Personal Top 30 – part 5

Part One; part 2; part 3; part 4

10. Jessica – The Allman Brothers Band. In a sense, this is where it all begins. Even association with Clarkson and Top Gear can’t sully this classic, which I first heard on Radio Caroline and have loved ever since. As a teenager, I more or less considered most of the tracks I heard on Caroline as “oldies”. I mean, I took note of the time they played “Sultans of Swing” because it felt like an incursion of some kind. Wot, modern music? I have a vivid memory of standing in the kitchen at home (a rare moment during the day when I managed to pick up a clear signal) when they once played a Mike Oldfield track called “Guilty”, (here’s a link) an instrumental track from 1979 which utilised some electronic gubbins. Wikipedia states, “It is notable for being Oldfield’s first obvious attempt to capitalise on a current musical trend, in this case disco/dance music.” And I remember the DJ saying something along the lines of, “That’s Mike Oldfield and Guilty. I should say so.” Which I thought was hilarious. So that would have been bang on its release, ’79. But listening to “Jessica” and suchlike, I just assumed they were really old. Brothers and Sisters, the album it came from, was released in 1973. LOL. So at most it was six years old when I first heard it. And now it’s 43 years old and still perfect. An instrumental, something unusual for me to like, but a perfect demonstration of how much you can do with the pentatonic scale. It’s still my jam. But it was quite a few years before I actually bought it. There was a moment I had to give myself permission to buy some of this uncool 70s guitar (dad) rock.

Don’t read the comments.

9. Tell Me Fool – Vince Gill. From his 2011 album Guitar Slinger, this track is now older than Jessica was when I first heard it. My head explodes with feeling old. It’s a lovely example of both Mr Gill’s soulful voice and his unparalleled ability to play lead guitar on a song which is both perfect for the song and which lifts the energy level of the track. There’s a clear before and after on this. Up to about 1:45, when the solo kicks in, it’s a lovely song. I love the groove of it, the rhythm track, and the way the musical arrangements have all the instruments somehow making space for each other in the mix. And then about 30 seconds later, the emotion in the song is heightened. And then comes a breakdown before it all whooshes in for the ending.

8. Vs of Birds – Dwight Yoakam. There are a couple of crucial musical moments in my life. One of them was definitely my discovering of Radio Caroline on 319m on the medium wave dial. The other was when a colleague at work made me a cassette with some mid-80s “New Country” on it. There was some Randy Travis, some Judds, and some Dwight Yoakam. I remember driving back to work that night and slipping the tape into the player in the car. At first, I was underwhelmed, but then came the whiskey night. My best friend, my girlfriend and I stayed up late one night drinking whiskey in the kitchen, and something encouraged us to put Steven’s tape on. That combination of the right kind of booze and the right kind of company was my Road to Damascus.

Dwight Yoakam’s first two albums brought a modern sensibility to California style country (the Bakersfield Sound), and he had a good run. My kids don’t like his yip yip voice, but I think it’s great, and every now and then he hits the spot. This song was written by Anthony Crawford whose own version of it is very good, a sweet high voice and a strummed acoustic guitar cutting against a pad of strings. But Yoakam brings the drums, brings the hard-strummed mandolin and electric guitar, brings the power of his voice, and makes it into a Dwight Yoakam song.

When I hear this I’m on another road, this one running from Auxelles Bas down towards Lachapelle-sous-Chaux, a village of no particular note. But it is downhill all the way, so it’s fun on a fast bike, and you do pass a place that sells firewood. It’s such a brilliant capture of a moment in time. Blue skies, sunshine, but birds flying south and ricks of wood at the side of the road. Winter is coming. Where have I heard that before?

7. Your Secret’s Safe With Me – Dan Colehour. Here’s another artist I heard over the radio one time, bought an album based on that one track. By now, I’ve distilled my consumption of that album down to this one song, which is not the one I first heard. But this: this has possibly my favourite guitar solo on it. It’s a Springsteen-like dance around the fretboard that makes my heart go thump. I’ve no idea who Dan Colehour is or what his deal is, but this is a moment of greatness. And this video has… 8 plays on YouTube. It’s quintessentially that song you hear on the radio that makes you jump out of your car seat or bounce around the kitchen.

6. The Pretender – Jackson Browne. Not a cover this time, but the real deal. Like his contemporary Bruce Springsteen, this man who has probably never had a proper job in his life somehow manages to capture the essence of existential suburban boredom, the imposter syndrome of being a salary man (or woman), of stepping out among your neighbours and being both within and without that peripheral lawn-mowing lifestyle, a denizen of the hedges and flower borders. And the children solemnly wait for the ice-cream van to come as the summer heat gives way to the cool of the evening. Needless to say, this is my theme song.

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The Personal Top 30 – Part One

Context

My formative music years were the 70s. Early on, I discovered in myself an aversion to mainstream music radio and the endless walls of shit you had to endure in between the more acceptable fare. But I loved the radio itself, and loved to explore the medium wave dial, listening at night for the distant sounds of Radio Moscow and other voices in the dark bouncing off the heavyside layer. And so it was that one night I came across Radio Caroline, broadcasting from somewhere in the North Sea from the rusting hulk the Mi Amigo.

Dunstable was a long way from the sea off Frinton, but if you kept your finger on the dial and were prepared to endure the drifting parasites and intruding voices, you could hear the good stuff.

This was not the Caroline of its 60s heyday. That Caroline was eviscerated by the 1967 Marine Broadcasting Offences act. This Caroline was based over in Spain (not part of the EU until 1986) and had a loosely hippy philosophy based on Loving Awareness (Caroline’s take on the Golden Rule) and a policy of only playing album tracks. Through this I was introduced to a broad spectrum of 60s and 70s rock. I didn’t love all of it, but it was all at least interesting, and helped me to understand my own tastes. The closest Caroline came to playing punk or new wave was to give an airing to “Sultans of Swing”, and this avoidance of the spiky new stuff was fine by me. You heard that everywhere else, after all.

My favourite shows, by far, were the weekend “Personal Top 30s”, which were given over to listener choices in a way that puts the occasional requested track on mainstream radio into perspective. A two hour show would be given over to one listener’s preferences. Sure, a lot of it ended up being pretty samey, but that was just the way you knew you were in the right place.

This all came to mind again because I was listening to a re-broadcast of David Hepworth’s Radio 3 talks about authenticity in music. He mentioned that in commercial radio these days the idea that the DJ would get to choose any of the music on the playlist was complete anathema. And then I thought, if I were to send my own personal Top 30, as of now, to the Radio Caroline of my dreams, what would be on it? Most of it would be fairly recent in terms of release dates, but not all. And some of it, it turns out, would have been on my list in 1979, too. 

Let’s start with the first five tracks.

30. Don’t Change on Me – Alan Jackson. This song, from his 2006 album Like Red on a Rose, is a perfect example of Mr Jackson’s musical philosophy. He just keeps singing this stuff, and it really doesn’t change much. I think this has a beautifully rich production, gospel-style backing vocals and hammond organ, and the kind of musical tastefulness that is his stock in trade. Of course, most of the Caroline listeners have switched off already, because this is a country song.

29. That’s Life – Frank Sinatra. Sinatra’s last great song, from 1966, with more great hammond organ and Darlene Love, among others, on backing vocals. It is perhaps his most modern-sounding recording. The clips you can find of him performing this live tend not to have the backing vocals. The song sounds hollowed out without them, but you still get the tour-de-force vocals, with the defiant string of plosives which might only be there to demonstrate his incredible microphone technique. Oh, and it’s the late Hal Blaine on drums, too.

28. Dancing in the Moonlight – Thin Lizzy. One of the first albums I bought was Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous. I remember being disappointed that it didn’t include “The Boys Are Back in Town” (should have checked the track listing more carefully), and also slightly unimpressed by most of the twin-guitar rock stuff. But this? A classic single, one of the great tracks driven by its baseline, and so much better than any other track which dares take this title in vain. Mentioning no names. I didn’t know back then about the excessive overdubbing that went on for that live album, but I probably wouldn’t have cared. Authenticity? What’s that? I do actually always get chocolate stains on my pants.

27. Not the Only – Sugarland. Pretty recent this, from their 2018 comeback album. I love Sugarland and could have chosen any number of their songs, but I realised when this came on the first time that I absolutely love hearing Christian Bush’s gravelly voice cutting against Jennifer Nettles’ power vocal, and on this he gets to sing on his own, too. It turns out, that while she’s the one with the huge voice, his is the one that creates the anthemic feel.

26. The Ceiling – The Wild Feathers. A recent discovery for me, but this track is from 2013, another anthemic country-rock song to give you a lift. You can trace a line back from this to the Radio Caroline 70s and the occasional Eagles or The Band track that would come on. Vocal harmonies and guitars, what’s not to like? 

Space. Forced.

BBC Sounds, yesterday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shudder.

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

Podcasty Update

Image result for lyn dawson

Some of the key players in The Teacher’s Pet

Some I enjoy

Omnibus! With Ken Jennings and John Roderick

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

Fortunately… with Fi and Jane

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

Heavyweight (Gimlet)

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

Serial (season 3)

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

The Teacher’s Pet

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

And some I’ve given up on

Up and Vanished

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

The Black Tapes

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

Chris Stapleton and Justin Timberlake at the CMAs

I bought the Chris Stapleton album in the summer, after reading Grady Smith’s column in the Guardian. (Grady Smith is a far better source for news about good new music than the pathetic iTunes Country section.)

It is a great album, well-deserving of its Album of the Year prize, and veteran songwriter Stapleton must feel some irony at being awarded the New Artist prize in addition to the well-deserved Male Vocalist prize. He fairly swept the board this year, which I think is a hopeful sign, given the terrible trend towards what has come to be called Bro Country in the past couple of years.

Here comes the backlash, as Nashville’s love of great songs reasserts itself. Not only did Little Big Town win Song/Single of the year for “Girl Crush” (a clear signal to country radio programmers that they’re getting things wrong), but Chris Stapleton has won three prestigious awards based on zero airplay on country radio. Zero. At this point, nobody is thinking radio programmers are doing a good job.

In a stroke of co-marketing genius, Stapleton performed two songs with Justin Timberlake at this week’s CMA Awards. Whereas other guest appearances by pop/R&B artists have fallen very flat in the past, the multi-syllabic Timberlake/Stapleton pairing was a true musical event. I know almost nothing about Mr Timberlake, aside from the fact that the guy’s a decent actor as well as a musician. I know enough not to muddle him up with that other Justin.

Timberlake’s from Memphis, and Chris Stapleton’s album edges more towards Blues than country, especially given his gruff-but-flexible voice. As you can see from the video above, both artists can sing, both can control their melisma and both were thoroughly enjoying themselves. I’ve watched it several times now, and I still think it’s the most exciting performance I’ve seen in a really long time. I think you can tell that everybody on the stage and everybody in the audience was aware that everything was falling perfectly into place. It’s not often that something that’s kind of hyped in advance can live up to expectations, but I think this performance exceeds all expectations. I don’t think anybody could have believed it would be this good.

As impressed as I was by their performance, you could tell how special it was by seeing the reaction of the old pros in the audience. Look at the expression on Keith Urban’s face as he records some of the performance on his smartphone. Look at the other artists who are not only digging it, but clearly wishing they could be on the stage. There’s even a shot of what looks like a Music Row executive (?) with a diabolical fixed grin on his face. You could almost see the $ signs revolving in his eyes.

The full 8-minutes has received over 3.5 million views on the official ABC channel (notwithstanding ropy over-compressed audio – the two separate videos I’ve posted here have better sound), and Stapleton has hit #1 in the iTunes chart: again, with zero support from country radio.

Traveller isn’t my personal favourite album of the year, but it’s wonderful that the shaggy-beared scruffy songwriter is up there taking the spotlight away from the bros. And as for a putative “country” outing from Mr Timberlake, I think I might give it a listen.

Podcast Central

Robot or Not?

Robot or Not?

Time for a regular update on what I’m listening to, podcast wise.

I’m on the cusp of a big cull, because (thank goodness) my days of long commutes are numbered, and in September I’ll be needing about 100 minutes less listening material every day, 500 minutes a week – over 8 hours of podcasts I won’t have time to listen to.

I’ve decided I’ve got too many storytelling podcasts on my list, so a few of those will go. And I probably listen to way too many tech podcasts – given that I’m going to be a bog-standard English teacher next year. I think I’ll probably drop a number of the NPR style shows as well.

As an English teacher, I’m enjoying Helen Zaltzman’s The Allusionist, which is a bi-weekly examination of word origin stories. It tends to be short, which is a blessing, and Ms Zaltzman has a proven track record of sharp wit, evidenced on her other podcast Answer Me This, which you don’t need me to tell you about. It’s been interesting to hear her pop up on The News Quiz a couple of times recently, and you know what? I can see her being a perfect replacement for Sandi Toksvig.

The Incomparable Game Show continues to be great fun. If you like Radio 4 6:30 pm comedies, you’d love this. They tend to be longer (podcasts allow for this) and sometimes stretch to absurd lengths (as when they play Trivial Pursuit and can’t finish even though they reduced it to just 3 wedges per person), but it’s fun. My favourite sub-episode is still “Inconceivable” but I also loved the week when they were answering questions from a 1970s home version of Family Feud, which is called Family Fortunes in the UK. Trying to guess what 100 idiots might have said in answer to questions in the 1970s – so funny.

Live From High Fidelity is great. I don’t always have time for it, I confess, and I usually don’t know who the interview subject is, but this show in which two guys interview a guest about their career and play some vinyl is terrific. I loved the Maria McKee episode, and the Glyn Johns episode was brilliant.

I might stop listening to Radio 4’s The Media Show, because, well, not going to be teaching media. But I’ve started listening to Mair and Peston’s Radio 4 Interview Show, in which they take turns, um, interviewing someone. The high concept is that one of them prepares and the other one doesn’t. The one thing I miss about listening to actual radio is Eddie Mair, so this is a pleasure.

My current favourite podcast is Reconcilable Differences, with Merlin Mann (of 43 Folders fame) and John Siracusa (of Accidental Tech, Hypercritical and long, long Mac OS reviews fame). They sit and discuss their personal biographies and related matters. The tagline is that they ‘try to figure out exactly how they got this way’. Both men are interesting, and to listen to them talk (at length, be warned) is a pleasure.

Finally, John Siracusa also turns up with Jason Snell on a short, short podcast (2-3 minutes per episode) in which they discuss whether something is a Robot or Not. So far, I think, only a Roomba vacuum cleaner is a robot.

Serial Box

Adnan_Syed_1998I don’t want to labour a point I already made on Twitter, but I started listening to Serial before you did (just deal with it). I heard the first episode when it was on This American Life, and it was not the first episode of that long-running show that had me gripped from beginning to end. I remember standing in the kitchen, in the middle of cooking, paused in mid-move so as not to make a sound, lest I drown out the distorted telephone voice.

My first exposure to podcasts was via The Word magazine, and I occasionally enjoyed listening to several middle-aged blokes sitting around talking about music obsessively. I am a middle-aged bloke myself, an accident of birth, so I was very much the target demographic. Never in a million years did I think that one day I would abandon live radio altogether in favour of a subscription list of (at last count) 45 podcasts.

mb9jGYeI listen to a lot of tech, and a lot of ‘true stories’ podcasts, but also things like Philosophy Bites, Life of the Law, 99% Invisible, and so on. I am still loyal to the Radio 4 podcasts I have always listened to, but they’re not longer at the top of my things to love.

Serial has generated a lot of column inches over the past couple of weeks as slow-moving old media finally caught up with it. It was even on Radio 4’s Media Show. Yes, I am sneering at them. Has Serial’s adoption by mainstream media spoiled the pleasure a little bit? I think it has. It’s a bit like when you love a band and expend a lot of time trying to tell people about them, only to have your dreams come true, and, oh, now everyone is talking about them and you don’t feel special any more. I know I’ll feel a wrench if I ever see a Larkin Poe feature in the Graun.

As someone with impaired hearing (I can’t hear the full frequency range), I struggle sometimes to hear what people are saying on Serial. The first podcasts I listened to were just people (blokes, usually) sitting around a microphone, but the more sophisticated podcasts are proper radio soundscapes with music, sound effects, and clever editing of contributors. I think they’re brilliant, but background music and layered voices can be hard. Some of the recordings are of sub-optimal quality. In the case of Serial you are of course dealing with 15-year-old courtroom testimony, police interview tapes, and all those phone calls with Adnan Syed. Some of it is hard to make out, but it is all compelling, and it underscores the sense that this podcast is a serious piece of investigative journalism, with an evidence base. Hunting around online, you can find scans and photos of documents, letters, maps, tables, and so on.

What makes Serial different from other examples of investigative journalism? After all, the idea of a journalist using some media platform to expose a miscarriage of justice is not new. But when TV or radio has done it in the past, they usually condense the years-long research and legwork into an easy-to-digest hour or 45 minutes for broadcast. But the thing with a podcast, and the thing I started to get as soon as I started listening to The Word, is that your audience can be so niche that there can be no such thing as too much information. It was listening to middle-aged blokes sitting around talking about The Beatles that gave me this insight. How much is too much to an obsessive? No such thing.

So Serial is investigative journalism and narrative for obsessives. Once the first episode has you hooked, you just want more and more, never ending. And while mainstream media has occasionally made noises about how disappointing and Lost-like it will be if there’s no real conclusion, I don’t think that really matters. The thing about serial narratives is that you have to find ways to keep it going.

In reality, you don’t have to dig very deep to find potential spoilers. As we keep being reminded, this is a real case with real people, and you don’t get 5 million downloads without somebody paying attention.

You’ll be wanting to know what I think (Chorus: Nobody cares what you think!)

From the very first episode, I knew that there had not been a convincing case made, that there was reasonable doubt. By the time you heard recordings of two of the jurors, you realised that, somehow or other, they’d been bamboozled and confused into convicting in a ridiculously short time. One of them said that she believed Jay because “he was going to jail anyway, so why would he lie?” When in fact the whole point was that Jay’s sweet deal meant he wasn’t going to jail. That, there, should be enough to invalidate the verdict: the jury were not in possession of all the facts. Not because they hadn’t been told, but maybe because they were a bit thick. Then there was the juror who judged Adnan guilty for not defending himself after being specifically instructed not to take that into account. As for all those who claim that you can’t help making such a judgement and putting this down to legal niceties, I disagree. If you think about it at all, if Adnan was innocent (which he has already said by entering a plea), it was up to the State to prove him guilty. So, no, you don’t judge somebody for not trying to ‘prove’ their innocence. The point is that there’s supposed to be a presumption of innocence. That recording of that juror showed that for at least one of the jury – and probably more than one – there was no presumption of innocence. Again, I have to ask myself if they were a bit thick.

As we all know, the case always rested on shaky ground, viz:

  • Cell tower evidence, which doesn’t show what the police claimed that it showed in 1999.
  • Testimony from Jay, who was clearly coached to the eyeballs by the prosecution and police who did a deal with him to keep him out of jail.
  • A supposed time-line of the murder and a time of death that makes no sense.
  • A phone call supposedly from a payphone that clearly didn’t exist at a time when some witnesses claim that Hae was still alive.
  • Witnesses and evidence that was not followed up by either the police or the defence team.
  • An discredited (and irritating) defending lawyer whose style of questioning must have been so fucking hard to listen to for five weeks, was it not? Was it not? Was it not?

Mostly, however, I think the case rests on prejudice against Adnan because he was an American boy with a Pakistani background. A lot of the police narrative of the case rests on the (implied) idea that this was some kind of ‘honour’ killing, by a stereotypically angry Muslim. All of the stories about him being dragged out of dances, about the secrecy surrounding his relationship with Hae – all of that implies that this was somehow unusual. As his cousin has pointed out on her blog, this is actually just typical for just about any Asian-American teenager.

I’m not Asian, of course, but this also rang true to me. When I was in my early 20s, I dated a girl whose over-protective father would not let her go out with boys. I used to park and wait at the end of her road. She would leave home to ‘go round a (girl) friend’s house’, and jump in my car. We would go out, and I would drop her at the end of the road and watch her walk home. We did this for several months, before she finally plucked up the courage to tell her old man. Who used to let his yappy little dog loose whenever I came to the door after that.

So I’m fairly clear that there has been a miscarriage of justice, that there was tons of reasonable doubt. But I’m also more sold on podcasts than ever before. And the best app, for my (actual) money is Overcast.

Burning Paradise by Robert Charles Wilson – review

16059400 A new RCW novel is always welcome, though his chances of matching his form on the likes of The Chronoliths and Spin are slight. So I approach his work with anticipation and trepidation, knowing I will enjoy the read, not want it to end, and yet still be slightly disappointed overall.

I’ve tried to avoid actual plot spoilers, but if like me you prefer to approach something totally cold, you should definitely avoid parts of this review. What I’ve tried to do below is indicate, using italics, aspects of the novel you might prefer to work out for yourself.

Burning Paradise is set in an alternate 2014, 100 years after the Great War ended in Armistice – not after dragging on for years – but in a few months. The 20th and 21st centuries have played out differently: more peaceful, it’s true, but also with a much slower pace of technological development. There are no digital communications, no smartphones, no satellites.

World communication still depends upon the ionosphere (also known as the Heavyside Layer), which reflects radio signals around the globe. For a small group of people, however, radio and other electronic communications are out of the question. This apparently eccentric group, known as the Correspondence Society, are aware that the ionosphere is not what it seems.

Rather than a natural phenomenon, the properties of the radiosphere are sinister and alien. It is a parasitical “hyper colony”, surrounding the earth and deliberately altering communications to create the conditions it needs to thrive. Imagine if in today’s satellite communications, a slight delay allowed for digital pictures and messages to be subtly altered, manipulating events and responses to prevent unwelcome outcomes.

 World peace,  other words. Or, in the case of our reality, capitalist hegemony. In this secret world lives Cassie, teenage daughter of a murdered scientist, whose world comes (further) unravelled when a road accident indicates that their cover is blown.

Whereas Tim Powers (in Declare) imbued the Heavyside Layer with supernatural properties, RCW’s take on it is closer to traditional science fiction tropes concerning pod people, free will, and the true nature of humanity. If not quite pod people, Wilson’s “sims” are like plausible psychopaths, who can act human while feeling absolutely nothing.

As with many RCW novels, we have protagonists with family issues, we have long road trips, and we have a technological sublime that surpasses human understanding. There’s nothing here that RCW hasn’t done before in other ways, which is not to say that this isn’t an enjoyable read with pleasurable sentences and a plot that grips at times. The focus here is not on the alt.historical backdrop, which is merely sketched (much is left for the reader to work out), but on the characters and their relations with each other. Not as meaty or thought-provoking as Spin or Blind Lake, this is still intelligent speculative fiction, packed with ideas and calculated surprises.

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