Sunday, 31 July 2011

The Outcasts - The Empire, Belfast

Of all the punk bands that came out of the north in the late 1970s The Outcasts were probably the hardest and edgiest.
Their song lyrics had a dark edge –You’re a Disease, Magnum Force and the catchy but distinctly sinister and perverted The Cops Are Coming.
More than 25 years after splitting up they were back on stage in Belfast on Saturday night at the Empire – well three of them anyway.
Singer Greg Cowan and his guitarist brother Martin, along with drummer Raymond Falls were from the original line up, which also included their late brother Colin also on drums and guitarist Getty.
The reformed Outcasts included former Rudi guitarist Brian Young (whose rockabilly band The Sabrejets provided support) and anarchist-about-town Petesy Burns on bass.
It was a superb, energetic performance that had men in their late forties and fifties, who should really know better, pogoing round the place and crashing in to one another.
There was also a fair smattering of younger people who were clearly not even born when The Outcasts were first on the go.
Greg Cowan – with spiked, bleached hair – is like a punk archetype, his snarling vocal delivery and singer-with-attitude stage presence make him a formidable front man.
The dual guitars of Martin Cowan and Young drove the sound, power chords with chunky but never overstated riffs
They pretty much covered their back catalogue and there were no ‘this is new song’ moments.
A highlight was the dark and gothic Winter, from their second album Blood and Thunder.
A fitting touch was an introduction by Terri Hooley – lauded in a Guardian newspaper editorial last week as a man who deserves the freedom of Belfast – who managed The Outcasts and released their early singles and first album on the Good Vibrations record label.
The word legendary is overused when talking about bands and performers but The Outcasts were the real thing and Saturday night’s gig was a superb reminder of just why.
Footage of Terri's into and first song here.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Andy Kershaw’s passion for music developed into a compassion for humanity. A youthful devotion to the songs and social awareness of the early Bob Dylan set author Kershaw on a career path that would see him reporting on genocide in Rwanda, human rights violations in Haiti, and from the secretive totalitarian absurdity that is North Korea.
The British broadcaster’s biography veers from passionate and angry about global injustices to bewildered and contemptuous of the smug celebrities among whom he moves during his time as a DJ on BBC radio.
Many of his anecdotes are primarily pitched toward a British audience from age 35 to those in their 50s who listened to the BBC’s pop music radio station Radio 1 during the 1980s and early 90s and who will remember the self-important celebs Kershaw takes great pleasure in mocking.
From the start Andy Kershaw was an outsider who, along with the late John Peel, tried to create a counterculture among the bland pop and stadium rock that prevailed on the air.
American roots music — blues, country, soul, folk — and, most importantly, African music from the township jive of the south of the continent, to the desert blues of the west and Arabic influenced rai of the north—were his standard fare, while his contemporaries treated their listeners to Bon Jovi, Hall and Oates, and U2.
Although he is wary of the term world music Kershaw is regarded as one of its foremost champions. He has brought to the attention of western audiences such artists as Ali Farka Toure from Mali and the deliriously brilliant Bundhi Boys from Zimbabwe.
He is also obsessed with American roots music and takes us on his journeys as disparate as finding the grave of bluesman Blind Willie McTell to discovering neglected artists, such as Ted Hawkins, and securing them record contracts.
He is an obsessive traveler and seems to seek out the most obscure and often dangerous corners of the globe to visit, often at his own expense, to file reports from for the BBC and a range of British print outlets.
He visited Haiti more than 20 times in the 1990s; reported on wars, massacres and famines from throughout Africa; and in recent years made a series of radio documentaries on the “Axis-of-Evil:” Iran, Iraq (when Sadam Hussien was still in power), and North Korea.
Introducing us to North Korea he writes: “It is the most volatile place on earth. Panmunnjom, at the 38th Parallel, where North Korea meets South, is also the world’s last Cold War frontier. Here, the ancient tectonic plates of capitalism and communism still grind relentlessly and terrifyingly together. Concealed in the surrounding countryside, on both sides of the border, beyond the trim lawns, fragrant flowerbeds and ornamental shrubs, is rumored to be the deadliest arsenal in the world, a concentration of chemical, biological, conventional and nuclear weapons. And all just a minute or two from the gift shop.”
Things becomes personal toward the end of No Off Switch as Kershaw recounts the breakup of his 17-year relationship with the mother of his two children—one that saw him suffering a very public nervous breakdown and incarceration for contacting his ex-partner when a restraining order was in place.
His tone can often become flippant; and he interjects his life story with frequent asides and observations. He is probably trying to address too many audiences from those who are interested in celebrity gossip to serious music-heads to those who will be gripped by his insights as a foreign correspondent.
Although often self-centered and keen to make sure we know his opinion, Kerhsaw displays integrity in his journalism as well as a passion for music delivered from the heart—both of which lift this story well above the average celebrity bio.
This review was written for an first published by the New York Journal of Books.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Embers by Sándor Márai

A pivotal point is hinted at in this novel from the start but there is a slow build to it, a ratcheting up of tension before we get to its revelation.
From the first pages we know there has been a schism between the two main characters, Konrad and Henrik, two men who are in their mid-seventies at the start of the Second World War.
It is told mainly from the point-of-view of Henrik who was born into a wealthy family, a land-owning Hungarian father and aristocratic French mother.
From the first pages we find him living as a virtual recluse on his remote country estate, tended to by servants and his former nanny who is now in her nineties.
A letter telling of a visit sparks his reminiscences and sets the scene for the encounter that the first half of this novel builds up to.
The early chapters tell of Henrik's childhood and his coming of age in the last years of the Austro-Hungarian empire, a Europe that ceased to exist by 1918.
Konrad is from Galicia, a now extinct geographical entity which lies mostly in modern Ukraine but which has also been tied up into the history of Poland, Austria and Hungary.
Konrad and Henrik attend military school together in Vienna and become inseparable, with Konrad spending his summers on Henrik's family estate. But their difference in background create a friction, more from the perspective of the impoverished Galician than Konrad whose wealth blinds him to it.
Márai's lyrical evocation of this lost epoch fades in comparison with the second half which positively drips with layered prose depicting place, action, emotions and constantly preparing for his revelation.
We learn that Henrik and Konrad have not seen each other for 41 years, that Konrad travelled to the East while Henrik lived on his estate, estranged from his wife who died eight years after Konrad disappeared one day without explanation.
While the outside world may have changed, Henrik is steadfast in his ways, an Austro-Hungarian landowner living in a political climate where the empire no longer exists and where Europe is on the verge of being ripped apart once again.
As the two old men sit down to dinner Henrik tells his former friend: "The world holds no further threat for me. Some new world order may remove the way of life into which I was born and in which I have lived, forces of aggression may foment some revolution that will take away both my freedom and my life. None of it matters. What matters is that I do not make any compromises with a world that I have judged and banished from my existence. Without the aid of any modern appliances, I knew that one day you would come to me again. I waited you out, because everything that is worth waiting for has its own season and its own logic and now that moment has come." P123
Konrad who has travelled and seen the world comes across as the more complete and rounded character but the old landowner, who has not ventured from his estate in decades, challenges that, believing that he has been true to himself while Konrad compromised himself.
".... deep inside you was a fanatical longing to be something or someone other than you are. It is the greatest scourge a man can suffer, and the most painful. Life becomes bearable only when one has come to terms with who one is, both in one's own eyes and in the eyes of the world. We all of us must come to terms with what and who we are, and recognise that this wisdom is not going to earn us any praise, that life is not going to pin a medal on us for recognising and enduring our own vanity or egoism or baldness or our potbelly. No, the secret is that there's no reward and we have to endure our characters and our natures as best we can, because no amount of experience or insight is going to rectify our deficiencies, ourself-regard, or our cupidity. We have to accept that the people we love do not love us, or not in the way we hope. We have to accept betrayal and disloyalty, and, hardest of all, that someone is finer than we are in character and intelligence." P157
Márai layers twists and revelations in a beautifully-paced piece of storytelling. The denouements at times seem almost understated. The well-flagged schism is much more complete than first suggested, its casual after-dinner retelling accentuating not just one, but a whole series of betrayals.
This is a subtle, nuanced novel - a translation of a translation (from Hungarian to German to English) - that could be read in a sitting but which deserves a slower absorbtion to fully appreciate its rich texture.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

A Death in Summer by Benjamin Black

Richard “Diamond Dick” Jewell is found in his country home with his head blown off and a shotgun in his hands, but Dublin pathologist Quirke and the Detective Inspector Hackett quickly conclude it is a clumsy attempt to make the death look like suicide.
Benjamin Black quickly lines up a cast of suspects for the murder of the Dublin newspaper magnate and horse breeder in the fourth novel to feature Quirke.
A bitter business rival and his instantly dislikable and creepy son, a stablehand with a violent criminal record, a sullen housekeeper, the dead man’s deeply disturbed sister and his exotic French wife all enter the frame.
Quirke, as usual, is quickly out of his depth, not least because he begins an affair with the Gallic widow before her husband is even cold in his grave.
Again he is struggling with alcoholism, drinking but trying to control it, his entire body quivering for more each time he sips a glass of wine.
Over the previous novels Black has assembled a retinue of supporting players, including Hackett and Quirke’s daughter Phoebe. But stepping from the sidelines of two-dimensional bit-player to take second billing this time round emerges Quirke’s assistant pathologist, Sinclair, to become a fully rounded character with hidden depths.
Author Black spends less time than in his earlier Quirke novels establishing the time frame of 1950s Dublin, just an occasional reference to the location of a long-flattened building or now-defunct tram line.
But as before he paints a scathing picture of establishment corruption and an Ireland still dominated by the Catholic Church, which allows elements of its clergy to commit appalling crimes against children in its care.
Moreso than in his previous pseudonymously penned novels by Benjamin Black, the voice of Booker prizewinner John Banville, keeps emerging from the pages of A Death in Summer as if he wants to push aside his crime-writing alter ego and show him how things should be done.
“They left the kitchen and went back to the nook in the dining room. The night was pressing its glossy back against the window. The candle had burned halfway, and a knobbly trail of wax had dripped down the side and onto the table. Quirke lifted the bottle of Bordeaux.”
In four sentences the straightforward storytelling prose of the crimewriter Black morphs in the prosaic lyricism of Banville and back again to functional narrative.
This is an elegant novel, well-paced with dramatic twists, disturbing surprises and richly drawn characters whose actions and motives have a tangible psychological depth.
Black/Banville is well in form here, and this is probably the most assured of his Quirke novels. It can be either plunged into without any need to reference the previous three or else taken as a welcome new installment of a sequential quartet by one of Ireland’s leading contemporary novelists who barely disguises himself behind his crimewriter penname.

This review was written for an first published The New York Journal of Books.