Review time: Chernobyl, The Calculating Stars, Kindred

Many column inches have been expended on Chernobyl, the HBO/Sky mini series that concluded this week, so you don’t really need me to tell you it’s good. But it was remarkable for a number of reasons. First of all, for such a grim subject, it was surprisingly easy to watch. Grim TV usually gives me the hives, unless it has something exceptional about it. Chernobyl had both incredible attention to detail and uncannily accurate (by all accounts) reproductions of 80s-era Soviet Union settings, along with understatedly convincing performances from the largely British cast.

Americans like to fete the heroism of the firefighters who went up the stairs in the burning towers on 11th September 2001. Chernobyl produced thousands of such heroes, who shortened their lives in order to save the rest of us from disaster. 90 seconds on a rooftop clearing debris in radiation so intense it burned out the electronics of a police robot in seconds.

On the frivolous side of history, it’s nice sometimes to think about the contribution made by smuggled Western rock music on X-ray films, Levi’s jeans, and Bruce Springsteen’s performance in East Berlin to the eventual collapse of the Soviet bloc. While Springsteen certainly helped kick the Berlin Wall down, it was the cancer at the heart of the Soviet Union that eventually led to its collapse, a deflating soufflé of lies and corruption and hunger and reckless, cost-cutting incompetence. It had been growing for years and in Chernobyl it finally exploded and became visible. As one character says in the final episode, “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth.”

For me, the most remarkable thing about the Chernobyl mini-series is that it came with a podcast in which Peter Sagel interviewed the show’s writer and creator Craig Mazin. Lots of shows have podcasts. Lots of shows have official podcasts. But this is the first show I think that consisted not just of five one-hour TV episodes but a parallel five hours of audio that made the show more rewarding to watch. So effective was the podcast that I enjoyed it both ways around: listening first and then watching; watching first and then listening. It was quietly innovative television. Not the kind of gimmick Netflix tried with Bandersnatch, but an acknowledgement that a podcast can be a kind of director’s commentary. The Good Place has already done something like this, with different participants interviewed for each episode. But the Chernobyl podcast was just a sit down with the writer, who has also, generously, made the scripts available for download. As a resource into how the television sausage is made, I think this is fairly unprecedented.

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal won the Nebula Award for Best Novel 2019 and had been on my wish list for a long time. So, having heard some of my podcast friends sing its praises, I downloaded it. Around the same time, I read Octavia Butler’s Kindred, which is now acknowledged as a masterpiece but at the time seemed to be ignored by the science fiction award panels. The winner of the 1980 Nebula was Timescape, by Gregory Benford: hard science fiction dealing with theoretical physics. I suppose it at least shows some progress that a woman writer is winning in 2019, but it was probably unfortunate that I read The Calculating Stars just after finishing Kindred.

Kowal’s book concerned an alternative time-line in which, following a meteorite strike and an impending climate disaster, the space programme is accelerated and women are allowed to train as astronauts. Meticulously researched, it takes you into the patronising and horrifically sexist milieu of 1950s America, in which astronaut trainees are also expected to pose in bikinis and look sexy in space suits.  It’s a stark portrait of the proverbial backwards, in heels.

The novel’s okay, but it dragged a little for me. There was an awful lot about the anxiety of one of the main characters: sure, exactly the kind of extra that a woman would have to be dealing with in a world that has always made her feel she’s not good enough. But in the end, it all felt a lot like false jeopardy. Did I ever believe our protagonist wasn’t going to succeed?

What most certainly doesn’t drag is Kindred. There was no excess in this lean and mean 1979 plot machine. An African-American writer from 1976 finds herself thrown back in time to a Southern slave state in the early 19th Century. The jeopardy she faces is harrowing, visceral and unsentimental. The reader is forced to confront the daily reality of slavery and its brutal inhumanity. The plot motors along from first chapter to last, with so much to tell, told so economically, that it feels like a masterclass in composition.  This is no mere page-turner, but a book that leaves a lasting impression as a powerful metaphor for the untold damage slavery did to the American psyche.

The cancer that ate the Soviet Union was laid bare by the disaster at Chernobyl, but the cancer eating America is still being denied by a large percentage of the population.

Advertisements

BBC Sounds: Error 404

Now, I know I’m not the target market so my opinions are irrelevant, but christ: have you heard the state of Forest 404 on the iPlayer? (Yes, you can get it on the BBC Radio iPlayer, so you don’t need to suffer the Sounds interface. Yet. But they’re coming for you.)

The BBC. Who the fuck is in charge these days? Clearly there’s a little bit of existential panic going on. The core audience is dying off and the replenishers aren’t arriving in sufficient numbers. There’s a proper demographic dip in the numbers of 18-24 year olds at the moment, I’m given to understand. Because if these people don’t start making use of the BBC, they’ll shrug their shoulders when the Murdochs and the Mails come for it. And how do you persuade a generation who have easy access to digitised versions of almost everything all of the time to listen to the radio?

Forest 404 is somebody’s idea of how to do that. And it’s worth unpacking to understand what a complete shitshow it is. But again: I’m not the target market, so emoji shrug or something.

Let’s start with the killer irony of how I heard about it. The only two BBC podcasts I listen to are In Our Time, hosted by the 108-year-old Melvyn Bragg; and Fortunately, co-hosted by Jane Garvey and Fi Glover, who are 108 years old collectively. So the BBC is promoting this patronising radio dreck at 108 year old listeners like myself. Which raises the question: are they really trying to attract a younger audience, or do they just want to be seen to be trying to do so? Is it, in other words, a box-ticking exercise? The answer to that question, reader, will probably not surprise you.

So what is Forest 404? Welp. It’s a “soundscape”, it’s a “drama”, it’s a “documentary”. It caters for the short attention span by having short episodes (the first is 25 minutes, the second 22, the third 19, so it goes); and it caters to the assumed/perceived ignorance of its listeners by interspersing episodes with exposition (designated with a T, which presumably stands for Thickoes), which patronisingly explain the background/premise and with “uninterrupted” sounds from the episodes (designated S for Seriously?). These mini-documentaries and soundscape excerpts are short (5-10 minutes) and remind me of the bits of filler at the end of David Attenborough documentaries, where they explain how they faked captured footage of snakes giving birth to polar bears or whatever.

I put scare quotes around “uninterrupted” above because, seriously? Because of course each chunk of audio gives the BBC a chance to put in some branding, “BBC Sounds…” and a patronising voice over explaining what it is you’re about to hear. 

Even more hilariously, the voice for “BBC Sounds” is different to the one you hear at the beginning of everything else from BBC Radio these days. It’s hard to explain how fucking stupid this is, but here goes. When you start an episode of, say, In Our Time, you hear an obviously young, female voice, which says, “BBC Sounds. Music, radio, podcasts.” Clearly the voice of a Bright Young Thing, probably someone younger than me would know who it is. Anyway, this is BBC Marketing at its best worst, because of course it’s just sonic wallpaper, and I literally just now had to start an episode of Fortunately so I could hear the exact words she says. Because although I’ve already heard it and been irritated by it 150 times, I couldn’t have told you the actual content of the message. Noise.

So that’s stupid level number one, the typical kind of thing you’d expect from the marketing monkeys. But. Forest 404 is meant to be “dark” and “edgy”, and so they use a different, young, female voice to say those exact same words. If the first voice sounds like a nice girl from the Home Counties who went to Oxford and that, the Forest voice sounds, ahem, more “urban”, and most definitely sounds actually fucking bored with the words she’s saying. So, um, like, yah, we know this is shit, yah, and completely cheese on toast, but, like, hey, we’ve got to do it, right, so we do it, but we’re really, like, yah, subversive about it, and make it obvious, yah, that we know it’s, like, complete shit.

Fuck.

So then you get into the actual, you know, content, and what is it? It’s another one of those, excuse me, *emoji yawn*, dark dystopian visions of, ya know, how horrible the world might be if the horrible world we live in got a little bit worse than it is now, as if that were even possible. So it’s an all-urban, high-rise, “fast times” future in which knowledge of the world as it used to be (“Slow times”) has been deliberately forgotten in order to keep the population anaesthetised and compliant.

Honestly, the doublethink going on here. (Talking of dystopias.) Because the marketing monkeys are all about “fast times” aren’t they? With their unironic rebranding of the slow times “Radio” as “Sounds”, and the insistence of repeating the anodyne, meaningless, marketing message at the beginning and end of every fucking programme. And then you’re trying to sell me on a terrifying future vision of dystopian Britain where people have their minds wiped if they display curiosity? All the while ignoring the real threat we face, which is that if there are no rain forests left, there are no people to left to live in an urban dystopia.

And behind all this, behind all this wank, is the true commitment of the BBC to this kind of youth marketing. It’s a box-ticker, sure enough. Because the edgy dystopian drama has a cast of precisely two. And all the other characters are merely referred to using reported speech. So you’ve got a little bit of sound mixing going on, and two voices telling a story. And then the whole lot gets padded out with explainers because – and you may have to back up here, possibly go up into orbit so you can see the size of it from space – the contempt for the target audience is so huge that they feel the need to offer a commentary after every episode because they don’t think we have the intelligence to understand what’s going on.

An absolute triumph. You can hear them, in the future, when the licence fee is being abolished: “Well, we tried.”

Space. Forced.

BBC Sounds, yesterday

I’ve been struggling for podcasts lately, perhaps because my AirPods make it so convenient to listen at times when I might otherwise not be able to, and so they run out — especially towards the end of the week. For example, I find AirPods quite comfortable to wear in bed, and so I’ll often hear a podcast to the end instead of reading in bed (I can’t do both, obvs).

It’s a weird feeling, to choose sound over reading at night, which is a life-long habit. You feel oddly guilty, but at the same time, there have been times of late I’ve been too tired. And my love of the short story, the science fiction story in particular, has taken a dive of late. I’m currently reading a Le Carré, which is okay, but the chapters are really long, which is not conducive to bedtime reading when tired.

Anyway, lack of podcasts means turning to the BBC and seeing what they have, which can be pretty desperate stuff. Obviously, I’m avoiding the horrid Sounds app and I’m sticking to iPlayer Radio while I can*. In my grumpy middle age I’ve decided that most BBC comedy isn’t funny, so I tend to avoid panel shows unless I’m really desperate. I like Mark Steel’s stuff, and John Finnemore, but the News Quiz and the Now Show can do one, far as I’m concerned.

Most of what I go for is drama, but even then I’m very picky. I’ve never enjoyed “issue-based” radio drama, and I hate those ripped-from-the-headlines ones too. Perusing the current listing under the Drama category, and you’ll see something based on the playwright’s “real life experiences”, which is a turn-off. And then there’s an interminable series of plays “set in the Staffordshire potteries”. I listened to some Big Finish Doctor Whos, if only to remind myself what a shit Doctor Colin Baker was. And I’ve listened to some readings and some literary adaptations, though I often don’t get to the end. Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea, for example, I didn’t finish. Every single character was just so horrible, I wonder why anyone would read this nonsense. Where’s the pleasure in this? I don’t get it. Daphne Du Maurier’s The Years Between was good, though.

But this is a tale of two Sci-Fis. On the one hand, Stephen Baxter’s Voyage (first broadcast in 1999), a kind of alternative history in which instead of the Shuttle programme, NASA went to Mars. Being adapted from work by a proper science fiction writer, it ended up being quite good, notwithstanding some less than convincing American accents. (Often, I find that the least convincing Americans on the radio are the actual Americans.) On the other hand: Charles Chilton’s Space Force, from the mid-1980s, a kind of redux version of his earlier Journey into Space. Chilton was a radio all-rounder; being unkind, you’d call him a hack. And listening to this stuff is as close as you’re going to get to the kind of Hugh Walters juvenile science fiction of the 1950s and 1960s, exemplified by Blast off at Woomera and Destination Mars.

Now, one might forgive Chilton’s 1950s Journey into Space, but this 1985-era reboot had no excuse to be as silly. Space Force is science fiction written by someone who likes the idea of it but appears never to have read any. The absolute worst sin committed by the writer was to include an audience proxy character who appeared to have left school at 14 and skipped all his science lessons while he was there. The character of Chipper, played by Nicky Henson, is supposed to be the communications officer, but doesn’t seem to understand how radio works. One plot point is that he hears voices in his head. The first time this happens, he’s surprised to discover that nobody else can hear them. The second and third and fourth and fifth times it happens, he’s also surprised to discover that nobody can hear them. In fact, he’s incapable of learning that he is the only person who hears these voices, and so we get his hysteria/surprise over and over again. In the final episode of six, he hears a voice in his head, and says aloud, “Who’s that?” Jesus Christ. Chipper has somehow qualified for the astronaut programme in spite of having no scientific knowledge and in spite of having no temperament for it: he panics at the slightest provocation (think Corporal Jones in Dad’s Army) and has to be sedated whenever things get hairy.

It’s not just that it’s stupid, but that it’s so stupid. It’s a hate listen is what it is.

*As to BBC Sounds, you just know there was a meeting at some point in which someone pointed out that the BBC’s audio broadcasting was no longer, strictly, what Marconi called radio. It’s not even radio, really, is it? You can hear them say. Why do we call it radio when it’s not even?

And so they reached for the 1970s slang term for “cool music” after which the absolute worst of the British music press was named: Sounds.

Shudder.

A more prosaically descriptive “BBC Streaming Audio” would have been better. BBC Stuff That You Listen To With What Are Called Ears. But “BBC Sounds” is the Orwellian future of listening to the world’s worst DJ wittering into your ears forever.

This is the way the world ends

Every day, someone reaches the front of the line to have an opinion about Brexit. And every day, it creeps a little closer. Time moves strangely: on the one hand, tick-tocking to the tappety tap tap tap of people paid to have opinions; on the other, coming straight down the tracks with the clackety clack clack of a runaway train.

At this stage, I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting it to be over and done with, in one way or another, and yet you can’t shake the realisation that this is how we live now. Whatever happens, the bickering will continue and the tappety tap tap will go on forever.

I still remain (fnar) torn between my intellectual awareness that we can’t have socialism within the neoliberal culture of the EU and my intellectual awareness that we can’t have socialism because my neighbours (and yours, and yours) are fuckwits. And so I wish we could stay in the EU, because then at least I could get out of this fucking country and away from my fuckwit neighbours as soon as I retire.

If capital has freedom of movement, then people should too. Why should money have more rights than people?


Another sign of the forthcoming End of All Things is the BBC’s decision to make its popular Fortunately podcast exclusively available on the BBC Sounds app.

Now, the great thing about podcasting, up to now, has been that, as a new medium, it was open and free, and anybody could make one. The cost of entry being low has enabled a burgeoning of independent producers who have carved out their niches and their audiences on an equal footing with the big players (traditional broadcasters).

There have been signs of late that this situation was coming to an end. Large corporations introducing exclusive content on proprietary apps. For example, Jon Ronson has produced exclusive content for Stitcher and Audible.

But this Fortunately fiasco is the first time that something I care about has been taken off the open internet (RSS feed/on iTunes) and put into a “walled garden” that required you to have a specific app to listen. And I hate it, of course. Not just because of the inconvenience, but because it’s so unnecessary. The BBC has a massive platform and has no need to muscle in on the world of podcasting with its heavyweight app: especially as it already had the iPlayer Radio app.

Now, I fully understand that the under-35s aren’t bothering with BBC radio or iPlayer. And I fully understand that the BBC wants to ensure it has a future: hence, the trendy “Sounds” app with its wall-to-wall recommendations clearly aimed at people much younger than me.

I looked at it, as I was encouraged to, and hated it. It makes you log in with a BBC ID, and claims that it will tailor content for you, but then proceeded to show me almost nothing but music and sport recommendations, when I literally never listen to either of them on the BBC. The last time I tuned into a radio station to hear some music was the day Radio Caroline sank in the North Sea. So I genuinely hated it, and even though I gave it a couple more tries, I returned to iPlayer for my BBC listening, and will stick to Overcast for podcasts. Until the bitter end.

The BBC did almost immediately back down and put Fortunately on iPlayer, and claim that the exclusivity will end after a while, but still. Stop messing with podcasts. Free and open and independent podcasting is clinging on, and when it’s gone we will miss it, just like we’ll miss all the high street shops when they’re gone.

I have thoughts: 1, 2, 3

A snippet of John Roderick playing Neil Diamond

1. For example, I have thoughts about Travelers, season 3 of which just landed on Netflix. This mid-budget Canadian science fiction show delivered on the promise of its first two seasons and is definitely worth your time. I reviewed Season 2 this time last year, and my dearest hope is that I’ll be reviewing Season 4 this time in 2020. That said, this third season might perhaps have rounded off its story and given it a decent ending, about which I cannot complain. It was a proper ending with proper emotional hits, and if it were to return for a fourth season, the show has the option to completely reinvent itself with an entirely new set of host bodies. Highly recommended.

2. I also have thoughts about Joe Abercrombie’s first trilogy in his First Law series (The Blade Itself; Before They Are Hanged; and The Last Argument of Kings). One of Abercrombie’s short stories pulled me back into reading fantasy which I’d kind of sworn off of after being a bit bored by A Song of Ice and Fire. But here we are: I ploughed through the 1800 pages (!) of this trilogy fairly quickly, and only started to lose interest about 1500 pages in. Which says something. In the end though, I’m not sure whether to recommend these. Not as boring as Tolkien, nor even as dry as GRRM, these are written in an easy, engaging style that keeps you turning the pages. But the vivid descriptions of bloody and brutal fighting do start to get repetitive and the few women characters are weak. And overall, and obviously on purpose, very few of the characters have any redeeming characteristics. 

The premise is fairly familiar. There is a mediaeval type world with kingdoms and wars and a little bit of magic, the last of which is draining out of the world. And there are consequences of using magic and supposedly rules about it, which some people are cavalier about breaking.

So there are invading armies and people going off on long quest-like road trips, but in the end you can’t pick a side because everybody is horrible.

3. Finally, I have thoughts, which may become longer thoughts on something I had only the vaguest awareness of, but which came into sharp focus this morning when I was listening to the most recent episode of Roderick on the Line. John Roderick mentioned as part of an anecdote that he regularly takes part in an annual re-enactment of The Last Waltz in San Francisco, playing the part of Neil Diamond singing “Dry Your Eyes.’

And, as I said, I kind of knew this went on, but it was only at this point that I realised that it’s a regular, recurring thing that happens all over the place (Indiana, Glasgow, San Francisco), with various collectives of musicians putting it together. It’s like The Rocky Horror Show, but for Dad Rock. Part of me loves this more than I can say. I genuinely think The Last Waltz is both a brilliant documentary of one of the greatest bands of all time and also manages to be greater than the sum of its parts, so that the presence of the likes of Neil Diamond and the various cocaine buddies and the fairly shoddy afterthought of the Staples Singers somehow still manage to be brilliant. And it’s this, isn’t it, that makes people want to re-enact it? Because it’s both perfect and not perfect: it works because it does not work, as my pal Michel Serres said.

On the other hand: zombie culture and sigh sigh sigh. So, more thoughts to come, when I’ve had them, as we enter my 17th year of blogging solitude.

Podcasty Update

Image result for lyn dawson

Some of the key players in The Teacher’s Pet

Some I enjoy

Omnibus! With Ken Jennings and John Roderick

In the genre of two-blokes-talking-about-shit, the extempore king is John Roderick. In this twice-weekly podcast, he sits with his friend, Jeopardy record-breaker Ken Jennings, and talks about a random collection of subjects. Come for the discussion on Albanian Bunkers or The Fourth Crusade, and stay for the joyful digressions and lame jokes.

Fortunately… with Fi and Jane

There’s not much I miss about listening to BBC Radio, but I mourned the loss of Jane Garvey and Fi Glover from Five Live, back in the day. The station, frankly, was never the same again. You try to like Nicky Campbell and Victoria Derbyshire, but you just can’t. Even that reference dates me. Anyway, two of the finest radio voices have an excellent podcast, which is currently number one in the genre of two-women-talking-about-shit. My only criticism is that it’s too short. It’s a podcast, it can be longer.

Heavyweight (Gimlet)

I’ve still not quite forgiven Gimlet for cancelling the excellent Mystery Show podcast, but I grudgingly return to the network because I enjoy this. The title means nothing, the theme song is irritating, and the production style is PBS lite, but it is entertaining nonetheless. Jonathan Goldstein is very funny, and he joins a number of people who want to revisit moments from their past and put things right. Sometimes it labours the point, but it can also often be poignant as well as sweet, and the one-liners are often laugh-out-loud funny.

Serial (season 3)

This was a return to relevance and form, after the lacklustre season 2. This year, they spent a lot of time examining the justice system in Cleveland, Ohio. If you didn’t already know America was broken, this ought to convince you. Just nuke the whole site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.

The Teacher’s Pet

Now. There are way too many podcasts about women being abducted and murdered. Way too many. That said, the dogged reporting here about Lyn Dawson’s disappearance from the northern suburbs of Sydney, Australia, over 35 years ago, is fascinating and horrifying. It’s not just about the possibly murdered wife of a popular rugby player and high school teacher, but about the culture of casual exploitation of teenagers by their teachers in the Sydney school system. Your jaw will drop in astonishment (and I do not use that word lightly). The show is produced quite well. It labours the point a bit, and gets repetitive (a lot), but I get it: the police and public prosecutors needed the pressure. Oh, and Australia? Broken.

And some I’ve given up on

Up and Vanished

I gave up on this because I needed to listen to fewer podcasts about missing, possibly murdered women. Season 2 of Up and Vanished was about the case of Kristal Reisinger, who went missing from Crestone, Colorado in 2016. Partly, this is a brilliant advertisement for not legalising weed: almost every person who gets interviewed seems to be a totally fucked up stoner waste of space. Partly, this is another reminder that America is broken. When you hear about the local police and who they are and what they have to deal with over how many square miles, you realise that if you wanted to murder someone, you’d do it here. And partly, turns out, this is an example of how sometimes podcasters need to edit more. I gave up because the show seemed to lose sight of Kristal’s case and had decided instead to dump unedited and hard-to-hear phone calls with fuckups who keep repeating themselves endlessly, on a loop, like all stoners do.

The Black Tapes

I’ve previously written here that I don’t generally enjoy “comedy” podcasts, and it appears I have a similar issue with fiction in this format. I listened to Homecoming (now a TV series on Amazon), and thought it was all right (though I’m not rushing to renew the Amazon subscription). Similarly, I thought season 1 of The Black Tapes was all right. It’s a kind of radio version of those paranormal “found footage” movies, but it has a number of issues. The cast are unconvincing, often delivering lines woodenly. And the case itself ends up running around in circles, covering the same ground again and again. You end up thinking that there was a much better, and shorter, drama serial buried inside the three seasons of this. I gave up at the point in Season 3 when the presenter went to Istanbul, then took one phone call and went back home. It all starts to feel like padding, like content shat out in order to be a vehicle for ads. Honestly, I feel like a mug for continuing beyond season 1.

Childhood Canon

CometmoominlandSometimes you hear a podcast episode and think wistfully how you’d like to have been on it. Recent Incomparable episodes about childhood canon and recent conversations with colleagues about learning to read had me thinking about the media that shaped my tastes. I’m less interested in film and television than I am in books.

I learned to read with Dr Seuss – Green Eggs and Ham, Hop on Pop, and The Cat in the Hat – but at a very early age started the exploration of science fiction that continues to this day. I’m going to credit Tove Jansson with this: Comet in Moominland (1951) was the first Moomin book I read (when I was off school with whooping cough, I think), and although it isn’t scientifically accurate, it would be churlish to hold that against it, given that most science fiction of the time was similarly inaccurate. The description of the approaching comet’s effects on the earth and the crossing of the dried up sea on stilts gave me an early taste of the apocalyptic strand of SF that remains popular to this day.

I moved from the Moomins onto Enid Blyton’s Adventure series and Arthur Ransome, but started to spend more than 50% of my time reading about space and time.

220px-Blast_Off_at_Woomera_front_coverThe first science fiction proper I read would have been Hugh Walters’ series of books that included Destination Mars, Nearly Neptune, and Blast Off at Woomera (1957), which features another implausible plot as a 17-year-old kid is sent off to photograph the moon because of a feared communist plot. Having devoured those books, I moved on to Arthur C. Clarke, and his Islands in the Sky (1952), which also featured a teenage boy going up into space.

I then switched to Clarke’s more adult-oriented books, the most memorable being Childhood’s End and Clarke_Rendezvous_With_RamaRendezvous with Rama (1973), which at the time was Clarke’s most recently published novel. It lacks a proper plot, as much of his stuff does, but does manage to convey a sense of wonder at the (alien) technological sublime, which is another ongoing theme. Most recently, I’ve enjoyed Robert Charles Wilson’s take on it, with books like The Chronoliths, Spin, and Blind Lake.

My Clarke obsession was long enough ago that his novel Imperial Earth (1975) was published while I was in the midst of it. I turned 13 that year. But that novel was disappointing, as was his novelisation of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which might have been better left as the short story “The Sentinel”, which I had in one of the many short story collections I had accrued by then. These included his classic Tales From the White Hart, a fun collection of tall tales which gave me a taste for the playful side of science fiction.

I tried, around this time, to read some Isaac Asimov, but it never took. I never could read Asimov and only managed Heinlein in small doses.

A side trip to Durham to visit relatives led to me scoring a pile of interesting, more grown up, SF books from a distant cousin. I’ll forever be grateful to him, whoever he was, because he let me choose a bunch of stuff from his shelves, which I never was to return.

1255867Two of the most important of these were Larry Niven collections: A Hole in Space and Inconstant Moon (1973). The title story of the latter collection was an echo of Comet in Moominland, as a too-bright moon signalled a catastrophic problem with the sun to people on the dark side of the Earth, who realise they have just one night to live. These harder SF collections exposed me to ideas such as ramjets, time dilation, teleportation booths, and flash mobs. Another book in that particular grab bag was the very first World’s Best Science Fiction collection edited by Terry Carr. This included the canonical Harlan Ellison story “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” but more importantly gave me a taste for these annual collections. I raided the library for every one I could find, and in later years, when Gardner Dozois picked up the torch, I have made a point of buying his annual collection every summer.

The final taste-forming book of my teens was a gift received during a hospital stay when I was 16 or 17. This was the all-time classic Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus, edited by Brian Aldiss. There were more good stories in that one book than in any number of annual Best ofs, and it remains the best introduction to Golden Age science fiction.

Besides all this, the importance of Doctor Who and Star Trek were comparatively minor. When it comes to film and TV science fiction, my support is grudging at best. Only Alien really cuts the mustard from that era, and I mainly watched Doctor Who for the companions.

Uncommon People by David Hepworth (review)

coverI have David Hepworth to thank for my podcast habit. It was the flash of insight that went along with listening to an episode of The Word podcast several years ago: I realised that I could listen to people talking about The Beatles forever, and took a mere two-hour discussion in my stride. Whereas, I thought, mainstream radio might offer a 5-10 minute whiz-around of talking heads and that would be your lot. Not since John Lennon died had I been able to indulge myself in hours of nitpicking and train-spotting. Some podcasters apologise now and then for being a little too much inside baseball, but that, for me, is the whole point.

Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars 1955-1994 is Hepworth’s follow-up to 1971: Never a Dull Moment, which I reviewed a while ago. I ended up being underwhelmed by that book because I had little interest in the music being discussed (turns out that 1971 didn’t see much that I like released). I’m underwhelmed by Uncommon People for different reasons.

I just watched one of my favourite movies, Pleasantville, with one of my classes, and when it finished I told my students that I thought it was almost perfect bar two things. The first thing was that it had too many endings. The second was that, for a movie that uses colour as a metaphor for change and prejudice, it neglected to include any actual people of colour.

So here’s what’s wrong with Uncommon People. On the one hand, Hepworth has a tendency to labour the point. He was always the shouty one on the Word podcast, and it could start to get on your nerves. As an editor, I’m sure, he would be able to look at such writing and strike out the third-to-tenth ways in which he expresses the same idea. As an author, one suspects that each chapter needed to be a certain length, and he just couldn’t stop himself from adding just one more pithy way of explaining what he meant. This is the Too Many Endings problem.

When the material is familiar, this starts to grate. I’m sure there won’t be many people reading this who don’t know at least 50% of the lore herein. Which is a problem. Because what can Hepworth say about Bob Dylan, or the Beatles, or Elvis, that hasn’t been said many times before? And while we might enjoy sinking into the warm comfort of this history, it still reads a bit like Shouty Dave trying to bludgeon you with his point.

Screen Shot 2017-07-12 at 16.20.22

This is a bit about Elvis that starts to labour the point

On the other hand, Uncommon People is a victim of rock’s historical sexism and tendency to think colour doesn’t matter. There are chapters on Janis Joplin, Bonnie Raitt (who I’d never describe as a rock star) and Madonna (likewise), and it opens of course with Little Richard and features Jimi Hendrix. But give or take Michael Jackson (not a rock star) and Bob Marley (*sucks teeth*), the subjects of each chapter are overwhelmingly white and male.

As to the idea that the breed died out after 1994 and Curt Cobain, I’m afraid I lost interest at least a decade before that. He argues that tech and Hip Hop took over from Rock after 1994, which may well be the case. The fact was, nobody was measuring sales properly before the 1990s, and it’s almost certainly the case that Country was bigger than Rock all along. I made the mistake of commenting to this effect on the Guardian review of this book and got shouted down. I didn’t feel like explaining that US charts are based on airplay not sales, and that the absence of Country in mainstream playlists doesn’t mean it’s not outselling other genres. Still, with this book, the idea of a rock star is the point. Sales don’t matter, popularity doesn’t really matter. What counts is the image and the attitude.

The conceit of the book is that he takes a single date for each year and tells a story about a particular star in that era. This allows him to cover Bob Dylan twice, for example, but his choices seem perverse and arbitrary all the same. Bob Dylan in 1961 was not a rock star (though I take the point that his reinvention of himself sets the template). Bob Dylan in 1986 is a rock star, but not really at his peak. Of Dylan the original rock star of 1965-66, or 1975-6, there’s nothing. The sheer charisma of Dylan in white face on the Rolling Thunder Revue tour is stunning.

As to the inclusion of obvious pop stars like Duran Duran, Jackson and Madonna, one wonders why they get in while others don’t. Obviously, everyone will have their own lists/ideas, but Tom Petty (an inspirational figure to many musicians who is name-checked and referenced in tons of songs) is mentioned only in passing. More, um, damningly, Damn the Torpedoes, which is objectively the best album of the 1970s isn’t even included in the end-of-chapter playlist for 1979. What’s up with that? It’s like doing a list for 1967 and ignoring Sgt. Pepper.

Anyway, this is a bit of a grind. Grinding your teeth through the over-egged pudding of some chapters, and grinding your way through chapters about insignificant nobodies later on. I borrowed from the library, so I’m not too disappointed.

Pepper @ 50

1fecb043e656c03ff9c8dd1aa4ec23fe

Listening to John Roderick and Merlin Mann talk briefly about The Beatles (with more promised to come), I was prompted to write down my own thoughts. It’s fair to say that I started to listen to podcasts when I had the realisation that I could listen to two hours of people* talking about The Beatles forever, whereas the mainstream media would almost always consider a 10-minute segment in a 40-minute programme sufficient. My epiphany was that there is no such thing as too much of something to the true obsessive. That said, probably the most interesting thing I’ve heard related to the Sgt. Pepper anniversary this week was the World Service documentary, How Sgt Pepper Changed the World, of which more below.

Knowing that Roderick on the Line was going to actually discuss the 50th anniversary release of Sgt Pepper, I went out and bought the new “stereo remix”, which is a hyped up way of selling you a package and no doubt renewing some mechanical copyright. How many times have I bought it now? Three times, at least, which is not as many times as I’ve bought The River, but close. As to hearing a difference, well. I’ve got nothing to play it on, really. I can play it in the car, or through the TV speaker board via the blu-ray player, or I can rip it into iTunes and listen on headphones via my phone — but I’m not going to hear any significant differences. Low end? What? My ears can’t reach down there.

I bought my first copy about 12 years after it was originally released. Prior to that, I’d only heard those tracks from it that were included on the Blue 1967-1970 album, which was the first record I ever bought. In an intense period between the ages of 14 and 16, I bought the whole (then available) Beatles catalogue, which included some dodgy Hamburg recordings, the Hollywood Bowl live LP and a boxed set of their singles. I then became known as The Beatles Guy at school, and a number of people borrowed the albums from me to tape them. Jennifer Hargreaves returned at least one of them with chocolate in the grooves.

There was a certain amount of surprise and delight in opening the Sgt Pepper package. The eye-poppingly colourful gatefold portrait, the glossy finish, the cardboard cutouts. This was matched by the colour 8×10 portraits and the lyric poster that came with The Beatles (white album), and counterbalanced by the disappointment of both Abbey Road and Let it Be, which came with nowt. You get about 1/10th of that surprise and delight in a CD-sized package.

Merlin said, upfront, that he did not consider Sgt Pepper their best work (though his recent tweets indicate something of a reassessment). But it is by now a common enough thing for a fan to say. My own firm favourite has always been Beatles for Sale, and if you made me pick a Late Period record, I would plump for The Beatles or Abbey Road, depending on my mood. A lot of fans prefer Revolver, and I can see why. Lennon is stronger on that one than he is on Pepper, but while I can appreciate “Tomorrow Never Knows” on an intellectual level, I fucking hate listening to it, and I think quite a lot of the album is insubstantial and half-baked in a way that the stuff on Pepper wasn’t. And “Taxman” is such a Tory song. Sure, the top rate of tax in 1966 was 98%, but Britain was a better country for it, producing stuff like, oh, Sgt. Pepper, for example. Bless him, but George could come across as overly concerned with material goods, and he did a lot of moaning in his songs.

Like The Beatles themselves, Sgt. Pepper is greater than the sum of its parts. A handful of the tracks stand out, but the album’s cohesion (notwithstanding Lennon’s dismissal of it) is what makes it exceptional. There’s talk that George Martin regretted the convention that didn’t allow them to include “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever”, but I think they’d have tipped the balance. It may have been wishful thinking, fairy dust, smoke and mirrors, but Sgt. Pepper is its own thing. It works.

It mostly works as a conversation between generations, with The Beatles acting as media. Which is to say, Sgt Pepper is a message from the Baby Boomers to the Greatest Generation, via four War Babies in the guise of a fictional band which itself straddles the period covered by recorded popular music.

It’s the in betweenness of Sgt Pepper that makes it great. The Beatles could always do this: they could do end of the pier, they could do variety and music hall, and they could do sweaty rock ’n’ roll. Sgt Pepper rolls it all together, and that’s its genius. I hate “When I’m Sixty-Four” as a song, but on the album it’s perfect. It’s the turn of phrase, mostly from McCartney (but Lennon to an extent), who manages to perfectly reproduce the vernacular in song. “She’s Leaving Home” captures the voice of the quintessential Daily Mail reader, whose bewildered, passive-aggressive response to their daughter leaving home is met with the apparently impenetrable blandness of “she is having fun”, a four word phrase which contains a generation gap so wide that the Daily Mail still hasn’t managed to cross it.

Meanwhile, Lennon perfectly captures the Andy Capp voice of The Mirror, with “Nothing to say but what a day, how’s your boy been?” And you keep hearing such lines throughout, turns of phrase that transport you back to black-and-white, shillings-and-pence, garden-fence Britain, when there were still people living in WW2 prefabs, and you could smoke on the top deck of the bus, and people saved up for things instead of just buying them on credit.

And the Beatles are in between the prefabs and Carnaby Street, between Andy Capp and Oz, between Morecambe and Wise and Art Happenings. Musically, they’re between John Philip Sousa’s marches and hard rock. They’re the static in the wires, the parasite on the message, talking about ‘taking tea’ with a knowing wink, or drifting off into a dream after smoking something, offering parody and sincerity in the same breath. They’d do it again with their Boxing Day film of that same year, Magical Mystery Tour, with fish and chips all round and tank tops muddled in with the walruses and fools on the hill. That same mix of end of the pier fish and chips mixed with hard rock would show up again in Tommy the following year.

It’s fair to say that Lennon was struggling on this album, as he himself admitted. The chip on his shoulder, and his paranoia about whose fucking band it was, and his general demeanour of being a bit of a dick caused him to piss all over the legacy of The Beatles in his 1970 Rolling Stone interview. And even later on, when he was slightly more mature, he still didn’t really like it because it was “mostly Paul”, and he felt under pressure, scrabbling to keep up with McCartney’s prodigious creativity. I think he looked back on that period and remembered the flop sweats and not the actual music. And it’s so infuriating that he died before he could finally grow up properly and escape from his ego trap. Sure, he was taking too much acid, but his dismissive recollection of Pepper as ‘A Day in the Life and that’s it’ was way off beam. As to his contribution to the album, it’s still significant, even if his own memory was faulty. The dour refrain on ‘She’s Leaving Home’, as well as his own songs.

As to the year he had, between the end of 1966 and 1967, and in spite of his flop sweats, he contributed ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, ‘A Day in the Life’, ‘All You Need is Love’ and ‘I Am the Walrus’. Not bad for a struggler.

The only song on Pepper I still can’t really listen to is ‘Within You Without You’, not because of the Indian sounds, but because of George’s dreary voice singing that endlessly dreary melody. And if there’s anything that doesn’t fit with the music hall vibe or the snapshot of mid-60s British culture, it’s that one track, which screams out to be skipped.

One thing Merlin pointed out was that The Beatles were working in an atmosphere of being constantly dismissed by the hipsters of their time, and written off by the British Press, who had been asking the question, Are The Beatles finally over? since 1963, and would go on asking it until 1971, when they switched to, Will The Beatles ever get back together? Even now, if Macca and Ringo are set to appear on the same stage, The Guardian rolls out a Surviving Beatles to Reunite headline.

Every single, every album, was reviewed by the music press as a certain flop. People had been waiting for them to fail in much the same way that the tech press are (now) waiting for Apple Inc. to fail. Meanwhile, ‘serious music fans’ were getting into Hendrix and the Floyd, or spray painting Clapton is God in underpasses. The Beatles were a pop band, and nobody had heard a note they’d played live since 1962. Sgt Pepper was similarly dismissed, but it was too important and too powerful and too good to be damaged by bad press. That the Daily Mail have always been negative about The Beatles is proof of their brilliance.

Most of all, the album raised consciousness, creating the conditions that allowed others — in many fields, and all around the world — to experiment and succeed or fail on their own merits. I still think it’s incredible that these four individuals, this alchemical combination of introverts and extroverts, were able to produce music of such artistry and genius as a group, when later on, as solo artists, they only sporadically managed to produce a similar spark. Whatever John said later, about not really liking The Beatles, the answer should always have been, ‘But John, your solo stuff is rubbish in comparison. You know that, right?’

Never before, never since. Nothing like them. 1960s Britain. 98% tax.

* Usually Middle aged blokes (sadly).

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?