Saturday, February 10, 2018

When I'm cleaning records*

(*To be sung to the tune of George Formby singing When I'm Cleaning Windows, first heard in the 1936 film Keep Your Seats, Please.)

I don't usually advertise products on this blog, but for Christmas I was given a record cleaning machine called Spin Clean Record Washer MKII. It has mostly** good reviews online. It's pretty rudimentary, basically a plastic cleaning bath with two rollers on the ends; distilled or deionised water (£2 for a large bottle from Halfords; tap water can cause limescale build-up on records) is placed in the bath, along with the cleaning fluid; the record is then placed in the bath, in between two brushes; the record is manually turned a few times clockwise and anticlockwise, taken out and dried. That's it. Not exactly state of the art. I didn't even use it for weeks, afraid it wouldn't work.

But I did need one. Regular readers will gather that the majority of my four hundred records come from charity shops (and cost no more than £1 or £2). Most of them are covered in grime, dust, dirt and fingerprints from over forty years of (mis)usage.

Previous attempts at cleaning vinyl had been with a carbon filter cleaner and a Cambra Discmaster – both small, brush-like, anti-static and dust cleaners, and both completely useless. They'd get rid of static but the dust would just go round and round the record. And they didn't go deep. I had tried cleaning records in the sink, with warm water and washing up liquid. This was cumbersome and messy, but worked, until I was advised not to use tap water.

I had toyed with getting each record professionally cleaned at a record shop at £5 a record. But having only paid £1 for each record in the first place, this seemed a bit counter productive. A professional record cleaner can cost up to thousands of pounds to buy, as this list shows.

Anyway, being at a loose end these dark, cold, winter evenings, I embarked on the cleaning process with the Spin Clean (being just one of a variety of vinyl washers; other good ones include the Vinyl Style Deep Groove Record Washer and the Knosti Record Washing Machine). Aside from anything else, I was surprised to find a therapeutic reward in the manual process. It was extremely satisfying taking a manky record, spinning it round a few times and ending up with a lovely, shiny piece of vinyl.

But the sound? Well, I had albums such as Blood on the Tracks, Blue, Nebraska, Horses, Bitches Brew, Music for 18 Musicians and Kaya, to name just a few – all of which had previously sounded muffled and sometimes didn't play at all, the needle skipping over all the tracks to the end of the record with a kind of zzzwwwipppp sound (the kiss of death) – totally transformed after cleaning and sounding clear and crisp, just like new in fact. It can't perform miracles and remove scratches – Nick Cave's Murder Ballads will unfortunately always be heard with crackles and pops – but 95% of my records now sound fantastic.

(**Giving people a chance to voice their own opinion was never a good idea. It's called the internet and everyone has their belief. Reading online reviews for anything – a pub, vacuum cleaner, album or film, say – is utterly pointless, seeing as even reviewing something as seemingly objective as a vacuum cleaner, or indeed a record cleaner (as opposed to something more subjective such as a film or restaurant) results in a one-star review ("crap") next to a five-star review ("amazing") for the same product. Which do you believe? Neither, probably.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Top ten most difficult fiction books to read

1. Gravity's Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon
Other online lists of difficult books to read contain such novels as The Metamorphosis, Catch 22, Heart of Darkness, Cloud Atlas, The Corrections, Midnight's Children, Vernon Little God and Lolita (all of which I read with ease). By comparison, Gravity's Rainbow makes these books the literary equivalent of Peter Rabbit.

I bought Gravity's Rainbow as a wide-eyed, innocent art student some twenty-five years ago. Like many, I'd started it a few times but never got further than a few pages in. Then about six months ago, I decided to read it. And yes, it took six months (I read other books in between, mind) but I finished it. I didn't say I understood it all. Or even half of it. Maybe it would have helped if I was more intelligent, with some knowledge of quantum physics, German, Latin, history, warfare, chemistry, maths and early German cinema. Helpfully, it also has lashings of sex and drugs, as well as nonsense poems, songs and limericks, and such an array of styles (making it difficult to imagine it was written by one person, like Naked Came The Stranger, the 1960s literary hoax that was actually written by twenty-four journalists) that if I didn't get one style, I might understand the next.

With a cast of over 400 characters (most annoyingly, though, the central character – well, who I thought was the central character until he vanished for hundreds of pages – Tyrone Slothrop, well, it wouldn't leave my head that Owen Wilson would be perfect to play him in the unfilmable film adaption of the novel), a prose style denser than lead, a convoluted plot that jumps backwards and forewords in time (without letting me know!), it's been understandably compared to Ulysses and Moby-Dick as one of the most difficult novels to read. (1999's Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson has also been compared to it, a Gravity's Rainbow for the digital age, or some such soundbite, which I adored and devoured in a matter of days. It has, you know, developed characters and a plot. In the 1970s, Gravity's Rainbow felt like the start of a new post-modern genre of fractured story telling, but this genre understandably didn't really take off, and books with traditional characters and plot continued to rule the day.)

It's a mostly fascinating read anyway. With some quirky facts, such as it was Fritz Lang in his 1929 film Woman in the Moon who invented the rocket countdown. Fact.

2. Naked Lunch – William Burroughs
Or anything by Burroughs. He didn't invent his cut-up technique for easy reading.

3. Under the volcano – Malcolm Lowry
Dense and fragmented. I can't remember why I went through a Lowry phase but I read all his novels (ie two, plus some short stories), and his biography (Pursued by Furies: A Life of Malcolm Lowry), which was far more fun to read than Lowry's fiction.

4. Riddly Walker – Russell Hoban
This is written in English but not quite as know it, a mix of Joyce, Burgess, Chaucer and, er, Kent dialect, which takes a while to get used to, but it's well worth it.

5. A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
Like Riddley Walker, this cult classic invents its own language, a mix of English slang and Russian. At least it's short. 

6. Captain Corelli's Mandolin – Louis de Bernières
A popular book and an awful film. I found the book hard to read and tremendously dull. 

7. The Ginger Man – J. P. Donleavy
One of the funniest books I've ever read, but pretty dense.  

8. Fifty Shades of Grey – E. L. James
Don't get me wrong; difficult books to read don't have to be pretentious, weighty, 1000-page long stream-of-consciousness affairs (but it helps). They can also be so bad it's impossible to get past the first few pages. With a prose style about as exciting as a shopping list, this was apparently quite popular. The film is meant to be even worse.

9. Bridget Jones's Diary – Helen Fielding
This one does start with a list (food consumed today). Couldn't get past the first few pages. In the 1970s there was The Female Eunuch; in the 1990s we have Bridget Jones. That's progress.

10. Auto-da-Fé – Elias Canetti
I can't remember much about this one. Canetti's short travel book about Morocco, The Voices of Marrakesh, which I picked up in a secondhand bookshop in Indonesia, is far more rewarding.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Battle of the Brutalists

There has never been more interest in brutalist architecture – numerous books are published on the subject; plates and tea towels are adorned with brutalist imagery; there are hundreds of websites and Instagram accounts dedicated to what the French coined raw concrete, béton brut (unfortunately we translated the word rather brutally). Brutalism is the new iconic (iconic once used to refer to Russian icons; now it's bandied around and any celebrity, building, artwork, film or photo can be instantly iconic), a word tossed around to describe any concrete monstrosity.

Its popularity has come at a time, paradoxically perhaps, when many brutalist council estates and buildings are being knocked down. In a 2016 speech former Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to spend £140 million demolishing or  regenerating 100 sink estates (which sounds a lot of money but to my rusty maths only equates to £1.4 million per estate). The speech coincided with a bill aiming to reduce the amount of social housing in the country.

Cameron went on to say: "Decades of neglect have led to gangs and anti-social behaviour. And poverty has become entrenched, because those who could afford to move have understandably done so... The mission here is nothing short of social turnaround... I believe we can tear down anything that stands in our way."

There are some brutalist success stories. Flats in the maze-like Barbican estate cost over £1m. The Park Hill estate in Sheffield had a recent award-winning overhaul. But generally what seems to be happening is council estates are being deliberately neglected and then demolished, residents are being moved out of London, and luxury, overpriced (and generally very ugly) apartment blocks are being built on the land, sold to Chinese/Russian/Arab investors for large sums of money and remaining empty most of the time. This is the bizarre solution to the housing crisis? When there's a waiting list of at least 1.5m people for social housing?

The mission here, it seems to me, is social cleansing and making as much money as possible at the expense of the residents of these demolished blocks. As as one ex-resident from the now-demolished Heygate estate said, "We have literally been sold out by our own council". That some residents had lived their entire lives in the area, had family and social networks and jobs in the community seemed to be of no consequence. Many of the residents were forced to move out of London (meaning they'll never be able to afford to move back) to cities as far flung as Birmingham. Of the 2,535 new homes built where the Heygate estate was, only 79 were allocated for social renting.

This doesn't seem to concern any of the brutalist websites, bloggers or Instagrammers. Brutalism is cool. Goldfinger and Le Corbusier are hip. On tea towels and mugs, in books, in moody black and white photos. When it was announced the Robin Hood Gardens estate was to be demolished, news that the V&A were to acquire a three-storey section of the block received far more press than the future of the estate's residents. Considering brutalism is usually public housing, it seems strange that the residents are usually completely absent from any imagery.

During consultations (which admittedly I'd take with a pinch of salt), 75% of residents in the Robin Hood Gardens estate said they wanted it demolished, whilst at the same time, the 20th Century Society and high-profile architects including Richard Rogers, the late Zaha Hadid, Toyo Ito and Robert Venturi petitioned to save it from the bulldozers. Britain's "most important" post-war social housing development, enthused Richard Rogers, presumably not having spent more than half an hour on the block (a half-hearted Twitter storm erupted when residents invited him to spent the night on the estate; Rogers said he would, but never did). Residents variously described the 'streets in the sky' estate as a "prison" and "not a home" as the Building Design website were calling it "seminal".

The brutalist debate is a tough one. The buildings have become trendy, but not for most of the residents who live on them and have to endure the crime and neglect. I'm never one to agree with demolition – once it's gone, there's no bringing it back. I certainly prefer most brutalist buildings to the hideous new luxury apartments springing up all over the UK. I say we should keep brutalist estates but invest in them, regenerate them, give them proper lighting, give them a lick of paint (or a mural of a dog)! I lived on one for years, the Alton estate in Roehampton. It wasn't that bad. And Grade II listed, so hopefully it won't be demolished, though the library, which isn't listed, may well face the wrecking ball.

Previously on Barnflakes
The regeneration game
Death of the high street
Modern architecture is rubbish
Alton blues

Elsewhere on the web is my favourite online architecture magazine.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

January Tales

Well, I've never owned a car, TV, laptop or microwave oven
(And not just because I'm poor, or stubborn).
I've never even thought about buying a games console, or a Kindle,
Or a suitcase on wheels
(I just don't like the way it feels).
I've never hashtagged or Tweeted
(Neither standing or seated).
But I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk
(No, that's a lie, it's a line from a Springsteen song).
But I do got a 40-year-old temperamental record player that's in need of constant repair,
Oh yeah.
But I do got a 40-year-old temperamental record player that's in need of constant repair,
Oh yeah.
And to be fair
It's my favourite thing I own
Even if about it I constantly moan.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Tesco in Tresco

I hate chain stores, supermarkets and the homogeneity of the UK high street as much as the next person; I love the beauty and untouched tranquillity of the Scilly Isles but come on, Tesco really need to plonk a huge superstore on the island of Tresco, just so they can say we got a Tesco on Tresco.

(The island of Tresco is occasionally misheard as Tesco. Which reminds me – sort of – of when I was in Iceland, the country. I got a call from an employment agency. I told them we shouldn't talk for long, I was in Iceland, this call will cost you a fortune. Oh, doing your shopping are you? The agent said. No, I said, Iceland the country, not the supermarket. Oh! she said, okay, let's make it brief.)

(Looking through old notebooks, this is what I wrote about the Isles of Scilly at the time:

The sweet smell of gorse as the sun sets.
Wild garlic growing in the hedgerows.
The giant ancient anchor in the field of bluebells.
Balmy, hazy islands in the distance
Like a giant's stepping stones.
Shipwrecks and seals.
Daffodils and dolphins.
White, deserted beaches.
"Don't come back here,
They'll be no more water!"*

*Personal joke, you had to be there.)

Friday, December 15, 2017

South London record shops

First things first: I pretty much love all record shops, and there’s little more I like in the world than flicking through racks of vinyl. Naturally, however, I rarely buy any – vinyl has got very expensive. Suddenly records which you'd only pay £1 for at a car boot sale or charity shop are being sold for £15 in record shops. And though it's becoming rarer to find good records in charity shops or boot sales, I still occasionally do (and today: Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack, Awesome Mix Vol. 1, sealed LP, as new, £2, Richmond charity shop), though it takes a lot of looking.

Vinyl is everywhere again (though for many it never went away) – market stalls and hipster coffee shops and Tesco may have a rack of records (and even in the back of an organic food shop in Peckham). Vinyl sales are at their highest since the 1980s. Record Store Day has done a great job of the resurgence in vinyl... and pushing up prices.

Of course, it's all a con. Music companies must be laughing all the way to the bank. How many formats can they sell us the same album in? Well, first of all on vinyl, then 8-track, then cassette, then CD, then MiniDisc, then remastered CD, then box set CD with reissues, demos, out-takes and live discs, then (for audiophiles) Super Audio CD (SACD) and DVD Audio, then mp3, FLAC and dozens of other formats. And now vinyl again! In 180g, coloured, limited editions. Oh, there's a new process called half-speed mastered, where the record is recorded at half speed  – apparently true, though it sounds like a joke from The Onion.

Anyway, despite Berwick Street closing several of its record shops, many new ones have popped up in the last couple of years. In South London alone I've visited the following (in no particular order) in recent months: 

Dr Vinyl
Tooting Market, Tooting SW17
Apparently Dr Vinyl has some 20,000 records in his basement and he's been trading for 30 years.

Nighthawk Trading Post
Haynes Indoor Market, Crystal Palace SE19
The indoor market in Crystal Palace has been going for decades. Nighthawk has a good selection of rock records and some CDs. There's another record stall in the market too, selling heavy metal and rock.

Project Vinyl
Crystal Palace SE19
In the middle of the Crystal Palace triangle, a small record shop specialising in dance music.

Crystal Palace SE19
Junk shop on Church Street which has a decent basement of vinyl. 

Rat Records
Camberwell SE5
Self-proclaimed best record shop in South London, Rat Records has an eclectic mix of blues, jazz, world, punk, electronic, punk etc. 

Turnstile Records
Streatham SW16
Lovely record shop in Streatham, specialising in jazz, with a mix of old and new records has recently unfortunately vanished! (It was open when I started compiling this list so I'm keeping it in. Does it signal the downturn in vinyl? It only opened two years ago.)

Record and book bar
West Norwood SE27
A converted pub is the location for this great shop which also sells books, coffee and has seating. 

Rollin Records
West Wickham BR4
Fine mix of records from 1950s-1970s; friendly, knowledgeable staff. You may even get chatting to a local legendary Melody Maker journalist from the 70s who frequents the shop.

Sydenham SE26
Nice cafe selling soul, jazz, hip-hop and rock records & some CDs.

Tome Records
Bermondsey SE15
Haven't actually been to this one, but online reviews suggest it's a hidden gem.

Casbah Records
Greenwich SE10
Great shop selling new and vintage vinyl (and CDs), books and T-shirts. Pricey.

Music and Video Exchange
Greenwich SE10
Not many of these left. Large selection of records and a bargain basement.

Rye Wax
Peckham SE15
Ah, Peckham, the new Dalston. Basement venue in the Bussey Building is also a cafe, bar and gallery. Of course.

Container records
Brixton SW9

Record shop based in a repurposed shipping container.

Pure Vinyl
Brixton SW9

Only open a couple of months, situated in the lovely converted building The Department Store on Ferndale Road; small selection of new and used vinyl; obvs reggae but also soul, jazz, etc. I must say, a bit poncy.

Wanted Records
Beckenham BR3
Huge collection of vinyl and some racks of CDs.

101 Records
Croydon CR0

Trading since 1986, has hundreds of secondhand LPs, 45s and CDs. In the owners own words the shop is ‘engaging and scruffy’.

Soul Brother
Putney SW15
Pricey but good selection of soul, funk and jazz LPs.

Banquet Records
Kingston KT1
Indy, punk and Emo records and CDs; a lot of new and reissues. They also put on bands and have club nights.

Collectors Record Centre
Kingston KT2
Old school record shop selling secondhand vinyl and CDs; trading since 1991. 

Elsewhere on the web:
VinylHub is attempting to catalogue every record shop and event in the world.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Recent barngains

 Joanna Newsom, Have one on me, 3 LP box set, £1, RSPCA
This was almost a missed barngain – a young hipster (beard, hat) had the record in his hands, wasn't sure about it, looked it up on his phone – I was watching him out of the corner of my eye whilst pretending to browse a book (Jay Z's Decoded), heart beating like crazy – then he put it back. What made him put him back (apart from my staring with daggers at him)? That it's a great album (9.2 on Pitchfork)? That it's worth over £30? I admit, Newsom isn't to everyone's taste – her combination of childlike, sometimes screechy vocals combined with difficult lyrics and accompanying harp grates for many, but I love her. One album over three LPs (clocking in at just over two hours) though, involves six switching over of record sides. Nevertheless, a beautiful box set, not complaining at all.

Grayson Perry, updated and expanded Thames and Hudson monograph, £4, Sue Ryder
Signed by Grayson Perry! Found on the floor, underneath a pile of other books, underneath the actual bookshelves.

Brutal London: Construct your own concrete capital, £4, British Heart Foundation
Lovely book focusing on nine buildings in the capital (including the Alton Estate); includes card cut-out models of each so you can construct your own mini brutalist city.

L'Amour, Lewis
Silent Passage, Bob Carpenter
Crossroads, Kenny Knight
All CDs, £1 each, MIND 
To sell anything nowadays, a good story is needed. Audio obsessives love a treasure hunt and mystery to be solved as much as anyone, and record labels such as Paradise of Bachelors and Light in the Attic specialise in re-issuing long-lost gems, along with alluring narratives to go along with them.

A 1980s Nick Drake, if you will, all hesitant and almost whispered vocals, synths and guitars, Lewis was the nom de plume of stockbroker Randall Wulff, who privately pressed a couple of LPs which vanished without trace. His first LP was eventually found in a flea market, and the rest is history. Sort of. Randall was eventually tracked down several years after the CD release, and showed no interest at all in it, or any of the royalties.

Previously on Barnflakes:
London through its charity shops

Monday, November 27, 2017

The sparrows of Kosovo

It's not often a beautiful woman invites me to Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, to try out the disco shower in her hotel room, so I was hardly going to refuse the offer of a lifetime. H had been working in Kosovo for a few weeks and I joined her for a long weekend. Whenever I go anywhere on my own, I get fleeced. €15 from airport to city centre, everyone told me. There was a sign at the airport saying €15. This is what I told and pointed at to the group of taxi drivers. €15! I exclaimed. No, they exclaimed back. €30! This went on for a while. I ended up getting in a cab with an old guy who I thought might be a soft touch. Nope. €30!

It was to be the biggest expense of the trip by a long way. Put it this way – for €5 I could get a coffee, a beer, a meal and a pack of cigarettes. Sandwiched between trips to Stockholm and Venice, Kosovo was welcome relief on the wallet, if not as high up on the tourist destination list as the aforementioned places.

They say time travel will never happen – if it had, people would have come back from the future to our time. But it happens every day. Remember those balmy summer holidays as a child that lasted forever? Or that day in the office that lasted a fortnight, whilst the week holiday in Spain went by in a couple of hours? Sleep feels like a form of time travel. As we get older we experience time differently – in general, time accelerates in our brain. Going through time zones always feels like time travel to me, and even travel in general. Pay some dosh, hop on a plane, and whizz bang, you're in a completely culture with different people, money, buildings, food.

Kosovo, part of the former Yugoslavia, is a tiny (population: about 2m), landlocked country in the Balkans. It's recognised as a country by the United States and most of the E.U. but not by Serbia or Russia. It remains a disputed territory and partially recognised state. The area is still far from stable; the country is very poor and there are no jobs. You know what, though? It felt like one of the safest and friendliest places I'd ever been to.

Pristina may lack the wow factor of a capital city but it has a great coffee culture and some really quirky architecture – I don't know, there's probably not much more I need from a city. I loved wondering around with H – who already knew the place like the back of her hand – stopping for coffee and taking pictures of bonkers buildings. There's an intriguing mix of architecture – some modern, some communist, some Ottoman mosques and hamans and lots of monuments, dedicated to either communism or war. All over Kosovo are reminders of war – not just the recent conflict, though there are plenty of those, from the black gravestones with photos of prominent soldiers planted in the actual spot where they died in battle (ie on a street corner), to a large statue of Bill Clinton on Bill Clinton boulevard in Pristina – but monuments to previous battles, from the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 to World War II. Many monuments to Tito's Yugoslavia remain, unprotected and often derelict. The Brotherhood and Unity monument, built in 1957, towers above the minaret of a nearby mosque. The Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries are beautiful, but many of these are also derelict or damaged; others have armed guards patrolling and 'No Guns' signs outside.

My favourite building of all though – sometimes unfairly dubbed the ugliest building in the world – was the National Library of Kosovo. A huge building consisting of cube-shaped rooms with some 99 domes on top of them, the whole structure is covered with what looks like chain mail. It all goes to create a bizarre and brutalist building which has divided opinion. Naturally, I loved it.

In the evening we hung out at the popular Soma book station, a cosy and ubercool cafe, bar and restaurant catering to foreign NGOs and cosmopolitan locals (ie it's expensive, for Kosovo). Books and records are for sale, and cool jazz wafts through the dim room, creating an intimate atmosphere. Standing outside in the garden having a smoke, I heard the delicate tones of Chet Baker singing from inside; outside was the Muslim call to prayer – a very pleasant musical mash up.

Cocktails are a speciality at Soma but we kept to coffee and juice. I really don't mind a country without pubs and bars. In the UK, coffee shops shut at 5:30pm then the only option is the pub, and alcohol. In Kosovo – a Muslim country, so not many pubs – there are no drunks littering the streets on a Saturday night, no drunken shouting and fighting. The coffee shops stay open till late, creating a pleasant environment of people chatting over their macchiatos.

In general, the service in Kosovo is amazing – not matter what you order in a cafe or a restaurant – it arrives in minutes. Liburnia restaurant was my favourite place to eat; a slightly ramshackle old building but cosy and romantic, all the food cooked in their traditional open oven. Upon entering, we walked through a sort of greenhouse filled with trees, plants and flowers before entering the main restaurant, decked out with old wooden furniture and decorated with antiques.

We spent two days exploring other parts of Kosovo – taking buses to Prizren in the south and Peja in the west of the country, passing casinos, unfinished and abandoned buildings and factories, then snow-capped mountains and lush forests along the way. Every once in a while an immaculate palace-type building will appear as if from nowhere, in a wasteland, seemingly modelled on the White House or an ancient Greek temple. Flocks of black birds (possibly blackbirds – which would be a nice allusion to the Field of Blackbirds, site of the 14th century battle and marked by a war monument, but they looked bigger, so I'm calling them black birds – ravens or crows, I guess) flew ahead and alongside the bus, as if showing the way and ensuring us safe passage.

Outside of Pristina, we were more of an oddity, and people sometimes gave us suspicious looks. Nevertheless, a sweet old man selling chestnuts by the river in Prizren, not only gave me his cushion to sit on the wall but refused any money for the chestnuts he gave us. In Peja (also known as Peć), we visited the beautiful Patriarchate of Peć, the monastery and Serbian Orthodox church located about 1km out of town. I had to present my passport to an armed guard. We'd asked several people in town where it was; no one had heard of it – or said they hadn't. I thought this bizarre – but there was no way a Kosovan would visit a Serbian church.


H was working on the Monday so I had a day to myself. I could make out that I simply hopped on a bus to a foreign country without map or currency or H – which is true – but I did a fair bit of online research beforehand and was a tad apprehensive. I needn't have worried; the bus from Pristina to Skopje, capital of Macedonia, takes two hours and costs €5.

Though Dana Rohrabacher, a congressman close to Donald Trump and frequent defender of Vladimir Putin, said earlier in the year that "Macedonia is not a country. I'm sorry, it's not a country," and suggested it should split up and divided between its neighbours, well, to me – and I'm sure, its residents – it certainly felt like a country. Its capital, Skopje, felt very unique and much different to Kosovo. Its uniqueness is striking and controversial. The whole city centre has been transformed in recent years with the 'Skopje 2014' renewal project, at a cost of hundreds of millions of euros. Detractors call it a kitsch mini-Las Vegas theme park and waste of money in a country with much poverty and unemployment. I see their point, but as a tourist there for a day, I loved it. Everywhere you look there are giant mock-classical Greek government buildings and museums, monuments, water fountains and warrior statues. That the city has 'borrowed' from Greek legends is no accident – the country has been locked in a 27-year-old feud with neighbour Greece, who objects to the country being called Macedonia (Greece wants it to be renamed the catchy Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). Athens has accused Skopje of 'cultural theft', and giant new monuments of Alexander the Great isn't helping the cause. The name feud has been the main reason Macedonia hasn't joined the EU or Nato.

Anyway, aside from being conned into buying a pair of fake Ray-Bans, I enjoyed the city tremendously. The sun was shining (I did actually need a pair of shades), and Skopje felt more cosmopolitan and relaxed than Pristina – women were out and about, for a start. Again, it's the bonkers mix of buildings which makes it such a fascinating place. Over the bridge from the sparkling white mega mock-classical buildings of the city centre is the charming old bazaar, Skopje's focal point of trade and commerce since the 12th century. With its labyrinth of alleyways, small shops, markets and cafes, mosques, hamans and a fortress, it has the feel of a North African medina. I was foolishly walking around in a pair of dirty shoes – and had a shoe shiner chase after me, and actually apply shoe polish to my shoe as I was running away from him.

I stumbled across by accident a concrete communist-era bonkers brutalist building I'd wanted to see – the central post office, looking like a cross between a spaceship and a giant insect. My other favourite building in the city was the Mother Teresa Memorial House (the famous nun was born in Skopje in 1910), a sort of fun, post-modern Hansel and Gretel mash up, rather than the austere place of worship you'd expect.

I only had a few hours to explore the city; yes I was worried about missing the last bus back. I arrived back in Pristina when it was dark and freezing cold, got a taxi back to the hotel with a crazy driver talking about kings of the road and guns (via Google translate on his phone); got fleeced.

Oh, and the disco shower? I found it a bit intimidating and complicated, but it was a disco shower. It had flashing lights, a radio and jets of water spurting out in all directions. And the sparrows? Lots of them would chirp around me in the morning when I had a cigarette in the courtyard of the hotel.

My flight back was at three in the morning. I got a taxi to the airport; with only €20 in my pocket, I was afraid I'd be charged €30 again. When he said €15, my heart leapt and I almost wept with joy; I gave him a large(ish) tip.

Flickr photos of Kosovo and Skopje.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

The pigeons of Venice

What do you call someone from Venice who can't see? A Venetian blind! I'm here all day, folks. Obviously, Venetian blinds didn't originate in Venice (actually Persia; Venetian traders in the 1700s bought them back to Venice and Paris – the French still refer to their country of origin by calling them les persienes), just as, say, Jerusalem artichokes aren't from Jerusalem (nor are they even artichokes). Anyway, I digress.

We arrived in the medina that is Venice at about two in the morning. Wondering aimlessly around the maze of alleyways trying to find our hotel, I naturally thought of Don't Look Now, and told H if she sees a little girl in a red raincoat, Don't Follow Her.

Is there anywhere else like Venice in the world? A city with no cars! With roads made of water! It's simultaneously antiquated and futuristic (cars – driverless or flying Blade Runner-style – do not figure in my vision of the future at all), though climate change doesn't make the future for Venice look great – it'll be like Atlantis in years to come.

Which, in a roundabout kind of way, is why we went. H and I had wanted to see Damien Hirst's (no, never been a fan of his before) Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable exhibition all year and finally got a cheap deal in November. The exhibition has received mixed reviews but there was no doubting the boldness of vision. Ten years in the making, costing millions of pounds, employing 250 craftsmen in 5 countries and housed in two galleries, this was art as blockbuster movie (I wasn't even going to mention this, but I will. Yes he employs people to execute his art! Like a film director does! Like Michelangelo did! Like Jeff Koons does! Enough!).

A year ago, almost to the day, we'd seen the British Museum's 'blockbuster' show, Sunken cities: Egypt’s lost worlds, the tale of two 'lost' ancient Egyptian cities recently 'rediscovered'. I'd been underwhelmed by it all, but more than that – and I said as much to H at the time – I felt all the artefacts looked too new, and possibly, well, fake (we all mock modern art by saying it's only called art because it's in a gallery; very rarely do we question the veracity of a museum). Though Hirst's exhibition was planned years before the British Museum's, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable felt like a personal affront to Sunken Cities.

Before I went to the exhibition, I wasn't altogether clear on the story. Did Damien really find treasure off the coast of East Africa, and then doctor it – Chapman Brothers-style – with Mickey Mouse and Mowgli? Or was it all a hoax? The clue's in the exhibition title, the anagrammatically-named Cif Amotan II ('I am fiction', the wealthy freed slave from 100AD whose treasure this is) and, well, actually visiting the exhibition. Even though there is a strikingly similar and realistic documentary (or mockumentary, if you will) to the Sunken Cities one of divers finding the treasure haul in the depths of the ocean when you enter the exhibition, it very soon becomes apparent that it's all fake (though not fake art but fake news). Okay, it's a hoax but an amazing one.

There are one hundred artefacts, from drawings and sculptures to jewellery and weapons, some the size of a building, some the size of a fingernail. There are sculptures of serpents and beasts, of Kate Moss and Mickey Mouse, Rihanna an an Egyptian goddess, made from marble, stone, bronze, silver and gold, all encrusted with barnacles and coral. There is a mash up of cultures and religions – Egyptian, pre-Columbian, Buddhism. It has to be seen to be (un)believed.

We'd spent half a day at the two Hirst galleries, but there was other art everywhere in Venice. Not just the city itself – the churches and palaces, the beautifully crumbling buildings – but the Venice Biennale, the bi-annual arts festival which consumes the city. Everywhere we looked was free art – in abandoned buildings and churches (my advice to anyone visiting Venice: when you're in a building, any building, always look up – the ceiling will invariably be stunning) as well as the two main locations: the Central Pavilion and Arsenale. For these it was 25€ for a day pass, but worth every cent. We were there from 12 til 6 and had only seen probably half of the art on display. Some was crap, some was amazing (my own idea for an installation in the city was to have hundreds of balloons in the shape of a lion with wings – the symbol of Venice – floating around one of the churches). Just about every country in the world is represented in every kind of media – even painting! And hardly any female nudes, that fine tradition of the male gaze in western art for the last five hundred years, but lots of cocks.

As an aside from all the art and beauty (sigh; it gets so overwhelming, day after day), we did stumble across other stuff. Like a charity shop. I was hoping it to be full of cut price Tintorettos and designer wear – some Prada garb for 50 cents etc. Alas, no. The very persuasive old woman working there forced me to try on a horrible 1970s blue-patterned cardigan, which I did, before taking it off again immediately and walking out the shop. That didn't stop her from chasing after me down the street, waving the cardigan in the air and shouting Italian in my direction. (A note on the Venetian old ladies: they're stunning! And ballsy! Compared to shrivelling old English women, all beige, afraid and shuffling along, senior Italian ladies are stylish and loud.)

I thought there was no way we'd ever find the Libreria Acqua Alta bookshop I'd heard about, but H found it (she's on a par with my brother in map-reading skills but also has the female intuition thing going on) down a dark alleyway one evening (and even managed to find it again the following morning). Meaning 'bookshop of high water', the shop's solution to the constant flooding it receives every year from the nearby canal is to store its books in baths and a full-size gondola (no, we never went on one if you're asking; not for €80 for 35 minutes), as well as storing its books to the ceiling. With more people taking photos of the shop (including me) than buying books, it's a wonder they stay afloat at all.

We experienced all weather – sun when we arrived; then atmospheric mist and cold and finally rain (we'd prematurely high-fived each other when we overheard an American woman say it was to rain the next day – when we were leaving. We hadn't taken into account that the rain would start in the early hours of the morning, and we'd got soaked getting to the ferry).

Anyway. Venice, city of dreams. Pigeons and tourists, tacky souvenirs, pasta and pizza, ice cream, getting fleeced €6.50 for a coffee (well, I was glad in a way, it had to happen, and could have been a lot worse; still, it leaves a sour taste). The city's sinking, it's a theme park for tourists, a victim of its own success, begger's everywhere. Even so, it still feels like a city of dreams, no cars, water, beauty and art everywhere you look. And no sign of a girl in a red raincoat.

Venice in the movies
Don't Look Now
The Talented Mr Ripley (all set in Italy, with a few scenes in Venice)
Death in Venice
The Tourist (watched against my better judgement, but actually thoroughly enjoyed it.)

Venice in literature
The Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare
Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, Geoff Dyer
Venice, Jan Morris 
Death in Venice, Thomas Mann

My Flickr photos of Venice are here.

Monday, November 06, 2017

Seven days of nothing

Here's the second video I've made for Naomi Bedford and Paul Simmonds, whose new album, Songs My Ruiner Gave To Me, was released last week. I went to the launch gig at the famous Troubadour cafe in London last Thursday, and had a jolly good time. The album is my favourite of Naomi's yet, and it's already high up in the Amazon folk music chart. 

Previously on Barnflakes:
Without Joy

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Camberwell submarine

I'd of course heard of the Camberwell carrot but the Camberwell submarine was a recent discovery. Located at Akerman Road, London SW9, for a while its purpose was something of a mystery. Nuclear bunker? Brutalist monument to sailors lost during the war? It must be said, since it had its chimneys raised by four metres several years ago, it looks far more imposing and much less than a submarine. Anyway, its purpose is fairly prosaic – it houses the boiler plants for the local housing estates; something which is fairly obvious when you walk alongside it and receive blasts of hot air.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Subterranean Stockholm syndrome

I know many countries through their movies, and my main motivation for going somewhere foreign can be because of film directors. So Russia will always be Tarkovsky, in Finland there’s the one and only Aki Kaurismaki, Belgium has André Delvaux, in the Czech Republic it’s Jiří Menzel and Sweden, well, Ingmar Bergman towers over their cinema like ABBA towers over their music (with death metal a close second). There’s also Bo Widerberg and I’m a fan of Lukas Moodysson – his second feature, Together, starring Michael Nyqvist from the film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Swedish title: Men Who Hate Women), who died of lung cancer a few months ago, aged 56 – was an unalloyed joy, even if his later films can be very demanding and explicit – close-up scenes of vaginal reconstruction surgery, anyone? Nevertheless, I applaud him pushing the boundaries of cinema as Swedish filmmakers have done ever since Vilgot Sjöman’s scandalous I Am Curious (Yellow) in 1967. Special note to Let The Right One In (filmed in the Stockholm suburb of Blackeberg), one of the most original vampire films ever.

Culturally, Sweden has changed since the 1970s. Back then, there was Bergman, ABBA and Swedish au pair blue movies. Now it’s IKEA, meatballs and crime novels.

We didn’t get around to watching Blade Runner 2049 in Stockholm, as we’d planned to do, but luckily we made our own entertainment in the Stockholm metro, where many of the stations look like sci-fi film sets. Commonly referred to as the longest underground art gallery in the world, out of 100 stations, 90 of them are adorned with some form of artwork, be it installations, paintings, sculptures, tiles or mosaics (amazingly, scenes of the subway in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo make it look like the epitome of urban squalor – it’s anything but). So with only 72 hours in Stockholm (perfect for a 3 day travelcard which gives unlimited travel on the metro, bus, tram and boats to nearby islands), and rain set in for the whole weekend, we set about exploring art in the subway.

I’d arrived on the Friday with a tease of sun; the coach from the airport passing red wooden farm houses and beautiful autumnal trees all golden yellows and reds. Then a cloud the size of the sky passed over and that was it – until leaving Monday lunchtime with another tease of sun, and most amazing of all, on the coach back to the airport I saw, over a stretch of water between two islands, perhaps the biggest, clearest rainbow I’d ever seen in my life. I looked around; everyone was on their phones. I almost shouted out ‘Look!’ but you know what? Their loss.

Things happen when one travels. Not necessarily big, life changing things, but surprising, unexpected things, which could (but tend not to) happen at home. I met my brother Daniel at a coffee shop in the bus terminal. I had my first taste of ordering a £4.50 cup of coffee. We were sitting chatting when a nearby customer’s bottle of fruit juice exploded. She was sitting with her friend at the window. The deep red juice went everywhere – all down the window, on the table, on their clothes. They were dumbstruck. They sat there stunned for five minutes before even attempting to clear it up. I quipped to them that it looked like a bloody murder scene or work of art. Not sure they understood. I then had to use the toilet. No toilet in the cafe, so went out into the concourse and upstairs. It was about £1 to use the toilet. I had no currency on me, I told the assistant. That’s okay, he said, use the chip and pin reader. For a toilet! Once in the unisex toilets – toilets everywhere are unisex; and there usually being only one (if at all) in cafes, results in large queues – I had to wait for a free cubicle. Once inside, I noticed someone had left their phone and wallet, so had to dash outside and find the person who left it. Anyway, as I say, small things.

Daniel’s bike is in a huge cardboard box, which we – i.e. he – has to carry to our Airbnb in the suburbs. This involves Daniel pushing it along the platforms of the metro, inviting many stares. What, has no one seen a tall, wild man in shorts and unkempt beard pushing a huge box before? Then catching a train, then a bus (and missing our stop as we were chatting), then carrying the box through an estate to our flat in Bredäng, about 5km south west of central Stockholm.

Not only did we score a cheap room but got to explore an area which no tourist would go to – this is the magic of Airbnb. Bredäng is a relatively poor area with large council estates. 60% of the population are immigrants, including a lot of Turkish, and mentally disturbed; full of, as Daniel dubbed it, "special people and kebabs".

Let it be known at this point that I did virtually no map reading (though I had done some research, a first for me and even bought a secondhand guidebook, though I never actually opened it); having Daniel with me meant I was never lost. He uses offline maps on his phone and knows where he is all the time, wherever he is in the world. I usually just followed.

I had a list of things to see and do but had a feeling Daniel wouldn't do most of them. There was Gamla Stan, the old quarter, with its pretty houses and cobblestones ("cobblestones are for tourists" he said); there was City Hall, the Nobel Museum, the Fotografiska museum, the Vasa museum, and probably a bunch of other museums and buildings. "All boring" Daniel would say (though amazingly I did manage to get him into the art nouveau Engelbrekakyrkan church, chiseled out of rock, and the large rotunda that is the Swedish National Library). And costing about £20 to get in. The only museum we did go to was Moderna Museet, the modern art museum. Free admission, but they managed to sting us on the coffee and cake in the cafe.

With coffee and cake – referred to as fika, a part of every Swede's day – costing £10, I always knew food was going to be a problem, especially with Daniel being a vegetarian and eating twice as much as anyone else. I never even saw any meatballs, pickled herring, reindeer, or smörgåsbords – it was all pizza, pasta, falafel and fika for us. We popped into the "third best coffee shop in the world" but didn't fancy their cakes. A lot of coffee shops are cashless (though not contactless). Having hot milk in your coffee seems to double the price.

We spent a lot of time wondering the city, trying to find either a toilet or a place to eat more substantial than a £10 sandwich. It's a beautiful city surrounded by water and consisting of 14 islands; clean, no litter, not much graffiti. Friendly people. With a population of less than a million (though being one of the fastest-growing regions in Europe, this figure is expected to more than double by 2024), the city never feels crowded; the long tunnels of the Metro look eerily empty. We jaywalked all the time, as everyone would in London (we're in a rush to get our lattes!), but people here wait patiently at the lights for the green man, even when there's no traffic.

Saturday night, 9pm in the trendy Södermalm district. The vegetarian restaurant Daniel wanted to go to was shut. All restaurants in Stockholm close at nine on a Saturday, we were informed. We trudged around in the rain until we found a poncy pasta place that was open. Vapiano was high concept: with no waiters, instead you're given a card that you swipe at the different counters – salad, main course, bar – whilst your food is prepared in front of you. Well, first of all they had no risotto. Then no spaghetti. Then no cucumbers for the salad. Then my card didn't work, in fact my next four cards didn't work. We eventually got a main course each, salads, bread and a beer. After eating, I popped out for a smoke. There was no one at the till at the exit when I left. Daniel came out five minutes later, saying "Let's walk fast". He'd paid for his meal on his card but nothing else (all my cards had been taken away). The service had been terrible so I wasn't hugely bothered, but all the way back I was paranoid we were being followed or tracked (I'd carelessly used wifi in the restaurant).

We'd had fun spending most of the weekend on the metro stations; looking around about twenty, photographing about ten. At some of the most popular stations – T-Centralen, Solna Centrum, Kungsträdgården, Stadion, Tensta – we ran into the same folk photographing them several times. One was a young Swede with a camera and tripod, who kindly marked on our map the best ones to go to; another was two young Chinese women, studying in Sweden, who wrote us a list of the best ones and taught us some Swedish and Chinese.

Then suddenly it was time for me to go; Daniel stayed another day before heading back to NZ. By chance, we did pass by the bank (though now a hotel) where the Stockholm syndrome got its name from; as well a plaque designating the place where former PM Olof Palme was shot dead. I mainly agree with my brother: touristy things are boring. Even the sight of a selfie stick had him walking in the opposite direction.

Funny how once you've been somewhere you suddenly notice it everywhere in the news: Swedish model Arvida Byström has received rape threats for her hairy legs... Swedish journalist Kim Wall beheaded in a submarine... Women-only music festival in summer 2018 in Sweden after spate of sexual attacks... Radioactive wild boar spark concerns in Sweden 31 years after Chernobyl [the seemingly random Chernobyl reference is because a cloud of radioactive dust spread over Sweden after the disaster]... Nobel prizes for literature [just a day after this announcement there's a large screen in our local library advertising the books of Kazuo Ishiguro – only in Stockholm!] and economics awarded.

Previously on Barnflakes:
White Clouds, Dark Skins
Lookalikes #23: Ingmar and Ingrid Bergman
City Syndromes 

My Flickr photos
Daniel's Flickr photos

Thursday, September 14, 2017

London through its charity shops #35: Swiss Cottage NW3, NW6 & NW8

No, I didn't go all the way to north London for charity shops! What am I – crazy/too much time on my hands/sad (delete as applicable)? No, I went for the brutalist, Grade II listed Alexandra Road council estate of course (picture above). Then, naturally, decided to do the charity shops. And along the long curve of Finchley Road from the tube station they go.

First up is a British Heart Foundation, with a fine range of women's clothes and shoes; lots of records, books and CDs. Next is a Shelter 'boutique'; mainly new, designer goods – not my thing at all. Octavia is pleasantly spacious. John's Hospice is an old-fashioned charity shop, with the pleasant, quiet and concentrated rustling of books and clothes going on. Books were stacked precariously high and there was a fine collection of religious figures going for a song.
Just one more charity shop, past Finchley Road tube station on the other side of the road, All Aboard had long rows of clothes, like TK Maxx. Other than that, some books, DVDs and CDs.

Also in the area, the Freud museum, the home where the psychoanalyst lived until his death. One can see his study and 'iconic' couch there. For £8. No barngains today.

Previously on Barnflakes:
London through its charity shops

Saturday, September 02, 2017

My daughter's top ten films (aged 11)

1. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Francis Lawrence, 2013)
2. The Hunger Games (George Ross, 2012)
3. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1
(Francis Lawrence, 2014)
4. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2
(Francis Lawrence, 2015)
5. Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
(Tim Burton, 2016)
6. Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977)
7. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (David Yates, 2009)
8. Beauty and the Beast (Bill Condon, 2017)
9. Despicable Me 2 (Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud, 2013)
10. Footloose (Herbert Ross, 1984)

Previously on Barnflakes:

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The month's musical barngains

Top to bottom: Scientist – Dub Landing (CD); King Crimson – In the Court of King Crimson (LP); Thelonius Monk – Monk's Music (LP); Thelonius Monk –Straight, No Chaser (CD); Moondog – Moondog (mp3); Thundercat – Drunk (mp3); Fela and Afrika 70 – Zombie (LP).