Tuesday, March 27, 2012

"What the fuck do you want fuck off out of here or I’ll bite ye!" Debut Mondays at the Wheeler Centre

The Wheeler Centre runs a monthly night called Debut Mondays, where four first-time authors are given a mic and ten minutes to read from their work. As you might imagine it can be a hit and miss. Not all writers publish a first book that warrants a second, and even those who do usually take time to grow into the entertaining performers we nowadays expect them to be.

This year Debut Mondays has moved downstairs to The Moat, the swish cafĂ©/bar/restaurant that opened late last year. (Along with Embiggen Books down the road, The Moat is apparently part of “the Little Lonsdale St renaissance”.) It’s a much more welcoming, hospitable environment for what is usually a lowkey event – although the March edition was something special.

Robert Power kicked things off entertainingly, confessing he had spent time in his youth as both a revolutionary socialist and a Seventh-Day Adventist. The creepy religious twins in his reading from In Search of the Blue Tiger certainly bespoke this experience.

Next up was Maggie Groff, who had already won my heart by chatting comfortably with yellow-shirted Leon – a local street identity and serial attendee of protests and literary events. Maggie read one of the opening scenes from her book Mad Men, Bad Girls and the Guerilla Knitters Institute, a light crime read that delves into the world of cults in northern NSW and south Queensland.

Then up stepped Chris Flynn sporting a shaved head, thick black-rimmed glasses and a gentle Irish accent. After a few introductory remarks, he excused himself to “get into character”. He turned his back to the audience, bent at the waist and kept us in amused suspense before reappearing clad in a black balaclava (minus the glasses).

The narrator of Flynn’s Tiger in Eden is Billy Montgomery, a Protestant hard man from Belfast who is hiding out in Thailand, and we were treated to a section of Billy’s experience on vipassana. Vipassana is of course a silent meditation retreat, and Flynn’s frenetic delivery of Billy’s inner monologue – complete with a thick Belfast accent, slang and swear words – made for a hilarious contrast with the supposed calm of his environs.

Since I bought the book afterwards (a first in all my time at the Wheeler Centre), I can reproduce here my favourite section from the reading, when Billy leaves the guided walking meditation and encounters a trail of ants that draw his attention:

“Fuck they’re amazing so they are in a world of their own they don’t give a fuck about us humans and our aul problems, they’ve got attitude too this big red one crawled past me I was sitting on the ground watching them and he must have seen me or something, the wee bastard stops and looks right up at me as if to say what the fuck do you want fuck off out of here or I’ll bite ye. I’m about a thousand times his size or something, I could crush him no bother and he still comes at me all threatening like did you not hear me get to fuck. I jumped up thinking, aye all right pal take it easy I’m going now. I had to sit somewhere else and hope he didn’t come back, the wee fucker set of balls on him like.”

Is Flynn indebted Irvine Welsh? Billy’s mix of humour, boredom and quickness to violence are reminiscent of Trainspotting’s Begbie, and the first-person form accentuates the similarity. I love Welsh anyway, and Tiger in Eden is so well realised it shouldn’t really matter. The sex scenes (of which there are many) and the long full moon party scene are written lightly and convincingly. Billy’s character becomes more sympathetic as his horrific past bubbles up to confont hime, and this process gives the book its structure and abiding sense of hope.

Give Tiger in Eden to a boy aged 15-50 and see if they don’t devour it in one or two sittings.

Of course, the fourth author at our Debut Mondays event (yes, we’re back in The Moat) did not fall into this demographic. She was the 11 year-old Eliza Baker, winner of the 2011 John Marsden Prize for Best Short Story/ First Chapter of a Novel by a writer under the age of 18. As a man in a balaclava dropped F and C-bombs with abandon, Eliza’s dad seemed rather unamused – but her mum was cracking up.

Eliza then stood up and read Chapter One of her novel in progress, South Spirit: The Locket Heart. It was cute and magical, and warmly applauded. After her experience at The Wheeler Centre, however, perhaps Chapter Two will be a bit different.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Little Readers and Readees

Yesterday I worked the Children’s Book Festival for the Wheeler Centre. Outside the State Library lawns were overrun and Little Lonsdale St was a “child apocalypse” (according to my workmate Autumn) of colourful chalking. Inside I chatted to authors and held the mic for kids to ask questions whose succinctness put most adult patrons of the Wheeler Centre to shame.

I must have been too old to appreciate Andy Griffiths when The Day My Bum Went Psycho was published. Thankfully I seem to be young enough now, because I was consistently delighted by both his half-hour presentations – especially the second, a slideshow of his forthcoming 13 Storey Treehouse book with illustrator Terry Denton. And the kids were climbing off the walls.

But the real highlight of the day, for me, was hearing Graeme Base. Like most kids my age (i.e. 32) I have vivid memories of Animalia and The Eleventh Hour. For the first time in decades I remembered the excitement around my brother’s class having an Eleventh Hour dress-up feast. Unfortunately, under Mum’s creative direction he went as the swan, and was teased quite severely. This was, after all, Year 7 at a boy’s school.

At one point a child asked Graeme how he got the idea to write books, and in his response he asked the audience if anyone knew the book Masquerade. I was kneeling in the second row, waiting to hold the mic for the next question, and amidst the confused silence my low murmur of assent carried all the way to the stage. “Sebastian knows!” exclaimed the author as I knelt there feeling absurdly proud.

Masquerade is an amazing book by Kit Williams, published in 1982 as the clue to a real-life treasure hunt. The author had buried a golden hare somewhere in England, and hundreds of thousands of people around the world bought the book in the hope of unlocking the mystery and claiming the prize. And, with the miracle of Wikipedia, I have just discovered the original winner was revealed as a fraud six years later. It’s an incredible story, and I’ll leave you to look it up if you’re interested.

When I think back to my childhood, The Eleventh Hour and Masquerade seem like definitive, eye-popping experiences of the magic of books. Another that springs to mind is Anno’s Journey, Anno’s Italy and similar works by Mitsumasa Anno.  If you don’t know Anno, imagine Where’s Wally? done in a minimalist, Zen Buddhist style by an artist with a deep interest in history, science and travel.

If I was sitting in Mum’s place in the Adelaide Hills, I’d be able to list many more favourite picture books that truy transcend the term. As it is, I’ll have to stick with what I can remember.

Having said that, my first memory of reading, like all memories from the first three and half years of my life lived in Brunei, is no a real memory at all. It’s captured on film. There I sit, blonde and pudgy with the Three Billy Goats Gruff balanced between my toes. It almost looks like I’m reading the book, but really I’m reciting it by memory. A neat party trick, though.

What I do remember is Mum reading aloud to us. A lot. More than a lot. More than I can imagine any parent reading to their children. More than I can imagine reading to my children, if and when, and that’s a sobering thought because there’s really no greater gift you can give a child. Not when you’ve got food, clothes and a roof sorted, anyway.

From an early age we had at least an hour of reading every night, and usually not in bed but sprawled out in the living room on a sheepskin rug, the couch or in front of an open fire. Kipling’s Just So Stories were favourites, especially The Beginning of the Armadilloes and The Cat That Walked By Himself. The Hobbit was a big hit, but when Mum started The Lord of the Rings I found it hard to follow and wandered off.

Or so the story goes. I was so young I can hardly remember this – somewhere around my sixth birthday. The way Mum tells it, every time I wandered off she would see my head peeking around the corner shortly thereafter, and before long I’d be back in the living room, listening again. Writing this, I just heard a flash of Mum’s voice solemnly intoning the words inscribed on the ring of power: “One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.” Soon I was hopelessly enthralled.

Amazingly, this wasn’t even the first time The Lord of the Rings had been read aloud in our family. Dad read it to Mum in England, when she was pregnant with my older brother Thomas. I can just imagine Mum correcting Dad’s pronunciation of all the names, and interrupting to fill him in on the Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse influences on Tolkien’s Middle Earth. How he managed to finish it within nine months remains unclear.

Years later, giving the Best Man speech at my brother’s wedding, I explained his curious middle name Aelfwyn to a bemused audience. It means “elf-friend” in Anglo-Saxon, and I joked that our parents are not even hippies – they’re just geeks.

To the extent that this is true, I’m glad of it. Months of our childhood were spent listening not just to Kipling and Tolkien, but Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, Lloyd Alexander, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Ursula Le Guin, E. Nesbitt,, Kenneth Grahame, Colin Thiele – and dozens more authors I can’t wait to read to my kids, if and when, before the 21st century catches up with them.

So I thought yesterday, walking home from the State Library, with the sights and sounds of of children spellbound by their favourite authors dancing happily around my head.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Music I Love - Now Yours To Download!

Sebby's Retro Electrorave mix by SebbyP

As readers of this blog will know, I was rather excited about seeing Africa HiTech, Mark Pritchard and Aphex Twin perform live earlier this month.

As well as inspiring two laudatory reviews, this led me to while away an afternoon investigating the entire Warp Records back catalogue – or at least as much of it as I could find on Bleep. $100 later, I had on my hard drive a large collection of tracks from the classic Sheffield electronic label of the 1990s.

In Energy Flash, his seminal history of rave, Simon Reynolds criticises Warp for snobbishly setting itself apart from the scene – and argues that by doing so it cut itself off from creative explosions, such as the birth of jungle, that occurred precisely because producers and DJs needed ever newer and crazier sounds to keep the dancefloor pumping.

There is at least an element of truth to this. Warp is known as one of the founders and custodians of electronica or, as it is sometimes known, IDM (intelligent dance music). With compilations like Artificial Intelligence in the early 1990s, they helped create a sound somewhere between rave’s main room and its chill room. But Reynolds’ critique glosses over the hugely influential work of artists like Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, Boards of Canada and in particular Autechre – who have drifted steadily from the dancefloor but somehow continued to develop an immense oeuvre that is, at its heart, rave.

The music I was looking for on Bleep was the electro-beat, ambient-acid rave of the first half of the 1990s. I’m sure there’s more out there, and I plan on tracking it down, but I did find what I was looking for: an early twelve-inch by Move D (now known for his deep house); various Pritchard aliases including including Link and Reload; some Underground Resistance and Drexciya connections, still fresh and showing the influence of Detroit electro on the UK scene; and, most notably, two LPs and three EPs from the little known and short-lived Sheffield outfit RAC.

RAC’s music fit the bill pretty closely, and two of their tracks have found their way onto this mix I put together on Ableton to showcase some of these new/old tunes – as well as other favourites that clock in around 134bpm. The only genuinely new tracks are from Scuba and Shpongle, and both could be described as looking backwards to move forwards.

It was fun (and pretty easy) making the mix, although I struggled to get the volume levels as even as I would have liked. Mixing the records live would be another story altogether, although I do feel more inspired to get behind the decks than in quite some time.

You can download it from Soundcloud or just have a listen, and if you do I’d like to hear your thoughts. What’s your favourite track? Can you imagine dancing to this music? It starts very mellow but works its way onto the dancefloor, I think. What are your thoughts on the electro-style breakbeat? I love how the off-beat gives the music more bounce, while the 303s and other percussive elements make it flow – four-to-the-floor can sound so wooden and lifeless at times. The Buckfunk 3000 (AKA Si Begg) track hints at where this style would be taken with great commercial success but much less nuance in the early Noughties, i.e. the breaks scene.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the mix. If you haven't been out in a while, have a dance around your bedroom! I certainly have been.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Thoughts on a funeral

On Wednesday I went to the funeral of Celia “Aze” Beasy, my girlfriend Theresa’s great aunt, at St Stephen’s Anglican Church in North Balwyn.

I only met Aze once. She lay quietly looking out the window from her bed, speaking briefly when prompted by her energetic younger sister Valmai. But before the funeral Theresa told me of Aze’s wonderful shack at the beach, where canasta games dragged on forever because her friends would constantly drop in unannounced. Having witnessed the purgatory of her last days in a nursing home, it was good to have this snapshot of life as she really lived it.

Aze moved down from Newcastle very late in life, and many at the church would scarcely have recognised the vibrant woman described in the eulogy. I almost felt sorry for her, surrounded in death by so few people who really knew and loved her. On reflection, however, I think this says more about me than her. She lived a long and happy life. What else matters?

It’s a difficult question to answer. At least there was one happy side effect of Aze’s death, which doubtless is quite common: her family pulled closer together. They spent more time together, talked more, hugged more. It was great to see.

As a newcomer, I felt more at ease with Theresa’s family at this time of grief than previously in more informal settings. Suddenly, I was useful. I held a box of tissues, Theresa’s hand and her Mum’s hand bag; I passed around food platters and chatted up senior citizens; I belted out “Jerusalem” when the priest seemed to lose his way; I even managed not to think of Will Ferrell in Stepbrothers when “Con Te Partiro” was played.

And no, the day wasn’t all albout me – but I do have a tendency to narcissism, which is partly why I’m interested in funerals.  At times I’ve imagined giving the eulogy of a close friend or family member, and delivering such a virtuoso performance that the attendant throng was wept bone dry of tears and rolling in the aisles with laughter. In contrast, Aze’s eulogy was delivered quite matter-of-factly by an acquaintance she made after her 80th birthday.

Perhaps the ideal eulogy is this: an energetic, talented youngster steps up to bring a life long since gone grey back to the full colour of its bloom. A friend of mine recently returned from London for the funeral of her grandfather, at which she delivered her fourth eulogy in even fewer years. She was a big hit. Afterwards, distant relatives and family friends were jostling for position, hoping to book her in to “do them” when the time comes.

But of course, the usual narcissistic funeral fantasy involves one’s own send-off. It’s morbidly but endlessly fascinating to ponder: what would happen if I died tomorrow? Who would speak? Where would they hold it? How many people would turn up? Perhaps more importantly, who would write the Facebook event invite – and who would click ‘Maybe Attending’?

In the mixtape era of the early 1990s, I selected Metallica’s “Orion” as my funeral march. Thankfully, times have changed and I now have a suggested playlist on iTunes, although it does need some work. In fact, even thinking about this makes me want to buy my legal eagle friends a beer (they aways end up paying anyway). Is it possible to produce a will so watertight that the executors of my estate are legally obliged to play a particular selection of music, at a minimum decibel level, and on a particular brand of speakers?

Here’s a mouth-watering scenario: at the ripe old age of 90, I disappear in a sandstorm during a Trans-Siberian ultramarathon and am declared legally awesome dead. My recalcitrant conservative children engage in a lengthy court battle against my surviving coterie of old friends in an attempt to have my will quashed, but are ultimately unsuccessful. In an ironic twist, said old friends sit too close to the Bose sound system at the funeral and suffer multiple simultaneous cardiac arrests during the blissful electronic maelstrom that is Pita’s Get Out Track 3 at the legal minimum of 100dB.

Those who survive this ordeal then find themselves at a wake where all my worldly possessions are laid out for their perusal. Everyone has to take something home, especially if it’s a book with their name in it – or a picture of me looking young and beautiful. Or perhaps old and beautiful, either is fine. By the age of 90 there will be over 5,000 tagged photos of me on Facebook, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find a few decent ones.

All my signature dishes are served: zucchini pizza, rice balls, smoked trout salad and spanish tortilla. Dessert platters heave with a dozen different custard pastries. There is vodka, jagermeister and a bottomless ice bucket of Cooper’s pale, and when everyone is tipsy (but not too drunk) a beautifully crafted joint gets passed around. The music is cranked up, and suddenly a live-action performance of Dan Ducrou’s “Grandpa Does the Melbourne Shuffle” is underway. Cue more cardiac arrests.

This fantasy might have outstayed its welcome, but be warned: this is only the beginning. Soon my will will be written, and so will the directions for my funeral and wake. Actually, I might do the Facebook event too. It would be such a shame not to go out on a high.

In the meantime, I guess I'll have to work on being worthy of such a send-off when the time comes. Harnessing narcissism to live a good life? As Woody Allen says, whatever works.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Winter Is Coming (And That's Summer In France)

In recent years, I’ve been quite enthralled by the Tour de France. At first this came as a surprise to people who know me, including myself. For years I took perverse pride in having actually forgotten how to ride a bike. One of my most recent adventures in cycling ended when I veered inexplicably into the railway line fence in Westgarth. I just checked: the scar is still there on my belly.

So Le Tour (it’s French for The Tour) might not make me want to hit the pedals, but it does make me turn on the telly after 10pm any night I’m home.  To the skeptical or uninitiated, I usually begin my explanation like this: “Have you ever watched one of those HBO DVD box sets?”

Bear with me.

In a single cycling race – say, the road race at the Olympics – a hundred or so riders start off, ride for a really long time and then somebody wins. Sometimes there’s a bit of drama along the way but often it comes down to a sprint for the finish line. Let’s call this the Generic Hollywood Movie version of cycling.

The Tour, however, is the HBO Box Set. With 21 days of racing (and a few rest days in between), there is plenty of time for the drama to develop.

In the Tour, riders are in it for themselves but more importantly for their team, and hence the team’s major corporate sponsor. Most teams are international but some have a national base: there is a Basque team, and now an Australian one.

Some teams have a rider aiming for individual glory. There is the Yellow Jersey for the overall leader of the Tour; the Green Jersey for the best sprinter (points can be won at the finish line but also at various places throughout a stage); the Polka Dot Jersey for the King of the Mountains, the best climber; the White Jersey for the best young rider; and the prestige of winning an individual stage.

If a team has a rider hoping to win any of these things, his team mates are expected to support him even at their own expense. But if he falls out of contention, one of his team mates can have a day in the sun.

The significance of all this may not be instantly apparent, so let me explain. In the Generic Hollywood Movie, everyone is trying to win the race/ get the girl/ save the world. In the HBO Box Set, life is rather more complicated. People want different things! There is a tangled web of motivations and alliances, with characters moving up and down the ladders of fortune and influence depending on their skill and luck.

Only one man can wear the Yellow Jersey – but most of the riders in the field are directly or indirectly involved in a plot to tear it off his back.

Sound familiar, Game of Thrones fans?

The great thing about Le Tour – and HBO TV shows – is they don’t pander to short attention spans.  If you turn on for twenty minutes, nothing will happen. Invest a few weeks of your life, though, and the rewards are proportionate. If you really get to know a character, you’ll really feel it when he falls off his bike – or gets his head chopped off.

With its second season about to air in the US, Game of Thrones is something of a phenomenon. Based on a series of fantasy novels by George R. R. Martin, it was supposedly pitched to the network as “The Sopranos on Middle Earth”. It’s a description that may be apocryphal but nonetheless cannot be bettered.

The setting is the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, a realm with many similarities to Britain. The War of the Roses is a clear inspiration: the two noble houses of Lannister (Lancaster) and Stark (York) are at each other’s throats. A great wall protects the civilised from barbarians to the north. Across the Narrow Sea is a vast land mass of exotic cultures, magic, and perhaps even dragons.

It’s not all tight scripts and great acting, of course. Le Tour may have the drugs but Game of Thrones has serious doses of violence and sex. I haven’t heard as much blood gurgling in throats since The Passion of the Christ. As for the sex, well, I would argue it’s mostly contextual. Others have a different view.

Some people have complained they can’t follow Game of Thrones: “Too many names, too confusing.” Well, I guess that’s where the luscious mise-en scene and amazing backdrops come in. If you haven’t got the foggiest what’s going on, just put your feet up and enjoy the view on your expensive new Plasma TV.

One of the celebrated highlights of the Tour is the breathtaking scenery. While the riders grind out another 200kms, we are treated to helicopter shots of mediaeval abbeys poised perilously on windswept mountaintops. Game of Thrones is essentially the same but, instead of lycra-clad cyclists flashing past, a knight fights a lowborn thug to the death in the trial by combat of a dwarf – while a nine-year old prince breastfeeds and cheers them on.

The Tour de France and Game of Thrones. Let the cross-promotion begin.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Born To Run?

My Dad is a runner. In 1963 he almost won the Open Mile at the Achilles Cup, Adelaide’s private school boys’ athletics meet. Dad was the favourite, but he went out too hard and the Scotch boy caught him on the final straight. I like it when he tells this story.

I like to tell a story of my own, about my name. When I was born, in 1980, the English runner Sebastian Coe was preparing for the Moscow Olympics – and Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was still top of the pops as far as Mum was concerned. My name represents Dad, the jock, and Mum, the intellectual, finding common ground. Like most good stories, there’s some truth in it.

Growing up, my brother and I loved sport but thought running a strange pursuit. In fact, in some ways I took after J.S. more than after Lord Coe: there were more family concerts of baroque music, with Mum accompanying my recorder on the harpsichord, than there were jogs along the beach. Dad dragged us out for a run around the oval once or twice, but Thomas and I would soon get distracted attempting left-foot banana kicks at goal from impossible angles. More fun, less effort.

With very few exceptions, I never went running solo until much later in life. At age 27 I moved to Sydney, as much to improve my health as to see family and friends. I ate well, bodysurfed a lot, stopped drinking and smoking – and then one day, perhaps when the beaches were closed, I decided to go for a run.

It was a rather sobering experience. I lasted two minutes on the steep slopes of Randwick and Coogee before breaking into a walk. A few minutes later I attempted to run again. Then walked some more. Returning home with my tail between my legs, I could easily have forgotten all about running for another twenty years. So why didn’t I?

Mainly I kept at it because I’d been unhealthy for so long, and now I wanted to get fit. Running was a means to an end, but more than that it seemed particularly efficient form of exercise: you could run from the moment you left the front door to the moment you arrived home, the odd traffic delay notwithstanding. And, even if every minute of the run was painful, there was always the high that came afterwards.

There is an equlibrium here. For several years I appreciated the benefits of running enough that I could put up with the act itself, two or three times a week, for four or five kilometres. But running along the Yarra I began to glimpse something better, a higher state where I actually enjoyed being outside, running through the trees and up the riverbank.

Back in Adelaide before Christmas 2010, I went exploring the hills around Mum’s new place in Balhannah. I chose a loop on the map that looked about 7kms in length, and managed not to get lost. It was a beautiful, undulating course but what struck me most was a feeling I experienced about twenty minutes in. It only lasted about five minutes, but I instantly recognised it as the Holy Grail I never knew I’d been seeking.

I felt like I could run forever.

A week later I ran the 11km loop in Chambers Gully with a friend. We climbed (slowly) for 6 kms, ran along a ridge with a stunning city view, and descended for 4kms. My mate nursed me through it and bought my Gatorade at the end, but I still felt like I’d won the Boston Marathon.

A week after that I kicked a soccer ball barefoot on the beach, and broke a toe.

So the first half of 2011 was a write off. I got depressed. I swam a bit, and a few times it felt good and right like running had begun to feel. Mostly it was quite boring; with all due respect to the Northcote pool, the scenery (especially underwater) is very dull. Slowly I began to realise that, even though my toe wasn’t fully healed, I could still run without doing it further damage.

My road trip up the east coast was the real turning point. I camped by deserted beaches and woke up with a barefoot run and a swim. With my friend Daniel I ran the hills of Goonengerry, the 8km loop around Minyon Falls, the beaches and cliff faces of Bunjalong and Yuraygir National Parks. We weren’t just exercising, we were exploring, socialising – and getting buff to swan around Rainbow Serpent with our tops off.

More than once Daniel led me down a trail that wasn’t signposted. We’d follow it for a kilometre or two, and just as I began to complain aloud and suggest we turn back, we’d arrive somewhere magical: a hill with a view, or a river for swimming. We’d stop and enjoy this place we’d discovered, then run back.

Returning to Melbourne, I’ve kept running but struggled to recapture this sense of adventure and pleasure in running. Thankfully, the other day a present from Daniel arrived in the post: a copy of Born To Run by Christopher McDougall.

This post has been rather subdued thus far – partly because I’m recovering from a bug, partly because up to this point in the story I have more or less uninspired about running. For now at least, Born to Run has completely turned this around. Two weeks ago I was back in the habit of running dutifuly, nose to the grindstone. Now I’m dreaming of running around Australia barefoot. I simply cannot wait to get back out there.

Born to Run is a classic piece of “participant-observer” journalism. The book opens with the injury prone McDougall being counselled by top doctors to give running away for good. It finishes with him completing a 50 mile ultramarathon through the Copper Canyons of Mexico, a race that pitted the legendary endurance athletes of the local Tarahumara people against some of the best US ultrarunners.
It’s a cracking read: every chapter ends on a cliffhanger, or with a mystery that needs solving. And inseparable from the physical quest to run the race is McDougall’s inquiry into the crucial role played by running in the story of human evolution.

It’s hard to imagine a greater motivational tool for runners than this: apparently we really are born to run. Worried about your big butt? Well, you don’t really use those gluteus maximus muscles to walk, only to run - and if you don’t use them they’re only going to get bigger. What about your body fat percentage? Apparently humans have relatively high body fat (compared to, say, chimpanzees) precisely to enable us to run long distances.

And why did early humans need to run so far? To hunt. Most animals can beat us pretty easily over short distances, but when it comes to distance running we are right at the top of the tree. The technique of persistence hunting, which has probably been in use since the arrival of Homo erectus 2.6 million years ago, is still practised today by some traditional tribespeople in Africa. Homo sapiens’ ability to run might even explain why we succeeded and the Neanderthals disappeared.

Lastly, if we’ve been running so far for so long, why do we need all these fancy shoes? Well, the good news for people who hate Nike – or just enjoy the feeling of the earth under their feet – is we probably don’t. Cushioned shoes encourage us to run with a gait that actually increase the impact of running on our bodies. Going barefoot is much healthier, as long as you run with proper form. (Wearing shoes is also fine as long as your form is good.)

This post has become, if not a marathon, then at least a longer, slower version of my usual method. I have much more to say on this brilliant book, my Dad’s illustrious athletics career, the genesis of my name and who knows what else – but now I’m off for a run. Not because I feel I should, but the fact it's my evolutionary destiny helps to explain why I want to.


If anyone out there wants to join me in exploring Melbourne on foot, I’m going to start with the Merri Creek Trail later this week.


There's lots of good reading online on the science behind the Running Man hypothesis. You can read a quick article that sums it up pretty well here.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Aphex Twin @ the Palace, 8/3/2012

As JPS and Mike Hunt go three for three on stage at the Palace Tuesday night, it occurs to me that warming up for Aphex Twin really is a dream gig.

Think about it, you can play anything. And I mean anything.

What are you going to do, clear the dancefloor? It’s filling fast no matter what records you spin. Freak the crowd out? These people have paid good money to be freaked out. Upstage the main act? Um, yeah. Good luck with that.

The boys seem to enjoy the freedom to go dark and heavy, banging out Autechre (‘Second Bad Vilbel’), Nosaj Thing, Eskamon and Plaid. Heads nod and knees bend in appreciation. The only misstep comes towards the end when Mike, sporting an oversized Underground Resistance tee, takes things too far into minimal tech territory - but Jerry quickly jumps up and fades in Autechre’s ‘Bike’.

It’s a masterstroke. Many of us gathered here tonight have listened to this track many, many times in the privacy of our own homes. Now, it bursts out of the huge sound system like a coded message for the faithful: you’re not in your bedrooms any more. This is where you, and this music, really belong.

Mark Pritchard’s arrival is another sign we’re in an alternate universe for electronica geeks. Where else are 40-something white men in shorts and glasses greeted so ecstatically? (Well, perhaps the punk scene). And three nights after Africa HiTech’s triumphant Espionage show, he deserves a rapturous welcome.

Pritchard has been in the game for over 20 years, through innumerable partnerships and monnikers like Global Communication, Jedi Knights, Link, Reload and Harmonic 313. He relocated to Sydney several years ago, and is now the closest thing Australia has to electronic music royalty on a global scale. One happy result of this is that, when living legends like Autechre and Aphex Twin tour, there is a man with the credentials and the record bag to play alongside.

“He should play something hard!” we joke to each other as the 303s roll in. Tonight we’re partying like the Noughties never happened, but it doesn’t feel regressive. In the Nineties, UK electronic music hit a sweet spot where anything was possible. With inspiration streaming in from across the Atlantic and across the Channel, rave music cannibalised hip-hop, breakbeat, house, techno, electro, ambient, krautrock and more  (including chin-stroking academic music) in the search for the perfect party where the beat never stopped – and never got boring.

Underpinning this, of course, was a unique scene that, while growing, was still relatively united and utopian. But packed into the Palace tonight, we are a long way from London warehouses or the fields of Castlemorton. As Pritchard drops a hint of his/Reload’s classic “Feedback Energy”, it’s becoming increasingly hard to dance.

By the time he plays the VIP mix of “Out In The Streets”, all we can really do is pogo, headbang or hug friends – and from here on it’s a 20-minute jungle rinseout to the finish. To be honest it’s a bit much for me at 9:30pm on a Tuesday, and if this is the warm-up act then I’m getting slightly worried we’ll only be visited by the evil Richard James tonight.

After a tense few minutes of quiet anticipation, the stage is bathed in an abstract pattern of light that quickly coalesces into the famous Aphex Twin logo. Somewhere up there, we can just make out the head of the great man “Believe in me” intones an electronic voice over an ambient track. “I believe in you!” shouts a bloke behind me. An 303 line creeps in and then the beat drops – it’s hip-hop! The crowd roars and begins to dance. Or at least bop.

For the first half of the set, I find it difficult to enjoy the music as much as I feel I should. Partly it’s my own expectations, which are ridiculously high. Seven years ago Aphex played the Prince of Wales and the music was two hours of danceable bliss – even though we were practically dancing in the toilets to find space.

Partly it’s the squash, but perhaps partly it’s the sound? Stevie T from 8 Foot Felix reckons the speakers are set too far apart and there are too many dead flat walls. I look around. It’s a beautiful venue, and the three packed tiers above make me feel like I’m in a Lenny Kravitz video. But the sound is a little trebly, the bass a tiny bit boomy, and the melodies in the mid-range are getting lost.

Should I join my friends who fled upstairs to find room to move? A beautiful moment early on decides me againt it. The second track breaks down into a rolling synth line bathed in chorus, and as the beat comes back in the visuals morph into close-up, live images of punters dancing.

Most fans would be expecting this, but it’s still a trip to witness up close. And for much of the show, amazingly, the visuals seem to take centre stage. They are constantly entertaining – especially the sequence that puts Aphex and some punters’ heads on the bodies of Aussie icons like Shane Warne, Bindi Irwin and even Julia Gillard being bustled away from the Tent Embassy protesters – but at times almost distracting.

I can’t help but compare this show to Autechre, who play their music in total darkness (the Exit lights and a lamp on stage the only exception). An Autechre gig is ipso facto all about the music: find a spot, open your ears and listen. Dance if you will or can.

I’m tempted to say this show is all about spectacle. But afterwards my mates who fled upstairs to dance tell me they had heaps of space, tore it up, couldn’t see a thing and loved every minute of it. A matter of perspective, then.

The crowd greets “Fingerbib” (off Richard D. James) and “PWSteal.Ldpinch.D” (off the Analord Eps) with ecstatic hands in the air, but the turning point of the set,  for me, is when Aphex drops Surgeon’s “Radiance”. It’s a monster of a track, timeless and terrifying rave music, and the carnivalesque visuals of red and white fractals complement it perfectly. It’s the epileptic fit you want to be having.

Hints of Drukqs drum ‘n’ bass takeover, and then something very unexpected happens. Two hooded figures appear on stage, making their way down from Aphex Twin to the lower stage near the punters. They are wearing unbelievably awesome fluourescent orange onesies. Then they pull out mics and start rapping in South African accents – it’s Die Antwoord!

With hype levels going through the roof, Ninja and Yo-Landi rhyme and dance over some seriously hard, jumping rave music before Ninja decides to somersault into the crowd and lead a chant of “Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!” from mid-air.

It’s all over before we know it, and the whole episode sums up Die Antwoord. They’re fun and they get the party started, but they’re in pretty bad taste and you wouldn’t want them sticking around too long. IMHO, as it were.

If there was any question Aphex might be upstaged, he puts it to bed with the last twenty minutes of his set. The intensity builds and builds as the tempo ramps up and the sound palette heads inexorably towards white noise. We move through jungle into gabba and breakcore territory. People are moshing, people are leaving, people are covering their ears, people are laughing and letting it wash over them.

A set that began in relatively ambient territory finishes in a screeching squall of sound. There’s even a hint of “Ventolin” in there somewhere. It’s an undeniable visceral experience, and when Richard James leaves the stage with a little thumbs-up the place goes bananas. What follows is the lengthiest, most boisterous attempt to win an encore I’ve ever been a part of – and even though most of us must know we’ve got bugger all chance of the man reappearing on stage, it feels right. Like a tribute.

After all, who knows if we’ll ever see Aphex Twin in Australia again?

Maybe as you’re reading this you’re on your way to the Future Music Festival to see him headline a stage after Sven Vath, no less. If so, I’m a bit jealous. At least at Future most of the crowd will be off at Skrillex or whoever, and there should be plenty of room to move.

Maybe one day we’ll get to hear music like this in the setting it really deserves. Mark Pritchard and Africa HiTech at Rainbow Serpent 2013 would be a pretty good start.

Maybe I'm just an old raver who can't accept that it's not 1998 any more.


(Maybe I should have written this piece on Wednesday. Sorry it took me so long, and it's still a bit rushed.  I’ve been sick as a dog and am just feeling better. I’ll post more videos when I can.)

Monday, March 5, 2012

Espionage feat. Africa Hitech @ Miss Libertine, 3/3/12

Halfway through the Summer Innit party in February, Scotty cracked the shits , got on his bike and headed southside to a trance party on the beach.

“When I first moved to Melbourne I spent years going out and supporting the bass scene”, he said as he was leaving. “And you know what? No one ever dances. The crew here are just so fucking uptight!”

I looked around. A hundred or so people sat placidly on the grass around us as the DJ dropped an old jungle remix of the Fugees’ ‘Ready Or Not’. Our mate Daniel was doing his best to ignite the dancefloor, chasing a little kid around with the inexplicable energy of a onetime raw vegan drum ‘n’ bass fiend. But apart from that, an energetic frisbee circle was the closest we’d come to getting our collective boogie on.

This scenario is something of a recurring nightmare: the more adventurous electronic music is stuck in its ghetto of pot-smoking chin-strokers, while the rocking parties are soundtracked by house and trance. It’s like I’m 21 again, and either freaking out at the What Is Music? Festival or queueing up with a heavy heart to get into Q (Adelaide Q).

The good news is, Melbourne has a new crew hellbent on making a mess of these age-old distinctions. In the last year a bit, the Operatives have thrown their Espionage parties with the likes of Flying Lotus, Mount Kimbie, Clark, Marcus Intalex, Nosaj Thing, Klute and Martyn. On the same date as my birthday bash last month they put on Rustie, Hudson Mohawke, Araabmuzik and Balam Acab at Roxanne – just about the most so-hot-right-now lineup I can recall seeing (even on paper) in Australia.

So when Scotty grooves over to me on Saturday night, with Africa Hitech easing into their 3-hour set at Miss Libertines, gestures despairingly at the crowd and shouts in my ear that “Someone has to shake these people up!”… well, it’s not a good sign. Except that onstage Mark Pritchard and Steve Spacek are beginning to do just that, moving from the soulful reggae-infused breakbeats of their opening into Shangaan electro vibes. Happy hardcore party in a South African village, anyone?

As the music heads for the darker climes of grime and dubstep, Scotty starts to shake himself and the dancefloor up with some frenetic moves that raise the bar – and draw looks of bemusement and admiration from the odd chin-stroking bystander. But before long he’s back in my ear about the mixing.

“It’s Jamaican style”, I tell him as one track is wound noisily down and another sprints from the blocks. And when you’re traversing as much territory as Africa Hitech are tonight, Jamaican style seems like a safe bet – fair enough too, Kingston is one of their spiritual homes (along with London, Sheffield, Chicago and the afore-mentioned South African village).

It’s not like they never beat mix, either. With the room already cranking at around 160bpm, they bring in “Out In The Streets” to a roar of approval. We all do our best “Melbourne Shuffle Meets Chicago Footwork Inna Dancehall” before BOOM, they drop that classic dub reggae song we all know but I sadly cannot name and then BOOM straight back to “Out In The Streets VIP” – now with extra jungle!

It’s full ragga style and the perfect climax of their set, and from here on they drop one massive drum ‘n’ bass tune after another until I’m retreating to the toilet to douse my head in cold water. JPS AKA Jerry from the Operatives takes over and plays one of the craziest tunes I’ve ever heard first up, but by now I’ve realised I’m done for the night. I’m not 21 any more, after all.

“Top five all-time best music heard in a club”, I suggest to Scotty, and he tells me he’s always going to trust my musical recommendations from now on.

Well, my next tip is pretty obvious: Espionage featuring Jacques Greene, Machinedrum and Funkineven on Easter Sunday night. Sweet baby Jesus! And tomorrow night Jerry AND Mark Pritchard are back supporting Aphex Twin at the Palace.

I just hope we’re not the only ones dancing.