Public Life in a Provincial Town

After 8 years, the imminent departure from Swindon by the end of the summer now looms on the horizon. This blog has been very much shaped by the experience of living in this non-University town, while living in a very Respectable Street.

Swindon, of course, has a certain sort of reputation as ‘a dump’, which is not quite fair, and even if it is, given the representative significance of Swindon in the history of British society, it’s no more of a dump than the rest of the country. Aroundaboutz, of course, in the surrounding countryside populated by plenty of Generals and Majors, there are all sorts of attractions, if you like White Horses and stones circles and if you can survive on a Farmboy’s Wages. And it’s not too far away from the Towers of London, if you fancy a day trip. But that’s still underselling Swindon itself, which has quite a few treasures all of its own. It’s a good place to visit if you like railway museums, odd art deco treasures, or want to trace the origins of the NHS. In the time I have lived here, one can trace the diminution of the public realm under the pressure of austerity, felt in the absence of Sure Start centres, libraries, bus services, and nurseries that were the elements of our daily life when I first moved here. But actually, a life here isn’t just the privatised experience of a New Town Animal in a Furnished Cage. There are things worth getting out and about for. You could even spend half a day on a self-made Diana Dors walking tour, culminating perhaps at Swindon’s very own answer to the Statue of Liberty.

So should you ever find yourself stuck here and in need of entertainment, or indeed if you find yourself Making Plans to pass close by, here is my personal guide to the best 10 things that public life in Swindon offers to you:

1). Top of the list is the Swindon Museum and Art Gallery. A quite extraordinary place, mainly for the art collection (not to the mention the crocodile or the Mummy).

2). Town Gardens. A place for kids to play, the site of the best annual(ish) South Asian festival I’ve ever been to, and a place where sometimes, if you look carefully, you can catch a glimpse of the Mayor of Simpleton wandering around.

3). No public sphere is possible, as old uncle Habermas reminds us, without a thriving commercial life to sustain it. The Swindon Designer Outlet shopping centre might not sound much, but even if you don’t like shopping, go there – it’s in the remaining part of the Great Western railways works, so it’s like walking through a portal into the historical geography of the town.

4). And, still with Habermas, you need coffee shops too – visit Baila, a little slice of cosmopolitanism in Old Town. At nighttime, it might well be true that Life Begins at the Hop, but it should end here, in a Crowded Room full of discerning gin drinkers. By day, it’s a haven for home-workers happy to listen to acid jazz and not-so-obvious Motown.

5). Los Gatos, or just ‘the Spanish’, a small slice of authentic British ex-pat Tapas in Wiltshire, this was the ONLY nice place when I moved here, but now it is like a trusted old friend you know will always be there when other things disappoint. Great coffee.

6). The Arts Centre. Swindon has a proper, big theatre, The Wyvern, which is also worth a visit (especially for Jon Richardson’s ‘returning home’ gigs), but the Arts Centre is another little hidden gem, a place to see Am-Dram performances of The Crucible or watch Mark Thomas or see foreign films or listen to Thea Gilmore.

7). Swindon is a very sporty town, with a disappointing football team embedded in the community in all sorts of commendable ways, Speedway, and best of all, Ice Hockey. Go Wildcats! It’s just like Canada.

8). There are various things to do at Coate Water park, but the best one is to take a ride on the miniature railway – because it’s Swindon, so you have to find a way of riding on a steam train.

9). The Old Town Railway Path. Yes, yes, I know, it turns out that almost everything on the list is related to railways, but if you need a walk, this is great – this is another bit of historical geography, a disused railway cutting that overlooks the ‘The Front Garden’ between Swindon and the M4, now the site of a major new housing development, and gives you a view in the distance of the Science Museum‘s large-object store at Wroughton, and if you like Rock, you can even see some exposed Upper Jurassic geological formations (apparently). Certainly a place to get your Senses Working Overtime.

10). Oh, and then there is the musical heritage – you don’t even have to come here to experience any of this, but all of it makes so much more sense if you’ve lived here. This is Pop.



Bite Size Criticism

“T]his is how American folk music works. Forgetting and disappearance are the engines of its romance. They are the motor of the will in the music to create characters, to insist on their mystery and to resist the impulse of society at large to turn the music into social science – or what the late Harlem critic Albert Murray called “social science fiction”.”

Griel Marcus, 2015, Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations.

Music to Write Books To

UntitledI participated in an ESRC-sponsored seminar last week on the theme of the politics and economies of attention, which was interesting and fruitful in all sorts of ways. Lots of the work on this topic turns around a distinction between ‘good’ forms of attention, which is focussed and contemplative and “deep”, and ‘bad’ forms of attention, which is fleeting, distracted. A certain sort of reading of a certain sort of text is the model against which other forms of attention are often judged in a great deal of high theorizing on this topic.

Trying to find something interesting to say about this topic made me aware of how the ways in which I work, both in relation to reading and writing, do not quite conform to the expected model of scholarly attention. I read with the TV on, and write while listening to music or the radio, and not serious Radio 3-type music either (it’s generally a matter of choosing between Taylor’s 1989 and Ryan’s 1989). This way of working may or may not be reflected in the depth of understanding of ideas and thinkers displayed in the things that I write. I actually find it rather odd to write, in particular, in silence. I am still in recovery from having finished a book manuscript, and found myself today, while sitting in a hairdressers, not having my hair done, constructing a list of songs that, more or less tangentially, capture something of the experience of writing the sort of book I have been trying to write for the last year and a half:

  1. I Just Don’t Understand – Spoon
  2. Jacques Derrida – Scritti Politti
  3. Acid Tongue – Jenny Lewis
  4. Distractions – Bobby Darin
  5. Why Theory – Gang of Four
  6. Unputdownable – Róisín Murphy
  7. Waking Up – Elastica
  8. We Love You – Psychedelic Furs
  9. Drink in My Hand – Eric Church
  10. Gone Daddy Gone – Violent Femmes

Songs from South Africa

DSCF4685I have just returned home from a couple of weeks in Cape Town, not a holiday, but a research-trip related to the Leverhulme project on The Urbanization of Responsibility. An exercise in ‘learning from another region’, that’s how I would characterise it. Anyway, one of the things that happens when I am in South Africa is that I find myself needing to buy something, anything, to listen to, while working and/or driving. As a result, over the years, I have collected an odd assortment of CDs, which have become indelibly connected to South Africa by virtue of being the only thing I had to listen to for weeks or even months on end. So here is my Top 10 “Random songs that I have collected on trips to South Africa”, in no particular order, and with nothing else in common at all:

1). H.W.C. – Liz Phair.

2). Free Nelson Mandela – Special AKA.

3). Rudy – Supertramp.

4). Get on the Good Foot – James Brown.

5). Big Jet Plane – Primal Scream.

6). Nkalakatha – Mandoza.

7). Mr. Soul – Buffulo Springfield.

8). Sindiza Ngecadilacs – Miriam Makeba and the Skylarks.

9). No More Lonely Nights – The Heads.

10). Ndlovu Iyangena – Tokolo.

Bite Size Theory: Is It My Body?

“For me, music is much more of an area where ritual can happen, which is completely different from how I think about art making. It’s something that I don’t think successfully exists anymore. Music is very much about the spatial situation, and the body, and how the body affects sound, and movement affects sound, and how the audience is a willing partner in making it all come together. By agreeing to enter the space, the audience is almost confirming that what you’re doing is music, or at least that it’s a performance. It wouldn’t be the same without the audience.

Kim Gordon, 2014, Is It My Body? Selected Texts, Sternberg Press.

Bite Size Theory: Let’s Talk About Love

“In daily life music is usually part of other activities, from dancing to housework to sex to gossip to dinner. In critical discourse it’s as if the only action going on when music is playing is the activity of evaluating music. The question becomes, “Is this good music to listen to while you’re making aesthetic judgments?” Which may explain what makes some bands critics’ darlings: Sonic Youth, for instance, is not great music to dance to, but it’s a terrific soundtrack for making aesthetic judgments”.

Carl Wilson, 2007, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, Bloomsbury.


Touch Me I’m Sick

JDEntirely coincidentally, this week, the week that HMV went into administration, I have finally decided to get rid of my LPs and cassettes – the former unplayed since 2000, the latter briefly revived in a house move in 2009, but long forgotten before that. I already have duplicate CD versions of some of these, or CDs of greatest hits which do much the same thing; and I have ordered a dozen or so replacements on CD from one of those online sites that has hastened HMVs decline, on the principle that every household with two female children growing up in it needs to contain a copy of Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville, as well as London Calling (and I  don’t feel that guilty about HMV, I feel I did my bit to help them over the Xmas period). Nevertheless, this has meant deciding that there is a whole bunch of music I don’t want to listen to anymore.

I’m not a great believer in the idea that music sounds better on vinyl, or even in the ritual of taking records out of sleeves and that sort of thing; I do think having a physical object as the repository for music is crucial to how I at least listen – browsing a list of titles isn’t the same as browsing a shelf of poorly organised things. But there is something to be said for the LP as an art object, over CDs – I’m keeping Fear of Music ‘cos it has a weird corrugation pattern on it. What I have been going through, deciding what to chuck, what to replace, and what few to keep, is a distinctive aesthetic, not necessarily as constrained as even I remember: mid-to-late-80s-white-boy-Indie, sandwiched between the fading of New Wave and the horrors of post-Nirvana grunge. When the whole world seemed very jangly.

CodIn most cases, letting go has been fairly easy. I don’t have any great desire to return to Big Black’s Songs about Fucking, one of the least sexy records ever; or Dinosaur Jr; or Polvo. And I’ve decided that I no longer need to keep either of my sisters’ copies of David Bowie’s Changes One, or the family copy of The Beatles’ 1962-66 ‘red’ greatest hits.

But I’ve also rediscovered things I had forgotten about – at the risk of embarrassment, or not, things like Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted, Talk Talk’s The Colour of Spring, Eartha Kitt, The Colorblind James Experience, Dionne Farris, The Aquanettas, Scrawl, who I saw almost get electrocuted in Columbus, Ohio in 1998, even The Triffids, whose career was ruined by Jason and Kylie’s wedding. I’ve also discovered to my surprise that I seem to have acquired every record ever made by the Throwing Muses up to the mid-90s.

I have been left wondering what principle I used to apply when buying some things on LP rather than cassette – some sense that certain things might be listened to on the move, perhaps, or maybe a sense that some albums you were meant to buy as LPs because they were proper and serious. I can’t remember when I bought my last record on vinyl, although I have a feeling it might have been a second-hand copy of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours in Reading in about 2000. The first was Remember You’re a Womble. They’re both going out.

Choreographed pop

I had a night out last night, on my own though – my thirty-nine week pregnant partner stayed at home for some reason. I went to see the UK premiere of the new David Byrne concert film, Ride Rise and Roar [I should keep this blog from becoming excessively focussed on him shouldn’t I]. When I say I went to the premiere, this is sort of true – last night was the premiere of the film, somewhere in London, but the film was simulcast in other cinemas round the country. This exciting event attracted a total of 8 people to the Swindon screening – me, and seven other people; I was the youngest. Oh well, that tells you something about Swindon I suppose. There was supposed to be a live simulcast Q&A session with Byrne afterwards, but rather inevitably the cinema in Swindon couldn’t connect up properly. Oh well, I left happy. The film is great – it is about the choreographing of the performance, as well as a film of the show itself. It made me realise how unusual it is to see any movement on stage for standard ‘rock’ music or ‘indie’ music – for guitar based pop, that is. Take That, or Girls Aloud, that sort of pop music is always animated, which is part of what differentiates it as a distinctive genre.  Concert movies are also rather static – any movement comes from lighting, camera positions, editing, and so on. Nobody dances in The Last Waltz. So it was fascinating, and toe-tap inducing, to see  old Talking Heads songs and new Byrne/Eno songs literally put into motion.