Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Something Wicked This Way Comes


Although I've read many of his short stories, I've only just now read one of Ray Bradbury's novels. Something Wicked This Way Comes is a creepy tale of a sinister carnival arriving in small town America. Although at times I find his writing difficult to follow, it has a distinctive beautiful prose, I can imagine him battering out the words on a typewriter, so it comes across as a free stream of consciousness full of poetry, pathos and metaphor. He makes you feel.

The characters he assembles as the villains of the piece are the ranks of the carnival workers, the sideshow “freaks”, led by the tattooed ringmaster “Mr. Dark”, the illustrated man.

What I love about Bradbury’s writing is his male “heroes” aren’t muscle bound quip making jocks in the traditional sense. They are dreamers, they visit libraries, they cry, they regret, they appreciate wonder, they have an inner dialogue full of doubt. They feel real.

And below is chapter 10, in its entirety, is a very beautiful example of everything I love about Bradbury.

“Just after midnight.

Shuffling footsteps.

Along the empty street came the lightning-rod salesman, his leather valise swung almost empty in his baseball-mitt hand, his face at ease. He turned a corner and stopped.

Paper-soft white moths tapped at an empty store window, looking in.

And in the window, like a great coffin boat of star-coloured glass, beached on two sawhorses lay a chunk of Alaska Snow Company ice chopped to a size great enough to flash in a giant’s ring.

And sealed in this ice was the most beautiful woman in the world.

The lightning-rod salesman’s smile faded.

In the dreaming coldness of ice like someone fallen and slept in snow avalanches a thousand years, forever young, was this woman.

She was as fair as this morning and fresh as tomorrow’s flowers and lovely as any maid when a man shuts up his eyes and traps her, in cameo perfection, on the shell of his eyelids. The lightning-rod salesman remembered to breathe.

Once, long ago, travelling among the marbles of Rome and Florence, he had seen women like this, kept in stone instead of Ice. Once, wandering in the Louvre, he had found women like this, washed in summer colour and kept in paint. Once, as a boy, sneaking the cool grottoes behind a motion picture theatre screen, on his way to a free seat, he had glanced up and there towering and flooding the haunted dark seen a women’s face as he had never seen it since, of such size and beauty built of milk-bone and moon-flesh, at to freeze him there alone behind the stage, shadowed by the, motion of her lips, the bird-wing flicker of her eyes, the snow-pale-death-shimmering illumination from her cheeks.

So from other years there jumped forth images which flowed and found new substance here within the ice.

What colour was her hair? It was blonde to whiteness and might take any colour, once set free of cold.

How tall was she?

The prism of the ice might well multiply her size or diminish her as you moved this way or that before the empty store, the window, the night-soft rap-tapping ever-fingering, gently probing moths.

Not important.

For above all—the lightning-rod salesman shivered—he knew the most extraordinary thing.

If by some miracle her eyelids should open within that sapphire and she should look at him, he knew what colour her eyes would be.

He knew what colour her eyes would be.

If one were to enter this lonely night shop -

If one were to put forth one’s hand, the warmth of that hand would. . .what?

Melt the ice.

The lightning-rod salesman stood there for a long moment, his eyes quickened shut.

He let his breath out.

It was warm as summer on his teeth.

His hand touched the shop door. It swung open. Cold arctic air blew out round him. He stepped in.

The door shut.

The white snowflake moths tapped at the window.”

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Doctor Strange

Growing up, I was always a fan of Marvel comics, but if I had to choose a favourite character, it would have been Dr Strange.

Surreal, dark stories, other dimensions, impossible worlds. The villains were sinister, cerebral, mystical, they attacked your soul, not your body, they infected your dreams and drove you insane. They bled your compassion, tempted you, wore you down and ultimately controlled you. Other comics were dominated by slug fests and simpleton brutes knocking lumps out of each other, which I wasn’t adverse to, but Dr Strange was altogether different, suspenseful, verging on the horrific and very unsettling.

The introductory panels of the first ever Dr. Strange story (from Strange Tales #110, July 1963), art by Steve Ditko

As a kid, I somehow managed to get a pulp pocket book edition of the first Dr Strange stories, originally published in the early/mid 60s. I devoured them, I read them again and again, poring over the art and trying to copy the illustrations (my artistic peak was at 9 years old). Steve Ditko was perfect as the artist, already a veteran of many a horror / suspense title prior to joining Marvel, his mix of dark and shadow and then the explosions of colour in fantastic worlds and spells, was a revelation to a young boy.

Nightmare, haunting your dreams. From Strange Tales #110 and below, other dimensions, explosions of colour and psychedelic threats in Strange Tales #126 (again, all art by Ditko)

“EARTH SHALL SOON BE MINE!” – they all say that. Shut up Dormammu.

And the hands! He drew hands beautifully. In the deadline obsessed world of comic books, it would have been easy to take shortcuts. As any artist will tell you, hands are one of the most difficult things you can draw, but Ditko appeared effortless in the way he conveyed hands. Whether the incantations of Dr Strange and his enemies, or the web slinging endeavours of Spider Man (who he also co-designed) the focal aspect of his art, was of lithe elegance, and the hands expressed so much in the narrative and storytelling. The other main artist at Marvel at the time was Jack Kirby, who I also love, it’s a generalisation but his heroes were stockier, powerfully drawn with thick lines and prominent shading. Thor, The Hulk, The Thing, those were the characters perfect for Kirby. But Ditko, his heroes were althogether more graceful.

And so to the film, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I laughed at myself, feeling a pang of that childhood thrill of expectancy… there was a new Doctor Strange story! The casting was great (see panel below and publicity shot from Empire magazine) and the story was fun, well paced and well acted.

It also captured the conceit and self absorbsion of Dr Strange, the surgeon, prior to his accident, his humbling, his descent into depression and his transformation into the sorceror supreme. All this was faithful to the comics. The great thing about Marvel is their heroes are flawed. Sometimes the flaws are ugly. I remember, when I was 10 or so, being absorbed by quite a dark personal storyline of Tony Stark battling alchoholism in Iron Man. This was more intriguing to me than him fighting his enemies. I loved Iron Man, but my faith in him was being challenged through the writing, creating this self destructive angry victim, out of control and stuck in a bottle, with such a dangerous weapon at his disposal. I was scared he was going to kill someone. It stressed me out!

I wont spoil the film, but I reccomend it. Mads Mikkelsen is a great camp luvvy of a villain (in the best way possible) and he gets some funny dry lines, as funny as you can be if you’re a zealous nihilst desperate to deliver planet Earth to a frightening entity in another dimension. Cumberbatch is sublime too. It’s a heavyweight cast and they all delivered.

And Stan Lee’s cameo is trippy, again, a little nod to the 1960s, which pepper the film. They even use Interstellar Overdrive by Pink Floyd at one point. And yes, the other dimensions are bonkers.

So go see it, it has a bit more depth than the relentless punch ups and groin thrusting of the Avengers films, and I think with Dr Strange being part of that franchise in the future, it can only improve things. By the hoary hosts of Hoggoth, a respectable 8/10.

Ps – As for the reclusive Steve Ditko, it appears he’s still working independently. Oh to own one of his wonderful pieces of work one day!

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Yayoi Kusama, Victoria Miro gallery


Undoubtedly I would say this is one of my favourite art exhibitions in recent years. In her autumn years, Yayoi Kusama, from the safety of her hospital and nearby studio, generates art of poignancy and moments you can feel.

The paintings and the pumpkins on their own are gorgeous, but it is in the magic of the three infinity rooms where you experience the real highlight. They are both intimate and eternal, an otherworldly, Alice in wonderland like experience, you climb in through the small door and and you are immediately transported, surrounded by mirrors to accentuate the cascading reflections of her work and your own image, as an awkward, unworthy traveler climbing into her dreams or her fragile heart and seeing something of her essence.

She is world famous, a recognised brand, but her art hasn’t lost any meaning, she works tirelessly, art grounds her, the polka dots that dominate her work are like a ward against her fear of self obliteration through the hallucinations that have plagued her since childhood.

‘One day I was looking at the red flower patterns of the tablecloth on a table, and when I looked up I saw the same pattern covering the ceiling, the windows and the walls, and finally all over the room, my body and the universe. I felt as if I had begun to self-obliterate, to revolve in the infinity of endless time and the absoluteness of space, and be reduced to nothingness. As I realized it was actually happening and not just in my imagination, I was frightened. I knew I had to run away lest I should be deprived of my life by the spell of the red flowers. I ran desperately up the stairs. The steps below me began to fall apart and I fell down the stairs straining my ankle.’

The first of the three infinity rooms is “Chandelier of Grief, 2016”, I was a bit stunned to be honest and I need to visit again, as my undoubtedly false memory is telling me the chandelier was slowly rotating, but I know it wasn’t. One thing to take note of if you are visiting their N1 Islington gallery between Old Street and Angel tube stations, is it can get very very busy. Times inside the exhibits is limited, controlled by some poor member of staff who has to check a stop watch to ensure people don’t get too immersed or lost in the dream. And of course to allow a new guest to get a chance to visit.

(all photos – Mel Melis)

Although there is no mandated route, the next mirror room to visit was the magnificent “All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins, 2016” – anyone who knows Kusama’s work will understand how the pumpkin, in combination with polka dots is such an important motif for her. I would have loved more time in this beautiful place.

"Pumpkins have been a great comfort to me since my childhood. They speak to me of the joy of living”

“They are humble and amusing at the same time, and I have and always will celebrate them in my art"

And the third room is outside in the lovely garden of the gallery, the infinity room called “Where the lights in my heart go, 2016” has little perforation holes to allow light in, which shine on the inner black surface to create intricate constellations of stars. In the silence and accompanying darkness you get a brief feel for floating in space, at least until the door is opened to allow the next guest in!

“When I was a child, I used to paint intently. The older I become, and the closer death approaches, the brighter my life gets day by day.”

In summary, this is a wonderful exhibition. If you want to witness for yourself the leftfield, sensitive and beautiful works of one of the world’s greatest living artists, then please visit. You’ll thank me. But mostly, you’ll thank her when you step into her magical infinity rooms.

It’s at the Victoria Miro at both of their gallery locations.

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Shonen Knife, Bedford Rock City, May 2016


It’s amazing to think that Shonen Knife have been going since 1981, this was their 35th year of touring and writing material, with fifteen studio albums of quirky punk pop behind them and a bonkers repertories of lyrically wonderful songs to perform, this was going to be great. For me, Bedford is my local town, so I didn’t have to go into London for a change. Bossman came up from Kent and we hit the venue Esquires.

The current line up saw the return of original member Atsuko on bass, joining her perma-guitarist sister Naoko with new member Risa on drums, who was the happiest person in Bedford it seemed! Atsuko revived her historical role of designing the band’s costumes, so the stage was silver sheen and sparkle!

Brill fan vid

Opening with the savage Konnichiwa! “Are you ready to rock? Yes!” with synchronised axes spraying the crowd with happy rock bullets and hair flying - they went straight into Twist Barbie

“Blue eyes, blond hair
Tight body, long legs
She's glamorous
She's welcomed by boys, ooh, aah aah”


They then embarked on a whirlwind set which squished in many of their classics and older songs including the cute love song Loop Di Loop, Riding on the Rocket, E.S.P and BBQ Party where the eclectic crowd went insane, their brilliant array of hairstyles, ages, musical tribes and social groups merging into a senseless seething mass of bludgeoning sweaty bodies and grins in the mosh pit. We stood on the fringes, enjoying the carnage!

“Riding on the rocket I wanna go to pluto
Space foods are marshmallows, asparagus, ice cream
Blue eyed kitty cat said, "please let me go with you"
Iko, iko everybody let's go”

Risa and Naoko

They also played songs from the new album, Adventure. As well as the punk influences, especially the Ramones, you can hear elements of British heavy rock, such as Sabbath and Motorhead, and little nods to Nirvana along the way (Kurt Cobain was a huge fan and they toured with them on the Nevermind tour). Stand out tracks with such as Rock and Roll T Shirt and Wasabi (Hot Hot Wasabi, why are you so hot?) were licked out and afterwards the band signed CDs and posters. The semi acoustic Green Tangerine was a very catchy break from the rock and punk.

“Green Tangerine, Fruit of sunshine, Tons of Vitamins, I me mine, I me mine

The girls. And yes that man pretty much got mosh happy naked. 

I also got my rare 2000 yen note signed (show a 2000 yen note to any Japanese person and chances are they might never have seen one and they’ll deliver a cartoon style double take!).

Sometimes you don’t need earnest and well meaning, sometimes you just want to have fun and laugh. Shonen Knife delivered.

“We've always enjoyed writing songs about everyday things. Besides, there are already enough bands out there singing about pollution, war and poverty. While we all care very much about those things, we also feel that music should be fun” – well, yes.

Thank you Shonen Knife, from a very grateful Bedford Rock City.

Saturday, 6 February 2016



“Do you know what ‘Sputnik’ means in Russian? ‘Travelling companion’. I looked it up in a dictionary not long ago. Kind of a strange coincidence if you think about it. I wonder why the Russians gave their satellite that strange name. It’s just a poor little lump of metal, spinning around the Earth.”

“And it came to me then. That we were wonderful travelling companions, but in the end no more than lonely lumps of metal on their own separate orbits. From far off they look like beautiful shooting stars, but in reality they’re nothing more than prisons, where each of us is locked up alone, going nowhere. When the orbits of these two satellites of ours happened to cross paths, we could be together. Maybe even open our hearts to each other. But that was only for briefest moment. In the next instant we’d be in absolute solitude. Until we burned up and became nothing.”

Both of these extracts come from Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart, the beautiful and tragically sad tale of unrequited love and existential emptiness.

I read the book, coincidentally, shortly after visiting the Science Museum, and let me make this perfectly clear, the Cosmonauts exhibition is inspiring, beautiful and wonderful. But it’s also frightening and sad. When I saw Sputnik 2, and the model of the capsule where poor Laika had the dubious honour of becoming the first mammal in space, I clutched my own chest, forcing myself to not shed a tear, and imagined the poor stray, who had been ‘rewarded’ for her obedience and intelligence, expiring in the emptiness in the cold, dark silence of space, without anyone to comfort her, without any chance of returning home to the handlers who no doubt missed her and mourned her as soon as they locked her in the capsule. Space is cruel, and progress is cruel.

The exhibition celebrates the success of the Soviet Union’s dominance in the space race, until at least 1969 when Kennedy landed the cold war coup of the century, literally on the moon.

Until then though, the American’s languished behind the scientific creativity and genius of the Soviets. Led by their Chief Designer Sergei Koralev they streaked ahead. First satellite, first man in space, first woman in space, first spacewalk, they ticked off successes whilst the Americans struggled. It was only when Koralev died that the Americans really caught up and the funding partially dried up in the USSR.

The exhibition is a celebration of the space race, Sputnik is of course commemorated. The “Beep… Beep… Beep” it generated is plastered all over one wall. The Russians thought little of the launch of Sputnik, it had a small passing reference dedicated to it in the official Soviet newspaper Pravda, but when the rest of the world caught sniff of it, the story exploded and the Soviets realised they had a massive propaganda victory. I remember the tale of the American who happened to be in Moscow when Sputnik was launched. He was relentlessly teased in the street with Muscovites making the “beep” sound at him. And I love how Koralev wanted Sputnik 1 to look beautiful, because one day he knew it would be housed in museums around the world. Truly it is an iconic marvel.


Three of the Cosmonaut heroes are also celebrated.

Yuri Gagarin

“I saw for the first time the Earth's shape. I could easily see the shores of continents, islands, great rivers, folds of the terrain, large bodies of water. The horizon is dark blue, smoothly turning to black, the feelings which filled me I can express with one word, joy.”

The first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, with his handsome film star looks was a global superstar. After surviving space, he sadly died piloting a prototype plane, which immortalised him forever as the tragic and beautiful youth. He had a huge following, and the first country he visited outside of the communist bloc was The UK. Although he sat next to the Queen on an official dinner, his visit was instigated through an invite by the Amalgamated Union of Foundry Workers in Manchester, he himself had been a steel worker before joining the military. Massive crowds followed him everywhere and little anecdotes such as him refusing an umbrella to show solidarity with the crowds getting rained on won him hearts. He was the darling of the press, even the right wing press.

The other thing to note about Gagarin, is he was tiny, perhaps only 5’3”. I assumed he would be tall, but cosmonauts were partially chosen (aside from the gruelling mental and physical fitness they endured) on their size, they needed to fit in the capsules to take them into space.

Gagarin and Leonov (source Russia Today)

Alexei Leonov

Leonov was the first man to conduct a space walk. I remember watching a BBC production on Cosmonauts and he talked candidly about how he avoided disaster when he nearly didn’t make it back to the spacecraft.

His suit had slowly expanded due to the pressure, which meant his hand had slipped out of the expanding glove and he couldn’t grip to climb back to the safety of the Voskhod 2. Had his ship swept beyond the sun and orbited into the darkness, the cold would have killed him instantly. He only had minutes. He took a risk to save his life, he slowly vented air from his suit into space and although suffering from the bends, he mercifully was able to get his hand into the glove and climb back into the craft. The phlegmatic Leonov didn’t want to make a fuss so didn’t mention the issue to base while he was trying to save himself.

But he and his crewmate Belyayev had another brush with death on the same mission, the module the cosmonauts were on, landed hundreds of kilometres off course, and for two nights they endured sub zero temperatures waiting to be rescued. To airlift them they needed space for a helicopter to land, so the cold ravaged men on board had to ski with their rescuers to reach a point where they could finally be safe.

Leonov was, or rather is, a romantic, an artist and we’re lucky he’s still with us to regale us with his tales of adventure and joy at seeing the birth of the day from the dark crescent rim of the Earth. He was a painter, and on each of his missions he would draw and this tiny little exhibit was one I was particularly fond of. His pencil set, with wrist ring and individual threads for each pencil (to stop them floating off) and his little painting “The Rising of the Sun” March 18th 1965. Those are the pencils he used.

“I have had two dreams, to be a pilot and an artist – I succeeded in achieving the former and became a cosmonaut. But not the latter. Still, all my spare time I dedicate to painting”

Valentina Tereshkova

“Anyone who has spent any time in space will love it for the rest of their lives. I achieved my childhood dream of the sky.”

In 1963, Valentina Tereshkova (calling sign “Chaika” – Seagull in English) became the first woman in space, orbiting 48 times over 3 days, clocking up more time in space than all the American astronauts put together up to that point. The former factory worker was selected with four other women from over 400 applicants and from those five, she was the only one who made it to space, it took nearly two decades for another woman to achieve the same goal. As well as being the first woman in space, what made her ascension to the space programme even more remarkable was that she was the first civilian to make it. She was given an honorary title in the Soviet Air Force during her training. The Science museum has two of the most precious artefacts on display. Her flight suit with the striking dove of peace emblematic on her chest, but also the actual module she flew into space in, from Vostok 6. The solid looking dented old sphere must’ve been so tiny in the depths of space.

Still alive, the fiercely patriotic Tereshkova had volunteered, as recently as 2013 to go on a one way space mission to Mars.

War and Peace

Many of the biggest scientific breakthroughs come through military funding. At the height of the cold war, space engineering and advancement contained the implied threat of nuclear war. If you can launch a rocket into space and land it fairly accurately, then you can attach a warhead to it and obliterate your enemies. And falling straight down, it’s almost impossible to disable.

Thankfully the doomsday clock did not strike midnight during the cold war, and the old enemies, the USA and the main power rising out of the ashes of the Soviet Union, Russia, have a tense but less antagonistic relationship.

Many of the space missions are collaborative affairs now, genuinely science based, multi-country and a standard for international cooperation and friendship. Even in the height of the cold war, the respect between Astronauts and Cosmonauts and their respective governments was genuine. In 1971, the Apollo 15 mission left a small sculpture by Paul Van Hoeydonck on the Moon for “the fallen astronaut” commemorating the deaths of both American and Soviet travellers.

The artist with a replica of “the fallen astronaut” from his website. (not part of the exhibition)

And in 1975, the artist and dreamer Alexei Leonov, in his second space flight, commanded the Soviet half of the joint Soyuz – Apollo mission, where the Soviet craft would dock with the American Apollo craft commanded by Thomas P. Stafford in a symbolic act of union to commemorate the thawing of relations, the end of the cold war and the end of the golden age of the Space Race. Leonov of course drew portraits of both sets of crewmates.

Zond 7 and the tribute to Gagarin

The final room of the exhibition is dedicated to Zond 7. In 1969 the Soviets sent an unmanned spacecraft around the moon with a mannequin onboard, equipped with various sensors around its body, to measure radiation levels, as a pre cursor to a planned moon mission. The mannequin’s face was based on the image of Gagarin. It’s a beautiful serene space washed with blue and pink light. The Soviet’s never made it to the moon, but the American’s did.

Cosmonauts – at the Science Museum until 13th March 2016.