Category Archives: Journalism

Auggie Wren’s Hackney Story

‘If you don’t take the time to look, you’ll never manage to see anything’

Okay so I didn’t see much. Not much that will set the rapidly morphing world of photo journalism ablaze anyway. Taking one photo of Hackney Central every minute for twelve minutes probably didn’t leave enough freedom to capture any but the most fortunate ‘decisive moments‘. But the above axiom – a quote from Paul Auster’s tale, ‘Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story’ – still stands. In the short story, based on true events allegedly, a cigar-selling protagonist – Auggie – describes how he has taken a photo of the same spot on the same street at the same time every day for twelve years. Auggie has collected every photo, shot daily at seven in the morning, into one album for every one of the twelve years he has been snapping.

This is where I took my inspiration. Hackney Central was to be my street corner. It is an oppressed nerve-jangled melting pot bustling with evacuation shuttles and ridden with the unlucky, waiting only it seems to pass through. It is at once open – St John at Hackney Church giving way to it’s cemetery – and claustrophobic, the narrow space like a jam jar of buses, trains and people. Yet it seems to relish its work and performs all that is asked of it. If I had nothing else on in life then I sincerely think it would be a street corner worthy of twelve years of ebbing and tiding photography. As it was I had a day. My day off. A really cold day at that. A day to stand outside and capture this frenetic amalgam. I’d planned on an hour. One hour of a photo every minute. I set out with borrowed big camera (for today I was a serious photographer and the world should know) and a makeshift mono-pod – born a poster tube to die a poster tube but for one day it glimpsed a Blow-Up existence.

After wandering Hackney Central for my gaze – outside Pizza Hut? Nah. Too far away from all the action and reaction. Near the Church? Yeah, near the Church, I can tie that in to Walter Benjamin’s recently read theories on ritual values of art if these pic’s turn out to be  supremely dull – I found my spot. So it began. Snap One. Idiot. Forgotten my watch. Oh it’s okay I have my phone. Snap Two. The sky is looking sweet today. Snap Three. Wow its cold, one hour here you say? Snap Four. Why did I choose an hour? Where did I pluck that from again? Snap Five. I’m hungry and I need a wee. Snap Six. If Auggie took photo’s for twelve years couldn’t I take them for twelve minutes? Snap Seven. Genius. Snap Eight, Nine, Ten. Do I go to Marks & Sparks or McDonalds for lunch? Good or Evil? Snap Eleven. All this wool I have on is doing nothing. Snap Twelve. Done, right I’ll go to Marks and Sparks for a smoothie, that’s one of my five, and McDonalds for fries and cheeseburger. £2, bargain. It’s fine I’ve been to the gym today, I deserve it, it’s cold. Plus they have a toilet. Great.

For artistic suffering I took three sets of twelve that afternoon, scouring the narrow way for vantage points, and hoping for odd folk and incident. Then I remembered incident wasn’t really the point. In the story Auggie invites Auster to look at his work. Auster is initially underwhelmed, ”All the pictures were the same. The whole project was a numbing onslaught of repetition”. After a few minutes of feigned appreciation, Auggie blurts, ‘You’re going too fast, you’ll never get it if you don’t slow down’. Only then does Auster begin to realise the hidden beauty in Auggie’s photography, and I’ll leave you with his wondrous moment of enlightenment…

‘And then little by little, I began to recognize the faces of the people in the background, the passers-by on their way to work, the same people in the same spot every morning, living an instant of their lives in the field of Auggie’s camera. Once I got to know them, I began to study their postures, the way they carried themselves from one morning to the next, trying to discover their moods from those surface indications, as if I could imagine stories for them, as if I could penetrate the invisible dramas locked inside their bodies. I picked up another album. I was no longer bored, no longer puzzled as I had been at first. Auggie was photographing time, I realized, both natural time and human time, and he was doing it by planting himself  in one tiny corner of the world and willing it to be his own, by standing guard in the space he had chosen for himself’.

Check my slideshow over on Flickr

Buy the beautiful thing for remarkably little here

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Labour, Inequality and a Rant.

Please please let us have a referendum on electoral reform. No matter who wins the next General Election, we desperately need to broaden the choice. You may risk giving representation to the BNP but the closed shop of Labour and Conservative is strangling ideas and suffocating change.  There is nowhere left to turn and if we needed any further proof then it came in the form of last week’s report, An Anatomy of Economic Inequality from the National Equality Panel.   The report shows that the current Labour government has presided over not only the maintenance but the widening of a vast inequality gap.  So an unprecedented three Labour governments have overseen a rise in inequality? It should stand as a matter of disgrace. It makes me despondent. Either I vote for Labour again or face the unavoidable alternative of David Cameron – he’s not exactly a One Nation Disraelite. Tories promising spending cuts don’t usually herald great eras of social justice. Margaret Thatcher anyone? Thatcherism is precisely why this gap first appeared.

But before Labour supporters blame another problem on MT I want to say I’m sick of hearing it. Thirteen years is a long time – especially when ten of those years were boom time.  Labour’s tactics? The deregulation of the financial sector, the slashing of capital gains tax, the abolishment of the lowest tax band – none exactly strike me as redistributive, inequality addressing measures. This once proud socialist party presided over a long – although ultimately flawed – period of economic growth and prosperity and yet just a few of the rich got filthy stinking rich whilst child poverty will remain a concern in Britain for the foreseeable future.

Not only that but Britain also face damaging university funding cuts. £500m is to be cut across higher education. There is a real concern that this will affect quality of teaching – student leaders have called the cuts ‘self-harm’ – but the potential impact on inequality is nightmarish. The gaps caused in education budgets will surely give rise to increased tuition fees. As fees increase the number of students from disadvantaged homes entering higher education is sure to drop as the prospect of huge debt becomes that mental bridge too far. Then universities across England edge toward being playgrounds for the rich and so social mobility lessens and we enter a vicious circle of inequality.

This announcement also comes hot on the heels of the green paper which has confirmed the Labour government’s intention to renew Trident and build two new aircraft carriers. The initial cost of these measures has been given as £25billion but it has been reported that additional costs, including equipping the carriers with up-to-date fighter jets, could mean the total bill rises to £130 billion. That’s two hundred and sixty times the amount which is about to blow a hole in university funding across the country. Wonderful, I live in a society that values the potential destruction of millions over the education of thousands.

p.s Oh, from which socio-economic group do the British Armed Forces get most of their recruits? Those on the wrong side of the inequality gap of course.

London Loves

London Loves is a blog about what London Loves from Josh Surtees. I have written a piece about one of the things I love about London. The Night. Here is how it starts…

“Beasts of prey and great cities alone in nature remain awake when darkness comes; the one in search of death, the other in search of an extra hour of life” HV Morton

London wears winter well. Why? London loves darkness is why. This sprawl of space and ideas comes to shuddering go when the sun packs up and heads south. In London the stars don’t come out at night in the sky, they come out down here – in the wonder of possibilities. We’ve given up our view of the heavens to look for them in this City. This city that can give or take a night’s sleep. London loves the night as it desires to extract just a little more from life than Nature intended.

The daylight hive of the capital, The Square Mile, dies a lonely nocturnal death – save a few bankers wasting electricity under motion-sensitive lights contemplating deficits/bonuses and probably China – as vitality courses into the surrounding streets of London. From the gaudy doorways of Soho, the thunder-dome of Camden, the meta-hip of Dalston, the unapologetic trash of Shoreditch to the celebs, paps and wannabe-papped of Mayfair, South Ken and Notting Hill, London is, in Ginsberg’s words, ‘’burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night’’.

Read the rest on London Loves

Dave Eggers, Newspaper Baron

‘The only thing that doesn’t work is a single-media strategy’. These are the words of Michael Stoll, an American reporter and a director of the San Francisco Public Press, a nonprofit web start-up that looks to fill gaps in local news coverage that have arisen with the contraction of the mainstream press.  Stoll extolls the virtues of a multi-platform approach to news, whereby Twitter or Web updates are used for breaking stories and print journalism becomes the outlet for analysis and commentary. Stoll was discussing his recent collaboration with Dave Eggers – the San Francisco-based publishers McSweeneys attempt to both celebrate and re-invigorate the medium of print journalism – the £10-a-copy newspaper Panorama.

Eggers, the editor-in-chief, has found his star rising recently due to his screenplay for cinema smash Where The Wild Things Are. For those unaware though, Eggers was already the literary wunderkind of the noughties. A champion of the short story Eggers revived the art-form with the creation of  independent publishing house McSweeneys back in 2000 with the proceeds from his delightful novel, ‘A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius’. The cornerstone publication, McSweeneys Quarterly Concern, is a boundary-pushing cult phenomenon which has carved out a niche of hipsterdom for new writing and spawned it’s own stereotypical reader – read a brief history of the publication and about the damage done to one blogger by the McSweeneys reference in the indie flick Juno here.

But Eggers is not one to kick back on his cool; McSweeneys love the writing cause. Added to the array of work the publishing house do with children’s & writing charities they decided to save the dying art of newspaper journalism. “Our hope,” Eggers notes in conversation with the LA Times, “is that readers will say, ‘I forgot all these things that newsprint can do.’ I think it’s life-affirming when you say, ‘Let’s just write it at the length it needs to be and not keep shrinking everything.’ ”

The 320-page broadsheet newspaper Panorama, issue no.33 of McSweeneys Quarterly Concern, was published in December last year and it’s first run of 25,000 has been completely gobbled up by awe-struck readers, “Panorama very nearly brought tears to my eyes. Everyone I know who has seen it has been similarly overwhelmed and overjoyed.”  said Allison Arieff, the New York Times “By Design” blogger. A further run has been announced. At the moment a second-hand copy will currently set you back over a hundred dollars on Amazon.com.

Among the centerpieces of the Panorama is an investigative piece by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Bob Porterfield, looking into cost overruns in the renovation of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. It’s an effort undertaken in conjunction with SF Public Press, “The Panorama is a perfect partner,” says Stoll, “they share the same love of the medium but haven’t joined the stampede that has given up print for dead.”

The Porterfield investigation will encompass more than 10,000 words and half a dozen graphic elements, split between a main piece and several sidebars. It’s the kind of thing, Eggers notes, that is hard to do online.

So print journalism as art appreciation? The medium itself celebrated for its depth and possibility? Well perhaps in the Eggers imagined future, ‘We started thinking, what if you offered the same sort of depth, analysis, literary value that you get in a magazine? When people sit down, they want to have an experience, and if you surprise them on every page, curate it in such a way that it’s constantly surprising and constantly delighting, I think you could keep them.”

Twittered over and highly desirable ten-quid broadsheets spanning hundreds of pages with local investigative journalism at heart? Welcome to the niche future of news.

p.s You can also try Five Dials, a free literary PDF subscription magazine from Hamish Hamilton. Issued via the web it beats with a heart of print as it instructs readers to print out and enjoy. Look out for the David Foster-Wallace special hitting the web-stands soon.

p.p.s Thanks to the LA Times for the quotes.

The Top Ten Albums of the Decade

10. Les Savy Fav – Go Forth (French Kiss, 2001)

The boisterous bass and rhythm, cornered and incendiary + Tim Harrington’s sharp lyrical wit = Sumptuous rock gold.  One of those albums – indeed bands – that improves with the claustrophobia of headphones.

Case studies – Tragic Monsters

9. Godspeed You! Black Emperor –  Lift Your Skinny Fists To The Sky Like Antennas To Heaven (Constellation/Kranky, 2000)

Godspeed! changed the way I thought about music. Four twenty minute-plus epics of emotion? For a teenager immersed in grunge and its mostly sorry aftermath any song over five minutes was peculiar. A double album consisting solely of elongated instrumental movements was a trip. But it was heavy so it was good  – or so the grunge logic went. Effectively different tracks rise and fall out of the over-arching movements as intensity builds, whirls and dissipates in the amorphous Canadian band’s melting pot. Prog, punk, classical, post-rock – they all get thrown into the avant-garde blender, as too your emotions. Just lie on a bed and listen to it.  GYBE could be seen as a pretentious bunch but the work is of such quality as to be hugely accessible. Forgive me for sounding like your mates Dad driving your-trying-to-pretend-like-your-not-full-of-cheap-booze 14yr-old greasy features home as he takes this small opportunity to crank up his Dire Straits Best Of BUT you have to appreciate the scale of the ambition and the precision of musicianship. This is true spine-tingling stuff, genuine waves of cherished calm before the anticipation writhes to the fireworks of the climax and peaks of heightened awareness. And back down. And repeat. More a drug less an album.

Fix: Storm

8. Battles – Mirrored (Warp, 2007)

I remember where I was when I first heard B EP  – namely the peerless opener SZ2 – in the dingily sparse back-room of The Marquee, Norwich.  It and only it ran around my mind for days until I could pin down a copy of my own. A couple of years later it had a whole track-listing of peers to play with on Battles debut album. The changing time-signatures chopping in and out, the glory of  the short-lived melodies, the layers of aural intensity and – oh my – the drumming. Battles sounded like Fugazi hiring Stravinsky, buying keyboards, doping the drummer – with performance-enhancing athlete brands of dope and a cup of warm mushroom tea for good measure – and asking him to interpret percussively a cluster of wrongly-convicted intergalactic bandits on a mission to free Earthlings from the constraint of time whilst the rest of the band valiantly attempt to translate the dissonance of my brainwaves into a six-minute tune. And if that sentence was too long for you then go listen to Mirrored and read it again.

Masterpiece: Tonto

7. LCD Soundsystem – Sound Of Silver (DFA 2007)

After an enthralling spate of dynamite single releases – Losing My Edge for track of the decade anyone? – LCD Soundsystem’s eponymous début felt a little flat. James Murphy et al could clearly craft a twenty-first century outlier hit but LCD on long-play? It felt like they didn’t understand such an anachronistic concept. Yeah what-evs.  They recorded Sound of Silver and turned second-album syndrome on its head. Seamlessly clean electronic perfection bubbling with Murphy’s sardonic chirps. Press play and every track demands the next as you daydream of mythic parties.

Heaven Sent: Someone Great

6. Jamie Lidell – Multiply (Warp, 2005)

The KFC-lite sounds of Jamie’s most recent longplayer –  ‘Jim’ – suggest that this mid-decade belter will stand as Lidell’s high watermark. Multiply is simply seductive.  Its cup brimmeth over with smart percussion, sublime guitar licks, grooves simultaneously fresh and familiar and Lidell’s are-you-sure-he’s-a-white-guy? voice. At every turn this LP has soul. From dancefloor fillers like A Little Bit More through to the finger-clicking Music Will Not Last and inner-Jamie laid bare on Game For Fools this album plays out like a blueprint for genius. The spirit of Stevie Wonder circa the 70’s would be nodding in appreciation. I dare you not to boogie along too.

Big bopper: Multiply

For your viewing pleasure here is a beautfiul animated video for album opener You Got Me Up…

5.Sonic Youth – Rather Ripped (Geffen, 2006)

I once dated a girl who claimed she didn’t go to bed with any joe who wasn’t aware of Thurston Moore. Luckily – or so I thought so at the time – I knew of Moore et al but I’d never gone deep into the black hole of cool that remains Sonic Youth. It was Rather Ripped that would change all that. It was a succulent epiphany. Meaty melodies were repeatedly dragged and twisted from shards of bone. All the usual angst amid distortion was in place but each track offered a glimmer of an opening compared to other works of Sonic Youth which tend to be blessed with the kind of arms-folded-shut welcome of a freshly withdrawn teenager. No here there was a way in – like if you loitered in the butcher’s long enough and ignored, in the right way, the cute meat-serving girl behind the counter you’d fancied for ages then she might just take you home and do it to you on her blood-soaked apron.  The determined vocals – writhing with danger and sexual assurance – were passed back and forth with the precision of a blade as the anti-king and queen of rock returned to form and left their pretenders to mop up the sweat and tears. So to recap, if you don’t know Moore, Gordon, Ranaldo et al it’s important that you are aware that they might cut you but only to maximise your pleasure in the bedroom.

Seductresses: Sleepin’ Around, Pink Steam

If you watch nothing else then watch this incredible live rendition of Pink Steam…

4. M Ward – End Of Amnesia (Loose, 2002)

Pure soporific delight from one of 2009’s awfully monikered ‘Monsters of Folk’. Not that one should disagree with the sentiment though – M Ward delivered five spellbinding discs this decade. None would top End Of Amnesia though. It virtually strokes you to sleep with the soothing rhythms and deft guitar that haunt the album. Sentiments of heartbreak and the sorrow of memory are in the air. Yet there is an acceptance, a glee almost, in the natural decaying of things. Ward is like a wizened old storyteller who ran away in his pomp to play in a beautifully decrepit travelling show, its best days and velvet curtains all dusty. He’ll tell you this was after his true love left him, but then at least he had the fortune to meet her he’ll add. The controlled, punctuating and expressive percussion, M Ward’s honey and grit voice, the album evokes so many images it’s as if Ward has blown the cobwebs off his photo album and is leading you down the richest of memory lanes.

Take heed: Bad Dreams, Carolina

3. The Rapture – Echoes (DFA/Vertigo, 2003)

Air cow-bell? I’d never played air cow-bell until Echoes came along. And if any song is giving LCD’s ‘Losing My Edge’ a run for track of the decade it is The Rapture’s preposterously good ‘House of Jealous Lovers’. Whoever wins DFA Records comes up trumps. Apparently so demanding were DFA production duo James Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy on the sensitive Rapture boys that recording Echoes almost split them. Dear Rapture, please stop and listen to the album you conjured here and then compare it to the schmaltz of the un-engaging non-DFA follow-up Pieces of The People We Love. This is edgy yet delicately judged dischord, all angles considered. Wild, infatuated and knowing highs crash into cavernous lows. Post-punk, no-wave, disco, eurotrash all collide. The genre hopping and expert production serve to give the band’s crazed sounds the perfect sweaty platform on which to lay themselves bare. Until they pick up the phone to Murphy & Goldsworthy again, they’ll never sound the same.

Club Classics: House of Jealous Lovers, Sister Saviour

Treat yourself right – enjoy The Rapture’s anthem how it should be enjoyed, in a dark and sweaty place…

2. Smog – A River Ain’t Too Much To Love (Domino, 2005)

Bill Callahan’s last outing as Smog sees him at height of his song-craft. Sophisticated and supremely beautiful – let’s not be overly-dramatic but if something unfortunate should ever happen could someone play Say Valley Maker at whatever funeral service I’m granted please. Corny as it sounds Callahan is a poet. The lyrical imagery ceaselessly stimulates the brain. It resonates deeply within you yet it likes to stay in the shadows, you have to discover it for yourself. This is an excerpt from Rock Bottom Riser,

I saw a gold ring
At the bottom of the river
Glinting at my foolish heart
So my foolish heart
Had to go diving
Diving, diving, diving
Into the murk

And from the bottom of the river
I looked up for the sun
Which had shattered in the water
And pieces were rained down
Like gold rings
That passed through my hands
As I thrashed and I grabbed
I started rising, rising, rising

Introspection never sounded so darned swell. As you go you’ll find fatalism, optimism, resignation, stoicism and love. It’s almost jolly compared to his back catalogue, although Bill always had a wicked sense of humour which is still evident on tracks like The Well. Callahan has never produced a more hopeful sounding collection.  A River is almost completely purged of the the mournful, the angry and the empty. Even Rock Bottom Riser takes a swing toward the light. This album is an incarnation of Herzog’s ‘ecstatic truth’. I can’t believe it’s not number one.

Sunbeams: I Feel Like The Mother of The World, Say Valley Maker

1.Broken Social Scene – You Forgot It In People (Arts & Crafts, 2003)

It just gets better on every listen. The thirteen tracks bleed into one another in the definition of harmony. BSS were a collection of musicians – varying between ten to fifteen on this album – from Montreal who’d be hanging out in post-rock art-house bands like Do Make Say Think and A Silver Mt.Zion. Then they decided to make a pop album. You Forgot It In People could be the most serendipitous pop happening of all time. It challenges and comforts, it is outside and inside all at once. It is hushed, post-coital, but it wants to played on a hilltop louder than the volume goes. Cautious, introspective and optimistic – see Anthems for a Seventeen Year Old Girl – BSS can also drive the hell out of tunes such as Almost Crimes or Pacific Theme. For all the layers in every track there is always balance. You are drowning but you are drowning in pillows. The percussion or horns or backing vocals or strings or banjo or always something! seem to constantly provide an extra dimension and serve for repeated listening and discovery. Such are the advantages of having a cornucopia of musicians to call upon. The production is wondrous as different instruments are plucked from the milieu and given centre-stage at just the right time. This album is made with love and this is how love should be. And love pips truth to number one.

There are no song suggestions, you go listen to it all.

But as tracks of the decade go, I’d pick Cause=Time.

p.s A few honourable mentions in no particular order. All great albums but too early too judge their lasting impact…

The Felice Brothers – The Felice Brothers (Team Love, 2008)

Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest (Warp, 2009)

M83 – Saturdays = Youth (Mute, 2008)

The xx – xx (Young Turks, 2009)

Be a square

Premise 1 – Chess is fascinating.

Premise 2 –  Bobby Fischer is the most fascinating player in the history of the game.

Conclusion – Watch this documentary

Try the supreme yet brief BBC documentary – click here and play the third video down.

Hand+Star

Tom Chivers – Penned In The Margins guru and all-round poetry mogul – has just launched the lovely looking Hand+Star website-come-blog. Tom describes the new project as follows…

Hand + Star is an online compendium of new writing and literary reviews. Taking its name from the Fleet Street workshop of Tudor printer Richard Tottell, Hand + Star offers intelligent, fresh perspectives, open to the interplay between text, technology and popular culture. Hand + Star combines the speed and energy of blogging with the authority of the traditional literary journal, and is committed to seeking out new, independent and lesser-known voices in poetry and fiction.

You can get literary and interactive here, you’ll spot that Julie Palmer-Hoffman, the contributing editor, has been blogging ferociously about literary/textual news.

You can read my own contribution – a review of Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing In America – here.

Finally for a little visual entertainment here is Aisle16’s Ross Sutherland – his début poetry collection Things To Do Before You Leave Town was published this year by Penned In The Margins – with his incredible poem The Love Conspiracy.