop X that it was only available as an lp, and there was a copy in their Hakaniemi branch. So the next morning I walked up there, which was pleasant anyway, and also I knew that the indoor market there is one of the better ones and I could have a nice simple lunch. The mission was duly accomplished, but then I had to face up to packing. Well, the disk did fit, barely. Would it survive the inevitable process of squashing, and then transport? Yes it would, it did, and I can tell you that while it might not be earth shattering the record is a very nice one and I will play it again a few times. Its saviour is visible in the picture, the Sillage BD (ask a French person)(yes - it's translated from French to Finnish) which I packed right next to it and kept it flat.

For what it's worth, even a Finnish person would find all of these things a bit obscure, except for the Sonata Arctica cd, their latest, The Ninth Hour. And while I like that band - I've seen them twice - and I don't mind the purchase, creatively it was the least interesting. It definitely has their 'sound' - you'd easily recognise them as the authors - there are no really strong new songs, it feels like they're just noodling, really. Mira Luoti I kinda like as previously the 'rockier' one from out of PMMP, and it's not a bad effort. And in Finnish, so it'll definitely get more play, in my car on the way to school. The CD-R is a Mokoma album, run off for me by Paul on this trip. They're one of his favourite bands so I was intrigued to sample them. I need to listen more - not my usual thing, but my impression was of proper quality metal. Last, and definitely not least, see Red and Blue Baby by the totally estimable Pintandwefall. I picked this up in Record Shop X in Kuopio, and the girl there turned out to be as familiar with them as I was, and she memorably said, 'This was certainly a surprise' regarding how long it's been since the band did anything much. My guess is that some of them have been having a 'family break', so to speak. The record's great. I will play it a lot.

The books! Ah, well I've been looking for the little red one for several trips now. I first wandered into the Akateeminen Kirjakauppa, the huge bookshop next to Stockmann, used to be part of it but no longer, and which has been a little disappointing since. Without much hope of finding Datura; but I did spot a new edition of Antoine de St. Exupéry's first book, Courrier Sud - that's roughly what Postilento etelään means. I think it dates back to the 1920's, and I can't think why it's suddenly been translated now, it seems so random. But I have a small collection of his books, in French as well as English, and it appeals to me to read this one - it's only short - in triplicate, in three languages all at once :) He's one of the greats by the way, his prose is very poetic at times. He's best known for The Little Prince. I latched on to him way back, when my aunt told me that he was my uncle's favourite writer. My uncle was in the Fleet Air Arm and died when the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious was sunk off Norway in 1940.

Datura is by the highly regarded writer Leena Krohn, whose thing is a kind of alternative realism or verging into fantasy... I'll get back to you on that. I have it in English, it's not too long, and I thought it would also be good to read in parallel with the original Finnish. But I could not find it anywhere, and I tried in bookshops in Helsinki and elsewhere, and online. This time, the penny dropped. It's out of print, and what I should have been doing is going into those second hand bookshops I've been walking by and ignoring all this time, and inquiring. I found it at the second time of asking, and it's in good condition. A very good score indeed, I felt a whole lot better from the cold I'd been suffering from after that.

Last but not least - Myydään 3h + k. Which is: For sale 3 rooms + kitchen. It's not the thing itself because it's only the programme, but definitely part of my cultural loot. I knew Maarit from the Liverpool School was in Helsinki visiting her sister the last weekend I was there; she got in touch and asked if I wanted to go to a play. It wouldn't have crossed my mind, by myself, but this was a good choice and worked out very well. It wasn't far away and I met them in front of the Aleksanterin teatteri, it was a very cold night... The play was something not unlike what you might see in standard rep theatre back home, a story of a couple clearing the female partner's mother's house, with all the memories, partly supplied by the mother who actually appears. I realised she wasn't a ghost, she's a memory, there for her daughter to talk to, and the others can't see her. There are various little twists as things are found, but it wasn't complicated. I'd be lying if I said I followed much of the Finnish, but I did roughly get the gist, and it was well performed, and there were some laughs, despite the rather ominous (knowing the Finns) title of 'tragicomedy'. It certainly helped to go with people who could fill in the gaps during breaks! I don't think theatre going in Finland will become a habit, but I'm glad I did it.

This was the first time I've had to push my carry on case into that sizing container they have at the airport. The case is an old one, and not as big as it could be in terms of volume, but unfortunately it does push out in one dimension even though it's short in others. And there are broken bearings in the trundling wheels, which makes me a noisy traveller at the airport. But I've come to the conclusion that an airport is the kind of place where it's a waste of time feeling shame about any aspect of your appearance.

17 Feb 2017

Bands Seen More Than Once

This relates to something pleasingly odd which happened last week, but bear with me for the moment.

Right - Ikara Colt in Preston, 2004

Like you and most people, I've seen some music acts more than once. I don't go to concerts so much now. Gigs. But I'd never rule out further outings. The melancholy truth is that it's less a matter of age, than that most acts have a short shelf life. At least two acts I saw quite a bit of were very open about it, saying things like, 'People shouldn't be playing rock music after 30' (That, frankly, is nonsense) or 'Five years and that's it'. I did a list some time ago on my old website, and this is how it totted up, by the end of the 2000s, with a few extras achieved since.

  • Ikara Colt      9 times, 2003-2004
  • The Raveonettes      5 times, 2003-2007
  • Sahara Hotnights      4 times, 2003
  • The Washdown      3 times, 2003
  • Jeff Beck      2 times, a few years apart
  • Bitch Alert      2 times one summer (sort of responsible for the whole Finnish thing)
  • The Duke Spirit      2 times
  • Tori Amos      2 times
  • The Kinks      2 times, in the 1980s
  • The Tubes      2 times, about twenty years after their 'prime time'...
  • Erja Lyytinen      2 times
  • Nightwish      2 times
  • Sonata Arctica      2 times, in Manchester and in Finland
  • Ringa Manner      2 times, once in Pintandwefall, once last year as The Hearing
  • Curved Air      2 times, over 40 years apart, which is some kind of extreme record

Yes, Ikara Colt was totally up my alley. Let me quote myself: 
I hadn't heard of this band before seeing them on that Sahara Hotnights tour in 2003. They had a five year lifespan, and it was already halfway through. Their early performances were legendary, spiky and provocative affairs; even when I latched on to them they still had a tendency to face up to difficult audiences, especially their lead singer Paul Resende. They came out of art school, and some might have thought this a variety of performance art; but I think it was down to the fact that so often they were supporting acts with an inbuilt constituency quite different from themselves. I mean, touring with Amen, they were never going to get an easy ride from their fans, were they? Frankly, what Ikara Colt was doing was so different - people generally called it 'art punk', if that makes any sense - they weren't an obvious fit with anyone else. But my suspicion was the band liked it that way. I miss them a lot; but have to agree that they were just about done when they did split. It was a few weeks after drummer Dom decided to quit. He was very much a distinctive part of the band's sound, so that was pretty much that. Two very individual albums, Chat and Business and Modern Apprentice, and a history of lively gigs which I am very glad to have seen some of.
There it is. I was very assiduous about going to see them if they were anywhere in the North West, because I could sense it wasn't going to last long, they just didn't fit into any neat category. I was into most of the other bands on the list, though some were collateral attendances, so to speak, eg. The Washdown. I'd happily go and see some of those bands again who are still active, especially eg. Jeff Beck, Sonata Arctica, and Pintandwefall, who I'm going to narrowly miss next week in Finland :(

So, last week. Last Wednesday I went down to the Cotswolds for my godfather's memorial service. I had only met him a couple of times; he and my Dad were in the same regiment, but as is so typical with Army life, their paths diverged and I only met him at all after my Mum died. So, I went down wanting to find out more about him, and also I guessed there'd be a few people there who might recall our parents.
Tony Hymas, on the left, with Jeff Beck and Terry Bozzio
And all that was so, and I'm glad I made the trip. It did require some application; I had some shirts ironed, and my black suit saw the light of day for the first time for some years. You should appreciate the kind of area I'm talking about, not just well to do, but an old school upper middle class England which has almost vanished. It's been a long time since I sang in church, 'He who would valiant be...' Anyway, I was glancing down the service sheet, and it happened to mention the vicar etc. And who do you think was the organist? A certain Tony Hymas; this was a familar name. I sought out the vicar, and yes indeed he had had a career as a rock musician. He was the keyboardist with Jeff Beck at the first of those concerts mentioned above.

I like this. I'm not sure it really entitles me to list him separately, but it tickles me to be able to say I've attended two gigs by him. After a fashion!

31 Dec 2016

'Best Films of 2016'

The inverted commas are because this isn't going to be that at all.
When I had a blog before, like a lot of people I would present my own lists of the year's best films and music though I don't think I ever got round to doing a books lists as well. I hope I never pretended to be demonstrating any kind of definitive judgement. For one thing, who except for a professional critic can claim to have seen/listened to/read enough of a year's output to be qualified to cite the 'best'?
This year in particular has been thin for me as regards new films or records. I've only been out to see a handful of films, and I only bought two or three records. As for books, oddly enough there are encouraging signs of a revival of my reading, but not of new books - I find it really hard to get interested in the marketing of the publishing world, even more than in the music industry.

However, I'm not impervious to pop culture around the movie industry. I regret this, because it's an aspect of the way that Hollywood production and distribution has marginalised almost all of the more interesting examples of film making. It's not that critics don't try and talk up the better non-Hollywood films, but even if you listen to them, you'll still find it hard to go and see one. So, here are a few remarks about films I have seen, or at least, the ones I can actually remember.

I saw Room last January, in fact it was really a 2015 film. I was, as they say, blown away. I thought it was an astonishing piece of film making and it's still affecting to think back on it now. I reckoned that I wouldn't see a better film all year, and indeed I didn't. I've already commented on Jason Bourne, and that was a good example of my feelings about 'franchise' films this year. I hate that word, but it does underline the nature of that kind of cinema as product. I had similar reactions to the latest Star Trek film, and the new Star Wars effort which outdid the others in unashamedly retreading the same plot of previous films. What else? Oh I dunno, but it hardly matters. Let's be honest, I could have made more effort to see better films. My biggest miss was Arrival, which from the sound of it I'd have loved, being an actual proper science fiction film. But December has too much else going on, for me.

The half dozen records I bought were decently good; worth mentioning were Scandinavian Music Group's Baabel and a collection from Vibravoid who I saw down in Exeter. I think I should also give a shout out to estimable bluesy rock and rollers the Sugar Shakers. Being related to one of the band is neither here nor there - I can say that their disc One Lump or Two? is the only new record of mine this year which has had an unprompted "Hey this is good Mark" comment from someone. But my music experiences this year really amount to a handful of live concerts - the most memorable being the David Bowie Tribute concert I attended in Helsinki - and my listening, which mostly takes place in my car. And more than anything else I listened to Jenni Vartiainen - any of her three albums - and SMG, especially Manner and Baabel.

I've already posted about the book which made most impact on me this year, The Citadel of the Autarch. I'm currently reading another long effort, very different in genre, but unfortunately shelved during this hectic end of December. I'll write about it in due course, because it's turned out to be much more involving than I expected, and it's made me very cross at times...
That's it, and quite enough considering I was claiming not to have done much culturally. But I've a lot to look forward to in 2017, in films and music and books, so let's hope that post is much more productive and interesting :)

11 Nov 2016

Jason Bourne

I enjoyed this, but felt at the same time that it was a standard Bourne-by-the-numbers plot. Maybe the swerve away from the usual style of title in this film series, to simply stating his name, underlines that. I found the Bourne series addictive from the beginning, but with this film I wondered if I'd rather they'd let it lie. Oh, if they make another (ha ha - that's the first spoiler, isn't it - Bourne doesn't die in this film!) I'll definitely go and see it, but hoping against hope that they can come up with something more surprising than this one. Let's pick at a few points.

First, I'm supremely unimpressed by yet another girlfriend being bumped off (2nd spoiler, sorry), purely to give Bourne some motivation. Just as I liked Franke Potente's Maria, so I liked Julia Stiles as Nicky Parsons. Both of them great actresses, who made their characters interesting. There's a point in the film where it looks like Alicia Vikander as Heather Lee is becoming drawn to Bourne in a personal manner all too familiar; you'll probably tell me that the story's outcome subverts that expectation, but I'll say, wait and see what happens with any further episode. So: for me, the Bourne series seems unable to make anything of its apparent desire to throw some feminist light on proceedings.

Second, there is a lot of car chasing in this film, which is no surprise. But all the frenetic action is being driven to excess, and one thing I used to like about the Bourne films were the quieter moments. Sometimes, moments of relative safety, which would throw Bourne's tortured persona into relief, his fractured human edges exposed. Alternately, moments of extreme tension, invisible for anyone unconnected to this drama, walking through that square or that cafe, all apparent calm on the surface, but for Bourne, scenes full of meaningful, even threatening detail. However, too much was just noise in Jason Bourne. There's a humongous car chase scene near the end, set in Las Vegas, which seemed to me to be an attempt to break The Blues Brothers's famous record for the most cars smashed up in a movie. But I actually found my attention wandering as it went on and on. Was it possible, that such a spectacular car chase, littered with so many amazing stunts, could become - I hesitate to say this - tedious?

My next reservation is about something which really came to the fore in the third film, and is amply on show here, namely Bourne's near supernatural powers of recovery. In The Bourne Ultimatum, there's a moment which some might like to call 'jumping the shark', when Bourne reverses off the roof of a car park, hits the ground, and yet somehow walks away. In Jason Bourne, our hero takes a lot of damage but not only does he survive but he carries on and more than once that includes chasing and beating up an enemy. In fact, he gets shot and manages that. I've never been shot, but I've heard it convincingly explained that no matter who you are, a bullet is a massive shock to the body. It definitely slows you down for a while.

Lastly, there's the language of the script, and the film's ideas, and I suspect that with both the film's weakness derives from the same thing, the absence of scriptwriter Tony Gilroy whose hand can be seen in the script for all four previous Bourne films. There's something lacking in the dialogue, which was always grating in its perpetual use of alpha-male corporate speak, and now comes across as just one dimensional. You could say that corporate types do talk like this, but the CIA would cease to function if this was all there was. They are, unfortunately, very smart people, but Tommy Lee Jones et al don't seem that way as they bluster and glare - their motivations merely look thoroughly unclever. And in my view for the same reason of a weak script, the film strives, but fails to inject the necessary complexity into the film's supposed major theme of the post-Snowden connected world. The portrayal of what I guess is the film's Facebook surrogate is thin and doesn't convince. All the discussion of that and the internet in general sounds like a poorly understood cobbling together of buzzwords.

Yes, I enjoyed it, mainly seeing a fantastic cast in action, even if they could and should have been given better quality meat to chew on. I guess it's too much to hope that the series could ever hit the heights of The Bourne Supremacy again.