Monthly Archives: June 2010

Kele – The Boxer

Bloc Party frontman struggles for consistency on debut solo set

A quick glance back over his tenure as lead singer of Bloc Party will tell you that Kele Okereke is not a man who fears change. After thrusting themselves into the national consciousness with their excellent debut Silent Alarm, they took the difficult option with its follow-up, A Weekend In The City.

Kele’s transformation on this occasion is equally (if not more) drastic. Except on The Boxer, his boldness doesn’t pay off half as well. The direction is very much towards the dancefloor – no change there – but with less emphasis on songs. Kele’s courting the electro crowd and occasionally (On The Lam, Rise) it sounds great. Too often, though, it sounds a little ill conceived. The vocals are tired and repetitive; the beats aren’t as polished as they might be. Okereke’s voice always had the potential to grate, and without the propeller-armed Matt Tong behind the drum-kit, it does exactly that.


Written for The Skinny

The Korean Penunsula Takes On The World

World Cup preview piece written for The Impartial Reporter

At some point in the wee hours of November 19th last year, my anger diffused. The nation, nay, the world had been outraged by the ‘Hand of Gaul’ incident that sent Ireland crashing from the World Cup Play Off. Calls for Henry’s head on a plate reverberated around the land. But in a moment of rare clarity, I decided that it wasn’t so bad after all. After all, come the time of the World Cup, I would be settling into my new home 6,000 miles away, in South Korea. And for the first time in history, both North and South sides of the peninsula have qualified. “This,” I thought to myself, “is not bad at all.”

Koreans, like many of their East Asian counterparts, don’t do things in half measures. They’re an emotional, patriotic and jingoistic nation on all fronts. Just as the current political and military showdown with North Korea has understandably awakened a fervent nationalism, the very mention of a World Cup is likely to send a Korean into raptures. There are discerning football fans in South Korea. Some are as devoted as those born on Old Trafford’s doorstep. And so, they when asked on their team’s chances in the tournament, they’ll consider it for a while and offer an intelligent opinion. Spain, Brazil and England are the usual suspects.

But for many, the opportunity to look no further than their own noses is too great. “Han-googo! Han-googo!” (“Korea! Korea!”) You see, baseball is king here. Kia Tigers, my local team, are dominant. My local professional football team is Gwangju Sangmu, the army team. They aren’t very good (eleven soldiers, employing a distasteful long ball approach is little match for the top dogs of Seoul) and so interest in football all year round is minimal. Last month I went to see a K League game in the Guus Hiddink World Cup Stadium, twenty minutes from my apartment. As the name suggests, it was constructed for the 2002 World Cup here and paid host to the Quarter Final between South Korea and Spain, which the home side won on penalties. But the game (a drab 1-0 home victory) was abject at best. The 44,000-seater stadium paid host to fewer than 2,000 and the whole thing had an anti-climactic feel to it and the stadium has the unwanted glow of a white elephant.

Accordingly, most peoples’ views on the beautiful game are a trifle warped. Park Ji Sung is the best player in the world. Bolton Wanderers star Lee Chung Yong isn’t far behind him. Unfortunately for them, it simply isn’t true. A Korean team is highly unlikely to lift the 2010 World Cup; North or South. North Korea is the most mysterious nation to have lined up at this, or any edition of FIFA’s top blue riband showpiece. Reports on their warm-up games have suggest that they will compete with an ultra-defensive mentality, in an attempt to stifle the opposition. By all accounts, they are a better side than expected. They will hope to frustrate, but a quick glance at their draw for the group stages suggests that’s about all they can hope for. Their draw of Portugal, Ivory Coast and Brazil is the toughest of the lot.

South Korea, on the other hand, has a little more cause for optimism. They reached the semi final stage in 2002 (albeit with some dubious and hotly contested referring decisions). They have got players, in the aforementioned Park and Lee, as well as 2002 hero Ahn Jung Hwan (formerly Perugia, Metz and Duisburg) and Park Chu Young (Monaco), with genuine European experience. The draw too has been kinder to them, pitting them against Nigeria, Greece and Argentina; second place is all to play for. A victory in the backyard of bitter rivals Japan in the run up to the tournament only heightened World Cup fever. A couple of wins in the tournament would see things reach boiling point.

But after the tournament, things will more than likely return to normal. Any Western game featuring a Korean will be big news, but most other football will play second fiddle to baseball. The profile of the game here has certainly risen since 2002, but perhaps not to the level the local FA and FIFA would have hoped. Despite this, the government has launched an ambitious bid to host the 2022 event on their own. There’s no doubting that they have the infrastructure in place. 2002’s tournament was spread thinly over eleven cities here, each with brand new stadiums; and that was only as a co-host! With worries over South Africa’s readiness for this year’s Cup and Brazil’s capability to network the vast country for 2014’s, FIFA could do a lot worse than to look once more to the Hermit Kingdom. It boasts the fastest train system in the world and is easily navigable. Perhaps it would finally give the game the final push it needs to become top dog.

For the moment, though, the focus is on the here and now. If, after the miserable failure of Northern and Republic of Ireland, you’re looking for a late horse to back, look no further than the Korean duo. You never know, you might be surprised!

Gwangju? Because Not All Roads Lead to Seoul…

My first piece for The Three Wise Monkeys zine. I’ve really been neglecting this blog, but there is a lot of decent stuff to come, both published and unpublished. I just need to get my finger out…

Coming to Gwangju: The Road Less Traveled


I’m going to level with you from the outset: twelve months ago, I’d never even heard of Gwangju. My geographical knowledge of the peninsula was sketchy at best and I was as guilty as every other naval-gazing Westerner in assuming South Korea began and ended in Seoul. So I’ll forgive those of you who have yet to be awakened to the undoubted charms of this parochial southern city. A year down the line, my eyes are open. I’ve lived and breathed Gwangju for a month now and as the novelty wears off, it’s being replaced by something new: a warm, quiet air of contentment. Gwangju will never rival Seoul or Busan for variety of nightlife. Nor will it ever lay claim to being a truly international city. But it has charm in abundance, a rich and shocking history and a friendliness I’ve experienced nowhere else in the world.

Gwangju Massacre Obelisk

Admittedly, I came to Gwangju on a whim. I could’ve gone to Seoul and had offers elsewhere, but on the limited information available to me, I plumped for this one. If, like mine was, your knowledge of the city is based solely on the obligatory Wikipedia article, forum posts and blog comments, you could be excused for thinking it was a rural backwater – an outpost of civilization housing hicks and rednecks. This notion was dispelled as soon as I rolled into the bus station. Perhaps it’s because I’m Irish (Dublin, our largest city, has a population of only one million), but to me, Gwangju is a huge city. With that comes the usual facilities, infrastructure and places to go. As with much of Korea, Gwangju looks as though it was dropped randomly to the earth, landing, as it is, in a huge ravine, flanked on each side by lush, green mountains.

For a budding hiker, Mudeung Mountain offers the greatest challenge. At over 1,200 feet, it’s one of the biggest summits in Jeollanam-do. The view from the top is spectacular and it’s worth setting a day aside to climb it. But you can’t help but feel you’ve cheated a little when greeted by a carpeted trail towards the top… perhaps it won’t appeal to the more intrepid climber, it’s not exactly off the beaten track. For added spice, try trekking up it in 85 degrees after a heavy night on the soju. Crash helmet, recommended.

A few years back, the Korean government afforded Gwangju the status “A Cultural Hub City of Asia”. Until 2023, they will pump about $1.8 billion into a project that is an attempt at rebalancing the culture of South Korea. Previously so much resource was ploughed into Seoul, with the rest of the country being left behind. Already the regeneration projects are visible. Some areas of the cities have been transformed. Gwangju is gradually being pulled into the 21st Century. Since the city’s nickname is The City Of Light, light is the loose theme of the project. The centerpiece of the project, a Forest of Light, looks stunning! The chances are I won’t be in Gwangju until 2023 and won’t reap most of the benefit. But the future looks bright for the culture of the city.

Massacre 2

It’s another feather in the cap of the locals, who consider themselves to be pioneering in their beliefs and the guardians of Korean democracy. Last month (May 2010) was the thirtieth anniversary of the Gwangju Democratization Movement, a popular rebellion led by students in the city, which lasted for over a week and was protesting against the newly installed military government. The students took up arms and took over the city, bestowing civil rule upon it for days. Famously though, they were crushed by the Korean Army. The number of people killed is disputed, although people here confidently predict that it ran into the late hundreds. Some people are still unaccounted for, thirty years on. In fact, the uprising was billed as a Communist movement during the propaganda hit 1980s. But the past month has been an eye opener. The people of Gwangju are proud and they took the anniversary as an opportunity to celebrate and commemorate. There was music, speeches, dancing, drumming and plenty of drinking. The same streets that had been dashed with blood three decades ago were now streaming with soju, makgeolli and tears of the veterans.

One man who had been injured in the crushing of the rebellion was at pains to convey to me the depth of emotion the people felt. “Every time I look at this building,” he said pointing at a large, nondescript structure, “I remember that time. I have flashbacks and become frightened.” His tale is common here. The celebratory efforts and mood is admirable, coming from a nation of civil unrest I can empathize. The character and steely determination of the Gwangju people is palpable. The city’s makeover will give their home a shiny new face, but the locals are certain that it won’t banish the ghosts of thirty years ago. They won’t allow that to happen.

Scene from the movie about Gwangju Massacre

After only one month in Gwangju, I have learned a lot about Korean people, with the anniversary acting as a window to their souls. The city courts modernity whilst having its roots firmly based in tradition. This hybrid, I feel, is an excellent model in learning about Koreans and their culture. Come see it for yourselves.