Monday, 15 November 2021

Droning on again…

Maybe I am dead after all. I certainly haven't been blogging at all: too busy teaching (every day) and preparing classes in multiple formats. I'm only typing this because I'm in the office resolutely not marking. Not that I resent the teaching schedule too much - the students are a joy at the moment: present, engaged and enthusiastic. Even the online classes which were a chore for all concerned last year are going well. No doubt the atmosphere will change next week when the first essays are returned - there's always a notable froideur in the room when my misanthropic bile manifests itself in stark percentages (as an aside, I hate percentage marking: there's no meaningful way to differentiate between a 63% understanding of a sonnet and a 64% - it's misleading pseudoscience). Until then though, cheeriness abounds, with only the awareness of research undone nagging at the edge of my consciousness. 

Other than that, I've been to Exeter with colleagues to do a Being Human festival gig as part of our Novel Perceptions project: please please please please take our survey and make the data significant. We're interested in a refreshed canon, peoples' memories and emotional responses to texts, their ideas of what constitutes literary quality and the qualities of books people rate highly (which our colleagues at the University of Amsterdam are analysing computationally. One of the interesting aspects is identifying regional preferences: Exonians rate Stella Gibbons' gleeful parody of pastoralism Cold Comfort Farm, Pride and Prejudice and Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander more highly than readers in other areas. Some of this is regional loyalty of course, but I think there are probably other reasons: appreciation of the harshness of rural life in Gibbons' satire, and also echoes of the long-gone period when cities like Exeter were centres of real political and cultural power. Before mass communications and mass transport the south coast was where Austen's characters went for a bit of sun, sea and sin (Torquay and Lyme Regis as the Magaluf of their day) and abroad started just outside the harbour when naval, slaving, trading and emigration ships departed from ports all round the country rather than everyone heading off to Gatwick, Heathrow and Stansted (though Caergybi/Holyhead has always been my only port of departure). One of the high points of the day was sharing a panel with two fascinating artists: established novelist Virginia Baily and emerging poet Zakiya McKenzie, whose work on place, culture and environment in the English south-west and Jamaica really bowled me over. 

I'm back fencing after breaking a rib or two in late summer - perfectly timed to be regularly humiliated by visiting international fencers at the club, though I was delighted to get a few points off an Italian women's foil squad member - it's the equivalent of San Marino at least forcing a save during a match against France or Germany. Reading has mostly been course texts (Moore and Gibbons' Watchmen, Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alison Bechdel's Fun Home this week), but I've also got through Simon Ings' interesting The Smoke, some of Josephine Tey's golden age detective novels and Martin Pugh's Hurrah for the Blackshirts recently. The latter is a comprehensive history of British fascism from the Edwardian period into WW2. The Daily Mail's enthusiastic support for anyone with an extermination plan and a uniform isn't exactly news to me, but the sheer volume – and familiar arguments – are shocking. It really hasn't changed at all. 

Musically, I'm enjoying Metallica's Metallica (great for marking to), the new album by Low, Hey What, the latest one by The War On Drugs - the only bit of 80s revivalism I can bear. I'm teaching American Psycho next week, and realise that because the students are all fully into the rehabilitation of one of civilisation's worst decades, they just won't get why sociopathic murdered Patrick Bateman is so obsessed with Phil Collins. Trust me kids: Uncle Phil is the child-catcher of yacht-rock. Just say no. Other than that I've been listening to some contemporary choral releases fairly obsessively. I bought Pembroke College choir's collection of work by women composers All Things Are Quite Silent and Ars Nova Copenhagen's collection …And at the same time. Both of them include composer and Kanye West collaborator Caroline Shaw's '…and the swallow', which I love, plus the latter includes badass post-minimalist Julia Wolfe's 'Guard My Tongue'. Much as I love authentic ancient polyphony, I'm really enjoying these composers' use of familiar sounds and modern techniques to unsettle expectations. Here are the two Shaw recordings I have, and a different one of the Wolfe. 

Coincidentally, I also bought a Caroline Shaw EP, Roomful of Teeth - it's a bit 70s tape experimentalism, a bit Boo Radley's Giant Steps, a bit Tubular Bells, a bit Laurie Anderson and all wonderful. It also reminds me of the stunningly repetitive, meditational Phil Niblock piece 'AYU' that kept me from going on a murder spree during yesterday's interminably-delayed train trip.  

If you really hate all that, here's a palate cleanser: 'Enter Sandman'. Don't have nightmares…

Friday, 15 October 2021

I Aten't Dead

 'I Aten't Dead' is the sign the ultimate brommager  Granny Weatherwax leaves next to her body while she hitches a ride in animals' consciousnesses in Terry Pratchett's novels. Whether we're all consciousnesses hitching a ride in our personal meat-vehicles is a questions I'll leave to the philosophers, but it's how I've been feeling for the past couple of weeks. 

Not in a bad way (for a change): we're getting to the end of the third week of teaching, a blend of face-to-face and online. I'm teaching every day, which is exciting but leaves little time for preparation or research activities. The drawback of in-class teaching is the lack of a mute function, but on the whole it's been a joy despite my reservations about the way the government and the university has abandoned all health precautions. Both the new and returning cohorts of students are much more engaged and talkative than I remember in the before-times: the majority are reading the texts and bringing informed opinions. I've more male and more mature students than in recent years, so there's a wider range of opinions and experiences. It's just such a pleasure to sit down and talk to interested people about interesting texts: this week has included Aphra Behn's Oroonoko, the influence of James Baldwin on The Fresh Prince of Bel AirAlice in Wonderland, Valerie Solanas's The SCUM Manifesto (full text) and Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. It's been quite a while since a student offered a detailed analysis of Friedan's The Feminine Mystique unprompted - being stretched intellectually in class is one of the best things about being an academic. Hopefully there will be much more to come. 

The other academic pleasure of the month was taking part in the launch of this excellent book on Welsh Valleys' masculinities in literature by John Jenkins - I was his external PhD examiner, then read the book manuscript once it had been de-doctored, and there are even a couple of references to my dreadful PhD in it. We had an online launch with questions for John from Prof Jane Aaron and myself, then a q+a session which brought up some interesting new thoughts. While I have reservations about online teaching, being able to attend events normally out of reach has been a real high point of the last couple of years. The other massive pleasure of the past few weeks is examining a PhD on identity politics in nerd culture for an Australian university. They don't do vivas, which is really disappointing: while I have no interest in flying across the globe, an online one would have been fascinating because the dissertation is so good and I just want to hear more from its author. The topic is contemporary, the theory (a mix of feminist and classic Cultural Studies work alongside some ethnography and auto-ethnography) handled well and the writing is beautiful - clear and charismatic. 

Weirdly, despite reading all these texts and writing lectures on them plus all the other stuff, it feels like I haven't had much time for other reading, but I randomly plucked Mary Gentle's Ash: A Secret History from the Room of Unread Books. I don't know anything about her and had no memory of buying this book, but it really justified its 1000+ pages. Taking as its starting point the almost overnight disappearance of Burgundy, a rich and powerful state, in the 15th-century, Gentle constructs a quite brutally visceral alternative history, following the fortunes of a female mercenary leader into a plot that weaves an astonishingly detailed history (from the top and from below) with subtly handled fantasy elements. Definite shades of Byatt's Possession alongside familiar fantasy authors, and beautifully handled. 

Right, back to the lectures, the late chapter abstract and the late manuscript review…

Friday, 24 September 2021

The Beeb Bites Back!

 A couple of days ago I posted a quick piece on my disquiet about the BBC offering members of parliament anonymity to discuss government policy. 

Today I got a reply, and I have to say that both the speed and the content are unsatisfactory: I don't think that a serious issue of policy and journalistic ethics can be discussed and decided within such a short time. Even more annoying is the use of a no-reply email address - the issue is clearly closed as far as the BBC is concerned, and dialogue is not invited. 

This is what the BBC had to say:

Thank you for contacting us regarding Radio 4’s ‘The World at One’ which was broadcast on 15 September.

We note your unhappiness that the item on the cut to Universal Credit featured a contribution from a Conservative MP who agreed to speak to the programme off the record.

Choosing the individuals to interview for the reports on the programme is a subjective matter and one which we know not every member of our audience will feel we get right every time.

Sarah Montague did make clear to listeners that the team at ‘The World at One’ had attempted to contact both the minister and several backbench Conservatives before one MP had agreed to speak anonymously.

In an ideal world, politicians or their representatives might only speak on the record; however, in politics as in life, people are often more candid in private.

While our journalists always prefer on the record quotes, it is important to talk to unnamed sources to get a greater sense of what is going on in Westminster, which can then be relayed back to our audiences.

Without doing this, there is a risk that information coming out of Parliament would be restricted, which could impact our journalism and ability to hold politicians to account.

Nevertheless, we do value your feedback about this. All complaints are sent to senior management and we have included your points in our overnight report.

These reports are among the most widely read sources of feedback in the company and ensures that your concerns have been seen by the right people quickly. This helps inform their decisions about current and future content.

Thank you once again for getting in touch.

Kind regards

Terry Hughes 

BBC Complaints Team 
Please note: this email is sent from an unmonitored address so please don’t reply. If necessary please contact us through our webform (please include your case reference number).

I don't think this is satisfactory. The core issue is that the source was not providing any kind of insight beyond what had already been reported: he or she was simply stating support for his or her party's decision without risking any electoral unpopularity. 

Terry's summary of my complaint is a little slippery: WATO didn't 'speak to' a politician 'off the record': it accepted a statement, anonymised it then read it out without any opportunity to challenge its basis. The statement was not 'candid': it consisted of a Conservative Member of Parliament repeating the government's view that the benefit uplift is no longer affordable. Nothing more. 

It seems ironic that the BBC feels that anonymity allows it to 'hold politicians to account' when providing secrecy to an elected representative prevents the electorate from holding it to account, while simply reading a statement rather than interviewing the MP concerned means that there's no possibility of the BBC doing so either. 

Wednesday, 22 September 2021

The Right to Know?

Amidst everything going on at the moment - graduations, preparing for a whole new semester of in-person teaching, examining a PhD, writing a chapter, reviewing a book and being part of an AHRC project, I found time to write a complaining letter to the BBC about its news coverage. I know, I felt my own heart sinking as I realised I've become that kind of pompous bore-cum-conspiracist. 

In my defence, I did write to The World At One first hoping to discuss the issue with them rather than make a formal complaint, but there was no reply, so off I went to the dispute service. What was I complaining about? Well, on this show, the presenters discussed the upcoming withdrawal of the emergency £20 per week benefit uplift, which is raising widespread concern on both sides of the political divide. WATO tried to get some Conservative MPs to comment on air, but none would - draw your own conclusions. 

If the piece had ended there, I'd have been satisfied. But WATO found a Conservative MP to give them a statement in support of the government's policy, on condition that he remain anonymous - they went so far as to have it read out by a member of the production team. 

Anonymous Hackers Fight ISIS but Reactions Are Mixed - The New York Times
A Conservative MP, yesterday

Now there's definitely a place for anonymity in news broadcasts: if the BBC were talking to an Afghan in Kabul who'd worked for UK forces, someone in hiding from an abusive partner, or a whistleblower, I think we'd all agree that anonymity was essential for their personal safety. The BBC has rules about protecting contributors:

We should consider whether a contributor/contestant might be regarded as being at risk of significant harm as a result of taking part in BBC content. We should conduct a “contributor due care” risk assessment to identify any risk of significant harm to the contributor, unless it is justified in the public interest not to do so. 
This guidance does not apply to individuals who appear in our news coverage when they are caught up in current events. 
It is concerned with contributors to BBC content where we owe due care to contributors or potential contributors who may be caused harm or distress as a result of their contribution, including in News and Current Affairs and Factual content where the BBC has approached someone to be a contributor in situations where there may be a significant risk of harm.

I can't see that any 'significant harm' ensues from an elected representative endorsing the government s/he supports. A member of parliament is different from a vulnerable source because s/he has power and privilege. They're elected by a specific group of people on the basis of their views, specific or general. There's no expectation of privacy when it comes to political opinion. Constituents are entitled to know what their MP thinks so they can take it into consideration when the next election comes round. 

The BBC is pretty clear on what counts as a 'vulnerable' person - here's one definition:
they are not used to being in the public eye
We must judge this taking into account the editorial content, the nature and degree of the individual’s involvement and their public position
There's no question that this MP was in danger of nothing more than reduced popularity and perhaps some stiff emails. S/he was clearly too cowardly to openly support a policy he believes in being put into action by the government he put in power. I know this sounds really pompous, but I genuinely believe that the BBC affording anonymity to an elected representative in no meaningful danger to promote government policy is a distortion of the democratic process. MPs are rightly held to greater standards of openness than - to pick a random example - a pseudonymous blogger because they have real power. If the state broadcaster allows elected representatives to hide behind anonymity to support or oppose mainstream decisions and views, the electorate is denied the chance to make an informed decision. 

The BBC has some guidance for producers about anonymity, and it doesn't feel like they were followed when this article was put together. 
The decision to grant anonymity should be taken with great care. The programme maker must consider why the person wishes to remain anonymous.  
The most important question to pose to someone requesting anonymity is “Whom do you want to be anonymous from - from the general public or from people who know you well?

On the whole they're not keen on it: 

Sources and contributors should speak on the record whenever practicable and their identities and credentials made known to the audience so that they can judge the source’s credibility, reliability and whether or not they are in a position to have sufficient knowledge of the subject or events.  
The decision to grant anonymity should be taken with great care. The programme maker must consider why the person wishes to remain anonymous. Do they have something to hide beyond their identity?  
When it is not self-evident to the audience we should explain to them the reasons why the production granted anonymity to a source. The strongest rationale for granting anonymity is simply to protect the contributor from illegitimate retaliation, harassment or undesirable consequences for providing information.
I don't think this case is justified at all, and no explanation was given on air, but it seems to me that the bar was set too low. How are we to know if the next MP to be given this treatment on some public issue doesn't have a monetary interest in the outcome, for instance? It could have been my MP, Stuart Anderson, a man with legal and moral issues of his own in a marginal constituency. Knowing his view might tip the balance in either direction, but we'll never know whether it was him or not. 

The BBC guidance is far more focussed on the protection of justifiably anonymised contributors - people with social or psychological vulnerabilities or potentially open to persecution: there's nothing in the guidelines about the public interest, which is deeply concerning. 

A member of parliament is elected by a specific group of people on the basis of their views, specific or general. Constituents are entitled to know what their MP thinks so they can take it into consideration when the next election comes round. There's no question that this MP was in danger of nothing more than reduced popularity and perhaps some stiff emails. S/he was clearly too cowardly to openly support a policy he believes in being put into action by the government s/he put in power. I know this sounds really pompous, but I genuinely believe that the BBC affording anonymity to an elected representative in no meaningful danger to promote government policy is a distortion of the democratic process. MPs are rightly held to greater standards of openness than - to pick a random example - a pseudonymous blogger because they have real power. If the state broadcaster allows elected representatives to hide behind anonymity to support or oppose mainstream decisions and views, the electorate is denied the chance to make an informed decision. How are we to know, for instance, if the next MP to be given this treatment on some public issue doesn't have a monetary interest in the outcome, for instance? 

An MP too ashamed to support his/her own party's policy or government's decisions should take a long look at her/himself, not demand and be given protection from public opinion. For the MP to ask for this is shameless enough, but for a broadcaster with legal responsibilities of impartiality and ethical behaviour is a serious dereliction of duty. The BBC's responsibilities include this stirring statement:

We must always scrutinise arguments, question consensus and hold power to account with consistency and due impartiality. 
4.3.14 Contributors expressing contentious views, either through an interview or other means, must be challenged while being given a fair chance to set out their response to questions. 
4.3.20 We should ensure that appropriate scrutiny is applied to those who are in government, or otherwise hold power and responsibility

How can this happen if an elected member of parliament is allowed to hide behind the protections ordinarily afforded to whistleblowers to endorse something as mainstream as a government decision, and is allowed to provide a statement rather than face scrutiny in the form of questioning? 

Maybe this is a very small hill to die on, but I really do think that if you want to exercise real democratic power, you should put your name to your beliefs, and you shouldn't be aided and abetted by the most powerful media organisation in the country when you want to avoid public scrutiny. 

Friday, 10 September 2021

Back to the paper mines

Hi all. I've been on holiday in Ireland for the first time in two years, where the shelves are groaning with food and coronavirus appears not to have led to a collective nervous breakdown unlike certain countries I could mention. It was great: several swims in the Atlantic, a bit of walking, fine restaurants, a homecoming parade for the local Olympic rowers and a lot of good reading. I started with Ariosto's absolutely bonkers 1516/32 Italian epic Orlando Furioso, a poem that mixes obsequiousness, total contempt for the peasantry, sexy times, history (particularly the wars between the French and the Spanish Moors), Arthurian legend, ultra-violence, religion, romance, a trip to the moon on a hippogriff with St John the Evangelist to collect a lump of brains, and shaggy dog stories, all tied together by a hugely endearing narrator who can never resist a fork in the narrative road. 

Funnily enough, I then read Jo Walton's Lent which was also set in Renaissance Italy - the central protagonist is Savonarola. She specialises in fantasy novels that engage with Classical and late medieval/ earlyRenaissance philosophy, especially neo-Platonism, and Lent manages to explore these themes, demonstrate her incredible historical knowledge while also working brilliantly as fantasy - similar in some structural ways to Adam Roberts's The Thing Itself, Christopher Brookmyre's Pandaemonium and Ken MacLeod's The Restoration Game. It's the first work I've read that humanises Savonarole, which is ironic given the plot reveal. That said, the only other novel about him I've read is George Eliot's Romola in which Savonarola is a forbidding but ultimately altruistic and inspirational figure for the eponymous heroine. Highly recommended, by the way - if you only stop at Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss you're missing some of Eliot's best work. 

After that I read the final volume of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall trilogy, The Mirror and the Light. Despite having absolutely zero interest in the Tudors, her grasp of psychology, power, the slow creep of corruption, group dynamics and politics in an essentially lawless and permanently unstable polity, just as hereditary officers were jockeying with talented commoners for position was absolutely gripping - it deserves all the plaudits it received. After all that time in the 15th-16th centuries, I cleansed my palate with Josephine Tey's clever 1934 murder mystery The Man in the Queue (recommended on Twitter by Aberystwyth University's @Tasha_Alden), before heading back to Italy for Sally Vickers' more contemporary Miss Garnet's Angel. I'm still reading it and am enjoying the quality of the writing while rather resenting the implication that socialist teachers are dried up old sticks requiring a Forsterian revelation in Venice to show them the error of their ways and give them feelings…But then she is a Liverpudlian 'red diaper baby' (as the Americans put it) like Alexei Sayle, who is rather less repentant about his communist heritage. 

The holiday was wonderful and much-needed. Now I'm back for a very different kind of year. Plenty of teaching this semester, lots of it in-person for the first time in ages, and no new modules for the first time in at least a decade, so less hurried cobbling, more mature reflection (in theory). After 8 years I've given up my course leadership to the mutual relief of myself and my colleagues. The role was unpaid, and involved responsibility for programme management but not (thankfully) line management, and managed to be both essential and unrewarding, onerous and yet unchallenging on any level. I'll miss being the students' first port of call, but not stream of unexamined initiatives from the army of non-teaching 'experts' who've colonised universities. 

The idea is to fill my time with research and writing rather than forms, but we'll see. I have an AHRC project to be getting on with, a PhD dissertation to turn into a book, my book on politicians' novels to write, a PhD to examine and much much else! But at least I'll never have to think of the phrase Continuous Monitoring Touchpoint 4 again. 

 Here are a few of my favourite photos from the break: the rest are here

Vintage MG at Knightstown, Valentia Island

Rosaries left at the Valentia slate quarry grotto

Valentia slate quarry grotto, perched high above the ground

The Sceiligs (now even more famous thanks to Star Wars)

The farmer was herding cows by driving along, banging on his bonnet with a pipe

Our new album is taking a rock direction…

At the Olympic homecoming for rowers Monika Dukarska and Aileen Crowley

Cromane beach

Tuesday, 10 August 2021

Now That's What I Call 90s

I'm picking up hints of a 1990s revival. I don't like it, but if there's no choice, it's got to be the right version of the 1990s: countercultural, traveller/free-festival friendly and non-sexist. For those readers too young to remember, it all went wrong when the boys with guitars started waving union flags around and feminism was replaced by 'girl power' which according to Geri Halliwell included adoring Margaret Thatcher. Then we got student tuition fees, the invasion of Iraq and eventually 9/11, recessions, pandemics, endless surveillance and constant culture wars. Not necessarily all the same order of magnitude, but there was an ease and joy that doesn't seem to have returned. 

I'm certainly no expert on the dance scene, largely because music that you needed drugs to like and drugs that made you like people you probably don't like in an unstimulated state was not my cup of tea (and in any case the crusty ravers had largely been replaced by very heavy gangsters) so I won't recommend that side of thing to you. Instead - some of the indie/rock songs that have stuck with me despite the passage of time. And one or two dance numbers. But basically twee, wet, bedwetter indie of the kind that will confirm all my friends' prejudices. Oddly, I'm seeing most of these videos for the first time ever - we didn't have music TV at home or in my student houses - I have all these songs on vinyl instead. 

Disclaimer: I'm not necessarily saying any of this is a) representative of the 90s or even of my tastes or b) any good. They're just the ones that stick in my mind after all these years. 

(Sub Sub got middle-aged, picked up acoustic guitars and became Doves - a fine band in their own right)

I remember hearing Steve Reich interviewed about his Electric Counterpoint being sampled for this track by The Orb - he sounded a bit bemused, flattered and thoughtful. There's definitely a link between the minimalist classical scene and the repetitious nature of the more intelligent dance crowd.

Maybe Catchers were too ethereal for the big time and I've never met anyone else who liked this melancholic duo from Northern Ireland, but if you liked The Sundays, you'll love this. 

Talking of whom:

Moving on: who doesn't like feminist Anglo-French Marxist Krautrock, in the form of Stereolab? With apologies for the appearance of Jools Holland at the start - he infested music back then too. 

PJ Harvey just thrilled me back in 1993 and I think her work still stands up - the early loud angry stuff and the stark, hushed darkness of White Chalk most of all. Around at the time and shamefully underrated by me at least are Aimee Mann and Liz Phair, whose work still sounds thrilling while also being much more grown up than a lot of the teen/college bands of the time. Same goes for Suzanne Vega, whose 'Tom's Diner' is a real Marmite song, but which deals with some horrific trauma in deceptively catchy form. 

Can't ignore Riot Grrr: so many great bands, and I loved the style - paratrooper boots paired with Laura Ashley fabrics or babydoll dresses (Courtney Love's famous 'kinderwhore' look). 

But for fun times: Elastica. I saw them touring their second album, which certainly wasn't fun times for them or us - line-up changes and heroin had taken their toll. 

Meanwhile in Gogledd Cymru / North Wales mod guitars and union jacks were very much not apparent. I bought these 16 year-olds' second album (!) on 10" vinyl when I got to university and rapidly fell into a deep hole of Welsh-language pop, krautrock and twisted folk: David Wrench, Catatonia, Rheinallt H Rowlands, Ectogram, Fflaps, Topper, Melys, Datblygu and Super Furry Animals

The other 10" I bought that fateful day was by Tindersticks. Not their very best but representative of their work - one of the bands I've always gone back to and seen live whenever possible. Lead singer Stuart Staples' voice is another highly divisive topic, but I like it. 

Then there were the American college rock/post-rock kids represented here by Madder Rose and singer Mary Lorson's subsequent band:

Throwing Muses' University was a big presence once I lived with some stoner-Goth scientists, so here's a bit of that followed by Veruca Salt's spiky fun one hit: 

Elsewhere in the US, who could resist the muted Mormon melancholy of Low? Here's one of their Christmas songs and a cheery cover from the B-sides collection. 

Too wordy? I'd be tempted to hit you with some Mogwai, Tortoise or Slint, but here's an Aerial M EP I've always enjoyed.

Back home in Blighty, the much-maligned Twee movement mutated interestingly - I loved The Field Mice's melange of electronica and indie-pop very much indeed. 

That led to New Order's rhythm section, The Other Two, and to St. Etienne (and Neil Young but that's another story)

and thence to Kenickie (former members are now respected sociologists and presenters of Desert Island Discs)

From Kenickie it's an easy leap to Helen Love and her DIY feminist power-pop: here's Beat Him Up. 

She was covered by the teenage Ash (back to Northern Ireland) - here's an early one of their own:

Can't miss out Belle & Sebastian, which really divided everyone - my first copy of Tigermilk was a copied CDR surreptitiously supplied under the counter of my local record shop after the original pressing of 400 produced as a college course assignment sold out immediately. Through them I discovered all the Scottish indie greats from before and after - Teenage Fanclub, Spare Snare, Mogwai, The Delgados, The Phantom Band, Chvrches, The Pastels, The Vaselines, Orange Juice, Josef K, BMX Bandits, 18 Wheeler and more. I had the first B&S t-shirt in Bangor's Indie Night. It, though sadly not me, was an object of devotion and desire. 

Lots of my friends liked to listen to Beth Orton when they got home from raves in quarries - I associate her music with badly-rolled joints, exhaustion and elation. It got me into modern folk, particularly Eliza Carthy and her ilk - folk by and about the tribes driven off the roads after the Battle of the Beanfield and the Criminal Justice Act (god I miss young people getting angry en masse). 

Then there's Slowdive's successor band Mojave 3: here's one that really builds slowly. 

A bit like Mazzy Star, whose hushed melancholia will never stop sounding classy:

Here's an album that's nearly completely forgotten: Boo Radleys' hugely ambitious Giant Steps - swept away by Britpop and their own subsequent mega-hit, 'Wake Up'. I listen to this one a lot even now - it feels fresh - a mix of Pavement's oddness with Scouse pop melody. I love everything they've done (especially their noise-rock cover of New Order's 'True Faith' - I collect covers of New Order songs, hence the Rheinallt H Rowlands number elsewhere in this post, which you might recognise) but Giant Steps is the most coherent, compelling album they made. 

In the bad boys' corner, a couple of thrillers: Credit to the Nation and Blaggers ITA's ode to rebellion:

Want something sweeter? Well, there are the Cardigans, whom I saw in 1994 when they were a cute Swedish guitar pop band prior to becoming global megastars (on a bill including the terrible Fluffy, mediocre Heavy Stereo and the charming Bluetones for a bargain £5), and the lovely Frente, represented here by their beautiful cover of the New Order's Bizarre Love Triangle:

I can't remember the 1990s without The Charlatans. Never the hippest of the Manchester bands (perhaps not even a Manchester band), but 'The Only One I Know' is a stone-cold classic, they had a string of further pop gems, and they took triumph and defeat in their strides. I saw them in the late 90s, well past their critical peak, in a half-empty hall in Stoke. They played like it was a massive arena gig packed to the rafters - it meant something to them and they knew it meant something to us. That deserves some respect. 

Another inescapable indie-night classic was Edwyn Collins' 'A Girl Like You', his second act after his band Orange Juice in the 1980s. There still isn't much that sounds quite like it. We always paired it with Iggy Pop's 'The Passenger' to get people dancing. 

Also in the terminally unhip category (first for being unwashed right-on hippies, then for having an annoying worldwide smash): Chumbawamba, who I saw play their natural habitat (a tatty Students' Union bar) in 1993. Catnip for an 18-year old with no fixed views or tastes. And with the benefit of 30 years' hindsight, their blend of anarchist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic, anti-corporate politics with catchy beats very much stands up. I might understand the underlying political and economic dynamics better than I did then, but my instincts were right. (Honourable mention also to The Levellers, who I admire more than I like, though I did see them in the early 90s and had a good night). 

The dark side of the 1990s is summed up for me by two particularly sleazy tracks: Pulp's 'This Is Hardcore', their horrified reflection on what Britpop had done to themselves and others, and The Folk Implosion's 'Natural One', from the Kids soundtrack. 

Rather more innocently, but equally downbeat, I really fell for Hydroplane, a spin-off from The Cat's Miaow, whom I heard on John Peel's show, or it may have been The Evening Session. Anyway, I never got to see them live but still get phishing emails via their long-since hacked and defunct mailing list. I forgive them, thanks to the rackety beauty of this song (a cover of Young Marble Giants' 'Wurlitzer Jukebox'), followed by another lost and much-loved bunch of Aussie funsters, Paradise Motel

A lot brasher but a lot of fun in a grunge-adjacent way were Sebadoh:

I'm not sure if anyone remembers or cares to remember the short-lived goth-madrigal scene, but Miranda Sex Garden were at the heart of it so here's some:

Another band I couldn't have been without in the 90s was REM: I turned up at university with a £10 Woolworths tape player and two tapes: a Vaughan Williams greatest hits and a copied Automatic for the People. I still like them both, though I've moved on from cassettes. I worked backwards from Automatic, which was nigh-on ubiquitous at the time, to discover the strange and contrarian world of a band that seemed like 'our' U2 (i.e. not preachy poseurs) but also forwards - while most people reckon that Monster and New Adventures in Hi-Fi are pretty poor, I love them - the last flowering of a band that eventually got too big. Monster is big guitar rock, a reaction against the hushed imagism of Automatic, while New Adventures is a 90s take on the obscurist beauty of their early-80s work. 

And that's where I'll stop - I suspect if you've made it this far you're reaching for the Prozac, another popular 90s youth thing we'll leave for another day. 

Monday, 9 August 2021

Out and about at dusk

 I went for a walk in the rain with the camera as the sun set one evening. You can see the rest of my photos here. Not the best shots I've ever taken but I'm getting the hang of it again. 

Friday, 6 August 2021

Whatever happened to the silly season?

Another week has gone in a blur. There have been Olympic games, but between the time difference and the absence of the sports I most want to watch from the BBC platform, I've watched very little. Bits of archery, climbing, badminton and table tennis, but no fencing and very little cycling. It all feels rather irrelevant. Instead I've filled my time with marking essays and counselling students. Very important, but no medals are awarded to them or me. I have managed to fit in a couple of bike rides, a walk with colleagues and filling my boss with enough whiskey and animal fats to satisfy Mr Creosote though. 

I did read a draft MA thesis about identity, fandoms and #freebritney which was astonishingly good though - far outclassing all the media coverage I've read. I'm hoping that student will go very far indeed, though obviously the government thinks that - being working-class and provincial - she should confine her ambitions to manual labour. But at least in future all those nurses will have good Latin. Not that I'm opposed to Latin per se (see what I did there?). Indeed I have a very poor A-level in it, and a better GCSE in Ancient Greek. I just think that feeding children, fixing up school buildings and teaching modern languages might conceivably be higher priorities. There seems little point in deliberately abolishing music, art and humanities at university level while simultaneously turning school-level Latin into a totem. Perhaps Gavin Williamson thinks that it's his inability to bandy popular classical tags around that kept him out of the top spot…

I'm trying to do my bit for the economy as we emerge from the pandemic, mostly through buying books and music. My purchases this week: the final part of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall trilogy; Sayaka Murata's Convenience Store Woman (which sounds hilarious); Ishiguro's Klara and the Sun; David Ensor's Verdict Afterwards (another forgotten but rather scandalous politician-novelist); Louise Lawrence's rather uncheery Children of the Dust; Lord Berner's Collected Tales and Fantasies (he was the model for Nancy Mitford's Lord Merlin); Shola von Reinhold's interesting-sounding Lote which might well find its way onto a module reading list; Sathnam Sanghera's Empireland and the book I'm reading first - an omnibus of the first three Ngaio Marsh Inspector Alleyn 1930s detective novels. I'm not particularly interested in contemporary crime fiction, but Marsh wrote 30+ of these over 50 years, so it will be interesting to see how she negotiates social and cultural change. I've read all of Margery Allingham's Campion novels, which started off quite conventional but became interestingly odd in the post-war period - 1952's The Tiger in the Smoke is unsettling and fascinating. 

I've also bought some new music: Katharine Priddy's modern folk album The Eternal Rocks Beneath which isn't as edgy as I expected but is really good (she gets extra marks for wearing the hippy shirts we all sported in 1990s Bangor), a new recording of Nico Muhly's Shrink and Philip Glass's String Quartet No. 3, Missy Mazzoli's Vespers for a New Age and cellist Maya Beiser's new arrangements of several Glass pieces. Oh, and KD Lang's greatest hits because no music collection should be without it. Though saying that reminds me of the immortal Alan Partridge exchange

(Can't find her Philip Glass arrangements so here she is doing some cool stuff with cello and electronics.

Thursday, 29 July 2021

Bill Bailey's Looking Ruff & Other Stories

It's been a month since I last posted here. What can I say? I've watched a lot of the Tour de France, turned 46, been for some walks with the camera and occasionally friends, represented union members, failed to find anyone willing to fix my house, and marked many, many essays while also wondering where all the others have got to. I've read a few books too, almost as many as I've bought, though not as many as I'd like. I've developed no new opinions since the last time: recent events cultural, political and social merely reinforce my bitter, crabbed view of the world. On the plus side, I know of two new final-year students, pretty much doubling our intake for next year (yes it is that bad: thanks Gove, Williamson and Conservative voters!). 

So rather than bore you with all that, here are some of the photos I've taken in various places recently. You can see the rest here

Cardington Church

Cardington gravestone

Bill Bailey's looking ruff


Continuity of perspective

Rain sweeping in over the Shropshire plain

The Lawley and the Wrekin from Caer Caradoc

Same again but with an 11-16 lens

Don't blink

An ice house in Badger

Hymn books in Badger Church