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


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.