Thursday, 18 June 2015

BARGAIN-BIN NAIRN: MY LONDON TOP 10

I'll be leaving London in a few weeks to return to the Motherland (Newcastle), so thought I'd compile a LONDON TOP 10 based on my nearly four years in the capital.

These are tourist or daytrip recommendations I suppose, with the sort of faint psychogeographical ground bass you might expect from someone of my age, gender and epoch.

I will confess at this point that despite strenuous attempts, I do not now, nor do I think I ever will, love London. My abbreviated epithet (epitaph?) for the city is:

DARWINIAN PUDDLE 

By far the best thing about London is its people: their variety, proximity and vitality. This might be a sentimental cliche, but then I love both cliche and sentiment and try to avow these values at every available opportunity.

Most of the places on this list are neither blockbuster highlights nor hipster curios. Rather, I've tended to go for generally popularly celebrated sites from the recent-ish past (often the mid-twentieth century) which have somehow clung on in spite of the topographical atrophy of the neoliberal period, but which haven't (yet) been invested with Sinclairean gothic glamour. Having said that, St Mary Woolnoth is included.

Anyway, enjoy!



1) CECIL COURT, COVENT GARDEN

A street of bookshops just off Charing Cross Road (a street famous for its bookshops which now has very few good bookshops - the best second-hand store as far as I can make out is now Skoob in Bloomsbury). Personal favourites are the place that sells 60s sheet music and the shop selling framed collections of stamps. Still possible to buy something good here, or at least have fun browsing.



2) THE BARBICAN, BARBICAN

An absolute pearl of aristocratic Brutalism. Okay it was always for the nobs, but this has made it difficult to get rid of while most of everything else has been destroyed. An oasis of rigidly good modernist design in a swamp of capitalist decoupage. 10 out of 10.



3) THE BLUE POSTS, BERWICK STREET

A slightly dilapidated pub in Soho, for those who like that sort of thing (me). It's a good shape, is not overly hyped, doesn't get too full, and sells Snyders Jalapeno Ptretzel Pieces, an ineffably good American snack that goes very well with a Stella or a Kronenbourg 1664 (another thing in favour of this place is the absence of both real ales and craft lagers).



4) ACE CAFE, STONEBRIDGE

A biker's cafe just off the North Circular. Sells cheap hearty food and always has some sort of shindig going on in the carpark. Jon Savage probably loves this place. A living embodiment of Richard Thompson's '1952 Vincent Black Lightning'.



5) CRYSTAL PALACE PARK, CRYSTAL PALACE

The dinosaurs are incredible, and you can see the countryside in the distance. Modernist sports centres alongside Victorian non-ruins. A profoundly haunting and fun day out.



6) AREA AROUND CROMER STREET, KINGS CROSS/BLOOMSBURY

There's a really weird topographical lacuna just south of the British Library bit of Euston Road. Lots of genuinely grimey pubs here, one of which has gaelic football memorabilia on the walls and serves the Worst Meal I've Ever Had in London: a fucking unspeakable ploughmans lunch. They may have shut this place down by now. Difficult to believe these forlorn streets are in Zone 1.



7) ST MARY WOOLNOTH, BANK

A dark and terrifyingly powerful building, with a claustrophobically beautiful interior. Belly of the beast, and certainly nothing Christian about it. Ian Nairn's liver.



8) ALL OF SOHO

The one part of London with any discernible civic atmosphere. A pretty unbeatable place to walk around on a summer's day. Humanity amid the hieratic callousness, though not without its own dark side, of course. I would recommend a trendy eatery but to be honest I think Chipotle is the place here that has given me the most pleasure. Actually, Wrapchic near Golden Square does a pretty amazing curry burrito. Go there.



9) PAOLOZZI MURALS, TOTTENHAM COURT ROAD STATION

What has become of them? Genuinely worried. On a related note, will there be anything left of central London after 2018?



10) HIGH ROAD LEYTON--HOE STREET, LEYTON/WALTHAMSTOW

My best period in London was June through August 2013. I'd finished my PhD and was writing the Oasis book, which I now realise was probably a once in a lifetime gig for a writer in terms of sheer self-indulgent enjoyment. I would walk 30 mins each morning from Leytonstone to Walthamstow tube and thence to British Library, walking through Bakers Arms and the Pakistani stretch of High Road Leyton, past the Romanian enclave on Hoe Street and the place where William Morris was born, ending up at a Walthamstow just beginning to ride the crest of gentrification, but still in this section pretty working-class. It was a bright, hot summer after a long, cold winter. I listened to Definitely Maybe most days, and was grateful to be alive.

Friday, 12 June 2015

NOTE ON POP LYRICS

Tom Ewing is very kind about that Oasis book I wrote last year. But as I let him know on Twitter, the absence of lyrics was a legal rather than a formal innovation—the original ms contained a fair few block quotations and such, which I had to remove when the band’s management denied permission for usage.

I was pretty gutted when the person at Sony came back with a no. However, from a writerly perspective it was fun to come up with paraphrases to insert in lieu of the actual quotations, and I think they actually made for much smoother and more integrated prose.

One of the original ideas for the book was to try to close-read the lyrics as you might poetry. My academic training has been partly in Ricardian practical crit, New Criticism, Leavisism, etc, so in a sense that was just the technical apparatus I had at my disposal. Also, although I’m fully aware that poetry and pop lyrics are qualitatively different beasts, one of the book’s arguments (reflected in its method) is that pop lyrics can be as resonant as literary works, especially when they somehow manage to condense, reflect and even shape popular consciousness—as Oasis lyrics clearly did. It seemed to me that Noel Gallagher had been unfairly singled out for poor lyric writing, in light of the obvious force and timeliness of his best lines, and given that the vast majority of pop lyrics are spontaneous and messy creations, which is anyway part of the point.

So I really think the lyric issue is at the heart of the whole Oasis narrative, and indeed of readings of pop in general. The best pop criticism has to find a way of acknowledging the patent absurdity of using discursive language to analyse emphatically non-discursive, non-readerly linguistic fragments, while also trying to hold on to the fact that these fragments are integral to why songs do or don’t work.

On a side note, it’s actually quite an interesting sub-area, the legal side of quoting pop lyrics. As I understand it, ‘fair use’ of prose in a critical work is relatively relaxed, but use of poetry much more stringent (you can only quote 20 lines in one article, and then non-consecutively, or something like that). And for pop lyrics there’s another turn of the screw—you have to pay huge sums for use of even one or two lines. On the one hand it’s ridiculous that lyrics are worth more than poetry, given the concentrated labour that goes into writing a poem (compared with eg. Kurt Cobain reputedly writing almost the entire lyric sheet for Bleach in the van on the way to the studio). But then I guess this proves the argument about the much greater capaciousness and collective resonance of a good pop phrase—‘verbal graffiti’ is the term I use in the Oasis book.