Guiding Light

Television’s Marquee Moon was released 40 years ago today. I’ve listened to it countless times, but it still sounds as alive and exciting as it did when I first encountered it. In these troubled times it’s good to have a reminder that some things are timeless.

Eve of destruction

In an hour or so Donald Trump will be sworn in as President, and, if one believes what one reads in the liberal press, the End Times will begin. Personally, I’ve been alternating between optimistically hoping that, once in power, Trump will dial down the crazy a few notches, and gloomily recalling that people expected the same thing from Hitler back in the 30s.

We’ll just have to wait and see I guess. Trump’s capacity for mayhem will be limited to some extent by his compromised legitimacy, the substantial opposition that exists within the country, and the fact that a massive bureaucracy like the US government is well able to resist the whims of the executive, but I’ve no doubt that life is about to get substantially more difficult for a large section of the US population.

At least Trump’s reign will be limited to four years at most; here in the UK our flirtation with insane populism has landed us on the path of no return out of Europe, which will cripple the country for generations. Our only hope is that this disaster will kindle some sort of revolution, but, the state of the left being what it is, that doesn’t look very likely.

Oh well, we’ve been here before and lived through it. Something will turn up

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.

I Wanna Be Sedated

There are about 24 hours to go until the less-than-edifying US Presidential campaign draws to a close, and the long-suffering voters finally get a chance to have their say. The national polls, tracking polls, swing-state polls, early voting indications and pundits all seem to agree that Hillary will win fairly comfortably, albeit not with the landslide that looked likely a couple of weeks ago, but I don’t think I, or the rest of the world, will really be able to relax until the final count is in, and even then the trouble may only be starting.

It seems unlikely that Trump will go quietly, but I think fears of widespread unrest are probably overstated. I wrote a couple of weeks ago that what Trump needed was a redemption narrative; he has, of course, been unable to grasp that opportunity, but the story can still work for the nation as a whole. Having flirted with, but ultimately rejected, the spectre of fascism, the US will be able to congratulate itself on still being that shining city upon a hill, the country that we atavistic Europeans can only wish we were, and carry on down the road of American exceptionalism.

It’s not all gloomy though; it looks like marijuana-legalisation measures around the country will pass, as the stoner vote, motivated by anti-Trump animus, turns out in greater than usual numbers. It certainly won’t hurt to have some extra calming influence around…

Change don’t come easy

The third and final Presidential debate turned out to be a bit anticlimactic. Donald Trump actually performed relatively well, by his own low standards, managing to more or less focus on the issues, before blowing it at the end with his self-defeating reluctance to say he would accept the verdict of the very voters he was supposed to be trying to win over. Hillary Clinton, who, as all observers have noted, might well be struggling against a semi-competent opponent, once again had little to do but avoid disaster, which she managed with the ease one might expect from such a veteran operator.

The papers today have been full of hand-wringing about Trump undermining the traditions of US democracy, which I think is all rather overblown, especially now that he has started to walk back his “No Surrender” position. Hillary will win next month, and an exhausted electorate will move on. The GOP will regroup, and it will be business as usual by the end of the year, in Washington at least. There may be some grumbling from the disaffected elements that Trump has riled up, but they don’t constitute anything like an organised movement, so it’s unlikely to come to anything.

The best chance of real change probably lies in the remnants of the Sanders campaign, but that will be a long-term project. Hillary may progress some mild reform, but, whatever the right say, she’s no revolutionary. For the left, once the distraction of the quadrennial election has passed, it will, as ever, be back to the unglamorous grind of everyday activism, the sort of thing that actually gets things done.

He’s a poet

In an otherwise gloomy week there was one bright spot; Bob Dylan scoring a Nobel Prize for Literature. The somewhat controversial (but thoroughly deserved) award has had everyone quoting their best-loved lyrics, but I haven’t seen anyone mentioning my favourite, Motorpsycho Nitemare; one of the few songs where I can identify completely with the narrator.

Exit Flagger

In a development that seems at once unbelievable and inevitable, Donald Trump has emerged triumphant from the Republican nomination process. While this means that we will be denied the amusing spectacle of a contested convention (to the relief, no doubt, of the citizens of Cleveland), it does promise lots of entertainment over the next six months as Trump leads the GOP to a humiliating and perhaps fatal defeat.

In contrast, the election we are having here tomorrow has generated a campaign of insufferable dullness, as our politicians have largely avoided controversy in a rush to paint themselves as competent technocrats. Not for us anything like the exciting, if somewhat limited, campaign of Bernie Sanders; the left in these parts is so thoroughly marginalised that even centre-right social democrats can paint themselves as radicals. On the other hand, we haven’t given time to any fascist demagogues, so I guess our political culture has that going for it.

But any temptation we UK leftists may have to feel smug about the stupidity of the US electorate, or at least the Republican segment of it, for entertaining the notion of a President Trump, is likely to be squashed over the next few weeks, as we approach polling day in the Euro referendum. While the issue hasn’t quite caught fire with the public yet, all sorts of reactionaries have been crawling out of the woodwork, and it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the vote could go in favour of Brexit, a result that would negate most of the social progress of the last half-century. While our transatlantic cousins will probably step back from the abyss by electing Hillary, we might end up jumping right in.

Lovesexy

I guess it’s an indication of my limited musical horizons, or perhaps just that I’m a terrible and shallow human being, but, for me, the entirety of Prince’s 37-album, endlessly-innovative, genre-melding, racially-integrating, PMRC-baiting revolution of a career boils down to a nostalgic fondness for his 1988 track Alphabet Street, because it reminds me of a girl I knew in college. I think the late Artist would have approved of what we did while listening to that record though…

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…