Neil Peart RIP

When people ask me what the first record I ever bought was, I usually tell them Heart of Glass by Blondie, which was the first single I purchased, but the first LP that I bought was Moving Pictures by Rush. I’ve been a little reluctant to admit that over the years, as Rush are not generally felt to be the coolest act on the planet, but I was definitely a big fan for a while, and they were one of the first bands that introduced me to the idea that music could be something beyond an ephemeral distraction.

After Moving Pictures I quickly acquired all their previous albums, and their next release Signals, but my initial enthusiasm didn’t last, partly for reasons I’ll mention below, and I hardly listened to them at all over the following three decades, until some nostalgic impulse prompted me to get 2012’s Clockwork Angels, which in turn led me to revisit my collection of their old material. I’m not sure that I would sit and listen to any of the albums all the way through, but there are certainly some highlights, especially on Fly by Night, Permanent Waves, and the aforementioned Moving Pictures.

So I was sad to read in the paper this morning that Neil Peart had passed away, at the early age of 67. Much of the appeal of Rush’s work lies in the storytelling of his lyrics, particularly on the earlier albums, where he crafts some intriguing Tolkienesque fantasy, while (mostly) avoiding any lapses into ridiculousness.

There are some problematic elements to Peart’s legacy though; 2112, dedicated to “the genius of Ayn Rand”, is difficult to forgive. It’s said that Peart later disavowed Rand and identified himself as a “bleeding heart libertarian”, but the official Rush website featured a sympathetic portrait of the alt-right icon as late as 2012, and in 2018 Peart was still describing 2112 as the story of “a hero who fights against collectivist mentality (depicted by the evil red star)“, so I probably won’t be putting that back on the turntable any time soon.

I much preferred Peart when he stuck to the elf-related whimsy, so I think that’s how I’ll remember him.

Six hundred

Before we unveil the new, reinvigorated, Second Life Shrink, we should note that this is our six-hundredth post. The latest century has taken us a little under two years, much faster than the last one, but not as quick as we were back in our heyday.

According to the ever-informative WordPress statistics page, the 599 pieces preceding this one have contained a total of 176,801 words. If one believes the advice given to would-be writers on the internet, that would equate to roughly two novels. I will leave it to you, dear readers, to decide if the contents of this blog are adequate compensation for those potential masterpieces that the world will now never see…

2020 vision

[I guess it bodes ill for my serious writing career that I have been unable to resist such a painfully obvious title for today’s post, but I was up late last night, so I think I can be excused.]

What lies ahead for SLS as we enter the new decade? I expect that we will feel compelled to continue commenting on the unfolding political situation, on both sides of the Atlantic. My prediction is that the Brexit question will actually calm down a bit now that Boris Johnson has a solid majority and, no longer beholden to the ultras in his own party, is able to negotiate a sensible trade deal with the EU. Things are likely to get more lively in the US though, since the long-awaited impeachment process has significantly raised the already-high stakes in the 2020 presidential election. Donald Trump will be going to jail if he loses, giving him the motivation to abandon the scant regard he has for constitutional niceties, assuming he allows the election to go ahead at all.

Away from politics, I would like to start posting longer, more considered, pieces on broader cultural topics, perhaps once a month or so, but that’s an ambition I’ve had for several years now and it’s never happened yet, so we’ll see.

And Second Life? I did renew my annual subscription back in October, which cost about $90, even though the only way I have of accessing the grid these days is via an old copy of the now-defunct Lumiya app on an elderly tablet, which, unsurprisingly, doesn’t produce a particularly satisfactory graphical experience. Theoretically that shouldn’t matter too much if I just wanted to interact with people, but the perennial SL underpopulation means that one has to wander around for ages before bumping into anyone, and it’s difficult to stay interested without something pretty to look at. I should try to get back into virtual living again, because I’m sure SL will just disappear one day, and I’ll miss it when it’s gone. It might be quite interesting to compare my thoughts about it now with my first impressions from back in 2007.

So, politics, culture, Second Life, that should keep me busy for the next twelve months. I may even find time to cover our other main neglected category, psychology. I could do something tomorrow on avoiding procrastination….

2019: The year in review – Part 2: Blogging

In some ways 2019 was very successful for SLS; we posted a total of 66 pieces, making it our most productive year since 2010. On closer examination though, it can be seen that practically all these posts addressed UK politics, specifically the Brexit question, and that very few of them were particularly insightful, serving mainly as an outlet for my angst about the increasingly desperate situation rather than providing any useful analysis of it. As the year closes I’m still in a state of post-election paralysis; it may be some time before that passes.

Anyway, here are our ten most-read posts of the year:

  1. Second Life demographics – a brief review
  2. Questionable things
  3. Watching the Okhrana
  4. Irresolute
  5. There is no land beyond the Volga
  6. Two Galleries
  7. Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space
  8. Incassable
  9. Won’t you please be my friend?
  10. Maintaining perspective

The demographics post has been a reliable chart-topper since it was published back in 2010, but the rest of the list is a rather inexplicable mix of old and new.

Here are my personal favourites from this year, in chronological order:

And, for completeness, a note of our international appeal. We had visitors from 34 countries; here are the top ten:

  1. United Kingdom
  2. United States
  3. India
  4. Canada
  5. France
  6. China
  7. Netherlands
  8. Australia
  9. Japan
  10. Mexico

That’s a little less Euro-centric than in previous years, somewhat ironic given that most of our content in the last twelve months has been about Europe, but perhaps it’s just a sign of the more detached future that the country faces.

Things may change, but we’re still here, looking forward to the next decade with some trepidation, but mostly optimistic that humanity will continue its progressive course, despite any temporary setbacks. A Happy New Year to all our readers, and we’ll see you in 2020.

2019: The year in review – Part 1: Culture

Here’s our look back on our most notable cultural experiences of the year; the full list is, as ever, on our Tumblr.

Film – I’ve started going to the cinema regularly again over the last few months, mainly matinee shows at the multiplex, but a few trips to the arthouse too. I liked Ad Astra, Knives Out, and Rolling Thunder Review, but my favourites were the monochrome Bait, an expressionist tale of class conflict in Cornwall, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino’s flawed but ultimately beguiling portrait of late-60s California.

Books – I’ve read less than I would have liked this year, mainly because I spent a lot of time obsessing over the news, which, for much of 2019, was not unlike a melodramatic potboiler, though surely one that any editor would have rejected as implausibly plotted. Of the actual fiction that I did get through I thought the best was Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman Is In Trouble, though I felt it was a bit more predictable than many of the reviews suggested. I enjoyed the poetic memoir of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Little Boy, and caught up with some historical reportage; Vasily Grossman’s notes from the eastern front in WW2, collected in A Writer at War, and Svetlana Alexievich’s anthology of first-hand female accounts of the same conflict, The Unwomanly Face of War, easily one of the most moving works I have ever read.

Music – no big changes in my musical taste this year; here are my top ten albums, in the order I bought them:

  • Get Tragic – Blood Red Shoes
  • Remind Me Tomorrow – Sharon Van Etten
  • Lung Bread For Daddy – Du Blonde
  • Titanic Rising – Weyes Blood
  • Stranger Things – Yuck
  • Joanthology – Joan As Police Woman
  • Any Human Friend – Marika Hackman
  • Dolphine – Mega Bog
  • Life’s An Illusion – The Sorry Kisses
  • No Home Record – Kim Gordon

I probably listened to Joanthology more than anything else, but it is a retrospective; my favourite of the original releases was Lung Bread For Daddy. I didn’t go to as many concerts as usual this year; but the two I did manage were great – Laura Gibson and Marika Hackman.

I’m planning to keep up my weekly cinema trips, at least until the winter is over, and I definitely want to start reading more fiction, though I guess I say that every year. It would do me good to step off the treadmill of trying to keep up with all the news, all the time, and just slow down a little – I did manage that for a while over the summer, but events drew me in again, as we’ll see in part 2 of our annual review, when we look back at the year in blogging.

Star Wars IX – instant review

I’m not long out of the cinema; here are my immediate thoughts on The Rise of Skywalker

[Some spoilers ahead, so don’t read this if you haven’t seen the film yet.]

It was efficiently entertaining, and I’m sure it will please both SW fans and casual moviegoers, but, in contrast to  The Last Jedi, which subverted expectations, this was a definite return to the established lore of the franchise. The bad guy turned out to be exactly who we suspected, Ray’s parentage wasn’t as random as we had been led to believe, and the characters’ development mostly followed predictable arcs. The space battles and light-sabre duels were pleasingly spectacular, but some things, like the Knights of Ren, were built up and then never came to much. Setting key scenes on yet another desert planet seemed a bit repetitive, but there were some interesting new backdrops, particularly the giant waves crashing into the ruined Death Star, and the barren Sith home world. There were a few plot holes – where exactly was the other transporter that Chewbacca was supposedly on? – and unlikely coincidences, and “The Force” does a lot of heavy lifting in moving the story along, but this could be said about any of the previous episodes, and one can’t really complain about such minor points if one is prepared to accept the central implausibility of the whole saga; that all the important events in a galaxy-spanning conflict seem to involve the same half-dozen people.

Overall though, a fun way to spend a couple of hours. I may even go and see it again over the holidays, once I’ve read all the other reviews, and have more of an idea of whether I should like it or not…

Far, far away

In an attempt to avoid having to process the events of last week I’ve been immersing myself in popular culture, specifically the latest instalments in the Star Wars saga.

I’d obtained a DVD copy of The Last Jedi about a year ago, but had never got around to watching it, until this week. [Spoilers for a two year old film ahead.] It was pleasingly diverting, though the plot wasn’t exactly cheery, concerning as it does the plucky resistance being almost wiped out by the fascistic imperials, mostly because of the rebels’ own bickering and incompetence, a rather dispiriting echo of our current political situation.

What was more fun was catching up on the debate among the SW superfans as to whether TLJ was a disrespectful travesty, or a much-needed shake-up of a tired franchise. I lean towards the latter camp, since I liked all the new characters who seemed to rile up the traditionalists, particularly Vice-Admiral Holdo, the sort of sensible commander who weighs up the situation and makes considered strategic decisions, and thus actually gets things done. Of course being right all the time is a bit boring for an action movie, which is perhaps why Holdo inexplicably sacrifices herself to save what’s left of the rebel fleet, when the cause would have much better served had she sent a relatively disposable junior officer like Poe Dameron on the suicide mission instead. Killing off the obvious surrogate for the key frustrated-white-male demographic would have been a step too far though – TLJ may have set itself up as iconoclastic, with a female lead, racially-diverse cast and grumpy Luke Skywalker, but Disney were never going to make it completely uncommercial.

Anyway, the new Star Wars film is on release tomorrow, and I’ve got a ticket, albeit for the 10 am show, rather than the minute-past-midnight screening that the real fans are camping out for, but still, fairly keen. I’m hoping for at least one more weekend of escapism before I have to return to grim reality…

State of disappointment

It’s the evening after the morning after the night before, and I have to say I’m still feeling pretty bummed out. I’ve purposefully avoided reading any news today, because I know it would just have depressed the fuck out of me even more; instead I spent most of the day in bed, and the rest watching movies.

I guess I’ll pick myself up in time, and get back to the struggle, but for now I just need a bit of space away from reality . If only there was some sort of virtual world I could lose myself in…

Long dark night

It’s that point in the evening where the exit polls and early results are in, and the crushing wave of depression is just about being held at bay by the increasingly forlorn hope that it might not turn out as badly as it it’s looking at the moment.

In my younger days I used to stay up until the early hours on an election night, but I don’t have the stamina for that now. Of course back then I was often actually at the count, which was much more fun than sitting at home alone, following the outcome on a laptop. I’ll probably stick it out for another hour or so, but finding something to feel good about amongst the gloom will have to wait for the morning.

Nervous anticipation

I’m just back from casting my ballot, not that it’s likely to make much difference – the constituency where I live is a Labour/SNP marginal, and since the only plausible alternative to a Tory majority is some sort of coalition of the anti-Conservative forces, in practical terms it won’t make any difference which of the two comes out on top around here. For the record I voted Labour, since they do have a fairly progressive programme, by contemporary standards at least.

So now we wait; the exit polls should be out in half an hour or so, and then we’ll know our fate. All the pundits are predicting a win for Johnson, and while forecasts of a May landslide were badly wrong in 2017, I’m not at all confident that Corbyn will pull off a similar escape act this time. There are reports of a good turnout, especially among young voters, which is a source of faint hope, but at best it’s going to be a close thing. We’ll find out soon enough I guess…