Saturday, 24 December 2016

The year of sharp contrasts

At the end of last year, the aftermath of Sanctum – that extraordinary month of performance in Bristol – and the prospect of regular teaching and subbing work for the first half of 2016 prompted a tentatively optimistic view of the year to come. Twelve months later, it seems that even such tentative optimism was slightly na├»ve. That’s not to say that 2016 has been relentlessly miserable, but the highs and lows have come in rapid succession. Indeed, I’d be hard-pressed to remember a year of such sharp contrasts.

There was certainly none sharper than going to bed in Montenegro on Thursday 23 June after the first-night dinner of an academic conference I’d co-organised, feeling confident that, despite the hateful rhetoric and flagrant lies of the Leave campaign, there wouldn’t be a majority vote for Brexit, only to be woken at 6am by a text from my wife which told me all I needed – but didn’t want – to hear. It read simply: ‘I can’t speak.’ My happiness at being back in the Balkans for the first time in two years, at having introduced two friends and colleagues from the UK to the region and at meeting again with good friends in Montenegro dissolved into a feeling somewhere between jet-lag and grief, physical disorientation and emotional shock. Curious aftershocks rippled through the remaining two days I was away: gallows humour; abrupt and unprompted tirades; a conviction that the result had been misreported; a conviction that this couldn’t be the result because all three of us on the trip to Montenegro had voted Remain by post or proxy; a particularly horrible stomach bug which poleaxed me on the final evening. It didn’t ruin the rest of the conference or the day out to the seaside which followed, but it certainly made any feelings of satisfaction or happiness seem compensatory, even escapist.

I didn’t have much opportunity to get used to this new version of ‘home’, where, it seemed, it was now socially acceptable to shout at ‘foreigners’ on the bus or daub racist graffiti on community centres. By the beginning of August, I was back in SE Europe, this time as a translator-in-residence at the Sofia Literature and Translation House. This also happened to coincide with the publication of my first book in Bulgaria – Nepoznati Prevodi/Unknown Translations, a collection of poems which I wrote as exercises while I was learning the Bulgarian language. It was a month spent translating poetry and drama, meeting and befriending some of Bulgaria’s finest writers and renewing my acquaintance with one of my favourite cities. It seemed entirely appropriate that the launch of Unknown Translations was hosted by Vasilena, the student who’d asked me three years previously if I’d ever been to Bulgaria and unwittingly set in train the events which led to my publishing a book in Bulgarian, while any semblance of stiff upper lip disappeared when her sister Marina presented me with the original drawing she’d made for the cover. Marina, Vasilena and I had set up the online project Colourful Star in early 2014, but the book launch was the first time that all three of us had been in the same room since we’d originally discussed the project on my first trip to Sofia in 2013. By the end of the month, too, the conversations I was having with my wife on Facebook every night had led to our reaching a decision we’d been considering for some time: we would move to Bulgaria in September 2017.

With this decision made, the idea of returning to Brexit Britain seemed at least bearable because only temporary. Even so it took me even longer to reacclimatize than it did after previous Balkan ventures – and that process was elongated even further by the second blow of 2016’s political double whammy: the election of Trump.

It’s only possible to speculate about what will come of this, but as the year reaches its end, the current triumph of the incompetent, the idiotic and the megalomaniac doesn’t inspire confidence. Perhaps the key hope is that this is the last flailing of the generation whose first step was to bring us Thatcherism, Reaganomics and the whole neo-con shebang and that when all the people who voted for Brexit and Trump discover that they too are going to be locked out of the global elite’s gated community (along with all those they currently choose to despise), perhaps they’ll have a change of heart.

In such circumstances, it seems almost facile to end with anything other than a gloomy outlook, but these are the circumstances too in which all we can really do is find compensation where we can. As Gramsci put it in his Prison Notebooks: “I'm a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.”

Thanks to John Fru Jones for the picture from the launch of 'Unknown Translations'

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Georgi Gospodinov: God of Berlin

In the aftermath of the Berlin attack, WN Herbert's excellent New Boots and Pantisocracies blog is featuring the great Bulgarian poet and novelist Georgi Gospodinov's elegiac poem 'God of Berlin'. You can read this and my translation of it here.

Monday, 19 December 2016


The year’s worn out.
Just look at it.
A tent’s gone up
on a brownfield site
and that’s where
its days are lived out.

A cracked-screen phone
plays Bowie and Cohen.
It’s sprayed ‘Br’
in front of the exit sign.

It’s horrified
by its own ambitions.
It never meant
to end up
with a can of Natch,
bloodshot eyeballs,
a damp and dogged rollie.

Under the charred canopy
of a petrol station,
it’s hurling itself
at passers-by.
It wants to be loved.

Across the street,
in the fishtank offices,
its progeny swim
to the surface
and bite at it
with gaping mouths.

Tom Phillips 

Friday, 16 December 2016

It was 28 years ago (or thereabouts)

It was 22 July 1988 and Tribune published my first ever music column ... The Fall, Tom Waits, Talking Heads, Wire ...

By way of introduction to a regular stroll through Musicland, a round-up of the last 12 months seems to be in order. Somewhere in the future 1987-1988 may well go down in a Zimmerman Study Center thesis as the time when the collective eardrums were assaulted by the likes of Bros, Tiffany and countless joke raps from the other side of tat. What next? A Bay City Rollers revival?

Of course, the big names – Springsteen, Dire Straits etc – have gone on consolidating their “mature” period rock – but you don’t want to hear about them … do you?

More interesting by far were The Fall on television covering a Kinks song and appearing in the Smash Hits sticker collection. After “Victoria”’s success you might expect these self-styled outsiders to release an appropriately “accessible” album. But no, The Frenz Experiment, released earlier this year, still has Mark Smith sounding like he’s reporting back from some unspecified reconnaissance mission. With its sixties feel it could be the soundtrack from a cult thriller.

In a similarly esoteric vein, Tom Waits’ musical Frank’s Wild Years has all the brilliance of his last quirky masterpiece, Rain Dogs – and the strangled Sinatra pastiche on “I’ll Take New York” makes it worth every penny.

Staying with America for a while, Talking Heads’ Naked moves them back away from the mid-West of True Stories, picking up some of the African feel of their earlier records and splicing it in with what often sounds suspiciously like the theme from Shaft. Unlike The Style Council’s dodgy attempts at seventies soul, Naked’s strength lies in the tension playing between the horn section and David Byrne’s ever-more-adaptable voice.

On the other hand, the staunch efforts of organisations like WOMAD are starting to shift popular music’s American-European axis. Right now it’s the West African sound that’s strongest. Mali has suddenly put itself on the world music map in a big way. Two very different albums, Salif Keita’s Soro and Mory Kante’s Akwaba Beach show why. And at this year’s WOMAD Festival in August, you can hear another innovative Malian talent, Ali Farka Toure. The WOMAD line-up is extraordinarily diverse – ranging from old post-punk Pere Ubu to a Bulgarian wedding orchestra. No doubt this will bring further slices of world music cake into the record shops come autumn.

Meanwhile, something seems set, with the release of the Substance compilation, for that Joy Division revival we’ve all been waiting for. But a few other seventies faces have been popping up as well. Mick Jones seems on the point of renewed popularity with B.A.D.’s Tighten Up Vol. 88, while old pal Joe Strummer is currently rocking against the rich with The Latino Rockabilly War. But rest assured that the last of the punk idealists are said to be earning but a pittance from The Story of the Clash Vol. 1. Seeing as they’ve crammed just about every decent song they ever recorded onto Vol. 1, Vol. 2 hardly seems a likely future release.

Another band enjoying a revival is Wire. Last seen in Europe working with bands like Belgium’s Front 242, Wire have bounced back into obscurity with two albums in the last nine months. Somehow they’ve managed to keep their eccentric charm without sounding left behind by the younger techno whizz kids. Now part of the Mute records success story (along with Nick Cave, Erasure and Depeche Mode), Wire are only one of a whole batch of independent bands on the up and up: The Darling Buds, McCarthy and The Wedding Present being other notable examples.

And for those who find even The Cure’s gloom thrash on their Kiss Me double album too poppy and lightweight, there’s always the recent releases from Sisters of Mercy and The Jesus and Mary Chain to give consolation.

Then, of course, The Smiths broke up leaving behind Strangeways, Here We Come and Morrissey, the solo artiste – is this man destined to become the Sting of the cardigan set? But even he was beaten to the punch for lyric of the year. That must go to Lloyd Cole for the casual way he drops in, “If you’re looking for an early grave, Mr Anderton will lead you to it”, towards the end of The Commotions’ otherwise mixed bag, Mainstream.

Add all this to a renewed interest in jazz thanks to Andy Sheppard and Courtney Pine, the deserved success of Tracy Chapman and some good honest pop from Aztec Camera, Prefab Sprout and Voice of the Beehive and I guess it hasn’t been such a bad year – no matter what sickly goo continues to drool its way up the Top 40. And if you’re looking for a couple of singles to brighten up the summer you couldn’t buy better than The Specials’ update of “Free Nelson Mandela” or “Fiesta” by The Pogues – and dance those Tory third term blues away.

Published in Tribune, 22/7/1988