Archive for July 2016

Turning Japanese

Ever since I was a kid I’ve wanted to go to Japan.  I practised Aikido and Karate for many a year and even spent a year learning Japanese, the highlight of which was winning the class bingo.  A bottle of sake was the prize, if you’re asking!  I don’t think I’ve read any more books by Japanese authors because of this but I thought it was, nevertheless, a nice idea to do a blog on some of the great books I’ve read over the years, either by Japanese authors or non-Japanese authors but about Japan.

Angry White Pyjamas

First up is Robert Twigger’s Angry White Pyjamas, subtitled, An Oxford poet trains with the Tokyo riot police.  This book traces the author’s experience of Japan having enlisted in a year-long intensive (five days a week) aikido course.  The book captures Twigger’s gruelling experiences in training as well as his observations on Japanese culture.  The book obviously appeals to aikido students (aikidoka) everywhere but it’s an enjoyable read whether or not you’ve decided the best thing to do of an evening is to get thrown about in your pyjamas!

Never let me go

Next up is Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel, Never let me go.  This is, quite simply, one of the best books I’ve ever read and everyone I’ve recommended it to agrees.  It’s beautifully written and has a very dark, harrowing streak running through it.  To explain the plot wouldn’t be that helpful.  Just go out and get a copy; you won’t regret it.  A film followed in 2010, starring Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield.  It’s worth watching but read the book first.

The remains of the day

Ishiguro was born in Japan in 1954 but has been in the UK since 1960, though you’d think he was English through and through, and from a bygone era, if you’ve ever read The Remains of the Day (1989).  The book is written from the point of view of Stevens, who reflects on his life as a butler as he traverses the English countryside.  It sounds pretty dull.  It’s not.  Again, it’s beautifully written and Ishiguro nicely paces and builds the tension in the novel as Stevens dips in and out of the past.  The book was made into a 1993 Merchant-Ivory film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.  It’s a great film which does the book justice.  Both are highly recommended.

I’ve read a couple of other Ishiguro novels: An Artist of the Floating World (1986) – well written but not a patch on the two I’ve just mentioned; and The Buried Giant (2015) – Ishiguro’s most recent work, set in Arthurian times and, unlike his other books, featuring a dragon.  An enjoyable novel which has a lot more to it than meets the eye.

Norwegian Wood

Haruki Murakami is another Japanese author who readers may be familiar with.  His fiction is often surreal or incorporates surreal elements, such as The Wind-up Bird Chronicle or Kafka on the Shore, both of which I’ve enjoyed.  If I were to recommend one of his novels it’d have to be Norwegian Wood (2000), a quiet, powerful novel about a young college-aged couple’s relationship, which is rocked by the death of a mutual fried.  An intense but worthwhile read.


I’ve read a couple of Murakami’s non-fiction: What I talk about when I talk about running – an enjoyable read (even for non-runners!) on Murakami’s reflections of what running means to him; and Underground (2000), a far more serious work, in which Murakami interviews the survivors and perpetrators of the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo underground.  It’s a serious but rewarding read.

Hokkaido highway blues

My last recommendation is Hokkaido Highway Blues (2003), a travel book by Will Ferguson.  The book follows Ferguson as he hitchhikes northwards across Japan, following the cherry trees (sakura) as they blossom; a big event in the Japanese calendar.  As you’d expect, the book includes many observations of Japanese culture and the individuals kind or crazyenough to pick-up Ferguson on his journey northwards.  A light-hearted read which is well worth a read regardless of whether you plan on going to Japan anytime soon.


Gig review – Ches Smith trio, The Vortex, 11 July 2016

The main attraction for me in going to this gig at London’s Vortex was the pianist, Craig Taborn.  Taborn is a fantastic pianist and keyboard player and you can bet that whatever he’s involved in will be interesting.  On that basis I bought The Bell, a trio album under the leadership of drummer and vibes player, Ches Smith, featuring Taborn and Mat Maneri on viola.  The album is exactly what you’d expect from the German label, ECM.  Far from hard-swinging, the sound of the album as a whole is a complex and harmonically and rhythmically dense one.  It’s not an easy listen and, to be honest, for this reason I’d not invested much time in listening to it before going to the gig.  Click here to sample the album and here for a video of the band in action.

Ches Smith - The Bell

Seeing and hearing bands live is always a different experience to listening to them through a speaker or headphones.  There’s something about the process of creating music, especially jazz, unfolding in front of you which can’t always be captured on record.  The music that Ches Smith has created and brought to life by his trio can best be appreciated live, especially in an intimate venue like the Vortex.  It was a real pleasure to see the band build complex soundscapes from a simple, rhythmic or melodic idea.  The process felt dramatic and the audience was certainly wrapped up in the drama.  Already aware of Taborn’s talents, I was impressed by Smith himself, especially when sitting behind the drum kit.  Maneri, for his part, was armed with an array of effects, including an octave pedal which his viola went through, creating thunderous, awesome-sounding bass lines which would be the envy of Metallica.

IMG_0286 (1)

(Photo: Nick Skates)

I’m listening to the Bell as I type this blog (so not entirely focussed on the music!).  I’m appreciating it more than I did before but it’s still not a patch on the live experience.  If you get the chance to see this band, I’d recommend it.

App-solutely fabulous!

When sitting on the tube on the way to work I sometimes glance at what my neighbour is looking at.  This is allowable on the tube, so long as there is no eye contact lasting more than half a second!  Anyway, my neighbour is often head down, like me, looking at his or her phone or tablet.  I’m always surprised at how many apps people have on their phones.  Pages and pages.  It’s all relative though; I bet I have more apps on my phone/tablet than my mum though to be fair, I don’t think she has a smart phone.  Smart move perhaps.

Anyway, I thought I’d do a post on some of the apps that I have: from bog standard apps to geeky musician apps.  I’ve the usual collection of apps that I presume many of us have so I won’t go into any detail on following: Kindle; Google; Facebook; BBC News; Spotify; Linkedin, etc.


Another app that fits into what I would call generic apps is Shazam.  I used to work in a record store and people would regularly ask what a tune was that they heard on TV, during an ad break or the show itself.  I would invariably look up the answer in a book called Teletunes.  Shazam does away with that and through some magic (the force?) is able to tell you what tune you’re listening to and give you the option of buying the tune, watching the video, etc.

I no longer work in a record store and haven’t done so for, oh, over two decades.  Gulp.  For the last five years I’ve worked in the UK Government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, so it should come as no surprise to you that I’m interested in energy.  An app that appeals to my interest is GridCarbon.  This app tells you exactly how much electricity is being consumed in Great Britain.  It also tells you the mix at that particular point in time.  As I write this post I can see that 12% of GB electricity is being generated by wind power and only 3% from coal.  The electricity sector is a complicated one and app is great at bringing this to life.  Go on, give it a go.  You can always delete it if it’s not worth the memory it’s taking up!



I promised some music apps.  There are lots of metronome apps available and I’ve a couple, including Time Guru.  Time Guru’s USP is, for me, the fact that you can set it up to omit beats, so forcing you to keep better time.  The second, of three, is the iReal Pro app.  I went on a jazz summer course a few years’ back, armed, as usual, with a collection of ‘fake books’ (each containing the lead sheets for hundreds of jazz tunes).  A lot of the kids seemed to be using this app rather than lugging around the door step-sized fake books.  I’ve used the app ever since.  It’s got the chord charts for well over a 1,000 jazz tunes and I’ve used it on numerous gigs and used its backing track function during practice sessions.  It’s particularly useful if you play with vocalists as you can simply change the key at the push of a button.  The only down side is that the melody isn’t included in the chord chart, which is what you’d get if you were using a fake book.   On balance though, this is a must-have app for musicians.


My last app recommendation for musicians (and non-musicians for that matter) is Highnote.   Back in the midsts of time, musicians wanting to copy their favourite solo would have listened to vinyl recordings and slowed the record down to work out the tricky part.  I may have done this myself many moons ago while learning an Eric Clapton solo on the guitar.  The downside of this is that the pitch of whatever you’re listening to is lower.  In time, software emerged to counter this.  One piece of software, familiar to many jazz musicians, is Transcribe.  Transcribe enables the user to slow a tune down while retaining the pitch.   Moreover, Transcribe enables you to sample and loop parts of the tune, e.g. a Charlie Parker lick lasting all of a second or two – great for annoying members of the family!  The only downside with Transcribe is that the software has yet to be developed for smart phones, tablets, etc.  This is where Highnote comes in.  On downloading the app you can open up any tune in your music library in Highnote and slow it down, speed it up, and alter the pitch of the tune.  I’ve used it a lot in ripping off Hank Mobley, Charlie Parker, etc. licks.  The only down side is that, unlike Transcribe, you can’t sample and loop sections of music (unless someone tells me otherwise).  Nevertheless, like the iReal Pro app, this is a must-have.


If some or any of these apps are new to you and you fancy downloading them, let me know how you get on.  Similarly, if you’re using some killer apps that you’re happy to share with the world (or more accurately the readers of this blog!) then I’d love to hear from you.

Returning to the wild

Having read a few books over the last month or so, I fancied a change.  No big twists, post-apocalyptic worlds, or for that matter, humans (which would, I suppose, take care of the apocalyptic worlds!). I recalled some of the books I read in school, amongst them The Mayor of CasterbridgeTo Kill a MockingbirdLord of the Flies and The Call of the Wild.  Unlike the other books I’d read at school I couldn’t remember anything about The Call of the Wild.  I knew the protagonist was a dog and that the book is well thought of.  That was good enough for me to return to the wild.


COTW, written by Jack London and published in 1903, is set in Canada during the Klondike gold rush at the end of the 19th century.  Our hero is Buck, a St.Bernard-Scotch Shepherd.  We follow Buck’s journey from a comfortable life with Judge Miller to his life as sled dog, hauling mail in perishing conditions to gold diggers in the Yukon.  We meet a number of characters along the way, human and canine, both good and bad, all of whom play a role in Buck’s journey back to the wild.  I won’t say much more about it other than COTW is a fine read which moves along at a good pace, and has a great central character in the form of Buck whom London really brings to life and grows on you throughout.  Definitely recommended.

The Outsider

The ‘few books’ I mentioned at the outset included The Outsider (sometimes called The Stranger) by Albert Camus, Black Water Rising by Attica Locke and The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer.  The classic amongst these, The Outsider, published in 1942, is actually the inspiration for The Cure’s own classic, Killing an Arab.  Simply, the plot revolves around Meursault, who appears to be indifferent to both the death of his mother and his killing of an Arab man who’d harassed his friend, thereby seemingly condemning him to a possible death at the hands of the court.  The book is an example of so-called absurdism: the conflict between the human tendency to seek meaning in life and the inability to find it.  Having seen this book on a number of classic lists, I was almost put off by the references to absurdism but was glad I took the plunge.  It’s a well told, short story which wasn’t the philosophical text I was expecting.  Recommended.


Black Water Rising is a 2009 thriller set in 1980’s Houston.  Our protagonist is Jay Porter, a black lawyer with a young family, who gets caught up in the nefarious dealings of one of Houston’s major oil firms (hence ‘black water’).  Porter’s activist past catches up with him (doesn’t it always in thrillers?) as he finds himself in the middle of a dockers’ strike, mayoral politics, and to cap it all, a murder.  Locke does a nice job in weaving these strands together and Porter is your typical down-at-heel, flawed but likeable hero.  The book has picked up a number of awards and has spawned a follow-up, Pleasantville, featuring Jay Porter and set 15 years after the events in Black Water Rising.  It’s not the finest book I’ve read but I liked it enough to want to read more, which is a recommendation in itself.

The Shock of the Fall

Last but not least is The Shock of the Fall (2013) by Nathan Filer.  The novel describes, in the first-person, the life of Matt Homes, a teenager suffering from schizophrenia and delusions, driven by the death of his older brother which he feels responsible for.  The book sounds heavier than it is.  It is in fact a warm, witty and well-written book packed with interesting characters and observations.  Recommended.


Inspired by Buck, I’m presently reading The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon.  I’ll let you know how I get on.