Podcasts of the moment

The McCartney/Lennon of live radio

Change comes slowly and then all at once. Looking through my list of podcast subscriptions, it’s interesting to note the ones that were the mainstays and which are now, often, the mehs.

Consider a core trio: The Talk Show (by John Gruber of Daring Fireball) is one of the earliest podcasts I ever picked up. This week, I deleted the episode straight away, as I did a couple of weeks ago. My interest in the various dealings around Apple, its hardware and its software, has diminished (along with my ability to afford them). Back in the day, I’d generally get a new Mac every couple of years. I’ve had this one since 2014, and will not be getting a new one until they fix the keyboards across the range. Another turn-off for me are the frequent discussions of sportsball. Aside from all that, I find I have less patience for the extreme length of some episodes. Hardcore History it ain’t.

A second Apple-related podcast in which I’ve lost interest, as previously noted, is ATP. And finally, although The Incomparable network barely has anything to do with Apple, it is headed by a former Macworld editor, so I consider it a fellow traveller. And I’ve probably deleted more Incomparable episodes than I’ve listened to of late: mainly because the topics have been wall-to-wall Star Wars and I won’t have it in the house. I did listen to this week’s (about The Expanse on Amazon) though.

Those three formed the spine of my early podcast consumption, with many others on my list being people I first encountered there. For a long time, my favourite podcast of all was Reconcilable Differences (featuring occasional Talk Show/Incomparable guest Merlin Mann and ATP co-host John Siracusa). But even that has gone off the boil of late. I also still listen to Roderick on the Line, but is it me, or has this show changed a lot since John moved house?

If I were to nominate a new listening spine, it would probably be as follows:

  1. Backlisted
  2. Fortunately… with Fi and Jane
  3. Nothing is Real – A Beatles Podcast

Backlisted is a books podcast. The premise, as I understand it, is for a guest to come on and talk about a loved or interesting book that might be in some way under-rated or neglected. By extension, this seems to mean, in practice, books that have been in print a while rather than just-published or forthcoming (for the popular end of that there’s Simon Mayo’s Books of the Year). Anyway, as a lifelong genre fiction fan, I’ve surprised myself by enjoying the discussions of literary fiction, and have even, gasp, read and enjoyed things I might otherwise not. The good news: there are loads of back episodes to catch up on. The bad news: it’s bi-weekly and currently on hiatus.

Fortunately is the antidote to all the two-blokes-talking podcasts, and as such is a breath of fresh air. I’ve talked about it before, but it’s very important to note that these women are two of my all-time-favourite radio voices. (Still waiting for Peter Allen or Eddie Mair to guest, and then my life would be complete. This has prompted me to check, and I note that Peter Allen’s Five Live show is podcasted for 30 days. But still: Garvey and Allen are the Lennon/McCartney of live radio.) The good news: lots of back episodes. The bad: occasionally takes a break, and episodes are too short.

Nothing is Real is me coming full circle back to the Beatles because The Word’s endless discussions of the Beats was what sold me on podcasts to begin with. There are a billion podcasts about the Beatles to choose from, and it really does take some going for me to keep listening. The presenters have to be knowledgable (preferably more knowledgable than me) and engaging, and the two Irish hosts are just that. I like the format, which doesn’t attempt to be chronological or any other kind of logical. So you never quite know what they’re going to be talking about next, but it’s all good. Introduced me to a lot of Macca solo stuff, too, which I’ve mainly ignored for 40 years. Good news: back episodes. Bad: bloody hiatus.

Bubbling Under

  • Omnibus (Ken Jennings and John Roderick)
  • Vulcan Hello (new Trek podcast)
  • Is It Rolling Bob? (Dylan podcast)

Everything else is a bit meh at the moment.

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

I found this book too upsetting to enjoy, I’ll say that straight away. It’s well-written, and full of fascinating dialect words, but there comes a particularly brutal point in the story, and I couldn’t go on. I kind of skim-read, fast-forwarded through the rest, which I feel bad about, but that was all I could do. The difference is, if I thought it was a bad book (The Night Circus, The Goldfinch), I’d have just set it aside.

Here’s the Amazon blurb:

Teenage Silvie and her parents are living in a hut in Northumberland as an exercise in experimental archaeology. Her father is a difficult man, obsessed with imagining and enacting the harshness of Iron Age life. Haunting Silvie’s narrative is the story of a bog girl, a young woman sacrificed by those closest to her, and the landscape both keeps and reveals the secrets of past violence and ritual as the summer builds to its harrowing climax.

Harrowing is the word.

It’s written stream-of-consciousness style, and uses only minimal punctuation. This is not a book which one would use to demonstrate the correct use of punctuation for speech or paragraphing. Which is not to say that I think there is really any such thing as correct, but as a man who spends his working life trying to get young people to write with clarity, I do tend to favour tradition.

I’ll not be the first person to observe that this reminded me of Alan Garner’s Red Shift, which is a book I read following a Backlisted podcast episode.

Garner tells his story across three times, using mostly mimesis (dialogue) and very little diegesis (narrative). His setting is very similar: up there on the borders, where the Roman empire once hit a wall, and where there is mithering and clarting and thrutches and bannocks. And Garner’s book, too, contains horrific and harrowing brutality directed towards young women, which leaves you wondering who is this for?

So, Ghost Wall: Northumberland, iron age, archaeology, sunburn, students and professors, fathers and daughters. The female characters are better drawn than most of the men; the male students are barely there. But it’s good, but it’s harrowing. And if you don’t like being harrowed, clart yourself and stop mithering.

So farewell then

Nicholas Parsons has died, thirty years after he really ought to have retired. Perhaps the best we can hope for now is that the BBC will take Just a Minute out into the backyard and put it out of its misery.

There should be a statute of limitations on shows and formats. And careers in the media. Radio 4 offerings that are well past their use-by date include the aforementioned Just a Minute, I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, The News Quiz, The Now Show, Dead Ringers, The Archers. Sacred cows, all. Too big to fail? The indispensable ones should always be eliminated first.

On telly, we should shoot the following into the sun: Have I Got News For You, QI, EastEnders, Casualty, X Factor, Strictly, Death in Paradise, and, in all likelihood, Doctor Who. They can all join The Black and White Minstrel Show, The Rolf Harris Show, and Jim’ll Fix It in television hell.

Am I just being a mean spirited old curmudgeon? Of course. But also: this is an institutional problem. When presenters like the Dimblebys stick around for fucking ever, politics seems stuck, zombified, and change seems impossible. Radio 4 worries about replenishers (8 year old article) and then sticks with Just a Minute and it’s presenter for, ahem, fifty-two years. Fifty-two years during which they have wrung every last platelet out of that particular stone.

People don’t retire in the media, which means that the young blood, fresh talent, people with new ideas, get stuck down the bottom end scrabbling around for scraps. And people like Parsons, as harmless as they might be, become institutions. Fine, he was mostly harmless, but he was also a sexist old sod, who treated women contributors totally differently on his show. For 52 fucking years. And so that kind of ear pollution gets institutionalised as well.

Even worse, this problem extends, as I said above, into the realm of politics, where people like the Dimbles and fucking Humphrys become part of the furniture and are then given a platform for their reactionary views. Just a few days ago that fuckwit, thought he’d stick his oar in about equal pay, and although he’s retired, for some reason (his endless career in the media) people pay attention to him.

One of the greatest institutions in politics is the handover. The removal vans at Number 10. The inauguration of a new President. These are moments when the incumbent, however reluctantly, gives way, and democracy is seen being done.

So it matters, really matters, that people in the media should move aside. Show cancelled, format changed, old wood cleared out with a gentle flamethrower or two. People should retire. And, on a related point, they should join a pension scheme so they wouldn’t feel the need to work 30 years beyond a reasonable retirement age.

Good Things

Nightfall – Little Big Town

Here we are then, twenty-twenty, the year of hindsight, and my first (new) album purchase of the year is this new record from vocal harmony group Little Big Town. And it’s great, beautiful, and if you’re not uplifted by the opening track, “Next to You”, you’re dead inside. The band wrote 34 songs for this album, whittled down to a lucky 13 for the release. There are lush songs reflecting on things worth getting up for, drinking songs, questioning songs, heartbreak songs, and all of it lifted by the soaring power of the human voice, the harmonies and arrangements, as ever, superb. It’s not all Karen Fairchild, either. At times, I’ve felt that she’s carried the rest with her amazing voice on their standout tracks. Not this time.

On Chapel Sands – Laura Cumming

Finally got to read this, a book that was on my list from the moment I read an extract in the Graun last year. I listened to the abridged version on Radio 4, but still wanted to read it. It’s an intriguing story about a child who gets snatched from a lincolnshire beach in 1929. The child was the author’s mother, and the story is both a deeply personal story about identity and a documentary about rural life and hard times in the Britain of long ago. The author is an art critic and tells the story through images, including both family photos and paintings. She highlights the mysteries of both, from the blurred faces of long-dead relatives to the carefully composed works of old masters. The writing is beautiful, the story tightly controlled, with startling revelations that keep coming. Having read this and Mark Lewisohn’s first volume of his Beatles biography, and knowing some of my own family history, you start to form a picture of British family life that’s completely at odds with the conservative myth of “family values”. 

My one criticism of On Chapel Sands is that it tries very hard to be a beautiful (hardback) book, but is let down by the reproduction of the images that are so important to the telling of the story (like the one above). What it needed was an insert of glossy pages. What it ends up with is what Kurt Vonnegut so memorably described: “They were grainy things, soot and chalk. They could have been anybody.”

The Whisperer in Darkness – BBC podcast.

You ay have heard this recommended. Radio drama can be hit and miss; there are so many things that can go wrong. They can rely on grownass adult women to deliver the voices of children: bad. They can have extended sequences of grunts: boring. They can dumb things down too much: Journey into Space, I’m looking at you. They can be too depressing or too middle class. But The Whisperer in Darkness is properly good, so much so that I even forgive it the already tired trope of being a podcast about a pretend podcast. It even manges to be decently creepy and scary. 

(In contrast, the latest BBC attempt at this kind of thing, Murmurs, becomes quickly unlistenable. It relies too much on irritating sound effects which are, well, irritating. And it uses a sound effects library of sounds that telephones haven’t made in a long time. Also, it relies on the conceit that all of this drama is happening over telephone conversations – and who, these days, ever really talks on their phone?)

Reaping the deep sleep

Thought it was about time for an update on my sleep therapy. I’ve got an appointment at the sleep clinic later this month, but really the only reason I’m keeping it is because I don’t want to go all the way to the back of the queue if problems arise again.

First of all, the truth: I don’t think I’m ever going to get much more than 6 hours of sleep while I’m working. While I’m on holiday – turns out – I can squeeze in 8 hours or so around all the interruptions and roll out of bed somewhere around the time the (official) working day would be starting in term time. But even then, I’m waking up multiple times in the night, and sometimes for an extended period.

On work days, I’m getting up at 6 a.m. Doesn’t quite have to be that early, but I’d rather be at work early and get in an hour or more before the first bell than having to stay after school and do things then. Going home early has always been my jam.

Things that CBT encouraged me to try:

  • Stopped reading in bed. This was the big one, because it is/was a lifelong habit, and it was frustrating and weird to stop it. So now, when I read, it’s downstairs, and there’s no reading in bed. I get into bed, turn out the light, and roll over.
  • Got a new mattress. Not strictly part of CBT, but certainly about addressing the environment and making it encourage sleep as long as possible. A New mattress was long overdue. I got an Eve, it’s okay. It won’t last long, I don’t think, but we’ll see.
  • Cut down on naps. In many ways, the hardest thing to do. The number of times I get in from work and feel like dropping off on the couch for 40 minutes or so! But the truth is, not lately. Getting better sleep at night has made me less tired in the day and I do not need to nap. I did on holiday, but I was also getting better sleep at night.
  • Sleep restriction. The most important and most effective part of the therapy. Don’t go to bed early. Starting with midnight, and gradually inching my way back to 11 p.m. means that the time I’m spending in bed is mostly asleep. Probably my optimum time, if I’m honest, is around 11:30 p.m., at which point I sleep through to the alarm at 6. I still wake up multiple times a night, but I don’t remember them. Last night, I woke up about 20 times (according to Fitbit data) for a total of 38 minutes, but because I don’t remember, it doesn’t bother me. It’s not the same as waking up at 4:30 and knowing you won’t get back to sleep.

So here we are. I still sometimes feel that 6 hours isn’t quite enough, but I don’t feel broken and exhausted all day; I have a more positive attitude to sleep, and it doesn’t worry me as much as it did (for years on end, until recently). So CBT, and Sleepio, works for me. Ask your doctor about it.

It's time to talk about Doctor Who

When the Britbox streaming service launched in the UK, the thing I was most looking forward to was watching the existing episodes of Doctor Who all the way from the start. While I’m old enough to have been alive from the very beginning, I have only the vaguest memories of William Hartnell, and my first Doctor Who memory proper is of Patrick Troughton as the second doctor. I have several clear Troughton memories: of the Cybermen bursting out of their pods in what I’m assuming must have been The Tomb of the Cybermen (September 1967); the appearance of the Yeti in The Abominable Snowmen (October 1967); and, most clearly, of the cobweb-filled London Underground in The Web of Fear (February 1968). I was between 4 and 5 years old when these episodes aired.

I might also remember William Hartnell “dying” and turning into Patrick Troughton in October 1966, when I was 3, approaching 4 years old.

In reality, then, it’s highly unlikely that I have any memory of watching William Hartnell in the role of Doctor Who, although I do kind of remember a strong emotional reaction to his first regeneration. I was disinclined to like Patrick Troughton because he wasn’t the proper Doctor Who. I also experienced a similar negative response to the later arrival of Jon Pertwee, although the introduction of colour was some compensation.

You might be wondering how one might possibly remember something from so long ago, when one was so very young. But if you peek at the episode count, you realise that Doctor Who really was an almost permanent fixture on Saturday nights in the 60s. The break between the 42 episodes of Season 1 and the 39 episodes of Season 2 was just about six weeks. Then it took a summer break in 1965 (during the school holidays, basically) before returning for the 45 episodes of Season 3. In other words, apart from the summer hols, Doctor Who was on every Saturday night of my childhood until June 1969, when it took a ridiculously long break until January 1970, at which point it was only on for half the year (26 weeks).

So. Hartnell. My goodness, but he was a crap actor. Of course, they were dealing with shaky sets, hastily written scripts, and limited rehearsal time, and Hartnell himself was 55-going-on-800 years old when they made these. But none of it is very good. It’s amazing it became so popular. The scripts are underwritten, with desultory dialogue, and at times seem improvised and padded out to extremes. Although the episodes are less than 25 minutes in length, in one of them, the characters spend 72 minutes deciding whether to jump over an abyss before someone you don’t care about plunges to his death. I don’t know if it was his death, actually, because I myself had fallen by then into a coma, from which I am yet to awake.

The Dalek dialogue is both preposterous and boring, and the chapter in which they are (finally) defeated, after a lengthy sequence of heavily padded episodes, is also hilarious. It turns out there were only 6 Daleks, and they look funny when they’re pushed over.

Hartnell had a habit of fluffing his lines, particularly the important ones — or when called upon to deliver the episode’s title in dialogue, as he does in “The Brink of Disaster”, which is one of two filler episodes after the first Dalek story and before the completely missing Marco Polo story. “The Brink of Disaster” follows “The Edge of Destruction”, and taken together they’re about 50 minutes of insult to the audience’s intelligence.

Onwards to Troughton…

Desperate Island Disco

Well, Sue Lawley’s head in a jar, here we are again. It’s time to revisit the Desert Island Disc list, on this my fourth visit to the island. Yes, I like what you’ve done with the place. Here we are with a snapshot of what’s moving me right now. This time, two records survive from my previous visit, sand in their grooves, plus there’s a different version of a song that was on the previous list. Without further ado:

  1. Jessica – The Allman Brothers Band. A perennial this, something I’ve been listening to for forty years, since the Radio Caroline days. In many ways, this could just be background noise, and sometimes it is, but then it will catch me, and I’ll pay attention, and kick myself for not paying attention to the first three minutes, or whatever it is. It’s not really that Top Gear bit I love so much as the extended improvisation in the middle, which is the bit that will catch my ear. Pentatonic scales: so endlessly versatile.
  2. Party of One – Brandi Carlile. So much in the title alone! This one is new enough to me (and this list) that I didn’t know that title, but I love it just the same. Such a great song, with lines like, “You should always let the sun go down on your anger / Let it burn you to sleep” — but it’s not just the lines. It’s the melody, that falling line around “I loved you the first time I saw you / And you know I love you still” grabs you in the guts. And, great songwriter that she is, Brandi Carlile knows that the words don’t always have to be such a stretch. The repeat of “I am yours, I am yours…” towards the end is another gut punch, and then the lush strings come in to the close. The problem with this one, Sue, is which 30 seconds to play? Because each 30 seconds is a different song.
  3. I Won’t Dance – Frank Sinatra. Last time it was the Count Basie version from 1962, arranged by Neil Hefti; this time, it’s got to be the Nelson Riddle Orchestra version from 1957’s A Swingin’ Affair, which is my favourite Sinatra album. And this song! The second run-through of the lyric, as Frank raises the energy, and improvises a “Ring-a-ding-ding”, is such a joy.
  4. Saturday’s Song – Hiss Golden Messenger. A relatively new discovery for me, MC Taylor’s voice and songwriting are now two of my favourite things, something to turn to when I want to find my peace. His music is like getting into a warm bath, which might not be something that would have appealed to 17-year-old me, but. When I was that age, my habitual way of listening to music was under the warm bedclothes with a radio pressed to my ear. So yes, I do love music that makes me feel warm and comfortable, always have.
  5. Something Good Coming – Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. Surprised myself with this one. I could almost automatically reach for “Learning to Fly” or “Refugee” or “Wildflowers”, but here I am, Sue, picking a late-period number from their album Mojo. It’s a slow build, a mood piece, and maybe that was the mood I was in when I made this list. It’s a sound that soothes you in the background but can also strike you between the ribs when you pay attention to the words. It’s quintessential late-period Heartbreakers, too, because they’re such an incredible unit, they could noodle for hours, playing in the gaps left by each other. Nobody here is doing very much at all, but it all swims together into the groove around Petty’s muttered vocal. Mike Campbell on guitar: never forget how good he is.
  6. Young and Angry Again – Lori McKenna. For me, this song from the great songwriter links to Petty’s American Girl; with it’s opening line, for example: “Sittin’ on the roof to get closer to tomorrow”, and later on you hear Springsteen: “Telling yourself all you’ll ever need / Is a heart full of fire and gasoline”. But the melody and wistful vocal are pure McKenna.
  7. With a Little Luck – Paul McCartney & Wings. I used to hate synthy sounds like this, and I sort of still do; I’d rather a hammond organ, any day. And yet, the stripped back arrangement of this allows McCartney’s superb vocal to shine through, and it’s that voice in the end that gets you, a performance that lifts what might otherwise be a throwaway pop song onto a level that makes people weep. A song that throws people back to some earlier, simpler time.
  8. The Pretender – Jackson Browne. Finally, and forever: my theme song.