November 29th, 2008


Progress towards the past

It seems to be one of my recurrent themes that traditional things are often more radical than modern things. Just this week I was championing Georges Brassens over rock and roll music, and 93 year-old Mimi Weddell as the most advanced street style icon I'd seen in a while.

It would be easy to suggest that I say these things because I'm getting on myself, but if you check my track record I've been saying this ever since my twenties. In my very first New Musical Express interview I told the journalist that rock was the most conservative artform, and that Juvenal and Catullus impressed me more than any contemporary rock lyricists. When I pitched features ideas to NME editor Danny Kelly circa 1986, it was to write about old men who were more radical than young men: Jacques Brel, Serge Gainsbourg and Jake Thackray. I was 26.

Okay, could it be this has become one of my messages not because I'm old, but because I'm conservative? And do I turn the accusation around and suggest that supposedly-radical youth culture is conservative precisely to rebuff this accusation (conservative is, after all, one of my favourite insults)? Possibly, but I don't think that's the case. I think, rather, that I see the cultures of the past as parallel worlds, little instances of science fiction. Very often, I prefer what I see in those bubbles to what I see in the bubble of my own culture, the culture of here and now. I prefer it because it seems more advanced. And that contains the possibility that the culture we have now took a wrong turn at some point -- a possibility I've always been very willing to entertain, because it would be tautological to say that progress was just whatever led us to the place we happen to be in.

Many Berlin residents would take visiting friends to the Panorama Bar at Berghain, a techno club with a strict door policy, beats that go on for days, and a certain amount of sex going on in the shadows. I take them out to the ethnographic museums at Dahlem-Dorf. That's far-and-away my favourite Berlin place, because its vast rooms can take you thousands of years away, to Oceanic and Asian and Indic civilisations which boggle the mind by their difference to the world we know. Here, women walk bare-breasted, intercontinental journeys are made on wooden rafts, and people dedicate months of their lives to decorating a screen with a scene of pilgrims walking through a gorge.

I'll visit Dahlem's Botanical museum, hothouses and ethnographic museums this Sunday with a group of friends (two groups, actually, a hardcore group who are prepared to get up early, and a softcore group who'll join us later), and I fully expect to experience the sort of joys that fuelled Click Opera pieces like Museums are better than clubs and What are you wearing, living national treasure?

Since this is -- and always has been -- my big message, you won't be surprised when I tell you that my favourite magazine at the moment is Kateigaho International Edition (KIE), a magazine about traditional Japanese culture which comes out four times a year. I was reading it last week at Cha No Ma in Vienna, and thinking that it gives me more pleasure than, say, defunct youth culture mag Relax ever did. With Relax I always had to put up with features on graffiti and skateboarding and the pretense that Californian culture was the most beautiful anywhere -- something I knew to be a lie.

Relax is dead, and Spike Jonze isn't as young as he used to be. Meanwhile KIE continues to serve up features on traditional Japanese culture which look -- shockingly -- as fresh as a daisy, as if this stuff -- trad Japanese sweets, or bathing, or jewelry -- were something happening in the future rather than the past. I recently learned that the sexiest of my ex-girlfriends is now studying to be a museum curator. It doesn't surprise me in the least; she was always forward-looking.