Half Awake in a Fake Empire …

The National, Usher Hall Edinburgh, 21st of September 2017

I am half awake in a fake empire …, I could be anyone/where in the present political climate, in the UK with the neoliberals chasing post Brexit trade deals with former colonies. In the US trading insults, a dotard to a rocket man. Instead I am watching “The National” at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh. With the name like “The National” one might expect them to be a political band in some way, though clearly it is not the same as the type of nationalism promoted by Trump, it is probably more akin to the constitutional patriotism suggested by writers like Habermas (see here ), the inclusive sense that looks beyond ethnicity or citizenship to pluralistic values, the nationalism claimed by people in Plaid Cymru and the SNP. Which, given the intellectualism of the band, they have probably read.

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Figure 1: Matt Berninger from the National, Edinburgh Usher Hall 21st of September 2017: Credit Hollie Taylor, CC BY SA 4.0

While we waited for them to come on, the screens at the back of the stage provided a glimpse backstage, they didn’t appear to be sitting around reading the New Yorker, all was strumming, stretching and guitar picking. At the front, there was no pushing, once the band came on I didn’t feel myself pinned to the barriers at the front, and indeed the only drink that was thrown was from the stage itself. At one point I went to the bar, “IPA please”, “sorry love, sold out”. Only at something as middle class as “The National” could you go to the bar in Scotland and find the only thing left was the Tennent’s Lager.

Getting back to the front was easy, polite and without a drop spilled. If the crowd was polite, the bands carefully constructed sounds, building waves of noise seemed in rude health. As the gig progressed the drummer shed layers, his brother head down sweating the bass. With the Dessner brothers on guitar/piano watching each other cool and knowingly, as the singer become more and more of a dishevelled angry middle aged man. I note the Guardian suggested this new album was their middle aged album , to me, on that evening, it was the older ones like “Mistaken for Strangers” that seemed filled weary melancholy. And anger, the first time I saw them live (not on YouTube) was 2008 at the Green Man. I remember the musicianship, the tightness of movement, but I don’t recall the rasping anger of now.

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Figure 2: The National in Full Flow, Matt has a moment by himself to scream into the mic, Credit Ronald Macintyre, CC BY SA 4.0

As he sang the opening lines of “Fake Empire” I was reminded of a poem I had read years ago, called the “Mushroom Gatherers”, all together in the woods, passing, not talking,  written in the 1950’s, inspired by the work of Polish poet Mickiewicz, it is often read as a comment on the performance of political process. To me it seemed to speak to the way without care we can sleepwalk through ill times.  If you scroll to 13:30 you can listen to a reading of it here.  And learn more about Donald Davie here.

Of the songs that seemed most filled with angry sadness it was “Mr November”, with the band thrashing about and Matt foetal on the floor. For me it seemed to capture this strange feeling one has these days – what the fuck is going on!?!. Mr November was Obama, and even though they claim to be not too political, Obama went to their songs time again for a bit of hope.

Now, how are we to feel constitutionally patriotic, soaked in shared values, when our systems have thrown up odd these odd replacements.

 

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The Storr – book review

Farquhar Angus (2006) “the Storr: Unfolding Landscape”, Luath Press, Edinburgh

 

I first heard rumblings of a project to turn ‘the Storr’ (a finger of basalt at the base of the Trotternish peninsula on Skye) into an ‘environmental art installation’ in 2002. Angus Farquhar responded promptly to my answer phone request for information. We had a long chat about the iconography of landscape and about visual arts in the Highlands, a chat that left me wondering just how ‘the truth’ of Bodach Storr could/would be extracted from the myth.

 

In August 2005 I stood in the Storr car park waiting to find out. I was impressed by; the repair of the footpath, the light ecological touch, and the contribution to the local economy – but not the artwork. The poetry of Sorley MacLean and songs of Mairi Mhor nan Oran were confined to the non-native forestry block, while silent 70s disco dancing and the ‘Romantic’ poetry of Rilke were settled in the midst of the ridge. Invoking ‘German Romanticism’ does not disrupt the mythology of Highland landscape. It re-inscribes the Highland landscape with the ideologies that saw clearance landlords de-politicise their actions, and rewrites the area as a wilderness playground.

 

If the intention of the work was to highlight the role of ‘Romanticism’ in reimagining the Highland landscape (through the absent presence of any critique) then it is to be commended. If this was the project agenda, then the knowledge required to decode the message is too exclusive. Essays by people from Skye temper that sense somewhat – Rilke would have approved. Rilke (like Heidegger) saw that ‘being’ and ‘authenticity’ were dependent on dwelling. However, many of the essays deal with ‘the Storr’ at a distance, this, coupled with the relative lack of post project comment and reflection, occlude the desire to dwell authentically.

 

The majority of the material in this volume was handed out free at the end of the £25 trip up to ‘the Storr’. This reprint has a glossier cover, but really features no notable additions. That said, I think this is still worth a look. Spot the rehashing of the argument that heritage quangos are the new landlords, except this time clearance landlordism is cast as being a democratic shaper of landscape (sorry no book token for the first correct entry). You will find plenty of other arguments of interest and ire in this volume.

 

 This article appeared in Issue 5 of Northwords Now, March 20007