Long to reign over us

Around 5.30 this evening Queen Elizabeth II became the United Kingdom’s longest-reigning monarch, beating the 63-and-a-bit years managed by her great-great-grandmother Victoria. She shows no signs of flagging, so the second Elizabethan age is likely to run for a while longer, much to the chagrin of republicans like myself.

It’s easy to view British royalty as a quaint and essentially harmless anachronism, given that Elizabeth has largely refrained from directly interfering in politics, and the country is effectively a typical bourgeois democratic republic, but I think that underestimates the extent to which the institution of the monarchy underpins the conservative structure of our political culture. There is a big psychological difference between being a subject and being a citizen, and the deference to authority that is inherent in a monarchical system is a major barrier to progressive change.

Generations have grown up seeing Elizabeth on the throne as a fact of life, and her longevity has meant that the patent ridiculousness of choosing a head of state by bloodline hasn’t been a live political issue in recent years. Even queens are mortal though, and some day the country will have to consider whether the royal charade should go on. I can’t believe that the succession, when it comes, will be a smooth one; surely reason will prevail and Elizabeth will go down in history as not only our longest-serving monarch, but also our last one.

They were defeated, we won the war

The Battle of Waterloo took place 200 years ago today, and the anniversary has been marked with varying degrees of enthusiasm across Europe; here in the UK we have had reenactments and services of thanksgiving, while the French, perhaps unsurprisingly, have more or less ignored it.

Napoleon’s final defeat is generally remembered, in this country at least, as a stirring British victory over French tyranny; this overlooks the fact that, over the course of the Napoleonic wars, Britain contributed relatively little to the fighting on the ground, preferring to subsidise continental allies. Napoleon was undone by his disastrous campaign in Russia, and his real climatic defeat came at the Battle of Leipzig; the 100 days leading up to Waterloo was just a bloody coda.

It’s understandable that the British establishment, facing present-day worries about its place in Europe, should turn to the past for comfort. At the time of the battle the UK was little over a century old; Wellington’s victory cemented the nation and ushered in an era of British dominance that didn’t begin to falter until the First World War.

Whatever one thinks of Napoleon, the defeat of the French Republic at the hands of an alliance of monarchies was hardly a victory for progress. The Congress of Vienna saw the Bourbons restored in France, and entrenched absolutism across the continent, hastening the rise of Prussia and setting the scene for the tragic century that was to follow.

The ideals of the revolution could not be held down though. It wasn’t long before the French people rose again, and after years of struggle, a Second Empire, and another war against the Prussians, they were eventually done with kings for good. The Paris Commune, cruelly suppressed by the bourgeois counter-revolution, was the high point of this period, and is still inspirational today.

So perhaps the French, who, in my experience, know their history very well, are right to be ambivalent about Waterloo. The Ancien Régime can win a battle, but the war goes on.

Smoking up

It’s 4/20 again, and it’s good to see that the tide of marijuana legalisation seems unstoppable, in the US at least.

Sadly there’s no sign that any of the big parties contesting the election over here are going to make freeing the weed a major part of their platforms. This might be a missed opportunity; in a close race the stoner vote could just swing it. Assuming they get it together enough to turn out…

2014: The Year in Review – Part 1: Culture

Back in January I took the momentous decision to stop buying CDs, and start downloading music instead. (I am aware that downloading is passé, and streaming is where it’s at, but give me some credit for finally leaving the 1980s and catching up with the 21st century.) I’ve also been listening to the radio a lot more, mostly BBC 6, and the combined result has been that I’ve got into a lot of new artists, rediscovered some old favourites, and acquired loads of records this year. Far too many to list here (they’re all on my Culture Tumblr if you’re interested), so I’ll just feature the best tracks from my ten favourite albums, in no particular order:

Moaning Lisa Smile – Wolf Alice (Creature Songs)
An Ocean In Between The Waves – The War On Drugs (Lost In The Dream)
Your Love is Killing Me – Sharon Van Etten (Are We There)
We Are Coming Back – Marissa Nadler (July)
Can’t Be Too Responsible – Avi Buffalo (At Best Cuckold)
Woke Up In My Future – Haley Bonar (Last War)
Love Song – Dawn Landes (Bluebird)
Different Days – The Men (Tomorrow’s Hits)
White Fire – Angel Olsen (Burn Your Fire For No Witness)
Forgiveness – Bob Mould (Beauty & Ruin)

I managed to get out to see more live music this year too, from the relatively new (Speedy Ortiz) to the somewhat older (Television) but my favourite show was living legend Bob Mould, still as electrifying (and as loud) as when I first saw him in Hüsker Dü back in my student days.

Book-wise, I’ve been reading a lot of history, specifically 18th and 19th century military history, from the Seven Years War to the Franco-Prussian War. I was fairly familiar with the political history of this period already, but it’s always good to remind oneself that outcomes that seem inevitable in retrospect are often contingent on the actions of fallible individuals.

On the fiction front my main project was another attempt at Proust’s In Search of Lost Time – I managed two volumes, which is twice as far as I’ve got in the past, and I’m going to dive back into The Guermantes Way next month. I read a few more contemporary novels too, but nothing terribly memorable.

My favourite book of the year however was a piece of non-fiction from 1984; Janet Malcolm’s In the Freud Archives, a masterful and darkly humorous deconstruction of narcissism in the world of psychoanalysis.

I’m still not going to the cinema much. I seem to have completely fallen out of love with the whole medium; I hardly ever read the movie reviews these days, so I can’t even fake opinions on what’s been showing. I did see one great film this year though; Inside Llewyn Davis by the Coen brothers, who can always be relied upon to spin a slender narrative into something deeper. I found the title character particularly affecting, perhaps because I can identify with a man who can’t quite give up on his dreams, even though he knows that to compromise would make him happier, or at least unhappy in a more bearable way.

So there you have it, my year of culture, such as it was. I have, of course, skirted around the mass of low culture I consumed, in the form of YouTube binges (Russian dashcam videos a particular favourite), listicles, and other mindless internet ephemera, which wasted countless hours of my life that I’m never going to get back. It’s the general trajectory of our information-overload society I guess. I will try to be a little more highbrow next year…

Turn The Season

Well, that’s midwinter past (though, interestingly, the mornings will keep getting darker for a while yet), and Christmas is upon us, so I guess it’s time to come out of hibernation and start thinking about reviewing the year gone by. Though there’s surely time for a few beers and a mince pie or two before I get down to work…

(Here’s a song link, something we haven’t had for ages.)

That TV show you like is going to come back in style

One of our most-read posts over the years is this one from 2010, reflecting on the cultural and personal impact of David Lynch’s seminal 90s TV series Twin Peaks. Readers familiar with the themes we keep returning to in this blog will be unsurprised to learn that I was a big fan of the show, which originally aired when I was a student, and which provided the fuel for hours of late-night, drug-enhanced discussion in my social circle. I even travelled to the Pacific Northwest to visit Snoqualmie, where much of it was filmed. (In true Lynchian spirit I went hiking in the snowy woods outside of town, and nearly froze to death, though I never did find the Black Lodge, or run into Laura Palmer.)

You may think then that I would be excited by the news this week that Lynch is revisiting Twin Peaks, with the long-awaited third series due to appear in 2016. I suppose that I am, but there is some trepidation too – I know that, however good the new episodes might be, I’m likely to be disappointed, because it’s not 1990, and I’m no longer a 20-something student with nothing better to do than sit up all night smoking dope and obsessing over an ephemeral cultural artefact. My enjoyment of the show will inevitably be clouded by the feelings of loss I harbour for the potential of my youth.

Then again, loss and dislocation were central to the original Twin Peaks, and the renewed narrative may well pick up on these themes in a way that will beguile me like it did all those years ago. I guess I’ll just have to stock up on coffee and cherry pie, and sit down to see how it plays out…

In search of lost paperbacks

I don’t, as a rule, re-read books; life is short, and I’ll be doing well if I get through a fraction of the tomes in the Western Canon, let alone make a start on world literature, so there’s no time to go over old ground. The main exception I make is for books that I read when I was far too young to appreciate them. I was, you may be unsurprised to learn, an insufferably pretentious youth, and eschewed the questionable delights of young adult fiction for the likes of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, which, while they didn’t go completely over my head at the time, were definitely more rewarding when I revisited them with more experience of life.

That said, I have just finished reading Swann’s Way for the third time. On both previous occasions I had intended to go on to read the subsequent parts of the series, but had been frustrated by the fact that I did not posses any of them, and was reluctant to make the investment required for their purchase, since I was far from sure that I would see the task through.

My original copy of Swann’s Way was a battered old paperback that I picked up in a hostel in San Francisco more than twenty years ago. Every second-hand bookstore and flea market seems to have one, but despite much searching I have never found a used copy of any of the other volumes, which is perhaps a sign that lots of people, like me, start the heptalogy with fine intentions, but never get past book one.

Anyway, this summer I resolved to try again, since even the little I have read of Proust’s work has heavily influenced my own writing style, and, with digital copies available for pennies, my economic excuse doesn’t really hold water any longer. I’m just about at the end of In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, and I’m not flagging too much yet, though I probably will take a break before I get into The Guermantes Way.

So that’s why I’ve not been blogging much this past while; I’ve been lost in the drawing-rooms and country estates of Belle Époque France. There are worse places to spend a summer…

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 rather 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…


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