Monday, December 30, 2013

2013's top ten posts from the blog

As an end of the year flourish, here are the top ten posts from my blog this year by page views.

My top ten gleanings from the Sheila McKechnie Foundation campaigning conference.

Big Issue columnist Brendan O'Neill presents climate scepticism as a censorship issue rather than a science issue - I respecfully disagree.

What happens when you can't - or won't - keep artists' self-serving cant or the indirect promotion of hate speech out of your pages. 

My photo-blog of life in the office and community space in Digbeth where I work.

The first time I think we've really gone to a festival and shown the audience the true depth of Friends of the Earth, and what it might mean for the future. 

'Twitter in full-on outrage diva mode is like being in one of those pub-discussions-gone-wrong where people tell you earnestly that something is awful, that the world is doomed, the Government can't do anything right, or that Knightmare wasn't anywhere near as good after they introduced the Eye Shield'

Prep material for a game with friends this Spring - a bit of an outrider as the sole intrusion of full-on geekery into the list.

When the Beatles and the Velvet Underground are as experimental as your Top 10 gets, then you know you've got serious ancestor-worship problems.

Open thread in the wake of the May local elections - I did actually get some responses!

The top rated guest post this year was a frontal assault on 'that useless piece of plastic that functions neither as a spoon or a fork.' 

When I audited my blog around this time last year (see part one and part two), the top change i decided to make was to write more about my work with Friends of the Earth, about organizing and politics more generally. As I noted at the time, many people write about the Hobbit movies, less people are writing about the interstices between politics, organising and geek culture.

As the majority of these posts have had more views than all of last year's top ten, albeit still not huge numbers, we can say this is probably paying off. I'm carving out a small but perfectly formed niche for myself. A lot of these views are probably bots, but hey, I have no other way of keeping score. :-)

The other main change I've made is increasing the number of posts - from 72 posts in 2012 to 169 this year, inclusive of this round-up. That's with some help from guest posts (thank you - you know who you are).

What I haven't yet gotten as good at as I might like is regarding the blog as a dialogue rather than a monologue. There have been more comments left this year but with honourable exceptions like the UKIP thread I haven't consistenty sought people's views out. 

I also haven't linked across to other people's blogs or @'tted people on Twitter as much as I might have done, although the top two posts both benefited from RT's via the Big Issue and the #peoplepower hashtag.

So, 2014 should probably be the year when this space becomes a conversation.

More than anything, I've enjoyed the task of regularly writing, of using this space like an auxillary brain, sharing my views and working out what I actually think.

If you've been reading - thanks for visiting and I hope you come back next year.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Gin & Flamingoes present Weihnachtsmarkt

Here's Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas Market) my annual spoken word contribution to Adam Ings' Bibby Factors Christmas music compilation - audio version here.

I had the idea of filtering a typical experience at Birmingham's German Christmas Market through Kraftwerk's The Hall of Mirrors -  so the following works better if you read it in the meter of the song. Possibly also in a slightly blank, robotic tone of voice, although your mileage may vary. 

The last chorus in particular only really works if you assume it's being declaimed in a very Mitteleuropa accent.

And if Ralf or Florian by some strange twist of fate are reading this, all I can say is that I'm very, very sorry.

The young man stepped into the Christmas market
Where he discovered a reflection of himself
Dressed in a Christmas pudding jumper
Hat and ears like he was cosplaying an elf

Said his double "Change your ways and fast"
"For I am the spirit of the Weihnachtsmarkt."

"Yeah, you'd better change your ways and fast.
For I am the spirit of the Weihnachtsmarkt"

His doppelganger led him through the market
A panopticon of robotic St Nicks
As they moved past the booths and the parties
He found it harder to be detatched
To be i-ron-ic. 

They shot the breeze over sausages and Glühwein
Under the lights of the golden carousel
Looked at rock salt lamps, dream-catchers and crystals
A descent into some yoghurt-weaving hell

Asked our Scrooge "is it me or is it that"
"No one with any taste would buy this tat?"

"Is it just me or is that
No-one with any taste would buy this tat?"

But suddenly he fell in love with Christmas
He understood the Weihnachtsphantom's pitch
The creepy Santa automata turned heartwarming
To step into Xmas, you must embrace the kitsch

So he made up the partygoer he wanted to be
And changed into a festive personality

And even our humbugger
Has been changed for good in the Weihnachtsmarkt
Yes, even our narrator
Has been changed for good in the Weihnachtsmarkt

Friday, December 20, 2013

Why campaign meetings aren't just about decisions and doing, but cake too!

First law of meetings: a good meeting gets stuff done. 

Second law of meetings: a great  meeting gets stuff done but also includes cake.

In my old Friends of the Earth group there was a great woman called Margaret. Among the many things she did was ensure that all our meetings were welcoming affairs with tea and biscuits. Sometimes even cake.

Margaret may not have spearheaded any campaigns and her role might have been invisible to most. But her contribution was crucial to the cohesion of the group and to the quality of experience people had at our meetings.

Cut to the (management) science bit

Let's bring in a bit of chin-stroking. John Adair sets out a pretty simple model for a well-functioning team with three interdependent areas - the needs of the task, the team and the individuals which make it up.

TM John Adair - see his website here.

Pretty much any volunteer group with an eye on its long-term sustainability would want to make sure its meetings were delivering on all counts - getting tasks done and taking decisions, making sure people are working together well as a team and trying to meet the needs of the individuals (familiar and fresh faces) that have turned up that evening. 

However, I propose the following collective mea culpa on behalf of campaigners: our groups and our meetings are sometimes overly task-focused. We're very busy putting the metaphorical smack-down on bad things happening. Dare I say we tend to the overly Puritan in approach, if we don't watch ourselves?

And while just looking at action can be very motivating in the short-term, if we want to be successful in the longer term attention must be paid to the rest of the equation. 

People won't come to meetings if they're not having fun or getting some kind of validation from attending. We can't assume we're instinctively providing an inspiring evening for people. We can't assume we're getting it right through benign neglect.

And that's why I think we need to talk about quality of experience. 

And cake. 

It's not all about the cake, but I do think the presence of bakery items at a meeting is a good indication of whether a group is thinking about whether people are having a good time there. Custom and human behavior wouldn't place so much importance on hospitality, on breaking bread and the informal conversation that goes with a cup of tea, if it wasn't such an effective method of bringing people together and lightening the atmosphere, however serious the occasion.*

Hospitality and welcome brings quality of experience front and centre for groups alongside the need to do. It gives people like Margaret who might not be your key campaigners the chance to exercise a significant role in your group. It could be the glue that holds you all together and helps you grow.

There are lots of other things a group can do to ensure that a meeting doesn't just trudge, but swings, which perhaps I'll write about in the future. But cake is a good finger-in-the-wind indication that you're on the right track.

And if your group doesn't offer cake (or the equivalent) at your meetings yet, why not try make this small resolution next year and see how it works for you?

With thanks to Tom Wright for inspiration.

*I remember hearing Victoria Harvey, another Friends of the Earth activist once say that meetings with council officers went better with chocolate cake as well. So this approach works externally too.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Cake IS quality of experience, unless the cake is a lie

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Living fossil

Found between the pages of a book from - yes - the mid nineties on sale in Hay.

It's not quite an exact comparison, but in 2013 an off-peak return ticket from Cardiff to London bought on the day will cost you £70.50.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Douglas Rushkoff on role-playing: one part hurrah to one part facepalm

It's rare that you'll find a writer outside the hobby covering role-playing at all, let alone with any insight. So it was interesting to come across a chapter dealing with just that in cyber-critic Douglas Rushkoff's early 90's book Cyberia (full version available from the Cyberpunk Library here).

Cyberia itself is a wide-eyed hymn to the the emancipatory potential of computing from an observer on the cusp of internet culture, with much musical and pharmaceutical cross-referencing to the Second Summer of Love. 

If this book were a band, it would be The Shamen.

Rushkoff makes connections between various forms of self-actualisation and -exploration, which goes some way to explaining his take on RPG's.
 Having fully accepted ontological relativism as a principle of existence, Ron and his posse of 'gamers' live the way they play, and play as a way of life. It is not just that life is a game, but that gaming is as good a model as any for developing the skills necessary to journey successfully through the experience of reality. It is a constant reminder that the rules are not fixed and those who recognise this fact have the best time.
He goes on to describe a not-untypical session (in a GURPS fantasy setting, in case you're wondering) in detail we shall skip over here, before concluding that role-playing games are
surprisingly engrossing. They share the hypertext, any-door-can-open feeling of the computer net. 
Rushkoff concludes:
Role-playing games are based on the texture and reality of the playing experience. They are the ultimate designer realities and, like VR, the shamanic vision quest or a hacking run, the adventurer moves from point-to-point in a path as non-linear as consciousness itself. The priorities of [fantasy role-playing games] reflect the liberation of gamers from the mechanistic boundaries imposed on them by a society obsessed with taking sides, winning, finishing and evaluating.
This is a high-minded perspective, and you do wonder what Rushkoff would make of a party of munchkins, or the raid and level-up reductionist take on role-playing demonstrated in MMORPG's. But he does get to the heart of the liberating potential inherent (even if not always realised) in the medium of open-ended gaming.

And he actually makes gaming sound pretty cool.

Then it all starts to go a little wrong.

In the second half of the chapter Rushkoff describes the GURPS group's fondness for 'edge games' - translating role-play into real life through assuming new identities and refusing to break character, and activities such as theft and chasing each other around shopping malls on acid. 

Or as we gamers like to call it: acting like bloody idiots.

The gamesmaster Ron in particular comes over as a more than a bit creepy, what with his 'learning how to manipulate others through new forms of hypnosis and experimental cult activities.'

And just when it was all going so well, we get another piece on the dangers of role-playing :-) Still, at least it wasn't a satanic panic this time. 

But then a typical gaming group, where the action stops when the dice are put away, wouldn't have fitted Rushkoff's gonzo cool-hunting brief quite as well as a massively unrepresentative bunch of Luke Reinhold groupies.

It's one thing to compare the storytelling dimension of role-playing to a therapeutic or spiritual process - an analogy I would be comfortable with in theory even if in practice most games rarely achieve such heights. It's quite another to forget the other important things gaming and therapy have in common: ground-rules, safe space and a clear distinction between the space and everyday life.

In short: some really good analysis in here mixed up with some regrettable misrepresentation.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Caption competition: who let the dogs out?

Can anyone sum up this terrible piece of art adorning a fairly respectable fantasy novel? (found in a recent trip to Hay-on-Wye)

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Talent will out - a small sad for Hannah Barrett being voted off the X-Factor

I had a small sad about Hannah Barrett being voted off The X-Factor last week. I know, the programme itself is manipulative schlock, and if it wasn't for the snark potential we probably wouldn't be watching.

And yet that same programme can give a national platform to a 17 year old from South London with a voice like Nina Simone.

Part of The X-Factor's banalisation of pop music is the idea that simply by singing a song, someone 'makes it their own'. Nonsense. What that really means is emotionally inhabiting a song and technically bending it to your own re-imaginative will. It's an aesthetic as well as a technical judgement. 

And that's Hannah Barrett. 

So, against the odds, The X-Factor has thrown up someone who is not just a great voice, but a potentially great interpreter of songs. This might have contributed to her relatively early exit (quality will quite literally out) but she did hang in long enough to get to the live shows. And hopefully it will mean she can find a set-up sympathetic to her talent.

Can training be punk rock? And what does that mean?

Monday, November 25, 2013

"Can somebody turn off that Somebody Else's Problem Field in Warsaw now?"

An SEP is something we can't see, or don't see, or our brain doesn't let us see, because we think that it's somebody else's problem.... The brain just edits it out, it's like a blind spot. If you look at it directly you won't see it unless you know precisely what it is. Your only hope is to catch it by surprise out of the corner of your eye.
 Douglas Adams, The Life, The Universe and Everything
As the climate talks draw to a close today in Warsaw, yet again they've failed to deliver.
As the summit opened, the devastating impacts of super typhoon Hayian slammed into the Philippines, bringing emotional pleas for urgent action from the country's lead negotiator, Yeb Saño. 
However, at the summit's close, two weeks of negotiations have once again ended without agreement on the necessary dramatic cuts in carbon pollution.
Friends of the Earth (more information here)

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Ideas thread: what rock band would you like your local campaign group to be like?

I'll kick this off - if I get my local group off the ground in the new year, I would like us to aim to be like seminal German psychedelic rock band Can.

Wait, come back...

Can were an immensely creative partnership of equals, coming together from different backgrounds in rock, jazz and experimental classical music. And they played for each other, editing their work down painstakingly from long improvised jams into a surprisingly accessible, funky form. 

The example of vocalist Damo Suzuki and keyboardist Irmin Schmidt contributing when they had something to add and simply remaining silent when not on Can tracks is one of the best examples of sublimating the individual ego to group need in music I can think of.

It's simultaneously some of the most passionate music I've ever heard and some of the most enjoyable. Heck, Can even accidentally invented the Happy Mondays. 

Creativity, diversity, equality, accessibility, teamwork, balancing intensity and fun - this is why I like Can. This is why I got into local organising.

Now, your turn in the comments thread please - what rock band would you like your local campaign group to be like?

Or - for the fortunate ones - what rock band IS your local group already like?

What if you looked at your local campaign group as if it were a rock band?

You'd be surprised how many parallels I see between local campaign groups and rock bands.

Wait, come back...

They are both collaborative, social units with shared aims and values. They both engage, in different ways, in performance and interaction with a public. They're both in the business of changing people's minds. And at their best - they both entail a collective surrender of ego to the shared goal. 

I'd be interested in the reflections this metaphor might suggest to you. 

And what rock band does your local group remind you of? Hopefully not Spinal Tap...

But here's one long-form thought to get you started.

Lovely photo of  the fabulous Arboretum via Greg Nate at Wikimedia Commons

Visible and invisible contributions

The relationship between the campaigners/musicians/performers in a group is vitally important. The value of each member should be measured by both their visible and invisible contributions. 

Think about your favourite bands. Think about the one who might not write the songs, but is absolutely crucial to the creative dynamic, or to the social glue of the band, or to the relationship with the fans.

Or, think about your local campaign group. Who's the member who might not be your coordinator or your issue expert in residence, but is the one who invites you all over to dinner in December? Who takes your 'crazy idea' for dressing as giant traffic cones and helps you turn it into something which works? Who makes the newcomers feel welcome?

Given the number of big personalities among musicians and campaigners, who's the one who stops you all killing each other and keeps you working together? 

Cos yep, that's your invisible contribution right there.

And that's why understanding and nurturing the ecology of your local group is so important.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Parliament week special: three proposals for reforming the Mother of Parliaments

When I worked for the Electoral Commission, I used to feel disappointed that we weren't the Democracy Commission. After all, you can have the best designed and implemented rules for elections in the world, but if the problem lies outside the process, then all you're doing is efficiently managing decline.

Now, with some distance and less naivete, I look at the accumulating catastrophe-in-the-making that is British representative democracy, and am grateful we didn't have to carry that burden.

Any Government that seizes and drains the chalice of reform is unlikely to please the Establishment, since the only thing decision-makers seem to agree on is the Churchillian idea that our democracy - however flawed - is the least worst option. Hence their approach of inaction, crisis management and the occasional tinkering at the edges when it comes to Parliament.

Legitimacy - not as strong as you might think it is

While such an attitude might suffice for the good times, I believe we will need a more robust approach going forward. As we approach the end of a century of universal suffrage in this country, the possible social, economic, political (and of course environmental) troubles ahead mean that we cannot afford to be complacent about the future of democracy.

And even a brief examination of the patient suggests that the legitimacy of the current system is a more fragile affair than we might think:
None of this to say is that good work is not being done under (or in spite of) the current structures. But their status in the country is decreasing and is unlikely to increase unless something is done. 

Three modest proposals

Cards on the table - I think what we need is a root and branch re-invigoration of democracy in this country from the grassroots right to the very top. But, I'm realistic enough to know that we have to start somewhere and if the all-in-one-go approach was feasible we'd all be living in a Power Enquiry wonderland.

So, here are three comparatively easy steps we could in theory take now which I think would strengthen the status and legitimacy of Parliament (and, by extension, representative democracy)

1. Pass a statutory deadline for abolishing the Lords in its current form. 

Sorting out the Lords is the Westminster equivalent of redecorating the spare room. Everyone agrees it needs doing, but it's somehow never the most urgent item on the to-do list, and no-one can agree what colour it needs painting.

Putting a five year deadline on it and requiring a national debate on its future should concentrate everyone's minds wonderfully. And just over a century after it was first considered, we might finally have a fully democratic Parliament in some form.

2. A review to take Parliament out of the playground

I'm all for the marketplace of ideas, but the adversarial, creakingly old-fashioned nature of debate in Parliament tends more towards exaggerated ritual conflict than the best ideas rising to the top. Small wonder that the people struggle to connect with national politics, and feel that the most important issues of the day rarely get the discussions by our representatives (never mind the outcomes) that they deserve.

If Parliament is serious about good governance and legitimacy, then it needs to take a long hard look at itself (with help from outsiders) and ask whether its playground antics do it and the country a disservice. 

Let's not just have a review, but a commitment to act on it too.

Seriously, MP's, when a bunch of scruffs living in tents outside St Pauls last year can have more sensible, respectful discussions than you, listen to each other more, and take decisions commanding more support, doesn't that suggest you have a problem? 

3. MP's, be our representatives, not local troubleshooters

The thing about MP's is that their role is in national governance. So, why do they spend so much time on local issues outside their jurisdiction when we have these wonderful things called councils and councillors who are responsible for them?

There's a long answer, taking in the emasculation of local government over the past few decades, low levels of political education and an understandable tendency for MP's to prioritise the voter in front of them, and concluding that what we really need is (bingo) to fix grassroots democracy. 

For a more expert opinion, see this handy post from politics professor Lord Norton of Louth.

But today, we're talking short answers, and the short answer is that it's stupid, its counterproductive to good national governance, and MP's could stop it tomorrow by just referring such matters back to the councillors.

More time on their core role means better scrutiny and hopefully better law. It also means more time to engage with constituents on national issues of importance, or local issues where decisions are taken nationally (a whole other problem, but one I'll leave to another time). 

It could and should also mean more time spent on making what goes on in the Commons more relevant to the people.

Which, if we're playing the long game rather than the long grass game, should be priority number one for the Mother of Parliaments.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Why ground-rules needn't be dull, dull, dull

With thanks to Charlie from The Management Centre for letting me snap these glorious technicolour ground-rules on my phone.

Can you guess what each symbol means?

To me, this emphasises the point that in good training even the admin is fun.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Time to get Tim into the training groove

I had a light-bulb moment the other day - I realised that I was passionate about training and mentoring. I love bringing people together to help them share skills, become better campaigners, better organisers, basically just empower people to be better at getting what they want.

I do quite a bit of formal and informal training at work, but recently I've decided I want to do more in my spare time to keep in practice. To get into flow whenever I need without having to agonise too much about it.

The first Campaign Organisers weekend at the end of the month is a great focus for beginning this shift. I'll be helping to facilitate a whole lot of training at this event and I want to use it to build up momentum, to sling-shot into 2014 ready to do more than ever before.

So, what does that mean? Where do I start? Well, by

  • Compiling a portfolio of short, sharp, skill-sharing sessions I can deliver anywhere, guerrilla style
  • Practicing these sessions out of hours or lunchtimes in the office 
  • Testing whether they can be done via Google Hangouts.
  • Adding all of this to the training page on the blog.
And then rolling into the New Year ready to go!

PS - in the event that someone in a Friends of the Earth local group is reading this, just a quick reminder to take training and skill-sharing requests through the usual channels, e.g by e-mailing I'm testing a skill-share driven approach to capacity-building in new groups at the moment in any case, so together with Campaign Hubs, this means I expect my on-the-clock training to increase as well.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Thor - The Dark World mini-review

All credit to the makers of Thor 2 - The Dark World, they aren't underestimating their audience. See this film, and you'll have to hand-wave not just the magical space vikings, but the whole of Stan Lee's gimcrack pseudo-Norse cosmology.

And a pack of dark elves from the dawn of time cosplaying the Borg.

And the notion that Greenwich Palace is three stops from anywhere on the Tube.

Thor 2 gets away with all of this with a positively rabid self-belief and a willingness to wear its canon lightly - i.e. stuff is, now let's tell a story! It follows Iron Man 3 and Avengers Assemble in being the third solid Marvel film in a row, after the erratic qualities of earlier efforts, including its predecessor.

It builds on the merits of the original - chiefly gorgeous art direction, a great start and fanning the cult of Hiddlestone - by better integrating the small-scale character-driven moments and the epic. Plus Natalie Portman gets to save the world(s) in a major advance on her love interest role first time around.

Midgard and Asgard in perfect harmony, or as near as darn it.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Wise Man's Fear: giving Patrick Rothfuss the benefit of the doubt

The sequel to The Name Of The Wind, The Wise Man's Fear, is a sprawling double album of a fantasy novel - not a genre known for its brevity. Coming it at a colossal 994 pages, it makes its predecessor, a third shorter, look abrupt by comparison.

Warning - spoilers ahead.

I'm no fan these days of the shelf-busting fantasy - why do you need 1,000 pages when you can tell the story in 500. Heck, in some cases even 300 would be too much. 

But I kept going - with a little judicious skimming - up to the end. 'Cause let me tell you, there are some great short stories in there. My favourite is the sequence late on where the hero Kvothe returns a pair of kidnapped girls to their township - it's a western story in miniature. 

There's also a whole lot of world-building, man-build-magical-stuff, man-get-training and man-solve-problem going on in TWMF. More than enough to keep the core-audience entertained, and well done enough that it doesn't feel like the padding it sometimes is.

At the very least, with Rothfuss we're dealing with a skilled craftsman at work. I'm still trying to work out if he's more than that. And that depends for me on where he's taking the protagonist and the series a a whole.

On the face of it, Kvothe rides the  teenage boy wish-fulfilment demi-god trip harder than any fantasy protagonist I've seen since the Belgariad. Having spent most of the previous book and part of this one training to be a wizard, he takes a break from his studies to pick up mystical unarmed combat. The full Grasshopper treatment.

Kvothe's omnicompetence reads like an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons munchkin's dream: teenage mage-thief-bard-monk-fighter, anyone?  And apart from those who hate him, everyone admires and respects him to the point of nausea. I came very close to putting the book down at the point where he's schooled in the arts of love by a passing fairy queen. 

No. Just no. Just Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!

But I persevered. The quality of the writing aside, the main reason I did was the sense that Rothfuss might be setting his hero up to knock him down, hard. Both The Name Of The Wind and TWMF share the same framing device: Kvothe is telling his story to a scholar while in hiding as a village innkeeper, a shadow of his former self seeking exorcism in telling his story.

Something has clearly gone very wrong. And we know from the title of the series and references in the framing story that Kvothe is a regicide.

My hope is that Rothfuss intends at least some subversion of fantasy's tendency to pander to adolescent power fantasies - it's played too straight for parody. 

So, at the moment I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt. But if the plot doesn't start moving quicker than this and he keeps giving us hundreds of pages of Kvothe levelling up to the coos of his adoring audience, I'm off before Rob-Jordanification sets in.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Guest post by Matt Sellwood: Three Silmarils To Rule Them All

At various times in his life Matt has been a work colleague and a parliamentary candidate for the Green Party. At all times he has been an excellent chap. He's currently freelancing prior to starting work as a barrister in the near future.

You can find him on Twitter as @Mattsellwood

Today, he's making a persuasive case for why The Silmarillion is the best Tolkien book. Take it away Matt, and many thanks for dropping in here at the blog.

“Love not too well the work of thy hands and the devices of thy heart; and remember that the true hope of the Noldor lieth in the West, and cometh from the Sea.”

The Silmarillion is a terrible novel. It features names that are impossible to remember or pronounce, patchy characterisation, frustrating allusions to major plot points which are never expanded upon, and themes which are as repetitive as the average soap opera.

All of the above is true. Fortunately, the Silmarillion isn't a novel – and it is the insistence on treating it as such which has led so many people to dismiss it as Tolkien's “other book”. You know, the one that only massive nerds read, and only then because they want the credibility of having said that they've done it.

Well, I am a massive nerd, but I believe the Silmarillion to be the Tolkien family's greatest work. One has to use the term family, of course, because Christopher Tolkien spent years pulling the text together from the unfinished fragments of his father's scattered papers. Begun in the trenches of the First World War and continued until the year of J.R.R's death, the raw material of the Silmarillion was a sprawling expanse of tenuously connected story-telling, and one which perhaps only the author's son could have forged into a coherent whole.

It's hardly surprising that people expect the Silmarillion to be a novel, and judge it on those terms. It is often described as a historical prequel to the Lord of the Rings, but it is in fact an attempt to create a collection of mythological and legendary stories akin to the Prose Eddas, the Arthurian Cycles, or even the Bible. When understood as such, many of the peculiarities of the book begin to come into focus. One doesn't read a collection of Greek myths, for example, and complain that the character of Ares is one-dimensional, or that Zeus' motivations aren't clear. Instead, one appreciates that the stories interweave and inter-relate to form a message about how one's life should be lived.

The Silmarillion is, in Tolkien's own style, an attempt to do just that. Rooted in his own idiosyncratic blend of Judeo-Christian and pagan ideology, it explores the morality and worldview espoused in the Lord of the Rings, but in much greater detail. From the creation of the world (actuated in the form of song and poetry, what else?) to the Last Alliance of Men and Elves, Tolkien uses his invented history to teach lessons about love, revenge, pride and pity.

One of the most irritating – because most wrong – criticisms of Tolkien's work is that everything is depicted in black and white. Nothing could be further from the world of the Silmarillion. Here, what seems to be good can be turned to evil through pride and selfishness, whilst the darkest times can be redeemed to such an extent that they become 'eucatastrophic' – Tolkien's own term for the unexpected and unlooked for saving of the protagonist from seemingly insurmountable odds.

I don't claim that the Silmarillion is an easy read. It suffers, in particular, from the fact that Tolkien's predilection for describing things in many languages for the simple joy of exploring words is given free reign at the beginning of the book. This ensures that, unfortunately, many readers don't make it to the story of Beren and Luthien, or the tragedy of Turin, or the final triumph of Earendil. In not reaching these stories, they are neither engaging with wonderfully written and compelling narrative, nor with the moral principles that Tolkien is attempting to communicate through them.

Ultimately, as with the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit, the message of the book is a simple one. Take pleasure in one's own creative power and in the beauty of the world, but avoid pride and hubris in the knowledge that one person must act in fellowship with others in order to succeed. For Tolkien, salvation comes not from blasting trumpets and charging knights, but from humility, love, simple faith and goodness. Myths based on those ideals are ones that I can get behind.

P.S. Also, if you read all the way through, you get 1000 nerd points and the extraordinarily useful real-world ability to speak two different kinds of Elvish. WIN.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

A final note on the dead hand of musical history

Having tried and given up compiling my own top 20 albums of all time, never mind my own top 500 (see my comments on the NME's efforts), I find myself confirmed in my view that the problem lies less with the critics and more in the notion of a musical canon.

If I was to write a list of my favourite acts right now, for example, it would read a little like this - some rock classics, sure, but far from just the usual suspects.

Deep breath: Scritti Politti, Altaar, Talking Heads, Ulver, The Velvet Underground, Wolves In the Throne Room, Lambchop, Hercules & Love Affair, Husker Du, Gram Parsons, Negativland, Alcest, Om, Elbow, Earth, James Blake.

Yet the minute I start thinking about the best albums evah, I'm drawn back to including things I haven't listened to for years, cassettes which gave up the ghost  years ago and which I haven't replaced.

It's not that those old tapes of Revolver, The Smiths or Protection didn't contain good albums, very probably great ones. The problem is being pulled too strongly towards them not by your own personal inclination, but by the wisdom of crowds, by the gravity of conferred status, by mythology and reputation. The older the music, the greater the reputation.

So how about this experiment in closing: what if we played, wrote, thought, loved music as if there was no canon at all? No pantheon but each with their own passions and influences? 

For today, for ad bloody astra?

Monday, October 28, 2013

Indie in crisis: have all the innovators gone metal?

An aside on metal from Simon Reynolds in Totally Wired: Post-punk Interviews and Overviews.
In some ways, if you can see an inheritor of post-punk's confidence in speaking out and shouting down power and the effectiveness of words, it's heavy metal. Which is not genealogically or genre-ologically part of the punk/post-punk/alt-rock lineage at all. 
Maybe a few genes have drifted over from Goth or industrial, but historically there's really hardly any link. As was mentioned before, metal was the enemy, as far as post-punkers were concerned. 
But now, through its own evolution through thrash and death and black metal, it's reached a place where much of what characterised post-punk - the darkness, the dread, the wordiness - can be found in its vital contemporary form only in the metal underground.
You'll also find there that whole set of ideals to do with musical progression and fusing different styles together. Extreme metal is totally committed to ideas on innovation and genre-splicing

Interesting in light of yesterday's reflections on the NME's top 500 albums of all time. Is modern day indie is so locked into resurrecting the the past that - individual auteurs aside - the innovators, those holding up a mirror to modern life have largely moved on, whether that's metal, hip hop, electronic music or elsewhere?

Sunday, October 27, 2013

A wasteland of curators: the NME's top 500 albums and the problem with indie

I know, it's a little unfair to judge the NME's best 500 albums of all time on its Top 10. The full list is a lot more eclectic.* 

And I appreciate the Top 10 will represent an aggregation of music writers' opinion en bloc, rather than what any one of us might individually consider to be truly great albums. Passions are individual, taste is collective.

But if these ten records are the cream of the canon - the set musical texts for indie rock - then we have a few problems.

1. The Smiths - The Queen Is Dead
2. The Beatles - Revolver
3. David Bowie - Hunky Dory
4. The Strokes - This Is It
5. The Velvet Underground & Nico - The Velvet Underground & Nico
6. Pulp - Different Class
7. The Stone Roses - The Stone Roses
8. Pixies - Doolittle
9. The Beatles - The Beatles (White Album)
10. Oasis - Definitely Maybe

The obvious point to begin with is that this top ten are pretty male, pale and stale. For every nine men in the bands, I make it roughly one woman, for example. While the Top 20 is marginally more diverse - bringing in Patti Smith, PJ Harvey and Public Enemy, these are all well-established exceptions to the rule. 

And only one album here was released after 2000 - if The Strokes have made the best album of the twenty-first century then I'll eat my flat cap.

To make these points is not to argue for a quota system. Yet they begin to show how narrow the doors to classic status have become for a magazine like the NME. Or, if you like, indie-rock as a whole. And this mono-culture is symptomatic of a broader lack of ambition and narrowness of taste that the choice of albums displays. 

When the Beatles and the Velvet Underground are as experimental as your Top 10 gets, then you know you've got serious ancestor-worship problems. Especially when another three of your slots are taken up with late 80's and early 90's variations of the Fab Four and NY art-punk templates (hello Oasis, The Strokes and The Stone Roses), you're talking about a very narrow canon indeed.

And if Bowie, Pulp and the Roses are as close as this records get to soul and electronic music, it's fair to ask whether this list is afraid of dancing as it seems to be.

If you think I'm calling this a bad list - you're missing my point. I love Hunky Dory, Revolver and the first VU record. I might feel they picked the wrong Smiths record, and that the Pixies are a trifle overrated, but they're good picks from the 80's underground, allowing for the nature of lists.

What the problem really is here is that the NME is advancing the kind of terrible orthodoxy I'd expect from guilty-pleasure 'old man magazines' like Uncut and Mojo. 

Indie or whatever you want to call it has long risked becoming fundamentally backward-looking - a wasteland of curators - mostly white, male, middle-class - who prize recreating the past over experimentation, style and seeming over personal truth (See Simon Reynolds' excellent Retromania for more on this). Lists like this do nothing to correct the impression of ossification.

* Although: no Stereolab ?!? Seriously? 

Monday, October 21, 2013

Polyester poly

Many are those who come to our town who come to be apprenticed in the dark arts of MAN. MADE. FIBRES.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Local groups, capacity-building and the smartphone analogy

About a month ago I switched mobile phones under some duress to a Nokia 520. It has the traditional virtues of a Nokia - durability and great battery life - but it also has a gorgeous, colourful and above all intuitive user interface. 

Good design makes a device easy and effective to use. But it's still down to the user (plus attendant tech support) to get the most of a piece of kit.

Me, I've downloaded some apps - Twitter, rail enquiries, The Guardian, Foursquare, finally and reluctantly Facebook - but I've tried to keep it simple. To respect the fact that my attention is finite and there's only so many ways I can divide it.

So, what does all of this have to do with capacity-building and local campaign groups? 

Answer: good design + support + empowered user = awesome. Doesn't matter whether you're talking about tech or social change.

Cue Swiss Toni segue.

Step 1 - we give you the phone

Friends of the Earth local groups all come - more or less - with the same basic design and operating system straight outta the Partnership Agreement and the Local Group Handbook, not to mention long years of oral and written tradition.

Making sure all of that is up to date and - kaizen, y'know - is a whole lot of behind the scenes work you don't always see. But it's the foundation of what makes your basic Friends of the Earth group a top-notch, intuitive (hopefully also colourful and gorgeous) change-making device.

Step 2 - we show you how to use the phone

Of course, if we've got the design right, there will be people who don't even need to RTFM but just get cracking - probably coming up with uses for a phone local group we haven't even imagined.

This is why people worship at the altar of Apple. And this is why whatever you think of the strategy the initiation process in Transition is so beautiful it sometimes makes me want to weep.

But most people (myself included) need advice and support to use to its full potential the extraordinary social machine that is a local group. Not so much to tell you what to do as to show you how it works. On a good day, being the small-group equivalent of Geek Squad is what most of my job actually consists of.

That's also why one of the basic principles behind our new Campaign Organisers programme is teach the methodology. We don't really care exactly what you do with your local group, we just want to make sure it can help you achieve wonderful things with it.

Putting smart(phone) theory into practice.

Step 3 - you sort your apps out

Sooner or later, your group is going to want to do more than make calls, text their mums and send their mates artfully posed selfies. And they're gonna need apps for all of that.

Campaigns. Film screenings. Local issues. Parties. Global problems. Council consultations. Publicity stunts. Call 'em what you want - they're all activities groups choose or don't choose to do. And there are as many possibilities as there are apps in the Store, which explains while local groups represent so many different permutations on a basic model.

And just like apps, campaigning and organizing is a meritocracy. People develop and share their own ideas from every quarter and, y'know what, the good ones get used. 

And us? We support and facilitate that choice, giving the best a boost as well as developing our own ideas in house.

Does your local group have too many apps? 

Of course, it is possible to download so many apps that you lose sight of what your phone is actually for. It can allow you to watch the final scores while your brother is getting married (or even while you're getting married) but at the core it's meant to be a social device, not an anti-social one.

And so it is with local groups - we risk having so many campaigns, issues or activities you're committed to that we neglect to pay attention to the social ecology of the group. Such groups burn out; reduce the number of meetings; become more of a closed circle, harder for newcomers to enter.

Alternatively, does your group have the equivalent of a Gangnam Style ringtone? Something which actively deters people from listening and getting on board?

If so, don't worry: you can delete apps. Play Angry Birds less, phone more. You can stop doing things which don't help your group, and just because you used to do something doesn't mean you still have to do it

You can simplify, focus on the basic design again, receive help and support. You can get back to the group itself.

Metaphor ends