Monthly Archives: May 2013

Begin with The Emigrants

In thrall as ever to Londonist’s recommendations, I saw last week that there was an event considering W. G. Sebald as part of the UCL Festival of the Arts. I had been annoyed to miss the film “Patience (After Sebald)” a while ago and had bought a book in compensation, as yet uncompleted. He was referred to so often, even in the meta-literary circles to which I’m haphazardly exposed, that I’d added him to my List.

As ever, travelling forms a part of my story. I scorned the so-called Journey Planner, thinking I knew better. Rather more important would have been the awareness needed to leave in time. Late equals flustered, which isn’t the correct state of mind for literature. Wet and flustered, all the various commuting optimisations ignored in my haste. The event was in one of the Engineering buildings, oddly. (There is a unique judgement on other institutions’ facilities that comes from people who’ve spent most of their lives in the profoundly infantilising higher education system.) The man at the entrance was helpful, suggesting I follow the signs, which (unusually) were plentiful and unambiguously informative. Someone else was late too; he was receiving his ticket and asking what would have been my question, about the geometry of the room, of the organising lady. He waited a while and seemed relieved that I was going in late as well.

Taking my seat at the back, I noticed the sound bleeding through from the room next door, which was from a showing of the martial arts film The Sword Identity. This audio interruption would wax and wane throughout.  An odd counterpoint. Dr Mererid Puw Davies, the first speaker, was arguing that it is a mistake to regard Sebald as ahistorical. She pointed out his own references in interviews to the overpowering contexts of post-war Germany and that he was strongly affected by the 1968 student protests, even if it took a long time for the manifestation of indirect responses in his fiction. At this point it already felt a little odd to be (probably) the only person in the room not to have read any of his work. A little like the imposterous feeling I had during my inadvertent musical episode a couple of months ago. I did welcome though the opportunity to pick up some guiding thoughts, to be used when I am able to rectify this failure.

The second speaker, Dr Stephanie Bird, looked at two strands of the comic – social satire and social derision, and pleasure in the comic recreation of events. She reinforced her predecessor’s conclusion that a lot of Sebald’s themes and obsessions remain in tension. Her quotations included a hilarious demolition of a Berni Inn-type experience. (Someone pointed out afterwards that loud sounds of laughter had come from the film next door when the comic theme was introduced.) The post-talks discussion covered the visual qualities of Sebald’s writing (particularly bearing in mind his inclusion of photos in the text), the proposition that he tried to avoid hysteria at all costs, in favour of melancholy, and the idea that his political engagement emerged primarily through his choice of subject. One of the audience suggested that Knut Hamsun was quite similar to Sebald and both the speakers admitted they hadn’t read him, but welcomed the recommendation. I’ve only sketched over what was discussed, because I think my notes are best left as just that. I was, however,informed and enthused, which seems to me the perfect result for this sort of event.

There was a gathering in the corridor afterwards, with drinks and “nibbles”. A PhD student was introduced to another member of UCL staff, admitting that he’d had Sebald on his own List, and hadn’t read him either, so maybe I wasn’t such an outlier. After some discussions to which I by definition couldn’t contribute, I confessed to one of the speakers that I hadn’t read any. She seemed impressed that I’d come along anyway.  I asked whether she would recommend a particular order in which to read his output, thinking it was perhaps a gauche question that would be dismissed. In fact, she did strongly suggest starting with The Emigrants, which consists of four stories, and is more approachable than the others. She and her colleague left at the same time and I followed them, reasoning that if there were any difficulties in exiting, at least they would have staff cards. She asked whether I was from UCL.  When I named my workplace she said “Ah, you’re starved of culture at a science-based university”…

After some confusion we made it through the barriers (the green arrow not quite working as a signifier) and outside her colleague took up the question of my reading order. They both agreed on the first one, disagreeing completely on what should follow. A member of the audience joined in with some heterodox ordering of his own. I thanked them for their talks and encouraged them to put on such events again.

A copy of The Emigrants is now reserved for me at my local library.


It was only very late on Sunday night, even after Something Understood, that I decided to buy a ticket for tonight’s showing of Orpheus at the Battersea Arts Centre, having worked out that this was my only opportunity. A schlep from work and a bigger schlep home, but that’s okay. It was a shame that the 345 only brought me there ten minutes or so before the start of the show, which meant I couldn’t take in the specially dressed bars beforehand.

Immediately in front of the stage there were tables, some of them cordoned off and reserved, for the full cabaret experience (there was a special Orpheus menu):

Before curtain

Before curtain

In front of me I saw someone composing what they call an “Instagram”, adding some nonsense filters to a workaday photo like mine, for extra poignancy.

The programme (only 50p, which the people collecting tickets in front of me oddly spurned), contained detailed timings, which I appreciated.  First was a musical prologue, introducing the band and the players (the same people, of course), with a chorus-narrated precis of the plot.  The band comprised the Django Reinhardt figure on guitar, three ladies playing double bass, violin and accordion, the Eurydice figure playing flute and the impromptu MC, a drummer/percussionist and clarinettist, with a pianist also occasionally acting as conductor.

It would be difficult to restrict this piece to a single genre, which is a good thing.  A mixture of cabaret, opera, puppetry, music, all performed with verve and a wink.  Indeed, I think the highest achievement of the night was the very careful balance between comedy and pathos, which is a difficult trick, the one most often undermining the other. What must have been strenuous rehearsing allowed very quick changes by the actors/performers and of the stage sets, riding on the audience’s reactions as appropriate.

After the interval, there was a musical interlude, during parts of which Eurydice wandered amongst the audience, summoning a drink on a silver tray from the other side of the Grand Hall, and clinking it with revellers, while the band played.  (At the time I was frustrated because I didn’t know what they were playing, even though I recognised some of the tunes.  When I properly read the programme, there was a full list of all the music.)

There were still some comedic elements in the third act, but the dramatic and emotional pitch was raised, including an affecting Persephone song sung very successfully at a challenging pitch by the percussionist and a stirring piece during the attempted escape from the underworld, which was a suitable climax.

I think it’s a production that’s quite brave and it shows the confidence of Little Bulb even to attempt it, never mind to achieve such a success. In fact it first arose in my awareness when someone very politely handed me a flyer, possibly outside a Union Chapel event. He seemed very pleased that I’d taken it and that made me actually read it, which isn’t always the case. At the time of writing there are still seats available for Wednesday 8th and the Saturday matinee and I recommend it very strongly.  Orphée is one of my favourite films and this is a very different, very high quality addition to that canon.  Some of the cast were in the bar afterwards, as promised, and I wish I hadn’t been too preoccupied with the trek home to thank them before I left.


Few are the bands I’ve seen on two continents. Neither can I think of any whose progression I’ve witnessed more directly than Low, from an in-store appearance at Amoeba in San Francisco in 1999, to Academy 3 in Manchester in 2001, to the grand Hall at the Barbican last night. During the Academy show people had to be shushed so that the band could be heard, which seems to have been quite a common problem for them. They have a much wider dynamic range than most.

It was odd being ushered into the auditorium by the insistent Barbican countdown announcements, with the stern reproof that latecomers would suffer for their dilatoriness. The support act was Hebronix, a solo project by the ex-lead singer of Yuck (so I discover after the event).  He seemed both difficult and diffident, hardly able to interact with the audience.  There was a lot of delay-looped guitar, with the lead on top, in front of rather pedestrian drum tracks. He did bring out some quite good drones, during a very short set – only half an hour.

Naturally lots of people didn’t appear until Hebronix had finished, an attitude for which I have little respect. It was remarkable though to see the Barbican almost completely full for Low, a band I always associate with smaller gigs, and interrupted Peel sessions. I can never resist commenting upon the audience.  Near me a man rather too old for the dark glasses he was wearing had trouble finding his seat:

I can’t see the seat numbers

An obvious remedy for this difficulty came to mind. His friend arrived later, commenting that:

This is much nicer than the Royal Festival Hall

while someone walking past to buy a drink said, with some sagacity –

It takes all sorts, dunnit

There were two screens behind the instruments, and three hoops of bulbs hanging down. A fluttering “hello” flag appeared on the two screens, followed by a ten minute countdown, the right-hand one being a mirror image of the left. This stopped for quite a while at five minutes, before resuming. A backstage incident? Waiting for people to satisfy the unthinking drink imperative? When they did start, the screens showed mostly what looked like American home movies of the 1940s and 1950s.

Low Screens

Five minutes elapsed

Their three dominant characteristics are the very distinctive harmonies of the singers and Sparhawk’s unheralded guitar virtuosity, which now ranges to strident and loud distortion, matching in quality his gentle strumming and picking, added to Parker’s spartan drumming style, with the very restricted kit. The best way I can think of summing them up is that they specialise in fragile doom. Even from my seat at the back of the circle, I didn’t feel isolated from them, and the more upbeat songs filled the space that a while before had accommodated an opera. I hope they don’t play somewhere even bigger next time, though. They deserve to fill the wonderful acoustics of the Barbican hall. As with Pere Ubu the previous week (which I will describe soon), I hardly knew any of the songs (I discovered at the merch stall later that they were mostly playing new material).  This didn’t matter at all. In fact, there was a strange pleasure in the claps of recognition from other people for songs I didn’t recognise. Several glitter balls started shining towards the end and they didn’t feel cheesy. The encore ritual can be tired. Sparhawk said

We’d really like to play some more songs for you

which (perhaps with the pleasure of the moment) felt genuine.

Afterwards I bought a couple of CDs (yes, that’s CDs, granddad), with which I was given an envelope containing a proposal from Peter Liversidge, to create the video backdrop for the show.