Disgorging suspended cargo

Perhaps it begins rightly on a frozen Tuesday morning.

Bikeless, following the previous day’s abandonment to nature of my, on balance, trusty-enough hot pink-saddled steed in central Hamburg after failing to sell it to anybody, I board my usual number 14 HVV bus from Fleestedt, hoping to make it to Sinstorfer Kirchweg where I can pick up the 345 directly to Am Pavillon. Alas, the fates would not allow and I was trapped in an anxious crawl as the truth dawned incrementally that I’d be late on my penultimate day at IKG.

The last thing I wanted to do was phone the school. It would be an admission of defeat. Needlessly narrowing the possibility of a just-in-time appearance. Eventually I caved and broke the news of my tardy arrival. The receptionist of boundless pathos and empathy who took my call was one of two members of staff who gave me the warmest of hugs last Wednesday.

Luckily, I was only meant to be delivering one half of the lesson myself – I’d picked the 1935 Dylan Thomas poem, The hand that signed the paper – so it wasn’t a total disaster.

This paper theme continued in my last art lesson, where I struggled with origami. I then said goodbye to my 9. Klasse, who thanked me and asked me to say “frrrequent” again.

That night my mentor met me at the Ratsherrn brewery, Altes Mädchen on my suggestion.

Compensating for that morning’s mishap I arrived punctually. The place was heaving. No seats in sight. Massive. Noisy. I wanted to escape. But no. Stay with it, she’ll come soon. Breathe.

We sat at the bar. On my own I’d rather not. On my own I wouldn’t go to a bar. Well, at least not just to drink. If a band was on…

We talked of Leipzig, life, art and careers. There was something maybe a bit high stakes about the conversation; both of us knowing it would likely be the last real “chat”. Yet that catalysed as well as impeded and it probably stayed just those vital few steps back from the threshold of “oversharing”.

I’d liked to have talked longer, liked to have drunk more, but once again, and as I said previously, my time was cut off by reason of my relatively remote abode.

The Fleestedt running busses reduced in number through the week approaching midnight; my 14 stopped at Rustweg, two stops prior to the aforementioned. This made for a late-night couple of kilometres dash across snow-covered pavement to reach my flat, where I had to pack for tomorrow because I’d had to wait over an hour in the queue at the Bürgeramt to deregister that afternoon.

The next morning a deeply demoralising trudge to school where I had to lug my stuffed suitcase over a good layer of snow between bus stops ensued. I had my final meeting with the head teacher, who told me that the Leipzig dialect was “eine Katastrophe”, and then after distributing various gifts and having several heart-warming goodbye conversations I received a wee package myself – two books of German poetry (thanks guys).

As much as I enjoyed Hamburg, I was eager to get away. Perhaps if I had nicer accommodation or friendlier flatmates (i.e. ones who were willing to go beyond surface pleasantries) I would have stayed a couple of days longer. However, as it stood I had booked to leave that same afternoon on the Deutsche Bahn to Copenhagen.

Against the odds, I made it to Harburg on time but, perhaps predictably, my first connecting train was delayed, meaning I missed the most important one. Luckily the self-loathing part of my brain that was cursing me for being such an idiot also plays the role of the negative motivator of the practical part of my brain that wants to prove it wrong. So I set out for the ZOB (Zentraler Omnibusbahnhof) determined to make the 1530 Flixbus, which I was relieved to discover had a very similar journey time to the train.

After anxiously waiting in a slowly moving queue, I was finally taken at quarter past and following an embarrassing regurgitation of the contents of my rucksack to find the necessary passport, I held in my possession the all-important ticket.

Ah, I thought, “erwartet 1545”, as I read the display screen, at least I’ve got a bit of time to compose myself now before it arrives. 1600. 1615. 1630. Oh my god. 1645.

Finally all the cases are bundled on. I’m seated next to a guy from Kosovo whose headphones seem to let more sound out than actually reaches his ears (luckily his phone did eventually run out of charge). A very Danish-looking Dane who says he’s already been travelling for over 50 hours now from south America is doubtful we’ll make the ferry because of the delay. An older guy in the seat in front who’s from New Zealand, travelling through the old, tries to put things into perspective citing his 24-hour trip time over to Europe from the Antipodes. Great. And it’s minus seven with blizzards ahead.

Yet the common cause and the confinement bound us and after a scrupulous and lengthy border check, where one of our number, a German-speaking Syrian refugee on his way to pick up papers, and two others were detained by Danish police, we finally made it to Copenhagen at about 10.30pm.

Immediately I notice the difference on the local transport. The bus is pristinely clean after HVV’s gritty filth, its boarding system is very liberal after Hamburg’s strict etiquette and the journeys are all clocked electronically using chip cards tapped against glowing blue terminals throughout instead of the cursorily flashed paper passes of the Hansestadt. This check-in/check-out system is used across the whole country; both busses and trains.

I’ve gone Airbnb after vowing not to put myself through youth hostels again unnecessarily. Despite my more-than-two-hours delay, my host is exceedingly welcoming and gives me a plate of stew absolutely free!

I travel to Helsingør, or as readers of Hamlet might know it, Elsinore the next morning. Punishing temperatures persist. As the train pulls in the moat of Kronborg castle is frozen solid; gushing fountains disgorge a suspended cargo onto hard sheet surfaces. There are chunks of ice in the sea and boats are lodged into place. This all adds to the brutal isolation of the fortress where the action of Shakespeare’s Prince of Denmark takes place. One can just imagine the claustrophobic intensity of living in such an outwardly austere encampment.IMG_20180301_104025662_HDR

To wrap up this blog post, which I feel is necessity because things are now moving quickly in my life, I saw some Viking longships in Roskilde, explored Copenhagen (its royal residencies and anarchist communes) and took a hop across the Øresund bridge to Sweden for a day. I then flew to Orkney for a brief visit where I met the Orcadian participants in the project I set up with my school in Hamburg and spent an afternoon in Egilsay, the site of St Magnus’s martyrdom. I sit typing this in Leipzig, where I arrived yesterday, after a balmy day of exploration. On Monday I start an orientation and language course before I begin my studies fully in April.

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Auf Wiedersehen, Herr Flett

Ah, Sunday. A fine day for reflection and calm, quiet contemplation. In Germany a brief respite from consumerism (also perhaps an inconvenience). Additionally, and purely coincidentally, you understand, optimal for the garnering of likes as the weekend’s accomplishments tie together and the anxious limbo between convalescence and the working week ahead begins to seep into the unoccupied psyche.

This Sunday, however, is unlike most in that it represents a threshold; a liminal phase as much as a stagnant in-between. It’s the last of Sundays I’ll be spending in Hamburg for the foreseeable. This one has been graced with that fluffy whiteness so prevalent this icy February and just as the sheets were beginning to break up and the burns to bubble afresh after their temperature induced stasis.

At present I’m getting another load of laundry in – a luxurious second of the week, owing to the fact I’m not going directly home in the couple of weeks’ gap I’ve got between my contract with the British council coming to an end and the beginning of the “summer” semester at the University of Leipzig. No, I’m off to Denmark, you see – Copenhagen to be precise, although I’ll be visiting other places too; hoping over the Øresund bridge to Sweden and doing a bit of a Hamlet pilgrimage to Elsinore (Helsingør). Ok, it’s a bit of an indulgence but it’s relatively easy on the Deutsche Bahn and I’d like to see something of Scandinavia in person, seeing as I heap on such praises in the abstract.

It’s busy in here (the laundrette I mean), and I’ve had to spend an idle half hour in a Turkish bakery because it seems an entire sports team’s strip was occupying all six drums! That reminds me, I must learn Turkish. No. Really, I’ve got to stop this dabbling and actually commit to mastery of one or two languages! Then again… It does seem like Turkish is a bridge between the European and Middle Eastern languages with its Latinate script and “logical” (or so I’m told) phonetics. It’s also even more agglutinative than German, meaning whole sentences can be condensed into one long word! How exciting. Anyway, I think it might be worth just having a look at seeing as the Turks are the largest minority in Germany (hmm…by that logic I should be learning Polish in Scotland).

Where was I? Yes. End of the British Council contract. Right. Reflection.

Looking back I’d have to say it’s been far from plain sailing. After a terrible start where I got defrauded (what a lovely word for such a horrible thing) on account of a flat that didn’t exist and was sent on a frantic and highly stressful Wohnungssuche, I managed to find a place that was technically over the Niedersachsen border. Transport times and removal from the city centre have, I would say, undoubtedly adversely affected my social life, but at least it came with the advantage of being close to my school – a mere 20-minute bike ride. Moreover, at least I was within an hour of the muckle toon, so on that score I was able to take advantage of the bigger and lesser acts visiting the Hansestadt from time to time.

Of course, having my bike stolen after two months was not much fun at all and I had to forgo seeing King Krule and Gurr on because of that, but at least I’ve had the experience of reporting a crime in German now!

On the subject of bands, on Wednesday night I attended probably the best gig I’ve been to since Mac Demarco in November; this being Jen Cloher at Nochtwache. In order to reach the venue I had to walk through on of the most obviously dodgy areas of the city I’d ever been in –  poorly lit and with so many open drug exchanges going on and police clearly actively investigating things on my exit. However, it was totally worth it. The support act Hachiku spent her childhood in Germany and subsequently moved to Australia, so she was able to warm up the crowd in their native language. She played completely solo, but used looping to create an impressively full, yet delicate and subtle sound. When the band took to the stage I couldn’t help but stare at the guitarist, who looked suspiciously like Courtney Barnett. Maybe Melbourne just breeds loads of women who look like that? Surely not. But right enough it was her, whose new single I’d just written about on the Monday! Amazing and completely unexpected.

Stay on topic. Stay on topic. Ok.

As for school life itself, I never really quite felt fully integrated into the staff team, but I suspect that is partly due to my own nature and a willing ignorance of certain group events i.e. the Christmas meal. That said, I did develop some good individual relationships with certain English teachers and indeed the Music teacher in whose lessons I had great fun during the second half of my placement. I particularly enjoyed teaching the younger kids about Burns Night on the 25 of January, which almost made up for the lack of haggis and irn bru. We sang ‘A Man’s a Man for a’ That’, which also happens to have a German version (‘Trotz Alledem’) that was used as an egalitarian anthem of the Völkerfrühling in 1848.

I think it did take me a long time to get into my stride though. Once things did fall into place, however, it led to some moments of real joy. Among the highlights have been: one of the pupils trying to read a verse of To A Mouse with a Scottish accent and rrreally rrrolling those Rs and then the subsequent realisation that my own accent had become something of an inside joke (they found my pronunciation of the word “frequent” hilarious when I was trying to explain the difference between it and regularly); the sarcastic banter I have with the older pupils; the paranoia I managed to induce with my 1984 Thought Police vs Party Members game and of course my beloved 6. Klasse who never fail to greet me in the corridor or Schulhof with an enthusiastic, “Hallo Mistah Flett!”

Outwith my compulsory work, I also set up an after school group through the UK-German Connection and ran a project facilitating contact with Orcadian pupils. This has honestly at times been the one thing that’s kept me going throughout my time here. Briefly, it was about cultural heritage at the regional level and how that can expand out beyond homogenous nation states, reaching across Europe – this idea being filtered through the lens of local language. If that at all piques your interest than please read more here.

Taking all in all, I think the experience has been beneficial; there has been a net gain. This has not come without frustration and struggle, however. The highs have been immense, but there’s certainly been a lot of drudgery to wade through in order to reach them. Overall, it’s confirmed that if I ever was to become a teacher, I’d put it off for a bit yet.

One of the main things I’ve had to grapple with during my time as a language assistant has been the need for respect. It is impossible to teach pupils anything if they do not first have respect for you. This can be quite a soul-destroying thing to learn from experience, but it is actually a very useful lesson. Those of you who know me can probably vouch for me when I say I’m not a particularly foreboding person to encounter. For me, I think this means I need put on a display of assuredness and expertise fairly early on when I start working with a class, otherwise they will just view me as another pupil who’s just as clueless as them.

Upwards and onwards, as they say though. I’m very much looking forward to becoming a student again next month and of course to experience a new part of the country. A visit to Wittenberg is far from “retrograde to [my] desire” after seeing the court of the Danish prince.

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On Orwell

I don’t know if you know or don’t know but I’m currently living and, ostensibly, working in Germany as part of my Year Abroad from the University of Edinburgh. Hence weird gushing praise of Burns, hence the invocation of glorious Viking ancestry, hence emotional responses to public infrastructure. I’m missing home, or well, I’m missing the feeling of deep-seated, innate connection to the banal minutiae of daily life. Its strange how one feels the irretractablity of one’s culture and upbringing when living with people whose frame of reference is just so slightly shifted.

I’m also missing low-stakes interaction. Just going for a coffee with someone spontaneously of an afternoon or having a pint or two to share minds over. Most conversations I have contain a purpose, an end goal with the object of reaching said endpoint in as short a time as possible. The scenario explained above cannot be obtained through Skype, where the objective is too direct and there is no room to gaze absentmindedly in contemplative silence, absorbing an atmosphere that continues to chatter regardless of your presence; the venue a third partner in the verbal exchange.

Anyway, one subject I turn inescapably towards to regain a reassuring foothold in life is literature. Ok, I know what you might say – literature should be shocking, outrageous and discomforting. Yes, I agree, but it can be both, and the type that helps me now is the former even if only affirming for “systemis[ing] the knowledge […] possessed already”, as Winston Smith remarks of Emmanuel Goldstein’s The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism in Orwell’s 1984. Or, if I may employ a relevant cliché, Pope’s “what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed”.

I refer to the dystopia that politicians and commentators feel very clever about when they invoke in using the word Orwellian because it’s a text that has, not that I have had much choice in the matter, been occupying me these past couple of months due to its being studied by final year pupils at the Gymnasium (German secondary school) where I work.

Unlike so many of these pundits and participants in public life, I’m not at all eager to hail in the reign of the thought police. Yet the value of Orwell goes beyond drawing tenuous parallels between our world and Oceania. We can learn much from his unwavering commitment to the truth, his warning against the lies of propaganda, his historical allegory, his advocacy and practice of a clear, concise writing style and most importantly, his faith in the proles.

The pursuit of the truth is the single most important thing in Orwell’s philosophy. Of course, this is an admirable end in itself, but what’s more to the point is what we do with that knowledge. Orwell made an excellent diagnosis of the ills of his age, but he leaves us in the dark when it comes to the treatment. At least, this is the case when we read 1984 in isolation…

Teaching the novel in the context of German school adds another layer of complexity, and this is especially apparent in the author’s attitude to language. For all Orwell’s contempt for the florid, inaccessible prose of the contemporary intellectual elite, he himself was a huge language snob. In 1984, he undermines the idea of avoiding fancy foreign terminology and expressing things in as few words as possible by equating a smaller vocabulary with a smaller “range of consciousness” a la Newspeak (and that was deliberate!) This does not translate to multilingual German pupils, especially when this fictional language seems to implicitly attack compound words as somehow inferior relative to Anglo-Saxon monosyllabism (again I’m being silly!)

1984 to me is a bit like some people’s Dickens or Austen, although far from a cosy book, it remains pleasure to come back to because it reminds me of the power of the literary prophecy. As much as it irks me to constantly here casual accusations of Orwellian behaviour levelled at parties, governments and institutions, it’s probably a good thing that such shorthand exists.

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The man o’ independent mind: who was Robert Burns?

Robert Burns is the National Poet of Scotland – a phrase I use to introduce the most important figure of Scottish literature. This led, after about the third repetition to the question of: Why does not England then have a national bard? Did you mean bird? No, Google, I assure you I did not.

Is the idea of a National Poet merely a Celtic conception? Why is he celebrated so much then, if the accolade lacks universal currency? It’s probably because he is the only one; the awkward truth that there’s no one to compare. Incidentally, for the English poet, Shakespeare was suggested. It seems that we speak his language, so that would make sense. Alongside him, though, sit Blake, Wordsworth (of whom I’m no fan) and Coleridge. The Wikipedia entry for National Poet talks of justifying the ethno-linguistic state. I’m not sure Burns quite fits the bill. His Scots was regional really – what of the Northern Isles in his lied? He was also under the influence of the multi-lingual curse; a riven soul between standards and the core. His heart a swarming mass of contradiction channelled in all its various courses, Scots for humour and ecstatic love, English for grave politics and highfalutin reference.

No, the idea of the national poet is not merely a Celtic creation, so it seems – it’s Teutonic too, take Goethe. Schiller here’s a competitor, but he wasn’t quite the universal genius Johann was. Germany did not exist in Goethe’s time, and, if truth be told, he liked it that way. A loose confederation of autonomous city-states and princedoms – that was the ideal. United, perhaps in tax or tariff, but no more. Feels eerily like an EU without the states. On the flag the stars are fixed at twelve, no more, no less; it cannot change. Perhaps Goethe’s Europe would have been more constellational; ever-warping, irregular and full of burning life. Perhaps that’s just a pithy liberal dream.

Did Shakespeare write of England though? Yes, but he also wrote of everything. England was part of this, so it was in. Pride in England get’s a bad rep these days, but, if restored in the right way, it might be part of the path to healing this broken world. Clarification: the British Empire has skewed English nationalism into a restorative ideology seeking to rewind time and suck other nations into the vortex along with it, firmly against their will – if the English saw themselves as just that, England, then perhaps this could be remedied.

I’ve been reading a lot of D. H. Lawrence these days and I’m aware that he’s shunned, and deservedly, for his undue obsession with phallic worship and his disdain for labour movements. Yet, there’s something in him. A core, a kernel of truth that’s worth salvaging from the reaching, often unfocused prose. That is, his radical ideas about relationships and sexuality and, underneath it all, his England. There’s no coincidence, in Women in Love, that these two ideas fuse dramatically in the locus of national myth that is Sherwood forest, where Ursula and Birkin enter for the first time into the true ecstasy of love on equal terms:

She saw that they were running among trees – great old trees with dying bracken undergrowth. The palish, gnarled trunks showed ghostly, and like old priests in the hovering distance, the fern rose magical and mysterious. It was a night all darkness, with low cloud. The motor-car advanced slowly.

‘Where are we?’ she whispered.

‘In Sherwood Forest.’

It was evident he knew the place […]

It is at once possible to be the most strident of radicals and yet be rooted in tradition. Burns here, is an exemplary figure. Absurdly though, it is ritual honouring of this tradition which distances us from these fundamental commonalities by setting these firmly in the remote past, not merely unattainable but inaccessible. In relation to Scottish identity, I mean the characteristics we reinforce in ourselves year in year out that only serve to hold us back. Scots make good soldiers. The highland clansman warrior bashed into shape by British imperial discipline. The clamour to blame the reign of religion for our dour, miserly insularity, as if the spectre of Knox remains president.

Did Burns, like Goethe, go to the people? Or was he like the Russians of Tolstoy’s Francophone drawing rooms, estranged from his serfs? He did not and was not – when he expressed contempt it was only a form of extrinsic self-loathing. He saw potential in the breed and not as merely raw material, but as a dormant nation brooding between cynicism and fancy, this is the ultimate tragedy.

Like, it seems, all great Scots, he was a man of parts and many. Besides poetry he worked on rented land and always had an eye open for the next money-making opportunity. Yet Shakespeare acted, Goethe tried at law and furthered science, and Franklin, whom I take to represent America though he was no poet, had his digits in many pastry-based dishes, not to mention his dampened fingertips on the spinning glass harmonica.

The medium is much derided – Scots, the language, only seems to be sniggered at. An odd relic, absurdly contrived. However, his brand is really comparably light, reflects no spoken tongue and goes so far as to admit ‘small’ when ‘wee’ suffices. Yet it’s strong enough to provoke incomprehension nonetheless.

Burns had the fortune of being recognised for his talents during his short life and was assimilated into the aristocracy. We would do well to remember that the “rank” of National Poet “is but the guinea stamp” – he embraced the French Revolution bore the snubs of the cronies who wanted to make him one of their own. Burns belongs not just to Scotland, but the world. He was exalted as the people’s poet of Russia from the Tsars to the Soviets and beyond and his influence is firmly felt on such classics of American literature as Of Mice and Men and Catcher in the Rye. In this current climate of the adored and the disgraced if Burns were alive today he’d likely fall into the latter – though polite enough, society’s approval meant little to him, what mattered was a humanity worth fighting for.

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My Top 12 Albums of 2017

Top 10 is an arbitrary number and I felt like there were at least two projects that were worth tagging on regardless of the format. Before we start, however, I’d like to give honourable mention to a couple of artists whom my appreciation of did not coalesce around the medium of a single album. Namely, Toro y Moi, Kendrick Lamar and the band No Vacation; they all released new material in 2017, but here I loved the singles more than I did the finished products. So, without further delay, here goes, a list of my favourite sounds this year has had to offer:

  1. In Mind by Real Estate

Melt into 45 minutes of gorgeous jangly glory. This album will rock you gently; while perhaps lacking in drama this doesn’t mean it’s uninteresting. Supremely crafted guitar textures and fertile counter-melodies abound. If you escape being lulled into a blissful slumber, then there is much detail to drink.

‘Saturday’ is for me the highlight here. It has a measured and sombre reverb-heavy piano intro, which gradually gives way to a guitar’s arpeggiated embellishments before the drums kick in and we find ourselves in the familiar, uppity, shimmering world to which we’re accustomed. The tone remains melancholic though, and we are reminded of the plodding chords with which the song began when the train winds down for a jilted phaser-filtered lead solo in the bridge.

So dry!

  1. In Memory Of by Catholic Action

This is the only debut album on this list, but it’s earned its place just like the others. Catholic Action sound like they’ve been around for longer; their first full-length release is a witty, angst-ridden opening statement that promises good things to come. Their sound is shaped in Scottish indie tradition – I’d point to Franz Ferdinand and Belle and Sebastian in particular with a nod to Weezer for good measure. That being said, the band has a unique voice in the stories they tell and the post-punk sheen they wear on some of the more charged tracks.

The song that really drew me in was ‘Propaganda’ – a mere 1.49 burst of concentrated energy. It gets right down to business with a fraught melodic bass line accompanied by bright soaring synths. Never letting up, the song’s rallying cry is frustrated mantra of “music to tick boxes”.

  1. Masseduction by St Vincent

Annie Clark’s fifth studio album under the name of St Vincent was released four years after her self-titled project. Since this it seems she has undergone a stylistic transformation, embracing the slick and provocative world she so deftly satirises in a radical re-imagining. This is reflected in the musical direction also. Where St Vincent was a rip-roaring ride of quirky angular riffs and abrasive synths, Masseduction looks to the brash and bombastic pop music of the eighties as an overarching framework. This doesn’t mean that the fuzzy acrobatics are forgotten; they just appear less often as part of a wider, decidedly more sugary landscape. The album is huge in scope, and for that reason struggles to be entirely coherent; nonetheless it’s worth a listen for the valiant attempt to work from such a varied palette.

‘Pills’ is probably the song that sums up the new trajectory most succinctly. Don’t be put off by the childish refrain, its hook is punctuated by cutting verses and Prince-esque guitar moves. There is also a majestic bridge with saxophone thrown in for good measure.

  1. Lotta Sea Lice by Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile

This is a dream collaboration between two witty self-styled slackers from opposite ends of the globe. Melbourne-born Barnett and Philadelphian Vile bounce off each other in a way that feels meant to be – that being said, if there was criticism to make it might be that neither really challenges the other; the music they create sounds just as you’d expect it. Nevertheless, it is humorous and spread thick with interesting guitar textures making for ideal lazy day listening.

Top pick from this record is the charming ‘Continental Breakfast’. It speaks about the vagabond and interconnected life of the touring musician that allowed such a meeting of minds to take place.

  1. Memories Are Now by Jesca Hoop

Jesca Hoop seems to have kept a remarkably low profile for being such a manifest and accomplished song-writing talent. Memories Are Now is her fifth album and demonstrates just what a practised craftswoman can achieve after years of refinement and experimentation. As a genre it’s difficult to pin down with elements of folk, country and electronic sounds; one thing is certain, however – it is utterly beautiful.

‘The Lost Sky’ is an exemplar of this wrought, sensitive approach. The tension it weaves is spectacular, full of crescendos that build to abrupt retreat – Hoop is an artist operating at the height of her power.

  1. Uyai by Ibibio Sound Machine

This album is distinct fusion of disco, post-punk and afrobeat your ears will likely never have heard before. It’s a bold and confident statement of a band who know what they are about. With lyrics a mix between English and the Ibibio language and influences including West African funk, Talking Heads and Joy Division there seems to be an inexhaustible well of sounds to draw from.

A personal highlight is ‘The Pot is On Fire’, which is a frantic and paranoid electro banger accentuated by tense retro synths.

  1. A Deeper Understanding by The War On Drugs

I was mesmerised by Lost In The Dream in all its sweeping shoegaze-y grandeur. At last, a real rock band beyond the millennium was prepared to take us over the eight-minute threshold on a single. With supreme confidence in its motifs, finally a group was prepared to devote the time to expanding them to their fullest potential. If I had one criticism, however, it was that these songs seemed to tend to linger rather than drive forward. Cue the release of the first single from A Deeper Understanding, ‘Holding On’ – I was thrust firmly aboard the hype-train.

Where Lost in the Dream was expansive to an almost incomprehensible extent, A Deep Understanding is punchier and more clearly focussed. Nonetheless it retains a sense of sprawling vastness that made its predecessor so impressive. The vocals are pushed further into the foreground too, but this is perhaps to the album’s detriment, as the poetics seem rambling and illogical where the music is minutely arranged. Lost In The Dream’s abstract blending to create a euphoric unified soundscape gives way to a crisper style of production where each element has its chance to shine – particularly effective on the album’s epic fuzzy guitar solos.

As mentioned above, ‘Holding On’ was a favourite and perhaps demonstrates the band’s shift in sound the best.

  1. Antisocialites by Alvvays

By contrast, I seem to have been a little later cottoning on to this band’s well-deserved acclaim. This Canadian outfit takes shoegaze and imbues it with a human touch, managing to tell heartfelt stories through the layer upon layer of distorted guitars. The ethereal and pixie-like vocals cut through the mix and bring more than just an elegant contrast to the gritty overdriven tones below; Molly Rankin’s tales are tragic, defiant and witty.

‘Plimsol Punk’ gives me hope for the future of music. The tones are fantastic and reminiscent of Sonic Youth at their best, yet Alvvays are firmly their own, making equally inventive use of synthesisers.

  1. Every Valley by Public Service Broadcasting

As with about a third of the bands on this list, I first heard PSB on BBC 6music. It was then their Race for Space album in the spotlight, and particularly the furiously paced single ‘Go!’ Invited through the University of Edinburgh’s student radio station, FreshAir to cover their concert in Usher Hall, I became completely enthralled by their unique approach to crafting music.

Every Valley is an album about the decline of the coal industry in South Wales. I love that I can type that sentence. The subject matter is so daringly unglamorous and out-of-fashion – but so is almost all great art. PSB are bold, but they are so lacking in pretension that this pays off massively. They weave archive recordings in and out of epic and sensitive instrumentals, letting the people who lived and worked in these villages do the talking. My album favourite is probably a song that’s half in Welsh and half English bare clean guitar and a swelling string section towards the close.

For an introduction to the piece I would recommend ‘They Gave Me A Lamp’.

  1. This Old Dog by Mac Demarco

I got introduced to Mac Demarco in what was probably exactly the way he would have intended: mindlessly browsing YouTube videos in the search for something new. His videos are in some ways anti-YouTube, harkening to a bygone era of home video. With the parting shot of ‘Ode to Viceroy’, where he smokes several dozen of said cigarette in one overwhelming puff, the character of Demarco is unforgettably branded onto my mind.

This Old Dog is in some ways a departure from this persona. The scumbag antics recede to make way for a more mature, thoughtful Demarco, who uses the album to confront a difficult past. In terms of song-writing, the tracks are as smooth and silky as ever but punctuated now with icy, piercing synths – particularly on the track ‘On a Level’.

  1. Something to Tell You by HAIM

This choice on the list is not intellectually motivated; HAIM just really know how to make a good pop album. Here they prove that they are more than the Fleetwood Mac inspired niche they carved for themselves in 2013. One regret I have is that their studio version of ‘Right Now’ is inferior because of its production gimmicks in comparison with the live promotion video they put out in the run-up to the release of the record.

What better introduction to the hook-crammed riot than the endless chorus and bombastic slap bass of the lead single ‘I Want You Back’?

  1. Drunk by Thundercat

There is an album, and there is what an album represents. This one takes the top spot more because of the latter than the former. One can say the track listing is chaotic, that Thundercat’s vocals are rather samey or that many of the songs feel like underdeveloped skits – all of these criticisms are valid, but they must be taken in light of the project as a whole. No one sounds like Thundercat and no one has attempted what Drunk attempts.

Drunk is an introduction to the world of Thundercat. It’s at times incoherent, messy and crazy. However, because of all of these things and not in spite of them, it is absolutely authentic. It helps that he is an accomplished song-writer too of course, this knack shining through on the incredibly flavoursome yacht rock ballad ‘Show You the Way’ featuring Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald.

To understand why the album has been constantly revisited over the course of year, listen to this song ‘Friend Zone’, typical of the track listing.

So much for a year. You made it to the end. Did you discover something new, do you agree and what were your favourites?

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Where fishmen lounge at noon

Last weekend I went to London to attend the UK-German Connection seminar, which facilitates the starting up of joint projects between foreign language assistants in each of the respective countries. Before this I’d only ever driven through or skirted the vicinity of the city on the way to somewhere else. As a result of my brisk pedal-powered departure from Fleestedt (which is south enough of the Elbe to be technically Niedersachsen) at 4.30 am, I had more or less a full day in the UK capital to myself.

“When one is tired of London, he is tired of life” is a quote from Samuel Johnson, famous for writing one of the first dictionaries of the English language. The fact that it’s stood the test if tune makes me strongly want to believe that it’s true. Delve not too far below the surface of this enigmatic epigram, however, and you might find an implied criticism of anyone who expresses even curiosity to venture beyond the city’s bounds. Yet I like to see it as: everything you could possibly hope to experience in the wider world can be found here, in due proportion, if you’re willing to seek it out. All that the globe contains in concentrated in this spot – a true Weltstadt.

And yet, London is also, well…London.  In spite of the hostile symbolism of the Houses of Parliament and the perpetual spin of post-millennial global capitalism finding constant renewal in the fickle-flitting sponsorship of the epitomising London Eye, we are all, in some essential way, at home here. So much of what we culturally consume originates from this locus. The novels we read, the TV we watch and even the board games we play (my initial thought on entering the city was that I was, in a very tangible way, inside Monopoly). Although ostensibly the environment’s a complete novelty, navigation is somehow a matter of confirming the internal map so vividly etched onto my consciousness by unavoidable saturation in television and books. When I turn a corner in the ‘unreal city’ (I add anecdotally with pride when a fellow literature student points out the church of St Magnus the Martyr, that he’s the patron saint of Orkney) I am hit not with foreign awe at the constructions of folk unknown, but with a welcoming wave of proxy familiarity.


It’s very hard not to be impressed though; and believe you me, I wanted to be cynical.

Cynicism comes easily, for example, on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile where screeds and screeds of tartan tat is touted daily and the superfluity thereof only serves to emphasise the total vacuity of it all. Unlike in the Scottish capital, London’s tourism is not so mercilessly concentrated in geography or season (August/the Festival) and thus here a sight more bearable. Edinburgh’s branding is painfully contrived and inauthentic, whereas London succeeds in the subtler cues of its sense of identity in the constant, but gentle insistence to “mind the gap” on its celebrated public transport infrastructure, the charming sixties-style typeface of said underground and the cohesive elegance of its street signage. I’d like to meet someone who thinks Lothian buses possess a similar spirituality, although I would have to admit Glasgow’s subway does have something special about it. Of course, barring logistics and layout, there is that factor of history that goes hand in hand with a city’s soul. Edinburgh has more of that than a lot of places, but here it runs alongside daily life, integrated in continual innovation, not lamented as a warped Romantic ideal.

Rewinding on the subject of tourists, my experience was not entirely unmarred by them. In a previous post I praised the universalistic, egalitarian, municipal spirit of Manchester for allowing me to visit all of its art galleries and museums for free. This point still stands, and I must say for the record that I remain fully supportive of the absence of admission fees, but to provide a counter I must say something about my visit to the National Gallery. Aiming to do a vaguely circular route that would use up the hour I’d allotted on my schedule, and having rushed through the Renaissance and Early Modern stuff, I pushed open the door to the 19th century and was arrested by Turner’s turbulent, stormy landscapes. However, before I was able to draw breath and examine these subtly crafted masterpieces in detail an atonal braying started up at the other end of the room. It was a class trip, and now having been on one or two myself from the other side, I know how draining these can be. This was almost physically painful. It had nothing to do with irritating kids and everything to do with the utterly dominant, patronising, nasal racket in which this educator delivered her excruciating lecture. I had to leave, but I could not escape.

In the next hall was Van Gogh. I had hoped that my experience with his Sunflowers would be if not spiritual, then at least warm and allow me to warmly reminisce about now cherished art lessons in primary school with one of my favourite teachers. All potential for this kind of nostalgia was obliterated by tourists smothering the works to take selfies. I still have these memories, and that especially poignant Doctor Who episode to keep Vincent alive in my consciousness, but to me it seems almost futile to have his paintings on display if that’s the only response they’re going to elicit.

My visit to the British Museum conjured further memories of that beloved TV series with its exhibition on the history of money. There was a small section on production companies having to print fake currency when they use it on screen. A clip from the first Christmas special of New Who was playing on loop in which the Doctor uses his sonic screwdriver on a cash machine to make it spit out a flurry of banknotes in order to create a diversion between him and the approaching killer Santa Clauses. The notes used have David Tennant’s face on them. Oddly enough, a love of Doctor Who is something I have in common with my equivalent German language assistants, Sina and Jule. I suppose the show is something you could name among things that are archetypally British, and I don’t mean this in a pejorative sense at all. Thinking about it, I would say it’s probably one of the best examples of British culture precisely because it rarely tries to be and it’s also a bit rubbish. Partly, this is why I also enjoy Public Service Broadcasting’s music. Anyway, I could go on for hours about the subject, so I’ll quickly move to the seminar.

To my complete surprise and delight, I met the German assistant placed in Orkney. Only the day before I’d been introducing my group to the stanzas of George Mackay Brown, so you can imagine my excitement. We’re going to do a project focussing on regional identity, particularly through language, and this will involve the usual strategies of letter exchange, but also hopefully artistic collaboration and a joint, multi-lingual blog to which the pupils will contribute.

Right now, it’s called “Opposite Sides of the North Sea”. It’s very much evolving. If it’s possible I hope we can learn about Plattdeutsch – a variety of German spoken in the North with some affinities to Dutch, and ultimately see each other’s countries not simply as undifferentiated monoliths closed unto themselves, but as moving conglomerates of distinct regions defined by interrelationships. Of course, somewhere along the line this needs to be translated – quite literally – so that hamburgisch/Orcadian secondary school pupils can understand it, but we’ve got a few months for that.

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Luther, Lyrik, Lieder und Leipzig

Trees increasingly denuded, the mulch on the path starting to settle, I find myself stumbling into the final third of November. Since my impromptu excursion to Manchester at the end of October, Hamburg’s schools have gone back, but of course, academic business could not fully be resumed without commemorating 500 years of Reformation in unique style.

Martin Luther Day began with an assembly of all the pupils in the hall, where the appearance of a special guest was announced. After a rather dry introductory film, one of the teachers walked out on stage dressed as the man himself in earnest monk’s robes. He paused dramatically and unfurled an authentically yellowed scroll. This document carried the pope’s lengthy response to the 95 Theses, which announces Luther’s excommunication. It was read out in full. Faux-Luther then took the parchment and held its corner to an atmospherically flickering candle stage left. Lifting the letter, now alight, he placed the pontificate’s denunciation in a glass (presumably to some degree heatproof) bowl, where it was left to burn as he vacated the stage to rapturous applause.

So, an odd, but interesting beginning to my second term at Immanuel Kant Gymnasium. I hasten to add that the day was not uncritically swallowed wholesale by the whole school. Many questioned the suspension of the normal timetable for a not uncontroversial religious leader who many saw as irrelevant due to their atheism/agnosticism/membership of other religions.

Regarding my school life, it seems again that I’m not entirely avoiding Britain on this ‘Year Abroad’ – next week I’m off to London as part of my participation in the UK-German Connection programme. Although I’m not sure of all the details yet, what it will basically involve is a parallel project that I create with a German language assistant working in a UK school. Currently I would like the project to address questions of regional, national and European identity as explored through literature. I am aware that this is probably definitely too ambitious, but I’m of the school who think it’s better to overreach and fail to fulfil all your objectives rather than be overly modest and achieve mediocrity.

In preparation for this trip, and inspired, partly by the German literature class I help in’s working on Theodor Fontane’s poetry, I’m reading Ein Sommer in London. I went in expecting a sort of sentimental sycophantic praise common of contemporary travel writing (this blog not excluded!), but I was refreshingly surprised to find this was not to be found. It’s humorous and keenly sceptical of British culture, even if the author clearly remains in the ‘Anglophile’ camp.

The top-grade English class are also reading about the capital, but in this instance of Airstrip One under Ingsoc. Here, the landmarks are somewhat different though. The pupils give pertinent responses, without the benefit of context, to the three slogans of the Party. Just war is given thorough scrutiny, detailed references to the German constitution’s obligations for citizens in a proudly post-dictatorship country are made and the benefits of wilful oblivion are measured in relation to Eastern Europe’s response to the refugee crisis.

Since I last wrote I’ve had the chance to go to a couple of Hamburg gigs, and one even further afield (Berlin). The Mojo is a fantastic venue; just about the perfect size and shape to support dazzling light shows and bone-resonating bass while still retaining a closeness and sense of collective experience. I saw synth-pop folktronica duo, Sylvan Esso there to Kick, Jump and Twist things off with intricate, syncopated electronics and crystalline vocals. The following week I caught Canadian hip-hop/jazz/electronica quartet BadBadNotGood in the same club, whose set was masterful and virtuosic without being alienating – keeping its human soul with tight funky grooves as a vital underscore to mind-blowing solos.

I went ridiculous lengths and suffered sleep deprivation to go and see Mac Demarco at Berlin’s Astra (incidentally Hamburg’s famous beer) Club. Was it worth it? Absolutely. It’s impossible not to love him. Even though a sizable chunk of his set was comprised of extended jams and faffing around, he still played all the songs you wanted to hear and the spontaneous nature of all the tomfoolery made it easy to forgive everything. The crowd was certainly on side. Occasionally literally, with topless audience members of both genders making successful stage invasions.


Hard to make out, but that’s Mac Demarco crowd-surfing in a drum case.

My latest gig was Girl Ray at Hafenklang, whose melodic basslines I adore, supported by the charming and articulate guitarist Fake Laugh. Tomorrow I’m seeing Public Service Broadcasting at Knust, who you’ve probably heard of if you follow this blog at all. Their use of the spoken word as opposed to sung vocals leads nicely into an experience of a different kind this past week.


Set-up at Hafenklang. Little did I know, that’s actually the frontwoman and bassist to the right.

Poetry slam is big in Germany. I can now tell you that first hand. On Thursday I attended a Städebattle between the rival cities of Hamburg and Leipzig. There were many reasons for me to want to go, not least that I’m due to study in the former in the spring of next year, but also because the event description made explicit reference to Plattdeutsch and Sächsisch, dialects I’m interested in as crucial facets of regional identity. Unfortunately, there were few direct instances of these languages during the ceremonious competition, nonetheless it was highly entertaining.

The evening began unusually, with the charismatic compere asking audience members’ Abi (Abitur – the exam Germans take at 16-19 [the age of examination is a subject of fierce debate and varies in different Bundesländer] which determines job prospects, university entry and it seems, crucially, status) scores in order to gauge whether they were fit to be judges of the performed poetry. This was bizarre, but also somehow typically German. At the end of it all, Leipzig, where Goethe went to uni after all, had a higher score by the judges reckoning, but Hamburg won the popular clamp-o-meter vote – unsurprisingly, in home territory. This I felt was justified as Leipzig were the better team, although Hamburg had some outstanding individuals.


Ankunft in Bremen

To bring you right up to date, yesterday, in an attempt to see a bit more of this country, authentically this time and not just through going to English-speaking international acts, I visited the free Hanseatic city of Bremen – Germany’s smallest Bundesland and about an hour and a half by bus. The weather was quite poor, but I managed to spend an overcast late morning wandering through the Bürgerpark before the deluge began and I retreated to the shelter of a café for lunch. I explored the interior of St Petri’s Dom before venturing out to reach the Kunsthalle, which occupied the rest of my afternoon with its exhibition of modernist Max Beckmann, a show taking a critical look at Bremen’s colonial involvement and an impressive collection of fin de siècle and 1960s pieces. Just managing to snap a silhouette of the town’s iconic windmill blades before sunset, I boarded a slightly delayed Flixbus home.

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