Pine by Francine Toon

A friend lent me this to read, something I might not otherwise have done, because it’s one of those books that has its marketing blurb in its title on Amazon. As a lifelong contrarian, I often take against marketing, particularly in publishing. I’ve previously written about my hatred of books with “girl” in the title (I know I’m not the only one), especially if a title has been changed in translation (step forward Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, possibly the most egregious example). In fact, and happily, I think the jig is up with Girl Titles, because People Have Noticed.

So, to Pine, or Pine: The spine-chilling, atmospheric debut of 2020 to give it its full title. I like to think of its author, sitting in front of her word processor, adding those words to her own title with a shit-eating grin on her face. Would that we all had such shameless front.

A book I might have sniffed at on principle, then, because (and I speak as someone who used to work in marketing) there’s never really any need for it, is there?

What is Pine: The spine-chilling, atmospheric debut of 2020 all about then? Is it, in fact, spine-chilling? Is it, in fact, atmospheric? Is it even “of” 2020?

The cover tells you very little, especially if you are blurb blind and always ignore the Notable Quotes. Clearly there’s some marketing push here, you can’t help but notice. It’s almost as if the author works in publishing.

Not that I’m bitter.

Lauren (who was once Oren) is a somewhat spacy (or spooky) pre-teen, an unearthly child living alone with her father Niall in the Scottish Highlands (or, if you’re me reading the first 100 pages or so, the wilds of Canada). They’re out trick-or-treating, or guising as it’s called in the first of the occasional Scottish dialect words that pepper the prose. Niall seems a bit distant and uninvolved; Lauren, in the meantime, is curious about the older teenage girls who live in her community. Lauren’s mother went missing a few years before.

Driving home, a figure stumbled out of the woods in front of the truck. Niall stops and helps her into the passenger seat. Lauren sits on Niall’s lap. When they get home, Niall stokes the boiler and offers food. The young woman they’ve picked up doesn’t speak. Niall doesn’t speak about it to Lauren. When she wakes in the morning, the young woman from the woods has gone.

And Niall doesn’t remember her.

So, yeah, in places this is a bit goose-bumpy. But there are also levels of anxiety set up around the neglect of a child; it’s a portrait of grief, with elements of threat and magic, and you’re never quite sure what happened to Lauren’s mother. I’d say I spent 80% of the time feeling anxious, especially towards the end. But there is one scene in the last third that had me lying in bed with every hair on my body standing on end.

It’s pacy, controlled, intriguing, dark, and sometimes distressing. And if that’s your thing, you should probably read it. I thought the resolution was somewhat abruptly handled, and there are many hanging threads. While a couple of major questions are answered, there’s much left to feel anxious about on Lauren’s behalf.

(A brief word about the book design. It’s an attractive paperback, with fold-over flaps, allowing for more blurb space. On the other hand, the flaps kind of get in the way and are vulnerable to getting bent. The typeface is Plantin, Tschichold’s riff on Garamond, and it’s a solid choice. But, oh, how my hands had forgotten how to hold a book. Partly because I was trying not to bend it too much, as it doesn’t belong to me, but I seem to have lost all strength in my book-holding muscles. Also, though, the outside margin of the pages was really narrow, leaving you nowhere to put your fingers.)

Covidmas Crackers?

“It’s not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.”

Michael Frayn, Clockwise

On the basis that it’s always the hope that kills you, I’ve already accepted that we won’t be travelling to France for Covid Crapmas.
Which made me think about all the very few times I’ve spent Grossmas in England in recent years. Not many. I remember being in Nottingham the year my youngest kid was born. Easy to remember: 20 years ago. That year, I tried to do roast lamb for dinner. It wasn’t very good.
I’m a bit shit at the traditional roast, largely because I’m squeamish, but also because it’s a lot of fuss for something that takes a few minutes to inhale. I’ve avoided the traditional roast turkey, so I’ve not had to deal with that dry horror. For many years, the Fatmas meal was the province of others, in France. So there was the year my mother-in-law did a Goose, only I forgot it was a goose and because she carved it in the kitchen, I decided I was eating lean and tender roast beef. Once you’ve convinced your brain it’s eating beef, you taste beef.
The roast I’ve most often returned to is the good old capon, a fat chicken which tastes better than both chicken and turkey. But capons aren’t a thing you can easily get in the UK, so I don’t know what I’ll do this year. Along the way, I’ve tried various solutions: porcetta, gammon, boneless two bird roast, seagull, lark, fat dragonfly.
None were quite the thing, although I do very good roast potatoes which in their time have wowed the whole of France. You can’t get Maris Pipers there, you see. Other shocks I have served the French relations have included carrot and swede mash, cauliflower cheese, and – just once – a steaming dark dollop of Exmas Pudding.
Given that I’m not bothered about most of the traditional fare, I really don’t mind not having the latter. In fact, it’s just one of a whole list of traditional foods I avoid over the holiday. Mince pies? Nope.
I’m still making my mind up about what I’ll do this year, for our sad and lonely Covidmas. Maybe some chicken Paupiettes, something that can be cooked quickly and without too much trauma.
Maybe pizza?

Gimme Some Truth (Deluxe) – John Lennon

This is not an unboxing video. Although, in theory, I like the idea of getting a bunch o’ vinyl and playing it on my retro radiogram, in reality I’m too much the son of my father, whose voice I can hear in my head when I see the retail price of the 4 LP Deluxe boxed set (£78.05), saying, “How much?” Good work on the extra 5p, by the way.

For your seventy eight quid and five pence, you get those 4 LPs, plus, an 8-page booklet, a double-sided poster, and two whole post cards. Phew.

But I’m not a boxed set person. Nor am I a record player person, a thing I have not owned since my oldest, coming up hard on 23, was a toddler.

So for £12.99, digital, you can get the 36 remixed songs, no booklet, no poster, no postcards, and nothing to gather dust under the coffee table, which is where my other daughter’s Music from Big Pink boxed set lives.

I wonder who they think is buying this boxed set. Which person with £78 (and five pence) to burn is also a person who is going to put up a John Lennon poster? Fifteen years ago, we used to talk about Fifty Quid Bloke, the middle aged guy who would drop fifty notes on a dumb video game, or eighty-two CDs and two books in Moist, or whatever that CD/Book shop is called. We live in inflationary times, I guess. Anyway, Fifty Quid Bloke doesn’t put up posters. Does Fifty Quid Woman?

My first John Lennon solo purchase was Shaved Fish, his 1975, contract fulfilment obligatory greatest hits collection, which is discussed in the latest episode of the I am the Eggpod podcast. That episode rings so many bells with me that it might as well be me talking. I always found Shaved Fish vaguely disappointing and wasn’t inclined to buy much more Lennon solo material. From its sleeve I think I gleaned the quote, “But somehow it isn’t only not just the words, isn’t it?”, attributed to Harry Nilsson, yet according to internet historians now, not even on Shaved Fish but on a Nilsson album. Well, I beg to differ. I’ve never owned a Nilsson album, but I know the quote, and also “Everything’s the opposite of what it is,” so maybe they were dotted around here and there.

The reason for this Deluxe set of remixes is Lennon’s 80th anniversary, had he lived, but you don’t need me to tell you that. It’s been wall-to-wall Lennon this week, and one wonders if Ringo feels a prickling of resentment, as nowhere near this much fuss was made about his 80th, earlier this year. And then there’s Paul, who will turn 80 in 2022, and can I pre-emptively be offended if it passes without quite as much trumpeting?

Of course, those latter two fortunate sons didn’t get cut down in their prime, so Lennon’s legacy is in the hands of others, who are presumably the ones benefitting from my £12.99 and your seventy-eight quid. And five pence, which is presumably for May Pang.

Listen, I love the Beatles, and bless John’s sleeve-borne heart, he was great. Yes, Lennon was all right. It’s his disciples who are thick and ordinary.

The solo career was somewhat problematic, mainly because he didn’t live long enough to come properly to terms with his past; he was still dissing the Beatles in 1980. And what wouldn’t any of us give to visit that parallel universe where a 50-year-old Lennon got on stage and performed, un-ironically, oh, let’s say, “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl” to a multi-generation crowd of adoring fans watching through a veil of joyful tears?

But it is what it is. And so to these remixes, which I thought worth having because the pre-released tracks sounded pretty good, with a lot of the Phil Spectorisms toned down and everything sounding clear and crisp, with the bass sitting much more nicely in the mix. Subtle changes, but for the better.

So we get a survey of his career, broader and longer than Shaved Fish and thankfully excluding “Woman is the o jesus, no, no of the World”, with a few plums drawn from each solo album and a few standalones. Both “Oh Yoko” and “Dear Yoko”, you’ll note. “Imagine” unavoidable, but nice to hear “I know (I know)” given some love.

Here we go. “Instant Karma”: absolutely terrific lead single for his solo career, if only he hadn’t previously put out “Cold Turkey” (which comes second here, as if to acknowledge that). I’ve always hated “Cold Turkey” and it remains an instant skip. A few from the Ono Band, and then “Power to the People” from that period when he was trying to get Nixon, and instead Nixon sicked the immigration people on him, and John was forced to back away and become non-political when – horror of horrors – Nixon won the 1972 election by a landslide.

Watching footage of the Nixon victory is enough to give you the heebs, from the vantage point of the shitshow that is 2020.

And so on to Imagine and the mixed bag that is his high watermark. And I begin to notice something about John’s voice, which as a solo artist always seems to be either hovering at the limits of its comfort zone (usually on the ballads), or else trying to be Winston O’Boogie, a man who likes (too much) to boogie. It’s in his name. Stand up, “How Do You Sleep?” Let’s take a look at you. There’s a kind of ugly melisma that Lennon does on this and many other tracks (“Steel and Glass” later on, for example), and it seems to become a vocal tic, something like the leaning-into-flatness that Sinatra was wont to do in his later years.

Anyway, I kinda don’t like it.

Which is not to say that I don’t love most of this collection. It’s a good collection, but personally, I don’t think there’s much more of a hinterland beyond this. My McCartney playlist (albeit from a much longer time period) currently stands at 99 songs, and I’ve already trimmed this collection down to 31.

Anyway, to boogie, or not to boogie? I’m going to suggest not. I’ve never enjoyed the chug-a-lug bluesy tubthumping, which is exactly the kind of shit that Elephant’s Memory (“the band of The Movement”) are up to, when they back Lennon around 1972. And five pence. And the problem for John is, he decided – post-Beats – that he was going to be The Rocker, which meant, apparently, that the only Beatles song he could bring himself to perform live was “Come Together”, which is included here. And, well, it’s kinda shit. When he wasn’t singing the sappiest love songs or slightly hypocritical calls for a Liberal Humanist Utopia, he would turn everything up to Boogie, and it just wasn’t very good.

Thank goodness for “Mind Games”, then, which was a great track, and I’m certain that I know that “I Know (I Know)” was a conciliatory message to Paul. But it wasn’t too long before the hiatus, and then the return, “Starting Over”, which came with lashings of slightly ironic echo but also intimations of contentment and a man who was ready, maybe, in just a couple more years, to admit that all the studio jiggery pokery Beatles genius that he was responsible for was actually quite good. And five pence.

But how hard it must have been, to have been That Beatle, and to have wanted so much to be someone else, to have been wearing the clothes of Angry John for so long that they were hard to take off, that the only way to take them off was to go silent. As George was fond of saying, they gave their nervous systems.

I hew pee dyes

When I read that Twitter were suspending accounts wishing ill towards the 45th President of the United States, I immediately wanted to post an acrostic poem:

If you can
Help to make this happen
Or somehow encourage someone to
Press a button to disconnect
Essential life saving equipment
Halting his heart
Encouraging perhaps a drip not to
Drip the correct amount of
Important or vital drugs or
Even bleach, we would all
Salute you.

But I thought that would probably contravene Twitter’s inconsistent rules as well. As someone posted overnight: shout out to all the people who received death threats and were told no rules had been broken.

Anyway, he’s not going to die. He walked to the helicopter. They’ve got him there because he’s going to benefit from all the lessons learned from the million+ deaths. Early intervention, remdesivir, keep a ventilator handy, money no object. And he won’t even be bankrupted by his soaring medical bills, because he’s allowed to carry more debt than you or I. Here’s me fretting about my credit card bill.

Such convenient timing, taking the air out of the tax and debt story, out of the debate story, out of the America-elected-an-actual-Nazi story, out of the voter suppression story, the supreme court story. And he walks, upright, to the helicopter, so he can emerge in a few days and say it was no big deal. He walks upright, almost like a human, pats the handrail as if to say, I don’t even need this, he walks.

Moloch! Moloch! Robot apartments! invisible suburbs! skeleton treasuries! blind capitals! demonic industries! spectral nations! invincible madhouses! granite cocks! monstrous bombs!
They broke their backs lifting Moloch to Heaven! Pavements, trees, radios, tons! lifting the city to Heaven which exists and is everywhere about us!
Visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles! ecstasies! gone down the American river!
Dreams! adorations! illuminations! religions! the whole boatload of sensitive bullshit!

17 podcasts I still haven’t deleted

Here’s a weird thing. As I was pondering writing this, it came to my mind that it would be a list of 17 podcasts. I don’t know why the number 17 sprang to mind. But then I went down my list of 30+ subscriptions and picked out those I wanted to say something about. And it was 17. I didn’t even have to persuade myself to include/exclude one or two to make it that number. It just happened. Anyway, here is your regular update on the podcasts in my queue.

  1. 20 Macs for 2020 (Relay) – Jason Snell of The Incomparable used to work for Macworld and MacUser and still blogs about Apple at His personal podcast project this year is a documentary series about the 20 most important Apple computers in history. He’s done a brilliant job. This isn’t just people sitting around talking shit about Apple, this is a well-honed series of interviews edited together with a commentary and a thesis about each machine. The music is great, too. Really interesting to anyone interested in Apple, including those of us who didn’t buy a first Mac until later on. In my case, I bought my first Mac at the worst possible time, when Apple was properly in the doldrums. The history of Apple is the history of our times. Paradigms we take for granted now, like trackpad pointing devices, phones that are all screen, and watches that do more than tell the time were all popularised by Apple. Sure, they might not have invented the original idea, but they are always the ones to make it mainstream.
  2. Analysis (Radio 4). I like an in-depth look at a news story, as an antidote to the stupidity of the main news bulletins and the ridiculous “debates” between extremes. This kind of thing is the only BBC news output worth your time.
  3. Another Kind of Mind. A long wait between episodes, but worth it, and certainly worth delving into the backlist episodes. As previously discussed, this is the discussion about the Beatles you haven’t heard before.
  4. Backlisted – bastard child of A Good Read and In Our Time, Backlisted is the best books podcast.
  5. BBC Inside Science. More from the BBC, this time from the Science unit. Proper discussion and analysis of the things that affect us every day, and not reported with the breathless idiocy of regular news.
  6. Beatles Books. A newish podcast this, in which the presenter interviews the authors of various Beatles books. A books podcast, then, but with a specific focus. The presenter’s voice grates a little on me, mainly because I think he sounds a bit like I would sound if I did a podcast; and the sound quality isn’t up to the highest standards – but it’s still a good listen.
  7. Fortunately (BBC). Still going strong and maybe about to go mainstream because it’ll be on the actual radio, the Garvey and Glover team should probably be in charge of the world, or something.
  8. History Extra. This podcast is very hit and miss, and at the same time prolific, with several episodes dropping per week. This means that if you occasionally run out of listens, there’ll be another one of these along shortly. You can’t possibly listen to them all, so shouldn’t feel bad about deleting one that doesn’t speak to you. They’re a mixture of interviews and lectures. The range of historical topics covered is eclectic, so if you’re interested in history, something should appeal.
  9. I Am the Eggpod. The world’s third-best Beatles podcast. An in-depth discussion about a Beatles or Beatles-adjacent album. A recent episode in which John Bradley of Game of Thrones fame was interviewed about The Beatles Rarities was a really good listen.
  10. The Inquiry – BBC World Service. Another great news analysis podcast, this time from the World Service. A global perspective on a global issue, usually very interesting.
  11. ITV Cycling – Only ever really pops up during the Tour do France or the Vuelta, but a nice relaxed chat about the day’s stage from the ITV commentary team. Might help unlock the mysteries of the peloton if you’re interested.
  12. More or Less – Probably the best news-related programme on the BBC, More or Less tackles the numbers in the news, and frequently calls out the government and other media for their shoddy use of statistics and outright lies told to Parliament.
  13. The Night Driver – From the team who brought us Teacher’s Pet, this is a podcast about a missing woman. I’ve sworn off of these for the most part. As much as you might enjoy true crime, the fact that so much of it revolves around violence done to women is depressing and disturbing, and I’ve tried to suppress my appetite for it. I’ve given this a go, because Teacher’s Pet was good. But actually, this is a bit repetitive and annoying. I deleted the most recently episode without listening.
  14. Nothing is Real – This is an engaging and fascinating podcast from two Irish friends. They don’t follow chronological order or have a particular angle, they just pick a topic and cover it in great detail. And even then, you find yourself wishing the episode had been longer. Which is the best thing you can say about any podcast, really. About to return for a third season.
  15. Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism (Slate) – A quick tour around a story of success of failure, or why a certain company has found itself in the news. I don’t know why I listen to this, but I do quite enjoy it. It’s good to know your enemy, right?
  16. Vulcan Hello – This has been on hiatus in the interregnum, but Season 3 of Star Trek Discovery is on its way, and I always enjoy listening to this recap show after (or before! I’m a monster) each episode. I’ve probably enjoyed Disco more than any other recent Trek show. And it’s miles better than the shitty recent films.
  17. The Word Podcast – The venerable and ancient Hepworth and Ellen are back with a weekly chat about music that has been more regular during lockdown, albeit with patchy sound quality. Hepworth may be a bit shouty, but he always has a thesis, and these old magazine publishing hands always have a new way to talk about an old subject.

Updates and Observations

  1. I’ve written about my problem thumbnail before. It’s probably no surprise my ageing fingernails have grooves in them, but that one of them grows with a groove so deep that it splits every time is distressing. And I’ve tried so many products over the years in hopes of a miracle cure, including Miracle Cure. Five or six different Nailtiques products, including oil, moisturiser, protein formulae: none helped. Treatments for ageing nails, base coats, groove fillers, nail therapy liquids, Sally Hansen’s aforementioned Miracle Cure, and three different Eveline Cosmetics therapies: none helped. I reserve particular contempt for Eveline’s “Diamond Nail Professional Therapy” which stands out as the most useless of them all, chipping hopelessly within 24 hours of application. My current treatment is Nail Envy strengthener. I have no hopes: I’m simply applying a coat to glue the two halves of my thumbnail, which I keep short so it can’t catch on things, together.
  2. This year’s Tour de France, against all expectations, has been great. There was very little British interest (one of the Yates brothers finished in the top 10) following the withdrawal of G and Froome. Earlier in the summer, I watched re-runs of 2018, which was oddly comforting at the height of lockdown. I was convinced that a September Tour would be beset by bad weather, but the only ironic rain was right at the beginning, down in Nice. While we’ve all been tutting the gathered crowds on some mountain stages (particularly those horrible people who scream directly into the faces of the riders as they pass), for the most part it seems to have been well-run. And when there haven’t been crowds, you really didn’t notice. The truth is the face screamers are horrible at the best of times: it’s just another way that the sociopaths who live among us reveal themselves. Yesterday’s stage, passing very close to home-in-France, over hills I’ve ridden myself (though not the last one) was actually one of the most exciting and dramatic I can remember.
  3. The ITV television coverage of the TDF here in the UK has been excellent, as ever. Although the team were based down in Kent, instead of following the tour, they still managed their usual informed and informative discussions. Chris Boardman was back, which was great, and his short films were excellent. Whoever edits the musical montages at the end of the highlights show deserves an award, and I’d love to see a Director’s Cut of their whole-Tour-in-two-minutes clip. I could do without the rider interviews, however. The word “yeah” does a lot of heavy lifting in these mostly content-free interviews, and without a personality like Wiggo or Cavendish, nobody has much else to say. The International Cycling English lexicon mainly consists of short bursts of staccato boilerplate, peppered with ummms and punctuated by yeah. And that includes the British riders. Only Green Jersey winner Sam Bennett moved the needle, and that was just because he sobbed instead of speaking.
  4. And, oh, the humanity, but the advertising! As I said, ITV do a good job, but Jesus Christ the advertising is dire. In the evening, for the highlights, you get a break every 8 minutes or so, which is bad enough. The Zwift music is playing on a loop in my head, perhaps forever. But it’s during the afternoon live coverage that you encounter the absolute worst that this industry has to offer. Adverts for life/health insurance interspersed with charity advertising so distressing it really ought to be banned. All of this presumably aimed at an assumed audience of fixed-income shut-ins who are easily manipulated by heart-wrenching scenes of sick children and abused donkeys. Needless to say, none of these charities is ever going to get a penny of my money.
  5. Meanwhile, of course, the virus in France is now peaking higher than it did in the Spring. And, just like then, the UK is not far behind. And although the death rate is not all that high yet, you can’t help thinking that all the scoffed-at predictions of the Nudge Unit types – who argued that we’d all get Lockdown Fatigue if we jumped too early – have come true. It’s hard to know what will be best. Every trip out that involves wearing a mask is horrible, a situation not helped by completely irrational and onerous mask-wearing policies at work. I’m sure we’ll all be instructed to have open windows in classrooms this winter, even though that might be counter-indicated by the science. According to a recent edition of the BBC’s Inside Science, humidity matters a lot, and it might be better to keep windows closed and use a humidifier (about 50% humidity is what you’re aiming for).
  6. I keep forgetting to call the chimney sweep.

Fringe: Big Bangs Theory

One of them has a fringe, geddit?


I went to Starzplay for the Veronica Mars and stayed to rewatch Fringe, the decade-ago series that was the natural successor to The X Files — but without the alien conspiracy millstone. Three TV shows in one sentence, whatever next?

Turns out, my memories of the final two seasons of Fringe are almost non-existent, and I suspect that, back then, I either didn’t watch at all or paid scant attention. You needed a satellite subscription or DVD boxed set back then (2008–2013) to watch it, and I suspect that a lot of people didn’t. About 10 million people watched its first season in the USA, but that was down to just 4 million by the end. Frankly, it’s a small miracle that it survived into a (shorter) fifth season.

General ramblings about TV genre shows

One reason people might have not watched Fringe is that, in the wake of The X Files, the world was awash with loopy genre shows, in which teams of investigators encountered the technological sublime. I loved Alias, had a lot of time for Warehouse 13, and was perennially disappointed in Torchwood.

Fringe was also a Fox show, and people could be forgiven for not committing to it. Fox have a poor track record when it comes to cancelling genre shows before their time. The most notorious example of this is Joss Whedon’s Firefly, which was shitcanned after just 11 of its 14 episodes had aired. This incident still boggles the mind when you watch Firefly, because it was really good, with the same zingy scripts you’d expect from the Buffy stable. But, hey, I’m over it.

On the other hand, genre audiences are also notoriously fickle and unreliable, a weird hotchpotch of cheapskate entitlement and obsession (ask GRRM re The Winds of Winter) and very much prone to illegally downloading rather than stumping up for a subscription. An audience into SF has considerable crossover with the people who find technical workarounds and backdoors into illegal streams. So if you’re a cable channel and half of the obsessed audience aren’t paying, sure, cancel. Think how many people managed to watch (and have internet opinions about) Game of Thrones without ever paying for it.

(Fringe being on Starzplay is ironic, because Starz are guilty of cancelling the superb Counterpart after just two seasons.)

Crucially, Fringe has exactly 100 episodes, so it’s absolutely worth your time and attention. It’s enough to get solidly into it. In modern television terms, Fringe ran for 7–10 years, depending on what you consider to be a “standard” season these days. One wonders, if Firefly had been made in the era of 10-13 episode seasons, if it might have survived a bit longer. In a parallel universe maybe. In that parallel universe, by the way, The X Files ran for around 20 seasons.

A discussion of Fringe in which there might be spoilers

Talking of parallel universes… 

The premise of the show is similar to those mentioned above. A secret team of (FBI) agents are tasked with investigating weird phenomena, all of which fall under the umbrella term fringe science. There’s a giant technology company called Massive Dynamic which appears to be involved all too often, and its mysterious CEO, William Bell, falls under suspicion. At first it seems like monster-of-the-week X Files fare, but more science/technology based, and less concerned with alien conspiracy theories. Quickly, however, the stories coalesce around a particular past incident involving members of the main cast.

Walter Bishop (John Noble) is a former Harvard researcher who has spent several years in a psychiatric hospital. His past research seems to relate to many of the Fringe Division cases, and so, with the reluctant cooperation of his son Peter (Joshua Jackson), Fringe Division gets him out of the hospital and back into the lab to help them solve cases. The lead agent is Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), who reports to Phillip Broyles (Lance Reddick), a stern and secretive man who seems to know more than he’s saying. The team is completed by Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika Nicole), who acts as Walter’s minder, factotum, and lab assistant.

It all sounds deadly serious, but of course it’s not. This show is fun with a capital UN for unknown. Noble’s portrayal of Walter Bishop is hilarious, as he veers from Mad Scientist to mischievous imp, calling Astrid a thousand different wrong versions of her name, experimenting with drugs, demanding snacks, and milking the cow he keeps in the lab.

Meanwhile, Torv’s Olivia is an empathy machine, providing the audience with an emotional connection to the sometimes preposterous events on the screen. Her working relationship with Peter Bishop develops only slowly into romance, before being shattered by events at the end of the third season.

Meanwhile, we discover that a lot of the problems the team encounters have their root cause in the time a grief-stricken Walter opened a portal into a parallel universe in order to kidnap the dying son of the other Walter Bishop and – this time – cure his chronic disease.

So, yes! Parallel universe. And Fringe has so much fun with the idea, including a different title sequence, nerd-pleasing set dressings, and an opportunity for members of the cast to play their alternate selves: Walternate, Fauxlivia, Colonel Broyles, and a very different Astrid.

The show has even more fun with flashback episodes (complete with 80s-style title sequence), animated sequences, the obligatory musical episode, and more. And of course, the audience is in nerd heaven when Olivia visits the parallel universe and finally encounters William Bell, who is played by Leonard Nimoy. Even more fun is had later on when Anna Torv gets to play Olivia possessed by the uploaded intelligence of William Bell, producing a creditable Nimoy impersonation.

I mean.

One criticism I could level at the show is that it does not reward the casual viewer. The plot becomes so convoluted that even its core audience would struggle to keep track. It’s one to watch from the beginning and stay with (much easier now you can binge it all quite quickly). Another criticism is that the show does seem to lose its way a bit in Season 4, as (I imagine) the show runners negotiated the truncated Season 5 and had to come up with an ending before they were quite ready. So episode 19 of Season 4 leaps forward a couple of decades and then in episode 20 we’re back. I know what they were doing: deliberately evoking the weirdness of out-of-sequence broadcasting (which Fringe itself had suffered previously, and which Firefly famously suffered) whilst also setting up Season 5 and playing with the audience’s expectations as Buffy did at the beginning of its fifth season. But it doesn’t quite work as well as the other playful episodes: a little too on the nose.

In Covid times, there’s every reason to watch this. As we all know, TV production was halted during the pandemic, and so there’s going to be a bit of a drought of new shows. If you’ve never seen Fringe, it’s worth a look. It’s wide screen, HD, great fun, has a cracking cast and an exploding puzzle factory of mystery.

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band

I should have paid more attention to the sub-title of this film, and then perhaps I wouldn’t have been mildly surprised that it only really told the story of The Band up to The Last Waltz. I don’t know why I thought that it might give some consideration to the various members’ solo careers, the 80s reunion (sans Robertson) and the sad deaths of both Richard Manuel and Rick Danko – but I did. I wasn’t disappointed in the actual film, but it’s clear that there’s more of the story yet to be told.

That said, very few of us really want to dwell on the details of that story, so it’s to director Daniel Roher’s credit that he leaves it out of this film.

The other aspect of the film’s title that slightly misled me is the word brothers. I assumed this film would focus on all five members as a band of brothers, but instead the focus is on the close relationship between Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson. This is the relationship that soured after The Last Waltz, and remained unresolved at the time of Helm’s death from cancer.

Christ this is a tragic story, but essential viewing if you love The Band. And if you love The Band and therefore watch this film, you will end up in tears.

The comments under any YouTube videos of The Band will sooner or later (usually sooner) turn to some dickhead singing Levon’s praises while pouring scorn on Robbie Robertson. It’s a tiresome narrative with strange echoes of the one about John Lennon and Paul McCartney. One person is no longer around to argue the point, and the survivor is left in a no-win situation, with a dignified silence the only possible move.

In this film, Taj Mahal calls them ‘America’s Beatles’, a throwaway line that sticks in your head, and the more you think about it the more apposite the description seems. Three lead vocalists; a group that was greater than the sum of its parts; a leading member whose drug use diminished his contribution; another leading member who picked up the slack and kept the group going for two or three years longer than they otherwise might have managed.

Yes, Robbie Robertson is the Paul McCartney of The Band, and the disrespect he gets from so-called fans is undeserved and out of proportion to his supposed sins. The fact is, as uncomfortable as it might be for some to realise, that without him there’s nothing. Almost certainly nothing, or close to it, after the eponymous Brown Album. As various members are sleeping off a drug torpor or driving cars into trees and ditches, Robbie Robertson is getting up in the morning and writing songs. Some good, some indifferent, some great. 

Without Robertson’s impetus and the live work it led to (and the relationship with Bob Dylan), The Band were almost certainly done by 1971. That they survived long enough to produce Northern Lights/Southern Cross (which contains at least three of their greatest songs) is a small miracle. And then The Last Waltz, which we’ve spoken about before.

Robbie Robertson spins a good yarn (what do you want him to do, stutter?), and of course this is his film, but it’s respectful towards the others and especially tender on the subject of Levon. Robertson is notably silent as Levon’s grievances are aired; it’s all he could do really.

So here they are. America’s Beatles, and their story is as compelling as our Beatles. I’ve said before that the story of our Beatles is by now a national myth, something akin to the story of King Arthur and his knights; and so it is with The Band, except in their case they are surprisingly overlooked. Sure, they’re loved by musicians and fans of that particular type of music, but most regular punters have barely heard of them.

It really is very strange. Perhaps people need to see this film.

Chinstrap wonders

Kid B is off to university soon, and we had a few bits to pick up in Milton Keynes. For example, no way I was letting her go off without a very sharp kitchen knife, so a visit to T K Maxx was in order. (The best place to get your kitchen equipment, stuffed full of bargains.) Was slightly dreading the trip because MK is an indoor shopping centre, which means wearing a mask for the entirety of the visit. I think it’s the first time we’ve been since February.

There’s a one-way system in the shopping centre. Down one side of the aisle, and up the other. Further complicated by the larger stores having an entrance on one side of the shopping centre and an exit on the other. A certain lack of coordination here, so that many of them had these entrances/exits on the same side, and you’d have to loop around… ugh. It’s exhausting just writing it down.

There are things about this pandemic that have pushed us into doing what we ought to have been doing all along. Shopping less. Flying less. Washing our hands more. Giving each other space. We’re currently in the unpleasant phase of realising that, for example, an outing to the shopping centre for its own sake, with no need or purpose behind it, is not something you’ll be doing any more. Window shopping, in other words, is a thing of the past. Because going somewhere you don’t need to go in order to wear a mask, dodge sociopaths, and meekly follow a one-way system is not a pleasure.

So. Masks. One way system. Lots of opportunities for toxic personalities not to comply. You’ve got your toxic masculinity; your toxic seniority (pensioners); your toxic Karenility. Of course, some people might have some kind of ‘medical’ excuse (I’m very sceptical of all of these I’m afraid); and people eating or drinking get a bit of a pass. But: along with window shopping, eating and drinking as you walk about? Also a thing of the past. It’s neither necessary nor couth. Anyway, it all adds up to non-compliance.

There are four levels.

  1. Not following the one-way system but wearing a mask.
  2. As above, but wearing a mask only over your mouth, not your nose.
  3. As above, but wearing a mask as a chin strap.
  4. Not following the one way system and not wearing a mask.

(Which could be a lot more levels, if you consider following the one-way system vs. not. But I am going to stipulate that someone not wearing a mask and yet following the one-way system is only doing so by chance.)

The category 4 people really seemed to be the most sullen and resentful type, shuffling along radiating hatred for everyone around them. It’s really hard to stop yourself pointing fingers and denouncing them.

I said it at the beginning of all this, and I still believe it now. The pandemic has revealed the sociopaths among us like never before. It’s like something out of The Scarlet Letter. People are displaying their pathology and might as well be painted Day-Glo orange or indeed wearing a giant red S for sociopath on their foreheads.

I’m not suggesting we round them all up and execute them in football stadia, but we might consider not kissing or hooking up with them. What a time to be alive!

Who is that (un)masked man?

My OH has received mask advice from her school’s head teacher. Wear or don’t wear, is the advice. Up to you. “Whatever makes you feel safe.”

Well. There’s your trouble. Right there, in a nutshell, the muddled thinking that persists about masks, well into (check notes) the 18th year of the pandemic.

The displays of toxic individualism you see (where people who have no medical reason not to wear masks flat refuse to put them on) are driven by a perception that wearing a mask makes them look weak and vulnerable. Because, in their muddled minds, wearing a mask is the equivalent of clutching at pearls, or putting on a long-sleeved shirt in November, or wearing ear protectors when you’re using a pneumatic drill.

Supply your own analogy. The point is that too many people still conceptualise mask-wearing as a self-protective measure. Which it only is if you consider society as a whole and the idea that stopping the spread is good for everyone, including the mask wearer.

I have every sympathy with head teachers, who have been dealing with ever-changing guidance and advice from the government since March, and are having to adjust their policies almost daily, even as the start of term lumbers towards us over the bank holiday weekend. Every head teacher will also have a coterie of staff who don’t read emails, skip meetings, or don’t stop talking long enough to listen to anybody else*, so every evolution in policy stores up confusion for when the real work begins.

But for a Head to use that phrase, whatever makes you feel safe is so unhelpful, it gives me the rage. So: imagine it makes me feel safe to wear a mask, and I step into the staff room wearing mine, but nobody else is wearing one. Do I feel safe now?

Personally, I don’t feel the need to wear a mask to feel safe, but then I understand that that’s not why I’m being asked to wear one.

I do miss those 70s Public Information Films. Don’t Dazzle, Dip: remember that one? Clunk Click, Every Trip. Always Use the Green Cross Code. Careless Talk Costs Lives. Dig For Victory. Don’t Read the Comments. Wear a Fucking Mask Because It’s Not About You.

*Yes, I have specific colleagues in mind.