Friday, 24 April 2009

Book Review - 'Factotum', by Charles Bukowski

Sat on a gloomy and lonely Brighton beach, chained to the shackles of a mundane retail job, having just made the decision to move back home to my mother as I could no longer afford to live in London – this was the backdrop to my first brush with Bukowski – how beautiful is nature’s irony. Before I had left the Big Smoke, a dear friend had given me a copy of ‘Post Office’, saying that I would relate to the lost musings of a poet chained to the shackles of a mundane job and an alcoholic drink – how right he was.
Justify Full
Whilst that moment now exists as a memory, my fascination with the enigmatic Bukowski remains as vivid and alive as it did back then. Those new to the author may wish to start off by reading the aforementioned ‘Post Office’, however this particular book review concerns the late, great man’s second book, ‘Factotoum’.

Following the book’s protagonist, Henry Chinaski, on a tour of menial jobs, alcoholism and desperation, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Bukowski is indeed drawing upon his own experiences in writing this unique novel. Full of amusing anecdotes and ‘real’ experiences (the blurb states that no-one has covered ‘being down and out’ as well since George Orwell), Factotum is easy to read and full of a thousand different stories that keep the reader hooked from start to finish.

Whilst all of Bukowski’s novels are laced with realism and portray a remarkable underworld that the majority of us will never experience (thankfully or not, depending on your personal outlook), it’s the resigned sadness of Bukowski’s situation that shines through in a novel that should be so much more wide-read than it is.

Bukowski’s shortcomings are obvious to all who read him – laziness, alcoholism, womanising - however it’s his honesty and resigned acceptance of his lot in life that makes the reader empathise with him, making his stories pack so much more of an emotional punch.

Whilst ‘Factotum’ may not be for the prudish amongst us (its coarse language and graphic descriptions of sexual encounters push the boundaries of the status quo’s ‘accepted literary boundaries’) it most definitely paints a picture that so many more people should appreciate.

As previously stated, if you’ve never read any Bukowski, ‘Post Office’ is the natural starting point, and if you’ve read this book already, you don’t need a review to tell you how essential Bukowski is. All I can say in summary, is that as the publishers state, grinding their agenda as there are, Bukowski is one of the most unique voices literature has ever seen – love him or hate him, you cannot deny him this accolade.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

New Posts?

If you've noticed a less frequent than usual posting on Musings for a Modern World, fear not! Pieces of writing will still be posted up here, but the majority of my current time and writing is focused on a new side project, the London Vegetable Garden - showcasing just how much I can grow on one, small, London balcony. Just click here to visit!Link

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Gig Review - 'The Baron and the General' - Macbeth, Hoxton, 09.04.09

Whilst ‘The Baron and the General’ is a name that conjures up images of a bygone British Empire, stiff upper lips and sepia-tinged nostalgia, the sound that this pioneering London quartet produces is far from antiquated.

Appearing at Hoxton’s Macbeth pub, a live music venue that I’ve frequented a few times on previous occasions (and one that is rapidly gaining more and more kudos on the live circuit), The Baron and the General are the first new band to genuinely blow me away in a long time.

Whilst they may initially appear as a standard four-piece, it soon becomes apparent that, donned in Victorian military apparel, they offer music lovers and gig-goers something completely new. Whilst most unsigned London acts are content to strum a guitar and squeal a few songs as if they’ve been pressed out of a ‘my first indie-band’ mould, The Baron and the General launch into an incredible set that offers something genuinely different straight from the off.

But how to sum up this glorious sound? Imagine if you please, that Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Jack the Ripper and Charles Darwin all met one night in a Limehouse opium den, were handed instruments and told to produce a psychedelic garage / zouk act under the influence of the most creative substances known to man. If this fantastical band actually performed in front of a packed East End pub in the 1890s, perhaps you’d be a third of the way to the incredible and individual sound that is The Baron and the General.

Thrilling the heaving masses inside the Macbeth, the band proceeded to play well-known songs such as ‘The Despair of Leena Estee, Memoirs of Bilbalily and evident crowd-pleaser, ‘A Ragtime Odyssey’, switching effortlessly from twisted hallucinogenic rock to psycadelic ska blues as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

The Baron and the General are quite clearly, one of the most unique, talented and enjoyable live music acts of recent years and one that is thoroughly deserving of much bigger and better things. Watch out you scrupulous masses of music maestros – you heard of them here first…

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Wartime Spirit - Social Implications of Credit Cruch Gardening...

Whilst the whole London Vegetable Garden project is simply an interesting hobby to see if I can actually grow a few vegetables on my London balcony, there are many more people doing exactly the same, meaning important social conclusions can be drawn from this trend.

Sales of vegetable seeds / plants in Britain now outnumber those of flowers, whilst waiting lists for London allotments have reached truly unprecedented levels, indicating a very marked shift in the UK’s horticultural habits. Whilst I’ve nodded towards what I refer to as the ‘River Cottage Effect’ in a recent blog post, this cannot be the sole reason behind the increased interest in gardening and ‘growing your own’ produce.

Some commentators speculate that the ‘credit crunch’ has had a significant effect upon people who are looking to save a bit of money by growing their own cheap vegetables. With supermarket vegetable prices fluctuating almost daily, it’s not hard to believe that many people are turning to their own back gardens for fresh produce rather than paying over the odds for imported, poor quality veg.

It’s a well-known fact that in Britain, we throw away a shocking amount of food each week; not only a sad indication of our excessive consumerist natures, but also a dreadful waste of money that could be better spent elsewhere. One of the greatest monetary advantages of growing your own is that the back garden is, in effect, one big fridge. Whilst supermarket produce goes off within a week, green-fingered horticulturalists can harvest the freshest produce by simply pulling it out of the earth, saving money by using only what they need, only when they need it.

‘Celebrity’ chefs / gardeners (delete as applicable) are all urging us to go organic and grow our own produce. Current affairs programmes and TV presenters are all saying that we should ‘make do and mend’. It seems that we’ve recently gone back to bygone days of wartime Blitz spirit and ‘digging for victory’ to quote the famous poster. One thing’s for sure – the ‘credit crunch’ has resulted in a lot more British people crunching into home-grown vegetables once more, and that can only be a good thing.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Winning back our souls as consumerism dies

There’s no doubting that the current wave of depression and apathy gripping Britain (and indeed the rest of the world), stems from the bleak financial picture – a picture that has painted worry onto the collective face of the masses – but perhaps this is the perfect time to examine the root cause of our (seeming) dependence on money, capitalism and consumerism.

Unemployment, pay cuts, lay-offs and closures have all had a profound effect upon a huge majority of the British working class, leaving many struggling to cope with spiralling mortgages and increased food / fuel costs on severely dilapidated incomes. People in this unfortunate position face a very real problem – and one not to gloss over – but in terms of consumer ideology and the soulless pursuit of capitalist gain, where does the current situation leave ‘young professionals’ – affected, yet not in the ‘real’ sense as defined above.

Although I loathe the phrase ‘young professional’, I’m forced to use it here in the absence of a more suitable alternative. This group, typically of graduate calibre, have been bombarded with consumerist media messages for years now, and consuming the latest electronic goods, fashion, cars and clothing is an essential part of life that these people have been indoctrinated to undertake. Being able to consume is the cultural currency of life in 2009. But what if we stop to consider, that actually, it isn’t?

We don’t actually need to possess a new plasma TV that’s 2 inches larger than the previous one. Our social lives will not be empty should we fail to wear a particularly overpriced garment that was assembled in an overseas factory. For so long now, we have been conforming to the political machine that determines our very being – the mass media. But now that the wheels have fallen off of the vehicle of capitalist consumerism, a void is opening up where once there was ‘purchasing’ – with what do us apathetic souls now fill it with?

Life is undoubtedly that little bit harder in times of economic shrinkage, but perhaps now is the time in which to enrich our souls with more meaningful pursuits. As the consumerist behemoth slows down as a natural reaction to current affairs, worshippers on the alter of capitalism can now finally break free from their shackles of oppression and venture into a new age.

As people become more economically aware, from their own personal standpoints at least, the perpetuating myth of necessary consumption is slowly, starting to begin to fade. We may be a long way from the socialist ideal that would cure this unnecessary need to purchase beyond our means, but at last there is light at the end of the tunnel and society can choose to leave excessive consumption behind, replacing it slowly instead, with a focus on human relationships rather than materialistic greed.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Book Review - 'Night Has 1000 Eyes' by Cornell Woolrich

Cornell Woolrich (here writing under his oft-used ‘George Hopley’ pseudonym) has often been described as the ‘master of suspense’ and on this showing, the moniker is justly attributed.

Detective Tom Shawn is making his way home one night along the riverside and saves Jean Reid from a suicide attempt. As they start talking, Jean relays her fears concerning the sanity and life of her father. It transpires that a local clairvoyant has foretold Mr Reid’s death at the jaws of a lion, an alarming statement considering all of this strange man’s predictions have thus been proved true. A suspenseful story ensues as Shawn and Reid battle to save her father as the date of destiny fast approaches.

Despite being a gripping story in itself, this novel is a wonderful example of Woolrich’s artistic language and beautiful mastery of the noir genre. From the very first page we are plunged into an intense pulp fiction world, with Shawn’s innermost thoughts and feelings laid bare against a sensually descriptive noir landscape.

As one enjoys the delicate prose and evocative language, the reader is soon swept up in the story, masterfully spun, and set on a rollercoaster ride of suspense as the story reaches its climactic finale.

Cornell Woolrich is a wonderful author just waiting to be discovered and there’s no better book to discover him with than this one. ‘Night has a Thousand Eyes’ is a vital addition to any collector of quality noir fiction.

Book Review - 'The Jewel of Seven Stars' by Bram Stoker

When a writer’s name becomes synonymous with one truly classic piece of literature, it’s easy to forget that there will of course, have been many more strings to their bow. ‘The Jewel of Seven Stars’ is one such example in the portfolio of famous Irish writer Bram Stoker, creator of cultural icon, ‘Dracula’. ‘The Jewel of Seven Stars’ is set in the opulent high society of Edwardian London at the home of Professor Trelawney, famed archaeologist and Egyptologist.

Published in 1903, much of British society was at the time infatuated with Egypt and the East, providing this novel with its key cultural references and societal backdrop.
Agents unknown attack Professor Trelawney within his home and TJOSS starts off innocently as your classic turn of the century ‘whodunit’. Beautifully and evocatively described, the book sees worried daughter Margaret call for the assistance of her willing admirer, dashing lawyer Malcolm Ross (the development of their ensuing romance is a key and enjoyable theme throughout the text), seeking help as her father lays in a trance.

As the book progresses, it shifts from classic crime to supernatural thriller. Upon his awakening, Professor Trelawney brings the characters into his confidence and confirms their fears – the attacks are occurring due to the displaced Mummy Queen Tera, stored as a trophy in Trelawney’s study, awakening in preparation for her re-birth.
The novel ultimately shifts to Cornwall as the protagonists aim to complete the awakening and I shall desist from discussing any more of the plot for fear of spoiling the ending, which in my opinion, is the only let down in an incredibly enjoyable book.

Whilst Dracula is the superior text of the two, TJOSS is much easier to get into from the off and a thoroughly enjoyable Edwardian romp. The novel stands on its own feet in terms of story and plot, however the book also offers an incredibly detailed look at Edwardian society and the advancement of archaeology and subsequent interest in Egypt and the East, which make it worth the read in itself.
I really do count this as one of my favourite books and consider it a travesty that so few know of it.

Dracula may indeed be the seminal work that Stoker is rightfully associated with, but TJOSS is right up there with it and deserves the attention of discerning readers worldwide. Thoroughly recommended.