Posted in entertainment, Review, Television

The Americans

The-AmeriacnsThe Americans just started its fifth season in the USA, but its UK broadcaster is currently repeating Season 4 in the run-up to showing it here (I trust). Season 4 has also appeared on Amazon Prime in the UK. This has been good for me, because I missed the end of that season through being out of the country.

Although Tim Goodman of the Hollywood Reporter has been consistent in saying that The Americans, give or take Fargo, is the best show currently on TV, I know nobody who watches it. There isn’t even anyone in my household who watches it with me.

It’s a puzzle. From the opening dramatic sequence of episode 1, which played out to the soundtrack of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk”, to the last scene of Season 4, this show has been consistently excellent: tightly plotted, brilliantly paced, and full of convincing performances. It’s hard to understand why people aren’t watching. Perhaps its the series’ slow burn, which notwithstanding the dramatic opening referred to above, means that it is willing to wait (and wait) for plot points and twists to pay off, and not spend them too cheaply. Or perhaps it’s the scheduling: late at night in the UK, in the graveyard slot, though it’s hard to get your head round anyone being affected by that. More likely, the show hasn’t gained traction because not enough people are watching it and talking about it. So the real puzzle is why nobody is fascinated with a story about Russian illegals living in the USA in the Reagan era, as the Soviet Union wheezed to its end.

It’s the US equivalent of something like Smiley’s People, a story of spies and the people whose lives they destroy, of the cumulative effect of living inside the mirror maze of espionage. And it’s based on truth: there were people living in the States for years, pretending to be Americans, raised in fake American towns in the Soviet Union, educated in English, married to each other as part of the mission and not through any decadent Western notion of romantic love.

The series began with an obvious schism between Matthew Rhys’ Phillip and Keri Russell’s Elizabeth. She’s a true believer, committed to the cause and the mission, while he is wavering, not so much thinking of defecting as questioning the whole premise of their mission and quite enjoying his suburban American life. Elizabeth, on the other hand, is as desperately lonely as, say, Betty Draper in Season 1 of Mad Men, trapped in suburbia without a friend in the world.

Behind their 2+2 children facade is a brutal reality of deception, honey traps, false friendships and murder. One minute, a friendly chat with a neighbour over coffee or beer, the next: disposing of a body. And behind their all-American nuclear family lies a reality of sleeping around (for the mission) and adopting various personae as they go about the real job behind their fake job as travel agents. But isn’t that the case for all of us? That our lives are compartmentalised, and we have different selves that we present to the different people we interact with? So The Americans, more than being a drama about spies, is a drama about the way we all feel inauthentic all the time: the postmodern condition, if you insist. Or, as I prefer it, we’re all pod people.

As dramatic and interesting all this is, The Americans has layers and textures that make it far more than a run of the mill drama. It’s a period piece, for a start. Period dramas set in the 19th century are one thing; but to evoke the early 1980s in terms of hair, fashion, cars, home decor, and so on is in many ways much more challenging. A couple of cultural moments stood out in Season 4. The first was the occasion when David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty “disappear” on live TV. (It was on April 8, 1983, fact fans.) The reactions of the characters watching are on the surface typical of a suburban family of four; but under the surface, the tensions in the marriage are bubbling over, and disasters afflicting various operations lead to a bold 7-month elision of time and one character desperately faking it on a mini golf course.

The next cultural moment is another TV broadcast, this one of the TV movie The Day After, which portrays a fictional nuclear attack (20 November 1983, fact fans) on the town of Lawrence, Kansas. 100 million Americans watched the broadcast, and The Americans portrays all the main characters watching it, KGB and FBI alike. It’s a superb moment, and the ramifications, while subtle, are clear in the decisions some of them make afterwards.

1983 was probably the year, in recent memory, that the world came closest to armageddon. Apart from Reagan’s sabre-rattling, there were intense NATO and Warsaw Pact manoeuvres, and at least one nuclear false alert on the Russian side (when their missile detection system mistook sunlight reflecting off clouds for an attack) which took us within minutes of a missile launch. (1983 was the year in which I chose to set my novel The Obald, for all of these reasons.)

In The Americans, storylines that started in Season 1 pay off in Season 4 in various and devastating ways. The ability of the show to pace itself, to burn slowly, and to strip away cast members and storylines to the final dilemma is unprecedented.

There are wider and more subtle themes, too. The teenage daughter of Phillip and Elizabeth, Paige, comes under the influence of an evangelical Christian church, and her engagement with her religion causes tension between her committed Marxist parents, and (again) comes to a head in Season 4. The parallels between Christian evangelicals recruiting church members and spies recruiting agents are non-accidental. But there’s more: in Season 4, Phillip starts attending Est therapy, which makes him focus on his life, the brutality of his childhood in Russia and the way he is always required to please other people, including his KGB masters. All of this has the effect of re-igniting the doubts he was already expressing in Season 1, and to see Phillip standing at a meeting complaining about how he doesn’t want to be a travel agent any more even as he is being encouraged to give up his life in America and return to Moscow “a hero” is just one of the complex and beautiful knots that the show ties. And again: the cult-like nature of Est links to the cult-like Christian group, and the cult-like behaviour of KGB.

We are all pod people, is the message.

And now me: I am testifying now, to you, dear reader, that you really ought to watch The Americans.

Posted in bastards, Books, Publishing, Review

Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany by Norman Ohler

Hitler and Elvis 1A couple or three things before I get into the review of this book. First, it was originally published as The Total Rush: Drugs In the Third Reich, but for the publication of the English translation was retitled as Blitzed. I don’t like this retitling, possibly because it’s too on-the-nose, though “on-the-nose” is not a phrase I’ve got much time for.

Second, Ohler is a novelist and not an historian, which probably means he’s played up his angle for, you know, the narrative. Which is not to say that he hasn’t somehow come across something that mainstream historians have underplayed.

Third, I don’t like the cover. They obviously wanted a picture of Hitler looking deranged, but to me Hitler looks deranged in every photo of him. Aside from that, I dislike the graphic design aesthetic. I get that the black and red colour scheme is meant to evoke the Third Reich, but I just hate the way the subtitle is placed in relation to the author’s name, and the overall effect is just tacky.

514QN3Fg-2L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_All of which means it’s hard to escape the feeling that you’re in the hands of a marketing department, reading something sensationalist and exploitative, designed to garner headlines and promote sales. Which is of course the job of the marketing department, but my emotional response to all this is pure Generation X. I’m reading this because I’m interested in spite of not because of your attempts to market it to me. To clarify: I heard this mentioned on a podcast, without knowing the title, author’s name, cover design, typography, or anything else about it. So, holding my nose, here goes:

This is fascinating. Not just because it explains how the Nazis were able to roll so quickly into France and Belgium without waiting for logistical support or allowing the troops to rest, but because of the ways in which the secret sauce of doping up combat troops for a fight has clearly been picked up by every fuckhead with a pip on his collar ever since. Short version: German soldiers and Luftwaffe pilots were consuming mind-boggling quantities of methamphetamine, marketed under the name of Pervitin. At first, they were obtaining it privately (Ohler refers to letters home by one soldier, whose ulterior motive for staying in touch with his family seems to have been drug seeking to feed his addiction); but after a while, the pills were being issued.

As a non-historian, I grew interested in the power dynamics at play here. Hitler wasn’t giving the instruction for soldiers to be given crystal meth, although he may have been insisting on otherwise-impossible outcomes, which seems to have been his stock in trade. There were powerful figures in the army who were competing either for his favour or to be seen as the architects of victory. Or maybe they were competing with the Luftwaffe. The culmination of all this was the bizarre halt order which was enough of a pause to allow the British to escape at Dunkirk. Strategic error, or power play, or whatever it was, it meant that the retreat was less of a disaster than it might have been.

The use of performance enhancing drugs by the army, navy, and airforce was widespread and ongoing. Crystal meth helped the Nazis to defeat the French, but it also allowed them to retreat from Moscow, the drugs allowing soldiers who were dead on their feet to keep marching through the snow. Towards the end of the war, when the Germans were wildly experimenting with technologies that allowed them to keep fighting in the face of certain defeat, the navy were trying various drug combinations to keep mini submarine pilots awake for 4 days at a stretch. The ultimate outcome was a dismal failure, but along the way, drugs were tested on concentration camp inmates in typically inhuman ways. Needless to say, I’ll never look at the marketing around Bata Toughees shoes (designed to walk long distances) in the same way again.

Behind all this is the history of drug development in Germany, which is really an incredible thing. Did you know that the scientist who invented aspirin also invented heroin? Eleven days later? The Germans were popping pills like nothing else, and securing supplies of narcotics during the war seems to have been as important as securing supplies of oil. And, after the war, it seems as if the Americans and the Russians (and everybody else, probably) continued to experiment with drugs for military and sporting performance, as well as “truth serums” and psychological experiments, using the same Nazi scientists in many cases. For example, the CIA’s MKUltra programme was a continuation of one of those horrific concentration camp experiments.

Meanwhile, back in his various bunkers, Hitler was being injected with “vitamins”, steroids, pain killers, and anything else that might help him through the day by his personal quack doctor, Theodor Gilbert Morell. I was reminded of nothing so much as Albert Goldman’s exploitative follow-up to his Elvis biography: Elvis: the Last 24 Hours. According to Goldman, Elvis needed drugs to help him wake up in the morning, to help him sleep at night, to help him shit, stop shitting, and so on, all of which were prescribed by his personal quack doctor, George Constantine Nichopoulos, also known as Dr. Nick.

Elvis was constipated, up in the middle of the night trying to take a shit and reading a book about the Turin shroud when he died of heart failure. Like Hitler, he convinced himself that he wasn’t a drug addict because his doctor was his enabler, and these were on prescription. Morell seems to have been dismissed when he ran out of Oxycodone, the opioid marketed in Germany as Eukodal. Ohler suggests that Morell was dosing Hitler with Oxy more or less every other day, especially as the Reich shrieked towards defeat and after the bunker bomb that left Hitler trembling uncontrollably. It’s usually suggested that Hitler’s shaking might have been Parkinson’s, but Ohler more straightforwardly suggests that he was just an addict.

Talking of impossible-to-prove-by-now diagnoses, as someone who has recently been diagnosed with a food intolerance, I couldn’t help thinking as I read that Hitler’s bowel spasms, uncontrollable farting and various other digestive symptoms might have been signs of lactose intolerance, or something. Who knows? Either way, it seems that Hitler couldn’t function without Morell’s injections.

Some historians have reacted against Ohler’s work, saying that it appears to be offering an excuse for Hitler’s actions, but Ohler is clear on that point in the book: Hitler needed drugs because he was a drug addict, and the drugs that enabled him to function were not behind his atrocities but simply gave him the ability to go on committing them.

As repelled as I was by the marketing, I did find this a fascinating read, and Ohler’s research is exhaustively documented. The Hitler section became repetitive, but I guess that’s the nature of addiction.

Anyway, do what I did: borrow from your local library.

 

Posted in Books, entertainment, Review, Television

Bosch Season 3 – review

C59DeRbU0AEH_w2 [www.imagesplitter.net]Well done to Amazon for releasing this third season of Bosch before my Prime subscription expires. (Since there is still no Apple TV app, I am not renewing. I’m also looking forward to going on a purchasing diet.)

I reviewed Season 1 here, and Season 2 here.

Season 3 is based on two Michael Connelly novels – The Black Echo (1992), and – partially – A Darkness More Than Night (2001). Those novels give you the main two cases being investigated, but there is also continuity from previous seasons in terms of character development and relationships. For example, while Bosch originally met Eleanor Wish in his very first novel outing, The Black Echo, in this series she continues to be his ex-wife and mother of his teenage daughter (who is now old enough to be taking driving lessons).

So while it might seem a little strange to be going back to the first Bosch novel for the third season of TV, enough work has been done to make the plot fit with the continuity of the TV show.

The usefulness of adapting two (or more) novels is clear when it comes to the storytelling. Part of the joy of this police procedural is that it cleaves to a more realistic sense of time. Samples sent to the lab with a “rush” (cop show cliché alert) still take quite a long time to come back, so it’s not as if anyone is looking at the result of lab work after a single episode. In addition, you see Bosch being involved in several cases – dealing with the prosecution team for one, dealing with investigators for another, sticking his nose in elsewhere.

There’s a great sense, too, of how Bosch might be a bit irritating to work with. Partly this is because he is tenacious and uncompromising; partly it’s because other people are caught in the flood when he makes waves. Whereas (especially early) Bosch novels were a bit black-and-white when it came to his adversarial relationship with his line managers, for TV you get the sense that he is valued for his ability to clear cases, but considered a liability in court because of his tendency to go off on his own — and therefore susceptible to malicious accusations.

This matters, because (as I’ve said before) on paper, Bosch bears all the hallmarks of bog-standard police procedurals, and you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for just another one of those CBS-type shows. But while a “maverick cop” in a bog-standard procedural would solve the case and all would be forgiven, Bosch has to deal with the consequences of his unconventional actions every time he stands up in court. In this series, he’s been running an off-books investigation and has information crucial to another detective’s case – which compromises him in all kinds of ways.

In other words, there’s a clear and valid reason why the DA, say, might consider him a liability; or why the chief of police might feel moved occasionally to dress him down.

Season 3 continues the good work of the first two seasons, with characters now established and relationships under strain. The infuriating Bosch manages to alienate the people close to him and doggedly pursue the villains who underestimate him at every turn. The cinematography is still superb, and my criticism of Season 2 (that a lot of the episodes just finished arbitrarily) has been addressed, and there are some good episode cliffhangers this time.

Recommended, as ever. I think this is probably the best American police procedural, give or take NYPD Blue.

Posted in bastards, musings

Teachers Doing It Wrong Revisited

tsunamiAbout five years ago, I wrote a post suggesting that teachers needed to be lazier, look for shortcuts, and resist the pressure to work long hours.

Everybody ignored me, of course.

As we accelerate towards these new GCSEs, I’m being hit with a tsunami of resources created by other teachers: practice papers, posters, guides, crib sheets, tips, and so on. These are a godsend, bypassing as they do the commercial resources and foiling the government’s plan to help their friends the publishers make a killing on the new, ‘harder’ GCSEs and A Levels.

But every single one of these resources has been created by a teacher in his or her own time. None of us get time within the contracted hours to produce any of this stuff. I get two and a half hours per week planning, preparation and assessment time. Of course, it’s reasonable to expect a teacher to work for a few hours beyond the limits of the school day. But how much is reasonable?

For me, nobody should be working more than, say, 37 hours per week without overtime pay. 35 hours is a reasonable working week: 7 hours a day with an hour or so break/lunch, meaning you’re on site for somewhere over 8 hours a day. At a stretch, in a week with a parents’ evening or something, I might have to put up with a 40-hour week. But this is 2017, and nobody should really have to be working 40 hours a week. Only in some dystopian science fiction future would you be doing that.

But then you hear these horror stories about teachers working 60-hour weeks in order to stay on top of the marking and the planning, and to create all these resources. And you see TES and Guardian articles about teachers cracking up, or leaving the profession early, or otherwise crying out for respite.

A standard teacher (outside London) at the top of the upper pay scale, working a 60 hour week, is earning just over £16 per hour. That’s not particularly good, and even worse if that same teacher is doing any work at all in the school holidays, because I’ve divided the annual salary by 39, which is the number of weeks you work in a school year. The reality of course is that the holidays are paid, so dividing the year by 52 means that a 60-hour week is paid at £12.26 per hour. Twelve pounds and twenty six pence.

If, on the other hand, you limit yourself to a more reasonable working week (37 hours), you’re on about £19.88 per hour.

Laziness being the key, I thought I’d take a look at my own working hours by keeping a spreadsheet for a few weeks. Last week, a four-day week (bank holiday), I worked just over 30 hours, which would equate to a tad under 38 hours in a normal week.

Am I on top of all my marking? No. But how could I be? By working an extra 10-15 hours, maybe, but why should I do that? Fuck the marking.

Did I produce a bunch of whizzy resources and share them on the internet? No. But how could I, except by working an extra 10-15 hours? Fuck the resources.

I used to follow teachers on Twitter, but then for my own mental health, I stopped. I shouldn’t even be writing this, but I’m doing it as a public service, just to spell it out.

If you’re a teacher and you take work home, stop. Stop working weekends. Stop working holidays. Stop trying to stay on top of it. You’ll say you’re doing it for the students, but the best thing you can do for your students is be the best teacher you can be in the hours you are paid for being a teacher.

While we’re here, stop tweeting about teaching, stop reading shit about amazing new tips and techniques, stop spending all your waking hours thinking about your fucking job.

If their own parents cared about them, your students wouldn’t be enduring their education under a government run by privately educated millionaires. If their own parents aren’t willing to light some fucking fires under some fucking politicians, why are you staying up late into the night creating practice exam papers?

Posted in cycling, musings

32 Short Films About Cycling Stuff

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  1. It says a lot about my Shimano commuting cycling shoes (http://amzn.eu/24kXhZ0) that I sometimes don’t take them off for an hour or so after arriving home. This is the first shoe/pedal combination that hasn’t left my feet screaming agony after a 10-mile ride.
  2. Maybe the pedal-assist electric bike is a help with that, but well done Shimano for making a shoe that’s both comfortable on the bike and comfortable to walk in.
  3. One of the things I love about my Kalkhoff Integrale Limited Edition is that it is (until the next time I buy the very latest iPhone model) pretty much State of the Art as far as its category of things (electric commuter bicycles) go. To whit:
  4. The carbon belt drive, which means no chain, no oil, no ruined work trousers.
  5. The low-maintenance hub gears.
  6. The combination of smart battery, motor, computer, bluetooth linked app.
  7. The battery integrated into the downtube.
  8. The integrated lights, with smart ‘parking’ feature for safety first.transparent_csm_kh16_integrale_ltd_white_updated_eb74974ee4_34cb567afb
  9. My one continuing qualm about the bike is its weight, which there is no getting away from. The truth is, I blast through the 16 mph assistance limit pretty easily, but then my legs are pushing along an absolute beast of a bike.
  10. Momentary sideways instability, as I discovered, can quickly result in a spill. Hurt my ankle in September (?) and I still can’t run on it.
  11. If I could have a word with my past self, I would advise him to get the size below. At 1.83 metres, I’m borderline between Medium and Large, and the Medium would have been a bit lighter.
  12. You live and learn.
  13. I’ve deleted Strava, Cyclemeter, etc. and have stopped measuring time, distance, speed – even when I’m on my normal road bike.
  14. Partly it was to do with the electric bike – it was trivially easy to get into the top ten for the KoM on some Strava segments.
  15. Which was funny for a while.
  16. But in the end, it’s an empty achievement and I don’t care.
  17. More importantly, I want to just ride the bike and be in the moment, not worrying about how far and how fast and challenging myself and pushing myself.
  18. A lot of people enjoy this, I know.
  19. I don’t, though.
  20. Is this what they call mindfulness?
  21. Anyway, riding between fields of rape and enjoying the feeling of being immersed in yellow and feeling the slight warming of the air coming off those fields, that’s where I want to be.
  22. I don’t think people who use Strava are bad people.
  23. But being the loner I am, the idea that I’m stacking up all these stats is kind of pointless. I don’t care about myself, and I don’t know anybody who would be remotely interested to hear my average speed for a ride.
  24. My cycling shoes, the comfortable ones, are a size bigger than my normal shoe size.
  25. It’s a compromise.
  26. Actually, I have odd-size feet, which means that one of the shoes is two sizes too big.
  27. But here’s the thing. It’s almost a universal rule that cycling gear is too small for normal people. You always have to buy a size bigger than you think you need.
  28. So if you’re an L for a t-shirt or shirt, you need the XL.
  29. If you are an XL, you need the XXL.
  30. But here’s the other thing.
  31. Many cycling gear manufacturers don’t do the XXL.
  32. Which is why I look ridiculous on my bike.
Posted in Books, entertainment, Review, Writing

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

isbn9781473621442I had not read the first novel set in this universe (The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet), but I will be doing so post-haste after reading this sort-of sequel and finding myself lost in admiration. It’s a long time since I enjoyed a novel as much as this.

I understand this picks up towards the end of the previous outing, but features (in the main) different characters and a different setting. An artificial intelligence (AI), appropriately named after Ida Lovelace, wakes up in a new – illegal – body, is given a new name, and negotiates its way through the (limiting) experience of passing for human.

Such is one strand of this novel, which alternates Lovelace’s story with that of the human who has agreed to help it/her in this new life. We meet this human as Pepper, an inveterate tinkerer whose own history is gradually revealed in the alternate chapters.

What could one story have to do with the other, apart from the coincidence that one was assisting the other in establishing a new life and identity? Well, of course, it turns out that Pepper knows all about establishing a new life and identity and has a particular sympathy for AIs. Their different stories intertwine and then the title of the book makes sense, as the events in one person’s past history seem to mirror/echo the events taking place in the other person’s present.

This is space opera but not; a small and human story taking place in an imagined universe in which there is interplanetary trade and travel and in which humans are aliens living amongst other aliens. Most of all, this is an incredibly moving story about loneliness and difference and identity and coming to terms with it all.

So good. So jealous.

Posted in bastards, documentary, entertainment, Podcasts, Review

Notes on Shit Town

Now, I’ve had enough, my box is clean

You know what I’m sayin’ and you know what I mean

From now on you’d best get on someone else

While you’re doin’ it, keep that juice to yourself

Odds and ends, odds and ends

Lost time is not found again

Bob Dylan, “Odds and Ends”

Screen Shot 2017-03-30 at 17.03.16

Spoilers for S-Town below.

Since the original Serial (and consider this your regular reminder that I listened to it before you did), podcasting has exploded all over again into a smorgasbord of true crime, true stories, true documentaries, true meditations and true history.

Serial itself spawned an array of spin-off shows, with mixed results. The original Adnan Syed / Hae Min Lee story was continued and given more detail and depth by the Undisclosed crew, who (notwithstanding patchy production quality) managed to bring a nitpicking legal rigour to the story that led to a landmark court case. It’s fair to say that Adnan wouldn’t have got his post-conviction hearing without the tireless work of people who picked up the thread abandoned by Serial, once it had reached its concluding shrug of a final episode.

Then there was Serial season 2, which focused on a case (Bowe Bergdahl’s desertion of his post in Afghanistan) that had far less global resonance, and in the end a lot less human interest than they’d perhaps hoped. It too ended on an inconclusive note, and perhaps people started to yearn for a less open-ended style of podcast. It must be hard being Serial.

Meanwhile, true crime stories spring up all over the place, and the recent Missing Richard Simmons tried to create a fascinating mystery over the abrupt retirement of a minor celebrity. Again, the global recognition wasn’t there, and I’m afraid Missing Richard Simmons (which credited three production companies) was being hyped by certain media organisations trying to muscle in on the success of podcasting. (Stitcher)

The second season of Undisclosed was a salutary lesson for the Serial people. Rather than casting the net wider, it focused on another potential miscarriage of justice, this time in a small town in Georgia. Giving the people what they want, in other words. The case of Joey Watkins lifted the lid on the petty jealousies and rivalries of a small community, and gave an insight into the aimless and violent lives of American teenagers living on the edge. It demonstrated the sad poverty of outlook and opportunity in such towns, and how ordinary teenage angst and upset can lead to deadly violence in the land of the gun. It also revealed how easy it is to end up rotting in jail, all avenues of appeals used up, even though nobody believes anymore that you committed the crime for which you’re in.

Counting against this second season, however, was the nitpicking detail brought to the case by the team of lawyers, which dragged the narrative into the weeds of 24 episodes. It turns out that 8-10 episodes is a sound length for a pod-umentary. Very few people can stick the course for the full 24.

Which brings us to what might have been Serial Season 3, but which instead has been spun off into its own brand: S-Town, or Shit Town. All seven episodes dropped at once.

It’s focused on the petty jealousies and rivalries of a small town in… Alabama. At the beginning, it seems to focus on a possible murder and possible miscarriage of justice (in the form of a cover-up). It features a colourful, larger-than-life character who is flamboyantly (probably) gay in a redneck community, not unlike the missing Richard Simmons had been when he was young. So it seemed to be a mash-up of the original Serial, the second season of Undisclosed, and even Missing Richard Simmons.

But then things take a turn.

At first, as I listened, I thought this was going to be a meditation upon what you might call Broken America, the Deep South of grinding poverty, not just in economic terms, but cultural and aspirational poverty, which manifests itself in racism, sexism, Trumpism. What would it be, the show seemed to be asking, to be an intelligent, educated, liberal in a small town to the south and west of Birmingham, Alabama? And are there corrupt police, and senseless violence and cover-ups and favours and sexual assaults, and a disproportionate number of child abusers?

Then came the turn, and the show became instead about the death by suicide of an individual who seemed complex and strange, a puzzle of a man whose contradictory personality seemed to be embodied in the hedge maze he’d created on his land, a labyrinth with multiple solutions. Who was this man? Was he a millionaire, or was he broke? Did he have gold buried on his land? Did he leave a will? If he hated tattoos, why did he have so many of them? Who are all these people who claim ownership of his stuff?

So then it was about that: a still-interesting, but perhaps smaller story of a life lived in a small town, of a man so depressed at the state of the world that he couldn’t bear it any more, and all the people whose lives he touched.

And then, I think, as I listened to the sixth and then seventh episodes, I came full circle, and decided that the show was about Broken America, and that the central metaphor of the podcast was not this man, or his maze, or his gold, but his profession: clock restorer.

The show’s opening episode talks about the marks left on old clocks by the people who make and repair them: witness marks. And by the end, you understand that this “deep dive” into the intimate life of a lonely and depressed middle-aged man is all about looking for the witness marks of a well-lived life, but also about thinking back to the lost time that is not found again. And then there’s the lost America, the great democratic experiment, which has descended into a mere sketch of the country of Benjamin Franklin and Frederick Douglass.

As America sinks into its swamp of wilful ignorance and denial of reality, here is the story of a man, a modern-day Ben Franklin, an inventive polymath and raconteur, who tried to face up to the truth but who gave in to despair. And, at this time, at this precise moment, we are all facing this choice. Whether you consider climate change, which is being officially denied by America’s new buffoon of a president; or Brexit; or the erosion of the tax base and the end of social cohesion: there are a great many reasons to despair. And here is a show about a man who got lost in the maze of that despair and then gave into it and killed himself. And the question is, what do we do? How do we bear witness to our times and also live through them?

Posted in bastards, entertainment, music, musings

Charles “Chuckles” Berry, 1926–2017

To paraphrase Mark Ellen (who was talking about Van Morrison), I would guess there are two kinds of people when it comes to Chuck Berry: those who like his music; and those who have met him. As a black artist whose work had been appropriated, stolen, lifted, plagiarised etc. several times by white artists, Chuck Berry had every right to be a miserable old git. But while Lennon was a very naughty boy when he stole “Here come old flat top”, I’ve always considered it more of a reference/quote/homage than an outright steal, and I don’t think the Beatles thought they were pulling the wool over anyone’s eyes. They weren’t trying to pull a Led Zep.

After all, The Beats had already covered both “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Rock and Roll Music”, and if Chuck Berry had a beef it was with the organised criminals who owned his publishing, notorious as they were for not paying out royalties. Lennon recorded “You Can’t Catch Me” in 1975 for Rock ‘n’ Roll, so Berry was paid back in spades.

Anyway, Berry’s own “Maybelline,” one of the first rock ‘n’ roll records, was heavily based on the song “Ida Red”, which was recorded by Bob Wills in 1938. And “Ida Red” itself included lyrics from F.W. Root’s song “Sunday Night”, written in 1878. In other words, it’s disingenuous of anyone to sue anyone else over copyright, which is really designed to protect artists from exploitation by greedy and unethical corporations and shouldn’t involve artists getting pissed at each other for doing what creative people do.

Great artists steal. (And even that quote is problematic, having been borrowed/stolen, reframed and so on, through multiple iterations. In its current form, it probably owes more to Steve Jobs than Picasso.)

So where does that leave us with Chuck Berry? Watching Springsteen work up and perform “You Never Can Tell” is one of the pleasures of my life; but watching Springsteen stand awkwardly to one side while Berry performs “Johnny B Goode” at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, treating Bruce and the E Street Band like just another one of his cheapskate pickup bands, is simply embarrassing.

Berry was an originator, one of the first to make this thing called rock music, and the first to write literate, intelligent lyrics that stand the test of time.

But he was a miserable old git and impossible to like. Which is before you get to the video cameras he allegedly hid in toilets at various properties he owned; or the 20 months he served for transporting a 14 year old girl across state lines for “immoral purposes”. Now you can point to the latter incident and consider the all-white juries and the different times, as they say on the Simon Mayo programme (it was 1959), but filming women with hidden cameras in the toilet is just nasty.

All of which is before you get to the armed robbery rap.

Monstrous ego, shoddy live performances with badly rehearsed pickup bands, sexual offences, armed robbery… Add to this the crime of “My Ding-a-Ling” and I’m afraid Chuckles is just not my kind of guy.

Posted in Baking

Caputo Gluten Free Pizza Flour

pizz - 1The true test of any gluten free pizza is whether it is as palatable cold as it is hot. What might pass as acceptable straight out of the oven can be very different the following day. Slimy is the adjective I’d use to describe the sensation of swallowing GF pizza — until now, that is. Before I get to the Caputo experience, here’s what I’ve tried so far in my search for an acceptable GF pizza.

Pizza Express

I ordered some pizzas from this chain, who offer a gf option with any topping. These crusts are clearly industrially produced pre-formed bases, supplied to restaurants to use on request. They’re not particularly brilliant. Quality is acceptable hot, not so great cold. An expensive option, in excess of £10 per (not very big) pizza. I haven’t tried Dominos, who only offer a limited selection with a GF base, but I suspect similar outcomes.

Bob’ Red Mill81xOpErAmoL._SL1500_The first home-made GF pizza crust mix I used was Bob’s Red Mill (Amazon), which is a blend of brown rice flour, potato starch, millet, sorghum, tapioca, and potato flours with both xanthan and guar gum. These kinds of blends are hard to reproduce at home, as they require you to have a cupboard full of different flours. This mix makes a very wet dough (the recipe on the packet calls for eggs as well as water and oil), which is hard to work with: you basically have to push it into a baking tin with your fingers. I was very disappointed in the result, both hot and cold. It took a lot of cooking (much more than a standard bread base) and the texture was very gummy.

Teff

I moved on to try teff flour as a main ingredient (again, from Amazon), and this was fairly successful, making for a crisper pizza crust with a decent flavour. It was like pizza made with wholemeal flour, which might actually appeal to some people. It was definitely edible and not unpleasant cold, though not brilliant.

(I tried combining a bit of teff flour with some of the Bob’s Red Mill mix, with disastrous results. I pre-cooked the crusts for five minutes to avoid undercooking them, but they were quite nasty and I ended up throwing one whole base and most of the one finished pizza I made in the bin.)

Pre-made bases

ProductsUSA_ Pizza CrustIn most supermarkets, you can find Schär pre-cooked bases (on the small side), which are okay, but nothing special, and no good cold. They come in a vacuum sealed bag, which means they keep indefinitely, I guess, but they’re only average (as, to be fair, are most pre-cooked crusts).

The better pre-made option was a raw dough (chiller section) in the French supermarket Auchan. This was pretty good, though again on the small side, and required five minutes pre-cooking before you put the topping on.

It’s a characteristic of GF (so-called) dough that it requires more time to cook than wheat-based options.

Which brings me to…

…Caputo

pizz - 1 (1)By a weird coincidence (or is it?), the people from whom I buy my 25kg sacks of Caputo (blue) pizza flour emailed me the other day with news of a new product, Caputo Fiore Glut.

Well, I couldn’t get to the laptop to order quickly enough. My main reason for optimism is that Caputo is an Italian product aimed at professionals. The recipe on the (1kg) pack is for the entire pack, for example, and the instructions on the web site suggest making the dough balls in advance and keeping them in the “walk in cooler”. I didn’t think Caputo would put their name on anything less than the best product you can get. Caputo are the Apple of pizza flour. Or something.

The first surprising thing about this flour mix is that the recipe calls for 800 ml of water per kilo of flour. Regular blue Caputo uses a ratio of 65% water to flour for a pizza base (depending on humidity, you might add a bit more or less). 80% water suggested this would be a very wet dough, but it was not. In fact, I added a little extra water and it could have taken more. I didn’t use the whole kilogram, but enough (300g) for a couple of 30cm pizzas.

pizz - 2The mix* consists of Rice starch, rice flour, potato starch, soy flour, sugar, both guar and xanthan gum (your gluten substitutes) and fibre. There are no eggs required in the recipe, just water, yeast, salt, and a bit of oil.

The second surprise was that the dough rose quite quickly. I didn’t have time for a long rise, so I added a couple of tsp yeast, and it rose at the same rate as the regular wheat dough I made at the same time. In contrast, the dough made with Teff flour certainly fermented when left, but didn’t noticeably rise, even when left for several hours. The Caputo GF dough was slightly harder to work with than Caputo Blue, obviously not as stretchy, and harder to move onto the peel. The greatest challenge with GF pizza dough is to keep the shape regular, but I don’t worry too much about that — as you can see. I rolled the second one directly onto a peel, which made it much easier to handle.

I cooked the two pizzas on my stone on the barbecue, sliding from the peel using cornmeal to prevent sticking. They cooked more or less as quickly as a regular base.

The results were crisp, with a good inner texture of air pockets, and while not as tasty as a base made with Blue, they were pretty damn close. I send love and kisses to the whole Caputo family with gratitude.pizz - 3

And, just for the hell of it, I tried a slice cold that had been in the fridge overnight, and it was absolutely fine. No gagging on the claggy, slimy, gummy texture.

Five stars to Caputo.

*As a bonus feature, according to the specs, this flour features hardly any insect cuticle or rodent hair.

Posted in bastards, musings, Television

The end of civilisation, reality TV style

1480638381-trump-tie-tapeThinking about the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, which involved at least one person who thought she was participating in a TV prank show, it struck me that our civilisation has been in the process of being laid low by our consumption of trashy media.

For sure, we live in the platinum age of TV drama, which is a surprise to me. A few years ago, when ITV shares were a few pence each (9th March 2009: 17.5 pence per share), it felt as if scripted TV drama was going to be a thing of the past, as advertising revenues collapsed and the BBC was chipped away by the neolibs and their tame newspapers.

But enter Netflix, and enter Amazon, and enter HBO, and it turns out that scripted drama has never been better. Left to the likes of Fox/Sky, the US networks, and even the BBC, it would not be so healthy. We’d have wall-to-wall procedurals, and the stuff the BBC makes these days, which seems calculated not to frighten the Daily Mail horses and attract as little attention as possible.

No, when I talk about trashy media, I mean three things, in the main:

  • 24 hour news
  • Talent shows
  • So-called Reality TV

Unlike a lot of my fellow Media Studies professionals, I could never bear to even watch a single minute of reality TV, so I kind of pretended the topic didn’t exist. But I know for a certainty that if I was looking at so-called Western civilisation from the outside, I would see reality TV and talent shows as a sign of the degradation and decadence of liberal democracies, and the wealth and fame heaped upon individuals with little or no talent as emblematic of our debased values.

That Donald Trump, a stupid man who fell into a heap of inherited wealth, who doesn’t know what a tie clip is, could become a household name is something you’d point to as evidence of a degenerate culture. Add to that the fame and wealth of Simon Cowell, a person who wears v-necked t-shirts, and yet was still given a job as an arbiter of taste in music, and you’ve got enough evidence to damn a whole civilisation.

And then there’s the 24-hour news cycle, which, turns out, didn’t mean more news or more depth of coverage or more analysis, but less and less and less, until journalists are churning out a dozen ore more clickbait stories a day and political coverage is reduced to whether someone can eat a bacon sandwich or bow his head at the correct angle when showing respect to the war dead.

Looking at all this from the outside, of course you’d hatch an assassination plot in which you’d dupe somebody into thinking they’re participating in a TV prank show. It’s Art of War 101, right? You’re using the enemy’s own decadence as a weapon.

What North Korea does on a small scale to deal with its own domestic issues, Russia (very much not a liberal democracy) is doing on a much larger scale, having apparently exploited the stupidity and venality of a range of assets in a very long game in order to undermine the ability of the US to oppose it. The game is Smileyesque in its complexity, but it appears to have involved Wikileaks, various online hate groups, and a reality TV star who was able to exploit the inability of news organisations to do their job* and win an election. What Smiley did to snare Karla, Putin has done to snare a whole nation.

Back when Twitter was new, when Facebook was new, some of us naively thought that these new platforms would be for us, that we’d be able to organise and resist using these agile new tools. Cynical voices pointed out that these platforms were owned by corporations, but we thought we knew better. Of course, it turns out that these platforms were far more effectively exploited from the right than they ever were from the left. Because the one thing the left can never stop doing is squabbling amongst its various selves.

And then this week, just when you think that something is up, when the new President is denouncing the media like a newly minted North Korean dictator; just when you think the Western media might start doing their job*, even if it’s too little too late; just then, there’s an explosion of news (and social network coverage) of an event so fucking trivial and unimportant that you can’t believe anyone would be taken in by it for even a single second.

Yes, I’m talking about the Oscars, an awards ceremony in which a small, self-selecting coterie of previous winners votes for a new set of winners in their own image, usually in order to promote a few films that hardly anybody saw. And yet, when someone cocked up and handed the wrong envelope to a presenter so facelifted he probably couldn’t open his eyes wide enough to read the small print on the card, we not only got the immediate reaction, but ongoing coverage of the incident, including Zapruder-like frame-by-frame analysis, as if this was 1972, and this was a break-in at the Watergate hotel.

It was almost as if the media were waiting for something they could switch their attention to, so that they didn’t have to keep reminding people that they’d elected a tie-sellotaping  Russian stooge to high office.

*SPEAK TRUTH TO POWER