Little old me: radio, reality and Murakami

I’ve been escaping ‘reality’ as much as I can recently, partly as a way of protecting myself and my own reality, and therefore as a kind of health issue.

It would be irresponsible of course, or perhaps madness to ignore and disbelieve that is going on around you in the world, along with all the collective responsibility we have to others to maintain the reality of a shared society.

Then again, given our accepting and adhering to our basic and most important social responsibilities we still have choices that we can make about e.g. what kind of media we want in our minds, in our eyes and ears shaping and determining our day and our reality.

And the word ‘choice’ is, I learned from a friend this week, crucial here as different media – it now seems clear to me – offer different qualities and kinds of choice.

e.g. I like listening to an Indie music radio channel, because it fills me with hope that millions of young artists are out there every day and night continuing the rich legacy of dedicating a life to making transgressive, innovative, ironic and just fantastic new music.

However, I hate the fact that it is interrupted by a radio news bulletin every hour, intervening, like a patriarch, to make sure we don’t care carried away with the alternative worlds all these DJs, all these bands and their songs and their fans are creating.

I have a choice to jump up whenever the news comes on and switch off my radio for a few minutes, but somehow that still spoils the sense of pleasure and escape I get from listening.

And so, it might be preferable to choose the music I want to hear from my CD and vinyl record and cassette collections, but these of course will never be as up-to-date as the new music the radio DJs provide.

(Somewhere in my memory I believe I once encountered the idea of a TV set that gave an option of editing out commercials, but that seems too good to be true, and something I would happily adapt to the news problem outlined above.)

When the world is in a frightening crisis, it seems to me that the basic facts are all we really need to know, up-to-date, clearly articulated and true facts, once or twice a day perhaps. But of course, our news channels are worldwide, 24-7, all competing for attention, or anxious to fill the whole day with ‘news’, and especially, if possible the ‘breaking’ variety.

On top of this we now also have billions of layers of social media input as we all bark, and echo and share and respond to the above.

In the midst of all this is little old me, and little old you, also needing our own time and space and reality and identity which together constitutes our health. It seems to me that the healthiest decisions I have made in the past week were to choose media – such as CDs from my collection or books chosen from my bookshelves – that made me feel I was in control of my environment and that I could choose what goes into my ears, my eyes, my mind, my reality, at my time and at my pace.

As a result, amid all the turmoil, fear and disruption we are all going through right now, I also managed to experience some beautiful moments, like the moments I had reading a collection of short stories by Haruki Murakami.

I’ve had the collection for several years and when I opened it I noticed that the edges of the pages were starting to ‘fox’ (as they say in the book world). I hadn’t read it because I had dipped into the author’s work before and, though I understood its relevance to me, I just wasn’t sure if I really liked it. But all books – I’m sure you have noticed – need their moment, and this week the moment came for me and this Murakami collection.

I should point out that I found some of his writing a little conservative and sexist in its treament of women, and so it may not be aging well in our world of rapidly changing values. But if I forgive the author that aspect of his work I have to thank him for transporting me to a light, bright world where comfortable people’s rather ordinary lives are interrupted and expanded by unexpected disruptions of, or additions to their reality.

Murakami knows that one, shared and objective reality is not enough for us, neither for art nor for life. There is always more and less than we know, always other than we know, and we must maintain the personal space in which to nurture, protect, evolve and maintain our own reality – whatever is happening in the big wide world – as a key aspect of our health and well-being.

Furthermore, what might seem a solipsistic, narcissistic, irresponsible or selfish insistence on maintaining our own reality, and feeding it carefully with well-chosen media, also means that we can make ourselves healthy and happy enough to be able to support and help others through their own difficulties, and with maintaining their own realities.




Going Through Changes – from Blogger to monk

Bright sunshine attends this morning as I sit down to write a weekly Blog post. And the sunlight, the beautiful time of year, and the fact that I can write this, freely, quickly and publish it immediately to be available, potentially, to readers all around the world, are all things I feel thankful for.

It’s true that my word, and our world has suddenly been disturbed and disrupted by the onset of a new reality, and that is genuinely unnerving. But it IS a reality, a new and different reality to be sure but nevertheless A reality. And we all need one of those.

So, it might be best to look at it this way, i.e. not to be frightened of the new reality that we can’t avoid, but rather to monitor how we are responding to the change, and to gradually MAKE the change from one reality to another.

In-between – which is where I suspect we all are right now – we are obviously going to be both fearful and confused. And this fearfulness and confusion can be very unpleasant, accumulative, and even create a sense of panic.

The problem here is one of time and timing. To panic is, as we know, to rush. For our minds and our breath and our hearts to rush and even spiral out of control.

But if we remember, and remind ourselves, that what is happening is a change from one reality into another reality, that this change can’t be done quickly but must be done gradually, and perhaps very slowly, as our minds and bodies and the world around us all adjust and finds its way to a new sense of structure, time and perspective. Then we can and will handle the change.

Some things of course have not changed, and we can be grateful for those and use those as a kind of ‘ballast’ as make these changes. The sun is still shining on Spring mornings, the blossoms are coming out on the trees, the birds are singing and we can still write our blogs and connect with eachother in ways that people of an earlier time would find unbelievable, and incredibly useful.

So, at this time of what seems to be a huge and sudden change, that might frighten us and might make us panic, it’s best to ‘take a long view’, slow down our thinking, our acting, our decision-making, our breathing, our heart beat and thereby our mind. Take this opportunity to do every little thing we do a little more slowly, a little more thoughtfully and carefully, thereby gleaning gifts from a difficult situation.

And if you are out of your usual routines, off-work, off-college, or off-school, then imagine you have been given the gift of living like a monk for a few weeks or even months.

If we learn to live more carefully now, in every little action and detail of our lives, we can take this gift from the new reality and use them to make the whole of our future lives, both alone and together, more beautiful.

Here’s a song with a chorus to keep in mind.


Self-Reflexive Blogging In An Era Of Self-Isolation

Well I guess Blogging will come into its own during this period of mass self-isolation. Today, everyone will need to become an isolated writer figure in order to pass the day and share all of our thoughts with a wider world of friends and acquaintances that -due to the pandemic – we don’t dare to meet up with, hug, kiss and shake hands with.

If everyone is a Blogger today, then what might make my own utterances worth reading? And are they really written for the eyes, for the sake of others? Or are my Blogs just necessary outbursts, ways for me to ‘get something off my chest’ (no pun intended there) or to feel that, despite all of life’s complexities and diversions I have, nevertheless, at least here, in some small way and every week, done a little bit of writing and been a little bit of a writer – it’s reassuring.

If the motive is clarified, the next thing we need is a content, and any regular reader of this Blog will know that my contents can be very immediate and local (I’m tempted to write about that Robin who sings every day on the Cherry Tree outside my window, but of course I did that last week).

I have also often turned my content into a reflection on the task at hand, writing about writing, trying to define Blog writing in particular, or writing in other ways about the very process I am involved with here and now. But perhaps that’s a bit of a ‘cop-out’ and not something many readers would ‘go with’ for long.

Another trick (or method) I sometimes use, and which you might have noticed, is to start writing about the first thing that comes to mind and then just use that as starting point and try to weave my way towards some kind of relevant conclusion.

However, writing is often misunderstood as having been written just as it is read, i.e. as if it flowed from the pen or keyboard just in the way it read, and thus took just as long to write as it takes to read. This is a ‘misunderstanding’ because, of course, a writer re-writes what they have written to correct and improve it, editing, composing, and ultimately contriving something of value and a certain kind of experience or journey for the reader.

Having said that, one of the things that perhaps distinguishes many Blogs (or it might just be me and my blog) is that they are written very fast and published immediately and thus might retain a certain freshness and lack of composure and contrivance, while nevertheless potentially reaching a large audience, and – again potentially, and again, nevertheless – constituting some kind of more or less serious contribution to the long and noble history of writing in general and writing’s many different encounters with different writing technologies.





Crying: The Big News

Well, the big news here today is that a robin sat on the branch of a cherry tree outside my bedroom window and sang his heart out – apparently in response to the unusually bright sun – for over half an hour this morning.

Meanwhile, on the radio, I heard news about methods of containing a viral epidemic, and about a duchess making a speech for ‘International Women’s Day’ in which she told men to “protect” and “value” their partners.

All of this is ‘news’ in a way, and it all has the potential to make you cry. Beautiful things and terrible things can move you equally to tears – the sweetness of the robin and its innocent song, as much as evidence of hope-giving care and virtue in a world that often seems so irredeemably corrupted.

Being moved to tears is in itself a kind of ‘news’ item. It can seem precious and rare – though not, I suppose, if you find yourself crying every day or all day long.

The occasional bout of tears is surely healthy, leaving us feeling strangely purged of something that had previously been locked-up within our sensual system, where it was doing nothing but make us feel bad.

Fortunately, I cry very easily, though it can be embarrassing in public places, like the cinema where I can quickly run out of tissue paper simply because a film is dramatic, sweet, tender, an emotional roller-coaster, technically brilliant, gorgeously shot, effectively deploys its music, is wonderfully acted, or represents a level of creative achievement that I am certain I will never be capable of attaining myself.

Of course, music, literature, theatre and encounters with nature can have the same effect on me, but as I say above I think all this crying is healthy and often wonder why on earth human beings do not cry all the time, or at least every day, as regularly as some pray?

Everyone on earth, from new born babies, through adolescents, to the middle-aged and most elderly would surely agree that we all have plenty to cry about, whether it be the bad or good news in our lives, the beautiful or the sublime, the wonderful or the terrible.

Strangely, these apparent binaries invariably intermingle in our experience and mix in our tears – so to speak. Who has not laughed at some point during the day of a funeral, or thought solemnly about the ugly demise of flowers that brought beauty and life into our homes when we first placed them in a vase. Thus, life teaches us never to be too singular, too one-sided, but, on the contrary, to embrace and inhabit complexity, contradiction and even paradox.

The great paradox at the very heart of every human life is that, like the robin on the branch in the morning sun, we are capable of so much L I F E, so much celebration of the beauty of sheer existence, and yet do not, and cannot live forever.

When we cry, not knowing quite how or why, sometimes mixing tears with laughter, sometimes crying at beauty as much as at sadness, it may be that there and then we make our closest contact with our central and underlying paradox (of a life that ends in death); there and then that we enter, momentarily at least, the very eye of the storm of living and meaning, a place, a moment, where and when we are not even sure if we live or not (thus the disoriented crying state may be akin to a dream in this respect); where and when we are not sure if there is meaning, reason, narrative etc. but perhaps ONLY the bittersweet experience of the great paradox of life, an experience that is as likely to make us cry as it is to make us sing.
Indeed, it reminds us that singing – even that of the morning robin on the branch a cherry tree – is probably itself a form of crying.

I just thought I’d illustrate some of the above with this link:

Constant, revolutionary speculation (on ‘Something In The Air’ by Olivier Assayas)

If you have a mummy or a daddy, you might be able to get them to tell you a story at night that will get you into a relaxed-yet-imaginative state of mind which seems to be conducive to sleep. If you don’t have someone to tell you a story you can read a book or watch a movie, and I have found that this can be almost as helpful.

Last night I watched ‘Something In The Air‘ directed by Olivier Assayas. I choose a lot of my movies, not by reading reviews or looking in the university library, nor as friends’ recommendations. I don’t have any ‘streaming’ services, but for years now I have been finding little gems on the DVD shelves at my local library.

I’m not sure if ‘Something In The Air‘ is a ‘gem’ but it was a good film if by a ‘good film’ we mean something that has qualities that both touch you emotionally and stimulate you intellectually.

I recognised Assayas’ name and recalled that I had seen another of his films, titled ‘Summer Hours‘ several years ago, again gleaned from the local library, and that I still had a copy of, having subsequently bought one, thinking I might use it in teaching. Both films struck me as being very strong and culturally distinct depictions of French middle-class life, and anyone who knows me and my writing (and talking) will know that ‘class’ is something that fascinates (in a good, constructive way) and perhaps also ‘obsesses’ me (in a less good, less constructive way).

In ‘Something In The Air‘ (2012) the director basically rebuilt some memories of his formative teenage years circa 1968 – 1972. And so we see riot police and students fighting running battles in the streets. We see the same students petrol bombing, graffitiing, and fly-posting hurriedly designed and cheaply printed militant political posters.

The film deftly and quickly gives a glimpse of various politically technical splits and factions regarding the potential for a Marxist, Trotskyist or Maoist revolution, before settling-in to describe a more flower-powered counter-culture that all of the above seems to meld into and exist within,. The central idea is to ‘drop out’ (and drop LSD), i.e. refuse all given and inherited, pre-WW2 social structures of law, property, parental, governmental and pedagogical authority, and replace them with fearless experimentation with drugs, sex, travel, art, music, literature and endlessly intense speculative conversations.

In the accompanying interview given by the director (one of the ‘extras’ that make me loyal to the DVD culture) Assayas points out that the people depicted in the film truly and wholly believed at that time that their revolution (perhaps ‘revolutions’ is more accurate) would and must eventually succeed. Furthermore, he also pointed out, those same people had truly taken the risk of trying to set everything expected of them aside, and had determined, at almost whatever cost, to create themselves by their own, individual or collective means.

Actually, some characters in the film are eventually seen to rescue themselves from the revolutionary pyre and, after all and despite all, begin to pursue professional careers, not uncomparable with those pursued by their middle-class professional parents.

Nevertheless, the director adds in his reflection, their daring experimentation with a kind of Nietzschean self-deconstruction and self creation is something that does not seem possible today, in a world where such radical creativity, freedom, adventure and discovery now comes commodified and prescribed, something we literally ‘buy into’ – perhaps via an app, a brand, a gap-year etc., as a kind of revolution ‘off-the-peg’ (revolution-pret-a-porter perhaps) while unerringly focused, primarily on an all-important ‘career’, something wholly anathema to most of the characters in this film and to the truest spirit of their times.

The movie left me intellectually stimulated, thinking about just how important this period in cultural history was and is for ‘us’ or at least for me, if we (or I) want to understand who we are by such means.

At the same time the movie left a kind of ache in my heart, partly because of the well represented sense of lost and irretrievable idealism, and the ways in which it triggered my (now) middle-aged empathy with and for all the danger and carelessness into which those unprecedented (post Hisroshima, post-Holocaust) young people threw themselves in an almost sacrificial manner with the aim of not just rejuvenating but replacing the world wholesale.

Their ‘sacrifice’ does however seem to have provided us today with a greatly expanded permissiveness and a far more free and playful society, in which the model (albeit commodified – as above) seems to be a kind of ‘forever young’ teenage mentality.

As someone who grew up in the strange ‘wake’ of psychedelia and post-’68’ etc. I found myself in 1976 (just after the time this film depicts) aged 16 with long hair, experimenting with drugs, wearing flared patchwork jeans, playing in a band and reading Herman Hesse, but living on a council estate on the dole with very little chance of ever hitch-hiking to Marrakesh. My own acid trips led me, not to Asia in a magic bus but only deeper into a fractal-ised vision of my parents’ choice of wallpaper patterns, paving stones illuminated by sulphorous lamposts, night-time school playing fields, and David Bowie performing on a B&W TV after my family had all gone to bed.

Soon Punk, with its ‘No-Future’ anti-utopian antiphilosophy came and swept away a lot of hippie cobwebs, and then we encountered 80s Thatcherism and found the only adequate response to it within the brand new counter-culture of Hip-Hop’s infinitely inventive and irresistably funky realism.

I went to sleep last night feeling quite emotional after watching Assayas’ movie. I dreamed of a Donald Trump rally, and I also dreamed that the radio announced the death of Bob Dylan (which, I suppose, sadly, is bound to happpen soon).

Today, Assayas’ carefully wrought depiction of an important piece of cultural history allowed me to wake up feeling a little surer of who I am, even though, in terms of class and culture, nationality, and identity in general I still like to think that I am always, and always will be, in a state of constant, perhaps even revolutionary, speculation – perhaps as a legacy of the ’68’ generation.




At The Side Of The Road

It’s a slightly damp and cold Sunday morning. As I’ve written here on this blog previously, Sunday’s retain a special atmosphere, even for non-religious people and a postmodern society that no-longer seems to have religion at the heart of its weekly and daily routines but rather orientates its time largely around work, shopping and social media.

I live near to a tyre shop and usually on Sunday morning there’s one or two cars and their drivers parked outside with flat tyres. They made their way here in the ‘small hours’ and are now waiting for the shop to open. The cars are usually pretty fancy, but sadly lamed by a puncture that renders all of their gleaming technology, glossy bodywork and powerful engine redundant, now just a ton of useless metal, glass, plastic, and leather seating, until one crucial tyre is replaced and they are back on the road.

Like those cars, it only takes one thing to go wrong with me and my routines, my ways of working, for me to have to face-up to realities that I usually keep at bay by constantly ‘driving’, or at least working hard and in a way that makes me feel like I’m progressing. Sometimes, when I am forced to stop however, I might come to question the very idea of my ‘progress’ and begin to doubt the reasoning, the ‘rationale’, the logic of my work and life, the work that I like to think ‘is‘ my life – but is it? It’s hard to imagine who or what we might be, given another and very different social and economic system against and within which we might contextualise ourselves and find a purpose for our time alive.

I once watched interviews with East Germans who talked about how much they loved the excellent and equal educations they had received as citizens of a communist state. It quickly became apparent that their motivation for ‘success’ was fundamentally different from that of someone living in a capitalist society, and yes, it was very alluring and, in a way, beautiful and strangely humanised.

The sense of the self as striving always and only in the service of a collective, rather than feeling isolated and channelled into a private and personal pursuit of satisfaction and recognition, came across in their moving words and the nostalgic passion they had for their lives and works prior to the reunification of Germany and the assimilation of East Germany into a capitalist system.

This post is not simply advocating communism however. I also suspect there might be some truth in some of the horror stories (if not scientific histories) I have heard about the potential failings or follies of a grand, modern, collective state that strives for equality above all. The point, I think, here is rather to discuss how to use occasional lapses in our everyday routine when we are unexpectedly able to step back and notice the ‘bigger picture’, the broader perspective, the underlying attributes of the context in which we are working.

Today is a Sunday, which, as mentioned above, still seems, for many, or perhaps for the majority in this society, to be a ‘day of rest’. Also, this week, in my role as a lecturer, I have been on strike. I nevertheless can’t help but continue to develop my own works, writing new books, making music, as well as trying to rest or taking short walks. Given time away from our routine we have an opportunity to think more deeply about what and why we are doing, who we are and what we do. But ultimately, we can’t think TOO deeply about the meaning of our lives and works. Instead, we must learn, at some point, that we ‘never get to the bottom’ of ourselves or of the deepest questions about ourselves and our works.

Hence, we go on, always in a state of semi-consciousness, half-knowing, always processing that strange urge we feel to represent, to create, to re-think, and also to ask and strive and even plead for recognition or reward for our creativity. But time on strike, time in a sick bed, time by the side of the road with a flat tyre are all part of the same life and same journey, providing crucial moments in which, and from which to reconsider  before moving on.




CHANGE YOUR NAME: On not knowing who we are or what we are doing

More and more I notice the way that my writing my other creative endeavours seem to have a life of their own, if I will only let them be, let them breathe and allow them to ‘write’ and to make.

My generation grew up strongly influenced by (or might we say, ‘acknowledging the relevance of’) Roland Barthes small but brilliant and beautiful essay ‘The Death of The Author’ (1967). Among many of the gracefully accumulating profundities therein, one line famously reads:

Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing.”

Like many artists I occasionally find a work or a piece of writing, made at some earlier time, and find myself puzzled by the question of how it came to be made or written. Some younger self, in a state of inspired activity, and probably in a rush -as we seem to be all of the time – flashed out a few sentences or created some images that can now be seen to have aged well.

However, perhaps we should not be surprised as in truth we know that we have trained ourselves, during the slow, painstakingly conscientious progress of a lifetime, to make our best work in a semi-conscious condition. As Barthes’ sentence above suggests, the body and mind are not clearly connected at the moment of creativity (writing, making), nor are body and pen, brush, keyboard etc. And nor is the pen, keyboard or brush clearly connected to the page, screen, paint, canvas etc. Rather, we have cultivated a series or sequence of dis-connections, insisting upon a fluid, tentative assemblage out of which something unknowable and unexpected is able to emerge.

Nor does the work arising from this procedure bear immediate scrutiny or judgement, but calls to be set aside, as rapidly as possible, lest our conscious judgements prove less well-developed than our semi-conscious utterances.

Hence time too becomes a tool that we have learned to wield in the making of anything of value and beauty and worthy of preservation. Time, whose shadow often falls upon us as a form of progress only to be feared, also becomes, in the artist’s hands, a means of cheating and even reversing that same time’s apparently merciless march.

Nevertheless, this strange creative activity, accurately described in a few words by Barthes, leaves us unusually vulnerable. As artists we spend our lives attuned, not to the sensible accumulation of securities – thus ensuring we are housed and comfortable in youth, maturity, retirement and dotage –  but to the twists and turns, rise and fall of a mysterious path whose aspect often appears inauspicious, all-too-risky, and which can lead us to contemplate despair only to take a sudden turn in the direction of achievement, recognition, reward and success – or of something at least that looks deceptively like these things.

In this way it is not only our author that is ‘dead’ (in the most positive sense and according to Barthes’ terminology); not only our grip on our pen and our grasp on our intention that ‘slips away’; and not only is it just in the moment of writing or making that we loosen our ties to our self, but, as Barthes might be seen to imply, it is our very subject”, that through and throughout a life in art becomes a “negative where all identity is lost”.

I have often thought it important that artists should each and all change our given birth names and choose our own as soon as we have recognised in ourselves the conviction to spend our life as an artist. Nevertheless, and regrettably, I have only once managed to do this, and for a relatively short period, in a way that convinced both myself and my audience.

We all know of many artists of all kinds, including writers, performers, singers who have liberated themselves from their familial identity by changing their names and thereby given a new and special freedom to each and every subsequent creative gesture, which is henceforth made by someone that the artist has invented for themselves and who has not been foisted upon them by relative strangers (our parents, their priests, local or national tradition etc.) But even for those of us who lack the audacity and panache to take an artist’s name, or who feel it is perhaps too late in our more or less successful ‘career’ to do so, it is well to recall Barthes’ idea and to acknowledge that he too, in the very moment of inscribing those influential and enduring words, did not know who he was nor what, exactly, he was doing.