Tuesday, November 21, 2017


A psychedelic, spore-like visual effect created by leaving soaked turtle beans to dry on top of a piece of kitchen towel in the fridge overnight.

Monday, November 20, 2017

2017 in books

My favourite first-time reads from 2017. Once and future classics in bold.

Louisa May Alcott -  Little Women
Naomi Alderman - The Power 
Fredrik Backman - A Man Called Ove
Robert Jackson Bennett - City Of Miracles
Italo Calvino - Invisible Cities
Brian Catling - The Vorrh
Michael Faber - Under The Skin
Eric Flint - 1632 
Andrew Michael Hurley - The Loney
Robin Lane Fox - Alexander The Great
Laura Jane Grace - Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock's Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout
Chris Hadfield - An Astronaut's Guide To Life On Earth
Stuart Heritage - Don't Be A Dick Pete
Dave Hutchinson - Europe In Winter
J M R Higgs - KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money
Lindsey Kelk - Always The Bridesmaid
Mhairi McFarlane - Here's Looking At You; It's Not Me, It's You; Who's That Girl
Ada Palmer - Too Like The Lightning; Seven Surrenders
Laline Paull - The Bees
Charles Stross - Glasshouse
Edmund Wilson - To The Finland Station 
Rob Young - Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Tweeter's Delight

Monday, November 6, 2017

"Look at me, I'm Joseph B..."


Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Ooh, Eduard Bernstein!

I've never been a member of the Labour Party - membership of a political party is something I've struggled to reconcile with the various jobs I've held over the years. So I've no personal stake in the direction of the party or the ideological and tactical debates that encircle it. 

Once upon a time, though, I did write my Masters dissertation on a lengthy comparison of Labour and the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), especially the modernising tendencies of the leadership of both parties from the mid 1980's onwards. So I'll admit to a lively measure of curiosity about what's going on now.

I know, I know: it's lazy to compare thirty years ago with the present day - although Jeremy Corbyn doesn't help with this when he appears on stage with (half of) UB40. So I'm not going to play that movie today.

Instead, I want to wind back over 100 years to this chap, who basically invented reformist Marxist socialism, and is someone I think about when I think about the health of democracy from time to time.

Eduard Bernstein (1850-1932) was one of the founders of the modern German SPD and a died-in-the-wool Marxist. But he was also the guy who pointed out that: 

a) The semi-parliamentary democracy of the German Empire was working out pretty well for the SPD, electorally speaking.
b) It gave them a platform to push for universal suffrage and incremental improvements in the condition of the working classes within capitalism, meeting Bismarck's heirs and their own paternalistic social policy halfway.
c) This was on the whole a better thing for everyday people than waiting for capitalism to collapse from its own contradictions, a la Marx.

'Playing the game'

This is almost certainly a monstrous paraphrase of Bernstein's own sophisticated thinking on the subject. But it's also a pretty good illustration of the judgement that all the mainstream social democratic parties of Western Europe reached at some point or other: that it was in their interests and the interests of those they served to 'play the game' and line up behind parliamentary democracy and a mixed public/private economy (which they usually helped to create). 

Typically, the cerebral German SPD did a lot more thinking out loud about saying goodbye to revolution than other parties, with Rosa Luxemburg being the equivalent figure to Bernstein on the other side of the question. In contrast, with only a homeopathic dosage of Marx in its founding fathers, the Labour Party could crack on with a more pragmatic approach right out of the traps.

After some initial qualified success in Britain and Germany, this approach started to pay off in earnest from the 1930's onwards, with the establishment for example in some form or other of the modern welfare state in country after country. All the mainstream parties of the left became in stages explicitly reformist and downplayed if not repudiated their radical heritage.  

Donald Sassoon's 100 Years Of Socialism goes into a lot more detail about this and is highly recommended if you want to geek out about the history of the Left in earnest.

But what game to play in the twenty-first century? Continued in a follow-up post.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Sulk: Associates' intense little jewel

It begins with 3 minutes of what sounds like end credit music for an 80's TV show - perhaps a provincial soap or minority interest sport. Its synthy brass and fussy disco drumming in no way prepares you for what happens next.

Track Two starts with thirty seconds of atmosphere, like the noise from a litter-strewn clearway late at night. Then a piano refrain to a marching beat. A guitar interjects with a sound like a stunned ox.

Finally, two minutes in - the voice starts. Somewhere mid-Atlantic between New York house diva and European cabaret turn, it's a tenor wail singing about ripping one's hair about by the roots and planting them in a garden to wait for Spring.

It's 1982. The voice is that of Billy Mackenzie, the album is Sulk, the band are The Associates, with Arrogance Gave Him Up's instrumental followed by No's tale of obsessive love forming probably one of the oddest opening one-two punches to a successful pop record ever.

But then it escalates further before it calms: Bap De La Bap is yodelled, shrieked electro-funk, barely in control of itself. Gloomy Sunday approrpriates a jazz standard and wallows in glorious pathos. Nude Spoons is goth with a jaw-harp rythym and a lyric about drugs/finding a Roman coin in the River Tay (McKenzie was from Dundee) delivered in a hysteric's falsetto.

Via the palette cleansers of Skipping and It's Better That Way, Associates finally deign to give us the singles, seven tracks in. Party Fears Two - AKA the one that still gets played on the radio - is a great New Romantic 80's pop song, while Club Country is a disco-fuelled outsider's dismissal of the same scene as sneering, selfish and cruel. Another light entertainment instrumental finishes the whole thing off.

Together with Billy's voice and the inventiveness of the backing tracks (kudos to main foil Alan Rankine) this pushme-pullyu attitude to pop is what makes Sulk so great. All the songs on the album are great pop songs, but on their own terms. They can't be reduced to the sound of a single scene; all sonic affiliations are subverted by that voice or by the next instrumental curveball. It's an intense little jewel of a record.