Sunday 18 October 2015

Two Years, Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights By Salman Rushdie

Two Years, Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights

By Salman Rushdie
(Jonathan Cape, €28.50)
In the near future, a huge storm rips through New York, and thus ‘the strangenesses’ begin. Our hero, the elderly, widowed landscape gardener Raphael Hieronymus Menezes, more popularly known as Mr. Geronimo, finds there is a growing space between his feet and the earth. Jimmy Kapoor, a young wannabe graphic novelist, awakens in his bedroom to see a mysterious entity that resembles his own sub-Stan Lee creation, Natraj Hero. Abandoned at mayor Rosa Fast’s office, it emerges that a baby wrapped in an Indian flag can identify corruption with her mere presence, the guilty coming out in blemishes and boils. A seductive Latina gold digger with a fierce temper, Teresa Saca Cuartos, is soon called upon, issuing lightening bolts from her fingertips, to combat otherworldly forces beyond imagining. And there are more, many more.
  What do they all have in common? They are the descendants of the 12th century union between a good jennia called Dunia, aka the Lightening Princess, and rationalist philosopher Ibn Rushd, better known in Western history as Averroes, who as translator into Latin of the works of Aristotle preserved in Arabic at the library of Alexandria, was responsible for bringing Aristotelian thought back into European culture. (There’s a personal touch here, as Rushdie’s father changed the family’s name to honour Ibn Rushd.) As though treated with early medieval IVF, they produce an astonishing amount of children, all unaware of their semi-supernatural parentage, and inherited fantastical powers.
  It transpires that the strangenesses merely foreshadow a full-blown invasion of the human world by malevolent spirits from another dimension. Four evil jinn, Zabardast, Zumurrud, Ra’im Blood-Drinker and Shining Ruby, have broken through the wormholes separating this world from Peristan, or Fairyland, and are hell-bent on unleashing an Age of Unreason, causing havoc in the 21st century. If Dunia can round up her distant progeny in time and awaken them to the power of their jinni nature, humanity might have a chance against these forces of darkness. “The seals between the Two Worlds are broken and the dark jinn ride,” she tells Geronimo. “Your world is in danger and because my children are everywhere I am protecting it. I’m bringing them together, and together we will fight back.” And so the novel, Rushdie’s 12th, like a pyrotechnic C.G.I. literary video game, moves inexorably towards a showdown between the twin abstractions, Good and Evil.
  A further twist in the timescale is provided by the fact that the story is related from far into the future, from which narrative perspective it can be seen that the theme has been one of Rushdie’s perennial favourites: the conflict between faith-based superstition, spawned through fear (i.e. belief in a personal, monotheistic God) [= BAD], and enlightenment Reason [= GOOD]. The front-piece, after all, is Goya’s ‘The sleep of reason brings forth monsters’. But, as the becalmed Epilogue warns us: ‘We read of you in ancient books, O dreams, but the dream factories are closed. This is the price we pay for peace, prosperity, understanding, wisdom, goodness and truth: that the wildness in us, which sleep unleashed, has been tamed, and the darkness in us, which drove the theatre of the night, is soothed…. Mostly we are glad. Our lives are good. But sometimes we wish for the dreams to return. Sometimes, for we have not wholly rid ourselves of perversity, we long for nightmares.’ In dreams begin responsibilities, indeed.
  So, does it all add up? Two predominant critical views of Rushdie prevail: the ‘yea’s’ hail him as the ‘Ocean of Notions’, an endlessly inventive, imaginative genius; the ‘nay’s’ dub him the ‘Shah of Blah’, not so much as in ho-hum, but as someone who doesn’t know when to shut up – a Wizard of Oz, Vaudevillian travelling show, snake-oil salesman, unaware of his own charlatanism. While there are undoubtedly many pleasurable passages of fine writing to savour here, this new offering often seems like the work of a man with too much time on his hands. Which prompts the question: how much of our leisure time should we readers give to it? The novels which made Rushdie’s name, Midnight’s Children and Shame, married significant socio-historical events (Indian independence, the foundation of Pakistan) to the magic realism he imported from his South American and Eastern European predecessors. This work, like a Bollywoodised Mahabharata, teeming with endless incarnations and avatars, reads like an amusing jeu d’esprit, written because writing is what writers do.
  Without realistic roots or reference points to spring from, which feel more than just gratuitous nods towards profundity, fictional magic can quickly morph into self-indulgent whimsy. Scheherazade’s playful stories in the Arabian Nights, to which this book’s title obviously nods, ultimately had the urgency of ‘stories told against death’. Rushdie’s latter-day version is too much of an ornament to what is now a nice, untroubled life, to be taken too seriously.

First published in The Sunday Independent 18/10/2015

Sunday 13 September 2015

Submission by Michel Houellebecq


By Michel Houellebecq

(Heinemann, £18.99 stg)

Published in French on January 7th this year, the day of the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, and now appearing in English translation, you couldn’t say controversialist Michel Houellebecq latest novel, his seventh, is not prescient. He has form when it comes to Muslim immigration in France, and jihadism, of course. He was taken to court in 2002 for incitement to racial hatred, after calling Islam ‘the stupidest religion’, and his 1999 novel Platform culminates in the conflagration of a fundamentalist terrorist atrocity on a beach resort in Thailand.

  Submission’s central character is a recognisable Houellebecq type. François, 44, a lecturer at the Sorbonne, is reclusive, friendless, existing on a diet of frozen dinners in his two room apartment, and trying to avoid mithering by postgraduate students he doesn’t consider up to snuff. He usually initiates an annual affair with a female student, which ends in the summer when he receives a message beginning ‘I’ve met someone.’ The current incumbent is 22-year-old Myriam, beautiful, sexy and Jewish, who clearly cares for him, but he can’t respond. He was the author, in his 20s, of a brilliant dissertation on decadent 19th century novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans, author of the infamous Au Rebours

  Set slightly in the future, Submission partakes of a trait of most of the best science fiction, that of a ‘What if…?’ projection on the present. It is also in the tradition of the dystopian narrative, á la Orwell’s 1984, although the timeline here is rather more truncated and immediate, for this is a dystopia we mostly already inhabit.

  It is 2022, and the apolitical François is settling in to watch the Presidential election results on TV, entertainment he considers second only to the soccer World Cup. After the preliminary voting, two candidates emerge: Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National, and the head of France’s new Islamic party, Mohammed Ben Abbes. The Socialists coalesce with the Muslim Brotherhood to defeat Le Pen, and Ben Abbes becomes president. Because the Brotherhood cares more about education than the economy, as the chief instiller of appropriate moral values in the next generation, all they ask is that state secondary schools and universities adopt an Islamic curriculum. François is duly informed that he cannot return to his university work unless he converts to Islam, and is retired on a generous pension.

  These events precipitate a crisis of (non) faith, which sees François taking off for the Benedictine abbey in southern France where Huysmans spent his last years after abandoning his dissolute life in Paris and converting to mystical Catholicism in middle age, and thence to the medieval Christian pilgrimage site Rocamadour. Myriam leaves for Israel with her parents, but François concludes “There is no Israel for me.”

  This is no coup d’etat, so little seems to change at first, but over the following months François starts to notice small things, beginning with how women dress. He sees fewer skirts and dresses, more baggy pants and shirts that hide the body’s contours. Non-Muslim women have adopted the style to escape the sexual marketplace that Houellebecq has delineated so well elsewhere. Youth crime declines, as does unemployment when women, grateful for the social engineering of new family subsidies, begin to leave the workforce to care for their children.

  François thinks he sees a new social model developing before his eyes, which he imagines has the polygamous family at its center. Men have different wives for sex, childbearing, and affection; the wives pass through all these stages as they age, but never have to worry about being abandoned. They are always surrounded by their children, who have lots of siblings and feel loved by their parents, who never divorce. François is impressed, but while his admiration may initially stem from a colonial fantasy of the erotic harem, it flourishes as acknowledgement of a secure social order, based on the family.

  The big question here is, how much does Houellebecq himself endorse this view? Curiously, he may not simply be pulling our leg here. When François accedes to the gentle proslytising of suave university president, Robert Rediger, and returns to his now exorbitantly paid teaching post, it seems not solely out of self-interest, if at all. Similarly, when he also edits a complete works of Huysmans, where he concludes that his hero was not really a decadent after all, he genuinely seems to believe this. But if François rolls over, dose that mean Michel H has?

  When asked about ‘the stupidest religion’ remark last January, Houellebecq declared that he had now changed his mind, through reading the Qu’ran. “Perhaps I hadn’t read it with enough care,” he said. “Now I think that a reasonably honest interpretation of the Qu’ran does not end up with jihadism. It would require a very dishonest interpretation to arrive at jihadism.” He also added that Submission is “not Islamophobic. Even an inattentive reading would not see it as that.”

  So, while some in France have complained that the novel fans right-wing fears of the Muslim population, that is to miss Houellebecq’s deeply subversive point: Islamists and anti-immigration demagogues really ought to be on the same side, because they share a suspicion of pluralist liberalism and a desire to return to ‘traditional’ or pre-feminist values, where a woman submits to her husband, just as ‘Islam’ means that a Muslim submits to God. Rediger even permits himself a sly allusion to Pauline Réage’s BDSM classic The Story of O in this regard.

  Which is all fine and well, unless you’re the kind of man who’d like to be with a woman who has a brain, or are the kind of woman for whom domesticity does not provide total fulfilment. 

  The other aspect of this timely novel to be remarked upon is how much Houellebecq has improved as a writer qua writing since his early scattergun sprawls. When he started off, he had a lot to say, but was not always all that careful about how he said it. However, aphoristic sentences such as ‘For man, love is nothing more than gratitude for the gift of pleasure’, and ‘Living together would have spelled the end of all sexual desire between us, and we were still too young to survive that as a couple’ partake of a Wildean exactitude. How much of this greater attention to language is the result of working with more skilled editors and translators we may never know, but it is one more reason to read this novel, from a writer who has never been afraid to grapple with the big questions.

First published in the Sunday Independent, 13/09/2015

Thursday 3 September 2015

Miss Emily by Nuala O'Connor

This review was in The Sunday Independent on August 24th, 2015:

Miss Emily

By Nuala O’Connor (Nuala Ní Conchúir)
(Sandstone Press, £8.99 stg, P/B)

The third novel from Galway-based writer Nuala O’Connor (who previously favoured her name rendered in Irish), concerns 17-year-old Ada Concannon, transposed from Tigorra on the banks of the Liffey in Co. Dublin in 1866, to relatives in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she finds employment as a maid-of-all-work with the Dickinson family. Our point of entry to this household is Emily, then in her 34th year and effectively retired from society, and better known to posterity than in her lifetime as the mould-breaking poet, who forms a bond with Ada, mostly over cake baking in the kitchen. Between them they narrate the story in alternating, first-person chapters. Apart from stern Father and remote Mother, Emily has an older brother Austin, already left the house and married to her best friend Susan, and a younger sister, Vinnie.

  In many ways, the title seems a misnomer, as Ada is certainly the more vividly and vivaciously depicted character, and the novel is essentially her story. Besides which, Miss Emily doesn’t give enough credit to the servant for the dually shouldered narrative duties. There are, however, some excellent meditations in the Emily sections on the creative process, and the sacrifice and satisfactions of the solitude Emily chooses in order to be productive. ‘And why do I write? I ask myself daily for the answer differs at every dawn, at every midnight. I write, I feel, to grasp at truth. The truth is so often cloaked in misleading speech. Sometimes I let words fall carelessly from my lips when I am with people but, alone, I make them settle carefully onto paper. There they must be accurate and they must work as a choir works to sing a tune well…Oh chimerical, perplexing, beautiful words! I love to use the pretty ones like blades and the ugly ones to console. I use dark ones to illuminate and bright ones to mourn. And, when I feel as if a tomahawk has scalped me, I know it is poetry then and I leave it be.’ 

  Like Yeats after her, Emily too feels forced to choose between perfection of the life or of the work: ‘But how can I explain that each time I get to the threshold, my need for seclusion stops me? The quarantine of my room – its peace and the words I conjure there – call me back from the doorway. Ada could not truly appreciate that the pull on me of words, and the retreat needed to write them, is stronger than the pull of people. Yes, words summon me to the sacramental, unsullied place where my roaming is not halted or harnessed by others. My mind and heart are only free in solitude and there I must dwell.’ Today, she’d just be diagnosed as agoraphobic.  

  Ada too, even if she is occasionally articulate beyond her years and can sound educated above her station, is no slouch when it comes to words, and it is a fine pleasure to see neglected locutions like ‘figairy’, ‘wall-falling’ and ‘laxadaisy’ in print again. Her gift of the gab extends to equally overlooked phraseology, for example ‘as pleased as a dog with two pockets.’

  The plot unfolds at a leisurely pace, and we are well into the book before the vicissitudes Ada must overcome (with Emily’s help and support) kick in, and so it would be spoilerish to reveal their specific nature here. Suffice to say that Ada makes a match with fellow Irish emigrant, Daniel Byrne, but the path of true love doesn’t run smooth, due mostly to the actions of the villain of the piece, the scoundrel Patrick Crohan.

  There are other facets of this well-made historical novel worth exploring. Aside from gender issues, and the relatively powerless position of women in 19th century society, tensions surrounding race and class raise their heads as well. There is a virulent strain of anti-Irish sentiment abroad in the air around Amherst (where there is no Catholic church), among the buttoned-down burghers, mostly voiced through the mouth of the stonily pompous Austin and, to a lesser extent, his wife Susan – although the latter’s prejudices may derive from nothing more than jealousy at Emily’s growing closeness to Ada. An evolving consequence of such attitudes is Emily’s increasing alienation from her immediate family, and their ‘closed, righteous, faces.’ A strong tendency to blame the victim is evident when Ada suffers her setbacks, which are no fault of her own, and are only resolved by the Dickinsons out of a desire to save face and maintain respectability, rather than any notion of humanitarian compassion.    

  Although it may take its own sweet time in getting going, Miss Emily gains considerable pace towards its finale, and is a satisfying and enjoyable read from one of Ireland’s more unsung talents, who deserves to make the step to a much wider readership. 

Wednesday 5 August 2015

Des Traynor, The Thin Air, and Trial by Twitter

Now that the dust has settled on The Thin Air/St. Vincent debacle of three weeks’ ago, and things have moved on with predictable rapidity to the next Twitter spat (the rather bigger story that was Nicki Minaj v Taylor Swift has even been and gone and resolved itself, and Cecil The Lion’s killer has been named and shamed), I feel the time is right, through the benefit of perspective, for some sane comment on the matter.

     To appropriate some of Panti Bliss’s introduction to her Facebook response to criticism of her for her views on the Glasgow Pride march drag queens v trans kerfuffle, ‘I don’t have the time or the energy to read every comment on this page, but I am aware from my various social media that I am being criticized by some for my stance on the Glasgow “Free Pride” debacle…I’m sure my reply won’t cover all the criticisms I’m getting from others, but it will hopefully cover some of them and clarify why I find the decision of (substitute The Thin Air here for “Free Pride”) so repugnant, so I’m posting it here…I’d need to write you a book before we can even begin to have a sensible discussion.”

  To begin with moral or, perhaps more accurately, ideological considerations (I’ll get to aesthetic and commercial ones later), the main objection to my review of St. Vincent at the Iveagh Gardens was that it was deemed sexist. This was seemingly evidenced by the facts that a) I referred to the artist’s image and appearance, and in a ‘sexualized’ way, and b) I made comparisons with other female artists, and listed their ages. The responses to these criticisms are so blindingly obvious and simple as to hardly require stating. But apparently, given the lunk-headed reaction, they need to be made clear. So here goes:

  a) As I’ve already written when I posted the review on my blog, after it was taken down from The Thin Air’s website, attire and presentation are part of any live concert – male or female – and so are fair game to be commented on. Furthermore, for artists as diverse as Presley to Jagger, Madonna to Britney (and certainly Nicki Minaj!), to willfully ignore the sexual content and appeal (or otherwise) of their performance is rather to miss an integral part of the package. If an artist – male or female – is manipulating their sexuality as part of their stage show, consciously or unconsciously, then a reviewer – male or female – is entitled to comment on how successful or not they judge that manipulation to be.  Some have opined that my review was not concerned with music, but was instead an ad feminam attack. But if St Vincent is, as some of the more perceptive commentaries have suggested, adopting a persona on stage, at what point does an attack on that persona morph into an attack on the ‘real’ person? Besides which, male rock stars have been enduring ad hominem attacks for years. It goes with the territory.

  b) The comparisons with other roughly contemporary artists under the rubrics of age, gender and (very broadly speaking) genre was done on the logically justifiable basis of comparing like with like. As for those who argue that musicians (or any arts practitioners) shouldn’t be divided along gender lines, if I’d included younger male musicians in the list (and given their ages) then it would have been interpreted as implying ‘these guys are better than that girl’, which would have opened an entirely other nest of vipers in the accusations of sexism. And while we’re at it, would anyone be willing to address the fact that from the Oscars to the MTV Music Awards (VMAs), awards categories for performers are divided according to gender?   

  Last word on my supposed sexism: having subsequently run the text past several of Ireland’s senior writers and feminists (who out of respect, and reluctance to drag publicly into this sordid episode, will remain anonymous), they couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. One Aosdana member even added her opinion that the piece was ‘beautifully written, sharp and witty.’ Interesting that it can at the same time be ‘badly written, uneducated, misogynistic crap’ to some others.

  What I suspect is partly at work behind the taunts of ‘sexism’ is a mechanism whereby partisan St. Vincent fans are lashing out, but couching their aesthetic objections in moral terms. It’s far easier to occupy the moral highground if you cry foul in moral terms (‘Sexist’) rather than aesthetic ones (which here amount to: ‘I love this artist and their work, and if you don’t then there is something not just aesthetically – that is taste-wise – but morally reprehensible about you too’).

  Now I’ll turn my attention to the behavior of The Thin Air, and its editor Brian Coney, in this grotesquely sad affair. It should be declared from the outset that, as with much journalism – and indeed many kinds of work – nowadays, and also as with my antagonists in this ‘That escalated quickly’ controversy, I have never met Brian Coney in person, and all of our dealings have been online. This is not an ad hominem attack. I’m sure his friends consider him a sound guy. I confine myself to his actions surrounding this review. 

  It is an unwritten rule of journalistic good practice that any editor should stand over the publication of any article s/he publishes. In the space of less than two hours e mails from Brian Coney went from ‘Great review’, to an absurd retraction and removal, to ‘I've also made the decision that this is your final review for The Thin Air. Judging by the reaction here, there can be no possible alternative.’ 

  At first sight, this is an incidence of the editor caving in to kneejerk moral panic and pressure, and deciding he was wrong, or as one magnanimously forgiving tweet put it, ‘editorial growing pains’. (Another Facebook post referred to ‘one slip up’, as though the ever-vigilant poster was sitting with a rule book in hand, checking opinions she was prepared to see expressed in publications she reads against those not to be countenanced.) The rather mealy-mouthed and vague retraction, which itself disappeared soon after it was posted, was again couched in moral rather than aesthetic terms, mentioning the ‘(altogether justifiably) aghast reaction'. (A Facebook post by Coney, asking if Hitler’s publisher should be held responsible for Mein Kampf, and thus by implication equating my review with the central tract of Nazism, is best regarded with the derision it deserves. Perspective, Proportion, Please!) 

  But could it be possible that other forces were at work in this decision to retract and muzzle? It certainly didn’t take into account tweets and FB posts supportive of my article (yes, there were some!), e.g.:

           are you sure it wasn't removed in case you don't get free tickets to the 
           next one? I enjoyed it, not every gig is great

           That's a shame, it's very rare that a journalist will go against 'trend' & 
           write honestly. I hope the writer isn't punished.

           the Twitter mafia got em

        Read the review, seemed the reviewer was unimpressed. So what's
        the problem, appreciation of music or any type of performance is 
        subjective. I think it's a shame you don't have courage to stand 
        behind the reviewer just because they delivered a negative opinion. 
        What should be taken from this "if you have nothing good to say,
        say nothing"? Hardly good journalism.

        I read the first paragraph earlier - if the review dealt with body 
        shape or other irrelevancies then could understand a trimming of 
        the article. However, if it was just a negative review, I don't see 
        the issue. Music reviews should sometimes be harsh and negative
        if the reviewer feels it warranted. It's the only way reviews can work.
        If it's always middling or positive, how can we trust a review site? 
        Could you clarify the reasons a little better in the retraction?

Perhaps, after all, the central motivation for retraction was not moral outrage which the editor suddenly finds he shares, or even aesthetic judgments (the once great review was, it is subsequently acknowledged, badly-written and uniformed), but more crassly commercial considerations. The above expressions of opinion certainly hint at this being the case.

  So how does the filthy lucre argument – that this is really all just about the money – go? In a nutshell, it requires that all music journalism be conducted to please both promoters and the audience. That way the magazine/website will continue on the one hand to get the free stuff it needs to do its business, and on the other to grow its readership. The bigger the readership, the more advertising revenue it makes. The bigger the concert audience, the more tickets the promoter sells. It’s a happy little circular arrangement, in which everyone’s a winner. Your average reviewer is, by the by, knowingly or unknowingly, a willing cog in this mechanism.

  Since journalism went digital, few reviewers are getting paid, unless they are fortunate enough to write for one of the broadsheets – and anyway ‘everyone’s a critic’ these days (and most people are DJs). All you get is your name on the guest list, and if you’re really lucky, a +1. So who is going to bother going to see an artist they don’t like, or even don’t know (unless it’s one they are simply curious about and want to check out)? This turns practically all reviewing into at best fanzine-writing, and at worst a mere extension of the PR/marketing machine. But at least fanzines sometimes contained negative criticism, unlike the sanitized, housebroken encomiums which currently pass for criticism.

  In this regard, it is instructive to look at the two The Thin Air reviews of St. Vincent shows, in Cork and Galway, which followed my own suppressed one. The first one contained the phrases ‘highly stylized, bombastic stage show’, ‘empowering’ (a word which strikes fear into the hearts of those of us more sensitive to cliché), ‘the coordinated dances, the over-dramatic actions’, and referred to ‘her somewhat corny chat’ (that ‘somewhat’ a canny qualifier). The second one, while shrewdly positing that St. Vincent’s show is ‘a commentary on authenticity’, then includes the phrases ‘a musical persona that allows for a greater sense of awe and grandiosity in performance’, ‘behemoth guitar lines’, ‘the cacophony of sounds’, and ‘it’s possible to say that maybe the spoken elements were a little forced and maybe a tad unconvincing’ (note the nervousness of that double ‘maybe’, supplemented by a ‘possible’ and a ‘tad’). So all that’s happened here in the two subsequent reviews is that the two reviewers have chosen to put a positive spin on a piece of theatre that didn’t do it for me (and adjectives like ‘bombastic’, ‘corny’ and ‘unconvincing’, and nouns like ‘grandiosity’, ‘behemoth’ and ‘cacophony’, are generally pejorative in anyone’s book). In short, they sounded like they were trying to like something they weren’t allowed not to like. Were they under orders? Or were they just making polite criticisms in the name of ‘balance’ – ‘she was really great, despite all that bombast and grandiosity and corniness.’ As I have written previously, and hopefully illustrated here, I regard Brian Coney’s and The Thin Air’s actions in publishing my review, and then retracting it, as craven, wimpish and entirely self-serving. I’ll now add ‘spineless’ to that list of epithets for good measure, as this retraction was not about naively undetected accusations of sexism, but about a threat to the financial survival of The Thin Air. Not only did Coney lack moral courage, and prove himself a moral zero, but he did a bad editing job as well.

  The above representation of the promoter>media>audience/readership cartel becomes even more convoluted and self-fulfilling, however, when one member of the triad takes on more than one of the roles, and refuses to occupy only one position. The tripartite division of the state may be a sine qua non of good government, but it gets a poor look-in in this business model. For one of the chief instigators of my trial by Twitter, while himself a former magazine editor, is now best known as a concert promoter. It is dubious in the extreme that any concert promoter should be commenting publicly on concert reviews, good, bad or indifferent. Are those working in the arts immune from the conflicts of interest and insider trading we so frequently accuse the political and banking classes of indulging in? When I tweeted my congratulations to this individual on getting the reviews he would have liked, he replied he would leave me to my ‘conspiracy theories’, thus neatly circumventing the fact that I never used the word ‘conspiracy’, since the process is far more subtle and amorphous than that, as he should well know. Nor is this the first time I’ve crossed paths with this guy in cyberspace, although we’ve never met in person. A couple of years ago, a perfectly polite e mail inquiry as to whether I would be on the guest list to review a fast approaching upcoming gig for another website I was writing for then, or if I would be better off buying a ticket for fear they would sell out, was deemed ‘rude’. Only afterwards did I realise in retrospect that this touchy response was probably the result of a less than enthusiastic review I’d written of a previous gig he’d been involved with. Funny how during my years with Magill I never had any similar trouble with Derek Nally, rest his sweet soul, in this regard. In fact, I spent hours in conversation with him, about our favourite acts, and new acts to check out. Of course, as an old style concert promoter, he didn’t see it as his role to review the reviewers – even when he took a hit on acts he brought in simply because he thought people should see them. ‘You might think you are beyond criticism. You are not,’ further tweeted this online antagonist during the recent spat. No, I don’t think I’m beyond criticism. In fact, I welcome it. I do, however, think I’m beyond 140 character character assassination and vilification by cretinous, semi-literate troglodytes (and even if the chief instigator of this hate campaign doesn’t quite fit that category, many of his acolytes would seem to, based on what I saw of their tweets). His own declaration could well be leveled against himself.

  Which brings me to the use of Twitter as a forum for online debate. It isn’t. How ironic that one of the purported themes of Ms. Clark’s work is internet alienation, in songs like ‘Digital Witness’, yet contrary opinions about that work provoke 140 character name calling, bordering on cyber bullying, from her rabid fanbase. The fact is that it is simply impossible to have a reasoned exchanged of views in 140 characters, even with multiple tweets. This is not intelligent debate, but the online equivalent of a drunken, telegrammatic shouting match. Besides which, those with a large Twitter following are always going to appear to be in the ascendency on that medium when taking on those who, because they have little use for the platform given its limitations, have few followers. Mr. Concert Promoter/Little Hitler has in excess of 5000 Twitter followers, presumably because he regularly uses it to dispense his largesse of free tickets among potential punters. I have about 50 followers, because I’m hardly ever on it. But there’s a whole world of opinion beyond Twitter, you know. Interesting, also, how quickly an online ‘debate’ (I use the word extremely broadly) can be buried and forgotten, as opposed to a skirmish in print. Somebody says something online considered vaguely offensive by someone somewhere else online, the vultures gather for a field day, then tomorrow move on to fresh carrion. Dropping this article after the fact can be seem as a modest attempt to counter this ‘trend’.

  Before I conclude, I’ll address a couple of other random criticisms which popped up in those 140 character posts. Someone castigated me for not researching the artist prior to attending the gig. Aside from the fact that I acknowledged my ignorance in the first paragraph, the idea that one must do research in order to review a live concert is preposterous (and if the fruits of such research result in declaring of St. Vincent that ‘the new Bowie has arrived’, then there is something seriously awry with the methodology. Just because she’s been anointed by Pitchfork doesn’t make her to everyone’s taste.) How many times have you gone along to a gig or a festival, caught a solo artist or band you’d never heard tell of before, and been so wowed by their performance that you became a fan and went on to seek out their work? When I attend the Reverberation Weekender in mid-August I’ll have seen and heard precisely two of the acts previously. I will leave having acquainted myself with a whole lot more (about whom I could then write about).

  Another tweeter adjudged that I couldn’t possibly know that St. Vincent was playing ‘vacuous ’80s synth pop’ if I hadn’t listened to the records. Not so. I’m perfectly capable of spotting vacuous ’80s synth pop when I hear it, even on a first listen, and even live! All I have to do is listen.

  Yet another tweeter displayed his silliness by scoffing at my cultural references, opining that it was like ‘listening to your old fella.’ What a dreadful example of ageism! Could we have a well-orchestrated viral outcry about this un-pc behavior, please? Listen buddy, I have cultural references from ancient history to this very morning, which might be just slightly broader than yours. The fact that some of them are from the 1960s and ’70s doesn’t mean I can’t range further back and further forward in time, should I choose. And, of course, you don’t have to be stuck with the cultural references which were current during your formative years. Aside from keeping up with what’s happening now, you can also reach back to what was going on before you were around. It’s actually possible to like things that were around before you were born. It’s called retro. Even The Clash abandoned their initial Year Zero policy pretty sharpish. You can experience this stuff that was around before your own first time around through repeats, reissues, reruns, etc., (to say nothing of readily available CDs, DVDs and internet downloads), making it a pan-generational cultural reference and resource. (Des Traynor (54) started watching The Avengers when he was four years old.)

  To sum up: 

  1) I don’t have to prove my ‘feminist’, or indeed musical, credentials to anyone. Over twenty years of arts journalism, across books, film, theatre and visual art, as well as music, speaks for itself. (Visit my website and blog, pop pickers; familiarise yourselves with the hundreds of essays, features and reviews you’ll find there. Do your research!) As does my prize-winning, if sporadic, fiction. 

  2) To be totally silenced because one is at odds with the critical consensus of a rabidly partisan fanbase, and a music scene which is compromised by inherent conflicts of vested interests and insider trading, is to be on the receiving end of a mentality which mirrors the worst excesses of fascistic thought-control.

  When it comes to music, I know what I’m talking about. Contrary to what you may have surmised from Twitter, I wasn’t the only seasoned gig-goer, or indeed neophyte, to leave The Iveagh Gardens before the end.

PS As may be obvious from the above, I don’t find Twitter a particularly congenial vehicle for (even online) debate. It is moronic and propagandistic. If anyone can be bothered to comment on what I’ve written, could they please do so on my blog itself, or my Facebook page. I won’t be responding to tweets. 

Tuesday 14 July 2015

Chic, The Iveagh Gardens, July 9th, 2015

Oh, and here's link to my Chic review, which no one commented about, and which TheThinAir hasn't removed, despite the fact that they don't want me to write for them anymore.

St. Vincent, Iveagh Gardens, July 10th, 2015

So, here's that review of St. Vincent at The Iveagh Gardens last Friday, that there's been such a Twitter storm (in a teacup) about. TheThinAir caved in quite early and 'retracted' it - i.e. removed it from their website. I've had communications from several people looking to see what all the fuss is about, so here goes. Personally, I find the behaviour of the website craven, wimpish, and entirely self-serving. It's never been a crime to not like a show, and attire and presentation are part of any live concert - male or female - and so can be commented on. I wouldn't like it if it was The Darkness being over-contrived either, which is actually a good analogy for what it reminded me of. What do you think, lads and lassies? Des Traynor: arch sexist, or sane and balanced critic?

St. Vincent

The Iveagh Gardens

Thursday, July 8th, 2015

Desmond Traynor

Full disclosure from the outset: I have only a passing acquaintance (video clips, radio, occasional TV) with the four solo album oeuvre of St. Vincent, a.k.a. Annie Clark, have never sat down and listened to one of her records, and certainly couldn’t be designated a dyed-in-the-wool fan. For this reason, this review will not feature a chronological trawl through her discography, with instant song recognition, and comparisons of studio versions with live performances, but will instead be an impressionistic account of the evening (and those will be first impressions) by a seasoned gig-goer. I suspect this lack of specific knowledge-based approach may disgruntle some of her more infatuated aficionados. Why attend, then? Well, interest was partly piqued by the fact that David Byrne clearly rates her, the pair having collaborated on, and subsequently extensively toured, 2012’s Love This Giant. Also, TTA’s editor asked me, even if I might not necessarily be the best-equipped man for the job.
  The band take the stage clad in de rigueur black, Matt Johnson on drums and Daniel Mintseris on keyboards to the rear, with lieutenant Toko Yasuda (ex-Enon), interchanging guitars and keyboards, front and stage-left of the boss lady. Centre stage is a three-tier podium, reminiscent of the pink throne on which St. Vincent resides on the cover of the eponymous most recent album, which she will later mount. Clark is rocking a faintly dominatrix look, in a crenelated, spiky catsuit, to which she makes self-deprecating reference in the course of her set, which doesn’t quite work, perhaps due to her diminutive size. Now don’t get me wrong: I’m all for attractively-figured women in black leather catsuits and heels (to say nothing of assistants sporting slit mini-skirts) – indeed Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel in The Avengers was my first small screen sexual epiphany – but the cool authority Clark is aiming for with her aloofness is somehow undercut by the wind-up automaton-like ‘two little maids are we’ baby steps she indulges in with Yasuda, alternated with exaggeratedly giant prancing around the stage.
  In fact, it is the stiff, stilted, stylised, overly rehearsed, overly choreographed and ultimately fake theatricality of the show that is most off-putting, less alienation effect than laughter lounge turn. She may be aiming for Strong Woman, but it comes across as a cross between watching your offspring get their ‘look-at-me’ moment in the school play, and Top Of The Pop’s Legs & Co going through one of their more risqué routines.
  None of this is helped by the lengthy, self-consciously arty, pre-prepared monologues with which she intersperses the performance – when she does decide to address us – which riff on her commendable fascination with the oddity of everyday life, but unfortunately are designed to stress the commonality of all human experience by utilising the second person singular instead of the first, presumably in an attempt to collapse the difference between the two. Again, this is not successful, if only because of the singularity of individual human experience. Not all of us wanted to fly as a kid, Annie, and even if we did, not all of us used pizza boxes as wings: that’s your story, not ours. So, aside from these tedious longueurs interrupting the momentum of the music, they are just a slightly more quirky indie variation on the familiar Lady Gaga/Kate Perry/Taylor Swift self-help exhortations, for a slightly older fan base. (One wonders which is worse: inviting audience members to deny the uniqueness of their own experience by acknowledging that ‘we are all the same’, or advising them to ‘just be yourself’ as they adopt ‘personalised’ identical style and clothing patterns as members of a mass audience? Perhaps both are equally laughable.)  
  And what of the music? Given my relative inability to distinguish discrete songs, the overall sound could be described as vacuous ’80s synth-pop, incongruously juxapositioned with angular, fuzzed-out, Robert Fripperish off-kilter guitar solos. While I have been assured by those who know that beneath the mostly pristine smoothness of the beats lurks, à la Steely Dan and Mircodisney, a subversive wordsmith’s sensibility, whatever about any lyrical edge she may possess (‘Cheerleader’ aside, largely indecipherable in these circumstances, despite an impeccable sound job), musically she is much more Duran Duran/Spandau Ballet New Romanticism and less the Kraftwerk/Berlin Bowie Krautrock she might imagine herself.
  All of the above gives the distinct impression that Clark is very concerned with letting us know how clever she is. And maybe she is, for all I know. But, of course, clever people don’t go around showing off how clever they are, if only because it makes them look not as clever as they think they are. The goal of synchronised choreography, of example, is not to make the audience realise how hard it is to get right, but to make them feel how apparently easy it is to execute. St. Vincent’s cracks show; she’s obvious despite herself.
  On the plus side, she is undoubtedly good at her job, in that she is a very good singer and an excellent guitarist, and is confident on stage. But while she is professional to the core, her work and its presentation seem to lack some intangible quality. Call it ‘soul’ if you like little words with big meanings; say ‘spontaneity’ if you prefer longer words of less import. As it stands, I can think of a slew of other youngish, contemporary female artists better deserving of all the attention currently being directed St. Vincent’s (32) way: Anna Calvi (34), Agnes Obel (34), Julia Holter (30), Angel Olsen (28), Sharon Van Etten (34), Tiny Vipers (31), Haim (29, 26, 23) and, Queen Of Them All, Joanna Newsom (33). EMA (Erika M Anderson) (?), in particular, has in Past Life Martyred Saints produced one of the most stunning, striking and extraordinary debuts so far this millennium, and a fairly decent follow up in The Future’s Void, to relatively little media fanfare.
  Given pre-show hype and expectation, I left this concert feeling curiously disappointed. I left before the end.