Gravel and steel.

Standing at the starting line with my right foot in a toe-clipped pedal. Bunting hangs over head. I am looking at the people around me, some lean athletic types, a novelty Dixon of Dock Green, a woman in high heels. Lots of merino wool and moustaches. I look back at my wife, she is looking at me with a strange mix of pride and fear; I realise I am feeling the same.

Quite unsure what I am about to do and how I got here. A tiny vertigo; this is not me, these are not my people, I hate crowds, I feel so unfit. Concerned that romance has got the better of me.

L'Eroica start

I bought my bike ten months ago – a fifty-pound racer from a disappointed man in Chesterfield – to see if I would enjoy riding again. A low cost trial. I had never ridden a racer before and not consistently been on a bike for a decade.

Since then I have cycled over twelve hundred miles, across the North Peak District, West Yorkshire and the city. I put my finger to a map and decide to ride there; there is water there, it is probably a good place for a rest. I imagine it is calm, as only a vast expanse of churning water can present to be.

Ladybower

Each weekend I find new favourite roads, blissful descents, exposed hills where bracken tussles with the knotted coats of fat sheep, hidden lakes, back paths that make me feel like an underperforming ibex. The occasional lay-by, purpose made for midnight frolics between masked people.

Always on my own. No music, no screens, no words. There is only me, my bicycle and the limitations of the two. Yet here I am, in this cabal of steel bikes, staring at a man in a top hat waving us off with a large flag. Fifty-five utterly bastard miles over hard hills and punishing gravel paths of Derbyshire lie ahead. Fifty-five isn’t a lot of miles, but these are hard ones.

Once we started moving out of Bakewell, cheered along with bells and tiny klaxons, I forget about all my anxieties. I always do when on my bike. It doesn’t take long to become part of the fluid group, ebbing and flowing, saving energy and pushing on. A new rhythm to work with, supported and encouraged by everyone around me. Strangers working together.

Descent to HartingtonTwenty miles fly by, through the tunnels of the Monsal Trail, a heavy climb, intimidatingly rugged gravel, downhills through Hobbit land. Arriving in Hartington with my rattling headset seems unreal: a mass of coloured shirts and hats, classic Bianchi frames nestling alongside JW Wilson and Holdsworths; beer guts and lean athletes. Importantly, half of bitter and a jammy scone. I hadn’t expected this side of things, even though the silent nod camaraderie with cyclists is a favourite thing when out on the hills.

HartingtonRefuelled, another twenty miles – off road down gruff land with chunky sleepers, across brooks, winding roads around The High Peak Trail, Cromford, through Lea next to John Smedley’s factory. A Derbyshire greatest hits set.

Ever onwards, mostly upwards.

It dawns that Chatsworth is only ten miles away. Five miles away. Two. Clapped along, I turn a bend and get ushered onto the estate’s drive. A long, smooth path to stretch out – an opportunity for a head-down sprint, to enjoy being on a flat road for a few minutes. A short refreshment break as I am handed a glass of English wine and another of Pimm’s. Neither last long against a blazing summer day’s thirst; exhausted and too eager to get to the finish line.

Those last three miles feel like forever. An unexpected and cruelly-positioned climb out of Chatsworth is unending. Pedalling against gravity with huge rocks for thighs until a sudden downhill that I know well as the entry to Bakewell revealed itself; I can see the festival site and finishing line beyond the trees.

I welled up a bit, suddenly overwhelmed by everything. Riding fifty-eight difficult miles became a symbol of fundamentally changing my life over the past year; of losing four stones, of challenging myself, putting myself in difficult situations. Getting to the end.

Mawkish, I know, but there are times when life completely fucking hits you and you should absolutely indulge in it – this was one of them.

A document is not enough.

I have just been to see 12 Years A Slave and – because I am of the internet – I have an opinion or two about it. They are brief thoughts, but you are welcome to read them.

I won’t look at some of the questions I have about it, partially because they are for a much wider discussion, partially because I don’t feel well placed enough to make judgments – and I can only talk about it from position as a comfortable white man. I won’t discuss whether it’s correct to tell the story of slavery from the position of a privileged man (albeit within a marginalised context) and I won’t discuss McQueen falling into the classic trope of rape and abuse of women to demonstrate the depths and immorality of (a) man.

Image

Here is what I will talk about: it is a document.

12 Years A Slave is an important, impeccable document of an horrific time/culture of Western civilisation. It is masterfully shot, directed, acted (Chiwetel Ejiofor is great, Fassbender is phenomenal). There are moments of absolute beauty, impressionistic images that blur and fade, to go along with the brutality. The constant, unflinching brutality. Only a few events are not shown graphically, which provides them with more power. It shows things the audience thinks they are aware of in a more grim and damning way than before.

It documents brilliantly the reduction of a man to a slave, from member of society to property, and the will that keeps the man from succumbing completely to devastated subordinance.

But, it is a document.

Only a document, and a document that chose exactly what to show.

The Realism of 12 Years A Slave serves only to move the (white) audience to sympathise; to express guilt and regret for historical complicity. If it makes them angry: great, but it doesn’t offer anything to do with that anger.

A document doesn’t give you anything to do. It doesn’t give you anything to advance or change. It shows what has happened. It barely touches on why it happened, how a culture of inhumanity is created or justified, or what can be done to avoid it being repeated. It shows what has happened, and puts a full stop at the end.

The footnotes that end the film – telling of Solomon’s failure to achieve justice against his slave master and kidnappers because of a racist, weighted system – point to what the film could have looked at instead. McQueen could have interrogated a system prejudiced against black people, a system that continues to stand within updated laws. McQueen could have investigated why it was still necessary for luck and white men to save his protagonist. McQueen could have drawn greater relationships between the plantations and contemporary slavery, of sweatshops and unfair trade.

12 Years A Slave is superb, but it doesn’t add anything.

Owls, too.

When the first Owls album came out, it was aimed squarely at me: a skinny white undergraduate with an ee cummings delusion, sad about Don Caballero splitting up, just trying to find his place in the world.

Putting the Owls record on was throwing a pebble into a lake. A moment of simple freedom full of fluid wordplay, rippling guitars, a rhythm section that flows like a rip current. The album totally caught me at a perfect moment and lodged words and phrases, shapes and sounds, permanently in my head. It lifted me by the shoulders, dragging me off into a Cap’n Jazz/Joan of Arc/Make Believe/everything else odyssey.

The artwork, like that on Mount Eerie’s Pre-Human Ideas, pricks fun at the seriousness – or perceived seriousness – of the band. Trifle and dick collages decorate a colourful, silly sleeve.

OWLS

Owls broke up because they couldn’t stay together. It was a happy surprise when they reconvened in Chicago in the last couple of years to write and record a new album. The artwork for the new record brings all of that early excitement back – the fun, the playfulness, the irreverent collage – and the first full song previewed is great.

owlstwo-digitalcover

I am deeply excited, because I’m still sad about Don Caballero breaking up and trying to find my place in the world.

2013: Best Things

Here’s a list of some of the best things of the year:

Another Place, Crosby.
To celebrate our first wedding anniversary, we were going to be eating, drinking and staying in Liverpool. We decided to detour across to Crosby to see Another Place, Anthony Gormley’s eerie statues that decorate the beachfront.

Another Place

Sand in our shoes, looking out to the Irish Sea on a cold, windy and slightly wet day in April: couldn’t have been happier.

Stopping drinking (for a bit).
Most of the good things from this year stems from a New Year’s Eve whim: to not drink for January. Seems small, but it precipitated a lot of changes that I made over the course of the year.

The cover for Pre-Human Ideas by Mount Eerie.
Phil Elverum has created a public persona of being a figure of Romance: a hand-crafting artisan, typesetting, screenprinting and hand-folding his records. An out-of-time Coleridge, brewing coffee over log fires in the Anacortes mountains.

This record goes against all of that. The album itself features digital re-recordings of Mount Eerie songs (mostly from Clear Moon & Ocean Roar) made for his touring band to learn. Elverum has layered and autotuned his vocals, squelchy synth lines dominate whilst stock drum sounds back everything up.

a0272374683_10

The cover shoes Phil sat in front of an iMac and Garage Band, with one and a half donuts and a bacon-patterned plaster on his finger. Nearly two decades of myth-making for a pretty good joke.

Cycling.
From March-August, I was cycling on a static bicycle. Doing 90 minutes four times a week was good – I listened to a lot of music and stand-up comedy – but after a while it got to be really boring. So I bought a bike, my first in over a decade.

I got lucky with a pretty immaculate early-’80s steel racer by BSA from a guy on ebay. A £50 job, to see if the hobby would stick or if it was another whim that would die soon enough.

As soon as I got on the saddle, I remembered how wonderful cycling was. I booked myself in and got a full service, new chain/brakes/wheels/tyres/bartape for the bike. I picked her up and accidentally cycled 5 miles out into the Peak District. Not much, but steep and tiring for someone who hasn’t had much (any) exercise in years. I was hooked and every weekend since then, I went out Saturday and Sunday mornings on rides that pushed me a bit farther each time.

Over Oxhay Wood.

By October, I was regularly doing 90 miles up and down the incredible Peaks each weekend, making the most of the Sublime country that’s been on my doorstep for years.

The clarity and freedom those rides bring is the best.

Harpa, Reykjavík.
My wife and I went to Reykjavík for my 30th birthday. Most of it was amazing, but I think it fell slightly below our Romantic Nordic expectations. There are incredible highlights in the city such as Hallgrimskirkja, Perlan, Restaurant Dill, the hodgepodge, idiosyncratic approach to urban housing, and some wonderful folklore dotted around, but one thing stands out: Harpa.

Inside Harpa

On the waterfront overlooking the docks to one side, the bay and Engey island on the over, Harpa is a stunning piece of architectural sculpture. A collaboration between Henning Larsen Architects and the artist Olafur Eliasson, Harpa is an angular wonder filled with ‘quasi bricks’ of glass and steel – it glows with natural and artificial lights, creating the most alive building I’ve been inside.

Chippy Tea in the new house.
The day we got the keys to our first house – with all our stuff still in boxes at the old flat and waiting in for a delivery – we sat on the floor and had a chippy dinner.

It was bloody marvellous.

The opening sequence of Post Tenebras Lux
There are many wonderful sequences in Carlos ReygadasPost Tenebras Lux – some baffling, some horrific, some beautiful – but the opening six minutes are the best thing I’ve seen in the cinema all year.

Joyful, unsettling and stunningly beautiful, it sets up the rest of the film perfectly.

Other favourite films of the year: Spring Breakers, Blue Jasmine, Hunger Games: Catching Fire. 

The Wildhearts at Manchester Academy

The Wildhearts have been one of my favourite bands for the past twenty years. A rough, dirty, heavy rock and roll band with choruses harmonies that should have made them millionaires thousands of times over. They’ve imploded more times that anyone can recall, but their songs never give in.

2013 saw the original line-up reform to play the entirety of their debut album, Earth Vs, on its 20th anniversary. The venue was sold out well in advance, packed out with 30-40 somethings (a lot in Wildhearts t-shirts) – every person sang every word to every song during the two hour set.

I’ve never seen a happier room of people: drunk on nostalgia, power-pop choruses and over-priced Tuborg.

Losing 4.5st.
After losing a bit during booze-abstinent January, I decided to focus on changing my lifestyle in a lot of small ways – walk as much as possible, stop eating bread, cut down on tea/coffee, eat breakfast, actually weighing myself – that would amount to a big difference. (I was pretty inspired by the ‘marginal gains’ approach of the British Olympic cycling team; legacy etc). Each of these things contributed to a speedy, steady decline in my weight.

Importantly, I have tweaked how I live, rather than weightloss crashing. It’s sustainable, despite the current additional winter pounds.

Withings, March—Dec 2013

Doing this changed my life in so many ways: I’m more comfortable around people, I’m confident in myself, clearer in mind, happier in general; I dress better and I don’t hate summer.

The squid & mushroom dish at Matbaren, Stockholm.
I was in Stockholm on a very short work trip, with nothing much to do in the evenings. I booked myself in to Matbaren, Mathias Dahlgren’s 1* ‘dining bar’, and sat down for plates of amazing food.

The first thing I went for was the hon shimeji mushroom and Swedish squid dish, paired with a seabuckthorn cream ale.

Hon-shimeji, Swedish squid, squid ink aioli; Matbaren.

Fresh and clean as anything, with squid ink aioli and parsley bringing all the flavours out. Absolutely bowled me over and I keep thinking about it, wondering how to make something as wonderful.

Other great food this year: the beef, hen of the woods, mussels at Dill and the oysters at Flying Elk.

The Melvins.
The Melvins are the best. Always. Consistently special and unpredictable, they released two albums this year: the first Everybody Loves Sausages – a covers album that takes in Queen, Roxy Music, Venom and David Bowie – features one of my favourite things of the year, a cover of John Waters & Divine’s theme song to the 1974 film Female Trouble.

Tres Cabrones, the second album, reunited the original 1983 line-up, moving Dale Crover from drums to bass, and is a completely wild and joyously noisy 45 minutes.

Other favourite records this year: Bill Callahan, Dream River; Vår, No-One Dances Quite Like My Brother; Botanist, IV: Mandragora; iceage, You’re Nothing; Locrian, Return To Annihilation; Mount Eerie, Live In Bloomington; David Lynch, The Big Dream; Lust For Youth, Perfect View.

Stoflighed Chukka LX 69.
“Stoflighed” is a collaboration between Vans, Norse Projects, Kvadrat and the Republic of Fritz Hansen. Everything about these shoes is superb: the choice of fabrics, the texture, the colours, the fit are all beautiful.

This pair of new wool chukkas is pure Danish quality wrapped around a Vans classic.

Pre-train chats with Matt Sheret
Matt is one of those good people that I don’t get to spend enough time with due to their insistence on living in London rather than the North. The occasional conversations, caught before my train home, are a warm bit of hearty bookending and a must for anyone.

Ben Reade’s talk at Playful.
Over the past three years of Playful, I’ve been trying to expand the meaning of the event – possibly too far, possibly not far enough. This year, I invited a man who’s fascinated me for a while: Ben Reade.

He’s the Head of R&D at Nordic Food Lab, the houseboat moored outside noma fermenting, pickling, and god-knows-what-elseing all kinds of food. I’ve been following the NFL’s experiment blog for a couple of years – baffling at attempts to make Nordic-local vinegars, dashi and even ‘soy’ sauce.

Waxed & rotting plums, Nordic Food Lab

His twenty minutes at Playful were a giddy journey through Coltrane, food and an evident passion for experimentation. Ben’s discussion of the rotting plums and mummifying deer absolutely justified bringing him over from Copenhagen.

The Giraffes in The Last of Us.
The Last of Us is an incredible gaming experience; exhausting, emotionally draining and deeply intense. It starts bleak and gets worse from there.

Towards the end of the game, the lead characters reach a desolate Utah. Collapsed roads, disintegrating buildings over-run by trees – the typical Last of Us scene. Jogging through corridors, looking for a way through, suddenly there is a giraffe chewing on some leaves. Nonchalantly, standing there in the middle of the ruined world, chewing leaves.

(skip to 1’54″)

It broke down that hard shell I’d spent hours building up in the game and winded me. A gut-punch. Stroking that giraffe brought back some hope. Enough hope to be devastating.

Making Green Eggs & Ham.
We only see my three-year-old niece a handful of times a year because she lives eighty-odd miles away (and is too young to drive/get a train). Every time we see her, she’s a bit meek for the first half an hour, because we’re relative strangers / strange relatives.

We decided to record us reading some books to her. Partially to get her used to our faces more, partially to give my sister and brother-in-law a break from the tyranny of Peppa Pig. We looked at many, before eventually settling on Dr Seuss’ Green Eggs & Ham.

We started reading it out, but it quickly became a theatrical production with my wife and I sparring as Sam-I-Am and the one who hates green eggs and ham. We made a sign, before dyeing some ham and scrambled eggs green.

The green eggs were absolutely horrific tasting, but hopefully I conveyed their joy to a child. We are currently trying to decide what book to do next, but a lot of children’s stories are just too fantastical to film.

Meeting John Waters
For my wife’s birthday, I bought her tickets to see John Waters – an idol of hers – at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall. The show was brilliant, he is a true raconteur with a huge repertoire of anecdotes and bits. Jaq even caught his moustache pencil that he threw into the audience.

Earlier in the evening, we’d seen April Ashley in the hotel bar we were staying in so had a hunch that John Waters would also be staying there. A hope, at least. In the morning, as we waited for our breakfast to arrive, John Waters appeared with a huge stack of newspapers under his arm. Both of us, shaking slightly, were determined to say hello – even if it would be deeply cringemaking.

10762001365_4abe9464e0_b

He was a complete professional, very charming and it made Jaq’s day.

Light Show at Hayward Gallery.
I didn’t get to see enough Art this year, but Light Show at the Hayward Gallery provided plenty of wonder early in the year. The show featured a variety of different interpretations of ‘light as sculpture’, exploring texture, material, form and perspective, some a bit bobbins but a couple of stunning pieces.

Light Logic

My two favourite pieces were Chromosaturation by Carlos Cruz-Diez (above) and another Olafur Eliasson work, *Model for a Timeless Garden*, that created an infinite number of momentary sculptures using only a strobe and water.

Barack Hussein Obama by Steven Weissman.
This year has been great for graphic novels/sequential art (apart from the untimely death of Kim Thompson). Any year where there is a new Jason book is a good year, but the most enjoyable graphic novel I read this year was probably Barack Hussein Obama by Steven Weissman.

Published by Fantagraphics late last year, BHO collects three years of Weissman’s interpretations of modern US politics. It goes from 4-panel gag pages with BHO doing stand-up and gets increasingly odd, with a murderous Hilary Rodham Clinton, god ripping off Joe Biden’s head and a demonic parakeet.

Barack-Hussein-Obama-2

Visually, it’s a stunningly textural book with a perfect hand-crafted feeling to it. Each 4-panel section is drawn with a scratchy pen on a Moleskine page, and Weissman uses old-fashioned Zip-A-Tone to add depth and weight to the pages. It’s beautiful.

Partly Fiction.

Yesterday, I watched the documentary about Harry Dean Stanton, Partly Fiction. It’s an incredible portrait of an incredible man, taciturn yet loquacious, breaking silence only when it needed to be broken and speaking only what needed to be said.

Since the first time I saw Harry Dean’s harangued, put-upon soul in Wild At Heart - through multiple viewings of Repo Man, Alien, Escape From New York, Cool Hand Luke, Pretty In Pink and Paris, Texas amongst many many other parts – I’ve been enthralled by his performance. Apart from Paris, Texas, he’s always been in the margins, a supporting actor who brings the gravitas and depth that all other actors on the screen can only try to. He seems to be living the roles, which are etched on his Death Valley-terrain of a face; all Tennessee-whiskey and Marlboro stained.

Harry Dean Stanton

Throughout Sophie Huber’s film, Harry Dean sings. The songs he sings, and the way he sings them, tell us plenty about his life, experience and feelings. Outsider country songs, Mexican standards, a duet with Kris Kristofferson and even Danny Boy (passed down from his Irish mother). Harry Dean’s delivery pulls together all of these different folk traditions into a single world-view.

His Kentucky-farmboy / Hollywood-barfly philosophy is drawn out of him, offering up easy existential Absurdism — “how about nothing? How about silence?“, “I’m nothing. There is no ‘self’,” along with a discomfort that we’re travelling through space at 17,000 miles an hour and can’t do anything about it — which neatly place him within the Beckett/Pinter realm: bleak but reassuring.

I think that’s what has always attracted me to him, he seems to effortlessly carry both the freedom and the burden of the void.

The Hepworth, names to take home.

I have just retured from The Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield. It’s a wonderful modernist building, a temple to perfectly crafted form, holding brilliant sculptures and the odd painting.

Exterior, Hepworth.

I’ve never considered myself a fan of sculpture, but it keeps creeping up on me. The things that tend to stand out in my memory of gallery trips definitely fall under that banner, from Joan Miró’s peopleAlexander Calder’s mobiles, Antoni Tàpies’ cloud or Ólafur Eliasson’s frozen BMW —

Olafur Eliasson's BMW H2R

Ólafur Eliasson, BMW H2R. Photograph © Adam Schwabe.

As I’m not a ‘fan’ of sculpture, getting by on a surface of knowledge and a likes-what-I-likes approach, I found the Hepworth to be an excellent journey. It is very good at contextualising the work, through showing initial sketches, maquettes, series, contemporaries. I think exhibitions are always best when they show the artist’s working out.

There were plenty of piece to enjoy, but these are the works that I made a personal note to record and follow up on:

Maybe I will.

A year in pictures.

I’ve now pretty much left Instagram, bar for commenting/liking, and have moved my day-to-day photos towards Flickr.

For a while, I’ve had a feeling of wanting to take longer-lasting photographs, of better quality, that actually stand-up to time  — something which Matt well articulates. This post-Instagram, post-filter landscape has been accelerated by Instagram’s recent behaviour that has undermined its value to me and sullied the gentle social: the main reason I loved their service.

It is still a good record of the bits and pieces that I’ve experienced over the past year — including getting married, a handful of trips to Mitteleuropa and more Copenhagen — but next year I’d like to get better at photography, with a better camera.

EXPAND POST