Wednesday, December 19, 2007

CD Review No 8 - Arcade Fire

After reading a few reviews, fulsome in their praise, I took a gamble and bought 'Funeral' by Arcade Fire. Whilst I can certainly hear much that shows promise and flair, I can't quite make the music match up with the ecstatic ravings of fans and journalists. On first hearing I really was puzzled, there wasn't sufficient, audible at least, to warrant the grand claims, unless I was suffering from tinnitus or something. So far as I'm aware, excessive listening to Deep Purple at high volume in my youth, hasn't made me musically deaf. Yet something is missing from Arcade Fire, that essential x-factor which would delight your ears and uplift your heart, and make them a truly exciting band to stumble across. 'Funeral' is good, and a cut above many rock bands, who ,even on their third attempt, fail to lay the golden egg - the definitive rock album of their generation. Like most first albums it is riddled with a random scattering of bullet holes that its influences seep out of. Popping up to say 'hello, remember me ?' are moments of Talking Heads, ELO ,The Cure, a bit of U2 (seemingly obligatory these days) and an esoteric touch of Split Enz (which they probably weren't even aware of).

Apart from the usual trio of drums, guitar and bass, they assemble an impressive battery of instruments not traditionally associated with rock music, such as accordions, xylophones, recorders, plus heavy amounts of violins and horns. There must be enough to make up two five-a- side football teams when they play live. Managing this range of musical sounds, requires great orchestration and production expertise. Unfortunately, it is mainly the production which lets the band down, frequently muddying the dynamics. Musical motifs are often to be found buried deep within their mishandling of a Phil Spector like 'wall of sound.' The tempos build up and reach the grand strut of a crescendo repeatedly. There fondness for this device, often results in hysterically overstretched vocals struggling to be heard over the propulsive drama going on underneath. As the vocalist has not the vocal strength of character to pull this off, the impression created is not of a magnificent musical vista, but of something rather more strained and indistinct. Arcade Fire, can misfire and hit the bulls eye within the same song, almost in spite of themselves. They are reputedly better live, which I could well imagine to be true.

Perhaps I am getting a bit carried away with my own rhetoric and criticism here. I'm in danger of presenting an entirely dismissive review, simply by over emphasising their more obvious flaws. There are more than a few marvellous moments when they truly sparkle, such as on 'Neighbourhood 1 (Tunnels)' & 'Crown of Love' ,moments when, in spite of my initial misgivings, I really do like them. The excessive adulation really has done them a disservice. They are a significant band, whose individuality and eccentricities are certainly addictive. I find myself listening to them frequently, with tunes rattling around in the attic of my consciousness unexpectedly. So they can't be all bad, which, of course they aren't. It's just they have not, in my book achieved a coherent musical vision yet. Though a truly great band is buried in there somewhere. To unearth it you'd have to do some pretty serious pruning. First, you'd have to improve the production, get in some top notch guy, who knows how to heighten and bring out the self-evident dynamics of their arrangements. Second, I'm not entirely won over by the vocal quality and style of Win Butler, their lead vocalist. His thin, weary sounding voice is too often painfully reminiscent of Robert Smith, only with with a touch of laryngitis. Time after time the undoubted splendour of a song is tempered by having his forced screeching flying across it, like aircraft noise. In short, he's not a great singer, and maybe that significant something which will permanently impede their undoubted promise.

I would be interested to hear 'Neon Bible', their second album, just to monitor progress on how they refine and clarify their sound. It maybe that they never get there, and 'Funeral' will become something commonly found in popular music - an album of unfulfilled potential. Whether Arcade Fire will end up having the substance of greatness is definitely an open question, as yet.

DIARY 50 - Sleep little man cub

Since the car accident in August I've had a whole series of stiff necks and shoulders, often triggered by the slightest cold snap or the weather turning mildly damp. A few visits to the acupuncturist later the problem has begun to ease. I had another pricking this weekend, elbows and wrists in the main. I mentioned that I slept on the side of the bed facing the outside wall, and that the cold emanating off it did seem to have an effect on whether I woke up stiff and aching or not. He then suggested I change the side of the bed I sleep on. Perhaps I should have kept my mouth shut.

Funny how you fall into unconscious but habitual ways of doing things, like which side of the bed you sleep on. So David was willing to experiment, and so for one night we dared to swap sides- the consequence was both of us had a dreadful nights sleep. Now this was hardly a fair trial period, but there is only so much lack of sleep I can take these days. When I'm on my usual side of the bed, I find myself forever resting the duvet edge back from oblivion, trying to keep the small of my back from too much exposure. You know how cold can seep under the tiniest of gaps and before you know it your flesh has attained a deathly chill. However, sleeping on the opposite side of the bed, just means its my balls get the frosty treatment. Which ever side I'm on I can find myself perched on the precipice of the bed, not able to turn over easily, as the mass of my partner David's body inches nearer. However, this is just how it is, unless our flat suddenly becomes magically larger, a bigger bed is out of the question. So for the time being we have to make do with the economy size, and me getting a cold back from time to time.

Saturday, December 08, 2007


Life knows us not and we do not know life - we don't even know our own thoughts. Half the words we use have no meaning whatever and the other half each man understands each word after the fashion of his own folly and conceit.

Faith is a myth, and a belief shifts like mists on the shore; thoughts vanish; words, once pronounced, die and the memory of yesterday is as shadowy as the hope of tomorrow


CD Review No 7- David Sylvian

Japan's image and music was almost too uniformly well modulated and contrived. Their plundering of oriental musical motifs was like hearing them steal someone else's culture and parody it. It was often uncomfortable to listen to, you just wanted them to be honest and less self consciously deceitful. Sylvian's super smooth voice seemed another in a whole line of singers running off with the cut of Brian Ferry's suit. With the track 'Ghosts' he appeared suddenly to touch on something very immediate and distinctively personal. It was there only really big hit, and it was the moment I became briefly interested.

Twenty years on and Sylvian's voice has matured and thankfully lost much of its mannered warble. The quality of it is still like consuming large quantities of exotic chocolate truffle, rich and creamy warm in texture. In the past the musical settings have tried to match that full blooded silkiness and made them difficult offerings to digest all in one go without a sense of nausea rising. You scream out 'Enough! Enough! Any more and I'll be forced to vomit!!'

I've been catching up with his most recent output - two albums are minor gems - ' Blemish' a solo album, and 'Snow borne sorrow' with his new band Nine Horses. While they remain polished and sophisticated, the music is sparser, more angular and has unpredictable cross currents and fusions. 'Blemish' in particular shifts from long self-revelatory electronic backed tracks, such as the eponymous title track, to discomforting juxtapositions of free-improv guitar from maestro Derek Bailey, with Sylvian's well rounded tones.
It often sounds like something beautiful is being audibly crushed under a brutal foot. This is very human music interwoven with threads of lyrical pain. On 'The Only Daughter' the vocals quality is fractured as though impeded, ending up being stuttered across the ether. It's as if a deep emotional hurt is finally struggling to emerge and be heard. The final track 'Fire in the forest' begins with the words 'There is always sunshine, above the grey sky, I will try to find it, yes I will try' as if he once almost gave up hope, but has somehow recovered some optimism which he doesn't fully trust yet.

'Snow borne sorrow' is altogether a more positive musical, if not philosophical affair, with a knowing confident swagger, and a less striven for lyrical message. Perhaps the ghosts surrounding his failed marriage have been expelled. Or is it the presence of old collaborators Sakamoto and Jenson, that makes this album sound grounded and less cathartic. Perhaps the wounded heart has healed and cooled in the two years in-between 'Blemish' and 'Snow borne sorrow'. All things have passed and lost there ability to pierce him to the core. The frail trail of optimism present at the end of 'Blemish' has opened out into a confident re- assertion of faith, with greater depth and character to it. The first track 'Wonderful world' has a lighter, otimistic tone, with a spring in its step -

'It's a wonderful world, and you take and you give, and the sun fills the sky in the space where you live , its a day full of dreams , its a dream of a day, and the joy that it brings nearly sweeps her away, it's a wonderful world as the buildings fall down, and you quicken your step till your feet leave the ground, and your soaring above all the sorrow below, and your falling in love with those you don't know '

Saturday, December 01, 2007

DIARY 49 - The Ageing of my Anxiety

My Mother is quite an anxious being, I seem to have inherited being anxious either through genes, karma or simply learning it from her example. It feels like I learnt how to be anxious in the womb, it certainly has an existential feel to it. Over the years I've got better at handling and facing my anxious tendencies. I've tended in the past to pile on the agony and make matters worse, accelerating its intensity till it became quite debilitating , so making decisions, maintaining a sense of purpose and keeping perspective would be well nigh impossible. Through growing older and years of practise as a Buddhist, I've learnt how to deal with my anxiety better, mostly by cultivating a calmer way of being, keeping perspective on difficulties, not worrying about things weeks before they're due to happen, that sort of thing, trying to contain the scope of the anxiety and not let it run rampant over my experience. Anxiety can so easily turn into quite a paralysing, despoiling ruler otherwise.

Working in the crematorium produced a distinct type of anxiety, one obviously more related to my own mortality. It seemed deeper in tone and I felt it more profoundly as an acidic ache in the pit of my stomach. Since I started working in Windhorse Customer Services I've noticed a different type of anxiety. It's felt as a knotted band stretched across the front of my upper chest, sometimes it feels warm as if a hot water bottle was pressed against it. My current level of anxiety, after years of being quite small and manageable, seems to be fluctuating unpredictably and occasionally gets beyond what I can handle and contain. There are a number of facets that are feeding it- I'm still learning my new job, and I'm aware that there are still gaps in my understanding and awareness of what needs doing. Things could go seriously awry without my being aware of it - simply the job itself, each time you pick up the phone you don't know what your going to have to deal with, this can be stress inducing, throw in a mild phone phobia I sometimes experience, and I guess you get the feel of this one - the team consists of three likeable but quite distinct individuals, with very strong tendencies - at present we seem to be constantly understaffed through illness, and so we are not getting all our tasks done effectively– all of which can lead to concerns about my own effectiveness as a manager entering my mind, dwelling in my thoughts, and sitting on my chest.

Now, most of the time I can hold all of this and not let it get out of control, but I've realised that at present the glass is pretty near full most of the time. On three occasions in the last month I think I've started to overspill, my containment leaks and runneth over - leaving work feeling pissed off, irritable and angry - I've woken up in the middle of the night in panicky states, and as a consequence have had a poor nights sleep. On each occasion it was triggered by a team member downloading a whole load of their anxiety and frustration late in the day and I've just been overwhelmed. From my Mother onward, I've found it difficult not to be overly affected by the anxiety of the people around me, even though I know its not rational nor helpful. I am attempting to keep perspective on the difficulties within my team, with the work and with me. I know none of this is going to be resolved quickly or easily, I came into this job knowing I was inheriting a bit of a poisoned chalice; the previous manager having burnt out. I do have a better grasp now on how I envisage the team developing in the future. I also need to develop a personal strategy on how to manage my anxiety even better than before. Though I recognise that its an emotional volition or habit that I will still have difficulty in turning around. Despite my best efforts it can so easily steal in and break my glasses!

DREAM THREE - Entering & Breaking

I'm living in a terraced house. It seems to be quite high for a terrace, about four of five floors. Very similar to the community houses I've lived in in Cambridge, or like a New York tenement. I'm not sure whether I am living in the whole house or just a second floor flat, but I see myself in my dream only on the second floor. I appear to be going about my usual day to day business within the house. This is frequently interrupted by a series of people appearing at the second floor window. At first its just the ladder and the hands, then the faces, in spite of my closing the window to prevent entry, two people get in. I find them in one of the rooms. I enter the room with a heavy object that I'm about to throw at them. One of them has his foot placed over my glasses which are lying on a white rug, he's threatening to break them. At this point I panic crying, and say aloud, even though I'm asleep 'No! No!No! don't break my glasses! don't break my glasses!don't break my glasses! At this point David wakes me up.

Sunday, November 18, 2007


So this holy life,
does not have gain, honour, and reknown for its benefit,
or the attainment of virtue for its benefit,
or the attainment of concentration for its benefit,
or knowledge and vision for its benefit.
But it is this unshakeable deliverence of mind that is the goal of this holy life, its heartwod, and its end

from The Majjhima Nikaya-
The Shorter Discourse
on the Similie of the Heartwood

Friday, November 16, 2007

DIARY 48 - When one's cup is too full to drink from.

Work has been keeping me busy and tired, of late. Hence the lack of blog entries over the last month. Last week was particularly stressful. In the middle of it all I reached the limit of what I could assimilate, accommodate, accept - whatever it was, my mental in-tray was full to overflowing. What seemed to be getting me down was frustration and anger at situations I couldn't improve and ideas or projects I couldn't progress. On two evenings I left work feeling a incendury like fury that i dont ever remember experiencing with my work before. If my aspirations are blocked I slip, all to easily, into the unloving arms of despondency. This week, though busy, has been a bit steadier in pace, without the erratic and unexpected intensities which characterised its predecessor. I think I have passed some sort of watershed with regards to my new post. At first I was just learning the ropes, then I was finding out how to manage the team without anyone more experienced to help. Now its becoming clearer what direction I want to take the team in, and what I need to do first to get it moving forward in a positive direction. None of this is going to happen overnight.

Though its over three months since my car accident, I still find my neck and shoulders stiffening up in cold dank weather, much more frequently than in previous winters. Some of it has been exacerbated by further falls and collisions affecting my shoulders and neck, and bad posture when I'm at a computer at work or at home, because the screens were too low. I've now corrected the latter in both situations and things are gradually improving,with a little help from my acupuncturist with his 'rice spoon' massage.

What with recent weekend visits to the aged P's and a general pre- Christmas flurry of expenditure and weary passivity, not much writing is getting done. The new piece I'm working on 'Firewood & Ash' is proving slow in development, so, with what limited time I have available, progress has been snail like. Generally I'm pleased with what's coming out, it is perhaps a more intricate piece of writing than 'Binding one's Self without a rope' with a less obvious line of development. As ever it is pushing my understanding of Dogen to it's limits. I'm also doing study with Paco on the whole Genjo Koan, from which this extract on 'Firewood and Ash' comes. This has become equally stretching, but also satisfying. This week we took the unusual step of going to a local café ( CB2) and doing study upstairs, whilst we supped drinks at a table. I was unsure how this would go; I anticipated that it would be too public a place, our conversations would either be too prominent or be drowned in a surfeit of piped music and other peoples chit- chat. It turned out to be neither of those things. We had a very penetrating discussion exploring the intricate and paradox filled relationship between delusion and realisation, which I couldn't possibly summarise.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

DIARY 47 - Feeling like a blocked, block of wood.

David's gone off on retreat for a fortnight, and I've missed his presence in the flat immensely. Sometimes it's simply just missing being able to set down and talk through the experiences of my day. In another way, some time on my own I thought, was an opportunity to get seriously into my writing. This was a moment ripe for an ironic twist, so I get a bad dose of writers block. A new piece I'm writing on a extract from Dogen's Genjo Koan got seriously stalled. I spent a few evenings staring at a screen, getting only a few unconfident sentences squeezed out. Being creatively constipated in this way is a bit unusual for me, help, however, was at hand.

I met up with my good friend Jayarava. I mentioned my predicament, and in the next sentence I'm talking how in moments when my faith seems to desert me, reading Dogen effortlessly reconnects me. He suggested I might think about composing some sort of Dogen sahdana practice ( a visualisation practice ). Now this didn't appeal at all, but I immediately thought 'I'd like to compose a Dogen Puja though', and that did it. In the evenings this week I've been trawling through the four volumes of Dogen'sShobogenzo for usable material. I haven't been sleeping too well, so on two occasions I got up and wrote. So, by Friday morning I'd finished the first draft of a Shobogenzo Puja. It was actually quite easy to adapt most of the sections I chose. Abandoning preciousness or being overly reverent, I've lifted a few of my favorite bits, adapting, editing and adding to the material, ruthlessly where necessary, so it will suit a more devotional context. What I do with it now I don't know, give it a dry run at home I suppose, or try it out on a Sangha night at the Buddhist Centre, near Dogen's Birthday or Deathday, perhaps.

Lacking a good nights sleep, with one person on holiday, and another ill for part of the week, there were times this week when I felt mentally and literally overstretched by my work. This has been going on for three weeks, and I've had no time to progress any planning or managerial projects. A difficult interaction with one of my team triggered a strongly pissed off state of mind to emerge, that I experienced in a physical whole body way. Extreme tension, and a grumpy unreasonable mental landscape manifested. Both body and mind were in a belligerent and petulant sulk. Life and people just were not how I wanted them at all. David was away - alas poor me. It has felt like I wasn't managing myself or the team as effectively as I'd like to. Unrealistic expectations – what I, or what I think others think I should be doing - played anxiously across my mind. I know this managing lark is going to take me some time to master, and master it I will. At the moment the job, and I, feel like a bit of an uncomfortable mismatch. I am trusting that this will pass.

DIARY 46 - Swearing is OK - it's official.

There was a study published by the University of East Anglia this week, which to judge from the media's reporting of it, would indicate we all swear like troopers at work, and that this is more than OK. It's a harmless way to let of steam, reduce stress, and reinforce team bonding in the workplace, it would seem. So, abandon all restraint right away, begin unzipping those fucks and cunts from bondage, let rip a guilt free rude riposte, liberate your coarse, expletive laden banter from its mental restraints immediately, it's entirely healthy badinage – its now been academically endorsed.

However, as a manager, I'm not allowed to swear, because for a manager to swear is tantamount to bullying in the workplace. For me, this instantly consigned this report to the bin of irrelevance. Who paying for this tosh to be researched and written? This sociological studying of the relative use of expletives in the workplace, gets academic funding from someone, I want their names and salary details. Which isn't to say I approve of swearing in the workplace, or that I use it as a means of exerting managerial control. It's never crossed my mind to do so – until now that is! All that stuff about power relations and position, changing the nature of our interactions, may or may not be true, but for me, by focusing on quite a minor point, it misses some thing more fundamental – what effect does the widespread cultural use of swearing have on society? Does it, for instance, make an important contribution to improving the quality of our communication? Does it cultivate an environment of tolerance and understanding, where we all live in a satisfied and contented harmony? The language of intolerance is sworn across peoples hearts and minds, and foams from their mouths.

Swearing seems more socially acceptable in the 'noughties'. You only have to randomly turn on your TV, at any time of day, to hear how common place swearing has become. It's not a particular attribute of swearing that it reinforces group cohesion, any shared language and culturally accepted forms of expression does that.

Apart from creating a group identity, what other effects does swearing have, not all of them are beneficial or desirable, surely? Is swearing best used in rare moments of extreme exasperation, or as a regular form of linguistic punctuation? How beneficial to society can swearing be? If someone in my team started swearing at anyone I'd need to put a stop to it immediately, not encourage it. Swearing is easily turned into a form of verbal bullying, it does this regardless of ones position in an office hierarchy. It impedes good team building, and cultivates a coarse, combative tone to interactions. Treating people civilly and with a respect for human dignity at work is vital – swear words do not do either of those things . Swearing is an inherently aggressive form of language, it uses degraded language to degrade our relationships with others.

I come from a working class/ chapel going family, where swearing was considered an extremely poor form of communication. As a teenager, when I first heard my Mother let out a swear word, I erupted into a hysterical, uncontrollable bought of laughter, it was that unusual. Swearing, used frequently, loses all its cutting emotive power. Like anything used regularly to shock or amuse, the more the joke is pulled the less funny or pointed it gets, thus the impact of expletives becomes blunted. Swearing these days has become tiresome and dull.

From the point of view of five Buddhist precepts regarding speech, swearing breaks most of them; they're not truthful, swear words exaggerate and are malign in intent; they're just not kind; they're harsh in tone and in no way an elegant or gracious use of language; they're a useless form of speech because, even if it gets some emotion off your chest, it's not in any way helped to resolve a situation of conflict, it might even have made it worse; they're just crude name calling; which brings us to the last precept against slanderous speech, whose opposite quality is speech that is likely to cultivate harmony.

Now this report might appear to imply swearing creates social bonding. There is a whole other discussion to be had about what that cohesive effect, if that was what it was, arose out of, was it out of a sense of harmony between everyone, or from a ganging together out of a shared sense of beleaguered adversity? The essential question is this - when we swear, are we at war or at peace with ourselves, or with others?

Saturday, October 13, 2007


even the most ugly person,
has some beauty,
some wonderful qualities,
and likewise every beauty
has something ugly about it



It's really a kitchen sink drama - a thoughtful young man, marries, a simple uncomplicated northern lass, a loving woman who makes few demands on him. He finds himself living with a pregnant, slightly gauche wife, in a dreary half decorated terraced house. This is the late seventies in the north west of England. The post-punk band he'd recently joined, rapidly becomes a hotly sought after property. Whilst on tour he's interviewed by an intelligent, attractive Belgian woman, whom he starts a long-term secret affair with. Loving both woman, from two entirely different contexts, and not being able to resolve it by giving up either woman, tears him apart. Added onto this, is his sudden and severe epileptic fits, and the increasing demands of fame - the draining adulation of his fans. This strongly shaken emotional cocktail eventually leading to his unexpected suicide.

Were this not the true and tragic story of Ian Curtis, the former lead singer of Joy Division,one would,perhaps, not have given this tale much attention. The whiff of Rock 'n' Roll tragedy does, however, still sell his music, and now this movie, comes trailing a superlative soundtrack in its wake. People are still drawn to him because they want to understand his, and through him their own, nihilistic urges for oblivion. He topped himself, we did not, now why was that? Curtis, as portrayed here, comes across as dangerously immature and lacking in self-awareness, so self-controlled and divorced from the consequences of acting solely in response to his feelings. The intensity of his vision appearing to arise from too tight a self-containment of them. Feeling and passion burst forth in his lyrics and his singing. His fans got off on his darkly toned catharsis, pushing him, all the time, to show and give them more. His life demonstrates what Oprah Winfrey said about fame to be tragically true - “ If you come to fame not understanding who you are, it will define who you are”

The central performances from Sam Riley and Samantha Morton, though good and coherent, somehow fail to lift the energy level above 'steady as you go'. As a consequence it feels flat and emotionally uneventful – and this is a film about what leads up to a suicide, remember! The story lines development, is stretched out in terms of time, way beyond what the script can sustain. Long lingering shots of Riley nervously smoking a cigarette, slows the pace and focuses our attention, without providing any increase in a sense of feeling for his predicament. One gazes on dispassionately as he takes the rope that he'll hang himself by - off screen. At this point it becomes blatantly obvious how you've been held in neutral emotionally for most of the film. You don't care for him, at this most pivotal of moments. It's as though his nihilism was shot from the perspective of a rear view mirror, constantly moving away from, instead of towards, its subject matter.

Anton Corbjin, presents his first film as a cool, stylishly shot, black and white homage to the obsession of his earlier adult career. He gives it great observation, attention and period detail, the precise framing of each scene is sharp edged and immaculately composed. On a cinematic level it is an impressive debut. His eye is still that of a music photographer, his feeling for narrative flow is likewise too static, posed and drained of movement and colour. Intentionally or not, this film seems to be strangely alienated from any basic humane resonance. It demonstrates the facts, the events, the factors at play, all very well, but the confusion and turmoil of feelings going on behind them, stay as only muted murmurings. Curtis may indeed have been a repressed, emotionally blocked young man, but that translates on the screen, as him being a blank and empty vessel. After what felt much longer than its 122 minute running time, the reasoning of Curtis's internal world remained a closed, baffling mystery. This might well add to his enigmatic, if not mythic, cult status, but this detracted seriously from the films vitality and direction. Ian Curtis was an ordinary human being, containing dilemmas and choices we all could encounter. It doesn't help to paint him into a corner as a studied icon of morbidity or world weariness. His tragedy was that he lost his rational foothold, lost control, and the only way he felt he could take back the initiative in his life, was via self-destruction. There was a great film to be made here, buried beneath its style and poise, it somehow got alienated and lost too.

Oh, by the way, any crematorium that allowed bilious black smoke to be emitted from its chimney, as is shown at the end of the movie as the song 'Atmosphere' plays, would be either closed down, subjected to huge financial penalties, or prosecuted.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

CD Review No 6- Joy Division

Prompted by the release of the film 'Control', I've bought three Joy Division Cd's recently - Unknown Pleasures , Closer,and a singles compilation, none of which I bought at the time. Sometimes particular musical sounds are very much of their late seventies/early eighties period, such as the drum sound on 'She's Lost Control', though generally they stand up extremely well twenty eight years later. Martin Hannett's unfussy and crisp production style, wisely takes the edge off the mordant and self-preoccupied vocal style of Ian Curtis, stopping it from becoming unbearably confessional, or, knowing what was to follow, portentous. Joy Division didn't last long enough to smooth down all their rough edges and become a stadium band like U2. Longer term this may serve them well, a permanent place of praise in the Rock'n' Roll pantheon is thus assured. Untainted by any sense of betrayal at having sold out, or declining musical potency, or becoming a parody of themselves, they've also been posthumously bequeathed the mirror of tragedy, through which to perceive their entire output.

Curtis's suicide, like Cobaine's in the next decade, sad though it was, has been romanticised to hell and back again. The fact that Joy Divisions music, such as on 'I remember nothing' can be intense and brooding feeds into this mythologising, but this neglects to notice their growing pop sensibility, as on 'Isolation', 'Love will tear us apart' and 'Atmosphere'. Their youthful darkness might have passed, in the same way that Nick Cave's grisly vision became more optimistic as he reached middle age. We also forget the zeitgeist of the time. It was grim up north in the aftermath of a severe late seventies recession, and another one was yet to come. The tone Joy Division set, was as much a reflection of their post- industrial homelands degeneration, as it was a working out lyrically of a personal tragedy. Corbyn's black and white photos of them at that time, and now his film, helped to develop, if not create, both views. The desolate, abandoned bleakness of urban England, drained of all life affirmation and colour, was an equally sentimentalised frame for their musical output.

Factory records were frequently accused of being style merchants lacking substance. Fortunately some of the bands Tony Wilson adopted were major musical talents, Joy Division were the first, and arguably the best of the lot. Stylistically, they have frequently been plundered and plagiarised by lesser musical talents. Most lack their sensitivity, or ability to keep their seriousness from descending into ludicrous self-indulgence, or the sort of mannered melancholy that was entirely boneless posturing. Joy Division were the heirs of northern stoicism, emboldened by a dark and dour energy, that was also strangely affirming, as we hear them making the best they can of a bad job. Spawned from Joy Division's demise, New Order were to develop this further in the altogether brighter landscape of the late eighties, though of lesser significance and influence musically.

DIARY 45 - Remake and Remodel

My first week managing the Customer Services Team, without the former manager there to advise or train me, has gone OK, despite my prophetic anxiety about calamity descending upon me. To be honest, the day to day work of the Team is not rocket science, once you have become familiar with the XAL system, it really comes down to communication skills. There are, of course, unexpected or unfamiliar disasters happening all the time, but mostly these turn out to be opportunities to expand areas of competence. Most of the other difficulties appear to be essentially organisational, usually ineffective or poorly maintained working practices in other departments of the business. When these fall over its Customer Services who have to pick up the pieces with the disappointed or angry customer. Finding ways to appease, placate and compensate is our core task. Try as we might to encourage things to improve,much of it is outside our sphere to influence. It inevitable comes down to human failings or error, for which there is no accounting – which in management speak becomes inadequate supervision or training, manpower shortage or systemic incompetence.

The consistency of my lifestyle and practice has been a bit ragged over the last month. This is entirely down to the amount of change and learning of new things that have been going on in my life at the moment. Now things are stabilising work wise, this is beginning to change, as I restore activities that help my lifestyle be both sustainable and enjoyable. I've already started going swimming once a week, something that stopped altogether when I worked at the Crematorium. David and I are going to buy bicycles this weekend which will increase our mobility immensely.

I've been writing a piece called 'Binding one's Self without a rope' for some time. I left it alone for a few months, but returned to it the other weekend to do a bit of housekeeping, only I couldn't get into the file. Once David returned from solitary retreat he rescued it from oblivion for me. When I looked at, it seemed to have reverted to an entirely earlier version and jumbled up the sequence, whilst other sections were missing all together. So, rather irritatedly, I've spent a good part of Sunday and three evenings this week restoring it, using a hard copy I had as reference and an e.mail attachment version for the missing bits. Without the latter I wouldn't be writing this blog entry this morning. I'm hoping to publish it soon as an article in Shabda, which is the Western Buddhist Orders monthly publication for reporting in, forum for debate and information etc. The start of the week, my own personal time was largely dominated by this task, not a thing I'd chose to do with my evenings off, but had to be done none the less. So, this weekend I'd like to focus on doing more nourishing creative things, and spending time with the people I love.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

FILM REVIEW - Into Great Silence

'Into Great Silence' is a rare cinematic experience, a film without a narrator, no one to explain or mythologise or create an unfolding mystery. There is no real story to relate here, it's without dramatic changes of pace or manipulative music to heighten the atmosphere. This film is as silent as a documentary can be, without turning the sound off. Very simply and unhurriedly, like its subject matter, it presents its findings. Philip Groning had to be patient to make this movie, it was nineteen years between his initial request and the film of monastery life being made. One is left wondering how this experience was for the monks, their every action being captured as they went about their usually solitary round of religious observances. How is it for anyone to have their private observances observed for public consumption? Groning scrupulously avoids any sense of you being voyeurs creeping in to watch forbidden things. He has an unobtrusive and patient eye, which paradoxically brings a fascinating richness and a quiet quality to his observing.

The day to day actions of thirty of so monks in the Grande Chartreuse, the head quarters of the Carthusian Order, are charted in minute detail, and you find yourself gradually adjusting your step to be in pace with its meditative rhythm. The lives these monks lead is stark, simple, and stripped bare of affectation. This is not a documentary indulging in the exotic otherness of monastic life. It's not a life without any sense of aesthetics, there is a rough hewn beauty to this rustic simplicity. I can feel it's attraction and get a sense for the spiritual values that are being made tangible, to a generally indifferent world. Though, in all of us there's a still small segment in our psyches that yearns for this ideal – to get away from a life ruled by the rampant desire for sensory distraction.

To our deeply social, sexual and individualistic society, spending time on ones own could be viewed with anxiety, if not derision. Yet, these monks have chosen to devote themselves to this life, mostly to spend their time alone in their individual cells, grouped as they are around a large communal cloister. The individual and the communal are given separated contexts within the monastery enviroment. At points during the day a monk pushing a cart bearing metal containers brings food to the cloister cells, stops by each, unlocks a small door hatch, opens it and places round food tins within it, then moves onto the next. Then there are the daily communal rituals, some called to by bell in the middle of the night. Once a week they're allowed to walk outside the monastery grounds, where they can interact and talk. On one such day some of the monks walked up into the snow covered mountains in twos, having great fun on the slopes on their makeshift skis. It left an impression that their lives, though serious in religious intent, were not entirely bereft of a sense of fun or playfulness. Perhaps the founding fathers were wise, and knew a life of such austere practice cannot be left without an emotional safety valve, opened to relieve the pressure at regular intervals. Most of their days they pray, they study, they work, they perform rituals without egotistically imposing their personality upon their devotions. No one appeared be self consciously playing up to the camera, which may be a virtue of good editing, as much as an expression of spiritual maturity.

Throughout the film there were shots of individual monks staring straight to camera for half a minute. Passive, characterful faces, full of expression, looked out at you. These seemed untroubled, but deeply human beings, self acknowledging, though interested, if not intrigued by why you the viewer were interested, if not intrigued with them. For over two hours and forty minutes I sat engrossed, a grin of sheer delight, if not envy, often appearing blissfully across my face

Sunday, September 23, 2007


When something happens, whatever it is you feel, if you stay with that feeling, your life is limited. then from that limitation, you create irritation, confusion, stress, and distress.

But to live a peaceful life, you cannot stay with that feeling; you have to return the result you have tasted into eternal possibility.

That way bitterness will not find bitterness. so when I get a taste from my feeling, I cannot keep that bitter taste warm in my heart


Tuesday, September 11, 2007


I'm now well into my second week working at Windhorse. The building itself is of course very familiar, I recognise its quiet relaxed atmosphere, it feels a steadier place to work and be in. The work is mostly new and still seems a huge overwhelming challenge. I'm pretty good at dealing with people and I know what needs doing to meet customers requests. However, my understanding of the XAL system,which would enable me to provide the solutions, still has major gaps in my understanding of it.

Considering I wasn't brought up using computers with my mother's milk, and have slowly learnt how to use one in the ten years since I was forty, I think I do pretty well. David's job is maintaining the computer network in relation to our Evolution shops, so he is obviously quite a whizz with these things. At home I sometimes ask him how to do a simple task, which he does with such speed I can't follow how he's done what he's done, so there's not a cat in hell's chance I'll remember it for next time. I do, in my own way, get there eventually, and do develop quite consistent practices and methods when working with computers. Computers don't strike me as particularly logical, more methodological, if you know the method it seems logical, if you don't know the method, logic wont get you anywhere.

This second week has, so far, felt a little less like my brain was a supersaturated sponge that could take no more water,thank you. Last week I had so much input and barely enough time to absorb or practice what I've been shown, before I was doing it live with a customer. I have, after all, just arrived in the team at probable their busiest time after the major gift trade show of the year. Training me up is the last thing they need really. When I worked in another admin team at Windhorse I learnt on another version of XAL and a whole different set of procedures, only some of which appear to cross over. My memory, of something I did on a daily basis two years ago, frequently deserts me. Though I can now sort of bluff my way through a day, I'm aware I could very easily stumble into a huge hole in my knowledge or comprehension, right in the middle of dealing with a customer. The full breadth of tasks that we do has understandable yet to settle into any recognisable form, pattern or scheme of comprehension.

My current mental state is a recognisable anxious one, I'm mentally uneasy on occasions simply because I'm not feeling fully in control of my work. I find myself being mentally clumsy, making simple mistakes, suddenly I forget what comes next and have to ask for help, or have something explained yet again. In my experience repetition of a task is the best way for me to establish understanding. Explanations or taking notes are good for reference, but they're no substitute for the doing. I have dearly wished in the past that I could grasp processes quicker, but actually that isn't how I learn, it is more a gradual and, lets face it, slow application of effort. I feel more confident in my approach these days and don't give myself a hard time. This doesn't mean my self esteem sits easily with the learning of new things, its still impatient not to feel like a stumbling novice and be the competent all knowing one, once again.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007


Aesthetics begins in the startle of surprise,
the breath caught, held in astonishment.

Aesthetics arises from an epiphanic image,
the full force of character revealed
as in a work of art.


DIARY 43 - Berlin Observations

After his return to Germany earlier this year, it was so good to meet my friend Eugen again. Being greeted by his beaming presence in the airport lobby was a lovely welcome. I've missed the delight of his company, for both the fun and the depth that our conversations will often go to. Eugen lives in Kreutzberg, an area of Berlin with quite a track record as a place of shelter for political radicals,social outcasts and immigrants. It has a cosmopolitan and bohemian air,with a vast range of ethnic cafés, restaurants and shops that straddle the globe in the cultures they encompass. Quite a lot them are established in cellars, from second hand clothes stores through to art galleries. Eugen's flat is in this area, and I can see why he's fond of it. Apart from being a cheap area to live, it does have a warm approachable atmosphere to it. It was a popular place for squats in the sixties and seventies. Now Turkish immigrants are making their home here and contributing to an already rich mix of culinary styles available.

My first impression of Berlin was of the width of the streets, broad with two or three lanes going either way, trees lining both the right, left and middle. Large curved lamposts lean out over the road like tall distinguished gentlemen, they seem to say ' Here Sir, let me provide you with more light.' The urban environment of Berlin seems less pressured, openminded, civilised and respectful. The pavements are wide too, in most cases they include a separate path for bicycles. You can cycle everywhere with great ease and safety, the network of cycle paths is extensive. I hadn't cycled for a few years, so a sore bum and tired throbbing thighs were an inevitable outcome of my first full day of touring central Berlin. Over the four days we often found ourselves cycling alongside the former position of the Berlin Wall. Dividing up a city in this way seems ludicrous these days, but then in the Post War years, a strange paranoia did hang over Europe.

Berlin is full of building sites, as an astounding range of modern buildings still spring up to fill the gaps a war and a wall have left. The new Reichstag and Presidential buildings are splendid examples of modernism, the use of surrounding space, the playfulness with form and perspective, all make these buildings outstanding. I've reluctantly concluded that only continental Europeans seem to know how to pull off this style. Even though they often use English architects, one cannot forget they have a substantial architectural and design inheritance as the birthplace of German Gothic and the Bauhaus.

Should we attempt anything so bold and large scale in England,we invariable do it half heartedly, under fund it, and generally handle it in mean spirited, cack handed manner. According to Peter Ackroyd in his book on the English imagination, we have a cultural bias against big visions ( architectural or otherwise ), to me its both a character distinction and a limitation to our imagination. For me, there was a great sense of uplift and inspiration, of some faith being restored, to see architectural vision carried out with such bravura and care. I love Berlin for that if nothing else.

Berlin has had a chequered history - one minute a hotbed for modernism, creativity and liberality, the next the reluctant home to a regressive and repressive regime. In either case it has left a mark on the city, some more sombre than others. How can a city, or a country, come to terms with a shameful period in its history? It's not a question with an easy answer, but Berlin seems at least willing to try and find one.

The Holocaust Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe is an astonishingly bold public statement of remorse, constructed right in the heart of Berlin's prime real estate. As a gay man I need to carp about the exclusion of other groups murdered by the Nazi from this memorial, but that does not detract from its evident emotional power. Walking through it was a major highlight of my all too brief visit to Berlin.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

DIARY 42 - Arrivals & Departures

I have yet to encounter a European airport that remotely resembles an English one. Stansted Airport has a beautifully designed shell, to walk into it should be like entering a large open and airy tent, a cool, spacious place you're instantly at ease with and can find your way around. Instead you arrive into a visually confusing entrance, so much demands your attention as you're barraged by information and a layout that isn't instantly comprehensible. After check in you quickly find yourself ushered into a cramped bazaar, under retail duress in very tawdry looking circumstances. What is worse is that you have to take half your clothes off in public, be x-rayed, your shoes scanned and the privacy of your luggage invaded, before you even get to it. It wasn't worth the wait.

Having said goodbye to my luggage for an hour or two, I waited for my plane to be ready to board, it was already gone 5 am and the retail malls were just stirring into life. In English airports shops are crammed into the smallest of spaces, to maximise rental income, which creates a pokey and oppressive sense of space. The piped music and flashy shop fittings remind one of a tart, all lip gloss and heavily applied eye shadow, trying hard to be alluring but ending up being vulgar and repulsive.

Once the flight gate was open I was off, I couldn't wait to get out of that trashy corral. Just a quick dash to the loos and then on to my departure lounge. An atmosphere surrounds the layout of Stansted, it feels like an environmental experiment which, being only temporary, will soon be replaced by a permanent version that will make more sense. This feeling extends to the toilets and the departure lounges. Whilst I sat looking bleary eyed around at my fellow early risers, it dawned on me why this was - both spaces are constructed from exactly the same materials. My departure lounge looked for all the world as if it were formed from recycled portaloo cabins. One could readily expect signs apologising, not for the inconvenience, but for looking like one.

Some interior design decisions confound logic and experience; knowing the volume of travellers passing through a busy airport like Stansted, what self respecting designer thinks its a good place to lay down carpet. Carpets that are stained from all manner of liquid spillages ( speakable and unspeakable ) ,have ground into them dust, fag ash and random spits of gum, the pile crushed then formed into wrinkles and rucks from the ceaseless barrage of luggage trolleys dragged across them. Carpet doesn't make an airport any quieter or a cosier place to be, it just transforms it into a grim, grubby, and gross place to be. Rip all the carpets up at once and lay some shiny linoleum - please!

If you descend from Arrivals/Departures the aesthetics take a turn for the worse. You enter a concrete bunker, where service ducts and pipes move in parallel with passengers trying to find their bus or train platform. It leaves an impression that money ran out and this perfunctory basement was all they could afford. All pretence at creating a comfortable, pleasantly human environment vanishes and you are left in a place where alienation is your only option. Some spaces seem designed for criminal activity, in this case for muggings and a good kicking in the underpass.

Arrivals at Berlin's Schonefeld Airport was a noticeable calmer and more relaxed space. It's not really an international airport, so it hasn't to deal with anything like the same amount of passengers passing through its gates. It is, however, clean, well maintained and uncluttered by the confusing plethora of signs and advertising that frequently blights and bares down on you in English airports. German signs appear to be fewer in number, only telling you essential information, often in easily understood symbolic form. The designers have taken simple and bold decisions, like making advertising spaces go from floor to ceiling across whole walls, and integral to the aesthetic effect of a space. The shopping area is contained to one broad unfussy corridor, the shops consisting of two duty free, a bakers/cafe and a burger king. The appearance is of a spacious, clean and visually pleasant place to be, and what's more, there wasn't a strip of carpet in sight, anywhere! When I see this level of care and attention I despair of being English, we are so often revealed to be clumsy amateurs when it comes to designing effective, efficient and human spaces, it is shameful.

Friday, August 24, 2007

CD Review No 5- Prinzhorn Dance School

A minimalist bass lines slowly fades up into hearing, coming and going like a radar. Thirty five seconds later, after what seems like a wait of an eternity, the thwack of an unadorned drum beat enters, followed a few seconds later by the sparse twang of a simple electric guitar riff. These are then augmented by a male vocal style of characterless and studied ordinariness,as he sings ' your down in a hole, your down in the ground, its 7am and your scratching around, the moneys all gone, and your poor like the poor, your lover just called, she don't love you no more, your in the black bunker' this is further enhanced by unsophisticated screams and whelps from a back up singer who has all the vocal skill and refinement of a cheerleader standing at the side of a football pitch. You have unwittingly stumbled into the musical sound scape of Prinzhorn Dance School's first album.

There are only two people present Prinz ( Male ) and Horn ( Female ) they comprise PDS. Sometimes their sound is artfully contrived and odd in a very knowing way. Like performance art punk rock, you might like it, but you certainly can't dance to it. It does, however, possess its own peculiar delights like chocolates that have been deliberately misshapen in production. They've set the musical boundaries they're exploring, no wanton adornments like excessive use of echo, treatments or electronic embellishments of any kind, instruments are recorded so ' snare drums sound like snare drums' as they express it. There is often large volumes of space, moments of silence, gaps interspersed amongst the music like a dare - how long can you wait before you just have to make a sound. This is quite a constriction and discipline to place on yourself, even though at times the plodding drum and guitar sound does become a bit well trodden and over familiar. If this band is going to thrive they''ll need to develop more musical inventiveness within their minimalism or break out of it, otherwise they're will be no difficult third album.

Quirky and gauche could be one way to describe them. They revive a particular musical aesthetic which emerged from early eighties 'indie rock', defiantly individual, with an uncompromising distinctive vision. Comparisons aren't always useful, but at times in spirit they did remind me of The Fall, with a dash of Young Marble Giants, early Slits and Jonathan Richman ( on their song - Hansworthy Sports and Leisure Centre ) thrown into the pot. Were he still alive PDS would have been played enthusiastically by John Peel, I am sure. Their form of eccentricity frequently is too self consciously abstracted and off beat to be widely commercial, but it is curiously addictive nonetheless. You could become extremely fond of them, but beware - never fall in love with them, there is something on the edge of becoming unhinged or perverted here. They have a pretty queer imagination manifesting in their lyrics, which doesn't always stay the right side of rational coherence. Prinz intones 'I do not like change, I always walk this way,I do not like change – l like memorised fact,I like memorised fact,bible premiership stat, I like memorised fact – I got sticker book pic, you, you talk too quick, I got sticker book pic – I do not like touch, you, you talk too much, I do not like touch.' Then they will surprise you with some wry understated humour like 'do you know your butcher, DO YOU know your baker, do you know your paper comes from the big store, next to the big store.'

Yes, Prinzhorn Dance School are an acquired taste, but then a lot of very good things are.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

DIARY 41 - Welcome to the car smash

I'm barely a few minutes drive away from work,on my way to pick up David from his work. On the slip road approaching the A14 a silver car wavers impatiently behind my back bumper. As we near the motorway he indicates and begins to move out over the cross hatched area before I've reached the inside lane. I'm forced into further accelerating, I can just about see beyond him a red lorry in the outside lane and think the coast is clear for me to enter. The lorry, because my impatient pursuer lies between us, is unaware of me. I'm in his blind spot and he moves into mine. Having passed the silver car he believes it's OK to move back into the inside lane. All I could see was his left indicator light flashing as he whanged right into the side of me. The force of this propels the left side of my car straight onto the hard shoulder, ripping the front off, blowing a tyre and ironing my doors flat. This never seems to happen in car chases in movies, however, I come to a juddery halt. I sit holding my hands tightly to the top of my head I'm in shock, my breathing is panicky,sharp and shallow. All I'm thinking is how I'm going to get to the Crematorium now and to phone David. The car is obviously dead, and I am obviously not.

The lorry driver stops, phones 999, and runs back to see how I am. All doors
bar one are inoperable so I exit out the one rear door that will open. A little
dazed and I stumble out grasping a rucksack and battered Tesco bag. When the police and ambulance arrive I am still a bit stunned and can't quite take in all their saying. They seem to be speaking very fast. There was some sense of mourning for the loss and demise of the car, particularly as I watched it hauled like a crippled insect onto the accident recovery vehicle. After all the expense and effort of getting myself back into driving, in barely a few moments my circumstances seem suddenly reverted to how they were eighteen months ago. Yet I've always had a diffident relationship with driving, seeing it as a somewhat unfortunate necessity tied up with my working at the Crematorium. I don't take much interest in cars generally, my own was no exception, just so long as it worked. Though I will miss the freedom of mobility it brought, it did come at a high cost to me personally and to the environment. To be free of this seems a blessed release.

I've been very lucky, no physical injuries, no whiplash to speak of, just a stiff neck, shoulders, back , and in mild shock for a day or so. I was literally a few inches away from being crushed to death. Fortunately the lorry driver reacted quickly to his mistake in judgement or else I would have become a further statistic to add to the list of A14 fatalities. That the car has become a right off so near to my leaving working for the Crematorium seems appropriate somehow. I wouldn't need to use it much from September onwards, once I'm able to walk to work. Longer term I had been wondering what I would do about the car anyway. Now whatever money emerges from the Insurance I can use towards clearing my loan, which will be a great financial boon.

David has remarked how amazed he is with how calm and unruffled I've remained. I presume my work has had some effect on how I view the proximity of mortality. I'm in daily contact with the aftermath and consequences of death, some of which are quite tragic. So I've not felt emotionally traumatised or tearful, what has happened has happened, and fortunately I'm still alive to tell the tale. Whatever is to come, all those future things I get anxious and fret about, seem less worthy of the attention that I normally give them. The force of my desires for something other than what I currently have, often creates a whirl of suffering and discontent around it. Having been so close to death I feel more appreciative and content with the life I've got, and so grateful that I'm still alive to see that with greater clarity.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

DIARY 40 - The end of warming the universe for free

Those of you who read my blog regularly will be all too aware that I've had my struggles with working at the Crematorium. Sometimes being a Chapel Attendant can feel like you're a Stage Manager to a repertory theatre company, where every thirty minutes there's a completely new unrehearsed drama. It's vitally important that the staging and timing all go correctly and according to the script, you only get one chance to get it right. This process, as you can imagine, induces quite a bit of tension, quite apart from the strong emotional nature of the scripts contents. Though I've learned to deal with this, and gained a great amount from the last eighteen months of working there - the time to move on dawns.

I had an interview this week for the job of Customer Services Manager at Windhorse:Evolution, where I used to work before. I heard yesterday that I have got the job. Today I gave the Crematorium my months notice, so by the beginning of September I'll no longer be a Chapel Attendant/Cremation Technician ( Pay Band 3 ). The new job will not be without its fresh responsibilities and noble challenges for me to face no doubt. I'm returning to Windhorse primarily because it is an excellent context for work and practice, where I know my contributions will be valued and valuable, plus, so many of my best friends work there. Some of my best qualities can find expression and further develop, whilst they appear only to get stored away unused in my current position.Whilst my new job could indeed prove to be stressful at times, it can't be anything like as strong an experience as burning dead bodies, or being around bereaved distraught people day in day out. Hopefully this move will at the very least provide a steadier more even work/life balance. So I return home of an evening less drained emotionally, and better able to focus on creativity- on writing.

DREAM TWO - And I'm buying a stairway to heaven.

I arrive at this New Age Therapy Centre trying to source a piece of music I've heard. The woman at the Centre tells me its by Alfred Dellar, the counter-tenor, and that it's available in a full or an edited version. I decide I want the full version which she tells me I 'll find upstairs. As I climb the stairs I find they are extremely rickety and seem hardly to be supported structurally at all, but just float there. I manage to get upstairs to the mezzanine floor and find the CD I'm looking for. At this point I get drawn unwillingly into a perverse therapy process which seems to involve some form of physical violation. When this comes to an end I try to escape before I have to go through it all again, which is where the dream ended.