100 Things I Love #2: Lofoten

August 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

Lofoten are a chain of islands off the coast of Norway, inside the Arctic Circle, which I discovered almost by accident last year – and I’ve now spent my last two summers there because it is the most beautiful, tranquil place I’ve ever been to. I know scenery is a weird reason to go to a place – you can actually just look at big pictures of nice views (see below) but actually being there really is something else.

Look at those mountains, that sea!

They’re quite hard to get to from the UK – it takes about four hours to fly to northern Norway (still only to the mainland) and then you can either take a bus around a lot of long bridges and tunnels, or it’s another four hours by ferry.

I stayed there for nearly a fortnight. Now, there isn’t a lot to do in Lofoten. You can sail and row, fish and hike – that’s what I meant to do when I was there. I did row a bit, getting big blisters on my thumbs. I tried to catch mackerel in the bay, but me and my fishing partner got our hooks stuck on the rocks on the bottom and lost our deposits on the fishing tackle. It didn’t matter because everyone else catches too much mackerel to eat and there is always plenty to go round. I climbed mountains at midnight in full sunshine and picked blueberries… it really is as idyllic as it sounds. But most of the time I sat around chatting to strangers and reading – what holidays are for I think.


100 Things I Love #1: On Yer Way

August 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

On Yer Way by Katell Keineg.

There are two certainties about Katell: (1) she is brilliant and (2) not enough people know it. Everything else about her is ambiguous and mixed and… real. A real, fallible person who loves writing, making and performing music; and the rest of us sort of can’t handle it. Even the most ‘muso’ of us has arrived in the 2010s, by whatever musical routes or journeys, needing to have everything a bit packaged and smoothed down and instantly gratifying. And Katell’s music just isn’t like that.

She is half Welsh, half Breton. Lives (I think) in Wales these days but has spent a lot of her life in Dublin and New York and the most high profile bits of her performing career were probably there on the LES in the early 90s. I’m using words like ‘high profile’ because we do all have these skewed ideas of success = fame and money. Katell is by any (and her own) measure a successful artist, it’s just that people (me too) add in our own judgements about it. Although, in a magazine interview in 2007 she talked about it not being romantic, starving in the garret.

On Yer Way is a beautiful, long song from her third album. It’s in two sections: the main verse-chorus-verse-chorus and then a bit of a rock-out. I think it’s a hymn to a friend who’s about to have a baby; but the song is addressed to the baby himself. I only hesitate because I so so often interpret (- and remember – and sing out loud) song lyrics spectacularly badly. I’m sure I listened to On Yer Way tens of times before I realised it wasn’t actually addressed to an absent lover.

Her friend is about to have, has just had a baby boy. This could be a bit twee. But like a lot of Katell’s lyrics, it’s not a sentimental song at all, it’s actually quite raw. You know you’ll love this child: but it’s a strange bond, with someone who is yet a stranger:

“I don’t know your name
I don’t know your sex
Don’t know what you look like
Doesn’t make much sense
To know I will love you
Almost like my own
Heard your mama crying on the telephone

What can I do now?
But lay up and sing
Moving this one out
Welcoming you in

You’re on your way
You’re on your way
You’re on your way
You’re on your way
I heard your mother moan

Well the news is in
That you came at last
I was getting worried
Seems you took your time
You’re a long thin boy
With the widest hands
Seems the stars above are wondrously aligned

What can I do now
But to sling my voice
Serenading you
Wild with over joy”

I like the song for its melody and Katell’s voice just as much as, if not more the words. Have a listen to this fine, timeless live version from Irish TV nine years ago:

The visitor comments to the few songs of Katell’s up on YouTube are variations on the theme I mentioned at the start: “Such a lovely voice and an awesome song. Many more should know of her work!”. Yes, she is a genius and yes, why isn’t she more famous? I suppose she’s a bit of an acquired taste. There’s a 2008 version of OYW on another EP, where she began experimenting with a Voix Bulgares tonality quite alien to most western pop, and did multitracks of her own detuned voice to really push her unembellished, deliberately unpolished sound.

But I also really love the comments like this one on the page for another track of hers a year ago: “Only discovered her last year (library CD bin, $2 Jet), by now I’m suffering from the regret of not knowing her before, she’s one of the best singers I’ve heard in my life.” This kind of hyperbole isn’t rare amongst people who’ve discovered K’s music. So there you go.

And: Save our bloody libraries! This is indirectly how I found her too. N used to work for S__ Libraries as a teenager and could borrow unlimited CDs without paying, which meant he pretty much covered the singer songwriter section of D__ library in a couple of summers. When we first met, I lent him a Damien Rice CD and he gave me Katell’s first album. OK so we can both see who was the winner there.

I have rambled a bit and maybe ruined it. You can have a look and listen at Katell’s myspace page here. Or like her on Facebook here.



August 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

A food you were surprised to like:

I really can’t think of many foods I don’t like so I had to scratch around for this one. I suppose the obvious choice would have been olives or some kind of offal: something with a strong, sharp, pungent taste that kids have to be persuaded into trying, and then end up liking a lot. I do absolutely love liver (calf’s or chicken) but I rarely remember to buy it. Me and Nick had a couple of recipes that we liked, using livers with capers and red wine vinegar, or some kind of red berry jelly, but the book they were in got lost in a house move, and along with it, our habit of cooking liver.

So I’m going to cheat and talk about a drink I was surprised to like instead. Beer. When you were a teenager, along with smoking, it was one of those things that adults consumed that held some kind of mystery, and that you longed to try. Then you did, and it wasn’t very nice: you had to practise to get used to it, the taste and the feeling.How mad is that – teaching yourself to like something that is ultimately really quite bad for you?

I remember when I turned eighteen and got my first job behind the bar at my local pub. I learned how to pull an OKish pint of bitter using the hand pump, angling the glass and raising and lowering it just enough to make sure it got a good strong head that’d keep the air in and stop the pint going flat. They also taught me how to do shandy (with bitter or lager) putting the lemonade in first, and whisking it a bit to take out some of the fizz so that when you again hand-pumped in the beery half, it didn’t explode in bubbles.

There were a lot of names and little variations of drinks, mixtures and brews you could get asked for – ones I don’t really hear any more, perhaps because they’re old-fashioned, not just because I haven’t tended a bar for 20 years. Golden Shine was half bitter, half lager. A Whisky Mac: blended scotch with an equal measure of Stone’s Ginger Wine (yum). Lager top: not really a shandy, just a normal pint of fizzy lager with a squirt of lemonade shoved in at the end to sweeten it. And the cordials: three decanters we kept next to the sink: orange green and pink. You could get asked for pretty much any combination of the cordials with alcoholic drinks. But some combinations must work better than others and came up more often: Pernod and black or Guinness and black (black was blackcurrant and was really pink-purple). Lager and lime or Lime and soda. Orange only ever with gin or vodka.

That’s how I learned to like beer. I drank it with either lemonade or lime cordial to conceal the bitterness. For about a year, I think.

I went out dancing a lot on Bloom Street in Manchester in those days, and the two or three pubs along there served you lager in cans so that you didn’t spill it so much on the dance floor. There was a little ritual, which I’d be too embarrassed or self-conscious to do these days, of ordering your can of beer, sipping the top couple of mouthfuls out while you paid or they went to the till to get your change, and then asking them to top it up with a bit of lime cordial. My friends R and M obviously didn’t really like the sharp taste of lager in those days either, so all three of us would have it with lime. I think this meant that if it was your round, you sipped all three of the cans, got them topped up and then took them back smiling to the others, still dancing. Some of the barstaff in Napoleon’s or the New York (what lovely names; I hope they are still there) used to get a bit grumpy if you asked for the lime after you’d paid for the beer – as if it was some huge orchestrated swindle to get as much free, sugary green cordial (which usually cost about 10p a shot) as you could.

I don’t drink beer any more. I miss it, but not as much as miss dancing with R and M in little Manchester dives.

Build it

August 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

“Why don’t you set up a blog?” said Nick. He’s been writing one for two years now, and it’s amazing: erudite, personal, witty and loved by its loyal readers*.

Last year, a friend of his was looking for a new creative project to stave off anxiety and boredom with her PhD (the last bit of doing a PhD is really terrible and no one should have to suffer it at all, but that’s another story). “Start a blog,” he said. A few weeks ago another friend in the States was feeling lost and looking for a way to be more expressive: you can guess what Nick recommended.

And now me. Well, he knows me well enough not to, um, force me to do something, but I think the clever persuasive means he has found is that if I have my own blog to talk about (I hesitated over using the word ‘promote’ there; hell, that was close) then he’ll interview me as part of the weekly series on his site where he, and his other readers, get to meet one particular reader. So far, he’s put up chats with Simon ‘Savidge  Reads’ (see interview here and Simon’s actual blog here) and Daniel ‘Hibernian Homme’ (links here and here) and they’re both really sparky and fun.

I am terrified of writing and I should write a lot – I think everyone should write a lot. I ought to do it as part of my job, and I have done in the past couple of years but probably not as often as I might. The things I write for work are, I suppose, little acts of creativity but really they are the opposite of fiction.

For example, a paper I had published last year: what do bilinguals do when they are talking to family members and friends who also speak the same two languages? How do they mix their languages, if at all, and what regulates the switching between the languages? I say this should be ‘the opposite of fiction’ because our story in that paper is based on recordings of real speech, interpreted according to existing (and our own) theories about language.

Then my work moved and I turned away from bilinguals. Fortunately, monolinguals are just as interesting. How do people choose their words to express their thoughts, feelings and observations from the massive pool they have available to them? How do they pronounce certain sounds, and is it connected with their age, their gender, where they live or where they grew up? This kind of thing is interesting to everyone, I think. Well, I’ve been doing linguistic-y things for a long time now, and the work relating to this job seems to be the topic that people really engage with and love to talk about.

But. Writing that kind of thing is a bit of a grind. It’s probably just me (is it?) but yes, it doesn’t come easily. The collaborative writing process and then the long reviewing procedures – the critiques and suggestions of peers and editors – mean that the thing that ends up typeset, on the shelf (largely unread, *sob*) in libraries round the world, is only a very distant cousin of the thing you wrote or thought you would write a year or so earlier.

What’s the grind? Is it the initial blank page, waiting to be filled? Or is it the iterative work, modification, constant response to outside … interference? I can’t put my finger on what it is that I find so intimidating about academic writing. So now I’m going to write more often. Is it like swimming, which gets easier the more you do it? Is it like cycling, once learned never forgotten? Is it like falling off a bike? Or less painful and silly. I don’t know.

I know that blogs are not ‘diaries on the internet’ any more – they haven’t been for about ten years now. I remember the good old days of LiveJournal and all that teenage angst (I wasn’t a teenager in 2000 though). Lucky old world having Facebook and Twitter for that now. But all the best blogs are like little electronic zines; they really benefit from having a theme or focus. I think I have chosen a theme for this one, and it’s not language, even though I think it’d do me good to write about that. It’s going to be…

*His blog is called ‘A Pile of Leaves’ and you can find it here.