Bring on your internet wrecking ball

DNGlrABUIAAr9RO.jpg-large..Having spent the last 20 years of my life wasting time on the internet, I sometimes wonder if I’d be happier without it. I’m sure I’m not alone in this, but as we all face the consequences of the targeted use of Big Data to manipulate elections and referenda, and Twitter’s latest hamfisted “improvement” irritates the shit out of us, how much of it would we really miss if it went away?

This has been running through my mind for a couple of days as the Telecom companies in the USA make yet another attempt, through their bought-and-paid-for congressmen, to abolish net neutrality, and thus allow for differential pricing, and a two (or more) speed internet, depending on what you pay for.

You may have seen the graphic above circulating, which purports to show (it’s in Portuguese, and I’m not a doctor) what happens when service providers are allowed to split the open internet into walled-garden “bundles” of different services. Note that this appears to be a mobile phone package, but the point remains – this is what people fear could happen to your regular home internet subscription as well.

Let’s take it from the top.

Messaging: €4.99 a month (opening offer; €6.99 usually?) for the privilege of using your phone as a phone (basically). Well, I guess this I’d need to pay for, just in case I end up in a ditch somewhere (with a phone signal).

Social: €4.99 a month (as above) for your Facebook, Insta, Twits, Snapchat, Pinterest etc. So, yes, I’ve been addicted to Twitter since 2009, but take it away from me? Oh, please don’t throw me in the briar patch, B’rer Fox. Sure, I’d miss it at first, but only in the same way that I miss cigarettes.

Video: €4.99 for YouTube, Netflix (in addition, I’m guessing to your monthly subscriptions to these services). Unavoidable, given that I mostly watch streaming TV services these days. So I’m in for €10 a month so far.

Music: €4.99 Spotify and whatever else those are? I could probably do without this, given that I still host all my music on my device. So unless this includes podcasts, I’m not sure I’d bother.

Email and Cloud: €4.99. So they’re demanding payment for access to your gmail and your iCloud, which is super. Unavoidable, I suppose, which puts me in for €15, plus whatever the basic monthly fee is, plus all the other monthly subscriptions.

Of course, what most customers would want to do would be to choose, say, just the services they use, so these bundles (like TV packages) are designed to have you pay for shit you don’t use – bearing in mind that you’re being asked to pay for shit that is currently free because it has nothing whatsoever to do with meo telecom or whoever they are.

The situation is this: the telecoms are going to get their money. They’re going to get their money, and they’ll keep getting their money, and the only way to avoid giving them your money is to give up on all of it, an increasingly unlikely prospect in a world in which all government agencies are basically assuming you have internet access.

But then, what might it be like, over there on the other side of the walled garden, away from cat memes and Trump tweets and robot followers and troll farms? And away from this blog, of course. All good things…

Advertisements

CMA: cannot mean anything

Screen Shot 2017-11-21 at 17.19.16
Just look at them

It’s time for my annual ponder about the state of country music, based on the snapshot offered by the CMA Awards. This time around, I’ve been unable to catch the whole telecast, but I’m relying on the paltry 60 minute edit offered by BBC4. The problem with this cut-down format is that the broadcasters tend to select the top acts, major awards, household names (yeah, right, I know) rather than the up-and-coming and merely-nominated names. It used to be my main means of discovering new things, but I’m unlikely to find anything new this way. The Beeb did show us the winner of the “New Artist” award, but I had already downloaded Jon Pardi’s 2016 album California Sunrise from YouTube iTunes.

To tell the truth, I really miss the days of the CMA Awards being presented by Vince Gill, which ages me considerably, because I just found a news story about how he wouldn’t be hosting the 2004 awards after his 12-year stint. 🤭

Anyway, there was something off for me about most of the performances on the telecast, and I was left feeling that the show’s format was suffering from an excess of control and that what it was really missing was the sense that something could happen. I mean, it is literally only two years since Timberlake and Stapleton burned the room down, with a performance that you just could not bottle or rehearse into oblivion. This is the thing about music: you can destroy it when you try to bottle it, which is why Bob Dylan has spent his entire career trying to keep it live and spontaneous.

Anyway, something’s gone on. The performers, many of whom are wildly successful and seasoned live performers, seem to find this format intimidating and nerve-wracking. Maybe the show’s producers are to blame, or maybe it’s the record labels, piling on the pressure by pointing out how their Xmas album sales depend on this single performance.

The fact that this is one of the few music shows people actually watch means there’s been a tendency for the labels to sploodge a non-country artist into the mix in an attempt to cross promote. This year it was P!nk, performing solo; last year it was Beyoncé, performing with the Dixie Chicks in an attempt to capture some of that Stapleton/Timberlake magic. But here’s the thing. What worked with Justin Timberlake and his tight, talented band, is not necessarily going to work for artists who are more used to performing tightly timed and well rehearsed shows in a more programmed way.

Which is not to say I’m accusing P!nk (or Beyoncé) of miming (they call it lip synching now, but we always used to call it miming when we watched Top of the Pops and judged people for it). Which is exactly what fucking Garth Brooks was doing when he came on to perform his latest single (and later collect the Entertainer of the Year award). I mean, Garth, you’re in front of an audience of your peers and you do that off to the side of the mic move, and your voice miraculously doesn’t lose any bottom end when you go off-axis from an SM58?

Couple of things about Garth. Slick record production, back in the 90s, and the pick of the best songs, and some pretty spectacular live shows, with you know, fire and rain, and wire work. But he was never much of a singer, and – especially live – he couldn’t really project his voice. And he has never deigned to put his stuff – any of it – on iTunes, so he’s running his current tour on pure nostalgia and niche album sales through his own service, which who can be bothered with that? Worst of all, he’s dragged his more talented wife, Trisha Yearwood into this doomed enterprise, so she’s vanished from the public’s consciousness.

So there was him, but then the actual live performers all sounded tight and nervous and a little bit off-pitch. It was as if they were all singing with a gun pointing at them from the wings. Perhaps memories of the Las Vegas shooting? What happens when a bunch of country fans gather in one place?

So Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris, Kelsea Ballerini (with Reba) all sounded off key. And then Little Big Town, whose big selling point is their incredible harmony singing, did a lacklustre version of (shit song) ‘Wichita Lineman’ with Karen Fairchild wearing possibly the most ill-judged pair of boots in television history. I mean, just look at them.

Keith Urban’s performance was his new, Instant-Karma type single ‘Female’ was pretty decent, and Tim McGraw and Faith Hill put in a tight, on-key and touching performance of the title song of their new album The Rest of My Life. She’s another one who disappeared off the face of the earth, having last released an album in 2005. But at least this record is available on YouTube iTunes.

The Bros were less in evidence than recent years. Possibly because the BBC didn’t include them, but also because the shockwaves created by Chris Stapleton’s success have made record labels realise that songs about beer, trucks and blue jeans have a limited shelf life.

Apart from Stapleton’s turn with “Broken Halos”, probably the highlight of the broadcast was young Mr Alan Jackson being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and performing two oldies from his back catalogue. In the right key, and without miming. The love and respect for him in the room was clear, with almost every current male singer in the audience singing along with all the words. Apart from Garth Brooks, Jackson’s contemporary, who didn’t seem to know them.

Which sums it up really: stagnation. Chris Stapleton’s stripped back, back-to-basics music hasn’t filtered through too much, although he still scooped key awards. Tim McGraw can still bring it. Alan Jackson, at 59, still does the New Traditionalist thing better than anyone. Garth Brooks won Entertainer of the Year, just as he did in 1991, 1992, 1997, 1998, and 2016. And everyone else is too nervous to produce their best.

The Boy in the Bread Bubble

LN_870160_BP_11Surveying the trolley after doing the grocery shopping last night, I realised that – for someone who is supposed not to be eating wheat anymore – I still have way too much invested in beautiful bread.

It’s the stuff of life!

The big Waitrose in MK does a sliced (and toaster-shaped) sourdough from the Bertinet Bakery that is possibly the best bread I’ve ever tasted. It puts the “sour” in sourdough. At £3.50 a large loaf, it’s not so preposterously expensive that you pass it over. After all, a standard gluey white sliced loaf is over a quid these days.

In addition to that beauty, I was unable to resist the opening offer on Waitrose’s sourdough crumpets, and there was a nice filone pugliese that crusted up beautifully in the oven as an accompaniment to tomato soup.

Meanwhile, because I’ve been playing fast and loose with the gluten consumption lately* (I’m not coeliac, but have developed otherwise unexplainable eczema in my middle age), I’ve got itchy patches springing up at the top of my left leg and the bottom of my right.

Medical tests were so inconclusive that I can’t even say for sure that my eczema is caused by gluten, except that it clears up on its own if I don’t eat it. And, yes, that could all be the placebo effect, but that’s the problem with the human mind. This whole business kicked off with insomnia, which the doctor – not wanting to give me sleeping pills long-term – tried to treat with antidepressants (Sertraline), and which then triggered the eczema.

My latest symptom is that my eyes won’t stop watering. Especially first thing in the morning, they’re streaming all the time. It kind of clears up once I’m at work, but I don’t know if that’s because I’m away from the environment that triggers the tears, or simply because I’m at work and otherwise distracted. Because the thing is, the itching from the eczema also tended not to bother me (much) during the busy working day.

So: either I’m a mess of symptoms which are all stress-related; or I’ve developed allergies – in my 50s – to a variety of substances. Is it gluten? Is it the pillow? The mattress? The cat? Dust? Meanwhile, I’m still sleeping really badly. I get that sleeping pills are addictive and that no responsible doctor would keep prescribing them, but if I’d stuck with them, maybe none of this would have happened.

Pass the butter.

*We had visitors last week, so I was cooking for nine, which meant that doing a special glutard meal would have been a pain in the arse.

Jason Isbell and Tift Merritt, Birmingham Symphony Hall, 31st October 2017

 

I booked the tickets for this gig in a moment of passion for music, but as the date came closer I was filled with reluctance because it would be a school/work night, and I knew I’d be tired. Of course, I’m glad I went, although the traffic in Birmingham at arrival time was a shitshow, and going home I was tired enough to cause a couple of Google reroutes.

It was the first time I’d seen Jason Isbell live, and the seventh time seeing Tift Merritt, who’s one of those artists I just buy the new record without even thinking about it. Above is my favourite track from her latest album Stitch of the World, which I was disappointed she did not play. Her 30 minutes on stage was fairly low key and subdued, as she picked songs from her repertoire that lent themselves to solo performance and the sound in the room. I also realised that she was being a good support act citizen, and not doing anything that might embarrass the headliner.

The Symphony Hall is a brilliant space for music. Once the Birmingham rush hour traffic and the city centre diversions had been negotiated, we walked into a venue that felt very unpressurised. It’s a 2000+ seater, and although I didn’t spot empty seats, it was pleasant to be inside and very easy to get away from, with none of the interminable waiting for crowds to disperse that you get at bigger venues like the O2. The acoustics in the hall are just fantastic, and the view you get of the stage, even from one of the upper circles at the back, is good. I previously saw Trisha Yearwood and Mary Chapin Carpenter there, but it had been a few years.

Tift Merritt was performing with guitar (both acoustic and an open tuned electric) and keyboard (borrowing the keys from the main act), and her wonderful voice filled the room. Third song in, she stood at the keys and played “Good Hearted Man” and my allergies started playing up.

(Yep, still works – this is from Austin City Limits, a few years ago)

For her final number, she stepped out from behind the mic, as she so often does. She recorded a live album a few years ago here in Buckingham, mainly because she loved the sound of the room. Apart from Jonathan Richman (who I’ve seen somewhere between 9 and 11 times), she’s the only artist I’ve ever seen do that. (When I see these fucking buskers on the high street with their amps and mics and noisy backing tracks, I want to slap them around a bit and force feed them Tift Merritt.)

 

Then came the interval, and we got to see Tift Merritt clearing up her own equipment, before Jason Isbell arrived promptly on stage at nine.

His set was mainly highlights from his last three albums, heavy on the (heavy) Nashville Sound, backed by his band The 400 Unit, who are very, very good. It was the classic line-up: two guitarists (both capable of playing lead), bass, drums, and keyboards. Isbell’s lead vocals were strong all night, and the rest of the band all contributed backing vocals. The only missing element was violinist Amanda Shires-Isbell, who stayed at home with their young daughter. Isbell was wearing a Wonder Woman t-shirt in honour of his daughter’s Hallowe’en costume.

The superb 90-minute set contained light and shade, from the hard rocking likes of “Anxiety” and “Molotov” to the shimmering “If We Were Vampires” (which is not anodyne, thanks, Mr Jeremy “Cunt” Hunt).

 

“Hope the High Road” was delivered with passion, and the powerful lyrics of “White Man’s World” couldn’t have been more apposite. Perhaps he should have played that one into Jeremy Hunt’s face on the Marr Show. But then, he is on the high road.

My favourite moments were when the sound opened out with one of the players taking an acoustic guitar and the other playing (usually slide) lead. Songs like “Stockholm” and “Last of My Kind” were brilliant, but perhaps my favourite of the night was “Codeine”, from his 2011 album Here We Rest:

If there’s one thing I can’t stand
It’s this bar and this cover band
Trying to fake their way through ‘Castles Made of Sand.’
That’s one thing I can’t stand

If there’s one thing I can’t take
It’s the sound that a woman makes
About five seconds after her heart begins to break
That’s one thing I can’t take

She should be home by now but she ain’t
I should’ve gone by now but I cain’t
One of my friends has taken her in and given her Codeine
One of my friends has taken her in and given her Codeine

The final encore of the night (so glad we stayed) was Tom Petty’s “Refugee”, which was delivered with every bit as much passion and commitment as the original. My kid, 17, sitting to my left, had tears in her eyes.

Brexit: the city in the sky

5714752389d87f272940af056d2894b6
City in the Sky by JoshDykgraaf.deviantart.com

My attitude to what the kids are calling Brexit is a fairly selfish one at the moment. It simply throws my retirement plans into a shredder, and I’m not sure what emerges on the other side of that shredder in terms of:

  • My right to live in France when I retire
  • My right to health care and prescriptions in France
  • The value of my pension
  • My tax situation

And so on. Multiply my own personal issues with those of thousands of retirees in Spain and France and points beyond, and you have a bureaucratic tangle that makes my head hurt. It doesn’t matter which country you live in: you want as little to do with the authorities and their bureaucracy as possible. Even having to ask the question puts you at a position of disadvantage, in much the same way as concerned EU citizens and their offspring in the UK, who are encountering callous indifference and bewildering misinformation at every turn.

I believe I would have to be resident in France for two years before I could even apply for French citizenship. But how does one gain residency when no longer a citizen of a member state? It’s Catch 22, innit, and there are probably a hundred other Catches awaiting us. Then again, what are my chances of health care and prescriptions and a decent retirement if I stay in the UK? Slim to none, probably.

Leaving aside my selfish concerns, I’ve always had an ambivalent attitude to the EU. I’ve never liked the way that it bypasses democratic processes. Sure, we get to vote for MEPs, but (a) nobody cares about that, and (b) a huge amount of what the EU does has nothing to do with the Parliament in Strasbourg, and is undertaken by appointees. The power of patronage is the main power at work within the EU, and it’s no more a good thing than it is at home. Faceless bureaucrats and jobs for the boys ate our democracy.

On the other hand, European rules (on working hours, for example) provide, in theory, a level of protection from rapacious capitalism that our own government would be reluctant to supply. The shitty human beings who have been running this country for the past 40 years have always erred on the side of corporate concerns, with little regard for what is good for the public and society. So taking away what little protection the EU umbrella gives is a worry.

But maybe it shouldn’t be. Because it really is hard, looking around me, to see how things could get worse. The punishment meted out to the poor and vulnerable over the past 10 years happened while we were in the EU. The rise of zero hours contracts; the slow destruction of our infrastructure; the erosion of living standards; the GBH committed against the NHS; the public money being siphoned off through a giant hosepipe into the hungry maw of private capital — all of that is happening without any protection from an EU, which is hard-coded with neoliberal economic policies.

So bring on your wrecking ball, maybe?

Of course, the whole Brexit project was probably underwritten by secret billionaires who want to turn the UK into an offshore tax haven. But it was given a racist veneer of concerns about immigration. I don’t believe that the billionaires who run our media give a shit about immigration, for example. They don’t care about the burden on schools and the NHS or the welfare bill. Their kids/grandkids are privately educated and they have private health insurance. But they persuaded a lot of voters that the country was being overrun. And to their tame politicians, the whole thing was just a game: a few false promises and lies, nothing really matters, because we’re insulated by our money from the consequences.

Which leaves us where? Outside looking in, I should think. Outside the EU looking in, but also outside the Citadel of the Rich, their city in the sky, which is what they’re hoping to hide in as things fall apart.

Raleigh Stow-E-Way e-bike

aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cucmFsZWlnaC5jby51ay9tZWRpYS9jYXRhbG9nL3Byb2R1Y3Qvcy90L3N0b3dlMnEtMV8xXzFfMV8xXzFfMV8xLmpwZw==As a replacement for the disappointing and unreliable B’Twin Hoptown 500, my wife ordered a Raleigh Stow-e-Way, which is still a folding model, but a step up in terms of quality and (hopefully) technology. This bike costs £1100, which means (once you’ve paid a £100 deposit) it’s possible to buy it under the UK’s Cycle to Work scheme. This allows you to get a £1000 voucher and pay it back through your salary before tax.

Like most bikes, you can also get an interest-free finance deal from the dealer.

aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cucmFsZWlnaC5jby51ay9tZWRpYS9jYXRhbG9nL3Byb2R1Y3Qvcy90L3N0b3dlMnEtM18xXzFfMV8xXzFfMV8xLmpwZw==It’s a good-looking bike with a charcoal finish (orange decals), and a clean design that looks elegant. There are a couple of neat features, including a support at the bottom of the frame that protects the chain when the bike is folded, and a pannier rack which is guaranteed not to rattle because it’s part of the frame. It also has a couple of magnets which help to keep it folded neatly for transport/storage.

We got this from Rutland Cycles, who have several shops in Northamptonshire, Rutland and Cambridgeshire. The dealer was very friendly and helpful, and I’d recommend them. In terms of e-bikes, they have a really good range, and some of their shops are also hire centres, so you can even try before you buy.

aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cucmFsZWlnaC5jby51ay9tZWRpYS9jYXRhbG9nL3Byb2R1Y3Qvcy90L3N0b3dlMnEtMjRfMV8xXzFfMV8xXzFfMS5qcGc=The Stow-E-Way is bigger than the Hoptown, has 20″ wheels and is less portable, but would still fit in the boot of a hatchback or estate car, and is clearly aimed at the boating/caravaning crowd — or people with limited storage space. Of course, the great thing about a folder is that one size fits all, because the saddle post and handlebars have a lot of adjustment.

The motor is an R15 rear hub from Taiwanese manufacturer Trans-X. It’s a lightweight design which is extremely quiet in operation, and it uses a torque sensor to kick in the power quite gently, which means you feel more controlled as you start pedalling. It has 4 levels of assist. My wife was able to climb our steep hill quite easily in 6th gear on setting 4 – meaning she had 5 gears spare for steeper or longer climbs. It’s so quiet you barely know it’s on: you just feel like you’re suddenly much better at pedalling.

The rear cassette is an 8-sprocket Shimano Altus, which is their second-ranked mountain bike equipment. There are bound to be some compromises in an e-bike built to this price. The cassette has an 11-32 gearing range, which means that you could really tackle anything on this bike. The 6.8 Ah 36V battery from Trans X fits behind the seatpost, and promises power assistance up to 50km (30 miles), depending on conditions and setting. After a 14-mile ride, it had lost two out of its five indicator bars. On its initial full charge, the bike managed about 35km (22 miles), on mixed routes, including some hills and a headwind. I think it was mainly in settings 2, 3, and 4. The supplied charger connects to the battery either on or off the bike, and looks a little like a XLR microphone connector, only with 5 pins.

aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cucmFsZWlnaC5jby51ay9tZWRpYS9jYXRhbG9nL3Byb2R1Y3Qvcy90L3N0b3dlMnEtMl8xXzFfMV8xXzFfMV8xLmpwZw==The bike has mudguards and built-in lights, front and rear, which draw power from the battery — and the rear light stays on for several minutes after you switch off, which is a safety feature, in case you’re stopped or walking on a dark road. The lights themselves are switched on by a light sensor (built into the control panel), which detects whether they’re needed. Personally, I’m in favour of always-on lights, and I might also add a flashing light up on the handlebars to catch motorists’ eyes.

Another price compromise is evident in the control panel, which is based around LEDs and push buttons, and has no range indicator other than the battery bars, and doesn’t feature a computer of any kind, so if you want to track your speed/distance, you have to use your phone or wrist-based tracker. Switching the bike on for the first time after a charge means using the switch on the battery, after which you can use the bar-mounted control panel.

I’m really impressed with this bike for the money. It looks well put together, and it works smoothly and efficiently. If you live within 20 miles of work (and can possibly top up the battery at work), it’s an ideal option for the Cycle-to-Work scheme, and you’d save between 25-39% of the cost in tax savings, depending on your earnings bracket.

Buckingham-Winslow Cycle Path

Screen Shot 2017-10-14 at 15.00.36
Google Maps

It was heartening to see this cycling infrastructure being put in a couple of years ago. It was a shame, in a way, that I had changed jobs and would have no real reason to use it. It’s a cycle/pedestrian path which has been installed all the way from the Tesco roundabout in Buckingham to Winslow, as part of an integrated transport scheme which includes the opening of a new railway station in Winslow.

It’s only about 7 miles, but it runs parallel to the A413, which is a busy road between Buckingham and Aylesbury (via Winslow), and it is completely separate from the main carriageway, making it, in theory, safe and accessible for cyclists of all ages and abilities. That’s the good news.

So since my wife had just taken delivery of her new Raleigh Stow-E-Way e-bike, we thought we’d go on a family outing to Winslow and back, with my teenage daughter the only one moving by pedal power alone.

To reach the cycle path involved crossing Buckingham, which we did via the park and though the Badgers housing estate. This brings you out onto the A413 close to the Tesco roundabout, and you can cross the ring road on the pedestrian crossing.

The first bit of bad news comes right at the beginning of the cycle path: it’s closed by roadworks, and there’s a sign directing pedestrians onto the opposite footpath. But cyclists? Who knows? So we used the road for a short stretch, then back onto the cycle route.

As all cyclists know dedicated cycle routes can be a pain to ride on because you are constantly required to Give Way to motor traffic, which often involves uncomfortable contortions as you try to turn your head like an owl in order to see over your shoulders. In my ideal world, it would be like the rules on water, where motor boats give way to sail boats. Motorists, who are not having to crane their necks to look behind them, should be giving way to the cyclists (that might be) in front of them; not the other way around.

Anyway, I lost count of the number of junctions/crossings where we, the cyclists, had to look over our shoulders to give way. They were helpfully painted red, but then this is a brand-new scheme, and we all know what happens to coloured tarmac and painted lines if they’re not regularly maintained.

The next bit of bad news concerns detritus. The narrative that cyclists are the ones breaking all the rules of the road is of course a convenient foundation myth for the Clarksonites, who are the real sociopaths, throwing McDonalds boxes, empty drink bottles, plastic bags, and other rubbish onto the grass verges and ditches that line this nation’s roads. As well as plastic, glass, and cardboard waste, passing vehicles throw up huge numbers of loose stones, and the trees at the side of the road drop their leaves, seeds, and fruit onto the cycle path for good measure. In short, you’re riding through a lot of crap, even though the underlying surface is pleasantly smooth in comparison to most British roads.

It’s also not a particularly pleasant ride because it does run parallel to a very busy A road, along which the Clarksonites do drive way too fast. You see them screaming past, on their way up to the rear end of a visibly slower vehicle, and you see their brake lights go on, and you wonder what can be going through their heads.

In Padbury, the cycle route is forced to cross the road twice, because there was clearly a reason why it couldn’t run alongside the local allotments. Crossing for the second time, I was very much aware that the oncoming Jaguar was doing at least 50 mph in a 30 mph zone. The driver didn’t noticeably slow down, either, even though there was a cyclist crossing the road in front of (I’m going to guess it’s a) him.

The next bit of bad news was that the cycle route was blocked again by roadworks at Adstock, where signs had been erected indicating that Main Street into Adstock was closed ahead. And in spite of there being many other options available, the Road Closed Ahead signs were smack in the middle of the cycle path, necessitating a detour around them, on the bit of the road where the signs could have been placed.

Riding back, there was an additional hazard caused by a workman who had parked his van on the cycle path at the same junction. He could have easily driven around and parked on the closed bit of road, but no: easier for him to block the fricken’ cycle route, which is also used by pedestrians, invalid carriages, pushchairs etc.

Another aspect of riding back was that we were now on the “wrong” side of the road, riding into the face of oncoming traffic. Although we weren’t sharing the carriageway, it was still hairy as we were buffeted by the slipstreams of oncoming trucks.

All in all, a useful commuting route, but too stressful and irritating for a pleasant leisure ride. And too many reminders that cyclists don’t matter and motorists are scumbags.

Blade Runner 2049

Blade-Runner-2049-trailer-breakdown-37

I’m very familiar with the original Blade Runner, because I used to teach it as an exam text to my students. And, along with two or three other films (including The Exorcist, The Shining, and The Conformist), it’s a film I grew to love more every time I went through it. So I’d probably rank it among the top ten films ever made. It took Vertigo forty years (or four polls) to crawl its way to the top of the BFI 100 list, and though I can’t see Blade Runner getting there as soon as 2022, it’s a better film, for me, than 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was at number 69 in 2012, while 2001 was at number 6.

So there was no pressure on Denis Villeneuve in making this sequel.

My four five-year social media blackout meant that I didn’t even know Villeneuve was directing. I managed to avoid knowing anything about this film, including its title, until about two weeks ago. I have no idea why Ridley Scott chose not to direct.

I know I’m not alone in adopting this blackout policy. It’s a reaction to the oversaturated media landscape, and a content industry that prioritises clicks above everything else. If you genuinely care about something, it’s painful to hear even the most uninformed speculation about it. Back in the 90s, a “spoiler” was somebody telling you plot details; now, it’s just a feeling of being overexposed to something, so that you feel as if it has been watched for you. You’re overtaken by a feeling of enervation and simply can’t be arsed. I was looking at the iTunes movie store for something to rent last night, and there was nothing I felt like watching. I haven’t seen the most recent Star Trek film, for example, but the thought of sitting through it just made me feel tired. Anyway, here’s what I think all good internet citizens should do: don’t “review” or “preview” or speculate about anything until it’s out.

You can have the Deckard-is-a-replicant or Deckard-is-Gaff discussion as much as you like: but after everybody’s had a chance to see something. Looking at the production history section of the Wikipedia article now, I’m struck by how fucking repetitive and boring all of the reports are. The frenzy of question-and-answer simply revolved around whether Harrison Ford would be in it, and you just wonder why people obsess on such details.

I got something of that feeling sitting through the trailers “specially selected” to play before BR 2049. What a load of old shit. The intelligent and thought-provoking big ideas of Blade Runner wadded up like snotty tissue with the loud nonsense of barrel scraping superhero franchises. Urgh.

The relatively new Odeon at Milton Keynes Stadium is a decent enough venue. It never seems to be horribly crowded, and doesn’t smell of rancid fat, which is a bonus. BR 2049 was playing on multiple screens: you could see it in IMAX (no thanks), or 3D (no ta), or 2D. Sitting in the 2D theatre before the showing, the loud rumbling from the IMAX theatre next door was unpleasantly gut-twisting, that almost below hearing threshold bass making me feel a bit sick.

And because the showings were out of synch, you could still hear the theatre next door during the quieter sections of my showing, which was a bit of a bummer. Some sound leakage might be inevitable, but it’s a complete certainty given the sheer volume at which the film was being played.

I’ve never understood the volume people. I suppose they must be extroverts who are afraid of quiet. The audio volume in the theatre I was in was so extreme that the sound was obviously being distorted. This was a real shame, as one of the key marvels of the Blade Runner film(s) is the soundscape. But here it was being rammed so violently into my ears that its subtleties were being lost. I’m not counting that a black mark against the film, but against the exhibitor, in this case the Odeon.

Anyway, I’m pretty sure the BR 2049 soundtrack is a marvel, but can’t really be sure. The production design, lighting, and cinematography was brilliant, and I appreciated the world-building, which did not patronise or “as you know” the audience. Needless to say, shit had gone down between 2019 and 2049.

The narrative plot was a little bit thin, I thought, but then the plot of the original was also quite slight. What I did find interesting this time was the way in which the atmosphere and ambiguity of the original book was baked-in. The fucked climate and environment of the future was foregrounded, and the rarity and luxury of natural substances like wood, like real animals, was crucially important. So there are moments in this film that go unexplained, just like in the original, which I really appreciate. Ultimately, a film is only great if it rewards further viewings. There’s also a strong similarity between Ryan Gosling’s “K” and the original cop of the novel: his desire to fulfil his “wife’s” every desire, for example. And then there’s that feeling, far more foregrounded than in the original, that literally anybody could be a replicant. A nice reference to the unicorn sequence, too.

So, this was great, I think. It’s almost a shame that there was no shitty voice-over that can be subsequently removed, but at least we can hope that there might be missing sequences that can be put back in. My favourite scene was the bit in the waves, which reminded me a lot of the ending of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora: the feeling that, no matter how much humanity tries to destroy this planet, nature has the power to overwhelm and wash over us.

This was a film that made me not want to reach a verdict or a conclusion, which means I want to watch it a few more times: which is as it should be.

Alien: Covenant

Social-media-blackoutMy media blackout on Alien: Covenant was so effective that its release and reception almost completely passed me by. I only remembered it was there when it showed up on iTunes and was available for rental.

I’m a little aggrieved that the rental price was hiked up for £5.49 — for this of all films, as if the franchise still carried some kind of ‘brand premium’ after the crushing (but not if you run the other way) disappointment of Prometheus.

So, anyway, I rented it last weekend and sat down to watch with low expectations.

And, because my expectations were so low, I wasn’t disappointed.

I’ve got no issues with details like the production design, the cast, the cinematography, or the performances.

I just have an issue with the whole thing.

What, really, is the point of this franchise?

  • People waking from frozen sleep.
  • A space ship.
  • A signal.
  • A planet (or planetoid, or planet-like moon).
  • A robot, who may be good, or may be evil.
  • An alien or aliens.
  • People who act in an irresponsible or bizarre way.
  • A main female character who survives.
  • Returning to frozen sleep.

This is the mix-and-match plot line for most of the Alien films. And it was brilliant in the first film. The second ramped up the budget and the numbers along with the action. The third made it all a bit claustrophobic and intense in a different way. The fourth tried our patience and stretched our credulity.

There may be eight plots in literature, but there’s only one plot in Alien films. These prequels are adding nothing, telling us nothing new, but are simply repeating the same old plot beats (see above) and annihilating logic. If aliens can grow from spores, why are the face huggers deemed necessary? And how can there be baby face huggers outside of the eggs, which until now have been deemed necessary for their production? And why does nobody, ever, say, “Don’t come near me, I’m contaminated”?

Director Ridley Scott is said to be leading up to the origin of the Space Jockey of the first film, but he’s taking his time. And the only reason for taking that time, or that these films seem to exist is not because they have a compelling or new story to tell, but because people keep buying tickets/downloads. Its as cynical a marketing exercise as splitting popular novels into two or more films. Like the fucking Hobbit needed to be as many films as Lord of the Rings. If they were making Lord of the Rings today, it would be nine films, wouldn’t it? And still shit.

So Alien: Covenant passed the time, and if I hadn’t seen all the other films, it would have been all right, though frustrating in not having a proper ending. But I have seen all the other films, and there wasn’t a single unpredictable element. It followed the well-worn path and left me longing for another plot.

Blade Runner beckons.

TP 🎸 💘 💔

I was always faintly embarrassed by the Flying V guitar in the logo of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I associated the Flying V with cheesy early 70s glam rock, which was never my thing, and it was difficult, in that heyday of punk rock and amateur cut-up graphic design, to deal with that elaborate logo. It’s not even a good design, for a guitar. Too much wood, too much weight, a back-ache on a strap.

But Tom Petty was a lifeline to me. I was 14 in 1977, the Year of Punk, and standing firm against peer pressure to betray my true love, which was 60s rock, especially the kind with melodies and literate lyrics. My schoolfriends were beginning to buy albums, and there was a certain amount of scrabbling to prove something or other about how hip and happening you were. One kid had gone from extolling the virtues of Queen and their boast of “no synthesisers” the year before to popping into Woolies on our school camping trip to the Wye Valley in order to buy The Damned’s first album. It wasn’t that the pressure was hard to resist; it was just that I was continually called upon to justify my retro tastes. You wanted an answer to the inevitable question, a quick and easy, no-arguments answer, but it was hard to come by, because Modern Music Was Rubbish.

In 1977, I was in the first flush of my Beatles obsession, and exploring the thin pickings of the singles and albums around the house. It’s amazing to think, now, but the Beatles had only been split for 7 years back then: there were still regular reunion rumours, and for the next few years there would be “sightings” of the reclusive Lennon as well as compelling documentaries like Tony Palmer’s All You Need is Love and Rutland Weekend Television’s All You Need is Cash. I didn’t like Queen, and I’d always preferred Slade to T-Rex, and I really didn’t like Bowie. Over those years I discovered music that I would love for the rest of my life: the Mick Taylor Stones (but not the Brian Jones); The Who; the 1969 Velvet Underground; Bruce Springsteen with Max on drums; Bob Dylan; Buddy Holly; 60s girl groups (various); ’53-66 Frank Sinatra. Tried and rejected: Pink Floyd, Hawkwind, The Doors, Roxy Music, and many more. But there was always a feeling, ridiculous in hindsight, that the music I was listening to was old and unfashionable and out of touch. The seven-years-gone Beatles seemed like they came from an era as distant as music hall. I didn’t much care, but I did have the feeling that I needed something I could point to and say, see, there is some of your modern music. 

But I didn’t like that stuff that sounded like one chord being slid up and down a fretboard, with frantic thrashing, with guitars held around your knees, with gobbing and moshing. A certain type of (sexually repressed?) bloke will manufacture excuses to be in close quarters and sweating with a bunch of other blokes: not my thing. I liked Jonathan Richman’s second attempt at recording ‘Roadrunner’, but not the first.

The difference between that thrashy punk stuff and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal seemed to simply come down to musicianship, and I didn’t like either. I still think that Never Mind the Bollocks sounds like an overproduced heavy metal album.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers performed “Anything That’s Rock ’n’ Roll” on Top of the Pops in 1977. For me, Top of the Pops was a dire desert of disco and bubblegum, occasionally leavened by the presence of something half-decent. As thin as they sounded, with their re-recorded BBC version (because TotP was going through one of its periodic all-music-must-be-performed-live phases), they were still the most exciting thing I’d seen on there for years. And then, even better, I caught them performing  “American Girl” on the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1978. And I finally had an answer to an —incredibly, at the time — frequently asked question: don’t you like any modern music?

Of course, Petty’s sound was rooted in 60s rock, jangly guitars and all, but his sensibility was pure, late 70s angst, and their look (at the time) at least nodded to current rock fashion. Their songs and albums were also fairly concise. None of the self-indulgent fat and bloat that would come to characterise the CD era. And, in 1979, they changed everything by releasing Damn the Torpedoes, which is at number one in my list of Best Albums of the 1970s. In those years, 1978-79, the old guard had responded to the new energy of punk new/wave with some good music. Lou Reed put out Street Hassle; the Stones put out Some Girls; The Who did Who Are You; Springsteen, who wasn’t really old guard, put out Darkness on the Edge of Town. But Damn the Torpedoes was one of those albums that you can honestly say has no filler, and still has an immediate, visceral, power to raise my heartrate. That drum sound!

The great thing about the Heartbreakers was that they almost always kept a sense of humour about what they were doing. They embraced the video age in the 80s, but their first compilation of these videos was full of sarcastic captions about Mike Campbell’s awkward guitar playing pose, and their Alice in Wonderland “Don’t Come Around Here No More” is a classic. And in the CD era, Petty would include such moments as the interval on Full Moon Fever, which advised the listener that this would have been the moment to get up and turn the record over.

I saw them play live as support act and then backing band for Bob Dylan, and it’s fairly telling that of the six times I saw Dylan live, that was the only one that didn’t leave me disappointed. And I took my whole family to see them play at the Royal Albert Hall in 2012. I don’t think any band, apart from The Who, has a better two-hour set. Talk about no filler. Springsteen would leave his audience disappointed if he played just two hours, but the Heartbreakers’ set was a fantastic and satisfying romp through the absolute highlights of thirty years, with road-hardened versions of all the best songs. Mike Campbell must have played that closing solo on the live version of “American Girl” thousands of times, but it was always a joyful surprise. Their Super Bowl half-time show, too, was exemplary, adapting to the special requirements of that occasion with sheer magic. And it was watching that Super Bowl show, with my skin prickling with anticipation, that I finally had to admit that I fucking love that Flying V guitar.