Sunday, January 31, 2010

Japanese films

Last night I watched a DVD of the Japanese film, Tony Takitani, directed by Jun Ichikawa a few years ago and based on the novel by Haruki Murakami. It’s a strange, short (75 mins) affair about a lonely boy who grows up to be a lonely man until he falls in love with a young woman obsessed with buying designer-clothes. The atmosphere is of slow left-to-right pans in uncluttered interiors set to languid piano music by Ryuichi Sakamoto.

But what’s really interesting is the accompanying Making Of movie which is actually longer than the film it’s about. The shock is that the entire film was shot outdoors, with half-open sets constructed on a stage in a vacant lot in Yokohama. Why? Hard to know - it wasn't really explained. But there was a lumiscence about it, and if you looked closely you could occasionally see a strand of hair blown across a face. Amazingly it didn't rain through the entire shoot.

It got me leafing through Donald Richie’s A 100 Years of Japanese Film. Here’s my Top 10:

- Tokyo Story (Ozu, 1953)
- Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, 1954)
- In the Realm of the Senses (Oshima, 1976)
- Sansho the Bailiff (Mizoguchi, 1954)
- Spirited Away (Miyazaki, 2001)
- Tokyo Drifter (Suzuki, 1966)
- Shall We Dance (Suo, 1996)
- Elegant Beast (Kawashima, 1962)
- Woman in the Dunes (Teshigahara, 1964)
- Godzilla (Honda, 1954)

No room for Takeshi Kitano…

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The best laid plans

We'd been planning this for months: lunch at a small cafe (near where we live which Liz had been to but I hadn't), a mooch around Chinatown (which Liz knows well but I don't), and a wander along Khao San Road, the backpacker area across town (which I've been to a couple of times, Liz never). This involved me taking an afternoon off work and Liz arranging her schedule, cover for picking up the girls etc. We're not super-busy - just busy like everyone else.

I got home a bit late. Then some faffing around with our broken printer. We'd bring it along with us and drop it off for repair after lunch. Lug it to the cafe. Lunch was nice, normally busy but by now it was 2pm and we were the only ones there. Jump into a taxi. After awful traffic, finally arrive at the service centre to drop off the printer. Fixing it may cost as much as buying a new one. Then it begins to chuck it down so we're trapped amongst the Brothers and Hewlett Packards. Weird: it's not supposed to rain at all in January and yet we've had a few days like this. Impossible to go out in it. Hang around wondering what to do. Finally it lets up but the traffic doesn't. I know, we'll pick up my coat (a seldom seen article of clothing in Thailand) which I'd taken to a tailor's round the corner. Done. New lining looks good, and walked out with a new pair of boots too, amazing value at 50 quid.

Chinatown and Khao San Road were now pipe dreams so we decided to walk to the Night Market via Lumphini Park. It's a wonderful place: old people doing Tai Chi or 'ballroom' dancing', two great playgrounds full of children, mass aerobics, lots and lots of trees, an outdoor gym full of good-humoured muscle-men, couples in pedalos on the lake, joggers, cyclists, roller-bladers, classical music on Sunday afternoons from one of those classic bandstands, with picnicing audience... The only thing you have to watch out for are the monitor lizards which are huge (up to 2 metres). We spot a swimming pool which we'd never seen before and a youth centre. The rain was so heavy, there are leaves covering the ground. It feels like autumn.

Cross the road to the Night Maket... at 4.30pm. They're just beginning to set up their stalls. We explore its farthest reaches, parts we didn't know existed. Then settle down for a coffee at Doitung's. Chat chat chat. Really nice to spend time together without the children, not at home, and not as planned. Sometimes we plan too much. This afternoon was refreshing. Chinatown and Khao San Road can wait till another day.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Books about music

I’ve just finished reading Simon Armitage’s Gig and am halfway through Mark Radcliffe’s Thank You for the Music. Last year it was Stuart Maconie’s Cider with Roadies and Ian Clayton’s Bringing it all Back Home. What do they have in common? You probably already know this, but they’re all Northerners writing about how they’ve grown up with music and its continued importance in their lives. They’re well written, full of English self-deprecation, and very funny… except the last chapter in Clayton’s book which had me in tears (the regular kind) on a flight from Philippines to Singapore, sitting next to a nun. And they have all, at some time or other, been in bands, except Clayton.

The authors are all about my age, which means we grew up with the same music. Bowie doing Starman on TOTP, Roxy Music, a fair amount of Prog (like Maconie I had an early fixation with Focus), the epiphany of punk, Peel, the music papers (remember them?), and into the 80s with whoever took your fancy. It’s amazing how important those formative, teenage years were. We were lucky to grow up in the 70s. A bleak decade in many ways, but musically it was incredibly exciting and varied. Glam, prog, Krautrock, punk, new wave, the untouchable Bowie (then and only then), Abba, the glory days of Eno, Reich & Glass and of course Pan’s People. Methinks, there’s nothing so rich nowadays?

Thursday, January 28, 2010


(A Sun headline if ever there was one). I went to the opening of a great exhibition last night: Japanese Bamboo: Tracing the Legend of Beppu Craftsmanship. OK, so we know bamboo is the fastest growing plant on earth (over a metre in 24hrs in some cases) and pandas like it, and that it’s often used as building material, including scaffolding in East Asia, and that you can make great wind & percussion instruments out of it. And then there’s baskets and stuff – think Homebase and Habitat... Or not! What I hadn’t realised was just how refined and contemporary such artefacts could be if put in the hands of highly-skilled craftsmen. The exhibition had maybe 100 such objects, each an exquisite piece of form & function – or maybe just form in some cases. Expensive though: some sell for as much as $12,000. Have a look:

The venue, Thailand Creative and Design Centre, is worth a mention. It sits on top of a shopping mall in central Bangkok. Apart from its exhibition space, shop and great cafĂ©, it has what is probably the world’s finest library of design & architecture books. Thousands of books, DVDs, magazines, even materials. Membership is 20 quid a year. Lucky Thais.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Top 10 Albums 2009

Time was when I would be hard-pressed to whittle down the scores of contenders for my Top 10 Albums of the year. Alas, a combination of getting older, the differing musical preferences of my family, living in a city with no record shops, being sent great compilations by one particular friend (and not following them up), and preferring the old stuff, means that I am now officially out of touch. However, and in no particular order, I’ve just about managed it:

- Pet Shop Boys Yes etc
- Ryuichi Sakamoto Playing the Piano / out of noise
- Whitetree Cloudland
- Piano Magic Ovations
- Jah Wobble & the Chinese Dub Orchestra Chinese Dub
- Thom Yorke The Eraser RMXS
- Four Tet My Angel Rocks Back and Forth EP
- O Yuki Conjugate OYC25
- Janek Schaefer Phoenix & Phaedra Holding Patterns
- Wire Best Of

The Schaefer one isn’t actually available in any releasable form but you can hear it in all its gorgeousness on his website: . And the Wire is a cheat as I did it myself. The question is: will I be able to scrape together 10 for ’10?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Andrew Cox RIP

A year ago today, Andrew Cox died. I knew Andrew for nearly 30 years. I can still remember the day we first met, at univ in October ‘79. We shared a passion for weird music which led to forming a ‘band’ and recording our own stuff on-and-off throughout the ‘80s and a little beyond.

When not making music we would talk about literature & life, write stuff, and plan art projects together. The one about covering St Paul’s Cathedral in bread & butter springs to mind. It was meticulously worked out over numerous pints in the Black Swan in Pimlico. We even tested it out. Emboldened by booze we got on the central line, ordered a one-side slice of bread & butter and stuck it onto Wren’s masterpiece. That was in 1987. I’m ashamed to say that the stain is still there.

There was a spell when we were absorbed in automatic writing – taking it in turn to write words or sentences to lyrics, stories, even the first scene of an unpublishable play. We’d be so absorbed in this that I remember the bar staff in a Southend pub commenting that we must be gay. We jumped into a pond after a Hawkwind concert for no real reason. We sent 50 postcards to a friend bearing the words “Gareth Hunt”. Once I remember us carrying a rented ARP Odyssey to a friend’s house in Brighton (neither of us had a car). One of us had made a joke which provoked guffaws, howls of laughter and ultimately hysterical tears. God knows what passers-by must have thought of two blokes, weeping uncontrollably while carrying an expensive, heavy synthesizer up the Queen’s Road. I still can’t remember what the joke was. In another watering hole we would argue passionately about whether, for example, design was art, until an exasperated friend who had become a spectator to the ‘conversation’ told us to “Shut up!”.

After such events, we’d often get down to the business of recording some music, usually at Andrew’s place, wherever that was. We were the archetypal dodgy synth band from the Cassette Era that never grew up. Korg MS10, drum-machine, a portastudio, too many influences by half, and never quite the ambition to really make a go of it. That said, as MFH we released five cassette albums in the early 1980s, one LP as Pump in 1987, some concerts (sometimes with an audience) and a CD, also as Pump, in 1993. Actually, the last one didn’t quite happen, then at least, but I’ll come back to that.

Sadly, we drifted apart as our day jobs took over. Andrew was a computer programmer, a very good one, but he had his personal demons. Periods of depression turned to alcoholism, but he beat it off at the end of the 90s and I have happy memories of an outwardly contented, sociable Andrew at my wedding – just before my work took me to Japan and Thailand for most of the last decade.

Distance meant that we didn’t see too much of each other in the ‘00s but we would often meet up when I came back home on holiday or business. Sadly, the last few years saw Andrew revert to drink and the last time I saw him was in July 2008. He knew how perilous his situation was, yet seemed calm and almost optimistic. He died on 26 January 2009.

As an epilogue, Pump’s second CD, Sombrero Fallout, will be released in the Spring of this year on Plague Recordings. If not turning in his grave, I think Andrew would appreciate the irony.

Monday, January 25, 2010

And about time too

As a debut blog, this is necessarily brief and unapologetically dull. They'll get better. But first, let's get sthg up there and make sure the page looks halfway decent. So, until next time...