Saturday, 15 January 2011

One Month Before Heartbreak: Judgement Day

One Month Before HeartbreakCross-posted at Diary of a Goldfish

The musings of a pair of rather tired disability benefit claimants communicating via IM trying to raise awareness and support in light of the government consultation into DLA reform. Read if you dare...


Goldfish: A few months ago, I mentioned to my new GP that my DLA was up for renewal. He warned me that if I got turned down, I shouldn't take it personally - he knew many people who were being refused now, despite having very severe impairments. I know not to take it personally, of course, and yet the current system, political rhetoric, media coverage and the tone of proposed reforms are such that anything we have to do with disability benefits feels very very personal.

Stephen: And indeed it is personal. As much as it'd be nice to live in a communists utopia, we need money to live and as such are reliant upon national insurance to pay out for our survival. But not only that, we, the disabled, are made to jump through hoops to determine whether or not we're capable of work. Which is especially galling when the hoop jumping can be as difficult or impossible as work.

Goldfish: "The disabled"? You're proposing to put this on my blog, honey.

Stephen: You know me - I call a spade a shovel. Dear reader, please forgive my horrendous grasp of correct terminology. I care about you all deeply, even though I'm insulting you at the same time.

Goldfish: Anyway.

Stephen: Anyway.

Goldfish: I think another thing which makes it so personal is the fact that politicians talk about the workshy and other variations on the undeserving poor, the media take that a step further and render most of us scroungers or cheats, but then people around us use the same language - worse language even than "the disabled". They talk about welfare cuts as a universally good thing because of the scroungers, because of the so-called disabled. And if they notice your discomfort, they insist that they don't mean people like you.

What they don't realise is that almost all claimants are people like you, and me. And we're not magically protected from the effect of cuts just because they happen to consider us worthy of protection.

Stephen: Okay okay not so subtle point taken. People who might not be quite so able but who are still dashingly handsome and/or ravishingly beautiful are, indeed, clumped together. I mean, the DLA form itself is only really relative just so long as you stick to a certain set of disabilities. If you're outside of those pre-defined multiple choice answers then you have to write a huge amount to try to explain why you don't fit in and yet why you still need this money.

Goldfish: And I imagine most people are outside those boxes; most disabled people aren't full-time wheelchair users, don't experience total blindness or deafness etc..

Stephen: Do you think that the forms mirror public perception? The good disabled person who's deserving of the money that they so generously donate from their children's piggy banks is the one who answers all those questions by ticking the top most box (and who, sadly, but also thankfully, might not live too long and so not be a long term financial drain)?

Goldfish: In fairness, I don't think the public feels very generous towards those who tick the top box of the mental health questions.

Stephen: we saw recently in the aftermath of the Giffords shooting. The stance of Sheriff Dupnik was that the world was a safer place with the mentally ill locked up rather than integrated into the community. So our ideal disabled victim (because surely they are a victim - of a random virus, a terrible car accident [just so long as they didn't cause it] or, if possible, falling from a height whilst trying to save a poor little girl and her kitten from a tree house fire) is a full time wheelchair user, possibly also blind, very grateful and entirely sane. Is that even possible?

I'm not sure I'd be that sane after all that bad luck.

Goldfish: *rolls eyes

Stephen: What?

Goldfish: I will have to apologise to any heroic blind wheelchair-users who pass by my blog now.

In any case, we were talking about this issue of how difficult it is not to take this stuff personally. You've been trying to sort out your exam conditions for your final university exams.

(Do you like the subtlety there? - I should work on daytime TV.)

Stephen: Indeed. I'm studying for a BA in Classics via distance learning. Because of the setup, it's 100% exam graded. As you can imagine, that means that come exam time there's a considerable amount of pressure. Indeed, for the last few months I've been hell to live with, isn't that right, Darling?

Goldfish: Hades, sweetheart - I thought it was Hades?

Stephen: I've failed already. Anyway, because I'm a person who might not be quite so able but who is still dashingly handsome and/or ravishingly beautiful (or a PWmnbqsAbwisDH/RB to those in the know) I need some help when it comes to exam time. I get to take my exam locally, for example, rather than having to travel to London. And I am able to use a computer keyboard rather than handwrite. And in order to qualify for these I have to get a doctor's letter explaining that I'm a PWmnbqsAbwisDH/RB and so should be allowed these things. In my first year the system was so poorly set up that I wasn't aware as to whether I was going to get the special arrangements or not until two days before the exam.

So although I got the help I needed to make my chances as fair as the next wannabe classicist, I had a considerable amount of extra stress that none of the other candidates did.

Goldfish: (Incidentally, dear reader, he has not been at all difficult, only has occasional flashes of self doubt, such as "I've failed already." What this man doesn't know about the motivations of Ajax when he set upon his "wooly captives" is not worth knowing. )

(That's the lesser Ajax, by the way. Or is it the greater one?)

Stephen: (Greater)

Goldfish: (Okay)

Stephen: (You know when I said could you take the exam for me..?)

Goldfish: Anyway

You were trying to make sure the exam conditions were sorted for this May, love. And like any large institution, the wheels were turning very slowly...

Stephen: Yes. I had been told that there would be no need to reapply, but things have changed and now I have to get a new doctor's letter. Of course, getting an appointment with the GP isn't that easy and I've got that booked for just over a week away. The expectation was that I should be able to get a letter posted off to them instantly, so straight away I wasn't conforming with the idea of what I should be doing.

Then there was the issue of a local exam centre. If you're one of the idealised disabled, the process of getting to London *shouldn't* be a problem. But for me it's impossible.

But the problem is...the people in the special needs department haven't specifically questioned these things. They just mentioned them (in, I think it's fair to say, a rather clumsy way. Even more clumsy than my terminology. Yeah, I know, I didn't think it was possible either). The problem is that I feel under pressure to conform to ideas of what I should be capable of doing. I feel that I am being judged. And, well, I *am* being judged. Someone has to look at my medical evidence and say whether what I'm asking is appropriate. But that's a horrible position to be in. Especially when I am actually paying for the privilege of taking the degree!

By the way, dear reader, Deborah's just popped to the loo. So we're alone now. We can talk about whatever we want! Have you seen the new Mercedes SLK? What do you think of the front end redesign? I'm afraid it's a bit too clunky to me. that sort of front heaviness works on the SLS, but then that's an entirely different vehicle...

Goldfish: Sweetheart, I think you are getting distracted.

Stephen: Er...yes, maybe.

Goldfish: When you got that e-mail from the Special Needs people, you said that you felt that they were suspicious of you?

Stephen: Yes. Well, just the act of asking again. When you're living with something, especially a disability, it leaves you very sensitive to any mention of it. Or it does me. Being told that they would collect the information so that they could make the 'right decision' upset me. What is the right decision? Is it right for me? For the university? For the world in general?

And what's right got to do with it?

If the world were right I'd not have to be dealing with extra process to get to a point of equality.

Goldfish: And I tried to reassure you that they probably weren't suspicious of you, just clumsy and uncreative in the way big institutions often are. But this is how we're made to feel. Like every need, however simple, has to be justified.

And this is the case in many areas. Lilwatchgirl is going through this with Access to Work, you've got this with your exam conditions, but I think it all comes down to the way that we talk about disability in society.

And so much of that is to do with politics, and so long as disabled people are a political scapegoat, so long as money-saving measures are so often focussed on us and how expensive we are, then people are going to think that it is the natural order of things that we have to justify our existence in that society.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Review - Cibelle and Julia Nunes

To follow my very out of date film review, I have a pair of albums which have caught my ear recently. In fact, while I’ve been working through Sophoclean tragedy, two ladies have been warbling on my speakers.

I’m a huge fan of antifolk and the New Weird America movement. It was through listening to Davendra Banhart that I came across a singer called Cibelle. The pair sang together on their track London, London which I found on youtube. From there I listened to tracks from her album The Shine of Dried Electric Leaves (yes, the title itself deserves attention). The first track, Green Grass, is very special indeed: a breathy dream of lost love, sinking into a plant-filled modern landscape. It is the closest thing I’ve found in modern music to a Sappho poem.

And she has a new album out! And what’s more, the title’s even better! Las Venus Resort Palace Hotel is both the name and the fictional location in which the songs take place. It is the last refuge of a world which has crumbled away

‘...a rock floating in space with a jungle on top and the ocean dripping into nowhere...’

She sings as Sonja Khalecallon in the voice of traditional Exotica. But, unlike the subversive voice of much antifolk, Cibelle ne Sonja shows huge respect for the genre and its messages. Well, she does come from Brazil, and she seems to be trying to share a bit of her native sunshine and love.

Of course, this isn’t 100% successful off the bat. Some of the songs are just too sugared for my taste. Even though I appreciate the idea of covering a song from a Bond film, Underneath the Mango Tree had me raising an eyebrow. Although I do think, having listened to it a few times now, that it does set up the rest of the album nicely. It is followed by Man from Mars, a song which perfectly balances a gentle steel drum track, multi-layered, soaring vocals (had me in mind of a sweet-voiced swarm of parrots) and sympathetic trip-hop beats and samples.

Lightworks (cover of Raymond Scott’s original) feels dangerous and slinky – far more Bond-ish than Mango Tree, while The Gun and the Knife sounds remarkably like something from a Tarantino film. Mr and Mrs Grey has a wonderful beat (and, later on, an angry twangy western six string) reminding me equal parts of Rasputina and Lilly Allen’s Not Fair.

I think, for me, the standout songs are half way through and are scarily diverse. Sad Piano is just as dreamy and beautiful as Green Grass but with a much darker tone. Heartbreaking is most definitely the word. But my main problem is that, as a connoisseur of bad jokes, I can’t help but hear her sing “I have a small piano” which does somewhat ruin it.

The main theme of Frankenstein makes me think of Ice Age or some other quest narrative animated film, but most important is the totally catchy rhythm and cyperpunk lyrics which cannot fail to lift the heart.

Love like science and alchemy
tonight the nightclubs are poetry
I need a lightning bolt to his heart
to kick-start my Frankenstein soul

Escute Bem sees Cibelle hit some notes that remind me of Beth Gibbons at her very best, coupled with great electronic noises and an exotic feel. It really is like doing the tango with a triple breasted prostitute on the surface of mars. And yes, I have been drinking.

You don’t need to have drunk anything, though, to find her cover of It’s Not Easy Being Green anything less than charming. What a way to end the album! It’s relatively low key, but with added sparkle. Kermit in a tutu, perhaps.

So what can you say? As a concept album it works absolutely perfectly, painting an image of the last chance saloon of exotica slowly crumbling into a void. As much as some songs are completely uplifting and transformative, I am left worrying about the relatively drab surroundings just outside my window. Perhaps it’s time to search ebay for a feather headdress...


My next warbler was also happened upon on youtube, although in this case it was entirely by accident. Julia Nunes is one of those sickeningly talented young people that make you want to take up drinking whiskey just so you can complain about them in a suitably gnarled voice. She started at the age of 13 and more recently has been writing albums and compiling rather splendid music videos on youtube which demonstrate not just great talent and an ear for a good cover, but also show her great sense of humour and zest for life.

The first video I came across was her cover of Why Do You Build Me Up, Buttercup and on that occasion, I believe I played it through five times. Yes, I know, I’m boring like that. Seriously, take a look through her video stream – you won’t be disappointed.

Today, though, I’ve been listening to her album I Wrote These...which is made of songs that I believe she wrote. Now, I have a bit of a problem here, as I’m abnormally attracted to a cover. So I was a little worried to see how she’d go about constructing an album.

My first impressions were not bad, however. I’ve heard criticism of Cibelle’s voice, saying that it’s not really up to anything more than the fun twiddly bits but gets lost when you chuck a strong tune at it (a rather harsh and unfair criticism in my opinion), but Julia Nunes’ voice is, well, not the antithesis, as she can twiddle as good as the next person, but she has an extremely strong voice which holds a tune (and attention) with ease.

My only criticism was that one of two of the songs felt a little too strong...almost overpowering, in fact. But this is probably just a youth thing, with my poor elderly earlobes unable to keep up. I personally think, though, that she really shines with some of the gentler tracks: especially those which are ukulele-centric.

There’s been a bit of a resurgence in the ukulele business recently (probably because Deborah and I made one. What can I say? We’re trend setters.). But the humble uke has lost a little of its cheeky ‘jumping flea’ character, gaining a more off-key half-drunk weepiness (which I blame entirely on ER and the death scene of Mark Greene). Julia gets rid of this with a big smile and some cracking lyrics. And this is where I feel that Cibelle and Julia Nunes are so linked – they both feel related to a scene that’s too cool for a lot of the genuine sentiment from which their genres originate, and yet they bring a lot of that original light and joy back with the benefit of genre evolution.

I must also quickly point out that her lyrics are very important. I’m not usually too bothered by lyrics – in fact, I often never hear them, just listen to the sounds and enjoy them as such. But there’s something about the crispness of Julia’s voice and the emotion that she puts into things that really brings out the quirky poetry of her words. So I’ll be quoting a few for you.

Binoculars is my favourite of her guitar tracks. It gives voice to the humble neighbourhood peeping tom. No, really. ‘Please don’t be creeped out by me / you’re my miniature TV’ is perhaps my favourite line. It demonstrates perfectly her sense of humour. In fact, it reminds me very much of some Ben Folds work. And again, you must check the video.

Keeping with the guitar theme, Pen to Paper is an interesting one. There’s a very strong beat, and I like how the song is divided up into sections. But again, I’m drawn to her narrative! I can’t help it, really. It has got one of the best relationship-type lyrics since Emmy the Great sang;

I thought romance was pretty, then you went and spoiled it
Every time that I think of you, have to go to the toilet
Can’t tell if this is love or a stomach disorder
Or a massive grade-a typhoon inside my aorta

Julia’s romance is slightly less definite but certainly less icky;

I saw you ‘cross the room
we never really spoke but still I knew that
you and me were meant to be
close if not romantically

The Debt is a wonderful ukulele piece where the bouncy rhythm is helped along with various layered vocal effects and trills and is, perhaps, other than the harsher songs, one of the only ones where I’ve paid less attention to the lyrics. But I must confess - I actually bobbed. Yep, I almost dislocated something.

But the best song of the album without a doubt is Stairwell. It has the absolute perfect mix of wit, rhythm and tune. I’ll be whistling it for weeks to come at least. And what’s more, during those weeks it will never get annoying! Well, not to me, at least. I can’t speak for those who have to live nearby. Anyway, strangely enough, it’s perhaps the least cheery of all the songs. I mean, the opening lines are;

I’m lying here on the floor just like the man on the yellow cone
I guess the floor was wet, so I'm cold and all alone

It turns out that the protagonist has been finding it hard to live and so decided that throwing themselves down the stairs might be a good idea. But I tell you, I’ve never heard someone that depressed carry a tune so well.

So there you are. Listen to them both. And thank me by showering me with gifts.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Crash (Bang Wallop)

It often takes me a while to see films. I can't get to cinemas and, anyway, I object to paying for things I might not enjoy. When it came to Crash, created by Paul Haggis (who also did Due South - one of my personal favourites) and winner of three Oscars (including Best Picture), I had very few excuses. It had been available on dvd and shown at least twice on television. Still, I'd heard some raves and some rumbles and this is often enough to put me off. Indeed Deborah told me that she thought it was utterly disappointing.

But you know what men are like, so I watched it with every hope that Deb was wrong. How silly I was.

I believe that one of the things that most impressed people was that Crash speaks of racism in new ways. Well, that's great. But then, there's not been a film about cars which talks about the chemical properties of the magnetorheological fluid used in the dampers of some posh cars. There's a very good reason *why* a film has been made about cars which speaks in this voice. It's because the voice is one of those nasal ones that says 'actually' a lot. And yes, I've been known to slip into that voice at times.

Racism is a massive issue. It's possibly hard having grown up in Surrey to entirely relate to the America of this film. At my primary school there were perhaps one or two black pupils and only one Asian girl that I can remember. And yet this didn't seem to breed any 'racism' as such. In many ways they seemed to be quite popular having these differences.

But I'm not entirely removed from racism in this mainly white corner of Britain. I live near Slough which is famed for its racial tension. There are schools in which the pupils were said to cheer when 9/11 took place. There are also instances of gang violence between different races. And yes, there is also a strong distinction between the poor areas of immigration and the extremely rich areas of privilege. No doubt there is prejudice on both sides.

But I do not believe that there is universal racism. I don't believe that every single person in that area of the UK has racist views. And I don't believe that to be the case in the US either.

I think the idea of the film is fundamentally flawed. I get the impression that someone said 'ok, we're going to make one of those films where everything is interconnected. Now all we need is a theme...'. Racism was picked. And so every character and event has to relate to the theme of racism. But that's not how the world works.

The world has so many motives and ideas and thoughts and feelings that to limit them creates an artificial world. And to try to explore an issue as important as racism in a realistic environment in this way just does not work. I'm reminded of Seuss and the Sneetches. It's ok to simplify the world into Sneetches with stars and those without because it's not a real world. It makes the matter clear without denying the complexities of the real world.

Deborah has informed me that she blogged about Crash a long time ago, and in her blog she says;

It would have made for a better film had it included some suggestion as to how this human misery could be resolved; instead it actually suggested that whilst racism is not the exclusive domain of monsters, there’s not a lot that can be done about it.

This is very important. Seuss teaches by showing us a world where racism is institutional and unavoidable. It's only through their mutual swindling that they learn that racism is silly. The audience, though, aren't expected to tackle racism in the real world by inventing some race-on race-off machine. They are shown an error in a fictional world and so can relate the message to the real world.

Crash, as Deborah says, has no idea of resolution. "It's a bad thing", the film says...but that's it. That's only the first few lines of the Sneetches story!

I also object to the abusive cop. His molestation of a woman is explained away as being the result of having to look after a disabled father. Excuse me? It seems that there's no real explanation of racism, but it's ok to explain a sexual assault? Yes, it's difficult to live with someone who's ill, especially when you're not recieving the proper help and support. People can snap. But snap by sexually assaulting someone?

And so many of these scenes were exploitative. I felt like I'd perpetrated all these horrendous acts. I felt dirty. And although I get that that may have been the point of the film, it lacks any sort of catharsis. And I'm too much of a classicist to let that go.