Counterpart — Review

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A still from the preposterous 1974 cold war movie, Who?

~spoilers~

One of the most haunting films I ever saw was Who?, which was a Cold War movie about a scientist who was injured in a car accident and abducted by the East Germans. Later, he is returned to the West, but has undergone such extensive surgery that the Americans don’t believe he is their abducted scientist. It’s not just that he’s had plastic surgery: his whole head is encased in a metal mask. It was a somewhat over the top and ridiculous way to tell a story about identity, but it stuck with me, even though I haven’t seen it since the 70s.

Kim Philby’s first wife, Litzi Friedman, was a communist agent, operating in Vienna when he met and fell for her. That Philby, one of the notorious Cambridge spies, was married to a known communist from 1934 till their divorce in 1946, did not seem to affect the decision to put  him in charge of a section of Soviet Counterintelligence and later head of the SIS Turkish station and then chief British Intelligence representative in Washington.

I say all this as a preamble to my review of Counterpart, which is the best TV show on an obscure network you’re ever likely to find. Fittingly, given the show’s themes, you’ll only be able to access it in the UK from the 28th of this month, via the Starzplay Network, which in turn you’ll only be able to access through Amazon Prime Video. It’ll be an additional subscription on top of your Amazon subscription. Wheels within wheels, worlds within worlds.

*Or, you could get it off the back of a truck.

That there is a prominent intelligence operative who is compromised by his wife, who is an infiltrator from the “other side”, should not be surprising in an espionage show, which is what Counterpart is.

It’s set in Berlin, whereto an international cast of characters have descended because Berlin is the hub, the interface between rival factions, as it was during the Cold War. As in all espionage texts, you find yourself in a wilderness of mirrors, unsure who is who, who can be trusted, or whether anyone’s motivations are really pure.

J K Simmons plays an office drone, who has been engaged for nigh on 30 years in mundane drudge work for an organisation he little understands. He carries sealed papers into a locked room and reads out codes to someone on the other side of the glass. He ticks boxes. He applies for promotions, doesn’t get them, then goes home, shoulders slumped, his breathing out of rhythm. He meets a friend by the river and plays Go, the Chinese strategy game in which you try to box-in your rival’s tiles with your own. He visits his wife, who is in a coma, in hospital, and reads poetry to her.

On the other side of the glass, it turns out, is not another country in the East/West Berlin sense, but another world. This other world was created just a few decades ago, a mirror of the original, and until that point identical. But then, once it was created, slight changes began to appear, events unfolded differently, and 30 years later it’s a very different place indeed.

How would powerful people react if there was a duplicate of this world at the other end of a tunnel? Think about the greed and venality that they already exhibit. What if you knew that there was a recently discovered oilfield you could exploit? Or a cure for a disease that had no cure in your reality? What if you could somehow weaken or destroy the other side so you could just step through and take what you wanted?

To prevent and control this kind of thing, strict rules are put in place. To cross over, you have to be issued with a visa; you’re photographed against a backdrop on the way in and on the way back, as a way of checking that you are the same person. You enter a code and wait for the green light.

Office drone Howard Silk is called into the office, not for a promotion, but because someone has come over from the other side and will only speak to him: it’s the other Howard, who believes he can only trust himself.

Counterpart_EW_Image[1].JPGThis Howard is different. He moves, breathes, and speaks differently. He’s an experienced operative, knows how and who to kill, and he knows what’s going on in a way that our Howard never has. An assassin has infiltrated this side of the tunnel, and is targeting individuals on a kill list. Operative Howard needs more time to track the assassin down, so suggests that he and Drone Howard swap places.

Such is the set up, but there is so much more. The season-long story arc is gripping and tense, as the various plots unfold, leading to an episode 9 climax that brings these worlds to the brink. What happened to make the worlds diverge? Why does one side harbour resentment and suspicion against the other? There are also individual episodes and moments along the way that are devastating. One of the key questions concerns the two Howards: why are they so different? What happened along the way that meant one became a stone cold killer and the other lived anonymously in the shadows? And if they swap lives, do they become each other? Unmissable.

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Ryan Culwell – The Last American

6EQ UJ5

is anybody out there alive

can you hear me

can you hear me

out on the highway

on the dark side of the moon

I got my wheels spinnin’

can you hear me

bang real loud and get down low

make a little love on the radio

dial it in boys and let it ride

send a little call out to heaven tonight

can you hear me

can you hear me?

I’ve waited a bit to review this in hopes of gaining some perspective, but after three months the lead track still haunts my mind. It keeps unpacking itself, more like a movie than a song, and the album is something like Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, a series of short films about broken and disappointed people. Culwell gives voice to a series of characters, in varying states of hurt, defiance and confusion in a world which is both timeless and timely. A documentary about both the America that is lost and the America that is.

The opening line of “Can You Hear Me” refers to the “wow” signal picked up by a radio telescope in 1977, a moment of clarity in the background noise of the universe, which came from the direction of Sagittarius. That’s how the song begins. It sounds like electronic noise, a falling note. Then you pick up what sounds like a Springsteen song you’ve never heard. “Bang real loud and get down low / Make a little love on the radio”. This places the song immediately in my wheelhouse, making me remember the many nights I spent shifting the dial of my AM radio under the bedclothes, listening to the drifting signals refracting off the ionosphere, the KGB signal jamming, Radio Moscow, Radio Luxembourg, Radio Caroline and the World Service.

Culwell writes a scene from an unfilmed 70s sequel to American Graffiti. Our narrator is on the road, speaking in CB Radio jargon, being followed by a motorcycle cop, but also thinking about the murder of Eric Garner, who kept saying “I can’t breathe” while being choked to death by cops:

“When Eric Garner was murdered I started pacing around the house repeating, ‘I can’t breathe,’ but the words had nowhere to land so I just kept repeating them for weeks. My wife probably thought I was losing my mind,” Culwell tells Rolling Stone. “It’s not the kind of song you write in a day. My only regret is that I run out of air after singing ‘I can’t breathe’ 10 times while Eric Garner found the strength to say it 11 times. You can’t love your neighbor as yourself if you’re not even listening to him.”

Like a drifting radio signal, the song shifts from being a Springsteen banger to a protest song, and drifts back again, finally fading away with the message, “I’m at threes and eights”, which (I believe) is CB code for best wishes, or indicating that a channel will now be clear.

So goes the album, a camera eye that dips into people’s lives and out again, sometimes coming through clear, sometimes drifting off into the static, or the “old, weird America” of the basement tapes. Culwell’s voice can sound like he’s a mad old bluesman or hillbilly screaming from the bottom of a well (on “Dig a Hole”, for example) or sitting at a piano in a church, or strumming on his back porch. In “Tie My Pillow to a Tree”, when he sings, “Make some room for me”, his voice breaks with polite uncertainty.

I smell like rosin

I taste like leaves

would you scoot on over

make some room for me

books I have read

lovers I have known

when they forget me

oh where will I go

I set sail on seven oceans

there ain’t no country with my name

I wrapped myself in pleasure

and I kissed myself with pain

And if you have this record on in the background, you hear some really pretty songs, that kind of folky, polite Americana. And then you check what song it is you’re listening to, and you realise, for example, that it’s called “Dog’s Ass”.

The title track comes over as an interview with a political pollster, as the subject proclaims, “I am the last American / On this earth / I’d like to quit this talkin’ / Get back to work”.

guess I’ll vote the ticket

like i always do

if I can figure out

who to stick it to

you can keep asking your questions

if you think it’s going to help

do I believe in God

mr you go straight to hell

I got my old man’s heart

and a broke down Chevrolet

The Last American is a powerful, uncomfortable record, not the kind of thing you can have on as background, but the kind of music that compels you to listen, to pay attention to the words. I can’t think of the last time I was driven to look up the lyrics of an album like this. I’d put it on the level of Darkness on the Edge of Town. It’s an immense achievement.

Long hot summer, short hot take

19751976 was the summer I spent mostly barefoot, staying up the park from early in the morning till the gates were locked after dark. That was the year I started at what was then called the Upper School, in the “third year”—what is now called Year 9. The great joy that year was, on my paper-round, seeing faces in a window who turned into friends-again, kicking off a summer of closeness and camaraderie, the inseparable team for tinpanalley and the other endless games of that endless summer. The pain came in September, at the Big School, when those same friends blanked me for no reason other than the new environment, because they felt like it, and because there was more space and more distance to make it stick.

1975 had been a good British summer: great in comparison to most of them, but there hadn’t been a drought, so it’s easy to forget it. It had been a warm June (average temperature 14.5ºC), followed by the warmest July since 1955 (17.1ºC), and then, the kicker, the hottest August on record (19.2ºC)—until 1995, which beat it by just 1/10th of a degree. Were it not for that summer of ’76, in fact, 1975 would have been the summer we (Gen Xers) all look back upon with nostalgia.

But 1976 was even hotter—in June and July at least, and there was a long, unbroken stretch without rain. There was a Minister for Drought, and hosepipe bans, and we were encouraged to share the bathwater, then water the roses with it, and put a brick in the toilet cistern. But August wasn’t that great, it was 2º cooler than the year before. The damage to 1975’s reputation was done, though, and it was forgotten by history. I’ve always felt about it the same way I do some beloved records. You know, like Beatles for Sale, or even Rubber Soul, as compared to Revolver. But 1975 is like the girlfriend in the distracted boyfriend meme. 1976 caught everyone’s attention and held it. But isn’t a summer in which you’re not obliged to get into someone else’s dirty bathwater as a matter of routine better than one in which you are?

Back then, when I was twelve and thirteen, I was young enough to see two years as the beginning of a pattern (all summers will be great from now on), so when the summer of 1977 came along, oh man. What a disappointment. June was a frigid 12.2ºC, July and August a gelid 15º. I went on a school camping trip that year, a week in the Wye Valley, and, boy, did it rain. And rain. That was the year of “God Save the Queen” and the Jubilee and street parties, none of which held any interest for me.

A couple of years ago, we had a bunch of people round towards the end of August for a night of pizza in the garden. It’s our usual way of returning dinner invitations. My kitchen in France is primitive, so I do most of our entertaining on the barbecue, whether it’s pizza or grilling. We sat out there long past sunset, lighting candles when it got dark, and enjoying the warm evening, not noticing the rolling thunder that might have been in the hills, even then. Because suddenly, as if someone threw a switch, the wind picked up, and the umbrella blew over, and the big orange awning started to flap like a mainsail in an Atlantic swell. By 11 o’clock, it was raining, big drops, and our guests were helping us get everything we didn’t want to get wet inside. Like that, summer was over.

This year, the weather changed a few days ago. We’ll be eating indoors for our final dinner with friends tonight, and I’ll be barbecuing in the rain. But it has been a hot one, hasn’t it? We’ll know in a couple of days whether this August has beaten 1995 and 1975. I’m going to guess not, though, as I think the weather broke in Britain before it did over here in France. It was dry; I think I can count the number of rainy days on one hand. But no 2018 summer month has been a record breaker as far as I can tell. July was hot (19.5º), but not as hot as 2006 (20º) and June was 0.4º cooler than 1976. Other places had it worse, and I suppose that global temperatures might tell a different story. All those wildfires. How many had natural causes, I wonder?

Back in 1976, Farmers were still in the habit of burning stubble in the fields, so we’d see palls of smoke up in the hills. This practice was banned in 1993, but it would give some kids ideas. We, my friends and I, sometimes hung out with some other kids, not really friends, but the same age as us. We’d come together for cricket matches or giant tinpanalley games. I remember going up the Downs once (the Downs behind my parents’ house), and we encountered a bunch of them setting fire to the railway embankment. Great swathes of dry grass were left scorched. How many of the wildfires in North America and Scandinavia were started with a match?

It’s easy to buy the narrative that extreme weather events are increasing in frequency. I’m sure there’s an upward global temperature curve, but looking at localised UK data from the last fifty years, it’s hard to see much of a pattern. 1975 and 1976 felt like something was happening, but then 1977 brought us all crashing back to earth.

I think it more likely that the negative effects of climate change for the UK will involve quantities of water coming from the sky rather than anything special in terms of summer temperatures. In the meantime, I’ve enjoyed this summer: I tried not to complain too much about the heat, even when I was sweating in my classroom back in June and July. But sitting inside today as it rains intermittently outside, I can already feel my cycling tan fading. And we lit a fire to help dry the washing, so…

Retweeting to the scene of the crime

sysk-crimesceneselectWelp, it didn’t last. But being away from Twitter for a few days was helpful in focusing my mind on just what it was about the place that vexes me in particular. Sure, Nazis etc., but there were a thousand other things that niggled at me too. Many of these things also niggled at me on Mastodon.

So I feel like, coming back, I want to clear the decks a bit. I think I absolutely have to be ruthless about certain things, even if it means I lose some followers (I’ve lost one already – although I don’t use a service that tells me just who it was), and so I’m going to be unfollowing or muting a lot of accounts. It really is about the content, often in the form of retweets, rather than the people.

Let’s start at the top of the list, with the hate. I’m fairly liberal as far as free speech is concerned. I draw the line at harassment and inciting violence, but I think there’s another line I’ll draw, which is something that my brief time on Mastodon made me think about. On Mastodon, the interface doesn’t have an option to quote-retweet. I’ve used this feature on Twitter a lot, but I appreciate now that in certain cases there has been a power imbalance. For example, if someone with half a million followers quote-tweets someone with 250 followers, it’s like pointing a klieg light towards them with potentially unpleasant results. So I’m kind of done with people who misuse the power of their following. Anything that encourages the pitchfork wielding twitmob, in other words, whether that’s directed at political opponents, or poor customer service from brands. I did unfollow radio presenter Danny Baker some time ago because of his worrying tendency to get publicly mardy about a poor retail or customer experience. By all means, take it up with the organisation concerned, like the rest of us have to, but stop invoking a mob. Stop using your clout.

The twitmob has always been the absolute worst part of Twitter: everyone piling in. It doesn’t matter which side of the culture war you’re on: the majority is always wrong. And I’m not holding myself up as a paragon: I’m sure I’m as guilty as anyone of piling in at times. But I’ll try hard not to.

It wasn’t just Mastodon’s no-quoting policy that brought this home to me, but the very fact of viewing a more or less unfiltered Mastodon timeline, on that first couple of days when a lot of twit-refugees were turning up. There were a lot of in-jokes, and a lot of jokes about toots, which is what the Mastodon equivalent of tweets are called. And watching all these people having their fun by all piling in and making the same kind of jokes over and over, well, it kind of irritated me. Because I’m not, as you know, a joiner. And when I see this kind of phenomenon, I just think, groupthink, yuk. And I turn away from it.

So twitter mob mentality is out, and when I encounter it, I’ll be unfollowing.

I also went through my follow list and cleared out some dormant accounts (at least two of the people I followed were dead 😔).

Temporarily, I have more followers than I am following. Wonder how long that will last?

A final word on Mastodon. In that unfiltered timeline, there was an awful lot of neediness and attention-seeking, disguised as joining in the fun. No different from Twitter in that respect. And there were a lot, as I’ve said, of passive-aggressive “helpful” messages to “new users”.

And I’ve been thinking about the final staw(s). One was just another passive-aggressive set of rules for new users (actually, the site already had a set of rules, so this was just a redundant set of snarky rules designed to put people in their place). The other was a message from one of said new users, asking for recommendations of people to follow, “who aren’t men”.

Well.

This new user appeared to be a man, first of all, from his profile pic. So it looked like a certain amount of self-loathing was going on. Now, I’m not going to go down the “not all men” route, but I am going to point out that one of the main problems with Twitter is/was not that men didn’t follow enough women. The problem has always been that men would choose to follow a lot of women, and then harass them endlessly. I mean, there are so many accounts that were essentially middle-aged white men following a lot of younger women. It’s a thing, on Twitter.

So the “problem” that this newbie was trying to be so right-on about was simply being reproduced in his self-loathing toot. He might as well have asked, “Please direct me towards some hot chicks I can follow.” So. My eyes continue their rolling journey back to their origin.

The absence of tweeting

  • I’m not returning to Twitter for the nonce, but I have deleted my experimental Mastodon presence*
  • I don’t often wear plasters. But it struck me putting one on a blistered heel that your standard “flesh” coloured plaster is totally racist.**
  • There are apples everywhere.***
  • Went to a craft fare yesterday, and found a stall selling jewellery made of recycled Nespresso coffee pods. Cool stuff. There are lots of how-to YouTube videossummer - 1 (2)
  • Yes. But the only thing that interests me is how do you fall off a cruise ship in the first place?

Footnotes

*The overall atmosphere was “friendly” – very much with the inverted commas. My personal response to that was to see it as “passive aggressive”. As I said, Mastodon was not for me. I won’t share what the final straw was, but my eyes are yet to return back from the place they rolled to.

**Mostly, I cut myself when chopping or slicing, and I prefer the blue plasters for obvious reasons. They’re not so racist.

***We have loads of apple trees in the garden (as well as two apiece of walnut and chestnut), and a pear tree. Apples are falling all over the place, and throughout the village. I would like to get the kit to make cider.

 

 

Sinatra’s career crisis

911218946-612x612Since watching a DVD (a gift from my daughter) with three of Sinatra’s late-60s TV specials on it, I’ve been pondering the crisis that clearly took hold of him when he hit the age of 50.

I can look at this period now with the personal experience of having hit 55 last year, which was the age at which Sinatra announced his (first) “retirement” in 1971. Much as I’d like to retire myself, this was in hindsight an astonishingly young age for an entertainer to announce the end.

It was the TV special featuring easy listening vocal group The 5th Dimension, and Sinatra (jokingly) adopting their Liberace-style costume that got me thinking. This was his clear attempt (in 1968) to get down with the kids and perform music that was somehow more contemporary and relevant than his usual fare. He had absolutely no need to do this, of course, but he was acting out a very public mid-life crisis (his short marriage to Mia Farrow, 30 years younger than him, had just ended) that was culminating, before our very eyes in him perching awkwardly on a stool in a Nehru jacket and beads.

The following year, 1969, his final TV special was just him and a swing orchestra, doing the old stuff, and reminiscing (hilariously) about his Hollywood career, which he was also giving up on.

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Beads, Frank?

For me, the crisis that led to his premature retirement started towards the end of his Capitol contract and the beginning of the Reprise years, which I’ve written about before. In 1961/2, his Capitol contract overlapped with Reprise, so that he was recording albums simultaneously for two labels, phoning in performances to fulfil his obligations to one whilst also trying to embark on something new with the other. The cognitive dissonance must have been extreme.

NehruNo6
That late-60s Nehru look in full

And what was Reprise for, really? A little bigger piece of the pie? Sure, and why not? Which is why so much of the Reprise material consists of re-recordings of his classics from Columbia and Capitol in order to tap the lucrative Greatest Hits market. But give or take the three albums he recorded with Count Basie (including the live one), not much of what he recorded for Reprise was particularly good. And some of it was desperate.

He knew that popular music was changing and he wanted to matter, but at the same time, he hated rock music. He was casting around for new songwriters, but he didn’t know this new material in the way he knew that Great American Songbook. I always thought it was a dead giveaway when he performed George Harrison’s “Something” on one occasion, but credited it to Lennon and McCartney. Anyway, this stuff is painful to listen to. He drags on the beat, his timing is off, he doesn’t swing.

There are four albums that lead up to the retirement.

SinatraCyclesCycles comes first, in Christmas 1968. He’s just turned 53. He’s pictured on the album cover sitting on a suitcase and holding the bridge of his nose, as if to say, either, “What have I done?” or “This stuff stinks” – or both! This is an album that features “contemporary” songs from the likes of Joni Mitchell (!), Jimmy Webb, and John Hartford. It was as close as he came to recording a 60s country pop record. It wasn’t a disaster: #2 in the Easy Listening chart, #18 in the Billboard 200 chart.

Then, just three months later, comes his late career motherlode, My Way, which is another pop album, with its title track a version of a French-style chanson, “Comme d’Habitude”, rewritten/reimagined by Paul Anka. Sinatra reportedly didn’t like “My Way” which thus became a millstone around his neck. I personally have always hated the fact that this is the one “everyone” knows. Other tracks on the record include more Jimmy Webb, a song by Ray Charles, a Stevie Wonder number, “Mrs Robinson” and “Yesterday”. Another decent chart performance, #11 in the US and #2 in the UK, but I strongly suspect that Sinatra absolutely loathed this material.

Just five months later, still in 1969, he released A Man Alone, which consisted of songs (or poems?) by Rod McKuen (sort of set to music). Sinatra is still only 53, but this now seems like a man who has given up on life. To quote the Wikipedia: “Despite his popular appeal, McKuen’s work was never taken seriously by critics or academics.” This album hit #30 in the US and #18 in the UK. My mum had a copy. It was terrible.

Finally, Sinatra takes a good long break, sits down and has a Big Think, and a wholeWatertown(1970album) seven months later, he releases an experimental concept album called Watertown. The songs were written by Bob Gaudio and Jake Holmes and told the story of a broken man from the titular town. It reached #101 in the Billboard charts, but inexplicably hit #14 in the UK. I don’t remember my mum having it.

(Christ knows what was happening in the UK in 1970. Ted Heath. Jeremy Thorpe. For further context, I’ve previously noted that Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, also released in 1970, didn’t chart in the UK at all.)

Anyway, Watertown is a flop, Sinatra is done, and the next thing you know, he’s announcing his retirement. Which seems now to be a bit of a flounce, but the voice was still strong in a way that it wouldn’t be later. I think he felt he’d run out of material to record, and couldn’t very well re-record all the good stuff for a 3rd or 4th time. But we know now, in a way people didn’t back then, that he could have given up recording and stuck to the live work. The audience would have continued to be there.

Sinatra’s mid-life crisis lasted at least 5 years, but that core period, 1968-1970, was the hardest for him, I think. My own mid-life crisis seems trivial in comparison. But you want to scream at him, Slow down, Frank! No need for three or even two albums a year. Just wait, the pendulum will swing back your way.

Fellow New Jersey musician Bruce Springsteen last released a studio album four years ago.

Things I’d have tweeted etc. and thoughts on Mastodon

  • West Northamptonshire and North Northamptonshire? Are they on drugs?*
  • Too depressed to be on Mastodon much today.**
  • Spotted a tiny, tiny lizard at the front of the housesummer - 17
  • And this is what happened when Oscar caught sight of itsummer - 18
  • Today’s bike ride was up to St. Antoine again, an old favourite.***
  • Found a terrifying bug in the kitchen. Had the body of one of those black beetles and the back legs of a grasshopper****

Footnotes

*I never thought I’d say this, but I’m kind of glad right now that the school I teach at isn’t under local authority control. If this kind of thing spreads, if more local councils collapse under the burden of cuts, schools will be among the services suffering (even more than they currently are). What struck me about this story is the complete lack of joined up thinking in the naming of the two proposed “unitary authorities”. Seems symptomatic.

**Mastodon, the safe-space alternative to Twitter, has been around a couple of years, but didn’t gain much attention till this week, when so many people decided, en masse, to leave Twitter. It’s fun on a superficial level, in the stupid joke phase that Twitter went through in its early days; that said, its roots are starting to show to me, a “normie” (in the site’s terms) and a middle-aged white male – the kind of person many on the site were hoping to escape. I feel no resentment about this, but don’t think it’s really the place for me. I appreciate more than most people in my position the importance of pronouns, but it still grates somewhat to see people who are really only talking about themselves in the first person refer to themselves in the third. Anyway, I don’t belong over there, and I question my own motives. With just 300 followers on Twitter (lost very few after the bot purge) after nine years, the heart sighs at the thought of starting from zero again. (Probably just as much as a Twitter celeb with half a million followers.)

I’ve long held the belief that a minimum of 100 of my 300 have muted me. Probably 10-20 of them don’t even see my tweets in the algorithmic timeline. Another 100 or so probably have dormant accounts. And of the 80-90 remaining, probably only a dozen or so actually read my hilarious tweets.

Of course, the Twitter experience is asymmetrical, and I enjoyed reading more than posting, but, after the initial rush of interest, I’m really overwhelmed on Mastodon with feelings of ennui.

***The St Antoine forest is dark and beautiful, with roads that melt in hot weather, cascading waterfalls, and cold, cold mountain water. But getting there involves a lot of climbing. I’m always surprised, heading back down, how steep it was; still, I love the descent, once it gets flatter. It’s my kind of cycling: a long stretch of ever-so-slightly downhill road.

****It was too terrifying to photograph. I just took it outside and stamped on it. Mutation!

Things I might have tweeted today if I’d still been on the Twitter

  • I miss Twitter*muted-bird
  • 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?******

Footnotes

*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.

IMG_3604

Leaving (Twitter) on a paper plane

55-time-to-die1
Time to die

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.

Alternate Routes by Tim Powers and Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers – two reviews

alternate-routes-9781481483407_hrAlternate Routes by Tim Powers

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.

32802595Record 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.