Monday, 5 August 2013

Inspiration #1: ONSIND

In an attempt to reinvest some life in this blog, and as a handy means of reflecting on what I critically enjoy as a writer while I’m currently not doing much writing, I thought I’d start a (hopefully) fairly regular feature: artworks that inspire me.

To kick this off, I’m going to start with a band who released their third full length album, Anaesthesiology, earlier this year. ONSIND (short for One Night Stand In North Dakota – a reference to inadequate abortion facilities in parts of North America), consisting of Nathan Griffin and Daniel Ellis, first came on my radar in the spring of 2007 when I saw them supporting Mike Park at the Bridge Hotel in Newcastle. I arrived halfway through them playing ‘Riot Don’t Diet’, whose chorus, bemoaning Thatcher’s affects on feminist discourse, goes: ‘If that’s equality I’ll eat my hat / if that’s equality I’ll emigrate in five seconds flat / if that’s equality I’ll throw myself off Canary Wharf and smash a few glass ceilings as I fall.’ Arguably not the best rhymes in the world, I’m willing to let it slip for two reasons: firstly, the song is from their demo; but more importantly, here were 2 punks from Durham in the function room of a Newcatle pub singing to a (largely white, middle-class male, NOFX t-shirt-sporting) audience about feminism (and other ‘political’ subjects). Not really par for the blast-beats and power chords course, then.

Fast-forward a few years, albums, splits and several times watching them play in some of the North East’s classiest venues (remember the top floor of The Cooperage, anyone?), ONSIND are back with what I’m going to lay on the line as the most important album by a British band this year.

Released collaboratively through Durham’s Discount Horse Records and Plan-It-X Records of Bloomington, Indiana, Anaesthesiology sees every part of this band’s repertoire become superlative. For a start, the instrumentation, which is much fuller and includes use of clarinet, cornet and trombone, makes ONSID sound a lot more like a full band than the 2-man outfit we’re used to seeing them perform as. Secondly, the scope, ambition and detail of the lyrics are now exceptional. With punk bands, there has always been a tendency to just scream ‘fuck you’ at whatever the object of derision is. ONSIND have always been cleverer than that. Partially, this must be down to the liberties (and in some cases restrictions) afforded by predominantly playing as two men with acoustic guitars, but I think something deeper – and much more interesting and important – is going on. I’ve seen ONSIND enough times live to know – and not have the fear to admit – that the songs tend to work better on record. Last time I did see them, in fact, was at the Star and Shadow’s Christmas all-dayer last year, when they previewed songs from Anaesthesiology. Live, (and I do realise making this judgement on hearing them once is probably ill-informed) those new songs didn’t stack up and I was left feeling a bit, well, like the band hadn’t progressed too far beyond being those 2 angry lads in the upstairs of a pub.

How wrong I was. Anaesthesiology is an album that needs to be listened to just like that: as an album, with good headphones on, on a rainy day.

In many ways Anaesthesiology is a concept album. Not in a wanky sense, and it’s certainly not apparent on first listen, but repeated listens begin to reveal more: more about the enigmatic Chelsea, who this album surely is some kind of ode to; and more about – as those album notes inform us – the ‘stories set predominantly in the North East of England [...] for the most part based on real events and people.’
If Chelsea is the muse for this album, David Cameron and the legacy of Tory governments is surely its target. In an age where the North East is being labelled ‘desolate’ by Tory peers, and not to mention the whole burnout of Thatcherism on traditionally working-class communities in the region, it’s both patently obvious and somehow quite refreshing that Anaesthesiology gives the Conservative party a massive flick of the Vs. Rest assured, though, if you think that this album is a one-trick-pony. Oh, no: other cheerful topics include racist immigration (‘You make your case and you go home / [...] and you go to sleep alone / But in the darkness you can hear the violent deportations / Jimmy screaming for his life on a British Airways flight.’); the callous and calculated deconstruction of the welfare state (‘A front bench of old Etonians / [...] screaming “we’re all in this together” whilst they amputate welfare’); and mental health (‘There’s something wrong with me / I don’t think I’ll ever be okay / I just take it day by day (by day by day)’).
The album’s crowning achievement for me is ‘God Hates Fags’, which, while worth quoting almost in full, somehow feels disingenuous to the band, and, oddly, to Chelsea. Based on the death and subsequent funeral of a mutual friend or family member (that we have to speculate on the exact identity of the deceased is not an indication of poor song writing, but actually testament to the sensitivity with which Griffin and Ellis broach the subject), the song steadily builds towards a sort of anti-crescendo: an elegiac refrain in which the lines ‘the world got smaller, things got harder’ really stand out as potent and grim reminders of the fact that for many, life really is [still] tough in the North East.
It is the combination of a pervasive sense of melancholy, channelled through the plight of Chelsea, and a furious resentment of corruption and greed in the wider world which makes Anaesthesiology not only the stand-out British album of the year so far for me, but the most concise rebuke to the Coalition government’s cynical policies I have seen or heard while the party(ies) have been in power. For all of this to come off the back of two lads from Pity Me, whose dedication to a DIY ethos is probably the most admirable I’ve ever come across, is testament to the strength, creativity and vitality of this region, and more importantly, to the life-affirming power that music can hold when it is done with passion, honesty and a hearty Durham accent.
Anaesthesiology is available now from Discount Horse records.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Enigmatic Update that Panders to My Sense of Self-Worth

I write this with the vague and fleeting notion that there are still people who irregularly check this blog and hope to someday find regular updates.

I’ve been writing elsewhere recently: most critically as Live Theatre’s guest blogger, but sporadically – often drunkenly – on CAPTCHA, my attempt at trying to fuse the minds of Tao Lin, Steve Roggenbuck and Julia Darling. No, I don’t know what I mean either.

Regardless, CAPTCHA (and the myriad related internet poetry/macro Tumblrs it tries to emulate) has provided some kind of creative catharsis – or, at the very least, outlet – while I try and negotiate my way through my mid-twenties in this clusterfuck nation of ours.

I have “high and lofty”* hopes of beginning to form the CAPTCHA poems into some kind of coherent narrative over the next “however long”*. I say that; I’ve probably only written 3 worth theirs or anyone else’s salt. So, in short, I’m just beginning to feel again that I might want to actually write some poems. But I’ve totally given up on form and learning about it or learning about why I should learn about it, so expect some prose-poetry about quarter life crises soon. And by ‘soon’ I mean whenever I actually get round to doing it. Priorities, people.

*cryptic Tao Lin references fully intended.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

On Collaboration and Tough Times

Last week, I performed at the fantastically-organised, hugely entertaining Fresh North East alongside Patricia Verity. Our 8 minute scratch piece, currently untitled, fused physical theatre, dance and puppetry with poetry.

Perhaps because this was the first time I’d performed since South Africa (there’s a whole other blog post still needing to be written about that), or perhaps because it was the first time I’d had to recite a whole poem from memory (it’s not a short one, either), I was terrified. For a start, this was the first scratch event I’d ever done, and I chose to do it at a dance event, at that. Brave? Stupid? Maverick? All three?

Luckily, feedback on our performance was largely positive, and discussions between the facilitators and other artists at the end of the performances was rich, detailed and positive. A common criticism, at least of my part of the performance, was whether or not I should have been ‘reading’ or ‘performing’ the poem. It’s a debate I find myself coming back to time and time again, even though, as Saul Williams reminds us in We Are Poets (very highly recommended, by the way) there is neither ‘performance’ nor ‘page’ poetry: there is just poetry, this ancient art form, stretching back as far as Homer, which, time and again, has been used to illuminate the world.

Shelving the academic and theoretical arguments here, a healthy debate was opened: can hearing a poem – irrespective of whether it is over the top of visuals/dance/etc. or not – without having read it, be ‘enough’?

As I have found myself still mired in a state of not feeling particularly energised by poetry and literature, it is one of many questions I have been asking myself. Recently, more experimental work has been the only type of literature to light my candle, if you will. I’ve flirted with, and had some success, publishing visual or macro poetry on a number of internet poetry blogs, including Bad Robot Poetry and my own, CAPTCHA. I’ve also cracked the tough outer shell of Bloodaxe’s new anthology, DearWorld and Everyone In It, finding some absolutely astonishing ‘experimental’, contemporary, ‘austere’ poetry.

But, it somehow doesn’t seem enough to sate. Having swung chaotically between various states of calm, frustration and incredulity at my own, as well as the wider socio/political and economic, situation(s) during these past two years or so, poetry and literature has — well — it’s figured less and less. At precisely the time when I should be writing to speak out against this government, this... fucked up-ness of trying to sustain more and more stuff on a finite planet, I’ve done the complete opposite, largely. Perhaps this is symptomatic of some of the more subconscious effects of austerity – an eventual subservient acceptance of bleakness? – I’m not sure, but I know that the spark has gone, and at the minute, I’m not even sure I want to look for it.

I met with a writer friend last week (I’m keeping her name anonymous in case she doesn’t want to be associated with this level of negativity) and we both agreed that things, already, had gotten harder in the Arts world here in the North East. While funding cuts weren’t as severe as we originally feared (50% in the end, so that’s alright then! Not), it is without a doubt a difficult time to do this for a living. That last statement is, of course, very highly loaded, and taps into what culture secretary Maria Miller said today in regards to whether government should subsidise the arts: “When times are tough and money is tight, our focus must be on culture’s economic impact.” Doubtless, this will require another separate blog post, but I know – and I’m sure many of my artist friends will agree – that I will sleep less easily tonight knowing that if the government don’t think my words would translate into cash, they will effectively just turn the other cheek and find someone whose words do. Just consider that for a second: just consider what tripe might end up being written to chase the carrot-on-the-stick of government-backed Arts funding. This definitely needs another blog post.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Review: How to Make a Killing in Bollywood

This review comes with something of a caveat: I spent three weeks in February working with Umar Ahmed, the co-writer and director of How to Make a Killing in Bollywood. I’m glad I did if not, it’s doubtful I would have walked through the snow on a dismal Friday night in Paisley to watch a play about Bollywood.

How to Make a Killing in Bollywood tells the story of Raza Khan, a struggling Scottish-Asian actor disillusioned by working evenings in his family’s carryout in Glasgow – “serving chips and cheese to the local neds”. After persuading his best friend and fellow actor, Gurjit, to take a leap of faith and have a crack at making it big in Bollywood, the pair set off for India “on a path that will change both their lives forever.” [Quotes from the show’s official flyer]

The first act rushes a little too quickly towards its cliff-hanger moment, although when it arrives, it is difficult not to feel sympathy for Raza. It’s no spoiler to reveal that it is actually Gurjit who receives the fabled call-back from a Bollywood casting company. Cue shocked expression on Raza’s face and a fade to black for the interval. At this point, I was really hoping that the second act didn’t lurch into a moral testing of faith/soul-searching for Raza. In a way, it does do that, but How to Make a Killing in Bollywood is actually a much cleverer and more ambitious play.

Raza’s relationship with Versha, a prostitute he meets at a bar on his first night in India, becomes one of the highlights of the show. Not only does Versha embody the duality of India and Bollywood – sexy yet seedy, beautiful yet dangerous, hot yet cold – her ability to manipulate Raza (and the ease with which he allows this to happen), makes him a far more rounded and, crucially, believable, character. In a great scene in the second act, where Gurjit chastises Raza for going out drinking again instead of concentrating on what he came to India for, Raza curtly tells his friend that that is what he’s doing. The ambiguity, bizarrely, could not be more clear: Raza has realised, finally, that the road to glory is not as straightforward as he had previously hoped, so he panders to Versha’s good nature, deceiving her with promises of a future together, that he really cares, so that he can steal her ‘little black book’. As Raza becomes less likeable as a character, the tension between him and Gurjit escalates perfectly along its tragicomic plotline. Yet, its almost-inevitable climax remained a surprise, quite a shocking one at that, which I think the play manages because of its expert juxtaposition and blending of dark and light, both visually and metaphorically.

Had the play ended ten seconds earlier, with the harrowing confrontation between Raza and Gurjit, I would have left Paisley Arts Centre slightly underwhelmed. That the last words we hear are “And, cut!” from a disembodied director is testament to the writers’ and (real) director’s skill and judgement. How to Make a Killing in Bollywood doesn’t frame itself as a metafictional work in the way that books like If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller do, but I am very glad that Ahmed and Sumal injected the play with a hearty dose of self-awareness. The play’s opening, an answer-phone message left by a casting agency informing Raza of a(nother) unsuccessful audition, is strong, but it’s only two hours later, when we realise that How to Make a Killing In Bollywood is, effectively, a two-fingered salute to all of the directors and theatre companies that didn’t employ the four actors in this show, that we fully appreciate its real intricacy and beauty: the ease with which it lies a sardonic, deadpan message about the whole of the theatre and acting world while simultaneously providing us with a camp-as-you-like, pat the dog, change the lightbulb romp through the journey of two minority characters.

There are, of course, problems with the play, just as there are specific instances of excellence. For me, the tendency towards very literal soliloquies, in which characters subjected us to their inner fears and desires in quite banal speeches felt a little over the top. A more successful example of these soliloquies, performed by Gurjit not long after his arrival in India, sees the character reflect on a meeting with a street kid who wanted to involve him in a game of cricket. By focusing on the ordinary, on Gurjit’s noticing of the precise way that the child held the bat, the speech became more than a sum of its parts; it invoked something else about India – a bigger picture and wider scope than that merely framed in this show.

Elsewhere, the airport security scene was handled brilliantly, giving us a sense of some of the prejudices facing Asian travellers. Done so humorously – Gurjit ultimately having to strip to his boxers, with the alarm-raising ‘problem’ being discovered ‘down there’ the scene was genuinely funny without holding us, as a neutral audience, accountable for the bigotry of others. Just after this, as a nervous Gurjit waits for the plane to take off, he muses on the mechanics of what it is that will actually keep him in the air all the way to India. The scene is very poetic: isolated within his own mind, we hear all of the ridiculous but appropriate thoughts that we must have all had at some point during flying, such as what would happen if just that one wire were to fail?

How to Make a Killing in Bollywood is currently touring Scotland (dates on the site below) and I really hope that people will make the effort to see it. Ahmed and Sumal have produced a play which is so much richer than it appears; a play that is about friendship and ambition and the lengths people will go to realise their dreams. It’s a play of light and dark; a play of life and death; a play of laughter and sorrow. It’s a play that more people need to see, and I wish the cast and the whole team every success with it in the future.

Written and devised by Umar Ahmed and Manjot Sumal. Directed by Umar Ahemd. Cast of actors: Umar Ahmed, Manjot Sumal, Storm Skyler McClure and Adam Buksh.
Produced by Scott Kyle, NLP Theatre Company/Regal Theatre, Bathgate
Watched at Paisley Arts Centre on Friday the 22nd March 2013.
For tour dates and more information, please click here.