2016: The Year in Review – Politics, Culture, Blogging

I’m going to compress my review of the past 12 months into one post this year, partly because, in common with everyone else, I’ve been, like, fuck 2016, and want to spend as little time thinking about it as possible, but mainly because my blogging activity has been pretty sparse of late, so there’s not very much to review.

Politics first; if I had any suspicion that I was old, and out of touch, then my fears were more than confirmed by the way I was blindsided by the two big political developments of the year, Brexit and Trump. To be honest I’m still pretty much in denial over both of them; I feel sure that the Founding Fathers must have written something into the Constitution to head off the kind of clusterfuck promised by a manifestly unfit President, and I can’t believe that the Tories, who have always looked after the interests of the national bourgeoisie, will follow through with the economic suicide of leaving the single market. Then again I guess it’s such naivety that stopped me seeing these disasters coming in the first place; that, and my effective retirement from active politics in the last couple of years. Anyway, I think I’ll refrain from making any more political predictions until a bit of time has passed and I’ve got at least some of my bearings back.

Culture is a bit more straightforward; my taste in music, literature and film (as recorded in our Tumblr) is more or less the same as ever, so my favourites are fairly predictable.

Top ten albums, in no particular order:

  • New View – Eleanor Friedberger
  • Welcome the Worms – Bleached
  • Human Performance – Parquet Courts
  • Crab Day – Cate Le Bon
  • Desire’s Magic Theatre – Purson
  • Empire Builder – Laura Gibson
  • Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not – Dinosaur Jr.
  • My Woman – Angel Olsen
  • Undercurrent – Sarah Jarosz
  • Let It Be You – Joan As Police Woman & Benjamin Lazar Davis

Plus lots of other good stuff; if I had to choose one it would probably be Empire Builder.

Favourite books – back in January I read a lot about time, relativity and cosmology, which was a bit of a downer, confirming as it did my view that human existence is insignificant and essentially random, so for the rest of the year I stuck to the comforts of fiction. I managed another volume of Proust, Cities of the Plain, leaving me on course to finish the set before the end of the decade, and a fair mix of other books, old and new, the most enjoyable probably Purity, by Jonathan Franzen, and David Means’ Hystopia.

Top films – I only visited an actual cinema once this year, to see The Force Awakens, which was distinctly underwhelming, even in 3D. I have acquired some of the year’s other releases on DVD, though the only one I’ve got round to watching is Hail, Caesar!, so I guess it gets my vote for film of the year. I will try to see High Rise and The Neon Demon before too long.

And so on to blogging. I actually managed to post a bit more this year than last, but traffic is down more than half, and we’re pulling in barely 10% of the hits we used to get in the glory days of 2010. This is partly due (I tell myself) to the general decline of blogging as a medium, but I have to admit that lacklustre content hasn’t helped. As I’ve already noted my political analysis was practically worthless; apart from briefly mentioning the passing of Bowie and Prince, I didn’t really touch upon any cultural issues; and, most embarrassingly, there was a complete absence of anything even vaguely resembling psychological insight into virtual life, which is supposed to be the whole point of this blog. The only post from 2016 that I would highlight is this one about the Chicago Cubs, which does show a little of our characteristic whimsical nostalgia, but overall it was far from a vintage year.

Anyway, for the record, here are our ten most popular posts of the year, all, unsurprisingly, from the archive:

  1. Second Life demographics – a brief review
  2. Free Pussy Riot!
  3. On Second Life and addiction
  4. Watching the Okhrana
  5. Fly me to the moon
  6. Ferrisburg, Vermont
  7. What’s up
  8. Bastille Day 1989
  9. No man is an island
  10. There is no land beyond the Volga

Our geographical reach has contracted a bit recently, but we still had hits from 63 different countries this year; here are the top ten:

  1. United States
  2. Brazil
  3. United Kingdom
  4. France
  5. Germany
  6. Italy
  7. Canada
  8. Australia
  9. India
  10. Spain

So that was 2016. I was going to preview next year too, but I’m running out of enthusiasm, so I’ll leave it for another day. In the meantime, I’ll wish a happy and prosperous New Year to all our readers.

Anti-Social

There’s a passage early in Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting where protagonist Renton decides to kick his heroin habit, which he manages, though not without some difficulty (and a trip to the Worst Toilet in Scotland). Afterwards he finds that his friend Sick Boy has come off the smack too, just to piss off Renton by showing how easily he could do it.

In a similar spirit, I resolved last month to quit Facebook, just to prove to myself that I could. Rather to my surprise it’s been pretty painless; after a couple of days the urge to click the familiar blue icon on my phone more or less completely faded. I was a bit worried that, divorced from my carefully curated timeline, I might fall out of touch with world events and popular culture, but it turns out that looking at the BBC news a couple of times a day and listening to the radio are just as effective in this regard as compulsively checking the latest minor updates every few minutes, so I don’t feel that I’ve lost anything terribly valuable.

What have I actually gained though? A gratifying glow of smugness when I sit on the train and look at all the sheeple hypnotised by their corporate overlords of course, and probably something intangible, like a deeper connection with the natural world around me or the like. I can’t say that I’ve done anything particularly constructive with the hour or two a day freed up by this change in habit, but I guess regaining the ability to just do nothing for periods of time is actually quite valuable.

In the story Renton eventually relapses, and his subsequent detox is exponentially more horrifying than the first, so I suppose that I shouldn’t get too complacent after just a few weeks of abstinence. I need to find some other diversional activity – perhaps I’ll take up blogging again…

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.

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 Bolaño, 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…

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…

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…

Forty Years Of Insularity

I’d like to be able to join in the tributes to the late Gabriel García Márquez by quoting passages from his works that have inspired me, but the sad truth is that, while I have of course heard of him, and I am familiar with his critical reputation, I have never actually got round to reading any of his books. I’ve pretty much completely avoided magical realism in fact; Angela Carter, Juan Rulfo, not much else.

This rather embarrassing lapse has prompted me to reflect on how anglocentric my reading habits are. How many translated works have I read? There are the ancient classics – Homer, Ovid, Virgil, some other Greeks and Romans. Skip a millennium to Dante and Cervantes, then another gap to the 19th Century; quite a lot of Russian stuff – Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov – Flaubert, Zola. Into the 20th Century there’s Kafka, Hesse. Nothing I can think of post-war though.

This is most unsatisfactory. The cultural life of entire peoples is literally a closed book to me. Inexcusable, in an age where just about any volume is available at the click of a button, but unlikely to change, since I’m already well behind with my list of English must-reads, and new stuff comes out all the time. I will try to tackle One Hundred Years of Solitude this summer though; Márquez did win the Nobel Prize, so I guess it might be worth my time…

2013: The Year in Review – Part 1: Culture

After my poor showing on the cultural front in 2012 I set myself some rather modest targets for this year; every month get two new records, read two new books, and see two new films. How hard could that be? Harder than I thought evidently.

I didn’t do too badly with music, managing to acquire 30 albums, mostly new stuff, and getting along a few live shows too.

Here’s this year’s mix tape (and here it is on Spotify, with a couple of substitutions for tracks that aren’t available):

Untitled 28 – The Twilight Sad (Killed My Parents and Hit the Road)
Nil – The Twilight Sad (No One Can Ever Know)
Holy – Frightened Rabbit (Pedestrian Verse)
Xcommunication – My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult (I See Good Spirits And I See Bad Spirits)
Girls Are The New Boys – Saloon ((This Is) What We Call Progress)
Partners in Crime – The Strokes (Comedown Machine)
Subway – Yeah Yeah Yeahs (Mosquito)
S.O.S. In Bel Air – Phoenix (Bankrupt!)
Husbands – Savages (Silence Yourself)
Magic Bullet – Wire (Change Becomes Us)
W/ Glass In Foot – Guided By Voices (English Little League)
Turn Each Other Inside Out – Primal Scream (More Light)
I Sat By The Ocean – Queens of the Stone Age (Like Clockwork)
Bad For My Body – Deap Vally (Sistrionix)
Bagboy – Pixies (Bagboy)
Tomorrow Tomorrow – Eleanor Friedberger (Personal Record)
Athsma Attack – The Fiery Furnaces (Gallowsbird’s Barkl)
Navy Nurse – The Fiery Furnaces (Widow City)
Canary Island – Houndstooth (Ride Out The Dark)
Morningstar – Grant Hart (The Argument)
Low F – Superchunk (I Hate Music)
Pandora’s Box – Throwing Muses (Throwing Muses)
Hitch – Speedy Ortiz (Major Arcana)
State Of Mine – Sebadoh (Defend Yourself)
Joan Of Arc – Arcade Fire (Reflektor)
Opiates – Throwing Muses (Purgatory/Paradise)
No Shelter – Blouse (Imperium)
Turning Violent – The Flaming Lips (The Terror)
I Need My Girl – The National (Trouble Will Find Me)
Only Tomorrow – My Bloody Valentine (mbv)

I’d have to admit that my musical tastes haven’t changed much in the last 20 years, hence the somewhat retro look of the above selection. My favourite album of the year – Major Arcana by Speedy Ortiz – is a new band’s debut, but the sound is distinctly 90s. Similarly the concerts I attended – Pixies, The Breeders – had a definite nostalgic edge.

It’s downhill from here I’m afraid. I only managed eight full-length novels, though in my defence I would say that I was on a bit of a modernist binge, and books like Gravity’s Rainbow, To the Lighthouse and Umbrella take a while to get through. Rewarding though, and in particular I found Will Self’s tale of psychiatric exploration and wartime loss both structurally intriguing and professionally fascinating, which made it my favourite read this year. In lieu of serious literature I did consume a lot of shorter pieces; reviews, essays, medical and political articles, and rather too many blog posts and other bits of online trivia. I like to think that this is a reflection of the fragmented nature of contemporary cultural discourse, but it probably has more to do with my ageing brain’s declining attention span.

My cinematic experience was similarly underwhelming; I just about managed one film a month. Behind the Candelabra was probably the best of these, and I also liked Before Midnight, though it wasn’t quite as enjoyable as the previous instalments in the series.

So, pass marks for music, but could do better for books and movies. Will things improve over the next twelve months? I’m not sure that I’ll see more films, since I seem to have lost my old cinema habit, but I have bought a few volumes that were on the critics’ “Best of 2013” lists, so I might catch up on current literary trends, albeit a year behind. We’ll see.

2012: The Year in Review – Part 1: Culture

Back in February I had the brilliant idea of starting up a Tumblr, upon which I intended to note every record I bought, every film I watched for the first time and every new book I read, so that come December I would have the raw material for a review of my year’s cultural highlights.

I have managed to keep this going (unlike the Pinterest project, but that’s another story), and it has revealed, disappointingly, that the cultural landscape of my life is more akin to an arid desert than the tropical rainforest I imagined it to be.

I did best on the recorded music front, with 24 albums purchased, a fraction of what I consumed back in the 90s, but perhaps not too bad for an old dog. Books read numbered an embarrassing 11, none of them published this year, while my movie intake was a mere dozen, with only two actual trips to the cinema (and one of those was to see The Muppets). I seem to have managed to completely avoid going to concerts and exhibitions.

Have I descended then into philistinism? Has the pernicious effect of the accursed internet completely rotted my brain? Not quite yet I hope. I spend rather more time than I should on idle web browsing, but I do try to keep up with the Arts sections of the papers, so I can join in conversations about contemporary culture, even if most of my opinions are gleaned from reviews rather than direct experience. I still listen to music pretty much all the time, though I stick more to stuff I know I’ll like than I used to. I do need to start watching more films again, starting with the stack of DVDs I accumulated this year that I never quite got round to viewing.

Anyway, on with the review. Music first; here’s my 2012 mix-tape, made up from my favourite track from each of the records I bought this year, mostly new releases, but some older stuff too:

Chocolate Boy – Guided By Voices (Let’s Go Eat the Factory)
Norgaard – The Vaccines (What Did You Expect from the Vaccines?)
On a Neck, On a Spit – Grizzly Bear (Yellow House)
Wasted Days – Cloud Nothings (Attack on Memory)
Boyfriend – Best Coast (Crazy For You)
Secrets – Headlights (Wildlife)
Love Interruption – Jack White (Blunderbuss)
Can We Really Party Today? – Jonathan Wilson (Gentle Spirit)
Better Girl – Best Coast (The Only Place)
Be Impeccable – Guided By Voices (Class Clown Spots a UFO)
No Cars Go – Arcade Fire (Arcade Fire)
Neighborhood 3 (Power Out) – Arcade Fire (Funeral)
Yet Again – Grizzly Bear (Shields)
June – Unrest (Imperial f.f.r.r.)
Harnessed in Slums – Archers of Loaf (Vee Vee)
Polyester Bride – Liz Phair (Whitechocolatespaceegg)
Don’t Pretend You Didn’t Know – Dinosaur Jr. (I Bet on Sky)
Season in Hell – Dum Dum Girls (End of Daze)
Pinhole Cameras – …And You Will Know Us By the Trail Of Dead (Lost Songs)
He Gets Me High – Dum Dum Girls (He Gets Me High)
Waking Up The Stars – Guided By Voices (The Bears For Lunch)
Keep Believing – Bob Mould (Silver Age)
The House That Heaven Built – Japandroids (Celebration Rock)
The Anarchist – Rush (Clockwork Angels)

There are several contenders for my record of the year, including Attack on Memory, Silver Age, Celebration Rock and both the Dum Dum Girls’ EPs, but I’ll give the nod to the pleasingly complex Shields by Grizzly Bear.

The best book I read this year was The Cambridge Modern History Volume IV – The Thirty Years War, a majestic tome published back in 1906, available on the Kindle for pennies, which covers not just the titular conflict but also the English Civil War and religious, philosophical and cultural developments of the period. The editors’ Victorian prejudices do show to some extent, but the raw material is so dramatic that it can’t miss being a gripping read.

My fiction reading this year mostly consisted of catching up with books I’m faintly embarrassed to admit I hadn’t read already, like The Trial, The Gambler, Crash, and, my favourite, The Golden Notebook, by Doris Lessing. I liked it for its depiction of life in the CPGB in the 50s, which is a little specialised I guess, but it’s also worth reading for the experimental structure and proto-feminist sensibility.

Film of the year? I hardly feel qualified to comment, but I thought On the Road was quite good. The Muppets was OK too I suppose.

So, that sums up my year of culture. Not my best ever, but not too shabby. Hopefully I’ll be inspired to try a bit harder in 2013…

Grey Skies

I’ve been pretty lax on the blog front of late, which I had been ascribing to simple idleness, but my new theory is that I’m just being slowed down by having to wade through that damn Higgs Field every day.

Anyway, what’s been happening? Spanish flair did win Euro 2012, as I (almost) predicted, though it triumphed over Italian artistry rather than Teutonic efficiency, the Germans having lost their way in the semi-final. For a while after that game it seemed like they might cave in on the Eurobond question too, but no such luck.

In other news, the reading public have twisted a dagger into the heart of aspiring authors everywhere by enthusiastically embracing a volume of reworked Twilight fan-fic, making it the fastest selling paperback ever in the UK, despite it being, by all accounts, very poorly written, not particularly transgressive, and certainly not psychologically sophisticated.

Discouraged by this turn of events I have abandoned my plans to spend the next few months working on my own literary masterpiece, in favour of my usual summer routine of getting stoned in the park (assuming the rain ever stops), with a suitable soundtrack. There may not be many more posts this month…