2014 was the year of “Black Star Elephant”, Nico & Vinz’s breakthrough album which is the finest fusion album I have heard in many years. There are parallels with Paul Simon’s “Graceland” but the fact that the two singers are products of a mixed cultural upbringing in Norway means that the music is honest, passionate and authentic. The duo have an uncanny feel for what makes for a perfect pop song and beyond the worldwide megahit “Am I Wrong?” the album has equally masterful compositions like “People”, “I Know What I’m Not” and “When The Day Comes” interspersed with interludes similar to what Paramore did on their last album. If there is a way to retain the integrity of an album as a coherent collection of musical work then Nico & Vinz provide a 2014 template.
The trials and tribulations of the year pushed me into an emotional zone that took me all the way back to 1992 and Tori Amos and Michelle Shocked and all the girls with guitars. The 2014 manifestations that filled that hollow were many and diverse including a very large dose of old school New Order. I don’t look back too much because nostalgia is a kind of wasting away that I am not ready for. Banks is a singer I started listening to thanks to a Facebook push by Jared Leto and the haunting “Change” became a favourite for many weeks.
The Scottish band Chvrches came to me via The XX but belong in quite a similar zone to Banks. Their album “The Bones of What You Believe” is a strong collection with “Gun” being the standout track for me.
Finally the German band Chapeau Claque filled up the last month of the year as they entered the category of music that must always have been there because so much of what they produce touches a raw nerve inside me and yet another female songstress enters my eternal brain.
The Veronicas finally returned with an eponymously titled album. It was a long time coming and the girls did not forget what they were good at (“Mad Love” and “If You Love Someone” are notably good). At the same time there are a lot of cheesy self-referential numbers. It’s a pity that the girls did not stick to pure pop mixed with acoustic ballads, they have the voices to carry it without having to experiment with things that others are a lot better at.
Ed Sheeran also delivered a new disc with “X” showing a lot of experimentation that worked really well. The main number I have been playing is “Tenerife Sunset” but his music has a lot of staying power so I am sure that I’ll be listening to “X” for a few years yet.
Of course a lot of the music I was listening to this year was influenced by the concerts I could get to. This year I only managed to get to London Grammar, OneRepublic and Ellie Goulding. OneRepublic were not a band I listened to a lot before I saw them live but they were so good in concert that I regularly play a few songs now. My firm favourites Thirty Seconds to Mars and Paramore have never left the playlists, the clip for “Do or Die” was perhaps my favourite video of the year.
Finally my song of the year without a doubt was “Stay The Night” by Zedd and Hayley Williams from Paramore. Although it’s pure repetitive pop I just cannot stop loving it, it’s Hayley’s voice that does it for sure.
She tells me that one girl was forced to sit beside her the other day . She blanked her completely but told whoever was listening in the class that she was stuck beside the ‘bitch’ again.
She gets on well with another girl in the class but that girl tells her that she isn’t allowed to play with her. The class bully ordered her not to.
There was a time a couple of months ago when the big joke was to tell her that she shouldn’t look in the mirror because she is so ugly that the mirror would break.
A classmate jumps on the school table while she is trying to write some classwork. Her pen slips and leaves a big mark on her exercise book. She looks at the girl and the girl complains that she is always picking on HER.
Another girl kept telling her that she had to die. That was maybe going too far. She said that she’d tell the teacher so that girl did stop. Thanks!
She hears all the time that she is ugly, that she has shit clothes, that she needs to keep her mouth shut.
She shows me how she sits in the school playground when they reject her and tell her to go and stay on her own. The position she adopts is crouched and hunched in on herself, looking down as if in shame. It’s a survival position. What you might do to cocoon yourself if you were naked and outside exposed to the elements.
‘I wish I could be myself at school but I have to do what … says.’
‘Are schools in America different? Are there schools where it’s not like this?’
‘Will it change in secondary school?’
She hates every day she has to put up with this.
If it weren’t for her sport and her family she would have had to leave long ago.
She will have no positive memory of this part of her life.
She wishes that this could already be over.
She is a victim.
She has no will to fight.
When I was a boy I had a book of flags. I guess that I was a bit of a flag nerd for a while. The flags were doorways into the countries of my imagination and my favourite flag was the Swedish one. Yellow and blue, strong and true. It was undoubtedly due to a potent Abba influence but there was a time in the 1980s when practically every boy in my school (think bleak Irish midlands and not Harry Potter) had a penpal in Sweden of the more gentle persuasion. In the European Championship or World Cup I always cheered for Sweden as one of my ‘other’ teams. In university I had a (Finnish) girlfriend from the Swedish speaking minority in Finland. She taught me the basics of Swedish and love. We had this plan that I would try to get an internship in Sweden for a year and she would switch her studies to a university nearby. I ended up sending loads of applications to Sweden but I included one to Philips in The Netherlands (based on my father’s suggestion though it was totally illogical given the Swedish plan). I ended up splitting up with my girlfriend at the end of the university year and by September I was in Eindhoven. In a circuitous way trying to get to Sweden brought me to Holland for the first time.
Other things have kept me interested in Sweden over the years. In the 1990s I was a major fan of The Cardigans and Stina Nordenstam and that always meant plenty of conversation with the Swedes I met. My brother had a Swedish flatmate in Edinburgh and I remember listening to Rebecka Törnqvist with her. I read almost everything that Marianne Fredriksson, Kerstin Ekman and Liza Marklund published in English. I even went back to learning Swedish a couple of times but I never went beyond the basics though I did manage one poem in the language. I only visited Sweden one time in all the years, on a trip to Stockholm in 2000 so it remains a largely undiscovered country for all that.
The fact that Luna was asked to compete for her new club at a competition near Lund was very exciting given the whole Swedish context in my own life. Although she has competed and trained abroad before there was always one of us present on the competition days. That meant it was Luna’s first solo trip abroad but we knew that the team was there last year so we had no concerns about anything going wrong. Like the other parents we were dependent on social media to keep us up to date on the whole trip. The coaches posted some lovely photos once the girls had arrived in Lund so we were already happy on Friday that all was well. Luna really enjoyed staying with the host family and took some pretty pictures while there so it was a great experience. The other teammate who stayed with that family has an Irish mother so both of the girls were able to chat with the family in English. It’s already pretty clear to Luna how lucky she is to have been brought up through English and all of the trips abroad just reinforce that.
On Saturday the girls had the competition and we knew that they had arrived at the hall very early so we were reassured. I took Daisy to her Acro training knowing all of the time that Luna could be competing. We were just hoping that she could put in her best performance. At the end of the day the girls’ biggest competition is with themselves. If there are girls who are in a different class you just won’t beat them all else being equal. If you maximize your own performance then you get the highest result you can hope for whether that is in the Top 10 or not. With the change of club Luna has had to learn an awful lot. The training techniques are different and she has to learn four new individual routines as well as a group choreo. We see this year as being a transition year because she is a first year Pre-Junior and she will have a much bigger chance next year to finish higher than her fifth place nationally in 2014.
We were waiting anxiously for results all day and the first we saw was a picture that Aga got on Whatsapp. She saw Luna beside the podium and thought she must have come fourth. I really didn’t want to believe it until the result was confirmed by text. It turns out that she put in a really great performance with just a couple of mistakes on hoop. One of her coaches told me that she performed better than expected but Luna has the fortunate ability to be able to raise her level in competitions. I expected her to finish in the Top 10 because she normally scores well in international competitions but fourth was far higher than we hoped for. It might end up being the high tide mark for the season but here she showed that the move to a new club has helped her improve to a level where she can compete with girls who are older.
It’s a bit like resistance swimming. If Luna can at least keep up with the older girls in her team then she should be able to build on that next year. She really enjoyed the whole experience in Sweden and even got to celebrate Lucia but she ended up feeling very ill on Saturday night. It could have been because of all of the excitement and different experiences. She was really glad to see us at Schiphol and we were really proud to have her back. Daisy is having a great year so far developing her Acro skills and Nadia is looking at her two sisters with admiration. 2014 didn’t always go according to plan from a sporting viewpoint but Sweden has given it a really nice ending. Into the future Luna might well reserve a little place in her heart for Sweden too, she has some great memories to treasure at the very least.
I didn’t take the decision to do A300 lightly because a lot of people warned me about the really demanding schedule. Luckily I got a head start on the reading before the course started and I have been trying to get the TMAs in a couple of weeks ahead of the deadline. November is an annual trial for me because I tend to fall into a trough and I can’t find any emotional or mental stability. Since I don’t drink any more I have had to face this time of year without any anesthetic. That means that there is nothing to take the edge off but at least I can be really productive when I am not feeling too tired and down. Right now I am going through a long poetry section of the course. First we dealt with the major poets of the 1930s like Auden and MacNeice and then we shifted back to T.S. Eliot and the beginnings of modernist poetry. The part I liked the most was reading about the influence of Laforgue and the French symbolists on Eliot. It gave me some real hunger pangs to get back to French. Though the language of transmission should not affect the essence of poetry unduly there is something about the rhythms and sensibilities of French that speak to me. I think that I have to go back to French before it’s too late but I can’t do that just yet. Instead I need to forge ahead with TMA3 and write an assignment based on two poems of my choosing. What you really notice on this course more than any other I have done is that they expect you to do a lot more thinking for yourself. That is to my advantage because I was trying to put my own spin on the assignments from the start and that actually caused me to get lower marks on the Level 1 course I did. From that point of view the OU can be overly prescriptive. Now that I am on a Level 3 course the ambition level is more in tune with where I want to be academically. Having said that I am a not looking forward to writing an assignment on poetry because I find it so overdone to devote thousands of words of prose to tens of lines of poetry. For now I need to bite the bullet and swim my way out of this dark cavern. I only have five assignments left to finish my BA and with all the other parts of life consuming me that is a fact that I am pretty proud of.
Since the start of A300 (20th century literature: texts and debates) I have been on this amazing journey through time and drowning in a sea of delightful words. The course moves at a very fast pace so I have had to adapt my study plans according to which books I had pre-read and analyzed extensively. A lot of my coursemates are already skipping chapters but that is a last resort for me. I have less pressure to do well on this module so I would prefer to really get full value for the course and really try to go through all of the material.
I was happy to finally study Chekhov because of his reputation but I was glad to leave “The Cherry Orchard” behind. Katerine Mansfield was a lot nicer and she had some very nice short stories though I am afraid that symbolism is wasted on me since (as with Joyce) I seem to miss the great ‘epiphanies’ in the texts. Still, some of her stories create a visceral and compelling mood and her life and times are a worth subject of study in themselves. I jumped to 1930s poets next and I particularly enjoyed making acquaintance with MacNeice again. Reading him without the filter of Irish nationalism certainly made me more disposed towards his work. The Spanish Civil War is a great interest of mine in itself and I already studied the Irish role in that conflict a few years back so the poems devoted to it were intriguing if not always compelling. Ultimately I think that I am far more of an aesthete when it comes to poetry. Next I will go back to “Sunset Song” by Lewis Grassic Gibson because I need to write a TMA on it. It should be okay because Gibson was a polemicist so writing about social justice in the context of his work is the proverbial ‘home tie’.
Finally, I am reading forward by tackling Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando”. Who could believe it? I love the book so far though I would have run a mile from it in the past because of the feminist label I had mentally attached to the text. A300 is turning into a course where I am opening doors that were once firmly shut and finding diamonds to fill my treasure trove of memory and sentiment and feeling. It’s dreamtime in parallel to my average lifepath plodding plonk plonk. Alive.
Today I did something a bit crazy. Not crazy like twenty years ago crazy but still… I decided to get the train home from work. That is not quite as straightforward as it sounds. The train station is more than an hour’s walk away crossing slip roads that merge onto an interstate and two other major highways. Even when the crosswalk appears to be working you can wait forever for a green light but no drivers expect pedestrians so you still have to have your wits about you, especially if they are turning right.
And then there are parts with no lights so that is an adventure in itself. I have done this part before though.
What I like in a way is the peace I get knowing that I am the last man walking and the only person getting from A to B without depending on some kind of vehicle. I know the drivers look at me like I an a madman or a tramp but I really that I am the only sane one because you see we are actually surrounded by the natural world in this part of Illinois. On every walk I see squirrels and wild ducks and swans. I am oblivious to the drone of the traffic, it is noise, focus, control, I am doing my thing.
I just missed a train so I went to an Italian and had the most delicious thin crust pizza (with pepperoni and jalapeños) since the days when I used to visit my bro in that wooden hut near where I lived in Düsseldorf. I was getting kind of fretful as it was already pitch dark but I got the next train back to Deerfield. I got off there and walked another forty minutes crossing a twelve lane (6 x 2) interstate on the way back. I was wearing all black which is none too bright without reflective armbands but there was just one stretch to cross by jaywalking. I made it back safe and knackered and ready to watch Love/Hate and then get to sleep so that I can get closer to going home because really business travel is not what you could call glamorous especially if the highlight of your day was the (long) journey home.
After my flight yesterday I took the 40 minute walk to Deerfield village, did a bit of shopping, and then made the reverse hike which is devoid of any other pedestrians (only Europeans walk in this part if the world). My body was suitably exhausted that no jet lag could waken me in the middle of the night. I awoke at six and looked out on a sunny day which was good news because my last visit to downtown Chicago was on the rainiest of days. After a fine buffet breakfast I walked back to Deerfield to get the train in to Chicago. The suburbs are predictably boring and where I spend most of my time when I am over so getting in to the city is a treat indeed.
As there was a Bears game today the train was packed to the gills with fans heading to Soldier’s Field. There is none of the menace you get with groups of soccer fans, it’s all very tame to match the middle class ticket prices.
I arrived at Union Station and the mammoth skyscrapers stared down at me again like old friends. Chicago is very walkable but you need a bit of stamina to get from A to B. I had a nice itinerary planned out but I didn’t do half of what I had planned in the end.
The first stop for me was Chicago 360 formerly known as the Hancock observatory. When in the city of tall buildings you have to experience life at the top some time and this place gives you super views all around Chicago. It’s really nice to look down on some of the other giants. You pay $18 for the privilege but not much is free on the land of the free. It’s worth doing for the tourist value.
My next venue was close by at the Museum of Contemporary Art where they were doing a David Bowie retrospective. I normally hate museums but this was a very different experience. You are given location sensitive headphones which match video being projected but leaving the sound on all the time gives a very disjointed dreamy effect. There were loads of artifacts and costumes tracing the phases of his career and the manifold influences. I really loved the Berlin part (no surprise if you know me). The sound effects there were industrial electronica and what took my breath away were Bowies’s expressionist paintings of Iggy Pop. Art doesn’t normally grab me like that but I just kept staring at one of the paintings as it brought back so many feelings from my twenties. It was a really marvellous exhibition and it was well worth the $25 entrance because it was so wonderfully arranged and engaging.
I had no tine to go to Navy Pier as planned but instead I went to the Gene Siskel Film Theater to finally watch Richard Linklater’s magnificent “Boyhood”. I don’t have heroes as such but Ethan Hawke has long been a favourite artist (with Jared Leto for company) so every film I see that he in is a coming home. This film is uncanny because the characters literally grow older before your eyes like in a documentary and so much of what is said is prescient without it being after the fact. Like a lot of Linklater’s work there is no real plot. It is a film that observes and does not judge, the classic show not tell. The real hero of the film is Mason, the boy’s, mother who is the battler holding it together while Hawke’s character drifts in and out of the children’s life like a slacker, hipster, adventurer. There is lots of great dialogue and beautiful moments. It is a fantastic film that is much longer than a regular feature at almost three hours!
In fact it was so much longer that I near ran back to Union for my train home afeared I would miss it. It was a fine way to spend a day in Chicago which is not my favourite city in the world but is big enough to always have some cool things going on.