Not far to reach

On one of my first trips to New York, back in the early 90s, I stayed in a backpackers’ hostel in a brownstone on the upper West Side, 86th street I think. It was pretty basic, about 20 to a room, mostly young Europeans, but a good place to meet people. It had a nice big kitchen, which was down in the basement, but the building was on a hill, so the room still caught the sun through large windows which looked out on an overgrown garden.

One of my most vivid memories of that trip is standing at the stove late on a Sunday morning, frying hamburgers and eggs for breakfast, looking at the mural which occupied the whole of the wall behind the worn couches that made up the dining area. It was a seaside scene, with girls in bikinis and guys in bermuda shorts, lying on bright towels, drinking and smoking while the waves crashed on the shore, all done in a charmingly naive style, Outsider Art almost. Around the edge, forming a frame, were the lyrics to Rockaway Beach, by the Ramones, no strangers to the outsider tag themselves.

I never actually made it out to Rockaway, but ever since that day that image, and that song, have represented a platonic ideal of summer for me, a moment of uncomplicated pleasure frozen in time, out of focus, just out of reach, like a girl glimpsed through the haze of a hot day by the ocean.

This came to mind today when I heard the sad news that Tommy Ramone, last survivor of the original lineup, had passed away, another sign, if I needed it, that time keeps moving on.

That hostel is probably an upscale apartment building now, the mural long gone, my fellow travellers scattered around the world, to whatever fate life held for them. Places, people, experiences, all slip away, leaving only my memories, which will die with me. The Atlantic still washes the sand at Rockaway though, and I guess boys still listen to music and dream of days with their girl at the beach, so it’s hard to believe that those moments will be lost forever. It may be true that no one will ever stand in that kitchen again, seeing that picture just the way I saw it all those years ago, but I like to think that we are but temporary vessels for the common emotions of humanity, and that the kind of joy which rises in my heart when I remember that day will be around as long as there are people alive to feel it.

Social emotions

I’ve been feeling kinda bummed out over the last week or so; I had been putting it down to having to go to work in the nice weather, but now I’m wondering if it’s because Mark Zuckerberg’s minions have been editing all the fluffy kittens out of my Facebook feed in a deliberate attempt to make me miserable.

Ethical concerns aside (yes, they should have sought informed consent, but it’s hardly the Tuskegee Experiment), the study’s results are actually quite interesting; contrary to cynical expectations, seeing friends being happy increases contentment, rather than delivering a demoralising blow to self-esteem (as long as you accept the proposition that a person’s emotional state can be gauged by what they post on social networks).

On one level that’s good news; despite all the things one reads perhaps the average online citizen is not a completely terrible person after all. On the other hand it is a bit depressing to think that our emotions can be so easily manipulated, and a bit scary to imagine what might be done with that power, especially when one considers how secretive and unaccountable the likes of Google and Facebook are.

Now that thought’s got me down again. Perhaps this whole story is just part of some meta-study into how social media can really mess our heads up…

Always hopeful, yet discontent

Second Life made a rare appearance in the mainstream media this week, when the Guardian picked up the story of new Linden Lab head honcho Ebbe Altberg’s interview with TheNextWeb.

It’s been a while since I’ve had the energy to get interested in the internal world of the Lab, but one thing in the piece did catch my eye; Altberg’s announcement that SL will be relaunched on a new technological footing in the next year or two. Presumably they’ll be throwing out proprietary standards like prims and LSL, and replacing them with mesh and C, or whatever the rest of the industry is using these days. “We’re not going to constrain ourselves with backwards compatibility,” says Altberg, worryingly.

I guess this means that I’ll be waving goodbye to my little virtual house, and all my virtual possessions, and starting afresh in a virtual Year Zero. I’ve not paid attention to TOS developments for ages, but I vaguely remember “ownership” of land and objects in SL being redefined as a revocable licence to use the service, so when they take my stuff I’ll be due precisely no compensation. (Of course, as a hardcore communist who doesn’t believe in private property, I can’t really complain about this, but still, it’s a bit annoying).

I’m all for progress, but the fact is that it’s been the comforting stasis of Second Life, the calming respite from the uncertainties of reality, that has kept me paying my subscription over the last few years. If that goes I’m not sure that I’ll have a reason to stick around.

Oh well, as they say, changes aren’t permanent, but change is. I suppose I’ll adapt…

Playing History

I had planned to post a WW2-themed piece on the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings earlier this month, but for one reason and another I missed the deadline. I’ve another chance today though, since June 22nd marks the start of the other great Allied offensive of 1944; Operation Bagration, the Red Army’s drive into Belorussia, which destroyed an entire German army group and opened the way for the Soviet advance to Berlin.

Watching and reading the media coverage of the D-Day commemoration, I was struck by how the Second World War is now a properly historical event, with little more immediate emotional resonance for today’s generation than the Somme, or the Napoleonic wars, or Agincourt.

It was very different when I was young. Though the conflict had been over for a quarter century it was still a part of the live culture; in the films and programmes we watched on TV, in the comics we read, and in the games we played after school. Most of the boys preferred to be British commandos in our imaginary gun battles, though there were a few who were suspiciously OK with being Nazis. I was pretty much alone in wanting to be a Red Guard, so I usually ended up storming an imaginary Stalingrad single handed. When I was a little older I had a whole division of miniature T-34s which I would pitch against my friends’ Tigers and Panthers in epic reenactments of Kharkov and Kursk.

Of course in those days there were still a lot of people around with direct experience of the conflict; both of my grandfathers served overseas for most of the duration, and while they didn’t talk about it much it was one of their formative experiences. More importantly perhaps the Cold War had frozen Europe in 1945, and it wouldn’t thaw out until the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 80s, finally allowing Britain to start to move on from its imperial past.

I guess kids today still play WW2 video games, but I never see boys running around the neighbourhood pretending to shoot each other with Sten guns and Lugers like it really means something. Which is for the best I suppose, but I do think a childhood without toy tanks is probably missing something…

Jumpers for goalposts

In years gone by the opening of a major football tournament like the World Cup has seen us issue a (laughably inaccurate) prediction of the eventual winners, but this time round I’m boycotting the whole thing, in solidarity with the many, many citizens of Brazil who are deeply unhappy with the event.

It’s not that I believe in some sepia-toned past when the beautiful game was free of sordid commercial pressures, but the yawning gap between the vision of a universal celebration of sport and the reality of the poor being dispossessed so the rich can better enjoy the spectacle is just too much to ignore.

So no drinking beer in front of the TV for me this summer. I’ll see if anyone wants to have a kick-about in the park

Have Bong – Will Travel

It’s been a few years since we last posted a 4/20 piece, and in that time things have certainly been looking brighter for fans of the noble weed, thanks largely to the good citizens of Uruguay, Washington and Colorado.

Marijuana has been on sale in the Centennial State for nearly four months now, and, contrary to the predictions of the prohibitionists, it has yet to descend into a orgy of drug-fuelled madness. Add in the fact that the tills have been ringing pretty much non-stop since the start of January and the pro-legalisation case begins to look unanswerable. Sure, the federal government still officially frowns on the trade, but they have agreed to turn a blind eye to banks doing business with dope dealers, suggesting that they know that legal pot is here to stay.

Or there to stay at least; sadly there is no sign that progressive change in the drug laws will be happening in this country any time soon. I guess I’ll just have to pack my bags and plan a trip to the Mile-High City

Forty Years Of Insularity

I’d like to be able to join in the tributes to the late Gabriel García Márquez by quoting passages from his works that have inspired me, but the sad truth is that, while I have of course heard of him, and I am familiar with his critical reputation, I have never actually got round to reading any of his books. I’ve pretty much completely avoided magical realism in fact; Angela Carter, Juan Rulfo, not much else.

This rather embarrassing lapse has prompted me to reflect on how anglocentric my reading habits are. How many translated works have I read? There are the ancient classics – Homer, Ovid, Virgil, some other Greeks and Romans. Skip a millennium to Dante and Cervantes, then another gap to the 19th Century; quite a lot of Russian stuff – Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov – Flaubert, Zola. Into the 20th Century there’s Kafka, Hesse. Nothing I can think of post-war though.

This is most unsatisfactory. The cultural life of entire peoples is literally a closed book to me. Inexcusable, in an age where just about any volume is available at the click of a button, but unlikely to change, since I’m already well behind with my list of English must-reads, and new stuff comes out all the time. I will try to tackle One Hundred Years of Solitude this summer though; Márquez did win the Nobel Prize, so I guess it might be worth my time…

This “Internet” thing might catch on

It’s a quarter of a century since Tim Berners-Lee submitted his proposal for what became the World Wide Web; I got on board in 1996 via a 14.4 modem, Compuserve, Netscape Navigator and Geocities, but it wasn’t until May of 2007 that the medium finally reached its full potential with the debut of Second Life Shrink. I think it’s fair to say that there have been no significant developments in online culture since then, but we’re working on it…

Pete Seeger RIP

I have to admit that I’m not a huge fan of folk music, (though I did enjoy Inside Llewyn Davis on a rare trip to the cinema this weekend) but I was sad to hear that Pete Seeger had passed away today, at the grand old age of 94. His songs seemed to soundtrack much of US radical politics in the last 70 years, from pre-war labour struggles, through McCarthy witch-hunts, civil rights marches and anti-war movements, right up to the Occupy protests of the last few years.

I’m not sure that the protest ballad as a cultural form is quite so popular on this side of the Atlantic, but hearing Seeger deliver a fine old union song like Which Side Are You On? certainly still rouses some revolutionary fervour.

2013: The Year in Review – Part 1: Culture

After my poor showing on the cultural front in 2012 I set myself some rather modest targets for this year; every month get two new records, read two new books, and see two new films. How hard could that be? Harder than I thought evidently.

I didn’t do too badly with music, managing to acquire 30 albums, mostly new stuff, and getting along a few live shows too.

Here’s this year’s mix tape (and here it is on Spotify, with a couple of substitutions for tracks that aren’t available):

Untitled 28 – The Twilight Sad (Killed My Parents and Hit the Road)
Nil - The Twilight Sad (No One Can Ever Know)
Holy – Frightened Rabbit (Pedestrian Verse)
Xcommunication – My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult (I See Good Spirits And I See Bad Spirits)
Girls Are The New Boys – Saloon ((This Is) What We Call Progress)
Partners in Crime – The Strokes (Comedown Machine)
Subway – Yeah Yeah Yeahs (Mosquito)
S.O.S. In Bel Air – Phoenix (Bankrupt!)
Husbands – Savages (Silence Yourself)
Magic Bullet – Wire (Change Becomes Us)
W/ Glass In Foot – Guided By Voices (English Little League)
Turn Each Other Inside Out – Primal Scream (More Light)
I Sat By The Ocean – Queens of the Stone Age (Like Clockwork)
Bad For My Body – Deap Vally (Sistrionix)
Bagboy – Pixies (Bagboy)
Tomorrow Tomorrow – Eleanor Friedberger (Personal Record)
Athsma Attack – The Fiery Furnaces (Gallowsbird’s Barkl)
Navy Nurse – The Fiery Furnaces (Widow City)
Canary Island – Houndstooth (Ride Out The Dark)
Morningstar – Grant Hart (The Argument)
Low F – Superchunk (I Hate Music)
Pandora’s Box – Throwing Muses (Throwing Muses)
Hitch – Speedy Ortiz (Major Arcana)
State Of Mine – Sebadoh (Defend Yourself)
Joan Of Arc – Arcade Fire (Reflektor)
Opiates – Throwing Muses (Purgatory/Paradise)
No Shelter – Blouse (Imperium)
Turning Violent – The Flaming Lips (The Terror)
I Need My Girl – The National (Trouble Will Find Me)
Only Tomorrow – My Bloody Valentine (mbv)

I’d have to admit that my musical tastes haven’t changed much in the last 20 years, hence the somewhat retro look of the above selection. My favourite album of the year – Major Arcana by Speedy Ortiz – is a new band’s debut, but the sound is distinctly 90s. Similarly the concerts I attended – Pixies, The Breeders – had a definite nostalgic edge.

It’s downhill from here I’m afraid. I only managed eight full-length novels, though in my defence I would say that I was on a bit of a modernist binge, and books like Gravity’s Rainbow, To the Lighthouse and Umbrella take a while to get through. Rewarding though, and in particular I found Will Self’s tale of psychiatric exploration and wartime loss both structurally intriguing and professionally fascinating, which made it my favourite read this year. In lieu of serious literature I did consume a lot of shorter pieces; reviews, essays, medical and political articles, and rather too many blog posts and other bits of online trivia. I like to think that this is a reflection of the fragmented nature of contemporary cultural discourse, but it probably has more to do with my ageing brain’s declining attention span.

My cinematic experience was similarly underwhelming; I just about managed one film a month. Behind the Candelabra was probably the best of these, and I also liked Before Midnight, though it wasn’t quite as enjoyable as the previous instalments in the series.

So, pass marks for music, but could do better for books and movies. Will things improve over the next twelve months? I’m not sure that I’ll see more films, since I seem to have lost my old cinema habit, but I have bought a few volumes that were on the critics’ “Best of 2013″ lists, so I might catch up on current literary trends, albeit a year behind. We’ll see.

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