Partly because it’s just so fucking positive and life affirming, partly because the concept is just so unashamedly ‘fuck you’.
Like when the athlete mouths “Fuck sake” after being so disdainfully ignored by the cafe owner who hasn’t lowered the kerb to allow wheelchair access. OK it’s a set up, but you get the point.
The trend for advertising to become more real in tackling ‘taboo’ subjects, like feminine hygiene and in this case disability, is truly inspiring. I wish I’d had some of these briefs to work on as youngster.
It’s a trend, but it’s far from the norm because too many clients are still too scared to reflect reality, so this is a great example of what Behavioural Economists call normalisation.
In my youth disability was so unspeakable, and the language around it either so degrading, cruel or patronising that people who had “something wrong with them” were shunned.
I once worked at The MacRobert Centre on Snow White and the Seven “Dwarves”. There was so much confusion around all this. Their stage call was “Little People” not dwarves – the medical name is actually dwarfism so Dwarves is not medically inaccurate. But, the Little People, in private were more than happy to call themselves dwarves.
It was a quandary.
So this is just wonderful. It’s funny, it’s inspiring, it’s emotional.
The music is inspired. (and, yes, they’re not all boxers – a lesser client would have binned the music for that reason.)
Congratulations to every single person involved in this fucking masterpiece.
There’s no question that John Lanchester can apply his journalistic background into a dystopian vision that’s alarming and original. What he can’t do is write character studies very effectively so it adds up to a very good story but only passably told. Nonetheless I think it’s worth your while passing the time with this interesting novel.
It’s set in an undated future where the world has annexed itself, country by country, into imposingly walled territories. The seaside has gone (a result of climate change) as the UK (where it’s set) becomes an imposing barrier to unwelcome visitors. Two year national service, of a sort, is a requirement for young people, Defenders, who are punished with expulsion to sea if the Wall is breached by Others during their shift.
It’s a fairly brutal regime with freezing cold 12 hour shifts where literally nothing at all happens, most of the time. Two weeks on, two weeks off for two years is a daunting prospect for our new conscript Kavanagh and we witness the first few months of uneventful boredom pass slowly by as he describes in detail the drudgery of his now horrific life.
Of course an attack eventually comes and that changes everything. It would be a spoiler to say any more at this point but as the book develops the story moves from a dispassionate description of the setting into a more textured telling of the story and Kavanagh’s relationships with a number of the key characters. That’s where Lanchester’s limitations are exposed.
But as an allegory for Trumpism, racism and the vilification of refugees (I hate it when they are labelled immigrants) it’s a powerful read – not quite living up to its OTT marketing splurgel as the 1984 of our day. It isn’t even close, but he has a good bash at it.
Like me, you possibly read this book at school. In my case over 40 years ago.
I recently joined a book club at work and we specifically read books either by Black writers or books about racial prejudice. This clearly falls into the latter camp and the choice to read it came from a a left-field suggestion by my wife that we revisit the past.
So we did.
It’s much lauded, selling over 30million copies and winning the Pulitzer Prize.
A morality tale for the times (1960 but set in 1936). It tells the story of black oppression and racial discrimination completely through white eyes, worse, children’s white eyes.
Not one single page features a contribution from the central (struck mute) protagonist Tom Robinson – frankly even the character’s name is redolent of hokey deep southern central casting – but, hey, maybe that was the idea.
It paints the picture of an Alabaman township where a strange resident (Boo Radley) lives holed up in his house next door to brother and sister young Scout and wise Jem Finch. Boo scares the bejesus out of them (is that why he’s called Boo?) by simply being reclusive.
He’s the first harmless Mockingbird of the title.
The second is an uneducated Black farmer (Tom Robinson) enticed into a trailer trash home by a seductive young hick who, having been stumbled upon by her paw, screams the house down accusing him (completely falsely) of rape.
He’s taken to the local kangaroo court, tried for the fake rape and is defended by Scout and Jem’s dad (oddly known to them by his given name, Atticus).
Atticus, Jem and Scout seem to be the only open-minded folks in the town which quickly earns him the reputation as a “nigger lover”.
The use of this word is liberal and the polite version (negroe) was clearly the acceptable version of the time, but its repetitive use is also quite startling.
It’s a very odd read indeed, terribly trapped in time with much outdated language and a dreadful naiveté. Maybe that’s deliberate, I suppose, because Harper Lee chooses to make the young Scout the author in a bid to open the eyes of the reader to the illogical nature of the inherent prejudice of the town.
But it also serves to make the book uninsightful and frankly, quite boring.
The structure is clumsy with the two mockingbird stories only loosely related and with no real link other than as a storytelling device.
But it’s the lack of a Black voice that most troubled me in this. Tom Robinson is cast as stupid (stoopid and ign’rn’t) and has no way of repositioning himself. The only Black voice is of another lovable central casting character, the cook and housemaid, Calpurnia who looks after the motherless Scout and Jem as her own.
Sure, it’s a coming of age novel with a purpose, but I found it banal and patronising.
The characters are wholly unrounded and the entire conceit naive and unsubtle.
Morvern is one of the most creative, most ambitious (in a good way) and most democratic people I know.
She sees creativity through a lens that brings people together in a way that improves their lives. Ordinary people largely. That’s why she’s been involved with Leith Creative, led the Leith Shutters project, where she put amazing street art onto the shutters of closed shops, The Mural Project, which had a similar ambition of bringing street art to Leithers, and, of course, she founded the fabulous Leith Late 10 years ago and, pandemic aside, has nurtured it through a wide variety of forms with often little or no money.
Also a lover of unorthodox cinema, her KinoKlub has delighted many with its surrealist movie screening, often, but not always from the horror genre.
She’s a thorn in many sides because she won’t ever, take no for an answer. Her co-curated Blueprint for Leith was citizen-powered and asked the questions the City Council daren’t and therein lies many of her face-offs. Deeply respected (probably feared too) by our ‘City Fathers’ she has succeeded in drawing support from them for many of her ambitious projects.
You’d assume from all this that Morvern was a proud Leither, and she is, but only as her adopted home because she’s 100% Glaswegian, and sounds it.
I’m so delighted to have Morvern share her cultural inspiration with us. I’m also proud to know her because I consider her by far the most proactive, imaginative and effective advocate of art and culture, outside of the pantheons of culture that dot my city, that I know. Her influence is massive, her ability to articulate her belief in the power of art and culture tremendous. But underneath it all she’s just a really lovely, caring person that does what she does for all the right reasons.
And its the reason she gets the respect and admiration that she does. Including from our City Fathers.
My favourite author or book
My three favourite authors are Ursula le Guin, Shirley Jackon and Octavia Butler, but it has been Octavia’s work in particular that has really helped me get through the various lockdowns of late. Butler was the first recognised Black woman author in the science fiction genre, a genre she dubbed ‘speculative fiction’. It was by harnessing this she was able to explore the following scenarios: ‘What if?’ ‘If only?’ and ‘If things go on like this’. The latter has been highlighted most recently in the public consciousness by her 1998 novel Parable of the Talents, which features an American President despot who presides over an increasingly chaotic and destructive country, using the mantra “Make America Great Again”.
There are so many great places to start with Butler, but my favourite of her characters is Lillith Iyapo from the Xenogenesis trilogy who we meet in Dawn, with the start of a new kind of human race after the demise of Earth. My great sadness is, since Octavia is no longer with us, the novels we have of hers are finite so therefore I eke out the experience of reading her work and savour every novel and short story available.
The book I’m reading
I’m currently reading Into the London Fog, subtitled Eerie Tales from the Weird City and published by the British Library under their ‘Tales of the Weird’ series. There’s lots of great stuff in it, including entries by Edith Nesbit who wrote a significant amount of ghost stories alongside her children’s fiction, and Arthur Machen, a great proponent of the weird literary genre. Editor Elizabeth Dearnley talks in her introduction to the collection about the feature of fog in the city making it both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, an eeriness I think we’ll all be familiar with now when wandering around our emptied city centres as a result of the pandemic. My only point of reference to the historic London fog is of course the Edinburgh haar, which is less inherently mysterious and more of an eerie character itself!
The book I wished I’d written
I don’t wish I’d written anything already out in the world, as each book is a product of their time and of the circumstance of the author. However, I would love to edit a future contribution to the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series, or something of a similar ilk. I recently attended an online talk by Elizabeth Dearnley (editor of Into the London Fog), who described putting the book together as a dream project, which I can well imagine. I believe there must be a vast array of uncovered weird and gothic gems in the collections of the National Library or the University of Edinburgh, that could be given a whole new lease of life in a shiny new edition. Edinburgh is the city that spawned Blackwood’s Magazine and other similar periodicals of the 19th century after all, so there must be plenty of fine homegrown bogie tales of yore out there to sift through!
My favourite film
I couldn’t possibly single out any one film in particular, but the film genre that I’m most fond of is horror. Unfairly diminished and looked down upon, the horror genre has existed since the genesis of film. It provides a safe space to explore societal fears and prejudice, to observe life’s inhumanities, to vicariously experience the limitations of the human body and our ideas of what might happen after death. There is some evidence to suggest that horror, while always popular, has increased in popularity as a result of COVID-19, with stay at home audiences keen to watch pandemic-themed dystopias as a means of helping to cope with everyday reality. Perhaps it’s like wild swimming – the more you subject your body and mind to cold sharp shocks, the easier it becomes to cope with real-life trauma. A few recent recommendations worth seeking out include: Midsommer, Tigers Are Not Afraid, His House and Host.
I have to confess I’m not much of a podcast person, so I’m just going to mention the handful of podcasts I’ve ever spent time listening to. First up is the Persistent and Nasty podcast, (@PersistentNasty on Twitter), a collective of Glasgow-based female creatives who regularly interview a variety of cool and interesting guest speakers. (Dunno why I’ve not been invited on yet tbh!) I’m also a massive fan of adrienne marie brown who has written, amongst other things, the inspirational Emergent Strategy. It’s a radical self/society-help book inspired by the work of Octavia Butler and her writings on the subject of change, and has been really influential to my thinking and writing about creating our collective futures. (See Edinburgh Reimagined: https://sceptical.scot/2021/04/time-to-rebuild-edinburgh-reimagined-part-2/) The Emergent Strategy Podcast has grown out of the teachings of the book of the same name and is well worth a listen. During 2020, adrienne also launched the podcast Octavia’s Parables with Toshi Reagon, which explores Butler’s The Parable of the Sower and The Parable of the Talents chapter by chapter. I’m yet to properly dive in, but it’s sure to be amazing.
Favourite TV series
I don’t tend to binge on TV series, tending to stick to film instead, but this sprung to mind so I’ll run with it. One surprise TV hit of the pandemic was BBC series The Repair Shop, a programme centred around the careful and sensitive restoration of beloved family items to their owners. Filmed at Weald and Downland Living Museum, the show features a regular roster of expert restorers in their field, working in the areas of fabric, leather, wood, metal and mechanics. Antiques Roadshow this is not, with the heart of the programme not based in what something is worth financially. Instead, the focus lies in the emotional attachment we have to objects of personal significance, and the powerful feelings that are involved in bringing these items back to life, often evoking loved ones that have been lost in the process. Indeed, some of the items so lovingly brought to life are pretty worthless and potentially irreparable to an outsider’s eye, but priceless to their owners. Each project is a reminder to us to care for what we already have in a disposable society, plus it makes me greet regularly!
The last thing that made you cry
The last thing that made me ugly cry over and over again was Russell T Davies’ Channel 4 miniseries It’s a Sin, following the trials and tribulations of a group of queer teenagers descending on London for their first real foray into the world. Their arrival and beautiful emancipatory evolution of selfhood also coincide with the early days of the spread of the AIDS virus, and we watch broken hearted as AIDS rips through our group of friends, leaving none unscathed by its effects. A cultural masterpiece by Davies, who also directed Queer as Folk and who has admitted that he always avoided focusing on the AIDS crisis till now, perhaps intimidated by the overwhelming mark it has left on the queer community at large. What Davies and his queer cast have since created is a vital, vibrant and celebratory tribute of those lives we have lost, those continuing to live with HIV, and to all the young queers coming into themselves today. I’m tearing up now…
The instrument I play
I had violin lessons at primary school, which I wasn’t very fond of tbh. I then discovered Scottish traditional music around aged 10 when I joined the Glasgow Fiddle Workshop and suddenly a whole new world opened up. I started referring to my instrument as a fiddle and, long before being of drinking age, would pitch up to trad pubs like Babbity Bowsters and The Vicky Bar in Glasgow to join the sessions that took place there. It was great, the musicians would take up a whole section of the bar, with fiddle players, guitarists, whistle players, bodhrans, the lot, and we would play tunes all day as the crowd jammed in around us. It was my first taste of the traditional culture we have in Scotland, and the great community that can grow up around an artform. Celtic Connections was a key time in the trad music calendar, with all the local pubs full of musicians during the festival, and folk pitching up to the Glasgow Concert Hall to find a session. The Festival Club which took place afterhours was and still is an amazing place. I started going when it was at the Central Station Hotel, which is also where the performers and a lot of the out of town audience were housed at the same time, which made for a great atmosphere and lots of room parties! I’m a bit out of practice now – I must get back on it so I can join a session sometime.
Instrument I wish I’d learned
I always quite fancied playing the spoons as percussion, but never quite got the knack.
Music that cheers me up
Funk and soul is generally my go to most days, my personal soundtrack is generally upbeat. I also like a song with a message – some songs have turned into personal mantras at different points in my life. I moonlight as DJ BUTTZ (check me out on Insta) and recently put together a playlist for Emma Jayne Park’s Daily Dancing resource (you can find out more about DD here, it basically does what it says on the tin: https://www.culturedmongrel.org/blogs/2021/3/22/daily-dancing-turns-one).
All the songs on the playlist have been important to me at some point in time, and it was great fun to put together. I recommend everyone puts a similar playlist together, as it’s guaranteed to cheer you up if you ever feel things aren’t going your way. Link: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/0yWFZaqW7Ml5BfRPk53dys
Place I feel happiest
I love being by the sea, and like many people over lockdown, recently took up wild swimming. It’s amazing seeing how the water changes from day to day, week to week, even minute to minute sometimes! There’s something about being close to water that brings out a calmness and retrospection in people. Wild swimming as a practice generates an inner happiness too. The experience of regularly immersing yourself in cold water can generate interesting results – you’d be surprised at the levels of cold your body can tolerate – and as a lifestyle it’s meant to be really good for your health. There’s nothing quite like watching wildlife from the perspective of being in the water as well!
They laughed at Corbyn, but he damn near won an election.
Starmer. The great polished hope of Labour is starting to look like a great polished turd.
Steve Richards nailed it in his podcast this week when he suggested that Starmer simply isn’t a politician.
He’s a professional.
And he’s no leader either.
What’s more, his knighthood seriously dents whatever credibility his working class roots may have afforded him.
I’d say England no longer has an appetite for working class Labour values. Its only success being in the hands of Scotland’s version of an Etonian. But Corbyn almost disproved that.
Labour is as Westminster bubble, and as Metropolitan, as The Tories now.
In Scotland, Labour is a laughing stock. Only in Wales does the party have any credibility whatsoever.
I’m not a Labour voter but I’d far rather see them in power than this disgusting mess that is this Tory, self-consumed corrupt filth.
Starmer has seriously lost the plot after a promising start. It started with his Brexit silence, it was compounded by his flag waving patriotism in a desperate bid to shore up that red wall and his lukewarm pandemic opposition has been, well, tepid.
In fact, that’s what Starmer is really, tepid.
He no longer seems to have a strategy and his loss of the Red Wall is extremely worrying.
I wish I knew the answer. Boris came from the London Mayorhood, maybe Sadiq Khan can do that but he feels as Metropolitan as Starmer.
Andy Burnham has proper credentials and a popular persona. But he seems settled in his role in Manchester.
I like Jess Phillips immensely, but I fear she is too out there.
Annalieise Doods seemed to have the intellect, but not the empathy.
Will, or Gramps as we now know him, has been a friend for quarter of a century.We first met at Hall Advertising where, instead of working, Will went our for long liquid lunches, and I got jealous.
You see, Will was a star copywriter and I was a jumped up greasy-haired fanboy with a lot to learn, but a willingness to do so.
Subbuteo nearly cost both of us our jobs as we did constant battle on the creative floor for what was affectionately known as The Linpak Cup (a polystyrene trophy of zero value or consequence).
Will was better in the morning.
I usually took revenge after lunch.
Will worked with Nige Sutton. Fuck me, they were an intoxicating (intoxicated more like. Ed) and an unlikely duo, but they were awesomely talented and taught me an awful lot as I lugged fridge freezers into Rob Wilson’s basement and they looked on.
Our love of football extended to Hibernian FC and our office bromance gradually filtered out into weekend boozing, bookending the weekly disappointments of another Easter Road humiliation, although we did witness Frank Sauzee, Stevie Archibald and Russell Latapy in green and white; not to mention Gazza, Laudrup and Larsson. Heady days.
Over the years though our relationship has grown and now stretches to a shared love of politics, music, theatre, contemporary fiction and, yes, a beer or two.
Will also shares with me the luck of the Irish. We both have wives that love us no matter our faults.
And I’ve been lucky enough to get to know his three wonderful kids, one of whom, his son Mark, is now the bestodian of the Gramps moniker for Will.
So here we are. The inimitable Will Atkinson.
My favourite author or book
It’s weird isn’t it, your favourite book isn’t always by your favourite author. Well mine isn’t. So to the book – Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess. The first line alone is acclaimed as one of the best ever written – “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.” This leads you straight into a wonderful voyage of fictional biography that crosses oceans and decades, with every sentence and paragraph as powerful as the first.
So to the authors. No, Burgess isn’t among them. But there is Kate Atkinson, John Irving, John Gierach, William Boyd, James Lee Burke, John Le Carre and Patti Smith. Recent discoveries include Colson Whitehead, Sebastian Barry and Attica Locke. To name any one as my favourite would be a complete impossibility.
The book I’m reading
Mr Wilder and Me by Jonathan Coe. His books are on the face of it quite comedic, but beneath the humour often lies some very dark observations – about human nature and the society we pretend to aspire to be part of, Middle England with its examination of Brexit for example.
But whatever I’m reading I always have a John Gierach volume close to hand. He writes essays on fly fishing that are about so much more than (as he puts it) standing in the middle of a river waving a stick.
The book I wish I had written
Either A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving or Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. If you put a howitzer to my head Life After Life would just nick it. It’s a piece of high wire writing with a construction that few other writers would be able to maintain.
The book I couldn’t finish
Like many readers I feel incredibly guilty about not finishing books, but then I mostly can’t remember the ones I put down early, so there’s probably a moral in there somewhere.
The book I’m ashamed I haven’t read
Moby Dick – true of a lot of people I suspect.
My favourite film
I think one way to make a long list shorter is to include only those films you re-watch time and again. No Country for Old Men is brilliant, and also one of the few films that actually stand comparison with the book they came from. I love the magic realism of Beasts of the Southern Wilds. The Godfather Trilogy and Apocalypse Now always accompany me on long plane journeys. American Honey is one of those great films where nothing much happens but loads does really. Ditto the Straight Story about an old man crossing America on a lawnmower. But probably my favourite film of all time (this week anyway) is Bugsy Malone – joyous.
My favourite play
When I was at school I was a member of the Young Lyceum or whatever it was called then. Back then I was seriously into anything by Harold Pinter. These days I rarely go to the theatre, which is a shame because I love it as I love all live performance. Favourite play? The Importance of Being Earnest. (Note to self – when the theatres open again, go more often.)
My favourite podcast
I don’t listen to many to be honest. A couple of advertising based ones – Stuff from the Loft and Ben Kay’s one. However, recently I’ve been following Jeremy Paxman’s The Lock-In – chats with people you’d never normally hear. Paxman is his usual contrary self. It would be an experience meeting him, but I’d probably run a mile in fear.
The box set I’m hooked on
I’m not really. But for the sake of punning into the question, Mortimer and Whitehouse Gone Fishing.
My favourite TV series
Ever? Wow. For my sins I’m quite involved in the world of politics -so Yes Minster and The Thick of It are good, sharp takes on how silly it can all become. Fleabag and Killing Eve obviously. University Challenge – another Paxman outing. Sorry, I don’t know.
My favourite piece of music
One of the good things about getting older is you collect more and more stuff from more and more places – well I do anyway. It’s like curating your own cultural archive, infinite in its vastness. Musically it’s taken me from an early obsession with blues and folk into reggae and country and African Funk/beats and Malian divas and sweaty rhythm & blues and…and…and…and…the rabbit holes are deep and endless.
You get to add new stuff (eagerly awaiting new St Vincent album) and stumble across dusty but still perfect artefacts (over lockdown rediscovered the amazing Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan and the Band.)
Taking the question literally as a ‘piece’ of music as supposed to a ‘song’ I could plump for something like So What by Miles Davis, King of Snake by Underworld. Or Peace Piece by John McLaughlin. But the one piece I go back to is the mind-boggling reach for the heavens that is Dark Star by the Grateful Dead from the Live Dead album – all 23 minutes and 18 glorious seconds of it.
My favourite dance performance
When I was a student at Stirling Uni in 1974 I was transfixed by the Ballet Rambert doing open rehearsals in the coffee area of the Macrobert Centre. A male and a female dancer improvised together to Tommy by the Who, I was totally lost in the moment. Then the moment eluded me until years later I started to go regularly to the ballet. Highlights have been the Rambert again, Nederlands Dance Theatre, anything devised by Michael Bourne and our own Scottish Ballet. Favourite? I’m terrible at remembering titles so I’ll cop out with Bourne’s Swan Lake.
The Last film/music/book that made me cry
I’m not a great one for weeping over films, books, music but one song did help me through a period when my best mate was dying of cancer. Sailing Round the Room by Emmylou Harris is an uplifting affirmation of death that kind of reflects what I think happens after you die – not a smidgen of Christianity to be found. While we’re on the subject the same artist’s Boulder to Birmingham is one of the best songs about loss ever.
The lyric I wish I’d written
Like a bird on the wire
Like a drunk in some midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free
By Leonard Cohen of course. I want the whole song to be read as a poem at my funeral.
The song that saved me
Again, not sure a song has ever actually saved me but in another dark time I listened a lot to Speed of the Sound of Loneliness written by John Prine. It’s been covered by loads of people but my favourite is the Alabama 3 version where they changed the lyrics to the first person. Gives the song another whole new emphasis.
Come home late, come home early Come home big when I’m feelin’ small Come home straight, come home fucked-up Sometimes I don’t come home at all
What in the world has come over me? What in heaven’s name have I done? I’ve broken the speed of the sound of loneliness I’m out there running just to be on the run
The Rolling Stone’s Moonlight Mile would come a close second.
The instrument I play
Believe it or not I tried to learn the French Horn at school. Got as far as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.
The instrument I wish I’d learned
I can strum a guitar but really wish I could play properly.
If I could own one painting it would be
It would either be a Caravaggio – maybe this one:
Or a Joan Miro, maybe this one:
If I couldn’t have both I’d settle for the Miro.
The music that cheers me up
Music always cheers me up. At the moment it’s At Home (Live in Marciac) – Roberto Fonseca & Fatoumata Diawara.
The place I feel happiest
I’m lucky to have travelled a bit – rainforests really raise my spirits. But then so does being in a special spot in rural Languedoc-Roussillon. Or on a river with a fly rod, or a boat on a loch teeming with broonies. But actually where I am truly at my happiest (apart from with my family) is with friends. I am blessed to have met many people I have truly grown to like and count as good friends. Yep, that’s when I’m smiling, with them.
My guiltiest cultural pleasure
Hot Chocolate playing at the Usher Hall.
I’m having a fantasy dinner party, I’ll invite these artists and authors
I’d need a big table: Hunter S Thomson, Keith Richards, Lee Miller, Kate Atkinson, Cerys Mathews, Kevin Bridges, Yoko Ono, Bjork, John Gierach, Jeremy Paxman, Michael Palin, Caravaggio, Boy George.
And I’ll put on this music
The Best of John Renbourn. Hunter would hate it.
If you liked this there are many more to read now.
As the Uk screams its indignation at the Big Brotheresque indignity of Vaccine Passports I got to thinking.
What’s their point?
I went to Nigeria two years ago and an absolute mandatory stipulation for entry was that I was vaccinated for Yellow Fever.
The first and most obvious was to protect me from an awful disease, non existent in the UK but endemic in large parts of Africa.
It’s a killer, and a nasty way to go if the post vaccine reaction that I experienced was anything to go by. (Presumably mild, in comparison to the Full Monty, but it consigned me to bed for two days with the worst ‘illness’ I’ve had in many years.)
Did I complain about its impact on my civil liberties? No. Does anyone? Not that I’ve heard of.
A ‘Passport” allows you to Pass through a Port of entry, only if it is safe for the welcoming jurisdiction to allow it. It works both ways and it limits the movement of undesirables. Carriers of disease, fomenters of hatred, purveyors of dangerous materials and criminals.
The second and, far more important, reason for making that vaccination a condition of entry to Nigeria was not about me. It was about you.
Had I gone to Nigeria and brought Yellow Fever back with me, spreading it around my community, how would my fellow citizens have felt?
No worries mate?
Or irresponsible, thoughtless, selfish and stupid?
I think I know the answer to that.
Now, think back to the outcry about the UK Government’s lamentable reaction to our Border Control of Coronavirus. No testing at airports, no need for proof of immunity, even of non-contamination.
So, what’s so different now?
Is it OK for, say, Brazilians to come into the UK unrestricted?
Is it OK for me to go to, say, Brazil, unvaccinated, spend some time there and then return?
I know, I know the answer to that.
And will it be OK to throw football stadia open to 50,000 crowds, to admit all and sundry to sweaty gigs? To celebrate our musical culture in great festival gatherings without any recourse to only admitting attendees that are protected?
Sodom and Gomorah were two Jordanian cities in the book of Genesis.
From Wikipedia “The Lord reveals to Abraham that he would confirm what he had heard against Sodom and Gomorrah, “and because their sin is very grievous.”
The sins of the wholly Catholic characters of Gomorrah fall fairly squarely into the camp of “grievous”. Indeed, not one of them can be in any way excused. And yet, we love them. Tony soprano, and his mates, by contrast, appear almost saintlike.
For Gommorahns are bad bad people. Not bad in a tut tut sort of way, bad in a callous, pointless, hollow and frankly evil way.
The level of violent revenge, the principal driver of Gomorrah, is breathtaking in its brutality and its unforgivable ness.
And yet, we grow close to some of them, notably Ciro and Patrizia.
The story, over 48 episodes with 12 more to come in Serie 5, centres around the Camorra wars of Napoli, a city I have been fortunate enough to visit twice, and love dearly (probably my favourite Italian city).
The city is carved into gang ‘owned’ neighbourhoods focussing primarily on Secondigliano, a Northern slum of the city, famous for its four sail shaped Brutalist tower blocks – rabbit warrens of hidden streets that house the wealthy drug dealers that rule the community.
Genarro Savastano, son of Don Pietro Savastano, is the central character (the Tony Soprano figure). his presence underpins the whole series although he by no means dominates the action. We see him rise from a fat wimpy kid into a ruthless killer who tries hard, at times, to leave his life of crime and rebuild his reputation as a more philanthropic business tycoon. But family honour and preservation of his reputation keep sucking him back into his ways.
He’s a dick.
He’s also, like several of the characters, probably saved from his extraordinarily narrow acting range by the fact that the entire show is performed in Italian and the beauty of the language masks a nagging feeling that he cannot really act.
His facial expressions, dominated by a biting of his bottom lip as he stares off camera, are limited in the extreme. Patrizia (his rags to bitches sidekick) played by Cristiana Dell’Ana fares little better, her range runs from resting bitch face to surly pout.
Either this is method acting par excellence or it’s not. Decide for yourself.
Either way, it doesn’t really matter because its gripping and compelling from start to finish.
The endless wars (and endless car journeys) are more repetitive than a week with Phillip Glass, again it doesn’t matter because what the series does evoke a unique mood, driven by a complex and exhausting narrative that’s utterly spellbinding.
The directors favour a tableaux composition of gang members that are certainly biblical and always beautifully realised; in car parks, warehouses, underpasses, doorways and alleyways and the spectacular graveyards that are commonly visited.
The music, whilst overly directional in its use of receptive themes, is magnificent and underscores the action to perfection.
The shadow of the Catholic church is impossible to escape. Many a killing is precursed by its perpetrator blessing him or herself with a sign of the cross. Many of the drug dens and meeting places of the gangs are in churches. Many of the killings (and there are literally hundreds) happen in places of worship. It reminds us of the inglorious history and commercial greed of the Vatican.
I can say with certainty that no TV series has ever taken me in to this extent (not the aforementioned Sopranos, not the West Wing, the Wire, Breaking Bad, nothing) so for that reason I have to proclaim it the greatest TV series ever made.
I love the, always insightful and thoughtful, celebrity column each Saturday in the Times called ‘My Culture Fix’ and realise I will never be asked to write it (because I’m not a celebrity), so I thought I’d do it myself and then invite some friends to do their own.
So, this is #1 in an occasional series.
Here’s my starter. It took me ages.
(If you’d like to contribute please let me know and I’ll send you the form.)
My favourite author or book
Few authors have fault-free cannons of work. Favourites like Ian McEwan, John Irving and Margaret Atwood all suffer from weak spots, Donna Tartt, less so. But I’ll go for the two books that punched me in the chest most vividly in recent year, The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. Both deal with aspects of systemic racism in America that makes you wonder why, in 2020, there should have still been a need for #BlackLivesMatter. But it seems racism is not just systemic but endemic too. Maybe books this brilliant can make a dent.
The book I’m reading
Barack Obama’s fine memoir, A Promised Land. Big and beautiful. (Like him). And the latest of my book club’s choices (it’s my work’s diversity and inclusion group so we only read books by authors of colour). The current read is a brilliant page-turner. The Vanishing Half by Britt Bennett.
The book I wish I had written
“How I won a million dollars” by Mark A Gorman.
The book I couldn’t finish
There’s plenty. I’m not too squeamish about that. But Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is some pile of drudging poopery.
The book I’m ashamed I haven’t read
I’ve never really taken to ‘the classics’. My reading starts mid 1930’s (Lawrence, FSF, Camus, Kafka, Huxley) so I’m fairly ashamed that, when I describe writing as Dickensian, my experience of his work is from TV, the stage or through the eyes of writers like Michel Faber.
My favourite film
That changes. I recently re-watched what I thought was my favourite, Magnolia by PT Anderson, and the edge was off it. The Shining and Apocalypse Now often sit front of mind for this question, when asked, but actually I’m going to stick with Paul Thomas Anderson and say ‘his body of work’.
My favourite play
The Royal Lyceum Theatre’s production of Berthold Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle
My favourite podcast
For about two years now podcasts have become my biggest indulgence in my own time, not all are cultural of course. In fact, they’re mainly political, news and history. But a few cultural gems have slipped in there. It’s hard to do well. But Homecoming (both series) is fantastic theatre of the mind, as is Passenger List but the most gruesome and funniest (even if unintentionally) is a New York take on Sweeney Todd called the Horrors of Dolores Roach. Delicious.
The box set I’m hooked on
Gomorrah is ridiculously callous in its brutality but gloriously so. The fact it’s in Italian masks what I’m pretty sure are at least two central performances of dubious merit. My wife and I were feeling decidedly guilty that we feel invested in the character Ciro, despite the fact that he’s a cold-blooded murdering bastard.
My favourite TV series
You can’t beat getting your scoresheet out with University Challenge on the screen. Jools, when he doesn’t talk, has been a staple for many years, but the programme that got me hook, line and sinker during lockdown was Junior Bake Off with the wonderful Harry Hill presenting.
My favourite piece of music
Well, I definitely want Into My Arms by Nick Cave played at my funeral but the two records that I simply never tire of are Reproduction and Travelogue by The Human League. It’s pretty incredible to think how they knocked this up at the time they did. Extraordinary technique, tunes and oddly brilliant lyrics. The real deal.
My favourite dance performance
I was blown away by Peacock (choreographed by Yang Liping) in the 2019 Edinburgh Festival. But every time I see NDT I have a similar WTF reaction. Done really well, with great music, contemporary dance is my favourite artform. We are blessed in Edinburgh to see this sort of stuff for under £20 every year. Nowhere else on earth would you get that sort of value.
The Last film/music/book that made me cry
Gus Harrower recorded a version of Secret Love by Doris Day, my Mum’s favourite song, for her funeral recently and it was electrifying and hugely emotional for me. And then, just last night, we watched an Australian movie about a terminally ill teenager called Babyteeth. That hit the spot too.
The lyric I wish I’d written
From Grinderman (Nick Cave) from Palaces of Montezuma… “The spinal cord of JFK Wrapped in Marilyn Monroe’s negligee I give to you.”
The song that saved me
I’m glad to say that I don’t feel I’ve ever needed ‘saved’ but should I find myself in that situation it’s not hard to imagine that it would be Louis Armstrong’s Wonderful World.
The instrument I play
Haha. Play? The ukulele and the drums, but over my life I have become able to get tunes out of the larynx, oboes, clarinets, synthesisers and guitars. None with distinction.
The instrument I wish I’d learned
Unquestionably, the piano.
If I could own one painting it would be
Three Oncologists, by Ken Currie, that hangs in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. It terrifies me but absorbs me. I never tire of it.
The music that cheers me up
I’d have to say, in general terms, soul music. From the early 70’s when the real masters were at their peak: Curtis, Stevie, Isaac, Marvin, Bobby Womack, Bill Withers, Aretha, Nina. For these legends, first names suffice.
The place I feel happiest
It’s a straight toss up between opening night at The Lyceum in Edinburgh, with my wife, and Glastonbury. But for the sheer awesomeness of it the big G gets my vote.
My guiltiest cultural pleasure
Reading on the bog. I have James Robertson’s 365 Stories on the go upstairs and a wonderful book about famous letters downstairs.
I’m having a fantasy dinner party, I’ll invite these artists and authors
Billy Connolly, Salvador Dali, David Byrne, Viv Albertine, Grace Jones (for the clothes and the fighting) and Donna Tartt.
And I’ll put on this music
Oh, Jazz. Things like GoGo Penguin, Moses Boyd, Kamasi Washington and some AfroBeat, led by Fela Kuti.
(Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director General, said recently that it was not fair for younger, healthy people in richer nations to get injections before vulnerable people in poorer states.)
But in this world of vanity politics the UK is blowing its national trumpet in an echo of Empire days.
No longer the force it was, since absurdly leaving its European power base, it reverts instead to bragging that it leads the race for population vaccination.
But it’s a folly.
It’s like before the fall of the Berlin Wall, with West Berlin a little bubble encapsulated by communist rule. An anomaly and one cut off, in many ways, from reality.
Long before we had a vaccine, the West talked of vaccine democracy, where ‘resource poor’ nations would be helped out of the global, yes global, pandemic alongside their wealthier planet-mates. Not only for philanthropic reasons, but for rational ones.
A pandemic does nor respect borders or wealth.
Are we, West Berlin-like, to survive in gloriously inoculated isolation while those around us continue to incubate and spread the risk? Or, shall we, as promised, dilute the pandemic globally, simultaneously.
No, the former. We will sit proud, world-leadingly ‘cured’ but surrounded by shark-filled water, unable to progress, unable to economically prosper because our reduced customer base (also our own fault) remains on its knees.
The risk of mutations in the virus happening in non-vaccinated resource poor nations is huge. So that after looking after ourselves a mutant (vaccine resistant) strain could spring up overnight and undo ALL of the work.
Quite rightly Joe Biden, earlier this week, called this out as Neanderthal thinking.
There are reasons why communities of colour (many of them tied into religious dogma) are resistant to vaccination. Some people have moral/ethical reasons for objecting, which I suppose we have to firstly accept, but secondly try to educate about the pros over the cons.
But for 41%, yes 41%, of Republican voters, a demograph only drawn together by political affiliation, to say they will not take a vaccine that their demiGod funded and, by the way, secretly took with his wife in the White House before his departure, is truly sub-prime intelligence at work.
What the actual fuck does a global pandemic have, in any way, to do with right or left wing politics?
Answer here please.
Herd immunity simply can’t ‘take’ in America if this prevails.
And for Trump, the fomenter of crap about the vaccine (despite seeing it as a potential election winner for him), to be vaccinated in secret. In FUCKING SECRET? Instead of making a big public show of demonstrating that he was doing his bit to save the American people is so disgusting as to take my breath away.
Come on you fucking morons. Get out of the Gary Larson cartoon that you are in.
Along with Matt Forde’s the Political Party, this is my favourite political podcast but I have tired of his recent direction so felt it was time to reach out to Steve and beg respite from his failings.
I share my correspondence. Perhaps he will reply.
I write to you with compliment and critique combined.
Of course it is the former that trumps the latter because we both know good always triumphs.
This week’s podcast about Prime Ministers and Chancellors was a very fine return to form in my view and, I confess, I was wavering in my subscription to your wonderful podcast, because what I most admire about your work is when you set sail from the off on a subject and unleash your acutely observed opinions.
What I have tired of in recent months is a) the democratisation of listeners’ questions over your own POV and b) the banal stories of what they do whilst listening to you that both eats up valuable time and is, frankly, boring.
So this week you got back to your core strength and nary an ironing or jogging story was given the oxygen of publicity.
Please, please, I beg of you, make this a Damascan moment and stride purposefully towards the truth.
(For the record I walk through the surroundings of beautiful South Queensferry, in the lee of the Forth Bridge, when listening weekly to your epic transmissions.)
His desperation to go down into the annals of history means the truth that he’ll actually go down its anus must trouble him greatly.
But, he’s inconsequential. Because he is simply incapable of being consequential.
Picture the great strategic mismatch of our times: Boris vs Spasky it would be like Hibernian FC vs Heart of Midlothian on 1st January 1973. (The result was 7-0 to Hibernian.)
Because Boris has no grasp of strategy, of seeing the ‘game’ in 3 dimensions, any further than his next move.
His strategic nous is nowt.
Steve Richards (on SR’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Politics) got me to thinking about this, and I have been for weeks.
Everything he does, and has ever done is about NOW, tomorrow’s headlines, the PR he can muster from a stunt, a prank, even a pratfall.
Could you imagine Boris’ hero, Winston Churchill, riding a zipwire, desperate for love and ‘likes’.
Churchill gave not a fig for anything but his own opinion. Love him or hate him, he was a cornerstone of the Allies’ victory in 1945, because he though things through, consequentially.
Boris, the Silly Billy, simply thinks “Let’s just get on with it. DO something. Act now and be damned. (Cherish me and my bravado folks. Please.).”
And that’s sort of OK as the Buster Keaton of City Hall, (the Mr Bean) bumping up London’s tourism appeal alongside those other performing seals, The Royal Family. But when you have a country to run, when you have a sick country to run, when you have to make decisions like Brexit that have, like the pandemic, consequences, I’d rather he wasn’t there – relegated to the place in history that he deserves – a charlatan that lucked out and was great at winning elections, but nothing of any consequence beyond that.
His inconsequence has sadly had great consequence for the 116,000 people that have so far died of Covid, because he’d rather support Dishy Rishi’s stunts (Eat out to Help Out) than do the unpopular things that might have meaningful consequences, like shutting our airports.
He’d rather be seen as a Brexit hero among his back bench fascist pals for being strong on Europe and legally enshrining December 31st 2020 as Brexit day, rather than waiting to see how negotiations played out and deciding then.
He’d rather shake hands in Covid wards to gain front page populism (sorry, popularism), rather than press home his own health secretary’s messages of doing PRECISELY the opposite.
He’s rather win favour with a fellow populist autocrat for short term gain rather than eschew his ridiculous policies in pursuit of the right path.
He’s inconsequential, but his inconsequentiality has consequences.
Another cracker from the BBC (and Frontline PBS) narrated superbly by brave and intrepid journalist Josh Baker who surely puts himself at risk as he ventures in and out of Syria for both this Syria and his journalistic day job.
It tells the story of a perhaps radicalised hometown queen American Samantha Sally by her Islamic husband, Moussa Elhassani.
I say perhaps because it’s not clear from the off whether Samantha’s coercion by her husband into the depth of Daesh territory, indeed into the Caliphate is willing or otherwise.
Her two children, especially son Matthew, become poster kids for ISIS as they are forced to make anti-American propaganda films.
The story is complicated and the layers of truths, half truths and lies are difficult to disentangle but this is what makes for such compelling listening.
It’s brilliantly told by Baker and is terrifying in what it reveals, true or otherwise because whether Samantha Sally’s story is true or not, others’ like her surely are.
Gripping and superbly produced this one is well worth the long listen.
Of course we all hate a bad loser and we’ve seen the Guinness Book of World Records’ demonstration of that in the past month, and so it makes me wonder if Biden’s inauguration is a bad idea, in public that is.
We’ve already seen the seditionists atop the partly built temporary stage at the Capitol Building and I fear Trump’s message, in not showing up, is a veiled “It’s OK boys , I won’t be there, run amok.”
For three reasons I think this event should be abandoned:
Because of Covid, numbers will be down anyway and Trump will gleefully compare his inauguration numbers with Biden’s (ignoring the photographs, as he did in 2017, of Obama’s).
There’s a pandemic on. We don’t need crowds.
Joe, you won, you know you won. Do it small, indoors, at the White House with the TV cameras. Please.
We’ve been rightly horrified by the apex (judging from his post event conciliatory tone, I think it was the apex) of Trump’s scandalous destruction of his, the GOP’s, and now America’s, global reputation.
I, for one, hope Trump’s reign ends in some form of history defining legislation: Impeachment? 25th Amendment? Jail?
But let’s put to that side for a moment.
For, in the midst of it all, we almost overlooked Trump’s greatest failure. His high point in ineptitude.
The loss of the Presidency, the inability to recapture the House and now the unthinkable loss of the Senate.
When Trump came to power in 2017 The Senate majority for the Republicans was 52 :45 with an unfilled seat (and 2 independents).
At his mid term elections the gap closed to 51:46.
As of today it’s 50:50 with a de facto majority because the VP has the casting vote.
You have to go back to 2011 to find a blue senate.
But what makes this most extraordinary is that “Down the Ballot” in November, where House and Senate, as well as Presidential, votes are cast, the Republicans didn’t do as badly as expected.
There was what’s known as ‘split ticket voting’ where, essentially, people voted in larger numbers for a Democratic President (Biden) but in their local ‘constituency’ they reverted to their true party of choice, Republican.
Indeed, even in Georgia David Perdue, the sitting Republican senator, was a gnat’s hair away from regaining his seat when the vote was ‘down the ticket’.
He needed a clear 50% to win the post but reached only 49.73%, which triggered a run off.
In the other Georgian run off seat Raphael Warnock topped a long list of 21 candidates polling 32% against runner up, with incumbent Republican Kelly Loeffler on 26%. Loeffler was expected to win the run off.
But what happened next was that Georgia went from being a Senate “down the ticket” parochial matter into a national matter that bore the names of Trump and Biden, every bit as much as Ossof, Loeffler, Warnock and Perdue.
No longer “down the ticket” the Democratic machine enticed many, many black voters to register for the first time and the result, on Tuesday night, was a further popular rebuttal of Trumpism as much as an endorsement of Biden.
As soon as Trump was the main attraction he let his party down, yet again, and now we see an historic outcome.
A black Pastor and a Jewish Man elected to the US Senate – from the Deep South of America.
It’s a remarkable outcome and it means Trump has given the Democrats the much sought Trifecta of House, Senate and Presidency. Not total power, because the senate is a difficult beast to influence. Some bills need 60% approval and that means non partizan voting, plus the left wing of the Democratic party will be empowered by this and could ‘ransom’ Biden and Harris on some issues.
But, and it’s a big but, it gives Biden total freedom with his cabinet, it means he can pass a much stronger financial bill to aid America out of the Covid crisis that Trump caused (and refused to financially aid) and it gives him unrestricted power to appoint judges.
Its a great outcome for democracy, particularly in a Southern state where a disciple of Martin Luther King now sits in the US senate and a Jewish man makes history in a state that would not be top of the expected list to have achieved this.
Let’s pause and tip our hats to democratic America. Where, in the midst of mayhem, it’s clear that insanity is not entirely the norm.
The scenes at the Capitol building last night were shocking.
But they were at their most shocking because of what we did not see as what we did.
Four people died.
The inner sanctum of democracy was ransacked and mocked.
But, for four hours, rioters were essentially left to their own devices.
Little police presence.
No National Guard to be seen.
Compare it to this. The steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the #BlackLivesMatter protests in June last year.
Now, partly this is because Trump did not wish to break up his own seditious riot, but more insidiously it’s because white rioters are seen as less of a threat to democracy in the USA than black.
And that’s because, at its core, the USA is fundamentally racist as a democracy. There’s one democracy for Whites, another for Blacks.
Now, please don’t misunderstand me here. I am NOT repeat NOT saying that all white Americans are racists – that’s patently not the case – but they are living in a ‘democracy’ where the dice is so loaded in their favour as to make equality an often empty vessel of rhetoric rather than a fundamental reality.
In the UK we have our fair share of this too, and I applaud Steve McQueen for his outstanding dramatisation of this in his Small Axe anthology of films. The Mangrove, in particular, shows that when it comes to rioting (or in this case incitement to riot) the black voice of democracy is essentially ‘banned” and deemed a “threat to the state”.
But yesterday was the day that sealed this in perpetuity.
White people trashing the heart of American democracy whilst the police stood by?
That’s not right is it?
Can you even begin to imagine the response were this an attack to have been initiated by an organised black protest voice?
The US may celebrate the end of Jim Crow but it’s clear to me there’s two levels of tolerance in America and the colour of ones’ skin determines where the threshold sits.
“One might say that the publication of a novel takes a village” says Curtis Sittenfeld in the acknowledgements of her sixth novel, Rodham. But in the case of Rodham one could easily expand this acknowledgement way beyond a village, to a nation and perhaps more accurately; a gender.
Because this is a book that every American woman should read and feel that, whether persecuted or empowered, this novel was written for them.
And then every American man should be made to read it as punishment. As a warning that what we have taken for granted (first dibs at opportunity) might not , should not, last forever.
In a year where Black Rights have dominated the non-Covid news this is a book about women’s rights and it seems appropriate that this, and Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys were, by a long chalk, the most compelling ones I’ve read.
This novel doesn’t just ooze restrained moral authority, it takes those that flaunt sexual democracy by the bollocks and kicks shit out of them.
This is the feminist book that makes feminism real, for all.
It’s an unbelievable achievement in writing.
And yet it’s so, so damn prosaic. It’s so, so kind of uneventful.
Despite its monumental subject matter and the giddy heights to which it aspires, and attains, the fact it’s written as a kind of diary, where the author never tires of listing the most banal aspects of a setting, again and again, without ever boring the reader, makes it firstly seem real and secondly incontrovertible. Hillary Clinton would never tell us about the time her aide wiped a snotter from her nose before she went on stage for a speech unless it was real/true. Right?
In roller coaster terms it reaches the zenith but then never drops, suspending you above reality in a construct so simply but brilliantly inconceivable that it seems it must be true.
It’s difficult to explain, without telling you the story, how brilliant Sittenfeld is at taking a fantasy, making it a reality and then laughing to herself as you try to unravel the one from the other.
Time and again I found myself stopping to marvel that this was, you know, all made up.
But let’s pause in this gushorama.
Let’s start from the beginning.
The pitch is this. “Rodham. What happened after Hillary didn’t marry Bill Clinton.”
And that’s it.
Except it’s not. Sittenfeld could have gone loopy on us, could have stretched her political imagination beyond any horizons we have to adhere to in reality.
Instead she writes Hillary Rodham’s autobiography, in the first tense, including, you know, that time she had Bill bring her off on a freeway, while he was driving. That time he… (I’ll save it for you to find out the other often quite sordid, eyebrow raising details).
So far, so titillating. But, titter ye not.
This a work of absolute seriousness. The autobiography (except it’s not) of the famous wife of a famous philanderer, but the most popular, and let’s face it, most handsome philander on the planet. A philanderer she married and stood by through thick and thin.
Except, not here. Because she didn’t marry him. Not here.
I ain’t tellin’.
One third of the novel takes us up through her girlhood up to the point of her not marrying Bill Clinton. The next two thirds follow the consequences.
Would either go on to political success?
Would they remain in contact?
Would their parting of the ways influence American politics?
Would Donald Trump rise to the heights that he did (the one spoiler I will give you is that Trump makes several cameo appearances to great humorous effect)?
Would there, in fact, even BE any consequences? After all, in this history it was simply an imagined (but real) relationship between two law students. One extremely handsome. One extremely clever.
Even though the entire novel is a fiction it is teasingly stitched together with truths. Real things that did happen but, in the words of Eric Morecambe, “just not necessarily all in the right order”.
It really is a breathtaking literary achievement with deft touches like (How Marvellous!) – a diary entry of an impressionable teen – but it’s not a diary entry, (how disappointing!) it’s the autobiography of one of the most famous women in the world. But it’s not.
Twice Sittenfeld evokes the vision of a cerulean sky. In a novel of plain speaking it is a word that stood out to me, that sent me scurrying to Google dictionary. It’s use was allowable.
It’s also prescient. She was published in early 2020, but there’s an important reference in it to Kamala Harris, Kamala was only appointed Biden’s Vice Presidential candidate in August 2020. There were 5 or 6 women in the running for that role, most notably Katherine Warren, But Sittenfeld doesn’t write her in. She writes in Harris. And Harris wasn’t even the only black woman in the running. So it’s not sleight of hand. I repeat, it’s prescience.
You’ll need some basic knowledge of American politics to get the most out of this. I have a little more than average for a non-American and that helped me, but I’m pretty sure you’ll get the point if your knowledge only stretches to the big names we all know.
I don’t know Sittenfeld. I don’t know her work. But I’ll certainly be looking out her back catalogue after this.
Absolutely 10 out of 10 and thank you Helen Howden for spotting this and lending me it to read.
I’m not even going to mention the obvious subject as it’s affected us all in different ways, other than to say my list of theatre and cinema highlights is extremely short and has been replaced by TV and podcasts.
One of the highlights was moving from self employed to employed status after 15 years.
Things were looking uncertain until an unlikely opportunity arose with Whitespace, a company I have been involved with, one way or another since its inception 25 or so years ago as a subsidiary of 1576. Finally I can wholly lay claim to the title of being a ‘Whitespacer’ as a Strategy Director. It’s been immense having worked on not one, but two, global cosmetics brands, a global pitch for a motor company and a series of successful pitches and client engagements including a huge Oil and Gas start up, a home builder, the new www.netzeronation.scot website, Business Gateway, the Port of Leith Housing Association rebrand, a University, an online learning business, a charity and a lovely tech start up in pharma. Stimulating, all of them.
Sadly my time with Front Page came to an end after a long and happy relationship, it still is. And I’ve worked throughout with another long term client in the wonderful Nexus 24.
The experiment with The Marketing Centre proved to be unsatisfying in the end but I gave it my best shot and they are good guys.
I’m grateful to them all for their support, friendship and income.
Two more relationships came to an end, after 10 years I stood down as Chair of FCT and simultaneously my nine years as Chair of Creative Edinburgh came to a happy conclusion. Both were my choice and I wish both of them well in the future.
But my role as Scottish Chair of NABS remained deeply satisfying and we ran a tremendous National Music Quiz and Art Auction plus the 15th Scottish music quiz, all going online for the first time, and resulting in a record year of income for NABS. A great result driven by an amazing voluntary team in Scotland. Special thanks has to go to Anna Kormos and to Marian in Manchester for their huge contributions.
My Mum’s dementia (Alzheimer’s) has worsened steadily and in August we took the inevitable decision to put her into a care home. It’s been a great decision because the staff at Northcare Suites (100 Telford Road) have been superb. It’s the lap of luxury and although she remains terribly confused, and visits have been strictly limited, she has settled in well and is in good overall health otherwise.
Amy continues to amaze us with her tenacity, creativity, drive and ambition and she started not one, but two, new businesses this year. One in Health and Nutrition (https://www.amygormanhealthnutrition.co.uk) which has seen her build a solid portfolio of clients and a part time role at The Foundry in London, the other as a freelance fundraiser where she has enjoyed great success with at least four clients this year. All the more incredible because she left CAFOD to go it alone in February just as the unmentionable struck. She is awesome.
Ria and Tom both worked at Amazon over the summer. The job from hell. But Tom, in particular, immersed himself in it so hard (60 hour night shift weeks) that he saved enough to escape the UK and move to Whistler in Canada for the next two years. It was brilliant having them and Keir with us all summer and we miss them terribly.
Of course Ria skooshed her first year in Dentistry at Dundee and is back there, living with Keir in Perth where he has an interesting job at a whisky auctioneers. She’s working like a trojan and filling us with pride. All three of them are.
This gave Jeana the opportunity to reignite her homemaking career which she revelled in (but I’ve/we’ve missed our steady procession of AirBnB guests, her second career, that we grew to love so much). Next year maybe.
She started a new career and excelled, as a baker! Brilliant lockdown sourdough and maybe even better fruit bread. Both to die for, and if we eat too much of either, or both, that’s exactly what we’ll do. Dangerous!
Of course, having finally succeeded (after five failed attempts) in the Glastonbury lottery it was cancelled, as was Primavera (who still haven’t refunded me by the way). That was a big blow and I missed the chance of escapades with the boys in Barca and Alan in Somerset. Next year? Hmmm, dunno.
No holidays at all, not even Perthshire in November. I desperately missed our annual pilgrimage to Italy in particular. Next Year? Hmmm, dunno, maybe.
The most exciting and preoccupying thing, for me, of the year was seeing the 45th President of The United States of American undone. He’s scum, and election night found me beside myself as it looked at one point as if he’d gone and done the impossible, but the good people of America proved they DO have a conscience and 80 million of them at least have a brain.
It puts the achievement and humanity of Obama onto an even greater pedestal and the man has become a beacon of brilliance for the world to see, if he wasn’t already.
Biden and Harris (the 46th and 47th Presidents) were not perhaps the most dynamic offering for the American electorate, but decency is back and soon I expect to see a woman in the White House Oval Office. She will be great once Biden passes the baton. He did what he had to do – carefully, graciously and in a dignified manner that befits the office. He’ll no doubt have to buy his own lightbulbs on movers day, but the fact that he knows his way around will not obligate the outgoing filth to show him round.
Sadly we, in the UK, are stuck with filth for now. The disgrace that has held office in Downing Street is there for all to see and no further comment is necessary.
Turning to the best bit.
My best of’s.
It wasn’t a vintage music year but I enjoyed, very much, the following:
Michael Kiwanuka rightly won the Mercury, although I backed Moses Boyd.
I also greatly enjoyed Songs for our Daughter by Laura Marling (even though she doesn’t have one) and she would also have been a deserved winner.
Taylor Swift’s two albums were excellent folksy releases.
I listened to a lot of Dub Reggae, mainly from the 70’s.
Sudan Archives’ Athena was excellent.
Big Thief and Dirty Projectors both brought smiles to my face.
Janelle Monae’s sole single release, Turntables, is awesome.
And I loved Weyes Blood’s Titanic Rising (although I think that was a 2019 release).
What I can’t understand is the adulation Fiona Apple’s Fetch The Bolt Cutters garnered. I tried, believe me.
Here’s a link to my Best of 2020 tunes on Spotify. (Too much old stuff on it for my liking.)
In cinema there was little to thrall about so Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series almost picks up the ‘best of’ gong by virtue of its feature length running times (particularly Lover’s Rock).
But the prize goes to another Adam Sandler masterpiece. The quite ridiculous Uncut Gems. Wow!
Parasite was a big disappointment to me, as was Fincher’s Mank.
True History of the Kelly Gang (pre you know what) was epic and wonderful.
I also saw and really liked Little Women before the shutdown and 1917 which is outstanding and a contender for my movie of the year.
I liked the Go Go’s documentary.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 was great Sorkin fare and gets there on merit, but hardly a classic.
The Borat sequel only makes it onto the list because of the lack of competition and the brilliant expose of Giulliani.
And so to TV. The year of TV.
It kicked off with something I thought wouldn’t be bettered, Normal People, but it just got better and better.
I Will Not Destroy You.
We Are Who We Are.
The aforementioned Small Axe.
Unorthodox (a little gem).
The Queen’s Gambit.
Song Exploder. (A Podcast conversion to Netflix)
Homecoming (another podcast convert – especially Season 2 with Janelle Monae)
The Plot Against America.
Educating Greater Manchester.
Dracula (on BBC).
Quiz (it was a good year for ITV drama).
The Third Day on C4.
Industry (a late contender for series of the year. Please bring it back. Filthy and brilliantly performed).
And another was the excellent Criminal. A franchise that extended across Europe using the same police interview room (with different casts for different countries) to create unusual very cleverly plotted procedurals that were anything but procedures.
But, at the end of it all I’m going to give it to The Comey Rule for the remarkable performance of Jeff Daniels.
In podcasts, my new found love, there was so much it was ridiculous:
Shout outs for Adam Buxton and Louis Theroux.
Steve Richard and Matt Forde made politics lovable.
5:38, Hacks on Tap, Left Right and Centre and Pod Save America enthralled me through the American election.
In drama podcasts, Tunnel 42 was magic, as were both seasons of The Horror of Dolores Roach.
Slow Burn is brilliant but Season Four (David Duke) wasn’t its best. For that you need to listen to the Clinton and Watergate series’.
Hunting Ghislaine was also brilliantly horrifying and it was great to hear yesterday that the bitch is not being bailed.
In music Soul Music (BBC Radio 4) and Song Exploder were both joys to behold. As was The Clash Story.
But my Podcast of the Year is a toss up between 13 Minutes to the Moon (Season Two about Apollo 13), Transmissions (the story of Joe Division and New Order) and Wind of Change, the conspiracy story about the CIA writing The Scorpions’ classic song of the same name.
And then there’s Desert Island Discs of course.
Turkey of the year was Phoebe Reads a Mystery. Appalling schmuck.
I had a terrific reading year too, finally joining a Book Club:
Feck Perfunction by James Victoire is a great business read.
The Salt Path by Raynor Winn
One Two Three Four about the Beatles by Craig Brown is superb. And Kraftwerk: Future Music from Germany was another great musical read. A musical trilogy was made up with The Eavis’ Glastonbury 50. An event I never made. Naeb’dy did.
Pine by Francis Toon is a good Scottish book. Not as good as Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (but I still don’t think it should have won the Booker – far better were last year’s TWO winners Girl Woman Other by Bernardine Evagelisto and The Testaments by the incomparable Margaret Atwood – not her best but still fantastic).
I really enjoyed Ian McEwan’s rewriting of history in Machines Like Us, a real return to form.
I read two McEwan’s this year. Solar was the other, but it was shit.
The Testament of Gideon Mack is a great wee Scottish story by James Robertson and I’m also enjoying his 365 Stories as my bog book this year.
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney wasn’t as good as Normal People (the TV series).
Worth Dying For – The Power and politics of flags was good fun.
I finally read Small Island and loved it. As I did in reading Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer. Hilarious.
Tender is the Flesh: by Agustina Bazterrica is a tremendous, undiscovered, Brazilian novel about post apocalyptic times where humans are grown as food.
But my two books of the year were epic masterpieces, each of them. Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld and The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. Both dealt with American discrimination, the former of women, the latter of Black lives. Both are beyond excellent.
My walk of the year was Glen Etive, with Ria, all 26 miles of it.
The first part of Steve McQueens ‘quintology’ of race related British films was the excellent Mangrove, about life amid (police) racism in 1971’s West London and concerned the trial of the Mangrove Nine. A group of Carribean immigrants who largely chose to defend themselves in the face of cooked up (no pun intended) charges. It’s a fine courtroom drama and is highly recommended.
Part two, in my view, is even better.
Lover’s Rock is built on a simple premise.
Init starts with the preparations for a ‘Blues Party’ in somewhere like Notting Hill in 1980’s London before easing gently into the party itself.
It holds little real narrative thread but, instead, somehow manages to convey a feeling of actually being at the party, scripted in Jamaican vernacular that’s often hard to follow (for me a white Jock) but it doesn’t really matter because, between the combined talents of McQueen and his astounding cinematographer Shabier Kirchner and editor Chris Dickens, we are drawn into an atmosphere that is truly immersive.
You know all those shit dance floor scenes you’ve seen in a million low budget productions? Well, this has none of them despite the fact that maybe 50% of the action takes place in the wooden-floored front room of a London detached house, with a Sound System crumbling its faded grandeur.
It’s monumental, as is the epic (largely) dub reggae soundtrack that suffuses it from the start.
The highlight is the central action around two songs, Janet Kaye’s Silly Games and one I confess I don’t know that brought the males on the dance floor to a Babylonian moshpit of sorts. (So good they play it twice).
Special mention must also be made for the Carl Douglas’, Kung Fu Fighting sequence.
All of this is epic because of the way McQueen’s direction oozes through the cramped flesh of the highly tactile dancefloor, sweating out ganja and suffocating in its smoke throughout.
It’s a breathtaking and wondrous achievement that will bear repeat viewing.
The fact that Sweeney, best known for his work on the BBC’s Panorama and Newsnight, felt the need to include his name in the title of this tells you something.
He’s a man on a mission and, until the last episode, it felt that mission was being delivered with a cool disdain that nevertheless erred on the side of balance. He wraps the production with a rather more pointed conclusion that undoes a little of the, earlier, brilliant work.
But that’s a minor gripe, because this is a beast of a production in so many ways.
Firstly the music chills you to the core, right from the off.
Secondly, Sweeney himself is a class act. A formidable presenter with an intellect to match.
And thirdly, the content and its protagonist(s), are, indeed, beasts. And not the cuddly sort.
By the closing credits Sweeney has annihilated Maxwell and, jury aside (we’ll have to wait till July for that decision), he has good reason, if not proof.
She’s a piece of work is Ghislaine Maxwell.
Brought up by a monster and in a long term relationship with another (both dead, maybe both by suicide) she inherited an attitude of princessly, entitlement from her, probably sociopathic, criminal of a father, whom Sweeney further paints as a narcissistic sadist.
She’s a daddy’s girl extraordinaire, spoilt but not spared the lash (which Sweeney conjects she may have developed a taste for) she treats others around her as expendable trash on her rise to the top.
But the top of what? The top of nothing, frankly. OK, the top of a society invitation list, maybe. But this woman has not contributed an iota of ANYTHING to the furtherment of any aspect of the human race.
Her lover, Jeffery Epstein, needs no introduction, and although we nevertheless get plenty of that from Sweeney it’s really her role as his handmaiden and chief pimp that constitutes this story.
And the story is brilliantly, quite lasciviously told, in tones of barely concealed glee as Sweeney hacks her legacy to pieces and feeds it to the listener in bite sized pieces.
She is devoid of goodness.
She’s a coward (running away into hiding the second Epstein’s protective layer peeled away).
And she’s a rapist. So entwined with Epstein’s actions, sometimes joining in after hunting down and luring his prey that she can only be seen as conjoined with the filth that his (stolen) money facilitated him.
It’s gripping, frightening and disgusting.
It’s no wonder Sweeney seems so emotionally involved.
He’s a man on a mission and I , for one, sincerely hope his target rots in a jail cell for the rest of her entitled days.
He’s a great man (with a horrible voice, it has to be said).
A truly great man.
And an example for humanity of what you can do with wealth. Not only is he leading the fight for the developing world in medical research and disease control through his donations, but by his fundraising too.
The first episode is excellent and I was really interested in an optimistic view he took on post-Covid society. It may not be a unique view, or even his own, but it struck me as relevant.
His postulation is that post-Covid our life patters will have been so fundamentally disrupted and restructured that they may never return to the old way of working.
One, positive, consequence of not being “downtown” office-based will be that instead of gravitating to massively busy city centre drinking dens (post work), we will instead socialise in our communities far more. So that suburban bars and restaurants will massively benefit and the city centre hostelries will be permanently maimed.
I would speculate further.
As the “High Street” collapses, and the bars and restaurants that populate them, follow retail in its demise the city centre will entirely re-purpose into residential areas and those bars and restaurants will become community hostelries rather than after work boozers.
All of this will, in my view, contribute to a levelling out of geographic meaning and a better balance to all of our lives.
Not so much a podcast, as a sharing of BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week by Barack Obama, narrated by the great man himself.
In interviews, Obama can be a bit ponderous but narrating his life story he rattles along without hesitation and takes your breath away with the quality of his written word and his beautiful almost soporific rendition.
It’s a thriller of monumental proportions picking off, in turn, his Primaries for President, the first election, The credit crunch, the ACA, Michelle’s visit with The Queen and, most grippingly of all, the killing of Bin Laden.
It’s two and a half hours of majesty that I devoured in one (long) walk and wanted more, much more.
And I’m wondering if the audio book, given this, would be a better bet than the written version; although I’d want the spine to grace my bookshelves to prove that I am an advocate for the man that will go down in history as one of greatest presidents (human beings) of all time.
WARNING: THE FOLLOWING POST CONTAINS STRONG VIEWS AND LANGUAGE THAT SOME PEOPLE MIGHT FIND OFFENSIVE.
“It’s an oven ready deal.”
“The NHS will get £430m a week.”
“We’ll save £50 billion a year.”
Did you actually, really, fall for that? Did you?
Did you really?
Did you factor in that Boris Johnson is a fucking lying cunt?
Did you believe that Dominic Cumming was a human being?
Do you think the moon is made off cheese?
Or did you just want to get rid of those foreign bastards that are are stealing our jobs? You know, the ones where they’re looking after your old dear in what was later to become a pox ridden no go zone.
I cannot even begin to say how angry I am with this government of lying, self-centred, evil cunts. A cabinet of nodding yes men and women having their strings pulled by a fucking moron. An actual fucking imbecile. A man who makes me want to physically violate my television every time I see the smirking, stuttering bag of shit utter a sentence that is packed so full of obfuscation and, just nonsense, complete nonsense and piffle, and condescension, as to render it entirely redundant.
This, a government that has lined the pockets of its equally smirking cunt friends as they buy their untested plastic vials while people wait for their inevitable redundancy. Thank fuck Johnny Foreigner has been banished to the eastern wastelands eh? Less competition for them.
It’s all so brazenly arrogant.
It’s all so, so fucking entitled.
It’s all so redolent of The Emire, but not striking back. We, the British EMPIRE, will retake what belongs to us: our sovereignty.
And these European, fucking, Beaurocrats will bow down to our Oven Ready Rights.
Well, actually Boris. Cunt. You were always fighting 27 against 1 and these Europeans think you are as much of a cunt as I do and they’ve made you look like a fucking fool and a cheat and a clown and a hopeless, simply appalling negotiator. A toff playing Ibble Dibble with a competitor, 27 in fact, that sees you for what you are. Arrogant, unprepared, deweaponised, trading on past glory. A threat.
And what do we do with threats?
We mitigate them. We extinguish them.
Go fuck yourself Boris. Your citizens fucking despise you. Well, if they think about it rationally for even a nanosecond we do.
Another in BBC Radio 4’s excellent Intrigue series, to sit alongside the superb Tunnel 42.
This time a nine-part series follows the search for the truth behind the death of WWII Nazi officer, Otto Wachter, who is alleged to have been responsible for mass murders of Jews in Poland between 1942 and 1945.
The Grandson of one of the deceased (murdered) Jewish victims (his entire family was wiped out in the Grand Action) Phillipe Sands is determined to expose the murderer for what he is and sets out on his trail by meeting Otto Wachter’s own son, now in his 70’s, who lives in a castle in Austria.
What follows is a complex tale of espionage, counter surveilance, cold war intrigue and the role of the Vatican in an unGodly cover up and escape from retribution of a whole succession of senior Nazis who seemed to be more palatable than communists to the Italian illuminati in the Cold War era.
For those familiar with the heart breaking tale of the Underground Railroad, so beautifully brought to life by Colson Whitehead in the book of the same name, The Ratline is effectively the rather less palatable Nazi version of it, in which mass murderers of the Third Reich were ‘Persil Cleaned’ and set on their way to anonymity and freedom (or a bit of Commy bashing) by the Italians.
Writer and narrator Phillipe Sands is to be congratulated for his composure in telling the sordid tale without completely losing it as his grandfather’s despicable killer is followed through a jigsaw of clues back through his footsteps in the lee of the war, showing not a morsel of humility or reconciliation.
Wachter’s poor, deluded grandson believes him to a good man at heart, and offers up a lot of evidence of his activities to Sands, his friend, (strange and unexplained but the key to the door) but it’s pretty compellingly set out that he was a murdering bastard and got all that was ultimately coming to him.
It’s a grand, if complex, reconstruction of history that rewards careful listening.
The author is a mixed race, heterosexual woman and respected teacher of writing, having garnered an MBE for her work, before scooping the Booker last year, in the same year as Margaret Atwood for her The Testaments novel.
The 12 female (well 11 female and one binary) central protagonists in her novel are mainly black, often gay and never dull.
Her mini-epic sets out to create a spider’s web of connection between them, without resorting to the convention of storytelling, although each extended chapter in the novel is a story of its own.
It’s rippled with humour throughout and I found myself, as a middle aged white heterosexual male, wondering whether some, if not a lot, of the time she was almost having a dig at the almost tropist characters she creates whilst, simultaneously, revering their personalities and individual identities.
It’s kinda weird, because she seems to have her tongue firmly in her cheek much of the time, whilst quite clearly creating a platform for the expression of the views of women who rarely have a voice. Or, if they do, one they can only usually express on political platforms. And whilst some of these characters are most certainly political (especially the angry feminist gay, black playwright Ama – largely autobiographical), others, like the 93 year old Jamaican Scottish borders farmer(ess), are anything but.
It predominantly works, and each ‘chapter’ gains momentum with every page, introducing, like a David Mitchell trick, characters from previous life stories that almost went unnoticed in another’s.
More than once I found myself stopping to ask, “haven’t I met this person before” and being rewarded, after a bit of reverse speed reading, with a little treasure trove as I realised that indeed I had and that the skill of Evaristo was in hiding them under the radar, yet making them a critical part of her web structure.
It’s a triumph in places and overall scored highly for me, but not unreservedly, partly because the ending is a bit of a mixed bag.
The novel demonstrates much skilled, almost poetic, wring in a variety of styles that makes its fairly large bulk perfectly digestible.
More than good, maybe great, but not a classic, for me.
But one of our greatest virtues was our willingness, enshrined in law, to share some of our great wealth with others less fortunate; 0.7% of our income in fact. Part of the Tory party’s manifesto pledge to never reduce.
Until last week.
At which point Rishi thought that a 28% cut in our foreign aid, to save 0.2% of our national budget, was a good thing.
In a year where we borrowed $400bn how on earth could saving $4bn (exactly 1%) be significant?
Cutting 28% from our support for those that need it for water and shelter, rather than trinkets and indulgence, (yes, I acknowledge we have a poverty issue in the UK but that $4bn ain’t being transferred to UK food banks is it?) hardly befits a nation that has held the right for decades to hold its head high among its international peers.
Maybe Rishi admired Donald Trump’s devastating snubbing of WHO? (Thankfully to be resolved by Biden.)
Or maybe it’s because multi-millionaire accountants simply see it as a number, not a lifeline.
I think its shameful and disgusting.
Sleep well you despicable, glory-grabbing bastard.
David Dimbleby, let free of his BBC shackles finally has the chance to say what he really thinks. He doesn’t of course, but it’s what he implies, nods, winks that tells you he is deeply cynical of the liar Tony Blair and the fool George W Bush who fell in man-love over the opportunity to blow the fucking shite out of somewhere. That somewhere was Iraq.
The pretence was to rid the nation finally of the evil autocrat Sadaam Hussein, but the two lovers got all tangled up in revenge for 9/11 and the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, a sworn enemy of the Iraqi state.
We all know we were lied to, but this truly great podcast uncovers not just how and why but also quite how flimsy and pathetic the so called evidence was. Some of it was gleaned from cab drivers, but Blair’s chief proof point was the evidence from an exiled Iraqi biochemist, living in safety in Germany, and codenamed Curveball. (A man who had never been in a weapons factory in his puff and who got all of his ‘evidence’ from the internet).
I mean, it’s comedic.
Dimbers puts Tony Blair through his paces in one to two episodes, exposing him for the c*** we all know he is. It’s a cringe fest as we listen to him weasel his way around the story. But it’s great listening.
Dimbers is brilliant. Just amazing. He is effortlessly statesmanlike and so compelling to listen to.
The most horrifying part of the whole thing is the denouement. The rebuilding of Iraq post Hussain. The complete destruction of its moral order and the breeding ground for ISIS more like. Governed by more fools who didn’t give a flying fuck about the country, it has left Iraq in a worse state than it was under Hussain.
What would you prefer? A life of terror under an evil autocrat that is singleminded in his madness. Or a hotbed of turmoil, inter-tribal, religious civil war with some of the most heartless terrorists in history?
Truly great work from Something’ Else Productions.