Journal articles

What I did, where I went, and what I thought of it.

Thunder, Lightning, Strike — The Go! Team

Half bouncy and exciting, half pleasant and inconsequential. Like so much in life.

Thunder Lightning Strike album cover

This album isn’t as good as I was expecting. About half the tracks sound like instrumental fillers from indie pop albums; they’re all worth a listen, but they don’t really hold the attention. Other tracks are better: there are a few energetic, lo-fi hip hop pieces with a bit of rapping. They sound old-skool in a good way to me, though why you’d trust the opinion of somebody who can’t even spell “school” is anybody’s guess.

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Democracy — Michael Frayn

This absorbing drama follows the rise and fall of the man who brought down the Berlin Wall. Well, perhaps I am overstating things, but Willy Brandt, West German Chancellor in the early ’70s, was a crucial figure in the years leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The play depicts the political manoeuvring going on around Brandt, particularly by his secretary Guenter Guillaume, who was also an East German double agent.

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Over My Dead Body — Mona Hatoum

I went to see the Mona Hatoum exhibition “Over My Dead Body” at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art on the weekend. I had seen some of her work before, at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art several years ago. This new exhibition includes a lot of material from her performance art pieces — videos and preparatory notes — as well as some of her sculptures and installations. Very interesting stuff, though a lot of her work has an unsettling underlying violence. Particularly the performance where she cuts out her own entrails and serves them up on dinner plates.

The exhibition included the preparatory notes for a piece called “Live Work for the Black Room”, which consisted of the artist, dressed in black in a completely black room, repeatedly falling on the floor, chalking the outline of her body on the floor, and then getting up and lighting a candle in the outline. Much as I like the idea of this piece, the thing that really stuck in my mind from the whole exhibition was this sentence from the notes.

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Two friends take a road trip through the wine country of California. One is trying to escape his past; the other is trying to escape his future. They meet a couple of women who open their eyes to the possibility of better things. Will they seize the opportunity, or will they go back to their old ways and dream forever of what might have been? They become a bit annoying as their foibles are revealed, but are ultimately endearing, despite both being losers in their own way.

There are many moments of humour and of pathos in this engaging film, but I was left with one overwhelming emotion: the desire to drink several bottles of fine red wine. If you can find a civilised cinema that serves wine, I would strongly recommend having a glass or two while you watch the film.

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Want One — Rufus Wainwright

The first two songs on this album are so good that I can’t even remember what the rest of it is like.

Rufus Wainwright’s music had never really appealed to me before: what I had heard seemed a bit too earnest and folky. But last year I heard and liked a track from this album on the radio. Intrigued, I read some reviews and finally bought the album.

Want One album cover

The first two songs are magnificent. Oh What a World interweaves its lament nicely with Ravel’s Bolero, building to a stirring crescendo. I Don’t Know What It Is is a lot quieter, with a nice quirky melody and toe-tappin’ rhythm. This was the song that had piqued my interest last year.

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Auckland — New Zealand

A rainbow in Auckland

We spent Christmas in Auckland. The weather in Auckland is often a bit variable, even in the middle of summer. But even when it rained, our view remained quite lovely.

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Jazz in the Park — Vaucluse House

Live jazz, fine weather, snacks and drinkies – just another evening in Sydney. Last night we went to Jazz in the Park, held annually by Sydney’s Historic Houses Trust in historic Vaucluse House. We sat on the grass, nibbled, drank coffee and listened to three bands, each taking us to a different corner of the jazz universe.

Jazz in the Park at Vaucluse House

As usual at outdoor events in Sydney, the place was packed – we were lucky to find a spot for our Winnie-the-Pooh picnic rug. (sadly, our Keroppi rug is packed away at the moment.) It was a pleasant afternoon as we arrived, and The Dan Barnett Big Band had already started: they were the first of three extravaganly named acts. After their set, Bridie and The Boogie Kings continued, and as the sun started to disappear, Armondo Hurley and The Funk-O-Matics came on. They lifted the tempo a bit and got dangerously funky – there was a lot of dancing going on by this stage.

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Art in the Gardens — Royal Botanic Gardens

The Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney is a beautiful and friendly public garden. It’s currently hosting an interesting exhibition. I haven’t really have time to investigate, but the theme seems to be integrating technology with nature in innovative ways. The exhibitions include a vertical garden, a set of planters made from car tires, and this car.

Car under turf

It may appear to be a novel design for a carport, but I think it’s actually just a sculpture representing the exhibition’s philosophy.

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Talkin’ Honky Blues — Buck 65

It’s the blues, but it’s also folk music, C&W and rap. Buck 65 rhymes like an old-school MC, but has the lyrical sensibility of a beat poet and the voice of a grizzled old trucker. His hard-luck tales of life on the downside are backed by dark, country & western inflected hip-hop beats. Of course, this is an oversimplification: there are a lot of different sounds and styles in here.

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Luo Hu Commercial City — Shenzhen, China

Next time you’re in Hong Kong, catch the train up to Lo Wu station, go through HK immigration and walk across the border into mainland China. Once you go through Chinese immigration and get though the thicket of taxi touts, the first building you see is Luo Hu Commercial City. Its five floors contain hundreds of tiny shops, mostly selling “brand name” clothing, shoes and accessories. There are also dozens of tailors who can make or copy anything. If you prefer, there are electronics, DVDs, souvenirs, home furnishings, and maybe a few other things I’ve forgotten.

Luo Hu Commercial City

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Postage Stamps

The current Hong Kong local postage stamp is one of the most beautiful I’ve seen. For just $1.40 (20 US cents) you can have a tiny work of art, suitable for framing. The great thing is that if you send it to somebody as a present, it pays for its own postage. It’s the gift that sends itself.

Hong Kong postage stamp

It’s also one of the biggest stamps I’ve seen – you’d be hard-pressed to fit it on a small postcard. While I was poking around in my files, I also found this fun stamp.

Round NZ postage stamp

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China is so big and varied that a lifetime is probably not long enough to experience it all, much less understand it. I didn’t have a lifetime to spare, but 17 days was long enough to see, do and eat many strange and interesting new things.

First up, we flew from the hustle of Hong Kong to the bustle of Beijing. Like all tourists, we were there to see the Summer Palace, the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, and so on. These we duly saw, and they were wonderful – I would happily have spent a day or two looking around the beautiful and peaceful Summer Palace. We also saw Tiananmen Square in a very unusual state – it was empty. (There was apparently to be some sort of race, related somehow to the 2008 Olympics.) It was funny seeing such a big empty space in the middle of a city – living in Hong Kong, you forget what such things are like.

The Great Wall of China

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Hong Kong Rugby Sevens 2004

We spent an entire weekend in Hong Kong Stadium watching rugby, as the world’s best teams (and several of the world’s mediocre teams) competed for the coveted HK Sevens Cup. England were the hot favourites, having won the Sevens for the last two years and the Rugby World Cup last year, but New Zealand are always highly fancied, and Argentina were looking good too. Of course, I was supporting New Zealand – it’s something to do with my genetic make-up. (Though I don’t usually wear make-up.)

Actually, I had another reason for hoping England wouldn’t win – their fans like to sing, and their enthusiasm is matched only by their tunelessness. And why do they choose “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” as their theme song? It has as much to do with rugby as it has with inorganic chemistry. I guess they’re not called the Barmy Army for nothing.

The Sevens rugby games are played by teams of seven, in two seven-minute halves. This makes for a pretty fast-paced game. The first day’s games were all “pool matches”, designed to sort the teams into grades for the finals. There were lots of one-sided games between big fish (NZ, England, Australia, South Africa, etc.) and minnows (Chinese Taipei [sic], Singapore, etc., and of course the hosts Hong Kong). There were quite a few scores in the 50-nil range, with no unexpected results.

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Chet Lam + The Pancakes + Ketchup — live in Hong Kong

This was meant to be nothing more than a concert featuring three local Hong Kong singers. But it turned out to be lots of fun, if often incomprehensible, and had more strange, unexpected moments than you could shake a stick at, unless you’re really good at shaking sticks at strange, unexpected moments.

As a nod to the independent pop music scene in Hong Kong (such as it is), the Arts Festival included this show, featuring three local singer-songwriter types performing with a four-piece backing band.

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Ella Minnow Pea — Mark Dunn

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

This fun novel is also a puzzle and a fairly impressive display of linguistic virtuosity. The book is a progressive lipogram – it starts off normally, but its alphabet shrinks as the story goes on. It’s not too hard to write without using Z, but things get more interesting as letters like D, A and even E vanish. We see more and more creative synonyms being used and invented.

This book consists entirely of letters written by the characters to each other. I like the way the sentences are written – the story is set in a land that esteems words and literature above all, and it shows in the way the characters play with language.

With the cute story and clever wordplay, the first half of the book is a delight. A little after this, the author cops out a bit as he has fewer and fewer letters to work with, and it all gets a bit harder to read. The story continues though, as the characters work against the clock to save their country – by solving a word puzzle.

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Lost in Translation

I really liked this film. Affecting performances, likeable (but not too likeable) characters, and lots of funny, strange moments. A pretty accurate evocation of how Tokyo can appear to the newcomer. Ah, those were the days.

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Jan Garbarek Group — live in Hong Kong

I got this jazz saxophonist’s album Rites years ago, so I was glad to finally see him perform with his group. Some say his playing is evocative of vast snow-covered plains, but I think they just say that because he comes from Norway.

Most of their pieces were build from soundscapes made by the four players, with a healthy dose of the extended solos you’d expect from a jazz group. Frequently, during a solo, the other players would chat to each other or wander offstage for a few minutes. But always the flow of the piece remained unbroken.

The percussionist, Marilyn Mazur really stood out – her rack of instruments looked like a huge version of one of those baby’s toys strung across a playpen, and she did seem to have a lot of fun. She was the only one of the four to smile much, and she definitely had more zip, vim and vigour than the other three all put together.

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Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section — Art Pepper

Legend has it that Art Pepper, in the midst of one of his habitual drink and drugs binges, picked up his saxophone for the first time in months and recorded this classic album with Miles Davis’s rhythm section.

Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section

Maybe not true, but a great story. Certainly his playing seems pretty sharp, but still you can imagine there was maybe the odd bottle of gin around during the recording. I’m certainly no expert, but this is an album that’s hard to dislike – good jazz standards with a mellow feel, by top players. It’s fun to listen to this and remember that the man who played this pleasant music had a lifestyle that would put Ozzie Osbourne to shame.

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Lullabye for Liquid Pig — Lisa Germano

Beautiful, yet slightly unsettling, late-night dreamy sounds. Her languid vocals and the Twin Peaksy music just surround me and make me forget about everything else.

This album goes perfectly with a quiet midnight, dim lighting, and half a bottle of red wine. It evokes the disorienting moments of calm when you return home after a long night out. I could just get lost in it.

Lisa Germano used to sing with a group called OP8. They were good; this album is great.

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PCP — The Pancakes

This is a great CD. The Pancakes music is somewhat minimal, and the lyrics tend towards the bittersweet, but I just can’t get enough of these catchy hooks and fun melodies. It’s cute, but not at all too cute.

The Pancakes is a one-woman band: the music shows a great DIY ethic, mostly just voice, synths and guitar with no production trickery at all. It might be a bit lo-fi for some, but it all fits the lyrics and delivery beautifully. And the song Martin has been playing on endless repeat in my head for the last two weeks.

This CD comes with a second CD called Friendcakes, consisting of cover versions of Pancakes songs by other, even less well-known performers. I haven’t yet listened to it because I don’t want to take PCP out of my CD player…

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Horses Across Hong Kong

Looks as if there probably won’t be a Cow Parade in Hong Kong; they already have something similar. In true Hong Kong style, it’s related to money – in this case, to horse racing, the only legal form of gambling here.

The Currency Horse

To celebrate the December racing carnival, each year the Hong Kong Jockey Club places a number of decorated racehorses around Hong Kong. I’ve seen a few around Central, above is the Currency Horse, and this one is Beautiful Women of the World:

Beautiful Women of the World

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Elvis is not dead – he just lost some weight and moved to Hong Kong.

Melvis is essentially a Hong Kong Chinese busker who looks (or at least, dresses) like Elvis (in his Las Vegas incarnation) and performs short and almost incomprehensible Elvis songs at the drop of a hat.

We were out last night, and one of the guys with us saw Melvis in the street and asked him to come in and play for us. He did a very short Hound Dog, and a brilliant A Little Less Conversation. He has a remarkable talent for cutting to the very essence of each song, leaving out frills like melody and recognisable lyrics.

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Prince — live in Hong Kong

Like many others, we scored free tickets to the Prince gig staged as part of the Hong Kong Harbour Fest. I had never seen Prince before, and hadn’t heard much of him recently, but the show was excellent.

Prince on stage

He moved and grooved all over the purple stage, singing a good range of well-known and more obscure songs. The band was fantastic. Just smooth funkiness from beginning to end.

Harbour Fest venue

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Cow Parade in Tokyo

Cow parades have been going on for a few years, in various parts of the world. I was excited to discover decorated cows in Marunouchi, downtown Tokyo, where I worked. So excited that I decided I would try to shoot all 60-odd of them (with my camera).

This was the first cow parade in the Far East, featuring lots of Japan-themed cows, and one or two impressive technology-enabled cows. It was fun hunting them all down – I even found some interesting parts of town that I had never been to before.

In the end, I ran out of time – I only managed to find 61 of the 64 cows. Some of them were sneakily positioned inside buildings, and one was way over on the other side of Tokyo station. Some of the cows also moved around over the course of the parade… Anyway, I had to steal other people’s photos to complete the three missing spots in my photo album.

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Dear Catastrophe Waitress — Belle & Sebastian

Have they been taking happy pills? This is a pretty upbeat set, with their usual great melodies and naive vocals. So far I have enjoyed it immensely. It may not scale the quiet heights of “If You’re Feeling Sinister”, but I think it’s just going for a fuller sound. And it’s much better than the patchy “Storytelling”.

I am particularly amused that they rhyme “I’m a cuckoo” with “Harajuku”, since I used to live in Harajuku (Tokyo) until a few days ago. In fact, I bought this CD in Harajuku the day before I left. (And got a free badge with it.) Ah, good times, good times.

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Fuji Rock Festival 2003 — day 3

Sunday was a beautiful day. Blue skies made it a bit easier to get up this morning, As usual, difficult to get out of bed in time for breakfast, but again it was well worth it, even if the omelette wasn’t as good as yesterday’s spring rolls.

Today there weren’t any must-see bands for us (he said dismissively) so we thought we’d have a bit of an outing. Part of the Festival was above the rest of the venue – a secluded play and performance space called Silent Breeze, and also an outdoor DJ sound system called Day Dreaming. To get there, you had to take the
Dragondola cable car.

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A Man Jumps Out of an Airplane — Barry Yourgrau

A fantastic collection of dreams. Most of these short pieces are less than a page long, but they perfectly convey that weird logic peculiar to dreams. It’s amazing how much he packs into such a short form.

I bought this randomly in a used bookshop, in a double edition with the same author’s Wearing Dad’s Head. WDH is similar to Airplane, but does seem to focus rather a lot on the author’s troubled relationship with his overbearing father. The makes the book more personal, but for me, less beautifully dream-like. (Your dreams may vary.)

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Fuji Rock Festival 2003 — day 2

Dragged ourselves out of bed unenthusiastically for what we expected to be an unappetizing breakfast – it was included in the price of our room. Turned out to be delicious! Fried spring rolls, salad, grilled fish, pickles, and of course the breakfast staples of miso soup, rice and dried seaweed. We returned to our room feeling satisfied and then just lounged around for an hour or so. We decided to take it easy – the first band we wanted to see, Goldfrapp, weren’t on till 1 o’clock.

It was still raining a bit, so we thought we’d go to an onsen (hot spring bathhouse). There were a couple nearby (no doubt very popular during the ski season). One had outdoor baths, and we’d gotten discount tickets for it at last night’s restaurant, so in we went. Like most such places, the baths were segregated, so Jo and Lora went to the ladies’ bath and I to the gentlemen’s. It was crowded – I had to wait about 5 minutes for my pre-bath shower. Waiting in line is never fun, but even less so when you’re naked. Anyway, the bath was lovely, half-enclosed by a wooden roof and with nice trees to look at.

The best was saved for last – by the time we left the onsen, the rain had stopped and the sky was blue!

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Fuji Rock Festival 2003 — day 1

Crowd-surfing in the blazing sunshine, vodka-fuelled midnight revelry, and majestic views of Mount Fuji. That’s what any reasonable person would expect from the Fuji Rock Festival. Actually, for us it involved none of these things, but I still had such a good time that I’m already planning for next year’s festival.

The first Fuji Rock Festival was held on the slopes of Mount Fuji about eight years ago, but it’s been relocated a couple of times. These days it’s held in a ski resort called Naeba, about an hour or two out of central Tokyo.

I would like to have gone last year, but arrived in Japan a bit too late to organize it. But this year, thanks largely to Jo’s organizational efforts, I made it. On Friday morning, 25 July 2003, Joanne and I met up with Lora, and the three of us set out in search of music and fun.

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Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix — J. K. Rowling

Harry Potter books are always published just before my birthday, which is handy. This book is more of the same, with the emphasis on the more – a bit too close to 1000 pages for my liking.

This time around, apart from the usual conspiracies and evildoers, Harry must contend with the opposite sex. He proves to be as clueless with girls as he is clever with magic. (Time’s running out – he’s only got two more books to sort himself out.)

I was pleased with the way that quite a few plotlines from previous books are picked up, which helps sustain interest. I thought the book was paced well, given its length. Even so, parts of the denouement felt a bit perfunctory. (Don’t you hate those perfunctory denouements?)

Well, I can’t blame her for wanting to finish by that stage. No doubt she was eager to get cracking with Book Six.

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