God of Anthropocene

Gojira

To the cinema, in August, to see Shin Godzilla (2016) on its brief and belated UK release. The film is produced by Toho studios, which made the original Godzilla film (Gojira) in 1954, and made many more over the next fifty years. I loved these films when they were broadcast on British television in the 1990s. This was a time, as countless people have lamented, before the compartmentalisation of television channels, when viewers could be introduced to all manner of films: an education for my young self in McCarthyite B-movies, Nordic existentialism, the politics of the Parisian banlignes, kitchen sink, and Gothic horror.

These memories had me well-disposed to Shin Godzilla before I entered the cinema. The film delighted me despite its flaws (particularly the heavy-handed signposting of stock characters and character traits). A decision was made (whether by writer-director Hideaki Anno, composer Shirō Sagisu, or some level of the company) to include soundtrack elements from the original films: both sound effects and the original score by Akira Ifukube. The old music was neither re-recorded nor remastered, which resulted in a peculiar retro effect in modern cinema speakers: comfortingly familiar, but at odds with the modern pacing of the film, as if challenging us to compare it with the originals.

The heavily-signposted subtext of the film showed it to be psychologically freighted with memories and premonitions of catastrophes natural (tsunami) and anthropic (nuclear bombs, radioactive waste), and the exacerbation of these by bureaucratic ossification. In the week of its British release, fears of nuclear attack in East Asia were all too raw in the shadow of US and North Korean willy-waving. The film offers moments of satire of interminable governmental and academic meetings, which give way to a (rather too) simple message of interdepartmental, interdisciplinary, and international collaboration.

What interested me most, of course, was its exploration of the position of myth in a resolutely Anthropocene setting. The dialogue contains snatches of human self-doubt. The scientists studying this ‘Gojira’ creature consider that it may be a biologically perfect organism – ‘better than man’ in its ability to adapt to, and to reform, its environment. Characters compare the damage wrought by Gojira to the towns around Tokyo Bay to the violence of human history,  prompting the disaster-movie-truism that ‘man is more destructive than Godzilla’. The Gojira creature itself represents an allegory of technology as mass destruction, evolutionary power (hyper-accelerated in this film), and diminishing geographical distance (in the potential to disperse itself internationally).

In short, Gojira is an incarnate god of the Anthropocene epoch. Shin Godzilla (‘new‘, ‘true‘, or ‘god Gojira‘) is a telling title. The naming of the creature – first named in the film as ‘Great Unidentified Creature’ – is important, as it playfully endorses the Anglophone name Godzilla, emphasising the feeling of encountering an inscrutable, ungovernable divinity. But this god is partly of the natural world, and partly a consequence of nuclear-age humanity. Surely a case of each epoch getting the god it deserves.

I’ve often wondered about divine succession. To take the Greek pantheon: Ouranos was succeeded by his son, Kronos, who in turn was succeeded by his son Zeus. Violently so, in each case. But then Olympian historical time seems to cease while human historical time begins. Would it take an epoch-shattering event among humans to dislodge the secure Olympian order? Here is Gojira, come to shake Zeus down from his mountain. Gojira is the divine representative of the Anthropocene – the epoch of irreversible human impact on the Earth – emerging on the face of Zeus’s grandmother Gaia.

Orochi
English version of Yamata no Orochi (by B. H. Chamberlain, 1886, illustrator unknown)

The emergence of a god onto contemporary Japanese reality requires a mythic response, of sorts. ‘Operation Yashiori’ is the name given to the internationally-collaborative reaction to Gojira’s threat: the alternative to obliterating it – and much of the country around Tokyo – with a nuclear bomb. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is explicitly referenced, and Operation Yashiori is a mytho-scientific counter both to Gojira and the human violence epitomised by the bomb.

Operation Yashiori derives its name from the sake drunk by the monster Orochi. In Shinto myth, Orochi is a huge, eight-headed serpent (termed a hydra in Shin Godzilla’s subtitles) which has been devouring the daughters of an old couple (or earth-spirit). Seven of their eight daughters have been eaten when the storm god Susanoo encounters them. Susanoo’s solution is to stupefy Orochi by making it drunk on yashiori-no-sake, the inebriated beast is then sliced up by the storm god, who marries the surviving daughter, Kushi-nada-hime. Shin Godzilla constructs a technological equivalent for this myth, advancing the hope that human creativity and collaboration can release us from a global catastrophe of our own making.

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Tom McCarthy at the British Library

‘Happy Bloomsday’, began Tom McCarthy at the British Library this evening (16 June). He was here to launch his collection of essays, Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish. His talk was typically broad in reference, including some of his acknowledged favourites – Mallarmé, of course – among Edward Ruscha (whose ‘Orphic’ dismembered typewriter of Royal Road Test provided the opening image), Don DeLillo, cricket commentator Henry Blofeld, Georges Perec, Zinedine Zidane (as in the 2006 film, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait), plus Hamlet, Don Quixote, Bartleby, Yeats, Freud, Auden, and Beckett. Written down like that, it looks awfully male, but I guess that’s several centuries of patriarchy for you.

Edward Ruscha, page from Royal Road Test (1967, printed 1971): Tab Key Top (photographed as found in bush)

As elaborated in the post-talk discussion, McCarthy’s concern centred on the idea of writing after Mallarmé (and indeed since at least the sixteenth century) as rewriting, as inauthentic, as mediated. Even the best writing is still inauthentic, but radically so. The ironic self-consciousness of this stance is evident in McCarthy’s fiction, which is written dispassionately, like a Freud case study, all emotion circumscribed or in suspension. Equally, politics is experienced on an alienated globalised or geopolitical level. Questions of visceral emotion, or political action, or spiritual transcendence are not relevant. It validates Ballard’s assessment of modernity as the time of ‘the death of affect’. It’s a style of writing that I enjoy tremendously, and it touches on many of my own interests, even though, at the same time, I am aware of something that I feel should be cracking through the surface of the prose. What is this lack – a cry of lamentation? the nauseous sense of urgency? (Perhaps my sense of this was highlighted on this occasion – still in the week of Grenfell.)

I read McCarthy’s last novel, Satin Island, in a state of tickled jealousy: the opening pages in particular present a hilariously vertiginous forging of links, associations, patterns, and structures in the modern technological environment, linking oil, tragedy, myth, and structural anthropology – a combination of topics that I addressed in my PhD thesis. But then, as if to make it more personal for me, there is a meditation on a ventilation system, the like of which is only equalled by my favourite song by The Beale (a group I later joined), ‘97 Circular’, in which the criminally underrated singer and artist, Adrian R. Shaw, proclaimed ‘I’m in love / With a ventilation shaft’, his voice cracking as he recalls ‘all its elaborate brickwork’.

Reading the opening pages of Satin Island was simply one of those sequences of chances which we all experience from time-to-time with an artwork which shares our outlook. In the case of Satin Island, anyone who casually observes the effluvia of globalisation and has an interest in structural readings of myth and tragedy (Lévi-Strauss is a prominent presence) will recognise themselves to some degree on the page.

Stéphane Mallarmé, pages from Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (1897)

McCarthy’s protagonist, named U, sees networks, randomness, designs, patterns, primal scenes, abstractions, complicity, and traumas, all resonating and repeating in his experience of the world. The novel chooses not to push the political or ethical demand that some will find inextricable from this network. It remains the novel of the protestant individual and not of the collective spirit: Dionysian ekstasis as synthesized MDMA that we come down from all too soon and re-atomised. So too in McCarthy’s talk at the BL, the constellation-patterns of Mallarmé’s ‘Un coup de dés’ constitute a semiotic mark not an affective symbol, and Zidane’s famous headbutt of Materazzi is replicated in a playful GIF of colliding ‘Z’s. McCarthy’s stance definitively avoids kitsch and the emotiveness that occludes insight and reflection. And yet I am nagged by the cyclopean strength of this ironic posture of studiousness and play. In Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (the film which follows Zidane throughout the ninety minutes of a 2005 football game), at half-time, the film presents a montage of the day’s global news. McCarthy shows as a still from the aftermath of a car bomb in Iraq, in which a boy wears a football shirt with Zidane’s name. But this queasy conjunction cannot disturb the reflective repose of the British Library ‘Knowledge Centre’. How could it? Too remote in time, place and context.

The Last Wave

To ‘Pages of Hackney’ last month for a book launch. Pages is a great small independent bookshop I’d not visited before (it opened around the time I left London), with a lively programme of events and extensive second-hand department in the basement. The launch was held in the basement, where I found myself sat next to a display cabinet of pulp erotica. A couple of boxes of LPs were in another corner, and there was so much wine that bottles were stacked up the stairs.

The launch was for The Last Wave, the debut novel by Gillian Best. It centres on the life of Martha, told through the alternating first-person narratives of her family, neighbour, and Martha herself, jumping across time, non-chronologically, from her childhood, and resolving in a symbolic doubling involving her granddaughter.

The opening chapter is set towards the end of the story, boldly breaking the narrative arc by revealing the story’s trajectory, thus placing the novel’s emphasis on individual moments in a family’s life. As each chapter changes voices through the book, we are brought into lives which contain some joy and plenty of regret, and I had a better time with some members of the family than others. I was most won over by the granddaughter, Myrtle, whose combination of drive and wit optimistically counterbalanced the anxieties of adulthood.

The novel is weighted by what one might think of as hot topics for a newspaper: not just Alzheimer’s, but also cancer! Not just post-war sexual repression, but also twenty-first century lesbian coming out! But Best deals with delicate themes authoritatively, avoiding crassness, and with some subtly powerful detail, as in a quiet observation of death’s bureaucracy. When siblings Harriet and Iain are shown a catalogue of cremation urns, Harriet’s thoughts turn unexpectedly to the copy-writer: ‘I thought about the person who had had to write the copy for the brochure, to quietly and sombrely extol the virtues of a gold-plated urn over a simple and understated china white urn. […] It was absurd’ (283-84).

The sea, specifically the English Channel, provides a persistent backdrop for the book, whoever the narrator, and whatever the time-period. Martha derives spiritual strength from the sea, but this remains elusive to those around her, and the sea stops short of taking on the archetypal or transcendental status of a character itself. Yet the book begins with an archetypal image, introducing a terrifically tense opening chapter inside the mind of Martha’s husband. John reaches out for the absent Martha in their bed, her whereabouts unknown. This is a motif that goes back to the ancients: Menelaus does it to the absent Helen in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon (424-5); more recently, Mr Ramsay does it in Woolf’s To The Lighthouse (Time Passes §3). Best takes this image and embellishes it with items from the world she has created – the sand, the seabed – making it resonate freshly.

Peel

I wrote a little thing about John Peel for ‘We Happy Few’. That website pokes into some curiously dilapidated corners of the culture.


Edit, November 2017: ‘We Happy Few’ has sadly left the World Wide Web, so I reproduce my piece here:


Loath as I am to extol another dead white male, it’s difficult to talk about the past without them. As patriarchal voices go, John Peel rises above the taint of 1970s BBC broadcasters, principally by the reputation for humaneness and inclusivity that accrued around him since the 1990s. Last year Faber published a fat book on the man and his radio shows, David Cavanagh’s Good Night and Good Riddance: How Thirty-Five Years of John Peel Helped to Shape Modern Life. The distinction of this book lies in Cavanagh’s method of listening to a vast selection of surviving complete radio shows from Peel’s first broadcasts on the pirate Radio London in 1967 (which followed some stints on radio in the USA) until his penultimate year, 2003. The book proceeds through the years, Cavanagh describing a chosen show, with the musical selection and a brief current-affairs snippet providing a unique portrait of the times, as pop music struggles with its inevitable maturity, rebellions, and banalities. The news extracts that Cavanagh provides for each show often emphasise the Troubles, which is an illuminating reminder of the fragile condition of peace in the UK, especially now that the mass media’s terror focus has shifted geographically.

Cavanagh’s introduction makes the case that the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics was testament to the broad-minded spirit that Peel – effectively single-handedly – fostered in the national culture. But over its 600-plus pages, Cavanagh weaves no thread of connecting argument  to make the assertion compelling, instead allowing the accumulated descriptions of daily brilliance (or folly) to tell its own story. It is not entirely uncritical, but Cavanagh is, by necessity, a fan. I remember him for a review of Elastica in 1993 in Select magazine in which he explained their 20-minute set as being over in the time it takes to eat four apples. It’s an image which hasn’t left my mind, mainly because I can’t imagine ever eating four apples in quick succession. Cavanagh also wrote a career-spanning piece on The Fall in that peculiarly nineties phenomenon, the magazine-and-CD series Volume. He is an erudite writer, and can be very funny, though there’s a sense he’s on his best behaviour for this project, and his mischievous character does not shine through in the text enough for my liking.

The book was subject of a curious review in The Wire (381, November 2015). In it, Derek Walmsley was perturbed by this valorization of a patrician voice – a voice uncomfortably associated with the climates of the pop industry and the BBC which facilitated the abuse of the young and vulnerable, and with the pre-internet world of individual, Reithian authority. The Wire’s review does raise some pertinent points, but the charge of Peel’s irrelevance in the age of internet radio is positively bizarre. The Wire itself used to provide radio listings for open-minded shows, in which Peel’s show was an eternal fixture in a minuscule list for national radio. It’s easy to forget how difficult it was to find out about, for example, The Pendulum Floors. It is odd to think that, while we may celebrate the abundance of free access to information afforded by the internet, we shouldn’t also lament the loss of prescribed spaces within a state power apparatus such as the BBC. If recondite information is too easily available, why should a state broadcaster waste valuable resources delivering it to an indifferent audience. Much better to have another series of ‘Imagine’ with Alan ‘Oh No Not Alan Yentob Again’ Yentob. Structure is unfashionable, but surely the adherents of freedom and chaos still like a lock on their toilet.

There is an emotional component to Cavanagh’s book which will be entirely different for every reader – at least for those who devoted too much of their youth being informed by the inimitable sounds of Peel’s broadcasts. For me, as someone who began listening regularly in the early nineties, the book took on more personal significance as I recognized individual programmes that I had heard live. Combined with this is the mounting sense of sadness as the text accelerates (covering two years rather than one in the final four chapters) towards its inescapable terminus. The epochal cultural moment isn’t the rise of the internet but the loss of a public figure who had a vast knowledge – through first-hand experience – of global pop music from the 1940s to the present.

David Bowie was still alive when I read Cavanagh’s book; he crops up a few times. The entry for 30 June 1968 ends with a description of a Tyrannosaurus Rex concert at the Royal Festival Hall: ‘Bottom of the bill was David Bowie from Bromley, performing a mime inspired by China’s invasion of Tibet.’ A handful of pages later, the entry for 16 February 1969 ends with a description of a Tyrannosaurus Rex concert at Birmingham Town Hall: ‘Bottom of the bill was David Bowie, once again performing his mime inspired by China’s invasion of Tibet.’ There’s a parallel universe in which that sentence is repeated again throughout the 1970s. I choose to believe that, somewhere, David from Bromley is still performing his mime inspired by China’s invasion of Tibet.

Live noise: Nøught & Dead Days Beyond Help

Nøught and Dead Days Beyond Help with Alan Wilkinson, at Café Oto, London, 13 March 2016

I have mixed feelings about Café Oto. The venue cultivates a squat-party vibe with an artisan-loaf aesthetic. It is simultaneously hip and square. It hosts late night noise rock on a Sunday night so that people with 9-5 jobs, childcare, or homes outside Hackney will struggle to negotiate the restricted public transport services, while charging £3.60 for two-thirds of a pint of their cheapest beer (i.e. £5.40 per pint). The constituency which is able both to attend regular events and afford the drinks must be infinitesimally small, unless the cliché of the Hackney-incomer living off a limitless trust fund is more true than I have hoped. But where else could we go to hear music like this, while browsing a small book stall hosting, for example, the recent book on Bob Cobbing? What’s more, as signifiers of cool go, the crowd tonight includes former members of Sonic Youth and This Heat. But this righteous cachet may soon be jeopardized by the same new money that has contributed to Hackney’s modishness over the past decade or so. The new development of flats that is being built within earshot is an ominous portent of the likely struggles that Oto’s proprietors may soon face given the total lack of noise protection.

Dead Days Beyond Help (Alex Ward on electric guitar and voice, and Jem Doulton on drums) are augmented tonight by saxophonist Alan Wilkinson (playing baritone, then alto), and they forego singing to play a raucous set of improvised noise. This was just what I needed: thoroughly refreshing. The rockist temptation to compare the sound to The Stooges’ ‘L. A. Blues’ should be restrained by the clarification that, if so, it is ‘L. A. Blues’ as played by uptight Englanders. (I don’t know if all the players are English, but they play with the repressed tension of the English.) The physical efforts of these three musicians is a pleasure to watch, but equally satisfying is to shut your eyes and ignore the smell of craft beer. I did this, and forgot that the music was being played by technological Europeans. The ideological debates around freedom and idiom in improvised music evaporated. Instead I heard music from the dawn of time: the archaic spirit of humanity was given full voice in the uproarious blending of the three instruments. Yet still that archaic voice was mediated by a specific English anxiety – a tension without release – which kept the music controlled and separated from any claims of transcendence. We are grounded by the interplay between three humans. In a wonderful moment of unified playing, Ward’s guitar and Wilkinson’s saxophone each emitted answering growls while Doulton trapped a drumstick between the cymbals of his hi-hat, tugging at it as if pulling his arm from the percussive bronze jaws of a metamorphosed dog. The drummer won this battle. Of course he did: the musicians played in total command of their noise.

I had to go outside to protect my ears from the horrible simulation of tinnitus offered by the second group. I’m old enough and square enough to know when my ears have suffered enough, and I hate listening through earplugs. I returned for Nought, or, for fans of 1980s computer displays, Nøught (led by guitarist James Sedwards, with Luke Barlow on keys, Santiago Horro on bass, and new drummer Bo Mapper). Nought have a reputation for punishingly heavy sets of thrillingly intricate noise, but the new set this evening was less brutal, more playfully sinister. The first of two tunes lasted about half an hour (true punk rockers are not remotely frightened by this). Unfolding through interconnected movements, the music continually opened up new spaces for the mind to move around in. The syncopated drop-outs in the first minutes were reminiscent of Ennio Morricone’s psychedelic soundtracks (as handily collected on Ipecac’s Crime and Dissonance). In short, Nought sound less English, more continental. Both fiery and relaxed, and with a sense of sprezzatura. Their new piece intelligently avoided the potential trap of a predictable escalation towards a crescendo by deploying a lot of dynamic space throughout. The effect was of being carried through a prismatic and protean structure that exists beyond time and space. The vision persists until clock time re-imposes the gentrified realities of the London Overground bus replacement service.

Petomane: Poor Homme

Petomane, Poor Homme
CD, 2015
http://petomane.bandcamp.com/album/poor-homme

IMG_1083


1960s beat group The Beatles recorded a song called “This Boy”. If I remember right, it was the b-side to one of their early 45s, “I’d Like to Shake Your Hand” – a brittle response to East-West tensions in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Anyway, at one point during “This Boy”, one of the singing Beatles cries a keening refrain, his voice filled with the charged adolescent emotion that drives almost all love songs in pop music. His voice rises to a desperate pitch, but the song demands that the tone is instantly brought back to the close harmony of the final verse. On the recording there is an audible cut at this point – not a sound, but the absence of sound: a tell-tale splice in the control room. The singer could not unleash the emotion, and then directly switch to the precise harmony of the verse. Is it a flaw? Of course not, but it lays the process bare. On Petomane’s Poor Homme, the recording process is similarly audible – nakedly revealing the limitations of the equipment.

Poor Homme’s title is recuperated (unknowingly?) from a 1990s advert for legendary wife-beater’s tipple, Stella Artois. As Interbrew’s (as was) most polarising drink, their adverts have ever-tried hopelessly to salvage the perception of the lager. Petomane, as ever, are drawn to such misdirection. This is the first album since the full integration of ancillary member M. K. Smith on guitar and backing vocals, and this augmentation introduced a new collaborative writing process. The resultant stylistic cohesion and rockist moments on the album were initially confounding, but the logic of the piece fell into place during the long coda of the opening song, “Big Guns”. The song galumphs like Dusty Springfield reinterpreted by Barry Adamson, circa 1995. Here the group links concerns old and new: quipping Aux armes et cætera, which harks back to perennial reference point Serge Gainsbourg, and combining it with the tooled-up, working-out of the lamentable man evoked by the album title. All this is done with their customary swell of musical and vocal tenderness. The political resonance is implicit throughout, but the timeless core of songwriting erupts as wildly as a sheela na gig in a council meeting. They have not lost the conceptual purity of a synth duo: they are augmented, the scope broadened – the spirit of Wendy Carlos Alomar.

The listener is confronted with a great profusion of fat arses and colourful jokes in the most compassionate songs. The puns are delivered entirely straight: jokes are not clumsily dropped in or played up, but are an integral part of the black humour used to discover our bearings in life’s profane comedy. The coexistence of comedy and tragedy is clearest in “Never Enough”, where we hear of the various metaphorical deaths of a comedian. “Live Long and Proper” is the most successful adoption of the rock form: Smith’s electric guitar strides in like The Clash in 1978 given slick FM Radio production, over a wistful tale of lost lust. As usual, Chris Kasch’s production favours a lot of space in the arrangements, and here the overdriven guitars provide a powerful counterpoint to the spare piano, synth, and drums of the verses. The words, written and sung by John P. Higgins, are not afraid of spirituality, divinity and archetypes. “The Savage Gob” ponders the sanctity of silence and the solemnity of flagstone. The final song, “Eskimo Nelson”, concludes with a beautiful evocation, rich in potent imagery, of the mysteries of inspiration. Poor Homme is a fascinating postcard from people out of place and out of time, made possible as the stars align, letting a little light down Petomane’s dilating passageway into this world of dim, austere foreclosure of passion and imagination.