Sunday, May 25, 2014

A Short Trip to London

I had just over twenty four hours in London. Seems a bit of a waste of an £80 train ticket in some ways, but its nice as well to go down for a reason, pack a bit of activity in, and come back home to the washing up...

I sometimes think London is my Narnia, I've never really lived there (a brief year in Croydon in the 90s), yet have always run there or escaped there, as a place where I belong. But like Narnia its a place where I can't ever stay; there's always the familiar lamp post in the forest, and the exit back through the wardrobe to wherever it is I've come from.

A lot of talk this week about London bucking the national trend and not voting UKIP along with the rest of the country. I can't help thinking that a place that has its own government, its own figurehead of fun, and therefore its own counterbalance to national politics might have no need for another one; besides the complaint about politics being London-centric and a metropolitan elite, means that we're talking about the capital with a mix of anger and envy.

I think the anger and envy comes through when you go down these days. Not just the £80 fare, on a three quarter empty train, but that when you get there, flung into the maelstrom of this busiest of cities, you can't help but be impressed by the transport, at least since the Olympics, and at least compared with the rest of the country. As well as the Tube and trains, with you never having to wait more than a couple of minutes, there's the buses with their bus stop displays and their regular announcements at stops. If London can do this - and have a joined up service that means you can get from any one place to another without buying a myriad of tickets - then surely it should be possible elsewhere?

And that meant that even though the gig was at Café Oto in Dalston, an inner north-east suburb I've never been to, I never had the same qualms I might have about going to and from a gig anywhere outside the centre of Manchester. Or, when we get there, finding an excellent Turkish restaurant on Dalston high street.  

There's never any impediment to spending money in London, of course, so no wonder the economy booms at the expense of the rest of the country. Still, it was gratifying to see a sellout at an experimental noise trios performance even if one of the three is Sonic Youth legend Thurston Moore. Playing alongside drummer Alex Neilson and bassist John Edwards, there was standing room only at the back, as we jostled to find a good view of the stage as the three came on to do the first of two excellent sets of improvisational music. In many ways this is as far from rock music as it gets. Its the impossible sounds that Edwards gets out of his bass that dominate, with Moore's guitar as much about texture as lead, and with Neilson's rhythm-denying drumming creating a strangely powerful thread on which to hang their improvisations. If it occasionally slipped into passages that lacked sonic definition, generally they worked impressively together, and the sound - like the Magic Band playing with Ornette Coleman - was as equally likely to surprise and astonish. Watching the three musicians take it out on their instruments was in itself mesmerising, yet whilst ignoring anything as mainstream as melody or rhythm, they somehow compensated with an often brutal, occasionally beautiful dynamic which I can honestly say sounded like nothing I've ever heard. During the break we spilled out of the hot venue onto the pavement - Dalston definitely approaching peak beard at a gig like this - and stood just a few feet from the musicians who passed the time with the London noise crowd. I finished the evening at a quiet cocktail bar in Islington.

I'd popped into the comics exhibition at the British Library on the Friday after getting off my train - not perhaps the most coherent of their shows, it did, as ever, showcase things I'd never seen or heard of. Interesting that "comics" or "cartoons" have such a long history of satirical opposition; and also that they have been so often - but especially in the eighties and nineties - been a radical or subversive medium. I don't remember "Crisis", which seemed an incredibly interesting magazine, and was surprised to see depite a few references to Viz, no mention of the iconoclastic Oink! Inevitably, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Dave Mckean, Jamie Hewlett and others dominate - after all they're among the leading cultural creators of the last thirty years - and it was fascinating to see some typed out "scripts" for "V for Vendetta" for instance. I did ponder over the final room where the exhibition designers seem to have let form over content dominate a little - with some odd displays, amongst an endless number of V for Vendetta masked dummies, and, puzzlingly, a nod to Alestair Crowley because of his influence on the work of certain comic writers, "some of whom were also magicians."  The British Library does this kind of thing well, but occasionally gets caught up in it own collection, I think.

Saturday saw me scanning Time Out for exhibitions. Checking the Tate website on my phone meant that I ended up going to the wrong Tate for the Richard Hamilton exhibition (their insistence on a single "Tate Website" means that you get well confused where things are) which was having a final weekend at Tate Modern. No mind, we ended up looking round the free exhibition at Tate Britain, which included a "through the decades" look at British art. Its collection is astonishing of course, and there were a couple of my favourite Jacob Epstein's as well as one I'd not seen before; as well as much more modern stuff. The more recent acquisitions felt weak, derivative and somewhat random compared to what had come before, and going backwards through time, it felt like the fifties and sixties was the high water mark for British art.

Late lunch at Wahaca, the Mexican street food restaurants that might be enough to make me move to London, regardless of anything else, and then the train back to Manchester - with, inevitably, a 45 minute delay because of problems with the overhead power lines.

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