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. :)