Monday, December 28, 2015

Weepies - seven songs that make me cry

I can sometimes tell you when I first heard a song. I can always remember when I heard one that made me cry. 

You don't forget a singer or a piece of music that nails your heart right into the floor as you stand there. Sometimes, when you least expect it.

Here are seven that have had that effect on me.

Nancy Wallace: Alice White

Picture a Sunday morning at an experimental music festival on the artier side of Birmingham, 2009. A large fountain has been drained to create a small sunken stage, and the first act on that day is a folk singer, Nancy Wallace. Practically pop, by the standards of the weekend, but no matter. 

Backed by her own acoustic guitar, she opens with Alice White, a song of the women who loved and followed the navvies who built the railways of Britain.

"And now I'm getting old, and grey before my time
With the work and the childbearing, as we trudged from line to line
I often think of poor Dandy Jack, lying so cold in his grave
He's the only one I loved of the navvies."

You can read the full lyric here - but more importantly check this recording of Nancy's version. It's a terribly bleak song, yet full of humanity, and I was in tears all the way through. Amidst a weekend of head music, it stood out as heart music.

For all their cliches, and in their own way they're every bit as stylised as modern pop music, blues, folk and country have a way of cutting through. I sometimes jokingly say that all good folk is about heartbreak and death. And while that's not stricly true, what traditional music does do very well is the conversion of lived or historic experience into tragedy.

Bill Withers: I Can't Write Left Handed

People wrote many songs about the Vietnam War - not all of them will last. Bill Withers' I Can't Write Left Handed is one that will. As Bill says in the introduction to this song - a lot of people write 'social, political things' and maybe generalisation can be the easy way out in art. It's much harder to put yourself in the shoes of an ordinary trooper with no political consciousness and sing their story.

All I know is that I can't even listen to I Can't Write, can't even explain that it takes the form of a letter from an invalided soldier back to his mother, pleading with her to get his younger brother out of the draft, without getting tearful.

"Tell the Reverend Harris to pray for me, lord, lord, lord
I ain't gonna live, I don't believe I'm going to live to get much older
Strange little man over here in Vietnam, I ain't never
Bless his heart I ain't never done nothin' to, he done shot me in my shoulder.

The Unthanks: Monday Morning

Like Nancy Wallace, The Unthanks were slighly incongrous mid-afternoon guests on the second stage at Lovebox in East London back in 2008, but they were great fun. Before they broke into the clog-dancing crowd-pleasers, though, they opened with this lament to a weekend's excesses and the tragedy of everyday life.

"Where is the weekend now?
Where is the whisky and beer I tasted?
Gone the same way as the pay I wasted
On a Monday morning."

Panopticon: Come All Ye Coal Miners 

Panopticon's Kentucky (2012) is one of those albums which defiantly spill out of the genre to which they have been assigned. Over 50 minutes, mainman Austin Lunn mixes black metal with bluegrass, traditional mining protest songs, ambient noise and spoken-word samples to tell a musical history of the rural backwaters of the state (my full review here).

Come All Ye Coal Miners is one of the protest songs - a companion piece to Alice White in its look at the personal impact of industrialisation, with added political consciousness. Lunn is no virtuoso singer, but the very simplicity of his tone makes the connection with the past all the easier. And the hope of a better future the song expresses - the idea, to paraphrase Stephen Donaldson, that the sacrifices of the past and present have meaning - makes it a tremendous gut punch of a tune if you choose to believe it, if only for the span of a few minutes.

"They take your very life's blood, they take our children's lives.
They take fathers away from children, and husbands away from wives.
Oh miner, won't you organize wherever you may be and make this land of freedom for workers like you and me."

Public Service Broadcasting: Sputnik

The sadness of a future which never fully materialised hangs over Come All Ye Coal Miners but also in a different way over much electronic music. Like Panopticon, Public Service Broadcasting make use of spoken-word samples - in this case to summon the optimistic spirit of the abandoned space race. 

Our family are passionate about science and space - so nostagia for what was for and what could have been caught me by the throat at Truck festival this year as PSB played Sputnik.*

"Will the bleep of the satellite bring people closer together in a common understanding?
Or as the Earth shrinks, the universe stretches forth its beckoning hand in a gesture to all mankind
To all mankind, to all mankind..."

* Fun fact - my dad had a cat called Sputnik growing up. 

Steven Wilson: The Raven That Refused To Sing 

Warning: don't watch this video unless you're ready to cry. It's a beautiful piece of animation to accompany Steven Wilson's 2013 album, a song cycle of supernatural tales, also called The Raven That Refused To Sing

Steven Wilson's best known as bandleader for proggers The Porcupine Tree, but don't let the 'prog' tag put you off this, which isn't not a million miles away from Radiohead's ventures into brooding piano territory.

"Sister I lost you
When you were still a child
But I need you now
And I need our former life
I'm afraid to wake
I'm afraid to love

Josh Record: For Your Love

At last, a positive weepie, occupying a very special place in our hearts. It's is all about the power of a song to say what matters to two people.

We seem to have made a habit of seeing Josh in unusual venues - to date it's two libraries and one church. He is a lovely, friendly approachable guy and we'd definitely recommend catching him if you have the chance.

"Carry your story
Wherever I may go
'cause I know it will be mine
'till the end of time."

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Happy/sad - Vargnatt's Allein In Mir

Black metal takes many forms.

Sometimes it consists of tremelo-picking a Johnny Marr/Roger McGuinn-ish riff for seven minutes while somebody screams in the middle-distance.

This, then is Vargnatt's Allein In Mir - a great track and probably the most cheerful one ever to be called 'alone in myself.' 

Like other bands at the more accessible end of [MICROGENRE KLAXON] depressive black metal - see also the marvellous Ghost Bath - Vargnatt play the old Smithsian track of rubbing bleak lyrical material / delivery up against a surprisingly cheerful musical backdrop. 

The fact you can't really understand what they're screaming about doesn't cancel out the contrast, since Allein In Mir works perfectly as the title of the piece regardless of comprehension.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

O Miracle Fish Of Divination!

As is traditional at Christmas, I've contributed a piece of spoken word doggerel to Adam Ings' annual seasonal compilation under my nom de Yule Gin And Flamingoes. Big thanks to Adam for prodding me to get it done - the circumstances under which I tend to work best. :)

This year, it was inspired by the fortune-telling fish you often find in crackers. The first two lines, with their odd phrasing, are taken literally from the piece of paper interpreting the fish's movements. From there, it was easy to ad-lib as if the fish were some kind of grandiose oracle worthy of cultic adoration.

And see here for a proper scientific explanation of how the fish works, which does involve sodium polyacrylate, as the last line of the last verse suggests. We may or may not be entertaining on this blog, but by gum we're educational.

Gin And Flamingoes present O Miracle Fish Of Divination!

O miracle fish of divination!
With the wonderful magic to tell the fortune,
Tell us who we are this Christmas.


O miracle fish of divination!
Taken from your larval cracker,
By your sweaty-palmed disciples,
By your paper-hatted preachers,
Let the augury begin!
Let the movements indicate.

Moving head means jealousy,
Moving tail is independence,
Move­­­ head and tail for those in love.

Curling sides for one so fickle,
Motionless - for all you zombies,
And those curled up are passionate.

O miracle fish of divination!
In your writhing you have spoken,
In our hands you found our fate,

What wonderful magic,
That sees the future - 
Sodium polyacrylate.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Television: more political than Sham 69?

A quick compilation of tweets and retweets from earlier this month on art and campaigns.

This is a topic I may well come back to in more depth because I do think it's insufficient to rely on reason (or even reason and good marketing) to campaign over the long-haul. And that didactic art is much less effective at achieving cultural change than its transcendental cousin - as well as being much poorer art.

If anyone has any views on this, please do comment as I'm still thinking this one through and welcome challenges, reflections, perspectives. Thanks!

And two timely quotes I came across in the days that followed.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Reduce, reduce, reduce - simplifying complexity in campaign messages

The other week, I went to a very interesting event organised by the Directory of Social Change - Campaigning and lobbying in a changing political landscape. I'm still reflecting on what I heard, but here's a snippet from the talk by Chris Rose, independent campaigning expert, author and proprietor of

He spoke about a former head of communications at Greenpeace who made campaigners write out what their campaign was about. And then write it again, shorter. And again. And again, until the absolute crux of the message had been reached.

This matters because the 'front door' of your campaign - the basic proposition to people and decision-makers - needs to be as clear, simple and appealing as possible. No matter how much policy depth lies beneath.

I had a go with some of the ideas floating around for our Welsh Assembly campaign next year - see below - and found it really helpful in concentrating my focus and informing the writing of campaign resources. I'm not saying this is definitely what we will use - but it does feel a great deal clearer than it did.

And I'm sure the approach can work as well for a local campaign as it can for a larger one. Good messaging is good messaging.

Starting point

·         Helping candidates to understand the issues people with MND face – using the importance of timely and accurate diagnosis and the theme of time as a starting point.

·         Asking candidates to act as champions for MND in the Assembly and their local community – potentially signing a pledge or taking similar symbolic action.

·         Stressing the importance of political leadership in promoting best practice and the best possible care.


Asking candidates to act as champions for MND in the Assembly and their local community – understanding the issues they face and making sure health and social care works in their interest.
Keep going...

Asking candidates to champion MND – understanding the issues people with MND face and making sure health and social care works for them.
Less is still more

We want Welsh politicians to champion motor neurone disease – making sure people with MND have the right health and social care at the right time.

Gone back up again! Keep reducing.
We want champions for motor neurone disease – making sure the system gives people with MND the best possible quality of life.
Back on track, but keep cutting!

MND champions: politicians helping people with MND get the best possible quality of life.
How low can we go?

Politicians can help people with MND to live with dignity.

10 words – awesome! And see how different on the surface but similar in essence it is from our starting point? 

Perfume hyperbole

From an in-flight magazine, which shall remain nameless:

I'm not sure they meant to say glamorous yet impertinent heroin.

Also: coffee floral? 

There's a thin - almost indiscernable - line between this and a candidate for Thog's Masterclass.

Vanilla accord! 


Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Top ten posts from 2015

Lairich Rig [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

It's not been the most prolific year on the blog for me - but I've maintained a steady flow of updates and articles that I'm pleased with and in some cases downright proud of.  

Here are the top 10 most viewed pieces this year. It's no surprise that those posts written with an audience in mind - be it environmental activists or SF fandom - tend to do the best.

1. Hard Science, Hot Mess: Liu Cixin's The Three Body Problem

"Liu mixes astrophysics, the politics of science, the history of the Cultural Revolution, virtual reality and Pynchonesque conspiracy theories to create, well, the hottest mess this side of Philip K Dick."

2. Ten reasons to get involved in a Friends of the Earth local group 

"While I was travelling home last week I challenged myself to come up with ten compelling reasons to join a Friends of the Earth local group. Here they are, collected in tweet form." 

3. Kevin J Anderson's The Dark Between The Stars: control, not mastery

"Dark is more of what Anderson does - space opera on an epic scale [...]. And what an elaborate, detailed, techno-baroque sandbox it is too, taking in psychic empires, gas giant mining, insectoid robot, gestalt forests, plague collectors and colours from out of spaaaaaaaaaace."

4. Now That's What I Call Kinda Okay: Reading the Hugo short fiction nominees

"And the Hugo's are not awards for the merely alright. What would be the point in that?"

5. A big hug from the golden age of high fantasy: Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor

"The Goblin Emperor is a Bildungsroman, high fantasy style, and goodness knows we've had a lot of those. But there's no Eddings-style chosen one wish-fulfilment trip for our protagonist here." 

6. Introducing the libertarian dismount  

"I think we're going to see more of the dismount here in the UK in the years to come. Not only is the boundary between the market and the state once again becoming contested territory, but there is a worrying backlash against the politics of diversity on the breeze too." 

7. Black metal ecology: Agalloch's Marrow Of The Spirit

"It's also sometimes hard to locate the human element in Agalloch's work, or to escape the feeling that they have nothing to say about the present other than the need to transcend or transform it. Listening to them is occasionally a visceral joy, but more often an austere, intellectual pleasure, especially given the length of the songs."

8. Quick review of Ancillary Sword, plus my best novel vote 

"What I will say is that I enjoyed it a great deal, although it lacked the shock of the sorta new that it's prequel Ancillary Justice had, as well as its driving heartbreak-n-revenge narrative."

9. Last Day Working For Friends of the Earth

"After seven years and a little more, yesterday was my last day working for Friends of the Earth. It's been an amazing experience in ways I have yet to fully reflect on, and I've been deeply touched by the response I've had from colleagues in the staff body and comrades in local groups as I've been heading out the door."

10. What we don't talk about when we don't talk about The Big Ask

"When we leave out The Big Ask from our conversation as a movement, we don't just leave out an occasion for nostalgia, we omit an opportunity to remind ourselves what it is to be successful."

Monday, November 23, 2015

Fandom face-to-face: notes from Sledge-Lit

After my summer of reviewing the nominees for the Hugo awards, I felt a little closer to SF and fantasy fandom than I had before. 

So, when the opportunity came up to hear Adam Roberts and Charles Stross speak as part of Sledge-Lit in Derby last Saturday, I went along to experience the event from the periphery. 

In this lurker's opinion, Sledge-Lit was a pretty darn good introduction to British fandom. As a one-day event in an art-house cinema in the city centre, it was informal, accessible and not too intense. It was quite possible - as I mostly did - to sit and listen to panels discuss genre writing and then pop out for a wander and a breath of fresh air in the breaks.

And I even had my views on small-press publishing turned pretty much 180° by what I heard on a panel in the morning (Sledge-Lit's prime movers are also involved in small press imprints, so they were well represented at the event). 

Seems that I had mistakenly filed them i my head alongside the vanity publishers when they're really the literary equivalent of independent record labels, reflecting the tastes and ethos of their owner-curators. Small presses champion local writing, provide an outlet for short stories and novellas, and provide a space where fledgling authors can develop before (if they wish) shaking hands with the Man.

As someone who wants to develop their own writing, it's tremendously helpful and encouraging to know there's a supportive infrastructure out there. I started paying that goodwill forward by buying a couple of things from the trade hall and having a chat with a chap who does fantasy writing workshops for kids in Nottingham.

Charlie Stross took part on a panel asking if 'horror was ready for a new golden age?'. Whether the question was answered to anyone's satisfaction is uncertain, what with the lengthy digression into e-book pricing, but the trip was fun at least. As you'd probably guess from his blog, Stross gives good analysis and good anecdote - the rest of the panel were mostly content to let him get on with it. The man either needs his own slot at these events [hopeful look] or a strong facilitator.

Adam Roberts is exactly as academic as I'd hoped he'd be - the panel he took part in on dystopia in modern SF was easily the most literary and probably the most rewarding from a critical perspective. But it was a team effort as well (credit also to Andrew Bannister, Amanda Rutter, Gavin Smith and chair Jacey Bedford).

This is the panel that really made me think. And on the back of it, I now have some half-formed ideas I want to tease out in a future blog post - something about how both the technocratic and political narratives of progress have become damaged to the point that the dystopian pole remains the sole strong point of attraction for future fiction. We'll see where that goes.

I rounded off the day by listening to readings from authors Andrew Bannister (him again) and Natasha Pulley from some of their favourite work: a Roger Zelazny short story and the Moomins for Andrew and the opening chapter of Michelle Paver's Dark Matter for Natasha. As there were only three of us in the audience we were able to have a friendly chat afterwards. Readers may recall I'm partial to a bit of Zelazny and Andrew was kind enough to recommend me some more.

This was probably the high point of the day for me - actual interaction with other humans - and I'll definitely keep a look out for their latest when I'm next on a book hunt.

Monday, November 16, 2015

How America ate its young: Stephen King's The Long Walk

A confession: I've barely read any Stephen King.

As a teen, he fell very clearly on the wrong side of the then (for me) unbreachable wall between fantasy and horror. While that iron curtain of genre purity had long since fallen, I'd never particularly thought about revisiting King until recently.

What happened was that in response to a spot of writer's block my wife bought me his highly regarded On Writing. And before I got stuck into King's advice, I thought I'd better sample his work first.

Here's what my awesome wife (who has read a lot of his books) gave me a steer towards:

And she was right - it's  great entry point into King. For starters, it's science-fiction!

The Long Walk (1979) is one of the early novels he originally put out as Richard Bachman: a pseudonym designed to accommodate his prolific work-rate and (I suspect) give him freedom to experiment away from the King brand. Interestingly, it's also the first novel he actually began writing while a university student in the mid-sixties, and whatever revision it underwent before final publication its roots in that turbulent period still show through.

The story follows a hundred teenage boys on a long-distance walking contest through an alternate-history New England. Non-stop, day and night, if the walkers slow down too much and too often, they are shot by the accompanying armed guards. Last kid standing wins the adulation of the watching crowds, and anything their heart desires.

This is a great idea. More importantly, it's a great metaphor, fecund in its range and application. One of science-fiction's great gifts is to hold an absurd mirror up to aspects of contemporary life and most obviously, The Long Walk reads as a fable of how America ate its own young in Vietnam and celebrated them as heroes.

But the brilliance of the novel is that it transcends that specific reading to become something altogether more timeless. It does no violence to it to make the walk stand for any conflict where the lives of doomed youth are wasted. It's a surprisingly small step even to talking it up as an existential journey comparable to those offered by Camus. Or, after Marcuse, a vision of a thanatotic society in love with death.

Again, very sixties references for a very sixties book. :)

Whether such expansive readings were intended by King is a moot point. Certainly, the little absurd touches like the authoritarian figure of the nameless Major who oversees the race and the walkers' conversational digressions into pop philosophy help. 

Regardless, it remains the case that in writing The Long Walk he hit not just on a plot of genius with a haunting life beyond the page, but a story which plays to his acknowledged strengths. Since practically the entire speaking cast are young men doomed to die, his gift of voicing memorable teenage characters to empathise with (and then mourn) is on full display. 

And with most of the action being set in King's home state of Maine, he takes the reader through a landscape - urban and rural - that he knows very well. This level of geographical detail contrasts well with the less-is-more approach to the rest of his world-building; the reader knows little of the dystopia in which The Long Walk is set because neither do the young walkers we follow.

But above all, the story has momentum. Stephen King is a writer who repeatedly makes you turn the page and the walk is one long unspooling narrative which compels you to follow it till the very end. Together, they fight crime are unstoppable make for a book to devour as quickly and intensely as possible. 

The novel is not perfect - I sensed that King was on the treadmill as much as his protagonists. Under that pressure, neither the interaction between the walkers nor their in-character storytelling works all of the time. And the ending - although pleasingly ambiguous - is a little rushed.

But as a sustained piece of bravura writing atop that darn beautiful plot device, The Long Walk is a feat you don't come across that often. Putting his better-known work in horror to one side for a moment, this book alone will ensure that King's name will last.

Monday, November 9, 2015

The power of hello on Twitter

No, not a Lionel Richie reference - although it is an opportunity for a gratuitous photo of the reigning High King of Glastonbury 2015.

Friends aside, I would say I'd had more actual conversation on Twitter in the past week or so than I've had in the past five years.

How? I've been saying hello to some of the people who've followed me by sending them a private message. Not all of them, but those I had something to say to.

Of course, it helps that I have a job for a charity which involves reaching out to volunteers about campaigning. That means I have had something to say and a general offer of help to tender. But the key thing here - as with any networking - is having a friendly interaction based on a common interest, not playing a zero sum game where every conversation has to get me somewhere.   

Unlike e-mails, Twitter messages are also framed as a conversation. Literally, in the way the screen is designed. So there's both more stimulus to respond and less pressure (because less formality) in doing so at the same time, perhaps compared to an e-mail. Certainly the freedom to go over 140 characters helps with responding compared to public Twitter conversation.

Worth saying too that the message content has not been a generic 'Hi - Thanks for the follow - Sign up here' affair either. People can smell that kind of phoniness, that pseudo-bot behaviour in what you write. 

So while my messages have often contained all of those things, it's been personalised to what I know of that person or that organisation and their interests. I've tried sharing some information I thought they would find interesting. I've offered help - and sometimes I've been able to help them, even if it's something as straightforward as retweeting the launch of their latest project.

So - why don't you try it? Who's started following you that you would like to build a relationship with?

Some caveats

Perhaps I shouldn't have to say this, but belt and braces:

  • If you think a message from you could potentially be seen as an unwelcome intrusion, either in content, because it's a message from you, or even just because it's a message period, then don't send it.
  • It's for that reason I'm restricting my messaging to new follows, organisations and accounts who RT me. And even then I'll be discriminatory.
  • With the best will in the world, I have to say social media is still a place where abuse and creepy behaviour happens, disproportionately directed at women. People (especially women) are therefore rightfully cautious about strangers on the internet. So, I say again, if you think the act of messaging might possibly be misconstrued, don't message.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Campaigning 101 - and the first skill you should learn is...

Thinking ahead to an introduction to campaigning session I'm scheduled to run next week - my first for the MND Association - I asked my Facebook friends where people should start. 

What is the first skill you should introduce to people wrapping their heads around what activism is for the first time?

Sunday, November 1, 2015

A clear spot to run to: where now for me in the environmental movement?

One of the advantages of now being employed outside the environmental movement is that I have more freedom to ask myself questions about it. Questions such as: 

  • what kind of role would I like to play in the movement? 
  • what do I think the movement should be doing?

I've held onto these questions since the summer during a few months of informal sabbatical from tree-hugging, give or take a little online activism and some local activity. Inevitably, the two are connected - I want to do something which makes a difference while also being meaningful to me.

And, in trying to answer that second bigger question, I'm minded to approach it in an entirely subjective mood. There are enough people trying (and one supposes mostly succeeding) to be objective, with political analysis 'n' socioeconomic data to spare. Adding my voice to that would be fairly redundant. 

What I think I could do with more of, conversely, is a personal perspective. A point of view, a way of speaking outside of 'policy voice' and the sociolect of the NGO's - valuable though they are. 

Outside even the wider discourse of campaigning. Certainly beyond the outrage clockwork of social media.

Finding myself a clear spot to run to where I can see it all and my place it in more clearly. 

How? Well, if I've learned anything about myself from writing this blog it's that personal space for me is criticism

Not raining on the parade  - but talking about what I do and don't dig, maaaaan; what I take from what I learn and what I experience. Looking at the ideas of others and asking: does that also work for me? 

And in Isaiah Berlin terms, I'm a fox not a hedgehog: I'm going to mine as many unlikely sources as as I can to find what I can use. I'll use science-fiction as much as science fact; art as much as activism; poetry and philosophy as much as politics.

So - expect a series of reflections, reviews, quotes, riffs, fragments and aphorisms in the coming weeks and months on this blog - all providing partial answers to my questions. 

I admit, this is labyrinthine thinking - all curves and turns and blind alleys rather than straight-line solutions. But it's what I need right now. I'll come back to the straight-line approach when I'm good and ready. For now, I'll hope you follow me.

(and apologies to the good Captain for appropriating his lyric for this one)

The world must be romanticized

"The world must be romanticized. Thus one rediscovers the original meaning."

Novalis (1798), with thanks to Peter Gay's The Naked Heart, his highly recommended cultural history of nineteenth-century interior life.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Humanity: essentially after-dinner speech-makers

Having recently re-read and very much enjoyed Walter M Miller Jr's post-apocalyptic classic A Canticle For Leibowitz, a review may well be forthcoming - a thoughtful book of this kind practically demands a thoughtful response.

But for now I'll leave with you with this authorial aside on humanity.

"It was a species which often considered itself to be, basically, a race of divinely inspired toolmakers; any intelligent entity from Arcturus would have instantly perceived them to be, basically, a race of impassioned after-dinner speech makers."

Very Douglas Adams before Adams, yes?

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

My activist journey in one piece of paper

As part of getting to know new colleagues at the MND Association, I took part in an exercise where I had to try to get my campaigning autobiography down to one piece of flip-chart paper.

Sunday, October 18, 2015


From the archives - evidence of that time in 2005 when I attended a Council of Europe-hosted conference in Strasbourg on electoral administration across the continent. 

Nominally an expert - as my badge indicated - I think I was about 3 months into my career as a Policy Advisor at The Electoral Commission* and got drafted because of my adequate command of French and German.

Looking back, I remember it chiefly for it being my first trip on Eurostar rather than for the content of the conference itself. Still, very much horizon-broadening for me at the time.

*Between 2000 and 2007 I worked for the Local Government Commission for England, The Electoral Commission and The Boundary Committee for England, which in Quangoland basically meant I essentially worked for the same organisation** throughout this period, regardless of nomenclature. 

**Technically the LGCE merged with the EC, with the re-named BCE serving as a sub-committee of the EC, before later becoming independent as the LGBCE after my departure.*** 

***But who's keeping track of such minor detail?

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Speak up!

Here's what has pride of place on the wall of my office, salvaged from an old Friends of the Earth Conference stage display.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Superheroes on a pedestal: Grant Morrison's Supergods

Given that parallel worlds and multiple realities are rife in Grant Morrison's work in comics, perhaps it's inevitable that Supergods - to date his only full-length non-fiction - contains any number of possible books.

There's the historical tour through seventy years of superheroes, the serious comics criticism, the autobiographical fragments of Morrison's creative life. Then there's the notes towards a philosophy of living like a superhero that the subtitle points to: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human. 

And then there's the digressions into using the principles of chaos magic to affect your personal reality. Not what you expect from your typical comic book writer, but like his contemporaries from the 80's wave of British talent, Morrison is, well, out there.

As I said, Supergods is many books stitched into one like a paperback chimera. And by some miracle, most of it works. It's by turns educational, banal, erudite, bitchy, thought provoking and maddening. In other words, a very interesting book by a very interesting individual.

Morrison's initial focus is a cultural history of the development of superheroes, all the way from Siegel and Schuster launching Superman on an unsuspecting world in the 1930's to the present day. He argues that how those heroes have evolved over the years - think Batman's journey from pulp detective to pop art crusader to dark knight, for example - says fascinating things about the times we live in and the kind of champion each generation wants. 

He is generally also an insightful critic, if one discounts his apparent desire to elevate himself above his contemporaries, and I could have quite happily read an entire book of Morrison on comics.

Part of what makes him such an interesting commentator on the sub-culture, however, where the rest of the book goes. With an earnestness that caught me by surprise, Morrison places superheroes on a pedestal. To him, they are symbols of virtue which we can aspire to emulate, with his first and foremost example being of course Superman. Against the power fantasies, nihilism and deconstruction on display in many comics, his case for the genre is a profoundly ethical one.

And as a writer who's pulled the strings of the Man Of Steel, Batman and the X-Men (as well as more outré affairs like Animal Man and Doom Patrol) , Morrison's well placed to make this argument by reference to his own body of work as well as the contributions of peers and predecessors.

At one point he talks about wanting Jungian superheroes and the reference is an apposite one. Morrison reads heroes as archetypes, mediated by writers and artists to cater for the needs of the contemporary psyche, yes, but also shaping society itself. A higher calling indeed.

Like Jung, too, he tells the story of his own spiritual journey and glimpse of a higher symbolic order that informs these conclusions. For some readers, this section of Supergods will be where the book, always a bumpy ride, goes off the rails into drug-fuelled new age speculation 

I found I could park my scepticism for the duration, not at least because it remained tremendously interesting, covering as it did the time in Morrison's life when he was writing The Invisibles (still my favourite thing he's done). And as the author himself points out, the value of his experience is not in its reality, but in its impact on his view of the world and above all his new-found appreciation of the totemic nature of the superhero.

Supergods covers a lot of ground, not all of it equally riveting. And while a lack of coherency is part of the Morrisonian charm, this is one of those books that I think really would have benefited from tighter editing. 

But, perhaps surprisingly given its subject matter, it does feel like a necessary book. Refreshingly un-nostalgic, it makes a powerful case for the relevancy of superheroes, no matter what an endless procession of tie-in movies may throw at us.

And in these times, who I am to disagree?

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Thud and grunt from the rainbow gutter - The Doors' LA Woman

This post is a belated coda to my attempts around the turn of the year to listen to The Doors

At the time, I had only made it as far as album three. The further I moved away from the self-titled first album with its transcendental groove, the more the balance tilted from compelling to unintentionally comic.

I'm here now to report that it may have taken them six albums, but The Doors finally delivered consistently on 1971's LA Woman.

It's known chiefly these days for creepy-listening headphone treat Riders On The Storm, but that's something of a track apart. Forty-five years or so down the line, what the rest of LA Woman sounds like is the best backroom-of-a-pub blues-rock-soul thug stomp of an album you can possible imagine.

All thud and grunt from the rainbow gutter.

Now, describing The Doors at this point as pub-rock ne plus ultra ever might sound like a backhanded compliment. It really isn't - and perhaps it'll become clearer if I explain by comparison. 

When Led Zeppelin were charging through their early albums during the same period, what's striking is how clean, how mannered they sound when you place them next to LA Woman, which essentially draws on many of the same influences in psychedelia and the blues. Led Zeppelin IV - also from 1971 - is a great piece of work, but it's about the flash, polish and technique. 

The Doors have chops too, but they sound dirty. Yes, even Ray Manzarek's organ, that proto-prog signifier. None of which makes them any more or less authentic than Led Zep - it's just a strikingly different arrangement of similar influences. 

This sound - with occasional psych-pop digressions like Riders or Love Her Madly in counterpoint - basically fuels LA Woman. Tracks like The Changeling, Been Down So Long or Crawling King Snake (a John Lee Hooker cover) could come straight from the stage at The Lucky Star Lounge or some other notional small town American music bar. 

Or, closer to home, the Kings Head on Bird Street on a Saturday night.

On this album, Morrison-as-poet takes a back-seat to Morrison the rocker, although his alter ego still breaks on through a couple of times in, for example, The Wasp or L'AmericaInevitably, there are a couple of 'Oh Jimbo! No!' moments of lyrical hypermasculinity that just don't work these days. But overall, it's a positively human Morrison we see here.

So, while most Doors albums don't so much flirt with ridicule as take it to Vegas for a four-day bender followed by a chapel wedding, LA Woman sees them keeping it relatively restrained and personal and all the better for it. It is 'just' four sweating guys in a notional basement kicking out the hermetic jams, with no claims to any cosmic significance. 

But it's the best sweaty basement rock record it can possibly be. And ain't that something?

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Belfast City Hall illuminated to support people with MND

Here's an extract from my write-up of my first public engagement for the Motor Neurone Disease Association earlier this week. And what an occasion it was. :)

On Monday evening, Belfast City Hall was lit up in the colours of the Motor Neurone Disease Association to dazzling effect.

But there was more going on inside, where the Lord Mayor of Belfast was welcoming people with motor neurone disease (MND), their families and carers to a civic reception.

The event marked Belfast City Council’s continued support for local people with MND and the work of the Association’s Northern Ireland Branch. In December 2014, the City Council had been the first council in Northern Ireland to adopt the MND Charter, which sets out the key priorities for local services to get right.

(see here for full article)

My role on the night was mainly to participate, meet people and lend a hand, and of course to congratulate the branch on an event well done. It really felt to me like Belfast was a flagship for the kind of civic relationship a local branch or group can have with their council. 

A very nice way to begin putting myself out there with the new job, then. And thanks to everyone in the Branch for a great Northern Ireland welcome. :)

Sunday, September 20, 2015

On online breaks and slow thinking

For the past two weeks I've been on something approaching a full break from the online world. I've barely been on Twitter and Facebook till this weekend, I've skimmed my e-mail but only responded to the odd urgent message. News and internet drama have been kept at arms length by the simple act of not looking.

And off course I've been off the blog for over a month now - although that has less to do with any notion of an intentional break and more to do with starting a new job and getting on top of a new campaigning brief.

Now, I could take a break from the mediated online world and focus on the real one without breaking a sweat to some extent because I was on holiday. I didn't need to pay professional attention to anything, and the change to my routine meant I could drop habits like, say, checking the latest episodes of my favourite webcomics daily.

But it's been enough of a rewarding experience that I might well try it again if the opportunity arises without needing to be away literally as well as metaphorically. Most of all it has helped me find the head-space for different modes of being and thinking. Not necessarily better, but different - slower and deeper than the intense states of interconnection and communication we get through the screen.

What have I done with this time, other than being on holiday? Well, I've read five books for starters, which to put in perspective is probably about the same as I'd read in the past month. I've also scribbled away at a few draft posts for the blog (some of which are reviews of the aforementioned) and considered future writing projects, both in a way that I'd have struggled to find time for up to this point.

I've been able to practice a bit of slow thinking too. Which is to say I've peered, however dimly at a bigger picture, reaffirming the importance to me of the people who I love, the principles to try to live by, and the themes and thoughts which rise from within when everything's just a little less busy. 

The notion of temporarily retreating from the world may be a common one in many religious traditions, but there is no less a need for it in a secular sense too, given the intricacy of modern life online and off. Social media may be a great tool for managing that arachnid complexity, but perhaps we should all take a break from the web when we need it.