August 2010

When I was in my teens my father refused to buy an automatic washing machine, instead of which he bought a succession of secondhand twin tub machines. He built a little house for the washing machine, made of two sheets of particleboard with a slab of worktop across the top. When you wanted to use the washing machine you’d pull this three feet by four feet metal machine out from under the worktop and drag it across the kitchen floor towards the sink. At this point you may well have found an extra surprise as the dirty socks and underwear my father had left on top of the machine but under the worktop would spill over the floor, at least better than the smell which emanated on the occasions he would have put them into the empty tub and closed the lid at some stage earlier that week.

Then you’d open the machine’s lid, pulling out a long rubber hose with an attachment on the end which fit around the mouth of the mixer tap in the sink. The other end of the hose dangled into the larger square tub on the side nearest the sink, percussing against the tin inside wall of the washer. You’d fill up the washer part of the machine. Then you’d plug it in by unplugging the kettle. The water would take about five minutes to reach the black maximum line inside the washer, then another ten for the element to heat. Thinking back now it must have been fifty degrees maximum, but if it was a little too hot then you’d use the tongs: a pair of wooden clamps linked together with a metal elbow, about twelve inches long.

You’d start with your whites and release them into the water, made blue by the washing powder you’d sprinkled into the machine while the water was filling. The clothes would slowly seep down as you let them go. When your armful of clothes was in the water, you’d turn a square knob 270 degrees clockwise and the agitator would begin to move the large heavy plastic paddle at the machine’s centrifuge. It would move forward and back for ten minutes. All the time the steam would rise from the murk and you could now and again see your clothes moving under the water’s surface. The sound of the chugging engine and the sloshing of warm water and clothes would fill the room. If you leaned against it it would vibrate distinctly.

After ten minutes you’d examine the neckline of a shirt to see whether it was clean(er); if not you gave the process another run. When satisfied your clothes had become cleaner, you’d take the tongs and reach into the water. Fishing out the first of the piles of sodden, steaming fabric, you’d open the hinge on the second, smaller side of the machine, revealing a smaller tank, about two feet deep and six inches across. This was the tumble drying side of the apparatus. When about half of the clothes had been transferred to the tumble dryer, you’d take the hose and insert it into one of two holes on the top of the machine. Then you turned the water back on, this time cold. If you put the hose into the wrong hole it would send cold water into the washing machine, which was to be avoided because the same water was going to be used for the remaining three loads of coloureds, ending in jeans where it didn’t really matter if there was little dirt lifted. The last step in a washing cycle was to feel around under the water for the last remaining small items which had sunk to the bottom  and would otherwise only be found when draining the machine. Having sucessfully plugged in the hose and filled the dryer with cold water via a conduit just inside the rim of the tumble dryer you would take a rubber spin mat, symmetrically stamped with large gaps, and press it down under the icy water onto the clothes in the dryer. Then you’d close the door. The effluent pipe, through which the waste water would be expelled, would now be hooked on the edge of the sink, a large bend accommodating this as long as the water pressure was not too high. If too much water went through the pipe it would lift off the side of the sink and fall on the floor where gravity would ably assist the pump as it spewed dirty, soapy water across the kitchen floor. As a precaution the user would stand to one side of the machine, holding the pipe in place with one hand throughout the drying cycle. No other activity could be attempted while clothes washing; the machine was liable to capricious and violent behaviours.

(In latter years there was a leak in the machine which necessitated my father drilling a hole into the lid of the dryer side into which the cold rinsing water pipe could be directly introduced, but which had to be held very securely indeed).

Then another square knob would be turned clockwise and the dryer set in motion. For the first few minutes cold water was kept running into the dryer; after an appropriate amount of time the water would be switched off and the rinsing was finished, allowing the serious tumble drying to take place. Quite quickly the centrifugal force would push the clothes out to the wall of the tumbler and the metal cylinder would rattle against the springs holding it in place. The shudder would carry through the tin walls of the machine, the noise of the casing adding to the rattling motor as it drove the belt to power the dryer. The automatic cutoff which, on an older machine had stopped the rapid spin whenever the door of the dryer was lifted did not work on the machine we used for most of my adolescence; the uncertainty of inspection replaced by the danger of an exposed metal cylinder showing the user the action of the tumble dryer at close enough quarters to be splashed with the water which spat in all directions throughout the process.

Once the cycle was finished the cylinder had to slow down of its own accord, the braking mechanism long since worn out. On one occasion I introduced the tongs to slow down the process more efficiently but the tongs were thrown just past my left ear against the kitchen window, which shattered with an impact which made me sure that the twenty seconds saved would come at a price each time.

This process, repeated for each of four or five loads, took in all about two hours. When the last of the clothes had been shook out and hung in front of fires, on lines or the back of chairs, the machine had to be drained. Again, the pumping mechanism could not always be relied on and moving the unit usually resulted in leakage, so the water was best drained manually out the back door of the house. Once drained, the filters in the washing machine could be cleared of lint, buttons and whatever other detritus had been clogging the pump for the previous couple of hours’ endeavours. Then the hoses were shook out, the plug and cable were wound back around carefully at the back of the machine and the unit could once again be removed to its storage area. Once the rain didn’t come and you had a good overnight on the clothes horse, there would be clean clothes for another week.

The noise made by this machine as it hit the skip I rented to throw it into when I finally cleared out his house a few years ago sounds exactly like the first ninety seconds of track 8 on this album.


An Education
is a British film I heard about when Carey Mulligan got nominated for an Oscar this year. It’s based on the memoirs of a journalist named Lynn Barber*, with the screenplay written by Nick Hornby. It’s very good indeed.

Mulligan plays Jenny, a precocious and witty sixteen year-old whose father (the reliably impressive Alfred Molina) wants her to go to Oxford and yaps constantly about how much he’s had to sacrifice. When an older man named David (Peter Sarsgaard, oily, smooth, untrustworthy) appears and expresses interest in Jenny, her parents’ wariness is matched by the whiff of security. This makes them quite as swept off their feet by the handsomely turned-out man as Jenny is off hers. The audience spend much of this film worried for Jenny, but Jenny knows what she’s doing, or so she allows herself to think.

This is where the movie works: it’s not the classic morality tale which would leave Our Heroine pregnant and clueless at the end; it’s not the romcom which would remove both characters instantly to some sort of idyll full of shoes and cocktails. Instead it’s the portrait of a well-seasoned artist as a young girl. She falls hook, line and sinker for his trinkets, his concerts and his art collection, and maybe she gets herself a little used in the process. But (and this is where it takes an actor as expressive and subtle as the wonderful Mulligan) there’s a hint that this is the Troy she was born to burn. Jenny may well have steered clear of Mr. Hot Pants but she would have been bored doing so. Jenny has too much energy and wanderlust to miss out on an adventure like this because she has a Latin exam in the morning. This fact emerges over the course of three meetings with her Headmistress, played by Emma Thompson channelling Margaret Thatcher, when the latter gets wind of her liaison with the older man. One gets the feeling that Jenny is enjoying every bit of this dalliance and although it may not end well (it doesn’t take a spoiler alert to know this won’t end perfectly) she is richer for the experience. For some reason I was reminded of Go, Doug Liman’s 1999 tale of ecstasy use by a bunch of young Californians. They all nearly die and we worry about them and their lost innocence, but the characters end the film wondering where to go the following night.  Again! Again!

Carey Mulligan is a star. She has the youth to play sixteen but, aged 22 when the movie was shot, the distance to have fun with her character’s discoveries. Visual comparisons to Audrey Hepburn are odious and based more on costume design than anything else. Mulligan has a fresh, open and flirtatious presence which Hornby compliments with some snappy dialogue and the ability to keep the inevitable original. She can hold her head up against the Meryl Streeps and especially Sandra Bullocks of this world when the list is read of the best performances of the year. And she is not a little easy on the eye, to boot.

From its title to the courageous way it avoids the classic scenes of deflowering, revelation and familial schism followed by epiphany, An Education shows the life in material such as this: just because the temptation of That London have been a regular staple of domestic drama since the late 50’s doesn’t mean that the story’s been told. We have a little bit of forced significance when the director tries to map Jenny’s emergence into the harsh light of the sixties with that of England itself, but I didn’t buy it and neither should you. It’s at its best when the chasm looms just out of sight and all the characters remain deliberately oblivious to it. It’s hugely enjoyable for its very avoidance of Jenny’s victim status and deserves a look.  I myself plan to show it to my daughter when she’s old enough, every Christmas day as part of a double bill with Vera Drake.

*If you’d like to read the excerpt from Lynn Barber’s memoir which inspired the movie, click this link.

I came late to the Arcade Fire. Normally I listen to a lot of new music, or at least I did until a couple of years ago when I lost interest in much of it. For the record I cite Killers as Year Zero of bands people insisted I listen to and didn’t’ bother. Since then I don’t know my National from my Hard-Fi and I’m no worse off.

But when Arcade Fire’s song started to be used at the beginning of U2 shows in whatever year that was (2007?) people began with their hushed tones; I resisted until I heard Bowie with the band on that Fashion Rocks thing and then I got the album for myself.

It’s that good. Whatever the hype around it, and there was loads, and whatever my snobbery about Montreal music, and I had loads, the album is a wonder. A sweeping, majestic and impassioned record, with a lovely old-fashioned lilt to it at times, Funeral deservedly won great praise.

Neon Bible, the follow-up, was a little muddier and much more rushed. Although it too got great praise (and the revision of this fact is a major gripe, as we’ll see) it was generally regarded as a bit overblown. Symphony orchestras and choirs weren’t much of a surprise, though: the scope of Funeral had hinted at as much. Let me tell you, gentle reader, that Neon Bible is better than this one.

Lyrically, Arcade Fire straddle U2 and Springsteen in a sort of spiritual, earnest championing of the little people, and this seems to be a thesis for The Suburbs, their third record. The album seems full of the same domesticity of the first one, but that makes for quite a bit of repetition: the future lies in the kids, the adults get in the way and young love should be the be-all and end-all. Hell, there’s even a Springsteen reference in ‘Suburbs II’, one of the stronger tracks, when Win Butler sings of ‘racing in the streets’. The development, it seems, has come from a little maturing chez Butler, with talk of a daughter he wants to show some beauty ‘before all this damage is done’ (‘The Suburbs’) and some nostalgia for youth. Peppered in there, though, are some abysmal descents into political commentary, sophomoric as they were when they were excused in reviews of Neon Bible: ‘the emperor has no clothes/but you bow down to him anyway’. (‘Ready To Start’), or ‘you never trust a millionaire quoting the sermon on the mount’ (‘City With No Children’). There’s even a nice little bit about the markets crashing but it’s too literal to have to quote here. I wonder whether Bono could have pulled any of this off—there’s no question he could have—but on Win it sounds whiny all the time. If, by the way, you would like to level the accusation that I’m cherrypicking bad lyrics I’d encourage you to peruse ‘Month of May’, a song so unspeakably bad that quoting it would make this piece look like I’m smacking a child around with a cruise missile. I wouldn’t do that: I’ll save the cruise missile for the twat who said this album was their OK Computer. Where Radiohead expanded their palate and took their audience to where they wanted to go, Arcade Fire have repeated the blueprint of impassioned-sounding, loud then a little restrained then loud again, indie rock that’s been done all over the place and requires no stretch, no attention span and nothing more than the patience to wait for them to do the old stuff in concert. Don’t get me started on the band live: eight of them in their crusty-meets-the-Clash outfits, bopping around in that proselytizing way like an atheist Poylphonic Spree. I can’t stand bands trying to sell excitement to the audience: the music’s supposed to do that. But I digress.

What really lets Arcade Fire down is that Win fancies himself as something of a poet. Unlike Springsteen, though, there’s no casual drawl, no regret in the voice. When Springsteen sings about darkness at the edge of town it unsettles you. When Win sings about how we don’t wait or write letters it ends up sounding like he’s giving out about screaming kids at his gigs. If he stuck to silly rhymes and making records in the month of May he’d be beneath the radar, but there’s such a self-importance to this stuff that it’s perfectly cromulent to ask for more than shite about emperors and new clothes. His underdeveloped metaphor of Kasparov and Deep Blue is another example: it’s thrown in like a vintage Flock of Seagulls teeshirt: neatly, interestingly of the time, but with no context. This is pretentiousness writ large and it sounds as forced as it is.

So to conclude: Arcade Fire miss the suburbs and the eighties and that makes them want to get simple and domestic so their kids will be balanced and happy. On the way they’ve pared down their sound and lost the expanse of their music. The reviewers might tell you it’s a more mature Arcade Fire, that they’ve once again found their voice after the mis-step of Neon Bible, but aren’t they the ones who lauded that record as the next stage in the band’s development?

I’ll end with a new rule. Whenever a band indicts a previous album in the press for the new one I’ll take it to mean that they’re ashamed of the old one and won’t accept money for it. If I paid money for the old one and they now tell me that it’s not worth the money I’ll cash in the old one by downloading the new one for free. REM do it every third album, Radiohead did it for Hail To The Thief and U2 will do it for the next record. Arcade Fire have followed up a critically-overrated second album with one which I think is worse and the press, for some reason, have chosen to revisit their positive reviews of the second to tell us that it wasn’t any good. Perhaps the band aren’t responsible for this in Arcade Fire’s case but if another band tells of how ‘lost’ they were at the time of the last album I’ll reach for my revolver. Ministry get the last word here: Al Jourgensen  advised fans that his early work was ‘not worth shoplifting’. Well shoplifting has become much easier these days, lads, so think on.

I’m 45 minutes into this film. It has Sarah Jessica Parker and Hugh Grant in it.

This isn’t a review, it’s the beginning of the therapy which allows me to deal with the experience as I try to get my life started again.