Regrettably, Reality

On one morning I awoke
and thought ‘why must I wake?’
And I took the rattling bus to work
and blearily thought ‘oh, why must I work?’
And in snatched time that was mine
I tried to change the world
and in despair I thought ‘I cannot; I cannot!’
I wished only for time to finish one thought
if only to glimpse the answers I sought
And when at last I had time that was mine to spend
I thought nothing at all
and lay down and slept

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Go Well; Stay Well

“He can make me cry but he could also make me laugh,” said my ordinarily stoic grandfather at last, as he stood beside the wicker coffin in which his brother lay. After choking out these first words of his eulogy his usual strength seemed to return to him; with no more cracks in his voice with which to wrestle he told us about growing up with Arno. I sat with my family, my hands in my lap and my eyes fixed on the podium from which he spoke, and listened to a man I have known and loved all my life talk with muted passion about a man he had known and loved all of his.

As I sat there, a distantly familiar pain in my backside being brought on by the dastardly wooden pews and my head being brought back time and time again to the death of my godfather last year, I felt deep and harrowing regret for the negligible relationship I had with my great-uncle. Listening to Dieter talk of growing up in South Africa with Arno – of hiding under their mother’s skirts from the cries of hyenas in the night as their father changed a tyre on their first drive through the Bushveld – of carrying his brother on his handlebars after a bicycle puncture on the three-mile ride they took together to catch the bus to school every morning – of arriving from Johannesburg in London’s docks as an adult and meeting for the first time Natasha, my grandmother, at a party thrown by his brother to welcome him to the city – I felt my eyes fill grow hot with tears along with his at the loss of a life that was both connected to my own and had been so within my reach all these years.

“Of course, we would often say goodbye to each other in Zulu” he tells us, smiling. “Hamba kahle, I would say to him, which means go well. Sala kahle, he would respond – stay well.”

Death is final, and sometimes it is only when one is met with it that that finality is comprehended. A sad but, in our culture at least, almost universal truth is that the great catalyst that causes family to appreciate the presence of one another is the loss of one of their own; a thing of great, terrifying beauty, if you give it a moment’s thought. Reflecting on this over the last forty-eight hours has led to something I could almost describe as epiphany.

Since I was first old enough to understand the basic concept of death and my own eventual passing I have been terrified to my very core of it; not least of its wont to happen at what will likely be an utterly inconvenient time. For the first time in my life, however, I can now see some unconditional value in my own eventual kicking of the proverbial bucket; it will gather my family from wherever in the world they will be, perhaps even causing (likely in people who are not even yet born; people for whom my own grandfather’s name will be nothing more than that) the same rediscovery of family I experienced through Arno’s passing for one or two of them. What a comfort; for the first time I know that, no matter when or in what manner I eventually go, it will not be entirely for nothing.

Death is never easy, but to hear those closest to your heart talk openly about somebody you have, through your own lack of care, never truly known, can be a humbling and catalytic experience. My great-uncle was honoured and cremated in the depths of Sussex, in a church located next to a house that, unbeknownst to me until very recently, is alive with memories for many of the far-spread clan to which I belong. In this house, that has meant so much to my father and his siblings – and, eventually to my mother – I came face-to-face with family members whom I had barely been aware of until that night. Clutching the first of many glasses of Arno’s favourite Rioja, Dad and I explored the upper floors of the house together, many of the rooms bringing up, from depths yet-unplumbed by myself, stories which I realise I could quite easily never have heard if the necessary situation had not presented itself.

Later, I sat with my second-cousin (who, to add further, almost comical gravity to our loathsome lack of attention to one another, it turned out was not only somebody whose company I enjoyed but in fact lives on the very same road as I do) and we spoke and laughed with my grandfather, drinking down every drop we could of these precious tales; tales which have time in this world that is limited to an extent I had never truly grasped until now.

I think it is easy, growing up, to have a misguided, almost subconscious faith that there will always be somebody who knows your family’s story available to you, should you ever need or wish to find out yourself. In reality it is rarely so; as relatives melt into history one realises that the history of one’s kin lies in the minds of its individual members. Nobody, probably least of all those in question, is going to write your relatives’ stories down, and when their time comes countless threads of your own unique tapestry will go into dust with them. Dramatic though it may seem, in the midst of more kinfolk than I have been met with for many years I felt the true  weight of mortality. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for having them in my life and with pride at being one of them.

I am very aware of the fact that not everybody is blessed with a family as loving or accepting as mine, which makes it all the more important to me now that I appreciate them whilst I have them. It is undeniably a painful thing to lose a relative, but it is also comforting to understand that, if one makes the effort whilst there is time to do so, the extent to which we lose them is something over which we have control. I was shaken by how much more of Arno resides in Dieter’s memory than mine, as he said farewell at the front of a freezing church in Sussex, and I grasped the importance of making effort to retain and nurture the relationships that mean the most to us.

I have written this account, not to be a particularly admirable piece of prose, which it certainly isn’t (although, who knows; perhaps reading it has inspired a glimmer of inspiration in you to reach out to somebody important in your life while you still can) but to ensure that I remember the day – right down to feeling the weight of the words with which my grandfather ended his eulogy.

Hamba kahle,” he said, as he turned to speak to his brother for the last time. “…and what does he say?” he asked us, holding his hand up to his ear.

“Sala kahle,” we murmured back.

Fingers between mine

A wretched thing happened today.
It wasn’t the first time
and it certainly won’t be the last.
I remember a few, in fact;
A jeering schoolyard crush was one.
Being hit by a cab was another.
I remember being told of his cancer by my dad
and of his eventual death by the evening news.
I remember when a friend told me
the adults had found out I’d been smoking in the woods,
and I remember being told I’d be asked to leave
in front of every soul in the building.
I remember when a man in a long coat whom I respected told me I had no future,
and the sight of wet pebbles inches before my eyes
as I splattered my insides onto them.
I remember when we found out that little brother was to go to surgery,
and seeing his face twisted with pain of my own doing many years later.
I remember the blade closing around my fingers.
I remember realising I was not in love.

These moments, and today’s, too,
were preceded by a quick thickening of time,
like the massing of honey before it cascades from a spoon.
All blurs, all hums, all tingles; all but myself
as I bathe in the last precious moment of ignorance.

Cool, soft fingers slip between mine
and a voice as close as a lover’s whisper in your ear says
‘don’t panic, don’t let go – this is going to sting,’
and I grip onto those fingers
and they grip back
and what happens happens –
my head meets the tarmac,
I realise he is gone,
I see the blood seep from me,
feel the spine of my confidence snap
– and I am not alone.

…and it isn’t any God, nor angels, nor ghosts, nor anything more extraordinary
than me and my past,
and my future,
and all that comes with them;
they are my fingers,
and the fingers of everybody
who would offer them if they could.

Re: Deflation

You look at yourself. Once again you feel less than content in your skin. You, so set on disappointment in who you are, look at your face in a photograph from a year or two in the past and become lost in thought. Something along the lines of ‘Oh, how much less of an ass that person looks than this one right here’, your eyes flicking to your reflection and back. You forget, of course, that the person in the picture was as disappointed in it all as you are now. You, present-you, have forgotten the little misalignments in the life of the person you’re looking at, whitewashed the discomforts that crawled under the skin and through the veins and into the itching fingertips of the person you once were, who is as much a picture of deflation as you are. Of course, the person in the photograph wasn’t the kind of genius to make this astute observation, much less write it down so incredibly succinctly; actually, yes, come to think of it, what an amusingly unimpressive person they are! You, though; you have written some words down and are that little bit more comfortable to be the one filling your body at this moment. How disconcerting – don’t worry, it won’t last. Perhaps the next photograph you, present-you, appear in will be something that future-you will look back on with jealousy. Imagine that! The poor dolt. Hopefully that person will remember that this foolish person they are looking at was doing no exercise. He was living on coffee and an unadventurous diet and was smoking cigarettes and wasting his time before a flickering screen to save from facing up to his inadequacies. He could not entertain the idea of being in love. He was still struggling to sleep and was – it’s funny; hysterical, really – so pleased with himself for writing something, anything, down that he felt for once that he deserved the good night’s rest he was merely an hour or two late for.

There is another possibility, or, more likely, probability; the person in the future who is looking at present-you may not be doing all that well. He may be homeless. He may have a broken heart. He may have cancer. He may have fathered and lost a child. He may be losing dexterity in his hands, or going blind. He may have put all his self-worth into writing something long and arduous, teased from the very innards of his more inspired thoughts, and finally felt the last of his towers crashing around him as it and he were laughed off by the world… but, look; none of that has happened to you yet! You are alive and functioning right now; enough so that you can look at this picture of past-you and have the misguided cognition to feel humiliated by it. I think it’s best that present-you breathes a sigh of relief and is grateful for the ability to feel gratitude, for the fingers writing these words and for the eyes and brain allowing you to read them.

When you are met with photographs, stories or people that, just by existing, dam up the flow of your getting-by – and you will continue to be met with them, for ever and ever and ever – you might just feel better about the fact that you occasionally struggle to get dressed in the morning once you remember that, although the subject in question may be apparently happier, or have better hair, or be able to run for miles, or be less lonely, or feel less resentful about sex, or have the gall to trust their voice, or not only have a grand plan but be several strides into it, nobody (not even past-you) is better than you in every respect. Nobody is entirely happy; even the beautiful people are, in one way or another, bored of looking at themselves.

Dear –

Don’t mistake your exhaustion for laziness,
and don’t chastise yourself.
Civilisation is as obsessed with art
as it is with delaying its creators.
We are tired,
but we are in good company.
We are as valid as any.
Our time will come.

The most beautiful songs in the world: part 1

So often I’ve listened to certain songs and wanted to talk openly about why I love them, and how they make me feel. You know the ones I mean – like the embers of a fire suddenly delivering that first flame with the right breath of air, hearing these tracks induces shivers in my chest that spread without fail to my fingertips, despite having heard them now countless times. It’s taken some strong thought to realise I can’t choose a limited number, but I’ve decided that here, at least, I will begin with three of what I believe to be three of the most beautiful songs in the world… Continue reading

Music, mountains and Pooh sticks: Green Man festival 2013

Green Man Festival by Merlin Jobst

I moved to London a little over a year ago, and to say it has been a tiring year would be not be so much an understatement as it would a downright lie; this year has maliciously burned my fuse to ashes from end to end, leaving me to flap around comically in a pool of hot wax and complain here and there to my family when it all gets a bit much. I’ve been emotionally and physically drained for what feels like a dangerously long stretch, and worked myself stupid just to exist in a city I am (finally) beginning to ‘get’. I have not been unhappy – I have fought off any such feelings by throwing myself into my career (apparently that’s a thing now) and into forming a brand-spanking new community. Work, social and romantic (har har) lives aside, though, until this weekend spent in the Black Mountains I had definitely not felt truly relaxed in over a year.

My love for Green Man Festival is no secret. I first attended at 17, with the promise of adulthood post-college ahead of me and a blossoming love of folk to attend to, and fell in love with the festival’s site. The music was obviously superb – it always has been; from Beirut and Joanna Newsom on the same night in 2010 to a bill boasting Iron & Wine alongside Explosions in the Sky in 2012 – but it’s Brecon and their beautiful Beacons that really have my heart.

The team behind Green Man have always been good to me. I’ve attended their festival now four times – the second and third of which I wrote up for my good friends at The Line of Best Fit and have had a progressively more and more enjoyable time doing so. This year, however, the lovely folks at Bleached were kind enough to invite me to write my own take for this very blog, and so, although traditionally my articles about Green Man have been focused on artist performances, I now find myself in the privileged position of being able to write from the heart about an event I truly love.

I’ve said it all before, but I’ll continue saying it until my peers eventually tune me out; Glanusk Park, and the sloping mountains that surround it on all sides, are nothing short of heavenly, and this year they felt particularly so. I suppose that has a lot to do with where I’ve been living, for I have of course seen the countryside before; I grew up in it. I have seen winding roads and mountains and rivers before, and I have of course actually seen these very surroundings before – but perhaps the fact that I saw no stained brick walls, felt no grimy roads touch the soles of my shoes, inhaled no fumes and drank no London water for four days had a lot to do with the fact that I have never quite had my breath taken away like I did this weekend. Vividly I recall, on Saturday afternoon, standing atop the grassy slopes that surround the Mountain’s Stage and inhaling as deeply as possible, thinking as I did so of the sheer number of times I’ve inhaled the hot, caustic exhaust of a bus when stuck on my bike behind one. Quite the contrast.

Brecon Beacons by Merlin Jobst

The sublime location of Green Man is a significant part of why it is a uniquely beautiful festival; of why it is an escape from a hectic city life on a level that no other music event can offer. From playing Pooh sticks off a bridge over the River Usk to dipping in it in our underwear in Sunday afternoon sunlight (not something officially endorsed by the festival but personally a must), and from watching a band as immersive as Phosphorescent with the Beacons painted onto the skyline behind to driving in and out of the site over those very mountains, it’s a place where the very air feels like it’s nursing your wounds and bringing you back to full health.

Merlin Jobst at Green Man Festival

Music, comedy, film and live conversation, however, is why Green Man is more than just an escape to the country. Even this year, with the festival featuring less huge names than it has in previous years, the music we encountered was unforgettable (albeit now a little hazy). I attended this year with my younger brother Theo and friends Robbie Wojciechowski and Will Slater – both other writers, predominantly for The Guardian and The 405, respectively – and I am beyond certain that we will be telling people for years to come about the experience of seeing Midlake perform on the Fritday night. A Bella Union-signed artist and something of a favourite of mine and the group’s, the band (now without their longstanding lead vocalist) delivered beyond what any of us could really have hoped for. We certainly weren’t expecting to derive such joy from their set, but from unwinding to the demure ‘We Gathered in Spring’ to euphorically howling along to the salt-of-the-earth lyrics of ‘Head Home’, I felt nothing short of true drunken ecstasy. The same was true for a host of artists over the weekend – standout sets from Ólöf Arnalds (initially under a tree with around ten strangers as I stumbled upon her doing a session in the Green Man radio booth, and later that night on the Walled Garden stage); those superb Southern-American rockers Band of Horses, who closed the Mountain’s Stage on Saturday night; the incomparable Patti Smith, whose vigorous set for the earlybirds on Thursday night was something we felt lucky to witness. Daytime performers like the inexplicably unique Sam Amidon, fellow Londoners Peggy Sue and another (very new) Bella Union act, Landshapes were also hugely memorable highlights. Watching artists on the Mountain’s Stage is regularly a blissful experience, but with the bluest of skies stretching above and the two ornate, umbrella-like trees to either sit under or clamber enthusiastically up, it’s paradise.

I’ve actually not even scratched the surface of all you will find at Green Man. Einstein’s Garden, for example; a stunning enclosure in the festival brimming with arts, workshops, bookshops, hammocks, banjos, secret music sets – all within a stone’s throw of a pop-up blacksmithing tent. That’s right. All this would be lost, however, on festival clientele hell-bent on destroying themselves and their surroundings, which is exactly not what you will find at Green Man. Consistently, the festival has proven to attract people who love the space, love what’s in it and love being together for four days. It’s this that makes it such a delight for families and young adults alike, with safety and security essentially a given, giving people the space to enjoy themselves as they like. Families with children enjoy the day in the festival (and often the night) and have a great space to retire to, and those with perhaps slightly less to think about have the pleasure of being able to trust that – well, nobody’s going to set their tent on fire.

Green Man Festival by Merlin Jobst

We were also lucky enough to stumble into Jude Rogers’ live interview with John Cale of The Velvet Underground in the Babbling Tongues section of the site, which was a new and intriguing experience for me. A particularly memorable highlight, too, was settling down early on Sunday evening to drink a few drinks and watch Withnail & I in Green Man’s spacious cinema; let me tell you, there’s nothing quite like being in a large, friendly, booze-addled crowd and taking part in a round of cheers and applause when Richard Griffiths’ legendary Uncle Monty appears at the door.

Green Man Festival by Merlin Jobst

Green Man Festival by Merlin Jobst

Obviously, the food we ate was fantastic, and the booze we drank (for the most part) equally so – I will always have a bias for a festival that has a hundred-strong real ale-and-cider bar, and serves Wye Valley Brewery beers from my homeland, no less. To complain about food prices, delicious as all we ate was, would be inconsequential (I mean, it certainly wasn’t cheap) but alcohol cost less than London almost across the board. I will also always nurture a soft spot for the Strumpets with Crumpets stand at the arena’s entrance – unsurprising, really, considering they’re the kind of place that will serve you a hot ‘Bloody Mary’ crumpet dripping with butter and Tabasco at 3 in the morning. They also have the best coffee we found on-site (I’ve been trying to narrow it down for four years, and I feel like I’ve finally made up my mind) – heartily recommended by all four of us, as well as my own mother, who joined us for most of Saturday. Of course, that was the day it rained – sorry Mum.

Belinda Jobst at Green Man Festival by Merlin Jobst

There are actually countless moments of serenity and incapacitating happiness I could recount from this year’s festival, but I won’t, lest I bore the bollocks off anybody not present. After this many reviews of the thing, though, I’m running out of ways to say ‘please, for crying out loud, experience this festival for yourself’.

Here’s to Green Man 2013 – my God, am I looking forward to the next one.

Will Slater, Robbie Wojciechowski, Theo Jobst and Merlin Jobst at Green Man Festival

A few dorks

On The Pixies’ ‘Debaser’ and how music steers the young

It’s fair to say that being even slightly ‘into music’ growing up means that what music you throw yourself into can have quite an effect on your personality, and consequently on what choices you make. Off the top of my now very small-hours-of-the-morning head I would think back to the string of events that led to my first and only serious relationship: in high school a friend on MySpace I’d never actually met urged me to listen a then-highly obscure alternative rock band called Biffy Clyro; another friend sent me their entire back catalogue, track by track over MSN and I became obsessed – obsessed – with their first three albums; I traded my Telecaster for a Stratocaster, dreamed up various tattoos of Simon Neil’s lyrics, began writing songs that were darker and more experimental than what I’d done previously, named the band I was in after the opening track on Blackened Sky, began listening to heavier, weirder music, experimenting with unusual time signatures and guitar styles, meeting people who were into playing new and exciting music, and, through this, one night found myself and my band headlining a gig back home with a band from a few towns over called Deco; the singer from which I immediately fell face-first for, and with whom I had a relationship that lasted nearly two years and became a very important aspect of how I grew into being an adult. If it hadn’t been Biffy Clyro it would likely have been a different band; a different style adopted; a different scene joined; potentially a very different outcome.

I think if I spoke to the last twenty people I’ve recently met, at least twelve to fourteen of them would agree that they can remember the very first time they watched the closing shots of Fight Club. I remember it very vividly; I around fifteen, and was at a house party with five or so people I liked (and who liked me), and about twenty who didn’t. I didn’t like them either; they were rude as hell and made me feel awful about myself. Luckily, the five and I gave up trying to enjoy ourselves with them at about 1am and barricaded ourselves in the TV room, ecstatically blowing smoke rings up to the ceiling and having a good stab at all the remaining alcohol we could get our hands on. The TV was switched on, duvets were pulled over each other and, after Return of the King finished, it came out that I’d never seen Fight Club. The film was immediately put on and I spent the next two-and-a-bit hours open-mouthed at the depraved brilliance of it. It was like the first time I’d glimpsed my cousin’s pornography as a young boy when I knew I shouldn’t have done; I was morbidly fascinated and inexplicably terrified. As the film closed to the buildings imploding before Norton and Bonham-Carter’s silhouettes and the caustic lead guitar of ‘Where is My Mind?’ cut into my conscience I remember letting out a gasp at the sheer power of it. It was all I thought about, all I talked about, for hours and days afterwards, and it wasn’t until I met up with an old friend later on that someone said ‘but you’re already into The Pixies, right?’.

I wasn’t. I didn’t know The Pixies. I was still leaving the Led Zeppelin obsession of my youth behind, and the closest I’d gotten to grunge at that point was a love affair with Nirvana’s In Utero. I was instructed to listen to The Pixies by said friend, and, it being roughly 2008, I went home and downloaded whatever songs I could off Limewire. The first track I played was ‘Broken Face’, and I was unpleasantly surprised – I swear, I have never been more instantly repulsed by a song. I mean, it was actually visible; I remember contorting my face in disgust at the intro. It took seconds for my young self to establish that The Pixies had one great song but were a really irritating band – the kind of weird American ‘like, whatever’ music I simply wasn’t interested in – and that’s where I left it in my mind, very firmly. I’ve been surrounded by people ever since who have howled at my opinion of The Pixies, have tried to turn that opinion around, have been just short of shaking me furiously by the shoulders to try and make me understand. I don’t even know why I was so vehement in my dislike for them; I even recall once having a pretty personal argument with a guy in a bar back home about how much The Pixies sucked – when really, what the hell did I know?

This Saturday night, aged 21, at a small house party near Bethnal Green, a friend played ‘Debaser’ as the sun was rising over London, and it suddenly clicked – I suddenly got it. It’s fantastic, it’s raw and it’s unencumbered by pretense – something that my fifteen year-old self could definitely have done with – but for whatever reason it didn’t speak to me before. It’s likely because I didn’t try; I mean, I’d certainly never heard this song before. I cycled home at 5:45am where I downloaded a couple of Pixies albums, and at last, I was sold. I’ve not stopped listening all week, and I’m cursing myself for being so stubborn all these years.

The reason I’m writing this post is largely due to the fact that it’s past 2am, I’ve had a couple of glasses of wine and I cannot, for the life of me, get Black Francis screaming “I am un chien andalusia” out of my head. It very suddenly made me think just now; what if I’d heard ‘Debaser’ all those years ago instead of ‘Broken Face’? Would I have thrown myself into grunge? Into the American alternative scene? Into Modest Mouse and Sonic Youth and bands that might have made me behave differently, play different music, write different lyrics, meet different people? Would I have perhaps stuck with playing music? Would I have dropped it faster, or be in a completely different place right now, had I opened that door instead of the one that opened with the first joyous spin of ‘Joy.Discovery.Invention’? Who knows. I know I only live my current side-life as a music critic/hack because I was so disappointed by Radiohead’s The King of Limbs that I had to write my first-ever self-indulgent blog post about it; the rest is history.