Thursday, September 22, 2011

Noises Off

A person asked me the other day how my new album was coming along and I said 'It's all finished, thanks, we released it back in June, although you may not have noticed because some guy called Avalanche City put out a record at about the same time and-' and she says no, not that album, the new new album. So I'm like come on, how many albums is a guy supposed to make? Christ! Et cetera. I thought I had at least until the end of the year before people would start asking me that, but OK, whatever, I'd better get to work.

So I plugged in my microphone and lit a fire under the boiler that powers the crusty old computer I use to record my music, and I blew the dust off an old cello that's sitting there in the corner of the room, tuned up a mandolin, and made a cup of tea. And I was about to lay down something sweet and a little bit awesome when this bone-curdling shrieking started up from just behind the wall in the neighbour's place and the cat leaped up, bit my leg, and hurtled into the laundry to hide in the hot water cupboard. A bad sign?
I don't believe in omens, but this was a pain in the ass. This was the sort of shrieking, grinding sound you get when you're pulling walls apart, ripping out old nails, clearing space and letting light in, settling down to some sort of serious remodeling.  From my experience living in flats with landlords who will move the walls around at the slightest whiff of an extra buck, squeezing a bedroom out of a corridor at two hundred a week or throwing up a modish island in the kitchen to attract young professionals with hard-plumbed espresso machines, I could tell that the next step would be a hellish cacophony of banging and the wailing of power tools.

Looks quiet at 6:30am - too quiet, thinks the landlord.

What followed was a hellish cacophony of banging and the wailing of power tools. Plaster dust dribbled from the ceiling and lights flickered and dimmed as current was siphoned off to the diabolical machinery behind the walls. Much thumping went on, slamming of doors, stamping of feet.  So many feet! Either these workmen had a horse in there or they were performing some sort of peasant dance, the kind with the stomping and the calling out of guttural obscenities. Plumbing began to vibrate, the water was turned off, and the cat climbed to the very highest shelf of the airing cupboard.  Clearly, there would be no recording today.

'Doom,' said the hammers; 'gloom,' said the power drills. The spanners against the copper pipes clanged on about thwarted ambition and the dry tap whispered a sermon on the futility of effort. 'Forget about it,' said the skill saw. 'Shouldn't you be at work anyway? This album is not happening; it's time you got a regular job, and if you really need a creative outlet, you could think about lurking around the railway yards painting rude words on trains.' Grim? Yes indeed, and not very subtle either. They weren’t all so unfeeling, though. 'Next time somebody asks about your next album,' said the heavy footfalls (somewhat more pragmatically), 'tell them you're working on it. Why not just read a book instead? They won't know.'  Good point, I suppose they wouldn't. 'Besides,' said the slamming of the doors, archly, 'shouldn't you write some more songs first?' Bastards. How did they know?

Obviously it was time to go outside, before I started answering back. Personifying everyday construction noises as robust critics may not be a sign of mental illness, but arguing with them definitely is, and it's important to be able to tell the difference if you want to get ahead in life. I'm not super-concerned about getting ahead in life, but I do like to avoid confrontation whenever possible, so I went for a walk around the block and wrote a song in my head. I'll record it another time, I think, and meanwhile the new album's coming along very nicely thank you.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Press

In the latest edition of North and South magazine, Simon Sweetman said of Spring Summer Awesome Winter that it is "hypnotic, exciting, enticing. Beautifully crafted, intriguing and wise, this is one of my favourite albums of the year." Graham Reid was pretty into it also, and so were Gary Steel, Wallace Chapman, and Amanda Mills. Meanwhile, a chap in the Waikato Times didn't like the album at all, and called it "bland."

What to make of this? It's hard to say. Perhaps people who live in Hamilton are just more discerning.

I wouldn't know. Every time I go to Hamilton I have a car accident, so I have taken to going the long way round to avoid the place. As a consequence, I don't have much recent data on which I might base an opinion. Here is my hunch, though: Proabably not.

But! That's only a hunch - we just don't know. All we can glean from the data we have is that at least one Hamiltonian is not getting a christmas card from Bond Street Bridge this year, bless him.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Not the Seahorse Emporium

It was a shell shop. Here on the high street, just down the road from the mall, the place sold seashells. There's a nursery rhyme about someone who sells seashells; she does it at the beach. When I was a kid, and very much in the habit of collecting and hoarding shells, even then I thought that this poor woman was probably wasting her time down there on the sea-shore.  Seashells are pretty, sure, and of course everybody wants them, but the point is they're free. You can pick them straight up off the beach, and looking for them is most of the fun. Well, ‘fun’ is too strong a word - looking for shells is really just busywork. There’s not a lot else to do at the beach, and finding more and better specimens than your sisters is a way to give the whole hot sandy beach-going exercise a point. Once they're home, dried off, no longer shiny, competing for attention with brightly-coloured plastic and toys that actually do things, shells gather dust and lose their appeal.

If I thought about it - and I did, being somewhat given to pointless introspection, even at a young age - I assumed that the seashell lady was probably operating out of some kind of barrow, wheeling her shells through streets broad and narrow like Molly Mallone. Even if she wasn't shifting many units, competing as she was with an entire beachful of freely-available samples, I reassured myself with the thought that at least her overheads must be low. And, I reasoned, she probably had a comfortable side-line in ice creams or hotdogs on sticks. The notion that peddling seashells could be sufficiently lucrative to sustain any more than an itinerant seaside stall never crossed my young mind, yet here we were. Standing on the pavement, me a grown-up now but with a no less impressionistic grasp of retail economics, faced with the fanciful notion that a person could pay high-street rent on the back of a trade in manky old crustaceans.

I’ve walked down this road fairly frequently, and it is maybe a testament to my general obliviousness that I’d never noticed this particular shop before. I mean, it didn’t really stand out; the signage was nothing flash. Faded paint on cracked boards blended into a block of similar low-turnover mall victims, tired but trying. The neighbours were a hair salon named for some hilarious wordplay, a record store with a window display featuring an album released four years ago, and a bridal boutique that just had to be a front for something more sinister. It rubbed up against them without catching the eye particularly, although once you registered the contents of the window cabinets you would definitely look again. There were some impressive individual specimens – oversized conches, a delicately swirling nautilus, the sort of things that would really show your sisters who was boss, from a shell-finding point of view – but pride of place was reserved for the creative output of an artisan clearly possessed of an obsessive attention to detail, a singular imagination, and considerable time to combine the two. Dragons, horses, little dioramas, herds of elephants, flocks of geese, mermaids of course and dolphins of all sizes jostled for space in the window, each lovingly rendered in tiny seashells. I mentally raised my hat to whomever it was that had allowed their need for self-expression to take them to such a bizarre place, and to whatever quirk of the laws of supply and demand had provided that person with retail frontage on the high street. The patina of dust on several of the pieces suggested that this craftsperson was not in step with the tastes of the general public, which made the whole thing more mysterious, as well as totally awesome. Why had I never noticed this treasure house before? Particularly given that even out here on the pavement, the air smelled like those shrimp-flavoured ‘grain snacks’ that I seem to be unable to stop myself buying at the Korean supermarket. 

"Oh right, here we are." Ms. Millicent Crow sounded as though this was where we'd been planning to end up all along.
"Is this where we'd been planning to end up all along?"  I never know where we're going when we go for our walks. “I didn’t even know this place existed.”
"Yeah, I told you.  I want to get a seahorse."
"Oh right, the seahorse. I thought that was just a sort of aspirational goal, like how I want to get a 1970s telecaster. It never crossed my mind that you were planning on actioning it. I didn't think such a thing was possible."
"Well, here we are, actioning it. Watch me."

So we went in, and if you can imagine what a shop that sells seashells might look like, that's how the place looked.  Long and thin, low ceiling, shelves, dust. And shells. A lot of shells. When you find them on the beach, seashells come in all the colours of the rainbow, streaks and swirls of purples and reds, subtle yellows and faint tinges of blue. You really have to see them close up, clean, and in good light to appreciate that, though.  En masse, in poor light, on dirty shelves, shells are basically cream, the colour people have been painting the villas around here since the mid-nineties.  The colour charts call it 'Dutch White,' or 'Belgian Vanilla,' but its more honest name is 'English Tooth,' a sort of nicotine-stained shade of ivory, if the ivory had been soaked in a month of weak morning teas. The light was dim, and the bone-coloured shells sat on long shelves and racks like skulls in a catacomb. And there was the smell, of course. It’s hard to describe the smell, but think about how even a very clean and sun-bleached seashell smells a little when you get up close.  Salty, a bit fishy. Dry, sandy, sunny, dead. Multiply that faint smell by the thousands of shells on the shelves here, and you get some idea of the atmosphere in the shop. Not unpleasant so much as pervasive, not going away. You could touch the air, and it made me want to wash.

There was nobody else browsing in the shop, and the counter, half-way along the wall on one side, was empty. The low light and general cobwebbedness gave me the impression that customers were an infrequent intrusion here, and it was pretty obvious that this was the kind of place where an odd-looking man of indeterminate age could quietly appear behind the counter at any point, seemingly without moving or opening any doors. He would be wearing the sort of garment that I think people call a 'smock,' which is a strange word when you mutter it to yourself in a dimly-lit and odd-smelling seashell emporium on the high street.

"What did you say?" we were browsing aimlessly among shells that seemed to be jumbled up, displayed in no logical order. But how would you logically order shells? The logical thing would be to not have a shell shop in the first place.
"Oh, nothing. Um.  Smock.  Strange word."
"Smock.  Sounds like hitting somebody in the face with sock full of meat."
"Ok... why are we whispering?”
“Um, I dunno. Weird.”
“Have you seen any-"
"Can I help you?" An odd-looking man of indeterminate age had quietly appeared behind the counter, seemingly without moving or opening any doors. He was wearing a smock.
"Oh!  Ah yeah. Yes. Hello. Do you have any, that is, I'm looking for and I wondered if you had one, I thought maybe - do you have, ah, a seahorse? At all? A seahorse?"

Millicent Crow doesn't usually babble, but the man had the sort of unreadable expression that a police officer wears when his partner is asking you if there's anything else you’d like to mention in any of your other pockets. An expression at once bored and disapproving, accompanied by an uncomfortable silence  impossible not to fill with something that feels strangely like a confession.

"I just, I was going to do a picture. You know.  Paint it? The ah, the seahorse? I wanted to paint a seahorse. A picture of one."

The man looked around, left and right, apparently checking to see whether there was anybody else in his seashell shop.  It was a pointless exercise; we were the only customers, and the thick dust on the floor towards the back of what I was starting to mentally call the 'grotto' looked like it had been undisturbed for a while. He put his hands flat on the counter, paused significantly, then he spoke carefully, as though for the record.

“A seahorse.”
“Mm-hm. To paint?”
"I wouldn't have one of those."

The only word for his reaction was this: disgust.  This man, standing in his shop full of musty old shells, the dried-up remains of a thousand sea creatures – not to mention the idiosyncratic artworks created in that medium, presumably by his own hands – this man was responding as though we'd walked in off the street and asked him to sell us a human fetus to broil up and serve at lunch with the Queen. He wanted nothing more to do with us, these crass interlopers who had waltzed into his shop and violated some sort of strict, esoteric taboo.

"Ah, no? I thought you might, you know, since..." Ms. Crow made a gesture encompassing what was undeniably the sort of establishment that you would think would sell a seahorse.  "I mean like a dried one.  You know, stuffed maybe?  Not in a tank." 

"No." Disgust.

"Do you think you might be getting one?" The mind boggled at the thought of this man's supply chain. Armies of children combing the beaches of the South Pacific, a fleet of tramp steamers ferrying crates of shells to a warehouse in some port town, there to be cleaned and polished in a workroom full of little old nuns operating clanking machinery, powered by a system of leather belts connected to wheel driven in endless circles by a patient musk ox. The retail product would be delivered to the shop once a week by bicycle courier, and this man or the elderly aunt who was undoubtedly back in the stockroom somewhere would sign for it in flowing copperplate, slipping a mimeograph of this week's orders into the delivery boy's saddlebag.

"Do you know where we might be able to -"
"Can't sell a seahorse."
"I beg your pardon?”

He sighed, as though dealing with a slow learner. "You can't sell a seahorse. Not these days."
"You mean-"
"That's right.  It isn’t legal." From his fleeting grimace, it was clear that he pined for the halcyon days of the unregulated dried seahorse trade. It was easy to assume, looking at the yellowing price tags and the clear lack of custom, that things had not been the same in the dried sea-creatures business since they banned all the cool stuff.

The three of us looked at each other awkwardly. We’d had no idea, walking into his establishment, that we’d be asking this guy to violate the CITES treaty for us. All we wanted was to find a dried seahorse to draw, and now we looked like the sort of people who go about the place shooting elephants and turning their feet into wastepaper baskets.  It seemed incongruous that such rules should even apply in this strange little grotto, this otherworldy sea-shell merchant’s where a mermaid fabricated from hot-glued periwinkles was the standard stock in trade. It didn’t immediately make sense that what went on in this rarefied environment could have any material impact on the population of seahorses swimming gaily through the ocean blue, and the fact that this fantastical concern was bound by such mundane constraints as fisheries regulations seemed bizarre when its very existence seemed to fly in the face of basic economics.
We couldn’t press the point. We had no leverage, and I think we felt out of our depth – at sea, suddenly. If the man had an old stock of contraband sea-creatures stuffed behind a loose brick in the chimney, he certainly wasn’t going to stick his neck out for day-traders like us.  He didn’t say another word, but his expression was eloquent enough. ‘You people,’ the expression said, ‘you come and you go. You know nothing of the passion of the collector. My stock is wasted on your kind – wasted! Coming in here, babbling about paints and drawing.’ We walked out backwards, and his expression followed us down the street, muttering.

We went that way again a couple of weeks ago, and the place was boarded up. Almost like it was never there, but the air still smelled like starfish.

All of the pictures are by Emily Cater, aka Millicent Crow.