Monday, April 30, 2012

Weekend Barngains

For Record Store Day the other weekend, I was in a position to buy lots of limited edition records, for once actually having some money as well as being sufficiently out of London (and close to a decent Wiltshire record shop) to avoid the queues of hipsters waiting for Rough Trade East to open. But though I love the idea of Record Store Day (artists releasing limited edition albums and singles on vinyl only), I don't love the prices. There is no way I am going to pay £8.99 for a 7" single (which I'll probably play once) or up to £29.99 for an album (which I probably won't play all the way through). Even if I buy to sell on eBay, which most people seem to do, I'd only make 100% profit, just not worth the time and hassle. (Though people disapprove of eBayers selling Record Store Day records on eBay, I don't see a problem with it, as many people don't live near a record shop, so eBay is the only way to acquire the records). Besides, many of the albums are simply reissues of old albums, still available to buy from your local charity shop for a pound or two (the one thing I was interested in, Animal Collective's EP Transverse Temporal Gyrus, I thought I'd download it illegally first and give it a listen… I liked it, but then thought, well, I've got it now… do I actually need it on vinyl? No was the guilty answer).

I was about to give up looking for LPs in charity shops; I'd wasted hours searching through piles of crap vinyl for months and not found anything decent. This weekend, though, lady luck shone on me. I thought this sort of thing didn't happen any more; if it does, it's once in a lifetime: on Saturday I walked into a charity shop (I can't reveal its location) and there were six original issue Beatles' LPs, a few solo Beatles albums, the first Rolling Stones LP and a Who compilation, all for £1 each (and in quite good condition). I snapped them up; if I'd been five minutes later, a very nice woman who I got chatting to would have got them (she and her husband were record collectors). As it was, she had to be content with the stuff I'd not bothered with: a poor Rolling Stones LP, The Hollies Greatest Hits, some Simon and Garfunkel. We chatted away quite amiably for a while but I could see the jealousy in her eyes looking at my finds. I even got a discount at the till – my boon companion was buying a £3 scarf, I had ten £1 records: the kind man at the till let us have both for £10 if we paid in cash.

On Sunday, as if being rewarded for trudging through the rain all day, I got lucky again with an original issue 1973 of Bob Marley and the Wailer's Catch a Fire LP, the one with the rare die cut Zippo lighter cover (rare because only 200,000 copies of it were pressed, as it was too expensive to produce on a mass scale – subsequent covers show a photo of Marley smoking a joint), the one that goes for £130 on eBay… for 92p. This is how it happened: I was looking through the crappy records in a charity shop. I accidentally knocked into a wonky book shelf above the records; the shelf collapsed and books went all over the floor. The kind woman at the till (people who work in charity shops are my favourite people, by default always nice people) told me not to worry about it, but I insisted on picking up all the books and putting them aside (the shelf was permanently broke). As if in reward for doing this, the woman let me have a look through a bag of records which had just been donated. Nestled amongst the Neil Diamond and Barbara Streisland LPs, the Zippo lighter cover jumped out at me. The price: £1. I had 92p in change or a £10 note. Charity shops are always short of change: the lady went for the 92p.

There are really only two types of charity shop: those which overcharge and those which undercharge. Obviously aware of eBay, and because they are businesses having to compete in a competitive market, a lot of charity shops are looking more like boutiques, with prices to match. In the case of records, charity shops, armed with a copy of the Rare Record Price Guide and eBay on the PC in the back room, are charging over the top for substandard records. I have seen, say, Michael Jackson's Thriller for £8, Mel and Kim's F.L.M. for £6, The Human League's Dare for £4.99. In other words, unwanted mass-produced 1980s 50p car boot sale records, the ones that don't sell on eBay for 99p, probably scratched and unplayable. Most likely an old dear in a charity shop has come across some chancer on eBay trying to get as much as he can for some crappy record, and priced it likewise in the shop. But – surprise, surprise – the records aren't selling.

Then there's the charity shops which undercharge, usually because of lack of staff with the knowledge to research and price items realistically. So they blanket price most items – All LPs & CDs £1, for example. This is my favourite and most reasonable price. If there is an occasional gem in the pile, it's only found via searching through dirty, torn, crappy records, so the gem for £1 is almost like a reward for persevering through the rubbish. I hardly ever pay over £1 for records or CDs nowadays (and haven't bought a £2.99 CD from Oxfam for at least a year, especially considering, for example, charge a similar price in their sales – I know it's better to buy from a charity shop, but given a choice between a dusty, grimy, possibly scratched CD for £2.99 or a brand new one for the same price…). If a CD or LP is £1 I can take a chance on it; it may be scratched, it may be crap, but it's only a pound, and the money goes to charity, after all.

One of my favourite things – and sometimes the most frustrating – about charity shops is the randomness. It's almost like the novel The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart; I don't want to have to make a choice in what I listen to, read or wear so I leave it to charity shops to decide. I don't actually mind that much, as long as it's a rare barngain. It is luck, but, you know, you make your own luck in this life.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Top 10 short story writers

1. Jean Luis Borges
2. Anton Chekhov
3. Raymond Carver
4. Edgar Allan Poe
5. Katherine Mansfield
6. JD Ballard
7. W. Somerset Maugham
8. Paul Bowles
9. Tennessee Williams
10. Charles Bukowski

This is a strictly personal list and I realise I've left out, say, Sylvia Plath, DH Lawrence, Flannery O'Conner, Angela Carter, William Trevor, Franz Kafka, JD Salinger, Mark Twain, Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, John Cheever, Kurt Vonnegut Jr and Philip K Dick.

I'd have to say, over all, the best writers of the form are Americans and Russians. And science fiction is the best genre for it (sci-fi authors are able to communicate fantastic ideas without being bogged down by characters, dialogue and narrative).

Do say: Love the economy of form
Don't say: Bit on the short side, innit?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

London through its charity shops #23: Walworth

Nestled in between the Elephant & Castle and Camberwell is a district of Southwark, SE17, called Walworth. Its main thoroughfare is Walworth Road, a bustling and vibrant (read: poor) high street with a diverse range of shops including four charity shops.

Coming from the Elephant & Castle, the first thing one notices walking along Walworth Road is the eerily empty, boarded up Heygate Estate, currently in the process of being demolished. This massive estate, featured in films including Harry Brown (starring Michael Caine who was actually born in Walworth) and Attack the Block, was only built in the 1970s but by the early 2000s had become a symbol of urban decay. The block is to be replaced with new flats as part of the Elephant & Castle regeneration plan. The flats will no doubt be called luxury flats and cost a lot of money. Old residents of the Heygate will presumably have to move out of London.

Past the Heygate estate, the next point of interest is the Cuming Museum, containing a diverse range of objects from the Cuming family as well as a history of Southwark. On the corner of the nearby sexual health clinic is a blue plaque for Charles Babbage (1791-1871), mathematician and originator of the programmable computer. East Street market (where Charles Chaplin was apparently born), just off Walworth Road, is a busy market selling fruit and veg and household products.

Soon we come across our first charity shop, Sense. It's a lively shop with a great – if overpriced (£2.50!) – selection of CDs (and records, but not so good) dotted around the shop. It has the feel of a bustling jumble sale. Plenty of clothes, books and bric-a-brac too. A little further along, the Salvation Army is spacious and clean with a large selection of clothes and shoes. Dotted around are various bargain bins selling cheap clothes and 10p paperbacks. Geranium for the Blind has stacks of books and records (including a few jazz ones). Finally, the Trinity Hospice is a bit tatty but very cheap, with CDs 50p. Lots of crockery and a big box of records.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Lookalikes #26: holiday adverts

It's not so much that advertising nowadays consists of nothing else but a Photoshop filter but, rather, that an attractive red-lipped woman will have much to do with your holiday. Maybe she will, especially in Amsterdam, but ads like these always manage to annoy me, highlighting as they usually do the most uninteresting aspects of a holiday (tourist, beach, building…). Besides, Agadir is a dump and Amsterdam isn't that much better.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Notes on Julian House & Ghost Box

When I think back to my college days, when I knew a young(ish) Martin Parr, and am sure I drunkenly suggested to him once in a pub that using fill-in flash photography during the day was fine, I also vaguely recollect briefly meeting graphic designer, musician and co-owner of Ghost Box record label Julian House when we were students, and telling him, this was in the early days of Apple Macs, that doing intentionally bad cut-outs in Quark or Photoshop would one day be fine too.

I often believe in a vague sort of way that other people are living the sort of life I should be living, usually people who are creative, attractive and rich (well, two out of three isn't bad). Then I believe it in a very precise way that other people are doing what I should be doing. Julian House (who works for Intro) is one such person, being, such as he is (and I am not), a cool graphic designer guy who has designed iconic album covers for Primal Scream (above, with deliberately poor Quark cut-outs), Oasis, Broadcast, Stereolab and the Prodigy (though his latest for Noel's High Flying Birds and Liam's Beady Eye are somewhat disappointing), and some book covers (just the other day, in fact, browsing through book covers in a library at lunchtime, I came across a nice cover and said to myself 'that's a nice cover, it reminds me of a Julian House', and it was). His interests and influences are like mine: old paperbacks and records, Peter Saville, Saul Bass, Max Ernst, Burroughs, Lovecraft and Carroll. I'm guessing he's frequented a lot of charity shops and car boot sales. But whereas my trawls have involved a significant waste of time, money and a room full of crap, House's yielded a cult record label and a virtual music genre creation: hauntology.

The aim of Ghost Box, the record label House founded in 2003 with Jim Jupp, was to create 'not just a record label, but an imaginary world'. This world has the feel of 1970s children's TV programmes, 1960s Penguin sci-fi books, scientific text books, library music, vintage electronics, the BBC's Radiophonic workshop and ends up sounding something like the band Boards of Canada. The music, packaging and videos all hark back to a childhood (somewhere between the 1950s and 1970s) that never actually existed.

Unfortunately for Julian, Julian House is also the leading provider of services to single homeless men and women in Bath & North East Somerset and West Wiltshire.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Dr Dee in da house

Damian All Bran posing in front of the site of John Dee's house in Mortlake, now a block of flats.

When I first misheard that Damon Albarn – of Blur and Gorillaz fame – was writing an opera based on the life of rapper and producer Dr Dre, my interest was piqued to say the least. When I heard that it was actually called Dr Dee: An English Opera, and based on the life of John Dee, sixteenth century mathematician, astronomer, alchemist and occasional advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, I was less excited, mostly because I had never heard of the man.

But having heard the opera performed by Albarn et al on a windy, muddy field in the middle of Wiltshire at the Onefest festival last weekend, I am now more than intrigued. John Dee (1527-1608), was by all accounts a visionary yet mysterious man. On the one hand a scientist and brilliant scholar, fascinated with mathematics, astrology and navigation; and on the other hand – though Dee saw no distinction – an alchemist and magician, who studied divination and Hermetic philosophy. He coined the word 'Britannica' (or British Empire) and communed with angels. He had the greatest personal library in England (held at his mother's house in Mortlake), holding some 4,000 books. His skills in navigation were a valuable source of information to explorers of the day such as Raleigh and Drake. Elizabeth I consulted him on astrological and scientific matters, even entrusting him to choose her coronation date. In his later life he turned more towards studying the supernatural. He eventually ended up Warden of Christ's College, Manchester (the city Albarn's opera premiered), and remained so after he returned to London. By this time Elizabeth I was dead and James I wanted nothing to do with the supernatural. The Magus died in poverty in Mortlake, southwest London, his library in ruins, aged 82.

But his popularity, genius and mystery was such that he was a legend in his own lifetime, inspiring literary works including Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene (1596). Just a few years after his death, Shakespeare's the Tempest (1610-11) features the sorcerer Prospero, said to be modelled on John Dee.

The late twentieth century saw a renewed interest in John Dee, including the publication of Peter Ackroyd's The House of Doctor Dee (1993). Derek Jarman's Jubilee, made at the height of punk (and the Queen's Silver Jubilee) in 1977, has John Dee (played by The Rocky Horror Show and Crystal Maze's Richard O'Brien) showing Queen Elizabeth I what England looks like four hundred years in the future – in 1977, with its gangs and punks, ruins and decay, and Queen Elizabeth II dead.

Dr Dee, the opera created by theatre director Rufus Norris and Damon Albarn, was inspired by comic book writer Alan Moore. Post-Blur, Damon Albarn released an album he described as "a song cycle that's also a mystery play about London" in the form of The Good, the Bad and the Queen, in 2007, as well as Journey to the West (2008), a soundtrack to the Chinese opera Monkey, so it almost comes as no surprise that Albarn's latest project is an opera of 'strange pastoral folk'. Though possibly more suited to a concert hall (where it was first heard almost a year ago in Manchester), there was something apt and atmospheric hearing it in an English field. Along with Albarn on vocals, keyboards and guitar, the opera features Renaissance and African instruments and choral music; altogether about ten other musicians were performing with him. Those expecting Parklife last week at Onefest were disappointed; those with a more open frame of mind were pleasantly bemused.

Fans of the ever-experimental Damon Albarn often complain that he should be more famous than he is, and those with less talent have more fame, such as Lady Gaga or Madonna, say. I blame his name. Everyone's heard of Blur and Gorillaz but the name Damon Albarn is an awkward one which just doesn't flow. I can never remember his name and usually call him Damian All Bran (which occasionally makes me think we should collaborate on a project together, you know, and call it something cool like: All Bran vs. Barnflakes, or something).

Dr Dee is released on 7 May 2012

Friday, April 13, 2012

London through its charity shops #22: Kentish Town

Kentish Town, NW5, is located in the borough of Camden and pretty close to Camden Town. There is both a tube and train station and most of its shops are along the main road, Kentish Town Road, including its charity shops.

Pdsa, for pets in need of vets, is okay, mainly clothes with quite a few books and some records. Some dreadfully dull 'new vintage' stuff too. A oldish woman who works in the Age UK used to be an extra in the 1980s kids TV programme Grange Hill. She used to appear on the show with a friend of hers who was obsessed with getting famous, and used go on about it all the time. Well, life hasn't exactly turned out that way for her, seeing that she now has a big part in Eastenders. Be careful for what you wish for. Age UK was very nice, with lots of books, CDs and colourful clothes.

A bit further along is a small and cramped Oxfam Books & Music, great for a rummage. A fair selection of books, records, magazines, CDs, DVDs and videos, it's a pretty cool place but, as usual for Oxfam, overpriced. There's a regular Oxfam a few doors along selling clothes, bric-a-brac and some toys.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Lookalikes #25: Cut Knee Album Covers

Romance is Boring by Los Campesinos! (2010) and Graham Coxon's new album, A+E (2012), whose title also resembles Songs in A+E by Spiritualized (2008).

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Two blue parrots

Two blue parrots is a syndrome I'm assigning to modern life. The other day I did in fact see a man walking (along the Fulham Road in London) with two large, blue parrots on his shoulders. I was walking behind him. The parrots occasionally checked me out. They were magnificent birds. But what I noticed, apart from the parrots, was that either no one else noticed them (too busy tapping/talking on their phones) or they purposely avoided looking at the man and his parrots. Maybe they thought the man was crazy. I wanted to throw their phones away, shake them, force them to look! Look! Two blue parrots! Not something you see every day is it? People in cities are so cynical, making out they've seen everything, they don't want to show a flicker of emotion or interest in a stranger, even if he does have two blue parrots on his shoulder.

Previously one: We saw a man walking his ferret in Tooting!
Previously two: I saw a fox cub walking along a road near London Bridge in broad daylight!

People are just too busy to show interest in such things.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

London through its charity shops #21: Highgate

Highgate, N6, sits on the north-eastern side of Hampstead Heath. There's a small row of shops opposite Highgate tube station on Archway Road with two charity shops. MIND has been recently renovated; it's now more sparse, but pretty decent. It's like one big shop divided into two: there's a clothes and bric-a-brac part, then a side media room, consisting of books, CDs and records. I like it, though I've never bought anything there. Nearby RSPCA is reasonable if a bit tatty.

Uber posh Highgate Village is some way away from Highgate tube station and up a hill. The Cancer Research is average with quite a nice bric-a-brac section and lots of scarves. There's a charming Oxfam Books & Music, with an interesting selection of books and poor selection of CDs and records. It's pricey too – Richard Neville's book Playpower (which I would have paid £5 for) was, er, £50. Opposite is a regular Oxfam which also has some books and CDs.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Cats Eyes Removed

Cats Eyes Removed is one of my favourite (temporarily) road signs ever. I may even mass produce posters of it – I imagine it will ignite the narrow-minded British imagination the same way 'Keep Calm And Carry On' did.

Anyway, it's possibly not on display at the V&A's new exhibition, British Design 1948-2012 (though Cat's eyes should be: originated in the UK in 1933, they are now used the world over). It does feature, however, Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinneir's pioneering road pictograms and ubiquitous font Transport, used on every road sign in the UK, devised in the 1950s and 60s and still used to this day. These are such a great example of successful graphic design; as part of the fabric of the landscape they are hardly noticed, yet are possibly Britain's most effective information design system.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Lookalikes #24: Third Albums

Portishead's, er, fourth album, Third (2008); Soft Machine's Third (1970); Big Star's Third (1978), also known as Sister Lovers; Led Zeppelin's III (1970).

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Chapbook in Zine Collection

In spite of – or because of – the ease of putting a fanzine on the web, there are still plenty of people producing printed publications (phew!). The London College of Communication (LCC) Library (part of the University of the Arts London) preserves examples of printed materials including flyers, bookmarks, posters and fanzines as a learning resource and inspiration to students, staff and visitors to the library. Their Zine Collection now houses over 300 zines – including Chapbook, the fanzine designed by the then-edgy graphic designer Chris Chapman (now a Saatchi & Saatchi sell-out) and largely containing writing taken from this very blog.

So, if you never got a copy of Chapbook and want to have a look at it, you'll have to go to the college in Elephant and Castle to do so (where you can also take in the nearby Heygate Estate, a neo-Brutalist series of blocks, used as a symbol of urban decay in films such as Attack the Block and TV series The Bill, currently being demolished). There is a Facebook page containing 'some examples' of fanzines but, alas, not Chapbook.

Due to the overwhelming success of Chapbook, we are now in the early stages of producing another, bigger budget, fanzine. Watch this window.