Going Round In Circles
Recent reading, watching and listening, November 2002

1. In Orbit

Iain Sinclair is going round in circles. Well, a circle. In London Orbital [Granta, 25, hardback] he describes his self-set undertaking to walk the M25 around London, accompanied by a raggle-taggle bunch of artistic miscreants.

Although overpriced, and with a cover that I should think will dissuade your average bookshop buyer from even picking up a copy, London Orbital is a return to form after the wandering novel that was Landor's Tower. Sinclair's subject is London, and Wales and the South West were no place for him to be. Set loose on the rim of the capital he's back where he belongs, digressing, exploring, spouting conspiracy theories and uncovering not only local histories but also places to eat the perfect breakfast.

If there's a theme running through the book it's madness, and how London used to - and perhaps still does in some ways? - send its supposed lunatics to the outer suburbs, where a number of institutions were built to receive them. These hospitals, now mostly turned into luxury housing - either literally, or indirectly by sale of the site to property developers - fascinate Sinclair. He maps points of occult power to and from them, is prepared to deal with all sorts of security to gain access. Likewise, he is fascinated by the contemporary madness of shopping malls and the Millennium Dome, and by how the suburban dweller lives, able to ignore the green lanes and byways that Sinclair marches along on his trips.

This is a series of walks, facilitated by car and train, not a forced expedition. Some of the walks seem more interesting than others; likewise the chapters. At times you can hear Sinclair scrabbling around for something to run with, before desperately picking on something insignificant to use as extended metaphor, a platform for one of his knowledgeable historical-cum-sociological-cum-psychogeographical diversions. All too often the reader is left to join the dots, only to reveal a wandering pencil line pattern rather than the figure we expected. This isn't Sinclair's best book, it needed parts of the M25 rewalking so that something genuinely interesting could be reported, or perhaps an admission of defeat, so that we got fragments from a walk around the M25 [it might have kept the price of the book down, too].

But there are wonderful chapters and moments here nonetheless. Rodinsky and the Krays are here [again], there's an armaments factory turned into a poisonous housing estate, tea and toast turned into a kind of grail for the walkers, an interview with J.G. Ballard, roadkill, and endless evocations of half-forgotten, half-invented rivers, birds, characters, landscapes, and - of course - the never-ending tarmac of the M25.

2. What Goes Around Comes Around

Pop music consists of endless loops. Bands are feted, put down, ignored, destroyed, rehabilitated and feted once again. Reissues happen faster than ever these days. Especially now, just in time for Christmas. Though I can't see many people buying Mute's compilation Cabaret Voltaire, The Original Sound of Sheffield '78/'8. Best of; which does what it says on the box, that is assemble a grim best of from the Cabs' finest early releases. This is the late 70s, this is grey serious young men who punk passed by or who saw through punk, this is 'industrial' music. Actually it's the sound of three young chaps playing with tape recorders, primitive beatboxes and flirting with Baader Meinhoff, William Burroughs and other media revolutionaries, to produce low-fi slimline collaged songs over endlessly unrefined electric drums. It's glorious stuff - this, not the Sex Pistols' [or whoever's] instructions to 'play a chord and form a band', was what caused a music revolution. A million art students bought tape recorders or multitrack portastudios and made this kind of music. Tape labels sprung up, zines, exchange mechanisms, review outlets; Rough Trade records used to have acres of space for self-produced cassettes, usually in plastic bags with xeroxed lyric booklets and badges in. Anyway, I've written about Cabaret Voltaire before. This new compilation merely proves my point. Buy it.

I got the new Suicide album, American Supreme [also on Mute, but their Blast First offshoot] at the same time as the Cabs one, but played it second. I couldn't believe it: they sound the same! No, really. Suicide may have some hiphop beats in there, and the production is a lot cleaner, but the music is the same: samples, vocals, simple rhythms. Where, I wonder, are the anarchic synth duo who screamed 'Frankie's Dead' down the radio at my friends and I camping in Skye, scaring us witless? Where are the noise rebels, the punk innovators who got canned off the Clash tour and who everyone hated? Swallowed by time, I fear. This is tame electro-pop that makes early Depeche Mode sound radical. American Supreme? I don't think so!

3. Endless loops of sound

I finally got hold of Nurse With Wound's Soliloquy for Lilith CD. I've often been told that this is one of the highlights of their career, and was looking forward to hearing it for the first time. I love Nurse With Wound's ice-cold collages, drones and timeless assemblages of sounds; To the Quiet Men from a Tiny Girl and Merzbild Schwet are two of my all time favourite albums, albums which effortlessly provide a short cut to wherever it is music takes us.

But Soliloquy turns out to be a double CD of effects pedals drone. Now, I like Main, I like drones, I even occasionally stand in the rain by the power generator outside the medical centre on my way to Tangents HQ, just listening - but this is absolutely tedious. I bet it was great fun to do, I bet Lilith loves it. I just can't be bothered to take it seriously. Or perhaps I am the butt of some avant-garde, industrial music, indy-rock 'boredom is best' joke?

Claus van Bebber and Philip Jeck's Viny'l'isten CD on Intermedium is much more fun. Here the loops and drones are constructed from old vinyl, complete with clicks and pops, hisses and scratches. Sounds and phrases drift in and out of the composition, the music an endlessly slow progression, an improvised journey made by listener and composer together. Bebber and Jeck each get a solo piece here, and then there's a final duet. Stonking stuff.

As is John Luther Adams' the light that fills the world on Cold Blue Music. The icy cover gives some indication of the shimmering crystal music inside. How six musicians make such a dense, hovering, magical sound is beyond me. This is 'contemporary classical' if you need somewhere to file it, but it has clear links to minimalism, drone, electronics, ragas, and whole lot more. The first track, 'The Farthest Place', is suddenly just there, just starts right off, marimba and/or piano the focus within a fuzzy ball of sound which appears in the room. Slowly change happens, textures appear and reappear, an endlessly fascinating, almost static, audio display. This is careful, mesmerising music. Track 3, the 27 minute long 'The Immeasurable Space of Tones' is even better, a mournful, funereal space walk.

4. What Goes Around Comes Around Again

I had forgotten how incredible Twin Peaks was. I gave in this week and bought the 4 DVD 'special edition' of the first series, and have been watching it ever since.

I'd forgotten that this was made and shown in 1989 - how long ago was that? And I'd forgotten how I used to look forward each week to another tale of small town mayhem, murder and mystery.

I'd forgotten, too, how quickly Lynch piles up plot after plot after plot. How by the end of episode one [proper, after the pilot] there are already five sub-lots running: romance, business, love, violence, cookery and weirdness all hand-in-hand.

I'd forgotten how visually stunning TV can be, how Lynch's cameras caress what it focuses on; how what it focuses on is never what you expect. And the sound, the lush orchestrated memories, soft bassbeat, gloomy, eerie silences, how that all perfectly matches and creates the mood.

I'd forgotten that Twin Peaks was inhabited by so many gorgeous women and so many misshapen and evil men. How male violence is always at odds with yet controlled by the soft sexiness of women here; how they complement when things are right; how this cliché situation, laid so bare by Lynch, is one of the keys to the whole series. How love and murder are never far away within these once-weekly episodes.

I'd forgotten the characters and how strange they are; how the complex web of relationships and non-relationships is a cats-cradle laid over the town, tying things up and getting in the way of any serious investigation Agent Cooper undertakes. And I'd forgotten about the giant, the midget, and the log lady.

I'd forgotten how good Twin Peaks was because [and I'd forgotten this, too] a complaint made to the TV company, about the episode where the identity of Bob is revealed, was upheld, and the series has never been shown again on terrestrial TV. And I'd forgotten because when I saw the whole series on video for sale in a London shop at the knockdown price of 40 complete, my mother put me off buying it. The next day they'd sold out. So I ended up with half-a-dozen dusty videos of some of the second series, which are probably somewhere under the bed.

I'd forgotten how TV always comes true, but this reissue and George W. Bush and his cronies have reminded me. What a world we live in. Time for a donut and coffee.

I had forgotten how incredible Twin Peaks is.

5. The Endless Loop of Time

I commute to Bath twice a week at the moment, and am trying to be positive about the hours spent doing so [not to mention the extra hours spent waiting for late-running trains... but don't start me off] by undertaking some serious reading in a futile attempt to lessen my 'books to read' pile.

I've just about finished Peter Dickinson's The Ropemaker [Macmillan, 6.99] and can heartily recommend it. Its supposedly a children's novel, at least that's where Waterstones had it [yup, they had a book in stock the other day], but it certainly doesn't read like one. I guess I'd have to confess it's a sort-of fantasy novel; it certainly uses the devices of magic and another world, although there are no gnomes, trolls or fairies to be found. Just the sub-medieval peasant communities that always end up dotted around these places, and a couple of heroes on a quest.

Dickinson very quickly sets the scene/world up for the reader, and introduces our heroine Tilja and the others who will become her 'travelling companions' as they journey South to find a way to heal their land. I know, I know, you're laughing already, but you're going to have to trust me when I say this is more than a sub-Tolkienesque fable. Yes, they have fights, adventures and magic encounters, and I confess there are a couple of moments when I thought of Rupert Bear and Enid Blyton turned into Tolkien, but in the main this is gripping stuff.

What really sets it apart is later on when Tilja and The Ropemaker discuss and explore the concept of 'time', comparing it to the rope ring that features in the story. I like the analogy and the way its woven into the story; it links, too, with Mary C. Taylor's book The Moment of Complexity [University of Chicago Press] which is a difficult but rewarding look at why and how the world we live in is getting more and more complex. And why we are having to adapt to that if we want to live to the full, rather than pining for the clearcut black versus white, good versus bad, world that [perhaps] used to exist.

There are plenty of people who resist change, and say changing the way we look at the world [sociology, philosophy, media studies etc] doesn't change the actual world we live in. Taylor argues that of course it does, and that we have to change the way we look at the world because the world has already changed. The two go hand in hand. And time marches on, looping and twisting and circling us all.

© 2002 Rupert Loydell