Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Paris by Night - Brassaï (1933)

In 1933, the photographer Brassaï (real name Gyula Halász, 1899–1984) published Paris de Nuit (Paris by Night), a remarkable photographic record of his wanderings through the night time city in the company of, among others, Henry Miller, Raymond Queneau and Jacques Prevert. The book was reprinted with the photographer's commentary in 1976, in which he sets out his perspective on the nocturnal underground of the city:

'Just as night birds and nocturnal animals bring a forest to life when its daytime fauna fall silent and go to ground, so night in a large city brings out of its den an entire population that lives its life completely under cover of darkness. Some once-familiar figures in the army of night workers have disappeared…

The real night people, however, live at night not out of necessity, but because they want to. They belong to the world of pleasure, of love, vice, crime, drugs. A secret, suspicious world, closed to the uninitiated. Go at random into one of those seemingly ordinary bars in Montmartre, or into a dive in the Goutte d’Or neighbourhood. Nothing to show they are owned by clans of pimps, that they are often the scenes of bloody reckonings. Conversation ceases. The owner looks you over with a friendly glance. The clientele sizes you up: this intruder, this newcomer – is he an informer, a stool pigeon? Has he come in to blow the gig, to squeal? You may not be served, you may even be asked to leave, especially if you try to take pictures…

And yet, drawn by the beauty of evil, the magic of the lower depths, having taken pictures for my ‘voyage to the end of the night’ from the outside, I wanted to know what went on inside, behind the walls, behind the facades , in the wings: bars, dives, night clubs, one-night hotels, bordellos, opium dens. I was eager to penetrate the other world, this fringe world, the secret, sinister world of mobsters, outcasts, toughs, pimps, whores, addicts, inverts. Rightly or wrongly, I felt at the time that this underground world represented Paris at its least cosmopolitan, at its most alive, its most authentic, that in these colourful faces of its underworld there had been preserved, from age to age, almost without alteration, the folklore of its most remote past’

The book includes photos and descriptions of people socialising and dancing in bars, shows and lesbian and gay clubs - I will feature some more of this later.

These photos were taken at La Bastoche, a bar in Rue de Lappe, in 1932. Gotta love those kiss curls.

I believe the book is still in print, at least it's available from all the usual book sites. If you are interested in nightlife, dancing, photography, social history and alternative cultures you should take a look - and let's face it if you are looking at this site you must be interested in at least a couple of these...

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Grassroots: another festival bites the dust

As this story from Schnews makes clear, it is becoming increasingly difficult to get permission to put on any kind of festival in the UK other than a fenced-off, high security corporate leisure event. The latest casualty is the Grassroots festival planned in Cambridgeshire. Meanwhile those who try and put on unofficial festivals are subject to the full weight of the law. The “Rave 6”, charged under section 136 following the police attack on this year’s UK Teknival (see previous report), has now become the “Rave 10” after four more people were charged.

'Yet another independent festival has been cancelled after a concerted campaign by bureaucrats, nimbys and police. The Grassroots Feastival was a small volunteer-run event due to take place in Cambridgeshire in early September. Organisers had lined up three days of revelry, from poetry to Drum ‘n’ Bass and culminating in a communal banquet replete with juggling waiters.

The Festival faced determined opposition from the very start. According to one of the organisers, Mooney, when the application process began in January the council made it clear they would do all they could to stop the festival taking place. Martin Ford from the Police licensing board went one step further and told organisers, “I’d rather put pins in my eyes than have this festival in my county.” Mooney said, “They didn’t want it to happen so they played their games. They couldn’t use legislation so instead they used dirty tactics.” The now familiar modus operandi involved heaping ludicrous demand after ludicrous demand on organisers and stalling for time to the point that the festival risked financial ruin if they pressed ahead.

After the initial consultation, organisers met monthly with the local authorities and there were six revisions of the festival’s management plan in total. Each time they were presented with ever more unreasonable conditions, ranging from heras-fencing the A11 in case of invasion by wandering partygoers who had strayed three miles over fence and field, to installing security watchtowers (with or without machine gun nests) to ensure the unruly throng of 2000 didn’t erupt in spontaneous revolution.

Each time, organisers either met the conditions or managed to argue their case that what they were being asked was beyond the realms of sanity or reason. However the killer blow came with the final application for a licence. When handing in the application, local authorities clearly told organisers that they only needed to submit one paper copy and that the pack of other relevant licensing bodies, such as traffic management and the fire brigade, would be happy with an emailed copy. At the eleventh hour of the last day they had to submit the application, organisers were then told that the licence would be refused unless all the bodies had paper copies. With no time left to do this, organisers would have had to resubmit and wouldn’t have received a decision until just days before the festival. If the licence had been refused at that point it would have spelled financial disaster for all involved and so organisers were left with no choice but to cancel.
A despondent Mooney told SchNEWS, “In some countries people welcome celebrations.” After the attacks on Strawberry Fair (see SchNEWS 715), the Big Green Gathering (SchNEWS 685), UK Teknival (SchNEWS 727) and Thimbleberry (SchNEWS 707) amongst others, it is becoming increasingly clear the UK isn’t one of them'.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

'The Rhythmic or Throbbing Crowd' (Canetti)

From the chapter on Rhythm in Elias Canetti's Masse und Macht (1960), translated as 'Crowds and Power':

'Rhythm is originally the rhythm of the feet. Every human being walks, and, since he walks on two legs with which he strikes the ground in turn and since he only moves if he continues to do this, whether intentionally or not, a rhythmic sound ensues. The two feet never strike the ground with exactly the same force. The difference between them can be larger or smaller according to individual constitution or mood. It is also possible to walk faster or slower, to run, to stand still suddenly, or to jump.

Man has always listened to the footsteps of other men; he has certainly paid more attention to them than to his own. Animals too have their familiar gait; their rhythms are often richer and more audible than those of men; hoofed animals flee in herds, like regiments of drummers. The knowledge of the animals by which he was surrounded, which threatened him and which he hunted, was man’s oldest knowledge. He learnt to know animals by the rhythm of their movement. The earliest writing he learnt to read was that of their tracks; it was a kind of rhythmic notation imprinted on the soft ground and, as he read it, he connected it with the sound of its formation.

Many of these footprints were in large numbers close together and, just by looking quietly at them, men, who themselves originally lived in small hordes, were made aware of the contrast between their own numbers and the enormous numbers of some animal herds. They were always hungry and on the watch for game; and the more there was of it, the better for them. But they also wanted to be more themselves. Man’s feeling for his own increase was always strong and is certainly not to be understood only as his urge for self-propagation. Men wanted to be more, then and there; the large numbers of the herd which they hunted blended in their feelings with their own numbers which they wished to be large, and they expressed this in a specific state of communal excitement which I shall call the rhythmic or throbbing crowd.

The means of achieving this state was first of all the rhythm of their feet, repeating and multiplied, steps added to steps in quick succession conjure up a larger number of men than there are. The men do not move away but, dancing, remain on the same spot. The sound of their steps does not die away, for these are continually repeated; there is a long stretch of time during which they continue to sound loud and alive. What they lack in numbers the dancers make up in intensity; if they stamp harder, it sounds as if there were more of them. As long as they go on dancing, they exert an attraction on all in their neighbourhood. Everyone within hearing joins them and remains with them. The natural thing would be for new people to go on joining them for ever, but soon there are none left and the dancers have to conjure up increase out of their own limited numbers. They move as though there were more and more of them. Their excitement grows and reaches frenzy.

How do they compensate for the increase in numbers which they cannot have? First, it is important that they should all do the same thing. They all stamp the ground and they all do it in the same way; they all swing their arms to and fro and shake their heads. The equivalence of the dancers becomes, and ramifies as, the equivalence of their limbs. Every part of a man which can move gains a life of its own and acts as if independent, but the movements are all parallel, the limbs appearing superimposed on each other, They are close together, one often resting on another, and thus density is added to their state of equivalence. Density and equality become one and the same. In the end, there appears to be a single creature dancing, a creature with fifty heads and a hundred legs and arms, all performing in exactly the same way and with the same purpose.

When their excitement is at its height, these people really feel as one, and nothing but physical exhaustion can stop them... Thanks to the dominance of rhythm, all throbbing crowds have something similar in their appearance'.

We can only assume that when Canetti talks of 'man' he means 'woman' too! Photos: top, a dance at the University of Sydney; bottom, dancers at Poe Park in the Bronx, New York, September 4 1938.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

More creeping prohibition?

Worrying story from Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph (3 August 2010) about drugs and alcohol testing in pubs and clubs:

'Revellers including teenagers were tested for drugs and alcohol as part of a police crackdown on pubs and clubs. Police have been "stamping down hard" on the abuse of alcohol and alcohol legislation with a force-wide operation since March, including breathalysing more than 90 youngsters attending an under-18s disco in Kettering. The breathalyser test carried out in May was not compulsory and several youngsters chose not to undergo the test – but they were not allowed admission to the venue. Of the 96 youngsters who agreed to take the test, 14 tested positive for alcohol and were spoken to and offered advice by officers. Sgt Ian Fletcher, of Northamptonshire Police, said: "Some of the kids ran off rather than be breathalysed but our attendance sent out a strong message."

... Officers also drug-tested more than 120 people in town centre pubs and clubs in one night. Of the 126 people officers checked, people in nine premises tested positive for class A drugs'.

I'm not sure what powers, if any, the police have to do this. I believe it is voluntary to undertake them, but then again I can't believe that anybody would freely consent to being tested if they knew they'd taken something they shouldn't have. No doubt the police involved fudge the legal niceties.

Meanwhile, Lewisham Council in South London is proposing to trial 'a borough-wide Designated Public Place Order (or Drinking Control Zone)' which 'will give police discretionary powers to stop people and confiscate, demand and dispose of any alcohol within the boundaries of Lewisham borough'. Failure to comply with a request from the Police to hand over alcohol would result in arrest and/or a fine of up to £500. As I argued over at Transpontine:

'There are some broader issues at stake here. The first is the use of arbitrary police powers. The historical relationship between police, courts and the individual in the UK requires the police to present evidence of wrong doing to a court, with the person accused having the right to defend themselves before a judgement is made on their guilt and a sentence passed. With the DPPO, the police officer isFont size judge, jury and 'executioner' - they can impose a punishment on the spot, such as pouring away somebody's drink, with the person affected having no right to question their authority or decision before 'sentence' is implemented. Worse, under the Police and Criminal Justice Act 2001 (which gave Council's powers to introduce DPPOs), these arbitrary powers can be extended to other 'authorised officers' such as park wardens.

The second wider issue is the creeping hyper-regulation of public space. The nature of public spaces is that people engage in lots of different behaviours and activities, some of which other people may find irritating, annoying or even mildly offensive. As long as people aren't actually harming others, they should be left to get on it. Just because some people disapprove of others' actions is no reason to ban them. Just because a few people engaging in an activity do cause harm to others is no reason to band everybody from that activity. In this case the 'drunk and disorderly' behaviour of a few people, already covered by existing laws, is being used as the basis to affect everybody's right to drink in public. It may not be a total booze ban, but it does mean that drinking in public is only permitted if the police choose to allow it'.

The Manifesto Club have lots of information about Designated Public Order Orders and their implementation elsewhere, as well as some good arguments against them.

Monday, August 16, 2010

'Sodcasting' and sociability

Good article by Dan Hancox in the Guardian last week on 'sodcasting' (as its critics have termed it)- playing music aloud on mobile phones in parks, buses and other public spaces:

"The way teenagers use their mobile phones may annoy the hell out of anyone older than 15, but their seemingly obnoxious desire to play music in public needs explaining. To some, sodcasting might seem like a bloody-minded imposition, a two-fingers from those who don't care what others think of them. To the teenagers, though they probably wouldn't put it quite like this, it's a resocialisation of public life through the collective enjoyment of music; it's friends doing the most natural thing imaginable – sharing what makes them happy".

The article, Mobile disco: how phones make music inescapable, also includes comments from Wayne Marshall (wayneandwax):

'Nor, contrary to popular belief, is it an especially recent phenomenon, says the American anthropologist and musicologist Wayne Marshall, who is currently researching what he calls "treble culture". "Sodcasting could fit into a time-honoured tradition of playing music in public as surely as reggae sound systems or the drums of Congo Square, never mind their antecedents," he says. "Transistor radios and ghetto blasters are both good examples of a longstanding history of people making music mobile. The case of the transistor radio shows that people have long been willing to sacrifice fidelity to portability; while the ghetto blaster reminds us that defiantly and ostentatiously broadcasting one's music in public is part of a history of sonically contesting spaces and drawing the lines of community, especially through what gets coded as 'noise'."

Interesting to compare this with the pessimism that greeted the arrival of the first generation of minituarised listening devices in the 1980s (the Sony Walkman etc.). For critics like Judith Williamson they seemed to herald a new era of atomised individualism, whereas arguably here we have the opposite - the use of mobile phones to share music in social interaction.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Dance on 'benefits scrounger'

Predictably, the new UK ConDem government has announced the launch of a new crackdown on benefits claimants, including using private credit checking companies to snoop on the financial affairs of the sick and unemployed. Yes that's right, after pouring billions of pounds into propping up failing banks the state is going after the poorest people in the country to make them pay for it.

BBC News, the Daily Mail and others have been obediently highlighting the following clip as an example of 'benefits scrounging' - film of a man dancing whilst claiming Disability Living Allowance. Personally I think the guy's a bit of a hero, as well as a sharp dancer. Like most people bending the benefit rules to their advantage, he was just trying to get by - getting a few quid extra, but hardly getting rich at anybody else's expense.

As the court report makes clear (see below), he spent years virtually crippled with arthritis before an operation finally enabled him to have an active life, an opportunity he grasped by taking up dancing. He has spread his enthusiasm to care homes. In short he seems to have led a far more socially useful life than many other people who have got rich at other people's expense - and who don't get prosecuted or publicly denounced as a 'scrounger'. Dance on dude!

'Dancer spared jail over benefits fraud (Independent 4 August 2010)

A 61-year-old jazz dancer who fraudulently claimed nearly £20,000 in disability benefits walked free from court today. Terence Read said he was crippled by arthritis and barely able to walk but his condition improved following a hip replacement operation.

He failed to notify the change in his circumstances to the Department for Work and Pensions and officials later covertly filmed him dancing enthusiastically at a swing music night after receiving an anonymous tip-off that he was wrongly claiming Disability Living Allowance. Read, of Blackley, Manchester, was caught on camera gliding across the dancefloor and spinning his dance partner around while being cheered on by crowds of onlookers at an event in his home city.

Sentencing Read at Manchester Crown Court, Judge Rudland told him that in his case public interest was not served by imposing a custodial sentence. He was given a 12-month community order and ordered to complete 120 hours of unpaid work.

The court heard that Read had legitimately claimed for benefits for 10 years from March 1995. He suffered arthritis from the age of 25 and in the early 1990s he was virtually housebound. However, the operation on his left leg provided "instant relief" and proved such a success he was able to take an interest in his new hobby. He illegally continued to claim Disability Living Allowance between June 2005 and December 2008 to the tune of £19,915.

Judge Rudland told him: "You learned to live frugally and contentedly, going out rarely, until the dancing came into your life, which seemed to transform your joie de vivre. There is absolutely no suggestion you are a shirker who has avoided work. It is agreed that the sad fact is you were afflicted by arthritis from as young an age as 25 when most people are enjoying life with an abundance of vigour. In your mid to late 40s you were assessed as being eligible for the appropriate benefits. A time came when you undertook a hip replacement operation which had a significant impact on your mobility. Your life opened up because of the dancing and interest in the swing music of the '40s, which has a considerable following, and you became an accomplished performer on public display. I suspect over time the claim being made went to the back of your mind and it was something you took for granted. Your case was genuine at the start and then drifted into dishonesty. It is not in the public interest that you should be deprived of your liberty. You are doing good work by taking the activity (swing music) into care homes, that brings some pleasure and therapy into lives as a result of the commitment you make in that way."

...David James, defending, said his client is still affected by arthritis and before the operation had essentially been unable to move his left leg. He said the dance evenings were not a weekly event and Read went through the pain barrier as he suffered discomfort in the following days. "He is a proud man who has been humbled by his fallibility," he said. "His past was not a life, it was more of an existence"'.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Some sheep, some homeboys and a funki dred

The annual Lambeth Country Show in Brixton's Brockwell Park - held this year on the 17th & 18th July - is a slightly surreal weekend combining music, food stalls and a fairground with agricultural elements rarely encountered in inner city South London, such as sheep shearing and horse riding displays (not forgetting owls and llamas).

On the Saturday, musical highlights included an acoustic set from the Alabama 3 and a DJ set from Jazzie B/Soul II Soul.

The former (pictured above) might have made it on the global stage via providing the theme tune to The Sopranos but they are very much the house band to Brixton druggies, drinkers, post-ravers, mental health system survivors and (as)sorted radicals. They started out with a singalong 'You are my Brixton' before moving on via Woke up this Morning to a modified Johhny Cash cover - Brixton Prison Blues.

Alabama 3 always like to support good political causes, including prisoners in miscarriage of justice cases. This time the focus was on a struggle closer to home, with singer Larry Love being joined by his kids to voice opposition to the threatened closure of the Triangle Adventure Playground by the Oval.

Jazzie B was joined by MC Chickaboo for a wide ranging set that got the crowd dancing to mash ups of Kellis's Milkshake with Billy Jean; and Seven Nation Army with Public Enemy's Bring the Noise, among others. Further ingredients in the mix included James Brown, Dizzee Rascal, Beyonce, Deelite, Nirvana and Ray Charles. All of this plus tantalising snatches of his hits with Soul II Soul - most notably the opening bars of Keep on Movin' followed by some heavy drum'n'bass. And yes he did sign off with the Soul II Soul motto of 'a happy face, a thumpin' bass, for a lovin' race.'

Like the Alabama 3, Soul II Soul's history is bound up with Brixton (even if Jazzie B is a north Londoner) - in their case their famous sound system Friday nights at the Fridge in the 1980s were a key stepping stone on to making their own records and international success.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Can Dialectics Break Bricks?

Excerpts from René Viénet's 1973 film "Can Dialectics Break Bricks?" - a Situationist detournement of a Chinese kung fu movie overdubbed with revolutionary content, as if it was really a film about rebels fighting against Marxist Leninist bureaucrats.

At one point he puts the following words into the mouths of one of the rulers, making clear the Situationist disdain for the radical theorists they saw as the last bastion of the status quo:

'Work! Family! Fatherland! Work! Family! Fatherland! Just stick to that! I don't want to hear any more about class struggle. If I do I'll send in my sociologists! And if necessary my psychiatrists! My urban planners! My architects! My Foucaults! My Lacans! And if that's not enough, I'll even send in my structuralists!'

Monday, August 02, 2010

Vietnam Craig David 'Flashmob'

Some Vietnamese 'flashmob' action, June 18 2010. OK this one clearly isn't a genuine unlicensed, spontaneous gathering. It's a choreographed stunt, seemingly sponsored by a crisp manufacturer. But hey, a couple of hundred people dancing to Lady Gaga, Beyonce and Craig David (Insomnia) on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City is something to ponder on: