Sunday, February 25, 2007

Back to square one then.

Not so long ago, for an all too fleetingly joyful moment, I was graced by the magnanimity of the glorious youtube, only for this to be cruelly snatched away from me in the night as quickly as it came – actually a great deal quicker, I remember it taking a good few months before I could get youtube to work on this blog, and never found out why. Now I sit here forlornly wondering if my love shall ever return.

What is the cause of all this misery? Sodding technology, again, specifically New Blogger. I may be guilty of biting the hand that feeds me here, but Tony Blair has instilled in me a deep suspicion of anything preceded by a New with a capital N. I am also deeply suspicious of institutions that force you to join them – is this not the essence of totalitarianism? A couple of weeks ago I wished to contact that fine body of men from Serbia known as TONA – the only way I was allowed to do this via their myspace page was, predictably, to set up my own myspace account and page, which now that I am mercifully able to communicate with TONA via the positively Luddite medium of e-mail, I may never log into again. So it goes with New Blogger. I never had any choice in the matter of converting to the New, Improved version. The old one was working just fine for me, and I tend to be of the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” school of thought, but it was a matter of either joining or letting the Spleen die.

Unfortunately, now there is something to fix, because New Blogger has broken it. Youtube will no longer allow me to post videos to my own blog, telling me that my New username and password are either invalid or I don’t have permission to access this blog. In addition at least one person has been unable to post comments. I have already wasted a considerable amount of time trying a couple of things to remedy the situation, but so far to no avail, and would be grateful for any suggestions, although of course, you might not be able to send me these in the form of comments on this page. More computer literate readers might be rolling their eyes at what an imbecile I am and thinking that I should get off my arse and learn how to do my own troubleshooting. But my answer to this is that information technology does not interest me in the slightest, never has, moreover learning all these skills would be extremely time consuming and I do have a job and something approximating a life to get on with. I can type, what else do you want, blood?

Hmm, let’s see if my ingratitude for the opportunity to publish these posts free of charge is punished by the swift condemnation of this blog to eternal oblivion. If the omnipotent and unaccountable Lords of the New Blogger are listening in to my whining (a frankly unlikely scenario), GIVE ME BACK MY TOYS!!

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Only here for the beer?

Few will be unaware that the Czech Republic is the home of Pilsner beer, and that beer is an integral pillar of the national identity. No need to bore you with the details then, but let me reassure you that this is no mere myth or stereotype. This country consumes the most beer per capita in the world, the Czechs live and breathe beer, and after all, their beer is truly excellent.

In addition, most people seem to think it’s healthy. The Czech version of cheers is “To (your) health”, and I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been told “beer isn’t alcohol”. Well, sceptic that I am I preferred to err on the side of caution. This morning I went to visit my doctor, to get the results of an all over check-up I decided to have done. Basically I hadn’t been to the doctor for 3 years, liked to think of myself as reasonably healthy but didn’t want to get complacent. It had also occurred to me that I do like a drink and am wary of the dangers of making the excuse (however true) that most of my friends here drink more than I do – this, after all, is the Czech Republic, Europe’s hardest drinking nation, check out the stats. More often than not I exceed the recommended 28 units of alcohol per week for adult males, furthermore at 160 cm tall I am only a fraction of the size of a normal adult male.

So in the traditional post-Christmas season of the hair shirt I decided to give up alcohol for a month, towards the end of which I thought it might be an opportune time to have myself checked out. As it turned out when I went to the doctor 3 weeks ago I was suffering from flu, but reasoned that this would probably have little influence on the more fundamental, long-term type tests I was undergoing. The doctor took a urine sample, ordered an appointment for me to have a blood test at the hospital and tested my blood pressure, which, to my dismay, he informed me was unusually high for a man of my age and may need treatment if it hadn’t improved by my next visit in a few weeks. A week later I had my blood sample taken, after which I immediately went back out on the piss.

Today I returned to better news. My liver is in fine shape, my cholesterol level apparently exemplary. Blood pressure? The doctor tested me again, this time absolutely fine. He told me everything was in order, but that I shouldn’t eat too much salt (I don’t) or drink mineral water. So it’s in fact possible if not probable that my temporary high blood pressure was caused by the fact that I had swapped my usual drink of beer for mineral water that month. Treacherous false friends, these non-alcoholic beverages. Not only a foul penance to imbibe, mineral water is actually more expensive than beer in this country, and I am now told by no less an authority than my doctor that it is less healthy. Only in the Czech Republic. God I love this country sometimes.

Praise the Lord!

Back to familiar themes and a band, in fact THE band, that is constantly in my thoughts these days. It seems my prayers have been answered in part, with that kind-hearted soul The Impostume, having pointed me in the direction of Cop Shoot Cop’s first two albums, now informing me that two shimmering pearls from the exquisite Thin White Rope are available for download at the address below:

Did I mumble something in an earlier post about a religious conversion if such, indeed Godlike, treasures were passed my way? Wriggling on the hook, I shall remain agnostic, if deeply thankful, at least until I get hold of Moonhead. I notice that I also resolved to be kinder and more encouraging in future, an endeavour which lasted for approximately one post before reverting to type with a thuggish mauling of Hrabal’s I Served The King of England. Promises, promises eh.

Incidentally a Czech friend of mine who is also in the minority camp on Hrabal tells me he’d like to translate an adapted version of that post and get it published here in some literary magazine, in which highly improbable case I may be sporting numerous black eyes in the coming months. Since the film’s release my stance on Hrabal (I assure you it is not a mere pose) has already got me into a fair few pub arguments – oh how I’ve suffered for my views, ach who am I kidding, I love a good scrap as you might have gathered.

Doubly incidentally, many years ago I went to the Golden Tiger in Prague, where Hrabal used to be a regular, and got talking to a former waiter there, a man who could boast “I Served Bohumil Hrabal”. He bought me a beer, so pleased was he to meet a foreigner who could speak Czech and knew who Hrabal was. If that article ever gets out he might regret his moment of drunken benevolence to such an ungrateful bastard.

I can only hang my head and quote the post-millennial sage Robbie Williams: “I am scum”. Christ, it’s not even 9 o clock in the morning yet! Repentance is nigh!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

I may be wrong here, but I’m fairly confident that Jiří Menzel’s recent film of Bohumil Hrabal’s novel I Served the King of England is unlikely to find success beyond the borders of former Czechoslovakia (watch me eat my words a year or so from now when it sweeps the Oscars). Certainly I don’t see much reason why it should succeed, and the people I know who have seen it so far seem in more or less unanimous agreement. Sure, there are a couple of neat little quips, and most of it is beautifully filmed, since it is portrayed through the eyes of its amoral anti-hero Dítě, for whom the sole meaning of life is the consumption of beauty, frivolous, selfish indulgence. This though, in the eyes of many, is the film’s downfall, since it presents us with nothing but a superficial carnival and is ultimately unsatisfying and inconsequential.

So far I concur with the majority view, but have to diverge on the matter of whether Menzel is entirely to blame here. Hrabal is held in such esteem in this country that in the unlikely event that anyone Czech reads this page I may be lynched for the heresy I am about to commit, but I have to admit that in my years here Hrabal is a part of Czech culture that I simply have never understood. I am undoubtedly in a very small minority here, not only amongst Czechs but even amongst the ex-pats I know who have perhaps become more native than I am capable of, but I cannot lie, I frequently find Hrabal exasperating to the point of nausea. When all is said and done he is the creator of the tiresomely one-dimensional Dítě, and whilst it is clear that Dítě is not intended to be an entirely sympathetic character, a question is left hanging in my mind as to why quite so much time has to be wasted on him in book and film alike.

What is the point, for example, of the Bambino di Praga story? Are we supposed to be clutching our sides with laughter at this rambling, slapstick aside? As part of a Laurel and Hardy film such clownish antics might be mildly amusing, but within the context of a supposedly great novel it comes across merely as irrelevant, spewing verbal diarrhoea. Likewise the banquet of the Abyssinian emperor (Jah Rastafari!). Not only is there the ridiculous excess of the camel stuffed with antelope stuffed with turkey stuffed with fish etc., but also the half-drunken, “laughing and grinning” cooks and the emperor’s counselor, the “well known epicure” who “was so enraptured with the barbecued camel that he stood up and yelled with an expression of bliss on his face. But it tasted so delicious that not even that yell was enough, so he did what looked like a gymnastics routine, then started pounding his chest… Finally the counselor couldn't contain himself any longer and ran out of the hotel shouting and dancing and cheering and beating his chest...” My God man, give it a rest! (and that’s the abridged version). The only thing that made me laugh here was not the storytelling but the unintentionally hilarious political incorrectness in Hrabal’s monstrously patronising depiction of Africans as grinning golliwogs, which would tempt one to accuse him of racism were it not for the fact that his caricatures (to call them characters would be unduly flattering) of other races are equally buffoonish – the snooty Skřivánek, the absurdly corpulent Mr Walden, the bullying, oyster-gorging, pistol-firing general, Dítě’s Hitler-infatuated wife, plus of course Dítě himself.

Hrabal was evidently not a stupid man and he deliberately juxtaposed the vacuity of his anti-hero’s world view against much more serious matters, primarily the Nazi occupation of
Czechoslovakia and Second World War. So there is a point here then, presumably that all this irresponsibility comes at a price. But tragedy is always kept at arm’s length, never really felt, remaining peripheral – in the midst of the catastrophe around him Dítě, who is after all the narrator, never comes close to taking anything seriously, and even when he himself becomes a victim of circumstance, when his wealth (the only thing he ever cares about, incidentally stolen from murdered Jews) is confiscated by the communists and he is thrown in prison he merely shrugs his shoulders and smirks - after all life is just a big joke, sometimes at our own expense. I am not denying that people like Dítě, even if so stereotypical as to stretch the imagination, may indeed exist, or that there is a Dítě, which translates as Child, in all of us, but surely it’s inevitable that if an entire novel is narrated through the eyes of so limited a character it is doomed to be repetitive, tedious and desperately limited itself. By falling so in love with his own silly prose Hrabal is in fact guilty of the same obscene self-indulgence Dítě is created for the purpose of lampooning. Too often Hrabal retreats into an infantile fairytale world in which every pub bore is held up as an undiscovered genius born into the wrong age, and his work becomes a sniggering ode to bawdiness and triviality, with the ultimate effect that it seems that not only his characters but Hrabal himself is mocking any kind of ideals.

To rub salt in the wound (fuck it, I’m already damned as far as the Czechs are concerned) I could compare Hrabal unfavourably with Kundera, adored by the foreign public whilst reviled amongst many Czechs unable to forgive him for abandoning them and writing in French (pretentious, moi?). Whilst both may come to pessimistic philosophical conclusions about our ultimate ignorance and powerlessness at the mercy of circumstance, Kundera in his best work provides some gravity to offset the unbearable lightness of being, creating more complex, believable characters (at least the male ones), injecting a sense of tragedy and realism, showing masterful understanding of human motivations whilst simultaneously spinning us a damn good yarn. Whereas what does Hrabal give us? Grotesque tomfoolery.

At this point you may be asking why the hell I went to see the film. Well, because I’ve tried, I really have. And perhaps I’m just too stupid to understand Hrabal, but despite my greatest efforts, and in the face of thoroughly lucid arguments to the contrary from people I genuinely respect, I still do not get it.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Further south….

Following on from the preceding posts I have been skiving off work (not difficult being self-employed and working from home) the last few days to dip a toe or two in the soul-purifying waters of the fellowship of Thin White Rope. Intrigued as to who on earth might take it into their heads to quote the Spleen on a fan site, I was considerably gratified to find not a mere individual but a whole band, namely these wee blighters from Europe’s nether regions known as TONA

Plenty of spunk these geezers, boldly proclaiming that they sound like “Thin White Rope and Motorhead songs played by the Jesus Lizard”, Ministry and Cop Shoot Cop also get name checked… just a few of my favourite ever bands then. A few seconds in and some pretty grainy sounds start coughing up out of my speakers… mm, I think they mean business. Only managed a couple of listens but so far my favourite is the slower “Box”, a neat juxtaposition of a really quite funky bass overlain with a mournful dirge, to my ears slightly reminiscent of Joy Division and Bitch Magnet. For some reason I had trouble downloading that one, but I suppose that’s a good excuse to keep returning to their website to hear it again.

Serbia, never been there, but fond of long train journeys as I am I now feel a little tempted to hop on one down to Novi Sad and catch these fine, industrious young chaps live on their home turf. Better speak to my accountant first, my tax bill’s looming… in the meantime I guess there’s always the net.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Thin White Rope Crawl Piss Freeze, Davis CA 1988

None of us are worthy

Peace and love in the house!

Thanks to yet another dissemination courtesy of omniscient web oracle Rob Hughes, I am informed that the Spleen has been quoted elsewhere on the net, and on no less than a Thin White Rope tribute site (at which my all time favourite TWR song “Wet Heart”, plus the floods-of-tears inducing “Fish Song” can be heard). Not for the customary curmudgeonly viciousness that so often spews thoughtlessly forth on these pages, but on the contrary in the most noble of causes, a heartfelt paean to a much loved and greatly missed band who never received the popular acclaim they deserved (though from a selfish fan’s point of view this did have the advantage of heightening the sense of intimacy and exclusivity at their gigs). One is truly humbled! I’ve no idea how the parties involved found this blog, but I’m deeply grateful to them. Although I still feel physically pretty rotten with this flu a warm glow has come over me, accompanied with a resolution to be kinder, gentler, always ready with a word of praise or encouragement. Easy enough where TWR, about whom nothing short of exalting can ever be uttered, are concerned. Might be a bit of a challenge when the next Primal Scream album comes out, but I’ll keep an open mind.

Now if anyone could point me to where I could download TWR’s entire back catalogue (before you cry “thief” I should at least meekly stammer that I own a considerable amount of their recorded output, but this is on vinyl, in a dusty corner of my parents’ house over 1000 miles away) I may start believing in God.

Recommended listening and bags of interesting links at: