Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Desperate Tories Have Sunk To A New Low

For about a week now, the Tories have been trying to smear Jeremy Corbyn, not with some sort of misjudgment from his past, but with an absolute lie. Their sponsors in the right-wing press made up a story saying that he had been a communist spy, based on the fact that someone he had once met had included him on a list of people he claimed, falsely, to have recruited as spies.

There is absolutely no truth to this, and every informed source has stated so, including the foremost specialist in the Czech Security Service archives.

Nevertheless, the Tories are not going to let it go. They are stuck in the belief that if they can spread doubts and repeat a lie often enough, there are enough idiots who will believe it.

The Tory vice-chair, a loud-mouthed braggart with the sneer of a street racist, has had to pay legal costs and a “substantial” sum to charity after repeating the lie on his Twitter feed. Still the Tory scum are pushing the lie. [1 WARNING! Links to The Sun] [2 WARNING! Links to The Telegraph]

However, it is heartening to see that the British press is not without honourable representatives. I have had harsh thoughts about Andrew Neil in the past. There is little doubt that he is no friend of the Labour Party, but he has shown his journalistic credentials on this issue and gained my respect. Watch with pleasure as a snide Tory creep is skewered by Neil, as the journalist insists upon the truth over grotesque falsehood.

As ever, Jeremy Corbyn has responded to a ridiculous situation with calm, dignity and a rigid adherence to fact and good judgement. Murdoch and Rothermere fear rational, fact-based government in this country: they’ve had their own way for decades and they want to keep us desperate, divided and panic-stricken, chasing our tails over their lies. Corbyn threatens that.

For a broad discussion of the issue of political smears by tax-exile billionaires, the following embed, from the James O’Brien LBC radio show, is worth a listen.



Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Dowland’s Dole

The Excellent Composer of the Week is often surprising and has been a source of new (to me) music for many years. I haven’t been listening to Radio 3 all that much over the past few months, but I had the car this morning and, on the way home, put the radio on. I discovered that this week’s composer is John Dowland, the gloomy, lutey Elizabethan song writer.

Donald Macleod is very good at weaving biography, criticism and explanation of a composer’s art into a unified story: each week’s programmes provide a quite thorough education in a particular artist’s work and life, but also the times in which they lived. The programmes work as entertainment, history and as musical education. I enjoyed the week on Satie last year, and was introduced to Bill Evans by an earlier series.

Dowland’s most famous song, Flow My Tears, was the inspiration for a Philip K. Dick novel title, and is a very beautiful song. I hadn’t really explored much beyond that song, as so many of his near contemporaries composed music which I found more engaging: Purcell, Byrd and Tallis for instance. If you have a spare quarter of an hour, try clicking on the tunes embedded below, to see why.

Click on the image for a Youtube video of seven tracks from the album.

However, in 2006, Sting released an album of Dowland’s songs which, not being sung in the counter-tenor voice, revealed a richness and depth which traditional performances have obscured for me. Apparently, it is much-derided by cognoscenti, but I am not such a rarefied listener: to me, it is a lovely album and Sting’s voice, which can sound a little affected singing contemporary music, matches the slightly hokey, wholemeal lyricism of Dowland’s songs exquisitely. It’s a pity about his readings of Dowland’s letters that punctuate the album, but I have even got used to those over time.

Thanks to the album, the songs have got into me, and I can listen to more ‘authentic’ recordings with pleasure, although I still love Sting’s interpretations.

In Composer of the Week, Macleod is addressing Dowland in the context of his legacy and the inspiration he has provided for later composers. I’ve only listened to a bit of the third episode, so far, but have downloaded the first two to the BBC app on my phone so that I can listen to them as I cook tonight and over the next few nights. Dowland was a miserable bugger, but seemed to be happy that way and his pessimism was defied by his longevity and eventual success. Macleod tells the story of his life with detached good humour.

The programmes finish on Friday, go up on Iplayer as soon as they have been broadcast and are available for twenty eight days afterwards.


Thursday, 15 February 2018

My Recent Reading Backlog 1

I haven’t kept up with my book reviews, which is a shame, as I found they helped me to read a little more seriously and closely, and I enjoyed writing them. However, I haven’t stopped reading, just got bogged down in work and life and all that stuff.

Anyway, I have kept notes on some books, and I mean to catch up on some of them, and post reviews of the ones which have stuck with me. This is the first, of a book I read back in the Autumn.

All Our Wrong Todays, by Elan Mastai

Middle-of-the-road story addict that I am, I still love to be moved by a book’s prose style. It’s hard to write an extended literary work in graceful prose, which is why most commercial novelists don’t even try. Modern American (or, in this case, Canadian) writers tend to adopt a voice that is accessible and contributes to character and their setting and let the pleasure stem from the storytelling. Many American novelists are, after all, temporarily embarrassed screenwriters, so story is all, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.

So, although I objected to Charlie Jane Anders Californinetworking voice at the beginning of All The Birds In The Sky, I came to see that it was appropriate to the story she was telling and the social milieu she was painting. She was writing in the third person though, so it took longer to fit the voice to the world, and by the time she had, I was emotionally attached to her characters and absorbed in her vivid and subtly-hued world. Elan Mastai is writing in the first person, and his voice is all about the immediate grab. His narrative character is a slacker, who starts off whiny and just gets more and more ’90s indie kid clichéd, and he wore on me throughout the book.

I mean, seriously, Dude, I get it. You’ve like, wiped out your whole, like world, to get back at your dad. Jeeze! I mean; just get over yourself.

That sort of thing.

It does its job, but it’s not Trainspotting, in which a vernacular becomes poetic: in All Our Lost Todays, the narrative voice is workaday and a little annoying. It certainly serves to push the story forward, but at the expense of relish. At times it even feels (dare I say it?), like formulaic character construction, as though a checklist of necessary qualities is being slogged through to establish the central conflict (Screenwriting for Beginners; pp 78-102).* It feels, as Tom Barren, the narrative character, would say, phony.

Fortunately, Mastai is telling such a great story that the stylistic caveats cease to matter after a while. The initial conceit is strong enough: it is the idea of a world that conforms to yesterday’s vision of the world of tomorrow. It is the same idea that Umberto Eco explores in The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, which I mentioned in my last reading post, and which I must reread. It is the glimpse of Utopia in the covers of ‘50s SF magazines: the effortless world, in which beauty and technology merge in a seamless, sunlit conformity. There are flying cars, clothes that manufacture themselves at the wearer’s bidding, entirely safe sleep and mood control, and everybody is employed in self-realisation and societal improvement.

There is also an (apparently) evil genius, in the figure of the hero’s father, whose focus is time travel. Barren senior is driven to emulate the achievements of the founding genius of this utopia, Lionel Goettreider, who, in 1965, invented a limitless source of energy: the Goettreider Engine.

All the SF concepts in this book are perfectly described. Mastai’s defining talent is imaginative thoroughness. I was blown away by his rationales of time travel: they appeared, to me, faultless. The main event of the book is the calamitous historical change Tom causes when he activates his father’s time machine in a fit of pique. However, later in the book, he is forced to revert from his altered world back by a different process and comes to understand more about the possible futures that are, effectively, competing to exist. Three potential hims fight to shape the outcome of the crucial historical moment around which their futures pivot and the battle reflects the moral natures of their respective realities.

In two key passages, Mastai sums up this struggle for existence when he defines ideology, first in relation to his original utopia, and then in the context of his depiction of the today of reality.

The existential difference between my world and this world is that where I come from the because is self-evident – just look around. No one needed to ask why. The answer was obvious. We were happy. Our purpose was to keep it going and, if we had some way to contribute, make it incrementally better for those who would follow us, just as those who preceded us had.

Yes, I understand that’s a pretty good working definition of ideology – a belief system so immersive that it renders questions unquestionable.

‘This world’ – the world of ‘today’, may not have flying cars or unlimited energy, but it does have, in Tom Barren’s view, a sense of striving. Towards the end, Barren reflects on ideology again, and on how the perfection of his original world – the apparent utopia – had a blindness:

It was like our collective imagination stopped revising the idea of what civilisation could be, fixed a definitive model in place, and set to work making it happen. It was the world we were supposed to have. And so there was no reason to consider any other world.

This is a pretty clever book, on quite a few levels, not least that it is a satisfying and pacy romp, once you get past the irritating voice, and that quibble may well just be me. In fact, looking at the many ecstatic reviews online, I suspect it is. All the same, I have mixed feelings about it. I am almost tempted to give it a skull emblem on my index of reviews, although that feels mean: this is, clearly, the product of a great deal of work by a creative and conscientious writer whose moral preoccupations seem to overlap my own, but it is also a book which, I think, makes some ethical errors. For instance, there are two nasty rapes, justified because they trail the existence of a plot element that crops up in the novel’s resolution, but which I had trouble integrating into my view of the essential decency of the lead character. You’ll have to read it to see what I mean, as that last sentence almost clangs, because of the extremity of its subject. Ultimately, I think he tried a daring plot device and failed, for me, to pull it off.

At the very end of the book, Tom says, “We need new futures,” and I agree with the sentiment. I just hope they’re not futures shaped exclusively by white North-Amercan hipster screen-writers.

*I made this up.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Algia Mae Hinton

I was saddened to read this morning of the death of Algia Mae Hinton, the piedmont blues guitarist and singer, whose album, Honey Babe, I have embedded here.

I bought Honey Babe several years ago from Bandcamp, and it has become a favourite. Through purchasing it, I learned of the work of the Music Maker Relief Foundation, which supports musicians from the American folk traditions who have made some of the purest of American art, without seeing much profit from their creativity. Ms Hinton’s page on the foundation’s website is here.

Have a click on the album embed above and, if you like it, buy a copy. At the same time, if you can spare $5 or so, or even a little more, please donate to the GoFundMe appeal to cover Ms Hinton’s funeral costs.

Image copyright: 2000 Scott Sharpe, Raleigh News & Observer

There is a very affecting profile of Ms Hinton in the local paper of her city, Raleigh, North Carolina, here, published last year. It describes a difficult life, but a life well lived. Reading it, I regretted that I had not clicked on the ‘contact the artist’ link on Ms Hinton’s Bandcamp page, and told her how much her album means to me.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Sticking My Nose In The Nutmeg Pot

I have been back at work for a month and, in any other year, I think Christmas would have been largely forgotten by this point. This year, though, even as we enter February and we begin to notice that nightfall is getting later, I am nagged by a lingering nostalgia for my Christmas holidays. I keep bringing it up in conversation, this sense of a break, not just from work, but from the dull trudge of life itself, as if some spell was cast around our lives for a fleeting, precious fortnight.

My parents had said that they wanted Christmas alone, to celebrate my father having had a year without needing hospital treatment. In the week before the Christmas holidays, my boss had cancelled classes for training and paperwork which, in the end, amounted to only one day’s compulsory attendance, so there was a lazy week running up to the break. Thus, time between my last class of 2017 and the first class of 2018 was, unofficially, my own. Best of all, the holiday itself was calendrically perfect. Christmas day was a Monday, so we had a clear week off: a weekend, followed by a week, then another weekend and a bank holiday Monday before I had to return to teaching. It felt like the ur-holiday: the holiday upon which all holidays should be patterned.

I did not read or write, other than four blog posts. Instead, I listened to Harry Potter audiobooks as I cooked, or sat staring out of the window, or as I walked the dog.

Tia sniffing, as she does.

I walked the dog a lot. I loaded her into the car and took her to Firestone Copse, where I let her run gleefully through the woods as I ambled in an autonomous daze on the circuit round the main path, letting Stephen Fry’s beautiful reading of Rowling’s richly layered fantasy insulate me from any serious thought. I puffed on my vape and enjoyed bright cold or grey drizzle in the same steady happiness.

“The sodden meadow and the grey arc of the Medina”.

Amanda stayed busy, and was often out, buying stuff or meeting friends or family. When she had the car I took Tia through the new estate at the top of East Cowes, out of town to Whippingham village, and then along the footpath behind the church, and over the stile into the farm by the river. There I could let Tia off her lead and walk across the sodden meadow, staring down at the grey arc of the river Medina, while Harry, Ron and Hermione puzzled over the escape of Sirius Black. Tia ran great, delighted circles in the long, rough grass, stopping only to come running up to me, to collect a treat, before haring away again.

At the far end of that field is another stile into another field and, at that one’s far end is the wood with the demolished factory site, fenced off because of contamination. The woods have a poisoned character; bewitched by their pollution, but there is a path through them that leads to the road down to the Folly Inn. On a particularly heavily-clouded, drizzly morning, I went through the woods with Tia and we walked down to the pub. Inside, the pre-Christmas weekday feeling was like manufactured cosiness: I bought a pint and Tia sat beneath my chair as I drank it, lost to real life.

One afternoon, in the week before the official start of the holidays, when my boss had let me know that I could work from home, I finished updating a load of student folders and took Tia out in the mid-afternoon, with perhaps an hour and a half of daylight left. We walked along the top of the new estate, and I intended to go along to the Whippingham field, but as I crossed the road at the far end of the estate, I looked back and realised that there was a path down the final street, behind the line of trees that marks the edge of the housing before the new road. A woman was walking a dog there, and I noticed, for the first time, that the houses, modern and cramped as they are, are built in the style of Georgian town houses, in a sort of model-village style. I was intrigued. I walked back and took the dog down the road that the woman had come from, imagining that there was a village, with life and interest here, rather than a dormitory development of off-the-shelf compartment houses for people who never interacted.

The terrifying sterility and isolation-in-a-crowd nature of the estate is belied by some clever but deceptive design. There is a fake village green, around which some fake-georgian terraced houses with attic room gables are painted in various ‘authentic’ colours, but the residents have already let the upkeep slide, so that mould is showing on the fascia and soffits, and the blue-painted houses, in particular, are looking weathered. And, apart from the occasional dog-walker, there is no one about. This is an estate designed for driving to and from. You have your allotted parking spaces and you lock your door, and you live your life away from the place where you live. There are no shops, no pubs, no church or community centre. The estate is a lot of bedrooms and TV rooms. The closest thing to a community facility are the construction business offices: Barratts, Wilson Homes and one other, whose name escapes me, maintain showrooms there, to persuade people to make their homes in this abandonded filmset of a non-community.

Harry Potter seemed to suit this bizarre environment perfectly. The place is the Muggle state in redbrick, render and wood-frame. It is even less life-enhancing than Little Whinging, in that most of the houses here do not have gardens. They have strips, with pots. There is quite a lot of artificial grass.

I became a little fascinated with the area.

Further down the new road, as it bends back along the bottom of the estate, and follows the river back towards East Cowes, there is a small development of ‘self-build’ plots. These challenge the uniformity of the rest of the estate with an alternative conformity of cuboid grandiosity, all cladding and glass. At dusk and after dark, the lives within the ones which have been completed and are occupied are on display to every passerby. You have to remind yourself that these are private dwellings, and it is rude to look, because their lights seeps out across the road, like pollution. Wall-mounted TVs of migraine-inducing vastness make it appear as though the flatpack palaces are inhabited by two-dimensional giants. The people within might be projections; a new Google project of a pixelated populace: Homo Alexa.

At the end of the self-build development there is one house, not yet complete, that defies the pattern, in detail if not in dimensions. Like all the others, it is a vast, three storey block, occupying the entire space of its uniform plot, except for the obligatory multiple car parking space that replaces any garden. However, instead of the wall of windows, it is plain-fronted, with a long, Elizabethan-style gable of nine small windows. It is strange and rather beautiful, this defiance of the Grand Designs norm. It hints at a shadowed interior lit by reading lights and standard lamps, rather than LED spots: dark wood pannelling and bookshelves rather than magnolia paint and flatscreen hugeness.

We walked on. The elite section, with the self build plots, is bounded on its far end by a large area of grass and woods, creating a break between that odd island of conformist creativity and the brick homogeneity of the rest of the estate. A drainage ditch that will probably be known as ‘the stream’ by generations of children who grow up in the area runs round the edge of the wood. There is litter in there: a plastic barrier section, and a fire extinguisher: barbed wire that the builders didn’t bother to remove trails through the undergrowth. I let Tia off and she disappeared into the woods. On my headphones, Harry, Ron and Hermione heard the execution of Buckbeak in horror.


Over the following week, I explored the estate. I tried to get out of the house by about half past three, although I was not putting my watch on most days, so got it wrong sometimes. Some days I took Tia out on my own, and on a few days Amanda was free and would come with me, and we might go up to Carisbrooke Castle or to Firestone Copse, but I kept drifting back to the estate. Darkness fell by four thirty, and I often walked in the dark, although I liked to be home by five, ideally, to start supper, with Stephen Fry transferred to the bluetooth speaker in the kitchen.

On New Year’s Eve, Amanda and I took a walk and I tried to explain my fascination with the place. We walked around the estate on the route I had taken on my first exploration, then, as I had done on that first occasion, we let Tia off her lead to run in the woods. Amanda became nervous when Tia didn’t come back after five minutes, so we walked around the edge of the woods, to the top, where the bottom of the main estate reaches. Tia appeared, bounding ecstatically up to us, her ears flying behind her and, instead of going back down to the bottom road, along the Medina, through the new road that is as yet undeveloped, we walked up through the middle of the estate.

Amanda’s not a Harry Potter fan, and is amused and slightly embarrassed by my enthusiasm for it, but, in the gathering dark, she listened sympathetically to my explanation of how the events of the audiobooks had laid themselves into my memories of the estate. I was close to the end of The Goblet of Fire by now, and the wonderful sense of time passing, and events piling up like lived memory that is such a strength of the series, had taken full hold of me. We held hands, in thick gloves, and our conversation drifted. We were gearing ourselves to go out for the night, which we both knew we would enjoy, but which felt like hard work just then. Neither of us was eager to get home, to get dressed and ready to go out, or to be sociable. We were savouring one another, reflecting on the lazy week we had shared and wishing that life could be like this all the time.

It was, though, a wonderful evening. Several of our friends were planning to give up alcohol for 2018. I had drunk steadily through the holiday, usually having a first whisky as I cooked and drinking a couple of cans of beer through the evening, so I was planning to do dry January. New Years Eve was, therefore, a blowout. Amy, a dear friend of Amanda’s and the wife of my friend Andy, was on particularly fine form; her gift for acerbic comedy at its sharpest. We had planned to get home early, because we were worried about fireworks disturbing Tia and the cat, but we stayed until two, playing a card game that I had not heard of before, but which suits the sort of vulgar humour we enjoy with our friends.

In the morning, I was hungover. Not blindly, agonisingly hungover, but low-battery and grateful for Amanda’s painkiller stash. We had arranged for Amanda’s parents to visit for lunch and so I cooked and she cleaned and we had a very nice lunch. In the afternoon, Amanda’s sister and her partner came round and we all sat in the sitting room, drinking tea and chatting. The afternoon drew on and we realised Tia needed a walk. I got my coat, scarf, hat and gloves on and left the warm family gathering to take her out.

We walked up to the rec, by the old estate, onto which the new one, which had been my weird stomping ground for the past week, has been grafted. Harry Potter was in the maze, on the final challenge of the Triwizard Tournament, still trusting the fake Mad-eye Moody, being drawn towards his nemesis and the final destruction of his childhood innocence. Half in Hogwarts, half in East Cowes, I pulled Tia into the old estate, finding my way through streets that I hadn’t visited yet, of well-established houses, with some tidy front gardens, some messy; with cars on blocks and bicycles leaning against front walls; some litter, some mess, but the clutter of an established community. I got a little lost, finding my way down a street that ended in a communal car park and a wall and retraced my steps, passing an old victorian house outside which a discrete noticeboard advertised that it serves as a residential home for people recovering from substance abuse. There was a brightly lit kitchen with posters and artwork tacked all round it, but no one there. All the same, it looked warm, protective, loving.

The road bent round, but an unpaved alley led up to the main road, Beatrice Avenue. I took the alley, which was lined with winter-bare trees, and Tia sniffed her way along it, pulling at her lead, enjoying the rich stench of litter and leaf moss. As the view ahead cleared, I could see across the field beyond, up towards Osborne House Park and, slightly dimmed by a streetlamp, a glorious moon dominated the sky. Remus Lupin leapt into my thoughts, but so did the love by which I am surrounded and the sheer luck I enjoy, to be alive, housed, married to Amanda, free to take the time to daydream and waste my consciousness on a silly fantasy like the Harry Potter books. The awareness that I would be returning to work the next day had been playing on me, but it suddenly seemed less of a hardship, and more like a privilege. I stopped to take some photos, struggling with gloves, pockets, and Tia’s excited rummaging, and these were the shaky results.




Last night, a Saturday night, the night after the first full moon since New Year and a month into my back at work routine, I made soup. I had finished the Harry Potter audiobooks in the second week of January and resisted the urge to go back to the beginning or start reading the books again. Instead, I was listening to a recording of The Daughter of Time, by Jospehine Tey, from iplayer, beautifully read by Paul Young.

The soup was just about ready, the bread baked. I was tasting and seasoning and I grated some nutmeg into the pan. As I do with spices, I sniffed the nutmeg pot as I put the clove back and something about the smell seemed to stop time. I was a month back, and the Christmas holiday flashed across my inner eye like a tapestry suddenly lit up: the memory of discovering the strange estate on the edge of my hometown; the precious comfort of Christmas Eve, decorating the tree with Amanda, the smell of a glass of whisky and a lit fire; the peace of walking home from midnight mass at one o’clock on Christmas morning; watching the new Star Wars with Iain and Jo and enjoying their friendship; the feeling of wet clothes and waterlogged ground underfoot as I trudged across the field behind Whippingham Church.

I had tears in my eyes. I thought to myself, “I’m happy”, and it seemed like a weird condition, although I do not think of myself as an unhappy person. I took the food through to Amanda, but couldn’t find a way to tell her what had just happened to me. It didn’t matter: it was good soup, and to enjoy a meal with her, in front of the fire, with the dog sleeping in the corner, was enough.

All was well.