Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Wider Reading | Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon's 'The Trip'

For a while I was getting a little uneasy about The Trip. We seemed to be falling into something akin to a formula, though a bittersweet and gently entertaining one:

"Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan have lunch. Rob Brydon does impressions; Steve Coogan competes with him. At a given point, Steve Coogan decides he’s above all of this and starts to sneer instead. Rob Brydon makes some hints at the fact that Steve Coogan is washed-up and disreputable in the eyes of the tabloids. All of this is intercut with shots of food preparation, and the pair make some quietly humorous remarks about their meal and their wine. Afterwards, Steve Coogan has a broody moment of contemplation against the beautiful, snow-coated countryside, considering the fickle nature of fame, and we rush to our computers to watch that Michael Caine bit again on Youtube."

I mean, of course it’s a series about people stuck in patterns of behaviour. But...well...couldn’t it be something a little more interesting than a Northern Sideways with a little I’m Still Here cut in?

So I was hugely relieved when, halfway through the third episode, Brydon asked,

“Do you think we’re just going to have the same conversation every lunch?”

And Coogan admitted that, yes, they probably would, and he went on to outline the specific structure that ran through every meal.

Since ever that moment – thankfully – Winterbottom and co. have found ways to raise the tension between the two leads and spin variations on the repeating pattern (like in episode four, when the boys tried out the impressions they’d been perfecting on the two women who’d come up to photograph Steve) and, most memorably of all, last night’s shocking, petulant outburst from Steve, snarling that he’d have been brilliant if he'd got to play David Frost in Frost/Nixon – but did not have the courage, for the first time in the entire series, to show off his impression.

Looking back, I think the intense repetition’s been a worthy tragic-comic experiment, though I do fear that on a second watch a number of scenes, to paraphrase Alan Partridge’s words, may turn out to “revolve without evolving”, like the bit in the car when they’re doing posh voices, or Steve’s constant fear that people will think he’s gay for hanging out with Rob Brydon, which doesn’t seem to go anywhere or make a great deal of sense. (I wouldn’t mind being belaboured a little less with the Don Quixote metaphor, either). But it is worth it for those echo-scenes that do work – Brydon playing out the same joking, loving (yet, somehow, slightly apart) ritual with his wife over the phone every night, Coogan waking to see another beautiful foreign woman slip out of his bedroom, and Steve staring into the mirror and repeating those tragic, remarkably serendipitous words of real-life Brydon,

“I’m a small man trapped in a box.”

Monday, 29 November 2010

Sideways | Introduction | The Importance of Being Sideways

SIR – Perhaps the penalty shoot-out should be taken before the match. This might help eliminate some of the negative tactics adopted by teams, particularly when the match goes into extra-time. The onus would be on the team that lost the shoot-out to be more attack-minded. The longer the match went on without them leading, the more open it would become.
Neil Hoad

(A letter from the Daily Telegraph’s correspondence pages)

Our heads are round to allow our thoughts to change direction.”
Francis Picabia, Dadaist

Let us on occasion, talk sideways, neologisms and debate definitions. Walk sideways, avoid traffic and find us in unusual alleyways. Shave sideways so our body-whiskers grow out un-habitually and experience the world around them differently. Think quite entirely sideways, for at that inexact and unlikely angle there can be a defeat of habit. You can start by thinking out of the corner of your brain.

Harringman James
Inkworms Silk

Quote | Mini Essay | Novelty, by Sarah Fraser

It is not only old and early impressions that deceive us; the charms of novelty have the same power
Balise Pascal (1632-1662)

Novelty is an old-fashioned and worthless concept used by tricksters and charlatans to defraud the public. No thing is new and nothing surprises the all knowing unconscious.
The feeling of novelty, of freshness and difference, comes because we are reminded of what we have forgotten. Our experiential filters grow tighter with age, at once deepening our understanding yet also limiting the breadth of our senses. The baby is born with the equipment and ability to speak all languages. Nothing is novel to the baby. Within minutes we begin the lifelong process of adapting to our predominant culture. When the adult English speaker tries to learn Xhosa they are convinced this African tribe has a tongue and palate designed to form the distinctive clicks and tones. The English baby has been forced to unlearn what is possible and be constrained to a societal norm.

We need to know what is normal, yet we desire novelty, that which is different, perhaps outside the norm, something abnormal. The paradox is we want the comfort of what we think we know, yet also the experience of what we think is new. 

To be sold a novelty is to be tricked into the purchase or belief in something worthless or trivial. The holiday novelty, the snowdust globe of the Eiffel Tower on the windowsill in the office, serves as a reminder of a sensual event. We’ve been tricked into allowing the memory of touch and smell, and taste and sound, to be replaced by a toy.

The novelist is also a conscious manipulator of a submissive reader. The seduction and promise of the imagination, where any combination of character and plot can be twisted and presented as new, leads readers to believe in what is not real.

The designer, the author and the painter, in their quest to produce something novel, elevate themselves onto a moral pedestal. The pursuit of novelty is the pursuit of power. The politician knows how to place a constraint, a rule, an edict of legislation on the population, and then, in a generous gesture, remove this so the unwitting receivers perceive something new, different and perhaps better.

Novelty without conscience is immoral. To be novel is to scam. Every hoax preys on what has been forgotten.  Novelty, true novelty, is the sleight of hand of the trickster.

By Sarah Fraser

Wider Reading | Why Everyone's Talking About Wagner

He seems to be everywhere at the moment. Facebook updates from excited people saying how much they love Wagner or how much they hate Wagner; how fond they are of his music or how untalented he is. Groups devoted to him and so on.

I must say, I’m delighted; but also astonished. For why should the nationalistic German composer have suddenly found such an audience for his work? And why, particularly, amongst the young?

This man came up when I Googled 'Wagner'. But it's ok; I don't think he's the sort of person anyone in their right mind would give a shit about.

Part of me would like to think that it’s simply a new generation accepting the great artist for his music – finally, now that enough time has passed, being able to appreciate his work in spite of his appalling anti-semitic views. But I’m afraid I really don’t think that’s the case. Rather, the current media obsession with Wagner is a clear reflection of the current political climate and, in particular, the cracks that are showing in the notion of idealistic patriotism, the collapse of the grandeur and ‘highness’ of thought that exists in the composer’s work – the realisation that all politicians are, in their own way, Alberichs.

I’m referring, of course, to the latest glut of Wikileaks leaks. When I saw the self-righteous, belligerent responses from American politicians, claiming that exposing their illegal activities in the UN counted as a “terrorist attack” or an act of war, I was instantly reminded – and who wouldn’t be? – of Wagner’s assertion, in ‘Religion and Art’, that

“From its first faint glimmerings, History shews Man's constant progress as a beast of prey. As such he conquers every land, subdues the fruit-fed races, founds mighty realms by subjugating other subjugators, forms states and sets up civilisations, to enjoy his prey at rest.”

Many commentators have argued that these new leaks tell us little that we weren’t already aware of; the Russian government has links to organised crime, Saudi Arabia is troubled by Iran, Prince Andrew is mouthy and has a pretty good idea how a bribe works. True, but that isn’t the point – the monstrous, previously comfortably settled political Man Wagner speaks of has got a bit of a nasty jolt; it’s become entirely plausible that the Internet may give birth to virtual powers that can affect ‘real’ world powers, even be able to hold them accountable for their actions through public opinion. The significance of that shouldn’t be understated. When Hillary Clinton says that the leaks upset the fabric of responsible government, she really means that they upset the veneer of responsible government.

Now this is Wagner.

It is revealing that some of the US politicians chose to view Wikileaks as if it were a country in its own right. It’s equally revealing that Silvio Berlusconi is said to have laughed at the revelations about him; this is a man, after all, who’s had his disease-ridden underbelly exposed times beyond counting, and who hasn’t been toppled yet. He knows that scandals are easier to ride out when they’re made into a joke; the Americans, however, do not seem to share his sense of humour. I can’t help but be reminded of Sarah Palin, just last week, complaining about Michelle Obama as someone who didn’t love her country unconditionally – saying, in so many words, that a US citizen should love the US no matter what the US does.

Alberich, we may recall, is able to do great harm in the Ring Cycle once he is invisible – once nobody is capable of passing judgement on him. He also, notably, responds to his mockery at the hands of the Ringmaidens by falling into a terrible rage and trying to attack them. It doesn’t end well for him. And the gods don’t come out of the whole thing too well, either, their divinity shattered; their lust for power revealed to all.

Let Wagner, then, become the symbol of anti-patriotism; of conditional love for one’s country dependent upon the actions of one’s country. Of freedom of speech, regardless of ‘national interest’. When we hear ‘Ride of the Valkyries’, let’s see those helicopters once again. And let’s be glad that, in such a critical political time, our young people are obsessing about a man named Wagner.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Wider Reading | Small Business Saturday

Today is the first ever 'Small Business Saturday' - a social network campaign aimed at giving small business a share of the retail action that goes on between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, which surround Thanksgiving in the US.

Sponsored by American Express, 10,000 businesses have been given $100 worth of free Facebook adverting. Also, for every person that 'likes' Small Business Saturday on Facebook, American Express will donate $1 to Girls Inc. - a non profit organization which encourages young women to become entrepreneurs.  The number of likes is currently up to 1,149,424 - but with the tab on American Express, you have no excuse but to get over there and give it the thumbs up.

Also, we are small business - so why not send us some flowers?

Friday, 26 November 2010

Quote | Chapbook | Vol XXXIX, Filmography by Hannah Morley

Vol XXXIX, Filmography

Hannah Morley (26.11.10)

Introducing Hannah Morley - prose poems come short fiction included. Film-themed. Obviously.

Wider Reading | Nineteen Reasons Why, Contrary To Public Opinion, Thunderball Is The Greatest James Bond Movie

Because Tom Jones fainted as he reached the highest note of that theme song.

Because that’s a real jetpack Bond uses in the opening, and it’s really being flown by a human pilot in at least one of the shots. The equally ridiculous scene at the end in which Bond and the heroine Domino are rescued by flying on the end of a rope attached to a plane was also, apparently, a real thing.

Because it contains Sean Connery’s favourite Bond performance.

Because Austin Powers has seen fit to spoof its iconic set-pieces more times than any other. (There’s the eyepatched villain, Blofeld disposing of his henchmen through their own chairs, Bond matching wits with a baddie over a card-game, using a villainess as a human shield, holding the world to ransom for a sum of money, and pet sharks. Yeah. Take that, You Only Live Twice.)

I think the woman on the far left is supposed to be Paula, who is actually in the film as Bond's contact in Nassau. I have absolutely no idea who the other three are supposed to be.

Because it contains more one-liners, puns, and wordplay than any film ever, including Ridicule and Commando. I counted 2,998 (so that’s around 3 witticisms per every word of dialogue). The classic harpoon-impaling “I think he got the point” is obviously the most famous, but I have a special place in my heart for the following exchange:

BOND: (Spotting a mole on DOMINO’s left thigh as she climbs out of the sea) I was right; couldn’t miss.

DOMINO: (Confused) I’m not with you.

BOND: You soon will be.

Because it contains a climactic underwater battle between the CIA and Spectre agents that goes on for far, far too long and yet remains completely awesome. After about fifteen minutes, even the local sea-life decides to join in.

Because Johnny Cash was originally going to sing the theme song, and his version was fantastic (though hilariously inappropriate). And before him, Shirley Bassey, then Dionne Warwick were going to sing the theme song. Their version, ‘Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’ was equally fantastic, and slightly more appropriate.

Because the heroine is called Domino.

Because everyone spends most of the movie’s length in swimming costumes, but the pudgy villain Largo is always ingeniously kept covered up. Nice save there, movie.

Because Thunderball brazenly admits what so many other action movies try to cover up; that the basic form of the action pic is one in which the hero represents competent action and everybody else can only achieve incompetent inaction. Who is more useless – Largo, who imprisons the heroine, a highly competent swimmer, in an ordinary cabin behind an unlocked, unguarded wicker door on his yacht, a short distance out to sea from the major port of Nassau, with her hands loosely tied in front of her, or Domino, who doesn’t even make the effort to get out of this easily escapable situation? How about Felix Leiter, supposedly Bond’s opposite number, whose only role in the movie is to agree with Bond and give him slightly creepy compliments (“On you, everything looks good.” “You’re right, James.”)

Because it’s the first movie in the series to use the famous guns-and-babes artsy silhouette-montage during the opening credits.

Because it’s the first movie in the series in which the man shooting at the camera from down the gun barrel is actually the actor playing Bond (I kid you not.)

Because there’s a bit where Bond punches Leiter in the stomach for almost saying, “007”, and then says, “Sorry, Felix, but you were about to say 007” in front of the man they’re not supposed to be saying “007” in front of.

Because it contains the bizarre yet strangely epic chase music “Street Chase”, which went on to be used in many, many other Bond films.

Because it’s the only Bond film portraying every 00-agent.

Because Lazlo Katze has a marvellous character arc of redemption that goes almost completely unnoticed by the film.

Because it cannot be held responsible for Never Say Never Again.

Because it contains an entirely impossible deep-sea sex scene.

Because the Dutch version of the title translates to, “Calm Down, Mr Bond.”

Quote | Music | Nick The Stripper As Reader: the story continues

Alas, due to busy weeks and not enough sleeps I fear a few too many of my Silkworms mixtapes have concerned themselves with a rather prosaic musical-literary intersection – the literary reference slash quotation in song. And not as discriminatorily as they should have, neither. The Nick Cave tape, Nick The Stripper As Reader, is a case in point: yes, it acknowledges that there is a debate to be had about whether Cave is a mere quasi-intellectual, taking only poets’ names to stuff affectedly into his lyrics, rather than actually interrogating their work through the medium of song. But it doesn’t break down the evidence on either side of the debate – doesn’t suggest that there might be both a good Nick Cave The Musical-Literary Critic and a bad Nick Cave The Musical-Literary Critic, and therefore doesn’t take the opportunity to begin to point to the tropes that might actually define each. And, in turn, good musical-literary criticism generally. This being QUOTE week, I figured I’d do that now: take a couple handfuls of examples from the tape and argue the why, the whether and the wherefore of the goodness or badness of their readings.

Track 3, Hiding All Away / Track 9, No Pussy Blues / Track 7, There She Goes My Beautiful World

You searched through all my poets
From Sappho through to Auden
I saw the book fall from your hands
As you slowly died of boredom

‘Sappho through to Auden’ is a false canon, doesn’t make sense thematically, alphabetically, chronologically – it’s entirely motivated by a half-decent half-rhyme. To file, perhaps, alongside the rhymes in Cave’s Babe I’m On Fire: midnight stalker, Garcia Lorca, hit man, Whitman etc. Perhaps there is something to be written about this, specifically – it reminds me of Peter Blegvad’s suggestion, in the Believer interview I’ve drawn on before, that:

Rhyme is the constraint I’m most addicted to…I had no idea what I wanted to say before I lost myself in the process of composition. Until fairly recently, I regularly experienced an almost physical appetite to make music, to strum and mumble until something shapely evolved from it.

But anyway, said Hiding All Away's half-rhyme does just about justify its first half with its anarchic dismissal of 2500 years of poetry, which second-guesses a listener response along the lines of, oh dear, here he goes again, arbitrarily listing some writers he likes – via its admission of such a practice’s utter boringness. It’s a clever save but hardly a positive approach. A smarter example of a similar technique – Cave listing literature as one of many useless things, in order to sidestep flowery pretension – comes in No Pussy Blues:

I read her Eliot, I read her Yeats
I tried my best to stay up late
I fixed the hinges on her gate
But still she just never wanted to

Because here Cave isn’t just being protectively ironic and self-deprecating, he’s also being cuttingly sardonic – about the way a peripheral literary edge is utilised, particularly by a certain type of musician, to get girls. It’s simply not an issue of literary engagement on any level. Indeed, such an approach destroys literature – turns it into a set of stories about drunken, fuck-happy men with pens, and proper thought and writing and work is subsumed and anodised, just as hipster culture has subsumed and anodised Western counter culture generally… I digress. Basically, I think it’s fair to recognise in this approach Cave’s acknowledgement of a tired technique at, at the very least, the Abattoir Blues stage of his career – it wouldn’t be fair to accuse him of buying into it, basically.
This is important, because it has to be established before There She Goes My Beautiful World can be appreciated as anything other than over-egged ridiculousness:

John Wilmot penned his poetry
riddled with the pox
Nabakov wrote on index cards,
at a lectern, in his socks
St. John of the Cross did his best stuff
imprisoned in a box
And Johnny Thunders was half alive
when he wrote Chinese Rocks

Karl Marx squeezed his carbuncles
while writing Das Kapital
And Gauguin, he buggered off, man,
and went all tropical
While Philip Larkin stuck it out
in a library in Hull
And Dylan Thomas died drunk in
St. Vincent's hospital

Firstly, there is obviously a straightforward framework of meaning here: geniuses do their ‘best stuff’ when they’re ill, mad, depressed or dying. And possibly: isn’t it amusing the way we think of the muse, or art, in romantic, beautified terms when the human reality is so different. And possibly: does genuine romance therefore need a ‘book of ideas’ to poeticise it? Won’t it be better if the carbuncles of poetry are kept out of proceedings? All very erudite, interesting and enjoyably ambiguous thinky stuff – but not in a way that justifies such a ludicrous mass of reference-point showing off.

No, to understand that element as good musical-literary referencing it has to be understood, I reckon, as Cave turning something uncreative into something creative via a shameless surplus, a piling up that transcends its component parts. Rather like the po-mo (lol) comedian who tells an unfunny joke, then another unfunny joke, then another, until you begin to laugh at the unfunniness because the self-conscious perseverance is funny, even if the jokes aren’t. Cave does the same with language generally in There She Goes… The best couplet in the entire song is pretty idiotic, but works because the sillyness is piled on with a self-conscious perseverance that becomes enjoyably poetic:

So if you got a trumpet, get on your feet
brother, and blow it
If you’ve got a field, that don’t yield,
well get up and hoe it

…followed by…

I look at you and you look at me and
deep in our hearts we both know it
That you weren’t much of a muse,
but then I weren’t much of a poet

Irony, however, is something of a safe haven – an easy way of sidestepping embarrassing mistakes, but also far too passive to result in a great deal of insight when it comes to actually bringing something to a literary source with music (which couldn’t be brought by merely reading it). We need to consider Cave’s more serious, intense efforts – for there are many. Of course there are. It’s Nick Cave.

Track 4, Brompton Oratory / Track 12, We Call Upon The Author / Track 5, Wings Off Flies

The literary reference/quotation in Cave is often used to establish mood – which is fair enough, and certainly better than only citing something to ‘tie our colours to culturally established masts,’ as Phil wrote about brilliantly on Tuesday. Mood is a much better reflection of the way literature interacts with one’s own day-to-day experiences than direct quotation, I think. The way, say, every chapter of every Inspector Morse book (I’ve only read one, mind, when I had swine flu, but I know this to be the case) opens with a classical quotation, as though to say, rahrahrah every human experience can be understood via the canon rahrahrah  is as pretentious as it is unrealistic. Here’s an elegant example from The Boatman’s Call, Brompton Oratory:

Up those stone steps I climb
Hail this joyful day’s return
Into its great shadowed vault I go
Hail the Pentecostal morn

The reading is from Luke 24
Where Christ returns to his loved ones
I look at the stone apostles
Think that it’s alright for some

What I really like about this, and what makes it representative of the double purposes that I’m hopefully making apparent in Cave’s literary lyrics generally, is the way the literary reference ties into the song’s narrative gently and efficiently, sans crowbar. And, more than that, does so in a way that is kinda irreverent (‘alright for some’) towards the literary text – refreshing, when people so often quote texts as though their contents have some sort of sacred, irrefutable value to everything. The song grows out of the text, rather than losing itself within it.
This is something Cave does a lot, most famously in We Call Upon The Author:

Bukowski was a jerk!

A response, supposedly, to people coming up to him all the time and being all like, hey Nick, you heard of Bukowski, he’s really great, you’ll love him, fucken idiots. Anyway, this is followed immediately by two more references:

Berryman was bester
He wrote like wet papier mache,
Went the Heming-way
Weirdly on wings and with maximum pain
We call upon the author to explain

The first of which is particularly brilliant, with its inclusion of a reason why Berryman was better within its very language – a Berryman-esque coinage like ‘bester’ after a very Bukowski-reductive ‘jerk’. So many references next to each other is just about justified because the song is, of course, about ‘the author’, although ‘Heming-way’ is a bit shit. ‘Weirdly on wings and with maximum pain’ is a terrific marriage of Berryman and Hemingway’s writing styles though, I reckon.

All this is relatively recent Cave, however. What of the early experiments, the ones made around the time of his fairly unreadable first novel, And The Ass Saw The Angel? Irony is still ever-present, a refusal to acknowledge that he himself is buying into something passé via an acknowledgement of its passé-ness. And so Wings Off Flies’ take on one of the most oft-quoted fragments of Shakespeare there is – ‘As flies to wanton boys, are we to gods; they kill us for their sport’ – sorta mocks its own project:

Insects suicide against the window,
and my heart goes out to those lil flies
There’s a buzzin in my ear
but its more of her black-mail, ham Shakespeare and lies
Wings off flies, she loves me, she loves me not.

Ham Shakespeare. It’s also worth noting that during this period, Cave drenched everything in such a melodramatic haze that it kinda justified crude, obvious literary reference as a necessary stylistic component. Based on the fact that it was precisely this that made And the Ass… unreadable, though, he couldn’t have got by on this alone.


Perhaps the key to understanding why, as generally seems to have been established here, Cave’s literary references and quotations are pretty difficult to criticise, are so self-justifying, is Loom Of The Land from 1992’s Henry’s Dream. Or more specifically, the SongMeanings.com debate about whether or not it’s a song about a paedophile, a paedophile murderer, two innocent kids in love or what. Not that the debate is particularly insightful, but it highlights one thing: by inserting a line from Lolita into the lyrics of the song, ‘the elms and the poplars were turning their backs,’ Cave immediately brings a new dimension to it, one that makes us read it more carefully, one that ensures we find new meaning in previously dismissable parts, one that above all enriches the song – however ambiguously, however grotesquely. And crucially, he does it subtly. He doesn’t, I don’t know, call the female protagonist Lolita, something shite like that. Something shite like that which would spoil the rest of the song, rather then improve it.
Cave’s literary referencing makes the component parts of his songs better, it doesn’t merely cement them, establish them, pretentiously tie them to masts. And this, I think, is quite rare in music. Certainly it doesn’t seem to be the case where Regina Spektor is concerned, a lady whose songs made me want to revisit Nick The Stripper As Reader this week, to work out what it was about her quotation that I found annoying, where I found it compelling with Cave.

Possibly it’s just prejudice towards the kinda Zooey Deschanel, [500] Days of Summer nauseating smug vintage-tinted hey, don’t you just love Kerouac bullshit that I can’t help associating poor Regina with (which is less her fault than others’). But when I map Regina’s famed literary referencing, I can’t help feeling it’s just a bit static compared to Nick’s. Take a song like Poor Little Rich Boy:

Poor little rich boy, all the world is okay
The water runs off your skin and down into the drain
You’re reading Fitzgerald, you’re reading Hemingway
They’re both super smart and drinking in the café

That’s not good, is it? I mean, two very GCSE literary reference-points whacked together in order to confirm an intellectual core to the song’s general kooky, literary-sexy spirit? Nah mate. A more interesting example is Pound Of Flesh, which has all the ingredients of a compelling reflection on anti-Semitism, with notorious Jew-hater Ezra Pound asking Regina for Shylock’s pound of flesh:

Ezra Pound sat upon my bed
asked me which books as of late I’ve read
asked me if I’ve read his own
and whether I could spare a pound
of flesh to cover his bare bones
I says, man, take a pound, take two
what’s a pound of flesh between
friends like me and you?
what’s a pound of flesh among friends?

It just doesn’t follow it up though, doesn’t follow the potential symbolism through to any coherent extent. And therefore the literary reference-making becomes little more than a way of asserting a grounding of intellectualism behind adorably nonsensical lyrics, the worst kind of static musical-literary reading. Compare this with the Hold Steady’s similarly anecdotal but far more successful John Berryman reference in Stuck Between Stations and you’ll see what I mean.
The most important bit of evidence of all, though, is Regina’s Apres Moi, which includes an impressive but problematic Russian rendition of Boris Pasternak’s poem ‘February’. Yes, it makes sense in the context of the song (‘apres moi le deluge, after me comes the flood’ – Madame de Pompadour’s famous phrase is a pretty decent summary of ‘February’s content) but in singing it in Russian to an English audience, she risks turning the reference into just another vocal eccentricity, the thing she’s renowned for and the key stylistic feature of Apres Moi as a song. She risks looking like she’s saying, see, the silly noises I make aren’t just silly, they’re also literary and clever, like everything I do is literary and clever, aren’t I clever.

If she wanted to include Russian in a song for the sake of sonic effect, which based on the exaggerated manner in which she sings her four Pasternak lines and the fact multilingualism isn’t a standard ingredient of her songwriting project – she can’t, in short, claim that writing in her native tongue is that important to her, based on the evidence of her entirely English records – which based on all that, seems to be the case. Well doing so via poetry seems, to me, an act of uncreative, piggybacking theft rather than creative, multimedia engagement. It sounds nice just isn’t a good enough reason to stick poetry in song, just isn’t fair on the original writer. Regina could learn from Cave. We all pretty much could, to be honest.

Sam Kinchin-Smith
Music Editor

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Wider Reading | Parkour

Like many of the uninitiated, I find the world of parkour fascinating. It is mysterious and mesmerising and serves the function of a certain physical alchemy rarely seen. I was lucky enough to go to school with one of Parkour's shining lights; a bloke called John "Kerbie" Kerr.

In an open letter which responds to a recent matter of controversy involving John and some of his students, he offers the most insightful introduction to the ideology of Parkour that I have ever read.

Pour yourself a glass of something, sit down comfortably and begin one of the most fascinating reads I have had for some time.

An Open Letter to the Parkour Community of Hafnarfjordur, my students and their parents, the wicked whisperers and the downright nosey.

First to get an idea of who I am and my achievements in the last 6 years particularly, I would ask you to read the following links:

Storm Iceland Parkour Camp http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=latY8LuUU4c

UrbanFreeflow Iceland Parkour Camp http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2FsvUzrQO84

"Near the beginning of Jump Britain, a British traceur named John Kerr, aka Kerbie, discusses a period of depression in his life and what happened when he started doing parkour. "There were times when I'd be really really upset, and then I'd go out and find myself doing parkour and forgetting who I am, forgetting every one of my problems, becoming Kerbie, I guess, not being John anymore, not having the weight on my shoulders that John has." Some of this sounds a little teenage mystical or new-agey, but these guys aren't supposed to be theoreticians. In Kerbie's words, I think you can see an authentic transformation that parkour has created, and in the same way rappers take on different names to become invincible (fat, scared Chris Wallace becomes The Notorious B.I.G.), many traceurs take on new names to make the freedom from everyday constraints manifest. It also lets them pretend they're in The Matrix with names like reaktor and wildcard313, but the play and the authentic evolution mix well together."

"John "Kerbie" Kerr from the United Kingdom is as original as it gets in the Parkour world. He's been around since the beginning days of Urban Freeflow and was one of the innovators in the group. His hardcore dedication to training, combined with the wild and outgoing personality of a strong lead singer has made him one of the more popular traceurs over the years."

They say that no good deed goes unpunished.

I made a very big mistake recently. I heard rumours about my character, personal life and work life and I decided to ignore them and just keep my head down. The mistake I made was being quiet when I should have made myself loud and defended myself. I have been quiet for almost one year about the injustices I have recieved and this open letter exists so that my story becomes known.

I would like to start this open letter with a definition of what Parkour is and is not. I feel that this would clear up some of the smaller confusing matters about my sport and it's participants.

The Types of Parkour and Freerunning

Parkour is the concept of using one’s own strength, speed, agility and skill to overcome obstacles and barriers. It can look dynamic and explosive from one perspective, yet fluid and graceful from another. It can be complex and difficult in one movement, but simple and direct in the next. It is an efficiency discipline that helps one explore their new awareness of owning a body, a vehicle, and maintaining it. It encourages exploration of not only one’s environment, but one’s own instinctive fears and rationality.  The tool is found in the skills of discipline, self awareness and respect for your environment. The body is a machine of cause and effect, impression and expression, creation and destruction.   It is a personal tool that can be used to help one save time on his journey and catch that bus or train that he always misses. Yet it could be the difference between life and death in a situation of disaster. The tool can be acquired in the skills needed to be strong and fast in both mind and body.

The efficiency tool draws its roots from Method Naturelle; a french military discipline in which movement should be efficient, purposeful and effective whilst looking fluid, natural and effortless for the athlete performing them.

It also takes inspiration from the teachings of Bruce Lee, The Movies of Jackie Chan and the spirit of the martial art student; to learn to be useful in mind, body and spirit.

Freerunning is an expressive art that has brought thousands of people together over the last 15 years via street performances, workshops, competitions, movies, documentaries and meet-ups. Free runners and traceurs train together at gatherings nicknamed ‘Jams’ every week, worldwide.

Practitioners on the journey of overcoming obstacles tend not to be caught up with social boundaries, either. The rule of thumb is that our differences give us the opportunity to learn something new from one another. Our differences give birth to self expression; our similarities help us empathise with those around us. Each person has a different perspective, a different schema and thus a different response to each stimulus.  This allows us to each bring our own unique brush to paint the canvas of a shared reality, in whatever colour we deem fit at the time.

It is a tool that often provokes debate. It encourages one to question their knowledge of their own vehicle, and if they are using it to their full potential, whilst also gaining social status with interesting tricks and stories to share with their friends.

A good mantra is “a chance to question myself is a chance to learn something new or improve on something old. “

The expressive tool draws its roots from Break dance (aka breaking), Gymnastics, Acrobatics, Martial Arts, Tricking and various extreme sports. The beautiful thing about the self expressive side of free running is that many more disciplines and performance arts over time will inspire and shape the future movements and tricks people perform. This can be seen with the increase of free runners drawing inspiration from Chinese and Russian circus tricks, such as rise in popularity of the flag, in which a performer grabs a vertical pole with his hands and performs a horizontal handstand

Parkour is a sport that embodies freedom. The idea is to be able to overcome any obstacle; be it physical, mental, spiritual or social.

In the media it has been represented as outdoor gymnastics and roof jumping, a very small (yet sensational) part of what Parkour embodies. 90% of Parkour training world wide  takes place on ground level. In the majority of countries I have visited, Parkour is trained outdoors and has a strong community. There are prominent members in the community but they are by no means leaders. Everyone is equal from the age of 8 to 88 as far as the community is concerned.

Training is arranged by members of the community and they have specific areas (hotspots) where they meet up to socialise and to play (jamming). It has similarties to the breakdancing culture of the 80's. There is no official governing body, there is no official competition and there are no official standards for practising the sport. This is what keeps it pure. Parkour is about uniqueness and the ability to adapt yourself. No good traceurs (participants of the sport) move alike. Your body is your own vehicle for exploring planet Earth and your mind is the computer which makes sense of it. Every person has their own way of moving, their own mindset and their own perspective. This is the most important aspect of Parkour. If we rigidly define it, we rigidly confine it.

However, it is a very different picture in Iceland. The fickle weather makes it difficult to arrange outdoor training and the architecture really does not lend itself to the sport. Due to this, the majority of Parkour in Iceland takes places in indoor gymnasiums. This has led to the confused ideas that my sport is like gymnastics and thus has the same standards and ettiquete that gymnastics does, this is not true at all.

Parkour is not about competing with one another. Parkour is not about learning tricks and acrobatic movements to impress others. Parkour is to be shaped around your life, where conversely, a gymnast has to shape his/her life around their sport.

I care not what my student eats, drinks or thinks. I care not what my student does outside my classroom as long as they are not training parkour dangerously or using it for crime. My classes are focused on discipline, dedication and determination. My students must act safely and respectful towards themselves, others and the equipment and that is all I ask of them.

When a lot of people watch a Parkour video for the first time they often remark something similar to this "Wow those guys would be really good at running away from the police" or "Wow those guys would make awesome cat burglars."

Very rarely does someone say something like "Imagine how good those guys would be at catching burglars," or "Wow those guys would make good policemen!"

I'm not a psychologist so I won't dwell on why people jump straight to the negative applications of my sport before considering the positive aspects.

But what I can do is share the positive aspects with you so that you can understand why I'm so sincerely gutted about how the last year has played out.

The majority of people over the age of 13 that practise Parkour with me are often referred to as "street kids" out here. A lot of them dress in clothing inspired by hip hop culture, listen to rap music and hang out in groups on the street.

To the uninitiated eye, a gang of kids in baggy clothing listening  to "f@*K the police" can be quite intimidating. To me, I see young men and women that come together to socialize, to listen to music and to practise sport. Is that not something we need more of?

A lot of my students had never signed up to a sport before. Very many of my students have special learning needs such as Autism Spectrum disorders, ADD and ADHD. These are often victims of bullying and exclusion from team and competitive sports. On the opposite end of the classroom I have students with bad attendance at school, no self motivation, distracting and bullying others in school and suffering from very low self esteem.

For 3 nights a week they call me coach and they train TOGETHER. On the inside, I'm not a coach, I don't ask them to do any movements they don't want to and I don't push them harder than they would push themselves. My job isn't to motivate individuals. It's to teach them how to motivate themselves whilst training safely and sensibly.

My job is to assist them in their journey of discovery. My lessons aren't there as quick fixes or crash courses in roof jumping and backflips. My classes are there to inspire and educate. In all honesty, how many people have a method of showing unruly youths that through practise and repetition you can achieve anything. Since I became head coach, Björk had recieved phone calls and letters from not only parents, but teachers and the Town of HFJ about the work I was doing and the positive impact it has had with my students. My class numbers have almost doubled in 3 months and there is now a long waiting list for students.

Please at this point understand, I have not once promoted my classes out here. Word of mouth is the only way people know about my classes and I have the biggest subscription of Students in Iceland. This is not because of advertising, self-promotion or taking petty shots at the competition. This is from reputation alone. I have a fantastic reputation and I am no longer able to sit there and allow people to tarnish it.

I have ignored all media and press and instead asked them to speak to actual Icelandic figureheads in our community, such as the Radioactive Pants Parkour and Freerun team. I did not come here to speak on behalf of the Icelandic people and I never will. It is so much more important for a Parkour community to have ambassadors that actually train the sport and have earned their stripes within the community. I came here to guide those ambassadors and to help them learn from the experiences I've had over the last ten years. I present years of experience in safe training and have offered to help these figureheads with creating a set of standards and rules to help the sport become official. I would not normally do this, but the weather in Iceland has forced me to compromise my line of thinking. Making the sport official would allow funding for a purpose built space so that people can safely train real parkour with proper equipment.

Unfortunately for myself, my peers and the community, there is another individual out here that outright wants to own Parkour in Iceland. He is the self proclaimed founder of Parkour in Iceland and cannot shout loudly enough about it. In my opinion he is not experienced enough to teach, he has demonstrated no expertise in the sport and over the last year he has bumped himself in and out of trouble in his comedic attempts for fame and fortune.

I have watched him injure himself through bad technique, I have watched him injure himself trying to impress others and I´ve even been the one giving him emergency first aid and getting help. What started out as a positive relationship with him quickly became negative and I decided to distance myself from him. I fear that he thinks that because I refuse to work with him or for him, that I´m working against him. This has led to all manner of rumours circulating around for the last 6 months. The climax of our tensions played out in the Summer and the events proceeding saw him working in a new gym and me taking over as head coach of parkour at Björk.

Previously, he´d asked me to write his application for UMSK and I very obviously declined, stating that if you are not fit enough to write your own application, you are not fit enough to speak on behalf of the sport yet. I offered to give him some points to research some extra coaching to raise his standards up but he declined.

The trouble he has caused several people in the last year has pretty much left a long list of people who will block his application to speak on behalf of Parkour or the participants of the sport. This list includes ex-colleagues, ex-employers, ex-employees, parents of ex-students, ex-students, super stars from the world parkour and freerun community and family members of some of Reykjaviks elite.

I will not name this individual other than as "my rival", nor will I name his company as I do not want to shine any spotlight in his direction and I wish no association with him other than to end this silly game of tit for tat.   Recently an event at Björk involving some of my students being caught thieving on CCTV was escalated way out of hand. I admit on my part that I could have handled the event better. But feeling a duty to my students and my morals I asked permission from the gym to speak to the thieving students first in order to get back the belongings of the victim. My main criticism I have recieved is not notifying the parents involved.

On the night the event happened, I was phoned by one of the house staff who explained the events. I was asked if I was ok to get the police involved as they had pretty strong evidence.

The next day I spoke to my manager at the gym and the staff who had witnessed the incident. I saw the footage and was absolutely disgusted by who was involved. The students involved are ones I definitely thought knew better. They are good young lads to teach and Parkour means a lot to them. I knew that if the police and parents got involved, these boys may lose out on something so special to them for something so silly and out of character. I asked the gym to give me 24 hours to get the stuff back and if I could, could the whole event just be forgotten. The gym agreed and I set about on making everything right.

In retrospect, I understand how much easier it would have been to just make a phone call to the parents and police and to have washed my hands of it all. But in my heart, I wanted the thieves to know that I personally do not teach people that engage in causing loss or harm to others and if they understood that, then they were welcome back. My sport is often compared to cat burglars and gang culture and I wanted to let these individuals know that they are ambassadors of the sport in Iceland. The frustrating thing is that some of the individuals involved are some of the most popular and talented students I have taught and are highly looked up to by some of my younger students. I had no plans on banning the students, I had no plans on punishing them and I took no joy in running around after them for 3 days trying to make everything ok.

I was over the moon when the majority of the students involved returned the belongings back to me, listened to my boring lecture about thieves and parkour and off of their own back they sincerely apologised to the victim. A small minority, however, did not get back to me and did not understand how serious stealing from another human being is. I tried to call them several times and had no luck. I found out that they had decided to skip practise and train at another gym instead.

I spoke to an employee of the town of Hafnarfjordur to ask if there was anything I could do to give the student more time to come to correct this, and he suggested that I phone the other gym. As my old rival was teaching there and knew the students involved, we both hoped that he could explain to the student that it was important for not only himself and the victim, but for our sport that an apology was made.

The student had not come back to talk to me, so the next day I updated my manager. He told me that the student was now banned, I however said that if the individual got their parents to call and speak to me, I would be happy to have them back in my class. I just needed to know that my student understood how serious stealing from another student is and that they would not use what I was teaching them for more crime.

Sadly, it didn´t work out that way and I ended up in a meeting with a very upset parent that had heard all manner of confusing rumours and perspectives of the event and my character. The parent was understandibly very angry and whilst I tried everything to explain myself, it was clear that their mind had been made up about me. After hearing several outrageous accusations and attempts to bully and threaten me, I lost my patience and told them that I didn´t believe they were here to sort anything out and were just making idle threats in order to protect their child. In turn, I was asked to leave the meeting.

I was asked to publicly apologise to the family involved and was singled out to have my public life intruded on. After feeling no solidarity from Björk whatsoever during the run of events, I handed in my notice to quit. Stating that I would finish just before christmas in order to complete and perform our winter show. Two members of the gym then really took the time to sit with me and to try to provide some help and comfort for me. We had a meeting about the whole scheme of events and I was told that Björk were in a bind. The parent had threatened to go to the press about some of the unsubstantiated rumours they had heard if their demands were not met. After some media controversy in the past about the behaviour of one of their employees, Björk were very hesitant to defend me. But upon seeing my written notice they had realised how much would be lost. Parkour was a gold mine for the gym, I had around 300 students that looked up to me and a steady stream of letters from parents, teachers and towns people about how well I was doing. They asked me to retract my notice and that they would help me fight this individual that had been spreading the rumours.

The next day I was fired. The reason given was that by phoning the other gym about my student I had broken the gyms rules on confidentiality. I asked if this was why I was asked to retract my notice and was told that it was not important any more. The manager himself told me he was absolutely gutted about how it had all played out, but members from the board of the gym (people who as far as i know still to this day have not spoken to me, been to one of my classes or spoken to any of my students) had made the decision. As a protest to this ridiculous decision, the other two parkour coaches handed in their notice immediately and parkour is now being covered by gymnastic coaches.

A few individuals were not happy enough with me losing my job last week so they decided to spread their rumours to the national media. One of these individuals in particular knows that they are lying as they have been corrected by all those around them about the truth of the rumours. However, the truth does not simply suit this persons purpose.

I ask this, if the people that phoned the news about me are worried that these rumours are true, why didn´t they call the police instead.

It is simply because of this - The truth doesnt help some people´s plans. However, the truth will always be the focus and drive for my plans and it needs to come out more than ever.

To the journalist that called me from Frettabladid - If you want a real story mate you´ve got it. I have spent the last weekend not only meeting my coaches, students, parents and ex-colleagues, I´ve also been fortunate enough to speak to some of my rival´s own coaches and students who have offered to clear my name too. I have a petition from students, parents and staff at Björk. I have members of staff involved in the theft event willing to sign legal papers to say that I acted in a mature and responsible manner. I have an inbox full of parents and students offering their support and letting me know that they are allied with me. Wherever i go to teach next, they will follow because they know the truth.

In my heart of hearts, I would be back at Björk teaching. I love the staff and coaches there and some of them have been so supportive to an often homesick and lonely young man. I think that the decision they made was wrong and not just for me, but for the 300 students whose choice now is to sign up to be taught parkour by a "parkour" coach that is less skilled than them, or to be taught parkour by a gymnastic coach who´s just filling in. This can be put right and I´m sure that Björk know that from all of the emails they have been recieving, the petitions and the refund requests.

A warning to my studentsSome of you have contacted me to train recently and I have bumped into a few of you on the street. You have often joked about bullying, excluding and acting violently towards the people involved in me being taken away from Björk. I understand your frustration as I know that you all lost out too. But know this, violence and bullying are not my way. If we make life harder for the people that are already making life hard for themselves, no one benefits. Don´t use your energy for bitching and bullying, use it for training even harder. Prove to people that our time together wasn´t wasted. Be real freerunners!

If you want to spend any energy on making this situation right then here´s how

  • Contact Björk - Let them know about your experience with me as a coach. Let them know that the rumours are false. I want to be back in Björk and you guys can make this happen.  565 2311, Netfang: fbjork@fbjork.is
  • Email Frettabladid and tell them the truth about everything. Parents please do this too, I have spoken to many of you in the past and you´ve always had positive things to say, it´s times like this when they really count. The journalist I spoke to has this email address gar@frettabladid.is
  • Write to the town of HFJ and let them know about this. -http://www.hafnarfjordur.is/
  • Do your own research. Find out who my rival is and why my rival left Björk this summer. You will find the root of his rumours there.
  • Find out who really started Parkour in Iceland. Contact the community and find the truth about the true history of the sport in your country.
  • Come train with me outside. If you´re upset about the decision and want to train, then come and train with me safely, for free. Lets jam like the rest of the world.
I will be training outdoors for the rest of this month and will be busy with some fantastic projects that i will kick start in 2011.

In december, I will be renting a indoor space for training and all are invited. I will post more information about that nearer the time.

Thank you to everyone that has leant their support to me at this time. Some of you don´t know how much I really needed to hear what you have said to me. You have all been my strength and focus this whole time and we WILL be training together very soon.

Live, Love and Learn,

John "Kerbie" Kerr