Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Sulk: Associates' intense little jewel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 23, 2017

The versatility of Chim Chim Cheree

It's something of a triumph of chutzpah that the official version of Chim Chim Cheree in Mary Poppins works as well as it does. The less said about Dick Van Dyke's accent, the better, but he performs the heck out of the role. And certainly finds the mixture of bravado and sadness that this song requires.

I mean, check this lyric:

Let's face it, Chim Chim Cheree (by songwriters extraordinaire the Sherman Brothers) is a defiant workingman's urban folk number if ever I heard one, even if it started life in musical theatre (and indeed Wikipedia notes similarities to traditional Yiddish folk song Tumbalalaika).

There's this amazing tension (or ambiguity) in the entire song between acknowledging the hardship of the chimney sweep's life and the insistence of the 'lucky sweep' on reaching across social strata to those who might consider themselves his better. 

If you can get past the Van Dyke factor, it's not only a great piece but it's also surprisingly amenable like many folk songs to a variety of different treatments. Here are some of my favourites - there are many more listed on the Wikipedia page for the song.

Joe Pernice (Scud Mountain Boys, Pernice Brothers etc.) is perhaps the best demonstration of Chim Chim Cheree as imagined folk, as he strips the song back to a simple strum.  

Folk fact: the song is also seemingly quite popular with accordion players as well if You Tube is anything to go by.

One of the things I hadn't appreciated either until Wikipedia pointed me in the direction of covers by Louis Armstrong and John Coltrane was the crossover between the golden age of musicals and jazz standards. Both covers couldn't be more different - the one vocal/order/groove and the other instrumental/chaos/fragmentation, but they're both amazing in their own way.

I mean, I never thought I'd have Dick Van Dyke to thank for introducing me to John Coltrane. But here we are.

And from another tradition entirely, how about Chim Chim Cheree as a beautiful Japanese psychedelic rock ballad by Plastic Tree, from an entire compilation of J-Rock Disney covers?

Sadly, no metal version that I'm aware of as yet, but I'm sure it's only a matter of time.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Health-geekery Autumn 2017: season of mists and mellow linkiness

A seasonal, occasionally updated round-up from the depths of my Outlook read folder and my liked Twitter posts.

As ever, being included here doesn't necessarily mean I agree with it, just that it was sufficiently noteworthy to be recorded here.

'We’ve assessed the extent to which services are or are not person-centred. We found that despite 20 years of policy promises, care coordination is still not prioritised, there is a lack of care planning, and involving people in decisions about their care is still poor in the NHS'

Research by Dr Rod Jones - same day stay admissions drive growth, but length of stay is increasing

Social care

Latest Guardian article about social care in crisis but with a) useful opinion research cited and b) links to the work of Future Care Capital on a 'care covenant' for the future.

'Social care meltdown' new survey of social workers by Community Care Magazine, supported by the Care and Support Alliance (plus blog by CSA Board member Robert Morritt on this at Conservative Home)

Disability Benefits Consortium report calls for an urgent review of Personal Independence Payment (PIP)

The problems with universal credit (Nicholas Timmins, Institute for Government)

Care homes

New research from Healthwatch 

Centre for the Modern Family research finds we underestimate the cost of residential care for the elderly significantly (link to FT article)


Lancet article on possible impacts of Brexit on health and health services


Saturday, September 16, 2017

Notes on a divided kingdom, part 1

This post starts with Marx, although he's really only a jumping off point for talking about the present day. It eventually gets to the point, so please do bear with me. :)

No more 'merely human solidarity'

I've been reading an old (1940) but thoughtful book - Edmund Wilson's To The Finland Station: a study in the writing and acting of history. It looks at 'the revolutionary view of society' as expressed by different nineteenth century thinkers, especially Marx and his socialist succcessors. 

Basically, it applies the techniques of literary criticism to political philosophy, which makes for diverting reading even if you don't agree with the conclusions.


What Wilson is very acute on is how Marx and Engels helped to move the radical 19th century Left away from the universal citizenship of 1789 into a far more polarised space based on class. Here is his gloss on the Communist Manifesto.

'All men are no longer brothers; there is no longer any merely human solidarity. The "truly human'" is that which is to be realised when we shall arrived at the society without classes. In the meantime, the elements of society which can alone bring about such a future [...] in proportion as they feel group solidarity among themselves, must cease to feel human solidarity with their antagonists. Their antagonists [...]  have [themselves] irreparably destroyed that solidarity.' (p162)  

In other words - we don't have to talk to our opponents, but when we do we don't have to play nice. We don't have to deal fairly and honestly with them either: any relationship with them is pragmatic at best, rather than founded in common ground or a good faith dialogue.

Oh, and they started it.

Not inherently a left-wing position

Now, what Marx and Engels advocated and what they actually did on a daily basis is a fair way apart. But let's assume for the sake of following this line of thought that they were entirely serious about this redefining of the civic community to exclude members of opposing classes and groups. And let's face it: finding examples of this from Marxist-Leninist parties isn't exactly the hardest task to set a historian.

To avoid the rabbit hole of discussing one hundred and fifty years of history though, let me hastily clarify: I've started with Marx (with an assist from Wilson) because of their candour and clarity of thought on this point, not because they're describing an inherently left-wing position. From broadly the same period, I could have brought up Bismarck's anti-socialist law or the behaviour of the opponents of universal suffrage to make a similar point about the right.

Anyone, it seems, can un-person anyone.

And on that sad reflection, let's switch our attention back to the UK of the present.

Does this feel like 'human solidarity' to you?

Consider discussion of Brexit and its aftermath. Think of the toxic atmosphere that surrounds any conversation on immigration or the internecine warfare that passes for discourse on Twitter. Consider the adoption by some of bad faith arguments and trolling as a political tactic, the sheer difficulty in having a broad-based conversation about class, race, gender or sexuality without these behaviours manifesting.

I'm not singling out actors here from any point on the political spectrum, as that would be counterproductive to what I'm trying to achieve. I'm simply outlining a perceived trend.

Rather my question, channeling Wilson, is this: does this look like universal 'human solidarity' to you?

I thought not.

What it does look like is a willingness to exclude people from the civic community. Or at the very least, to use the languages of exclusion and bad faith, even if only in self-defence.

Wrestling metaphor incoming 

We have to acknowledge it's not all like this. There are organisations advocating for dialogue and social cohesion such as the Jo Cox Foundation, politicians of all parties and administrators at all levels working together and getting on with the job of serving the people. These are some of the things that give me hope for the future.

Yet, if UK democracy were a wrestling ring - which in many ways it is, what with the posturing, silly costumes and heel turns - it still feels to me like we're now jumping the ropes and battering our adversary with the chair way too often.

And that cuts to the heart of the matter. In the long run, a stable democratic society with an effective government depend not only on the willingness of each group, each individual to participate and follow the rules, but also to support everyone else to do so as well. We've known this since at least 1776 - it's old news - even if it's been honoured in the breach on many occasions.

But whether by passion or strategic design, if the current level of rhetoric keeps ratcheting up, if exclusionary behaviour continues to rise, if internal or external exile starts to look like a safer option than participation, then my fear is that UK democracy (or at least its current iteration) will eventually find itself in a crisis it cannot withstand.

"Yeah? That’s just like, your opinion, man"

Two concluding comments and caveats.

First, I'm going to be compiling a postscript to this post with any research or evidence I can find on this subject, whether it supports my reflections or not. This is one of those rare occasions when I'd actually like to be proven wrong.

Second, there's a lot more that could be said (and has been said) about all of this, including the long history of marginalisation on the basis of race, class, gender or sexuality. I've also stopped short of suggesting any action at this point. This sort of small-scale artisanal blogging can only eat the beast one piece at a time, so hopefully you'll bear with me as I go.

And perhaps it goes without saying, given that this blog has a comments section, but all reflections and recommendations are most welcome.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Too good to leave to the critics: Can and I Want More

In the space of nine months, we've lost perhaps rock music's greatest rythym section in Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit, the engine of late 60's/70's German experimenters Can.

The best attempt to explain Can I've ever read (annoyingly I can't remember the writer responsible) basically says this: on paper you'd expect them to be a band only a critic could love, but they're so annoyingly good they're wasted on music nerds.

And as someone at least half-way to music nerdery, I'd agree with that wholeheartedly.

Yes, Can sometimes noodled on for 15 minutes or more in the way that prog rockers often do. Yes, their members included students of avant-garde composer Stockhausen, hardcore jazz musicians and non-singers taking a turn on the mike. Yes, they liked a bit of music concrète.

But from all these influences and their collective talents they jammed out, and then tightly edited, a bunch of short tracks, which if you squint at them a bit funny, are some of the best experimental pop songs of the 70's: Spoon; Vitamin C; I'm So Green; Moonshake and I Want More, their solitary UK hit in 1976. Don't believe me? You Tube is currently streaming latest their singles compilation, so see for yourself.

The longer, more experimental tracks can be great too, but that's an argument for another time.

The other thing that helped Can break down barriers is that they were very, very funky indeed: Jaki Liebezeit stripping down jazz technique down into a series of endlessly unfolding drum loops; Czukay's bass - never two notes where one would do - holding down the groove and creating space for the other players. 

This love of funk and jazz meant they were also unlikely early adopters of disco rythyms on  I Want More (listen here).

Eminently danceable, for three and a half minutes it comes on like the best sort of mutant glam disco. These ears find echoes of War's Me And Baby Brother (a belated UK hit earlier that year), which might just be me, but perhaps also indicates the ballpark Can were aiming for here. By this stage in their career, they didn't have a steady lead vocalist, so I Want More also features all the band chanting the lyrics in unison to slightly sinister effect like a German Funkadelic.

And if you think there's a lot of repetition of the title in the chorus, I direct you to the B-side ...And More, which extends the workout to a full seven minutes, bongos and all. Bliss.

Postscript: I discovered Can when I was out as a foreign language student in Germany, thanks to a fellow student who offered to make me a compilation cassette, which I subsequently wore out exploring the streets of my university town with my Walkman. I'd heard nothing like them before, and to some extent still haven't. So if by some miracle you're reading this, thank you Ralf for this game-changing gift. :)

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Judging Spock, judging you

Unclear whether Spock is standing in front of a red curtain or an 8-bit 3D canyon effect.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Important reminder

You can sing the words 'I Am The Protagonist' to the main melody of Crockett's Theme from Miami Vice.

Important to know.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Fisher King of hitmen is back. John Wick: Chapter 2

To a hammer, all problems look like a nail.

And Maslow's Hammer is pretty much the tragedy of John Wick: Chapter 2, at least I believe that the film would have it so.

Film has adult themes, discussed below the poster.

The film, enjoyable as it is, is essentially the same as its predecessor, only bigger, flashier and more preposterous. Once again, retired hitman John Wick's unresolved grief issues are poked in a raw place; one more time his considered response is to kill everyone responsible for his pain.

I have the strongest feeling that Chapter 2 wants to present this as tragedy, in the classical sense of a great figure being undone by what what makes them 'great'. In this case, the tragedy of a man trained to kill people in a wide variety of ways whose response to personal crisis is to.... well, you get the picture.

Consider that the film goes out of its way to present John Wick as a legend. Leading lights of the criminal underworld and its international league of assassins swap stories of his exploits, indulge him, sometimes even defer to him. He's not just a gangster - he's the grieving Fisher King of hitmen, mourning the death of his wife (and the pup from film one) and now the destruction of his house to boot.

And consider too, that a perfectly cast Keanu Reeves owns this 'still waters run deep' schtick like no-one else in the business. The film is asking you to root for him, just a little, even if only by comparison to everyone else in the film.

The problem with setting him up as a tragic figure in the narrative is that the material can't sustain it. For JW to be some sort of fallen samurai or antihero, there would have to be some element of ethical struggle accompanying his actions.

But, to put it in the language of Dungeons and Dragons alignments, what we have in John Wick: Chapter 2 is a Chaotic Neutral, verging on Chaotic Evil, character taking down a Lawful Evil criminal empire, purely for personal revenge. Even when he's presented with alternative solutions that don't involve killing, he doesn't hesitate to take the direct route. And there's nothing great or tragic about that because there's no inner conflict. At best, it's just pop nihilism.

Chapter 2 is a beautifully shot and choreographed action B-movie, but it overreaches when it tries to portray its protagonist as more than what he is. And that's all I really have to say about it.

Friday, August 18, 2017

What's the Welsh for noticeboard?

It's hysbysfwrdd (thanks, Google Translate)

Because here's what will hopefully become a load of links about charities and campaigning in Wales as an aide-memoire.

The benefits of bilingual marketing by charities in Wales (Welsh Language Commissioner)

The Welsh language and volunteering (same)

A whole load of top-line social services statistics 2014-2015

Cliff Richard led astray by sorcery!

Like a bad sign hanging over me, it seems I can't carry on writing about the charts of 1976 unless I deal with Cliff Richard's Spring top ten hit Devil Woman. So let's attend to the witchy elephant in the room.

Even by the 'anything goes' standards of 1976, Devil Woman is a deeply odd song to have been placed into the hands of noted Christian bachelor Cliff Richard. Now, if you're expecting any cheap shots at the expense of either category, look elsewhere. That's the least interesting thing I could write about here.

But it is true that the preposterous lyric about a young man being seduced against his will by a practioner of the dark arts doesn't, on the face of it, fit with Cliff''s public persona at all. Which in turn makes the song such an object of curiosity.
The fact that it's Cliff - wholesome rollerskates, mistletoe and summer holidaying Cliff - being led astray by sorcery gives Devil Woman a presumably unintentional transgressive energy, making it unlike anything else in his back catalogue. The conflation of evil and female sexuality expressed is bizarrely, wrong-headedly compelling in a way not often seen outside Dracula.

Of course it helps that the song itself is a stonking piece of occult rock boogie, with the funky keys and bass in the intro being worth the price of purchase in their own right.

In short, there's a whole lot of cognitive whiplash goin' on here, wrapped around a proper tune. It's very strange in the way that only really straight stuff can be. And it speaks volumes for the power of the results that the only contemporary I can think probably better suited to sing Devil Woman would be that great doom shaman Ozzy Osbourne.

Don't believe me? Check out this performance, featuring some great intrepretative dance and the politest 'ugh' in rock and roll, which by Mr Richard's standards is practically gonzo.

So, what does all of this say about 1976? Well, for starters and most importantly, it tells us that its tolerance for misogyny was much higher than we would accept these days. Even more so than Sailor's A Glass Of Champagne, Devil Woman's gender politics consign it to being a period piece rather than a tune for the ages. No-one today would get away with it, and quite rightly so.

Culturally, it also reminds us that a lot of 1970's rock was powered by the co-option of the blues (or at least motifs from the blues) - the ethics of which is a whole other conversation - but if Cliff was doing it you can safely assume that by the middle of the decade it had become very mainstream indeed.

It's also a another answer to the recurring question in these posts of whether pop was in crisis in 1976. Pop, fuelled by funk and disco, was doing surprisingly well, thank you very much. But when Cliff freakin' Richard was riffing harder than pretty much anything else in the charts short of Thin Lizzy, it's clear that rock - not pop - needed to take a long hard look at itself.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Summer campaigning links

Bit of a bias towards strategy and planning on this one, as that's where my head is to some extent at today.

Training resources on systems, power, leadership and campaigns from the New Economics Organisers Network.

Design thinking (read: campaign strategy resources) via Beth's blog and the Greenpeace Mobilisation Lab Campaign Accelerator model.

And bucketloads of more planning resources via the DIY Toolkit

Heroes Journey story-mapping ooojimy from the Dancing Fox

Jenny Ross from Bond on theories of change

Collaboration cards toolkit

Campaigning boardgame? Yes please!

8 top tips for planning a march/protest/equivalent event (Hatcher Group)

Article on non-linear planning in Nonprofit: Absolutely Fabulous which is particularly helpful on the catch 22 of data - you need data in order to commit resources to a project but you need the resources to get the data...

My boss Alice Fuller on how our organisation developed its local campaigning strategy (Prezi presentation)

The Powercube - a new way to understand power-relationships.

What does a globally connected, thriving, capacity-building ecosystem for modern advocacy look like? (Report from Greenpeace Mobilisation Lab)

Approaches to Co-creation (Joanna Levitt Cea/Jess Rimington, SSIR)

Civic engagement as a way of life (Kirsten Grimm/Emily Gardner, SSIR)

Huge list of UK politics datasets

Asset mapping - using community's strengths to foster social networks (National Voices)

Presentation from Chris Rose on Why Campaigning Matters which is also a lucid exposition on the Rosean model of campaigning with full speaker's notes.

Hahrie Han bonanza! Full video of talk on 'Organising or mobilising to build power'  plus reflections from Jim Coe, Natasha Adams and Tom Baker.

And it's a bit meta, but here's a link to more summer reading links from Tom Baker at the Thoughtful Campaigner.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Quick link: Hugo Awards 2017

A quick link here to this year's Hugo Awards, announced last night.

Congratulations to N K Jemisin, who won Best Novel second year running for The Obelisk Gate, the sequel to last year's victor The Fifth Season (review here). I haven't read TOG yet because I have to be in the right mood for something a little on the grim side, but as I did very much enjoy its predecessor I'll be looking forward to checking it out in the weeks to come.

Also glad to see Ada Palmer pick up the Campbell Award for Best New Writer (review of Too Like The Lightning and Seven Surrenders still germinating).

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

8 short notes on the poo emoji cushion

1. I've nothing against emoji in general or their cushions. I get that a symbolic language needs a scatalogical vocabulary too.

But why does anyone need a mass produced plush symbol of poo in their life? 

2. It's not cute. Don't tell me it's cute. 

3. The poo emoji cushion (PEC) is not transgressive. Are the owners perhaps planning to reenact scenes from Pink Flamingoes? Of course they aren't. That's because it's toilet humour at its most banal.

4. It's tailor-made for people to hilariously troll their 'friends'. Who will burn it the moment their back is turned.

5. Did I mention the smile? The way the PEC gawps vacantly at you from every second shop window. Brrrr.

6. At least Mr Hanky had the decency to only turn up at Christmas.

7. The PEC perhaps makes some of kind of parallel universe sense (?) as a plot to put a minion of Nurgle (the Chaos God of Pestilence and Plague from Warhammer 40K) on every sofa in the country. But that's not a world I want to live in, brothers and sisters.

8. Its only possible redemption is as a protest campaign tactic. If Arrested Development fans sent bananas to the network and stopped it being cancelled, imagine what impact sending poo cushions by the thousands could have on your target?

Monday, August 7, 2017

Health-geekery Summer 2017

I've been engaging in the traditional summer activity of catching up with my reading - so here's a list of links which will doubtless grow over August.

Re-find of the week #1: the Regional Voices Who's Who Guides for health and social care in England.

Re-find of the week #2: Transforming community neurology - a new commissioning brief for community neurology services (Neurological Alliance) together with patient experience survey from March of this year.


Where to look packs for STP areas
NHS England press release on additional funding for some STP areas
Report on STP's from the IPPR
NHS Support Federation campaign info on STP's
Tragic death of Greater Manchester man highlights patient:GP ratio of 14 or 15K:4 or 5 GP's (Manchester Evening News)
NAO report on health and social care integration

Accountable care systems

Grauniad article


National Audit Office report: commentary from the MND Association
2013 and 2015 reports from the Wales Audit Office
Video introduction to CHC and personal budgets from NHS England.

NHS other

How commissioners are using the Social Value Act (National Voices and Social Enterprise UK)
Research on staff attitudes and stress levels from the Point Of Care Foundation
New report on importance of occupational therapists from their Royal College
HQIP report on quality of acute non-invasive ventilation care
Definition of person-centred care from the RCN
Cross-party campaign from Norman Lamb MP for a convention on health and social care.
Stephen Hawking speaks out on the NHS (as reported in Guardian)
Statutory guidance on involving people in their own care

House of Lords report on the long-term future of health and social care
Kings Fund on this year's priorities for the NHS and social care (a bit late to add here, but...)
BMA data on bed use in the NHS


State of Caring 2017 (Carers' Trust report)
Carers' Trust report on supporting older carers
Think Local Act Personal on supporting working carers

Financial costs of neurological conditions

Research into the financial cost of Parkinson's released.
Alzheimers Society launch campaign to end the 'Dementia Tax' (and if you've forgotten the election campaign already, here's an explanation)

Oh, and while we're on dementia, shout out to DEEP: the Dementia Engagement & Empowerment Project.

Social care

The state of social care in GB (Leonard Cheshire report from 2016)
Messages from various key players for the current Government (chiefly, sort it out pls)
CQC report on quality of adult social care 2014-17

Disability rights

Govt accused of breaching UN convention in its treatment of disabled people (Indy) and link to relevant page of UNOHCHR Committee on Rights of Persons With Disabilities.
Scope blog from Hannah Deakin - people treated me differently when I became disabled (also link to TED talk)
Social model of disability (as defined by Scope)


Can health and social care ever be truly integrated? (Macmillan Cymru on the long-term review of health and social care announced for Wales in November last year)

Is a 'what matters conversation' a carer's assessment? (Prof. Luke Clement - the Prof isn't a fan of the Social Services and Wellbeing Act, as you can also see from this 2015 article.)

Consultation and White Paper: Services Fit For The Future (includes governance, participation and accountability issues)

Northern Ireland

Belfast Live - 7 out of 10 unpaid carers admit to feeling lonely or socially isolated

BBC coverage of the health service savings consultations launched by the 5 Trusts, parts one and two.

Round-up of political responses to the consultation.
NICVA editorial 
There is also an interesting joint statement on the consultation from various medical colleges here.


Which I'm now singing to the tune of a certain number from Grease 2, so help me.

All In This Together: website about co-production in Wales (aforementioned White Paper big on co-production) with lots of articles and links for the general reader.

National Voices one page diagram on co-production.

Think Local Act Personal on co-production avec resources.

Related: Six Principles For Engaging People And Communities (NHS England People and Communities Board) expanding on the NHS' Five Year Forward View and its 2017 update. Plus further recommendations from the Board on how to do this.

Northern Ireland

NICVA position paper on Brexit as it affects NI has some useful positioning on health

More Brexit

Brexit Health Alliance formed to safeguard arrangements for research and health-care should the UK (as expected) leave the EU.

Nuffield Trust - Getting A Brexit Deal That Works For The NHS

Archive schmarchive

From the depths of the to-be-read/viewed pile

Survey of specialist palliative care in care homes 
Habinteg Accessible Housing Policy Update
The UK Strategy for Rare Diseases
Nuffield Trust report on benefits (or otherwise) of moving care out of hospital
Nuffield Trust (again) on delayed transfers of care
Owen Jones interviews the late Gordon Aikman
NHS Confederation thoughts on Wales for the 2016 elections
December 2016 annual report and guidelines on end of life care in Wales
Welsh Government statement on neurological conditions March 2017
The Health and Care of Older People in England 2017 (Age UK)

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Vorrh! (Huh!) What is it good for?

Well, it was a good joke the first time around...

[some spoilers ahead]

Brian Catling is an artist and poet who has expanded into fiction, which probably explains a lot about The Vorrh, his first novel. It's poetic, impressionistic and filtered through Catling's own interests, idiosyncracies and predilictions.

It's also a sprawling, incoherent beast of nearly 600 pages that - if it didn't astound and horrify as much as it does - would at times be ejected out the window with force.

The Vorrh of the title is a Conradian heart-of-darkness rainforest in a fantastic colonial Africa, the name borrowed from Raymond Roussel's 1910 avant-garde travelogue Impressions of Africa. Roussel himself features in the book as one of the main characters, under the reductive alias of The Frenchman.

The forest is a place of revelation, mysterity and insanity, as well as a source of income for the settlers of Essenwald, the timber town at its edge. Catling uses both as a common thread for five overlapping stories, although one of them, concerning Victorian photography pioneer Eadweard Muybridge is barely Vorrh-related at all and seems almost to be a palimpsest of an earlier work.

Well, I did mention this was a sprawling effort, didn't I? 

It might be written in the fantastic mode, including magical weapons, angels, wise women, mythical beasts and cyclopses (Catling loves him a cyclops), but The Vorrh is a long way from the genre mainstream, however it's been marketed. Far better points of reference for the reader are gothic horror and magic realism, both of which I'm fortunately very much down with.

For a couple of good reasons, this is one of those books I dare say I will end up reading again. First, there are some plotlines in The Vorrh which are beautifuly told, working as short stories (existential horror, usually) in the broader narrative. The sections involving Roussel, making a creative pilgramage to the forest, are universally good.

Second, there's a lot going on here, as you might expect from a professor and polymath like Catling. He's happy to throw in a reference to this or that esoteric, technological or historical datum every few pages, such that I inevitably didn't get them all first time around.

But, and you have probably sensed some buts on the way throughout this review, this is one of those books where the author is clearly throwing a lot at the wall and seeing what sticks. Not all of it does - the dream monologue of the dog is a particularly low point, and generally the sex is your average bad literary sex. The prose too, verges on the purple at times; Catling's poetic instinct to try and knock every sentence out of the park is endearing, but not every description, not every metaphor works.

Not much of the plot is wrapped up by the end either. The presentation of the Vorrh as a part one of a trilogy might be more commercial contrivance than fact, and I suspect we're probably dealing with one epic 2,000 page novel here.

Tropes and traps

It's also hard to not write about The Vorrh and not address the challenges inherent in writing an 'African fantasy' from a white European perspective. To his credit, Catling rises to the challenge: his perspective is pretty clearly anti-colonial, and to the best of my admittedly limited knowledge no specific cullture is being bowdlerised in the name of fiction. The strand of the novel involving Roussel is a good critique of literary tourism, among the many other things that it is.

So a lot of obvious traps are avoided. Yet there are still problematic tropes here, in particularly the use of the forest and its inhabitants as a stand-in for the African Other: mysterious, magical, dangerous and unknowable. Catling isn't immune from cliche in his African magic either, and his use of a white character who goes native in one of the stories makes sense in context but is a bit of a tired substitution. Plus, the only black protagonist a) is a bit of a bad 'un b) is impressed into servitude c) dies.

None of which to say that The Vorrh isn't a good book, in some places an excellent one, nor to say that Catling isn't aware of the issues - I believe he is and has tried to make sure the novel includes its own critique of these stereotypes. But this may be a sticking point for some readers - each of which will reach their own judgement as to how much he gets the balance right.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Wonder Woman: a sense of the superhuman

Wonder Woman achieves something no recent superhero film has managed - a genuine sense of what it is to be superhuman.

This isn't about your origin story or your CGI budget or however much you can blow up in your two hours plus running time.

This is about the presence of The Other.

There's one particular scene in Wonder Woman - the one on that there poster - which demonstrates most of all what I mean. Diana and her party are in the trenches of the WW1 Western Front. She casts off her human disguise and manifests as Wonder Woman - there really is no other word for it. Climbing out into No Mans' Land, she advances towards the German lines, single-handedly deflecting machine gun fire as she goes.

The sequence is a triumph of direction by Patty Jenkins, echoing consciously or no the stories of angels soldiers claimed to see in the skies of the Somme. And while her acting is great throughout the film, Gal Godot's other careers as a soldier and a model also perfectly fit her for this kind of cinema-as-spectacle work.  

The effect is exactly as intended: it's as if a Greek god - a living archetype and something decidely not human - has suddenly been unleashed on the world. It's a real moment of power and awe rare in modern action cinema. And it's one of the things that make Wonder Woman much more interesting, more effective and just plain weirder than many of its competitors. 
Postscript with self-critique

As Ive been typing this up, I've been thinking that I can't really write about Wonder Woman (with the emphasis on Woman) as The Other without some read-across to the concept of othering. Particularly the feminist version in which women are defined in contrast to a male 'norm.' This kind of othering isn't what I meant by this piece per se, but looking at it from this perspective does give rise to two bonus observations.

The first is that being a superhero and a woman in a sexist society is inherently disruptive in a way which having a bloke flying through the sky (especially a white, middle-class bloke, intersectionality fans) isn't. Supergirl, Jessica Jones and Wonder Woman all go about this in different ways as TV shows and films but the overall effect overlays and enhances the 'woah' factor of a character having powers in the first place.

The second is acknowledging the contradication in me describing society and culture as if I stand outside it. Perhaps it's next-to-impossible for me to talk about Wonder Woman as the superhuman Other without also inadvertently othering her as a man. I dare say this tension has been pretty much inherent in the character since her creation, but I don't think I'd be being honest with myself as a writer if I didn't at least acknowedge the validity of the question.

Anyhow, self-critique over. 

A conventional review would end by me remarking that Wonder Woman is an excellent film which even those tired of the DC school of film-making will enjoy, so I'll end on the same note here too.