Thomthumb84's Blog

Book Review: NEVERWHERE by Neil Gaiman

Posted in Book Review by thomthumb84 on January 9, 2011

There is a point towards the end of Neverwhere in which Richard, our hero, produces the rather hackneyed question: ‘Do you ever wonder if this is all there is?’ Despite its constant use in all kinds of media it is, of course, an important question – not because of the answer but because of what the question itself implies. It speaks volumes: regret; resignation; despair;  boredom – all this fact from one question. And often the reply is not even necessary. But in Neverwhere this is what Neil Gaiman gives us. And, he tells us, that not only is there more – but it is actually all around us. Everyday we are passing it on the street. It is only our own limited conceptions and preoccupations that limit our access to them. Gaiman takes us on a sort of travelogue through an alternative London, London Below – an Alice in Wonderland world of contradictions incorporating characteristics from our own London. Common London locations begin to take on new meanings: Blackfriars literally refers to an order of Black monks; Knightsbridge becomes a bridge constantly enclosed in darkness; and Earls Court.. yeah, you got it. It follows the adventures of the intrepid Richard, very much an Alice character, through this world as he tries to get back to his own, involving all manner of weird adventures on the way.  And it is compelling. The concept is sound. So why does it not quite make the grade then?

For a start, rather sadly, the world feels incomplete. On one level I have tried to convince myself that this is a brief venture into another world and we are merely coming along on a very brief tour. We are only glimpsing this environment in the same way that those on a London tourist bus will see the Tower of London but most likely never even hear of Hounslow. This is a whirlwind trip. In fact, at one point our hero makes the concious decision not to think too hard about this world but rather let it wash over him. Is this a suggestion from Gaiman to the reader as well. But then it is not the limited number of experiences and sights along the route, but rather the quality of their description. It feels rushed – lacking the necessary texture required to really envelope you in the environment and its people. And that is a real shame. One thinks, for instance, of one scene involving a labyrinth constructed from a disjointed collection of past and future Londons that shelter an enormous Boar the size of a bull. The concept is there. And yet it just fails on delivery. Give me the smells, the sounds, that eerie dislocation. But it just isn’t there.

One can certainly make comparisons with Terry Prattchett, creator of the brilliant Discworld and co-author of Good Omens (Gaiman’s first published book). The style is similar. For instance, there is a heavy dose of well timed irreverence within the narrative designed to entertain while not segueing too heavily from the fundamental story. However, this can be problematic. While Practchett is certainly original he is frequently parodying other fantasy worlds from books and film – Tolkein’s Gandalf is Pratchett’s Rincewind and Schwarzenegger’s Cohen is  turned into a 90 year old arthritic warrior with no teeth. But Gaiman has created a whole new and original world. there is no need for parody. Irreverent designs towards our Richard are good. They engage us with this character’s alienated and confused situation. But it frequently feels as though those characters we are seeking to learn more about have turned into cartoonish variations of themselves – like the environments they lack substance.

This unfortunately slapdash approach also becomes obvious in one of the most potentially rewarding concepts of the novel. Gaiman figures from London Below are those who have ‘slipped through the cracks’ of London Above. By this, we are left to understand, he is referring to those on the streets who are seldom recognised or considered for more than a second – the tramps, buskers, runaways, and so on. Almost through osmosis these forgotten or discarded figures become almost invisible – as does Richard – to those in London Above. and it is here that we see these two world interconnecting. All that is needed, Gaiman implies, is the ability to re-evaluate our perceptions on the street. While glancing throughan interesting essay the other day by a very learned friend I was interested in some ideas put forward by Simmel, the major German sociologist and philosopher, which argued argued that through over-exposure, or an over intensification of stimuli, we have become blasé towards our environment. Stories such as Gaiman’s encourage us to move beyond this and engage with our environment once again. But it feels heavy handed – a touch too close for it to slowly meld into the understanding of the reader. Rather, Gaiman punches the reader in the face and ends up sounding preachy. Instead of a call to reevaluate our surroundings it comes across as a push to romanticise the conditions of the conditions of these people. This is false and, I feel, slightly patronising.

The overall sloppiness of the narrative does find some redemption within Gaiman’s obvious ability to conjure this world into being – much in the same way that the Harry Potter books are largely uninspiring in their narrative but rich in otherworldly oppurtuity for the imagination of the reader. But I’m left wondering who this book was written for. At times it reads like a novel for that oh-so-over-categorised ‘young adult’ audience – those slightly gothy teens dealing with the regular angst of an inconsequential future – again that ‘this is all there is?’ question. But then the plot itselfdoes not run to template. This has not been quickly thrown together for a twilight type audience and shares far more with Gaiman’s excellent Sandman style – characters die unexpectantly and some aspects can be pretty heavy going. One long chapter, for instance, sees Richards becoming deeply introspective as he questions his sanity and considers suicide. If it is meant for an older audience then, as I have said, it lacks the necessary depth and presence. It is, in itself, sitting in its own limbo world. But, once again, I feel I am being too harsh here. As a Londoner myself (and as one who frequently asks that oh too familiar question) I liked being able to feel on the edge of that world through the familiarity of the names and the identification of the streets themselves. The day after I finished the book I was actually walking down Oxford Street when I saw a bus heading to Islington Angel, I imagined the bus travelling through the world to visit a character of said name within London Below and smiled to myself. For a second I had convinced myself there was something more and I looked at the world slightly differently.


Exposed Exhibition – Art Review

Posted in Art by thomthumb84 on September 1, 2010

After much procrastination I finally made it to the Exposed Exhibition at the Tate Modern this weekend and was pleasantly surprised. It think it’s the first exhibition I’ve been to at the gallery with such an emphasis on photography and while I normally think it has its place as an art form there is a part of me that considers photography a slightly minor form of artistic expression compared to other mediums.

To hang them in a gallery so recognised for its internationally renowned sculpture and painting did leave me sceptical. While, of course, there is some room for the abstract in photography I find that, on the whole, it is used as a means of recording events as opposed to expressing one’s self.

And, yes, I certainly have a lot of room for the use of film as an art form but then the flexibility of film means that more can be done. Photography is static – film can push life into an object and this brings a new edge to the forms of expression available.

But to be honest I don’t why I got into all of that because I loved this exhibition. The theme was vague enough to provide the possibility for a number of issues to be examined but the sections managed to provide a clear enough line between each other to give the impression that this was part of a greater whole. With this in mind I think the best way of looking at this is by going from section to section:

The Unseen Photographer: “The first section of the exhibition considers ways in which photography can reveal the world unawares and show people caught with their guard down. This idea begins with the technologies that have allowed images to be made surreptitiously, from nineteenth-century cameras hidden in walking sticks, shoes or inside suit-jackets, to twentieth-century devices such as the lateral view-finder which allows the photographer to apparently face one direction while taking a picture in another.” (Tate website blurb)

Now you see this is what I am talking about when I refer to photography being a means by which to record a moment. What is unique about these pictures, though, is the fact that we are being presented with a certain honesty that is seldom seen in other photography from this period. The clandestine means by which the photos are taken means that we are seeing images that move beyond the stifling conformity of portrait pictures of the time, such as Walker Evan’s Subway Passengers.

But it also means that we can view visual evidence of those sides of society so frequently glossed over such the working conditions of children in cotton factories. In this sense they almost feel like a visual take on works by Orwell like Down and Out in Paris and London or Road to Wigan Pier. But there is something about the visual that brings these things home.

While you can hear about the conditions in mines, or children being forced to work in factories, or the living conditions of the lower classes, there is nothing like a true picture – actual proof that these things actually happened. In this it is a great success.

Celebrity & the Public Gaze: “The notion of celebrity as we know it today is inseparable from the invention of photography. By the 1860s, photographic studio portraits allowed notable figures to become instantly recognisable to the public. However, this period of controlled self-publicity was short-lived. Smaller, more portable cameras allowed for covert picture-taking during private moments, and faster shutter speeds opened up opportunities for capturing subjects off-guard. Whilst some famous figures have manipulated the medium to their advantage, the infringement of privacy represented by such photographs remains controversial.” (Tate website blurb)

Considering the continuing interest in this area it was inevitable that this would come up. I have to admit I find the whole thing a bit ‘done’ now. Yes, we appreciate that as a society we have an aggressive desire to look into the world of celebrities – that we feel some possession of them once they enter the public realm – that celebrities have become a consumable object, etc etc.

But stop now. If anything it annoys me because it intellectualises the paparazzi. It seems to legitimise them as purveyors of a necessary public service, which they are not. This is not to say I am any better. As I was saying above I like to get another perspective on events and times. Photos of those who play key roles in our cultural heritage are therefore compelling – even if it is only Degas leaving a bog or Jackie Kennedy having a swim.

The pictures by Alison Jackson do annoy me, however, as I really see them as a bit of light hearted ‘faddy’ entertainment. It feels a bit like Banksy – it entertains but says very little even if it has pretensions to do so. And these were not even some of the best I have seen by her. Not impressed.

Voyeurism & Desire: “Sexual or erotic images have been made throughout the history of photography. This section includes photographs that gaze openly at willing subjects as well as those depicting illicit and intimate acts made without the knowledge or permission of their subjects. Many of these images seem to position the viewer in the role of a ‘peeping tom’. At the same time, they pose difficult questions about who was looking and why, when the picture was made, and whether we should collude with, or reject, this point of view.” (Tate website blurb)

Now we are getting somewhere! This was great stuff. Cammie Toloui’s photos of strippers in the struck a chord – the way in which the women were viewed by the men alienated them in an interesting way. As my girlfriend said “They looked at them like they were animals in a zoo.”.

What is interesting here is the fact that the men watching react in the same fashion – does their viewing of the women in this way –through the significant factor of majority numbers and concentrated perspective – transform that woman into what they believe she is. Does her own opinion of herself in this role transform her into it?

Merry Alpern’s pictures through the window of a brothel in New York are interesting. These kinds of fly on the wall shots are compelling because you can feel that you have participated without getting dirty yourself. Of course, this comes back to the larger issue of voyeurism but its interesting because you know that you would not want to participate anyway. By placing the pictures in front of you it is forcing you to participate. It reminds me of Rear Window where he is forced into participation and action by the view in front of him.

And then there were Kohei Yoshiyuki’s ‘Park’ pictures. These are so odd I think it is worth having the Tate’s description here: “When first shown in 1979 at the Komai Gallery, Tokyo, Kohei Yoshiyuki’s series of photographs titled The Park were visible only by flashlight, as each visitor shone a torch over the pictures. As a young commercial photographer, Yoshiyuki uncovered a nocturnal phenomenon of Japanese park life. Whilst walking in Chuo Park in Shinjuku one night with a colleague, he noticed a couple on the ground, and then a number of men creeping towards them.  The men were trying to get close enough to touch the bodies on the ground without being noticed. Yoshiyuki participated in the voyeuristic ‘sport’ for several months before he started to document it using his 35mm camera and an infrared flash bulb. “To photograph the voyeurs, I needed to be considered one of them”, he has said. “I behaved like I had the same interest as the voyeurs, but I was equipped with a small camera. My intention was to capture what happened in the parks, so I was not a real ‘voyeur’ like them. But I think, in a way, the act of taking photographs itself is voyeuristic somehow. So I may be a voyeur, because I am a photographer.”” (Tate website blurb)

Yes, indeedy. Talk about voyeuristic! And isn’t it interesting how the line between the photographer and other participants is blurred? And again, as with the New York brothel pictures there is this general feeling of being forced into this environment. You are being properly exposed to this situation –as though you were there – whether you want it or not. Really great stuff.

For me the absolute highlight of the show was ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’. I am a sucker for intimate pictures of stranger’s friends and family at the best of times – something I do rather too frequently on Facebook (interesting thing that wasn’t looked into I think…). I like examining their expressions and body language (do you think he really loves her? Is he really looking at that girl in the corner? Etc) – but here we are really invited into this very strange and (might I say it?) rather hip New York life. We crash their parties and watch them fucking. Birth-life-death. It’s all there for our scrutiny and for me that is the ultimate thrill.

Witnessing Violence: “Photographs of violence produce paradoxical responses. On the one hand, the acknowledgement of the crime and confrontation with its gruesome effects is an admittance of the need for social improvement; on the other, repeated confrontation with such images may simply numb us to their shocking effects. Does photography allow us to bear witness to a victim’s suffering, or does it anaesthetize us to the horror?” (Tate website blurb)

I remember when I first saw one of Warhol’s prints of the electric chair and others of police dogs being used and maybe a car crash? It was strange because it presented you with the moment of post-violence, or the object of potential violence, outside of its larger context through the use of different colours. I always found those pictures very attractive because they altered my understanding of the original picture – it forced me to look at it from a different perspective.

Here, we have pictures that (again) are more a documents of the event rather than the artist’s own expression of the event in question. In a certain sense this left me cold. Everyday we are exposed to newspaper pictures of extreme violence. Why, then, should we show shock at a picture of a man or a woman jumping to their death? I am sure most people from 15 onwards have seen worse in movies or on the news. The most chilling point comes with the descritions by the side of the pictures for it is here that the story lies and your heart breaks. I have to say I really failed to get this.

Surveillance: “Derived from the French word ‘surveiller’, meaning ‘to keep watch’ or ‘to watch over’, the surveillance camera has been used to police borders, to assist war-time reconnaissance, to gain advantage over political enemies or simply to gather information. Techniques of surveillance are closely linked to developments in photographic technology – from the earliest aerial photographs to satellite pictures. In the twenty-first century, cameras on street corners, in shops and public buildings silently record our every move, while web-based tools such as Google Earth adapt satellite technology to ensure that there is no escape from the camera’s all-seeing eye.” (Tate website blurb)

Some very interesting stuff indeed. I liked the narrative structures of Sophie Calle’s work as she hired someone to follow her or took diary entries after poking around in people’s hotel rooms as a chambermaid. The same is true of Emily Jacir’s webcam pictures, which act as a sort of diary of her time in the main square in Linz. In terms of looking at them through the context of surveillance I understand that the point is that they are using surveillance to observe themselves – bending the whole thing around – and that certainly appeals.

While I liked the idea behind Shizuka Yokomizo’s stranger pictures I don’t really feel as thought I got much out of them. I can’t really explain why but it just felt a touch stifled – the discomfort between model and photographer was there but with no real intensity. They knew, after all, that they were being photographed. My girlfriend also pointed out the fact that while Yokomizo writes letters to the models instructing them to close their curtains if they don’t want to be photographed – why the fuck should I have to? I would much prefer that you didn’t come onto my property with your camera at all thank you. You will not force me to close my curtains!

Hmmmm….. I hate finishing on exclamation marks… Well it had its ups and down but I think on the whole this was a good one and well worth seeing – if only for ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’ on its own.

Notting Hill Carnival

Posted in Comment by thomthumb84 on September 1, 2010

So, like the death rattle of summer, Nottinghill Carnival has come and gone once again. Nothing to look forward to now except a birthday, a wedding, and Christmas, and then the whole sorry route of existence continues again and again, until the end of times. Sigh….

Still, no need to feel glum! It was a good one I thought. The last two years I have only ventured into the throng on the Monday and I think this has worked to my advantage. Two days sound like a bit too much for someone with my disposition for near-death hangovers, combined with crowds and loud music.

Fortunately, my lovely and most wonderful girlfriend has a flat on Portobello Road so we tend to head there on Saturday evening after stocking up on food and booze and watch the people below before settling in with a good movie and a bottle of wine. Refreshed the next morning we hit the streets bright eyed and bushy tailed. This year I also got round to bringing a disposable camera along with me and will try and put those pics up sometime soon.

punters bring their own buckets to get the best view

But lets start with some statistics gathered by the highly capable crew at the BBC. They reported:

264 arrests by the Police and British Transport Police for a variety of offences over the two days of the carnival. This included: 40 arrests for cannabis possession.; 19 arrests for possession of Class As; 26 arrests for public order offences

3 kilograms of cannabis seized in one go from two cars heading to the carnival.

189 carnival casualties on Monday.

5 tonnes of chicken consumed.

25,000 bottles of rum drained.

16,000 tracks played at 41 different sound systems located within the carnival area.

Boris' innovative fence/urinal scheme hits the streets

Not bad huh? The 40 arrests for cannabis possession surprises me. How the hell do you get arrested for weed possession at Nottinghill Carnvial? It’s a bit like getting arrested for drunken behaviour at Oktoberfest. And I don’t quite get the run statistic either. Why rum? Yes, I appreciate the Caribbean influence, but the majority of people I saw had cans of Red Stripe or Carlsberg in hand. Might a PR savvy rum company have generated this statistic by any chance?

We had a superb time but, as is so often the case, missed the majority of actual carnival floats in exchange for the massed side streets. I’m not normally a crowd sort of person but I love the general feel here with everyone in good spirits and slightly liquored up. It feels welcoming and communal in a city where normally looking at someone else’s newspaper on the tube can get you a fat lip.

What we did see of the carnival floats and parade looked good although I was slightly confused to see one display showing (and correct me if I’m wrong here) Bob Marley, Ghandi, Michelle Obama and husband, Michael Jackson, and er…. Marilyn Monroe.

Lovely lunch in the green. Last year we watched the reggae reggae sauce fella doing his stuff on a stage but there was no reggae reggae sauce man this year. And no stage. We did watch one enterprising guy making a lot of money from naive young things. He had a whole helium setup going on and was charging punters per balloon. They would then scamper of to suck the thing dry in a vain attempt to get high before scampering abck for second helpings.

The only bit of violence we saw was along All Saints Road – exactly where we saw it last year as well. It’s also the only street police seem to avoid. That needs to be sorted out. I’m still not totally sure what happened but this guys face was all fucked up. He was covered in blood and couldn’t stand properly.
As always the propensity for the whole thing to kick off was in the air but despite one of two rather pissed off shouty people the whole thing ended quickly and the guy in question was sent off to some St Johns guys.

And while I am at it – well done you St Johns people! It’s got to be a shitty job hanging round while everyone else is having fun, particularly when (as I saw on quite a few occasions) all you get is abuse from the drunk people your trying to help out.

One unfortunate fella after a close encounter on All Saints Road

I didn’t make it to Gaz’s Rockin’ Blues but you can’t have everything. However, I hear there was ancient pre-ska Jamaican tunes being played so will defintely, defintely have to make it there next year.

All in all a lovely day. Just a shame its over really. Feels like a birthday when you wait all year, get all excited, and then just like that its gone and you are just a year older. Sigh..

Daily Web Wander: 25th August 2010

Posted in Daily Web Wander by thomthumb84 on August 25, 2010
The Jimi Hendrix Experience performs for Dutch...

Image via Wikipedia

In an effort to contribute at least something to this blog on a daily basis (and without an awful lot of creative energy flowing through me) I thought I would begin putting down a list of some websites that I have been checking out that might interest or entertain you. ENJOY!

Wallace & Co restaurant review in The Guardian – “The cooking at Gregg Wallace‘s debut as a restaurateur wouldn’t make it even to the first round of Masterchef”:

Simon Heffer‘s style notes in The Telegraph– Blog of emails sent to Telegraph reporters bitching about pedantic crap. Invaluable lesson for wannbe journalists such myself. Has only done one recently but hopefully more will come up again soon!:

BT Ad Banned Over Broadband Speed Claims: I have always loved those mini-dramas in adverts like the old Nescafe adverts with Antony Head and Sharon Maughn or the old ‘Papa! Nicole!” Renault Clio adverts. The BT storyline is brilliant and has done its job getting press coverage recently as this proves:
A bit less brilliant when BT mash the figures up a bit though:

The Edge of Violence, A Radical approach to extremism – A really interesting paper from the Demos think tank that tries to discern the difference between violent and non-violent radicals:

Jimi Hendrix‘s London flat opened to the public in The Telegraph:

The animals that pass through Heathrow in The FT:

A picture a day keeps the tyrants away from New Statesman – “From Hogarth and Gillray through Vicky and Jak to Steve Bell, Fluck and Law, cartooning has served as a vital corrective to political posturing. Now, it is rediscovering its old power as a red rag to despots”:

Dogs: face to face with my worst enemy in The Guardian – Many Muslims, growing up in devout households, are taught that dogs are dirty and scary. So could Sarfraz Manzoor learn to love Cookie the bulldog?:

Homeless people give an alternative guide to London in The Guardian – Homeless tour guides have been signed up to give visitors to the capital an alternative view of London’s landmarks (Plus I learnt the word ‘squally’):