You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘The Smiths’ tag.

Composer James Humberstone during the creative development sessions at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, December 2017. (Image: Ryley Gillen)

When I first met James Humberstone, over dinner in 2015, he looked like a guitarist in Radiohead: joggers, funky trousers, coloured T-shirt, and a cardigan that looked like something a soccer player would wear in the garden. With his English accent (he was born in London and migrated to Australia in 1997) and a brain full of opinions, which range from veganism to marriage equality, James is terrific company. In terms of music, I remember us that night chatting about Malcolm Williamson, the Australian composer who was also the Master of the Queen’s Music from 1975 until his death in 2003, but also the stratospheric English rock band Muse. James has an irreverent sense of humour, with political conservatives coming off second best.

With the Sydney shows for THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT just around the corner – Friday 27 July, to be precise – James and I had a chat about our influences, and, after all these years, what we think is at the core of our song cycle.

NIGEL

In terms of music, who inspires you?

JAMES

Howard Skempton (image credit: Clive Barda)

The biggest influence on my own composition has been Howard Skempton, the English post-experimental composer. I remember the first time I heard his Lento, at the age of 16, I was struck by a music that was timeless in more than one way. Timeless because it was obviously new, but seemed ancient, too. And timeless because structurally it felt like the piece didn’t go from A to B to C, but instead just occupied the time for which it lasted.

At university I was able to find more of his music, and loved it equally. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Howard’s music over 20 years ago and was lucky enough to study with him privately for a short time before migrating to Australia.

In Australia, the biggest influence on me has been Anne Boyd, who was my supervisor during my Masters in composition, but also influenced me through the study of her own work, as I engraved it as she wrote it over a few years, and as a friend. I knew I wanted to be an academic-composer early on, but it was Anne who made me sure of it.

Of course, I’m inspired by many other composers and performers. In the last decade I’ve drawn on so many of J S Bach’s ideas, which are still so radical even today. I think Beethoven was probably the greatest composer to live, and don’t ever try to emulate him. As a young teenage composer I was inspired by Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Britten, and still often revisit their scores to see how they achieved the amazing sounds that they did, especially orchestrally. While I’d describe myself as a (post-)experimentalist (though if Cage didn’t like that label, why would I?), I’m one of the few who loves the music of both minimalists and the serialists/complexists. In fact, there isn’t much music that I don’t like, although to me the stuff that’s truly inspiring is the music you don’t ‘get’ the first time and hear new things in every time you listen.

I’ve listed traditional western art music composers there, but I must also say that last qualification applies to all of the genres I listen to. The greats include Radiohead and Björk, but there are many writing such interesting music in all fields now – I’m listening to hip-hop, punk and EDM just as much as I am to any art music composer. It’s a feast.

What about your musical inspirations?

NIGEL

My musical life started with Kate Bush and The Cure and has progressed (maybe?) from there. Bands that continue to resonate are The Smiths, Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Red House Painters, Frightened Rabbit, and The Go! Team, as well as artists such as Nina Simone, PJ Harvey, Peaches, and DJ Shadow. I went through a huge dance-music stage – series by Global Underground and Renaissance – and I still enjoy the more intricate side of that kind of music e.g. Burial, Kiasmos, and Jon Hopkins. After getting into some wonderful post-rock – primarily Sigur Ros, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and Explosions in the Sky – I’ve been immersing myself in more minimal music; I’ve always loved Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, and Arvo Pärt, but more recently I’ve been listening to Dustin O’Halloran, Jóhann Jóhannsson (rest his soul), and Max Richter – I love his re-scoring of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons as well as Three Worlds, his score for a ballet based on the novels of Virginia Woolf. Nils Frahm’s All Melody is that newest album that I adore, as well as Singularity by Jon Hopkins.

I could go on…

Tell me about the literature that has interested you?

JAMES

I’m a complete lightweight, but not because I want to be. I have a job that involves reading thousands of words every day, and while I do find reading for research extremely pleasurable (I won’t say the same for marking university assignments, but they are an essential part of the education process, so I try not to complain), I have little energy left for reading for pleasure, so tend to read page-turners.

Margaret Atwood

Rather like my choice of films and TV series, my tired brain enjoys science fiction as Philip K Dick described it (anything where reality has changed a little bit – not necessarily with spaceships and laser guns!). I’m a huge Phillip Pullman fan, and really want his permission to create an opera trilogy of the Dark Materials books (I’ve asked; his agent says no), just reread Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale after the excellent new TV adaptation, and have been enjoying reading Tolkien and Rowling to my kids.

That may not sound very inspiring for a composer, but I should point out that when one works with words, as I have in my two largest recent projects, The Weight of Light and Odysseus: Live, I’m constantly inspired by the texts that I’m setting. One begins with the words, their emotion, their structure, their intent, the narrative, and everything is planned around that. I’ve been incredibly lucky to work with some amazing writers, and have never had to set a ‘dud’ text yet. I imagine that it would result in a piece of music that wasn’t much cop, either.

Over to you: what’s the literature that inspires?

NIGEL

I love the Russans, especially Chekhov and Tolstoy. More often than not I’m stunned by JM Coetzee. Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx is one of the most extraordinary pieces of literature I know, as is Holding the Man by Timothy Conigrave. Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet and The Riders were an early influence, and I’ve also found much inspiration in Helen Garner, as well as Patrick White and Randolph Stow. Of course, there’s Hemingway – what a perfect piece of writing is The Old Man in the Sea. Other authors who regularly inspire are Aminatta Forna, Kazuo Ishiguro, Colm Tóibín, Evelyn Waugh, Michelle de Kretser, Alan Hollinghurst, Anne Enright, Evelyn Waugh, Christos Tsiolkas, and EM Forster. In terms of poetry, for me it’s Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, ee cumings, Philip Larkin, and Dorothy Porter. Recent novels that knocked me for a six: Solar Bones by Mike McCormack and Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, both of which are thrillingly, bravely experimental – but with heart.

To finish, in terms of THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT I’ve been thinking that, at its core, the work is about the pressure nations put on individuals to do near impossible things, but the unpredictable chances we get to heal and make new.

What do you think the work is about at its core?

JAMES

Humanity, or the human spirit if you prefer, pulling us through.

Whether we live in Australia, where most of us live in the top levels of wealth in the whole world, or in poor countries where the majority struggle to survive, or in war zones, where it might not matter how wealthy or poor you are, but whether you can save your life and the lives of your family — we all have stories of adversity that we have survived. Most adults have lost someone very close to them. Many of us, even in this country, have struggled with questions of our identity or against forces and misassumptions out of our control. Perhaps just thinking back on those things is enough to make us cry, or break down again.

Yet most of us get up. And get on. And when we see someone who can’t, or at least not yet, we help them. Or, at least, the best of us do.

In THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT a series of devastating events shake our soldier to the core, all over one short weekend. He is down, he is down again, he is hurt, hurt, hurt, and breaking. Yet he gets up. We endure and express so much pain, but we get up. And when we can’t, we ‘cry out for help’, and hopefully our family and our friends are there for us. I hope in this Trumpian, post-Brexit, keep-out-the-boat-people time that we live in, that the tide might change, soon, as we remember our humanity and find a little more compassion and love for those around us – or far away – who are hurting.

Michael Lampard as The Soldier, at the world premiere of THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT, Canberra, The Street Theatre, Canberra, 2018. (Image credit: Shelly Higgs)

*

THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT: Friday 27 July 2018, 1pm and 7.30pm. Venue: Music Workshop, Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Featuring Michael Lampard as The Soldier. Pianist: Alan Hicks. Direction: Caroline Stacey. Tickets ($25/$15) available here.

*

THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT was commissioned by the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium and developed by The Street Theatre in Canberra.

Arcade Fire's 'Reflektor': is this at last the perfect record?

Arcade Fire’s ‘Reflektor’: is this at last the perfect record for our beautifully fucked-up world?

How would it be to exist without music?

I for one would have no clue, and I don’t want to try imagining it, or even write much more along those lines.  But it is, perhaps, worth asking a related question: how would it be to exist without excellent music, or even very good music?  For me, this has been the question of the week.  And you can blame Arcade Fire for that.

I’ve been following this Montreal-based bunch since their highly acclaimed debut Funeral (2004).  Using the phrase ‘highly acclaimed’ in this context is hardly new or surprising – it seems that when Arcade Fire simply get out of bed in the morning there’s cause for rapturous excitement around the world, the sort of rapturous excitement that once greeted The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan (the crusty old shit that he’s become), David Bowie, Nirvana, and, erm, U-bloody-2.

But is Arcade Fire really that good?

There’s no doubt that when they’re fully charged they’re excellent.  Witness ‘Neighbourhood No. 2’ and ‘Wake Up’ from Funeral, ‘Intervention’ and ‘No Cars Go’ from Neon Bible (2007), and ‘The Suburbs’, ‘Ready to Start’, ‘Modern Man’ and ‘Suburban War’ from The Suburbs (2010).  One day Arcade Fire are going to put out a best-of that’s going to knock the socks off people and prove once and for all how great – and ‘great’ is the word – they can be.

However, and this is a big ‘however’: they can also be utterly infuriating.

Some Arcade Fire songs start brilliantly before burning out as though in the end they just didn’t know what to do with them but, hey, chuck it on the record anyway.  The band can pack too many ideas into each song (certainly Reflektor suffers from this in parts), and lyrically they can be as awfully obtuse as a Sixth Form poet inspired only by Google.  Throw into the mix the fact that they’re fueled by both anger and beauty, they appear to adore and detest modern life in equal measures, and they can be grand, dramatic, over-dramatic, over-blown even, but there’s also a deep vein of melancholia throughout.  A rich brew or a directionless mess?  They’re both, quite honestly.

So.  What to make of this latest record?

In a way it’s exactly what you’d expect.  This is, apparently, Arcade Fire’s dance collection and they enlisted LCD Soundsytem’s James Murphy to get their hips a-wigglin’.  Appropriately split over two discs, and inspired by the 1950 Brazilian classic Black Orpheus and its themes of death and isolation, Win Butler, wife Régine Chassagne, and the couple’s clever cohorts lead us from the superb ‘Reflektor’ – this is their ‘Atomic’ – through ‘You Already Know’, which sounds like what would happen if Butler fronted The Smiths and Queen, and the almost Clash-like ‘Joan of Arc’.

On the second disc the pairing of ‘Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)’ and ‘It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)’ shows just how close Arcade Fire is getting to John Lennon, in ambition if not execution.  ‘Porno’, the most James Murphy-esque track, is a fine slice of moody electro, and ‘Afterlife’ is one of those typically exasperating Arcade Fire songs: a gorgeous verse, a glorious chorus, it’s all ‘Can we work it out?/If we scream and shout till we work it out?/Can we just work it out?/If we scream and shout till we work it out?’, and then, and then – well, it just collapses under its own weight.

Referencing a bunch of great bands and singer/songwriters here is intentional, including The Smiths and The Clash.  Is Reflektor as good as the former’s The Queen is Dead or the latter’s London Calling?  No, it’s not.  But it’s dangerously close.  It has the scope, depth, audacity, and a burning desire to create something as timelessly artful as those albums.  In some ways it also feels like the best mix-tape you could ever possibly receive (the inclusion on the second disc of the test-sound once found on cassettes alludes to this) and, perhaps, in the age of iTunes, YouTube, and Spotify, Reflektor is as good as it gets.

A magnificently flawed masterpiece.  Yes, let’s call it that.

And I can’t stop listening to it.

I have a thing for light, quite a thing. Sometimes days go by and it’s all I’ve thought about. Light. It’s such a simple word, and it sounds exactly as it should – it sounds light, as in light to carry, but also as though it would be possible to turn the word on and off, that it glimmers and glows, that it shows us the way, and indeed it does. In the early evening, after I’ve poured myself a glass of wine and struck a match to the fire, I close the west-facing curtains over the French doors only when it’s well and truly black outside, because I like to see the final blue hue as the day darkens.

I’ve written short stories about hurricane lanterns, because I love the idea of a light – at least a carrier of light, or a protector of light – that’s designed to withstand the worst of storms, the worst of seas.

One of my all-time favourite songs is ‘There is a Light that Never Goes Out’ by The Smiths, which is such a jaunty tune about young people going for a night-time drive: “And if a double-decker bus/crashes into us/to die by your side/ is such a heavenly way to die”. But it’s the lyric to fade that’s the real killer: “There is a light that never goes out”, repeat, repeat, repeat until – irony of ironies – you feel more alive than ever.

Recently I bought a light-shade for my hallway, a simple Art Deco design found in a second-hand store up the road. I’d been looking for it for weeks, months, my whole life perhaps, and there it was in all its frosted green-glass glory. For an entire evening I turned the light on and off, on and off, as if electricity had just been invented and there I was amazed, gob-smacked. Each time I walk down the hallway I look up and see the light-shade; it makes me feel as though I’m in love for the first time. I’ve found myself thinking, I feel so happy at the moment, I wonder why, oh yes, a new light in the hallway – best go and have another look.

Light may be, as my Oxford Dictionary claims, an electromagnetic radiation whose wavelengths fall within the range to which the human retina responds, but really it’s the opposite of hopelessness.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 1 September 2012.)

It’s a small space, just ten metres by ten metres, approximately, of course, there’s no point being accurate about these things.  Open the back door and you step into it, out there, a cast-iron doormat beneath your feet.  To your left is a small nook, terracotta pots of geraniums beneath the bathroom windowsill, lattice covering the Colourbond fence, plastic terracotta half-pots screwed to the lattice (plastic only because real terracotta would be too heavy), some type of sedum clinging on for dear life in the pots.  At the feet of the lattice is the narrowest of garden beds, bulbs emerging, grape hyacinth from memory.  Also on your left is a Koppers-log shade structure covered in potato vine – smothered is a better word.  It protects the kennel for The Old Lady of the House and Cat the Ripper’s food-and-water station.

But come up the path, do.

Now you’re in the guts of it, the cottage garden proper, though it’s winter so it’s looking worse for wear, it’s the frosts, and the wind, always the wind, because it’s relentless.  On your left is a small veggie patch beneath the clothesline, the patch packed down with lucerne bought from the stockfeed supplier up the road, strawberry plants growing amongst it all.  A timber bench at one end – it’s here that I drink coffee or tea, sit in the sun, watch the chooks, and let my brain empty.  The chook run, painted deep red and a faded kind of light green to match the house, the roost half-covered in potato vine for shade in summer.  A grey concrete stepping-stone path leading to the back gate; the gate’s  flimsy so it’s secured with an old chain.  And the single-car corrugated iron garage, though it’s more like a shed, no door, a lean to the whole thing but somehow it’s weatherproof.

Much of the space to your right is covered in lavender and rosemary, lamb’s ears, more bulbs coming through, daffodils I think, two standard roses (white), one has a lean to it, because of the wind.  Another timber bench, this one I’ve had for thirteen years, one of the slats is broken so I don’t sit on the bench often, but it’s surrounded by a sparsely planted English box ‘hedge’.  One day soon I’m going to buy a whole bunch of old bricks and pave the area beneath the bench and within the squared outline of the English box ‘hedge’, and probably put a small cast-iron urn on each side.

Speaking of cast-iron – even more cast-iron – there’s a cast-iron birdbath, it has an old-tractor-seat aesthetic, two cast-iron sparrows stuck onto the rim so they look like they’re drinking, but at this time of year they also look like they’re comatose with frost, so says He Who Notices These Things.  Along the side fence, screening the neighbour’s yard, which is so filled with junk, even an old boat, that we call him Catweasel, or Weasel, or just Weaze, is an old fig tree, and a short run of wattles (I think they’re wattles), they too are windblown, and a Manchurian pear tree that will one day grow too big, too big for this space.  A Chinese silk tree, bulbs beneath, more daffodils I seem to recall, but maybe bluebells as well.  A low, old-brick wall.  An old rusting watering can perched on a bush rock.

Between the old rusting watering can and the house is a small paved area, in the corners geraniums in pots, in the middle a timber outdoor setting, a white pot in the centre of the table, the pot overflowing with some kind of sedum that flourishes in Goulburn conditions.  Sometimes I sit at the table and eat lunch, leftovers mostly, or eggs on toast, but I don’t sit there as often as originally envisaged, because of the mozzies that seem to love coming out from beneath the shade of the wattles.

Despite its small size, despite the fierce heat in summer and the frost in winter and the wind, always the wind, despite being fond of wearing black jeans, black T-shirts, listening to The Smiths and PJ Harvey records, despite loving a glass or three each evening, despite everything else I’ve put in my body, and done to my body, this space, this tiny tiny space, my garden, is where I love being.  It’s my retreat, it’s my sanctuary.  If I don’t spend at least an hour or two out there each week I unravel just a little bit (more).

Margaret Atwood said, ‘Gardening is not a rational act.’  So my garden is where I’m going now this post is done, and gardening is what I’m going to do.  Drop over, drop in, have a cuppa and sit for a bit.  Just make sure to bring a beanie, maybe gloves, perhaps even a scarf.  And nothing – absolutely nothing – in your brain.

***

This post was inspired by a piece over at Broadside titled ‘Flowers and plants and shrubs – oh my!

A confession: I’ve got the hots for a chick, and have had so for quite time.  Of course, she doesn’t have flesh and bones, at least not to me; she’s a voice, a music, and what an extraordinary voice she has, and what extraordinary music she makes.  And her most recent album: well, it’s been a long time since I’ve adored an album as much as this, how I’ve learnt every song, as in I’ve become to understand it all, it’s seeped into me, getting beneath my skin.  You know when you’re young and you listen to an album so often that you start to become sick of it?  So you wisen up and get into the habit of drip-feeding albums that you’re loving.  Or you love an album immediately only to find that it doesn’t hold its own ground.  Or you don’t like an album immediately, but soon find yourself playing it over and over, loving it intensely, obsessively, until it’s all-consuming.

PJ Harvey’s most recent album Let England Shake is the sort of album that makes me remember the great records from my deep, dark past – Faith by The Cure, London Calling by The Clash, The Queen is Dead by The Smiths – and I do own this latest Harvey opus on record, as in on vinyl, because that’s how I like to listen to the best albums that come my way.

Despite being an age-old though not uncritical PJ Harvey fan, I’ve come a little late to Let England Shake.  It was recorded over a five-week period at a church in Dorset UK in April and May 2010 (when I was bunking down in Launceston Tasmania, I realise rather deliciously) and released later that year.  In 2011 Harvey won the coveted Mercury Prize for this record, making her the only musician to have bagged the honour twice; she’d previously won it for Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea back in 2001.

What makes Harvey such an exciting, beguiling, and sometimes, let’s face it, frustrating singer-songwriter is her dogged refusal to repeat herself (Tim Winton should take notice, in more ways than one).  Her albums have covered such various terrain as riot-grrl grunge, folk, pop, electronica, sparse piano ballads (check out 2007’s White Chalk), and now she adds a dozen war songs to her, er, canon.

Harvey wrote Let England Shake over a two-and-a-half-year period, producing the lyrics first – she claims to be inspired by Harold Pinter and TS Elliot – before sitting down to set the lyrics to music.  Her mission, it’s clear, was to explore what it means to live in a country that’s at war.  However, this isn’t some table-thumping polemic; it’s intimate, it’s beautiful, it’s harsh, it’s haunting.  Her voice is higher than on previous records, and it’s complemented – more than appropriately – by the deep timbre of her long-time collaborators, John Parish, who Harvey has described as her music soul-mate, and Mick Harvey (no relation), who for many years has worked with Nick Cave.

Using instruments as diverse as autoharp, zither, piano, trombone and saxophone, as well as some cheeky and downright hilarious samples, Harvey has crafted an album that is as engaging as it is adventurous.  And it’s packed with tunes; it would almost be thigh-slapping good fun if it the subject matter wasn’t so serious.  Check out ‘The Last Living Rose’, the gut-wrenching ‘On Battleship Hill’ and ‘Written on the Forehead’ to experience the musical and emotional range of the album.

It’s true that PJ Harvey can be awkward company: I imagine that you’d have a delightful cup of tea with her, she’d smile, she’d talk sweetly but with brutal honesty, before she’d stand up, excuse herself, and go and play with her chooks or pot up some salvia.  And I haven’t always been faithful to her; in fact years have gone by when I’ve not had much to do with her.  But, despite the latest fixation on how ugly human beings can be to each other, how supremely violent for no real logical reason, we’re back together now.  And I feel that this time she’s with me for quite some time.  Even if she does a runner on me again, or I do a runner on her, I have no doubt that in twenty years time I’ll still be playing Let England Shake, and on vinyl, and loud, very very loud.

Last week my little humble home stepped into a new era – I had a fire installed, a slow-combustion wood heater, I should say.  Technically I don’t need it.  There’s an old coal burner in the front room that’s now a library; I can use the coal burner to burn wood should I want a fire.  Plus I’m lucky to have ducted gas heating and a wall-mounted gas heater the size of a very large travelling suit-case.  And electric bar heaters.  And an electric blanket on the bed.  In this Southern Tablelands neck of New South Wales, winters do have a bite – heavy frosts are common, we regularly have minus-six mornings (which, according to the Bureau of Meteorology actually feel like minus-ten), even the odd snow flurry.  But I have my range of heaters, and, when I’m here alone, I wear thermal undies, because they make things just that little more bearable, and I really can’t afford to run the gas heating for long stretches.

Still I had a slow-combustion wood heater installed last week.  A man came by and did it for me, because I wouldn’t have had the first clue where to start.

Despite being a winter person, I’m finding more and more that I need heat, good, dry, radiant heat.  So there it is, the fire, sitting in the lounge-room where the piano used to be (the piano that’s now in the front room, glancing back at the coal burner).  My new slow-combustion wood heater is a big black cast-iron box of a thing, a massive black flue that gives the room an industrial aesthetic.  I can’t wait to get to 6pm tonight and light the fire, because I’ll want that good, dry, radiant heat, the flames, the glowing, dancing yellow-orange light, the smell of hardwood burning, the pop and crackle of it all, which scares the living daylights out of The Old Lady of the House.  I’ll pour myself a glass of white wine, or Cointreau, or American Honey whiskey, and sit in front of the heat.

Because I’m a melancholic – that’s the real reason why I love my new fire so much.  Melancholia is my natural habitat, it always has been.

I love melancholic books: The Remains of the Day, The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea, Holding the Man, Brideshead Revisited, Brokeback Mountain, Disgrace.  I love melancholic music: Godspeed You! Black Emperor, The Red House Painters, The Smiths, Bon Iver, Sigur Ros, M83, Arvo Part, Johan Johannson.  I’m not depressed, although there have been times when that’s exactly what I have been.  I’m just a miserable old melancholic – I have, as my Oxford Australian Reference Dictionary makes clear, ‘a habitual or constitutional tendency to pensive sadness’.  Pensive: deep in thought.  Don’t you love how words can take us on journeys, take us from one place to another!

I think my new fire takes me from one place to another, from the surface-tension of the present to deep within myself, to that core of melancholia that’s there, that which I was born with, that which I will die with.  Because, as strange as it may sound, I’m happiest in that place.  No doubt the fire is more friend than foe, taking me down there but, most importantly, bringing me back, warming me up, sending me to bed, reminding me that, more or less, everything will be alright in the morning.

PART 1: THE iPad

Not a bookshelf but a machine

So Steve Jobs from the Apple corporation has launched the iPad.  Good for him, is all I can say, though I can say something else, which is this: what a load of complete bollocks.  In covering this ridiculously hyped event my city’s local TV news bulletin took the angle that the iPad is the first great e-reader (no doubt they took this angle because per capita Canberra apparently reads more books than anywhere else in Australia).  And based on what can be found on Apple’s iPad website the angle is justified: beneath a picture of the gadget with an image of a bookshelf is this claim: ‘The iBooks app is a great new way to read and buy books.  Download the free app from the App store and buy everything from classics to best-sellers from the built-in iBookstore.  Once you’ve bought a book, it’s displayed on your Bookshelf.  Just tap it to start reading.’ A couple of things with this quote: one, Apple’s habit of referring to ‘app’ is damn annoying; two, the capitalised ‘B’ in iBookstore and Bookshelf, as if they now own the word ‘book’.

Being someone who loves to read, in fact a day doesn’t end well without some fiction in my head, I took an interest in this claim.  Well, a kind of interest; actually I got pretty angry pretty fast.  This is just another ‘mine’s bigger than yours’ toy that does a million things that we could always do.  At the risk of sounding like the greatest Luddite still walking the earth, the book – and by that I mean the thing with paper pages between cardboard covers – is a perfect invention: it does exactly what’s required of it.  The cover tells you what’s inside (to a certain degree anyway), and the pages take you on a journey.

Writing, especially fiction, is magic and this to me is the appeal of the book: how can this thing, which essentially is nothing more than ink on bits of flattened tree, take me on such a journey?  How is it that I end up caring about the characters when it’s all just tricks and lies on paper?  How is it that sometimes I’m so moved I have to go for a long, long walk to recover?  And then there’s the actual physical action of reading: the stillness.  You sit up in bed or lie on a couch or sun-lounge and you’re motionless (and absorbed) as this thing in your hands transports you to a completely different place and often a completely different time.  It really is magic.  But stories are complex, and story-making is complex (I reckon it’s the hardest thing), and there’s something wonderful when this complexity is presented in the simplest way imaginable.

Books don’t need extra buttons, they don’t need batteries.  In the scheme of things books aren’t burdensome to carry.  And if you’re going very far it’s rarely a hassle to pack a number of story companions.

Some Kindle thing

Despite what Apple and the other corporations in this e-reader racket want us to believe, there’s simply no way to improve on the design of the book.

Many compare what’s happening to reading books to what has been happening to listening to music over the last decade or so, but these contexts are totally different.  Personally, the ultimate way to listen to a great album – say, Remain in Light by Talking Heads, or The Queen is Dead by The Smiths, or Silent Shout by The Knife – is on vinyl, in my loungeroom, and most likely with a cheeky vodka somewhere very close by.  (And before you think I’m some crusty old audiophile I only bought my record player a couple of years ago.)  On vinyl, music is big, dynamic, multidimensional, warm, and, dare I say it, human.  But, as much as I love listening to music in this way, it’s a bit hard to strap onto my back the record player, the amp, the pre-amp and four speakers when I go for a walk with the dog.  So I have a nifty little mp3 player, not an iPod mind you, just your humble, no-brand-worth-mentioning mp3 player.  It’s tiny, much smaller than the Walkman, and it doesn’t skip like my old Discman used to do.  Plus I can load up a number of albums, so if I’m not in the mood for one band I can easily swap over to another, or even switch to a homemade best-of, like the personal Portishead mix  I’ve been listening to for the last few months (all songs burnt, might I add, off the CDs I own).  So in this context technology has made music transportable as well as, to a certain extent, self-managed.

But reading is a different kettle of fish.  You have to commit to a book, particularly a novel.  I choose a novel based on where I’m going and for how long I’ll be there; often I choose a novel to reflect what’s happening in my life – being a slow reader I know that I’ll be investing days if not weeks in a book.  For example, in November last year the partner and I went to Vanuatu (for a wedding, of all things) and I specifically chose Geraldine Brook’s People of the Book because it would be a big read, a complex read, and I needed this space and time to lose myself in the work (and lose myself I did – it’s a terrific story and an extraordinary piece of imagination).  What’s more, I read this novel in airport lounges, in planes, beside lagoons, beside the resort pool, in the resort gardens, in our room.  And this invention, the book, performed perfectly – it did exactly what I asked of it, no more, no less.  And the book will continue to perform perfectly; it will continue to do exactly what’s asked of it, no more or less.

What irks me the most about the iPad is that it is so obviously consumer manipulation – in terms of the e-reader function at least, it is saying this will be better for you, more convenient, when it so clearly won’t be either of these things.  If anyone can tell me what I’m missing, do share, but until then I – along with quite a few others, I’m relieved to report – say this: Gutenberg got the book right, let’s leave reading there.

PART 2: JD SALINGER

Interesting that in the same week the Apple corporation launched it’s iPad thing, one of the twentieth-century’s greatest writers JD Salinger died, on 27 January.  And he was one of the twentieth-century’s greatest writers because of just one book, The Catcher in the Rye. I’d not read the book until last year (rather embarrassing I know, especially when I, like the book’s protagonist Holden Caulfield, was private-school educated and didn’t do that well in that particular environment).  But it did have an impact on me: one mighty, memorable character, someone with attitude as well as flaws, someone who wanted to buck up against the context in which he’d been placed, which is a trait we never fail to admire.  Combined with this, the narration is aimed squarely at the reader; it’s a surprisingly intimate reading experience.

But what I’ve always found fascinating about Salinger as a writer is that he wrote nothing else of significance and spent much of his life a recluse, refusing to correspond with journalists or even fans.  Such mystery.  Was Salinger a flash in the pan, did he just have an amazing stroke of luck?  Was he not brave enough to start or finish another book?  Did he fear failure (reports suggest he certainly was very sensitive to criticism, but then again most artists are)?  Did he write other manuscripts and were they just as good if not better but simply refused for the manuscripts to be made public?  How tantalising if this is the case.  Or did he just lose himself in his own legend?  Was the mystique manufactured to keep himself in the front of the public’s mind because he had no new stories to do this for him?

Harper Lee of To Kill A Mockingbird fame is similar in that she too only ever wrote one great book.  Perhaps once a writer has created something as perfect as Catcher or Mockingbird there’s no chance of topping it so you might as well quit while you’re ahead.  Or it could be because the writer has put every fibre of their being into their creation that there’s nothing left to create something else.  We’ll never know – Salinger has taken his motivations not to publish again to his grave, and it’s highly likely that Harper Lee will do the same.  But there’s something appealing in the way these great writers have approached their careers – it could be said they just gave up after creating one great thing.  This ability to give up, of course, is assisted by stratospheric sales of their works – Catcher was still selling 200,000 copies per year and publishers claim that to date Mockingbird has sold 30,000,000 copies worldwide – but the fact that these writers ended up resting for the remainder of their lives seems to make us revere them even more.

Perhaps these books were miracles?  I’m just so glad I have both in my library, on the bookshelf invisibly marked In The Event Of An Emergency Do All You Can To Rescue These Puppies.

With all confidence I can report to you that I’ll never have The Catcher in the Rye (or To Kill a Mockingbird) stored on the hard-disk of some bogus iPad contraption.  It will always have a physical presence in my house.

Because books reinforce my soul.

Computers might make my life easier – including being able to post these words on this blog – but they can never reinforce my soul.

I’m going to do it, get the needle and slowly, carefully, put it where it needs to go.  Then I’ll stretch out and let it wash over me, through me, and enjoy the utter gloriousness of it.  After decades of abstinence, you see, I’m going to have a record player in my house again.  And I can’t wait, though I will have to wait because I have to scrape together the last few pennies.  But I’m already going through my small (and rather dusty) collection of LPs and singles, trying to decide which will be lucky enough to have First Spin status.

It could be New Order’s Substance, partly because it has ‘Blue Monday’ on it, which will sound great through the new speakers (you can’t buy a record player without getting new speakers), and partly because I can remember riding my bike up to the St Ives Shopping Village, which was my haunt for the first eighteen years of my life, and buying this double album, although it actually contains “12 x 12-inch a-sides”.  Back home, however, I discovered in one of the records an imprint of a sneaker, so I returned it to the store and was given a replacement.  But I’d learnt that at some stage in the manufacturing process, records must be pliable enough for a mark to be left when, perhaps, an overworked factory employee stumbles.  Vinyl indeed.

'The Queen is Dead' by The Smiths. Greatness.

Or it could be The Smiths’ The Queen is Dead.  The first time I heard this record, in 1986, my last year of school, I didn’t understand it one bit – my older brother’s best friend had just told me that if I was keen on music I must give The Smiths a listen.  But I thought the singer, whose lyrics referenced Wilde and Yeats, sounded like a morose yodeller and his lines ran counter to the music, the music being pleasant enough, in a jingly-jangly sort of way, but it simply wasn’t to my less-than-developed private-schoolboy taste.  Needless to say, two or three years later I realised that Morrissey sang all his words for me and me alone.  Even now, at the age of 39 and 51 weeks, I’m still a Smiths obsessive.

Or the first record could be ‘The Sun Always Shines on TV’ by A-ha or ‘Victims’ by Culture Club, both on 45.  Then again, maybe not.

It’s true that this is all about nostalgia – I even admitted as much when last weekend I nervously walked in to a hi-fi store and told them what I was looking for.  Yes, I’m having a sentimental yearning for the past. But what does ‘sentimental’ actually mean?  A romantic or nostalgic feeling; by emotion rather than reason.  Hang on, my decision to own a record player is entirely reasonable, and sensible, and logical; emotion has nothing to do with it, thank you very much.  Besides, even now, in 2008, some bands still put out music on LP, so this might not be about the past at all – it’s just about…options.

Whatever, if I am being nostalgic, I really don’t care.  It was Lou Reed who said ‘I don’t like nostalgia unless it’s mine’.  And this nostalgia is all mine, baby.  If only I was cool enough as a kid to own a Velvet Underground record.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, October 4 2008)

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 170 other followers