Apr 2009

April in Novi Sad

By pretty much any standard, I’m well-travelled. I’ve lived or worked on every continent bar Australia and Antarctica. But I’m not sure I’ve ever been anywhere that’s as filled with contradictions as Serbia. Mostly it reminds me of Greece in the early 1980s… despite not having a coast on the sea, the culture is primarily Mediterranean. The weather, the food, the pace of life, many of the more obvious mannerisms and attitudes. All very Med.

But on top of that are layers of difference. Contradictory as well as complementary. Certainly here in the north of the country, there’s a very definite central / northern European influence. Austro-Hungarian influences are everywhere. The architecture (leastways the pre-war stuff) and a certain “clipped” tone to the accent (though I’m told the south of the country doesn’t share this) means you never forget your proximity to Budapest and Vienna. And this Northern influence sits uneasily with the Mediterranean attitudes.

Though it’s often obscured by the other major influence on Serbian culture — the Eastern. The Slavonic. At the heart of Yugoslavia for two generations, the post-war culture was dominated by Russia. Never entirely within the Soviet sphere of influence (the Iron Curtain became more of a net curtain when it extended southwards towards the Med), Tito tried to walk a fine line between East and West. And in a sense he succeeded.

Obviously that’s a pretty damn controversial view, made all the more difficult to accept in the context of what happened to the region upon his death. Nonetheless, I shall expand upon this view when I return home next week.

For now, I have places to be and people to see. One of the purposes of this trip is to visit with the family of the lovely Citizen S. And the schedule is pretty tight. So until next time…

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Apr 2009

April in London (David Byrne gig review)

hallo y’all.

I’m sat here at one of those fancy web-terminals they have in public spaces these days. I’ve been in London for the past few days and am now on my way back to Dublin.

It’s been a groovy weekend and no mistake. London has changed in the three years since I left of course, but not by much. I felt utterly at home walking around the streets of Wood Green earlier today. Some of the shops are new, but most aren’t. There was familiarity everywhere I turned. The faces and voices. The smells. The shape of the buildings. The steel grey sky of London in Springtime. And that tree on Waldeck Road still has flecks of white paint on it. 16 years on! (about three people will know what that means, but they’ll get a smile from it. The rest of you will just have to wonder.)

The less said about The Queen’s Head at Turnpike Lane though, the better… London’s finest dirty rock pub turned into a sports bar? We live in profane times.

Anyhoo, I was over in London for a David Byrne weekend. Leastways, that was the excuse. Needless to say, the Byrnester didn’t disappoint. Though even if he had, the opportunity to catch up with some old friends was itself more than enough to make the trip worthwhile. I stayed with my old mate Gyrus (once again dude, many thanks for organising everything) and together we chilled out with a few cups of tea as well as attending a David Byrne movie double-bill at the BFI (Stop Making Sense and True Stories) on the night before the gig at the Festival Hall.

And what a gig!

I’ve seen Byrne at least once (and usually more often) on every tour since the eponymous album in the mid-90s. I’ve also seen several one-off shows (festivals and what have you). I can safely say he was never better than last night’s gig.

In fact, I’d kind of felt a bit worried about seeing Stop Making Sense on the big screen the night before the gig. Clearly live music and cinema are radically different experiences… but even so… how could his 2009 tour possibly match up to the performance on what is arguably the finest concert film ever made?

I needn’t have worried. The two can’t really be compared of course, but last night’s gig was simply breath-taking. As you may (or may not) know, the tour is called “The Songs of Brian Eno and David Byrne” and covers tracks from all of their work together… the two direct collaborations (My Life in The Bush of Ghosts and last year’s Everything That Happens Will Happen Today), the three Talking Heads albums that Eno produced (More Songs About Buildings And Food, Fear of Music and Remain in Light) as well as The Catherine Wheel (the Byrne solo album that includes a few Byrne-Eno compositions).

Anyways, it’s probably safe to say that while I’m a fan of pretty much everything Byrne has done; from ’77 to ’09; it’s his work with Eno that excites me the most. Well, Remain in Light is the best album ever recorded after all*.

I was delighted, so, when it turned out that the two albums that dominated the set were the latest one (naturally) and Remain in Light. He must have played at least half of that record. Needless to say, I’m hoarse from cheering.

Dressed all in white, the band and the three dancers (whose whirling, creatively slapdash choreography was at times funny, at times sexy and at times just weird, though always successful in transmitting energy to the proceedings) rarely stopped moving for the two hours. It was truly joyous, and how many gigs manage to even get close to that?

By the halfway point, everyone in the festie hall was on their feet. The audience reaction was incredible. The whoops, cheers and wild applause were heartfelt and real. Those in the lower tiers crowded down to the front of the stage, and the festival hall became a dance hall.

Life During Wartime, a glorious version of Once in a Lifetime (a song that has perhaps suffered a little from over-exposure but managed to sound fresh and wonderful all over again last night) and stunning versions of Houses in Motion and The Great Curve (“The world moves on a woman’s hips / the world moves when she swivels and bops”). Those were the highlights for me up until the encore.

Returning to the stage, still in white, but now with the addition of ballerina’s tutus, Byrne and the band launched into a blistering version of Burning Down The House. By the end, pretty much the entire hall was shouting the refrain… must have been a little bit like what Funkadelic gigs were like in the late 70s.

That wasn’t the end… but how to top that? Well, how about getting Brian Eno on stage for the final encore to provide backing vocals on the achingly beautiful title track from the last album? It was the cherry atop an already perfect cake. When the house-lights came up at the end, the Japanese chap sitting next to me asked in broken English… “the man at the end? He was Brian Eno, yes?” “Yes”, I said. He looked utterly delighted. It was the cherry for him too.

So yeah, that’s where I’m at. I must away now… my time on this terminal is running out, and I need to think about making tracks soon. If you get a chance to see Byrne on this tour, then you really need to. It’s bloody incredible.

* Excepting on the days when Astral Weeks is.

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Apr 2009

Meandering nonsense

There’s plenty of catching up to do. Plenty of “Previous posts” links to be clicking. Though browsing through my blogroll, I find that it’s been quieter than usual all round. It’s not just been me.

Larry‘s only had four posts since Chrimbo for instance. Mind you, one of those was a video of a man playing Angels We Have Heard On High on a piece of broccoli. I’ll take quality over quantity every time, and it doesn’t get much better than a man playing Angels We Have Heard On High on a piece of broccoli.

An anecdote about my life as an engineer

John B’s been over in Haiti. I came within a mildly amusing anecdote of spending a few months in Haiti in 1996 but it involves a corporate blunder that’s almost certainly still covered by confidentiality clauses, so I’ll have to be vague.

At the time I was working for an engineering consultancy that specialised in managing medium-sized projects for US corporations (food and beverage mostly, but there was bits and pieces of other stuff). The company had built its reputation on handling projects in what were euphemistically known as “hardship locations”… Nigeria, Angola, Ghana, Tanzania, the Middle East, the Philippines. Though by the time I joined they’d shifted both into working in ‘first world’ countries and also to the “new hardship locations” of the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia.

In early 1996 a multinational corporation contacted us. An almighty cock-up had been made in Haiti and our company was one of a small group who had the expertise to put it right. Because there was a certain level of political sensitivity involved, there was a kind of “name your price” air to the whole thing. I put together our quote for the job and was encouraged to “be generous” with the budget by my boss; the company owner. I’m talking about the high side of reasonable here, you understand, not silly. The project had a healthy profit margin, but still we looked certain to win the contract.

I’d begun preparing to head out there. Seven of us would go out. Myself, a director of the company, and five engineers. After a couple of weeks, the director would head home and I’d run the thing for the next twelve weeks or so. It was to be the third project I’d managed, but the first in a hardship location… and what a location! Admittedly, our project would entail spending most of our time in a secure compound well away from population centres. So it’s not as if we were going to be hanging out in downtown Port-au-Prince every evening. All the same, it was a pretty daunting prospect and I had more than a few sleepless nights freaking out about it.

The day before I was due to fly out for a preliminary visit we got word that the project was put on hold. I don’t recall ever being so relieved. A part of me was excited by the prospect of visiting the place, but it was a small part. Overshadowed significantly, I might add, by a far larger anxiety about running a site office and managing a bunch of men, many of whom were twice my age, for three months. In Haiti. In fairness to my boss, and contrary to how I may come across here, I was actually quite good at that kind of thing at the time. It’s not like he was sending some blithering academic off to fix stuff in Haiti. Even so, I was mightily relieved when I informed the office secretary to cancel my travel plans.

The company was expanding at the time. We were being asked to quote on far more work than we could possibly do and despite moving to larger premises and taking on more staff, we were actually turning down as many projects as we were taking on. So losing Haiti wasn’t all that big a deal. Within a week I was looking at the schematics for a plant in Baku.

For the next couple of months the Haiti project was on-again / off-again. It was getting on my nerves, and it was pissing off my boss. Over a liquid lunch one afternoon, he brought up the subject and vented his exasperation at trying to get anything organised in Haiti. The place was, he assured me, impossible to deal with. This from a guy who’d built factories in Angola and Northern Nigeria.

“Yeah, and that’s without the voodoo! Just wait ’til one of the lads pisses off a local voodoo priest. It’ll be The Serpent and The Rainbow all over again”. I was laughing, but my boss’s interest had been piqued. What was The Serpent and The Rainbow, he wanted to know? I told him it was a book and then a movie about Haitian voodoo and was supposedly based upon a true story. We chatted about voodoo for a while and I told him to rent the movie from the video shop if he got the chance.

He did. And clearly a bit squiffy from a few ales, he sat down to watch it that evening.

Now, I don’t know about you, but there are one or two horror movies that — for me — stand far above the rest… films that got to me. Got to me at a level that most horror films, even the very good ones, never get to. Films that crept inside me and did nasty things to my mind when I lay down in my bed at night. And it’s not about the quality of the film; it’s about the time and place you see it. Set and setting. How you’re feeling, what’s been on your mind, what you’ve eaten, drank or smoked. For me, An American Werewolf in London was one of those films.

For my boss, it turns out, The Serpent and The Rainbow was one of those films.

We’d had that drink on Friday afternoon. By Monday morning he’d read most of the book and was in something of a state. That afternoon he made a call to New York and withdrew our involvement in the Haiti project.

Now, I’m not saying that we’d still have pulled out if economic conditions had been different and there hadn’t been other work to do. And the way we’d been jerked around for so long certainly hadn’t helped. But The Serpent and The Rainbow was very much the straw that broke the camel’s back. The fact that my boss rented that movie on that particular night and it scared ten shades of shit out of him is almost certainly the reason I didn’t go to Haiti in the mid 90s.

So yeah.

There you have it. Well, I did say it was a mildly amusing anecdote. Though I must admit, it certainly went on for longer than I’d anticipated.

But look, it is almost 4am. I’m very close to nodding off. And I wanted to get something up here tonight but the thing I’m writing about nuclear power isn’t quite right yet, and the thing about police brutality and civil protest just isn’t hanging together either. At least this meandering nonsense is labelled as such.

Mr. Byrne’s Big Suit Built
Gail Blacker

Is that one of the best film credits ever?

And is this one of the best opening paragraphs to a blog post ever…?

The approval ratings of Austrian rapist Josef Fritzl have fallen below Gordon Brown’s according to a Daily Mirror YouGov poll published today which suggests that Brown would win a 20-seat majority at the next election if the Conservative Party were led by Fritzl.

Certainly when you add it to the closing paragraph of Harry’s prior post, it’s clear that despite the lack of quantity, Chase Me Ladies, I’m In The Cavalry… is also still providing high quality:

I honestly believe him to be insane. And the fact that this very dangerous lunatic is still poking his nose into the Middle East shows that Blair remains one of the most serious threats to our national security, and that his arrest and execution should be matters of the highest priority.

Harry Hutton, Blair Must Hang

There have been plenty more pearls amongst the online swine during my absence. I’ll get to them in due course. I’m travelling a lot over the next couple of weeks. London. Then Serbia. But I’ll try to post as often as possible, even if only briefly. For now, I’ll leave you with Politicari + Virusi (Politicians and Viruses) from Serbian band, Disciplin A Kitschme.

Vocals, drums, bass and effects pedals. Who needs a lead guitar?

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Apr 2009

April in Dublin

What’s that? 2009, you say? Blimey! When did that happen?

As is traditional, I’m starting the year a little later than most of you. Just think of it as an extra-long lie-in.

Actually, it’s just that I’ve had some stuff going on in my life that didn’t involve sitting in front of a screen. Good stuff, I should point out, but the blog kind of fell by the wayside as a result. Now that I’m shifting some focus back onto work again, I’ll be screen-bound more often. So let’s see if I can’t get this place up and running while I’m here.

I hope y’all like the (slight) makeover. Just a couple of minor tweaks to the palette and a new header, but it seemed like the right time to run a duster over the place. I’ve done very little browser-testing as it’s mostly been minor changes to a relatively well-tested template. All the same, if you notice any problems let me know what browser / version and OS you’re using as well as what’s wrong with the page. Also, if you think there are any colour clashes, please let me know. I really like the white / yellow text on red background (the metadata / infobox style), but as has been been made clear in the past, my design aesthetic is occasionally idiosyncratic. So if something’s hurting your eyes or giving you headaches, bouts of nausea, nosebleeds, etc… do let me know.

As for where I’ve been? Well, it’s been a memorable few months from my perspective. Most of it great, I’m pleased to say. I’m now sharing my home with the lovely Citizen S, which is by far the biggest — and most positive — change in my life for untold aeons. Wish us well.

Also, I recently received final confirmation that my thesis passed. Yay me! Of course, now that I’ve collected a few more letters after my name, I’m not entirely sure what I want to do with them.

You have to understand, a lot of the things I’d planned to have done by now…? They kind of went the way of this blog for a while. If I’m to be brutally honest about it, I could probably sum up the past few months with the phrase “hanging out with S”. And frankly, I’d be more than happy to have that sum up the next few months too. I can think of few better ways to spend the summer than laying about together, reading books in the sunshine and watching DVDs on the days it rains.

Except. Well, I really need to find time to write in amongst all that laying about. And of course, The Good Citizen has a rather busier schedule than me. There’s exams looming and much studying to be done (S is an architect, but has decided to pick up some alternative skills and qualifications now that the arse has dropped out of the global construction industry).

So yeah, that’s where I’ve been. And that’s why I’m back. Hope it all makes half-sense. And while I do apologise to my regular readers for absconding as I did, with nary a by-your-leave; don’t imagine I feel in the slightest bit guilty for taking a few months off and laughing a lot. Global capitalism, it seems, was happy to continue collapsing without my assistance.

7 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion