Tag Archives: reviews

Quick Monday Improvised Podcast #1

Notes on Suzanne Collins’ Catching Fire and hammered dulcimer black metal.

Oh, and here’s a link to some sample tracks by Botanist, the musician I mention.

Does anyone ever actually listen to this sort of thing?

The Borrowers


I’ve just finished Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, a children’s novel about a family of tiny people who live in the holes and cracks and under the floorboards of a great country mansion near Leighton Buzzard. The mansion and the people in it have seen better times and the Borrowers themselves may be the last of their kind. Like so many things in the book, this is left unresolved. WARNING: If you don’t know the story, there are spoilers ahead.

Mary Norton grew up at a time when women were first entering the workplace in large numbers, when the world was exploding in war and when class divisions were being, if not breached, at least challenged and exposed. She was a (failed) secretary, actress, housewife, war-worker and writer. She’d earlier published The Magic Bedknob (1943, later made famous by Disney as Bedknobs and Broomsticks). The Borrowers (1952) was an enormous popular success, leading to several sequels, TV adaptations and films. Studio Ghilbli have just released Arrietty, which I’m looking forward to seeing immensely and a live action BBC adaptation is due later this year.

I never read The Borrowers as a child. If I had, I probably would loved the realism she poured into the lives of rebellious teen Arrietty, her aging father Pod and her anxious, house-proud mother, Homily. I would have (as I did earlier today) devoured the last forty pages at one sitting as their lives are literally torn apart. I might have missed how sensitively she handles the the friendship between the Boy in the story and Arrietty but I still would have ached for both of them.

As an adult and a would-be writer other things struck me, like Homily’s desperate, neurotic need to ‘better’ herself, rooted in her long-standing envy of another, vanished, Borrower family. Ultimately, it’s a mixture of her greed or longing or insecurity, combined with the Boy’s well-meaning kindness which leads to the catastrophe that destroys their home. They get ideas above their station in life. In the case of Arrietty, the only one who can read and write, this is physically embodied in the relationship she forms with one of the giant ‘human-beans’. Through him, she discovers the true, devastatingly minor status of the Borrowers in a world which turns out to be a human world, not a Borrower world.

I could go on about this at length and Mary Norton is not unusual in exploring these themes. But there are tougher, more important things going on here.

In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, an anonymous narrator relates a story told by the old East Africa hand, Marlowe. In The Borrowers, Norton’s narrator is equally anonymous (though decides to call herself ‘Kate’) whilst the Marlowe figure is an old woman called Mrs May whose brother – the Boy – told her the story of his encounter with the Borrowers. Little hints of unravelling Empire lap around the edges of the story. Her brother (“he was our little brother”, Mrs May says, in a heart-breaking aside) eventually dies a hero’s death on the North West Frontier. But perhaps he’d already seen the worst humanity has to offer as a child in witnessing the savagery the grown-ups gleefully unleash on their tiny house-guests. Towards the end of the story, the hideous housekeeper Mrs Driver, having uncovered the Borrowers, harangues him:

“Once you’ve found the nest,” she went on, her voice dropping to a vicious whisper as they passed Aunt Sophy’s room, “the rest is easy.”

To her, the Borrowers are less than human – mice, rats, vermin to be exterminated – “Nasty, crafty, scampy, scurvy, squeaking little…”.

But there’s worse to come. “Exterminate the brutes,” was one of Kurtz’s last diary entries. But ‘extermination’ had a different resonance for writers in the late forties.

In a horrible (but understated and painstakingly described scene) the ratcatcher, a man who makes his living out of the killing sub-contracted to him by others, meticulously seals up every hole and escape route in the house and pumps gas into their hiding places as the village policeman, the gardener and Mrs Driver watch and joke. For a writer who’d lived through World War II this could only have one terrible parallel and in other places Mary Norton makes it clear that Mrs Driver knows she’s killing sentient beings. “She’ll change her tune when I take them up afterwards, laid out in sizes on a clean piece of newspaper…” The parallel to the photographs, widely published at the time, of bodies of human beings stacked like wood in the death camps is unmistakable.

But this is a children’s book and it’s possible – only possible, mind you – that the Borrowers escaped. Mrs May is not the most reliable of narrators and she keeps us guessing. But, really, the Borrowers were real, real enough for her to go on and write four sequels, though its hard to see how they could have the sheer force, magic and darkness of the first.

Stuff I’m listening to – Bon Iver, Boris, other stuff

Music getting heavy rotation on my iPhone at the moment:

Bon Iver – Bon Iver

This, like the last one, is going to be mercilessly, relentlessly hyped to the Himalayas and back again. Over the next few years, expect to hear it advertising tampons and Toyota hybrids, soundtracking sexual intense moments in True Blood, accompanying departing losers from Master Chef and (as maximum commercial saturation is reached) torturing heavy metal loving Mexican drug lords under siege from the dystopian shock troops of the Continental Canadian Empire.*

Actually, it’s almost good enough to stand up to this level of exposure. My one reservation is its slightly too self-reflexive revelling in its own beauty. Its a record that’s thoroughly intoxicated with itself and, unlike its predecessor, that makes it a little difficult to get completely lost in.

But, those of you living in lead-lined boxes are asking, what does it actually sound like?

Well, it sounds like the last one but bigger and with more consistently and successful adventurous songs and a Brian Wilson level of layering and attention to detail in the arrangements. Spine-tingling yet earthy choirs of that remarkable falsetto? Check. Elliptical song structures taking twists and turns that go exactly where you think they should but never where you think they will? Check.

It sounds like I’m warier of this record than I actually. In fact I’ve been playing Bon Iver on repeat since Monday (interspersed with the other records below). I can’t recommend it enough as a thing in itself. But its become too much of an event. But the video for ‘Calgary’, striking though it is, encapsulates a lot of my reservations. Especially about the tampon ads.


It’s also an interesting contrast with Dyed in the Wool – Manafon Variations by David Sylvian. These aren’t so much remixes as new tracks constructed out of the same raw materials as Manafon, plus three new songs and a separate CD stereo mix of music created for an installation. The latter is an absorbing headphone listen. Be warned – this is not an album like Dead Bees On A Cake.  For last few years, Sylvian’s followed a challenging path of collaboration with free jazz, laptop and improv luminaries such as Evan Parker and Fennesz . It is, however, quite beautiful and (unlike Bon Iver) unselfconsicously so. Or perhaps its more correct to say that it’s simply less impressed with its own beauty.

Boris – Heavy Rocks/Attention Please/New Album

Boris (who I finally got to see last Sunday and who totally rocked) are an iconic kind of group in so many ways. They’ve been putting out astonishing experimental guitar albums in a dozen combinations for fifteen or so years and their output shows no signs of slowing or diminishing. Some records are good, some great, some simply baffling but – not unlike Howe Gelb and Giant Sand – you get on the bus, pay your fare and see where the ride takes you.

So far, that ride has taken in hour long slabs of howling low-end drone and feedback, deconstructions of 70s heavy rock and 80s thrash, ambient soundscapes, unclassifiably eclectic collections of psychedelia and a collaboration as BXI with Ian Astbury of the Cult. This year’s trio of albums falls more the poppier end of Boris’ output.  Heavy Rocks and Attention Please came out last month. New Album is a Japan only record from earlier in the year which overlaps slightly with both the US/European records. Wata, whose capacity to make a Les Paul rev like a motorcycle has been a highlight of so many of their records, sings on most of New Album and Attention Please. She’s got a slight, breathy but attractive voice and Boris deploy it well. The music draws heavily on My Bloody Valentine with more of a techno edge interspersed with a couple of dramatic ballads and straight-put rockers. It’s bit like Asobi Secksu but with much better tunes. Heavy Rocks continues to explore the hard rock directions of the trio of EPs Boris release a couple of years back, called (confusingly) Heavy Rock Hits 1, 2 and 3. It’s fun, energizing but a minor work by Boris’ usual standards.

Of the three, New Album offers the most. It duplicates several of the tracks on Attention Please and Heavy Rocks but with much better, compelling arrangements and has a tightness and coherence the other two records lack.

Here’s a snippet of Boris from the Live in Japan DVD, also featuring the awe-inspiring guitarist Michio Kurihara of ghost.

Also on rotation

W by Planningtorock. This month’s groovy Norwegian electro gloomsters. I like it; it’ll do until the Knife get over their opera fixation.

Benacah Drann Deachd  by Dalglish. Deeply emotive, organic soundscapes. Sparse, organic, moving.

*In five years, Canada will stand bloodily astride the smouldering ashes of the American dream beating its feral, hockey-playing chest and howling to the moon in anguish and triumph.  It came to me in a dream, along with the bones of some small animals I have yet to identify.