Fifteen Years Ago

Second Life Shrink made its debut on May 26th 2007, an exciting time when technology promised a future of unlimited opportunity. The must-have communication gadget was a BlackBerry, all the cool kids were on MySpace, and it was still possible to dream of making a living by blogging.

A decade and a half later, after nearly 700 posts, we’re still going strong, or still going at least. This would seem like a good opportunity to reflect on how the dream of internet liberation degenerated into the post-truth social-media dystopia that we live in today, but that sounds like hard work, so in true SLS slacker style I’ll just do what I did on our fifth and tenth birthdays, and list my favourite posts from the past 5 years:

2017

2018

2019

2020

2021

2022

Perhaps this review will inspire me to post a bit more frequently again; we’ll see. In the meantime I’ll revive a favourite feature that has lain dormant since 2012, the post-title-related music link.

2021: The year in review – Part 1: Culture

According to the meticulous record I keep on our Tumblr, my consumption of Serious Cultural Experiences was up 17.46% over the course of 2021. This may or may not be related to a loosening of my criteria for what constitutes a Serious Cultural Experience; I’ll let you be the judge…

Television – This year saw me watch a lot more TV than I had for ages, partly because other entertainment options were somewhat limited, but mostly because I had signed up for several streaming services, and was determined to get my money’s worth. I have to admit that I sat through a lot of late-night junk, but I did follow a few of the series that received more positive critical attention, like The Queen’s Gambit, and WandaVision. My favourite was Pretend It’s a City, in which Fran Lebowitz and Martin Scorsese trade anecdotes about life in New York, evoking the kind of classy intellectual milieu that I can only dream of being part of.

Film – I enjoyed WandaVision, but for about 90% of the time I had no idea what was going on, so, since I had already shelled out for the Disney+ subscription, I set out to fill the gap in my pop-culture knowledge by watching all the Marvel movies in timeline order, starting with Captain America: The First Avenger in May, and wrapping up with Avengers: Endgame just a few days ago. I’d hesitate to say that it was the most productive use I could have made of my time, but it was diverting, and there were some interesting themes explored, though personally I preferred the entries that stuck to the comic-book spirit over those that aimed for a more serious tone. I thought the best of the bunch was Captain Marvel, but that might just have been due to the grungy 90s soundtrack. I did go back to the cinema once it reopened, but I stuck to fairly undemanding entertainment rather than anything more heavyweight. I expect that The French Dispatch would have been my movie of the year if I had been organised enough to buy a ticket while it was still playing; since I wasn’t my vote goes to Last Night in Soho, with honourable mentions for Dune and House of Gucci.

Books – I didn’t read much fiction this year, or much non-fiction, or much of anything longer than a magazine article to be honest; too much TV I guess. Of the books I did manage, mostly old ones, I liked Balthazar, the second volume of the Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, Nixonland, Rick Perlstein’s biography of Richard Nixon (obviously), Will Self’s thinly-fictionalised autobiography Will, and, my favourite, John Updike’s The Centaur.

Music – I bought a lot of records in 2021; music is the one area of culture where I try hardest to keep up the pretence that I am somewhat in touch with the zeitgeist, albeit within the narrow parameters of my long-established taste. Here are ten albums I particularly liked:

  • The Shadow I Remember – Cloud Nothings
  • Flock – Jane Weaver
  • Electrically Possessed [Switched On Volume 4] – Stereolab
  • epic Ten – Sharon Van Etten
  • Bodies of Water – Moontype
  • Chaise Longue / Wet Dream – Wet Leg
  • Long Time Coming – Sierra Ferrell
  • Astral Spectra – Piney Gir
  • The Umbrellas – The Umbrellas
  • Sympathy for Life – Parquet Courts

I didn’t go to any concerts, even though the music scene did start to tentatively open up towards the end of year. I have tickets for a couple of shows next month, here’s hoping they go ahead.

So that was 2021 in culture; no big surprises, which is only to be expected at my age I suppose. Next up: the year in blogging.

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.

Lost Christmas

Just when it seemed like humanity was finally getting on top of the whole Covid thing, and we could to go back to worrying full-time about Brexit, the virus has apparently mutated into a new super-infectious strain, precipitating a fresh surge in cases, and prompting Boris Johnson to reintroduce a lockdown, effectively cancelling Christmas for much of the population.

This isn’t actually going to have much practical effect for me, since I had no plans to do anything over the festive season other than sit in the house watching TV in a state of semi-intoxication, but it’s hard not to get caught up in the sense of gloom that has swept the nation since the news broke. Restrictions that were just about bearable during the summer seem especially grim in the darkness of midwinter. We have little to look forward to, and a lot to be apprehensive about, not least the aforementioned Brexit, which promises to plunge the country into a fresh crisis in less than a fortnight. The government’s shambolic handling of the pandemic, with the U-turn over Yuletide only the latest blunder, does little to inspire confidence.

One can just about cut Johnson a little slack on his response to Covid; it is after all the sort of once-in-a-century challenge that might have tested any leader, though it’s not hard to see how his administration could have done better. The Brexit debacle is unforgivable however; an entirely self-inflicted wound that even a semi-competent premier should have avoided. Both issues highlight Johnson’s essential weakness; having attained his position by deploying populist rhetoric, he now finds himself unable to make decisions that might prove unpopular, particularly anything that reminds his supporters that a course of action he commended to them will inevitably involve unpleasant consequences.

The irony is that, had he shown more decisiveness, Johnson could have exploited these extraordinary circumstances to entrench the Tories in power for a generation, in the way that his predecessor Margaret Thatcher used the economic turmoil of the 1980s to unravel the post-war social compact, and tip the class struggle decisively in favour of capital. As it stands though, barely a year after his triumphal entry into Downing Street, Johnson’s authority has all but completely ebbed away, and his downfall in the next 12 months is not unimaginable.

Johnson’s departure might be a welcome outcome, but it’s not clear whether, given the opportunity to choose a new course, the country will go for the Biden option of comforting centrism, or double down on the nationalist extremism. Sadly, there isn’t much indication that the population is ready to take a turn towards progressive radicalism, though perhaps collective solutions will become more popular as people observe the inability of the free market to respond to the Covid emergency.

Any sort of happy ending may seem a long way off, but it’s the winter solstice tomorrow, and after that the days will be getting longer, reminding us that, however cold and dark it is now, spring and summer will always come around.

[We haven’t had a musical link for ages, so here’s a suitably seasonal one, if you’ll excuse the pun.]

Neil Peart RIP

When people ask me what the first record I ever bought was, I usually tell them Heart of Glass by Blondie, which was the first single I purchased, but the first LP that I bought was Moving Pictures by Rush. I’ve been a little reluctant to admit that over the years, as Rush are not generally felt to be the coolest act on the planet, but I was definitely a big fan for a while, and they were one of the first bands that introduced me to the idea that music could be something beyond an ephemeral distraction.

After Moving Pictures I quickly acquired all their previous albums, and their next release Signals, but my initial enthusiasm didn’t last, partly for reasons I’ll mention below, and I hardly listened to them at all over the following three decades, until some nostalgic impulse prompted me to get 2012’s Clockwork Angels, which in turn led me to revisit my collection of their old material. I’m not sure that I would sit and listen to any of the albums all the way through, but there are certainly some highlights, especially on Fly by Night, Permanent Waves, and the aforementioned Moving Pictures.

So I was sad to read in the paper this morning that Neil Peart had passed away, at the early age of 67. Much of the appeal of Rush’s work lies in the storytelling of his lyrics, particularly on the earlier albums, where he crafts some intriguing Tolkienesque fantasy, while (mostly) avoiding any lapses into ridiculousness.

There are some problematic elements to Peart’s legacy though; 2112, dedicated to “the genius of Ayn Rand”, is difficult to forgive. It’s said that Peart later disavowed Rand and identified himself as a “bleeding heart libertarian”, but the official Rush website featured a sympathetic portrait of the alt-right icon as late as 2012, and in 2018 Peart was still describing 2112 as the story of “a hero who fights against collectivist mentality (depicted by the evil red star)“, so I probably won’t be putting that back on the turntable any time soon.

I much preferred Peart when he stuck to the elf-related whimsy, so I think that’s how I’ll remember him.

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.

There may be trouble ahead

So, after hanging on grimly to her premiership for what seems like forever, Theresa May has bid us a tearful adieu. The identity of our next Prime Minister, and with it the fate of the nation, and perhaps the continent, lies in the hands of around 300 Conservative MPs, who will choose two candidates to go forward to the final reckoning, at the end of which a victor will be anointed by the hundred thousand or so elderly oddballs who make up the Tory party membership. What could possibly go wrong?

Don’t worry, be happy

Today is International Day of Happiness, so I’ve been trying to think positive thoughts all day, and mostly succeeding. In times of national crisis like this there is definitely something to be said for forgetting about the big picture and just living in the moment. Despite all my angst over the political situation, my life is mostly very agreeable, and will probably continue to be so in all the ways that really matter, whatever happens. I’ll try to hold on to that thought over the next week…

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.

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?

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