Currently reading Shelby Foote’s narrative history of the (US) Civil War**
I don’t think I can be bothered to go through the rigamarole of finding new people to follow on Mastodon***
There’s a complete stranger of a German teenager coming to stay for the next week. I don’t know how this happened****
They found a concealed bit of the Berlin Wall. Is this a metaphor for something?*****
The seeds are in the sweetest part of the watermelon. Is this a metaphor for something?******
*Of course, if I was still on Twitter I wouldn’t have felt this sentiment, so this first one is a lie.
**A gift from my daughter, who has been very critical of me not starting it. But I was saving it for these dog days of August and now she’s nicked it off me. Shelby Foote was the engaging, bearded contributor to Ken Burns’ PBS documentary on the Civil War. He weaves a good yarn.
***Actually, Mastodon has been quite a lot of fun today, and I followed a few people, although you don’t really need to. You can just scroll through the Local timeline, and it’s okay. Some of it is silly, but none of it is hateful.
****This has been organised by my wife and is the source of much tension around here, because nobody else thinks it’s a good idea. Inviting the daughter of an acquaintance (???) to visit for a whole WEEK? I said no, bad idea, but it happened anyway. Send help.
*****It was in the Mitte district, which is where I stayed when I visited the city. I think I even remember the park where they found it. If it’s where I think it is, I’m not surprised.
******Of course it is. I actually tooted this on Mastodon, along with a picture of a salad I made with it.
I just deactivated my Twitter account. I have 30 days to switch it back on if I change my mind. This post won’t be publicised on Twitter.
I’m doing this partly because I was encouraged to do so by the D-Day 17th August campaign, which I don’t think has gained much traction. I guess we’ll see about that. I’m only barely aware of Al*x J*ones and his conspiracy theories. I’ve been muting and blocking political Twitter for a while anyway, because it makes me miserable. I’ve never been abused or doxxed or anything like that. But I feel like unless Twitter does something about these issues, it’s not a place I want to be. It’s become increasingly clear that, actually, the people who run Twitter have no problem with nazis and purveyors of confidence trick conspiracy theories, and in fact might actually sympathise with them. At the very least, they see them as being good for business, like the proverbial fire fighter who is also an arsonist.
And I’m partly leaving because of Twitter’s continuing attacks on 3rd party clients. I get it: we users of Tweetbot and other clients don’t see any ads or promoted tweets. The problem, though, is that the official client is a horrible experience for other reasons. It’s not about the ads. It’s about the way Twitter has fucked around with the Timeline so that it’s not just in reverse chronological order. Instead you see boosted tweets by prominent people at the expense of regular users. In my own case, looking at Twitter on the web (on a Mac, so no other choice), I sometimes don’t even see my own tweets in my Timeline. That’s just humiliating.
And you see what other people have privately liked, which shouldn’t be on the public timeline at all. So I’d consider using the official client if it wasn’t for that, but Twitter doesn’t seem to understand how much some of us hate what they’ve done. Changing favourites from stars to hearts was bad enough. Now it looks like you “love” something you’re just bookmarking to read later. They’ve been doing stupid stuff like this for years, and those of us who use 3rd party clients have been somewhat insulated. But now they’re coming for the clients, making them less and less functional, so maybe it was time to leave anyway.
And finally, I’m doing it because Twitter hasn’t really been much fun for a long time, and maybe I need this push. A platform that hosts nazis and abusers and inciters of violence is not a good place to be, even if your own corner of it is relatively free of that stuff.
I’m trying Mastodon (I’m The_Obald@mastodon.social), but: it just brings into focus how little I enjoy this kind of thing. And it’s a bit of a ball-ache to set up, and nobody I care about is on it. Time, perhaps, to let it lie die.
Tim Powers has been writing about the ghosts of Los Angeles since his 1990s Fault Lines series, which started with Last Call in 1992, and finished with Earthquake Weather in 1997. Back then, people were huffing ghosts like drugs, absorbing them, being possessed by them.
With his LA-set novels, Powers likes to pick a location with some weird history and weave his urban fantasy ideas into it. In the case of Earthquake Weather, he chose the Winchester Mystery House, which was built by the widow of the firearms company founder, and constructed over decades without building plans. In his more recent Medusa’s Web, he took us into Old Hollywood and Bunker Hill, and places that aren’t places populated by people who aren’t who they appear to be. To these locations, Powers links mythology and literature: the Fisher King, Troilus and Cressida, the cult of Dionysus.
The setting for Alternate Routes is the LA 405 freeway, with a side order of Mulholland Drive. This time, the fantasy elements are woven into the eddies and currents created by traffic patterns, and the ghosts are those who died on or near the freeway, and the mysteries concern what happens when you take an exit that isn’t there, or catch a voice from a car radio that you weren’t supposed to hear. The mythology is the labyrinth and the minotaur: Daedalus and Icarus.
Los Angeles is a fascinating sprawl of a city, and Powers clearly finds endless inspiration in its no-place weirdness. But this book, like Medusa’s Web (2016), feels somewhat peremptory and by-the-numbers. As if, one hopes, he’s just getting all these ideas out of his system. As a fan, I still bought this on the day of publication and read it quickly, but this novel does not reach the heights of his best work, Declare, The Stress of Her Regard, and Hide Me Among the Graves, The Drawing of the Dark – all of which have a historical setting away from the West Coast of the USA.
Terrible cover, too. I’ll doubtless come back to it to reassess, but for now I’m disappointed.
Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers
This third novel by Becky Chambers, after The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Close and Common Orbit, takes place in the same universe, at more or less the same time as the other novels. This time, the focus is on the human crew of the Exodus Fleet, the refugees from Old Earth, who have been living on the generation ships built to flee the environmental disaster we’re currently creating. To the other alien races they’re a curiosity, sometimes viewed as a charity case, with very little to offer in terms of technological innovation.
There are several focus characters, and the chapters flip between them in a regular rhythm. One is an ethnographer from a different species, who visits one of the ships in order to learn more about the humans who have not left the fleet. Others live and work aboard ship, experiencing day to day life or going through personal crises. There’s a Caretaker, who looks after the dead as their bodies are recycled; an archivist, who is there to record the important events on board; a teenager who is disillusioned with life in the Fleet; and an engineer who faces potential unemployment due to the introduction of outside technology. All of these people lead separate lives, and have individual narratives, which gradually intertwine to become one.
And this is the genius of Becky Chambers. For a while, I was thinking that, like Tim Powers, she was producing work that wasn’t up to her best, not quite as engaging as her debut or its brilliant sequel. But then, towards, the end, I found myself reading through tears as the emotional impact of this story hit home. While A Close and Common Orbit weaves two narratives into one powerful whole, this novel takes thinner threads and delicately entwines them until you are caught in the middle of the quietly devastating web, wiping tears from your eyes.
I’ll start by saying that I don’t really mind the new 80 kph speed limit. I’m rational enough to know that in terms of journey time and arrival time, taking into account 50 kph villages, acceleration and deceleration, tractors, lorries, the timid and the hesitant, it’s not going to make much difference. We’re not travelling interstellar distances. But the limit “lacks public support”, according to the media. Ask damn fool questions and you get damn fool answers.
I’ve been trained by my commute, along a so-called A road with a 50 mph speed limit, to feel that speed is perfectly fine. Plus, you don’t use much fuel at that speed, do you?
When I saw the announcement earlier this year, that for safety reasons, the French government were introducing this 80kph speed limit, I was as skeptical as anyone. As I said then, speeding is just one of the terrible habits of French drivers, and the scofflaws who ignore 90 kph will continue to ignore 80 kph. Maybe the fines will be bigger though.
One problem I foresaw was signage. I kept mentioning it to my French other half and she just shrugged it off and said it wouldn’t be an issue.
There aren’t that many 90 kph signs in the country, but they do exist, and they’re more common than the British equivalent of 60 mph. But the French really do have a problem with signage because of the complicated nature of the new law. You’re restricted to 80 kph on two-lane roads where there is no barrier in between the lanes. Fine, if barriers weren’t a thing, but they are. Quite a lot of roads introduce a barrier, or a third lane, for the odd stretch, to enable overtaking of tractors and slow lorries, or to discourage any overtaking at all, even by idiots who ignore road markings. For the three-lane stretches, the speed limit reverts to 90 kph but only in the direction of the two lanes. So the same stretch of road has two speed limits, depending on which way you’re going. And then if the two lanes swap over, so do the speed limits.
Does this seem overly complicated to you? It does to me, and I’m paying attention.
Driving from Haute Saône into Haut Rhin, I noticed that the former department had bothered to signpost these stretches, but that the latter had just removed all the signs that used to be there, leaving you unsure.
Perhaps the real problem with 80 is that there is still a 70, which is the French equivalent of the British 40 mph (it’s actually around 45 mph). In other words, there’s a 6 mph difference between the safety limit on bendy bits or in places that aren’t villages, and the maximum allowed on a two lane road. Does 6 mph seem worth it?
I feel like the logical step is to reduce 70 kph to 65, giving us 15 kph increments. But can you imagine the outcry from the people who are currently ignoring 70 and will then have to ignore 65? Also, they’d have to install a lot of signs. The other move would be to do away with the 70, which I can’t see them doing.
How is it working in practice? Well, I think I’ve been tailgated (even) more often than usual, which is about what you’d expect. But speeding is still anti-social and therefore immoral, and I am still a cyclist, so.
I felt a kind of weary recognition when I saw this story in the Guardian the other day. I don’t remember what the precise occasion was, but I remember vividly being told that I was on “the list” by a trade union acquaintance of mine. At the time, I greeted the information with the kind of youthful bravado you’d expect of someone in their mid-20s and in the thick of the kind of grassroots activism that feels like nothing but actually is the most effective means of creating change.
By matching staff records against MI5 files, the SPL came to the conclusion that there were 1,420 “subversives” in the civil service, including 52 in Customs and Excise, 169 at the Inland Revenue and 111 at the Ministry of Defence, many of them at the Royal Naval dockyards at Rosyth. The largest number, however, 360, were said to be at the Department of Health.
Privately, I figured that if MI5 were targeting me, then they were even more incompetent than their poor reputation suggested. This was the era of Peter Wright’s Spycatcher, the banned memoir that revealed that the British Intelligence services had beenfucking up operations for decades. I bought my copy, illegally imported from Australia, at one of those second hand book stalls under Waterloo Bridge on the South Bank, a half-hour walk from Gower Street, the then-headquarters of MI5.
But pause with me a moment to look at the picture the Guardian used to illustrate this news story (above). Did I resemble the floppy haired young man depicted? My hair was curly and frequently dyed blonde. I never once held a copy of Militant in my hands; and I would have fled in terror if someone offered me a loud hailer. On the other hand, I might well have considered a stripy jumper.
Apart from being told by a reliable source that I was on this list, I have other evidence to offer.
I worked in the tax office (Inland Revenue) in those days, which meant I had signed the Official Secrets Act. I was a very lowly clerical assistant (or the Revenue’s equivalent), a position for which I was overqualified. And yet, it took me fully six years to gain a promotion to the next grade above. If you knew me at all, you’d know this could not possibly be because of incompetency on my part. To illustrate this latter point, I will refer you to the time I went on the Tax Officer training course when I finally got that promotion, six years in. I was taking a cigarette break with the trainer that day when he said to me, “This must be very boring for you?” “Why do you say that?” “Because you obviously know this stuff already.” This wasn’t, in fact, the case. But, I’m very quick on the uptake. And so, yeah: it took six years to get promoted from my filing job.
Aha, you say. Why then, did you not just go and get another job? Good question. I applied for many: very many. I got many interviews. I took many intelligence tests and got the highest marks. But, you see, I was blacklisted.
One job I applied for, at the Abbey National building society (or was it already a bank by then?), I passed the tests with flying colours, passed the interview, and was told I’d be receiving a job offer “subject to references”. Well, one of my referees, Norman, who was my line manager, sat opposite me in the office. And he would have told me if he’d been asked for a reference. But he never did because he never was. And the nailed-on job disappeared into thin air.
Finally, I was arbitrarily moved, in my lowly clerical position, to another one in another tax office that was just around the corner. It separated me, on that day to day basis, from my immediate circle of radical trade union buddies. Apart from that, there was no reason to move me.
“Most “subversives” were found to be working in junior clerical positions. The SPL recommended in its initial report that they should, where possible, “be identified and distanced from such work”.
It added that mounting a purge of suspect individuals would not be possible, but “it might sometimes be possible covertly to move individuals to posts where they would have less potential for disruption.”
Anyway, that blacklisting blighted my career prospects, and held me back for years. Eventually I got out of the tax office only by getting a place at University. My life is divided into the before and after in that respect. Things went pretty well after that: although I still consider those nine years struggling against the machine to be lost.
It was all so unnecessary, really. All the “list” consisted of was names and organisations. In my case, it would have been the IRSF, the Inland Revenue Staff Federation: a trade union so radical that it wasn’t even affiliated with the Labour Party.
And I only really got involved in the union because I was pissed off with the way I was being treated (early on in my glittering tax office career, I was criticised for the way I walked, and the way I looked for files, and for not wearing a collar and tie, and, when I did wear a collar and tie, I was told by my manager that he didn’t like my collar and he didn’t like my tie). And I’d been a little radicalised by 18 months on the dole: to the point that I had values at odds with most of the management class. When they were throwing post away in confidential waste sacks in order to meet targets, I was kinda muttering that if they left their targets unmet, maybe some unemployed person could be given a job.
But I hadn’t read a word of Marx or Militant, hadn’t joined any organisation apart from my union, and (ironically) my first exposure to such reading would come at University, which only happened because of the blacklisting.
So what did I do to get on that list?
I did once sign a petition at a CND rally. With hindsight, I did come to believe that the stunningly pretty girls who were circulating with the petition were probably MI5, harvesting names from the many bus trips.
But my real activism was small and local. I went to Branch union meetings, first as office rep and later as Branch Organiser. I sold raffle tickets to help the striking miners in ’84 and ’85. I was the Organiser who organised a crucial vote on the union having a political fund.
Which brings us to the crux. The Tory project in the 80s was principally about crushing the unions, who had so effectively destroyed the Heath government of 1970-74. All forms of collectivism (public transport, public utilities) were out, to be replaced by privatised companies who would make life hard for unions. And all strikes had to be approved by an expensive postal ballot, thus ensuring forever more that no strike would be called on anything over a 25% turnout, which was all the media would need to call foul. And, the most evil step of all, members would have to vote as to whether their union could make political donations. This policy was designed to kill the Labour party at its roots.
As I said, the IRSF wasn’t even affiliated with the Labour party, but we did believe, us union chaps, that we ought to be able to fund research and so on, or support candidates. So we organised the vote, and we got it approved.
Which, one suspects, wasn’t supposed to happen.
Possibly the most damning thing I did was organise the publication and distribution of a branch newsletter. This was my idea because it was clear then that the government, through their managers, were trying to bypass the unions by offering, for example, newsletters of their own. Going direct to the workers with new initiatives and spinning information without considering their elected representatives. So, I said, if they’re going to be “communicating” with our members, shouldn’t we offer an alternative?
Thus the Conscientious Op was born, a newsletter title that punned on a collection of Dashiel Hammett short stories (Continental Op). It was reproduced by typewriter, letraset, cut ups and photocopier. It was, probably, pure punk.
I don’t remember a single thing I wrote in it.
But one suspects that something upset somebody. (It was a similar story when I left school at 18.)
So, blacklisted I was. And what have we learned? First of all, those small-time local activities you can get involved in do have an impact, and do scare the bejesus out of those in power, who know full well that they only get away with stuff because we let them. To give you an across-the-Atlantic example, it has been local politicians working at District and State level who have been gerrymandering election boundaries in the USA, and bringing in voter registration laws to make it harder for people of colour to vote, and harder for opposition candidates to win seats. So, yes, grassroots politics really matters.
Finally, I think we’ve learned something I think I’ve always known: that the real “enemies within” in this country are those who create and share such lists, who treat legitimate political opposition and perfectly legal trade union activity as criminal, and who maintain unfair power structures unfairly and undemocratically. The construction industry blacklists during the Olympic Park construction led to legal action and big payouts. The trade union movement began with people being transported to Australia. It ended with a postal ballot that you chucked in the recycling.
If I could make a bargain with the universe over what I was allowed to eat without causing an eczema flare-up, I wouldn’t ask for much.
It turns out, if I don’t eat butter I eat a lot less bread, and if I eat a lot less bread I eat a lot less cheese. I miss it, but most of it isn’t a deal breaker. The vast quantities of mature cheddar I used to get through were just gluttony.
It also turns out that the only thing I really miss about milk is the tiny amount I put in a morning cup of tea. I like to drink. Just one. Cup. Of. Tea. Per day. I’m not your typical British person (or teacher) in that respect. I don’t even like it in the afternoon, unless there’s a Fortnum and Mason Dundee cake in the vicinity.
So I will set wheat bread* aside. And I will forego butter. And I will put oat or almond milk on my cereal and peanut butter on my glutard toast.
But if I could have the following, please, universe:
Mozzarella (*on pizza, yes, made with wheat flour), no more than once a week;
Parmesan (with glutard pasta or in soup);
A tiny drizzle of milk in a single mug of tea, once per day.
That’s it. I’ll stir oat cream into my soups and try not to think about cheese on toast, and I’ll drive to Woburn Sands for glutard fish and chips, if I could just have a carbonara occasionally, and a Saturday pizza made with my own hands, and a mug of Yorkshire tea.
Is that too much to ask?
(Eczema is substantially reduced – currently getting by with aloe vera gel and a nightly Benadril.)
Concerned as I am about privacy and the abuse of that privacy by companies like Amazon and Google, I was never in the market for a smart speaker. I was of course more interested in the Apple HomePod, but it’s not a product that would fit my particular life.
For example, the idea that you would have a speaker, or a pair of speakers, plugged into the mains in a room that you would listen to music in, is not something that happens round here. If music (or a podcast or the BBC Radio player) is on, it’s because I’m up and about, moving between rooms. I don’t want my speaker to be tethered to a particular spot. I have this anyway: there’s a decent speaker box sitting under the TV I can use for music in the living room (almost never), and I’ve got a pair of great music speakers in the conservatory with a Bluetooth adapter plugged into the back (used more often, but still relatively rarely).
What I most often want is a speaker that can move with me, or can be paired up with another speaker and play simultaneously in two rooms. Multi-room audio is something you can have up at the higher end, but again, something plugged into the mains in one place is not a scenario that would work for me.
So I want my speaker to be portable, truly wireless, and fairly robust. Which is where the UE Wonderboom comes in. I was skeptical that something as small as this could sound good, but it really sounds pretty decent. Whatever artificial means they use to boost the bass works very well for the kind of music I listen to. It doesn’t sound weird or get on your nerves after a while. It’s good for voices, and it’s good for country music and 60s/70s rock and soul.
It sounds great and is loud enough that I’ve rarely had it above 50% volume, and the battery life is very good indeed. In terms of range, you can take your phone quite a considerable distance away without losing the connection. This is ideal for me, for example, at our place in France, where I am frequently preparing food in the kitchen, then walking around to tend the barbecue in the garden.
I got my first one a year or so ago, and it impressed me enough that I wanted to get a second so as to pair them up. Which I now have. Pairing is a simple matter of holding down the central logo button for three seconds, until you hear one of its noises, and then waiting for 10 seconds or so while the speakers pair. The volume is automatically equalised between the two speakers, and you can control it with either speaker or your connected device. And you don’t have to download a special app to achieve any of this. Smart.
Now you can have stereo, which is fine, but the real beauty is in having the “radio on in every room” effect, where I can have one in the kitchen, and one out in the conservatory or the garden. And because it’s Bluetooth and not Airplay, no wifi network is required, which is great in France, because we don’t have wifi there.
Amazon sell a pair of these for £123, but you can buy two separately for about £60 each, and if you monitor the price you can do even better.
This, for me, is the perfect combination of sound quality and convenient portability, and I couldn’t be happier really.
When you suffer from eczema, when you suddenly suffer from it in your mid-50s, you encounter a bewildering number of possible causes and cures. Some people, I note, seem to just live with it. My own mother always seemed to have a tube of Betnovate on the go.
But I’ve always been convinced that my own sudden onset eczema has an external cause, such as a food allergy or intolerance. Maybe it’s pollen. Maybe it’s stress (which is still an external cause). Maybe it’s a side effect of medication (most of the ones I take list “rash” as one of the possible side effects). Or maybe it’s gluten, or dairy, or bio washing powder, or simply heat or pressure from sitting or wearing elastic or a belt. Anyway, tracking down an actual cause seems nearly impossible. You’d be here to the end of time, trying to establish one using the scientific method.
Which brings us to the treatments. What you mainly want to do is stop the itch-scratch cycle. The guilty secret of scratching is that it brings a pleasurable relief. And if you scratch till it hurts, your spine releases serotonin, which brings relief, but also stokes the itch-scratch cycle. Strong steroid creams (on prescription) offer relief for several hours at a time (though sometimes take too long to work) and can clear up an eczema patch after two or three days, but in my case, the eczema just moves elsewhere. Most of my time is spent chasing it around my body.
But strong steroid creams are bad, and should only be used for a day or two. Chasing the eczema around means I’m not constantly putting the cream on the same spots, but I still don’t like to use it. Taking antihistamine pills seems to work, too, though they do seem to stop working for me after a few days. I’ve been taking Piriteze: two tablets, staggered over a few hours in the evening, can give me an itch-free night. But such a dose does leave me feeling a bit zonked. One tablet isn’t enough.
Looking for alternatives, you will come across many a web site making extravagant claims for various creams. I’ve tried a lot.
First, and most basic, is Dermol, which you can use as a moisturiser and as a replacement for shower gel. I get this in 500ml bottles on prescription. Used regularly, it can offer relief for a few hours: enough to get you to sleep, perhaps, though nothing stops you from waking up in the middle of the night itching like crazy. Dermol is good for spreading the steroid more thinly, and it absorbs well and is non-sticky.
Something similar is Cetaphil, which I think some people get instead of Dermol. I tried Cetaphil in mousse form, but felt it left my skin feeling slightly tacky.
Bog standard moisturisers like Vaseline Intensive Care can be used, and I’ve tried a Vaseline lotion with added Aloe Vera (and a Garnier equivalent). They’re okay, though no more effective than Dermol. The most pleasant moisturiser to use is Aveeno, especially the one with almond oil. Problem with Aveeno and the other commercial brands, they have too many SKUs, and almost nobody stocks them all. I also tried their after shower mist, which was okay, but didn’t seem to last very long.
But nothing is quite so effective at providing a protective barrier for your skin as actual Vaseline petroleum jelly. Which is nasty and greasy, but lasts a long while and promotes healing.
When itching is at its height, aloe vera gel can be very useful in cooling the skin and relieving the immediate itching sensation. If you then apply another moisturiser on top, you might get relief from itching for a few hours.
I’ve also tried coconut oil, the only real benefit of which seems to be its pleasant smell, if you like that kind of thing. Doesn’t work particularly well as a moisturiser, however, and doesn’t help the eczema.
Finally, I’ve also tried cannabis-based cream, such as Atopicann, which contains hemp oil as well as coconut oil and zinc. No THC, though. It smells a bit like the Mytosil ointment we used to use for nappy rash: not very pleasant.
At the moment, the combination of antihistamine tablets, aloe vera gel and Atopicann seems to be working to keep the itching at bay. And who knows, maybe giving up gluten and dairy is helping too. But probably not.
Older readers will remember that I’d been controlling my eczema, reluctantly, by following a gluten-free diet. So well was this going that I started to play fast and loose with the strictness, reasoning that one pizza on a Saturday, made with a properly fermented 48-hour dough, was unlikely to cause more than the mildest of itches.
Even when the dermatology clinic tested my blood for the gluten allergens and reported “inconclusive” results, I stuck to the (almost) elimination diet on the basis that even if the effects were psychological they were no less real for that.
But the eczema made a gradual return, to the point that I asked for a refill of my steroid cream prescription.
At the end of March, I had a small slice of birthday cake on my wife’s birthday, and decided to go back to strict enforcement of the diet. Two and a half months later, and here we are. Still itching. And on a scale of 1-10 when anything below 6 is mild enough to resist scratching that itch, I’ve been 8-10 for weeks on end now, with big patches of eczema on the back of my legs, and my back, anywhere there might be extended periods of pressure. So the back of my thighs, for example: that’s worse when I’ve been sitting down, and the base of my back is bad especially after a car journey of any length. And around the waist band of my underwear, etc.
Went to the doctor (not the clinic, which had discharged me back when the eczema was under control), and he suggested I might try giving up dairy.
*Once you remove anything with wheat in it from your diet, and then anything with milk in it, ugh. I now look at those “wheat and dairy free” labels ruefully, when once I used to wonder why the two so frequently went together. I tried, at first, a compromise, and went lactose free for a few weeks. This wasn’t too bad: there’s a pretty wide variety of lactose-free products, and they taste acceptable.
But that didn’t work of course, and so I now embark on the dairy-free part of my life, half-hoping this isn’t going to work. I mean, I like rice, and I’ll eat a bean salad, and I’ll grill some meat and so on. But I fucking hate that watery quinoa gruel, and all those bitty vegan options are just damp leaves. Soya and coconut cheese substitutes are gross.
I think I’ll try till the end of July, see if it works. And if it does, can I have a slice of bread to celebrate?
Season 6 of The Americans has drawn to a close, with a stunning finale, almost silent in its final half, reminding us that so much of this story was told without dialogue, and with strategically targeted musical nuggets, such as Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms” in that last episode. Even, I grudgingly admit, U2’s “With or Without You” which I’d normally run screaming from the house to avoid.
I previously wrote about this show just before Season 5, which was an in-between seasons, designed to build inexorably to the climax that would be Season 6. At the end of Season 5, after a disastrous operation, Philip announces that he doesn’t want to do “the work” any more, and Elizabeth agrees to take on new assignments herself, while Philip only works to wind up existing operations.
So it is that Season 6 begins on a tense note, three years later, with an exhausted Elizabeth running on fumes and shutting herself emotionally from her husband, who is trying to make a success of the travel agency front operation—and failing. In other words, not to put too fine a point on it, this man who had really started to want to be an American was failing at being a capitalist. Gorbachev is in office in the USSR, experimenting with openness and reform, and reactionary elements within the KGB are seeking to destroy him. Inevitably, this conflict at the top level of the Soviet Union infects the Jennings’ marriage, building mistrust and resentment.
It was the sound of The Americans, in the end, that haunted me. It probably took me three or four seasons to understand why the soundtrack always sounded so odd. In every scene, interior, exterior, office, home, street corner, there was a lot of background noise. Where there was dialogue, it was clear enough, but there was always a great deal of background hum, as if the volume (or gain) had been turned up on everything. And then I twigged: every scene in The Americans sounds as if it has been recorded using a listening device (or, in the case of outdoor scenes, a shotgun microphone eavesdropping from a distance).
What does one do when something so good reaches an end? I think, probably more than any other show, I might watch it all again.
(Seasons 1-5 are on Amazon Prime video. I assume/hope that Season 6 (episodes currently on the ITV Player in the UK) will end up there in due course.