Well, how did I get here?

Back in 1985 I moved right across the country to a go to college in a new city. For various reasons I arrived a couple of months before the start of term, and consequently was pretty much on my own until the other students started showing up a few weeks later.

One evening, to ease my isolation, I ventured out to the cinema, which seemed quite adventurous at the time, as the movie I wanted to see was showing at a place on the other side of town, and I hadn’t really figured out even the basic geography of the city, let alone complicated things like the bus schedules. I eventually made it to the cinema though, and was rewarded with an enviable double bill; Talking Heads concert documentary Stop Making Sense, with the Coen brothers’ debut feature Blood Simple in support.

I came out of the movie theatre around midnight, facing a long walk back to my lonely flat, but buzzing with the excitement of living a new, free, life where such cultural delights were mine to enjoy on a whim.

That feeling lasted a good few years, probably until my late 20s, but, without me really noticing it happening, my life eventually became complicated by responsibility, and these days even something simple like taking in a new movie requires so much planning that I seldom manage it.

So it’s kind of bittersweet to recall that night; as it recedes further into the past the memory becomes increasingly infused with a sense of loss. I’d hate to forget it altogether though, since I don’t want to believe that it’s impossible that I’ll someday feel that way again.

Anyway, I was thinking of this tonight after hearing that Jonathan Demme had passed away. I have Stop Making Sense on DVD somewhere; I’ll have to dig it out for old times’ sake…

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.

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 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…

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…

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…

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.

Viva la Revolución Bolivariana!

I woke to sad news today; Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela, had lost his final battle against illness. It seems like only yesterday we were celebrating his reelection; now we mourn his passing.

Hugo Chavez will undoubtedly be remembered as a great figure in left politics; his legacy not just the vast improvement in living standards he brought to the people of Venezuela, but also the movement he built that will carry on his work, and the inspiration he gave to others fighting poverty and injustice in neighbouring countries and around the world.

That inspiration is captured in the documentary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, which covers the abortive 2002 coup against Chavez, and the popular uprising that defeated it. It’s available in full on YouTube, and well worth watching.