The Null Device

2018/12/31

As 2018 comes to an end, here is once again my list of records of the past year:

  • Belle & SebastianHow To Solve Our Human Problems

    This year brought another Belle & Sebastian album with it, and Belle & Sebastian fans know what to expect. gently folky moments (Fickle Season), groovy mood pieces (the bipartite Everything Is Now), soul strings (Too Many Tears), not to mention titles like “A Plague On Other Boys” (which sounds not unlike one would expect a Belle & Sebastian song by that title to sound; file this one alongside Lord Anthony and The Cat With The Cream).

    The album opens with Sweet Dew Lee, in which Stevie wistfully reopens the wounds of an unrequited crush twenty years on, tormenting himself with what-could-have-beens and parallel-universe hypotheticals (hey, we've all been there), over a bed of bossa-esque guitar and analogue synth fuzz. The second track, We Were Beautiful, which is sonically probably the closest we'll get to Belle & Sebastian's foray into drum'n'bass, continues the theme of wistfully looking back on lost youth. Meanwhile, Best Friend is a classic B&S comedy of manners about flat-sharing, adulting and trying not to fall in love. (At times, the Belle and Sebastian universe sounds like a terrifying place, with romantic love being everywhere, seeping through the cracks like a gas, every glance crackling with oddly chaste sexual electricity.)

  • Carpenter BrutLEATHER TEETH (Bandcamp)

    Carpenter Brut are, in a sense, the anti-M83. Both bands hail from France, a culture that stands apart from the currents of Anglo-American pop culture, engaging with them on its own terms, and both bands trade in a French-made vision of fantasy-America. Though while M83's America takes its cues from John Hughes soundtracks, with its pastel-hued high-school romances and subcultural cliques, Carpenter Brut's America is a darker one, made from 1980s low-budget VHS horror films and Reagan-era paranoia about Satanic cults. A trio comprised of a keyboard player (with a stack of analogue synths), a heavy-metal guitarist and a drummer, their music falls at the more dystopian end of the “synthwave” genre (as the name suggests, synthesist and horror auteur John Carpenter was an influence, though far from the only one); the closest comparison I can think of is San Diego's Street Cleaner.

    Some tracks on LEATHER TEETH have lyrics, whose sometimes stilted phrasing adds to their over-the-top shlock (sample: “beware the beast inside your heart, when you're dancing in the dark, and the night's desire is burning with the Devil's fire”), while others serve to soundtrack movie scenes left to the listener's imagination (those who see them live get a visual aid in the form of video projections of imaginary movie fragments, presumably filmed at considerable effort by the band and their collaborators; expect unrealistic fake blood, rows of high-school lockers and shots of lurid newspaper headlines). Leather Teeth is their second album, and includes collaborators including Ulver's Kristoffer Rygg.

  • DubstarOne

    Dubstar were one of those bands of the 90s that were often lumped in with Saint Etienne; each juxtaposing the programmed beats and loops of hip-house and club pop with the an very English Dusty-Springfield-meets-Emma-Peel retro-cool, in each case delivered with vintage sang-froid by a Sarah. Unlike their southern opposite numbers, though, they disappeared around the turn of the millennium, with Sarah going on to the electroclash project Client and a number of industriogoth collaborations. Now, after almost two decades, they're back.

    Musically, One starts more or less where they left off, give or take a few decades of life experience. They're a duo now, without the chap who did the drum/sampler/sequencer programming, and so their music sounds less sequenced. The subject matter has kept up with the authors' age, and themes of divorces, legal injunctions (actual and as a metaphor) and drama at school gates come up in the characteristically wry lyrics about stereotypically knotty situations. Blackwood's (possibly unreliable) narrator will be familiar from the “Not So Manic Now” era: wry and a bit intense; just the song titles (“Why Don't You Kiss Me”, ”You Were Never In Love”, “Please Stop Leaving Me Alone”) bespeak the persona of a romantic actor who pursues her interests with the single-minded drive of the Terminator and, when things have gone south, writes a postmortem for the dalliance, replete with arch wordplay.

    In any case, the songs are all as catchy and compelling as the best of their first run. It's hard to pick highlights, but some might include “I Hold Your Heart” with it's Northern-soul stomp, “Waltz No. 9”, in triplet-time and second person, describes the listener's disintegrating life and foretells their imminent downfall, and the icily synthpoppy “Locked Inside”, or the bracing bucket of cold water that is “You Were Never In Love”. The album ends with “Mantra”, a 6½-minute track building to a climax of repeated wordless vocals, fuzzed guitar; I bet they could get a few extra minutes out of it live.

  • Haiku SalutThere Is No Elsewhere (Bandcamp)

    Haiku Salut make lovely, subtle soundscapes, and their third album is no exception. Haiku Salut's combination of electronic and live sounds feels even more seamless than before; glitchy beats, warm drones, synth arpeggios and tiny fragments of sound of unknown provenance fuse with chromatic percussion, melodicas, horns and the Haikus' signature French accordion. The harmonies and melodies feel ever more intricate and evocative. Highlights include the pulsating The More and Moreness, the splendidly titled I Am Who I Remind You Of, a 7-minute journey through a soundscape of glockenspiel, accordion and electronic beats, and the closing track, the lovely, subtle Shadows. File alongside Mogwai, Amiina or Tortoise.

  • Kero Kero BonitoTime 'n' Place (Bandcamp)

    The third album for the London J-pop trio is a somewhat skronkier affair; the songs are still melodious pop songs, redolent more of Harajuku than the Bromley bedroom they were recorded in, but the super-smooth PC Music-esque affectations are replaced by something somewhat less clean; chunky guitar riffage, vaporwavey digital synths and the odd YMCK-esque chiptune arpeggio and digital noise breakdown, slathered with reverb and distortion. Which echoes the record's anxious themes: songs about identity crises in the Instagram-influencer era, depression and worries about the precarious future. Highlights include the retro-styled baroque pop of Dear Future Self and the third-wall-breaking Only Acting.

  • Klaus Johann GrobeDu Bist So Symmetrisch (Bandcamp)

    Swiss electro-funk, you say? With lyrics in German, no less. Propelled by clunky bass guitar, warm'n'fuzzy monosynths, jazzy chords, funky riffs and drums (both live and programmed), Klaus Johann Grobe don't so much straddle the line between kitschy and funky as saunter playfully across it repeatedly. Like smooth midnight boogie-groove R&B stripped back to one-oscillator basics crossed with post-Can skronk and a touch of Kraftwerkian electropop, they present a sort of polyester modernism, conjuring up images of retrofuturistic mitteleuropäisch nightclubs at some point in the past half-century. Highlights include Zu Spät, which is the smoothest thing in at least one parallel universe, and the closing track, An Diesem Abend, a mighty grüv juggernaut which brings das Haus down.

  • Kosmischer LäuferVolume 4 (Bandcamp)

    The fourth chapter of Drew McFadyen's Ostalgisch krautrock project, coming years after the first three, as we all began to despair of the prospect of finding any more of Martin Zeichnete's tapes. Were this a real rerelease of actual long-lost East German Kosmische Musik, we'd be faced with the prospect of all the good stuff having been released, and the remainders being off-cuts, fragments and curios. It's not, though, and so each volume improves on the previous ones. the main part of Volume Four follows the preceding volumes in themes, providing Cluster/Harmonia/La Düsseldorf-style electronic instrumentals, ostensibly conceived for the DDR's Olympic athletes' training; here we have motorik beats and the odd Kraftwerk-esque synthesiser melody, at a methodical 150BPM. The second half, though, takes the form of a visualisation programme, ostensibly to bring focus to the athletes' minds; in place of the propulsive rhythm are ambient synthesiser drones and arpeggios, with a female voice reading out instructions. As ambient music, it works rather nicely; and perhaps future discoveries of Zeichnete's works will be those in this vein?

  • Let's Eat GrandmaI'm All Ears (Bandcamp)

    The teenage duo's second album is somewhat more polished affair, though with their own distinctive authorial voice. While previously they did everything themselves, here they bring onboard collaborators, most prominently The Horrors' Faris Badwan and PC Music artist SOPHIE, learn the tricks and terms of art of mass-market pop music and turn them to their own ends. The latter's influence can be heard in the poppier tracks, such as the single Hot Pink, with its J-pop-tinged girl-power R&B, only somewhat askew and with a Norfolk accent.

    While they have embraced the polish and artifice of pop production and added it to their formidable repertoire, they have not been subsumed by it, either thematically or stylistically. Their songs avoid the standard pop clichés—the love ballads, party anthems and melodramas of heartbreak and betrayal—and instead use the pop-song idiom to their own ends, with word-pictures of an inner life, with its passing thoughts and feelings. Stylistically, some songs, like It's Not Just Me and Falling Into Me, play with the elements of electropop to varying extents; others find a different way, like the bluesy 6/8-time Snakes & Ladders. Cool And Collected, a meditation on the anxiety of admiring (or perhaps fancying) someone, starts off with arid guitarwork reminiscent of Pygmalion-era Slowdive; and perhaps the highlight of the album for me is Ava, an understated piano ballad about a friend struggling with mental-health issues, which shows that Let's Eat Grandma are not beholden to their well-honed maximalism. The closer is the 11-minute Donnie Darko, the long, vaguely Underworldesque track familiar from their live shows, its techno pulse now underpinned with guitar riffing.

    Also, there's the best use of a purring cat on a record since Loney Dear's “The Year Of River Fontana”, so there is that.

  • MonteroPerformer (Bandcamp)

    The new record from musician and illustrator Bjenny Montero, and his first since moving to Athens (Greece, not Georgia) embraces the luscious maximalism and all-analogue artifice of 70s-vintage soft rock, wedding it to the vulnerability of his comics.

    The first track, Montero Airlines, starts with eight bars of minor-key piano chords; then the big drums kick in and Ben's vocals, with a cry for help; “it's not good for me to be all alone right now”. By the time we get to the verse, we learn that part of him needs a part of you and not just any boy is going to do. Another verse and chorus, and then the song switches into the ending, a jingle for the titular airline, wrought into an epic build-up of chorused vocals, drum breakdowns and multiple chiming guitars. The second song, Aloha, is even more envelopingly lush, all chiming guitars, vocal harmonies and an key change that feels like taking off into the sunset in a seaplane.

    The album continues in this vein, with flangers, Frippian talkbox, electric pianos, Mellotron strings, and beds of backing harmonies. Montero, it seems, is both a connoisseur of vintage pop and a perfectionist in the studio, build up lavish pocket symphonies out of everyday anxieties and melancholies. Caught Up In My Own World starts with Rhodes piano and flanged vocals, the choruses blooming in an explosion of chorused guitar and vocal aahs. Running Race builds up a lush soundscape around a kernel of self-doubt (“deep inside of me, no-one's home”), ornamenting it with classic psychedelic pop. Tokin' The Night Away is basically what it sounds like, a stoner anthem realised as if on a 1970s recording budget; “Destiny” brings a somewhat goofy rock-opera bombast, sounding like the musical number in which the mephistophelian villain tries to convince the hero to join him. The closing track, Pilot starts with a funky bassline and bongo-led groove, and cruises smoothly along before soaring to a climax that brings the house down on the album. It is also probably also the only song ever written referencing both the lights of LA and “Desperate and Dateless”. In any case, Performer is smooth sailing, and the biggest (by some definitions) Australian psychedelic pop record since Tame Impala. There's none more shmoopy!

  • Moon GangsEarth Loop (Bandcamp)

    The first album-length release from analogue ambient electronic project Moon Gangs elaborates on the direction of his two EPs, though in a deeper, darker direction. Made with a bench of analogue synthesisers and sequencers played live, the result is luminous, foreboding cinematic soundscapes somewhere between Vangelis, Tangerine Dream and John Carpenter, replete with coruscating arpeggios, saturated sawtooth drones, skittering white noise and epic reverb tails. Highlights include Familiar Machines (which sounds like a more analogue Ben Frost) and the majestic Sea Circles, a 6½-minute megastructure of grandeur.

  • Them Are Us TooAmends and SRSQUnreality

    This year's twinned albums; the young Bay Area dreampop duo Them Are Us Too, tragically, were mentioned here in 2016, in the context of one of them, Cash Askew, having died in the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland. At the time, they had been working on new recordings; some time later, these were reworked with the involvement of surviving member Kennedy Ashlyn, Telefon Tel Aviv producer Joshua Eustis and Askew's girlfriend and stepfather; which eventually was worked into the Amends EP, and released this year. Ashlyn went on to a solo project, SRSQ, also releasing a record later this year.

    Both records have their roots in 1980s dreampop/sophistipop, with a sound somewhere between the Cocteau Twins and Julee Cruise, with perhaps fragments of other things (The Cure? Giorgio Moroder?) shining through. Amends feels the more whole, with Askew's dreamlike guitarwork floating over the synth pads and underpinning Ashlyn's Fraserequely aethereal vocals. It starts with the sublime Angelene, its icy synth arpeggios, filter-sweep pads, gated drum machine and judicious use of tape delay setting Ashlyn's soaring soprano in an ornate frame worthy of Laura Palmer. The velvet darkness starts to close in with Grey Water, which ventures deeper into Cocteaus territory. Floor, with its rapid-fire drum machine, jagged guitar lines and Ashlyn's vocals soaring like if Siouxsie had been an actual banshee, could have probably filled the floor of a goth club 30 years ago. The final, title track, with its reverbed drums, synth pads, Ashlyn's soaring soprano and Askew's sublimely jagged guitarwork, is a fitting ending, providing a pastel-hued sunset for Them Are Us Too's closing credits, and giving an illusion of closure.

    Closure, however, is not how the real world works, which is evident in Ashlyn's debut as SRSQ, an album haunted by loss (SRSQ's Bandcamp page describes the project as “griefwave”). The album feels like a journey: starting with FM bells, vast reverb and an almost Dead Can Dance-esque sense of the transcendent, before the familiar 808 snap and sawtooth arpeggios kick in, going through ethereal dreampop (Cherish, which sounds like a synth-driven Cocteaus, and the Badalamenti-esque Procession), descending into a valley of shadow, of plaintive vocal lines and electronic drones, before emerging with the soaring, luminous climax of Only One. Askew's guitars, of course, are absent; instead, there are rich layers of electronics (mostly lush, though in places raw and harsh) beneath Ashlyn's majestic soprano. There is, of course, a void and a sense of loss, but also, one feels, a sense of mystery and hints of the sacred encoded in the aural language of the record; beyond the FM bells, expansive 80s-style reverbs and overtone-rich analogue synth timbres reminiscent of pipe organs coalesce to evoke the sensation of a cathedral-like space, there are, echoes of the score for a certain TV show, perhaps our secular society's closest thing to sacred mystery. One gets the feeling that this is not so much stylised genre pop music, such as, say, “dreampop” or “synthwave”, as something more transcendent crafted from its elements.

  • Die Wilde JagdUhrwald Orange (Bandcamp)

    Die Wilde Jagd (The Wild Hunt) are a duo, originally from Düsseldorf, but now based in Berlin. Uhrwald Orange (“Clockwood Orange” in English) is their second album, and falls somewhere between electronic and post-rock. It is mostly instrumental, with half the tracks clocking in at over 10 minutes in length and none shorter than six, though a few with lyrics sounding not unlike a German Velvet Underground. The tracks tend to evolve and progress, like hypnotic meditations of layered rhythms and textures; slightly too languid to be labelled “motorik”, with pulsing synthesisers, sitars, spaghetti-western guitars and the odd field recording. Highlights include the 15-minute “Kreuzgang”, which starts off like a library-music take on Joy Division-style post-punk bleakness before setting the controls for an altogether more cosmic void.

With honourable mentions going to: Beach House, 7 (somewhat busier than their previous albums, though with the familiar dreamy haze; Pete “Sonic Boom” Kember was involved in the production), Blood Wine Or Honey, Fear & Celebration (psychedelic Afrobeat/Tropicalia-tinged party grooves from Hong Kong, of all places; sounds in places like NO ZU, only even more lit), Cale Sexton, Melondrama (808 and 303-intensive electronic grooves, with enough atmosphere to not get boring or require pills to enjoy; reminiscent of some of Aphex Twin's Polygon Window work in places, only dubbier), Camp Cope, How To Socialise & Make Friends (choppy/skronky yet melodious Melbourne indie rock fuelled by MeToo-era rage and knowing when to go rough-as-guts; reminiscent in places of Origami or Bidston Moss), Caroline No, Swimmers EP (understated rock'n'roll balladeering from Caroline Kennedy (of The Tulips and 90s alt-rockers Deadstar) and friends), Cavern of Anti-Matter, Hormone Lemonade (the follow-up to 2016’s Void Beats is literally a more stripped-back affair, built up over rhythms from Holger Zapf’s homemade drum machines, overlaid with layers of analogue synths, guitars and noise generators), Clue To Kalo, There's No Radio/In The All-Night Bakery At Dawn (a joyously maximalistic electropop song, reminiscent of Caribou or Panda Bear), Empty Files, Shadows (a.k.a. NIN goes to the hipster disco), Phil France, Circle (warm analogue electronic instrumentals, too chilled to dance to, but with more happening beneath the surface; not too far from Jon Brooks' analogue pastorals), Frankie Teardrop Dead, All You Need Is Love And Fucking Peace (above-average contemporary psych-rock, with above-average self-awareness (for one, they're not named “Underground Jesus” or “Acid Death Cult” or something); titles include “Joy In Division” and “Lost Member Of A Fake Boyband“; expect fuzzed-out guitar and chorused vocals), Fufanu, The Dialogue Series (The Icelandic electropop band's latest effort, originally released as several EPs; has its ups and downs, but some nice tracks like Typical Critical), Hatchie, Sugar & Spice (the début record from Brisbane teenager Harriette Pilbeam is a short slice of catchy shoegaze-tinged pop that evokes the likes of The Sundays; one to watch), The KVB,Only Now Forever (Reverbed vocals in an understated croon, the cold snap of analogue drum machines and layers of guitars and pulsing synths baked into a warm fuzz; combining the cold feeling of post-punk with analogue fuzz, The KVB deal in a sort of kraut-goth-psych-pop, somewhere between Darklands-era Jesus and Mary Chain and Joy Division at their most detached and motorik, with perhaps a nod to Berlin-era Bowie), Melbourne Cans, Heat of the Night (more Melbourne indie-rock, with shimmering guitars and vintage affectations; i.e., Heart Turned Blue, a slab of rock'n'roll noir not directly inspired by Twin Peaks, and the Be My Baby-quoting Followed Home), Midday Static, Dreamcatcher (guitar and beat-driven ambience from one guy in Tulsa, Oklahoma; if you like Robin Guthrie and Ulrich Schnauss, you might like this), New War, Coin (broadly in a post-punk vein, yet somewhat more expansive in tone; angular yet dubby with biting basslines, urgently yelped vocals, and more than the average amount of synth atmospherics; reminiscent in places of Dogs In Space), Örvar Smárason, Light Is Liquid (The solo début from Örvar, of renowned Icelandic bands múm and FM Belfast; chilled, glitchy beats, icy pads, warm electronics, leftfield techno and vocals chopped up, vocoded and processed to within an inch of their life; highlights include Flesh and Dreams and the closer Cthulhu Regio), Red Red Eyes, Horology (Laura from Betty And The Werewolves' new band goes into post-Lynchian territory; echoes of Death And Vanilla or Sir), Say Sue Me, Where We Were Together (fuzzy, jangly, indiepop from Busan, South Korea, evocative of C86/Sarah indie in places; Old Town could be twinned with Anorak City), Soft Regime, “Hard Feelings” (An EP of bright, hyper-saturated electropop songs about holidays in Europe, aging socialites and the magic of dance music; ⅓ of Soft Regime is Tim Benton, of indie-electro heroes Baxendale, and Dickon Edwards (of Orlando, Fosca and a renowned online diary) guests on one song), The Spook School, Could It Be Different? (their third record and first on Slumberland; melodiously skronky tweecore with a theme of defiant resilience and the power to fill indiepop dance floors), Tangents, New Bodies (dubby/jazzy/skronky post-post-rock atmospherics with live instruments and electronics), Tigercats, Pig City (Tigercats go deeper into afrobeat territory, with a record of largely kalimba- and horn-section-driven grooves, reinventing Limehouse as a sort of futuristic Nairobi-on-Thames, informal spaces in the shadow of concrete structures, pulsing with a tight beat and as antifa as Gritty), Mr. Twin Sister, Salt (the latest from the Long Island group, combines chilled electronics and soulful vocals (with, at times, stylistic amounts of AutoTune), covering a stylistic gamut between drum'n'bass, jazzy R&B à la Sadé, cyborg neo-soul and dub; impeccably smooth), Yamantaka//Sonic Titan, Dirt (The Toronto band’s third album manages to be both weightlessly ethereal and ultra-heavy, combining prog-rock intricacy with elements of metal and lovesliescrushing-esque shoegaze), You Drive, You Drive (impeccably cool synthwave pop, with luminous electronics and icily detached female vocals, from Nashville of all places).

As always, there were noteworthy things from previous years I only discovered this year. This year's ones were Cigarettes After Sex (whom I ignored the first time around, partly because their name made them sound like some kind of dumb hipster marketing gimmick, but was blown away by at Primavera; languid, atmospheric songs of contingent love, somewhere between The Velvet Underground, Mazzy Star and Slowdive) and Client Liaison (groovy 80s-style electropop, impeccably executed, with stage presence to match; also discovered at Primavera).

Were I to designate a record of the year, it would be either Montero, Dubstar or Them Are Us Too; it's a tough choice this year.

In any case, there is a Spotify playlist here.

2018 cds lists music 0

2018/12/4

To the surprise of exactly nobody, Australia’s Labor party agree to pass the mandatory encryption back-door bill, after the usual pantomime of token opposition.

The bill will allow the government to demand technical measures to allow access to encrypted content. The ALP stress that it will include safeguards, ensuring it is only used for matters of national security. It also has provisions preventing it from being used to mandate the introduction of “systematic weaknesses”, the definition of a “systematic weakness” being whatever the Attorney-General and Communications Minister agree it is or isn’t.

Labor’s spokespeople, resplendent in their progressive pragmatism, assure us that there’s no need to worry, that they have exacted strict safeguards as conditions of their support, requiring not one but two cabinet-level ministers to decide what isn’t a systematic weakness, and requiring that technical surveillance capabilities are mandated only for the most serious of cases (i.e., “OMG Paedoterrorists!”-level threats), with the non-terrorist/non-paedophile majority’s privacy assured as always. And perhaps the Australian political process, renowned worldwide as it is for its high calibre, has managed to, in secret committee, produce a perfectly square circle, a magical golden key that can only be wielded against evildoers and is impervious to abuse, misuse or negligence. (Or at least to the standards of the Australian law of “no worries, she’ll be right mate”; i.e., “I’m not a Muslim, a commo, femmo, pinko, greenie, bikie, trade unionist or any other kind of ratbag, or involved a cop’s ex-missus or anything, and neither are most people, therefore there are no possible problems worth thinking about”)

Of course, the much vaunted safeguards apply only to ordering companies to implement back doors; once the back door has been implemented, it’s there for any subsequent use: everybody’s WhatsApp messages, by law, have an escrowed key that ASIO’s computers can use to automatically decrypt and store them. If Australia’s metadata retention regime is anything to go by, the number of agencies with access to this will only grow. Within 12 months, copyright holders will use this to detect and prosecute someone sending an illegally downloaded TV show episode to a friend, or using a VPN to circumvent pirate site blocks; six months later, local councils will be trawling the plaintext of everyone’s iMessage conversations to find litterers and dog-poo violators. The government will, of course, have a much easier time of bringing the hammer down on troublesome journalists seeking to embarrass them, and anybody even considering talking to them. Meanwhile, somewhere in Queensland, a cop will have an easier time getting a hold of his estranged wife and the new man in her life. And a few years later, when mass surveillance of anything held on network-connected electronics is the new normal, some politician or public servant, impressed by the efficacy of China’s social-credit system or a PowerPoint presentation from Palantir, will suggest a system to aggregate everybody’s plaintext and analyse it to find as yet unidentified potential threats, by assigning everybody a “true-blue Aussie score” based on their chats, photos and file backups and making a list of those with suspiciously low ones. (Bonus card: the Russian mafiya quietly crack the ASIO key-escrow system and spend a few months feeding the plaintext of every Australian’s data into their databases, before embarking on a continent-scale automated extortion campaign.)

Meanwhile, the other four members of Five Eyes will be lining up to send their decryption requests through Canberra; sometimes, having a member of your club which is still, for all administrative purposes, a penal colony and military strongpoint of Empire, where there is by definition no right to privacy from Authority, can be useful.

australia authoritarianism labor surveillance 0

2018/10/30

I am writing this sitting in the empty shell of the loft flat in the liminal zone between Highbury and Stoke Newington that has been my home for the past 7½ years, ending today. In just under an hour, a taxi will come to take me to Heathrow, to my one-way flight to Stockholm Arlanda Airport. And so, one chapter will end, and another begin.

After 14⅙ years in London, five of them as a British citizen, I have decided to move on; this has been a decision some time in the making. Part of this is a desire to live somewhere else in Europe, not unlike the desire to live somewhere else that brought me to London, though hastened by uncertainty over how long that door shall remain open. Part, I say only half in jest, is a wish to escape the looming Brexit apocalypse. Though it’s mostly for a change: I have some friends in Stockholm, from previous visits, and an opportunity came up to move there.

Most of my worldly possessions are now on a lorry, somewhere on the continent; it's due to arrive in Stockholm tomorrow. I have been living out of a standard-issue Australian backpacker bag in my 25 square metre flat, now curiously empty.

I remember moving into this flat in February 2011; needing to find a place after a share house in Bethnal Green fell apart, and finding this flat, which was only £50 per month dearer than my room in the house, only realising after moving in that the kebab-shop vent points right at the bedroom windows. The first day, the tiny room ceiling-high with boxes, taking a break from unpacking to have a drink at the Edinburgh Cellars (now just the Cellars), and walking in to hear Visage's “Fade To Grey”; a portentous sign.

I won’t miss the tiny size of the flat, or the place being too hot, too cold or both at once, or the random odours of burnt oil/grilling meat/I dare not think what sporadically coming from the kebab shop downstairs through the brickwork, the occasional eye-stinging clouds of air freshener rising through the chimney-like stairwell and welling under the low ceiling of my flat like a neon-pink mustard gas when someone in the shop decides to do something about the nidor, or not being able to open the windows on one side because of the shop vent outside and the viscerally gritty stench of decades of fermented grease in the very air outside; I can tell you that the windows in that room remained sealed shut.

I will, though, miss the very nice Galician tapas place next to the kebab shop, and sitting outside it on the little piazza in the summer with a book, a beer and a basket of bread. I'll miss the views from my living room window, over the Victorian rooftops of Canonbury, of parts of the London skyline, the skeletons of unfinished luxury apartment towers on the horizon, their red lights like something out of a Simon Stålenhag painting. I will also miss the two cafés within a short bike ride, Mouse & De Lotz and Tina We Salute You, and the people who work there, almost all of them artists or musicians of some sort. And I'll miss being within walking distance of gigs at the Shacklewell or the Dalston Victoria, two former West Indian old-men's pubs colonised by Dalston hipsters and putting on consistently good selections of gigs.

I’ve gotten to know this city, or at least broad slices of it. The myriad numbered bus routes that link it, the cyclists’ ley lines. Favourite pubs and restaurants; the scenes of memorable events: gigs of various sorts, social engagements, the starts of friendships and relationships. A decade and a half of memories, highs and lows that are an inseparable part of my history, inscribed on the canvas that is London; the ancient, many-faceted city that has belonged to countless millions of people throughout its history, amongst them now myself. And the psychogeography of London—the actual, ineffable London of experience, not the fabled, phantasmagorical London of stories and legends—has, in turn, inscribed itself upon my psyche.

I first arrived in London for a visit, in 2002; at the time, the idea of Britain was intertwined with the country’s impressive musical heritage (for me, mostly post-punk through to indiepop; the first record I ever bought was a New Order 7", and I passed through Cure and Smiths phases, having settled at the time on MP3s of Sarah Records 7"s victimlessly pirated through SoulSeek). I moved to London two years later (as now, an opportunity came up, then in the form of a relaxation of working-holiday visa rules). Gradually, through living there, I became disabused of most of my romantic, anglophilic notions, settling into it being an actual place and condition of being, and the real place named London slowly displaced the idea of London, molecule by molecule.

Still, there was, for a long time, a sense of unreality: I am not of London, I thought; I am, like many others here, from somewhere else, and would not be in London forever; in a sense, I was just passing through. I met Londoners (some local, some from elsewhere in the UK), who all had their roots, their social circles, their references and in-jokes; I hovered on the periphery of these charmed circles, making acquaintances, and, more gradually, friends; at first, most were also newcomers, uprooted from elsewhere, but gradually, more Britons joined the mix; in retrospect, I was gradually becoming one of them.

Melbourne, though, was still my hometown, and if asked where I was from, I would answer without hesitation. I kept my 3RRR subscription to this day (for a while, I had a script on the computer in my room grab the streams of programmes, save them to a hard drive, and then play them back, time-delayed, in the morning, in lieu of an alarm clock; at one point, though, the scripts stopped working, and I didn't fix them, though I still tune in from time to time). There was a heavy Melbourne presence in my music collection (though with a leaning to bands I had known before 2004; the more recent “dolewave” indie-rock subgenre passed me by). And it was a joy to meet those from the same milieu and compare notes about the world behind.*

For a while, London, this city impossibly rich with history and myth, was just my present circumstance, one whose surreality I gradually got used to and stopped noticing. Only now, having spent the past week or so saying goodbye to this city, walking the streets of Stoke Newington, acutely aware that soon it would be just another place somewhere else, did the reality sink of London as a former home I might miss, a place of which nostalgic memories might spontaneously bubble up. That as well as a displaced Melburnian, I would also be, to some degree, a displaced Londoner.

* At this point, you may be wondering what sort of accent I speak with. While my accent was never broadly “Australian” in the manner of, say, Crocodile Dundee, and a mild Australian accent is not that different from a mild Estuary English accent, I am told that I do sound more British; on my last visit to Melbourne, an elderly family friend remarked that “you sound like a pom”. However, people in Britain sometimes notice a telltale hint of an Australian accent in my speech.

london personal travel 1

2018/9/1

The Australian government has denied a visa to US whistleblower Chelsea Manning, who was due to speak at the Sydney Opera House, on grounds of character. Civil libertarian groups are, of course, lobbying strenuously for this decision to be reversed, though, inevitably, their pleas will fall on deaf ears. Indeed, there never was a prospect of Manning being allowed into Australia, and anybody who thinks that she might have been does not understand Australia.

Fundamentally, Australia is neither a US-style republic nor a European liberal democracy. Instead, it is the outgrowth of a set of penal colonies and military outposts of a maritime empire, founded on administrative doctrines of such. Its system is not a classically liberal social contract, nor a pretence towards a modern take on the Athenian agora, but books of rules drafted in an office off Pall Mall in London for the maintenance of discipline and smooth running of such a far-flung and potentially fractious enterprise. The colonies were eventually amalgamated into a federal nation, with responsibilities devolved, in due time, from London, and decorated with the trappings of 20th-century liberal democracy, but tradition is a hardy thing, and in many cases, the modern, liberal Australia only goes so deep. Australia, for example, has no equivalent of the US Bill of Rights or the EU Convention on Human Rights; the only formal right that Australians have is that of not having a specific denomination of Christianity imposed as an established state church.

Of course, Australia is not North Korea or even China; informally, there is a generous, if conditional, system, known as the law of Mateship. If you fall under the aegis of Mateship, while you have no formal, official rights enshrined in statutes, you can have faith that the all-powerful authorities will generaly let you be, unless you're seen as some kind of ratbag. How much of a ratbag you have to be to incur the unfriendly attention of the authorities depends on a lot of things, including your skin colour, sex, ethnicity, and whether you fall into any categories of potential troublemakers (which, these days, include Muslims, those easily mistaken for Muslims, brown people in general and transgressors against gender norms). Hence a straight white bloke can, in many cases, get away with all sorts of mischief up to and including advocating (though, of course, not actually carrying out) Communist revolution, whereas if you're, for example, a brown-skinned Muslim, merely having and expressing opinions crosses the line. (A straight white sheila, meanwhile, has most of the privileges of a straight white bloke, unless she complains about sexist banter or becomes Prime Minister or something.) The flipside of the doctrine of Mateship is a ritualised, performative anti-authoritarianism: Australia celebrates outlaw folk heroes from Ned Kelly to Chopper Read (though only if they embody a sort of rough-hewn, stoic masculinity), and, when the time came to replace God Save The Queen as national anthem, came close to choosing a ballad about a sheep thief.

The Law of Mateship is a sort of Australian parallel of Scandinavia's Law of Jante: informal, not actually codified anywhere, and yet of powerful importance, its spirit moving through the society's formal structures, animating its discretionary decisions. Essentially, Mateship is a border; it divides “People Like Us”, who are party to its social contract and entitled to its boons, and the rest of the world, and once you're inside the border, you're in. A recent example is the case of Boofhead, a filthy, rancidly smelly dog whose owner was denied the right to bring it with him into a RSL club; a judge ruled that the club had unlawfully discriminated, and awarded $16,000 in damages. It's tempting to wonder whether a dog by any other name would have been considered in equally good odour by the law, or whether Boofhead's stereotypically Aussie name swung it, but the judge's decision, though not phrased in these words, states clearly that Boofhead is a Mate, and entitled to the protection of the customary rules of Mateship. One of the implications of this is that he has vastly more rights than, say, the asylum seekers on Nauru, imprisoned in the darkness outside of Mateship's border. (Which suggests that perhaps one activist tactic to help these refugees may be to give them quintessentially Aussie nicknames, such as Davo, Shazza and Chook.)

In any case, Chelsea Manning falls outside the boundaries of Mateship sufficiently to be banned from the country under its strict security regime, for two reasons, one official and one unofficial. Officially, Manning is still a convicted criminal against her country, albeit one whose sentence was commuted by Presidential discretion. (She has announced an intention to appeal her conviction, though it has not, to date, been overturned.) Australia has a long-running conservative government, and one which has recently jettisoned an ineffectual centrist leader and lurched further rightward, giving it a simpatico with the Trump administration, not in spite of its sublime awfulness but because of it. Though while this counts as a factor in the decision, it is probably not the deciding factor; I'm not sure that, for example, a Gillard Labor government would have decided otherwise; or, indeed, that any government other than the Whitlam administration would have let Manning in. Informally, Manning being transgender probably does not help her case in a country where the old, rough-and-ready norms of Australian masculinity are digging in for a long siege and attaching themselves to the Murdochian right-wing culture war whose paroxysms often pass for civic discourse, thus being the Wrong Kind Of Ratbag to be privy to Australia's performative anti-authoritarianism.

australia chelsea manning culture mateship 1

2018/8/10

It recently emerged that one of the obligations Australia's parliamentarians have is to provide their constitutents with portraits of the Queen, for free, on request. The portraits (which also include those of her consort, Prince Phillip, though not of any of the more fashionable young royals), along with flags and recordings of the National Anthem, are classified as “nationhood material”, vital for instilling a sense of national consciousness, and are thus included in the budget and obligations of the people's federal representatives for this very purpose. Which, one could imagine, may have made sense historically: in a far-flung outpost of the Empire, awash with rum and the threat of convict rebellion still in living memory, communal loyalty to the distant Crown would have needed all the reinforcement it could get, damn the expense. Either that or this was a piece of Howard/Abbott-era culture-war red meat, to stick it to the inner-city trendy-lefties who'd rather fritter money away on saving wildlife or helping the poor or something. But no: the rule in question dates back to 1990, the height of the Hawke/Keating era, possibly the least likely period in Australian history to produce such a rule.

The rule in question is unique to Australia, at least in the former British Empire. Constituents in the UK may request portraits of Her Royal Highness, but they have to pay for them. In Canada, meanwhile, the government makes the portraits available for download, allowing monarchistically-inclined Canadians to have them printed by the provider of their choice. Elsewhere in the Commonwealth, you're on your own.

The revelation of this peculiar rule, in an article in VICE, leading to a flurry of requests to MPs for the monarchic merch. Of course, not everybody is happy with this: some point out that the time and money the MPs and their staffers spend servicing these requests is taken away from more serious duties they would otherwise be performing. Other MPs have been putting a pamphlet from the Australian Republican Movement with each portrait sent.

This rule does raise many questions; among them:

  1. Is there a limit to the number of portraits of the Queen a constituent may request?
  2. Once they are sent, do they become the constituent's property, or do they remain property of the Crown, the Commonwealth of Australia, or some other agency?
  3. Does Australia have any laws restricting what one can do with portraits of the monarch that one owns? Would it be legal, for example, to paint a L.H.O.O.Q.-style moustache on one, or to use it in a mixed-media art piece, mutilating it in the process, or to use it as cavity insulation or a budgie cage liner, or to hang it insalubriously in the backyard dunny, rather than giving it a honoured spot above one's hearth?

(My best guess for the last one, given the chaotic strange attractor that is Australia's larrikin/authoritarian dynamic—in lieu of any kind of bill of rights there is essentially an unspoken gentleman's agreement, while national icons include Ned Kelly and Chopper Read, and a ballad about a livestock thief almost became the national anthem—would be “it's probably technically illegal, but you won't be prosecuted unless the authorities conclude that the average bloke would consider you to be a “ratbag”.”)

australia larrikinism law monarchy queen elizabeth ii 0

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