Monday, 13 May 2013

Plashing Vole's Cultural Capers

Hi everybody. Monday going well for you all I trust? I'm marking dissertations. Well, I'm meant to be marking dissertations… I'm not entirely goofing off: lots of people have been coming in looking for help or helping me with things. And I overslept, thanks to a protracted nightmare which involved an alarm clock which wouldn't switch off even after I'd disassembled it. I think that counts as irony.

I had a rather magnificent weekend. Apart from marking some dissertations, I went to a recording of Any Questions, the Radio 4 predecessor of TV's Question Time, saw the new Star Trek film, and saw Athlete's final gig on their 10-year anniversary tour.

Question Time was rather good fun. It didn't start well: I had my own personalised monsoon, which lasted for precisely the time it took to get from the bus to the Keele University bar where I met my friends. I'm not sure I have ever been so wet. The rain was heavier than it's ever been, and my very expensive Montane waterproof jacket seems to have been designed to channel all the water directly to the crotch of my not-at-all waterproof trousers. My question to the panel should have been 'does anyone have any dry clothes please?', or given that I had a couple of scoops, 'would the panel fancy a kebab?'. However, despite steaming and chafing throughout the recording, it was fun. The guests were the awful Christine Hamilton (who seemed to imply that all immigrants are free-loading criminals and tax-avoiders: to an audience of overseas teachers and students); Patrick McLoughlin, a ponderously dull Tory government minister whose only claim to fame is that as a former miner, he's betrayed his class, the walking organ-donor Stephen Twigg, meant to defend public education against the depredations of Michael Gove, though I've never met anyone who knows who he is, and Yasmin Alibhai Brown, the rather excellent, witty and thoughtful journalist whose work I never read because it's in the Independent. 

We had a good heckle, which encouraged the students around us to do the same, clapped the progressive points and roundly booed the xenophobic and reactionary ones. I'd planned to ask the panel whether modern politics has enough room for humility and self-doubt, because as far as I can see, it doesn't, to its detriment. I posed the same question to David Miliband, who signally failed to understand it. However, my question wasn't chosen. The panel discussed transport, Europe, immigration and several other topics, and the audience seemed split between a UKIP minority and a liberal-left majority. All in all: good clean fun. Get it here, if you're in the UK: listen to me heckle Christine Hamilton for unselfconsciously blaming crime on immigrants, despite her husband taking bribes to ask questions in Parliament.

And then to Star Trek: Into Darkness. My, what a glorious caper. It looks great, the action sequences are brilliant, it's paced well, the slightly lame ST humour is intact, the performances are excellent - a great popcorn movie. Plus all the 'uneasy lies the crown' stuff, the homosocial bonding etc etc. And we get the original music back at the end. Heaven

But there's more to it. For the Trek fans – of which I'm one, though not as dedicated as the couple who turned up in Starfleet uniform – the movie plays affectionately fast and loose with the canon. The film is effectively a prequel to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which as we all know is about Khan's revenge on Kirk and ends with Spock's death (don't worry: the rather weak but lovely Star Trek III: The Search for Spock regenerates him). Into Darkness introduces characters central to the earlier films' plots, is spattered with lovely references to episodes to the original series and stages an astonishing reversal of the final homosocially heart-breaking scene of The Wrath of Khan. Audacious, yes, though it somewhat strips Spock of agency - you'll know what I mean when you see it.

Into Darkness is also an explicitly political film too. Kirk is sent off by the supreme commander of Starfleet to murder a terrorist using torpedoes: no trial, no warning. His plan, it becomes clear, is to provoke a war and turn Starfleet into a military organisation rather than an exploratory one. In the grand Star Trek tradition then, the film takes on Iraq, Afghanistan, the death of Bin Laden and Obama's policy of preferring drone attacks to trials, even of American citizens. It's also an interesting film culturally. While a chunk of London is blown up at the start (American filmmakers like blowing up London and Paris: far away enough for American audiences not to mind, yet still recognisable even by Texans), it's rare for films to trash American cities since 9/11. And yet here we have the renegade villain (Benedict Cumberbatch) demolishing half of San Francisco. Clearly Americans are ready for this stuff, though I suspect the conservative viewer wouldn't mind so much: Starfleet's HQ is there in honour of that city's famous commitment to peace, love and understanding - San Francisco is a byword for liberalism in conservative circles.

Finally in this hectic weekend, I was given a guest list ticket to see Athlete, celebrating the 10th anniversary of their début album Vehicles and Animals. I have one of their LPs somewhere, but I have to confess to not knowing much about them: there's a gap in my musical library between about 2002-2008 when I was a) broke and b) mostly buying experimental classical stuff and folk. So I knew Athlete are nice chaps with good tunes: anthemic and upbeat. Well, seeing them live was rather a revelation: their quite pretty songs came with a lot of muscle, and the crowd really made a difference. I had no idea they had such a devoted cult - but this crowd (young and old, mixed sex, mostly white) sang every single word. For someone like me, lacking emotional commitment to the band, it was hugely enjoyable to watch 1500 people united in song. Oh yes: great theremin playing too.

Here's 'Out of Nowhere' - the one with the theremin.

and 'Black Swan'.

Right. Back to the marking.

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