2020: The year in review – Part 1: Culture

2020 has, for obvious reasons, been the sort of year when I might have expected to have had plenty of time to watch all the movies and read all the books that I had been meaning to catch up on for ages. Sadly, that has not been the case, partly due my work schedule actually being busier than it has been for a long while, but mostly because any downtime I did have was spent trying to keep up with the latest news, then attempting to distract myself from the latest news with undemanding entertainment.

That said, the year wasn’t a complete wash-out, culture-wise; the complete list is on our Tumblr, and here are the highlights:

Film – Towards the end of 2019 I got back into the habit of going to see a movie on the big screen most weeks, and I kept this going into 2020, alternating between the multiplex and the arthouse, right up until the cinemas were shut down. Of the mainstream films I saw, my favourite was probably Parasite, though The Lighthouse and Little Women get honourable mentions. I did sign up for a Netflix subscription after lockdown kicked in, but I haven’t really made much use of it; my pick from that service would be Uncut Gems. My personal Oscar for 2020 goes to an independent movie screened during our local film festival; Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway, a delightfully surreal Spanish-Estonian-Ethiopian-Latvian-Romanian co-production, concerning secret agents trapped in a VR dystopia, featuring Batman, ninjas, Joe Stalin, the titular Saviour, 8-bit computer graphics, and much more. If if wasn’t for the evidence of its existence on the internet, I might suspect that I had just dreamt it.

Books – I got through shockingly few full-length books this year; my reading time was consumed by keeping up with political developments, and trying to stay on top of the professional updates I needed to do my job effectively. I didn’t manage much recent fiction, but I did finally complete Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, roughly 30 years after my first reading of Swann’s Way, and started on another classic series, Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, by revisiting Justine, which I had first read when I was 15 (though I didn’t really appreciate the work’s psychosexual depth at that tender age). In the current circumstances I could hardly avoid returning to the plague-haunted Oran, vividly described by Camus in La Peste, and my literary travels also took me to pre-revolutionary China, in the collected works of Lu Xun. In non-fiction, I explored cosmology and quantum theory with Dan Hooper and Sean Carroll, and the origins of consciousness with Daniel Dennett. My favourite book of the year was another old one; Anna Kavan’s 1967 novel Ice, an unsettlingly phantasmagoric evocation of impermanence, loss, and gendered violence, set amid a world succumbing to a creeping environmental catastrophe – just the kind of cheery tale we need in times like these.

Music – I may not have had the cognitive bandwidth to fully engage with serious literature and cinema in the last 12 months, but I did listen to a lot of new music; here’s a fairly arbitrary top ten:

  • If You’re Dreaming – Anna Burch
  • Devotion – Margaret Glaspy
  • Song For Our Daughter – Laura Marling
  • Jetstream Pony – Jetstream Pony
  • The Black Hole Understands – Cloud Nothings
  • The Making Of You – Snowgoose
  • Ballet Of Apes – Brigid Dawson & The Mothers Network
  • Consummation – Katie Von Schleicher
  • It Will Come Easier – Emma Kupa
  • Honeymoon – Beach Bunny

I didn’t see much live music this year; I did have tickets for a few shows, but most of them ended up being cancelled. Of those that did go ahead, I enjoyed a recital of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, and a very rare trip to the opera house, to see a revival of John Adams‘ Nixon in China.

Television – For the first time in more years than I care to remember I followed a TV series in its entirety; Mrs. America, an examination of the political struggles in the 70s around gender and race, which gave a human face to the history underlying today’s culture wars. I have a few other shows bookmarked on Netflix; we’ll see if I ever get round to watching them.

Last December I resolved to spend more time on cultural pursuits, and less time obsessing over the news. I guess, with the year we’ve had, I can be forgiven for falling a little short of that goal. We’ll cover some of what distracted me in our next post.

Thoughts on La Peste in the time of Covid-19

Mentioning The Plague last week inspired me (like everyone else on the planet apparently) to re-read my old copy of Albert Camus’ classic novel.

[Some spoilers ahead – if you haven’t read The Plague already I’d highly recommend it.]

I first read La Peste when I was at university, more than 30 years ago. Although chronologically the mid-1980s are slightly closer to the present day than to the late 40s, when the book was first published, culturally my student days firmly belonged to that period after the Second World War when the conflict was still a living memory. It was thus natural that I read the work as allegorical, specifically relating to the German occupation of France, which Camus had lived through, and which he played a central part in resisting. This was certainly how it was received when it came out, though the novel’s nuanced depiction of what had become a French national myth was not universally popular, and Camus was criticised by contemporaries, including Satre and de Beauvoir, for representing the conscious evil of Nazism as an apolitical pestilence.

The last month or so has, unsurprisingly, seen a flurry of articles attempting to relate The Plague to our current circumstances. Interestingly, the authors of most of these pieces seem to have taken the novel more or less at face value, as a story of men struggling to persevere in the face of an overwhelming epidemic, and have dismissed or overlooked the connection with the Occupation. I guess that is understandable, given our present concerns, though I think that it does reflect an underlying current evident in modern-day discourse; a tendency towards ahistorical analysis that is so focused on what we are personally experiencing right now that it cannot appreciate that the past isn’t always best understood when viewed through the prism of our latest preoccupations.

Having revisited the beleaguered town of Oran, so vividly depicted in The Plague, I can see how the book can be appreciated as a straightforward narrative, as, at that level, it is a gripping story. Camus masterfully builds a sense of dread as the unseen enemy relentlessly advances. The main characters may inhabit allegorical roles, but this does not obscure their individual humanity. Key scenes, such as the death of M. Othon’s son, or Grand’s grief outside the toy shop, are powerfully moving. The resolution is somewhat downbeat, but satisfying in its ambiguity. (I would like to have seen Dr Rieux reunited with his wife; this perhaps betrays my over-sentimental nature). There are some shortcomings; the complete lack of non-white characters in a story set in North Africa for example, or the way that the female characters are mostly ciphers who exist only to illuminate the male characters’ internal motivations. Overall though, after reading the novel one can appreciate why Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957.

Despite the seeming relevance to our present difficulties, I would still say that The Plague is essentially about France’s reckoning with the legacy of the Occupation, though Camus clearly broadens that out to encompass a theme familiar from his other work; the necessity of struggling against the absurdity of existence. The pestilence is life itself, with all its arbitrary cruelties, and the protagonists grapple with the question of how to live and act ethically, when everything is ultimately meaningless. Some, like Paneloux, look to God to guide them, though they are forced to acknowledge that His intentions are incomprehensible. (Secular orthodoxies, as Tarrou points out, are little more helpful). Tarrou and Rieux find purpose in doing what needs to be done to relieve suffering; the former is somewhat demoralised by the scale of the challenge, while the latter is sustained by focusing on the immediate tasks, and by his belief that humans are mostly decent (as exemplified by Grand, who, despite his own problems, makes his contribution uncomplainingly). Rambert (the character with whom I can most identify) is initially angry to find himself cast into the situation by misfortune, and makes plans to escape, but cannot bring himself to abandon his fellow citizens, and joins in the fight. (Rambert, unlike Rieux, is at least rewarded by seeing his wife again). Even Cottard, who accommodates to the new situation, and profits from it, is portrayed sympathetically, as motivated by fear and weakness rather than malice.

I’m not sure that the current crisis, significant though it is, has quite reached the level of seriousness of a world war, where individuals are forced to confront such pressing existential dilemmas. Certainly I have not felt moved to closely examine my ethical outlook, though perhaps that is because my response to events has been largely dictated by my professional circumstances, and I have not, as yet, been obliged to make any choices that are more difficult than usual. I hope that, if it comes to it, I will act as admirably as Dr Rieux, though I suspect than I will lean more heavily on ideology than Camus would have approved of.

In Simone de Beauvoir’s novel The Mandarins, Henri, the character based on Camus, recalls the intensity of wartime, when he “was busy writing his editorials, a revolver in his desk drawer.” I don’t know if I want to go through that much excitement (and it would obviously be better for all concerned if the situation was resolved without too much more social disruption), but perhaps this dislocation will do me some good in the long run, even if it is only to force me to make my own peace with the Absurd.

Isolated musings

One might think that our current circumstances, while clearly troubling, would at least provide some encouragement to bloggers, especially those inclined towards philosophical speculation, as the enforced idleness allows plenty of time for writing, and the situation naturally inspires commentary on all sorts of deep topics, like the nature of society, the limits of scientific knowledge, or the ultimate meaning (or meaninglessness) of life.

And, who knows, perhaps some bloggers are seizing this opportunity to compose memorable posts, but, as readers may have noticed, I am not among that number. I’m actually a good bit busier than usual, as the health service gears up to meet the challenge of the anticipated wave of infection. I’ve been redeployed into the sort of forward position that I haven’t occupied for a couple of decades, so I’ve spent the last week or so furiously refreshing my basic skills, which has at least kept my mind engaged. I’m glad to have the routine of work, which gives me an excuse to get out of the house, keeping me anchored to some sort of normality, though it also allows me access to information indicating that we are not quite as prepared for the coming storm as the the government would like the population to believe, which makes me think the immediate future may get quite rough.

So, it might be difficult to find time to post much over the next few weeks, but I guess I should try to make the effort, because these are the kind of times that’ll I’ll look back on in the future, and be glad that I recorded my contemporaneous impressions. Perhaps, if I live through this, I may even produce my own version of La Peste.

There's a catch

I first read Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 when I was about 14, and one of the many lines that have stuck with me over the years is Yossarian’s reply to being asked “But what if everyone thought that way?” when he reports his disinclination to be killed for his country; “Then I’d be a damn fool to think any different, wouldn’t I?” (or words to that effect, it’s been a while since I last read it). It could be interpreted as an approval of selfish individualism, but, in the context of the book, I think Heller intends it to serve as a reminder to be sceptical of those in power who urge sacrifice for some “greater good”, which often turns out to benefit only a select few.

Anyway, I was thinking of this earlier this week, as I stood in the supermarket looking at the empty shelves. I had heeded the official advice to refrain from panic-buying, partly from a sense of civic responsibility, but mainly due to laziness, and had held off heading to the store until my supplies had begun to run low, only to find that my fellow-citizens had not shown such forbearance. There was nothing but some random stuff left, so for the last few days I have been surviving on a diet of organic quinoa and tinned asparagus. Fortunately, I’m not responsible for anyone else’s welfare, so it’s no big deal, and my minor discomfort is nothing compared with that of those who are actually ill at the moment, but still, I feel a little aggrieved.

At least in political life there does seem to have been a turn towards more of a collective outlook. Erstwhile champions of the free market are now overseeing the virtual nationalisation of the whole economy; by next week they will probably be trying to convince us of the merits of war communism. It would be nice to think that this new paradigm will last beyond the end of the current crisis, but I expect the ruling class will revert to type once the existential threat to their system has passed, and it will be back to business as usual.

In other news, it looks like Joe Biden is going to be the Democratic nominee for President, after successfully consolidating the centrist vote and seeing off the progressive challenge of Bernie Sanders. I think this is a big gamble for the Democrats; they are going for what is essentially a rematch of 2016, and it didn’t work out too well last time. Of course that’s assuming that the poll goes ahead in November; Trump may try to use the dislocation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse to cancel the popular vote. As Hillary Clinton found out, Presidents are not elected by the people, but by the Electoral College, which in turn is appointed by the State Legislatures. In modern times the Legislatures have selected Electors based on the result of the popular vote, but there is nothing in the Constitution to say that they have to do that, leaving the way open for Republican-controlled states (of which there are enough to guarantee a majority in the College) to simply hand re-election to Trump. This would presumably precipitate some sort of civil war, so it might be a step too far even for Trump, who, as incumbent, has a better than even chance of prevailing in a fair contest, but, the way the world is going these days, it’s hard to say that anything is unimaginable.

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.

Questionable things

It’s November 2019, which, as all sci-fi fans and film buffs know, is the month when the events of Blade Runner take place.

We wrote about Ridley Scott’s dystopian masterpiece back in the early days of this blog, when 2019 still seemed like the semi-distant future, and, while I did have an inkling that the decade to come was going to be a bit grim, the way things have turned out in reality makes Rick Deckard’s neo-noir Los Angeles look quite attractive in comparison, despite the perpetual rain, and the homicidal robots.

Interestingly, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel which provides the source material for Blade Runner, is in many ways a more accurate portrait of 21st century life. It envisages San Francisco in 2021 (or 1992 in the earlier editions); the elite have long since fled to off-world colonies, leaving ordinary citizens struggling to survive in a world overtaken by ecological catastrophe and drowning in the detritus of a collapsing civilisation, their lives ruled by unaccountable corporations in a brutal police state, finding solace only in technological simulation of lost nature, and bogus virtual-reality religion.

The book and the movie do share a common theme about the nature of humanity, but the former is significantly darker, and much more downbeat in its conclusion. Dick died shortly before the film came out, but he did see a pre-release version, and apparently liked it, though he felt it complemented his story rather than directly reproducing it.

While android technology may not have advanced as far as Dick imagined, the cleverness of today’s Artificial Intelligence does seem to exceed that displayed by the replicants in the story. Roy Batty may trick his way into Tyrell’s residence with an unexpected chess move (though he’s actually just reproducing a game played out by humans back in 1851), but chess is old hat for modern AI; just last month it was reported that Google’s Deep Mind program had mastered that most advanced of intellectual pursuits, the online real-time strategy game.

Some people warn that AI is approaching the Singularity; the point where it can improve itself faster than humans can keep up. This is generally followed, in classic science fiction at least, by the newly-conscious super-computer taking over the world, though this does depend on humans doing something stupid, like handing it control of all the nuclear weapons, and it usually all works out well in the end, once we manage to teach the machines the power of love or something.

I do sometimes worry that AI will kill us all eventually, though not with an army of cyborgs; it will just get us to do the job ourselves, by using social media algorithms to divide us into mutually destructive tribes, or, failing that, to convince enough of us to eschew vaccination that we all die of measles.

At heart though, I’m still enough of a techno-utopian to believe that humankind is sufficiently smart to stay in control of the technology we create, and that our social organisation will evolve to allow the whole population to benefit from the advances that, at the moment, are just enriching a few. All going well, the future will be less like Blade Runner, and more like … actually I can’t think of a sci-fi film where the utopia doesn’t turn out to be a dystopia before the second reel. Maybe Logan’s Run, for the under-30s?

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.

The future is now

The first time I saw the Pacific Ocean was when I visited San Diego in the early 90s. The morning I arrived, after a long overnight trip on the Greyhound, I dropped my bag at the youth hostel, just a short walk from the beach, and headed down to the shore to wash days of accumulated grime off in the warm sea.

I had travelled all the way from the cold east coast in a couple of gruelling bus journeys, and basking in the warm Californian sun felt like heaven. I ended up staying in San Diego for about a week, mostly just loafing on the beach, recharging my batteries while planning my onward course up the west coast. Wanting to travel a bit lighter, I packed most of my thick clothes in to a parcel which I sent back to the UK, figuring that I wouldn’t need them now that I had reached warmer climes. This was a decision I came to regret when I reached Oregon, and even more so when I got to Seattle, though the heavy plaid shirts I was obliged to purchase there to avoid freezing to death did make nice mementos of the trip.

The hostel in San Diego had a bookshelf with a good selection of pulpy sci-fi, which was perfect for undemanding beach reading. One story in particular caught my mood during those long, laidback days; a trippy tale of aliens from the Andromeda galaxy trying to invade the Milky Way through some kind of telepathic mind-control thing. I didn’t really comprehend all the subtleties of the narrative – the starships were all modelled on playing cards for some reason, meaning the stylised space battles took the form of cosmic games of trumps, and it was never clear which characters had and hadn’t been taken over by the aliens – partly because the volume I had was something like the third in a series of seven, so I had missed all the set-up, mostly because I was pretty baked at the time. It didn’t really detract from my enjoyment though. In the years since I’ve occasionally thought about tracking down that book – I’ve forgotten the title of course – and the rest of the set, so I could finally work out what it was all about, but, wisely I think, I’ve always resisted that impulse, as it would probably spoil what is a very fond, if hazy, memory.

Anyway, I was thinking of this because the one thing that I do remember about that book is its author, Ursula K. Le Guin, who, sadly, passed away last week. I’d read, and loved, her Wizard of Earthsea cycle when I was at school, though I’m not sure that that really prepared me for her more out-there sci-fi. I subsequently got to know more about her political outlook, which was not dissimilar to my own, and appreciate that her stories of the future, like all the best science fiction, were really about how we live now, what we need to change, and, most importantly, that change is not only possible, but inevitable. That’s a message that it’s good to hold on to in these dispiriting times.

2017: The Year in Review – Part 2: Culture

While posts on this blog have been a little sparse this year, I have managed to keep our Tumblr up to date, providing a handy list of all my cultural experiences over the last 12 months; here are my personal highlights:

Music – I’ve been steadily buying more records every year since I gave up my fixation with physical objects and started downloading albums back in 2014, so picking out my favourites has been getting harder; this is a fairly arbitrary top ten for 2017, in no particular order:

  • Antisocialites – Alvvays
  • Semper Femina – Laura Marling
  • Life Without Sound – Cloud Nothings
  • The Gold String – Devon Sproule
  • American Dream – LCD Soundsystem
  • Modern Kosmology – Jane Weaver
  • Pleasure – Feist
  • Masseduction – St. Vincent
  • MILANO – Daniele Luppi & Parquet Courts
  • Visions Of A Life – Wolf Alice

I managed to go to more concerts than usual this year too; my favourite was probably Cloud Nothings, though the Pixies gig was a fun blast of nostalgia.

Film – most of my cinematic experience this year was watching DVDs of stuff that came out last year; High Rise and The Neon Demon stand out. Of films I saw in an actual cinema easily the best was T2 Trainspotting, perhaps unsurprisingly, since I am exactly the demographic to appreciate it, having aged along with the protagonists, and shared their experience of change and maturity, though rather less dramatically.

Books – I completed another volume of Proust, The Captive, and filled a slightly embarrassing gap by finally reading some Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. My intake of more recent literature wasn’t great, but I did manage last year’s Booker winner The Sellout, by Paul Beatty, which seemed worthy of the prize, though it did run out of steam towards the end. My favourite fiction of year was another old one that I’ve been meaning to read for ages, The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, a hard-headed yet inspiring treatment of the challenges facing individuals in a communal society. I read rather less history, science and biography than in years past, Patti Smith’s M Train my pick of the latter category.

So that was 2017, insofar as it is possible to sum any year up in a few hundred words. I do regret not posting more this year, especially about politics; right now I feel resolved to do better in the months ahead, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Anyway, I’ll round off by wishing a Happy New Year to anyone who may be reading this, and hoping it finds you healthy and prosperous.

Ten Years After

Rather remarkably, today is the 10th anniversary of the very first post on this blog, and, while I started out full of enthusiasm, I don’t think I would have predicted that I’d still be churning them out a decade later.

It’s not been a steady stream of course – when I did a retrospective on the occasion of our 5th birthday back in 2012 I had a lot of material to work with; the pickings this time around are somewhat slimmer. There have been a few highlights though; here are my favourites:

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

So there you have it, 16 worthwhile pieces in 5 years. Is that a good enough return to justify keeping this blog going? On balance, I think so, though I guess we can revisit the question in 2022. In the meantime I’ll revive one of our traditions, which had sadly fallen into abeyance, the contrived musical link.