REVIEWS // Noughties, But Nice (2010)

This review was initially slated to appear online at the beginning of the year. Other commitments got in the way and it got pushed back. I later started writing it for my general blog ‘Postings From An Edge’, but ended up being such a lengthy piece that I felt it would go better here. As it covers ten years from a global and personal point of view, it didn’t seem to matter about missing the zeitgeist moment of early January.


'Noughties, but Nice': What can you find hidden in the streets of Shibuya?

NAMING OUR TIMES

At the end of the 1990s, I was one of the many that struggled with the thorny issue of what to call the then-pending decade. The previous ten-year blocks I’d lived through had been easy to label – the Seventies, the Eighties, the Nineties – but this one didn’t fit into such comfortable naming as the others did. Now on the other side of it, it seems that there is still no definitive and satisfactory answer to that question – what to call the decade that lasted from 2000 to 2009. The Noughties sounds a bit odd, and only really works in a British English context. The Two Thousands would cover the whole millennium rather than just the decade. The Twenty Hundreds doesn’t feel anywhere near as right as the Nineteen or Eighteen Hundreds seems to feel, and still caters more for a century than a decade. None of the other suggestions proposed, such as the Ohs or the Oh-Ohs feel right either.

It seems like the lexical debate is one likely to remain unsettled. If so, then so be it – some things don’t fit easy compartmentalisation and it could be argued that such pursuits are really only media obsessions anyway, having no actual bearing on peoples lives. Of course, until we reach the Twenty Twenties when decade-naming can easily revert to type and the same labels used in the Twentieth Century can be recycled, it seems like the same issue is faced all over again with the decade we’ve just entered. Might have to stick with the numbers and call it the 2010s (Twenty Tens), just to make things easier.

Still, naming a decade can be very helpful from a historical context, as delivering the past in comprehensible chunks is a necessary feature of understanding or interpreting it. The first decade of a millennium is often a fascinating time to look back on too, given that societies look so much more different over a span of a hundred years than over ten of them, and turning points hold greater intrigue.

The Nineteen Hundreds (or however else we name that particular decade) was as tumultuous a time as the 2000s appears to have been. A period of global upheaval, it included the rise of Imperial Japan, the first Russian Revolution, and a high water mark in the imperial expansion of the European powers. In science and technology, the first manned flights happened, Einstein proposed his theory of special relativity, and Marie Curie discovered radioactivity. Culturally, the decade spawned the birth of modern art, cinema and the early stirrings of radio. A century prior to that, the Eighteen Hundreds (1800 – 1809) saw the creation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (UK), plus the Napoleonic Wars and the rise of Romanticism, while the Industrial Revolution raged on with the introduction of the first steam-powered ships and trains.

It seems that the first decade of a century can be a time for revolutionary change. We citizens of the world in the early 21st Century have been having ours too, with the Digital Revolution still in full swing and possibly even in its infancy. Having been living through such heady days myself and been an eager participant, this article will serve to review the previous decade on both a global and a personal level, with a clear digital string running throughout it.

BOOKENDS

Titles from the Art section

Titles in the Art section

I started the Noughties (a term I’ll use for want of a better one and to have something to hold the concept of the decade onto) in one way very similar but mostly very different to how I ended it. In 2000, I had just been laid off from a retail job I was keen on getting out of anyway. I’d spent the preceding four years as a bookseller and although being surrounded by books on a daily basis was enjoyable in many ways, it didn’t hold a particularly lucrative future. In the final years of my twenties, I was a single man living a pretty analogue life in Brighton. I was due to spend a week living in Paris, with a rock band back home that was starting to go somewhere and a career path heading into the voluntary sector. Even less lucrative than retail.

The decade ended for me back in Brighton again, only this time a married man coming up to 40, and having digitised most aspects of my life. I’m currently working as a teacher for a global education company, and studying a postgraduate Cambridge University Diploma in English Language Teaching (DELTA). I don’t really have a band on the go for once in my life, although I do have several other projects happening simultaneously, as usual. Perhaps the one thing that might be most surprising for the young man that began the decade with a trip to France intended as a breather before the rigours of rejoining the dole queue is that I spent half of the past ten years living in Tokyo, Japan.

THE WORLD’S A STAGE

9/11 attacks on New York

The decade began with the hopefulness of the Millennium celebrations, a global moment of optimism that I spent with friends on Brighton beach – as good a place as any to spend it. However, a decade doesn’t really seem to get fully underway without a defining event and it wasn’t until over a year and a half in that the Twenty First Century really seemed to kick in. Sat in my Brighton flat on a sunny afternoon in September of 2001, after a morning’s teaching and awaiting a speech by Tony Blair on TV about public service reform, I wondered what was keeping him from his platform. Flipping the channels, I found some news coming in from New York about an aeroplane hitting the World Trade Center. The defining moment had arrived, a shocking one at that and one that effectively opened the page on the Bush era more than his disputed election. Needless to say, the first lesson I taught on the morning of September 12th – full of young people from around the world away from home and including a young Japanese woman whose brother was actually in New York at the time – was one of the most challenging classes I’ve ever had to teach.

For those of us that lived through it, the Bush era is one that either should never have happened or was an appropriate expression of American might, depending on which side of the fence you fall (and there’s little sitting on the fence about it). I would wager that, overall and worldwide, a majority of people would fall into the former camp, but history is history and what’s done can’t be undone. One of the undeniable consequences of the era was a window of global dominance by the US, a unipolar moment unique in world history for better or worse. That seems to have gone now, with the rise of China and other nations over the same decade and the economic crash that bookended the era started with 9/11.

It could also be argued that the excesses of the Bush era led to the election of the first African-American president – something I’d never have expected from America in calmer times. And while Barack Obama may have one of the toughest jobs in the world – cleaning up after Bush – and is struggling to get much of what he wants to get done done, his election was an exhilarating moment in a narrative that the world seemed to get wrapped up in back in 2008.

Video for ‘Change’ by Control K, about the 2008 US Presidential Elections

Back in March 2003, I was sitting on the East African coast in a bar fashioned from an old boat, when I got the news that I’d been hoping I’d never hear – the invasion of Iraq was going ahead. That whole sorry episode and my government’s part in it contributed to my decision to leave the West behind and throw myself into a totally new place for a fresh start, thus beginning my almost five year stint living in Tokyo (a remarkable experience in so many ways that transformed my life completely, and which I’ve documented extensively elsewhere).

Apart from the massive loss of life that that particular conflict and all the others that have arisen over the same period, one of the really saddening features of the decade for me has been the remilitarisation of Western culture – something largely missing from the Nineties. On the upside, the decade just passed witnessed the global mainstreaming of environmentalism and green thinking. This was admittedly building up a pretty strong head of steam throughout the decade prior to it and was taken highly seriously with events like the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, but it became a much more noticeable feature of general discourse over the past ten years.

One of the interesting things about being away from Britain and coming back intermittently was seeing these changes becoming more embedded with every visit. Yes, there has also been an equivalent rise of denial of the science or state-level refusal to take serious actions against those continuing to pollute the atmosphere. Yes, the Copenhagen Summit of 2009 failed to come up with a satisfactory and binding global agreement to limit carbon emissions (and perhaps was never going to). Yes, there is still a long way to go. But overall I would still claim consciousness of the problem to be moving in the right direction, which is half of the battle.

GETTING AROUND

The Andes from the air

Shot of The Andes, taken during flight from Santiago to Buenos Aires

This leads almost paradoxically on to another feature of the 2000s for me – travel. Paradoxical because I am fully aware that many consider flying a reckless act for a committed green thinker to perform and flying is something I did an awful lot of over the last ten years.

Back in the early Nineties, I’d decided that Britain was too small a place to limit my personal horizons to and set out to become more European in my outlook – Mainland Europe having the range of destinations closest to my backyard. I got myself around the continent as much as I could (though more by train and other means than by air). This carried on in the early years of the new decade, which kicked off with the trip to Paris, and also took in the Netherlands, Greece and other sundry Euro-spots. Once I’d achieved that wider mindset (having also lived in Florida a while during 1994, thus taking on the US too, in a small way), the need for further horizons and other ways of thinking to explore came around. I made my first visit to Africa, with a week in Tanzania in 2003 (while Iraq was being invaded) and a revisit two years later.

The big one was Asia, the larger part of the vast land mass I lived off one edge of. From a new base in Japan, I further explored what Asia had to offer. A trip to Korea included a visit to the DMZ, the notorious border between North and South. My 33rd birthday was spent in Beijing, as China was on its meteoric ascent and sweeping away the old to make way for the glittering new of a modern Olympian nation. At the invitation of a friend from Tokyo, I went to visit him at home in Kathmandu, thus witnessing a Nepal under the martial crackdown of a king on his way out.

Coming in near decade close, I managed to add a fifth continent to tuck under my belt by spending some time in Argentina. Standing in front of the mighty Iguazu Falls on the country’s border with Brazil, I realised that it was time to come back to the UK for a period of rebuilding. Brief memories of other moments included Bangkok, Dubai, Toronto, Uruguay

CUTTING A PATH

Official Peace Not War Japan promo video

That which most needed rebuilding was my career. In 2000, I was ending a short period in bookselling and my tenure in retail. Here now in 2010, I am a teacher – something I spent a long time avoiding for one reason or another but which seemed to have kept on calling me. I’ve spent the majority of the 2000s doing just that, and am able to look back now with some satisfaction. However, I have also had several other roles in that time, some of which were attempts at carving out a professional path for myself and others of which were simply a means of putting the proverbial bread on the table.

For a while, I managed an Internet cafe in Brighton, in the days before the ubiquity of portable devices and wi-fi. It was a role that must have helped to mesh my destiny with the Web a little more deeply. I also had a period of temping and taking whatever came along. There were a number of cleaning roles here. I ran a minibus shuttle service for a while. I worked as a conference steward, serving up coffees and lunches to visiting executives from an international credit card company. Curiously, I even worked for a few days processing customs documents for a shipping company that sent stuff by boat a few times a year from the UK to the Falkland Islands. Little did I know that one day a few years on from that peculiar post, I’d end up in the back of an Argentinean taxi driver’s cab, trying to make up some Spanish on the spot to answer his probing questions over my opinion on correct ownership of ‘Las Malvinas’ (as the same islands are known by those living closer to them) whilst rattling through the back streets of Buenos Aires.

As I was also trying to hold down various jobs along the way, another common strand running through most of the era was the range of freelance or volunteer roles I carved out for myself. It started on my return from Paris when I offered my services to a local community organisation (Sounds Phenomenal) to help them out with a Music Conference they’d been running, I ended up taking on the running of the organisation and my first foray into ‘working for myself’.

Taking the non-profit sector experience I’d built up in the UK for them and wedding it to the reignited activism that the Iraq War had awakened in me, I founded an overseas branch of a British anti-war group whilst living in Tokyo – Peace Not War Japan (PNWJ). Having such a major venture on my hands with no local language skills to speak of and no contacts on the ground was undeniably a significant challenge. Ultimately, it brought out a side of the country that I would never have seen otherwise and gave me an opportunity to leave my own mark before I left – the first (as far as I could tell) compilation album of modern Japanese protest music, which was issued nationally and sold…moderately. I’m proud to say that PNWJ continues to this day, despite my having handed over the tiller to other hands.

Being a ‘foreigner’ in Tokyo opened doors to many other opportunities that would never have come my way otherwise. I had a run at journalism, with several pieces published in Japanese and international publications. I advised the company that handled the Japanese release of the BBC series ‘The Office‘. I also ended up as a consultant to the Embassy of Tanzania, where I helped them to put a Japanese-language tourism website together. Despite the fits, starts, and random professional turns taken over the past decade, it all made for quite a group of experiences and landed me with a most unusual skillset. The path ahead seems to lead in the direction of education – which is no bad thing.

DIGITAL NATIVES AND EXPATS

'Social-ist', a montage of personal websites, by D1 Designs

Today’s young people are often defined as ‘digital natives’, meaning that they are utterly at ease with using computers or the Internet, sometimes to the bemusement of their elders. Older people who made the choice to turn their backs on their analogue pasts and join in with this digital world are invariably referred to as ‘digital immigrants’. The implication of this is that they are less fluent in the ways of the modern world, yet have fled to it in search of something better.

Being a cautious steward of such terms as ‘foreigner’ or ‘immigrant’ in my classrooms, I consider such a label appropriate for some but something of a misnomer for myself. The immigrant is one that is viewed by those in the destination of choice as the outsider that has come in. Conversely, the emigrant is viewed by those in the place of departure as the one that has left their roots behind for pastures new. The expatriate (or expat for short) is the migrant who is not perceived in any particular way by the departed or receiving community, but who makes a personal choice to move bases from one place to another. I’ve tended to place myself in this category.

Sensing the prevailing winds back in the late Nineties, I knew that change was afoot, and made a conscious decision to relocate and become a digital expat. Despite sending my first email in 1995 and gaining my first email address a few years later, it wasn’t until the Millennium had passed that I really joined in with the new world. I got my first computer in the early Noughties, and quickly got to grips with the vagaries of Windows 2000. Moving from a creative world of paints and pencils, tape recordings, and notebooks, I upgraded to image and sound editors, sequencers, and word processing. I stopped writing letters by hand and began sending emails instead. Still uncertain what the Internet was actually for and blissfully unaware of the difference between the ‘Net and the Web, I started dialing up and going online, tentatively peeping at what was out there.

Once I moved to Japan in 2003 and digital communications were the best means of staying in touch with those closest to me, I got my first broadband connection and my life went online. A new world opened up just as it was starting to get richer and broader anyway. Whereas it had previously taken me an hour to upload a song to sites like mp3.com for the aim of establishing some sort of online presence for my creative works, now it took minutes. Prior to Tokyo, my biggest footprint on the Web was the collection of pages cobbled together in FrontPage to archive the Sounds Phenomenal work. Now, I started to spread my wings and socialise.

A first MySpace page went up for some music. Photos of my travels followed, initially at an image hosting site run by Sony and later transferred to the daddy of image hosting – Flickr. I began my first blog in 2006, to join in with what was going on and as an evolution of the diary that I’d been writing since I was 14 years old (only this time taking the jump of actually showing people some of my writings). Multiple volumes on, that diary seems to have now stalled, or at least hit some form of hiatus, as life online doesn’t provide enough time in the day to keep up such commitments. With YouTube having finally brought video online as no other had been quite able to do before, I began my own channel in 2007, now becoming a broadcaster in addition to being a publisher and record label.

As with millions of other people around the world, I now spend probably several hours a day online, with an infinite amount of information at my fingertips yet equally unable to keep up with this data deluge. This is definitely a very different person from the Brighton guy that saw in the Millennium on New Year’s Eve 1999. A good friend that I first met about six months after that date influenced much of the way I perceived and embraced the Web. A pioneer in his chosen field of streaming media who seems to have played a notable part in the building of that industry, I learned about people like Vint Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee from him, or ideas such as TCP/IP or IP Multicasting.

He’s the person I turn to in order to gain a peek at the future of the Internet, rather than simply learn about its past or present. He’s previously described the Internet to me as ‘open prairie’, a nice concept for realising that we are still in the very early days of what this global network has to offer humanity. One thing is for sure, and that’s that the pending decade will see the Web and the Internet playing an increasingly greater role in our lives than it does even now – for better or worse.

A MUSICAL DECADE

Video for Shelf Life‘s ‘Endgame’

I took my initial English Teacher training back in 1996, aware that at some point I might feel the need or urge to leave the country for more than just a holiday, and that if I was to do this it was better to work elsewhere than waste a few years bumming around in the backyard of someone else’s poverty. Teaching English allows just that opportunity as the language is a tool that is in demand the world over, and there is always a shortage when it comes to supply meeting demand.

Bizarre as it might now seem to my far more widely travelled mind, I once held off for several years from the idea of leaving Britain on musical grounds. That is, I was determined that my future lay as a working musician (along with romantic notions of ‘changing the world through song’ or something like that) and I thought that Britain was the only place to be when it came down to getting somewhere in music. I’ve been pretty obsessive about music from my mid-teens onwards and bought the NME religiously between 1986 and 2002, even to the extent of carting all the back issues I owned around all the different houses I lived in during the Nineties.

Living in 90s Brighton vastly broadened my musical horizons in terms of what I listened to, but I still held on to the notion of fronting a rock ‘n’ roll outfit and taking the world by storm. After numerous attempts at creating that world-shattering unit, I put my final UK group together in 1999, expanding from a four piece to a five piece in 2000. Starting life as Jaded, the band built a small local following from a bunch of live shows and recorded a handful of songs before deciding on a name change. We switched to The Zamora, named after Brighton’s then-star striker Bobby Zamora.

Jacket for The Zamora's 'Pigeon Souvenirs' anthology

After one press release announcing the name change to promote a gig went out, I got a phone call from The Sun, who wanted to do a story and photoshoot with the footballer himself. This kicked off a bizarre snowball of media activity that saw the group gaining extensive TV, radio and newspaper coverage, even including a slot on BBC1’s ‘Football Focus’ show on a Saturday afternoon – prime viewing for millions of British football fans. Such attention pulled the individual members in different directions and to my surprise led to my dismissal from the outfit I’d started.

This became both an end and a beginning. It was the end of my dreams of becoming a rock star, which I viewed negatively at the time. However, as it ended up leading me to Japan, it was ultimately a very good thing. I wouldn’t wish to have traded what I have seen and done for traipsing around more student union bars and getting into debt with a record label just as the industry got hit by Napster and the digital tsunami that was to transform it.

Jacket for Control K's 'The Front Line (Redux)'

Having reached the end of a line, it also meant that in order to continue to be involved in making music, I would need to finally start working on my own rather than having to rely on other people to get a sound up and running. I did this with the creation of a new electronic alter-ego, which would act as a conduit for the far wider range of musical output that was flowing into me than the simple rock ‘n’ roll format. The first Control K album went on sale in the middle of the last decade, and I’ve managed to find time to put a few more tracks together and out over the ‘Net since then too.

Jacket for Shelf Life's 'Best Before End'

Rock ‘n’ roll’s a hard thing to get completely out of one’s system though, and in Japan I succumbed to getting into yet another band. This one, with Japanese musicians and called Shelf Life, actually went further again than I’d been before. We played together for almost four years, mainly at a small bar in my suburban neighbourhood in Western Tokyo. I found a great song-writing partner in the guitarist (who also owned the bar) and we crafted a collection of our own material that was released as an album shortly before I left town. We made a semi-professional pop video to accompany one of the tracks, so got a further flavour of the fun and games of taking a band to another level. After my return to the UK, the boys even came over for a short tour and we played dates in Brighton and London.

By the end of the decade just passed, however, I was an entirely different musical beast from the one that had started it. From a fanboy wedded to a musical bible who tended to buy a handful of new CDs every month just to get my hands on new tunes or to plug in the gaps in my meticulously assembled collection to a plugged in consumer of streaming waves of zeroes and ones with no particular tribal affiliations – from NME to mp3.

Having opened up in the Nineties to dub, jazz, hip-hop, funk, soul and electronic music, I took that sense of exploration further in the Noughties and kept my ears working on the sounds I found around me. I grew an interest in African music, explored Japanese music extensively, and also turned my tastes towards Latin or Arabic rhythms. Having once anchored myself so solidly to Anglospheric music, I opened up to listening to words in other languages. Radio Nova from Paris took over from BBC’s Radio One. Manu Chao, who sings in French, Spanish and English, became a new favourite. I particularly enjoyed when differing musical cultures fused or collided, as they did with the Okinawan folk and beats style of Ryukyu Underground or the tango for a different dancefloor of Gotan Project.

Despite all that and as I’ve previously said, it’s hard to get traditional rock ‘n’ roll completely out of your system once it’s got in there. My final live performance of the decade was at a Christmas show at work amidst the widely ranging performances of the assorted international students also taking to the stage. Cobbling a brief line-up of interested teachers together and with a rehearsal or two beforehand, we ran through a rugged version of ‘Life On Mars’ for the assembled crowd. Funnily enough, I think it might have been my biggest live audience yet. And The Beatles remain evergreen to my ears.

AS ONE CHAPTER ENDS…LOOKING AHEAD

Following the newlyweds through the streets of Brighton

Following the newlyweds through the streets of Brighton

So, the ill-named Noughties have been more militarised yet consciously greener, have seen a more easterly tilting of the poles of world power, and have been revolutionary in the digitisation of global citizenry. I got myself into further corners of the planet than I’d previously thought possible, settled on a career path and got myself married, plus created a not insubstantial body of work to show for my time on the Earth, along with becoming a fully paid up digital expat.

I set myself and met several goals. They included professional ones (putting together a six-day programme of events including a conference, founding a non-profit organisation overseas), artistic (15 minutes of fame with a band, the production and issuing of six CD albums, creating and releasing my first book) and personal (relocating to Japan and settling there, becoming well travelled, developing a global mindset, and getting married).

How can I follow my thirties, as I move into my forties? What does the new equally unnameable decade hold in store? One thing’s for certain, I lived most of the previous decades as a defiantly single young man, following my nose wherever it took me. I am now thinking for two, which is really a quantum shift in one’s approach to life. Hopefully, at some point the two of us will even grow to three or more. My 40s will therefore be more family focused. This means that having settled on that career path, it’s time to build on it and make it grow, time to try and make a difference within my own profession rather than constantly being on the outside and knocking at the window of somewhere or other trying to get in. If at all possible, I’d also like to squeeze in some kind of Masters degree before I get to the end of my next decade.

There are several parts of the world that are still crying out to be visited, including Australasia, great American cities like New York and San Francisco, plus much of the rest of Africa and the Middle East. Being married to a Japanese woman, I can expect that I’ll also be finding myself back in Japan on more than one or two occasions. And never being one to shy away from ridiculous ambitions, I would dearly love to find some way to make it to Antarctica before I turn 50. At this point, who knows where I’ll end up. Probably likely to visit fewer places than in my 30s though, given the family man agenda.

Creatively, I’ll be getting a bit too old to keep on rocking (at least with some sense of dignity) but the urge to make music remains strong. I hope to see the growth of Control K, at least one or two more albums and perhaps a move into licensing or soundtracks of some sort. One thing that I am finding though, is that writing is taking more and more of an important place in my life. There are several novels in my head waiting to come out, some mere sketches, some almost fully formed.

Predicting the future is, of course, a fools game. There’s no failsafe way of saying or seeing what will happen on the road ahead. I do however think that it’s helpful for travellers through life to have destinations in mind, even if the means they have of getting there are completely different to what was expected or they end up in a place utterly unlike where they expected to find themselves. So, whatever the highs, lows, challenges, pleasures, surprises and treats of the…2010s, I say bring them on.

For further coverage of the last ten years, visit The Guardian page for extensive reviews and round-ups of the decade in arts, global politics, technology, sports, and much more.

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Filed under 2010, Articles, Brighton, Control K, Features, Japan, Peace, Reviews, Shelf Life, The Zamora, Travel

TRAVEL // ‘Japan From The Inside’ preface (2008)


Back in my twenties, once I realised that I wasn’t going to make a living as a pop star, I scaled back my ambitions to making sure that I created my first album before I reached thirty. I finished work on ‘Pigeon Souvenirs’, the anthology of tracks recorded by The Zamora, about a week shy of my thirtieth birthday. My computer then crashed and it would be a few more years before I was actually able to put it out, but the ambition was realised.

Six albums down the line, I’ve expanded my creative output and found myself having to set new goals. Another major milestone to reach was my first book before I was forty. Although I put in an appearance in Printed Matter Press’s ‘Jungle Crows‘ anthology whilst in Tokyo, I wanted to get a full work out. The internet’s come on considerably since I worked on that first album and it’s now a matter of just having the know-how and time to be able to create an artistic work and have it accessible to the world. Of course, actually selling it is another matter, which is where the culture industries still have a role to play in these times.

Last year, while stuck in a loft on the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors, I waded through my photos and a selection of mostly published writings from my time in Japan and assembled them into a substantial volume of my experiences. ‘Japan From The Inside‘ thus became my first book, and three years ahead of that next big birthday.

Of course, life has a habit of getting in the way of things when you least want it to, and I was also in the midst of a substantial job hunt (trying to reintegrate myself back into the UK after so long away), so wasn’t able to give it much of a push at the time. However, once I’d sorted myself out (and realised that a couple of changes were needed to the edition I put out in 2008), I’ve finally found the time to start promoting it.

‘Japan From The Inside’ is a pictorial record of such places as Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Okinawa and the Japan Alps. It also looks into aspects of Japanese culture and nature, and profiles some of the 127 million people who call Japan home. Including short stories, travel writings, event reviews, and other items such as song lyrics and poetry, it is my first substantial piece of work about the country that has given me so much inspiration. It’s unlikely to be the last.

The book is available for preview and purchase at blurb.com, and is currently entered in the Best Blurb Books Contest. At the time of writing, there are two weeks of voting before shortlisted books make it through to a final round of judging by an expert panel. It might be a dream, a long shot, or both, but I’m hoping to get as many votes as I can to make it through to the next round. Readers of this can help things along by clicking on the Blurb Contest link and adding their votes.

If you like the book enough, you’re also welcome to add a comment on the page – the more comments I get, the more it’ll get noticed. The contest ends on November 9th.

At the top of this post is a promo video I put together for the book. Below, is the preface to the book itself. Enjoy.

‘Japan From The Inside’ preface

Drastic decisions can either turn into great success stories or tales of disaster. In early 2003, the narrative flow of my life was going defiantly in the opposite direction to that I had intended for it, so I decided on a bold move – to leave England and make a new life for myself on the other side of the world.

I used an English teaching job to get to Japan. Once the shock of the new had worn off and I’d settled into my new home in Tokyo, I began to explore the place I’d landed in.

With my first digital camera in tow, I documented the areas that I visited as I spread my wings to the four corners of the country. The first trip was to Hiroshima, the city where arguably the world of the post-war era began. Shortly after, I went wandering around the subtropical archipelago of Okinawa. An immersion in the thrills of snowboarding on the frozen island of Hokkaido followed.

These visits opened up new worlds of experiences, encouraging me to start writing and travelling more seriously. Alongside my teaching, I became a freelance journalist. I also formed a rock band, started a peace charity, met my wife-to-be and travelled yet further afield from my Tokyo base.

At a suburban house in Buenos Aires near the end of 2007, I learnt of the collapse of the company that had been bankrolling my adventures. With a wedding pending and a whole new set of tasks to deal with, it became time to return to England.

This book serves as a record of my time spent living, working and travelling in Japan. It covers the classic iconography – skyscrapers, cherry blossom, technology and temples – so should act as a good introduction for the uninitiated. It also shows more hidden moments – village celebrations on tiny islands, festivals in mountain forests – to uncover some unseen sides for experienced Japanophiles.

I have titled it ‘Japan From The Inside’ as I hope for it to provide some insights into a country so often considered mysterious and impenetrable to outsiders. It is also a means of sharing my journeys through the land of superlatives.

My drastic decision turned out to be the best I’d made. Please find a seat on the bullet train and join me on a trip around this island on the edge of a continent.

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Filed under 2008, Features, Travel

LYRICS // Endgame (2007)

Back in 2004 and with the London march against the invasion of Iraq still fresh in my mind, I made an approach to UK music organisation Peace Not War (PNW), to offer them a track for their then pending ‘Volume Two’ of pro-peace/anti-war music. Upon informing one of the founders of the project that I was living in Japan, he asked me if I could help them to get their CDs some exposure over there.

Although I was based in Tokyo at the time, I’d spent most of my free time travelling around the country and had no contacts in either the Japanese music industry or peace movement. Reluctant to even consider the idea at first, so daunting a task did it seem, I shelved the idea for some time. 

The Control K tune that I offered never did end up on one of their CDs, but I did get rather more deeply involved with them instead. His request ultimately seemed too good an opportunity for combining two of my interests (music and peace) and building a new network in my adopted country to turn down. A few months later, I got started on what was to become Peace Not War Japan (PNWJ), an organisation that has continued following my departure from the country.

By the time that the first PNWJ CD was released, I already had my own band (Shelf Life), who performed covers of rock ‘n’ roll standards in a local bar. When rumour filtered through the PNW network that London was thinking of producing a Volume Three, I went to the band and suggested that we should write a song for it – one that we could really pour our efforts into and make too good for them to turn down. My songwriting partner Cheryo and I set ourselves the task of writing a new ‘peace anthem’.

In many of my previous sets of lyrics, I’d tended to take the Dylanesque route of using obscure imagery to conjure up word pictures. If this new song was going to have a chance of sticking in peoples’ minds, I was going to have to keep things simpler this time around. I kept my eyes open for scraps of lines that could fit in, or be adapted, to a simple and effective anthemic song for peace. We were aiming along the lines of ‘Hey Jude‘ or ‘We Are The World‘ (very popular in Japan) in terms of hooks and build.

The opening line was borrowed from Atticus Finch (or Harper Lee, to be more precise) in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird‘, one of fiction’s great lawyers. The next line, added myself, was on the same theme and encourages looking at a situation from another person’s perspective. One of the benefits to an independent, unaffiliated third party attempting to resolve a conflict between two sides (as, for example, Norway has tried to do with different factions in the Sri Lankan civil war) is that they can bring an approach that takes both points of view into account. War and conflict is almost never one-sided. The song asks listeners to think about things from the other side too.

As I became more involved with the Japanese peace movement, I met many interesting and sometimes extremely brave people that in my line as an English Teacher in suburban Tokyo I would never have had an opportunity to do. One such person, whom this song was mostly inspired by, was a young Iraqi engineer that I went to see speak and later shared a meal with. I’d never met somebody from that devastated and desperate country before and was eager to hear his story, particularly when the Western media so dehumanises the inhabitants of Iraq.

His was a tale that was tough to swallow, yet also deeply inspiring and gave me a little more faith in the human spirit to overcome the worst possible things that can be thrown at it. According to him, life under Saddam wasn’t great but it did have its positive aspects too. Criticism of Hussein was a strict no-go, but if you came from a poor background (as he did), you were entitled to a free University education and Iraq’s universities were considered to be amongst the best in the Middle East. He got himself an engineering degree. Then, the invasion of 2003 came and like all young Iraqi men, he got the call-up to fight (not an option he could refuse).

During the early days of the occupation/insurgency (delete according to perspective), he went through all manner of horrors – the deaths of many of his friends and family, kidnap and capture by jihadists, imprisonment by US forces, and the destruction of most of his town. It would seem natural for someone who went through such things to be filled with hatred for the causes of such things and initially he was. However, something happened that put him on a different path.

When some Japanese journalists were captured in Iraq by ‘al-Qaeda’, he was held captive with them. The female journalist he was with encouraged him to look the situation from other perspectives and to think more about peace than revenge, an approach he took on board. Such can be the power of words and talking things through. This story inspired the second verse of the song.

In the chorus, the line ‘I am what I am…’ was borrowed from the Ubuntu free operating system, whose name comes from the Zulu aphorism which articulates a basic respect and compassion for others. The operating system aims to ‘underpin the concept of an open society’, which seemed like a suitable sentiment for the song and also sat quite comfortably with Gandhi‘s famous line about ‘an eye for an eye’ in this song.

The other chorus lines of ‘we are the ones…’ was picked up from New Internationalist magazine, in a special issue on positive stories from the Majority World. It’s a line I’ve seen used much more widely in recent times too. The verse about the ‘silence of our friends’ was adapted from a quote by that other famous peacemaker, Martin Luther King.


To seek ‘peace of mind’ is, I believe, inherent in most people. However, it is our fears and suspicions that lead us to build walls around us rather than bridges between us. These only serve to enforce differences between people rather than encouraging a search for similarities.

‘Peace Not War: Volume Three’ didn’t happen in the end, and PNW themselves seem to be largely inactive these days. Never mind, the potential of being on that album prompted me to write the song that I am probably most proud of. 

In the spirit of the song, when the band perform it live we usually invite members of the audience or other bands that we play with to come on stage and join in with the chorus. We also made a promo video to go with it too, my first one, where an audience does the same thing. The video was certainly a lot of fun to make, although it did give me a bit of an idea of the amount of time that people who do this kind of thing for a living have to spend waiting around! The video can be seen at the top of this posting.


The song, titled ‘Endgame’ in reference to the games that world powers play with peoples lives in their war-making, ended up as the final track on our first CD release ‘Best Before End’. It is available for download through Shelf Life - Best Before End - Endgame, as a single track or as part of the album. 

Peace out.

 

Endgame

You’ll never know a man,
Until you step into his shoes.
Won’t see what’s goin’ on,
Unless you look through another’s eyes.

A friend of mine,
Told me of soldiers on his streets.
Home and family gone,
Yet he learned not to hate.

I am what I am,
Because of who we all are.
An eye for an eye,
Will make the whole world blind – so blind.

We all seek,
Yet rarely find our peace of mind.
We’re still building walls,
We should be building bridges instead.

In the end,
It’s not the words of our enemies,
We remember,
But the silence of our friends.

I am what I am,
Because of who we all are.
We are the ones,
That we’ve been waiting for – so long.

I am what I am,
Because of who we all are.
We are the ones,
That we’ve been waiting for – so long.

(You’ll never know)
(Without standing in his shoes)
(You’ll never see)
(Better look through another’s eyes)

(Yes, he told me)
(‘Bout the soldiers on his streets)
(His family was gone)
(He turned his hate around)

(All looking for)
(That little peace of mind)
(Newer, higher walls)
(But a bridge brings us together)

(It’s not the words)
(Of our enemies that last)
(But the silence)
(Of our friends, so shout it loud)

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LYRICS // Second Hand Sunshine (2007)

‘Second Hand Sunshine’, a title that popped up one day in search of a song, was written as a global warming song. It’s not a subject that seems to have been tackled a great deal yet by songwriters, so it seemed like a good opportunity to get one in early.

Many of the lyrics had been hanging around in various forms for years, as scraps that hadn’t yet found the right song to end up in. I was glad to finally give them a home. The first verse starts with, of all things, a reference to the infamous Conservative politician Enoch Powell, who was sacked from the government front bench in 1968 for his notoriously inflammatory ‘Rivers of Blood‘ speech that raged against rising levels of immigration to the UK.

Naturally, I am fundamentally opposed to such views and see the world in an entirely different light. However, he did utter one truism (at another time) that stuck with me:


All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.
Understanding this helps to not place ultimate faith in political leaders as the ones that will provide the solutions to our world’s problems. While they may play a part, they will ultimately fail in what they are trying to do – even when with the best of intentions – because that is ‘the nature of politics’.

The opening of the song therefore is a plea for collective action against the status quo of the continuing pollution of our earth, rather than waiting for the people in power to make the changes needed.

The ‘same old juice’ of the second verse refers to the developed (and now developing) world’s ongoing dependence on fossil fuels, with ‘lizards’ being the dinosaurs that turned into automobile juice from millennia underground.

While the use of these fuels may well have led to the rapid development of many nations and so have been a measure of human and economic progress in many ways, our ongoing dependence on them is leading to vicious resource wars, destruction of eco-systems and economic fragility. Ropes can also be used to good and bad ends, for rescuing somebody or hanging them, and is given here as a metaphor for fossil fuels.

Nevertheless, we are living through very interesting times as well as dangerous ones. Largely powered by the internet as an element of the digital revolution, the early 21st Century is a period of unprecedented technological progress.

It is possible that some of the solutions to humanity’s most pressing problems can be found through technological innovations which enable us to better harness more natural sources of energy – such as solar power. Those who remain stuck in the older ways of thinking will be left behind, clinging on to outmoded means and watching slack-jawed as they are rapidly surpassed. This is the general thrust of the third verse.

The fourth verse alludes to the amount of information that is already available on the internet, which can point to different means of reducing ones personal carbon footprint or developing a more sustainable lifestyle. It’s out there at our fingertips, but so many choose to ignore it.

The song itself appeared on the first Shelf Life album, ‘Best Before End’, and can be previewed or purchased as part of the whole album on Shelf Life - Best Before End - Second Hand Sunshine (Live).

Second Hand Sunshine

All our leaders in the end are claimed
By Old Man Blood River
Won’t somebody turn the heat down?
It’s an arrow too much for our quiver

We’re still fixing up on the same old juice
The lizards died to give
A rope is a lifeline or it’s a noose
The reptile way’s too aggressive

Brave new ideas drop from your skies,
Like burned-out satellites.
You’ll fall to your knees watching people pass by,
And they follow their days with their nights.

Slip the URL into your browser.
You’ll find an answer on the other side.
If the decision makes you drowsier,
There’s no excuse to run away and hide.

Gimme some of that
Second Hand Sunshine
Power me up
And I’m on my way

Give us some of that
Second Hand Sunshine
Plug us in
And we’ll be on our way

All our leaders in the end are claimed
By Old Man Blood River
Won’t somebody turn the heat down?
It’s an arrow too much for our quiver

We’re still fixing up on the same old juice
The lizards died to give
A rope is a lifeline or it’s a noose
The reptile way’s too aggressive

Brave new ideas drop from your skies,
Like burned-out satellites.
You’ll fall to your knees watching people pass by,
And they follow their days with their nights.

Slip the URL into your browser.
You’ll find an answer on the other side.
If the decision makes you drowsier,
There’s no excuse to run away and hide.

Gimme some of that
Second Hand Sunshine
Power me up
And I’m on my way

Give us some of that
Second Hand Sunshine
Plug us in
And we’ll be on our way

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LYRICS // Ghosts (2007)

I was born in Brighton, a seaside town on the South coast of England. Despite this beginning and several later visits to then-still-resident grandparents, I grew up getting to know an entirely different place – Cardiff, the city I got my schooling in.


As soon as the opportunity presented itself, in the form of a college place, I found my way back to Brighton – delighted to get out of Wales and having a fixed idea in my head of Brighton as some kind of escapist oasis amidst all the mundanity of the rest of Britain.


It was there that I wiled away my twenties. I somehow made it through my University years and racked up over a decade back in the place of my birth, wading through loves and losses, rock ‘n’ roll bands that came and went, and all manner of limits explored. It’s the kind of place that people escape to from wherever is getting them down in their part of the country and then reinvent themselves as something new. It can also become a certain kind of trap – a great place to explore an idea but rarely to make a success of it.


After about 15 years of trying, my musical ambitions reached their zenith when The Zamora had their moment in the national spotlight. To my surprise, just as the band’s star was in ascent, I was rather unceremoniously booted out of the line-up.


I had to come to terms with the fact that the future I’d spent years carving out for myself had been taken out of my hands. Given that I wasn’t really going anywhere career-wise either and with an ultimately disastrous relationship topping off my seaside downfall, my time in my ‘home town’ drew to a natural end.

Although it took a while to come to the decision, I ultimately decided that I wasn’t going to wallow in misery but would do something about it instead – as big and radical a challenge as I could give myself – and throw myself into somewhere as crazy and far away as Tokyo to see what happened.

By the time I left Brighton, I was seeing ghosts of my former past all over the city. Ex-flames with new beaus, those I’d once rocked with, workplaces I’d had to put up with in the absence of something better, on every street corner. This song began as an expression of that feeling and was originally written in the present tense – the place that was haunting me. The melody came naturally with the words – a kind of melancholy waltz-y feel – and has changed little since being written.

Songwriting is often an exorcism in itself. Once I wrote the song, I felt a little better about things, that was that. I didn’t really expect to see it ending up recorded and released on an album, least of all produced in Japan. However, when it came to writing the material for ‘Best Before End‘, this was a natural to pull out of the bag.

Of course, by the time it was exhumed, the feelings had changed and the ghosts I’d spoken of belonged to another very distant world. I’d also become more reflective about Brighton and what I’d actually gained from my time there, so the song was adapted slightly with a change of tense suggesting that my haunting was over and I’d learned from the experience.

Telling the above tale explains most of the song, but there is just a little more imagery in it that might require some background.

Woody Allen, when asked why all his films were set in Manhattan, once commented something along the lines that as the whole world was there, it provided all the inspiration he needed to make movies. Unwilling to leave the town for many years for related reasons – my whole world was there – I felt the same about Brighton at one time. In time however, my perspective on it changed and I realised that there was a whole world outside of my seaside shelter. Woody Allen now also makes films in locations other than Manhattan – a natural progression, I feel.

All India Radio‘ came to me from Salman Rushdie‘s Booker-winning novel ‘Midnight’s Children‘, one of my favourite works of fiction. Along with many of the other characters in the book, Saleem Sinai (the protagonist) is born with a certain set of special powers. All children that are born on or after the stroke of midnight on the moment that India is declared independent from British rule are endowed with certain powers and the closer they were born to the striking of the clock, the stronger their powers. Saleem is born as the clock hits 12:00, so his unique abilities are that much more pronounced.

Each gift that the children have been endowed with is unique to them, with the protagonist’s being a telepathic ability. As this develops and as he ages throughout the novel, this ability becomes very useful to the rest of the children, who convene in great conferences in Saleem’s head. Rushdie had his character comparing the feeling of all these competing voices in one space to All India Radio, the nation’s radio broadcaster and home to the hundreds of languages contained within the country.

Prior to the point of my departure from Brighton, I found myself juggling a profusion of multiple identities drawn from the various activities I’d engaged in during my time there – rock singer, teacher, student, manager, unemployed, hedonist, shop assistant, lover, loser, volunteer, bus driver, the list goes on. All these different voices, different versions of myself vying for attention, began to drown each other out, leading to a feeling of like listening to All India Radio.

The song was recorded and released by Shelf Life, staying as a slow-paced and reflective tune. At the time of writing, it doesn’t appear on the band’s MySpace page but is available for purchase from Shelf Life - Best Before End - Ghosts.

Ghosts



That city’s streets,
And all its heartbeats,
Got me wherever I turned.

The riffs and the pages,
The loves through the ages,
Hit me like children and burned.

But when I stopped to think for a minute,
Of how much I had grown,
And used the eyes in the back of my head,
To look at what that city’d shown – me.

I laid dem all to rest.
Yeah, I laid dem all to rest.

There was a time,
When that place was mine,
Like Woody Allen’s Manhattan.

Now it’s just a shell,
A lingering smell,
I’d done all I could have done.

But when I stopped to think for a minute,
Of how much I had grown,
And used the eyes in the back of my head,
To look at what that city’d shown – me.

I laid dem all to rest.
Yeah, I laid dem all to rest.

Voices went round in my head.
Games once played out, now dead.
It felt like All India Radio.

Bodies piled up on the floor.
Couldn’t take it no more,
It felt like All India Radio.

But when I stopped to think for a minute,
Of how much I had grown,

And used the eyes in the back of my head,
To look at what that city’d shown – me.

I laid dem all to rest.
Yeah, I laid dem all to rest.

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