Monday, April 26, 2010

Terrified of Luke Haines / Eleven Minutes Late

I'm sat alone in my flat, ruddy petrified at the noise coming from my television, yet finding it laughable at the same time. Or perhaps it's just the onset of hysteria. Yes, I'm listening to Luke Haines' The Great Brain Robbery again, from his 21st Century Man album, and the combination of Haines' intimidating, hate-spitting voice and the constant buzz of the electricity transformer that he's recruited as a musical instrument, makes me feel like my head is trapped in a box of pure evil vitriol. And 1990s Brit-art. And the fact that I could turn it off whenever I like, but don't, adds a delicious absurdity to it all.

It's rather like when you listen to Slayer's Decade of Aggression live album, and the CD comes to an end, and you suddenly find yourself relaxing now that the horrible, horrible noise has stopped.

Or, more prosaically, like the great feeling you get when you stop hitting yourself on the head with a hammer. But, er, in a good way.

I think the real reason I'm enjoying it so much is because it's so bonkers, in a peculiarly British way. But perhaps I'm a chauvinist, and there's a rich vein of Americana, or Mexican, or Belgian music consisting solely of a misanthrope talking over the sound of a collapsing black hole made out of old television sets and bakelite. I still think that this might be uniquely British though.

I'm reinforced in this belief by Eleven Minutes Late, a great book that I picked up in the Page One bookstore in Taipei 101. It's wonderful that there should be such an enormous bookshop in the shopping mall, when pretty much all the rest of it is shops selling fashionable things exactly the same as every other fashionable thing.

Whereas Eleven Minutes Late is an account of something rather unfashionable - the British railway system. Although system is a grandiloquent word for something so cack-handedly disorganised. Engel does a very good job of demolishing some of the commonly held beliefs that the British have about their trains: that Beeching was solely responsible for so many of them being closed, that people liked steam trains (those "cast-iron bastards"), and that the inefficiency and disorganisation of the railways was always a flaw. (In the 1940s it wasn't; the redundancies and spidery routes around the country, built by rival railway companies, made the system resistant to bombing and capable of transporting troops and supplies in ways that a more efficiently designed system might have failed at. The British railways, chaotic as they always have been, are capable as a result of routing around problems. Somebody is going to make money from showing that the British railways are a good metaphor for the internet, one of these days.)

And at the same time, it's a book that celebrates small people with obsessions, and Engel's own obsession with all the failures and incompetency that has beset the country. It makes me feel nostalgic, in a strange way, for the inefficiency and the failures and let-downs and difficulties of the British way of life. Not enough to make me want to move back, not enough for me to want to sit on a train for four hours to get to Bristol from London, and certainly not enough to want to travel from Penzance to John O'Groats, but it makes me miss London in some uncertain way anyway.

So thanks, Taipei, for giving me a taste of Britain for a few hours. And making me feel strangely inappropriate in my choice of reading material while sitting on a Cathay Pacific jet, floating through the sky on the way home to Hong Kong.


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