Wednesday, 9 June 2021

And then there were two…

So The Donald has given up on his blog after a mere month, leaving Dominic Cummings and your humble correspondent as the final providers of semi-long form content on the open web (I'm not counting those guys - and they are mostly guys - on Substack: it's a rigged deck and it's a subscription service. Asking you for money would only cheapen the deep and abiding relationship between us, right?). I'm not surprised Donald can't hack it - churning out 400 words of eyeball-grabbing mediocre content on a semi-weekly basis is tough, especially if your daily routine consists mostly of cheating at golf and sexually assaulting passing life-forms. It's the same for me. I sit in a room doing admin, with occasional breaks to read books, polish my bald spot ('burnishing my crown') or sit haplessly on a bicycle - the only aspect of my life in which 'career' has any relevance). And yet here I am, a thirteen-year veteran of the Blog Wars, atop a pile of my so-called rivals' skulls. Where are they now? (On Instagram, mostly). 

I therefore declare victory, in the Agricolan sense: as Tacitus claims Celtic warrior Calgacus put it in his speech about the Romans in Britain: 'they make a desert and call it peace'. The question is, what to do with this space now it's all mine? There's always the Father Ted option:


On second thoughts, perhaps just the usual mix of second-hand opinions and second-rate lo-fi. And books. I've retreated back to my happy place recently - the interwar period. I'm on work by two immigrants to Britain at the moment: Michael Arlen's short stories, These Charming People and now I'm on the new unexpurgated diaries of Henry Channon. The Arlen is interesting. He was an Armenian who wrote a hit novel The Green Hat, essays, film scripts, plays and short stories mostly revolving around the somewhat unmoored lives of the post-war aristocratic set. Quite a change from my usual 1930s diet of proletarian Welsh fiction, but culturally significant nonetheless. The stories are interesting and not, as I expected, entirely adoring of the smart set: there's an outsider's perspective that throws the inner lives of his subjects into sharp contrast with the horrors their older siblings endured. 

The Channon diaries are very different. This is volume 1, 1000 pages of an American incomer's account of his life in the real equivalent of Arlen's cast. The censored version published in the late 1960s caused a scandal; this new edition exposes the names and adds some racier details to his voyage through the beau-monde. Channon was wholly funded by other people's money and never once worked for his living, had sex with a lot of titled people of both sexes, wrote a couple of bad novels and was a Conservative MP for a while, hence his relevance to my politicians' novels project. It's replete with racism ('the black races start at Calais' sticks in my mind), the most appalling social climbing and snobbery (quite a lot of kings, queens and dukes are described as 'vulgar'), and the endless stream of footnotes document the very long lives of triple-surnamed cads and butterflies almost all of whom should have had an early date with the guillotine while constantly denigrating others for their social-climbing and snobbery, and a real, heartfelt fear and hatred of the working-class. Labour Party victories and strikes are seen as the start of socialist revolution, while Channon yearns for absolute monarchy, the violent suppression of the workers and the worst excesses of Catholicism, a church he adores while being too cowardly to join, aware that Jews and Catholics are less welcome in the great houses of England. 

The one thing that Channon gets right, ironically, is his analysis of the wannabe-fuhrcer Oswald Mosley, whom he knew well. Channon shares an awful lot of Mosley's prejudices and became a huge admirer of Mussolini and Hitler, but perceives Mosley's egotism, arrogance, neediness and lack of principles pretty early on. It's not the politics he objects to, but the person embodying British fascism. 

It's kind of interesting reading the Arlen and the Channon simultaneously. The diaries are relentless, eventually running to 3000+ pages even with editing. There are occasional risqué thrills, but the repetitive nature of Channon's vicious superficiality and the endless cycle of balls, gossip, fallings-out, misguidedly confident political and social judgments and so on very quickly form the case for the prosecution rather than - as he fondly assumes - a celebration of the ancien regime. The enormous gap between the roles played by many of the cast - as government ministers, advisers or public figures - and their inner lives or lack of them is brutally exposed by Channon's chronicle of their daily activities. The very shape of the Arlen's work casts them in a much better light. Slightly reminiscent of Katherine Mansfield's allusive style, Arlen depicts his aristocratic characters as thinking, feeling people possessed by deep melancholy, unmoored from purpose and broken to some extent by the mass slaughter of the first world war and social change that they don't understand. It might be that Channon's account is accidentally more truthful: the few toffs I've met have been emotionally capable of little more than celebrating pheasant-murder, but Arlen at least affords them the potential to feel deeply their loss of agency, and awareness of their increasing marginality. Not that they became socially or economically marginal, despite the advent of death duties etc., but they have been comprehensively outnumbered and culturally isolated. So in some ways the Arlen is reminiscent of Lampedusa's The Leopard with more jokes. He played up to the dandy image in 1920s Britain, driving a yellow Rolls and wearing outrageous clothes, but there's a Wildean satirical sensibility in play I think, a kind of doubleness if you pay attention, whereas Channon is so needy, so self-hating (he was deeply ashamed of being an American) that he lacks any critical distance from his own or others' behaviour, at least in the diaries. I'm trying to track down copies of his novels for my project but none have popped up for sale yet. 

Would I recommend either of them? Definitely the Arlen. The Channon diaries are a substantial historic record and hurling it away in frustration would constitute a decent work-out. As a stylist though…no. 

Monday, 24 May 2021

Some jingle-jangle evening

 I didn't get very far with my trawl through the 7" collection: months later and we're still on A. I'd claim pressure of work but those who know me are aware that hard labour is my Kryptonite. But today was a difficult one - I was the external examiner for a PhD dissertation that we gave an M. Phil to - still a huge achievement but not was anyone wanted. Tomorrow is an all-day validation even for an Open University course, so I'm feeling exhausted. What could be more relaxing than delving back into my collection of forgotten and slightly mediocre 90s indie records? 

Which is to say…hello Astrid






I obviously liked them because I ordered their records in advance, from the earliest quite cheap productions, to the snazzy ones with free stuff on coloured vinyl when their label thought they were going somewhere, and back again. Could I hum one before playing them? No. 

Predictably (if you've been following this series) they're Scottish. All guitar-pop bands from the 1990s are. It's like Teenage Fanclub or Orange Juice had a breeding programme, and indeed Edwin Collins produced their first album and members have been in Texas and Idlewild. There must be something in the shortbread…or the legacy of all those US airbases with their radio stations (also the reason why Country'n'Irish is big in the border counties of Ireland. 

You can probably guess what Astrid sound like. Jangly close-harmony guitar pop! And very pleasant it is too. Without meaning any disrespect to the band, their cover of Sleigh Ride is the pick of the lot - perky, cheerful and committed. I just love Scottish bands doing unexpected covers: the Delgados' Peel Sessions version of 'Mr Blue Sky' is far superior to the original, and Spare Snare's cover of 'Say My Name' is, well, it just is. 






Friday, 21 May 2021

Incredible

It's the middle of the marking period (a phoney war: so many have extensions that there will be No Summer For Vole) and I'm immersed in a PhD thesis that's frankly proving quite a struggle, so obviously my mind is wandering all over the place while I lie awake at night. Yesterday's musing was prompted by the memory of a (rare) text from my dear old mum, demanding to know why I'm not on WhatsApp. My reply ('I'm not 13') was deemed unsatisfactory and resulted in an absolute and unanswerable zinger: 'neither am i im in a group with 4 nuns'.* I do worry about old peoples' literacy sometimes: give them a phone and they think all the rules go out of the window. 

Presentational quibbling aside, it did make me wonder what life looks like from the inside of religious belief. It must be so very different. I should point out that I'm an atheist, and a Catholic atheist at that. I was brought up firmly within church life - serving on the altar, singing in the choir, attending multiple services that protestant atheists might not have even come across - benediction, decades of the rosary and more (never an exorcism, sadly). Sometimes my parents reminded me of Homer Simpson looking for an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet, driving round until 3 a.m. looking for More Mass, preferably in Latin. I'm not sure I ever had - or even understood - what it meant to believe in a deity and the specific one I spent so much time ritualising, but my subsequent lack of belief definitely has the Catholic version as its reference point - incense, music, fabrics, elaborate architecture. Part of my research is Welsh literature, which of course deals with chapel protestantism and its influence to a degree. It's fascinating, and I can see the bones of an entire culture delineated in the spare, austere chapels and their cultural products, but the post-Calvinist atheists nor the C of E ones are like me either. I've always been drawn to the deeply-democratic elements of reform - the Quakers and the swirl of dissenters around in the seventeenth-century - but also repulsed by the purism and what some of them became - just look at Northern Ireland's Free Presbyterians, the Westboro Baptists, or the Protestant group that heckled and picketed me and my church's trip to Walsingham shrine because we were Doing It Wrong, as if jeering an eight-year old from the roadside is the way to elucidate the finer points of theology. 

I also often wonder what the social experience of belief must be like. Imagine being a Christian in about 500AD - yes, your friends and family might occasionally be carted off to the slave pits or be amusingly murdered for the entertainment of the local in-crowd, but presumably there was some sense of being in on the ground floor of something big like holding on to Apple shares in the late 1990s or buying an early Tesla. Later of course, they got to share the imperial pomp of late-medieval and early moderns Catholicism - now it's your turn to burn the splitters, invade vast swathes of the world and generally lord it over everybody, all while cosseted by the finest art, architecture, music and literature available.** Good times. What's it like now though? Being in a congregation of 30 in a building designed for hundreds? Does the fire of belief and knowing you're right keep you warm, or do you wonder where everyone's gone and whether they're right to be jogging or watching TV? Perhaps the last adherents to the Roman gods felt the same way. 

Of course this all assumes that religious belief and my former brand of it is in decline - perhaps this is a white European perspective, and perhaps only applies to Catholicism and the more organised splinter groups like the C of E - I confess I don't understand the post-religious spiritualists among us either. I can't stand the smug, aggressive Dawkins and Co brand of atheism, but I do wonder how crystal healing, for instance, survives when basic science explained well is available at the click of a button for free. I think I understand the decline of religion and the rise of post-religious spiritualism as a product of the Higher Criticism, Victorian science, psychology and the post-Enlightenment collapse, but I just don't have a gap in my psyche that belief would fill. My library is stuffed by genuinely great works fuelled by belief; I'm listening right now to Leighton's Mass For Double Choir and it's thrilling but I have to assume I'm getting a partial experience because what feels like the numinous is purely aesthetic for me. In a way I regret having a poor-quality Latin A-level: I can understand just enough of the words to stop the music washing over me without getting annoyed by the attitudes contained within. 

Mind you, I don't get Tamagotchis, SUVs, jeggings, sunbathing, royalism, Subway or Ariana Grande either, so maybe it's just me. I do like ironing though. Maybe that's my church. 


*I'm friends with several actual clerics and the philosophical gulf between us just adds to the pleasure. It helps that they have a degree of doctrinal flexibility I don't recall the stick-wielding monks and nuns of my childhood displaying. 

** Yes I'm aware that religious impulses have fuelled great acts of charity and education. But I've read enough Kant to know that one shouldn't need a big man in the sky judging you to make you feed your fellow creatures.  

Monday, 10 May 2021

Stop all the clocks…

While I was queuing to vote the other day my eye fell on the private school across the road. It's a pretty standard bit of Victorian faux-Oxford, faux-baronial nonsense. The castellations tell you something about its relationship to the largely poor streets inhabited by kids who go to rather less aspirational schools elsewhere. 

Something else struck me about it too. 



Check out the clock, or rather the absence of one. Built in a period in which timekeeping was becoming more important, but reliable clocks and watches were expensive, lots of public and private institutions included clocks on their buildings - partly altruistically and partly as a means of controlling the kind of mass workforces that worked shifts. The clock clearly intended for this tower would primarily encourage discipline in its students, but could also have been a public gesture for those who could see through, but never cross, the railings that protect the young ladies and gentlemen from the less fortunate. Why was it never added? Was it thought to be the equivalent of virtue-signalling and ditched as the school became a proudly insular engine of class division. Why spend money on the oiks?

Friday, 7 May 2021

The rain has fallen with a particular sickening thud…

 Hi Don, hi Dom. 

I mean, of course, Trump and Cummings, the other two washed-up figures clinging desperately to blogging as a means of howling into the electronic void despite clear evidence that everyone else has moved onto Instagram, Tik-Tok or something I'm too old to even have heard about. In my defence, I'm not actively evil nor do I go back and edit my blog to falsify my powers of prediction. And I've never been to Barnard Castle. I can't even drive. 

And yet here we are, the Last Bloggers. Don's been cut off from Twitter of course, a medium to which he was more suited, in that there's very little blank space to fill with ideas. Dom's a creature of the 90s like me though - the generation that saw the internet as a place of total freedom, anarchy or libertarianism depending on your perspective - John Barlow's Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace was huge when I first ventured online, though even back then I thought it leaned worryingly towards the macho libertarian rather than levelled the playing field for the proletariat. Still, the idea of ideas being constantly circulated without being throttled by corporate interests, government or the established media was hugely exciting. I was always convinced that corporate interests would abolish the liberatory potential of the internet - we're virtually all trapped in their private imitations of it now - but I was naive enough to think that new spaces would encourage new, democratic and better behaviours. In actual fact, we imported and amplified the worst aspects of habitual behaviour, encouraged by anonymity (of which I'm generally a fan) and the ease of reaching a big audience fast by being witty, snarky, cutting or just plain vile. The attraction of blogging for Cummings of course is that there are no editors or interruptions - it's a monologue. 

My meatspace following was distinctly limited: perhaps there might be enough saddoes online to boost my ego, given the global reach of the internet. I actually started this blog back in 2008 as part of an MA class in Media and Cultural Studies: I asked the students to start blogging as a practical demonstration of the format's structures, potential and limitations, especially the non-essentialist sense that while one's online self might not be any more 'real' than one's physical manifestation, it provided the opportunity for a different kind of performance (why yes, I was reading Judith Butler at the time and later Anderson's Imagined Communities) . It didn't go very well and none of them were inspired to continue, but I found it a useful outlet for views/rants/observations my friends had had quite enough of already thank you. It also kept me writing when the PhD was going nowhere.

My blogging has declined significantly in recent years. I'm busier than ever, I'm getting too old to keep up with the cultural twists and turns, and I can feel my opinions solidifying or settling, depending on how you see it, while simultaneously feeling less and less like I have anything to add to public debate. I can see why so many newspapers employ Oxbridge-educated columnists: coming up with an authoritative piece about something you previously knew little about to a tight deadline is both difficult and an extension of those universities' pedagogical model. Today's British elections are a case in point. My general sense is that the English electorate in particular is becoming very rightwing and will vote for any party that promises easy answers (especially if blaming foreigners is one of the options) - there are no longer any votes in being nice, kind, thoughtful or honest. They voted for Brexit in a spasm of revenge against a world that left them behind, and the very politicians who left them behind are now encouraging them to double down on the idea that a glorious past is within reach as long as you don't let those bourgeois southerners distract you with talk of corpses and corruption. I don't think it matters what Labour does: in the words of Dick Tuck, 'the people have spoken, the bastards'. I was thinking today of Leon Festinger's classic 1956 study When Prophecy Fails. It's complicated and in many ways outdated (and ethically dubious), but it followed an apocalyptic UFO cult which confidently predicted the end of the world on a specific date. When the date came and went, the core group didn't disband and reassess their ideas: they adjusted the technical calculations but doubled down on their beliefs - partly because it's psychologically easier to do that than admit to being plain wrong. You adjust the world to your beliefs, rather than vice versa. Perhaps the Corbynites are, or the Starmer supporters, and I definitely think the Brexit-supporters are, which probably makes me a deluded 'Seeker' too - the more Britain descends into reaction the more certain I am that it's wrong and I'm right. 

I saw Peter Mandelson opining today that the only response to defeat in Hartlepool is for the Labour Party to adopt the mindset of the Brexiters. Then what? Why bother professing anything other than what you think people will vote for. Just confirm the prejudices of a group of people whose views you find abhorrent and win elections - but then what do you do once there? But if you don't, you never get elected again especially under Britain's deeply stupid electoral system. It's a conundrum I certainly can't answer - all I have to offer is a numbing sense of depression and a reminder (one I give my students quite often) is that the progress of time does not equal progress. Things sometimes get better until they don't. Sometimes it's obvious, sometimes it isn't: my view on what we currently call the internet is that it's infinitely worse but feels better because it's so quick and shiny. 

Obviously none of this is particularly kind or original, and gets us nowhere, which is why it's appearing on a blog and not, for example, on the comment pages of the Observer. I can't go on. I'll go on. Perhaps less frequently. There's something quite freeing in writing things that have no readership.

On a lighter note though, I've read some very good books recently. If there's anyone out there, I heartily recommend M John Harrison's beautiful, disturbing The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again (which is also a fine addition to the short shelf of Shropshire novels alongside Mary Webb and PG Wodehouse's work) and Susanna Clarke's Piranesi. They both take an oblique, fantasy-tinged approach to contemporary identity issues and I loved them both. Piranesi is amazingly different in tone, intention and style to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell - a real surprise. I've liked Harrison's work ever since a friend gave me one of his Viroconium novels back in the mid-90s - I don't know many authors who are so at home in a range of genres, and it's great to see him get some mainstream recognition after decades as a cult figure. This particular novel has echoes of the London psychogeographers, Jonathan Coe's Middle England (also partly set in Shropshire - it's having a moment), Jeff Noon's recent folk-horror Creeping Jenny and Angela Carter and some of Jo Walton's work - all books in which something is going radically wrong just out of sight. 

I also read and really enjoyed Robertson Davies's What's Bred in the Bone - an old-fashioned novel of ideas by a semi-forgotten author. He was Canadian, but as his father was Welsh and he lived for a while in Y Trallwng, I might find a way to write something on him within my field. My next book is Michael Arlen's These Charming People, a Waugh-like collection of short stories set in the brittle world of the 1920s smart set. 

Enjoy your weekend. 

Friday, 23 April 2021

Green shoots of a blogging spring?

Nearly three weeks since I posted anything on here - partly thanks to having a bit of a holiday (i.e. officially booking time sitting at home rather than doing so for work purposes) and partly through being entirely bereft of opinions and experiences that don't exhaust me, let alone you. Is there any angle to coronavirus, political shenanigans or football's moral vacuum that hasn't been explored far beyond what's strictly required? 

I'm tempted, as always, to serve up yet another extended rant about the multiple horrors perpetuated by this government's behaviour, but what's the point? Both my readers largely agree with me and a party with an 80-seat majority and an unjustified large poll lead doesn't have any incentive to take the blindest bit of notice of anything we say. My own MP blocked me on social media long ago (for asking him about the newspaper reports that he stole £52,000 from his failed company that was owed to the revenue) and will surf a tide of xenophobia to re-election in a couple of years. Nor do I think that he's likely to pursue coronavirus corruption, given his own rather flexible approach to probity. 

Oh well. There are personal pleasures to counter the gloom. I invented the Assam Espresso yesterday - leaf tea in a stovetop coffee maker. It was horrifically unpleasant, but compared with the marking I should have been doing, not so bad. I've also been vaccinated, which is why today I feel unpleasantly like being drunk ('ask a glass of water', as Ford Prefect observed). The trip also took me to an area of town I've never been. If it wasn't for the second jab, I wouldn't be going back there either, but I took the opportunity to check a charity shop for books. Nothing I needed, but I did achieve a moment of whatever the exact opposite of professional validation is: one of my students had donated pristine copies of every single text from our second-year course. Not a single one had appealed enough to be considered worth retaining or re-reading. As you probably know, I'm a small-minded and mean-spirited individual, so obviously I checked for the owner's name but no dice, so the generous donor will remain unheralded. So if anyone needs a copy of the letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, DM me for the address. 

Other pleasures include the last few weeks of teaching - while the marking hangs over me like a thundercloud, the students who've turned up for the final weeks have been a pleasure to talk to - I was really pleased that they liked and understood BS Johnson's disassembled novel The Unfortunates, and they tolerated me playing Steve Reich and performing John Cage's 4'33" on the violin with considerable good humour. Steve Reich's Music For 18 Musicians is 'quite annoying', apparently. Decide for yourself:


The John Cage performance was fascinating - I didn't tell the students anything about it, so all they knew was that the music I'd been playing reflected the cultural moments associated with the novels we'd been reading (I included some 18th-century drink gin songs for Moll Flanders and Tristram Shandy, The Pirates of Penzance for Oscar Wilde and The Rite of Spring to go with Nightwood).* I asked them to switch on their microphones and open their windows, and what we got was coughing, the occasional conversation with other people in their houses, bird song, the squeaking of my bow on the strings, mobile phone alerts, rustling and car engines. I learned that 4 minutes and 33 seconds is a long time to hold a violin ready to play, and they really got hold of the ideas Cage and Johnson were playing with about form, the concept of art and the decanting of the creative genius. Will I try it in person next year? To be decided. 

Anyway, I hope spring is reviving us all in tandem with vaccinations and the reopening of costermongers, beer gardens and wig emporia. I bought a new washing line. The recovery starts here!

*That link is to a real time capsule: Will Self and Mark Radcliffe discussing Nightwood – admiringly but also sniggering like schoolboys – and giving away copies as prizes live on BBC Radio 1. Has anyone else used the word 'apothegms' on the station since?

Wednesday, 31 March 2021

All that glisters…

The singles collection odyssey continues, and we're still in the As. Today is The Associates, and their 1982 single '18 Carat Love Affair'. I'm way too young for them, but lots of bands I like referenced them as influence and they turn up on every 80s indie compilation going, so I picked this one up second-hand. Can't remember where or for how much.





Hmmm. I don't entirely hate it. It's quite funny, and using a chocolate guitar on Top of the Pops is a nice touch but the production bothers me and I have a short fuse when it comes to Scottish blue-eyed soul. The whole country deserves nuking for Del Amitri, Wet Wet Wet and – above all – Deacon Blue. 

Thursday, 25 March 2021

Ironing or Death

One of the best things about teaching from home, and I know that I'll be in a slight minority on this one, is the ability to do a spot of therapeutic ironing between classes. Yesterday I taught Djuna Barnes's dark modernist classic Nightwood for a couple of hours, then ironed until I was ready to face two hours of a departmental meeting. It's not that I see my colleagues as a pile of creased laundry in desperate need of a hot iron to the face at all. It's the contemplative nature of repetitively doing the same thing until perfection is achieved. 

I know there are ironing-denialists who point to the intrinsically disordered nature of the universe and the inevitability of decay that comes with entropy and say 'what's the point?' For me, the pointlessness is the point. I know that anything I iron will be hopelessly creased within minutes of use, but for just a moment entropy – and its human facet, mortality – is arrested. There's little difference between writing a symphony, discovering a galaxy and producing the perfect crease: they're all ways to fill in the blank space before we surrender to the big sleep. I can't write symphonies, and all the admin that I could be doing instead accelerates the heat death of the universe rather than postpones it. I'm pretty sure that ironing is what Dylan Thomas had in mind when he wrote about raging against the dying of the light. 

Anyway, today's records are 'Noise Vision 80' and 'Critical Gate' by Chicago band Assembly Line People Programme. 



They're really notable for the high quality packaging - a real cut above most bands' early releases - and for being the first or nearly the first releases on Graham Coxon's label, Transcopic. As you can probably imagine if you know anything about the Blur guitarist's tastes, it's wonky punk-pop with a touch of Pavement and a lot of guitar. In a word, fun. 


Wednesday, 17 March 2021

Poisoning the earth to own the libs

I am, as anyone familiar with me in IRL knows, an aficionado of lost or retro causes. I passionately believer, for instance, that it was a mistake for Victorian type-setters and sign makers to drop the hyphen in street names. Don't Paradise-street or the Bow-Street Runners just look lovely? 

So anyway, one of the romantic causes I espouse in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which I joined as a student in 1993. I'm generally opposed to the use of other arms too, but nukes seemed and still seem to me to be a class apart. Partly because they're so disproportionate: not only do they kill every living thing around in the here and now, they poison the earth for generations. Partly too because they're so indiscriminate that there's no military use for them: they're so powerful that any use of nuclear weapons will destroy massive numbers of civilians. Then there's the imbalance: possession of nuclear weapons makes you all-powerful as long as you're prepared to use them, so you can bully all those peoples too civilised to think that ultimate might makes right. Then there's the financial cost: Britain keeps saying it's got no money for nurses' salaries, the Erasmus scheme, old people's social care, energy-efficient houses, overseas aid…and yet it spends hundreds of billions on nuclear weapons, largely rented from the United States and unusable without permission from the White House (that's why they keep calling it an 'independent nuclear deterrent' - because only the word 'nuclear' is true). 

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I thought that the argument was long over. I know that various countries are developing nuclear weapons, or have undeclared stocks, but international law seems pretty clear that the use of nuclear weapons is illegal, and most of the official nuclear states have declared a (very theoretical) intention to disarm: the US and Russia have both reduced their stocks considerably. I kept my CND membership up as a quixotic gesture of recognition that Britain in particular needs to wise up. There are plenty of post-imperial countries that have gracefully settled into comfortable, prosperous, altruistic stances: the Scandinavian countries have done so particularly well. But the British keep going on about 'punching above our weight', a revealing metaphor that says an awful lot about those who wield it. Guys, nobody likes a bully. You started punching people in 1170 (it is Lá Féile Padraig, after all) and you've never stopped. Has it made you any friends? Why do you want to punch people so much? 

All this is mere preamble. As you may have read, the UK government has decided to cut overseas aid to all the places it's invaded, impoverished and/or bombed, and has decided to buy more nukes, just as the rest of the world is thinking about settling its differences by talking. It's the British disease: bereft of any moral standing after centuries of brutal colonisation, it's clinging to its penile Empire substitutes to persuade itself that it matters. Brexit has obviously made this worse: having stormed out, Britain's decided to make everyone listen by threatening ultimate violence: Yes Minister's Sir Humphrey long ago explained (in a clip I can't find, damn it) that the UK has to have nuclear missiles simply because the French do. 

The UK has a place on the Security Council and other bodies not because it's a force for good, or economically important, but because it was an early adopter of the means to kill everyone on the planet. That's what underlines the smooth diplomatic talk - blackmail. Imagine if Britain had to rely on its ethical purpose for international credibility. The laughter wouldn't bear thinking about. 

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It depresses me beyond pills that the current government has decided to make some political capital from potential murder. Johnson, Sunak, Patel and some Spads sat round in Downing Street chortling as they realised they could 'own the libs' by spending a few hundred billion on genocide. Never mind international law and their commitment to gradually disarm: a front page of the Daily Mail is enough. Even more depressingly, they're wrong. Labour instituted the British nuclear weapons program because it too is deeply jingoistic, and because lots of the arms industry is unionised. When Johnson nukes, say, Yemen for causing (in the words of Priti Patel's new criminal offence) 'causing serious annoyance' (a ten-year sentence: you literally get less for rape), the Labour Party will quietly point out that there are several marginal seats with missile factories. A noble sacrifice for the socialist cause, I'm sure the Yemeni comrades will agree. 

They're even threatening to nuke non-nuclear states (though I suppose this goes back to 1945) - apparently electronic warfare will qualify you to be turned into glass and radioactive ash, as though all computer viruses are stored on one big computer that you can drop a bomb on

There's no coherent thought in this. Just despair that a supposedly civilised country would rather blackmail the world with threats of total annihilation than feed children or talk things through with their opponents. And this is why I'll never be a Wilde-style ironist. No sense of humour. 

Tuesday, 16 March 2021

Obscurity knocks

Back to obscurities for today's singles: Armstrong (Julian Pitt, from Wales) with some perfectly serviceable pop-rock - I've only these two singles, but apparently there are two albums. The front cover of the first one is unadorned black, hence the pic of the back. It's a split single with Mumbo Jet, another Newport band who have left no trace beyond this solitary song: I can't even post a recording. 



 



Oh well. Tomorrow is an interesting little side project.


Thursday, 11 March 2021

Business as usual

No, not really: you've been rick-rolled. 

It feels wrong to chattily post about old songs the day after yet another woman, Sarah Everard,  was murdered for the crime of being outside unattended. The outpouring of testimony from women on social media about the harassment and assaults they've suffered for daring to assume that public space is sexually neutral is astounding but not, sadly, surprising. When I taught a module on cities, psychogeography and urban space we talked about the gendered city, and gendered time - we would make maps of where was safe, where was inviting, and where wasn't, and how time, light and the seasons affected those things. It will shock none of you to learn, I hope, that sexual harassment was a near-daily experience to every woman in the class, and a had started when they were very, very young. Some laughed it off, some affected to, but not one said it had never happened. From those conversations also came disclosure of serious crimes too: again entirely unsurprisingly. This country, and most others from what I can see, is a male-supremacist state. 'Notallmen' runs the hashtag, but quite enough to ensure that a stroll down the street or a late-night drink is a gendered experience, whether as perpetrator or cheerleader: the long career of various politicians' sexual misconduct and the excuses regularly wheeled out make it clear that our culture is willing to tolerate an awful lot of rape because, well, I'm not sure. Because women aren't real people?

I'd also like to take a minute to point and laugh-cry at Scott Morrison (the Australian prime minister) and his clones in the UK parliament and elsewhere who preface their autocue statements of regret with the words 'as a husband/father of daughters…'. No: you shouldn't need to imagine someone you're personally related to being attacked before you realise that it's probably a bad thing. Empathy is good, but if yours has genetic limits, you shouldn't be anywhere near power. Or indeed anywhere near other human beings. 

I think you get my point. Have some Riot Grrl for the day that's in it. They know.

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Wednesday, 10 March 2021

Up in Smoke with Ash

 You may think you can see some records here, but all I see is a gaping void in my collection of Ash 7" singles. What remains are their increasingly less good songs as their youthful enthusiasm gradually wore off. What's missing are their earliest thrilling singles, 'Jack Names The Planets', 'Petrol' (which I had in the UK and Japanese releases) and 'Uncle Pat'. I had them, then I had to sell them along with 400 of my rarest singles, or give up my PhD. 









Obviously I regret the loss of all of them, but these ones hurt because they were definitely the best songs Ash ever recorded: while some bands mature into greatness (Blur's second album is incomparably better than the first and the rest), Ash sadly didn't. They exploded onto the scene from Northern Ireland as 16 yr-olds - the newspapers loved the story of them skipping their GCSE exams to support the Rolling Stones). The first album was good. The second one was OK. Then they just faded into ordinariness, too dependent on their pop-punk sound while their youthful Irish distinctness got lost in the mix. 

But for a brief moment, they were just the best. I'm still annoyed a housemate nicked my band t-shirt. 






Tuesday, 9 March 2021

An Appliance of Science

Now here's a band I miss. Not the most aspirational of names, but the single word echoes the early-90s trend (Blur, Suede, Pulp, Oasis, Salad, Lush, Curve, Ride, Elastica et al.) with the addition of a techno-sheen redolent of the electronic and krautrock scene - think Pram and Broadcast. Which his appropriate because while Appliance came along only in 1995 and didn't release an album until 1999, they melded a bit of the best of both those scenes. I don't know too much about the electronic side of their music, but I like the mix of krautrock, drone and classical minimalism that I do recognise. 




Of these, I think I like Pacifica the best. Enjoy the icy sheen of machine-tooled pop. 









Monday, 8 March 2021

Forbidden Fruit

 (Actually, nothing in the Bible refers specifically to apples, as I keep writing on my students' Milton essays). But the remorseless progress of the alphabetical system brings me to The Apples In Stereo, whom I know are a cult, critics' favourite but I confess to only having this one single, 'The Bird That You Can't See' and the 2000 album The World Inside The Moon, midway in their catalogue. 


It's not that I didn't intend to buy more singles or albums, but age tends to narrow your enthusiasms and the early 200s were economically thin: I was subsisting on an overdraft and a PhD bursary of £6,500 per year (always paid late, as a cheque, with my names misspelled, leading to long discussions with the bank: thanks, university!). 


I really like this: it reminds me of that whole bunch of American bands who had pop tunes to burn and a twisted, often humorous sensibility: Pavement, obviously, but also Beulah, tons of bands on Little Darla, and Grandaddy. It's a delight to hear this pop gem once again. It's just so cheerfully American. 

Wednesday, 3 March 2021

And now for something completely better

 After yesterday's trash, here's a band from the same period who I really think have stood the test of time despite never approaching anything like popularity: Animals That Swim. Is the name awful? Yes, yes it is because it seems wilfully obscure and twee without having a witty referent that I can think of. But it doesn't matter because what they wrote was beautiful: thoughtful, muted chamber-pop in the tradition of Shelleyan Orphan without the occasional baroque excess that delightful band sometimes engaged in. They remind me a little of Cardinal and Eric Matthews, except with a more European sensibility. 






The albums, 1994's Workshy and 1996's I Was The King, I Really Was The King are just lovely - these singles are clearly a bit more cheaply produced but 'Faded Glamour' does sum them up very nicely: Suede without the (glorious) histrionics, and sharing a detestation of ruin-porn with late-era Pulp. You can find the rest online pretty easily. 


Tuesday, 2 March 2021

A Waste of Vinyl - it's The Animalhouse

 Thanks to the wonders of alphabetisation, yesterday's classic 'House of the Rising Sun' sits next to a bit of post-britpop fluff: 'Small' by The Animalhouse. I have an enduring weakness for spin-off bands, fuelled by a mania for completeness that isn't good for the soul or the wallet - I think I've an unparalleled collection of New Order splinter acts, for instance (New Order being Act 2 of Joy Division, really), and in the hope that while bands might have a brief period in which they catch the public's eye, they don't just stop being talented. Not always, anyway. 

The Animalhouse were an attempt by most of the members of the wonderful Ride to regroup after the acrimonious rift between Andy Bell and Mark Gardener. It got so bad that the last album, Tarantula features nasty songs about each other, and the two sides of the vinyl version keep the Bell and Gardener-penned tracks strictly segregated. (Amazingly, a large amount of money effected a reunion in 2014 and they're still together). 

In the meantime though, they went their separate and deeply unsuccessful ways, reduced to the margins by their own feuds and the juggernaut that was Britpop, crushing any attempt at nuance. The Animalhouse was Mark Gardener's outfit, after a spell releasing limited edition solo 7"s to general uninterest. It was pedestrian rubbish and you definitely shouldn't bother tracking down the single album they released before falling apart. This single just proves that bands are greater than the sum of their parts, and that craft and inspiration aren't the same thing at all. Also, it sounds like three different bad songs put together. 


Monday, 1 March 2021

Slightly far out

 A very familiar song today, but one that still packs a huge amount into a few minutes - the haunting 'House of the Rising Sun' by The Animals. 

I confess that I have little interest in 'The Sixties', especially the versions endlessly peddled by nostalgics: I like the occasional Beatles song but I'm with Public Enemy when it comes to the big beasts. Particularly the Rolling Stones. There is a version of the 60s I like: tracks like these by Joni Mitchell, Fairport Convention, Delia Derbyshire, Vashti Bunyan, Steve Reich, Phil Ochs, Meredith Monk, Milton Babbitt's Composition for Synthesizer, The Last Poets, early Velvet Underground and the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, Motown and Northern Soul and Buffy Sainte-Marie. I'm just not keen on those who preached revolution for money from their country mansions. 

Not sure where I picked up this very battered copy - probably a charity shop. It's pretty scratched but it's still wonderful. 

Friday, 26 February 2021

At last: a proper banger

 At some point in the late nineties I got transfixed by Northern Soul, that magical northern British subculture with its own aesthetic and moves. A friend's father had played me some Geno Washington live albums (still wonderful) and then I found out about the Northern Soul scene, still strong in places like Stoke and Wigan - you can still see people squeezing into some great clothes and pulling off audacious dance moves at all-nighters across the north and midlands. I couldn't get into the real collectors' circles on a student income, but I did buy quite a few compilations and re-releases: not being particularly competitive I was grateful for the advent of CD collections, whereas some of the scenesters resented their rarest records becoming commonly available. Two of my favourite tracks are well-known now: Dobie Gray's 'Out On The Floor' 

and The Human Beinz' 'Nobody But Me'


but this 1979 Carol Anderson number is superb - beautifully melancholic but you can dance to it. She died unheralded in 1984. 





Thursday, 25 February 2021

Single of the Day: the importance of being earnest.

 Compared with everything else I was buying at the time, American Music Club's 'Can You Help Me?' counts as a crowd-pleasing hit - Mark Eitzel's crew were critical darlings in the NME, Select and Vox, as well as in the inky fanzines I bought in the local record shop. Until I looked it up today I had no idea that 1994 was the eleventh year of their initial 12 year history: they sounded like classic 90s Americans to me. 


What can one say? It's quite bland. If Cher from Clueless were here she'd definitely be listing it alongside Radiohead as 'complaint rock'. The Wikipedia entry for AMC suggests that they were a seminal influence on post-rock and 'slow core' (which conjures up the superlative Galaxie 500 and Low to me) but the single doesn't really do it. Sounds like something Beverley Hills 90210 would use as a teen breakdown montage. 





Wednesday, 24 February 2021

Eyes down for some post-rock

 I unashamedly adore this next record. After Britpop died of shame I got into post-rock quite heavily: Mogwai, Slint, Velvet Underground, Ectogram, Slowdive and the shoegazers were my gateway drugs into often wordless, krautrock or kosmische-influenced drone rock. It also appealed because I've long been into minimalist music - I find the incremental shifts in long, repetitive pieces profoundly moving. Try this Meredith Monk piece from 1971!


So one day in 1999 I found myself on my own in Cheltenham Town Hall for a whole day of electronic drone acts - mostly very shy people staring at their effects pedals and creating the most otherworldly noises. I bought this single - 'Misstype Doolittle' by AMP Studio - at the record stall there and subsequently bought everything that came out on Earworm Records - particularly Electric Sound of Joy. Isn't it lovely, as a physical object and piece of music? 




Tuesday, 23 February 2021

Do Not Adjust Your Sets

 …it's Alternative TV


They were a big name on the post-punk circuit in the late 70s/early 80s because the frontman was Mark Perry (editor of Sniffin' Glue) alongside many, many other members, then reformed in the Nineties for another go. It must have been recommended to me because I can't recall ever knowing much about them or seeing them live. 

It's deliberately amateur, quite endearing, melodic synth-driven pop-punk. No doubt Bis and Helen Love adored it. 



Monday, 22 February 2021

It Crawled From The South (of Wales)

 So today's obscure single is Alphane Moon's 'Our Glassie Azoth'. Purchased from Recordiau'r Cob in Bangor for £2.99 (a lot in 1994) with a sticker reading 'Strangeness From South Wales'. For a shop staffed entirely by druid drone-rockers, that's quite something. I don't know much about them, though Alphane Moon is lifted from Philip K Dick's short story and debut novel, 'Clans of the Alphane Moon', which isn't very good. Amazingly, Alphane Moon is still sort of in existence: Dafydd released archive recordings recently. 


It's a defiantly indie production, from the orange vinyl to the hermeneutic cover design. As to the track itself (which is amazingly available on Youtube), it's rather delightful: gossamer-light indie-goth-prog. Definite shades of Flying Saucer Attack, BBC Radiophonic Workshop or Children's Film Foundation soundtrack, mixed with 70s European contemporary classical music. I liked it a lot more this time round than when I bought it. Very pleased to rediscover this one. 



Thursday, 18 February 2021

(Split) single of the day

Another mystery today - a 1997 split single from Dedicated Records (the fifth in the series) featuring three bands who were less up-and-coming and more came-and-went: Alone, Burst and Homesick. The EP is available from Discogs for 50p, so not one that will be keeping me warm in my old age. 


Sadly there's no online version of any of these songs nor any further trace of their existence, but be assured that you're not missing anything at all. It's all dreadful sludge - the forerunner of the previously-mentioned Landfill Indie. There are other bands with these names, and they're terrible too. 

Have I learned anything from this? Not much. Younger me had little discrimination. Never go back. Youth is wasted on the young. 

That is all. 

Wednesday, 17 February 2021

Single of the Day: Goth-Folk. No, wait!

 I really like All About Eve - they're a mix of two genres I've always enjoyed, folk-rock and goth. So I'm not sure why I only own one of their singles, and a late one at that: 1991's 'Strange Way'. Perhaps because they'd been and gone before I got into music and I just picked up this second-hand single cheaply somewhere. I know I've got a couple of Julianne Regan's later singles as Mice, and the LPs are all there. 

'Strange Way' isn't totally representative of their main work and the production might seem rather dated for 1991 but it's a good pop-rock ballad. I don't think I've listened to it for 20 years, but I'm taken with it all over again. I'd still recommend you start with 'Flowers In Our Hair' though. It's a banger. 

Tuesday, 16 February 2021

Single of the Day - Underachievers and Proud

After yesterday's foray into lazy satire it's back to 90s Music You Never Wanted To Hear Again. Top quality showbiz anecdote with this one though: I own it, the accompanying album and a t-shirt because the band's flautist was a primary-school friend of a friend. I assume the Daily Mail will come knocking if they find anything interesting in her bins (just as I occasionally get an email asking if I'll comment on the private life of someone I didn't know at school who once dated a royal so far down the order of succession that her nickname should be Barely Regal). 

Anyway, the band is Alfie and the single is 'A Word In Your Ear'. 


Alfie were a post-Britpop indie band, but if that sounds damning, hold your horses - far from being what became known as Landfill Indie, Alfie had a folky whimsy that stood out for me amidst the hordes of sportswear-clad lads pretending to be football hooligans, indicated by the rather twee cover design. There's a degree of melancholy and some social commentary on their albums that echoes some of the other late-90s Manchester bands like Doves. There's a lack of edge to them which fitted in with a slew of soft indie 90s groups - Coldplay, Keane, Travis, Elbow and more, but I always thought Alfie had a little more depth to them. It didn't help though - 4 underachieving albums then oblivion. 


This one's rather nice. Not a formula for musical world domination, admittedly but easy on the ear. 

Monday, 15 February 2021

Goldilocks the Public Historian, or, Just Right History

Once upon a time there was a young Culture Secretary called Oliver. When he was walking in the woods one day looking for the trees, Oliver found a snug little building called History. 'Oh ho', he thought. 'I like floral tea towels. I'll call in'. And so he did, tripping lightly over the threshold into a chamber with three doors. Always on the look-out for offence, he picked the door on the Left. It contained a sweet young lecturer with plaited braids and a pinafore dress, talking to some apple-cheeked children in front of a picture of a lovely country mansion like the one Oliver had grown up in. 'This is lovely', thought Oliver. 'I wonder what she's talking about', and he sat down, crossed his legs and listened very hard. But oh no! Her lecture was much too salty! She kept mentioning the servants, and pointing out that every brick of Richard Grosvenor Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax MP's great big house was funded by the blood of his Caribbean slaves. This was Too Much History.

Oliver didn't like this. He liked cream teas and dressing-up boxes. So he left the room and chose the middle door. The only thing in the room was a great big television showing a period drama. 'Much better', said Oliver. 'I liked the man diving into the lake in front of his nice house and emerging dripping wet even though it's not in the book. That's why we put an insincere quote from one of her characters on a bank note'. And so he sat down, and crossed his legs, and tuned in. But oh no! It was The Crown! He didn't know any more whether he was friends with the dead blonde posh one or the big-eared still-alive posh one but he definitely knew that neither of them had ever watched Tiger King in a onesie because nice people in those days didn't like television and onesies were common. This was Not History and people needed a big sign to tell them that it wasn't Proper History because they couldn't tell the difference between reality and real people pretending to be other people who were dead or older now and anyone who suggested that other regimes that publicly declared some art to be Good and other art to be Bad (Oliver had seen this on Channel 5 while waiting for Hitler's Greatest Trousers) were not ideal role models deserved to be Cancelled, but not in a left-wing way. 

So Oliver uncrossed his legs and left the room, choosing, finally the door on the Right where he really belonged. This was much better. He sat down, crossed his legs and watched agog as Jacob Rees-Mogg gave an adoring throng of fish proper British names like Sextus and Septimus, before giving in to their demands to be chained up and sent to work in the family mines. 'They're happy, because they're British, Britannia really does rule the waves', sighed Jacob while his nanny sponged his trousers clean, and Oliver clapped his hands with glee. This History was Just Right. 

And so Oliver skipped home to find his friend Gavin and together they decided to give their friend Toby the key to the dressing-up box so that he could be the Universities Free Speech Champion to make sure that everyone could say what they wanted about ladies' breasts or black people unless it was Too Much History, while Oliver arranged his dolls in front of him and gave them a long lecture on why they couldn't say what they wanted unless it was to be nice about his friends. And they all lived happily ever after. 

Friday, 12 February 2021

Single of the Day: it's a mystery

 Yet again we're in Glasgow. Or maybe Chicago: this is a tricky one. I'm not a wilful obscurantist, but some bands appeared and disappeared leaving no trace. Sometimes deliberately, sometimes because things just didn't work out. 


Today's record is an EP called 'Airport Songs': two original tracks and a Morricone cover that clearly had some influence on the new songs. It's on All City records of apparently Glasgow and Chicago but I can't find much trace of either – there's a Dublin label of the same name with some Glasgow connection but it appeared later. There's a suggestion via an Ebay listing that this band is a Pastels offshoot, which would make sonic sense, so this looks like an American release of a Scottish record bought in Wales.

I can't let you try it either: it's so lost to history that nobody has posted it to Youtube or any other service. You'll just have to take my word for it that is't pretty good - a mix of film music, French pop and American college rock that goes down nicely. Much like the Pastels, in fact. Apparently their 1999 shows were 'transcendent' - and check out the other singles released that week

In lieu of this record, have the Morricone/Gastoni original and a Pastels track. 




Thursday, 11 February 2021

Single for the Shy

Finally, an act that isn't Scottish: today's band is Airiel, an American shoe-gazing tribute act from the late-90s who released 'Shirley Temple Tidal Wave' on Roisín Recordings back in 1999. (Shoegaze because they were all so non-pop that they played and/or danced staring at their shoes rather than make eye contact).


I was a bit late to music so missed the first wave of shoegazers (Ride, Curve, Swervedriver, Slowdive and all the others) but I ransacked the vaults as soon as I heard Slowdive's Souvlaki LP in about 1994. The genre was wiped off the map by the crude Britpop bandwagon, but seems to have inspired a second generation of anglophiliacs over in the US: Trespassers William's cover of Ride's 'Vapour Trail' is one of my most treasured songs, and is easily as good as the original. 

As for Airiel: I suppose they're endearing also-rans. 'Shirley Temple Tidal Wave' sounds utterly lovely to me, but it could have been recorded by any British shoegaze band between 1988-1992, rather than in Indiana in 1999. 


As a bonus, here's the aforementioned Trespassers William cover.