Covid Against the Music

The following is an excerpt from a feature I wrote for Pennyblackmusic about Covid’s devastating effect on the live music industry. You can read the full feature at Pennyblackmusic.co.uk

“When COVID-19 mushroomed into a global pandemic, production work disappeared almost overnight. It is impossible to predict when it might return, or grasp the full repercussions for crews, artists, venues or fans. This article attempts neither to summarise nor forecast, but to reflect on the early days of this crisis in the hope we can look back on it from a better place.” -excerpt from ‘Production Crew Confront Coronavirus’, Pennyblackmusic, April 2020.

Photo: Cila Warncke

2021

London: 11 February, 10:30AM Matt ‘Tag’ Tagliaferro adjusts his Airpods. Wet snow clings to the pavements outside his north London home. It is three degrees Celsius above freezing. “With these, I can get something done while I’m on the phone,” he says. “My screen time is way up this past year.”

Memphis, Tennessee: 5 March, 11:00AM “It felt good to have a break for a minute, but that got old.” Matt Brown gets up to refill his blue ceramic mug, and clears his throat. Later, he’ll strap on a parachute, grab a camera and follow tandem jumpers out of a plane, trying to hold the student’s awed face in frame as gravity hauls them all down.

London: 8 March, 10:00AM The phone screen shows him smiling, an old WhatsApp profile picture. “January was particularly hard,” Will Paterson says. “There was no sign of a return. Even the most motivated people had hard moments.”

Phoenix, Arizona: 13 March, 5:50AM The paper Holiday Inn coffee cups are stamped: “Start Fresh”. Chris Hall is trying. In half an hour, he’ll walk into the hotel conference room for the final written exams in his truck-driver training course.

There are two things that all these people have in common: They used to work in live music production. They never expected to be where they are now.

A year ago, we daydreamed that Covid-19 would vanish with the summer sun. What vanished instead was hope of a quick fix. Optimism became synonymous with magical thinking. The industry shutdown persisted like tinnitus.

According to trade publication Pollstar, the live music industry lost $30 billion of revenue in 2020. In Britain, some 10,000 people worked in music production, says Andy Lenthall, general manager of trade body the Production Services Association. In the United States, there were millions of such jobs. In the UK, the US and around the globe, most production workers lost their livelihoods.

The Lows

“When it first happened, I felt numb, panicked. I watched the news all the time.” Nevertheless, Brighton-based publicist Nikki McNeill told her clients, which include Serbia’s Exit Festival, the Amsterdam Dance Event, Secret Solstice in Iceland and the Netherlands’ Lowlands Festival, that she would keep working with them, budget or no.

After the initial blow, ripples of Covid distortion kept spreading. “So much of life has changed,” Will Paterson, head of sales for several London music venues, reflects. “Nobody would have thought we’d curtail our lives the way we have.”

Tagliaferro, erstwhile touring guitar tech, and his partner split up, “a Covid casualty, I guess.”

Audio technician Matt Brown says: “The biggest challenge is boredom. I’m still learning to write code, trying to stay busy.”

Another audio tech (and my partner), Chris Hall has put in his share of 200,000-mile travel years. Suddenly, the world shrank to the distance to the nearest grocery store. Mundane tasks became big deals. His neck and back locked up in the winter chill.

“Some people found purpose in spending time with their partners and kids,” Lenthall says. “But being at home is a problem for people who aren’t used to being at home. There are a lot of single people in the business, a lot of people who are always on tour. Their flat is where they repack their suitcase.”

Photo: Cila Warncke

A Different Beat

Odd pockets of production work still exist: Brown kept his job at local church which started streaming its services. Photographer Andy Cotterill has spent more than two decades shooting music royalty. His portfolio runs from Public Enemy and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry to Jarvis Cocker and Vivienne Westwood. Yet surviving Covid required other skills: “I was a top-grade student in woodworking at school so I did a few projects. People loved it. Someone asked me to do their kitchen, then a loft conversion. Before, if I’d done something else, I’d have felt like I failed at photography. I don’t think like that any more.”

Tagliaferro carried on fixing guitars. People who had guitars but never played them wanted them strung and tuned, bands stuck in London who’d started making new music, musicians whose prized instruments were in warehouses or shipping containers dug out beaters for an overhaul. “North London seemed to have a musical renaissance,” he says. “People wanted to do something productive and creative. It got to a point I couldn’t do it in my kitchen, so I rented a little space, built a few workbenches and fell into business, much like I fell into [touring] 15 years ago.”

This can-do, will-do attitude is characteristic. “You don’t want touring crew on the job market,” says Lenthall. “They are tenacious, hard working, they will get the job before you.” Delivery and logistics have absorbed a lot of bodies. “I’ve had groceries delivered by a lighting guy I know,” Lenthall remarks. “We have world-class production managers coordinating vaccination centres. [Telecom company] Openreach has production crew tackling its fibre optic installation backlog.”

Paterson has spent the past year overhauling everything from venue websites to internal communications to plumbing. “It has been a split,” he says. “Those who’ve had stuff to do – well, work helps. People who couldn’t work, like the operations staff, have done all sorts of things that have nothing to do with music, just to give themselves a purpose.”

Photo: Cila Warncke

Patchy Safety Nets

Many cannot step into new roles, though, whether for health or other reasons, and driving a delivery van doesn’t come close to replacing tour wages. Government support has not been universally sufficient or effective. “Through multiple technicalities, I don’t qualify for anything,” says Tagliaferro. “I’ve never heard the phrase, ‘sorry, you fall through the cracks’ so often.” He reckons half the industry people he knows don’t qualify for assistance.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Paterson says half the people he knows have left music.

In the US, aid is on a state-by-state basis. Brown got a small grant, about enough to cover three months’ rent in his neighborhood. He was on unemployment, briefly, until Tennessee reinstated a work-search requirement, with no exceptions for those whose industry had vanished. “What was I going to do? Work at the supermarket? Those jobs were already taken.”

Like so much related to Covid, a lot came down to chance. “I was lucky. The way my company is set up meant I qualified for government grants,” says McNeill. “I have friends who do the same thing but are excluded [from help] because of how they set up their business. It’s hard.”

Continue reading at Pennyblackmusic

10 songs… Memphis Soul

The original version of this is published on Pennyblackmusic.co.uk — check it out.

Stax Museum, south Memphis, Tennessee

Ibiza, October 2016: What was left of my library was stacked on a slat-wood shelf awaiting collection; the clothes worth taking were crammed into a scuffed purple nylon suitcase; my car was one signature short of belonging to my ex-boyfriend, who was also adopting my cat.

In a few days I would embark for Memphis, Tennessee, a city I best knew as home of Sun Records. To pass time, I was reading ‘Respect Yourself’ (a loan from my Memphis-based boyfriend).

Robert Gordon’s meticulous account of the rise/fall/slip/slide of Stax Records was the history of an alien land and culture. ‘(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay’ rang a bell, maybe ‘Shaft’, but my knowledge of Memphis soul ended there. Embarrassment at this ignorance was a welcome distraction from more immediate anxieties.

Those anxieties faded but the embarrassment clings; as a born-and-raised Yankee, a music journalist no less, it is shaming to have been oblivious to one of the richest seams of my country’s musical culture. Shaming because – as ‘Respect Yourself’ and history report – it is no accident that Black musicians have been, and remain, ghettoised, denigrated, alienated.

That’s not why anyone should listen to Memphis soul though; not to pay tribute or broaden horizons. Listen to be immersed in music that grabs your gut and nether-parts. Listen to the sound of something at stake. Listen because, as the following 10 songs prove, it’ll turn you on and take you higher.

1. Sam & Dave – ‘Hold On, I’m Coming’

One of Stax’s most emblematic artists, Sam Moore and Dave Prater likely gave ‘soul’ its name with their hit ‘Soul Man’ whose irresistible rhythm, honking horns and gospel-inflected vocals characterised the genre. But it’s the brash, brassy ‘Hold On’ that sticks most in my mind. The playful entendre of the lyrics and opulent arrangements make it as endlessly rewarding as a good single malt.

2. William Bell – ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’

In 2013 the Obamas hosted a celebration of Memphis soul at the White House. One of the luminaries who performed was William Bell, singing a crème caramel rendition of his 1961 debut single, ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’. A plaintive meditation on lost love, thematically, it embraces the blues but the shuffling percussion, Hammond organ and brass adornment mark it as a soul staple.

3. Staple Singers – ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’

Bob Dylan has spoken of his fascination with an early Staple Singers song, ‘Uncloudy Day,’ saying: “it was the most mysterious thing I’d ever heard. It was like the fog rolling in…. It just went through me like my body was invisible.”

The father-daughter quintet of Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples and Mavis, Cleotha, Pervis and Yvonne returned the respect with this stark cover. Released in 1968, following the many violent oppressions of the Civil Rights movement, the Staple Singers’ voices invest Dylan’s words of warning with an implacable knowledge won of hard experience.

4. Ann Peebles – ‘Can’t Stand the Rain’

Royal Studios, the erstwhile home of Hi Records, which birthed this sublime heartbreak soul, still stands proud in south Memphis. About the size and shape of a brick cereal box, it’s a wonder Royal could contain much less capture the power and clarity of Peebles’ unadorned voice as it weaves through the echoing percussion and slow-finger bass crawl of this melancholy gem.

5. Otis Redding – ‘(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay’

Familiarity can make this song easy to not hear, make it easy to overlook its lyrical heft and musical daring. Recorded not long before Redding died in a plane crash, ‘Rolling Stone’ reported that some of his label mates, his manager and even Stax boss Jim Stewart thought it was too great a stylistic leap. Instead, the wistful evocation of blighted hopes and faded promise became a posthumous Billboard number one and million-selling single, fulfilling Redding’s prediction.

6. Al Green – ‘Tired of Being Alone’

The first of a string of gold records Al Green cut at Hi Records, ‘Tired of Being Alone’ is 2:43 of pure sensuality. With deep roots in gospel (there are half-a-dozen churches within a couple blocks of Royal Studios), the best soul music brazenly blurred the line between sacred and sexual. Few did it better than this satin-tongued singer, and rarely better than on this unapologetic pitch for carnal comfort. Though Green went on to become an ordained minister, his catalogue makes a strong case for the devil having the best music.

7. Johnnie Taylor – ‘Who’s Making Love’

It is worth watching the video to fully appreciate the wit and influences of Taylor’s 1968 chart-topper which became the Stax stalwart’s iconic hit. Wearing a sharp green suit and Cuban heels, Taylor looks straight to camera and, like a preacher addressing his flock, begins: “. The rhythm and delivery is pure gospel. The question, rather more earthy, is posed to men who are out catting around: “Who’s making love to your old lady, while you’re out making love?”

8. Albert King – ‘Born Under a Bad Sign’

A transcendent fusion of blues and soul, ‘Born…’ is a perfect example of the musical fertility of Stax Records. Co-written by William Bell and Booker T. Jones, leader of Stax’ house band, Booker T. & the M.G.s, it was a minor Billboard hit on its 1967 release and gained wider notoriety when Cream released a version in 1968. Dozens of artists have covered it since, including Jimi Hendrix, Nina Simone, MC5 and Rita Coolidge. One of the most affecting is Bell’s 2016 interpretation on his album, ‘This is Where I Live’.

9. Booker T & the MG’s – ‘Green Onions’

In fewer than three minutes this instrumental, penned by a 17-year-old Booker T., announced the arrival of an epoch-defining musical talent and proved, by the by, that a Hammond organ can rock a party. Anchored by a blues bassline, the Hammond burbles while horns blurt above the simmering musical stew, embodying the genius amalgamation of blues, funk and gospel that is soul.

10. Isaac Hayes & Rev. Jesse Jackson — ‘If I Had a Hammer’ (Live)

In 1972 Stax Records hosted Wattstax, a day-long festival in Los Angeles honouring the rise of Watts from the ashes of the 1965 riots. Isaac Hayes closed his set with the Pete Seeger-pinned ‘If I Had A Hammer’ (also a hit for Peter, Paul & Mary). With the help of Jimmy Jones, Hayes transformed it into a Black power anthem. The track opens with five and a half minutes of Rev. Jesse Jackson, hypnotic as falling rain and electrifying as adrenaline, exhorting his people to pride and strength. As a sinuous, eerie organ melody burbles Jackson cries, “If I had a hammer, I’d ring out justice. If I had a hammer tonight our people would be respected and protected…”.

Amen.

39 – Prince Tribute

This was published by Pennyblackmusic.co.uk after Prince died in 2016. One of the hardest pieces I’ve written.

Photo by DJ Johnson on Unsplash

Only an idiot would volunteer to write about Prince. This thought dogged me after my Tempranillo-fuelled email late on 21 April 2016, begging for precisely that privilege. It was an impulse a part of me regrets because no words that rise from a primordial emotional stew of disenfranchised grief, disbelief, nostalgia, and adoration will come close to doing him justice. Paying tribute to Prince is like holding a candle to the sun.

There is much we don’t know about Prince, including how he died [at the time, we didn’t. Now we do and it’s sadder still]. The one thing everyone knows, from fellow musicians or far-removed fans, is that he was the best. Genius is a word rendered thin and flavourless by overuse; as are icon, legend, unique, and inimitable. That doesn’t make them any less true when applied to Prince.

My private theory, long-held, is that the only reason he didn’t supplant Jimi Hendrix in music mythology as the ultimate guitar god is that he was too sexy, too queer in the old fashioned sense for the (mostly) straight, white male rock journalists who oversee the beatification of six-string saints. The marvel is: Prince was so good he forced them to pronounce his brilliance despite the yellow laser-cut trouser suit he wore to perform ‘Gett Off’ at the 1991 MTV Music Awards, and his lavish lyrical praise of women who really, really like sex.

Pre-Prince, men had a monopoly on the pocket full of Trojans (some of them used). Then an androgynous imp who played every instrument, arranged every note, and took no shit from anyone came straight outta Minneapolis and turned the world upside down. He made people nervous. Most famously, Tipper Gore whose horror at Nikki masturbating with a magazine birthed the ‘Parental Warning: Explicit Content’ label.

From ‘Darling Nikki’ to ‘Raspberry Beret’ to ‘Cream’ to ‘Peach’ to ‘Head’ to ‘When You Were Mine’ Prince sang about women who dug sex and had fun doing it. He unapologetically refused to adopt the rock’n’roll paradigm where men are Subjects and women are Objects (in the De Beauvoirian sense).

Refusing assent was one of the many things Prince did better than anyone else. From Warner Brothers to the internet, there was no Goliath he wouldn’t sling a pebble at. He didn’t always win these battles, but he never lost. In the end, the record labels, the critics, and the world wide web kowtowed to his sublime talent and awesome willfulness.

This we must celebrate. There aren’t many artists like that. Even, or especially, the most successful musicians play the game. They get slick, learn to give the right answers, straighten their teeth, take up knitting, buy trout farms, get into right-wing politics, advertise butter. Prince, though, never played the game by anyone’s rules but his own.

Magnificently onery to the end, he holed up at Paisley Park, recording, performing, throwing dance parties, hosting movie nights for the assortment of musicians, protegees, sound engineers and technicians who he routinely sacrificed on the altar of musical perfectionism. “The thing about Prince,” one of them told me, “Is that he was better than everyone, at everything.”

I can’t think of one lick of evidence to the contrary. Can you?

Which is why only an idiot would volunteer to write about Prince, or sing a Prince song, or play a Prince riff. Maybe that’s the point though. To get through this thing called life we have to do our best when we’re not the best. We have to trudge while other soar. We have to accept that flowers wither; stars burn out; that perfection isn’t proof against death.

My gut feeling is Prince knew this better than anyone. And that it kept him from giving too much of a fuck. Nobody is ever going to sound as good or be as good as Prince. No one can recreate his magic. What we can do is let that show us how to live, take courage, let his music and spirit infuse us. Let’s be idiots for the things we love. Prince would approve.

38 – 10 Songs That Made Me Love Pulp

This article appears on Pennyblackmusic.co.uk. Check it out in its original form.

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash
“It’s not chocolate boxes and roses/ It’s something darker/ Like a small animal that only comes out at night”. Jarvis Cocker’s memorable assessment of the titular emotion in ‘F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E’ (surely one of the Top 10 most awkwardly titled songs pop history) is a perfect epithet for the bands’ oeuvre.

The magic of Pulp is the mingling of sharp, danceable guitar pop with lyrics that veer from cynical to downright sinister. Their most radio-friendly hits are rife with violence (‘Joyriders’ “Mister, we just want your car/ ‘Cos we’re taking a girl to the reservoir”) and voyeurism (“I wanted to see as well as hear and so I hid inside her wardrobe,” in ‘Babies’). Love songs in Pulp world include lyrics like: “You are the last drink I should have ever drunk/ You are the body hidden in the trunk” (‘Like a Friend’).

Studying the arc of their career, it’s clear ‘Different Class’s’ arrival in Cool Britannia was coincidence; the subsequent lumping of Pulp with Britpop a music journalists’ convenience. Pulp never shared Blur’s mockney smuggery nor Oasis’ apolitical performance of working classness. Pulp was on a different trajectory: one that began in Sheffield in 1978, contained more than a decade of obscurity, and survived Britpop notoriety to deliver an acerbic welcome to the new millennium.

Its curve is marked by a rare, unflinching insight into the human psyche. Pulp takes love as a subject but, unlike most pop confectioners, doesn’t sugar-coat it. Cocker sees love as a slippery amalgam of baser needs: status, self-worth, revenge, amusement, actualisation, to see the darkest parts of ourselves reflected in another. Attraction doesn’t lead through flower-dappled fields at sunset but down gnarled alleys stale with fag smoke, booze and latent violence.

Rarer still, Cocker understands that society is an echo chamber of our dark hearts: it isn’t just individuals who behave in warped, self-defeating ways, but our whole culture.


1. ‘I Want You’ (‘Freaks’, 1987)

Released almost a decade into their existence, this marked Pulp’s unsteady progress from post-punk acolytes to popstars. Early on, they could have been The Fall’s slightly more socially adept younger sibling. While this is still true of ‘Freaks’ portentous opener ‘Fairground’, ‘I Want You’ has all the raw material of a lo-fi pop hit, laced with Cocker’s cyanide romanticism. Melodic guitars provide a distractingly pretty backdrop to the declaration: “I’ll break you because I lose myself inside you… Yes, you’re all that I ever desired/ Still I’ll kill you in the end.”

2. ‘Do You Remember the First Time’ (‘His ‘n’ Hers’, 1994)

What saved Pulp from permanent obscurity was a realisation (conscious or not) that matching the music to the dissonance of the lyrics made them inaccessible, to say the least. Polished pop chords were the Trojan Horse that could carry Cocker’s devastating aperçus into halls of residence and suburban discos. The diatribe of a man watching his ex-lover (?) go home to someone else (“You bought a toy that can reach/ The places he never goes… At least you never have to face up to the night on your own”) comes wrapped in layers of chiming guitar and a danceable groove.

3. ‘Mis-Shapes’ (‘Different Class’, 1995)

The opening track of ‘Different Class’ is Cocker spitting the accumulated bile of a decade and half of Tory rule. The opening phrase: “Raised on a diet of broken biscuits” attests to his talent for evoking the circumstances of a life in a single stark image. The embittered, bright working class protagonists of the song “learned to much at school now… We can’t help but see that the future that you’ve got mapped out is nothing much to shout about.” Tellingly, the words still speak for Britain’s (young) people struggling with debt, gutted public services, and the crass Conservative war against social cohesion.

4. ‘Common People’ (‘Different Class’, 1995)

Pulp’s biggest hit, the evergreen indie disco floorfiller ‘Common People’, drips with Maoist levels of vitriolic class consciousness. The (presumably autobiographic) account of a working-class kid who becomes the object of an art school student’s urge to slum it reeks with pent frustration, envy, longing and a paradoxical sense of superiority. “Everybody hates a tourist,” Cocker sneers. “Especially one who thinks it all such a laugh/ And the chip stains and grease will come out in the bath.” But he still drinks the rum ‘n’ coca cola.

5. ‘Pencil Skirt’ (‘Different Class’, 1995)

It is a testimony to Pulp’s genius that a song that disturbed my mother when I was a teenager is as tantalizingly twisted two decades later. (It is also supports the strong argument that the first five tracks of ‘Different Class’ is one of the greatest sustained opening album sequences in 20th Century pop.) Cocker renders scenes with novelistic precision, using simple statements and objects to evoke dark knots of emotion. From the moment “You raise your pencil skirt, like a veil before my eyes” through the point where the adulterous lover declares “I’ve kissed your mother twice, and I’m working on your dad” the whole greedy, sordid, ignoble (in other words, ordinary) affair unfolds like exquisite tapestry.

6. ‘Sorted for Es and Wizz’ (‘Different Class’, 1995)

The original single artwork was a premeditated equivalent of Cocker’s subsequent bum-wagging stage invasion of the Brits in 1996. That the cheeky ‘Here’s how to make a wrap kids’ got the predictable response from the red tops, merely affirmed the incisiveness of Jarvis’ social sensibility. ‘Sorted for Es and Wizz’ is so relentlessly specific that it attains to the universal. You don’t have to have ever “Lost an important part of your brain somewhere in a field in Hampshire” to appreciate the youthful recklessness and yearning it evokes.

7. ‘The Fear’ (‘This is Hardcore’, 1998)

Other bands might have clung to their moment in the sun, retreading the formula, but not Pulp. As the ‘90s waned they released the ultimate comedown album (the only one I know, anyway, that reeks with the jaded wisdom and lack of regret of those who are able to give up chemical indulgences without disavowing them). Cocker isn’t naive enough to think repentance will buy off The Fear. He studies it, inviting the listener along with the minor-key reassurance: “When you’re no longer searching for beauty or love/ Just some kind of life with the edges taken off/ When you can’t even define what it/ is that you are frightened of/ This song will be here.”

8. ‘Glory Days’ (‘This is Hardcore’, 1998)

The apotheosis of Pulp’s genius for making the borderline tragic sound bright, ‘Glory Days’ is a sing-along anthem that captures ‘Mis-Shapes’ broken-biscuit eaters a decade later – undefeated but far from triumphant. “We were brought up on the space race/Now they expect you to clean toilets/ When you’ve seen how big the world is/ How can you make do with this?” Cocker rails. Then adds: “If you want me, I’ll be sleeping in.” It is righteous outrage against The System tempered by the mature realisation that The System is also us. No one is innocent. (We never, were. Were we, Jarvis?)

9. ‘Weeds, (‘We Love Life’, 2001)

Arguably, every song he’s ever written was a protest song, but ‘Weeds’ is a rare example of Jarvis tackling capital-P politics with his usual lacerating observations. Narrated from the perspective of refugees, it snarls with frustration and a loathing of smug privilege. “Make believe you’re turned on by planting trees and shrubs/ But you come round to visit us when you fancy booze ‘n’ drugs.”

10. ‘C**ts are Still Running the World’ (‘Jarvis’, 2006)

Technically not a Pulp song but possibly the greatest Pulp song ever written. Jarvis’ censor-baiting analysis of modern ‘meritocratic’ Britain is par with Leonard Cohen’s ‘You Want it Darker’ as a coda for our times. The only thing tarnishing the splendour of his cutting couplets (“The working classes are obsolete/ Surplus to society’s needs/ So let them all kill each other/ And get it made overseas”) is the fact that the song is more documentary than fiction.


It would be unfair to end on a down-note because Pulp is a fundamentally joy-making band – but I don’t believe Jarvis would see ‘C**ts…’ as a downer. The world may be, to put it politely, screwed but Pulp proved it can’t steal our spirit unless we let it. Be dumb, be furious, be disappointed, be fatalistic; even if you never set your sights higher than avoiding the dog turd outside the corner shop, be proud. As Henry David Thoreau advised: “However mean your life is, meet and live it.”

32 – PDX Photography Tips

These interviews were conducted for and published on Frugal Portland in 2017.

We all want that fabulous Instagram photo. The snap that speaks volumes about our good taste and creative sensibility. Two of Portland’s most photogenic facets are the landscape and its diverse food scene. Because picture perfection requires more than luck, we asked two local photographers how to capture the best of Portland outdoors and dining.

Jess Selig: Landscape

Photo: Jess Selig

Web: www.jesspdx.com IG: jess_pdx

FP: What’s your favorite thing about shooting landscapes? 

JS: Taking landscape photos helps me to slow down and really see what’s in front of me. Sometimes I sit for quite a while pondering the landscape in front of me before I shoot. It’s a very meditative exercise.

FP: What is the best time of day or setting? 

JS: I like low light, so mornings and evenings are best for me. If it’s cloudy, and especially if it’s foggy, I go into the forests. I love a good foggy forest so you’ll see a lot of those scenes in my work.

FP: What makes a great landscape photograph?

JS: Shoot what is pleasing to you, even if it doesn’t follow certain “rules”. Your own artistic touch or edit is what will set your photo apart. Be curious, not rigid, and most importantly, have fun.

FP: What’s one app or filter everyone should try?

JS: Snapseed is by far the one I use the most. 

FP: What’s the secret to getting that perfect Instagram-blowing-up shot?

Taking photos of what you love, engaging with other accounts by leaving likes and meaningful comments, and engaging with your followers helps keep people interested. If you do what you love, you will get recognized for your work and opportunities will follow.

FP: What’s an iconic Portland scene or location you love to shoot?

JS: The Wildwood Trail in Forest Park any time it’s foggy. Get me up there in October during a heavy fog, when the autumn colors are peaking, and I’m in heaven!

Top tip: When shooting landscapes always take in the view from several angles and never forget extra batteries!

Aubre LeGault: Food

Photo: Audrie LeGault

Web: www.aubrielegaultphotography.com & www.portlandoregonfoodphotographer.com 
IG: @aubrie.legault

FP: What’s your favorite thing about shooting food? 

AL: Food is a lot of fun to photograph because it’s full of different colors and textures and you have complete control over your composition. The subject always sits still and does as it’s told. Well, usually. Ice cream tends to melt even though I tell it not to.  

FP: What’s the best time of day or setting? 

AL: Beautiful soft light is best for food so think “side light” or “diffused light.” If you’re outside this means sunrise or sunset time. Those two times of the day will have nice side light with a softer warmer glow. If you’re inside, shoot your food by a window. 

FP: What makes a great food photograph?

AL: It makes the viewer want to eat that dish right then and there. The goal is to make them salivate. A great image has interesting light, strong composition and accurate color. Filters and funky presets are fun but I don’t think they add to food images. 

FP: What’s one app or filter everyone should try?

AL: Snapseed is my go to app for quick editing.  

FP: What’s the secret to getting that perfect Instagram-blowing-up shot?

AL: I wish I knew! I have an image of some waffles that’s decent but nothing spectacular and it has the most “likes”. My guess is people really like waffles! So if it’s a cherished item, like pizza, and a cool image you’ll probably receive a lot of love.

FP: What’s an iconic Portland food, dish or restaurant you love to shoot?

AL: I have to give a shout out to one of my clients, Quaintrelle. Camille is the head bartender. Her cocktails are amazing and a lot of fun to photograph. Their food is wonderful too.

Top tip: When shooting food always choose the perfect angle and never post a photo that is out of focus. 

Sarah Willey: Family & friends

Photo: Sarah Willey

Web: www.sarahlynnphotographypdx.com 

FP: What’s your favorite thing about shooting families & friends?

SW: Getting to know them. It’s awesome to interact with new people and ask them questions. You get a little piece of everybody’s story.

FP: What is the best time of day or setting? 

SW: Fall. I love all of the colors. If you are going to shoot around, try to do it early in the morning or later in the evening, the softer light is more forgiving.

FP: What makes a great group photograph?

SW: Real emotion. I love candid moments such as people laughing, running around, and being goofy together. 

FP: What’s one app or filter everyone should try?

The best app on the market right now is either VSCO or Facetune.

FP: What’s the secret to getting everyone to face the same way?

Tell funny jokes. I love being weird at shoots to get smiles out of everybody. My jokes are so dumb they usually make people laugh.

FP: What’s an iconic Portland scene or location you love to shoot?

The Pearl District. The little urban area on 23rd always makes for awesome photos. 

Top tip: Always be patient and never have a bad attitude! Go to the shoot with positive vibes.

30 – Green Velvet

A feature written for Ibiza Voice in 2008, probably. Not one of my finest pieces of writing but Green Velvet is a godlike (and godly) genius. This is for him.

If here ever was a time and place dedicated to stamping out the vestiges of party culture it is 21st century USA. In a nation where you can’t drink till you’re 21, where bottled water is considered drug paraphernalia and where electronic music promoters can be indicted under the same laws as people who run crack houses there isn’t a hell of a lot of leeway for having fun.

Sure, there is Pacha and Cielo in New York City, Chicago’s Crobar & Vision… a handful of big name clubs pulling glamorous crowds and A-list DJs. But what about everywhere else? Despite the obstacles, there are still brave promoters and music freaks who occasionally pull off a coup like luring techno legend Green Velvet to a small-time rave in an industrial corner of Portland, Oregon (pop: 500,000; biggest musical exports: the Dandy Warhols and Beth Ditto). This coffee-fuelled hippie haven happens to be my hometown, and I wasn’t about to miss a chance to see what happens when techno stars meet barebones raving.

Photo: C Warncke

One thing to know about partying American-style is that you’ll rarely find good music in a legitimate club. You don’t dress up to go out on a Saturday night so much as layer up, because chances are you’ll wind up wandering through freezing cold railway stockyards (or forests, or fields) trying to find the sound system.

After a false start that takes us across the path of a slow-rolling freight train loaded with desert camouflaged military jeeps we finally find a corrugated steel warehouse with a flickering sign outside reading On Air. A pair of guys in black parkas – one fat and bearded, the other rangy and pony-tailed – wave us in and another lanky kid standing behind a folding wooden table takes our 20 bucks entry fee. Even in the ostensibly free atmosphere of a semi-legal rave there are rules in abundance. Half the barn-like space is cordoned off to form a bar (more plywood tables and a cheap metal rack full of spirits) – you have to show ID to get in here, and once “inside” you can’t smoke. You also can’t carry any alcohol back onto the dancefloor, meaning those of us relying on vodka to keep warm have to make repeated trips between the two. Here, having a huge parka comes in handy: I manage to sneak a dance with my drink nestled inside my oversized cuffs.

However, it isn’t the funny little restrictions that are the most striking. It’s the spirit. Never mind the local DJ is busy mangling ‘Heater’ (ironic tune choice, given the ambient temperature is about three degrees), or that the only toilets are a row of port-a-loos on a concrete slab out back; or even that half the crowd looks too young to drive and the other half looks old enough to know better… the atmosphere is crazy. On the dancefloor drug-skinny kids are breaking out elaborate “liquid” moves that went out of fashion in Europe a decade ago. Even if they knew, they wouldn’t care, because here there is still a sense that being a raver is something special, a mark of distinction. One boy in a trilby is soaking up attention, showing off moves he must have spent hours practicing. Around him, girls in tiny skirts and day-glo bangles are dancing with fierce concentration.

Half an hour earlier my friends and I looked around the warehouse and asked, “What the hell convinced Green Velvet to come out here ” Usually, he’s in a DJ booth dripping with the latest high-spec equipment, commanding the world’s best sound systems. Tonight, he’s on a make-shift stage DJing off two decks perched on one of those wire shelves they use as discount racks in supermarkets. But he’s a true professional and, more than that, a man on a mission. Soft-spoken Curtis Jones is a devout Christian who sees his DJing as an opportunity to spread love and positivity, and he’s throwing himself into this set with as much energy as if it were the main room of Space.

And the reaction? Well, it beats any crowd I’ve seen at Space…. There are only a couple of hundred kids here, but their energy is filling up the room. It doesn’t hurt that everyone seems seriously, loopily altered. Whatever they lack in legal access to alcohol they clearly make up for with fistfuls of narcotics. And it’s all treated in share-and-share alike fashion. Absolutely everyone will stop and say hello, offer you something if they have something (even if it’s just a smoke), or simply turn around and holler “you having fun?

Photo: C Warncke

Sometimes this goes better than others. One kid, dancing next to me, turns around with a shit-eating grin and gives me the thumbs up. “Have you ever seen Green Velvet play before?” I shout over the music. He looks at me, eyes like saucers. “Are you speaking German ” he shouts back. When I burst out laughing he grins back, anxious to please. “Whatever you just said, that was cool,” he assures me.

It’s enough to make the most sober head feel twisted, and there aren’t many here. Tall, thin and cool in black leather and Matrix-esque shades, Green Velvet finally drops the tune that he wrote for kids like this: La La Land. He originally meant it as an anti-drugs message, but that seems to go right over the heads of everyone who is shouting out the chorus in un-ironic appreciation. It is a world away from sophisticated, commodified European party culture but looking around the room, it kind of makes sense.

Outside this cold, ramshackle building the train loaded down with military hardware is still rolling inexorably past. Outside a stupid, venal government is too busy scheming to kill other people’s citizens to bother feeding, educating or providing health care for its own. Outside times are tough and probably not about to get better in a hurry. But inside… well, it’s la la land. A place where freedom exists, music matters and people treat each other as potential friends, not potential enemies. Right now it feels like the best, warmest, safest place to be.

27- Justice the band

This was written for… Mixmag? Ibiza Voice? DJ Mag? In any case, some dance magazine in 2008. It contains far too many adverbs and hyphens. Maybe someday I’ll learn to rein those in, maybe.

Photo by Anthony DELANOIX on Unsplash

Justice @ Club 75, Pacha Ibiza

Justice has never stuck to clearly defined roles. The fashionably thin, intensely Gallic duo of Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay manage to both embody and defy stereotypes. They are intense in a well-educated, laconic, smoky Parisian sort of way (“we smoked 30,000 cigarettes making this record,” they said of debut album Cross). Yet their music pops with rainbow colours and kiddie-friendly choruses. Without ever courting the music press they snared the world’s attention by upstaging Kanye West at the MTV Music Awards. His onstage temper-tantrum ensured their notoriety to an audience that might never have noticed them otherwise. This, too, seemed to slide off their skinny, black-leather-bound shoulders. Justice simply marched on. From hipster hip hop parties in dingy Paris nightclubs to manic mainstage gigs at Sonar by night to international tours with audiences writhing in near-tearful devotion – they’ve done it all, and seen it all.

This makes their arrival at Pure Pacha highly incongruous. Pacha prides itself on sophistication and as much gentility as becomes a discotheque. It isn’t a natural destination for raving teenagers waving white crosses and homemade “Justice” banners. Tonight they are joined by Cassius, completing the French twist on the evening. On the corner, just past the main entrance a group of indeterminate youngsters is swigging down on bottled drinks. This is typical behaviour outside Amnesia, but here you almost expect one of the doormen to lumber down and have a word. No one does though. There is plenty of merriment in the warm air, and the kind of good natured jostling that happens in high-spirited queues. Judging by the snippets of conversation running Justice fan base travels well: Italian, Spanish, French and a fair portion of English voices ring out. Everyone is fidgeting to the hint of the kick drum oozing through the dense walls.

By the time we scramble inside there is a mini rush for the dancefloor. Any latent concerns about how Justice’s cheeky style and flamboyant showmanship would fit in the calm lines of Pacha vanishes in a moment. The booth – always a hive of activity – is a veritable swarm, with enough arms flailing through the dry ice to look as if it’s been taken over by an impatient octopus. Justice and Cassius are playing back to back, moving so fast it seems as if there surely must be more than three of them. On the dancefloor an enthusiastic moil keeps pace with the hyperactive display in the DJ box, swishing and pitching from side to side with giddy abandon. Girls in boutique dresses have bade farewell to propriety and are dancing manically. One, actually around her handbag (ironically, we hope).

Justice’s knowing melange of electro, pop and the odd stonking guitar riff is perfectly gender balanced: the boys are stomping away with equal concentration. Somehow, they engage the crowd without seeming to pay it much attention. Xavier, small and perky as a meerkat, bobs up from behind the decks to cheer the floor; Gaspard’s most demonstrative moment is a smile and half-wave when someone thrusts a mobile phone up at him, yet they are in perfect harmony with the crowd. The gurgling pop of ‘D.A.N.C.E.’ whips up a storm, and a tough, techno-tinged track gets just as much of a hearty response. Tonight, Justice – with a little help from their friend, Cassius – demonstrate perfectly why the are who they are: every expectation broken, every rule bent and everyone dancing towards dawn with a smile on their face.

Web: Justice.church

26- Portland Women Writers

This was a piece for Frugal Portland.

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

In an era where you can read yourself blind online without spending a penny, buying books is an act of enlightened frugality. Magazines and newspapers get tossed; websites morph. Books stick around. What’s more, books slow us down. There are no hyperlinks or banner ads, nothing to whisk our mind into the ugly spin cycle of the so-called “post-truth” world.

Truth exists as it ever has but powerful interests want to drown it. Books are an antidote to the noise. Portland is fortunate to have a thriving community of writers whose clear voices remind us of life’s possibilities and responsibilities. These five women share a powerful sense of purpose, justice, and urgency. Their books will open your mind and break your heart.

Lidia Yuknavitch

Yuknavitch writes like we’re all together in a car stalled on the track as the train bears down. Her fearlessness shines in her bold novels like The Small Backs of Children and Dora: A Headcase, as much as in her searing memoir The Chronology of Water. A former competitive swimmer, Yuknavitch always returns to water, preferring to write “anywhere you can see the river.” She’s busy penning a new work of “short fictions” called This is Not a Flag and a novel, Thrust, but found time to share this advice: “If you have money you can move it toward change. if you don’t have money you can use your voice and body.” Or, of course, your pen.

  • Read: The Chronology of Water (Hawthorne Books, 2011)
  • Recommended: The Child Finder, Rene Denfeld (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Sept. 5, 2017)
  • Website: https://lidiayuknavitch.net Twitter: @LidiaYuknavitch

Karen Karbo

Karbo waltzes between styles and genres, investing them all with wit and the wisdom of experience. Her work includes the superbly titled Kick-Ass Women series featuring Coco Chanel, Katherine Hepburn, Julia Child and Georgia O’Keeffe; fiction like The Diamond Lane and Motherhood Made a Man out of Me, and her memoir The Stuff of Life.

The secret to keeping the words flowing? Write in hospital lobbies. “There are no distractions,” she says. “No roar of the coffee bean grinder, or whoosh of the milk foamer. No other writers tapping out their award-winning novels. People come and go, and they pay no attention to you, because they’re there for more important reasons. There’s nothing to do but write.”

  • Read: In Praise of Difficult Women (National Geographic, Feb 27, 2018)
  • Recommends: The Book of Joan, Lidia Yuknavitch (Canongate, Jan 18, 2018)
  • Website: http://www.karenkarbo.com Twitter: @Karbohemia

Cheryl Strayed

Strayed’s beloved-by-Oprah breakthrough, Wild, her account of solo hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is an archetypal hero’s journey with a twist: the hero is a woman. Reading Wild, I realized how unfamiliar and thrilling it is to read a story of struggle and self discovery by and about a woman. Tiny, Beautiful Things was equally expectation-shattering in a different way. A compilation of advice columns she wrote for The Rumpus, it blends Strayed’s fearless, first-person stories with Stoic wisdom. It’s twin themes are courage + effort. “It didn’t just get better for them,” she writes. “They made it better.”

Here’s hoping a future generation can look back on these years and say the same of us.

  • Read: Tiny, Beautiful Things (Vintage, 2012)
  • Recommends: The Dream of a Common Language, Adrienne Rich (W. W. Norton & Co., 2013)
  • Website: http://www.cherylstrayed.com Twitter: @CherylStrayed

Rene Denfeld

It’s axiomatic that not all writers make a living from writing. Some perform feats of double alchemy that give lustre to both their writing and their profession. Denfeld, a licensed investigator, is one of these alchemists (poet/doctor William Carlos Williams was another). “It’s exciting, fulfilling work,” she says of investigation. “I get to exonerate innocents and help victims of sex trafficking.”

When she’s not working, or “loving on my fantastic kids,” she slips away to Cathedral Park with her laptop to pour her hard-earned understanding of humanity into books like the multi-award-winning novel The Enchanted.

  • Read: The Enchanted (Harper, 2014)
  • Recommends: The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison (Greywolf Press, 2014)
  • Website: http://renedenfeld.com Twitter: @ReneDenfeld

Ursula K LeGuin

To call LeGuin, doyenne of the Portland literary scene, a sci-fi writer is reductive. She is an imaginative writer of dazzling talent who conjures new worlds and infuses familiar scenes with fresh possibilities. “In America the imagination is generally looked on as something that might be useful when the TV is out of order,” she writes. “Poetry and plays have no relation to practical politics. Novels are for students, housewives, and other people who don’t work. Fantasy is for children and primitive peoples.” LeGuin has been cheerfully subverting this belief for her entire career –and shows no signs of stopping.

  • Read: Words Are My Matter (Small Beer Press, 2016)
  • Recommends: Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu trans. Ursula K. LeGuin (Shambhala, 1998)
  • Website: http://www.ursulakleguin.com

24 – Vegan Eating for Runners

This originally appeared in Trail Runner magazine.

Intro

Matt Frazier was an average runner who ate an average, albeit healthy, American diet and had average runner’s aches and pains Then he stopped eating meat for ethical reasons. Chicken and fish went next, and he didn’t miss them much. When he quit eggs and dairy something unexpected happened: Matt found he could run longer and harder than ever. Within a few months of becoming a vegan he ran two 50-mile races, shed some stubborn pounds, and felt fleet and fit. Inquisitive and communicative by nature, Matt started the “No Meat Athlete” blog to share his experiences.

Running on plants has taken Matt places he never imagined. This year he completed his first 100-miler, the Burning River Endurance Run, and published his first book: “No Meat Athlete: Run on Plants and Discover Your Fittest, Fastest, Happiest Self”. Co-authored by Matt Ruscigno, MPH, RD, a vegan dietician, ultra-marathoner and endurance cyclist. The book is an engaging guide to plant-based diets for runners, running for vegans, and all interested parties in-between.

Photo by Anna Pelzer on Unsplash

Why ‘No Meat’?

Removing meat, poultry, fish, dairy and eggs from your diet is a major lifestyle change but Frazier cites three compelling reasons to do so: health, the environment, and ethics.

Fitter & Faster

Studies showing that vegetarians have lower rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, etc are as common as mud in March, but what are the specific benefits to runners? “The most common change I hear about is faster recovery,” says Frazier. “This means less injury because it reduces your chance of over-training and getting hurt. It lets serious runners do more hard workouts.”

Scientists have yet to pinpoint why runners may recover faster on a veggie diet but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to say they do, with world-beating vegans like Scott Jurek, Brendan Brazier, and Catra Corbett attesting to the efficacy of plant-powered running. Monique Ryan, MS, RD, author of Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes, says the benefit may be down to the anti-inflammatory properties of plant foods. “Exercise increases the level of free radicals in your body, which causes inflammation,” she explains. Anti-oxidants in fruits and vegetables are anti-inflammatory and protect your body from physiological stress.

Food: Environment & Ethics

Losing yourself in nature is one of the great pleasures of trail running, and eating plants is a great way to protect the environment you love. Raising livestock is a leading cause of deforestation, soil erosion, destruction of grasslands, and water contamination, worldwide, according to UN Food and Agriculture Organization research; and creates more greenhouse gas emissions than all forms of transport combined. Meat is also an inefficient food source. For example, it takes 20 pounds of grain to produce a pound of steak.

Animal cruelty is a clear argument for veganism but the human cost of meat is, if anything, greater. Meat-packing is notoriously one of America’s most dangerous jobs. Globally, the demand for meat means two-thirds of arable land is used to grow animal feed versus just eight percent to produce food for direct human consumption. This drives up food prices and put swathes of the world’s population at risk of hunger.

Photo by Ella Olsson on Unsplash

How to Make it Work: Calories – The Burning Issue

You might be surprised to hear that when it comes to food quantity is as important as quality. “Under-fuelling is a common problem,” says Ingrid Skoog, RD, chair of the Sports, Cardiovascular, and Wellness Nutrition (SCAN) group of Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Between intense training, the appetite suppressant effect of exercise, and hectic lives, a lot of runners don’t eat enough.” You can get by on reserves for a while but a consistent calorie deficit puts you at risk of fatigue, excessive weight loss and sub-par training. “Nutrition is non-negotiable,” notes Skoog. “Regardless of the diet you choose, your body’s needs don’t change.”

Ruscigno concurs: “One of the biggest factors in good nutrition is getting enough food. People are concerned about protein in vegan diets but if you eat enough total calories it is almost impossible to not get enough protein.” When you cut out meat, dairy and eggs make sure to compensate with calorie-dense plant foods like nuts and nut butters, avocados, and coconut oil.

Micro-nutrients – Less is More

Decades of meat and dairy industry marketing have created the perception that you need meat for iron and dairy for calcium. But animal products are not the only option. A balanced vegan diet provides iron from a range of foods such as whole grains, leafy greens and legumes. Eating mini-portions of protein is actually more efficient than eating a steak, explains Ruscigno, because your body absorbs nutrients better in small doses.

Calcium absorption also improves on a plant-based diet because animal protein increases the amount of calcium you excrete (thus drinking milk is a paradoxical pursuit). Getting calcium from fortified plant milks, leafy greens and legumes means you can eat less total calcium but your body will retain more. Ruth Heidrich, a 78-year-old raw vegan marathoner and Ironman triathlete, who holds a PhD in nutrition and exercise physiology reports her bone density increased on an all-plant diet, despite a family history of osteoporosis.

The one essential supplement for vegans is vitamin B12, which is helps form DNA and red blood cells, and supports brain function. “You need to get some every day,” Ruscigno recommends. You can take a B12 supplement or multi-vitamin, or eat fortified foods like bread, cereal, plant milks and nutritional yeast.

Think Addition, Not Just Subtraction

Vegan or meat-eater, nutrition experts agree that what you add to your diet is more important than what you subtract. Nell Stephenson, a Paleo diet consultant and lifestyle coach who competes in Ironman Triathlons and ultra-marathons, says the key to health is eating more vegetables. “Even with the Paleo diet [which advocates eating meat] you should get 40-50% of your calories from vegetables and fruit. That gives you all the vitamins, minerals and fiber you need and nothing you don’t.”

“Not everyone is going to be a vegan,” says Ruscigno. “But if you eat like one, by consuming more fruit and vegetables, you will gain a lot of the benefits.”

Conclusion

Running on plants can have a powerful, positive effect on your performance and lifestyle as long as you are mindful and properly fuel your training. “Historically, the healthiest societies ate low-meat diets. It’s how we thrive,” says Frazier. “Becoming vegan gave me an indescribable sense of well-being. It felt whole, complete and right. It’s a force for happiness.”

No Meat Athlete: Run on Plants and Discover Your Fittest, Fastest, Happiest Self’ is published by Fair Winds Press. For more information and Matt’s book tour dates visit www.nomeatathlete.com.

21 – Free Thinking in Myanmar

This article about my trip to the 2012 Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Myanmar was written for the Free Word Centre. Recent events there show that freedom is as tenuous as it is precious.

Photo: Cila Warncke

Free Thinking from the Irrawaddy Literature Festival

At the beginning of February 2013, the Irrawaddy Literature Festival drew readers and writers from around the world to the city of Yangon in Myanmar. In a country which has lived under the rule of a repressive military junta for more than half a century, it was a cultural and political landmark that allowed writers to gather, speak and exchange ideas freely for the first time in recent history. Cila Warnke visited the festival to see how a country crippled by censorship is starting to find its voice.

It was, in many respects, a literary festival like any other. There were book signings and a photo exhibition. Puppets for the children and grown-ups drinking lager on the verandah. Book stalls bursting with everything from Beatrix Potter to physics texts. On a sweep of grass between the Inya Lake and the hotel were tents where you could buy journals and newspapers, join charitable organisations or get a bite to eat. There were little differences, though. Buddhist monks in brick-red robes chatted as they sifted through volumes. The food stands offered rice noodle salad sprinkled with pungent dried shrimps. Women and men alike drifted through the heat in the traditional longyi – an ankle-length wrap skirt knotted at the waist.

In the cool interior of the Cold War-era hotel (a gift to the government of Myanmar from Nikita Kruschev) other, subtler, differences became apparent. Prior to the event, co-organiser Giles Fitzherbert voiced his hope that the festival would “open a window that has been half-shut for so long… [and] help turn Burma from an inward looking country into an outward looking country.” This sense of purpose was the thread that linked panel discussions about library usage, memoirs, debates about literary developments, and conversations about how a nation successfully transitions from censorship and repression to freedom of thought.

Democratic political reform has given Myanmar new hope after nearly fifty years under an ugly-minded military junta, but achieving openness is a complex, multi-faceted task . At the Irrawaddy Literary Festival four things emerged as preconditions to lasting change: political freedom, education, economics and international cooperation.

Photo: Cila Warncke

Political Freedom

One of the liveliest speakers at the festival was Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans, which tells of life during China’s Cultural Revolution. Though many of her anecdotes were hilarious (she told of accosting sailors in bars to practice her English – “You can imagine what they were thinking!”) but the bones of her tale are tragic. She was exiled at age 16; her father was forced to burn his beloved library; she was denied education. In the darkest days of Mao’s war on intellectuals there was no reason to hope. It was only when the violence eased and Mao reopened the universities that she was able to study, winning a scholarship to study in Britain.

As Chang’s story vividly illustrates, without political freedom there can be no intellectual or literary liberty. Jean Seaton, director of The Orwell Prize, spoke of being “blessed to live in peace and freedom” – a sentiment shared by the event’s other Western attendees. For those of us accustomed to freedom of expression, censorship is unimaginable. But for many of the authors at the festival it is the only reality they know. The Myanmar government lifted censorship in 2012, meaning that for the first time in 50 years writers and journalists did not have to submit their work for approval prior to publication. In January 2013 the censorship board was disbanded.

That the government could, with the stroke of a pen, abolish this long-standing apparatus of oppression is both heartening and cautionary. What can be done can be undone, and Myanmar writers acknowledged that a true end to censorship lies in the future. “We used to say, ‘the censor has moved into our head with his chair and desk, and lives there,’” said Pe Myint, author of more than 40 books. Silencing their internal censors is a struggle that every writer will face in the coming years. Myint also raised the prospect of tacit or post-publication censorship, even if the letter of the law remains on the side of press freedom.

Photo: Cila Warncke

Education

The late dictator Ne Win banned the teaching of English in the 1960s. He eventually rescinded his ban but not before a generation or two grew up without learning a word. This makes it almost impossible to communicate with ordinary Myanmar.

On the first day of the festival we set off for Inya Lake, armed with a map clearly marked with our destination. Our taxi driver didn’t speak or understand English, but he examined it, nodded and we set off through the sticky morning smog. After twenty minutes, he pulled up in front of a hotel and gestured hopefully. It wasn’t Inya Lake. Another consultation with the map and off we went again. After some quality time in one of Yangon’s ubiquitous traffic jams we arrived at another hotel. Also not Inya Lake. I was fizzing with frustration at this point. Finally, after another turn around the centre of town and several stops for directions wefinally reached our destination. Only later did it occur to me that the English place names on our map were probably as incomprehensible to our driver as Myanmar script is to me.

This was just the first of dozens of encounters, inciting varying levels of frustration, that hammered home the importance of a lingua franca. The woeful state of English language skills is the most obvious manifestation of Myanmar’s overall educational deficit. One of the military junta’s favourite repression tactics was closing the universities. Students were sent to rural areas, or assigned home studies, to supress political action. Writing in The Irrawaddy, Denis D. Gray notes that “Burma is saddled with two generations of chemistry professors who have never conducted a proper laboratory experiment and mechanical engineers yet to handle hands-on equipment.” Another journalist I met remarked there are probably no more than five psychologists in the whole country.

There was much discussion at the literary festival about how to overcome these barriers. Local libraries, such as those attached to the United Nations and the American Centre, are working hard with limited resources. They offer books, journals and space where people can come and use computers. Perhaps more importantly, they give training in how to use libraries and computers. Thant Thaw Kaung, who helps create village libraries, noted that, as in the West, TV, mobile phones and the internet compete for people’s time and attention. In his words, “we have to support the reading habit.”

Aung San Suu Kyi speaks at the launch of the Irrawaddy Iterary Festival. Aung San Suu Kyi speaks at the launch of the Irrawaddy Iterary Festival.

Photo: Cila Warncke

Economics

Dr. Thant Myant-U, author of the superb Myanmar history The River of Lost Footsteps, spoke at the festival in his capacity as founder and director of the Yangon Heritage Trust, which aims to preserve the city’s unique Colonial architecture, as well as promote much-needed improvements to planning and infrastructure. Yangon’s crumbling buildings and surreal pavements testify to decades when the military rulers exploited the country’s natural resources for their own benefit and poured up to a quarter of the national budget into arms.

Neglecting the basic needs of their cities and citizens had a predicitable impact on education and welfare, too. Alex Mackenzie, of the British Council, said that poorer children often leave education after primary school to work, a fact attested to by the city’s hordes of awfully young waiters, shop assistants and street vendors. Human infrastructure, even more than the buildings, is crying out for proper investment and planning. Clearly there will not be any improvement in education until the economic barriers are removed, which means legislating school attendance and funding child welfare. Broad, systemtic changes have to come from the goverment but private initiative has a role to play as well. Aung San Suu Kyi and the British Ambassador, Andrew Heyn, announced two scholarships and presented prizes to the winners of an essay contest.

Photo: Cila Warncke

International Exchange

It is easy to look at a patchily-developed country with a rocky history and conclude it needs the wealth and wisdom of the West. After a fortnight in Myanmar, I’m not convinced that they need us more than we need them. Yes, foreign investment is good for the economy, and will hopefully aid development and raise living standards, but it would be arrogant to think of ourselves as benfactors. As Alex Mackenzie put it: “Myanmar doesn’t need things, it needs the exchange of ideas.”

Myanmar is tough and self-sufficient. Many of its citizens have endured suffering we can only imagine. They are under no illusions about who they are or their place in the world, and they are not looking for charity. The literary festival was more than half funded by local businesses, and organisers Jane Heyn and Giles Fitzherbert, as well as patron Aung San Suu Kyi, expressed the hope that future festivals will be run entirely by local organisations.

This is a modest ambition. Despite its political, educational and economic challenges, Myanmar has an air of resiliance. The mere fact that just two years into its transition to democracy it is almost impossible to imagine the previous repression shows a laudable refusal to wallow. The literary festival is a product of this new freedom. It is also testament to hope for the future. According to Daw Suu Kyi, “literature is not just for fun, or to pass the time. It is a learning process.”

If there is a lesson to draw from the Irrawaddy Literary Festival it is that this process takes place in surprising ways, under even the toughest of circumstances, and as long as it does there is always hope for the future.

Photo: Cila Warncke