Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The End Of Summer

British Summer (if not British Summer Time) ends tomorrow, as Autumn begins.  According to the latest BBC news on radio 4, the week ahead will actually warm up to mid-20s Celsius - so, an Indian Summer, then.  The last fortnight has been generally miserable, weatherwise - a wash-out of rainy days and unsunny skies.  Meanwhile, the world has been gloomy economically, and otherwise.  One small silver lining - there appears to have been no major air disaster in August - which, given the fact this is the busiest month for flying - is an achievement.  Eyewear looks forward to the start of the new term.  Sharp new pencils.  Clean new Silvine Excercise books.  Poetry readings.  Launches.  Crisper air.  Pumpkins.  Poppies on lapels.  Christmas parties.  And then a new year.  It all starts tomorrow.  Today, grab that BBQ and ball cap and have yourself a last fling of summer.

JCS On The New Will Young Album

Will Young Echoes review

Written by James Christopher Sheppard

The original Pop Idol returns, Will Young releases his fifth studio album, Echoes, at the end of August. Young hasn’t made big waves since his second album Friday’s Child when it reached five times platinum status and provided him with the massive single ‘Leave Right Now’ and ‘Your Game’. However, all of his album releases have gone Top Ten in the UK and been certified platinum. The openly gay popstar clearly has a devoted and loyal fan base, but can Echoes propel him back to the success of his early days? The entire album is produced by electronic and synthpop producer Richard X, so the collection should be more attention-grabbing than Young’s last rather unmemorable effort, Let It Go.

First single, ‘Jealousy’, has already created some excitement amongst the Young fan-base, perhaps due to the upbeat feel of the song. It’s a simple, breezy, emotional tinged synth pop with an 80s feel. The song does have a certain charm, but is unlikely to have the masses yearning to hear it over and over again.

‘Come On’
The tempo and mood is accelerated on ‘Game On’, combining the synth sound with an almost Florence and the Machine ‘Rabbit Heart (Raise it Up)’ drum beat with an element of ‘Maps’ by the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s. While the song certainly shares some similarities with the aforementioned songs, ‘Game On’ feels modern, radio friendly and certainly more addictive than ‘Jealousy’.

Sister track to ‘Jealousy’, ‘Runaway’ is breezy with mellow 80s synths circulating around Young sticking to his higher register. This is pretty catchy, with a hypnotic melody.

‘Lie Next to Me’
It’s ballad time and ‘Lie Next to Me’ will make Will Young fans happy enough. It’s quite dream-like, with Young relying on his voice to carry the song. The production is almost like a boy band Christmas single from the late 90s or early 00s. The emotion comes across in Young’s vocal, but the lyrics are almost too simple to really evoke an emotional reaction. Some people will absolutely love it, some may not. I’m somewhere in the middle.

‘Safe From Harm’
Almost Scissor Sister sounding, ‘Safe From Harm’ has a slightly darker element to it than the first four tracks. The synths are complimented by a simple piano played melody and Young uses his voice more variably, which is a breath of fresh air at this point.

‘Good Things’
Will seems to have jumped eras and gone from the 80s into the mid 90s. ‘Good Things’ sounds inspired by George Michael’s classic hit ‘Fastlove’, which knowing his audience is possibly a stroke of genius. A pretty decent example of adult pop, I can already imagine my Mum listening to this on repeat.

‘Happy Now’
The first song to not rely on synth-pop is ‘Happy Now’. Usually I listen to a song while I write about it… I have to say I listened to the whole of this track and had only written one sentence. What can I say about ‘Happy Now’? It’s a pretty slow to mid-tempo song about Will singing about being happy now. The instrumentation is quite refreshing at this point and Will sounds more comfortable here than on some other points on the album, but it is a little dull.

‘Hearts on Fire’
Another tempo change, ‘Hearts on Fire’ is an understated dance number that I can imagine being played in Soho’s coolest bars. The melody is darker than most of the album and the whole song has a certain dangerous and intriguing sexuality about it.

‘Personal Thunder’
Another dark, brooding number, ‘Personal Thunder’ cements Young’s position as the current answer to being what George Michael was during his Older period. The emotion behind ‘Thunder’ is enchanting.

‘Losing Myself’
This is possibly the most 80s sounding track on the album to this point. It could almost be a hit factory produced mid-tempo ballad. It’s not bad.

‘Silent Valentine’
Featuring the most unique and original production on the collection, ‘Silent Valentine’ is transformed from just another synth-heavy electronic slow number, to a gradual captivating track that is one of the most memorable featured here.

‘I Just Want a Lover’
Appealing to a more mature ear, and perhaps a crowd at a swanky cocktail bar rather than your local Oceana club, ‘I Just Want a Lover’ picks up where ‘Good Things’ left off. ‘I just want a lover, nothing that is complicated. I don’t have to know you, we don’t have to talk about it’ Young sings as the song closes. Could this be Will’s sexiest moment yet?

The haunting nature of ‘Outsider’ mimics that of Adele’s ‘Hometown Glory’. It’s a brilliant way to round off the album, which at times is a little lacking in emotion. ‘Outsider’ is soft and hears Young as his most vulnerable here.

 The prospect of sitting down and listening to Echoes from start to finish was not something I looked forward to doing. Until I saw that Richard X had been involved, I expected to hear something dreary and dull, but then I pressed play. While it may not be to everyone’s taste, Echoes will certainly charm those that already like Will Young and will definitely appeal to the adult-pop fans that loved George Michael during Older, as well as Darren Hayes solo efforts. Echoes is not the most original album, but it is well crafted and coherent. Whether Echoes will impact to wider audiences and be massive, is something else entirely, but it’s pretty good.

Overall score: 7/10

JCS is Eyewear's music critic and divides his time between London and Hull.  He is currently working on a novel.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Guest Review: Brinton On Ragg's Stevens

Ian Brinton reviews
by Edward Ragg

In this highly persuasive and readable account of the later poetry of Wallace Stevens Edward Ragg examines the world of abstraction and the practice of ‘the aesthetics of abstraction’ in the poet’s work. The introduction, itself a model of clarity, looks at ‘how abstract reflections conjure commonality, ordinariness and “the normal” without promulgating hollow generalizations.’ One point of reference here is the attitude adopted by Charles Tomlinson to Stevens’ early work. Looking at a 1964 interview with Ian Hamilton it is easy to see why the young English poet and artist should feel some disquiet about the American whose work he had first come across via his mentor Donald Davie whilst studying at Cambridge:

It was a case of being haunted by Stevens rather than of cold imitation. I was also a painter and this meant that I had far more interest in the particulars of a landscape or an object than Stevens. Stevens rarely makes one see anything in detail for all his talk about a physical universe.

When he published his autobiographical sketches, Some Americans, in 1981 Tomlinson’s view had become more generous. Not only did he recall how the early ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ led him for a while to look from different angles at separate instances of the meticulous but also how he had written an essay in 1951 on ‘The Comedian as Letter C’. Tomlinson sent the essay to Stevens and received a courteous reply pointing out that the poem exploited sounds of the letter c:

These sounds include all the hard and soft variations and pass over into other sounds, or rather, the sound of other letters…This grows tiresome if one is too conscious of it, but it is easy to ameliorate the thing.

An odd way to write poems, reflected Tomlinson, ‘but a regard for such minute particulars of language’ impressed him.

Ragg engages time and again with close textual criticism taking the reader back to the words of the poems themselves and one of his twenty-page tours de force is a close examination of the 1945 poem ‘The Pure Good of Theory’ where he dwells upon Stevens’ obsession with time and relates it to the allusions to Macbeth which haunt the piece. The poem, in four sections, opens with ‘All the Preludes to Felicity’:

            It is time that beats in the breast and it is time
That batters against the mind, silent and proud,
The mind that knows it is destroyed by time.

Time is a horse that runs in the heart, a horse
Without a rider on a road at night.
The mind sits listening and hears it pass.

It is someone walking rapidly in the street.
The reader by the window has finished his book
And tells the hour by the lateness of the sounds.

As Ragg points out, because the mind, the intellect, knows that it is destroyed by time the metaphorical use of horse ‘creates the self-protective illusion that the mind can conquer, or at least be reconciled to time.’ Metaphorical expression can have an ameliorating effect and the ‘mind conceives time’s progress through metaphor because felicitous expressions are palliative.’ However, pursuing his argument concerning the growth of abstraction in Stevens’ poetry, Ragg suggests that this palliative metaphorical world is abandoned ‘for abstract conception’:

          Even breathing is the beating of time, in kind:
A retardation of its battering,
A horse grotesquely taut, a walker like

A shadow in mid-earth…If we propose
A large-sculptured, platonic person, free from time,
And imagine for him the speech he cannot speak,

A form, then, protected from the battering, may
Mature: A capable being may replace
Dark horse and walker walking rapidly.

Here the metaphors are themselves ‘suspended in an ellipsis which implies metaphor’s limitations’:

That is, the horse remains ‘taut’ and the walker as insubstantial as a ‘shadow’ because the mind realizes metaphors cannot themselves ward off the ‘battering’ of time.

Ragg points to the abstract nature of a ‘platonic person’ who is impossibly ‘free from time’, the preserve of the imaginative mind:

Note how agency is given to the ‘we’ who propose the figure, who must ‘imagine for him the speech he cannot speak’. Rather than promulgate traditional metaphors for time, ‘The Pure Good of Theory’ re-invests the mind with abstract creative power.

The poem’s third section, ‘Fire-Monsters in the Milky Brain’, opens with a direct reference to Macbeth, ‘Man, that is not born of woman but of air’, alluding to one of the prophecies made via the agency of the witches. Macbeth of course fails to understand the double-truth and does not link the spirit’s words with the untimely ripping of Macduff from his mother’s womb. A literal reading of a man born ‘of air’ leads us to fantasy whereas reading the ‘man’ figuratively we are left to conclude that ‘the abstraction requires further metaphor to come alive’. Referring to the incorporeal nature of the witches Macbeth himself had suggested that they had disappeared ‘Into the air, and what seemed corporal/Melted as breath into the wind.’ What Macbeth fails of course to recognise is that the metaphor he uses suggests that their presence is within himself and is only given shape by his exhalations on a cold day.

The reality of Stevens is ‘like a sound in his mind’ as it occurs in one of the last of his published poems, ‘Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself’:

          At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.

He knew he heard it……

That scrawny cry—it was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,

Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away. It was like
A new knowledge of reality.

Ragg’s totally engaging analysis of ‘The Pure Good of Theory’ endorses his claims concerning abstraction as it testifies to the pragmatic benefits of an abstract aesthetic which Stevens only fully realized in his final decade. J. Hillis Miller’s comment on the back cover of this book says it all:  Anyone interested in Stevens’ poetry should have this superb book.

Ian Brinton is an English critic and scholar who reviews regularly for Eyewear.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Guest Review: Begnal On Clifford

by Graham Clifford

Graham Clifford’s pamphlet Welcome Back to the Country, published by Seren Books, is the winner of the Poetry Wales Purple Moose Prize for 2010.  It’s nice to see that a beer brewery (Purple Moose) somewhere in the world sponsors poetry publications – others ought to do so too; it would be a great help to poets everywhere.  Clifford, the winner of this contest, has also been successful in a number of other contests, and his poetry seems well-suited for the contest milieu.  It is accessible, straightforward, with craftsmanship apparent so that it is capable of appealing to both the general reader and the poet-judge.  This could either be a good thing or a dissatisfying thing, depending on the individual who chooses to engage with his work (if, for example, he or she falls into something other than the “general reader” category).

Zoë Skoulding, one of the two judges, provides a blurb arguing that “these poems locate the dark edges of ‘ordinary life’ so precisely as to reveal that no such thing exists.”  In other words, we are meant to see via these poems that even the seemingly mundane is in reality worth our closer attention and could be full of unexpected surprises, depending on how attentive the poet is to the details.  This may be true, but I’m not so certain that this is what Clifford’s project always consists of here.  In fact, he seems to be fairly dismissive of ordinary country life.  He does render it precisely, as Skoulding suggests, but there is little that is affirmative about most of these poems, or even darkly so.  If anything, Clifford often seems to be venting his annoyance and disgust and a desire to be elsewhere.  In “Holiday,” for example, he writes,

I know it is wrong to ask, but
could we,
be more like somebody else
one day?
               I’m bored of myself,
these arms and legs and this past,
I’ve heard it all before:
the small town the moths the sewing machine
haunting the spare room…

Such ordinary existence (running together without commas) seems to be the last thing he wants any part of.  Similarly, his poem “The year of rain” paints an even bleaker portrait of village life, with suitably-observed particulars (“Outside we will shelter in bus stops/ and pavilions, the 1940s ice cream parlour/ with psoriasis of the paint job…”).  And then we come to “On a slope”:

Trapped for ever in this town
a green, open prison with too much sky,
too much surface area cooling quickly down

where spinsters and wealthy men who wear
ironed jeans scowl along supermarket aisles.
You serve them, burning up, desperate for

your share. Perhaps you have been forgotten
or the very best you deserve is a carnival
by the canal locks, featuring the local librarian…

At this point, the reader might be tempted to say, “I want out of here too.”

An obvious precedent to Clifford is Philip Larkin, the master of bleak irony coupled with English frustration.  The danger with the precise rendering of the bleak and the mundane in this case, though, is that, rather than attaining the edginess that Skoulding’s phrase “locate the dark edges” implies, rather than transmuting the ordinary into the extraordinary, the poems themselves become mundane, and the reader is imbued with the same bleak feelings that gave rise to the work to begin with, rather than with any sense of wonderment.  For me, the ordinary in Welcome Back to the Country often remains just that.  I acknowledge that it very well could be different for other readers.  Zoë Skoulding is no slouch.

A desired sense of wonderment can only occur through the poet’s use of language on the page, I would say, and often there is enough going on in these pages that Clifford grabs one’s attention.  He has a good eye.  Other times, though, I was underwhelmed by form as well as content (this being, again, merely a subjective response).  Thus, the poems I liked the best in this volume were the few that veered away from realistic description, away from the portraits of the everyday.  “No alternative now” is another escape fantasy, but this time into a surreal forest existence where “our clothes [drop] from us in leaf shapes/ in the dark crunchiness/ where we copulate quickly like foxes/ and crap standing, ready to run.”  Not only are such images welcomely startling, but Clifford’s language seems concomitantly stronger, both terse and alliterative.  “Being dead” is perhaps the most humorous piece in the collection, positing an improvement in one’s life through dying: “You die, and being dead/ are better. From night buses/ you watch with dry always-open eyes…”  What might also change if Clifford were to similarly let die, through natural evolution, some of the strategies that have seemingly won him this pamphlet contest?

Michael S. Begnal’s new collection Future Blues is forthcoming this year from Salmon Poetry.  His previous collections include Ancestor Worship (Salmon, 2007) and Mercury, the Dime (Six Gallery Press, 2005). He has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Poetry Ireland Review, Notre Dame Review, and Avant-Post: The Avant-Garde under “Post-” Conditions (Litteraria Pragensia, 2006). Most recently, he composed the Afterword to James Liddy’s posthumous collection Fest City (Arlen House, 2010).

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Byron's BMI

According to today's Guardian, Lord Byron was actually "overweight and unattractive".  This seems like nonsense.  The evidence is his weight.  He is described as five eight (a handsome size at that time), and weighing in at 76 kg, described as "borderline obese".  Not so.  According to the NHS site which calculates such things, Byron's BMI would have been 25.48, or, very borderline overweight - not the same as obese, and close to a healthy weight.  Byron may have had a slight paunch, but he was no Arbuckle.  If he was in fact 13 stone (another figure mentioned) he would have been 29 on the BMI scale; 30 is obese - but this might have been with his heavy medical boots on.  At 23, he weighed around 63 kg, which would have made him a very slim weight.  This seems like a story without much weight to it.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Portrait of Todd Swift by Derek Adams

Derek Adams is a poet and photographer based in London.  Here is his recent portrait of me.
Todd Swift, London, August 2011; photo by Derek Adams

Thursday, 25 August 2011


I am very honoured to appear in the debut edition of the new international literary E-zine: azul.  azul will be published twice a year and is available for free from the dynamic international Azul Press, in Holland.

Noon's Version

Eyewear is pleased to publish a new translation of a great poem by Mandelstam, by Alistair Noon in Berlin. This is probably one of the first poems on the cinema.  Vachel Lindsay, of course, had written on the subject.


Three benches. A projector.
The fever of sentimentality.
An heiress who's been trapped
in her evil rival's nets.

Hands off this love's true flight,
our heroine's done nothing wrong!
So pure it's almost platonic
is her love for a lieutenant of the fleet,

collaterally conceived by a grey count
and now wandering the desert wastes.
This, for the pretty countess, is the way
her picture-adventure leaves the ground.

She starts to wring her hands
like a gypsy gone insane.
The lovers split. The demonic sounds
now follow of a hounded piano.

Her trust's not hard to abuse.
She possesses sufficient bravery
to swoop on some crucial papers
of interest to an enemy HQ.

Along an avenue of chestnuts,
a black motor car lumbers.
The film reel rattles. A thump
of alarm thrills our hearts.

Sensibly dressed, with her sac à voyage,
she travels the roads and rails.
All she's scared of is the chase;
she's tormented by a dry mirage.

The ending's both bitter and trite.
Means aren't justified by ends!
He gets his father's inheritance,
and she gets sentenced to life.

Osip Mandelstam, 1913

Translated from the Russian by Alistair Noon

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

JCS Reviews Charlie Simpson

Charlie Simpson’s Young Pilgrim
Reviewed by James Christopher Sheppard

Charlie Simpson is a name many will know. Some from his days as a third of teen bopping band Busted and some will know him as front man of alternative rock band Fightstar. Either way, Simpson has been known since 2002 and has been a part of five studio albums. At the age of 26, Charlie is releasing his first full-length solo release and it sounds pretty distanced from anything the singer/songwriter has been involved in before.

‘Down Down Down’
First single from the album is a good indication of what is to come. The song is entirely acoustic driven, with thick as treacle vocals, laden with emotional depth. The folk-rock ballad is stacked with multi-layered harmonies and builds to a gentle climax.

‘Parachutes’, also the second single, picks up the pace and builds on what ‘Down, Down’ has already established. This is possibly the most radio-friendly and mature that Simpson has ever sounded. Brilliant.

‘All at Once’
‘All at Once’ at first entices with it’s toe tapping beats, but the sound soon turns to a sorrow filled as the song of heartbreak progresses. Simpson’s vocals sound confident and crystal clear, with the song completely utilising his unique tones. 9/10

Gentle, with a subtlety that draws you right in to the melodic dreamy higher tones of vocal harmony going on in the background, ‘Thorns’ is a careful ballad. The softer verses against the more exuberant choruses work wonders here. 9/10

The fifth track shifts the memento into a new direction. ‘Cemetery’ is a combination of pop-rock-folk, which makes for a charming reminiscent song and one of absolute authenticity. Simpson’s voice is pushed to the limit, experimenting with his higher range and occasionally showing moments of strain, which surprisingly, adds to the song.

‘Hold On’
The most mellow moment of the album so far, ‘Hold On’, is lead by multiple layers of Simpson’s harmonies against a backdrop of strings, arranged by the renowned string arranger, Audrey Riley. A well crafted smooth ballad.

‘I Need a Friend Tonight’
The second string lead track, with assistance from Riley, is simple and melodic. ‘Friend’ is mid-tempo, soft and changes the mood of the album somewhat, as Simpson and the song both remain quite delicate and fragile. It’s hard to decipher whether ‘Friend’ is Simpson claiming he has found or is looking for religion, or if he is claiming he is lost and still can’t find his way home. I’ll let you decide, but it’s a pleasant song all the same.

The tempo picks up a little with ‘Suburbs’, but the song in all it’s simplicity does little to further what is already great about Young Pilgrim. ‘I need you now, I need you now’ Simpson repeats. It’s possibly the least remarkable song on the album, but it still is not bad.

The temp change was only temporary as we are back down to the balladry of ‘Hold On’. ‘My heart is yearning for you dear’- this strikingly scarce track is one of the most powerful on Young Pilgrim in terms of pure passion.

‘Farmer & His Gun’
The most folk-tinged moment on the album is ‘Farmer & His Gun’, the mid-tempo country-fied song also featured on the EP When We Were Lions. ‘Gun’ comes complete with harmonica melodies and everything, but does sound like it belongs on a different collection.

‘If I Lose It’
The melancholic ‘If I Lose It’ has a passion driving it similar to that displayed on ‘Sundown’, but the instrumentation is far fuller and production builds into an epic ballad. This could easily be used as a movie theme, with despair searing through Simpson’s vocals. This song has real potential commercially.

The final track is an absolute triumph- a soaring piano filled, string and guitar lead epic rock ballad that builds to the most satisfying climax on Young Pilgrim. I use the term rock ballad, and some of you may think ‘Uh-Oh, cheese’, but this is no ‘I Don’t Want a Miss a Thing’, this is authenticity in itself, with emotion practically dripping from it. ‘Something beautiful is happening’ Simpson claims, and he’s right, before the track finishes with a minute-long cinematic instrumental goose-bump inducing end.

Young Pilgrim has its flaws. The first six tracks are absolutely brilliant, so it’s a little disappointing when there’s a couple of moments in the latter half that let it down a little. Saying that, ‘If I Lose It’ and ‘Riverbanks’ are two of the most outstanding new songs I have heard this year. Despite the couple of songs that could have been left off this album, Young Pilgrim is brimming with passion and actually could be the best thing Charlie Simpson has ever put his name to. Fans of Busted are irrelevant really aren’t they? But fans of Fightstar are likely to enjoy Simpson’s solo effort, despite the change in direction, while fans of Jason Nozuka, the latest Incubus album, If Not Now, When?  and lovers of brilliant acoustic and passionate music should definitely check this album out. There could be a lot more to Charlie Simpson yet.

Young Pilgrim is available in the UK now through PIAS and receives an overall rating of 8.5/10

James Christopher Sheppard recently graduated from the acclaimed Creative Writing degree course at Kingston University and is Eyewear’s music critic, as well as a freelance writer and published poet. For more information, his website, Intellectual Intercourse, can be found at 

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Samuel Menashe Has Died

Sad news.  One of the great American poets, Samuel Menashe, has died.

Crying All The Time

Sad news.  Jerry Leiber, who, with Mike Stoller his partner, has claim to be the greatest popular song-writer of the classic Rock and Roll era of Elvis, has died.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Jack Layton Has Died

Sad news.  The Leader of the Opposition in Canada, Jack Layton, has died, in his early 60s.  Layton was a popular, remarkable political figure, who managed to do the near-impossible, bring the NDP close to victory.  He will be much missed.

August August

iconic image of London Riots 2011
August is the coolest month.  Or rather, it seems, despite its reputation for quietude, to have a lot happen in it.  However, one needs to look back, probably to 1947 and the creation of India and Pakistan, to find another August quite as historic, on the world stage, and at home in Britain, as this one, in 2011.  Indeed, it would seem likely to say that, more or less, since August 1945, 2011 is the most fraught.  That's 64-66 years ago.  This August is seeing the apparent liberation of Tripoli and hence Libya, at last.  It has seen the riots in the UK that shocked the world (it was daily news in France where I have been this last fortnight).  And it has seen global economic turbulence that seemingly foretells the "decline and fall of the West" as Time put it on their cover.  With over a week to go, what else will this most august of months have to offer the world?

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Gone Fishin'

The dog days of summer are coming.  Eyewear is taking a break, and will be back to regular duties whenever he sees fit.  In the meantime, don't expect many updates, but there may be a trickle, now and then.  Lazy ways, lazy days.  Have yourself a good 'ol time!

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

JCS On The Spice Girls 15 Years On

15 Years of the SPICE GIRLS
by James Christopher Sheppard

It’s exactly 15 years since the Spice Girls burst onto the British music scene with ‘Wannabe’ and stormed to number one. In July 1996 an unknown all-girl pop group were suddenly all over television and radio promoting a song more pop than pop itself, about really really wanting a zig-a-zig-ah and friendship never ending. The sentiment was fresh and girl power was born. The group were hard to miss, with each girl having their own individual style, which at the time was practically unheard of in the pop world. Prior to Ginger, Baby, Sporty, Scary and Posh, the commercial music industry, particularly in the UK, was dominated by indie pop bands like Oasis, Blur and Radiohead, the super divas Celine Dion and Mariah Carey, and boybands that dressed the same like Take That and Boyzone. Despite their beginnings as a manufactured group, Geri, Melanie C, Emma, Melanie B and Victoria broke away, wrote their own songs, got themselves signed and did it their way. The Spice Girls represented freedom, fun, girl power and individuality and the world loved it. In celebration of this 15 year anniversary, I’m going to look at some of the highlights that have come from this phenomenally successful group of girls over the years. 

Spice was the must-have album of 1996 if you were at school. With only ten tracks, half of the songs were #1 singles. While people remember ‘Wannabe’, ‘Say You’ll Be There’, ‘2 Become 1’, ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ and ‘Mama’, the album also boasts some pretty extraordinary album tracks, like ‘If U Can’t Dance’ and ‘Naked’. Spice was released on 4th November 1996 and went on to sell over 23 million copies worldwide. In just a few months since the girls released ‘Wannabe’, Spicemania was hitting fever pitch. There were Spice Girls chupa chucks, Spice Girls duvet sets, Spice Girls wall-paper, Spice Girls Pepsi cans, Spice Girls chocolate bars, Spice Girls dolls- Spice Girls everything!

Just twelve months after Spice, came its second coming, SpiceWorld. If ever there was a part one and part two of an album, it was Spice and SpiceWorld. ‘Spice Up Your Life’, ‘Too Much’ and ‘Viva Forever’ all hit #1 in the UK, whilst ‘Stop’ stalled at #2. SpiceWorld was not only the band’s second album, but also the soundtrack to their movie of the same name. While the movie may have been panned by critics, it still managed to top the UK box office over Christmas 1997 and hit #2 in the USA, stopping behind ‘Titanic’. SpiceWorld seemed to pretty much mirror the success of Spice, selling over 20 million copies and sitting comfortably inside the Best Selling Albums of All-Time list.

In May 1998, during the ‘Spice World Tour’, Geri Halliwell split from the group, which certainly affected the future of the group. As chief songwriter and the master mind behind Girl Power, what seemed to be the passionate creator of the group, had jumped ship. Melanie B was the first of all of the girls to release a solo single, which was the urban ‘I Want You Back’ with Missy Elliot, which struck #1 on the same day as one of the group’s Wembley Stadium shows. Later that year, after almost a year of touring, the four remaining girls recorded and released ‘Goodbye’, scoring their eighth #1 and third consecutive Christmas #1.

1999 was a quiet year for the group, but was the first time we saw Geri Halliwell, Emma Bunton and Melanie C step out as soloists. Geri Halliwell released her first solo album, Schizophonic, which closely followed the Spice Girl album ingredients- ten brilliantly catchy pop songs. ‘Look at Me’ hit #2, while ‘Mi Chico Latino’, ‘Lift Me Up’ and ‘Bag It Up’ all made it to #1. Emma’s first release outside of the Spice Girls was a cover of ‘What I am’, recorded with Tin Tin Out, which hit #2, behind Halliwell’s ‘Lift Me Up’. Melanie C initially experienced the least successful start to her solo career. While her duet with Bryan Adams, ‘When You’re Gone’ had been a huge hit the previous year, Melanie’s first few solo singles, ‘Goin’ Down’ and ‘Northern Star’ were only moderately successful and her album Northern Star charted at #10 and swiftly fell out of the chart. Despite the luke-warm reception to Melanie C’s solo work, when ‘Never Be The Same Again’ was released in early 2000, the song soared to #1 and remained there for two weeks. Northern Star subsequently re-charted and climbed to #4, eventually shifting over 4 million copies worldwide. Northern Star remains the most successful release from any solo Spice Girl.

Three years after Spiceworld, came Forever. The album was heavily R&B influenced, apposed to the previous pure pop sound the group had stuck to. The double A-side ‘Holler’ and ‘Let Love Lead The Way’ hit #1 and the album made #2 but quickly disappeared from the chart and memory. The album was largely seen a failure, both commercially and critically and spelled out the end of the Spice Girls.

Also at the end of 2000, came Melanie B’s debut solo effort, the underperforming Hot. While the album produced a couple of top ten hits, ‘Tell Me’ and ‘Feels So Good’, Melanie B’s solo career never really gained any momentum. Just when it was looking like the golden five-year wonder of the Spice Girls was coming to an end, Geri Halliwell released her biggest success to date, her cover of the Weather Girls’ ‘It’s Raining Men’, which stayed at #1 for two weeks and served as the theme to the massive movie ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’. Around the same time Emma Bunton released her debut solo album, A Girl Like Me, with lead single ‘What Took You So Long’ which, like Halliwell’s ‘Men’, hit #1 and stayed there for two weeks.

Victoria Beckham was the last Spice Girl to release a solo album. Her self titled album received very poor critical and commercial success and she has yet to make another. Where her singing career has waned, Victoria has become the best known of all of the girls. She is now a very successful fashion designer, television personality and is, of course, married to David Beckham and is mother to their four children. Victoria’s most successful single remains ‘Out of Your Mind’ with Truesteppers, although it is ‘Let Your Head Go’ which seems to be the favourite with fans.

Beyond ‘It’s Raining Men’, Halliwell’s career seemed to slow down, with her third album Passion failing to make the Top 40. Melanie C continued on a steady path, gaining a cult following and is about to release her fifth solo album, The Sea, in September 2011. Emma Bunton achieved the rare feat of her second album receiving more success than her first. Free Me gave Emma the hits ‘Maybe’, ‘I’ll Be There’ and ‘Free Me’. Emma went on to have a very successful television career.

In 2007, all five of the Spice Girls announced ‘The Return of the Spice Girls World Tour’. The tour, initially planned as a one night only affair, played 47 dates and grossed over $70,000,000, including a record 17 sold out nights at London’s o2 Arena. The associated album, Greatest Hits, hit #2 and received Platinum status. While Spice Girls comeback was clearly a success, at the end of the tour, in February 2008, the girls continued on their separate journeys. All of the girls are now mothers. Melanie B is a judge on Australia’s ‘X Factor’, has her own fitness interactive game and has featured on many American shows; Melanie C continues to find success as a solo artist and starred in the West End version of ‘Blood Brothers’, winning awards along the way; Emma Bunton is a judge on ‘Dancing on Ice’; Victoria Beckham continues to be Victoria Beckham- one of the most written and talked about celebrities in the world; and Geri Halliwell is about to unleash her fourth solo album. It looks like the Spice Girls, in one way or another, are still very much a part of our celebrity culture as they were fifteen years ago.

JCS is Eyewear's Music Critic. He divides his time between London and Hull.  He is working on a novel.

Jesse Owens: Fastest Man Alive 75 Years Ago

It seems almost like a different age, but it was only 75 years ago today, August 3, that Jesse Owens - my hero and candidate for greatest American - won the 100 m sprint at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, shaming the racism inherent in that most evil and grandiose of settings.  Owens, whose own life was not a bed of roses after his triumph in Germany, returned to an America unable or unwilling to accept African-American excellence, poise and achievement - and, these days, that sounds sadly familiar (I watch from afar as another great man, President Obama, is under-appreciated by too many Americans).  I read about Owens when I was a kid.  Although Canadian, we were taught to read using the Lippincott Readers, which emphasised American history; well, so be it.  I was brainwashed.  But I learned much about my neighbours to the South, not all of it bad.  Anyway, throughout my life, whenever facing hurdles, I have thought of the great Owens.  Of course, Owens was human, not an angel.  He smoked too much for too long, and died of lung cancer; he raced horses for money; and, struggled financially for years, working as a gas station attendant to make ends meet after his Olympian moment had flickered out.  He went bankrupt, and was only redeemed in the last decade of his life, when the US government allowed him to have a more public role.  Few people have had such highs and lows, but fewer have run under the gaze of AH, and mocked an ideology of race hatred with sheer force of bodily grace and aplomb.

Sophie Mayer Reviews Kangurashi No Arrietty

A Little (Less Than) Kin but More Than Kind:Kangurashi No Arrietty (Arrietty and the Borrowers)

reviewed by Sophie Mayer

“I left my childhood in the garden green”: the haunting refrain of Cecile Corbel’s ‘Arrietty’s Song’ is first heard in the opening minutes of Studio Ghibli’s film adaptation of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, when the voiceover narration aligns the viewer with Sho, a young boy with a heart defect who is being sent to spend the summer with his Aunty, in the house where she and his mother grew up. From the opening, the film has a sense of melancholy loss similar to The Virgin Suicides, an unusual mood for a children’s film. The mood is borne out by the story: Sho’s illness is left unresolved at the end, and Arrietty – the Borrower whom he meets in the house – is leaving with her family. Leaving the house, and leaving Sho.

In many ways, the film does everything it can to induce the viewer to want another ending: one in which Sho’s friendship with Arrietty, his courage in twitting the cranky housekeeper Haru, and his Aunty’s care and understanding, would ensure a safe life for the Borrower family (and thus recovery for himself) in the old house. Much is made of the magical Empire dolls’ house that Sho’s grandfather had made in England after his childhood sightings of the ‘little people.’ Filled with replica European high culture objets on a Borrower scale, it is an exquisite work of craft, made by a master cabinetmaker, Aunty tells Sho. Part of my heart yearned for the classic moment of recognition and reconciliation, in which, as a talisman of luck for Sho’s operation, Arrietty would bring her parents, Pod and Homily, to meet Sho and his Aunty, who longs to recapture her own childhood glimpses.

But, like Ghibli’s adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle, with its bittersweet, unsentimental conclusion, Arrietty doesn’t give the audience what it wants, but what it needs. Rather than a closing a satisfying narrative about how non-human Others (toys, pets) should love (ie: submit adoringly) their human masters and conform to a human-shaped world, as the third Toy Story film did relentlessly, the end of Arrietty opens out into risk, an unfamiliar gesture for a children’s film. Arrietty lights out for the territory, but – unlike Huck Finn – she doesn’t abscond. She is travelling with her parents, and with a non-domestic Borrower, Spiller, who rescued Pod and knows of the whereabouts of other members of the vanishingly rare species.

There’s a deeply serious ecological thread in the film, as there was in Ghibli’s previous film Ponyo (On a Cliff by the Sea). There, the non-human Ponyo made a choice to stay in the human world with her human friend Sosuke, who proclaimed that he loved her as a girl and as a fish. Here, Sho and Arrietty have a profound conversation about vulnerability and hope, punctuated by Nisa the cat attempting to catch Arrietty and eventually learning to respect her. That cross-species respect, as fostered by Sho’s gentleness and Arrietty’s boldness (she seeks out Sho against her parents’ wishes and fear-inducing stories), is central to the film: Arrietty and Sho are not kin; the kindness between them draws not on the simple but superior fellow feeling of liberal human rights discourse (Borrowers are like us, but smaller and cuter and therefore we should organise their lives paternalistically, as Sho attempts when he makes a life-threatening gift of the dolls’ house kitchen), but on a more complicated respect for, and across, difference. Thus, the film has to resolve in being unresolved, in the chances we all take in moving through a world inhabited by Others, and in which we are Other.

Animation makes this possible in a way that live action can’t (although the live action adaptations of the books, for TV and film, have their own charms). It’s a matter of scale, but not only scale: as Lord of the Rings showed, in-camera tricks of scale are as old and effective as perspective drawing. The animation can use scale in a subtle and indeed poetic way: Arrietty’s worldview is profoundly different from Sho’s, a fact suggested by the combination of Sho’s voiceover and the aerial shot of Tokyo that opens the film, and is reaffirmed by the Borrowers’ experience of Sho’s ‘gift,’ a godlike act of destruction that (painfully, in light of recent events in Japan) resembles an earthquake. Arrietty’s perspective, on the other hand, is on the scale of insects, those non-human Others we frequently despise and fear (as useless and destructive) or celebrate (as merely decorative, or as serving human needs): she consorts with crickets, mealy bugs, ladybirds and butterflies. The scenery that accompanies her journeys around the house and garden is that of minutely-detailed woodgrain and leaf-vein. Viewing the world with Arrietty, we see the crumbs and crumbling of the old house that is not visible to the humans: the torn screen door that allows her into the pantry to rescue Homily and the basement of broken bricks, rats and detritus suggest that the house is not the paradise we might want it to be.

And this makes me rethink the nature of the film’s melancholy. The large and rambling house has been practically empty (childless) until Sho’s arrival (which has a similar galvanising effect to the arrival of the family in My Neighbour Totoro), and the humans talk about and imply the impact of changes in values and lifestyles in contemporary Japan, from cellphones to global business travel. ‘The garden green’ is, itself, overgrown and neglected, making it a safe place for childhood to be both lived and preserved. So the melancholy of the ending is that humans could learn from Borrowers about not being attached to bricks, mortar and merchandise; not only the Wombling message of ingenuity and ingenuousness needed to live frugally, pleasurably and determinedly outside capital, but a lightness of being that sparkles into view during the end credits as Arrietty sees a fish flicking its tail in the river beneath their floating teapot: dangerous, but also vivid in a way that life in a dollhouse would never allow.
Wildness. Which, as Jay Griffiths points out in Wild, is also the terrain of the sexual. As the fish passes by, Arrietty accepts a raspberry roughly proferred by Spiller, his eyes averted. Glimmering redly, the berry connects visually to the carefully-chosen red dress and hair clip Arrietty wears to go ‘borrowing’, and to the garden poppies that blow behind her when she finally lets Sho see her. Aged fourteen, Arrietty is a character tremulously (and tremendously) on the verge of active sexuality, which is figured, subtly, as part of her becoming, along with/as analogy to her first borrowing mission – which does, after all, take her into a teenage boy’s bedroom. The subsequent scene in which she hides, silhouetted, behind a tissue is flirtatious and sensitively erotic. As Steve Rose has written, this is a particular hallmark of child characters of all genders (including magic-fish-girl) in Ghibli’s films, and the absolute inversion of Disney’s sanctimonious, scrupulously anti-sexual narratives.

Arrietty and Sho both leave their childhood in the final encounter in the ‘garden green’, but it’s no ‘garden of Eden’: childhood is a time of enforced dependency, induced anxiety and limited horizons for both of them. Through their interaction, they have braved the encounter with the Other, and sought neither dominance nor submission despite the fears and sentiments of the adults around them. Sho recognises that, much as Arrietty and her family borrow from humans what is needful, but do not seem committed to ownership, he too has ‘borrowed’ Arrietty for a time, at a particular moment in his life. He cannot keep her any more than Homily can keep and carry the dolls’ house kitchen with its miniature iron stove. This idea, that we ‘borrow’ each other as needed, not only makes all the world and its creatures a library where we must treat each other (as potential borrowers and borrowees) with care and respect, but underlines the sense of transience, vulnerability and risk that are the hallmark of Ghibli’s style.

What epitomises this in Arrietty is the animation of glass, a notoriously difficult substance to represent, as Jonathan Jones notes concerning the glass orb that may prove definitive evidence that ‘Salvator Mundi’ was painted by Leonardo da Vinci. Reflective and distortive, glass shows us ourselves, becoming definitional of human identity – as in the ‘mirror moment’ of identity formation in infancy, and the ‘mirror test’ of non-human species’ abilities of self-recognition. From Arrietty’s feisty self-regard in her mirror as she styles her ponytail in the hair-clip she will eventually give to Sho as a sign of their shared experience, to the glasses and jars of the human world that distort, and eventually imprison, the Borrowers, the fragility, transparency and reflexivity of glass remind us that we only borrow our identity from the mirroring regard of others.

Sophie Mayer reviews film for Eyewear.  Mayer is a bookseller, teacher, editor and the author of two collections of poetry, Her Various Scalpels (Shearsman, 2009) and The Private Parts of Girls (Salt, 2011), as well as The Cinema of Sally Potter: A Politics of Love (Wallflower, 2009). She writes about film regularly for Sight & Sound.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Stan Barstow Has Died

Sad news.  The English writer Stan Barstow has died.

Guest Review: Woodward On Potts

Pure Hustle

Pure Hustle is Kate Potts’ first full length book of poetry.  It is a collection about imagination, a theme which she explores from multiple angles, but her predominant theme would appear to be the role that imagination plays in the process of memory making and understanding human experience.
Making memories and understanding events involves some creative effort on our part, we use imagination to transform experience into recognisable, meaningful narrative sequences; in Pure Hustle Potts tunes in to that portion of the mind that creates as it thinks and explores miscellaneous events in terms of how they are imagined. The findings are quite exciting.
Reading Pure Hustle is a strange, Through the Looking Glass sort of experience, the imagined landscapes of many poems are metaphorised versions of our own world, the world turned image to greater or lesser degrees, the same but different. Potts has us looking at the world under the laws of imagination; complex feelings and experiences are understood through systems of imagery which are personal to the speakers and characters. ‘Resort’ is a fine example

In the other world, you wake –
spin out your limbstalks, sun tough,
electric – arch and dive in, make

no silhouette, no pool wave crest or wake

It is a slanted, thought-provoking way of viewing the world. The reader is often required to infer real events and objects from the shape made by their absence from the poems, but this is a totally natural action: the accompanying style to this abstract stance features a fascinating kind of indirect description and loosens entrenched ways of thinking about the world, about actions and time. In this way the real and imaginary can be interchangeable, so that we recognise things by their essences, not by surface description. In other words, Potts’ style makes it possible to recognise the real when it is described in terms of the imaginary.
For example ‘Hog – huddle of cottons and belly,/he’s flung unconscious’ (‘Greyhound to Syracuse’) is the initial description of a sleeping man on a coach. ‘Beyond us, the terraces heave a little in their elaborate stays,/haunch and lift, dog-keen, on bricked heels’ (‘November 5th’) is a row of neighbours watching a fireworks display. ‘The light’s buttercups – quick, mossed water’ (‘Proof, Maybe’) is a remembered amalgamation of family holidays in the country. In this manner Potts is able to bring much to mind using very little. Her poems inspire questions: whose imagination am I peering into? What is real here? What isn’t? Subtly she loosens the distinctions ‘You’re loose,/skinned – a stark brew – prodding the bag of leaves/as if it holds last tannin, last tea-kick – strong as a horse’ (‘Flit’) allows us to imagine a woman and a cup of tea in the same terms at the same time, as the same thing. There is an unparaphrasable logic in operation in these poems that allows the reader to understand this mirror image world, to feel that it is familiar, even if the reason for that familiarity isn’t immediately clear.
When Potts comes back over that border in poems such as ‘Life in Space’ and ‘Tasseography’, the real world, by comparison, appears locked off, stilted, trapped in ignorance, making these poems all the more moving. Potts’ control of her theme is commendable.
But there is an element to this collection that I found even more intriguing than all the above; as these poems are predominantly about creative thinking they are also inevitably about the process of writing poems. They are about the creative logic that selects a particular metaphor or develops an image complex, it is as if these poems are the larval stages of other poems just waiting to be written, they are shadowy and embryonic and for that reason they can be quite chilling. Potts is clearly conscious of the transformative aspect of poetry; in two of the collection’s best, ‘Insomnia Chant’ and ‘Against Poetry’, she refuses such perversions, negating speaker and poem in the process. I found these thrilling to read as examples of active deconstruction in poetry.
            The kind of language used in Pure Hustle is something I thought I’d leave until the end of this review. The collection has been most beneficially praised by Jo Shapcott who puts particular emphasis on the excellence of Potts’ language. To quote Shapcott ‘Kate Potts is a poet whose ear and eye for her work are as close to perfect as can be’, Potts’ language has ‘deft and surprising turns’ and ‘intense musicality’. I thoroughly agree, but in a disagreeable way. As much as I enjoyed Pure Hustle, as much as it fascinated and inspired me I couldn’t get around the suspicion that it was too perfect. The rhythm and weighting of her sentences is aesthetically perfect, her tight-packed syrupy bars of sound are pleasing to any word-lover’s ear. One might mistakenly suspect that that Potts has put musicality first, at times to the point of grammatical pile-up. This perfection suggests contrivance, the poems lack a kind of freedom and sincerity, they lack a palpable joy in poetry. I am sure that Potts has all these things within her but if so I did not feel that they came out Pure Hustle. These poems are, as Jen Hadfield puts it ‘tightly-rhythmed’ and ‘assonance-jellied’ there is something in them that cannot escape the tight seal upon them. It is as if the poems are required to meet a quota of poetic tone, that they are being restricted by a necessary pleasantness of language.
Kate Potts’ poetry, however, is too curious, too far reaching for that to be a major detriment. There is much richness and dynamism in Pure Hustle despite the perfectionist restrictions of Potts’ language, language which, it has to be said, is after all deft, surprising and sharp. But I won’t be praising that language so unanimously. Pure Hustle is a colourful and engrossing read, particularly for anyone with an interest in creative process. I am certain that it will be rewarding. I also think that Pure Hustle’s language difficulties raise some important questions for poets: who/what are we writing for? What ought we to judge the merit of a poem by?

Catherine Woodward reviews regularly for Eyewear.  She lives in the city of Norwich where she is enrolled at UEA on the Studies in Fiction MA.

MTV 30

Want to feel old?  Generation X the book is 20 years old - reading it yesterday on the tube it might have been from the Great Depression.  Hard to remember a young adulthood without the social networking of now.  MTV is now a dinosaur, of course, turning 30 yesterday.  Music Videos are on YouTube.  Not the Telly.  But When I was 15, at the dawn of MTV, it was great to be alive, and to see songs acted out so wildly and imaginatively.  My favourite - the quintessential MTV video - with all the silly excess that entails is Animotion's 'Obsession'. 'Flesh For Fantasy', 'Relax', 'Like A Virgin', 'Everybody Wants To Rule The World', 'Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This), 'Addicted To Love', 'Do You Really Want To Hurt Me', 'Maneater', 'With or Without You', 'I Get Weak', 'Electric Avenue', 'C'est La Vie', and 'Take My Breath Away' are some of the other greats. How to celebrate?  Spill some red wine in a dove-filled loft in slow motion.


A WORK IN PROGRESS... I am writing this first part on the eve of New Year's Eve day - and as new remembrances come to me, I may well...