Saturday, February 24, 2018

Beauty and the Brutalist exhibition

Despite – or because of – only getting a handful of Instagram likes or Flickr faves, I am having a one-man show of my photography, illustrations, collages and ‘unmotivational slogans’ (otherwise known as Barnacles) in St Ives, Cornwall, throughout March. No, not at the Tate St Ives, but round the corner, by the bus station, opposite the cinema, at:

Café Art
The Drill Hall
Chapel Street
St Ives
Cornwall TR26 2LR

The private (though public!) view is on Saturday 3rd March, 7:30-9pm.

Large posters, smaller prints, postcards and more for sale from 50p to £50.

See you there!

Previously on Barnflakes:
Barnflakes goes Cornwall
Notes on Cornish fiction
Celebrating Cornwall's mining heritage

Friday, February 23, 2018

Notes on...

A compendium of bit posts I’d been working on intermittently for months, none of which really got off the ground (mostly linked, it seems, now that I've put them all together, by my frustration with modern life and technology).

Hip hop and slow mo in the movies
Take a modern comedy – from The Hangover Part II to any Seth Rogen film – and you will find a perfectly ordinary, maybe even boring sequence of, usually, someone (mostly Rogen) getting out a car, or maybe some guys walking in an airport. The guys have to be white, geeky and mostly uncool. The de rigueur thing to do is put the scene in slow motion with some bangin’ hip hop on the soundtrack. The effect is one of high irony.

Now, don’t get me wrong, slow motion + music in a movie is one of my favourite things, ever, but this has been overdone to death. Does Seth ever do it in real iife? Have hip hop blasting out of his stereo then get out of his car, like, really slowly? It would be hilarious! What I’d like to see in a film, though, is the natural opposite: presumably, a bunch of cool black dudes, sped up, with classical music on the soundtrack.

Smart and perfect
To me, the world is less perfect and possibly dumber than it ever has been, despite or more likely because of huge technological advances, most of which are a waste of time. So why am I hearing the words 'smart' and 'perfect' everywhere? Is it because we're all idiots?

I'm naturally wary of anything with the word 'smart' placed in front of it, such as smart cards, smart phones, smart motorways, smart meters and smart water (confusingly, smart water may refer to a pointless energy drink or a traceable liquid and forensic asset marking system, applied to items of value to identify thieves and deter theft). Before they all got so smart were they stupid?

I've mentioned office jargon – which exists in a world of its own – many times, and for the past year, the word 'perfect' has been bandied around in the office; it may have even taken over 'literally', and its meaning is literally just as pointless. I realise lots of words are said just to fill the air.

Traditionally, older siblings used to hand clothes down that no longer fitted to the younger sibling in the family – hence hand-me-downs. This was usually done with large families without much money – and before the days of Primark. Nowadays, the opposite is happening – parents and grandparents are being given their children's or grand children's technological hand-me-ups – in the form of smart phones and tablets, as youth abandon theirs on a yearly basis for newer models.

We want information now
There is nothing more annoying than being stuck on a train which stops in the middle of nowhere and not being told what the problem is by the driver or conductor. Nine times out of ten it's waiting at a red signal but whatever the problem is – leaves on the line, person on the line – we need the information immediately. It gives us a small sense of being in control of our lives, being informed, having knowledge, making sense of our wasted lives. Being ensconced in the digital age, this now applies to many aspects of our day-to-day living; we demand constant updates from our phones, tablets, TV, internet – be it from friends, work or the media. A major disaster, such as a terrorist attack, demands instant information and updates. Live BBC news updates ping on people's phones every few minutes, as if they're personally being notified (which is the point, of course). We must know, say, the number of victims, the makes of the vans, the nationality of the attackers. Similarly, the friend who is late to meet up gives a blow-by-blow account of their lateness via text: soz, train delayed; soz, just buying coffee, be there in 5 mins.

National Lonely Day
Nowadays there's a day for everything – aside from traditional celebrations such as Christmas and Easter there's also everything from Self-injury Awareness Day (1st March) to Dr. Seuss Day (2nd March). Mostly they're money-spinning, commercial enterprises (part of me thinks Christmas was invented by Coca-Cola) masquerading as good causes.

These are all well and good if you're popular, but what's worse than being single on Valentine's Day or being billy no mates on your birthday or having no family at Christmas? All these are terrible days for those who have nothing to celebrate all year round – their lives are on repeat, getting nowhere, dead end jobs, no friends or family – and there are a lot of them out there. We need to celebrate these unfortunate souls.

What I'm suggesting is National Lonely Day. Those who are popular have to spend it on their own to see what it feels like; those who are lonely get to, erm, spend it with other lonely people?

Doing It Yourself
Having recently read the complete short stories of W. Somerset Maugham, it dawned upon that if you were an English gentleman or lady of even limited means, up until the 1930s anyway, it was normal to have servants to wait upon you. One of Maugham's stories concerned a single man with a slight job in the civil service, living in a small flat in Westminster; he nevertheless needed a cook, charwoman (who he slept with, naturally) and manservant to function.

In the old days, rich and even not so rich people used to have everything done for them by servants, butlers and cooks. Some still do today. But generally, today more than any other time, despite – or because of – technology and so-called leisure time, we have to do virtually everything ourselves (though I realise there are apps to control every aspect of our lives – to open and close blinds; control the thermostat, turn lights on and off etc, all saving approximately, oh, about five seconds of our precious time). Dress ourselves, get the train to work, buy clothes and food and pointless consumer items, cook, fix stuff, go out, read self-help books, work all day and all night on computers. Everything now is about the individual – by which I mean it's selfish. We like to own things – books or DVDs, say, whereas in the past watching a film was a collective thing: it wasn't owned, it was experienced.

It sometimes seems like technology is taking over our lives. But on a day-to-day basis, my life is pretty similar to what it would have been like fifty years ago. I walk to the train station, get on an over-crowded train, walk to the shops, read, watch TV, cook, eat etc.

Random Film Review: Blade Runner 2049
Dir: Denis Villeneuve | USA | 2017 | 163mins. (i.e. 20 mins. too long)

First it was when we saw Gravity at the cinema in Marble Arch – it was a freezing night and there was no heating in the place and the seats were cramped – we felt like we were trapped in space with Sandra Bullock (can't think of anything worse).

Then last night, just before seeing Blade Runner 2049 at the lovely East Dulwich Picturehouse, the sky turned dark and red, and the wind turned blustery. It turned out not be some elaborate form of experiential advertising, but tropical air and dust from the Sahara, a remnant of storm Ophelia. Nevertheless, it got us in the right post-apocalyptic frame of mind for the film.

NB: The original Blade Runner film from 1982 is set in the year 2019 – who ever imagined that year would be just around the corner? Where the hell are the flying cars?

Random Film Review: Independence Day
Dir: Roland Emmerich | USA | 1996 | 145mins.

American foreign policy seems to be the same whether it's fact or fiction; whether they're up against Muslims, the Vietnamese, monsters, King Kong (saw Kong: Skull Island recently; against my better judgement, quite liked it) or aliens: it's always invade first, bomb first (even here in the UK last year, the public – i.e. The Daily Mail – were against Corbyn because of his pro-peace and anti-Trident views; the idea of peace bizarrely seems a sign of weakness). And so it is with Independence Day – which I saw on the day it came out, in Berkeley, California. It was frightening – the audience were yooping, cheering, standing up and applauding any time an American shot or bombed an alien... I'd never experienced anything like it. Feminist sci-fi (can we call that a sub-genre?) such as the recent Arrival or Contact suggests – even though they're from Venus – a feminine touch (though obvs not Ripley in Alien) is a more peaceful way to dealing with extraterrestrials.

But anyway – how is Independence Day not the Top Gun of sci-fi movies? No, I don't even mean Harvey Feirstein (the overly camp character in the first movie), or the gay couple in Independence Day: Resurgence, that's been well documented online. I mean Captain Steven Hiller (played by Will Smith), his buddy Marine Captain Jimmy Wilder (Harry Connick Jr) and their locker room antics. Wilder calls Hiller Big Daddy; Wilder gets down on his knees in front of him in the locker room, as if about to give Hiller a BJ – but, no, even better, he opens up a small box to reveal a wedding ring!

Anyway, I always identified most with Jeff Goldblum in the film – i.e. he reminds me of me; tall, geeky, into recycling, chess and cycling.
 And the only sane voice in a mad world.

Random Film Review: The Perfect Storm
Dir: Wolfgang Petersen | USA | 2000 | 130mins.

All the men wear baseball caps and stink of fish but are good-looking, rugged, sea-faring guys. Their women, by contrast, are ugly as sin and all look twenty years older than their menfolk, probably because they spend all their time worrying about them out at sea fishing, as they sit in the same bar every day listening to endless Bruce Springsteen songs on the jukebox.

Top ten heaths
1. Hampstead Heath
2. Heathcliff
3. Heath Ledger
4. Blackheath
5. Heath Robinson
6. Edward Heath
7. Heathrow Airport
8. Albury Heath
9. The one in Macbeth
10. Michael Heath

Every night, like Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon, I sit in my trailer with the trashed TV and hungry dog, pint of whisky on the table, gun in one hand, other hand holding my iPhone with my finger poised on the delete account button in Instagram, sweat pouring down my temples. What's the point of it all?

I spend a lot of time in the trailer thinking about photography and social media. What makes a good photo? What makes someone popular? What makes a photograph get lots of likes? The idea of the picturesque, the selfie and the snapshot (socially and historically, I think the snapshot is probably the most important photo genre but it's generally over-looked and not taken seriously by both amateur or professional photographers) overwhelm Instagram. Since the birth of photography, it has tried to emulate ideas of beauty as seen in painting, the dominant visual medium for a thousand years before photography. Landscapes, sunsets, still lives. Not much has changed in over a hundred years. We appreciate a beautiful photograph because it reminds us of something we've already seen, perhaps a million times. That photo of a sunset may look just like every other sunset photo we've ever seen, but that's the point; it reminds us of a sunset. It captures it. We don't like to see photos of things we can't relate it, or haven't seen before.

There used to be a phrase 'A picture tells a thousand words'. Now it seems an Instagram photo needs a thousand words to describe it. It's all about the narrative, the story. Mystery? Pah! If there's a picture of a landscape, the accompanying text will be something like, 'It was a beautiful, frosty morning. I walked up the hill early with so-and-so. The going was tough. We had some sweets on the way. We waited to get this amazing photo then went home' (accompanying photo of a bland landscape).

Though it's lost its popularity and coolness, I still opt for Flickr as photo app of choice; at least the pictures are bigger than Instagram. Either way, though, it's still all a popularity contest.

Alan Lomax: song hunter
It's embarrassing admitting it but my first introduction to the work of Alan Lomax was probably through Moby's Play album. We've all got to start somewhere. Folklorist, musicologist, archivist, writer, singer, filmmaker, photographer, DJ, producer (hundreds of radio shows, TV programmes, films, records and concerts), anthropologist, political activist, lobbyist and social theorist doesn't even come close to describing his lifelong (he started recording folk singers across the States in the car with his father as a child – why isn't there a road movie about this?) and ceaseless dedication to collecting and preserving folk music. Like his near-contemporary Paul Bowles, Lomax 'discovered', worked with, or came into contact with a who's who of American cultural giants including Zora Neale Hurston, Orson Welles, the Roosevelts, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Jelly Roll Morton, Margaret Mead, Pete Seeger, Nicolas Ray, Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters and Carl Sagan.

Carmen updated
Carmen is a factory girl working in the cigarette factory in Seville. She falls in love with her boss, wealthy with a wife and two children. One of the children, aged 16, is in love with the factory girl. The wife has a terrible accident in the cigarette machine, where she loses all her fingers. Her fingers turn up some time later, intact, in packs of cigarettes.

Previously on Barnflakes:
Notes on

Saturday, February 10, 2018

When I'm cleaning records*

(*To be sung to the tune of George Formby singing When I'm Cleaning Windows, first heard in the 1936 film Keep Your Seats, Please.)

I don't usually advertise products on this blog, but for Christmas I was given a record cleaning machine called Spin Clean Record Washer MKII. It has mostly** good reviews online. It's pretty rudimentary, basically a plastic cleaning bath with two rollers on the ends; distilled or deionised water (£2 for a large bottle from Halfords; tap water can cause limescale build-up on records) is placed in the bath, along with the cleaning fluid; the record is then placed in the bath, in between two brushes; the record is manually turned a few times clockwise and anticlockwise, taken out and dried. That's it. Not exactly state of the art. I didn't even use it for weeks, afraid it wouldn't work.

But I did need one. Regular readers will gather that the majority of my four hundred records come from charity shops (and cost no more than £1 or £2). Most of them are covered in grime, dust, dirt and fingerprints from over forty years of (mis)usage.

Previous attempts at cleaning vinyl had been with a carbon filter cleaner and a Cambra Discmaster – both small, brush-like, anti-static and dust cleaners, and both completely useless. They'd get rid of static but the dust would just go round and round the record. And they didn't go deep. I had tried cleaning records in the sink, with warm water and washing up liquid. This was cumbersome and messy, but worked, until I was advised not to use tap water.

I had toyed with getting each record professionally cleaned at a record shop at £5 a record. But having only paid £1 for each record in the first place, this seemed a bit counter productive. A professional record cleaner can cost up to thousands of pounds to buy, as this list shows.

Anyway, being at a loose end these dark, cold, winter evenings, I embarked on the cleaning process with the Spin Clean (being just one of a variety of vinyl washers; other good ones include the Vinyl Style Deep Groove Record Washer and the Knosti Record Washing Machine). Aside from anything else, I was surprised to find a therapeutic reward in the manual process. It was extremely satisfying taking a manky record, spinning it round a few times and ending up with a lovely, shiny piece of vinyl.

But the sound? Well, I had albums such as Blood on the Tracks, Blue, Nebraska, Horses, Bitches Brew, Music for 18 Musicians and Kaya, to name just a few – all of which had previously sounded muffled and sometimes didn't play at all, the needle skipping over all the tracks to the end of the record with a kind of zzzwwwipppp sound (the kiss of death) – totally transformed after cleaning and sounding clear and crisp, just like new in fact. It can't perform miracles and remove scratches – Nick Cave's Murder Ballads will unfortunately always be heard with crackles and pops – but 95% of my records now sound fantastic.

(**Giving people a chance to voice their own opinion was never a good idea. It's called the internet and everyone has their belief. Reading online reviews for anything – a pub, vacuum cleaner, album or film, say – is utterly pointless, seeing as even reviewing something as seemingly objective as a vacuum cleaner, or indeed a record cleaner (as opposed to something more subjective such as a film or restaurant) results in a one-star review ("crap") next to a five-star review ("amazing") for the same product. Which do you believe? Neither, probably.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Top ten most difficult fiction books to read

1. Gravity's Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon
Other online lists of difficult books to read contain such novels as The Metamorphosis, Catch 22, Heart of Darkness, Cloud Atlas, The Corrections, Midnight's Children, Vernon Little God and Lolita (all of which I read with ease). By comparison, Gravity's Rainbow makes these books the literary equivalent of Peter Rabbit.

I bought Gravity's Rainbow as a wide-eyed, innocent art student some twenty-five years ago. Like many, I'd started it a few times but never got further than a few pages in. Then about six months ago, I decided to read it. And yes, it took six months (I read other books in between, mind) but I finished it. I didn't say I understood it all. Or even half of it. Maybe it would have helped if I was more intelligent, with some knowledge of quantum physics, German, Latin, history, warfare, chemistry, maths and early German cinema. Helpfully, it also has lashings of sex and drugs, as well as nonsense poems, songs and limericks, and such an array of styles (making it difficult to imagine it was written by one person, like Naked Came The Stranger, the 1960s literary hoax that was actually written by twenty-four journalists) that if I didn't get one style, I might understand the next.

With a cast of over 400 characters (most annoyingly, though, the central character – well, who I thought was the central character until he vanished for hundreds of pages – Tyrone Slothrop, well, it wouldn't leave my head that Owen Wilson would be perfect to play him in the unfilmable film adaption of the novel), a prose style denser than lead, a convoluted plot that jumps backwards and forewords in time (without letting me know!), it's been understandably compared to Ulysses and Moby-Dick as one of the most difficult novels to read. (1999's Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson has also been compared to it, a Gravity's Rainbow for the digital age, or some such soundbite, which I adored and devoured in a matter of days. It has, you know, developed characters and a plot. In the 1970s, Gravity's Rainbow felt like the start of a new post-modern genre of fractured story telling, but this genre understandably didn't really take off, and books with traditional characters and plot continued to rule the day.)

It's a mostly fascinating read anyway. With some quirky facts, such as it was Fritz Lang in his 1929 film Woman in the Moon who invented the rocket countdown. Fact.

2. Naked Lunch – William Burroughs
Or anything by Burroughs. He didn't invent his cut-up technique for easy reading.

3. Under the volcano – Malcolm Lowry
Dense and fragmented. I can't remember why I went through a Lowry phase but I read all his novels (ie two, plus some short stories), and his biography (Pursued by Furies: A Life of Malcolm Lowry), which was far more fun to read than Lowry's fiction.

4. Riddly Walker – Russell Hoban
This is written in English but not quite as know it, a mix of Joyce, Burgess, Chaucer and, er, Kent dialect, which takes a while to get used to, but it's well worth it.

5. A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
Like Riddley Walker, this cult classic invents its own language, a mix of English slang and Russian. At least it's short. 

6. Captain Corelli's Mandolin – Louis de Bernières
A popular book and an awful film. I found the book hard to read and tremendously dull. 

7. The Ginger Man – J. P. Donleavy
One of the funniest books I've ever read, but pretty dense.  

8. Fifty Shades of Grey – E. L. James
Don't get me wrong; difficult books to read don't have to be pretentious, weighty, 1000-page long stream-of-consciousness affairs (but it helps). They can also be so bad it's impossible to get past the first few pages. With a prose style about as exciting as a shopping list, this was apparently quite popular. The film is meant to be even worse.

9. Bridget Jones's Diary – Helen Fielding
This one does start with a list (food consumed today). Couldn't get past the first few pages. In the 1970s there was The Female Eunuch; in the 1990s we have Bridget Jones. That's progress.

10. Auto-da-Fé – Elias Canetti
I can't remember much about this one. Canetti's short travel book about Morocco, The Voices of Marrakesh, which I picked up in a secondhand bookshop in Indonesia, is far more rewarding.