The Strokes are always terrible – why do I keep going back to see them?

Quite when the concept of coolness became a thing is uncertain, even to etymologists. As early as 1884, an academic paper noted the expression ‘Dat’s cool!’ among African-Americans. But it’s about 100 years since ‘cool’ entered the lexicon as an unambiguous description of something to aspire to (via jazz, inevitably), and it’s still a crucial concept in the world of pop: it’s being cool that meant the Strokes could attract 50,000 or so people to east London, even though most of those present were at primary school when the band released their two first two albums, which are the two on which their reputation rests, and songs from which comprised

A 50-quid, hour-and-a-bit troll: Aphex Twin, at Field Day, reviewed

Forty per cent of London is green space. And what we do with all that grass – all that potential – is pave it with music festivals. This year, Hyde Park hosted Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen. Gunnersbury Park had Boygenius. Finsbury Park welcomed Pulp and Travis Scott. Field Day is a staple of the season. Always falling on a Saturday in late August, the day is wholly reserved for electronic music. Reams of twentysomethings make the pilgrimage: set off from wherever, change at Bank, District Line to Mile End, 15-minute walk, enter, set aside £7.50 for a can of warm Red Stripe. Everything is very clean: the organisers don’t

It was midnight in a field in Wales and I was lying face down in six inches of mud: Green Man Festival reviewed

I love Green Man. The smallish festival is the second most beautiful site I’ve ever visited (after G Fest, which is situated on a beach in a fjord in the Faroe Islands). Nestled in a valley between the mountains of the Brecon Beacons, it has great bills, it’s impeccably organised and I feel nourished by it. But, in the interests of being honest about festivals for those who have never been, I should also confess that this year it supplied the single most miserable experience of my music-watching life. It was midnight, in a field in Wales, and I was lying face down in six inches of mud Friday was

A brilliantly cruel Cosi and punkish Petrushka but the Brits disappoint: Festival d’Aix-en-Provence reviewed

Aix is an odd place. It should be charming, with its dishevelled squares, Busby Berkeley-esque fountains, pretty ochres and pinks. Yet none of it feels quite real. It’s as if an AI bot had been asked to design a Provençale city. Everything is suspiciously perfect. And then you notice all the Irish pubs and American student clones. It’s the prettiness of a Wes Anderson set – with the charm of an airport. In this uncanny valley, however, lies what continues to be one of the world’s classiest opera festivals. The major new commissions this year were two British chamber operas. George Benjamin and Martin Crimp were returning with Picture A

Full of unexpected delights: Green Man Festival reviewed

One learns the strangest things at festivals. That, for instance, this summer has been a bit of a blackcurrant disaster in the UK because the extreme heat caused all the different varieties to ripen at the same time and fall from the bushes before they could be properly harvested. That fact came from a retired Kentish farmer called Ian, next to whom we were sitting at a £65-a-head dinner at this year’s Green Man, just outside Crickhowell in Wales. That alone should spell the difference between Green Man and the scene depicted in the Netflix series Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99. No one here was getting mouth ulcers because the drinking water

Glastonbury has become a singalong event for OAPs

‘Well, it’s just not Glastonbury, is it?’ said my daughter aggressively, when told that our yurt featured an actual bed, wardrobe with hangers and electric points, and hot showers just around the corner. Our excuse was this was my and my partner’s first Glastonbury and we had a combined age of 125. ‘Anyway, why are you there?’ she said. ‘These are not your people, these are my people.’ Not from what I could see. With headliners such as Diana Ross, the Pet Shop Boys and Sir Paul McCartney, Glastonbury today is more a singalong event for people born in the 1950s (my husband) or 1960s (me) than anyone within shouting

Why everyone should try streaking

One evening a few summers ago, I convinced a friend to run with me up Portobello Road completely naked. As we reached the finish line, we could hear the sirens in our wake. We were accosted by two policemen. I was convinced they would throw us in the slammer. Instead, the officers gently told us that it would be wise to put our clothes back on. One of them, having seen my body gleaming in the pale moonlight, suggested that I should really consider getting a tan. I have long enjoyed streaking. People wonder why someone would choose to expose themselves in such a way. There are a few explanations.

Join the counter culture, continue Christmas

The great Joan Collins, this paper’s occasional diarist, was quick off the mark in putting up her Christmas decorations… around November, I recall. But the really sane and sensible thing to do is to go retro and be late taking them down. Today is, I need hardly say, the Twelfth Day of Christmas when the three wise men turned up at Bethlehem with their gold frankincense and myrrh. Happy Epiphany. But in happier days, viz, before Christmas was commercialised last century, and in even happier times before the Reformation, the season didn’t turn out like a light. It went into a kind of slow-burn right down to Candlemas on 2

Watching Stephen Fry was like being in the presence of a god

Stephen Fry lies prone on an empty stage. A red ball rolls in from the wings and bashes him in the face. He stands up and introduces himself as Odysseus, stranded on an island-kingdom as he makes his way home after the Trojan War. The ball had escaped from the hands of a clumsy maidservant who was playing on the beach with a local princess. Now Fry, as Odysseus, begs her help and asks for a petticoat to cover his nakedness. This tale comes from Homer’s Odyssey, Book Six, but Fry doesn’t quote the reference he merely plunges on with the story. Odysseus shows up at the palace of the

Simon says… farewell

Early in 1987, a middle-aged woman approached me on the record counter of the Slough branch of Boots. ‘What do you have by Ladysmith Black Mambazo?’ she demanded. Nothing. Boots in Slough wasn’t big on South African isicathamiya choral music. ‘Well,’ she suggested, ‘you really ought to get their records in. They’re going to be huge.’ She was wrong, but I knew why she was so sure. Ladysmith Black Mambazo had been among the standout guests on Paul Simon’s Graceland, released a few months before. Graceland made Simon, by my reckoning, the first pop star who had emerged from the rock’n’roll era to make a major cultural impact across three

A stroke in Sri Lanka

This time last year, it seemed that life couldn’t get much better for me: I had a new book out to appreciative reviews, had just returned from a literary festival in Mumbai and was en route to a few more, in Galle, Jaipur and Lahore. The Galle festival is small and cosy — a little paradise of sun and sea and authors and books — and I loved my first event, with the lively Sri Lankan writer Ashok Ferrey. Afterwards, signing books, I had a bad headache but I took a paracetamol and tried to ignore it. That night, there was a big dinner organised by Geoffrey Dobbs, the man

Coming up for air | 30 November 2017

The musicians of Ensemble Grizzana are arranged in the usual way for their concert at St Paul’s Hall in Huddersfield. Another player, the percussionist Dmitra Lazaridou Chatzigoga, sits among them. The table beside her holds a small and rather beaten-up zither and a tray of the kind of objects you might find at the back of a spare kitchen drawer: two filter baskets from stove-top espresso machines, a tea-strainer, letter opener, a cog, a nut and bolt. Visitors to Huddersfield’s annual contemporary music festival, now in its 40th edition, are used to eccentricity. The presence of such a tray on the Wigmore Hall stage would raise eyebrows well beyond their

Mistaken identity | 24 August 2017

This year’s Lucerne Festival is given its identity by having as its theme ‘Identity’. Since the word doesn’t mean anything, that isn’t a lot of help. But does a festival have to have a theme? Surely a glut of fine performances of great, or at least interesting, music is enough? Michael Haefliger, the icy artistic director, clearly doesn’t agree, and offers two accounts of identity, one in the general festival booklet, where the emphasis is on refugees and national identity, the other in the programmes for the individual concerts, where he is more metaphysical, and concludes with the hope that by listening to the chosen music we will ‘rediscover ourselves

London calling | 10 August 2017

What is the Edinburgh Fringe? It’s a sabbatical, a pit stop, a pause-and-check-the-map opportunity for actors who don’t quite know where to go next. Alison Skilbeck has written a ‘serio-comic celebration’ of Shakespeare and her performance attracts a decent crowd for a show that starts at noon. She plays a fruity-voiced thesp, Artemis Turret, who delivers lectures about the Bard’s older females to groups of layabout pensioners gathered in a scout hut. It’s pure Joyce Grenfell. Good fun, too, but without much potential beyond the fringe. Dominic Holland’s show, Eclipsed, is about his life as a fallen comedy god. In the 1990s he was on telly all the time and

Show up and show off

The Edinburgh Festival was founded as a response to war. The inaugural event, held in 1947, was the brainchild of Rudolf Bing, the manager of Glyndebourne Opera, and Henry Harvey Wood, a British Council grandee. Both were convinced that a festival of music and theatre was needed to restore the artistic heritage of Europe after six years of devastation. Edinburgh recommended itself as the host city because of its cultural prestige, its picturesque location (to rival Salzburg), and its ample store of theatres and hotels that could accommodate hundreds of performers and thousands of visitors. That the Luftwaffe hadn’t flattened the city was a significant mark in its favour. The

Balkan brass

When brass instruments with button-operated valves were introduced in the first half of the 19th century, music-making changed. Once requiring a semi-professional approach, it could now be quickly mastered by large groups of working people. A noisy result were Britain’s colliery bands: but a more spirited upshot was Serbia’s trumpet tradition. Like the colliery bands, Serbian brass music had a political imperative — re-weaving national identity after 500 years of Turkish occupation. The leader who first hit on trumpets as a vehicle for this joie-de-liberté was Prince Milos Obrenovic, who created the first Serbian brass ensembles in 1831. They took swift hold, providing an outlet for everyday south Slav exuberance. The

Apocalypse now | 29 December 2016

Gerald Barry loved playing organ for Protestants as they allowed him a lie in. Then they found out he wasn’t Protestant and sacked him. When he moved to a Catholic church, he was forced up at the crack of dawn, so he punished the congregation by not giving them the chance to breathe between verses. He has a similarly cruel approach to the singers in his latest opera Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, whose voices he puts through the wringer, compelling them to squawk or chunter — or recite the ‘Jabberwocky’ in German. Barry has to be one of the most enjoyably contrary composers alive, but he is also, I fear,

Interest-free credit

When did you last experience a boring Sunday afternoon? If you’re over 16, probably not since you were last 16 and stuck at home, raindrops sliding down the window pane, nothing on TV until five o’clock, nowhere to go because everywhere is shut. But boredom, says Phill Jupitus, has become an endangered emotion. Now that we have smartphones, at a gentle swipe, the touch of a button, we have access to any amount of diversion, 24 hours a day. We need never find ourselves with nothing to do, nothing to read that takes our fancy, no one to talk to. He’s not happy about this. In Being Bored: The Importance

Diary – 6 October 2016

Any day now, the government will make its long delayed announcement on whether a third runway should be built at Heathrow or Gatwick. Personally I am against both. During my 18 undistinguished months as an environment minister, I learned one thing about the aviation lobby: their appetite is voracious. They want more of everything. Runways, terminals, you name it. I also learned that in the end, often after initial resistance, governments always give way. Although from time to time industry representatives hint that they would be prepared to make concessions on the handful of night flights that come in over central London each morning, disturbing the sleep of several million

Wet dream

Utopia dons some unlikely guises, crops up in some odd places. On the sea wall a couple in their teens stood clutching their baby and gazing half a mile across the opaque river to where streets run down to the shore: spires and warehouses, inns and gables announced a town. The boy asked me if I knew over there. He said that that was where they wanted to go to, where they wanted to be. There’s so much happening over there. Not like here. Here there were only vast ships, big sheds, cranes, mean houses. And nothing to do. No life. We were between Tilbury Fort and a pub called