Thursday, April 30, 2009

when it's over, it's over

Is Dalston the coolest place in Britain? Not any more

Friday, April 24, 2009


So the sun arrives and suddenly my cycle to work is innundated with friendly cyclists. As if recently returned from their winter migration, they clutter up the traffic lights like a murder of crows. And murder it is.

Because most other cyclists, especially the unpractised, fair-weather ones who have magically appeared on the road, festooned with fresh-out-of-the-shop luminous cycle accessories, are infinitely more aggravating than cars. Cars have one basic, predicable motivation - to kill you - and you stay out of their way on that basis. But cars can more or less move only in two directions and from a stop have surprisingly slow acceleration. A bike, on the other hand, is quick away, but more to the point can veer in any number of unpredictable directions and has the added bonus of the ability to just topple on top of you at any given moment.

Surely, I hear you cry, I am going too far; surely the parade of cyclists taking back the city from the menace of 4x4 planet wreckers is a good thing; surely a healthier nation is a happier nation; surely there is a camaraderie between the pedalling classes that I, as a thoughtful, concerned person, would wish to celebrate. Well, maybe, if they take some cycle proficiency tests and get out of my bloody way.

It is not as though I am one of the lycra-clad, Italian frame, all-over Campagnola brigade. My bike is often no more zippy than an overweight elephant trailing across the savanna, another overweight elephant atop. I am not a snob, I don't think, I just want to be able to get where I am going. And cycling in the city, at least during the winter, has a certain libertarian bent, a small anarchistic, individualist marker against a world of mass transportation and crowded tube platforms. The arrival of the hoardes upon their bikes, much galvanised by the bombings of 7/7 (for which, thanks Al-Qaeda, a small part of western civilisation you didn't intend to do in, I presume), has curtailed my small rebellion, and now I am in danger of becoming yet another bike in the crowd.

Cycling is still, just, a rebellion, which is why, alongside miserable jealousy, motorists get so irritated by bikes. I am very much of the view that a man on a bike can do no wrong in a inter-traffic scenario. I dimly remember a quote from the House of Lords where one good Lord said words to the effect of: "Whilst being driven around, I constantly observe cyclists on the road who jump red lights [check], ride on the pavement [check], ride without a helmet [check] or lights [check], pay no attention to the highway code [check] and further to this malignant attitude apparently are of the belief that they'll never have to face arrest or punishment [check]." This is the rebellion. The argument about red lights is a particular favourite in the Lords, but is a total red herring. Red lights are for cars because they cannot be trusted to go anywhere of their own accord without crashing into each other and killing small children. Bikes, on the other hand, can weave in and out without recourse to flashing lights and authoritarian strictures. This is not to say that cyclists can't get it wrong, but the ideal is summed up neatly on a sign on the canal path in Hackney: Considerate Cycling Permitted. Because cyclists, unlike motorists, are not cocooned away in what they have come to believe is an extension of their front room; they are out in the elements and face the world directly, not sheltering behind windscreen wipers and the old yell out the window and speed off routine.

Some say, having realised that it is perfectly safe for cyclists to jump red lights, provided they do it safely, that they shouldn't because it annoys drivers so much. Of course it does. Drivers are like the sheep of the hills, while cyclists are like the foxes.

This is the rebellion; you motorists are taxed, your every misdemeanour is filmed and then sent to you with an £80 bill, you're getting fat, you can't help but pay absurd prices for petrol, and then some smug twat on two wheels zings past the lights and zips off down the road, flashing their arse in the air at you - yes he's flashing his arse IN YOUR FACE FATBOY!!!

Drivers are often prone to complain that cyclists are smug. And the truth is, most of them are. Even I, who has never had a driving licence and, mainly through abject laziness, has more of a carbon thumbprint than carbon footprint, even I am prone to the hint of murderous rage when I see someone parading their bike around with a ONE LESS CAR sticker or (especially) flag. So much so that I even considered designing a car bumper sticker than says "One less smug cyclist". Alas I worry that someone even more depraved than me might think to stick them on those ghost bikes, the white monuments to cyclists killed on the road; this I suppose shows the limit of my misanthropy.

So I hate most cyclists, although I make an exception for dead ones. But I really hate cyclists who don't have gears. The trend of the last few years for cyclists to dispense with gears, flashing about on admittedly aesthetically pleasing, if somewhat neutered machines, has engendered much debate amongst cyclists. The form over function debate has got not so much an airing as a long, slow hot air balloon ride; although the single-speed merchants claim utility in that dispensing with gears is cheaper and leaves less to go wrong. Of course not having a bike at all leaves nothing at all to go wrong.

The first time I ever saw a guy riding a single-speed bike I asked him: "How the hell do you get up hills?" "London hasn't got any hills," he sneered at me, proving there and then both the idiocy and the smugness on which the entire single-speed edifice rests. Of course London doesn't have any hills, unless you count all those hills which are in London. It is true that if you limit your ride to the parts of London which are relatively flat you may be get away with it, although whatever money you save in not buying any gears you'll soon pay out in exorbitant rent.

In fact there are two types of one-gear buffoons - the fixed gear and the single-speed. The fixed gear, or fixed wheel, or fixie if you really need your head smacked with a D-lock, dispenses not only with the gear but also the freewheel, which means the crank of the pedal and the turning of the backwheel are inoperably connected. The pedals will go round if the wheel is going round and vice versa, which seems a recipe for disaster but some riders, no doubt spun out on cheap Moroccan hash, claim that it allows them to be one with their bike. It also allows the cyclist to brake using force from his feet, by pressing against the turning of the crank. Thus some fixed-wheel bike riders have dispensed not only with gears but also brakes, which in Darwinian terms is what you call an evolutionary dead end.

The other style of single gear bike is the so-called single-speed, which takes all the aesthetics of the fixed gear but allows the back wheel to freewheel, thus making it precisely a marker of fashion victimhood. It is no coincidence that the epicentre of single-speed bikes in London is Hoxton, aka the London Borough of Fashion Victims; you can safely be extremely wary of any phenomenon which increases in ratio to its vicinity to Shoreditch.

One of the most glaring, literally, elements of the single-speed trend is when the riders "accessorise" their bikes, with wacky colours, matching wheel rims and other self-aggrandising minutae, all in a vain (again, literally) attempt to individualise their bikes, in alas the exact same way as a thousand other inadequates. Disparaging these wheeled art installations, as they irritate their way from Commercial Road to Kingsland High Street, could occupy me all day, but it did give me an insight into my ordinarily fractious relationship with cab drivers. For, at a guess, what I think when I see the single-speed glarecyles, is what cabbies think when they see any of us cyclists.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Poems for my mum


My mother said to me son I'm proud for you to be a man
But don't you wait for me, cos I'll be running on
And when the day came she was there and then she was gone
Don't you wait for me, cos I won't be around

We were talking about how you pass your values on
The only thing that you can give your children
Some of hers were crooked, and I left them alone
Some of them were golden, and they shone in the sun

And I now I go out walking in the places where we walked when we were young,
Hoping to find something of the child that's gone
But nothing comes of nothing, so I guess that I am done
Don't you wait for me, cos I'll be running on


bastard month that it is,
I lost my mother in its raging winds

Leaves wrap the pavement
and the days struggle for breath
and the cold comes, I dont feel the cold
just a bitter edge on the air
a nip, a bite, sneaks in
makes itself at home
and the crooked corridors
and the waiting for the lift
can stop for now

I will spend my time looking at the view


She's lying on the bed
She's dead
you know she's gone,
you know she's gone
but still there's the hope

They've got her on a hundred machines,
you know what it means
you know she's gone,
you know she's gone
You felt her go,
You were at your friend's and the call said
Come back to the hospital,
You knew she'd gone

A seizure they said,
and that feeling's called dread
but you knew she'd gone,
you know she's gone
as you rode your bike, you felt her spirit rise
you felt her go,
you felt her leave
you know she's gone

but there's the hope
it keeps you in the ward,
keeps her on the bed
plugged in and made to breathe,
made to beat her heart
you know she's gone,
you know she's gone
but there's the hope

you know she's gone

Then Monday comes
and there's no hope,
they want to turn the machines off
and now she's gone
you knew she'd gone,
you know she's gone
but when they come to turn it off
it rises inside
saying No! lets keep her alive,
lets not let her go
there's the hope
always the hope

but you know she's gone,
you know she's gone
but there's the hope

and now she's gone
and before you leave you go to give her one last kiss
you knew she'd gone,
you knew she'd gone
and now she's gone


And now you'll cry in all the oddest places
On a plane, on a boat, in a park
in the oddest places,
but not at the funeral, not at the grave
instead in a restaurant
with the sun streaming in through the windows
the little boy cries for his mum
who always came and now she doesn't come no more
I'm sure it's not for want of trying
that she doesn't hear the crying

she would but for her dying

Everyone Will Leave At Exactly The Same Time

David Byrne, Royal Festival Hall

David Byrne is basically your favourite funky uncle. In a very cool artrock band in his younger days, when you were just a nipper, he now seems to potter around some swish and bohemian part of New York's West Side doing effortlessly interesting things - travelling the world, writing film soundtracks, designing bizarre bike racks. You hardly ever see him, but when you do its always a pleasure and he's always brought some quirky and original present for you.

This year he's brought a band dressed all in white - to match his hair, I suppose - and a setlist culled from his collaborations with Brian Eno; the second to the fourth Talking Heads' albums, 1981's brilliant and groundbreaking My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and their new effort, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today - whatever the hell that means - whose vocal parts and instrumentals pinged across the Atlantic between the two auteur's emails until it was finished. The band - drums, bass, keyboards, Byrne on guitar, a percussionist with practically a village of things to bang and rattle - were accompanied by three dancers, who pirouetted and sashayed across the stage in a dreadfully modern manner, including an expressive episode with some office chairs, a lot of frolicking hither and tither, before at one point the male dancer vaulted over Byrne's head.

Of course you know that Byrne is not bringing the usual rock gig trappings - for a start he's playing the rarefied Royal Festival Hall among other rather well-to-do venues on the UK leg - secondly he chats amiably and unpretentiously to the crowd at several points. "If you want to take photos on your pocket cameras, feel free," he told us joshily, "but you in the balcony, bear in mind that your flash may not reach all the way down to the stage." Some of what he told us was interesting: when introducing MLITBOG's Help Me Somebody he mentioned that the album used a lot of were then known as "found vocals", which later became known as samples.

The setlist leans towards the new material at the beginning, but with I Zimbra as the second tune, Talking Heads material is never far away. For the first half-hour it seems very amiable, although a little restrained; the crowd sit back on their well-holstered seats and enjoy the spectacle, but roundabout when Crosseyed and Painless gets underway, played at a fair clip, the crowd suddenly surges towards the front and the stalls get the party underway, although for us trapped on the balcony, it doesn't work out quite as well. A brief sojourn to try and get into the stalls didn't come off either.

The music is of course given superb treatment and its great to see him in such great voice. However, there seems to be little wavering from the canon. The songs were all played exactly to the letter, and while the band knocks out the edgy-funk with supreme finesse, they never seem to settle into the grooves, preferring to cap the songs at the same length as on record. This seems to me to be a bit of waste, because no matter how funky a rhythm is, if you can't lose yourself in it, it aint funky enough. Most especially, there are no segues; each song stands on its own, the band takes a bit of applause before striking up the next one. This slightly uptight element is definitely in keeping with Byrne's generally slightly uptight demeanour, as is his jerky dance style, the snakelike fits and pounces, preserved from the Talking Heads days, if a bit softened round the edges. And he does wiggle his bum at the audience as well.

But the band, and the tunes, or at least the old ones, are fucking funky. The new material, like most of Byrne's stuff post- more or less Stop Making Sense, is cheerful and bright. A cynic might imagine that in about 1986 Byrne gave up cocaine for religion, but what do I know. Somehow the chirpy stuff, nice as it is, never reaches the heights (or depths) of the old gear. For instance a tune like Heaven, which gets an airing, as slow, beautiful and major chord laden as any of the new stuff, somehow manages to avoid the slightly anodyne, inconsequential, daytime radio feel of his more recent offerings.

The encores, including Take Me To The River and a the non-Eno but seemingly inevitable Burning Down The House (with DB in a tutu), wrapped up a strong and welcome performance by an art-rock legend. But while the RFH acoustics meant the sound was crystal clear, I'd still swap that overcomfortable venue for a shoddier sound in a smaller, sweatier hall. Those in the stalls no doubt got a fair bit more out of it that I did, the lucky conts.

These two have more details and some nice photos, but anyone who says that it was better than the Stop Making Sense gig must be crazy.

Friday, April 03, 2009