Posted in cycling, Review

B’TWIN HOPTOWN 500 FOLDING ELECTRIC BIKE

The other electric bicycle

As a counterbalance to the snarking from people concerning e-bikes being a form of “cheating”*, I like to enthuse about them whenever I can. It took a year or so, but eventually my wife couldn’t resist the siren call.

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Hoptown Top Ranking

The difference between us, though, is that while I was willing to spend around £3k of money-I-didn’t-have on my Kalkhoff, my Mrs will only spend a smaller amount of money-she-does-have. For me, I could have spent £1k, but I didn’t have that money, either, so whatevs.

So, with budget being an issue, she wasn’t ever going to get the bike I’d picked out for her in my money-no-object fantasies. (That, by the way, would be something like the Riese and Müller Nevo, in a build with a carbon belt drive and a hub gear – which would cost between £2879 and £3779 ) So, to Decathlon we repaired, and considered their range of reasonably-priced (and, to be fair, quite well reviewed) e-bikes. If you’re on a budget, they’re not bad.

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Riese and Müller Nevo

Bonus fact: the French government offer an up-to €200 refund, in order to encourage fitness and cycling.

Bonus bonus fact: Decathlon seem to have added this into the € price, because the one she got is just £599 in the UK.

Decathlon offer a town bike style model, the Elops, with a rear hub motor and a couple of price points, based mainly on battery size/life. But the model that caught my wife’s eye, not just because of its price, was the Hoptown 500, a folding electric bike. (https://www.decathlon.co.uk/C-811556-electric-bikes)

The Hoptown comes with a 6-speed Shimano drivetrain (derailleur), ergonomic grips, a gel saddle, and built-in front and rear lights. It has a 6Ah battery that gives a relatively small range of 15-25 km, which is good enough for going around town and for a short commute. If you have facilities for charging the battery at work, you could commute longer. For reference, my Kalkhoff’s enormous battery is around 13Ah, I think, so twice the capacity. And – because I am cycling fit – I’m getting up to 72 km (45 miles) of range on Turbo mode, which is the highest level of assist. So I can go to-and-from work (24 mile round trip) twice on a charge – possibly having to drop it down to Sport mode for the last bit.

big_b9d303f15bdc433fa45972a24c5fe2bcNow, the idea that a normal person would be able to lug this Hoptown thing onto the train and commute with it is laughable. It still weighs a lot for a folding bike. But for an electric model, it’s relatively lightweight. Furthermore, whereas my bike is too heavy to go on the car without the addition of an expensive tow-bar and platform bike carrier combination, the Hoptown actually folds down small enough to go in the boot of the car. It was even possible to load up all our summer holiday luggage (including art equipment, a guitar and amp, and the usual bags) and still get the Hoptown into the boot.

So. It’s an ideal solution for someone who wants to buy an e-bike and use it in two locations.

A test ride in the Decathlon car park was arranged, and, happy with it, we set off home with it in the boot.

Not so fast. The only model they had in the shop was the display model, and they couldn’t find the charger. Huh. So an employee drove over to the next town’s store (Montbéliard is just 22km from Belfort), and brought over another model, giving us the charger from that. Visions of Decathlon robbing the charger from Peter to give it to Paul until the end of time.

A few km from home, I dropped my Mrs off with the bike, and left her to ride into Giromagny and then home. This would be a good test of the bike, as the journey from Giro to Auxelles involves at least three pretty hard climbs.

Not long afterwards, she phoned me to complain that the bike’s motor had cut out. I drove out to meet her, and encountered some strange behaviour. Getting on the bike myself, I set off pedalling and the motor kicked in. And then failed again.

So the excuses started. It must be that the battery, which appeared to be fully charged in the show room, was still awaiting its first overnight charging cycle. Batteries are really the most vexatious aspect of modern life, aren’t they? We left it on charge overnight, and the next day fired up the bike again for Maiden Voyage Part 2: I Tell You, This Ship Is Absolutely Unsinkable.

Worked for a bit. Failed. Worked for another bit. Failed. Seemed to work again after using the brake, as if the brake was a switch that turned the motor on and off. Huh.

So we phoned Decathlon and arranged to take it back. The brake-switch thing wasn’t supposed to be a thing, they said.

Since they had the bike they’d “borrowed” from Montbéliard, they gave us that one instead.

So, new bike, new battery.

No problems.

Back in the UK, the bike is deployed, and the manual informs us that the battery will reach peak efficiency after 5 charge cycles. So we deal patiently with the foibles. Sometimes the motor just cuts out. You stop, and turn it back on again, and off it goes.

One of the issues with the building-to-a-budget thing is that you miss out on what turn out to be very useful features. My Kalkhoff’s display tells me how much battery is left, how far I can go on it, and so on. My lights stay on for a few seconds/minutes even when the motor is switched off. The Decathlon’s built-in lights go off when the motor does, so if you’re riding in the dark/fog on a country lane and the motor randomly cuts out, you become invisible to traffic.

Nevertheless, it mostly seemed to be working okay. So my daughter borrowed it one morning last week to ride to work/school with me. A proper test, because it’s a 50-60 minute ride on country lanes, and about 13 miles. It seemed to go quite well, with the motor cutting out only a couple of times. Not bad! (Number of times my Kalkhoff motor cut out: 0.) Again, we made excuses. It cuts out when you’re going faster than 25kph, and to save battery it switches off? Maybe? Or it’s perhaps overheating on the hills and needs a cooling off period? Or, actually, this was a really long ride for the quoted range of this bike, so the battery was probably on its last legs by the end.

Anyway, we got there, taking about 10 minutes longer than I normally do on my bike.

Took the battery out (it’s not very big, with limited range), put it on charge, and then put it back in for the ride home. The light on the charger was green, indicating a full charge.

And this is where the problems began. The motor cut out on my daughter a lot on the way home. It seemed to happen whenever she hit a bump, but it also happened at inopportune moments: at the bottom of a steep hill, usually. So we nursed it home, sometimes having to fold and unfold the frame in order to re-engage the battery, and the excuses stopped. This thing, just like the first one we had, was faulty.

Two for two.

Luckily, Decathlon is an international retailer, so we took it over to our local store and left it overnight. 24 hours later, they called back to say that the battery had been faulty, and they’d replaced it.

So now the bike is on its third iteration, but here’s the thing.

Riding an e-bike is a pleasure. It puts a smile on your face. It’s like cycling, but without the suffering. Think about that: it’s all of the pleasure of cycling (including good cardio exercise, because you are pedalling) without any of the protestant work ethic nonsense about suffering and pain. It’s better than driving a car. You feel good, you enjoy the sunshine and the countryside, you arrive at your destination only mildly perspiring and able to go about your normal day without wobbly legs.

But if you have a constant nagging anxiety that the thing is going to randomly let you down at the bottom of a hill? Not so much.

So I have my fingers crossed that my wife’s latest bike and battery combination will be reliable, but I don’t think I’d want to risk my daughter riding to school on it. Because it’s a long ride home on a heavy bike with no assistance.

The verdict

This ought to be the entry level for a lot of people. Once you’ve ridden an electric bike and felt that push in the back and the wind in your hair, you don’t want to stop. They are A Good Thing. But, if you can afford to spend more, you should. Get more range. Get a mid-drive motor (situated around the pedal cranks), get something German or that £4000 Trek Supercommuter. Spend upwards of £2k and you’ll be a lot happier.

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This isn’t cheating

*If an e-bike is cheating, then so is driving any car that is not a fucking Hamleys pedal car.

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Posted in entertainment, Review, Television

The Good Place

02-good-place-season-2.w710.h473After watching so much Grim and Gritty TV in the past few weeks, I was so pleased to be able to sit down in front of the pastel coloured comedy The Good Place, starring Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars), Ted Danson (Cheers, CSI) and William Jackson Harper (The Electric Company).

Thanks to my podcast listening, I was aware of this show and its premise, and even knew something about how Season 1 ended, but that did not spoil my enjoyment of this well-written, funny, intelligent show.

Kristen Bell plays Eleanor, a woman who has died in a fairly ignominious way, and now finds herself going through the process of orientation in “the good place”.

“So who was right?” she asks Ted Danson, Michael the Architect, and he tells her that most of the major religions were a little bit right, but that a stoned Canadian speculating after a heavy night managed to be around 90% right.

Essentially, your deeds in life are added up (or subtracted) from your score, and if you come down with a high enough positive score, you go to the Good Place. Eleanor immediately realises that there has been a mistake: she definitely does not belong here. There has been a clerical error. This is confirmed when a note comes under her door with words to that effect. Living in fear of being exposed, Eleanor works with her “soul mate” (Harper), who is not her soul mate, to try to become a better person, and so fit in with her morally superior neighbours.

Each episode manages to be packed with many funny lines and situations as well as philosophical and ethical conundrums, along the lines of, is it ever okay to lie? Or, do motives matter? Or, do the ends justify the means? Such questions are familiar staples of beginner philosophy courses and give the show, which is at root a 22-minute single-camera comedy, a surprisingly intelligent depth.

I started watching in the early evening and ploughed through the whole of season 1 in one night. It’s just so watchable, and after a while each successive episode cliffhanger keeps you hooked on the basis that the next episode is not going to keep you up for very long.

I managed to stop myself just before the Season 2 opener, which I watched the following night. Netflix are dropping new episodes weekly.

Small, but perfectly formed, like its lead actor.

Posted in documentary, entertainment, Review, Television

Recent viewings

The-Good-PlaceSeason 2 of The Expanse (finally) dropped on Netflix UK recently, and I struggled my way through it. Never has Lennon’s line from “A Day in the Life” been more germane. I kept watching, had to look, having read the book, but it was really hard not to give up on it because it was rubbish in so many ways.

Viz: 

  • The script was terrible. You can write this shit, but you can’t say it. Apparently. A perennial problem with filmed science fiction. The protomolecule and the asteroid belt and the thrusters and the vac suits. Somehow, saying it out loud makes it seem silly.
  • The acting was awful. Some really good actors can make something of a terrible script, so long as the story was good. But none of these people are convincing. Some are given too much screen time, others not enough.
  • The story was incoherent, fragmented, and slow moving. Nobody has an FTL drive, but they can hop across the solar system in minutes, when it suits them. Game of Thrones teleportation machine suited the plot in the recent Season 7, but in The Expanse, you just ask yourself what slab of rock people are running around on, and forget why.

Norsemen (Netflix), the Norwegian comedy about Vikings is like the old Chelmsford 123 with a bigger set and costume budget and a lot more gore and swearing. I found it okay, because I wasn’t expecting it to be particularly funny. With low expectations and a tolerance for nasty jokes, violence, and juvenile humour, it was watchable. The other members of my family, however, leave the room when it’s on.

Meanwhile, over on the NowTV box, Tin Star (Sky Atlantic) is a vehicle for Tim Roth, who plays a British cop relocating to that Canada for a quieter life. First episode starts off a little Northern Exposure before becoming something akin to the opening beats of Edge of Darkness. But then the whole thing becomes more like Blue Velvet, and any sense of tight plotting of a story arc deliquesces into apparently improvised scenes in which people do things that make no sense without any apparent motivation other than a thanatic* drive towards self destruction. The series had its moments, but I was left with a strong feeling that ten episodes should have been six.

American Vandal (Netflix) as a mockumentary in the style of Serial or Making a Murderer, only instead of a miscarriage of justice about murder, it’s an act of vandalism: spraying dicks on staff vehicles in a High School staff car park.

Hmm. The problem I find with a lot of American humour is that it descends into scatalogical or sexual references that are probably funny if you’re the kind of person who thinks drawing cocks on whiteboards or exercise books is funny. In other words, this sophisticated parody of a certain style of documentary has a platform problem. It wants us to laugh at the serious treatment of a trivial subject — but it has a serious obsession with the trivial subject and not much else. You can’t really poke fun at these people if you are one of them.

Technically, it’s very good, and it was a good idea, but the dick jokes wear thin, and the point was well made after 3 episodes. There are 8 episodes, and the humour, notwithstanding certain reviews, was not subtle. When a reviewer says “subtle humour”, do they really mean, “not funny”? The twist ending was telegraphed too early on, also.

Finally, I got around to watching season 1 of Happy Valley (Netflix), which is well done but unremittingly grim. Like so much modern TV, it leaves you wishing for some escapism from your escapism, which is why I’m looking forward to The Good Place, which appears on Netflix UK from today.

  • Thanatos = death drive. Eros = sex drive. So Thanatic/erotic?
Posted in Books, entertainment, Publishing, Review, Writing

Some book reviews

616aYU-j2ML._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Eleven books so far, in this summer of reading, including Tim Powers’ Declare, which I’ve read before and will read many times more. Here’s something of a test, then. Can I remember much about the others? Excuse the lack of cover images: on borrowed French wifi, which is painfully, rurally, slow.

Borderline – Mishell Baker

The Borderline of the title refers both to a person with borderline personality disorder and the idea that there’s a world beyond this one, peopled by creatures who come to visit our world in the guise of beautiful people who act as muses for people in the creative industries. Protagonist is a survivor of a recent suicide attempt, who has lost her legs and gets around using prosthetics and/or a wheelchair. She’s also has BPD and is approached by an organisation that manages the relationship between humans and the otherworldly creatures. Why do they approach patients in psychiatric hospitals in particular? Because nobody will believe them if they talk, of course. An interesting premise and protagonist, this award-nominated book is worth a look.

The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman

Hard to say what age group this book is aimed at. Slightly younger than YA, probably, but it was knocking around at work and so I added it to the pile. Is this Gaiman’s best book, as the blurb suggests? Probably not, though it was an entertaining enough read about an orphaned child who is raised by ghosts in a graveyard. Read to me, however, like a collection of scenes rather than a novel. Telling, to me, that Gaiman says he started with the fourth chapter and then went and back-filled. This is not the only novel I’ve read this summer that isn’t really a novel. To be fair, though, it is in the title: it’s not called The Graveyard Novel.

Quite Ugly One Morning – Christopher Brookmyre

I could tell this was supposed to be funny in the vein of Elmore Leonard or Carl Hiasen, but I didn’t crack a smile. An unpleasant story of unpleasant people, with some deeply unpleasant descriptions: avoid reading this while eating. Brookmyre’s an ex-journo, so of course his hero is a journo who is not above a little breaking and entering and is somehow attractive to the opposite sex.

The Fifth Season – N K Jemisin

The Obelisk Gate – N K Jemisin

This was the big one. I knew this was an award winning slice of fantasy fiction, and I’d read something else by Jemisin, and I’d heard nothing but good things about this series but I deliberately waited till this summer to get The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate, knowing that the final part of the trilogy (The Stone Sky) would be published in the middle of August.

It’s so hard to describe what this is. The cover illustrations tell you nothing. You could almost say this was science fiction, since it seems to be set in a far future version of Earth which has become (for reasons) seismically unstable — so much so that no civilisation survives long enough to leave much of a mark when it is inevitably destroyed following a cataclysmic event involving volcanic activity, earthquakes, ashfall, pyroclastic flow, poisonous gases etc. But it probably shades into being fantasy because there are people here with abilities which aren’t really explained except in a hand-wavy way. I’d even allow this as science fiction, because we’ve all read about star drives and time machines which aren’t explained. But then I ask myself, why is it so important to you that this could be science fiction rather than “just” fantasy? I don’t know. Fantasy has uncomfortable associations with those terrible Lord of the Rings movies, but then the best fantasy often gives you great female leads (as here and in Katherine Kerr’s Deverry series) and it’s clearly more popular than science fiction, so.

The Fifth Season has an extraordinary three-stranded narrative which when it resolves makes clear that the rest of the series can continue the plot but not this tour de force of storytelling, which is a shame. In that sense, it reminds me of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary series, which has a similarly innovative first volume.

So. An unstable planet. A civilisation that barely remembers its past incarnations. People with special abilities who are treated as less-than-human and feared and hated by most people. On one level, this is clearly a racial allegory, which asks questions about why some people need to consider others as less than human? But it’s also a fascinating puzzle and a story of survival and loss. How did the world get this way? Can it be fixed? Is humanity doomed? Do we even deserve to survive?

The Little Red Chairs – Edna O’Brien

Speaking of which. A mysterious stranger arrives in a small Irish community and seduces the inhabitants with his spiritualism and alternative therapies. Turns out, he’s definitely not who he pretends to be, and the consequences of his unmasking are grim. The book is really a series of encounters and meditations and doesn’t have much of a narrative plot. So I’d describe this as a Menippean Satire rather than a novel. I didn’t enjoy it, but then it would have been weird to.

Magpie Murders – Anthony Horovitz

This was more of a blast. I picked this up after noticing that it was a novel about a novel, and included the complete manuscript of the novel-within-the-novel. So it’s a whodunnit about a whodunnit, and it’s entertaining enough, though a long way from being a realistic crime novel, if that’s your thing. It’s more of a pastiche of Agatha Christie hiding inside something that wants to be a modern crime novel, something more like the Cormoran Strike series. Anyway. It’s okay. I’d have liked both stories to be more interesting, darker perhaps, but it was entertaining enough and a relatively quick read. Certainly a palate clearer after The Little Red Chairs.

The Other Side of Silence – Philip Kerr

Ted Allbeury wrote a novel with a similar title – a fictionalised account of Kim Philby’s activities. And Philby’s something of an element in this, which is one of a series about anti-hero Bernie Gunther, a German former cop and intelligence officer, who’s trying to leave his past behind. This is set on the Côte d’Azure in 1956, and features Someret Maugham dealing with a blackmail plot involving the KGB and a tape recording of Guy Burgess. It was okay to read. I didn’t like the hero and the outcome was clearly telegraphed. The whole  thing was a little static, not making much use of the location and a bit disappointing after the extraordinary treatment of spying in Declare.

The Hanging Girl* – Jussi Adler Olsen

Easily the worst book I’ve read this summer, I picked this up because it had a lot of pages. *The original (correct) title in Danish is The Boundless, which in itself doesn’t make for a better title, given the contents, but I feel the English title with its use of the noun “girl” is cynical and exploitative – typical of a publishing industry I have little respect for.

I’m not sure if it was the translation or what, but I didn’t like the dialogue in this, nor the exposition, and I didn’t understand who the characters were supposed to be. This is from a series and is obviously not the first, but that’s not always a problem. It wasn’t with Bernie Gunther, for example. The author usually puts enough in to get you up to speed (even copying and pasting expository sections), but not here. I didn’t like or care about the protagonist, and his colleagues were cyphers. At times this seemed both sexist and racist, and there were confusing moments, too, as when a character is called Assad in one sentence and then suddenly becomes Curly in the next. And I couldn’t believe the British publisher didn’t make some corrections to the bizarre explanation of a cricket match.

So this was a cold case story. A cop who’d been obsessed with a hit and run kills himself and the case falls to Department Q, whoever they are. Cold case unit? It’s not explained. Anyway, maverick cop, at loggerheads with his boss, dealing with broken relationships, blah blah blah. Just because it’s Danish it doesn’t mean it’s not clichéd. So it was long, and not very interesting, and as soon as they looked in the garage (early on) and decided not to search it because it looked dusty, you knew it was Chekov’s garage.

The Stone Sky – N K Jemisin 

No sooner had I ploughed despondently to the end of The Girl with the Hanging Girl than the yellow post van showed up with this. This brings the trilogy to a somewhat tragic conclusion, continuing its barely veiled discussion about race, exploitation, the legacy of slavery, justice, and how to go forward with a society when there is barely anything worth saving or preserving. This makes it extremely topical in this current news cycle context of job-lot el cheapo racist statuary erected at the behest of the Ku Klux Klan or anti civil rights elements: sometimes the only solution is to burn everything down and start again.

My one criticism of this trilogy concerns the map at the beginning, and the other repeated elements (glossary, appendix). The map was useful in the first book, because it showed the locations of the main places visited therein. But the same map then appeared in the second and third volumes, when two different maps would have made more sense, since the action does move around somewhat. As it is, you find yourself staring at the map and wondering where the characters you’re reading about are at the moment.

Posted in Books, entertainment, music, Podcasts, Review, Writing

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.

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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.

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 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?