Obscure future

Well, for about 109 minutes there it looked like I might have finally produced an accurate football tournament prediction, but no luck, for me nor France.

My political forecasting skills are not much better; despite my confident assertion that Boris Johnson would be the next Prime Minister he didn’t even make it on to the ballot. Instead we are to have a female premier, which sounds like it should be progressive, but neither Theresa May nor Andrea Leadsom are exactly hard-core feminists, so perhaps not.

There had been talk of an early election, but that possibility seems to be receding, and with it hopes that Brexit could be averted by some sort of democratic means. There are a couple of legal cases pending that seek to overturn the referendum result, but, aghast as I was at the leave vote, I would hesitate to change the outcome by such a method, since it would only drive already alienated sections of the population into the arms of the far-right.

I guess we just have to play the long game; as the Chilcot Report has shown, progressive positions are usually vindicated with the passage of time, even if it is years too late to make any difference.

Euro 2016 forecast

On a lighter note, the other big question in Europe yet to be resolved is that of which team will emerge victorious in Euro 2016. Since my record of predicting the winners of big tournaments is little short of woeful, I’ve waited until the quarter-final lineup has been finalised before hazarding a guess – France to beat Belgium in the final. So put your money on Iceland

Exit Flagger

In a development that seems at once unbelievable and inevitable, Donald Trump has emerged triumphant from the Republican nomination process. While this means that we will be denied the amusing spectacle of a contested convention (to the relief, no doubt, of the citizens of Cleveland), it does promise lots of entertainment over the next six months as Trump leads the GOP to a humiliating and perhaps fatal defeat.

In contrast, the election we are having here tomorrow has generated a campaign of insufferable dullness, as our politicians have largely avoided controversy in a rush to paint themselves as competent technocrats. Not for us anything like the exciting, if somewhat limited, campaign of Bernie Sanders; the left in these parts is so thoroughly marginalised that even centre-right social democrats can paint themselves as radicals. On the other hand, we haven’t given time to any fascist demagogues, so I guess our political culture has that going for it.

But any temptation we UK leftists may have to feel smug about the stupidity of the US electorate, or at least the Republican segment of it, for entertaining the notion of a President Trump, is likely to be squashed over the next few weeks, as we approach polling day in the Euro referendum. While the issue hasn’t quite caught fire with the public yet, all sorts of reactionaries have been crawling out of the woodwork, and it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the vote could go in favour of Brexit, a result that would negate most of the social progress of the last half-century. While our transatlantic cousins will probably step back from the abyss by electing Hillary, we might end up jumping right in.

Lovesexy

I guess it’s an indication of my limited musical horizons, or perhaps just that I’m a terrible and shallow human being, but, for me, the entirety of Prince’s 37-album, endlessly-innovative, genre-melding, racially-integrating, PMRC-baiting revolution of a career boils down to a nostalgic fondness for his 1988 track Alphabet Street, because it reminds me of a girl I knew in college. I think the late Artist would have approved of what we did while listening to that record though…

High times

Another 4/20 has rolled around, and I’m glad to say that it’s looking like the tide of marijuana legalisation is unstoppable, in the US at least. The dope business is booming in Colorado and Washington, and, more importantly, pot is becoming an uncontroversial part of everyday culture. It’s not hard to imagine that weed will be legal in most if not all of the country before President Clinton finishes her first term.

It’s not clear how much impact this will have on drug policy in Europe, but hopefully the successful US experience, not to mention the tax dollar bonanza, will nudge things in the right direction before too long. At the very least it’s given me another incentive to plan a long-overdue trip Stateside sometime soon…

Wild gravity

I like to think of myself as scientifically literate, so I’d always been a bit embarrassed that my knowledge of General Relativity was rather superficial. High school physics classes and popular science books had taught me that e=mc2, that gravity is caused by matter warping spacetime, and that clocks slow down when you travel at the speed of light, but until recently I’d have been pushed to explain exactly why these things were so.

Then, towards the end of last year, I watched the movie Interstellar, the plot of which turns on the time-stretching effects of extreme gravitation, which inspired me to fill in this gap in my education. So I’ve read various textbooks, and Einstein’s own pamphlet on the subject, and while, if I’m honest, the mathematics are still a bit opaque to me, I think I’ve got a fairly good grasp of the basic principles.

Just in time too; the day after I finished the Einstein book, the gravitational waves he predicted were finally discovered (or the discovery was announced, the actual event having taken place last year). It’s nice to feel that one understands the importance of scientific advances like this, but even in a state of relative ignorance it would be hard not to be awed by a story that involves black holes spiralling at near the speed of light before crashing to release the energy of a billion trillion stars in the blink of an eye. The fact that we can hear the echo of this cataclysm a billion years later is nothing short of amazing. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, humans are pretty smart.

There’s a Starman waiting in the sky

I wouldn’t say I was ever a big fan of David Bowie – he was a genius, obviously, but in my opinion (though I know millions would disagree) nothing he did post-Ziggy Stardust was terribly interesting, apart from producing Lust for Life and appearing in The Hunger. (I would like to say that I loved the Berlin Trilogy, but to be honest it has never really grabbed me.)

The era where single artists could have the sort of global recognition and influence that Bowie had in the 70s seems a long time ago now. Our culture has become ever more stratified, even though (or perhaps because) we have the opportunity to access a much wider range of creative output than ever before. Which is a shame.

So I did feel sad upon hearing that Bowie had died, though I know that at least part of that is just general regret at the passing of the years. The sadness appears to be universal; all the tributes that have flowed today seem genuinely heartfelt, which isn’t always the case in our age of instant shallow reaction. I’ll join in by linking to this iconic performance of my own favourite Bowie track.

2015: The Year in Review – Part 1: Culture

Here we are at the end of another year; time for a quick run through what passed for cultural engagement in my life over the last twelve months. (As ever, the full list can be found on our Tumblr.)

Music first. I’m old-fashioned enough to still think of the album as the basic unit of music, and I’ve averaged about one new one a week, mainly stuff I’ve heard on Radio 6. Female, alt-rock, and singer-songwriter seem to be the predominant themes. Here’s my favourite ten, in the order that I bought them:

No Cities To Love – Sleater-Kinney
Play Along – The Sorry Kisses
Sometimes I Sit and Think… – Courtney Barnett
Foil Deer – Speedy Ortiz
Hinterland – LoneLady
Welcome Back To Milk – Du Blonde
My Love Is Cool – Wolf Alice
After – Lady Lamb
Divers – Joanna Newsom
Short Movie – Laura Marling

If I had to choose one as the best it would probably be Short Movie, though I think that Welcome Back To Milk is the one that I’ve listened to most.

There’s been a lot of talk this year about how we’re living through some kind of Golden Age of Television, but I must admit that I practically never watch the box these days. The closest I’ve come to seeing a drama series this year is to buy the box set of the first season of Fargo, but I’ve not got round to putting it on yet. Which is a shame, because I’m sure I’d love it, like I love the rest of the Coen brothers’ oeuvre, and it’s likely that I would be entertained by all the other shows that the critics rave about too, but the fact is that I just can’t face committing myself to a lengthy series. My attention span is obviously shot; I blame the internet.

That said, I can at least concentrate for the length of a film, and I have managed to catch a few movies this year, the best of which was the Thomas Pynchon adaptation Inherent Vice, exactly the sort of rambling stoner mystery that I like watching over and over. I did think about seeing the new Star Wars over the holidays, but in the end I didn’t bother. I guess I will go sometime in the new year, but I’m pretty sure it will be a disappointment.

I’ve been reading a bit more too; if there has been a common thread to my choice of books this year it’s been the subjective experience of time and memory. I finished another volume of Proust, The Guermantes Way, which I felt was the most entertaining of the series so far, though that might just be because I’m familiar now with the characters and the pace of the novel. Other highlights were The Savage Detectives by Roberto BolaƱo, and this year’s literary sensation City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg. The latter was almost as good as the hype, particularly in its depiction of New York City in the mid-70s (an era in which I like to imagine I would have felt right at home), though the plot petered out towards the end.

Looking to the year ahead, I’m sure it will be more of the same; Proustian reverie and drug-imbued diversion set to a suitably stimulating soundtrack. That’s OK though; I’ve reached a point in my life where I’m reasonably comfortable with my taste in entertainment, which, all in all, I don’t think is too shabby…

Memories of futures past

I’ve been trying all day to recall the first time I saw Back to the Future Part II, or indeed if I’ve ever watched it all the way through. I definitely didn’t see it in the cinema, but I can vaguely remember parts of the plot, so I guess I must have caught it on TV sometime. (I know when I saw the original movie; at an all-night sci-fi film festival when I was in college. Also on the bill: Terminator, Aliens, Blade Runner and one of my all-time favourites Trancers, so a pretty good night, especially since just about everyone there was completely baked.)

Predictably enough, a wave of nostalgia has been sweeping the internet today, as my fellow Gen-Xers, in characteristic fashion, use an 80s pop-culture reference as an excuse to look wistfully back at the hopes they used to have for the future. I’m tempted to join in, because I miss being in my 20s too, but there’s only so much that can be written lamenting the non-appearance of hoverboards before it all sounds a bit self-indulgent.

In any case I’m not particularly unhappy with how things have turned out in my life, though of course it hasn’t gone quite the way I imagined it would back in the 80s (not that I have a terribly clear memory of what my youthful hopes and plans actually were.) It would probably bother me more to think that everything had unfolded in a predictable way, without any randomness or serendipity.

Anyway, I’ve reached a point now where I no longer really look forward, or back, but just try to be in the moment, (which is, of course, the secret to happiness.) I like to think that this serenity is the result of a conscious effort on my part, but it probably owes more to my unconscious need to avoid acknowledging my many failures, and my ultimate mortality. Hopefully I’ll be able to keep it up for the next 30 years…

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.

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