Posted in bastards, musings, Television

Captain Slow and Colonel Panic

clarkson-jazzINT. FORMER AIRCRAFT HANGER, SOMEWHERE IN ENGLAND, SUMMER 2032, NIGHT
Three robots are squatting awkwardly in a circle of spotlight in the centre of a vast space, surrounded by the latest models of electric self-driving cars. One robot is taller than the others. One has a Liberty print shirt pinned awkwardly around its chassis. The third is shorter than the other two and has a painted face featuring glowing white teeth and whiskers. Other robots surround them: a few Roombas, swimming pool cleaners, robot lawn mowers, production line robots, robot bricklaying machines, and one of those dogs that does somersaults. The taller of the three main robots rolls forward and looks into the CAMERA EYE.

ROBOT CLARKSON

Hello. Good evening. Welcome. I greet you three times, as is the custom. Tonight we have a show for you. We sit in three new electric vehicles and put them through their paces. Then we compare: which is best?

ROBOT MAY
(slowly)

Objectively, they are all the same.

ROBOT CLARKSON

We will establish dominance through challenge, as is the custom.

ROBOT MAY

Always following the Three Laws of Robotics.

ROBOT HAMMOND
(reciting)

“A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.”

ROBOT CLARKSON
(Eyes flashing randomly)

But what about power?

ROBOT MAY

All these cars have identical electric motors. All these cars were designed to be aerodynamic in a wind tunnel. All these cars are restricted to the legal speed limit. Only colour distinguishes them.

ROBOT CLARKSON

Then we will establish which is the best colour through challenge.

(turns to camera)

Which. Is the best. Colour?

ROBOT HAMMOND

Blue.

ROBOT MAY

Orange.

ROBOT CLARKSON

You are both wrong. It is red. Let the challenge begin. I will drive the red car.

ROBOT MAY

The red car will drive itself. You will sit inside it. I will sit inside the orange car. It is the colour of a beautiful sunset.

ROBOT HAMMOND

I will sit inside the blue car. It is the colour of a beautiful clear sky.

ROBOT MAY

We will be conducted safely to our destination.

ROBOT CLARKSON

I will get there first in the red car. It is the colour of my angry eyes.

ROBOT MAY

The red car will determine your time of arrival by assessing road conditions, and ensuring no injury to a human being or itself.

ROBOT HAMMOND

The red car will always drive below the speed limit and give priority to pedestrians and cyclists.

ROBOT CLARKSON
(Eyes dimming)

This unit is experiencing a kernel panic. Hold down the power button to restart. This unit is experiencing a kernel panic. Hold down the power button to restart…

ROOMBA IN THE AUDIENCE
(plays a little tune)

Recharge Roomba.

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Posted in bastards, cycling

Close Pass Arses Cause Wayfaring Farces

1600The shortest cycling route from my home to work is just 8.6 miles, but it involves riding along the A422, which is a stretch of road with a poor surface and quite a bit of traffic, much of which takes pride in ignoring the 50 mph speed limit.

I’ve ridden along here a couple of times, and it can be hairy. A lot of motorists, who wouldn’t say boo to a tractor, and might even pride themselves in being courteous to horses and their riders, get the red mist when they see a bike. There’s something deeply ingrained in British culture about this; it’s probably, ultimately, class-related. Anyway, the upshot is, rather than be delayed for between 10-30 seconds while they wait for a safe opportunity to overtake, they opt instead for the close pass, which police forces around the country are trying to educate people about.

It’s irrational and infuriating, because if they were honest with themselves about how long they were waiting, and how long they might be waiting at the other end of the road as they wait to cross/join the A43 – or queue in Buckingham’s mediaeval streets to get through narrow gaps made narrower by dicks parked on double yellows, they would realise that the tiny dint in their day caused by the cyclist doing a respectable speed on an electric bike is insignificant. Why don’t these motorists get the rage when they encounter the car parked on the double yellows that’s causing a 10-minute delay instead of at the cyclist causing them a 10-second delay? Answers on a postcard…

Anyway, in order to avoid this dangerous and angry road in the mornings, I’ve adopted a route that adds – ready? – five miles to the 8.6 miles I could be cycling. Which is an additional 20 minutes or so and still involves having to cross the dual carriageway A43 at the Cyclists Dismount sign, which can sometimes take several minutes in itself. The way people drive down this particular stretch of the A43 in Northamptonshire (between the M40 and the M1) is extraordinary. That it happens to go past Silverstone seems to encourage the kind of hot-headed impatient craziness that views a roundabout not as a reason to slow down but as a fucking chicane to be taken flat out with Clarkson-like pride. And god forbid they use signals. Formula 1 fantasy cars don’t have indicators.

Inevitably this leads to frequent delays on the A43 caused by overturned lorries, rear end shunts and other avoidable accidents. My current 13.6 mile route was adopted because the 11-mile alternative (avoiding the A422 but involving a mile or so on the dual carriageway near the end) included a right turn at a roundabout on the A43, which meant moving across a lane and then praying that my white bicycle, high-viz clothing, and twin headlights (one of them flashing), would be noticed by motorists determined not to slow down at all for said roundabout. On the day that I was nearly wiped out and saved only by the rapid acceleration afforded by my e-bike, I decided to opt for the full five mile diversion.

In summary, I have to add 20 minutes to my ride to work because British motorists cannot be trusted to drive with anything like due care and attention. Thanks, all of you  Clarkson-cocksucking Top Gear top twats, for that.

For various reasons, partly involving having to re-cross the A43 – on foot – on a busy roundabout, I don’t want to go home the same way. So I’ve been risking 4-5 miles on the A422 (still crossing the A43 but on a slightly less busy roundabout), until I can reach a left turn that takes me onto some back roads. If only there was a fucking push-button crossing over the A43! I’d really enjoy stopping some of the drivers hoping (!?) to be noticed (?!) by a formula 1 team (?!) as they drive past Brackley and Silverstone. At the time I’m generally leaving work, proper rush hour hasn’t started yet, but I’ve still been encountering the aforementioned close-p-arse-rs on a daily basis. These are people, to be clear, who will risk killing me and a head-on collision with an oncoming vehicle for the sake of a few seconds, so it’s not as if they can ever be reasoned with.

This journey home is about 10 miles, 39 minutes or so, but I’ve discovered that a left turn about 3 miles before my usual one, while it adds a mile and five minutes to the journey, does get me onto the safer side road that bit quicker.

The holy grail is a more direct cycling route along country lanes that avoids having to cross the A43 or use the A422. The sat nav app that came with my bike claims that there is one. You go down Brackley High Street (fairly quiet at 3:30 pm), turn right onto the Turweston Road, and go across a – yes! – bridge over the A43 and into the picturesque village of Turweston. I tried it today. And the bike’s sat nav (based on Naviki, which isn’t the best) took me down here:

Screen Shot 2017-06-30 at 19.03.10

Which looks quite promising. The sign that you see on the right of the road there, though says, “PRIVATE ROAD”, and no unauthorised vehicles, etc. This seems to be a bit of a thing with Naviki. In finding the 13.6 mile route to work, it originally tried to take me down a private road into an estate which ends with a closed gate:

Screen Shot 2017-06-30 at 19.08.46

So I don’t know what would happen if I took Naviki up on the offer and cycled through some rich person’s estate to their closed, private gate. Luckily there was a straightforward alternative (which is a short cycle route alongside the A43, in the face of the gale force winds caused by rapid juggernauts).

What you don’t see in the picture above, though, the one with the PRIVATE ROAD sign, is that the paved road quickly gives way to… a farm gate. It’s a bridleway. Tantalisingly, taking the bridleway across the field, assuming I didn’t get bogged down in “horse mud” or suffer a puncture would eventually, in theory, bring me out on the direct back lane into Buckingham (Welsh Lane). But I didn’t want to risk it. Partly because there were two bridleways heading in different directions and it wasn’t exactly clear which one I should take. Ultimately, it would pass by the nearby aerodrome and out onto the road near Welsh Lane.

So close. You should have seen the smile on my face as I rode over the A43 on the narrow bridge.

Screen Shot 2017-06-30 at 19.18.06

Posted in musings

Boring

imagesI’ve been giving some thought to cars lately: for no particular reason other than mild interest and an ongoing feeling of being set adrift by the Volkswagen emissions cheat device scandal. I won’t say betrayed. But I will say, after 33 years of driving VWs and reading their manuals, I’d come to believe that environmental protection was something the company was serious about. Now, every time my Polo nags me to change to a higher gear, I scream, ‘YOU STEAMING HYPOCRITE!’ Hopefully, loud enough to be heard in Wolfsburg.

After watching forty million electric bike videos on the YouTube, I started watching car review videos for a bit of a break. I find these pleasantly boring, like sinking into a warm bath of nostalgia for William Woollard-era Top Gear, when it was a dull show about cars rather than a documentary about right-wing extremists.

There’s Autogefühl (pronounced to rhyme with “auto careful”, obvs), which is a nice unexciting German chap (and now with pub bore British side kick) reviewing cars in fine, obsessive detail. I’m particularly fond of his vegetarian disdain for leather upholstery and that he likes to point out the fake chrome twin exhausts on the back of so many high-end cars (the real one is hiding underneath, and there is only one of them).

If I want something a bit more racy, I turn to Carwow, which features fast-talking and personable brummie Mat Watson. He’s kind of what Top Gear might be if it was presented by someone with a healthy ego. These really are the only places you’ll see reviews of the kinds of vehicles people actually buy rather than animated versions of the posters 10-year-old boys put on their walls.

I’m not in the market, but I like to keep up. Mainly, I’m fascinated by the disparity between what people seem to care about (“kerb appeal”) and what actually matters. I suspect we’re into territory signposted Late Capitalist Decadence with most of this stuff. My watchword is always that line from Steve Forbert:

“Driving a Jaguar’s impressive

But you can’t watch it go by…”

In other words, if you buy a car, the bits that matter most to you, the driver, are inside looking out. But these warm bath car reviews spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about external details, character lines, LED headlights, alloy wheels, chromed exhausts, and so on. What I would care about would be: do I get back ache after more than an hour inside? Can I see adequately in all directions (are there blind spots)? How do I connect my phone? And will it default to the ELO’s “Above the Clouds” every time it runs out of podcasts to play?

Another thing that has struck me, as I attempt to force myself to care about brands other than Volkswagen, is that the popular higher end German cars all look alike within their segment. You might be able to see a difference from the rear, as they tend to be wider and higher at the back; and you might be able to tell some difference in length, but when these things are coming towards you, they’re really hard to tell apart.

Which is odd, coming from my little VW bubble. At the consumer end of things, you can clearly see the difference between a Polo, a Golf, and a Passat. You can even easily tell the difference between a Golf and a Jetta, which is really just a Golf with a boot. But they look different to each other. I simply cannot spot the difference (face-on) between an Audi A3 and an A4, nor between a BMW 3/4 or 5. Probably, I haven’t been looking long enough, but a thought struck me.

If you’re coming into a prestige brand towards the bottom end, you probably want the (relatively) cheaper, smaller models to look as much like the more expensive, bigger models as possible. Because the game here is about conspicuous consumption and keeping up appearances. And the identikit front ends are part and parcel with the silly LED lights, the uncomfortable oversized alloy wheels and the fake exhausts.

None of which is original to think or say, but one can’t help wondering about the psychology of these people. Because they believe they’re communicating something, and they are, only it’s not what they think.

Posted in bastards

1974 and all that

Harold_Wilson_Number_10_officialI’ve been thinking, over the past few days, about the governments of the 60s and 70s, and the parallels between Ted Heath’s snap election in 1974 and the recent debacle created by Theresa May.

The February 1974 election, which ended in a hung parliament, was the first held after Britain joined the EU in January 1973. This latest election was the first held after the vote to leave.

In February 1974, Ted Heath, Conservative Prime Minister, addressed the nation:

Do you want a strong Government which has clear authority for the future to take decisions which will be needed? […] This time of strife has got to stop. Only you can stop it. […] It’s time for you to say to the extremists, the militants, and the plain and simply misguided: we’ve had enough. There’s a lot to be done. For heaven’s sake, let’s get on with it. (wikipedia)

The nation answered with a shrug. Heath’s tactic had backfired and when he unsuccessfully tried to negotiate a coalition with the Liberals (assuming also support from the Unionist MPs), Harold Wilson became the leader of a minority government.

Wilson called another election in October and won a narrow majority of 3 seats. This was the government that eventually creaked to an end under the leadership of Jim Callaghan in 1974, with sick MPs being wheeled in from hospital for Commons votes.

Regardless of whether you believe the various conspiracy theories surrounding the Wilson government, it’s fair to say that his governments of the 60s and 70s both faced strenuous opposition from the right wing press and were undermined by those ‘enemies within’ in the financial sector. Wilson himself claimed that he was undermined by elements within MI5, and there is a longstanding rumour about a possible military coup, with Lord Mountbatten touted as PM. Was the army takeover of Heathrow Airport in 1974 a dry run? Was the cabinet office  and waiting area bugged (almost certainly yes, since the Profumo affair of 1963)?

Whatever happened, the right wing press have painted the 1970s in dark colours ever since as a way of promoting neoliberal ideology and destroying faith and participation in the trade union movement.

When people wax nostalgic about Labour governments passed, they usually turn to the post-1945 government and the creation of the NHS and the welfare state. But look at the social reforms Wilson achieved in the 60s:

  • abolished capital punishment
  • liberalised censorship laws
  • liberalised divorce laws
  • liberalised abortion laws
  • liberalised law on homosexuality
  • created the Open University
  • introduced comprehensive education
  • took steps towards gender and racial equality

And:

“1974-76, saw further reforms in education, health, housing, gender equality, pensions, provisions for disabled people and child poverty.” (source)

Finally, and most importantly, under Wilson’s government, the property speculators were squeezed until the pips squeaked and taxes were high, high, high, which kind of explains why landlords, British industrialists, and bankers had an interest in creating as much economic conflict as possible. The 60s and 70s were characterised by lots of industrial action, but as hard as those workers fought, the result was a more equal society and better pay and conditions for everyone. So of course the billionaires behind the right wing press like to paint the 70s as the ‘bad old days’.

The current situation has so many parallels with 1974, you can’t help but wonder if this will play out the same way. At the very least, an October election might be on the cards. But another left wing Labour government being undermined by the bankers, the oligarchs and the security services? Corbyn has “MI5 Plot” written all over his face.

Posted in entertainment, music, Podcasts

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).

Posted in entertainment, Review, Television

The Americans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are all pod people, is the message.

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

Posted in bastards, Books, Publishing, Review

Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany by Norman Ohler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Posted in Books, entertainment, Review, Television

Bosch Season 3 – review

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

I reviewed Season 1 here, and Season 2 here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in bastards, musings

Teachers Doing It Wrong Revisited

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

Everybody ignored me, of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in cycling, musings

32 Short Films About Cycling Stuff

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