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Sunday, 23 April 2017

Maps and tropes

In a matter of weeks I will be 40 and, actually, it feels about time – so much so that I am writing this blog post early.

The shift in world view from late twenties to mid-thirties I documented here but it’s now clear that was only half way through a decade-long process of jettisoning and upgrading youthful ideas and attitudes – and actually, that process is ongoing and will likely continue, until I lose my mind or turn up my toes, whichever comes first.

Trying to explain what feels different over these past four or five years is hard to pin down (there are hints of it here and here) though a lot is line with the expected 'life begins' trope: I feel more comfortable in my own skin than I ever have; I know myself better than I ever have; I have learned to value and enjoy the little things more; I give fewer shits about appearance, ego and cool; I have less patience with fluff, bluster and bullshit; I am much more inclined to view things pragmatically and with a calm scepticism than idealistically and emotionally; I have less faith in prevailing wisdom and the judgment of powerful people, because I have seen well-qualified authority figures make demonstrably bad decisions a few too many times; and I have discovered jazz, dressing with a colour palette and the joys of interesting architectural design.

But there's more, something more I'm still struggling to pin down...

The slow process of disillusionment

I started this blog in my early 30s and the tag line “Life: Or ‘the slow process of disillusionment’ as I call it” has been floating around on it for most of that time, supposed to be humorously downbeat but also heartfelt ­– it did feel like virtually everything I thought was true, good, exciting, reliable or even attainable in my youth was in the process of turning out to be more complicated, ambiguous, problematic or simply more mundane as adulthood progressed. Your childhood maps and expectations of the world slowly prove to be flawed and insufficient and you have to update them with amendments in untidy, ugly scrawl or chuck them away completely. How sad, I thought, but them's the breaks.

Then I thought that was a sad thing. Now I thinkThank God for that. If there’s one major thing I would like to point out about my 40-turning feeling it’s this – because if I hadn't got rid of those quaint old maps I'd have been stuck with them.

Because I have been noticing more and more and more in the past half decade how it’s not just me – everyone has these maps of what the world is supposed to be, ranging from basic childhood values to the received horse-sense of adult society – and all of it is a little cock-eyed, riddled with misleading myths and assumptions.

And in tandem with this I have been noticing more and more and more: The world is not how you think it is. Everything is more complicated than you are led to believe. Your maps and expectations are all wrong. Not just mine, not just yours – all of them.

Tropes

I still don't feel like I'm making myself clear enough. So: Let's talk about tropes. By which I mean recurring devices and themes in things like art and literature, especially salient today in film and television.

What happens when a car goes off the edge of a cliff in a film? It explodes. What happens when someone is dangling over an abyss but instead of climbing up to safety they try to reach for that golden amulet on the nearby ledge? They plummet to their death, the greedy nobs. What happens when an authoritarian society creates a 'game' for public entertainment, where people are forced to run or fight to the death? The participants band together and spark revolution, of course!

These recurring ideas and motifs can be anything from a common type of scene (the heroes peep over the edge of that rocky outcrop/hidden balcony to conveniently observe an evil ritual below that reveals the full horror of what is going on!); a basic pairing of things that always go together (aliens = ancient Egyptian imagery, right?); to a full-blown complex narrative (Google 'The Hero’s Journey').

These things are outlined in exhaustive and mind-boggling depth at the wonderful TV Tropes website, which says: “A trope is a storytelling device or convention, a shortcut for describing situations the storyteller can reasonably assume the audience will recognize. Tropes may be brand new but seem trite and hackneyed; they may be thousands of years old but seem fresh and new. They are not bad, they are not good; tropes are tools that the creator of a work of art uses to express their ideas to the audience. In fiction, it can even be impossible to create a tropeless tale.”

In life also it can also be impossible to create a tropeless tale about how you think the world works. Because this stuff doesn’t just happen in entertainment, this is how we think in general ­– in our social interactions, our politics, our culture, our everyday expectations and judgements. Our lives are full of stereotyping, narratives we have invented or absorbed from the world around us, and unexamined 'zeitgeist' assumptions. Some are fairly overt and obvious, but others go unrecognised for what they are – nothing more than shortcuts and habits of thinking that may actually not reflect reality all that well. Because actually, in reality, the car most often doesn’t blow up; it just crunches and comes apart and that’s it.

Here be dragons

These tropes, of course, combine into maps of what the world should be like, whether dealing with politics, romance, religious belief, social shiz or even work or business. Of course these maps are useful, usually contain at least some identifiable truth, and we have to have them to get by and get around. But while some are better than others, not a single one of them is complete or sufficient (no matter what all those self help and 'get rich, happy, healthy and successful' guides may try to tell you) – how could they be? Because the world out there is more bizarre, diverse and complex than any guide-map can convey.

Treating these maps like they are complete and sufficient is often the source of endless trouble and grief. The SatNav is never the territory – yet often people seem to prefer gluing their eyes to that rather than looking at the damn road and learning to take it as it comes. I see people everywhere, all the time, sticking to their maps and coming at life full of some certain 'faith' that it is this way or that, that this will happen or that must happen... as the SatNav drives them off the edge of a metaphorical cliff.

It’s not just that this attitude sets you up for disappointment, it sets you up for crisis – because when what you thought 'needed' to happen doesn’t, it’s a disaster – the entire world is cast as a dreadful hell because you can not even contemplate an alternative. All you have is what's on the map and “Here be dragons”. So when your map proves to be wrong – OMG, DRAGONS.

But the world is not a dreadful hell, it just is. Disappointment is a bummer, but if you think one scuppered plan ruins everything, you’re not looking properly. So it turns out life is not arranged around you having fun, or being successful and fulfilled all the time as your entitled destiny, after all. Boo hoo. That doesn’t mean you can never have fun or be fulfilled or successful, just that sometimes you will, sometimes you won’t, these things never last forever and you probably have to keep working at it. And no one is immune from bad things repeatedly happening that you have to soldier though – that's not the end of a fulfilling life, it's grist to the mill of it.

The biggest misunderstanding of the field of cognitive psychology is the idea that it's all about positive thinking and telling yourself to be awesome and happy. Yes, we should regularly remind ourselves of the good things – but simply running away from reality and telling ourselves 'positive' fairy tales is not a great strategy for sustained and robust mental health. Getting a more flexible and up-gradable map, learning to read it properly and using it more in conjunction with the actual, real, road is a better one.

Raw, strange and crackling

For me, at 40, it seems life is bigger, more complex and crackling with mystery and possibility than I ever imagined in my earlier adulthood. It's huge, raw, strange and unknowable. It may be stable and calm enough to map out in the steady spots, but it strikes me as unimaginably varied and extreme at the edges. The very nastiest, bleakest stuff does happen. So does the most beautiful and sublime. A lot of the time neither makes its presence felt. But time and again, I've found, whatever you think things are like, they are not necessarily like that.

I honestly don’t know how to communicate this, and will have to keep on trying because I don’t think I’ve done it here at all. I look at younger people and despair to think: “My God, you have so much to go through, so much to do, to endure, to have happen before you can see this," which sounds utterly pretentious, I know. Maybe that’s how my parents look at me still.

Whatever, I’m now so much more wary of over-reliance on maps and tropes, especially those that other people have decided everyone else should adopt – I do not trust the judgement of those who are navigating life from an off-the-peg ideology or overly-embellished narrative, set in stone.

For me, at 40, there is no grand plan. My life’s work is now just to navigate through whatever happens, seeking out the enriching things while trying to avoid the awful stuff, dealing with what comes at me and pushing to keep the good things good or make the bad things a little better, step by step. And most importantly trying to understand it better and deeper as I go – because that is the one project that makes sense of it all to me, though a project that will never be complete, until I... stop. At which point, I 'spose, it stops with me. But let's see how far we get.

That's how I'm seeing things right now. I have no idea what is in store any more – and I really, really like that. To fall back on a hackneyed old trope: 'Life begins', indeed.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Thomas does a book review

Is it tragically romantic or are these people just mentally ill? That, for me, is the central question of Wuthering Heights, as my cynical and pragmatic near-40-year-old self wrestled with the yearning teenage goth I once was.

Don’t worry, I don’t plan to make a habit of literary musings on this blog and only thought this worthwhile ‘cos the Emily Bronte novel is such a well-known part of popular culture – and to my own surprise, what started as a whim of idle curiosity ended up with the novel engaging me in a way a book hasn’t for some time. And it’s all down to the psychology.

Fascinating is the word. It starts with a lurking sense of f***ed-up-ness, drawing you in with morbid curiosity in the manner of a HP Lovecraft short ­– with the discovery of an oddball pseudo-family who all hate each other, a ghost, and a gruff hard-man who cries. In fact the first three chapters of Wuthering Heights are more like an MR James ghost story than anything, and it goes on to be as much stomach-clenching gothic thriller as romance.

It’s a Godawful family affair

The novel has a rep ­– it’s that one about the breathless, swoonsome, turbulent love-that-cannot-be between the fierce but flakey Cathy and the rugged-as-granite Heathcliff, on the spooky, windswept Yorkshire moors, isn’t it? A kind of dark and dour Romeo and Juliet?

That’s not the half it. Literally, the latter half the story is usually skimmed over by the films of it, and the deeply strange non-romance of Heathcliff and Cathy is only part of the slow-burning horror of Heathcliff’s revenge on everyone around him, which is what it’s really about.

The narration is split between the out-of-town gentleman Mr Lockwood, who stumbles upon the godawful family situation, and the life-long housekeeper Nelly, who fills in the history to him. Both are kind, sympathetic, intelligent and perceptive and both find the Heathcliff and Cathy business exasperating, frightening, sad and downright unhealthy – and it is clear this is to some extent also the author’s take. But it’s also clear Bronte has some empathy with the ferocity of the doomed pair's feelings, as they're so vividly drawn and explored. There is something seductive, alluring, even sweet, about their bond, which leaves you questioning what you actually feel about it – is it the one admirable saving grace of the awful pair? Or is it just bullshit?

My mother, who read The Heights in school, put it this way: You read it when you’re young and it’s so tragic and romantic; you read it when you’re older and you just want to shake everyone for being so daft, ugly and selfish. I think this puzzling contrast is precisely why I enjoyed it so much, because I can see both coming to it now, as a man whose world view has migrated very far from my teen and twenty-something self – I was that intense, sullen loner who listened to Nine Inch Nails and struck the tragic romantic martyr pose. The strength of the book is that it is ambiguous and multi-faceted enough to encourage such questioning, and I suspect that’s exactly how it was intended – not as an endorsement of any one take, but as an exploration of the baffling excesses of human nature.

Heathcliff and Cathy are never lovers

Of course a novel of this time is not going to have overt sexy sex in it; but beyond that Heathcliff and Cathy are simply not together, in a romantic way, at all as adults, despite the artistic licence of various film adaptations. I actually think this is utterly key to their strange relationship – they are more like siblings than they are lovers – at ease in each other’s company in a way they aren’t with other people, but also encouraged to cruel sniping and childishness – and their bond makes more sense seen with their early “terrible twins” relationship in mind. There is tenderness and kissing and hand-holding and bashful amorous looking in the book – but for the most part that's between other characters, not them, apart perhaps from their very final meeting when it’s all far too late.

No – what Heathcliff and Cathy are is two free-spirited adoptive siblings, set together against the world at an early age (and remember their “world” is only their family and servants). All their happy times together are as children, running away from the unhappy household, made bored and sad when forced apart from their playmate. This is why it makes sense that they hold onto this feeling that there is no one else in the world who could ever understand them like each other. But by the time they are in their mid teens, it’s like Hot Chocolate’s It Started With A Kiss – Cathy has already discovered other people (the Lintons) and that drives a wedge between them.

For the rest of the book their “romance” is a fantasy in each other’s respective heads, fuelled by not being together – in reality when they do fleetingly meet they are often arguing, misunderstanding and hurting each other, yet both grip, like a comfort blanket, to the idea they are somehow linked by the soul and cannot be happy without each other, even while doing this.

It’s more Greek tragedy than Shakespearian

Much can be made of the star-crossed lovers thing, as Heathcliff is socially out-of-bounds for Cathy, being adopted, of uncertain race, and degraded to the role of a semi-literate servant by the time they are coming of age. But this is not Romeo and Juliet. The pair may be sympathetic as children, but as adults they heap suffering on themselves through their own character flaws. In Greek tragedy that was a big thing – the protagonist is always some frightful Gawd-‘elp-us, with extreme pride, obsession, ideology, stubbornness or anger issues that you can see leading to trouble a mile off, and half the appeal is the anticipation of their inevitable gory demise because of it. This is basically the template of The Heights.

Young Cathy is certainly free-spirited enough to ignore the judgement of her family and elope with Heathcliff – she isn’t coerced to marry Edgar Linton instead, she actually wants to because she fancies him and is enamoured with the idea of being the local lady of the manor. She wants to have her cake and eat it, somehow thinking Heathcliff can come with her and will be fine with this. We know this will go tits-up from the moment she says it.

Heathcliff for his part royally screws any chance of being reconciled with Cathy later because, just as things seem to have found an uneasy balance where everyone can see each other and get along, he deliberately exploits and elopes with Edgar’s sister Isabella because he’s so obsessed with getting his revenge on the Lintons – without a thought for how that will also hurt Cathy. So much for romance. From that point on he’s a happiness-sucking black-hole bogey-man who spreads a thick blanket of shit over everything he comes within 10 paces of. He lives in self-imposed exile from any chance of contentment due to his own pointless revenge obsession.

Catherine is silly, insensitive, selfish and full-of-herself; Heathcliff is cruel, obsessive, greedy and empathy-deficient. It’s not a case of whether Heathcliff and Cathy would have been happy if it wasn’t for society’s rules, man – they bring their misery on themselves, by being themselves.

There are unwitting descriptions of clear mental health issues

A shocking total of 11 characters ­– more than two thirds of the “cast” – die from "illness" during the roughly 30 years covered. And no wonder the death toll is like a 1980s slasher flick when their grip on medical matters is so sketchy – “consumption” is mentioned once, "fever" a couple of times but generally people just die of being "ill", which seems to cover everything from having a cold to childbirth, as well as being in low spirits or having been out in the rain.

But the psychological observations are rather more ahead of their time. Every character has a set of well-drawn and unique dispositions, drives and demons, and how characters can be transformed by what happens (or doesn’t happen) to them is a common theme. On top of that, Catherine and Heathcliff both exhibit clear mental health issues that are not so fanciful as they might first appear.

Cathy has "fits" that may or may not be for show, but are certainly self-induced, and goes out of her way to punish herself, lock herself away, disappear into reveries, self harm and refuse to eat. In the context of a 19th century romantic novel this might look melodramatic, until you realise that people actually do exhibit such behaviours when in crisis; and one wonders if Bronte had come across such rather than just making it up. In that light the standard response of "oh she's just after attention" or "she's just trying to get her way" looks shockingly inadequate.

Meanwhile Heathcliff shows cripplingly obsessive behaviour all round, not just in his feelings for Cathy. He gives his entire adult life over to the task of plotting to possess and ruin everything that belongs to the only two families he's ever known along with, of course, thinking 24/7 about Cathy – and continues both obsessions even 20 years after she, and later everyone who actually wronged him, is dead. No man was ever more in need of a distracting hobby. I mean sheesh, Heathcliff, whittle some wooden sheep or take up yodeling or something. This may seem like his character is superficially drawn, but it isn't, the book is very much interested in what is going on in the head of that strange fish.

And the guy also has suspiciously sociopathic tendencies, in that he just doesn’t seem to be able to empathise with anyone at all, treating everyone bar Cathy as an object to play with or despise. It never occurs to him that could be the source of his continued tortured misery, not the solution. With that in mind, while his occasional exhibitions of passion can stir the heart, I was just as tempted call "bullshit" on them – for example when he bangs on about Edgar being unable to feel like he does (so wild and deep and overwhelming is his love blah blah). How the shit would he know? What shred of real insight into other people’s emotions has he ever shown?

There is some cross-over with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

But the suffering isn't all caused by Heathcliff. The story is a parable about the cycle of abuse passed down through generations. The Earnshaw dad treats his kids pretty shoddily towards the end of his life, especially Hindley; Hindley becomes master of the Heights, then treats his adopted brother Heathcliff, and later his own son Hareton, awfully; Heathcliff becomes master of the Heights and treats everybody who comes under that roof awfully. Nobody is ever happy for long in that accursed house, but Heathcliff shows no awareness his own project of nastiness is less a rebuttal and more an endorsement of the nastiness dished out to him. He's a hypocrite in that sense, and just not that self-aware, for all his Machiavellian manipulations.

There is also some cross over with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre here – in that you realise all of this is only happening because the Earnshaw family is so cut off, with only each other and the Lintons to obsess over and no outside influence to tell them this isn't normal and there are alternative ways of being. In that sense it stands in a long line of gothic horror that riffs on decadent, incestuous, mutated things-going-wrong due to prolonged rural isolation.

It’s the ghostly elements that validate the "romance" of it

Ultimately, it's the supernatural elements that provide the book's sucker punch (as well as making a lot more sense of some Kate Bush lyrics). Sure, Bronte leaves any ghostly goings-on ambiguous, pooh-poohed by the narrators as just dreams, superstitious imaginings, sickly hallucinations – but she wouldn't have included them if you weren't supposed to consider “but what if...”

And just as you've written off the whole sorry "love" affair as the delusional and destructive BS of a couple of dickheads, you realise their souls were in fact united after death; their love was such a juggernaut it survived the flesh; and they both chose to shun heaven to be forever tormented together on the desolate moors – and that Nine Inch Nails-listening goth kid in me resurfaces and swoons "Oh!"

For a few seconds. Then you recall they were both such silly, nasty gits that, well, good riddance to them and maybe they could have just f***ed off together in the first place and saved everyone else the grief. I know love can be thus, but their "romance" is just too tunnel-visioned, strangely joyless and downright odd to really be held up as an example for anyone to want to emulate in the final account, I think.

The real romance is not Catherine and Heathcliff

Now the real romance of the story is that between the younger Cathy (Catherine and Edgar's daughter) and Hareton. Because it happens against the odds by a mutual effort of forgiveness and understanding – and blissfully succeeds in finally dissipating the storm clouds of decades, transforming years of cyclical abuse into something happy and healthy (that is, ignoring the fact that they are close cousins, beggars can’t be choosers y'know)... but I've already gone on too long, so read it yourself.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Music

"Without music, life would be a mistake" - Friedrich Nietzsche.

You’d think by now it would have ceased to surprise me, but if anything it just baffles me more these days: Why does music work? And, since I agree with Friedrich up there, why the hell does messing about with sound even matter, let alone matter so much to me? It’s as if its very presence in modern life is a constant reminder that the human world is not fundamentally based on rationality, but strange half-understood emotional impulses and ritualised behaviour. I mean it makes no sense does it? Why should the manipulation of tonal vibrations and rhythms be so powerful and beloved, to point its everywhere in society and the people who make it can be so prized and idolised?

That said, I know for many it’s really never much more than wallpaper to hum or dance to. I even struggle to explain it to people in my life, who hear me noodling around, once again, with this or that instrument or piece of machinery for no apparent end; or listen uncomprehendingly to maybe a minute from one of the dozens of hours of odd and jarringly disparate constructions I have spent so many days crafting... and say “that’s nice dear” or shrug “s’alright I 'spose”. I’ve accepted I have to say it’s a hobby, as if it simply occupies a place in my life like rollerblading or playing Pokemon Go. Of course, it is a hobby, it is, but...

I am nearly 40, long past the teenage tribalism of music-as-fashion-identity, long past any desire to get up on stage and strut my stuff, long past any dream of turning it into a career ­– all of this is virtually irrelevant now. Many of my contemporaries, even those who were seriously into their music, have to some extent left it partially behind by this stage, putting away the proverbial toys in the proverbial attic, while their listening has not gone much beyond what they loved when they were 25.

And yet, now, at the start of middle age, dicking about with noise and finding stuff to listen to is as utterly vital to me as ever, if not in resurgence. So what is this all about, if not an early midlife crisis?

Therapy

One of the reasons I value music so much now, as opposed to when I was 17, is for its therapeutic quality. That's more important now, with the stresses and strains of "adulting", than it was back then, when I was basically just dreaming of being a rock star. I seriously cannot recommend enough what a wonderful thing it is to be able to play an instrument, what a balm it is in the face of world-closing-in stress and black-fug-of-the-soul gloom.

Of course, on the one hand it is an expressive release to channel your feelings through your fingers and have it feedback into your ears – and songwriting has in the past acted as a very precise way of articulating what I was feeling and why, all wrapped up in a finely honed and quite pretty package, like spewing your thoughts out in a letter and analysing and refining them until you’re satisfied. It is satisfying and very cathartic, and you have a little proud gem of a creation to show for your troubles, to keep (and perhaps later cringe at) for all eternity.

But on another level just playing for just yourself is a kind of mindfulness, to use the parlance of our times. I love the fact that picking up an instrument and playing, for no particular end other than to enjoy it, puts you in a state of concentration that has nothing to do with work or practical worries, the pressures of the world, the current state of your bank balance or relationships, or whatever. For half an hour or so you are only concerned with producing a pleasing or interesting sound, and nothing outside of that matters. It’s the act of being-through-playing – it’s damn Zen, dammit, and I constantly forget just how much it clears my head and makes me feel better, bringing at least some degree of calm and content for a moment, along with the thankful knowledge that there is more to life than my current anxious obsessions – there is this too.

And if anyone is any doubt of how deeply playing an instrument can impact on your mental state, take a look at this shizz; or this.

For these reasons I would encourage anyone thinking of taking up an instrument to do it just for themselves – don’t worry about how good you are or how much you need to practice, just dabble in a meditative way on a regular basis and you will slowly find you can do more and more. Approach it not as work, but as exploring and playing.

Play

Without a doubt one of the central elements to my relationship with music is play – it’s not lost on me that getting a new piece of kit to play about with is about the only thing that gives me the same feeling as an adult as getting Lego when I was kid. Pieces of musical gear are big boys toys, yes, and I’m completely unrepentant about that. Again this works on lots of levels.

At the most basic there is the actual moulding and finessing of raw sound. With something like a synthesiser you can approach it in two ways – as an instrument to play, yes, but also as a straight sound-manipulation machine. I tell you, getting your hands on a proper synthesiser is like being handed a fresh piece of shiny, glittery Play Doh which you can kneed and sculpt to your heart’s content until you’ve got something ace. You can tweak away until a boring off-the-peg noise turns into something huge, or achingly atmospheric, or one type of sound completely changes into another – and then save it out and start all over again. Something similar can be said of messing about with effects pedals or recording techniques. It’s great fun, fascinating and exciting.

Then you can take up the instrument as an instrument and just noodle around in the therapeutic way described above, testing and exploring what accents, chords, rhythms and melodies you can coax from it, and when you hit on something that sounds good, keep doing it – the next thing you know you have pretty passage or wonderful riff that you can develop further... and before you know it you’re on your way to writing something. And all the time, you’re learning, practising, improving.

Finally, you can take these sounds, these passages and put them together like ingredients in a pot and see how they cook, as it were – one of the most satisfying things for me is the moment when, having roughly planned out the structure of a song and tried a few different things together, you actually record a few elements layered over each other and then play it back – and, if it works, suddenly it’s more than the sum of its parts; you’ve created something bigger and with more emotional guts and punch than the simple handful of riffs and noises you started with. It's sheer joy.

At every stage you are exploring and playing, checking what you can do and what works, learning and then doing it all again – it keeps your “inner child” alive and it’s got to be good for the plasticity of the brain.

*A note of caution with this approach, though, is that it probably explains a lot as to why I never attempted a music-related career or became seriously good at any one instrument – I may wish I could play piano properly but I was always much more interested in messing about with studio gear, doing bonkers, non-linear things with instruments and putting together songs, than I ever was with learning to read music and practising scales in any systematic way. I never wanted it to be work.

Mood

The older I get the more fascinated and awed I am with the raw stuff of music. For my money it’s the most direct and immediately affecting of the arts, but also one of the most abstract – even though I now know a lot about the tricks, techniques and building blocks of the stuff, there is still so much to learn.

It still seems like utter alchemy how the simple pairing of two or three or four notes, or the contrast of one chord changing to another, or just a tiny shift up or down the scale against a droning root note, can have such an immediate and visceral effect on the emotions. You can evoke the whole range of responses, from sadness to joy to unease to warmth to rage to surprise to surging triumphalism, by a simple shift of the fingers, by changing tensions on groups of strings or the size of resonant chambers – and the effect it has is mind boggling, sheer magic. The same can be said of the sounds themselves, different textures, timbres and resonant frequencies, along with rhythms and tempos.

Why it is so utterly effective at mood manipulation is mysterious, but certainly has something to do with innate responses – such as the (probably) in-born discomfort and alarm at discordant or sudden sounds, related to danger or the crying of an infant, say... or the soothing effect of the mother’s heart beat in the womb, maybe. Certainly the preference for sonic harmony seems to be a universal trait.

Other responses are learnt, particularly the pairing of certain instrument sounds with the time and place they were most used (note everything with a Fender Rhodes electric piano in it immediately sounds like the 1970s) or the pairing of songs with what was happening in your life at the time (an otherwise cheesy ballad can attain deeply affecting grand pathos forevermore if it was on the radio when you split up with a childhood sweetheart or lost a beloved pet, for example).

What’s more, these relatively straightforward responses can then be played with and built upon in ever more complex ways, so you can find yourself enjoying uncomfortable discord if used in the right context, to evoke pleasingly empathetic anguish, righteous anger, or anarchic spirit; or re-imagining a familiar chord progression, melody, or band sound into something new and different, while still riffing on the emotions the original version provoked.

All of this combines to mean certain genres – instrument combinations, styles of playing, song structures, production techniques and other musical tropes and ticks – can be massively evocative of whole worlds. You can be transported to a baroque-period German cathedral, or an English seaside ballroom in the 1930s, or a San Francisco jazz club in the 1950s or a sticky-floored gig in Manchester in 1979, or downtown New York at the same time, or somewhere on a Polynesian island at an indeterminate time in the past, or even THE FUTURE, but how it looked in the 1980s. The sound tells a story, and an immersive one, and that’s a large part of its appeal.

It’s got to be said there is a degree of escapism about this, as there is with a lot of art – but also, as with a lot of art, it reminds you there is so much more to the human world and human history than your own time and place and everyday obsessions. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your bureaucracy.

Metaphor

It is a wonder that music (or art in general) exists at all and continues to hold such an unquenchable fascination and central place in human society, I suppose. On the surface it would seem there is little rational about it, no obvious practical purpose. But then again, through the abstract manipulation of sound we can represent the world in metaphor and powerfully communicate things we struggle to articulate in words alone.

We like to think our actions are motivated by reason and logic but that, to me, has always seemed like a laughable pretence; no, the world and people’s activity is made up of an impenetrably complex web of innate and learnt reactions and gut drives, constantly pinging off each other and feeding back again and again until it’s hard to see what is what. The rational is but a thin veneer on the top, like glib lyrics sung over a minor masterpiece.

Music is perhaps an abstract metaphor for all of this activity, the complexity of the world in microcosm: Endlessly adaptable, infinitely complex in its history and interplay, expressing and provoking the full spectrum of mood, and modes of being. Spanning all human history and culture, it is a mirror of us – and of life itself. I’m not sure what we would be if we took it away.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Shame. Shame. Shame.

1. Back to the playground

We were about 11 years old and queued up for something at school when one of the confident, popular lads took his digital watch off and smelled the strap.

“Urgh” he went and proceeded to get everyone around him to smell the sweaty rubber. I smelled it. And I said something to the tune of: “Urgh, that smells like your fingers do when they’ve been up your bum.”

There was a moment of silence. It was an odd thing to say. I thought it was funny (I was 11) and also thought it was fairly uncontroversial – come on, now, we all know that smell, right? We’ve all caught an unfortunate whiff when going about our ablutions before washing our hands, yeah? If I was 16 and into edgy gross-out humour I might have said “That smells like arse crack!” and might have got a laugh (we would have been 16).

But I was 11, and I said: “That smells like your fingers do when they’ve been up your bum.”

I said it. And after the beat of uncertain silence, the confident, popular lad roared with laughter and said: “He puts his fingers up his bum and then smells them.”

Everybody gasped in horrified glee and slowly it worked its way down the line – Urgh! He LIKES putting his fingers up his bum! And he LIKES smelling them! He’s gross! He’s smelly! He’s a pervert!

I tried to explain myself but it only made matters worse. They weren’t interested in my mitigation. And how could I take it back? I’d said it, it was a matter of public record. So for the next few weeks I was the “bum fingers” kid, and just had to suck it up. What had happened was that the quiet, weedy, arty guy had said something weird and it was gift – everyone was just ripe and itching to jump on it, to have someone to taunt and feel better than. I’d walked right into that role.

On the scale of bullying that is a pretty silly and inconsequential example, of course – I could have used much more extreme and traumatic examples that I saw, received or even took part in dishing out from those awkward, anxiety-filled early years, but let’s keep it light eh? – the point is that kind of situation was utterly everyday and banal in the playground.

As you grow up you think things are different and you won’t ever go back to that. While talking about introversion (here), I said: “Having spent much of my childhood feeling vaguely threatened and misunderstood by pretty much everyone except my immediate family and closest friends, I slowly discovered that communication was a kind of super-power – to be able to explain yourself, articulate your case and express what the hell was going on in that inner world of yours was a transformative skill to develop,” – and I still feel that. But recently I’ve begun having doubts about the universal effectiveness of that super-power, because I’m starting to see plenty of cases where, both online and in the media, it doesn’t count for shit.

I am of course talking about public shaming – where someone says something a little offensive or ill-advised and are met with a tsunami of outrage and anger, from howls of cackling derision, to calls for them to be stripped of their job and title, to full-on threats of extreme violence and death (often sexual, if female).

The victim's original comment may have been a bit unpleasant, a bit inappropriate, and not something I’d condone or sympathise with, so it took me a while to pin down why the outraged response troubled me so – and it’s that, up there. The playground fear. The realisation that you’re just one unwise quip away from public humiliation and ruin.

It doesn’t matter if it wasn’t what you meant. It doesn’t matter if what you said doesn’t really represent what you think, feel or who you are. It doesn’t matter what the intended tone or context originally was. Explanation or logical argument can’t repair it – if what you said could possibly be taken as the kind of thing we might imagine a truly awful person could say, then you are that monster in the eyes of the world now, with no chance of redemption.

Because those doing the shaming are no more interested in the reality, subtlety and humanity behind an utterance than kids in the playground – what they want is a scapegoat to make an example of, to suffer and then disappear, so everyone else can go home feeling righteous and superior. If the mob wants to tear you down, it will tear you down, blind to all reason, nuance and the facts of the matter.

2. The new moral majority

I remain deeply, deeply suspicious of the motivations of righteous rage – most of the time I simply don’t buy it as this pure and noble thing we’re supposed to accept it as. It’s not humble or fair-minded, it’s cruel and disingenuous. There’s always a whiff of “casting the first stone” lack of self-awareness about it. As Nietzsche put it: “No one lies as much as the indignant do.”

I was going to write something on this topic anyway, but then I read Jon Ronson’s excellent “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” and it kind of covers it – but at the same time has made the matter crystal clear in my head. This kind of mass group-shaming is just vile, and not a little bit scary.

One thing I kept thinking while reading that book is how people just love pointing the finger. They get off on having their little inner tyrant unleashed to lord it over others, while at the same time feeling that’s fine because they are justified and holy, right is on their side and everyone approves. We look to others for what is acceptable, and so when everyone starts attacking it suspends the usual social norms of being polite and forgiving – or actually considering the victim as a human being – while rewarding us with praise for joining in, egging us on. Add online anonymity and the short attention span of internet interaction to that and you can be as vile and violent as you like, with no need to consider that you don’t know the context and subtleties behind what was originally said.

And the fall-out for the victim of a shaming is not all over and forgotten quickly as it is for the perpetrators. Towards the end of Ronson’s book, he interviews Michael Fertik who runs reputation.com, a company which works to bury online shamings and damaging Google results for clients. Fertik responds to criticism that he’s “manipulating truth and chilling free speech” by saying:

“But there is a chilling of behaviour that goes along with a virtual lynching. There is a life modification... People change their phone numbers. They don’t leave the house. They go into therapy. They have signs of PTSD. It’s like the Stasi. We’re creating a culture where people feel constantly surveilled, where people are afraid to be themselves... This is more frightening than the NSA. The NSA is looking for terrorists. They’re not getting psychosexual pleasure out of their schadenfreude about you.”

Ronson himself says the early days of social media, where people thought they could be themselves and say anything to anyone, had proven to be naive: the sensible tactic these days it seems is to be as bland as possible online.

“The great thing about social media was how it gave a voice to voiceless people. We are now turning it into a surveillance society where the smartest way to survive is to go back to being voiceless,” he said.

Certainly I don’t want a society where one off-the-cuff remark can override everything else you ever did or said and cost you your career, reputation, friends and mental well-being if the mob decides to turn on you.

The irony is that much of this is being done in the name of liberalism, as those shamed are often perceived as transgressing against modern progressive values in some way – caricatured as the worst kind of backwards-thinking, overprivileged, oppressive dinosaur whether they actually are or not. Broadly speaking I’m also a progressive liberal, dammit, and to me this just seems a complete betrayal of that – the shouty moral majority used to be the ultra-conservative right wing. Us liberals thought we’d largely vanquished that kind of knee-jerk Mary Whitehouse censorship nonsense, for a more open-mined, diverse society. But no: now the shouty moral majority is us.

3. Paradoxical behaviour

Western culture in the new millennium is deeply confused about this stuff, with weird and wild extremes going on. On the one hand we have never been more accepting of the shocking, “edgy” and extreme, and love to wax worthy about the importance of freedom of speech and the right to offend and be offended. At the same time we love to destroy the lives of anyone who says anything that even resembles something we deem “not cool”, even if the comment itself was the kind of thing you hear average people say everyday, and actually fairly inconsequential.

It’s completely unremarkable to guffaw on a week night at, say, South Park, Family Guy, Bo Selecta (back in the day) or a Frankie Boyle gig, pushing the boundaries of taste and acceptability... and yet a single slightly off-colour tweet, even if clearly intended as absurd or ironic, can end someone’s career.

Ronson covers in-depth the example of a woman who was reduced to a jobless, scared, numb, shell-like recluse for the sake of a picture at a war memorial where she pretended to shout and flip the bird next to a “silence and respect” sign (not actually shouting or intending disrespect, note, but just as a visual pun). She was so demonised and hounded online that it flooded any Google search for her name for years to come, while death threats and outrage continued unabated... and meanwhile the Sex Pistols, who wouldn't have thought twice about such a stunt and would have meant it, are currently being lauded as a beloved cultural institution in exhibitions across London for the 40th anniversary of punk.

This is paradoxical behaviour, it just doesn’t stack up. Now I know there is an argument to be made about the licence of entertainers and artists to say things us everyday working drones who have to toe the line cannot, but the hugeness of the disparity is mind boggling.

4. Telling the difference

People are often silly and ignorant, yes, and often need it pointing out that what they joke about can be hurtful and perpetuate ingrained inequalities – but they don’t deserve destroying for that. We have to be able to tell the difference between someone who proudly publishes Mein Kampf and someone who is making a quip without considering how it might sting; between Roosh V and some immature college geek thinking he’s being ironic. Or, as Ronson points out, a battle for civil rights and a “nasty imitation” witch-hunt. The response has to be proportionate, or we're lost.

People say stupid things in jest all the time. It doesn’t mean that’s what they really think in their sober moments. Neither does it mean that’s an indication of how they would personally treat actual people ­– in fact the shock of that mismatch is often the very joke itself. And yet we pretend we don’t know this. Why? Because we want someone to pounce on, point and shout at, to feel righteous over and superior to.

Ages ago I did a silly post about telepathy where I argued that if we knew the contents of everyone’s thoughts we would not be able to maintain our social judgements based on appearance and public presentation any more: “We would all have to become inconceivably more understanding and forgiving of others if we were going to be party to everyone’s inner-most secrets and feelings all the time,” I said.

To some extent social media has created a world where the kind of off-the-cuff, unfiltered contents of our heads, that previously only our friends and family might hear, can now be instantly displayed to everyone all over the world, as immortal pronouncements carved in code. We still haven’t got to grips with that, neither as writers nor readers – both those of us spewing out thoughts and those of us judging them may have to modify our behaviour. Sure, we should be more mindful about what we say, but equally we cannot judge a tweet or facebook status like a carefully-planned and edited publication.

On shaming I am now off the fence. Unless there is a genuine injustice to be urgently addressed with an actual victim, as Ronson puts it, I’m not up for this shaming lark at all – it’s not redemptive, there is no positive outcome for anyone, just vileness upon vileness until everyone is angry, damaged and numb. And if I may be so bold, I’d like to suggest we all stop and think if it’s really fair, necessary and worth doing before we lay into anyone online, or at least think about how we should go about it and why we are doing it.

Do you actually know what this person is about? Can you be sure you are being fair to them and the spirit and context this was said in? Do you really know what the effect on their lives could be and do you actually want that? Have you never said anything a bit risque and ill-advised that could be taken as a bit dicey - could the mob not one day just as easily turn on you? I mean to say, for Chrissakes, that guy that the Christians like said it 2,000 years ago: "Let him who is without sin..."

Thursday, 23 June 2016

"A man who salsa dances"

Those who know me even vaguely know that dancing and I are not two things you associate. Me and tirades on dark German metaphysics, yes; me and fancy footwork, no. Me and comedy awkwardness, sure; me and serious sashaying, doubt it. Me and fluid, coherent, sexy prose, perhaps; me and fluid, coherent, sexy moves, uh-uh. So the fact that I ended up in salsa class – once and once only – was as much a shock to me as anyone.

In my attention-seeking uni days my strategy was to hit the floor with limbs flailing and feet jumping in the most outlandish display I could muster, that would inevitably descend into either fits of laughter or minor physical injury, more Dadaist protest than co-ordinated rhythm; since then I am the one nodding at the back at gigs, only putting my hands half-way up in the air, like I just do care, and pulling the terrified gurn and frozen muscles when someone suggests I need to get up at a wedding do.

It’s not that I wouldn’t love to be someone with the effortless coiled-spring poise, light touch and physical ease of a dancer, but then I’d also like to be capable of levitation ­– and the fact that neither of these things is the case doesn’t trouble me that much day-to-day.

No

The idea was first mooted on a weekend walk with some friends, when one of the group said she was thinking of going and wanted someone to go with, turning to us with the challenge “The problem is they don’t have enough men.”

“Let’s stop this right here – I am NOT going salsa dancing,” was my unequivocal response, and that was that.

I am not ready to be “a man who salsa dances”, I said. To me that means one of two things: either you are a lean, athletic, swarthy, confident, ostentatious type, who just has to let the rhythm out – which I am patently not (the rhythm is fine kept in with me, thanks) – or you are a bored, middle-class white person of a certain age who has watched Strictly and is desperate to show the ladies that you do, in fact, have some heretofore unsuspected Latin passion bubbling away under your pudgy, middle-class-white-person-of-a-certain-age exterior. I could be that man. And I really didn’t want to be.

So there

A few weeks later a second female friend, who had been on the walk, messaged me to say “Salsa tomorrow. Are you coming then?”

Hadn’t she heard me? Ah, but there "could be ladies there", she said, which was a rotten power-move. You see now, if I said “no”, I wasn’t just saying “sorry it’s not for me”, I was saying “I am a miserable hermit spinster who just isn’t interested in making any effort to get out of the house and meet anyone, so I better not whinge about being on my own ever again because it’s my own fault.” Do you see what she did there?

I said no.

A (one) sexy lady

She went along, and told me there was "a" sexy lady there – imagine it! – and also said it was really good fun and very relaxed, and I caved. What could it hurt? If nothing else I could enjoy being amusingly awkward and uptight and making dryly humorous comments throughout, I thought. It could be fun to be that man, I'm used to being him.

It was only when I told people I was going to do it that it became clear there really is something in this men are from Mars, women are from Venus bullshit. The polarity of the responses was marked. Virtually every woman I told gave me a variation of “Oooooh, you must go!” and virtually every man said “WTF? Why? Who even are you?”

When I arrived I was already sweating from the walk there and half expecting an hour or two of excruciating embarrassment, fumbling and bumbling about with various partners who would be throwing daggers at me as I awkwardly broke all my personal space rules as stiffly and sexlessly I could while failing to put anything where it should be at the right time.

Yes

But I was pleasantly surprised ­– there were a lot of people of all ages and types milling about, many complete novices, some serious enthusiasts, mostly completely normal looking. To start with it was all just footwork, first in big group as a warm up, then in sub-groups by ability. My friend was there, who reassuringly was still no dancer either – she more regularly dances like a 10-year-old at a birthday party and once got into some heat at a disco when her boyfriend had to explain to the woman next to her that she wasn’t taking the piss, she always busted moves like that.

So it was comfortable and fun and it was eminently do-able. A bit of practice and the scales fell from my eyes that this is what it’s all about, all just timing and posture, and with repetition and the right music I could feel the basics falling into place already. It was muscle memory, really, no different to playing guitar, which I can do. There was the odd moment when I had to try to explain that I wasn’t tensing my shoulders unnaturally, that’s just what they are like all the time, but my “witty” self-deprecating comments largely met with no response at all – this was serious business, and I guess they got nervous wise-guys trying to quip their way out of embarrassment all the time.

There was only one terrifying bit. In the big-group “free dance” at the end, the main guy would shout “change partners” every few minutes and I would be left in the middle of the floor flailing for someone, anyone, to grab me, feeling like I was back in PE class being the last to be picked... at which point I would have to plead with my new partner that “I can’t lead, I know nothing!” – a scenario which only needed me to notice I had no trousers on to be identical to a recurring anxiety dream – but I got through it.

What I really began to see was just how much this could help me improve things like balance, posture and physical confidence, as well as being a pleasant and relaxed social pursuit... this could be a good, healthy thing, I thought, never mind any pretensions of “Latin passion” or learning great floor-moves.

Then again, maybe not

The next week none of us friends could make it, but we agreed to go the week after. However, in that time I met and started dating someone by a route that had nothing to do with my dancing ability, to which, of course, one of my male friends’ responses was: “Well you know what’s good about this – you don’t have to go salsa dancing any more!”

It’s true, I haven’t been back. But that’s as much a matter of not having the time as anything – I didn’t feel the relief he thought I might have. It’s kind of a shame.

Sure, I also don’t have a raging urge to repeat my tiny taste of this other reality where I am “a man who salsa dances” either, but who knows – one day I might be persuaded again. Cha cha cha.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Never mind your dreams

"Will you stop telling my child to follow her dreams!" my friend snapped while telling me about the umpteenth animated film he had sat through with his hatchling.

He wasn’t exhorting me, he was exhorting the makers of the film for once again mining such an unimaginative seam for their central moral message. He had no argument from me, I understood. It’s not just that the message is somewhat overdone and obvious, clich├ęd and glib, it’s that the incessant drilling of such un-moderated aspirational spaff as "follow your dreams" is possibly damaging.

What? Damaging? Did I just say that? What kind of shrivelled, bitter old cynic am I? It’s a bit like saying "Yeah, love and understanding is over-rated", "Hugs are for losers" or "That Hitler guy was alright, y’know?"; but hold your Twitter-style backlash for just one sock-darning minute. It is not my intention at all to play the cynical curmudgeon here (for once) – in fact quite the opposite. I promise you, in my own perverse way, I will be working towards an arguably positive, touchy-feely message of a different sort by the time we are done here.

But first we have to wade through some hard-nosed realism, at least in a vague, cursory way, so shush and buckle up.

Side-bowl of sh*t

Young people especially tend to look at one with horror when one sneers at the "follow your dreams" mantra, and it’s very difficult to explain oneself. Because, I suppose, my position is a response to age, to having been about a bit and seen the outcome of dream-following - or otherwise - in oneself and others.

When you get to the point in your life where there is no doubt various ships have sailed, possibilities have narrowed and binding responsibilities have abounded, it really does all look a bit different, not to mention that you learn about the rather more shoddy, chaotic and still-oft-mundane reality of even the most high-powered and glamorous positions. So many "dreams" are simple fantasy and mirage – like an American tourist arriving in Peckham when they expected Britain to all be fairytale castles, bowler hats and tea. Other "dreams" come with a slew of unpalatable personal requirements and nature-of-the-beast necessities, making demands on your time, energy and integrity, that go a long way to taking the shine off. But if you’re not prepared to stomach that side-bowl of sh*t than you can’t reasonably say you "I could have been this or I could have been that".

It’s not just personal experience I'm grumbling from, I know friends and contemporaries of all permutations: Those who have followed whims and passions or those who have trod a safe, tried and tested path; those who have jumped careers multiple times and those who have stayed in the same one since early adulthood; those who have moved towns or even countries and those who still live where they grew up; those who are deeply entrenched in the corporate rat race and those who have maintained a little more independence; those who have made good money and a name for themselves and those who, well, haven’t so much...

Not one of them has an easy, uncomplicated life without compromise, stress, relationship issues, health issues, worries about "What’s it all about?", "Where’s it all going?", "Was it all worth it?", "Should I have lived my life differently?" – not one of them would say they have arrived at exactly where they wanted to be, or is vastly happier than everyone else. From the outside you may get envious looking at others, but when you talk to them properly about their problems, you quickly realise "Oh, yeah, they have their 'stuff' to deal with too." I couldn’t honestly say I’d trade places.

Every "could have" is an unknown

Because reality simply isn’t like TV, in fact TV has always done a terrible job of actually conveying what any job is actually, really, actually like, on a day-to-day basis – because it would be terribly tedious and impenetrable in its minutiae. The world of work is always infused with a little (or a lot of) strife, stress and struggle, negotiations and cut-corners, a million little petty problems to sort and demands to meet, often from unreasonable people who just don’t quite understand what is involved. This tends to be the case no matter what it is you’re doing, it turns out - even in so-called "glamour" jobs. That’s what getting things done and dealing with people is – it’s how the world muddles along.

Contrast that with the oh-so-simple dichotomy we feed our younglings with, of "follow your dreams" vs "settle for a safe and dull life". Bah! I say. Bah. For a start, I'm not even sure which I have done - I've followed some dreams up to point, I've given up and waved others on their way; I've settled at some times in some places, I've not settled at others in others...

And as if "dream vs settle" was really the only issue: What about "Is the reality of your dream what you think it is?", "Do you actually know what your dream involves?", "Are you prepared to put in the work or make the sacrifices to get there and maintain it once you do?", "If you got there are you sure you wouldn't want something else?", "How much compromise will you put up with?" and "At what point will you be able to say you’ve arrived?".

I’ve said it before – every "yes" to one thing is a "no" to something else. There will always be things you could have done otherwise, opportunities you had to let go in taking a particular path. But every "could have" is an unknown – and would come with its own unforeseen complications. And the contents of the world’s maximum security prisons are testament that it’s not always "Better to have regretted something you did than something you didn’t do".

Chronic failure issues

So here’s this black board in New York where people are asked to write up their biggest regret. And they do, and the result is rather humbling as passer-by after passer-by reveals they too have unfulfilled yearnings and missed opportunities.

But Ah! say the filmmakers, ah! (it’s actually a viral marketing vid for a university, of course, not an open-ended social experiment) – "Ah! What they all have in common is their regrets are all about not doing something." So the take-away message is supposed to be "Every passing day is another chance to turn it all around" - or to put it another way "It’s never too late to FOLLOW YOUR DREAMS! (enroll now)".

That is not the message I took away from this exercise, dear reader. No. What I took away was this: There is a whole generation of people out there with chronic failure issues because they’ve been sold the idea that life should be AMAZING all the time and everyone should be doing AMAZING things, fulfilling every ounce of potential they were ever given. If you’re not a rock star, high-powered lawyer, beach-dwelling, sky-diving scuba instructor or Steve-bloody-Jobs then, man alive, what have you been doing with your life? Haven’t you heard? YOLO, bitch! YOLO!

My God. It’s exhausting. If there is a solution to all this Sisyphean dream-chasing, it is certainly not, for my money, to renew the pressure and say "It’s not too late people, get back on the dream wagon!" I know people who do this, constantly raking over what could have been, what they haven’t got, what they couldn’t or didn’t do in the past and how it could have been different; and it's more misery-making than it is inspiring.

Stop.

My gut response is “STOP”. Stop beating yourself up about it. Life is tough and complicated and always has been. If you didn’t pursue something in the past there is probably more than good reason, even if you don't quite recall the full details – perhaps the opportunity was an illusion and never really there; perhaps you didn’t really want to do it on balance at the time; or perhaps there was just too much else going on, as life is simply not that simple.

Stop it. Sure, if you really want to try again and can try again, then bloody well do it - but if it's too much or just not possible then shrug and go "meh", and divert your attention and energy elsewhere. There is nothing you were "supposed" to be. Instead of agonising over where you "should" be or what you "should" have, start enjoying what you do have; striving for what is possible and within reach now, not ten years in the future; making the most of where you are and the people you are with; finding ways to do what you enjoy and enjoy what you do in the life you have. Start living that life, this life, not the imaginary one hanging over you like an albatross. Please.

If there is one "take-away message" from this video, it is that everyone has the same issues in their own way, so it’s normal and ok. Take comfort – most people also feel they missed opportunities, perhaps didn’t quite find their niche, perhaps don't have everything in their life as they'd like it, even if they seem to have it sorted to you, from the outside. Regrets are normal and fine. There is always more work to be done.

Not every square peg finds a square hole, and that’s ok – life would be dull and predictable if they did, and nothing would ever change. 

Moby Dick *spoilers*

Of course, I would never tell anyone not to "follow their dreams" – everyone’s dreams are too personal and deep-rooted for us to really understand from the outside, and it’s not for anyone else to say what any individual should do with them. But as general life advice, "follow your dreams" is just too simple and too ill-defined for me to whole-heartedly endorse; it has to be tempered with self-awareness, worldly wisdom and strategy – especially as it can be massively destructive and dysfunctional to pursue some things beyond a certain point. After all, it basically is the plot of Moby Dick, and that didn’t end well.

But while to me the urge to "follow my dreams" looks increasingly irrelevant with age, a less ambitious but related urge only seems to be increasing – the need to take time to appreciate things and recognise, seek out and do the things that give me joy, however small or seemingly trivial. Never mind high-powered ambition, it's following my passions in spite of the requirements of the day-to-day world that has become important to me, as a matter of maintaining robust mental heath and wellbeing - making room in my life for the continued presence of the things I enjoy and am interested in, whether it gets me anywhere in particular or not – it’s doing these things that make life better, here and now, not chasing any fantasy goal to attain somewhere in the future.

See, told you it would get touchy-feely.

Monday, 4 January 2016

Three months of jazz

So, as 2016 gets under way, 2015 will go down for me as the year when the penny finally dropped with JAZZ. “Oh great,” I can hear all my friends and acquaintances think, “that’s just what everyone wanted to happen – now he can be boring and pretentious about something else entirely.” More than one of them told me they thought I was into jazz already because I was “that type” - which I decided I would take as a compliment while knowing full well it really wasn’t. So lap it up y’all – here I go.

Jazz does have a reputation, to the outsider, of being boring and difficult, of “all sounding the same” and being either pipe-and-slippers music for old men or chin-strokey hipster music for slightly younger old men. Which perhaps I am now, so perhaps it's apt. But I can put a date on my jazz Damascus moment: September 26, 2015, when on a perverse whim in a record shop (yes, I still do that) I purchased some Thelonious Monk albums in a ludicrously cheap boxed set and found on playing - almost to my surprise - I think I actually really like this. And I didn’t stop playing Monk (whose middle name was “Sphere”, I found out to my utter glee) for a solid month. From there Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, and Eric goddamn Dolphy, who for my money had to be the coolest cat alive before his teeth-grindingly avoidable death at 36 (younger than me now).

So What?

Now, I do pride myself on having eclectic taste but like everyone who says “oh, I like all kinds of music” I don’t really mean it – I have my preferred comfort zone of artists and styles I return to again and again, from which I occasionally take excursions as a kind of musical tourist; and I’m clearly rooted in rock and pop, particularly of the “alternative” sort, from about 1967 to 2007, just the same as many people of my age. I’ve had a couple of token jazz records in my collection for over a decade – y’know, the usual, Kind of Blue, Mingus Ah Um, a bit of Louis Armstrong – but they make their way out for a spin maybe once a year at best, when I fancy something a bit different, never quite gripping me enough to want to delve further.

"So what?" you may ask. It is not my intention to wax on about how "grrrrreat" jazz is, I know it’s not for everyone – what I want to convey is the joy, revelation and even relief of discovering and entering a whole new world at the advanced age of 38 that I previously only had a very sketchy and caricatured idea of.

You see Jazz is not just one thing as it seems from the outside, and it occurs to me that the same applies to whole areas of human endeavour that we compartmentalise as “a thing” without really knowing much in depth about the stuff that makes it up. For example, “rock music” or “modern art” or, going further, science, philosophy or – little bit of politics here, Mr Donald Trump – Islam. Again and again you hear people dismissing things under umbrella labels, having only come into contact with a couple of tiny iceberg tips of these things, assuming it’s all like that and they know all about it.

I Didn't Know About You

In jazz there is a wide spectrum of different sub-cultures and schools, historical developments and traditions, worldviews and attitudes contained under its umbrella that run the glut of human temperament and experience; from low brow to high brow, joyous to melancholy, warm to scary, jump-up to soothing, basic to complex, raw to polished, crowd-pleasing to virtually unlistenable.

The freaked out, hypnotic, spiritual "free" jazz Trane was doing in his final days has very little to do with 1920s swing or Dixieland, any more than industrial math-core metal has to do with Buddy Holly, though in both cases there is clearly a shared DNA. On the other hand much of the more challenging arty jazz of 1960s clearly shares a spirit with searching, experimental, iconoclastic music everywhere, from Stockhausen to Aphex Twin to Captain Beefheart - which is a spirit most big band swing, which is essentially popular dance music, is completely devoid of. My point is that within the box of “jazz” some trends are utterly in opposition to each other and some very little to do with each other - and the same can be said of rock music, philosophy and, Mr Donald Trump, Islam.

My Favourite Things

What is interesting about exploring a new (to me) world like this is it puts your tastes in a new light – I haven't just abandoned my previous taste in music and got a new one; rather, without even consciously intending to, I find myself looking for the same kinds of things I value in rock music.

It’s no mistake it was Monk that finally held my attention. A lot of the beginner’s recommendations (I'm ashamed to say even Kind of Blue) sounded a little too much like what I expected to hear, perhaps, so didn't capture my imagination. But I’ve always liked music that’s a little offbeat, surprises me and has a sense of humour - and Monk has that in spades.

I found myself astonished at his piano style, which seems to have come from outer space, as if his weird runs and chords are raising their eyebrows at the rest of the quartet - why did he play like that? How? He was a consummate eccentric and original, seeming to delight in the surprising note or strange clonk at the odd time, while remaining swinging, fun and accessible - perfect.

Goodbye Pork Pie Hat

On the other hand some things just don't survive the translation from rock to jazz or back again – in rock and pop there’s always been the whole simplicity and rawness thing as a mark of vitality and authenticity – virtuosity in rock happens, but has never been cool, really, whereas in jazz it’s practically essential. Meanwhile, while jazz clearly has its own silly fashions and image trappings - I was astonished to see the camera pan onto the audience at a Mingus concert in 1964 to reveal six or seven young men dotted about wearing "tea" shades indoors, at night - but even so, jazz has simply nowhere near the all-too-often style-is-as-important-as-substance nature of rock and pop. But that’s refreshing, as you find yourself able to jettison so much of the cultural baggage in the migration - there is a real freedom to entering such a new world as an outsider: You can shrug off the tired old conventions you are used to, but don't have to take on the native snobberies and etiquette of the new world if you don't want to.

To go broader on that point, delving into jazz that was largely being made in the 50s and 60s offers just a tiny bit of mental relief from the zeitgeist of millennial Britain (which much as I appreciate, can get maddeningly samey and stifling on occasion, it's got to be said) – the decades-old transatlantic jazz world is a recognisable one, but there is still a difference in how things are valued and interpreted, the importance not quite placed on the same things in the same way. It puts your own time and culture, and its ephemeral nature, in perspective - as any sustained brush with history does, of course.

A Love Supreme

Finally, I’ve found the mother of new, rich seams in my ongoing mining of all things music. When I discover a new old band or artist I tend to hoover up their back catalogue in a matter of months before I get restless and go looking for something new. This will keep me going for years. It's not just the music, it's everything that surrounds it - there are whole new terms providing me with endless amusement (“Third Stream”, ffs; “New Thing”, ffs). I've even found myself getting interested in the instruments in a way I haven't before - the family of the saxophone and how each member works; the existence of pocket trumpets and bass clarinets which, while not a shock, have simply never been on my radar before...

You think you know the world - but when you delve into that labelled box you thought you had pegged, with no need to know any more about, it's contents prove so rich and diverse you find yourself overwhelmed – and realise just how little you know and how limited your worldview is. Neither box nor world will ever look the same again, and that's a pleasant surprise and an optimism-fuelling lesson.

What if everything is like that? I'm pretty sure everything is like that.