2018: The Year in Review – Part 1: Culture

Time for our annual run through my cultural highlights of the year – as usual everything is on our Tumblr.

Music – buying records has become my main cultural pursuit over the last few years; I’m fortunate enough to have the resources to purchase anything that catches my fancy, and, since nothing is more than a click away these days, I do get a lot. That said, the stuff I actually end up listening to regularly doesn’t tend to vary that much. Here, in no particular order, are my top ten albums of the year:

  • Floating Features – La Luz
  • Wide Awake! – Parquet Courts
  • Goners – Laura Gibson
  • Quit the Curse – Anna Burch
  • Future Me Hates Me – The Beths
  • Paycheck – Pip Blom
  • Fall into the Sun – Swearin’
  • Possible Dust Clouds – Kristin Hersh
  • Clean – Soccer Mommy
  • The Lookout – Laura Veirs

I kept up a fairly regular rhythm of gig-going; my favourite show was Parquet Courts, though La Luz and The Beths were a lot of fun too.

Film – I had a pile of DVDs I wanted to watch this year, but didn’t get around to; I don’t seem to have the time, or perhaps the attention span, to sit through a whole movie very often these days. Of the few I did see, The Love Witch was my favourite. My few cinema trips were mostly social affairs – I saw The Greatest Showman, and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, neither of which I would have chosen to go to alone, but both of which I enjoyed unironically. Far and away the best film I saw all year though was one I did go to see of my own volition – Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs.

Books – I’ve been reading a lot about existential philosophy in the last half of the year, no doubt because I’m getting older, and struggling more with the absurdity of life. Mostly it’s been articles in places like the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, but also The Myth of Sisyphus by Camus, and de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity. It’s not an area that I was unfamiliar with, though I hadn’t read much of the original material before, but it does seem a lot more relevant now than it did when I was in my 20s. My fiction highlights were completing my annual volume of Proust, The Sweet Cheat Gone (only one more to go for the set), belatedly catching up with Shark and Phone, the sequels to my favourite book of 2013, Will Self’s Umbrella, and taking a rare dive into poetry with one of the Booker Prize nominees, The Long Take, by Robin Robertson. My favourite read of the year though was more existentialism; Simone de Beauvoir’s 1954 novel The Mandarins. Although the questions debated by the characters in the book may seem to be dated – there’s a lot about the Soviet Union – the underlying message, of the responsibility we have to engage in political activity to at least try to change the world, couldn’t be more relevant in today’s troubled times.

Next up: The Year in Blogging.

2018 Forecast results

Our review of the year is on the way, but first let’s see how accurate the predictions we made back in January turned out to be:

Donald Trump will still be President of the United States at the end of 2018. There’s still a day to go, but it looks like I got this one right. Trump’s problems seem likely to multiply in the near future, but even if Mueller and the Democrats uncover enough evidence of malfeasance to impeach him ten times over, the Republican Senate will remain reluctant to convict. If his incompetence starts to hurt the economy too much there may be some face-saving deal whereby Mike Pence assumes actual power behind the scenes, but I’m willing to hazard a guess that Trump will end up seeing out his full term.

There will be another Brexit referendum. The jury is still out on this question, even though less than one hundred days remain before the UK is due to crash out of the EU. At the start of the year I thought that the matter would be settled by the summer, but I underestimated the degree to which our political class would prove unequal to the challenge of managing this self-induced crisis. A parliamentary vote on Theresa May’s proposed exit agreement is due in the new year, but this seems likely to deepen the divisions in the country rather than resolve them, so all outcomes, from no-deal to no-exit, remain on the table. I’ll hold off making any more forecasts on this topic for now; things may become a little clearer by the end of next month.

Germany will win the 2018 World Cup. There’s no way to spin this; I was spectacularly wrong, as Jogi Löw‘s much-fancied team had their worst result in a major tournament since 1938. I’ll need to do some more homework before Euro 2020.

Definitive proof of extraterrestrial life will be found by the end of 2018. Organics on Mars, an interstellar visitation, and alien lights over New York – I’ll give myself this one.

The Gatwick drone trials

When I posted our last piece about the drone drama at Gatwick airport, it did cross my mind that perhaps there were no mysterious flying objects, and it was all just a case of mass hysteria. I dismissed this thought though, because, I reasoned, the authorities surely wouldn’t shut down a major transport hub, causing massive disruption, not to mention millions of pounds of economic damage, without concrete proof that there was actually something going on.

Once again though it appears that I am guilty of overestimating the wisdom of the powers that be. Having investigated the case, the police have failed to come up with any photographs or film of the supposed intruders. They did find on old, wrecked, drone near the airfield, but it’s not clear that it was connected to recent events. They also arrested an unfortunate local, his neighbours having apparently grassed him up for owning a model helicopter, but were forced to release him when it turned out he had a cast-iron alibi. In light of all this the officer in charge has admitted that perhaps people had let their imagination get the better of them.

It all goes to show that, even in our technologically-advanced era, a good old-fashioned witch-scare can still catch the public fancy. This one has been fairly harmless I guess, but a similar dynamic can drive much darker sentiments, especially in the febrile political environment we find ourselves in. Throw in the flame-fanning effect of social media, and it all gets pretty scary. I’m hoping that that they get on and legalise marijuana already, so we can all just chill the fuck out.

Drone on

As if the current state of the country wasn’t depressing enough, we learned today that the aeronautical infrastructure of the nation can be paralysed by anyone with a couple of thousand pounds to spend on a medium-sized drone, and the nerve to hide near an airport buzzing the runways.

It is rather alarming that the mystery controller, or controllers, behind this stunt are still at large, despite intensive searches by the police, and the deployment of the army. Reports say that Gatwick will remain closed tomorrow, and presumably every other airport in the country will be on a state of high alert, ready to shut down at the first sign of anything unusual.

I remember reading somewhere about military radar that can track the source of incoming shells, to direct counter-battery fire, and I would have thought that might be useful in this sort of situation, though I guess that dropping high-explosive rounds onto what will probably turn out to be a couple of bored teenagers might be felt to be overkill. Still, if I’d been stuck in a departure lounge for 36 hours I might have fewer qualms about it…

Pete Shelley RIP

Sad news tonight of the sudden death of punk icon Pete Shelley, lead singer of the legendary Buzzcocks.

I was too young to see the band in their original incarnation, but I got into them towards the end of my school days, and listened to them a lot when I was in college, a time in my life when lovelorn pop-punk was exactly the right soundtrack. Of course I eventually grew out of that phase, and it’s a good while since I last put on one of their records, but I still turn the sound up, and dance around a bit, if they come on the radio.

Anyway, here’s my favourite Buzzcocks tune – how could it ever let me down?

Remembrance Day 2018

When I was younger there seemed to be a clear distinction between the general cultural perception of the two global conflicts of the 20th century; while everyone agreed that defeating the Nazis in WW2 was an unequivocally just cause, WW1 was almost universally viewed as a senseless affair that had sent the youth of the nation to their death for no particular reason.

A century on from the end of the Great War everything is much more fuzzy. The tone of today’s Remembrance Day events, while not exactly celebrating war, does convey the idea that there was a nobility to the sacrifice of the fallen, and that no further comment is needed, certainly nothing that questions why they fell.

This is understandable to some extent; the political upheavals of the 19th century which primed the conflagration that finally ignited in 1914 are all but incomprehensible today, and simple human stories of loss and resilience are much more accessible. However we must not allow our instinct to support the men and women who went off to fight in that war (and all the wars since), commendable though it is, to be used to silence criticism of war itself.

There is an irony in the fact that, as our leaders gather to put on a show of respect for the millions who died in WW1, the structures that have kept the peace in Europe for the last 60 years are being dismantled, and the world is moving back towards the sort of Great Power politics that led to disaster a century ago. We owe it to the dead, and the living, to oppose this, and ensure that never again do workers kill workers in a capitalist war.

Northern lights

If, as looks increasingly inevitable, our dysfunctional government is unable to negotiate an orderly withdrawal from the EU, we may, enthusiastic Brexiteers tell us, end up enjoying the delights of free trade with the rest of the globe, especially North America.

I wouldn’t say that I was particularly keen on this, not least because we already have beneficial trade arrangements with most of the world, through the EU, and any unilateral deals we negotiate, from what will be an isolated and weakened position, are likely to be inferior, particularly in the areas of labour rights and environmental protection. However I could perhaps be persuaded of the virtues of a new accord with Canada, so long as it allows for tariff-free export of that nation’s new favourite product

Counsel of despair

I’ve consciously followed political developments for almost four decades now, actively involved in various political organisations for around thirty of those years, and, while I’ve certainly experienced more than a few disappointments along the way, I’m struggling to think of a period when I’ve felt so pessimistic about the immediate future. There are a number of reasons for this, but the most immediate is the looming, and ever more likely, prospect that the country will drop over the cliff edge of an no-deal Brexit.

There are some of my comrades on the left who are actually looking forward to this, on the grounds that such a severe shock to the current system will provide plenty of opportunity to press for progressive change. I can see the intellectual appeal of that argument, but I still worry that the whole thing is much more likely to follow a reactionary course.

I’m sure my apprehension is partly attributable to the fact that, at this point in my life, my accumulated responsibilities make the prospect of tumultuous social upheaval seem rather less attractive than it did to my younger self, but it’s also grounded in a realistic appraisal of the ideological underpinning of Brexit. However much we might want to imagine that disrupting the neoliberal consensus of the EU will be a blow to international capital, the truth is that the driving force behind Brexit has always been a backward nativism, whose leaders, if given free rein, will seize the chance to reverse the gains won by the last half-century of working-class struggle.

I used to wonder what it must have felt like to live in the years before the Great War, when any attentive observer would have been aware that a multitude of seemingly unstoppable forces were pushing the continent towards disaster, while a political class wholly unequal to the challenge blundered on ineffectually, but now I think that I might have some idea.

The ill-effects of this sorry business will, of course, be less catastrophic, and largely confined to the UK rather than being global, but, still, it would be preferable to avoid them. There might just be enough time left for the country to come to its collective senses, but I fear that Brexit is something we are just going to have to live through, so that future generations can learn from our mistakes.

Deutschland unter alles

The curse of SLS strikes again, as Germany, our tip for World Cup glory, ignominiously crash out in the first round.

I guess it’s early enough in the competition to make another pick, but, to be honest, I haven’t really been paying attention, so any prediction I make will be more or less arbitrary. My carefully considered choices haven’t been up to much though, so perhaps random is the way to go; [closes eyes, stabs finger at list] Switzerland! Hmm…

Teutonic reliability

Mid-summer is almost upon us, so it seems like a good time to revisit my new year predictions, to see if they bear any likeness to how events are actually panning out.

My first forecast concerned Donald Trump’s likely tenure in the White House, and nothing has happened in the last few months to change my view that he’s going to be around for the foreseeable future. Sure, his venality, stupidity and cruelty are becoming ever more evident, but it’s equally clear that a big enough proportion of the US population, and their (Republican) elected representatives, just don’t care. Progressive fantasies of impeachment – delivered by unlikely liberal heroes the FBI – seem destined to remain just that, sadly.

What then of Brexit? The first part of my prediction – Theresa May’s government collapsing under the pressure of irreconcilable internal splits – looks like it may well come true, perhaps as early as this week, as the relatively sane sections of the Tory party try to head off a disastrously hard departure. There is no guarantee of fresh elections though, and even less certainty of a Labour victory, due to Jeremy Corbyn’s inexplicable inability to appreciate that opposition to Brexit is massively popular in his own party, and only slightly less so in the country at large. It’s equally possible that May will be replaced by some zealous leaver who will gleefully drive the country over the cliff-edge. I’m still just about able to convince myself that there might be a happy ending to this story, but it’s getting harder every day.

Oh well, on to lighter things. Germany for the World Cup? Despite the fact that they lost their opening game, with what most pundits agree was a shambolic display, I’m still backing Joachim Löw’s team to win the tournament, on the grounds that their bad spells are rarely prolonged.

Alien life? They have found organics on Mars, which is good enough for me…