The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Thursday, June 01, 2006
BURIAL

Kazuo Ishiguro's last novel Never Let Me Go is currently haunting me. For if we are to envisage a virtual city of the future, or even of "England" in "the late Nineties," a city where every taste, aesthetic and otherwise, is indeed
catered for and codified, then through knowledge of common capitalist theory and practice we can safely deduce that such a city would only represent an illusory comprehensiveness, a fa├žade of omni-inclusivity, where "alternatives" lack "substance" but are only there "in spirit," like Rodney Slater in the credits on the last Bonzos album.

By definition, of course, there would also be, as there has to be in every capitalist society, an underclass - if you like, a "buried" stratum of people; those who refuse, by logic or instinct, to be "happy" for society's "benefit" (see the "Change of Mind" episode of The Prisoner for early definitions of "unmutual" - how dare he exercise away from the community, on his own, on non-approved equipment) but whose deliberately imposed wretchedness is designed to benefit the society which rejects them.

Thus the children who turn into young adults and nothing beyond in Never Let Me Go exist only to "service" with their "donations" - and never has the word "donation" been made to sound so evil - those who are already deemed the dregs of society; drunkards, winos, convicts, prostitutes, incurable cancer cases. They are given the illusion of education and enlightenment, allowed a degree of "training" and "caring," but their lives will inevitably dwindle to a long and painful end with every "donation" they are required to make.

The multiple metaphors in Ishiguro's tale need not be underlined; about post-war immigration, about designer babies, about the post-Thatcher wooing and subsequent crushing of what once might have been described as the "working class," about the people instantly degraded into piteous call-centre servitude in this current century - nor the nearly unspeakable horror of its final page; never exactly spelled out - so pastoral, so reflective and regretful on the surface, almost as though it were the last page of a Joanna Trollope potboiler - but with a gathering sense of accumulated shock the reader learns how these people physically end up.

Never Let Me Go concerns the efforts of a group of - well, I won't give the game away for those who haven't yet read it - but not quite developed young people to prove that they have souls, to justify their continued existence by means of what they can "create," be it art or love. And in the end it all proves to have been for nothing, except for the memories which society may or may not be able to erase.

It is also about the fatal naivety of its main characters, above all Ruth, who with her stupid faith in The Future thinks nothing of keeping Kathy and Tommy apart until it's too late for anything; or Kathy herself, who sails as blithely through determined ignorance of atrocities as Stevens the butler in The Remains Of The Day; her narrative is clearly only spoken to herself, for like Stevens (read Halisham School for Darlington Hall) she is too buttoned up to tell any story to anyone.

But it is also about reclaiming lost memory. With its theme of people programmed for an early death by virtue of however they were conceived, it did bring back some painful associations for me, as you would expect; but Ishiguro writes very finely and movingly indeed about the redemptive powers of music. There is this cassette, you see, which the young Kathy picks up at her school jumble sale, an ancient and invented '50s album called Songs After Dark and performed by one Judy Bridgewater, and on it is a song which gives the book its title. Kathy becomes obsessed with it, attached to it, imagines that the words "baby, never let me go" are meant literally, and takes to waltzing her dormitory floor cuddling an imaginary child in her arms - one which, in reality, she can never hope to have. The tape is lost, eventually, and it is only when she reluctantly agrees to go on a trip to Norfolk - "the lost corner of England," her teacher has told her, "where everything that has been lost turns up" - as a young adult that she finds it again.

More poignantly still is the fact that she finds it in Cromer. As regular readers are aware, Cromer is a place Laura and I knew very well; I've been in that Woolworths, wandered the shores right up to the lighthouse and back down again, through the ruined cathedral, past the pier with its summer variety bills of ageing and dying artists. The absurdly sincere art of John Sell Cotman. Somehow Kathy and Tommy get the inclination to search for this tape, these Songs After Dark, and head for the town's many charity shops. Inevitably, Kathy finds it in a dusty tape rack right at the back of one shop. It is all one can do to keep from crying. That feeling I know too well; finding something I'd gotten rid of years ago, maybe right after Laura died, for whatever stupid reason - maybe even the exact same tape or CD, and I can tell when it's the same one, I instinctively know - and it feels as if, somehow, you've made a part of Laura live again. A binding to the past you never want to loosen. And even if these memories can be mechanically eradicated, their previous existence cannot be nullified; they were felt and were experienced, and nothing can make them not so.

This is why the city in the shape of music, or anything not shaped like a human being, can only be an illusion; by denying the factor of the individual, it denies any meaning or purpose or emotional drive to any work of music or art; it's simply there - sample it, appreciate it, but never scream to it, never fuck to it. laugh at it, cry to it or die by it, as the discreetly positioned yellow-jacketed security guards will soon escort you to one of the city's darker quarters for corrective treatment. The music is to be consumed rather than absorbed or refracted. As for partisanism, that's exactly what the city authorities want - to divide everyone up into what they "know" they'll "like"; show me a record shop whose entire stock is filed under "Music A-Z" and then the theory will be disproved.

And inevitably, and invariably, some music - the music which will, in the end of all ends, "matter" - slips through the city's streams and directly into uncharted, unanticipated arteries. The eponymous debut album by Burial has something of that aura about it. Its packaging is minimal, unfussy, dark - a single slip of card for a cover, functional and basic details on the rear. The design is of a city seen from high up - from an aeroplane or from the fiftieth floor of a tower block - a city almost buried in darkness; the aura is black with a ray of dark and unattractive vermillion tint emanating from a light in the top left-hand corner. The record looks and feels like something unofficial, unauthorised; an urgent samizdat, a desperate plea from an ending world, an artefact whose emotions are so necessary to communicate that packaging would constitute both delay and distraction.

It is also a record which in my view sums up this desolate, tingling London of 2006 more fully than any other - though it is tempting to think of the Hackney back garden of Scritti's White Bread, Black Beer as its white mirror image - a city paralysing itself in fear of blackened steel, perpetually on the point of total detonation. The beats throughout this collection - apparently recorded between 2001 and now, though there may be some doubt about these dates - are very noticeably assembled from scraping knives and locking gun barrels. Sometimes it feels as though the cymbals are slashing the listener's tongue.

But that description might be a little misleading. Burial's music could I suppose be described as grime or dubstep up to a point; but from my perspective it sounds like what I always imagined grime should sound like - vast, empty and deeply emotional. The beats are too shadowed and distant for dancing; this music is to be felt in other parts of the soul as well as listened to. There is one regrettable mis-step with the full-on, focused vocal recitative on "Spaceape," which feels like an intrusive nuisance, an unnecessary spelling out of things which should be discerned from the music's shadows; its enclosed bloody pasts and grey uncertain futures. Better that voices be stretched out, distorted, slightly divulged from their "proper" context; thus memes seemingly extracted from glossy old StreetSounds compilations or Tony Blackburn broadcasts turn up in new, more alienating contexts - indeed akin to discovering a de-glossed, grimey old vinyl record in an ill-lit skip. "Now that I need you" in "Distant Lights," the titular loop through "U Hurt Me" - these come across as mayday codes from a ship long since sunk.

Both "U Hurt Me" and "Gutted" are carried along on mournful klezmer - or Asian? - violin lines which made me think of the old Jewish communities in the pre-war East End, the ones who eventually made good and moved out to Stamford Hill, and the Asian communities who succeeded them. "Southern Comfort" is guardedly violent in its controlled tai-chi percussive swipes and synthesised swoops - the feeling is one of Horsepower Productions in negative; their bright, yellow urbanity turned into blotched lavender darkness. Terminals too far for even Ballard to access.

But where Burial, the album, cuts deepest is when they nearly absent themselves from beats, or even from "music." "Wounder" waddles in an eternal black afternoon like a makeshift vehicle assembled by Martians from debris found in the ruination of Stratford, its clanking bells of "rhythm" dissolving against the ghastily empty tones of the siren synthesiser - high notes in Morse code from the North Sea, a curious, coldly rationalist modification of the OMD of "Stanlow" and "Sealand." The absolute grey of an essentially colourless semi-existence liable to be aborted at any moment by those gathering voices in the dark distance.

At its apex Burial reflects Aphex; the astonishing - all the more so for their brevity - lucid dreams of "Night Bus" and "Forgive." The former eschews all overt aspects of knife and spent passion for a liquidity, a rare oasis of peace, the bus static in the station, or moving very slowly through an otherwise uninhabitable city (SAW II remixed by the Vangelis of Albedo 0.39) with all the nobility of an unspoiled Titanic; in the latter, a voice gurgles for salvation - it sounds like a baby crying for its mother, and it's the record's equivalent to Judy Bridgewater's "Never Let Me Go" or even Tricky's "Aftermath" (the third greatest single ever made, after "Everything's Gone Green" and "O Superman") - it devastates.

"Prayer," too, is a delicate if distant tracery of suppressed resentment and pleading salvation, synth chords hovering so delicately they could be cut down five seconds ago. But "Pirates" brings the record to a brilliant, if terrible, end; with its refrain of "burn" and "slowburn," its vinyl crackles sounding like London burning down forever, everything viewed at that crucial distance, like an impassive but working CCTV monitor, it places us squarely, not in the land of ghosts, but in the London of now, a city where any or all of us are liable to become ghosts without further notice. Or perhaps the impassivity of distance is equivalent to that of Stevens the butler; a man who has trained himself never to show emotion at anything or anybody - the only person who could comfortably inhabit such a proposed city, for it would relieve him from the eternal burden of having to think and feel for himself, without being told, or "recommended," or "completed."


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