The Fugs of January (on ‘Rogue Male’ and landscape)

January has been up to its usual vile tricks in 2019, throwing the not entirely unexpected curve ball of illness (there feels like a ten day void in my memory as a result of flu) and the rather more surprising visit of the OFSTED inspectors (ironically on the day after I had finally dragged my aching and still befuddled soul into school). Still, what doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger and all that nonsense, right? Right. So The OFSTED have buggered off and promised to leave us alone for another four years (Hurrah!) and the flu has done likewise, only without the same implicit promise (indeed I have strong suspicions it’ll be back around the same time again next year).

One frustrating effect of the Illness And OFSTED double whammy has been the slowing in my reading habits. That said, I did manage to speed through Geoffrey Household’s magical ‘Rogue Male’ in the tail-end fug of flu. Now I am no aficionado of the thriller genre but it struck me reading ‘Rogue Male’ that here is the bridge between John Buchan’s rip-roaring adventure yarns of Richard Hannay’s derring-do and the more psychologically charged tomes of Eric Ambler (still my top thriller writer of choice) and Le Carre. A cover blurb quote tells us that the 1930s ‘Rogue Male’ is (still) “Simply the best escape and pursuit story yet written” and whilst that may be true it is a quote that focuses solely on the obvious narrative of the novel and ignores the fact that, in my reading at least, ‘Rogue Male’ is a book about landscape and (quite literally) our connection to the earth. It reads like an almost hallucinatory anticipation of a utopian hippie idealism hinged on a trigger point of the rejection of fascist threats and as such it feels astonishingly prescient and strangely contemporary. Seen through that contemporary lens indeed it would be easy to view Household’s novel as the smudged blueprint for any number of middle-class hipsters’ mid-life crisis books that unfold with the premise of “I decided to spend A Year in The Country in order to Get Away From Technology and to Reconnect With The Earth (and to write a book about it, OBVS)”. Not that I’m cynical, but hey…

In the best spirit of embracing contradictions then let me also say that reading ‘Rogue Male’ resonated strongly with my own interest in landscape, by which I mean that I’ve been thinking about landscape a lot in the last couple of months, specifically around the notion that landscape touches/doesn’t touch me; that landscape is so difficult to capture well (in painting, photography, text, whatever media you choose); that landscape is real/not real; that landscape is natural/not natural. Will I take a year to think, write, illustrate, explore landscape myself? Possibly. Will I write (a) blog/book about it? Almost certainly/certainly not.

Stephen Prince did this (kinda) with his ‘A Year In The Country’ blog and book which I have also been (kinda) enjoying through the January fugs. The areas that Prince explores are often those that historically I have found peripherally intriguing yet simultaneously struggle to fully connect with. So all that folkloric film and seventies childrens’ TV: I have vague recollections of seeing stuff like ‘The Changes’ at the time but in reality they clearly did not have the same impact on me as they did on people like Prince (and it sometimes feels like almost the entirety of my friends in the virtual sphere, which is to say the only friends I have in the 21st Century which is probably true of all of us and that’s not criticism as much as observation) and that’s just fine. There IS something intriguing about the (electric) technological intervention in landscape that intrigues me but the more I think about it the more certain I am that this interest is almost entirely on a visually aesthetic basis. Sure, there is something mildly interesting in notions of (ancient) power trails over landscapes but I’m no Julian Cope and I still cannot help but treat that kind of dark folkloric spiritualism with a hefty amount of (modernist) scepticism.

I suspect this scepticism, cynicism, wilful misunderstanding (call it what you will) may be a thread that most obviously filters through my own investigations of landscapes in the year(s) ahead but I may yet surprise myself. In the meantime, here are some photographs of electricity pylons.

“I don’t know dude.” Or: the creative process unpacked

Several musician friends this morning retweeted the above thought by Mitski. I’ve enjoyed some of Mitski’s records (last year’s ‘Be the Cowboy’ had some great moments and often put me in mind of Jens Lekman) but I found the tweet even more interesting: “every song i write feels like the last song I’ll ever write, and the moment it’s done I fully forget how I did any of it lol. if artists were fully honest in interviews half our answers to Qs about “process” would probably be “i don’t know dude””. Perhaps unsurprisingly it is the reference to process that interests me, or more specifically the explanation of process. This is something our students are expected to do as part of their art/photography GCSE and it is always one of the most difficult things for them to do. The phrase I keep using in class is “you need to tell the examiner what’s going on inside your head” and I’m always intrigued by the differing degrees of response to this. Some are able to unpack that thinking process fairly well (I model it all the time when we do one to one tutorial sessions) but other just don’t seem able to do it at all. Of course this is all tied into metacognition and we know from research that metacognition is perhaps the ‘strategy’ that has the single most positive impact on learning.

Now I understand artists’ wish to keep the secrets of their creative processes hidden because it maintains the mystery and magic and it may be that Mitski is being somewhat disingenuous with this tweet because I really believe that if someone asked the correct questions (‘tell me about your creative process’ is rarely a question that will get you to that answer) she would have some really interesting insights into what happens. Mitski might genuinely feel she ‘forgets’ how she has written any one song but the ‘secrets’ of that process are clearly woven into her neural pathways. She does know, but she seems to be telling herself (or us) that she doesn’t. Perhaps this is a self-preservation mode kicking in or perhaps it is, as I said, a somewhat disingenuous dodging of the issue in order to maintain the mystery.

This is fine because as an artist you don’t have any exams to pass where someone is going to judge you on your ability to explain your creative processes, but from an educational perspective it is critical. It brings to mind a research project I did around 20 years ago (when funding still existed to facilitate such things) exploring the creative process within film editing. My findings from that project were largely around unpacking the creative process and debunking the notion of creativity as some innate skill or ‘gift’ and this has driven much of my own thinking (and practice) in education in the intervening years. My favourite phrase for a time (apologies to the colleagues who must have wearied of hearing it) was “the creative process is the learning process and vice-versa” and an intrinsic part of that creative process is that very metacognition that we know leads to progress. Mitski might want to think about that if she ever needs to pass a GCSE in art..

What Not To Do

Breakfast reading for the past six months or has been The Atlantic Monthly magazine. This is attempt to both keep brain active and also avoid reading in any depth about Brexit and British Problems which all UK journals appear to be (probably) rightly obsessed with and which (probably) wrongly I have a desperate desire to avoid. Over toast (locally sourced sourdough, naturally) and coffee (black, naturally) I delved into article titled ‘Yes, America Can Still Lead The World’ (cheekily provocative title) wherein I was struck by a quote from Harvard economics professor Michael Porter who has apparently said that “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.” Immediately struck dumb by apparent obviousness of statement, resonance with what I’ve been saying for the past couple of years in leadership meetings (colleagues no doubt bored to tears by my constant refrain of ‘yes, but if we do that what are we Not Going To Do?’) and deceptive difficulty in carrying through on aforementioned quote.

By some strange quirk of coincidence this quote is read the day after teaching year 9 about notions of interdependence, for I think it is this idea of interdependence that is central to Porter’s observation. For if strategy is too complex, too convoluted, then surely this creates more opportunities for errors? Complex strategy that focuses exclusively on Things We Are Going To Do runs the risk of failing to predict the interactions of the multiple strategy actions we put in place. Better surely to say “we will do this, and by doing this it means we cannot/should not do that because if we do This AND That it will potentially cause The Other (where The Other is something unpleasant and counter-productive to the aim of the strategy)”.

What does this have to do with education? Well, a lot I think. One example would be the battle against The Content. A bad strategy would be predicated on all the students having to get through all the content regardless, whilst a good strategy would be predicated on ensuring students are securing knowledge before moving onto the next piece of content. In this instance the strategy of choosing What Not To Do is inherent in that decision to be prepared to possibly/probably/definitely not cover all of the content. Again, this is much easier to say/write than to do in practice, particularly for heavily knowledge based subjects and teachers who may be very Set In Their Ways (the words pot black and kettle spring to mind here to which I plead Guilty As Charged).

Another example might be around assessment/marking strategies and teacher workload. If a school leaders’ strategy is to lessen workload (and it possibly/probably/definitely should be) by implementing less frequent but still effective assessment schedules then it is in the interests of everyone to clearly communicate What Not To Do (e.g. DO NOT mark every piece of work, DO NOT mark every line of every piece of work etc). Focus of monitoring/EQ procedures could similarly align with this consideration of What Not To Do and be predicated on nudging colleagues away from those practices and into thoughts on What To Do With All That Gained Time! Strategies for which might include Reading The Atlantic Monthly magazine over breakfast. Well, it’s a thought, right?

The Unpopular Advent Mix – 2018

Disc 1
Fireworks – First Aid Kit
BB – Daphne & Celeste
When You’re Depressed – Go Kart Mozart
Unto the Earth – Last of the Easy Riders
Queen – Tracey Thorn
Fake Protest Song – Whyte Horses
Hemlock – Buffalo Tom
Forest mass – trappist afterland
The Old Guys – Amy Rigby
Berlin – Chaos Chaos
We Will Get There – Ray Davies
Sister’s Jeans – Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever
Sixty Second Window – Alison Statton & Spike
Wastelands – Suede

Disc 2
Bad Sugar – The Chills
The Seaside Town – Deerful
Sunset Drive – Deerful
Growing Older – Princess Chelsea
Of Their Bones – Oskar’s Drum
Love Is A Momentary Lapse In Self-Loathing – Malcolm Middleton
Free (The Original Memphis Recordings) – Primal Scream
Sucking in the Sun – Flo & Spicey
The Promised Land (Intro) – Bruce Springsteen
The Promised Land – Bruce Springsteen
All That Remains – The Left Outsides
Make Time For Love – The Goon Sax
Strange Light – The Goon Sax

Unpopular advent 2018 – Day 17

Princess Chelsea – The Loneliest Girl

There is a terrific moment towards the end of ‘The Loneliest Girl’’s closing track (the lovely ‘All I Need To Do’) in which Princess Chelsea sings about watching Springsteen and Little Steven singing ‘Promised Land’. Initially hearing the reference is something of a jarring moment, but then we quickly realise that it is the perfect connection for it punctures the notion of Springsteen as an essentially masculine figure and illuminates him as theatrical character (we’ll come back to this in a few days time), just as Princess Chelsea herself is a crafted Pop persona. And here we are again at this point where we celebrate Pop as theatre; Pop as the rejection of inherited definitions of authenticity.

‘The Loneliest Girl’ is a knowingly, lovingly constructed illusion housed within a carefully documented reality. Or is it the other way round? Certainly there appears to be an autobiographical narrative going on here but from the cover photograph/illustration to the songs themselves there is always the question mark hanging over concepts of truth and reality. Where does Chelsea Nikkel end and Princess Chelsea begin? Or indeed vice-versa. This is the eternal, essential Pop Star conundrum.

There is certainly something of Saint Etienne in Princess Chelsea too (the icy cool take on ‘And I Love Her’ would be her ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ if only the title track from this album hadn’t gone and made such a cheeky wonky photocopy of the Young vs Etienne classic), and since we are on the subject can I slip off on a momentary tangent and say how much I have been enjoying the 2018 re-issue of ‘Fox Base Beta’? It completely passed me by previously and though I was initially sceptical it really is rather tremendous, isn’t it? I’m aware too that this should not come as any sort of surprise really for when has anything involving Saint Etienne ever been less than magical?

When too has Princess Chelsea ever been anything less than magical? Certainly listening to The Loneliest Girl, then revisiting The Great Cybernetic Depression and L’il Golden Book (plus her terrific 2016 covers set ‘Aftertouch’) I’m struck that the answer is Pretty Much Never. Looking back too I have been reminded of those great Brunettes records (and man, there was another Springsteen reference right there in ‘Summer Love’ too) and let’s not forget that it’s Brunettes’ Jonathan Bree whose collaboration helps make ‘The Loneliest Girl’ so terrific and hey, wasn’t his own ‘Sleepwalking’ set just the best Magnetic Fields record that Stephin Merritt didn’t make in 2018? And whilst we are also on the caffeinated rush of writing, let’s also point out Chelsea’s contribution to a couple of cuts on that set returning the compliment as it were.

Glistening gems populate the entirety of ‘The Loneliest Girl’ but it’s to one of the most obviously autobiographical numbers that I keep coming back to. ‘Growing Older’ is a song about, well, growing older. Lyrically it is very straight and almost diaristic. Chelsea recounts facts and moments (“some of us are almost thirty /some of us are older” precedes the recounting of an encounter with a younger girl in a bar in which haircut envy appears to be the driving force of the observation) whilst metaphorically shrugging her shoulders and admitting that getting older is a lot more enjoyable that she might have thought a decade ago. A simple keyboard refrain roots the song whilst squalls of guitars and feedback seep into the background to lend texture and shade. This spacious sound stage on which Chelsea’s vocal drifts is not a million miles away from Molly Nilsson (whose terrific ’20/20′ set only just missed out on appearing here) or the gorgeous blissed out sparseness of Cara Dal Forno (whose 2016 ‘You Know What It’s Like’ set I somehow missed at the time despite adoring single ‘Fast Cars’). At its best (which is almost all of the time) Chelsea’s voice drifts over like Connie Stevens seducing Nico or Trish Keenan singing Ann-Margret numbers in that hillside meadow where we never did get to listen to Tracey Thorn. It’s a voice we at once recognise as being utterly familiar and yet simultaneously find ourselves being drawn into by the details of difference. It’s a good reference point for Princess Chelsea in general for she is an artist who can on the surface seem glimmeringly, glamorously Pop yet once the surface is touched the ripples reveal an intriguing and darker subterranean depth. To put it another way, Princess Chelsea is perhaps a Mrs Maisel of contemporary Pop. She’s certainly every bit as marvellous.

Unpop 168

resistance is the joy of holding your breath

Quiet, The Winter Harbor – Mazzy Star (from ‘Still’ EP)
24 Hour Drugstore – Marlaena Moore (from ‘Gaze’ LP. Bandcamp)
Feel Like Going Home – Alpaca Sports (from ‘From Paris With Love’ LP. Bandcamp)
Say You’ll Be Home For Christmas – White Town (from WIAIWYA ‘Stars’ LP (Bandcamp)
The Christmas Stick – Bubble and Squeak (digital single)
Respect The Labourers – Princess Chelsea (from ‘The Loneliest Girl’ LP. Bandcamp)
Radio Kids – Strand of Oaks (from ‘Hard Love’ LP. Bandcamp)
Tom Petty Karaoke – Amy Rigby (digital single. Bandcamp)
Say No – Oskar’s Drum (from ‘Degenerate Art’ LP. Bandcamp)
Poll – The Monkees (from ‘Head’ LP)
Lamplight – Bee Gees (from ‘Odessa’ LP)
Mars (Won’t Save Us) – The Room in the Wood (from ‘ The Mars EP’. Bandcamp)
100 Years From Now – Last of the Easy Riders (digital single. Bandcamp)
Videograms – The Twilight Sad (10″ single)
Sucking in the Sun – Flo & Spicey (from Flo & Spicey’s Tea Set’ LP. Bandcamp)
Flying – Hairband (from ‘Hairband’ EP. Bandcamp)
Playing as Punks – Free Love (from ‘Luxury Hits‘ LP)
October – NICHOLAS KRGOVICH (from ‘Ouch’ LP. Bandcamp)
This Is the Love – Norma Jean Wright (from ‘Norma Jean’ LP)
Heaven, Almost – Ralegh Long (digital single. Bandcamp)
A Hard Rain (Live At SPOC) – Chris T-T (from ‘In the Church With A Cold’. Bandcamp)

fumbling to press record

Unpopular Advent 2018 – Day 10

Chaos Chaos – Chaos Chaos

Let’s get this straight from the start: I find it close to impossible to be objective about Chaos Chaos, for Chaos Chaos have emerged from the chrysalis of (pre)teen sensations Smoosh whose debut piece of 7” vinyl was released on my little Unpopular label far too many years ago to bear thinking about. Ditto that cover piece in Plan B that sparked our interest and I’m sure that Jerry will appreciate the Dexy’s nod to start this piece. Our jigsaw puzzles may have slightly different pieces but they all fit, right? Right.

Oddly then (or not), the one area where I can be objective about Chaos Chaos is in saying that I have no idea where they are at or are coming from. This is a compliment, reflecting the fact that for some years now I have been delighted to find myself in that place where Contemporary Youth Culture(s) are now completely and utterly beyond the scope of, if not my understanding, certainly my interest. And whilst my day job ostensibly keeps me in touch with whatever The Young People are consuming in reality it merely serves to highlight the chasm that has emerged. Certainly though there is something of the importance of gender/identity politics at play in Chaos Chaos (heck, it’s implicit in their very name isn’t it?) and if this plays out most obviously in ‘Pink Politics’ it is also hinted at in the cover photograph which will forever put me in mind of Lee Miller’s iconic shot of young women in fire masks during WW2, and there can be few more valid feminist touchstones than Miller (frustratingly, they have since replaced that cover with a colour shot which, whilst it may be more fitting for the record is a disappointment to any photography nerd). As we said, our jigsaw puzzles may have slightly different pieces but they all fit, right? Right. Yet it strikes me from listening to ‘Chaos Chaos’ and from glimpsing snapshots of Asya and Chloe’s Instagram lives that it is entirely possible that they themselves are inhabiting the fringes of their own contemporary culture, that they are searching for those corners where they feel most comfortable. Looking for where they fit, at least in part and at least for a while. Such is the curse/pleasure of Youth, after all.

‘Berlin’ certainly captures this sense of longing for belonging and the tension of enforced separation from the emotional connections we make to place, time and (almost incidentally) to people. I have listened to ‘Berlin’ many times this year and each time I cannot decide if this is a song that yearns for a return to a city of recent personal memory or if it is rather a song that sets its nostalgic sights on a mythic, mediated place and time (a Berlin of perhaps Isherwood, Lou Reed, Iggy and Bowie or any number of artists inhabiting any particular past). Sonically it feels like the later, in that it is the song on the album that perhaps most obviously and explicitly references a 1980s demi-monde of clashing and crashing synths desperately seeking redemption. It is by turns anxious, exuberant, hesitant, frustrated and euphoric. It is four minutes of darkness and light, of past, present and future. Chaos, Chaos. There is too a notion of division/separation, and if my reading of this is coloured by my own recent consumption of ‘The Spy Who Came In From The Cold’ and ‘Berlin 84’ then so be it. Yet there is certainly something of the ‘New Gold Dream’ about this ‘Berlin’ and that, again, is a compliment. Remember, our jigsaw puzzles may have slightly different pieces but they all fit, right? Right.