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