Political Homelessness

Everything it’s possible to say about it has already been said, and the thundering of laptop keyboards can be heard tappety tap tapping throughout the land. This coming half-term, I’ll be driving out of a country that is within the European Union and perhaps returning to one that is without. Our cat will be travelling with us, his paperwork adequate on the outward journey, possibly inadequate on the return. A cat that is neither one thing nor the other, hmmm? Feels like a metaphor for something.

But to call what comes next uncertain feels inadequate. The UK has been like the cat in the box for three years and counting, and we’ll not really experience the full effect of this insanity for years to come. What vexes me more than anything is the feeling of political homelessness I feel. The fragmentation of our political parties is so complete that you can’t even find a speck to cling to.

Of course political parties have always been made up of factions, but to call yourself a member of the same party when you’re so uncompromisingly opposed on such a central idea is taking the piss. The Conservatives are a mere illusion of a political party, not just two completely different and opposed factions, but a agglomeration of shavings. They were, after all, the party that took us into the EU, but they’re also the party of racists and xenophobes; they’re the party of business, but also the party of fuck business; they’re the party of older Britons in Conservative clubs and the party of city psychopaths; the party of hedgerows and the party of hedge funds. No matter how old I get, no matter how grey, I will never vote for these bastards.

Then we get to the shitshow of the Labour party. The party that took us into Iraq with a quasi-religious fervour; the party of Stop the War; the party of Corbyn and the party of Blair; the party of sitting on the fence until the spikes are so far up your arse you’re technically impaled. I can’t vote for these people. No matter how much I agree with their policies on education and the NHS, this is still the party that introduced the academy programme and PPI, indebting hospitals to the private sector for generations and allowing complete nutters to run schools independently of democratic oversight.

The Lib Dems, of course, marked their cards permanently by going into government with Cameron, and are still split between the liberal sock-with-sandals corduroy crowd and the Yellow Book economic nasty neolibs, who are really just a stray fragment of the Conservative party.

Ignoring the far right parties and the independents you’d cross the road to avoid, that leaves the Greens, who were always set up to be separate local organisations without much central control and can’t even bring themselves to have one leader. I mean, I might vote for the Greens, but it’s just a waste of a vote in most circumstances, in most parts of the country.

Which brings us to tactical voting, the fantasy that people can leave their tribalism and prejudices aside and hold their noses for long enough to vote for somebody, anybody, to keep the Tories out. But can we? Could I, theoretically, bring myself to vote for the bastard Lib Dems just to keep the bastard Tories out? I really won’t know the answer to that until I’m hovering over the ballot form. And I suspect I’m not alone.

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Mediocre TV in the platinum age

My tolerance of mediocre television has hit an all-time low. I breezed through Season 4 of The Magicians (see below) in a few days, mainly because I wasn’t watching much else at the time. There are a few average-but-watchable things around (in which category I do include Succession – see also below), but there are also programmes to which I take an almost instant dislike.

Catherine the Great, for example, which is on Sky/NowTV, and which stars Helen Mirren and a bunch of other (too) familiar faces. I gave it half an hour and as George in Seinfeld would say, it didn’t take. I just couldn’t see the point in paying attention to it. For a start, it seemed like the wrong end of Catherine’s life. Surely the interesting bit was when she, as a young woman, helped organise the palace coup against her own husband, the king? In broader terms, how much interest do I have in Russian royalty? I don’t mind an historical drama, but have little interest in the aristocracy. They’re all awful in the same ways, really. And if I were to watch something about the Russian royal family, I’d rather see something about the Bolshevik revolution and their execution/exile.

I lasted less time with the Winds of War World on Fire, the BBC’s splashy wartime drama. Again, I couldn’t really see the point of it. Helen Hunt disturbs me (have never seen the appeal), but that aside, there was something a bit naff about this drama. It had a soapy quality that did remind me of the kind of 70s and 80s mini-series represented by The Winds of War or Rich Man, Poor Man. But also, and I think this is the crux, everything seemed too clean.

The doubtless expensive shots of “periodised” 1940s streets with old double decker buses and vintage cars just looked too pristine. Everything looked too digital, too much like green screen artificial scenery, and the skies were too unsmoky, as were the cars and the pubs. You feel too much as if you’ve been dropped into a simulation.

Which is before we get to the live music portrayed in the club scenes. It was as if a 20-something with no knowledge of the history of popular music nor any experience of seeing actual live music in, say, a pub or a back room, had been asked to create “authentic” 1940s entertainment. It seemed wrong in every possible way. And again: not enough smoke. More smoke would seem an obvious fix for a lot of this stuff: apart from anything else, it could hide the fact that everybody’s clothes looked too new and all the surfaces too clean. We’d just come out of a depression, for fucksake.

I think it wants to be Babylon Berlin, but it can’t quite hack it.

Meanwhile, there are things that I have in the background and quite like having on, mainly because they’re not even trying to be prestige television. One such is SyFy’s Reverie, a show about people who get lost in simulated realities and the woman who rescues them. It’s Sara Shahi, for a start, and Dennis Haysbert: both decent actors. I don’t know if I’ll stick with it, but it doesn’t offend or annoy. A similar-feeling show was Manifest, which is about a bunch of people who board a flight which disappears for five years before it lands. It’s like a lot of these kind of shows, like The 400, or Flashforward: high concept, and quite fun, until it gets cancelled. It’s no Counterpart, but it’s watchable.

Why can I stand that kind of middle-of-the-road fare but get turned off by Helen Mirren and a bunch of white people in period frocks? I guess the simple answer is genre, but also the feeling that these shows aren’t trying to convince me they’re better than they are.

In short: don’t waste time watching overblown period dramas when you could be hooting your face off watching The Magicians.

The Magicians

An average of just over half a million people watched The Magicians on its US Network, and I imagine even fewer watched it on whichever of the Channel 5s it was on in this country. I say on. I can find no evidence that the 4th season of this show was broadcast anywhere before it showed up on Amazon Prime recently, along with its first three seasons.

All of which means that you have the opportunity to watch this show that you probably didn’t watch but which is definitely bonkers enough to be worth your time. And the good news is that although this is exactly the kind of cult show that usually ends up being cancelled after half a season, it has miraculously survived for four, so there are 52! episodes! to! watch!, with 13! more! to come in season 5.

So what is The Magicians? As The Observer.com would have it, it’s basically sexy Harry Potter — well, that was the original premise. Lev Grossman’s original novel, upon which the series is based, was published in 2009, two years after the last of the original run of Harry P books was published. An 11-year-old who read The Philosopher’s Stone in 1997 was 21 when The Deathly Hallows appeared: old enough for graduate school, which is essentially what Brakebills University in The Magicians is.

I haven’t read any Harry Potter, by the way. Neither have I read Grossman’s novel(s). But I watch the TV show because, and this is important, it’s bonkers, hilarious, and brilliant.

So it’s what if Harry Potter but sweary and slightly sexy? Kind of. But also, what if smokin’ hawt magicians discovered a fictional magical realm (think Narnia, but sweary) was real and became kings and queens and fought battles and turned people into bears and discovered alternate timelines and had the occasional musical episode because Margo licked a lizard? And not just a musical episode, but one complete with snide remarks and bitchy rivalry.

“Great, a puppet show.”

Season One, I have to say, is merely competent television and focused too much on the magicians-at-university premise. But! With Season Two, the show licks a lizard and becomes both a little bit deranged and revels in that madness. With Season Three, and this almost never happens, it gets even better, even more demented.

The plots, about threats to the real world from the magical realm, about magic being switched on and off like a tap, about a Library that is reluctant to lend certain books, and which makes people sign eternal contracts to work there, about monsters who possess human bodies, are there to get the characters rubbing against each other, falling in and out of love, teleporting all over the place and occasionally, yes, licking lizards because they are thirsty.

So get thee to Amazon Prime and prepare yourself for a bumpy ride.

Podcastination Nation

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Thought it was about time for an update on what’s in the ‘casting playlist.

I just subscribed to The Missing Cryptoqueen (BBC), which was featured on this week’s Fortunately (also BBC). It’s the story of what appears to be a financial scam on a massive scale: a Ponzi scheme masquerading as a cryptocurrency. It’s a good listen, although, as ever, I’m absolutely bewildered that people ever fall for these things. I mean, if a relative came to me and said, “Oh, I found a fantastic investment opportunity. You need to get on board,” my immediate reaction is no thanks, I’ll leave my pension exactly where it is. And if they were to add, “It’s a Bulgarian cryptocurrency,” my first thought is Mafia. My tenth thought would probably be, oh, outside of any financial services regulatory framework, then? What could possibly go wrong?

And yet it seems that thousands of people have invested gambled millions of Euros like so many cartoon characters with fruit machine eyes.Other recent additions to my playlist include Backlisted (Unbound), a books podcast, which came to my attention when David Hepworth guested on an episode about Beatles books. Quite apart from that, it’s always good to listen to people enthuse about things they love. It’s a little blast of fresh, optimistic air in our fractious times. I prefer Backlisted to Simon Mayo’s Books of the Year (Ora et Labora), which is also on my list, as it’s less of a plug show and more about pulling out unjustly overlooked titles and authors. The most recent episode, about Elizabeth Taylor (who I’m convinced is overlooked because of her name, which is shared by someone more famous than her), is a perfect place to start.

Another podcast featuring someone (theoretically) enthusing about something they love is The Band: A History (independent), which ought to be right up my street, but unfortunately the presenter needs some voice training. His delivery is flat and monotonous, making a fascinating subject seem dull.

Heavyweight (Gimlet) is back, and presenter Jonathan Goldstein is here to show The Band guy how it’s done. Former This American Life reporter Goldstein can take the most mundane episode from an ordinary person’s life and make it dramatic and mysterious. What is Heavyweight about? It’s a little like the late lamented Mystery Show: people get in touch concerning unresolved incidents from their past, and Goldstein does his best to put people in the same room to have it out. I know it’s a good podcast because I have a flashbulb memory of picking up chestnuts in the garden in France while listening to an episode about someone who was kicked out of a sorority in college and never knew why. It’s episode #10, if you want to check it out. (I have a similar flashbulb memory of listening to an episode of Criminal about the theft of Pappy Van Winkle whiskey while riding my bike in France.)

I’ve started listening again to The Word podcast, which I had wrongly believed finished, or at least gone behind a paywall. This oversight can be rectified by downloading back episodes, of course. I love the content, but have to say that their audio quality is poor. Given that so many people manage to make podcasts with great audio, not all of them working for NPR or the BBC, then this seems a bit off.

Finally, a couple of complaints. I would never make a mean comment about a podcast on the iTunes review thing, but I have to get a couple of things off my chest.

There are a few people I kind of follow and listen to multiple podcasts they’re on, mainly because they’re enthusiastic/knowledgable about things that interest me. Merlin Mann, for example, is on a few podcasts, and I generally like his stuff. I love Roderick on the Line, and Reconcilable Differences (Relay) is still a favourite. On the other hand, I gave up on his Do By Friday because the constant giggling by one contributor and shilling for Patreon on the show got too much. I listen to a lot of Incomparable Network shows, many of which feature founder and former Macworld editor Jason Snell. But I can’t listen to Mr Snell’s podcast Upgrade (Relay), because his British co-host Myke Hurley is an idiot and a philistine ignoramus. I’m assuming his parents were idiots too, for giving him a nickname instead of a name and then misspelling it.

Talking of idiots. I like to listen to the thoughtful John Siracusa, who occasionally guests on The Incomparable and co-hosts Reconcilable Differences. But I cannot listen to his technology podcast Accidental Tech (ATP), because both of his co-hosts are whiny, entitled, car bores and one of them is also an idiot.

One of the things you learn if you know anything about technology and software is that, if you want an easy life, you shouldn’t be an early adopter. The early adopter mentality should be that you can be first to have something but should always expect it to be flaky and buggy. This is something both Casey Liss and Marco Arment seem not to understand. So when they get the new iPhone/Apple Watch on release day and then find it takes a few software updates before things are working properly, they act like spoiled 10 year olds who have been told they can’t have birthday cake until the candles have been blown out. Which is not to mention the shameful detail that one of them is such a self-entitled baby that he actually went down to the Apple Store to buy a new phone because the one he ordered online and which was out for delivery didn’t arrive quickly enough for him. I ask you. Can you imagine being married to that? To be the wife who phones up while he is queuing in the store to inform him that his new phone has been delivered? Meanwhile, the voice of reason, John Siracusa, points out that if you were going to bent out of shape by software bugs, you should wait a few months to buy. My personal philosophy is that if you’re buying a new iPhone, don’t order it till November.

Anyway, I had to switch off an unsubscribe because I could no longer listen to these people whining. And it feels good to get it off my chest.

Abbey Road 50th Anniversary edition

The last time EMI flogged us a copy of this record was in 2009, 40 years after its release. The last time EMI flogged us a copy of this record, EMI still existed, but is now defunct, broken up, off its twig, kicked the bucket, shuffled off its mortal coil. It is an ex-corporation. The last time EMI flogged us a copy of this record, its producer, George Martin, was still alive. Then, we were told, it was a remastering, an improvement on the original CD release, which had been – we were now led to believe – substandard, rushed, whatever (even though The Beatles were among the last artists to release their music on CD, and then later on digital download). Of course, this is all just marketing. The real reason for a 50th anniversary “remix” is that they can renew mechanical copyright for another 50 years.

A remix is different from a remastering, how? Mastering is when you take the final mix and bounce it down to a stereo file, optimised for playback on consumer equipment, EQ’d to sound as sweet as possible, compressed and limited to sound loud but not too loud, with a dynamic range designed to fit within the limitations of the playback medium. Mastering is an art separate and distinct from record production and mixing. A mix engineer and a mastering engineer are often different people, different sets of ears listening for different things.

A remix, on the other hand, means a return to the multis, an opportunity to adjust the levels, to spread the stereo field. For example, the bass can be more prominent, or the bottom end more pronounced, or the instruments more cleanly separated across the channels. In 1969, still, the vast majority of music fans were buying the mono release; stereo was for nerds and millionaires, more or less.

And, lo, it came to pass, that there was a new Martin on the block, and although the kid was responsible for one of the worst things created in the Beatles’ name (the Las Vegas extravaganza, Love), he was once again allowed access to the vaults to tweak and twat about. 

If I sound cynical, it’s because I am. Of course, the real ears behind this are those of the remix engineer Sam Okell, and the Martin name is a rubber stamp, a message of reassurance to tell us that this is okay, really.

Abbey Road was already one of the Beatles’ best-sounding records. Only Please Please Me really reveals its limitations, they always sounded great; and from A Hard Day’s Night onwards, really great. So did it really need a remix? Not really, although it makes a bit of sense to separate the duelling guitars on “The End” a little bit, or to give the thing a boost for what passes for modern music systems.

Does it sound better? Better than the 2009? Better than the CD before that? Better than the vinyl? I’m not one of those people who thinks he can really tell the difference. My hearing tops out at 16kHz these days, and I’ve always had a bit of bass blindness. Couldn’t hear the kick drum when I played live with a band (maybe it was nerves).

The truth is, the equipment I listen to music on now is much, much worse than that I used even back in the 1980s, and ever since my oldest was born I’ve been without what you’d call a proper stereo. But then that’s the story of my life. Completely obsessed with music but usually listening on substandard equipment. A mono record player that couldn’t even combine the two channels of a stereo record into one, so that I never even heard the guitar solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” until some time after I first bought it. My dad had a second hand stereogram, with a melted front panel (from the heat of the valves), and it sounded warm and woolly. And then eventually I got myself a NAD turntable, amp, and speakers. Not the greatest components, but the best I’d ever had or have. But then, in the 1980s, we started buying CDs, and then we’re later told that those early generation CDs were bad, badly mastered, too rotten deep down in the bits. And so then we get the remasters and the “Mastered for iTunes” and…

It becomes problematic. If, in 1969, people were listening to Abbey Road on ropey old mono record players, in 2019 we’re largely listening to compressed music on cheap earbuds, or playing through a few bluetooth speakers dotted around the house. The car speakers. Apple airpods. I do have some grown up studio reference monitors, but these are not really for relaxing listening, nor are they convenient. While the industry has been after perfect sound, the audience has been looking for the cheapest, most convenient, most portable way to listen to music: and always has.

So who is this really for? It’s for the corporation that owns the new mechanical copyright; it’s for a new generation who don’t know the original and couldn’t tell the difference; and it’s for anyone who wants to spend some time thinking about this music.

Every ten years, we need to think about Abbey Road. Is it their best? Some have said so. Is it better than the sum of its parts? Definitely. I’ve always taken note of the semi-detached Lennon. I like “I Want You (‘She’s so Heavy’)”, but if you look at it sideways, it’s someone who can’t be bothered to write lyrics anymore. Put it together with “Don’t Let Me Down” from earlier that same year, and he’s a man in full retreat from Dylan’s listen to the words, man, and he’s playing games with repetition. He’s got that, and “Come Together” and then it’s all blink-and-you’ll-miss-it on Side 2. I love “Here Comes the Sun” but I’ve never been a big fan of “Something”, and there isn’t really a song on Abbey Road that I’d happily listen to, on its own, as a song. Which makes it a great album, because it needs, still, to be listened to as an album and not a collection of individual songs. “Polythene Pam” is as flimsy as cellophane, but it it slides between “Mustard” and “Bathroom” beautifully.

Back in 2009, the narrative was still that the group wanted to put out “one last” good record. That turns out to have been as much of a myth as the one about how Paul first met John at the Woolton village fête. Now we’re being told that they had no such thoughts about Abbey Road and this was just “the new record”, which only became, in hindsight, the last record. The way this narrative changes is interesting. It drifts with our “turns out” times. It still blows my mind that they recreated the Please Please Me cover shot in early 1969, the one that was later used on the Blue album. Something was in the air throughout that last year, from the day Ringo left the band during the White Album sessions, to that final bored/board meeting when the not-yet-thirty Beatles couldn’t agree on next steps.

In addition, this: part of the current narrative is that “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” is rubbish. It’s certainly the case that the song took a lot of takes over several days to record, but there’s nothing wrong with it. Paul’s genius for creating lyrics out of the vernacular – always his greatest gift – is evident here: “Can I take you out to the pictures, Jo-o-o-oan?” But also: “Painting testimonial pictures…” and the innuendo of “Late nights all alone with a test tube…”

Finally, the extra tracks and demos. Ever since the Anthology, it’s been clear that The Beatles weren’t Bob Dylan. They weren’t leaving any good stuff off the records in the way that he has done. So I’m happy enough grabbing a listen to a couple of them on the YouTube and don’t feel I’m missing out if I don’t catch ‘em all.

Succession

I slept through most of the eighth episode of the second season of Succession. As I felt myself drifting off (it had been a hard day), I thought to myself that I could always watch it again; but when I woke up, I realised I was totally fine with missing it. I saw the first five minutes and the last five minutes and got the gist, as it were.

It’s had some rave reviews, has Succession, and it has got a kind of addictive, soapy quality to it. It’s yet another TV series about horrible rich people, but something about their horribleness, and the sense that you’re watching a roman-à-clef, with thinly disguised Murdoch idiot children bickering over their father’s empire, makes it more watchable than, say, Billions, or Downton Abbey.

But then it kind of goes along and keeps going but nothing much changes or happens. Oh, sure, there are corporate raids and shareprice crashes, whatever, but these are no more interesting than they are on the news, and its the human relationships that remain static and unchanging. This one is jealous of that one; this other one is irredeemably stupid; this one is flailing helplessly. And when the patriarch asks them, disingenuously, to give him an opinion on a matter of import, they’re too fucked up and ignorant and so desperate for his approval that they are hopeless.

But you can only take so much of this kind of psychodrama. Nobody learns anything, nobody changes, and anyway, you don’t care enough to want to stick around.

The problem with a show like this is that the reviewer is done and dusted after 1-4 episodes, but sticking around to watch the end is a different experience. One week the family fly here and fuck around and stab each other in the back; the following week they fly to London and do the same thing; and the week after that they fly to Dundee and do the same thing. And there a cringeworthy moments galore, and if you like to cringe, cringe away. But I’m rapidly losing interest.

In the real world, do we care who takes over from Murdoch père? Sure, the man has spread his poison for 50-odd years and is probably in some degree responsible for our Brexit mess, but I’m not one to point fingers at powerful individuals. Brexit was a collective enterprise. The people who work for these powerful men, who do their bidding, who write the words that result in the toxic discourse, who present the news programmes and apologise in Parliament and spread lies for money: these people are the real enablers. Succession shows this to an extent, with the patriarch’s immediate minions trying to outdo each other in venality and ruthlessness, but of course, the cancer spreads deep and wide.

Thank God almighty, we are free at last!

Shout it from the rooftops, for it has come to pass.

In the latest update to the iPhone operating system, iOS 13.1, there’s a radio button control in the Settings>>Music section that allows you to Show (or, more importantly, not show) All Purchases.

I’ve been complaining since February 2016 about this most vexing “feature” of the Apple Music app, and I’ve been hoping ever since the introduction of iOS 10 that it would be fixed. (This is over and above my intense dislike of Apple Music as a streaming service. All I want is an app to play back the music on my phone that I put there.) I’ve even spent time with Apple Support, but even explaining the problem seemed impossible: it was like talking to a Westworld robot about something it had been programmed not to see.

Tl;dr: even though I curate my own playlist for my phone, and tell Music not to ever use mobile data, it would still regularly start playing the first alphabetical song in my “purchased” items, even though it wasn’t downloaded onto my phone and even though I was miles from the nearest wifi (in my car, for example).

Honestly, the number of songs-that-begin-with-A which have been exiled to the Siberian salt mines of never-want-to-hear-again because of this bug. All victims of the cloth-eared marketing monkeys who (almost certainly) wanted to socially engineer Apple Music streaming signups.

But here we are in the Autumn of 2019, and it really seems as if the problem might be fixed, with that simple fucking radio button.

Time will tell, of course, but the two screen shots above, one from 2016, and the other from today, tell the tale. The greyed out tracks in 2016 are the ones that would play against my wishes, even though mobile data was off. And now: no greyed out tracks. That’s the list of “Songs” not just “Downloaded Music>>Songs”.

I wonder how long it will be before I can bear to hear “Above the Clouds” again?