Seeing us through to the end of the year we’ve reached out to a number of our favourite artists and cultural creatives to join us in celebrating good things. A bunch of five things that make their world go around, inspire them or just need celebrating for what they are. There’s no theme here. It’s no kind of “best of year” round-up. These are just five things of the many things identified as making the world a better place to be. We’re all about positivity. Almost all of the time. We promise…
It can be hard to keep up with Momus, currently in Paris, it would appear, after sojourning in Japan, Athens and Berlin. We're no stalkers so he may have been elsewhere too. Momus, is known as a musician and writer with an eclectic and sometimes controversial style, which blends elements of folk, pop, and electronic music. Momus has released over 30 albums and has been praised for his sharp wit and clever lyrics.
I've been a bit promiscuous, city-wise. I love them. They can either tire you out, or give you a tail wind. My dad, a language teacher, took us from Edinburgh to Athens and Montréal, and as an adult I've managed to rent flats in London, Paris, Berlin, New York, Tokyo and Osaka (not all at the same time, obviously). The beauty of a city is its density. You've got to love being at very close quarters with all sorts of people — get an almost erotic thrill from it. Population density makes all sorts of rarefied services possible, giving you a succession of interesting experiences in electric rooms: galleries, cafés, concert halls. Of course there's always the possibility that things will go badly wrong: the power will fail, the subway train will get stuck in a tunnel, murderous culture wars will break out between the Roundheads and the Flatheads. When things like that happen, the bodies crushed into you become nightmarish. Cars can ruin everything, and so can a pandemic. Cities can make you misanthropic, but I'm always impressed by the way people find ways to rub along. We are basically empathetic creatures, and living cheek by jowl with different others has a civilising effect on us. Good cities are cosmopolitan: little slivers of the whole world. They should be full of open people, and they should remain open to the world.
This may seem obvious, but I want to say it anyway: artists of all sorts make life worth living. They've been my great teachers and mentors: Bowie, Eno, Gainsbourg, Cohen, Kafka, Brecht, Calvino, Beuys, Klee… but also people like Fassbinder or P.G. Wodehouse or Hergé or the writers of the Mary Tyler Moore Show. There are thousands of names I could list, and I'm grateful to them all for showing me that life and play can be one and the same thing. Art is powerful precisely because it's powerless and irresponsible, like child's play. It shows us that things don't have to be the way they are: we can take them apart and put them back together again differently just for the hell of it, just to test stuff, roll the dice. I believe that art shouldn't be tidy or redemptive: it's good at showing the craziness and badness we're capable of, yet also our capacity to transcend it. We use it to document our futile struggle to make sense of ourselves. Wilde has a character in Dorian Gray say: "Sin is the only real colour-element left in modern life." I like art about sin, in that sense, because I like colour. Art needs to stay guilty and even unacceptable in some sense, because otherwise it'll just be used as "art-washing", the way it's used by advertisers to flog stuff, or municipal authorities to gentrify neighbourhoods and up the rents. It's easy to forget that censors — the church, the state — controlled what could and couldn't be said until very recently, but it's also obvious that we live in a time when statements are still highly policed, and when the humanities are under increasing threat. But I don't believe that art will ever knuckle down or buckle under. We need it.
I don't mean the trouble kind, I mean actual hot water. Cups of tea and coffee, baths: there's nothing that hot water can't seem to soothe. My day begins with coffee: I can only tolerate one cup a day, so I head out somewhere nice and get an expensive one. Here in Paris my favourite café is a place called Kott, run by a friendly multi-cultural couple: he's French, she's Korean, so it has a stark, Seoully feel to the decoration. (Seoul is the city I'd most like to live in next.) Actually, it's often iced coffee, so I suppose the "hot" bit is optional. And in fact, when I think of my penchant for bathing in Japanese sentos, it wasn't always hot water there either: I found that the most amazing sense of physical well-being came from transferring four or five times between a scalding bath and a freezing one, until my skin could take the transition without cringing. Afterwards, sipping from a PET bottle of cool unsweetened green tea, I'd feel absolutely reborn.
I spend a lot of my time, out there in the city, sifting and thrifting. My father used to go fishing, and I suppose this is the nearest I get, with oddly-shaped trousers and corduroy jackets standing in for salmon and trout, and vintage stores taking the place of rivers. Some days the "fish" bite, other days they just don't. Sartorially I seem to get bolder as I get older, and turn heads on the street. There'll be the occasional "WTF?", but mostly there are curious or admiring looks, even compliments. My riding jodhpurs have twice elicited calls of "Where's the horse?", and someone once shouted out "Yves Saint Laurent!" as I passed. Last week some Paris fashion students interviewed me on the street, and I told them: "I like to dress in a way that makes people wonder about the world in which that look would be normal." Of course, sometimes the look is an odd mixture of my father's old fishing clothes and Jason King, the dandy detective. Or, as a Berlin neighbour once told me, a Japanese pirate. Sometimes — if you're in the wrong place, at the wrong time — you can actually get physically attacked for how you look. That happened to me in a village in Essex once. Some kids told me my velvet flares were "poofy pants". Relativism ("They might be, if you want to think of it that way…") didn't work. The blows rained down, and I took my punishment like a man. The trousers were velvet, from Venice. I kept wearing them, of course.
I was wondering what to call this: I might have said "fairness" or "justice" or "equality" or even "socialism". But I prefer the term "legitimacy", in the sense Max Weber gave it: that political systems have to prove their worth by seeming to have our best interests — all of our best interests — at heart. Of course, this is often achieved by charisma and window-dressing, and too much of today's politics is based on merely longing to see some hated rival tribe crushed. But every child knows when something's "not fair". It's a basic human value which education — at its most instrumental and vicious — manages to crush out of us, just as it pulverises our ability to paint or tell stories or make music. Modern politics — by its own design, after decades of neoliberalism — is feeble and corrupt, but if it could get back to making the world a fairer place it might begin to restore some of its lost legitimacy.
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