Home Alone

Posted on December 6th, 2013

Usually when you watch a film, your reaction to it is all tangled up in what’s going on in your life at the time. Having had a pretty good day can see you declare The Holiday a filmic masterpiece (it’s not far off but come on: Jack Black is in it), while being a bit hungry and without easy access to snacks can mean that Citizen Kane will forever seem like the world’s longest and most boring film.

 

But that’s not the case with those childhood films you watched 365 times in a year, wandering in and out of the living room as they played on near-constant rotation, picking them up and putting them down as chores called or tea was ready.  Those are the films you know inside out and back to front. Those are the films people refuse to watch with you because you the words spill from your mouth as the characters say them.

 

There was about a year when the ex-rental Home Alone VHS would be on, day-in-day-out in the Solomon household, to the point where the tape got worn out and we had to record a new copy from the TV. These days, I treat myself to Home Alone just once a year. You’re an idiot if you watch it outside the two-week window of December 10th to 25th. I’ve been known to unfollow people on Twitter for watching it in May just because it’s on Channel 4. (When I’m in charge, people who watch festive films in May will be second against the wall – right behind the people who schedule festive films for broadcast in May.)

 

You get a different perspective on a film you’ve seen that many times and over a period of so many years, and in Home Alone there’s a lot to love. For a while I was too close to it to see why I like it so much but now I know: it’s because, like all middle children, I identified with Kevin McAllister. I identified hard.

 

Kevin’s not even a middle child. He’s the youngest of the core McAllister clan so I should really think he’s an annoying, mollycoddled little shit. But in that huge house littered with cousins and siblings where no one’s really being particularly nice to anyone else and everyone’s telling him to get out of their way, he’s this overwhelmed, overlooked little kid acting out in a way that is oh so familiar. Who didn’t annoy their parents for attention, daydream they were adopted or wish their family would disappear?

 

Then, when he gets his wish, he handles it. Kevin handles adult life in a way that 28-year-old me can only dream of. He knows what to look for in a toothbrush and doesn’t forget to buy milk: we are worlds apart.

 

And when I was eight? Galaxies. I have proof: once I was left behind in a church in France. As places to be left go it sure beats a funeral parlour but it still wasn’t ideal. In a group that included two babies, two toddlers, a teenager, two warring parents, an aunt, an uncle, a language barrier and 8-year-old me there was no need for the annoying kid from across the road to mess up the headcount, just two groups of adults who both thought I was with the other and me skulking about elsewhere.

 

When I realised everyone had disappeared and I was alone in a foreign country staring down the barrel of a language barrier, did I take it in my stride and foil a coupla sacrilegious burglars’ nefarious plans? If by “take it in my stride” you mean “panic madly” and by “foil burglars’ plans” you mean “burst into tears”: yes.

 

A wizened old nun came to see if I was ok and I choked out my go-to French phrase: “Parlez-vous Anglais?” But she shrugged helplessly and said, “Non.” That was it. That was all I had. No mannequins on train sets, no tar on the church steps, not even a quick bit of sledging down the aisle. Just tears. That was my arsenal. I was quite literally what the French call les incompetents.

 

Of course it was over before it had begun – they came back for me ten minutes later, a hurried shambles of a group tumbling back into the church like the McAllisters arriving home on Christmas morning except with buggies. I like to periodically bring it up when everyone’s feeling good about themselves – “hey, remember that time you abandoned me in a church in France? 10/10 parenting, guys.”

 

The reason I still love Home Alone so much is because I was Kevin and that was my great big shambles of a family. That was my sister telling me I’m useless, my mum accusing me of being the only one to make trouble, my brother refusing to share his room with me, my uncle hissing “Look what you did, you little jerk”.

 

That’s exactly what it was like to be a kid. And, hey, when you move away from home and you forget how it felt to be little and surrounded by people you love and loathe in equal measure, the only people you are ever really your real self around, being reminded of all that is pretty great.

Anyone with a larynx can rap: every song mentioned in Signifying Rappers

Posted on September 1st, 2013

Signifying Rappers is a collection of essays about rap music written by David Foster Wallace and Mark Costello. If you like DFW (which I do) and you like hip hop (which I do), then you should read it (which I did). It’s about a thousand miles away from perfect – there are factual errors and theories I categorically disagree with – but there are also plenty of really good bits. It’s quite fun to read D desperately trying and trying and trying again to explain, academically, what rap music actually is. M re-imagining I Dream of Jeanie with a Floridian race riot storyline. The world’s greatest answer phone message. Finding the only way to score interviews is to dress up as a stereotypical “Intellectual/Writer” (“turtlenecks; gleaming, unwashed hair; the thickest spectacles on the clear-lens rack”). Also, use of the phrase “electric angst-bagpipes”.

 

SR is basically two incredibly clever but slightly bored young men having a really nice time over-thinking something they’re really into. And that’s pretty great.

“If you’re reading this in print it’s already dated.”

It’s quite “of its time” though – that time being the late ‘80s, when I was a maximum of five years old. For every Public Enemy, there’s a Tam-Tam or a Tone-Loc that failed to endure solidly enough to make it onto the radar of a white girl growing up just down the road from Compton. No, not that Compton. Perhaps you find yourself in the same position. If so, here are the tracks worth getting involved with as you read. Legit Spotify editions where possible, dodgy YouTube links where not.

 

Here’s the full Spotify playlist. Here’s the full YouTube playlist.

 

Bonus additions: some words I looked up, some references explained, some page numbers, three sidenotes, two questions, two songs that aren’t in the book and one picture of Just-Ice’s teeth.


Schoolly D – Signifying Rapper

p.3, 86, 110, 111 (and probably more)

Given that it lends the book its title and is discussed repeatedly (and at length), you might want to listen to Signifying Rapper a few times before you start reading Signifying Rappers. It is “a truly great song”, as discussed beautifully on p.104. It is also, on p.86, “not exactly Dante” but the titular rapper’s “mix of cruel wit and silly pride is vintage Legba”.

[Side note: The authors don’t half bang on about Schoolly D’s album Smoke Some Kill which seems to have been discontinued. Tricky to get hold of anyway and it’s not on Spotify.]

Schoolly D – Black Man

“…which samples a tape of Black Panther Minister of Justice H. Rap Brown declaring You can’t do your own thing if your own thing ain’t the right thing.” The authors listen to this song as they drive down John F Fitzgerald Expressway “so we’re listening to an ‘80s admirer of a ‘60s protest populist once attacked as a demagogue by the grandson of the demagogue on whose namesake we ride”.

[demagogue: a political agitator who sways people by appealing to the emotions more than to reason]

Schoolly D – Same White Bitch

This is the song that causes M some singalong soul-searching with the line “Yellow’s ok but white ain’t shit”.

Tam-Tam

Since she doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, I’m guessing Tam-Tam didn’t end up putting the Boston rap scene indelibly on the map. I couldn’t find her song I’m Cryin’ that’s mentioned (see below), but you can listen to snippets of (I think) most of her back catalogue on All Music.

As an added bonus, here’s Do It Tam-Tam. While the blazers and dancing are both very impressive, the best thing about the video is that Tam-Tam’s niece has commented on it. She reports that Tam-Tam is “doing alright. She’s still here in Boston”. I think she’s an actress now.

Antoinette – I’m Cryin’

Tam-Tam’s I’m Cryin’ may have disappeared but Antoinette’s rip-off cut is alive and well on the internet. Unfortunately Tam-Tam’s revenge single, Ho You’re Guilty, is not.

James Brown – Funky President

“…in which James announces his third-party candidacy.” Great dad joke, M.

Anyway, I’ve included this only partly for the dad joke. The album it’s taken from, Dead on the Heavy Funk, features two audio snippets sampled in the aforementioned and sadly lost Ho You’re Guilty: “some of Bobby Byrd’s Dead guitar, and a holy moment when James exhales rhythmically”. So there you go.

BDP – Why Is That?

“A rap… blaming our miseries on the failure of the schools to ‘teach black kids to be black’.”

Beastie Boys – Hold It Now, Hit It

p.104, 129

Both D and M are pretty dismissive of the “execrable” (extremely bad or unpleasant) Beastie Boys, I guess partly because they were only going on the jock-rap of Licensed to Ill. If the Beastie Boys were your gateway into hip hop, the group that made it feel kind of ok for you, a small white girl from middle-class middle England, to like rap music, D’s vicious but probably quite chronologically fair footnote on p.129 will make you sad. I wonder if he ever warmed to them.

Anyway, LTI’s Hold It Now, Hit It does get a mention for being subject of a lawsuit over sampling and raising the pressing legal question “Can you have a proprietary right to the word ‘yo’?”

 

[side note: Paul’s Boutique was released in July 1989, Signifying Rappers was written in “summer ‘89” and first published in 1990.]

Alice Toklas

Alice Toklas was not a rapper*. In 1B, D describes the rap crew setup. He writes, “The MC’s Alice-Toklas-esque DJ hovers ever nearby over his buffet of connected turntables and the black Germanness of a whole lot of digital editing and playback equipment.”

Alice Toklas was Gertrude Stein’s “confidante, lover, cook, secretary, muse, editor, critic, and general organiser” after whom Stein named her memoirs: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Basically a sidekick/wind-beneath-your-wings type of situation.

*as far as I know

Public Enemy – Public Enemy No. 1

Public Enemy No. 1 is the song quoted when D describes clock-wielding DJ/hype man Flavor Flav as “the Mozart” of acting as comedy foil to a rapper’s serious schtick.

LL Cool J – I’m Bad

You need to be familiar with this song to get maximum amusement from the writers’ disdain for it. “LL Cool J, Number 1 fan of his own success and general panache.” Great headgear of our time, also.

N.W.A. – I Ain’t Tha 1

Ice Cube being “too frankly nasty for anyone even to want to be around him” as he raps

You know I spell Girl with a B
And a brother like me’s only out for one thing
I think with my dingaling…
You want lobster?
Hah, I’m thinkin’ Burger King
And after the date you know I’ll want to do the wildest thing
…I got what I wanted – now beat it.

N.W.A. – Straight Outta Compton

Ice Cube being “too frankly nasty for anyone even to want to be around him” tries an LA patrolman for “the crime of being a white-bread chickenshit mothafucka”.

Public Enemy – Fight the Power

p.125

Here’s the video which was directed by Spike Lee. You may also want to watch Do The Right Thing.

“The single white glove holding Pepsi aloft in the shadow of accidental flames…”

Farrakhanesque

Referring to Louis X.

Ice-T’s MTV advert

“Except but now hey kids! Thanks to AT&T you can now speak directly to Ice T and hear his philosophy of life by phone! 1-900-907-9111. ‘Chill out with Ice T,’ the rapper, adrape in military hardware and ammunition, says on MTV; ‘I’m just waiting on you to call me,’ pointing at the camera and then himself lest the audience get at all confused.”

Devastatingly, I couldn’t find a video of this anywhere. If you happen across one, please let me know.

Donahue’d

This refers to the imaginatively-named Phil Donahue Show, supposedly the first chat show to incorporate audience participation. Oprah Winfrey said, “If it weren’t for Phil Donahue, there never would have been an Oprah Show!” Thanks Phil!

Prolegomena – introductory remarks

De La Soul – The Magic Number

The phrase “dialect drug” – the new vernacular adopted by rappers – is from this very solid De La Soul track.

Public Enemy – Terminator X Speaks With His Hands

p.64

Rock that shit, homie. Is that a dentist’s drill? asks M. Or a buzzsaw? Either way, “The result: aural paranoia.”

Public Enemy – Terminator X to the Edge of Panic

p.65

Chuck’s delivery abolishes verses, leaving no listening space between either his beats or his words. He tells you to go go go, but won’t let you out.”

Stetsasonic – A.F.R.I.C.A.

p.65

“Part of rap’s coming of age” as it diversified “into topics well beyond the simple get-off-my-basketball-court formulas… taking in Leviticus, AIDS, famine, the Oliver North trial, all that pop and folk have ever taken in and more…”

Stetsasonic’s A.F.R.I.C.A. is a plodding “anti-apartheid cut in the ‘We Are The World’ tradition” and features some pretty solid rhymes for various areas of Africa and a man beatboxing wetly as soldiers shoot civilians in fuzzy-edged thought bubbles green-screened behind him.

The Oliver North trial

p.65

Oliver North was tried as part of the Iran-Contra affair in the late ‘80s. In 1986, it emerged that the US had sold weapons to Iran (then under an arms embargo), as part of a deal to secure the release of US hostages being held in Lebanon. North devised a plan to use the money from these illegal arms sales to illegally fund rebels (Contras) in Nicaragua. During his trial, he destroyed a number of key documents which muddied the water as to whether or not then-President Reagan knew what was going on. There were also allegations that he had dealings with drug traffickers.

North was found guilty on three counts. He received a fine, some community service and no prison time. In the early ‘90s he was cleared of some of the charges. He now works for Fox News because of course he does.

De La Soul – Plug Tunin’

p.66

“Good luck to both of you!”

There is also a brief discussion of some other vaguely comical pop culture samples De La Soul used on their album 3 Feet High and Rising so the whole thing is probably worth digging out. It’s only £5 on Amazon, guys. Come on. Let’s not mess around.

DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince – Girls Ain’t Nothin But Trouble

p.66

“Quintessential Fresh Prince” and the inspiration behind M’s excellent I Dream of Race Riots vignette. The whole bit about Girls Ain’t Nothin But Trouble is solid gold. From Public Enemy’s “The White Capitalist Oligarchy Ain’t Nothin But Trouble” to “Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince show[ing] up in Tony Nelson’s Cocoa Beach, asking Jeannie if she’s got plans for the rest of the afternoon”.

“It’d seem surreally unjust, like being asked to do puberty again at 26.”

Fuck that.

 

Run DMC – Walk This Way

p.73

There is no chance you haven’t heard Walk This Way – it even made it to Wolverhampton – but you should watch the video if you haven’t already, a sugar-coated illustration of the racial segregation switcheroo that happened in pop culture: deeply uncool white people desperately wanting to in on the awesome black party that’s going on next door.

Just-Ice

p.83

“Just-Ice has all gold teeth with his name spelled in gems across his incisors, and he was recently jailed again for sending a girlfriend to the hospital.”


Public Enemy – Miuzi Weighs a Ton

p.84

“…the ‘Uzi’ actually means only the ‘machine gun’ of Public Enemy’s music, of Chuck’s own voice and message.”

Public Enemy – Miuzi Weighs A Ton. Followed by an explanation of pop-metonymy that DFW can explain to you much better than I can.

[Side note: I wonder how many times in his life Flavor Flav has said “Yo Chuck”.]

Paul McCartney and Sting discuss “this so-called rap music”

p.95

I am disappointed to report that I couldn’t find a clip of the MTV History of Rap Special (1989) during which the following exchange takes place:

A question

p.102

“And it goes a little something like this.”

Who was the first to use this line? Was it DJ Kool in Let Me Clear My Throat? I can’t work it out. My favourite is the beginning of Jurassic 5’s In The Flesh (1998) though, so here it is:

Another question, this time posed by D

p. 107

“Which is the product, in pop – the sounds or the containers they come in?”

Something something piracy debate, something something music streaming.

Storytime raps

p.111

“The outside listener must not only take the rap ‘on authority’; he must read that rap as story.”

On the question of just what the hell is rap music anyway, D adds a footnote on rap-as-story and gives the following examples:

A subgenre epitomised by Regulate, I’d say:

QBC – Back To School

p.118

The album cover described on p.118 is on this video, with a bonus song to enjoy while you peer at it. Warning: features “a lot” as one word.

Public Enemy – Caught, Can We Get A Witness?

p.120

Public Enemy – Caught, Can We Get A Witness? is the definitive Copyright Infringement Lawsuit jam.

James Brown – Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud

p. 126

James Brown – Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud is heavily sampled in “hours” of rap, and described by M as “may be the real start of that wardrobe of ‘tudes called rap”.

“The very funniest raps”

p.134

D’s exhausting discussion of the circularity of rap, the having and the having not and the relentlessly gauche discussion of money points out that “the very funniest raps” deftly parody this obsession with dead presidents:

I dunno guys, I’ve heard funnier.

LL Cool J – I’m That Type of Guy

p.138

Sure, they pour disdain on LL throughout the book but DFW and M still seem to give him a free pass to bust out these vapid, arrogant rhymes because “simple answer: he’s saying he exists”, while striking the Beastie Boys down for being pissed off with their parents.

Schoolly D – No More Rock N Roll

p.144

“A music that screams, with Schoolly D, ‘No more fuckin Rock n Roll!’ can’t but be a vital force on rock.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vg_Ksggwm6k

Young Nation

p.146

I couldn’t find any music but Young Nation did play for Nelson Mandela in 1990, so they did all right.

 Stop The Violence Movement – Self Destruction

p.150

Self destruction, you’re headed for self destruction” – with all the subtlety of a brick.

Ice-T – The Hunted Child

p.149

“A rap I heard once in June ‘89 over WILD-AM/Boston and have never since been able either to trace or forget.”

Uncovered as Ice-T’s The Hunted Child Robert Christgau who is, it’s fair to say, not this book’s biggest fan. Man loves his Beastie Boys, after all.

But hey, if I were M I’d just be glad to have found out what that song I loved was.

 

Incidental music

I’ve included these in the Spotify playlist where possible, since they get a proper mention in Signifying Rappers but not to the extent that they’re worth commenting on.

Bobby Brown – My Prerogative

MC Lyte – Lyte vs Vanna Whyte

MC Lyte – 10% Dis 

Russell Rush and Jazzy Jay – Cold Chillin’ In The Spot

Ice T – Rhyme Pays

Kool Moe Dee

Slick Rick

LA Dream Team

2 Live Crew

Gang Starr – Step In The Arena

Run DMC

NWA

Eazy-E

K-9 Posse – This Beat Is Military

Eric B & Rakim – Paid in Full

Just-Ice – Latoya

Bob Dylan – Ballad of a Thin Man

Muddy Waters – Mannish Boy

Gil Scott-Heron – The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

Keith LeBlanc – No Sellout

Bobby Brown – Don’t Be Cruel

Big Daddy Kane – Raw

 

Minor shout outs

A ‘further listening’ kind of deal – artists that get a mention but not to the extent that they were worth putting into the playlist or are Bette Middler. 

SaltNPepa

Neneh Cherry

Diana Ross – Where Did Our Love Go?

JJ Fad

Tone-Loc

Egyptian Lover

Fat Boys

Heavy D

MC Hammer

Teddy Riley and Guy

Kwabe

Bobcat

Young MC

Bette Midler – Do You Want to Dance?

Michael Jackson – Man In The Mirror

DJ Kool Herc

Jazzy Five & Afrika Bambaataa

Sugarhill Gang – Rapper’s Delight

King Tim III’s Personality Jock

Grandmaster Flash

Eric Fresh

The Unknown DJ

Syria

Posted on August 24th, 2013

Sometimes you scan the news and, despite your best efforts, stories slip in and out of your brain without sticking. So you know about things in general terms: the economy is a mess. The weather is unseasonably good. The Tories are screwing us over. The weather is unseasonably bad. There is a lot of unrest in the Middle East. Because, hey, you’re busy. There’s the crappy day you just had at work, that friend you’re annoyed with and what to have for tea to think about. So maybe you don’t give the details of a political situation in a country about as culturally far away from you as possible as much brainspace as it probably deserves.

 

But there are things that do manage to get their hooks in. Phrases like “chemical weapons” and “massacred children”.

 

I visited Syria in April 2011. It was a strange time for the country, just after the first few violence-tinged Friday protests had taken place. My sister Angela was living in Damascus and my then-boyfriend Matt and I had booked the flights to visit her before anything major really kicked off. As our departure date loomed and things hotted up, we weren’t sure whether or not we should go. But my sister assured us things were mainly fine in Damascus and the Foreign Office travel advice, which I F5ed constantly the week before the flight, basically said the same thing. So we signed up to the (now defunct) Locate programme and figured it would be fine.

We spent most of our trip in the centre of Damascus, a dusty, yellowed city with narrow streets toppling in on themselves and stall after stall of glittering, shining tat. The men gawp and the ladies tut and tell you to cover yourself up no matter how demure your outfit. The people are kind and friendly but not quite warm – they’ll fall over themselves to help you out but always keep you at arm’s length.

Everywhere we went there were posters, billboards and pictures in the windows of people’s homes and cars of President Assad. He’s a tall, hamsterish guy and in these official portraits he always has a half-smile playing around his mustachioed mouth. One day we got caught on the edge of a huge pro-Assad demonstration. People spilled out on to the roofs of buses and onto the roads as we drove out of the city. They had banners held high and jangling chimes filled the gaps between cheers and shouts.

Someone told us that these demonstrations were a farce, that you had no choice but to take part and vocalise your support for Assad and his military regime. I don’t know if that’s true or not. The people in Syria were desperate for us not to think that anything untoward was going on. A man who ran a rug shop in Damascus invited us in, made us tea and talked to us for at least twenty minutes about how the country’s troubles were over because no one could keep the peace between disparate tribes in and around the country but Assad. There’d be no more violence, he told us. It’s over.

 

When I started thinking about writing this post, I looked up my notes from the trip. What’s strange is how blasé I was about that one protest we got a bit caught up in, which was huge and unlike anything I had ever seen before. What’s even stranger is that the scariest things we saw – things that were never fully explained to us – don’t feature in my notes at all.

You can read those notes in full at the end of this post, if you want. They seem to revolve mostly around food and a man named Farouk. Farouk was our driver – he was lacking in the dental department and so became known as Toothless Farouk. We hired him to take us to the Roman ruins at Palmyra (they are incredible) and en route he asked if we’d like to try on some traditional Bedouin garb at a weird little cafe in the middle of the desert. We said no thank you. He made us do it anyway:

By far the most unsettling thing we saw in Syria was on the motorway as Toothless Farouk drove us back to Damascus from Aleppo. You might recognise the name Aleppo from the news: it’s a town in the north of Syria famous for its olive oil soap and beautiful 13th century citadel. It was also described by the BBC this week as “a city where snipers shoot children”. That 800-year-old castle has now been damaged by shellfire.

On the way there, Farouk played a Celine Dion tape at full blast and helped himself to our food. At one point, he stopped so we could “take pictures of the view” before disappearing. Taking pictures of the view took about three seconds: after fifteen minutes kicking our heels outside the car, we found him having a full meal in a nearby restaurant. He also pointed out cows to us (“Cows, cows, cows”) and told us that “Iraq is all around us”, which I’m not sure was geographically accurate.

We spent a night in the city, where my sister and I were ruthlessly scrubbed by harried local women in a closing hammam while Matt was treated like a king in a men-only one. Afterwards, we drank cocktails and looked out over the ancient city as the sun went down.

About an hour into the four hour drive back to Damascus, plumes of black smoke rose from the road ahead. The oncoming traffic thinned and soon there was nothing travelling towards Aleppo at all. A collection of people littered the road ahead and as we passed we saw armed police milling around outside a battered-looking bus. Farouk slowed and stopped the car, told us to stay put and not to take any photos, then got out to talk to some men on our side of the central reservation. The black smoke was still ahead of us. Across the road, the bus was riddled with bullet holes.

Farouk batted our questions away when he returned to the car and wouldn’t tell us anything about the situation. He insisted that everything was fine, but everything was clearly not fine. Farouk, who we were used to being a little too at ease in any situation, was very tense. Angela, Matt and I sat in uncomfortable silence, exchanging worried looks and chewing our lips. Soon after we’d stopped, we were forced off the motorway by police and on to barely paved side roads that ran parallel to the motorway. The angry black smoke was still rising on our left. It grew closer and then receded as we passed whatever the source was, hidden from us by dense bushes. Some time later, we were allowed back on to the main road and the rest of the journey passed without incident. At some point, Celine was back on the stereo telling us that her heart will go on and on.

We talked quietly about the bus and the smoke and agreed not to tell mum, but we never managed to find out what had happened. Things obviously weren’t as calm in Syria as they seemed on the surface.

 

In the two years since I visited, the country has descended into civil war. I don’t pretend to know much about why it happened or how it could possibly be resolved but the stories coming from Syria are among the worst that people of my generation have ever heard.

I fear for the people there who were as kind and normal and real as anyone I’ve ever met. The sadly inaccurate rug seller. The chattering, clucking women of the souk. The girl who thought I was beautiful. The twenty-somethings who shared a rare bottle of wine with us in a restaurant in the Christian quarter where alcohol is allowed. The endless stream of bolshy teenagers selling knock-off DVDs. The surly Hammam ladies. Habeeb, a middle-aged guy who kept canaries and taught us to play the oud. The dad-like men who watched us make a hash of backgammon before taking it upon themselves to teach us. Toothless Farouk.

Maybe they’ve joined the fight for democracy. Maybe they’re still in Syria but safe. Maybe they left and made it across the border to Lebanon to the strains of Think Twice. I hope. I hope.

 

Donate to the Red Cross or Medecins Sans Frontieres.

 

Notes from Syria:

A huuuuuge breakfast with delicious foul and Turkish delight jam. Asking for salt and getting fruit. A stroll around the souk. No need for lunch. More souktime. A handdrawn map home from the Saudi embassy. Downtime at Ang’s, a meeting about the demonstrations, dinner with Tom who knows Tom who knows Tom among others. Dodgy falafel.

Protests, people on top of bus, camels, lizards, columns, tombs, toothless Farouk, sandwiches, beetles, how to catch a scorpion, snakes aren’t so bad, Zenobia was ace, hammams, Bedouin tents and garb. A French man with moustache and beret. A long day. Dates come from palm trees, who knew. A western toilet! A Turkish toilet for Matt at Bagdad cafe! Police checks. Iraq is all around. Same same same. 800 km from Bagdad. Spaghetti for tea. A dodgy start to the day(!). Protests and demonstrations. Salt and vinegar crisps “I keep this?” yeah all right then. I got this English music for you and on comes celine dion. Preview tape of the tape. Farouk’s singing and also his dodgy accordion music. The president of qatar’s new crib.

Walking over the israeli flag in the souk. Easter crap. Fabric. Falafel sandwiches. A national speech. Backgammon with random customers. An oud lesson or two. DVDs. Pinking shears from japan not china (ha). Drinks with real live syrians. Toy story. Angela asking “what kind of aeroplanes are those?” when she meant birds (canaries at habeeb the oud dude’s house).

Getting lost in dodgy corridors of krak des chevaliers, a million terrifying stairs. A view of the fatherland. Farouk eating instead of driving. Farouk stealing our food. Farouk singing “I will always love you”. Louzes, mouzards and a swarm of bees. A low-flying bird. Friendly bacteria having a party in my tummy. Pistachio trees. Bannanabananabanana. Health and safety in absentium.

Harkive – a thrilling account of my musical day

Posted on July 9th, 2013

Here’s a thing that I am doing. You can read about it here.

 

8.20am – I woke up late and felt a bit blue, so I wasted four minutes and two seconds I couldn’t really spare dancing around my room to Phoenix’s Lisztomania which I played from Spotify on an AirPlay-ed speaker via an iPad. It was an audio pick-me-up and it did the trick. I felt much better. But I was also quite late.

 

8.45am (ok, 9.00am) – Off to work. Couldn’t be bothered to think about what to listen to so I just put my starred Spotify items on shuffle. Can’t remember what it played (solid gold hit after solid gold hit, probably) until The Wombles’ Minuetto Alegretto came on as I walked through Covent Garden in the sunshine. It was glorious, and was followed by Alien Ant Farm’s Movies because apparently I am still a child.

 

10.15am – Hall & Oates’ You Make My Dreams comes on as I go underground at Piccadilly Circus. Strong urge to tap dance down the platform. I resist.

 

10.30am – I get to the office (I went to an event inbetween guys, don’t worry. It doesn’t take me an hour and a half to get to work) just as Get Lucky comes on. I’ve been through the full spectrum of human emotion with this song and I’m back round to ecstatic, dance-fuelled love for it. So that’s nice. A man holds the lift for me, I think he can sense the posi disco vibes.

 

10.35am – Stroll in to the office just as the Flaming Lips’ Do You Realize comes on the radio which is WEIRD because I was JUST listening to it before Get Lucky came on shuffle. I point out that this is weird. My colleagues are nonplussed.

 

12.25pm – I remember there are two things in my Twitter favourites I want to listen to. The first is Hitboy’s take on Kanye West’s New Slaves, which I like, the second is on Soundcloud – Woman’s Hour have done a cover of Dancing in the Dark, which is woozy and dreamy and lovely and I love it. I download it and add it to my iTunes library. Then I spend a good five minutes trying and failing to embed it here.

 

12.35pm – I listen to Our Love Has No Rhythm by Woman’s Hour on Spotify because it’s wonderful. I add it to my playlist of songs I always want to star when I listen to them, even though I have already starred them. I get distracted by, yknow, work and end up listening to the Woman’s Hour two-song EP for an hour.

 

2.10pm – There’s a new Wavves album. I give it a go. I’m not into it. Then I watch this dreamy video of Local Natives and have a fairly OTT emotional reaction to Ceilings. There are butterflies in my tummy and a lump in my throat and I’m not really sure what to do with myself. So I’ve put Hummingbird on and, because I’m obsessed with it and my colleagues have just put the cricket or something else tedious on the office TV, I’ll probably listen to it on repeat for the rest of the day.

 

3.05pm – HOLD THE PHONE. The day has taken a musical turn that no one – NO ONE – saw coming. My excellent friend and colleague Sarah sent me this Annie track which she sold to me with the following description:

This is pretty mega if you like 90s Italo house which I do, a lot.

Insta-listen. It turns out to be pretty mega. Obviously it was then back to Spotify for some Livin’ Joy action. Am I a dreamer? Yes. Yes I am. Now I’m all at musical sea. I don’t know where to go next. Music, man. So brill.

 

3.33pm – Email from Huh announces that its July mix is out. It’s pretty great. I already like several of the songs and I’ve starred three new ones from it. The Washed Out song is a kind of sun-soaked, ’90s tinged summer tune which I approve of. I add it to my totally tropical playlist. Solar Year sound like I might fall in love with them at a later date. That Waxahatchee song is a dream. Plus the fact that it opens with Arctic Monkeys gives me a good excuse to link to this which I’ve had open in a tab all day long. Been listening to this playlist on repeat for most of the rest of the afternoon.

 

5.52pm – Another curve ball. Giving new Snoop a go before leaving the office – it’s very much Snoop Dogg, not at all Snoop Lion. It’s got a lazy mid-’90s vibe. Which is nice.

 

Okay. Now I’m going to go and see Iggy Azalea for some reason. Music, eh? It’s a mixed bag.

 

5.57pm – Stop the presses! Someone ace made me a Beach Boys playlist so I listened to the opening track and now I’m jazzed to hear to the rest tomorrow. Okay. Now for some questionable filth-pop-rap-nonsense.

Michael, part two

Posted on July 8th, 2013

Michael was about seven when he made his first bid for freedom.

 

It was the mid-’90s. Country House was battling Roll With It for number one. The summer was long and hot, the clothes ill-fitting and generally ill-advised. My sister is into Oasis and Alanis Morissette so I am into Oasis and Alanis Morissette. We think Batman Forever is very cool. We are yet to be blown away by Toy Story.

 

We lived in the nice bit of Wolverhampton – there is one – a villagey suburb called Tettenhall which had a little green, a gorgeous library, an outdoor paddling pool and a handful of shops clustered around a clock-tower. Our house was down an unadopted road (that’s council code for pothole-heavy) about a ten minute walk from ‘the village’. It was a mark of great maturity when I was finally allowed to walk to the village alone – or at least accompanied by my slightly older and vastly more sensible friend Anna who lived round the corner. The walk took us along winding residential roads, most of which didn’t have pavements and were populated by pleasant people with neat gardens pretending they didn’t live in Wolverhampton.


By the paddling pool, there is a main road with a pelican crossing that you have to cross before you got to the shops. In those days, there were two shops of note: Mosaic, a hippy-ish gift shop that smelled of incense and sold purple-hued notebooks and greetings cards, and Stars, the newsagents where we spent our pocket money on Smash Hits and lemon sherberts.


Another sunny day rolled around and we were all at home lolling around the garden or making potions in the bathroom or cooking in the kitchen. The long, narrow garden was fairly well fortified against the escape attempts of enterprising toddlers, but it wasn’t too tricky to reach a small arm through the driveway gates and unhook the latch that kept them closed. It was something we did every day on the way to school. It was something Michael had watched us do a thousand times.


I don’t remember how or when we realised that Michael was missing, but in a matter of minutes the entire neighbourhood was out combing the streets. Mum was pale, frantic. Neighbours were dispatched down the hill to the churchyard, along the road to Tim and Kate’s house, round the corner towards Michael’s friend Susie’s, down the other side of the slope to the chip shop and anywhere else we could think of that Michael might aim for, desperately trying not to think of the alternatives.

 

I was the one who found him, merrily pushing a doll’s pushchair along the pavement next to the paddling pool, heading straight for the pelican crossing and on to the village where he’d planned to visit Stars. He was fine. He was better than fine: he was having a ball. His chubby legs seemed to swing round in their sockets like a toy as he leaned forward on the handles of the pushchair, thrilled with himself. His red cheeks were as bright as his shorts, his jaunty striped t-shirt dimmed by the beam on his face. He just wanted to go to the village and he decided he’d go.

 

To be continued. You can read part one if you like.

Michael

Posted on June 9th, 2013

Slowly but surely, Michael learned to smile and sit and laugh and walk and talk. Every one a landmark achievement. His nose ran incessantly. His tongue was amazingly long. He chewed the arm of a sofa while watching endless episodes of Thomas The Tank Engine to the point we had to gaffer tape the sofa together. He developed deep and long-held loves for Marmite, Disney films, cars and trains.

Happy Banana Day Everybody

Posted on April 10th, 2013

It is* 380 years to the day since the first bananas went on sale in the UK. It’s important that we all celebrate this because bananas are excellent.

Let’s review:

1. Bananas are yellow (thanks, cartenoids!). Yellow is a fine colour. Nobody doesn’t like the colour yellow. Nobody except 32% of people on this website here. But what you have to remember is that 32% of people are idiots. And I’m not trying to say it’s the same 32%, but it definitely is.
2. That shape. You can’t feel sad looking at a banana. Even an abandoned and decomposing banana skin will raise a smile. Try saying the same about an apple core. Bananas are nature’s jesters.
3a. You know that cliché about there being a party in your mouth and everyone’s invited? That was invented to describe what it’s like to eat a banana.
3b. I know what you’re thinking, though: is there ever a time when a banana doesn’t taste good? Yes: when you’re the wrong side of hungover. But apart from that, any time is a good time for a banana.
3c. Wait, actually, while I don’t doubt that it would still taste good, you definitely should not eat a banana on a train while reading 50 Shades of Grey (memo to lady I once sat opposite on the train). Also, if the BBC is filming something in your office and you can clearly be seen in the background, probably best to hang fire. But apart from those specific instances, it’s always a good time for a banana break.
4. It is never not funny to pretend to use a banana as a phone when you are a grown-up.
5. They are really good for you. Twitchy eye? A potassium-packed banana will clear it right up. High blood pressure? Two bananas a day will help regulate that. Bones feeling a bit unhealthy? I prescribe banana. Stomach ulcers? Soothe those bad boys with some banana. Bit tired? Get some natural banana-flavoured sugars in you. Feel blue? Have a banana – quite aside from the sunny colour, delicious taste and comical shape, they make you feel better because of vitamin yay or some kind of science or something. Whatever. That’s not why I’m here guys, Google it yourself.
6. I haven’t read this:

But the answer is no**.

7a. Ryan Gosling once had a banana. Lucky banana.

Gosling and a banana: a match made in heaven

7b. If ladies are more your style, good news! I risked my good name and gave pageviews to terrible lads mag lists by googling various questionable search terms like “hottest woman alive” (Fuck you, FHM! Bore off, Men’s Health!) and “mila kunis dressed as a banana” to bring you this:

That doesn’t seem to be a thing that has happened yet.
8. Bananas come in their own perfect natural packaging.
9. Other fruits are ok, but apples can hurt your teeth, there are always pips in oranges and grapes, you get orange nails from peeling satsumas and the less said about grapefuit the better. I am partial to a pear. But, really, come on, let’s face it, none of these can hold a candle to the majesty of the banana.
10. Something something bananas cats*****.


Here are some recipes you might like to try:

Mashed banana sandwich

  • 1 banana
  • 2 slices of bread
  • (optional: Nutella, second banana)

1. Mash banana
2. Put in bread
3. Eat
4. DIE HAPPY

 

Banana caramel surprise

  • 1 banana
  • 1 Cadbury’s caramel egg
  • (optional: helper, second banana)

1. Peel caramel egg
2. Peel banana
3. Take a bite of banana
4. Take a bite of caramel egg
5. ENJOY

 

Banana for beginners

  • 1 banana
  • (optional: second banana)

1. peel banana
2. eat banana
3. REJOICE

 

Here is a playlist:

Of banana-related songs (yes, it took me an embarrassingly long time to come up with Bananarama).

So now. Please. Go out. Pick up a bunch of bananas and share them with your loved ones when you go round to wish them a happy Banana Day. Then kick back with the banana playlist on loud and crack one open. Maybe later have another. Try not to think about the many potential innuendoes and unintentional double entendres there are relating to the world’s best fruit and thank christmas for Thomas Johnson seeing the potential of the humble banana back in 1633.



*Apparently. This anniversary showed up in our work calendar under ‘tech events’, so we’re kicking off from a fairly questionable classification to begin with. After some pretty standard Googling (guys, I am a professional), I found this which says that the first proper refrigerated banana shipment arrived in June 1902. That also sounds plausible. But wait! What’s this? A mid-15th century banana skin unearthed in Southwark in 1999? Basically, let’s not ruin Banana Day by overthinking things. Any time is a good time to celebrate the banana.

**I am not a doctor. If you eat a thousand bananas and die, do not sue me. The cause of death would be RAPTURES*** anyway.

***Again, I have literally no medical training of any kind****.

****Lie. I am a doctor’s daughter.

*****This is the internet, after all.

[The banana image at the top of this post is the sterling work of keepon on Flickr.]

A handwritten history

Posted on March 11th, 2013

I have very suggestible handwriting. Some people soak up accents, I absorb scrawl. Even as I write this in my notebook I can identify certain people, peering back through decades to see the influence of some who played only a minor role in the teenage act of my life. Yet there they are, represented in the loops and swirls of my words.

There’s Cat, an enigma of a girl loved by all but herself; I’ve barely spoken to her in the last ten years but I see her all the time in the shapes of my hs and ns and ms. Something like a defiant, almost aggressive arch, slightly too wide with an angular peak challenging you: and what? With a minor flick at the end – not quite a flourish – that says oh this? I just do this for fun. I don’t care if it’s right or you like it, this is just how it is.

An ex-boyfriend, Alex, annoys me from every long-tailed Y and G I make – a weirdly effeminate, thoroughly obnoxious garnish designed to impress but unwilling to concede any ground even when proven to be wrong. My erratic, loopy Os are all my sister Angela, as are my uppercase As with a swaying backwards swoosh echoed throughout my almost entirely plagiarised signature; a flashy show of adolescent ego echoing through the years.

I’ve worked hard to eliminate them but sometimes my lower-case a’s lapse into Bethanys. From the once exotic twist of the upright style with its unnecessary overhead curl that we thought set us apart from the italic style milieu to the obnoxious pregnancy of her contrary italics. A destructive, confusing friend, we exchanged countless destructive, confusing notes in our ever-changing teenage script. Sometimes we wrote to each other upside down, for no obvious reason. Other times we highlighted letters in text books or wrote notes consisting of only the first letter of each word. Cyphers that weren’t cyphers, tests that proved nothing.

My parents are hidden away in the mechanics of my handwriting; the joints between letters, the slurs between words. They aren’t always there but they show up from time to time, always with a signaturial look that reminds me of signing my homework diary on their behalves every Monday morning.

My loopy lower-case ks are courtesy of Sadie and every so often there’s a flash of heavy-penned Jess and a hit of nostalgia for all those mixtapes and heartfelt notes about how terrible everything was and how wonderful each other were, pacts made and broken, and sweeping, wide-eyed optimism for how great it’ll be when we’re older and we can get away from here and everything will be fine.

There’s evidence of Rachael, who was the envy of my junior school class before my handwriting was advanced enough to take hers on, chameleon-like, as it did in later years. I just have to think about Emma and her beautiful copperplate before I feel myself channelling it as I write, the letters widening, the loops sweeping across the page with over-the-top romance. And just occasionally I spot the precise, metered timbre of Miss Chrimes’ notes jotted on piano scores that I haven’t even looked at since I was 16.

I like it, my scrapbook handwriting. It ebbs and flows with my mood. I wonder whose I’ll take on next, who of my current acquaintances will make it in – or if anyone even will. Now that we only email and text, maybe that’s the end for my calligraphic roll-call; in which case it’s destined to be a snapshot of my teenage correspondence forever.

The best and the least worst of the London 2012 Opening Ceremony

Posted on July 28th, 2012

Nobody really knew what to expect from Danny ‘Trainspotting but also 127 Hours’ Boyle last night but I don’t think many of us predicted a The-Queen-starring Bond skit and a mad Victorian Industrorave. After weeks of Boris-toned Olympics nonsense so lacking in common sense and civic decency it sounded made up, we came not knowing the particulars but fairly confident that we’d see the ceremonial equivalent of a cringey town-hall wedding that descends into a drunken brawl, your mum weeping in the loos and your uncle trying to get crunk on the dancefloor.

How wrong we were: the ceremony was non-stop brilliant from start to finish (ignoring the boring speeches and Seb Coe as history will). Even the neverending procession of Olympic athletes was diverting thanks to the continuing brilliance of Twitter.

The whole thing left us all with a mildly confrontational look in our eye that says, “Yeah, world? You wanna come to our party? Obviously you do, we’re insane and we’re British and we’ve had quite a lot of gin, possibly a spot of drugs and it’s going to be fucking excellent.”

It was a competition with Beijing 2008 and we won it hands down. It was a pre-emptive competition with Rio 2016 and we basically won that hands down too, although they’re known for a good carnival and they’ve got four years to add some acid-magic to whatever they’re working on, so you never know.

We should have known that the London Olympics wasn’t going to stand for any of that kumbaya rubbish since the day they unveiled that weird logo, a jazzy number that speaks of a creative team brought up on CBBC and a history of mind-altering substances with, let’s face it, balls of steel because literally everyone hated it. Some still do – personally, I quite like it and even more so after last night. I mean, come on. Look at Rio’s and Beijing’s. Megayawn.

London’s logo is a big fuck you to that happy clappy let’s all hold hands around the world and light candles and don’t worry if you don’t win, it’s the taking part that counts. Sorry, no, it’s the medals. It’s absolutely the hardware that counts. Also, did we mention that we just took gold in opening ceremonies? Forever?

That’s not to say that last night didn’t nail “lefti multi-cultural crap”, as presumably soon to be fired Tory MP Aidan Burley put it. Oh no. We’re the most culturally diverse city in the world, check out our inclusive nature. We’ll take anyone as long as they stand on the right and walk on the left.

Three MCs and one DJ

Posted on May 4th, 2012

It is 1998. I am a painfully uncool 13-year-old who isn’t sure who she is yet. My older sister is in love with Keanu Reeves so I am in love with Keanu Reeves. Everyone at school likes the Spice Girls so I like the Spice Girls. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

The days are filled with schoolwork that I conscientiously avoid doing and the nights are a blur of CBBC and Australian soap operas, oven cooked meals and hours-long sessions spent taping chart music off the radio.

Saturday morning is usually given over to gym club, but this Saturday morning I am at home.

I don’t really like the chart show because music videos don’t really interest me, but today I am watching. Maybe there is nothing else on. Maybe I am watching the chart show because my friends watch the chart show. Either way, I am sitting on the chintzy floral carpet in the living room surrounded by mismatched furniture and just happy to be free of any obligations on my time.

Suddenly, a plastic robot is hurtling towards Earth. Some men are pretending to be scientists, but their costumes are terrible, the effects laughable – so laughable that it catches my attention. A Japanese girl feigns horror at the approaching robot and suddenly there’s this synthesised hook intergalactic planetary planetary intergalactic and the Beastie Boys prance forth in their safety inspector boiler suits and yellow boots.

It is simultaneously the stupidest and most thrillingly brilliant thing I have ever seen and heard.

The beat kicks in and I am rapt. The rapping starts and I am officially a Beastie Boys fan. It is the first song I think I have ever truly liked simply because I like what I hear.

My flowery living room in a Midlands suburb, my worries about homework and who’s friends with who and whether a boy will ever like me couldn’t be further from the Beasties’ world whether they’re running amok around Tokyo or their much-loved New York City, but it feels like this is my song, my music, my band.

It is months before I save up enough money to buy Hello Nasty (£13) but it is worth it. I feel like a real person, buying that CD. It sits in my small collection somewhere between the Backstreet Boys, the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack and Hanson’s classic debut Middle of Nowhere, completely out of place but completely at home.

It gets a lot of use, Hello Nasty. I spend hours trying to trick my CD player (a chunky boombox made by Bush and covered in stickers from Smash Hits) into playing just the little Spanish skit that precedes Remote Control to fill up space on the end of pretty much every tape I make. Brace yourself, BOOM. I’m intercontinental when I eat French toast. Sure, I can take or leave the freeform jazzy numbers towards the end of the album but those first ten tracks: wow. I didn’t realise there was music like this and that I am allowed to listen to it, buy it, love it. I mean, they’re rapping. Listen to those beats. And that bass.

For a while, that CD was my favourite possession. It is, quite possibly, my oldest CD, its cardboard digipack now creased and tired in the same reassuring way a book would be tired after 14 years of repeat reading. I put aside BSB and Hanson but I am listening to my beloved Hello Nasty right now.

So yeah, Paul’s Boutique is a rose-tinted masterpiece, and I love License to Ill, which was my gateway drug to the host of crappy (and brilliant) punk rock bands I listened to throughout my teenage years – I even like the verging-on-schmaltzy To The 5 Boroughs. But it was Hello Nasty that I reached for today when I heard that Adam Yauch had passed away and it is Hello Nasty that will always be my favourite Beastie Boys album.

RIP MCA.

P.S. I also have the Beastie Boys to thank for facilitating my most badass story to date (and that’s a fact that will remind you that I am still that same lame 13-year-old girl once you read it): Six years after that chart show session, I was at university in Portsmouth and working in a crappy kitchenware shop. One day I went to see the Beastie Boys in London instead of going to work. It lost me my job and I’ve never regretted anything less.