Monday, June 8, 2009

Tea & armageddon: an interview with John Gray

John Gray is the Radiohead of political philosophy. To his fans his views are a welcome antidote to that most virulent strain of human conceit - the belief that mankind is destined for some higher purpose - while his detractors label him a pessimistic old killjoy hellbent on spoiling the party. Personally I love Radiohead and believe parties are always improved by a good gatecrashing, so when Gray came to Australia for the 2008 Sydney Writers' Festival I begged GQ to let me interview him (this was when the magazine, under the tutelage of the admirable Nick Scott, still had some guts). I found Gray the most charming of fire-starters, and treasure the signed copy of Straw Dogs that he gave me. Here is the article as it appeared in the August issue of GQ that year:

Halfway through my conversation with John Gray, just as he’s getting into his stride on why the idea of world peace is a hopeless fantasy and mankind is doomed to eternal conflict, I find myself thinking about Star Trek. We’re having breakfast in a Sydney restaurant and Gray, esteemed political scientist, bestselling author and philosophical firestarter du jour, is explaining why society’s established faith in human progress is mistaken. Human intelligence has failed to keep pace with human knowledge, says the amiable 61-year-old Brit between sips of tea. While technology and science leap hurdle after hurdle, ethics and politics remain stuck in the starting blocks.

This gets me thinking of the crew of the Starship Enterprise, and how it’s never their teleporters or faster-than-light space travel that cause you to doubt the show’s premise. The huge advances in science you can swallow; humans do that sort of thing well, after all. What nettles is the ridiculous back-story about a ‘United Federation of Planets’; hundreds of worlds spread across 8,000 light years, all living peacefully (the odd commie pinko Klingon aside) in one big interstellar democracy. This a conceivable future for a race that, back in the real world, can barely organise a football match without it turning into an ethnically divided bloodbath? No wonder Spock always looks a bit sceptical.

Mankind’s penchant for Captain Kirk-esque pipe dreamery is the burning, nay molten, issue at the core of Gray’s latest smouldering polemic, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia. A ripe and very timely raspberry blown directly at the dominant political hopes of our time, Black Mass argues that, far from being a panacea for the world’s ills, the accepted wisdom of ‘democracy or bust’ is merely the latest in a succession of doomed utopian projects (Communism and Nazism take a bow) to have plagued modern civilisation since the Enlightenment.

Where Gray really upsets the existential applecart is in his assertion that all these supposedly secular policies are in fact nothing more than a mutation of the hoary old religious faith they claim to have superceded. From the torrent of Biblical verbiage spouting from the White House since 9/11 (“The enemy has a face. He’s called Satan, and we’re going to destroy him”), to the blind faith in science endorsed by humanists and ‘evangelical atheists’ such as Richard Dawkins, Gray explains how, God-bothering or not, we are a race fixated with being the stars of our own historical drama. While the politicos and mystics punt two versions of the same happy ending – that heaven, or at least MacDonalds, awaits those who toe the ideological line – humanity’s obsession with manifest destiny is rapidly creating hell on Earth.

Pessimistic? Hell yes. I ask Gray how he feels about his reputation as a doomsayer, and he places his teacup on the table before answering (when an Englishman puts down his tea, you listen).

“I have a reputation as a pessimist because I’m relentlessly forcing people to look at the facts,” he says. “If, impossibly, we lived in a world where realist ideas dominated, I might be doing something different. But in this world realist thinking is intermittent, and very often what’s represented as realist thinking is just another progressive ideology. The disastrous war in Iraq will put an end to such projects for a while, but unfortunately the utopian mentality still prevails on issues like terrorism and climate change.”

Hang on a minute, climate change? So even the green movement is a victim of wishful thinking?

“There are well over six million people on this planet,” sighs Gray. “They can’t all exist on windfarms and solar power. And even if we reduce carbon emissions by fifty percent, which we won’t, what’s the good if in the meantime we’ve chopped down all our trees? A lot of response to the environmental problem is about personal therapy. People doing token things to make themselves feel better.”

I bet that doesn’t make him too many friends down at the bottle bank. I ask him if he’s not concerned that such a defeatist outlook encourages apathy.

“Sometimes apathy is better than doing some great nonsensical thing that goes wrong,” he counters. “Look at what happened with biofuels and global warming. It’s taken five years for people to finally realise that not only are biofuels not the solution, they actually aggravate the problem. It’s better to accept our limitations, however undesirable, and prepare accordingly rather than lose ourselves in crackpot schemes based on unrealisable ideals.”

But what about our achievements? Surely even Gray can’t deny humanity ethical advances like, say, the abolition of slavery?

“Much of what we term human progress is reversible. Slavery is still going on in many forms. And look at torture; during the Second World War waterboarding would get you fifteen years hard labour, and now the US, supposedly the world’s leading liberal democracy, has declared it legal. And it happened in the blink of an eye. Progress in ethics if often an illusion.”

Like all great revelations – the world is round, cigarettes are bad for you, Bill Clinton did have sexual relations with that woman – much of what Gray has to say seems painfully obvious in hindsight. With this in mind, I jump the gun and ask him what’s in store for our poor deluded species over the next twenty years.

““Environmentally, if present science is even reasonably correct, then it’s pretty clear that within twenty years we’ll have serious problems with rising sea levels. The evidence is already there to see. Geopolitically, the big change will be the swift eclipse of American power. I’m not a fan of American policy, but critics of the US haven’t realised there’s nothing to replace it. Will the world it be safer? I don’t think so. If Australia was attacked by a large power tomorrow, or suffered an environmental catastrophe, who would it turn to? China, India, Japan and Russia will be the key players, at least until the oil runs out. Europe and America are out of it. They won’t be in a position to call the shots anymore.”

It’s time to start clutching at straws. What if Obama gets in? Won’t that signal a sea change in US foreign policy?

“Obama? I like him. His emergence is a tremendous tribute to the American people. But race is still a huge issue in US politics. I believe he will lose the election to John McCain.”

Oh, crumbs. There is, however, some good news. In this future of faith-based conflict, doomsday cults, wholesale environmental meltdown and global resource wars, Gray reckons Australians will fare better than most.

“You won’t get a much safer country than Australia. It’s remote, resource rich, and you have most of the institutions that make modern civilised life possible; the rule of law, democracy and governments you can get rid of without killing them.” He considers this for a moment and then chuckles. “Although you came close with that last one, didn’t you?”

It would be foolhardy to dismiss Gray as a pessimist. Not only are his arguments valid, but they have a curiously liberating effect on those individuals who, often without realising it, are prone to struggle under what Gray himself terms ‘the burden of hope’; the indefinable sadness and frustration that comes with feeling that humanity is capable of so much more.

“If you have a lighter burden of hope it doesn’t stop you doing things about problems, it just makes you more pragmatic in your approach. You’re not trying to solve everything in one go.”

It comes as no surprise to learn that Gray’s books are popular with psychotherapists, who say that clients suffering from depression have found comfort in reading them. His views might be unpalatable to those with their hearts set on a United Federation of Planets, but for the rest of us they offer blessed relief in the knowledge that we’re no more important in the grand scheme of things than lichen, giraffes or jellyfish. We just make a lot more noise.

© Sam Tinson, GQ Australia 2008

His Dark Materials: an interview with Nick Cave

Back in 2008 a lucky turn of events (a music writer got sick and his editor had no other options) led to me interviewing Nick Cave for GQ Australia. Cave was in Sydney to promote his new Bad Seeds album Dig Lazurus Dig, and EMI gave me a twenty minute slot alone with the singer in his hotel room. I had never interviewed anyone famous before (I still don't think my editor realises this) and I was terrified of screwing it up. We got off to a shaky start (I cringe to think that I told Nick Cave to his face that his music was 'formulaic') but the twenty minutes stretched to thirty, and then - after Cave bawled out his PR for interrupting us - to an hour. Nick Cave, if you are reading this, thank you for being so nice to me. Here is the article as it appeared in GQ:

Ever since 1981, when a 24-year-old Nick Cave scrawled HELL across his scrawny chest and scared the bejesus out the British music scene as the bilious, heroin-addled frontman of proto-punk nasties The Birthday Party – thus completing his transformation from cassock-kissing Melbourne choirboy to England’s number-one parent-worrier – critics have had him pegged as the right hand man of Mephistopheles, if not the Ol’ Bastard himself.

So I’m slightly disappointed when, on my way to interview the now fifty-year-old Cave at a Sydney hotel, the lift doesn’t plummet straight to Hades and deposit me at his cloven feet. Instead it takes me to a plush executive suite whose only concession to the diabolic is a relentlessly beige colour scheme and a minion from EMI, Cave’s record label, lurking in the hallway outside.

Minion assures me that His Royal Hellness is in jolly mood. His inaugural tour with Grinderman – the sleaze-rock splinter group he formed last year with fellow Bad Seeds Warren Ellis, Martyn Casey and Jim Sclavunos – has been a success, and the Seeds themselves have a new album, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!, in the can. 2007, Cave’s fiftieth year, also saw him write an acclaimed film score for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, enter the ARIAs Hall Of Fame (hijacking the ceremony to huffily induct his band mates in the process) and inspire a major retrospective exhibition at Melbourne’s Arts Centre. All in all not a bad year for a man who once stomped around his native city wearing a T-shirt saying I Hate Every Cop In This Town (allegedly he was once arrested for masturbating at a police officer’s wife from the back of a moving tour van too, but that’s another story).

Today Cave is looking just the shady side of respectable in a skinny black suit, louchely unbuttoned shirt, slicked back hair and gunslinger moustache. Perched on a sofa too small for his famously elongated frame, he keeps fiddling nervously with a lamp stand, pushing it to tipping point then catching it just before it crashes to the floor.

“You know what I hate most about being interviewed?”

As icebreakers go, it’s hard to beat.

“What I hate most about being interviewed is that right now I’m thinking, man, I’ve made a fucking great record. In Melbourne I have this hire car, a great big fucking black Statesman with this incredible sound system. I whack on Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!, crank it up really loud and drive around without any particular destination, just listening. And I think, fuck man, this is special. I’ve made a stone cold classic.”

He pauses to harass the lamp some more. Twenty-five years in the music industry has evidently taught Cave a thing or two about how to plug a record.

“But I can guarantee,” he continues, “that once I’ve finished this spate of interviews I won’t play that fucking record ever again. Because I’ll be sick to death of it. And I’ll realise that all our efforts, all the accumulated hours of anguish that have gone into making it, have fallen on deaf ears.”

Ouch. And then what?

“And then I’ll make another one.”

This artist-makes-record, critics-misinterpret-record, artist-returns-to-studio-in-disgust cycle of creativity might not be ideal, but it has kept Cave prolific. Dig, Lazarus Dig!! is his fourteenth studio album with the Bad Seeds, a band which, in one form or another, has served him loyally on a musical odyssey that has encompassed (in no particular order or combination) apocalyptic post-punk, religious rock, folk romance, swamp blues, political ballads, anthemic torch songs and – perhaps most bizarrely of all to anyone unfamiliar with Cavian whimsy – a chart-topping duet with Kylie Minogue.

But even the most metamorphic bands have a base chromosome or two, and Cave’s love affair with the piano as a songwriting tool has always been central to the Bad Seeds’ sound. Until now, that is. In recording Lazarus, Cave did the unthinkable and left his piano lid closed, reaching instead for the organ and, despite being a novice axe man, the guitar. The upshot is that every track on Lazarus is delivered not just box-fresh, but positively wriggling.

“It’s hip and groovy and catchy,” Cave says, deadpan to the core. “It’s a sexy, groovy right-on beat.”

The flower-power adjectives might seem out of place for a Bad Seeds record, but they’re not far off the mark. Lazarus is a spacious, glitchy, loop-strewn thing, crackling with fruity organ hooks and raw, strenuous guitars. There’s an organised chaos to it, a fizzing energy, which, Cave acknowledges, is a product of what, he refers to as “the Grinderman thing.”

“Before recording Dig, Lazarus, Dig!! the four of us, the Grinderman four, did a songwriting session together. Warren [Ellis, formerly of Melbourne band Dirty Three] came up with some loops, which we isolated and used for the album. The sound is more stripped down; we’re not all playing all of the time. And there’s a sonic disarray which might have come from Grinderman.”

Listening to Lazarus it soon becomes clear that Grinderman, far from being merely a plaything for a bunch of musicians bored of their everyday jobs, is a musical laboratory whose most successful experiments filter through to the Bad Seeds. To Cave, the two bands are inseparable.

“Grinderman is not a side project,” he spells out. “We fucking shouted that from the rooftops from the start. Grinderman are not like a bunch of businessman who whack on fright wigs and strap on dildos for one crazy night out before going back to being businessmen again. They are a fundamental part of the whole thing. You’ve just got to open your mind man, and not worry about what’s Grinderman and what’s The Bad Seeds. It’s all the same people.”

While the musical symbiosis between the two bands is evident, when it comes to lyrics they are worlds apart. Cave’s vocal delivery on the new Bad Seeds album is dense and rapid-fire, often morphing into something approaching spoken-word; a technique, he says, that allows him to fit more lyrics into each song.

“The lyrics on Dig Lazarus, Dig!! are the most complex I’ve ever written,” he says. “I was working on them for a good few months solid. Usually I edit back, but a lot of this I just really liked so I kept it in. I’d write like that all the time but I don’t think it’s fair, record after record, to inflict your audience with the lyrical equivalent of Tourette’s syndrome.”

Cave’s both-barrels approach to wordsmithing on Lazarus means rich pickings for lyric nerds. The familiar Cavian themes of love, death, sex, religion and politics are present (the obligatory Biblical deluge makes an appearance too) but, Cave admits, it’s all in a more impenetrable and abstract form than his fans might be used to.

“Look, I’m not expecting you to sit there and tell me what all the songs are about,” he says. “In fact I’d rather you didn’t. But there are obvious themes. Everything is in a dream state on this record. Everyone in it seems disempowered, in a state of extreme apathy, comatose, asleep or dead.”

The menagerie of freaks and dreamers who populate Lazarus reaches its zenith with the final track, More News From Nowhere, in which the listener is introduced, one by one, to the characters at an imaginary party. Cave is no stranger to autobiographical songwriting (previous albums The Boatman’s Call and No More Shall We Part dealt with, respectively, his break up with singer PJ Harvey and his marriage to current wife, Susie Bick), so I take a punt and ask him if the characters in this song represent anyone special.

“Ah, yes. They’re old girlfriends, basically.”

Cave is fifty, happily married, and a dad. Doesn’t he think writing songs about ex-girlfriends is a little off at this stage in his life? He runs a thin-fingered hand over his brow and gives me the once over with eyes that look suddenly old and irritated. His voice, when he finally responds, is cut to match:

“Listen, you’ve got all this to look forward to. But by the time you hit fifty your mind is a fucking viper’s nest of repressed sexuality. This is just what goes on in my head, man.”

Apathy, past romances and repressed sexuality. These, then, are the demons that keep old punks awake at night. I wonder if Cave’s preoccupations – and their very public manifestation in song form – ever frighten those close to him. His wife, for instance?

“Maybe.” He gives the lamp a tentative swipe, then backtracks. “Look, I don’t have any reference points. I’m just going where this thing takes me. Ten years ago if you’d told me I’d make that Grinderman record I wouldn’t have believed it. The kind of things I’m singing about now...”

Things like No Pussy Blues?

“Yeah, like that. Back when I was writing songs like Into My Arms, I wouldn’t have believed it. But it’s just the way things are going. Into My Arms is a beautiful song, but it’s the sort that I have no interest in writing anymore. I mean, I can write them. Sometimes I even start writing them, but then I get into it and I think, I’ve heard this before, I know where this is coming from. So I don’t pursue it.”

Cave describes Lazarus as having a “non-emotional groove”, and says that in many ways the words are more devastating than “those heart-wrenching Bad Seeds epics”.

“It’s not so manipulative,” he says. “It’s not telling you how to feel. But after a while it’s like, oh fuck. It gets you.”

Cave’s refusal rest on his creative laurels has alienated as many fans as it has won him (disillusioned goths, confused Kylie fans and outraged Jesus freaks have been left spinning in his wake), and partly explains why Australia, his home nation, has taken so long to acknowledge one of their most prodigiously talented sons. At a time in his career when most artists would be content feathering their nest with crowd pleasers, Cave insists on keeping his listeners on their toes.

“I reckon I could probably get away with making another four albums like Abattoir Blues,” he muses. “Send the kids to nice schools, blah blah. But it’s much more interesting to make a record that polarises people, and see what happens.”

Among those most polarised by Cave’s music are church-going Christians, who, if their online chatter is anything to go by, don’t know whether to welcome the Baddest Seed into the fold or cast him back into the fiery pit from whence he came. Dig, Lazarus, Dig!! , in which mad prophets warn of apocalyptic rains, little girls wake up with the jaw bones of asses stuck in their jeans and lyrics such as “Mr Sandman the Inseminator opens her up like a love letter and enters her dreams” prevail, is unlikely to leave them any the wiser.

Their confusion reflects Cave’s own fractious relationship with the Bible, whose spicier Old Testament stories have pervaded his work since Birthday Party days. On the day of our interview Cave is wearing a tiny white Buddha around his neck in place of a crucifix (“I’m keeping my options open,” he shrugs) so I judge it safe to ask him on which side of the God-fearing fence he stands these days.

“I have enormous problems with the Church,” he sighs. “Enormous ones. Not with the message itself. But with the medium.”

But isn’t that the case with religion in general?

“It’s all fucked up,” he acknowledges. “It’s all fucked up and it can’t get any worse. Or maybe it can...”

He trails off, and stares gloomily at the beige carpet. He looks damned miserable, and for a surreal moment I consider giving Nick Cave a hug. Instead I ask him if the state of the world gets him down.

“Yeah,” he spits. “It makes me nauseous. I feel physically sick when I hear certain people talk about things. Usually Christians, unfortunately. So yes, it gets me down.”

So a Grinderman fan base with the Christian right is out of the question then?

“Oh, the Christian right love Grinderman,” he quips. “It’s the beards.”

About halfway through his new album, in an angry, clanging track called We Call Upon The Author To Explain, Cave holds an unspecified Authority to account for an inventory of global grievances including mass poverty, discrimination, third world debt, inequality and disease. It’s about this time that the oh, fuck feeling that Cave described starts to grip you, and it doesn’t let go until some time after the album closes. Unlike its predecessor Abattoir Blues, there is no upbeat counterweight – no chirpy song about bluebells and hopping bunnies – to offer relief. Does this mean Cave’s outlook on life is actually getting bleaker?

“I’m not a pessimist,” he insists. “There’s a lot of beauty in the world, a lot to get out of bed for. I’m not the kind to let little details like the fact the entire world is going down the fucking toilet interfere with my day. There’s very little I can do about it.”

That’s a matter of opinion. In middle age, Cave is still producing more confrontational material than many of the current generation of pop young guns whose job, traditionally, has been to change things. Perhaps his self-doubt is that of an old punk who, for the first time in his career, finds himself caught on the brink of mainstream acceptance and is not altogether comfortable with it. As I leave, his parting shot is certainly not that of artist who thinks his time has past.

“When you write your review make sure you say it’s one of the best albums you’ve ever heard,” he says. “If you don’t you’ll regret it. You’ll be like that idiot that didn’t sign the Beatles.”

© Sam Tinson, GQ Australia magazine, Feb/Mar 2008

Sunday, June 7, 2009

How carwash cafes are destroying society

© Sam Tinson Photography

At first there were just a few. They appeared magically overnight, tempting us with their banana cake and offers of free cappuccinos with every wash and wax. Then, once our defences were down, came the full invasion force. They came in droves, chain upon chain of them, with their cheery bubble logos and their magazines and their platoons of uniformed minions armed with chamois leathers and scratch-free smiles. By the time we realised the danger it was too late. The banana cake was too good, the sheer variety of exterior polishes too tempting. Some, God help us, even had plasma screen TVs. Resistance was futile.

I’m talking of course about ‘carwash cafes’, that unholy union of business and pleasure that has invaded our suburbs and cities, turning our Sunday afternoons into a surreal melange of cappuccinos and clear-coat waxes, and turning us into a nation of caffiene-addled freaks in spotless motors.

Like all crimes against culture (Communism, income tax, Pop Idol) it seemed like a good idea at first. Stringent water restrictions made cleaning the car at home nigh-on impossible, so it made sense to be able to sit down with a decent coffee while someone else did it for you. But it soon became cloyingly addictive. There is something darkly satisfying about watching paid help scrape crud off your tires while you suck down double mochaccinos on a big comfy wicker sofa. Or perhaps that’s just me.

I started off on the standard wash but soon I was on to the harder stuff. Wheel detailing, interior vacuums, full exterior hot waxes, I did it all. I tried to cut down, but the pushers were too pursuasive. If I attempted to refuse they’d get aggressive. What do you mean you don’t want a steam clean? Those seats are disgusting! I’ll do you a special deal... My habit was costing me hundreds of dollars, but I just couldn’t say no.

So slavishly did I bow down to the scent of soap suds and espresso that I didn’t stop to consider the effect my addiction was having on my car. It used to be a cosy den of happy disarray, filled with the accumulated detritus of my personal life. The tide of rubbish and assorted junk that swilled about the foot wells told of past journeys and passengers, destinations visited and day trips long forgotten. The back seats were home to a small library of reading material in the form of old newspapers and magazines, tourist pamphlets, and directions scribbled by strangers to places I will never visit again. The cubby holes and cupholders were treasure troves of useful objects; a root through them could turn up paperclips or pens, chap sticks, chewing gum (some of it unused), headache pills and several dollars in small change. Now all that was gone, cleared away by the insidious, all-consuming vacuum cleaners of the carwash cafe. And all because I couldn’t say no to a free skinny latte.

In the end it was my friend Jim who helped me kick the habit. Or rather it was his family car, an ancient Subaru wagon that he steadfastly, heroically refuses to clean. Jim has several small children, which is why the old Subi’s interior resembles a Brasilian landfill in the aftermath of a mid-strength typhoon. Family legend has it that the bodywork is held together with nothing but Save The Rainforest bumper stickers and an organic paste made of apple juice and squashed sultanas. I’ve actually seen Jim conduct a head-count when he drops the kids off at school, just to make sure he doesn’t accidently leave one on the back seat under a pile of baby wipes. The question of taking this mobile food fight to a valet would never even occur to him. To Jim the mess is the car, as essential to its continued function as the fuel tank and the engine (its cleanest part).

Suddenly the sterile, clutter-free cockpit of my own car seemed depressingly clean by comparison. It smelled of cheap airfreshener and plastic; I missed its old familiar musk. There was nothing to play with in traffic jams, no paper on which to write apologetic notes to parking inspectors, no surprise CDs in the door pockets, nothing aside from the number plate to differentiate my car from the thousands of others just like it. A car, I realised, is like a pair of jeans; the filthier it gets the better it fits. Day-to-day wear and tear imbues a car with character, until eventually the off-the-peg item you bought becomes individualised, a unique reflection of its owner. Cleaning out your car is akin to ironing creases into your favourite 501s – it strips it of personality and makes you look like a charmless square.

Now when the carwash cafe beckons I drive on by. The smell of steamed milk and chrome cleaner does nothing for me anymore. And every time I see a spotlessly clean car, its driver wild-eyed and twitching, I look at my lovely, filthy dashboard with relief. Sure it’s a mess. But it’s my mess.

Panasonic Lumix FS7 Review

There have been a few questions about this camera showing up in various forums in recent weeks and so far not much in the way of reviews, so I thought I'd share my first impressions of Panasonic's latest ultra-compact here. This won't be a thorough review but for what it's worth I am a professional photographer who has sampled a fair few digital compacts over the years, so hopefully my humble opinion might be worth something to someone.

To put this in context I shoot professionally with a Nikon D700 and D300, and I own a Pansonic Lumix LX3 as a back-up / carry-around camera (I am very, very impressed with the LX3 by the way; having something that fast and wide in my pocket is a boon, and on more than one occasion has made me wonder why I bother bringing my 12-24mm Nikon to a shoot). The LX3 is such a great little performer that when I came to buying a point & shoot for my girlfriend (who is fussy about image quality but doesn't want too many buttons to worry about) I headed straight for the svelt little FS7, which uses the same Venus IV processor as the LX3 and has Leica branded glass. I won’t bother listing all the main specs here as if you’ve found this review you already know them. I’ll just try to give you my impressions of the camera’s main points. Here goes nothin’.

Out-of-the-box impressions are good. Despite its tiny size and incredible lightness the FS7 feels good in the hand - there is just enough bulk to let you know you are holding a camera, albeit one that would fit comfortably in a tobacco tin. The FX7 has a solid metal body and a good amount of screws holding it all together. The sealing around the lens is tight and the tiny hinged door covering the USB input is solid and satisfyingly spring-loaded. The only less than substantial element of the body is the battery / card compartment cover, which appears to be exactly the same slightly plasticy device that blemishes the (otherwise tank-like) LX3. The tripod mount placed is way, way off centre, but that’s par for the course on a camera this small and shouldn’t bother anyone likely to be using it.

The 2.7” LCD occupies the bulk of the rear, with well spaced buttons providing instant access to the usual oft-used functions such as self-timer, flash modes, macro and exposure compensation. These four buttons are grouped around the menu/set selector, and double as left/right/up/down keys when navigating through the menu. There is also a seperate recessed ‘mode’ button, which accesses the camera’s two shooting modes (Intelligent Auto and Normal Picture – more on them below), a chunky slider for switching between Review and Record, a button for cycling through the information displayed on screen (shutter speed, aperture and ISO are all acounted for, and there’s also and handy gridline option) and a quick menu / delete button. All in all there are a mere 9 button on the rear, making the FS7 a pleasingly uncluttered device, even for someone with gorilla thumbs like myself. The top of the camera has an off / on switch, a good sized shutter release mounted within a solidly sprung zoom ring and (this I love) a little red rubber button which instantly switches the camera to Intelligent Auto no matter which other mode you’re in. It really is instant too – press it and hey-presto, you’re in idiot mode. This is a like an emergency scramble button for when something is happening too fast and you just want the shot, no matter what. A nice addition.

It doesn’t take long to explore the menus of the FS7 – this is a camera which (as that IA button implies) wears it’s point-&-shoot credentials on its sleeve. Panasonic have kept its tricks to a minimum, but those it knows it performs well. Pressing the mode button in Record mode displays options for Intelligent Auto, Normal Picture, My Scene, Scene Mode and Motion Picture. Here’s what they do:

‘Intelligent Auto’
This is idiot mode with frills. Panasonic IA uses scene recognition technology to guess what you’re pointing the camera at and then picks its own Scene Mode accordingly. It’s not 100% bomb proof but its guesses right most of the time. Point the camera at something up close and the little macro flower appears on the screen, wave it at a landscape and the mountain icon appears. Stick it on a tripod and point it at a dark street it stops up and slows its little shutter obligingly, etc etc. It’s worth noting that in IA mode and Normal Picture mode the FS7 will keep its shutter open for a maximum of 8 seconds; for anything more than that you need to use the ‘Starry Sky’ Scene Mode, which offers speeds of 15, 30 or 60 seconds. Once again, this camera sings ‘point & shoot’ from the rooftops. While in IA mode the only functions you have control over in the shooting menu are picture size/aspect, burst mode and colour mode (i.e. film effects, which I’ll go into below). You can also disable flash if you want to. For control over anything else (ISO, white balance, exposure comp. etc) you’ll need Normal Picture mode.

‘Normal Picture’
This is a great mode for people (like my girlfriend) who are just discovered that mastering concepts like ISO, white balance and exposure compensation can vastly improve your shots, and it’s where the FS7 comes into its own. It basically offers all the hands-on potential of your average ‘P’ mode, minus the abilty to actually programme shift. Hitting the ‘quick menu’ button brings an array of options to the top of your screen: image stabilisation (off, focus or constant) burst mode, AF mode (face recognition, 9-point or single area), white balance (the usual options plus custom set – kudos Panasonic for including that) ISO, picture quality LCD brightness. (This last feature includes an option called ‘LCD high angle’ which configures the brightness and contrast of the display in such as way as to make it visible when holding the camera over your head in a ‘crowd shot’ manner. And it works, too.) Colour mode is for some reason stashed away in the main menu, so you’ll need a few more clicks to access the FS7’s Natural, Vivid, B&W, Sepia, Cool and Warm film effects. The main menu also offers three choices of Aspect Ratio (4:2, 3:2 and 16:9), which is a truly useful feature. I can’t say the same for the ridiculous gimmick which allows you to turn the on-screen focus icon into a love heart, a flower or a star (no, I’m not joking - do Panasonic really think this will sell cameras?). The exposure compensation button allows a margin of plus or minus 2 stops; pressing it twice begins up an auto bracketing scale with options for 1/3, 1/3 or a full stop adjustment each way. It’s a very useable function too; in bracketing mode the FS7 cracks off its three-shot burst with impressive speed. In short, in Normal Picture mode this camera allows the user fast, unfussy control of all the main point & shoot controls plus a few more besides. The menu system is intuitive and uncluttered, and in the unlikely event that you do get yourself in a tangle in the heat of the moment you can always cut your losses and reach for that emergency IA button.

‘My Scene’
This is simply a space where you can store your favourite preset from among FS7’s intelligent scene modes (listed below). It allows you to access your chosen mode with a couple of button pushes instead of having to cycle through sub-menu to find it. Don’t mistake this function for anything like a custom preset, it’s not.

‘Scene Mode’
The FS7 has 25 intelligent scene presets. All the usual suspects are present, as well as a few surprises such as a ‘Transform’ mode which makes the subject appear slimmer (is this really what we’ve come to) and ‘High Sensitivity’ mode that boosts the ISO to 1600 and 6400. Like all point & shoot presets these modes are for the most part worse than useless. The portrait mode, for instance, fixes the ISO at 80, which might work fine outdoors in bright light but be so handy in, say, a restaurant. Likewise ‘Beach’ mode merely sets the colour to vivid, while ‘film grain’ just turns the ISO to 1600. (Panasonic describe the effect as ‘blasted with sand’, which doesn’t say much for how they view the FS7’s ISO performance.) Note: I’m sure a lot of people will find these presets useful, but being a photographer by trade I’m genetically inclined to loath ‘scene modes’ for the dumbed-down, creativity-killing brain wasters that they are. I mean really, is it so hard to work out that using a flash won’t help to illuminate Sydney Harbour Bridge at night? Or that you turn up the ISO in dim light? Sigh. Ok, moving on...

‘Motion Picture’
The FS7 shoots motion picture with audio at three quality settings, the highest of which is 848 x 480 pixels (WVGA) with an aspect ratio of 16.9. The lower quality VGA (640 x 480 px) and QVGA (320x 240 px) are both shot with an aspect ratio of 4:3. Zoom and exposure are both fixed and stay the same from the point when the shutter is pressed. I’ve tested the video in WVGA mode only in a dimly lit room, and the quality is surprisingly good – crisp and clear, with good, accurately rendered colour and no discernable frame jerking. According to the manual the FS7 will record video to a maximum of 2 GB. Set to WVGA and with a 2 gig card in, our unit displayed an available recording time of over 16 minutes.

This is the bit where proper camera reviews usually insert loads of pictures of watchfaces and packets of coloured crayons blown up to 500%. You’ll have none of that here, I’m afraid; just a pro snapper and erstwhile magazine picture editor’s humble opinion, which is this: the FS7 produces damn fine photographs. An image stablised Leica lens with a sensible zoom range, that Venus IV engine proven in the LX3 and a conservative pixel count of 10 MP all count for something, and good old Panasonic know-how does the rest. The focal length (33mm to 132mm equiv) is sensible and comes in useful for everyday snapping, offers nothing special in terms of wide or tele capability. Personally I like point & shoot compacts to start wider, but that’s just me. What’s of more concern is that when zoomed in to the max the FS7’s aperture, which starts at a respectable f2.8, becomes limited to f5.9. It’s a good thing it has such good image stabilisation, or this could be limiting for unsteady hands in anything other than bright conditions. It also means you have to work hard to get any sort of selective focus / depth of field from the FS7. You have to be practically on top of your subject to get any real background blur. This works best in Macro mode, in which the lens will close-focus from around 3cm at its widest setting.

The FS7 offers ISO settings from 80-1600, and an Intelligent Auto ISO function which takes care of it for you, basing its decisions on light levels and subject movement, and allows you to set where it maxes out. Low ISO performance in particular is very impressive indeed for a camera of this size and price bracket. At ISO settings of 80, 100 and 200 resolution is eye-popping and images are flawless but for some rare instances of very subtle and near invisible yellow chroma noise in shadows at 200. At 400 edges do start to deteriorate slightly, but detail is still excellent and with noise manifesting only as a subtle ‘film-like’ grain I’d still happily use this setting for editorial photography without hesitation. At 800 the yellow chroma starts to become an issue, and at 1600 it’s everywhere, although still fine for casual snaps (incidentally the LX3 suffers from this yellow blotchiness at high ISO settings too, but not to the same degree as the FS7). At high ISO settings grain is fine, even and natural-looking. All in all an impressive little performer in low light conditions. I’ve posted some sample images on Flickr to give you a very rough idea if ISO performance. I know the samples are far from ideal and you can’t blow up the images, but its the best I can do for now (it’s the middle of the night here, I have no idea at all why I’m doing this). So anyway, for what it's worth:

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600 (note yellow chroma noise)

Good detail capture at ISO 200

Please note the images were hand held at shutter speeds of around 1/10 – 1/15 (it's late, I'm lazy) so probably best if you don’t use them as a benchmark for sharpness etc. As I said, far from ideal. I’m happy to whack up some better sample FS7 images later on if anyone’s interested.

White Balance
I’m afraid I haven’t had the opportunity to extensively test the WB settings on the FS7. In the short time we’ve had the camera we’ve left it in Auto White Balance mode, which after all is where the majority of users will leave it most of the time. AWB works well indoors and out, with tendency towards a slight yellow cast under artificial light (as you’ll see from the ISO samples I’ve linked to above). What’s most impressive is the White Balance Set function, which is tucked away in the main menu but works superbly. It’s very simple to use – just point the lens at a flat white or grey area, press the ‘set’ button and hey presto, you get a screenful of accurately rendered neutrals. On my Nikon D700 I take this sort of thing for granted, but on an ultra compact point & shoot it’s a treat. It’s a genuinely useful function, and I only hope that people who buy this camera take the trouble to utilise it.

Like everything on the FS7 the little built in flash is a no frills affair, but what it does it does well. In Normal Picture mode it has four settings – Auto, Auto with Red Eye Reduction, Forced Off, Forced On. I might be wrong, but it appears to be linked to scene recognition and calibrates its output accurately according to the subject. It will light up a small room if required, but a close-up portrait will receive a wonderfully subtle wash, producing great skin tone and keeping hot spots and ‘forehead bounce’ to a minimum. Likewise the classic sunset snapshots we tried produced good results, with the FS7 exposing correctly for the subject and the evening sky. This is just as well, as there no way to adjust flash output on this camera - it’s either on or off. Once again, point & shoot all the way.

Response times
Again, no scientific tests here but suffice to say that the FS7 feels satisfyingly quick off the mark whatever it’s doing. Flick the on switch and the dinky little lens is ready of action in about 1.5 seconds. Auto focusing is fast and reliable even in low light. When in Record mode, no matter where you are in the menu system a half press of the shutter release will bring you back to the shooting screen instantly, and while there’s a second’s delay on switching from Record to Review the more important return journey is much snappier. Zooming from wide to full tele takes around 3 seconds, and the manual lists the burst rate at 2.3fps.

Battery life
No cause for complaints so far - in fact it battery life seems very good considering how much we've been reviewing images on screen and mucking about with the flash. I really don't see this being an issue. (note: I previously mentioned here that the FS7 uses the same battery as the Panasonic LX3 - this is incorrect. They look almost identical, but are different units and only work in their respective cameras. Apologies if I got anyone's hopes up.)

“I just want something small that fits in my handbag, I want it to take great pictures with no fuss, I want it to look gorgeous and I want it to be easy to use” is what my undemanding girlfriend said as we headed out to the camera shops. With the FS7 she has pretty much got her wish. On paper there is nothing particularly noteworthy about this camera – no massive zoom or super wide angle, no wealth of photographic controls or mammoth pixel count – and yet as a fun, foolproof all-rounder for snappers who are fussy about end results and want more than just ‘record shots’ the FS7 will be hard to beat. This is pure, pared-down Panasonic, a lightweight pocket rocket reduced to the essence of the Lumix range, namely uncompromising image quality, intuitive controls, impressive high ISO performance and sexy, solid design. The way to get the most from the new generation of ‘intelligent’ ultra compacts is to know when when you can rely on them to think for themselves and when you need to intervene. When you do step in you don’t want to be fighting the camera for control. The FS7 can think for itself very well indeed, but it does not lock the user out of proceedings. In Normal Picture mode it encourages easy experimentation with all those ‘tweak’ functions (ISO, white balance, exposure compensation) which make a shot sing and help the user get the most from this camera’s considerable capabilities. On top of that the FS7 boasts some great little features – such as the choice of three aspect ratios, custom white balance and that instant IA button – that add to the impression that Panasonic have put a lot of thought into this great little camera. My girlfriend’s thrilled to bits with it, and she hasn’t even discovered the mode that makes her look thinner yet.

Superb image quality helped by Leica lens
Brilliant detail capture at low ISOs
Impressive high ISO performance
Effective image stabilization
Intuitive menu system
Uncluttered interface
Useful zoom range
Face detection AF mode works a treat
Handy ‘instant IA’ button
Effective Auto White Balance mode
White Balance Set function
Brilliant 2.7” LCD with useful ‘high angle view’ function
Choice of 3 aspect ratios
High quality video recording
Solid build and good ergonomics
Sophisticated looks (expecially in black)

Leica lens is no speed demon, offering just f5.9 at the long end
Wide angle limited to 33mm equiv.
No great shakes at selective focus
No flash compensation
Colour mode hidden in menus
Pointless Scene Modes
Slow shutter limited to 8 seconds (unless in Starry Sky scene mode)
No viewfinder

Once again I must apologise for the rather ad-hoc nature of this review. I ain’t no expert but hopefully this will be useful to someone, even if just to give people something to read until someone does a proper lab test. Over and out.