Sunday, March 01, 2015

The dying art of conversation The art of dying conversation

Reading the reaction of celebrated professor of neurology and author Oliver Sacks to being diagnosed with terminal cancer, I was struck by the remarkably equanimous if not genuinely sanguine way in which he's facing up to his fate. Yes, he acknowledges "I cannot pretend I am without fear", but he claims to feel "a sudden clear focus and perspective" and his overriding emotion isn't terror or self-pity but gratitude for the intellectually rewarding and emotionally rich life he's been fortunate to enjoy.

I'd like to think that, in the same circumstances, I might respond in the same way - but it's very unlikely. Perhaps it's a consequence of being a committed atheist who doesn't believe in any kind of afterlife, but contemplating my own mortality petrifies me to the extent that I try not to think about it as far as possible.

It was with interest, then, that I read about so-called "death cafes". The idea is simple: turn up for a coffee, maybe a slice of cake and a friendly and informal discussion about personal perspectives on death. Looking online, it seems several have taken place in the Oxford area in the last few months, including one at Barefoot Books in Summertown at the start of February. I'll be keeping an eye out for future events in the area - attending one might well help me to feel more comfortable with a subject from which modern life ensures we're so often distanced or insulated.

(Thanks to Jen for the Sacks link.)

Wardrobe malfunctions

Scientists can be forgiven for tearing their hair out. A poor-quality photo of a dress posted on the internet ends up getting the whole world talking about visual perception, and yet when a team of international boffins accomplishes the mind-bogglingly brilliant feat of landing a probe on a comet, all anyone wants to talk about is an ill-advised shirt.

A spoonful of blastbeats helps the medicine go down

It's a little-known secret that Mary Poppins was a Napalm Death fan. Exhibit A: this alternative version of 'Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious'.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Will'll fix it

Only the wealthiest and most pigheadedly selfish could deny that in Britain capitalism is broken - but how to go about fixing it? Unlike many, who are content merely to diagnose the problem, Will Hutton actually attempts to outline a solution in his new book How Good We Can Be, an edited excerpt of which was recently published by the Guardian. It makes for interesting reading.

Hutton is rightly perturbed by the current SNAFU and is adamant that things have to change, with a new focus on measures of value other than profit and share price, and a long-term rather than myopically short-term approach. What's needed, he argues, is a fundamental reshaping of the economy - more specifically:

* a new Companies Act detailing the responsibilities of companies to their workforce, to innovation, to the environment and to society generally, rather than merely to shareholders;

* a diverse range of ownership models, including (yes) some nationalised businesses;

* the creation of a "British sovereign wealth fund" and the revival of an "Industrial and Commercial Finance Corporation, that for decades worked well as a provider of equity and debt to small and medium-sized business" (presumably because the bailed-out banks, despite their promises, aren't delivering);

* a shift in focus from investment in property to investment in innovation, which would be stimulated by amending existing intellectual property law, ensuring wider dissemination of university research, and increasing spending and grants for research;

* the rebirth of trade unions in the form of guilds ("guarantors of skills and fair wages");

* less top-down governance, and a corresponding increase in devolved power;

* improvements to public infrastructure, education and housing.

All sensible suggestions, it seems to me, and Hutton is quite frank that they would necessitate substantial (but justifiable) tax increases. Even if the measures were economically feasible, though, it still seems sadly far-fetched to imagine that they might ever be implemented.

Partly this is because of globalisation. Our government isn't in complete control of our economy and so isn't free to do exactly what it wants (and even if it was, the changes may not have the desired effect due to external forces and pressures).

But partly it's also because of political will and appetite. Capitalism in its current broken form seems deeply entrenched, and to make changes on the scale proposed by Hutton would be like turning around the proverbial oil tanker.

What's curious is that Hutton is pinning his hopes on Labour, currently "in transition", to seize the initiative in taking forward these proposals, on the grounds that "it is a party for the mass of Britain, with roots that must remain in the workplace and the day-to-day life of ordinary people", and must surely come to its senses and start seriously working towards social justice. The truth is that Labour, still somewhat under the shadow of the Blair years, would never have the courage to adopt such policies, and that Hutton (in this excerpt, at least) refuses to acknowledge the fact that it's actually the Greens who come closest to advocating his suggestions.

So, a shame about the political bias (presumably evidence of a commentator desperately clinging on to the last vestiges of his faith in Labour), but here's hoping that Hutton's recommendations don't prove to be complete pie in the sky.

(Thanks to Simon for the link.)

Can I play with madness?

A love of heavy metal may often be frowned upon and considered by some to be deeply uncool - but a disability for which benefits should be received? Sweden, I love what you've done with your welfare model, but this might be taking it a step too far.

(Thanks to Ronan for the link.)

Friday, February 27, 2015

Know Your Enemy

"What should remain shocking is money’s ability to brazen it out once it becomes known. And by 'it', I mean all of it: the corruption allegations, the human rights violations, the deaths of the migrant workers – the deaths of the indentured workers – the mendacious switcheroo on the scheduling. And, you know, the Isis stuff. Never has so much been exposed about a World Cup; never have people who are disgusted by it been able to connect with each other to discuss it and protest against it with greater ease; never has opposition to a sporting mega‑event seemed so vocal and concerted. Yet all of that has made absolutely zero difference and continues to make absolutely zero difference. Saying 'money talks' doesn’t really begin to cover it. Money shouts. Money bellows. Money shits on everything in its path. Qatar 2022 sails on regardless – in fact it finds new ways to double down on its toxicity."

Criticising FIFA over the Qatar World Cup is significantly easier than shooting fish in a barrel, but the Guardian's Marina Hyde does it with serious style and plenty of bile.

Her final point - that the European leagues (including the Premier League) "were fine with the corruption and the slavery and the deaths but get in the way of their domestic league gravy trains, and you’ve gone too far" - is succinct and incisive. Answer that, Scudamore - if you can take a moment out of wallowing around in all those billions of TV money.

Can't wait too long

There's a biopic of Brian Wilson on its way? Colour me seriously intrigued. It'll be interesting to see if it's a sanitised version or a warts-'n'-all account - and, having read Nick Kent's superb piece on Wilson and his tortured genius in his book The Dark Stuff, it's fair to say there are plenty of warts...

Anfield rap

Bloody American food companies, coming over here, causing offence. If it's not Krispy Kreme endorsing the KKK in Hull, it's Dunkin' Donuts dissing the dead in Liverpool. And that's not to mention the fact that they can't spell "doughnuts" properly...

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Get cape, wear cape, fall over

As good as it is to see Kasabian getting some stick for being tedious say-nothing tossers (especially after Serge Pizzorno, evidently nettled at not getting a nomination, had the nerve to brand others as boring), I'm not sure why Tim Jonze really bothered to get all hot under the collar about the blandness of the Brits, unless he was commissioned to do so at gunpoint.

The Brits are nothing but a pointless, nauseatingly extravagant backslapfest at which the industry celebrates its own cash cows, awarding gongs to the best sellers of today and those who have been earmarked to become best sellers of tomorrow. If you're looking for artistic merit, risk-taking and innovation, you're in the wrong place. Anyone with any sense - like Jonze, you'd hope - wouldn't waste energy bemoaning this state of affairs and instead just get stuck into promoting acts who really do deserve acclaim and wider attention. The rest of us said "Not in my name", shrugged and moved on a long time ago.

For those who did sit through the whole shebang (not me - I had better things to do, like repeatedly firing a nailgun into my forehead), at least Madonna's balance malfunction will have provided a brief moment of unPhotoshopped, unautotuned, unchoreographed, unscripted entertainment. Presumably in future she'll be leaving cape-wearing to Rick Wakeman.

Quote of the day

"I do believe that astrology and complementary medicine would help take the huge pressure off doctors. Ninety per cent of pregnant French women use homeopathy. Astrology is a useful diagnostic tool enabling us to see strengths and weaknesses via the birth chart. And, yes, I have helped fellow MPs. I do foresee that one day astrology will have a role to play in healthcare."

Not content with merely inviting private companies to help themselves to pieces of the NHS, like his Tory colleagues, David Tredinnick has also advocated the use of astrology in healthcare. Yes, that's right - someone who, in the twenty-first century, holds a position of authority and responsibility believes in the value of astrology over medical science. I'm reminded of the episode of The Day Today in which there's a report that medieval cures are making a comeback in hospitals.

Tredinnick has declared that anyone who disagrees with him is a bully and "racially prejudiced". Perhaps I could suggest you spend rather less time contemplating star signs and talking out of Uranus and rather more time trying to comprehend the meaning of words like "racially"?

(Thanks to Rob for the link.)

Blog no evil

An article about Google's decision to insist that blogs that host adult content are by invitation only has garnered Zoe Margolis (aka Girl With A One-Track Mind) a bit of criticism - unfairly so, I'd say. Most commenters are missing the point somewhat. Yes, other blogging platforms are available, and yes, if you want to have complete control over what you post, then you can pay for hosting rather than using a free service. But Zoe's central point is that, at best, Google's decision to start censoring and killing off some blogs (by making them practically inaccessible and thereby starving them of readers) sits extremely uneasily with the company's general ethos of facilitating real and virtual interconnections between people, and, at worst, it indicates a significant volte-face as regards that ethos as a whole. Of course, that's not to mention the slightly sinister fact that multinational companies seem to be trying to establish themselves as the police of the internet.

The ice-cream man cometh

It's hard to imagine Henry Rollins ever working for the Man, but back in the early 1980s he had a job with Haagen-Dazs. And here are some great photos of him arsing about with Ian MacKaye to prove it.

Maximum disrespect

What's the world coming to when a supposedly reputable publisher sends you an email with the subject line "#YourMum"? They'll be rebranding it Motherfucker's Day next.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Born to die

I'm slightly reluctant to offer a review of the film adaptation of Never Let Me Go - having not read Kazuo Ishiguro's novel, I can't be sure what can be praised or critiqued as particular to Mark Romanek and Alex Garfield's film rather than the book - but nevertheless...

The action begins at Hailsham, a boarding school that, from the outset, appears to harbour some sort of sinister secret. And *spoiler alert* sure enough it does - though the viewer isn't left to guess at what it might be for long, with one rogue teacher revealing to those in her care that they are to be nothing but organ donors, before promptly paying the price for the betrayal by losing her job. The film traces the intertwined lives of three pupils - Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley) - from childhood through to life beyond the confines of Hailsham, as teenagers and then young adults.

The message - if it's not too simplistic or quaint to talk of that - is hard to discern. On the one hand, despite the horrific nature of their existence, the trio broadly face their fate with stoicism. There is no real attempt to fight back against the injustice of their lot or rail about the decidedly dubious conception of scientific "progress" that has condemned them to being mere organ incubators just so others can live much longer lives. The film doesn't feel like a polemical commentary on medical advances and ethics. The focus is actually more on on the universal need and desire to make the most of the present. Ultimately, we are all going to "complete" (to adopt the film's own terminology) at some point - it's what we do before that that counts.

And yet the film left me feeling dejected and gloomy rather than inspired to carpe diem. As a whole, it's a bleak vision of an alternative dystopian present (one that is depressingly not inconceivable) and there is no happy ending, with Kathy left facing up to a dreadful future from which she can't escape. Maximising your time alive is shown to be easier said than done, too - the selfish actions of one character, Ruth, result in true soulmates Kathy and Tommy being kept apart for years and only enjoying the most fleeting of relationships before Tommy's death.

Either way, though, it's an engrossing watch, and one that will most likely haunt you for days afterwards.

The not-so-Amazing Snakeheads

So it seems I won't be getting to see The Amazing Snakeheads when the NME Awards Tour passes through Oxford on Friday, after all. Fair play to them for not pulling out due to spurious illness or irritatingly vague "circumstances beyond our control" - the reason they won't be appearing is because they've split up.

Fans might not be so surprised, given the line-up change last summer that saw two-thirds of the band depart, leaving only Dale Barclay as an original member. He's the one who's now pulled the plug on them as a going concern. One listen to their music and you might well imagine they'd be a volatile and potentially explosive concoction - so it's proved.

The Emperor's new clothes album

Asunder, Sweet And Other Distress? It could only be a new Godspeed You! Black Emperor album. The excerpt from opening track 'Peasantry Or "Light! Inside Of Light!"' currently available on Pitchfork promises much, and if the record is half as good as their 2012 comeback Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend, then I'll be happy.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The blame game

Like the vast majority of football fans, whether affiliated to Chelsea or not, I was appalled by the Paris Metro incident - incensed by the actions of a handful of morons that would, no doubt, heap further shame on the game. However, with the dust having settled somewhat, it's worth reflecting on the fact that racism is not a problem specific to football at all - on the contrary, it remains endemic in contemporary society. The likes of Kick It Out will be fighting a losing battle to eradicate racist abuse from the game as long as there appears to be little obvious appetite for robustly tackling it in any other sphere of life.

(Thanks to Rob at The Two Unfortunates for the link.)

Read Hear all about it!

Will Butler of Arcade Fire has set himself the challenge of writing and recording  a new song about a current news story every day of this week, in association with the Guardian. His first offering 'Clean Monday' is a response to the Greek debt crisis and is reasonable enough, feeling less like Reflektor and more like the Arcade Fire of old. Not a bad thing, in my book.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Virtual insanity

Not content with merely releasing an album-length meditation on the way technology and capitalism are coming into sinister combination to transform our thinking (The Future's Void, which continues to grow in my estimation with every listen), it turns out that EMA has also created a multimedia installation on the subject, I Wanna Destroy, performed recently at MOMA in New York. According to Sady Doyle's review for In These Times, however, the latter work approaches the topic from a different angle, dwelling not on the myriad invisible connections technology creates and the endless intrusions it makes upon our privacy but on the flipside, the way technology can actually disconnect and alienate.

Both perspectives are valid, of critical importance and ripe for exploration. At a time when everyone seems to be obsessed with analytics and social media and when even your TV can eavesdrop on you, it's reassuring to know that there are some people prepared to question - or at least contemplate the consequences of - technological developments that many complacently endorse as "advances".

Know Your Enemy

"In its purest form, a newspaper consists of a collection of facts which, in controlled circumstances, can actively improve knowledge. Unfortunately, facts are expensive, so to save costs and drive up sales, unscrupulous dealers often 'cut' the basic contents with cheaper material, such as wild opinion, bullshit, empty hysteria, reheated press releases, advertorial padding and photographs of Lady Gaga with her bum hanging out. The hapless user has little or no concept of the toxicity of the end product: they digest the contents in good faith, only to pay the price later when they find themselves raging incoherently in pubs, or – increasingly – on internet messageboards."

Charlie Brooker, writing about the mainstream print media all the way back in 2010. The reference to "advertorial padding" has particular contemporary resonance, given Peter Oborne's recent criticisms of the Telegraph. One letter-writer to the Guardian, Jeremy Horder, has suggested that there's a case for arguing that journalists who have been swayed by advertisers are guilty under the Bribery Act - and he should know, "as a former law commissioner for England and Wales, responsible for the 2008 Reforming Bribery report that led to the 2010 act".

(Incidentally, the existence of Brooker's piece is further evidence that Dean Burnett is very much following in his footsteps, having recently published an article about the "addictive and probably carcinogenic" effects of the Daily Mail...)

(Thanks to Simon for the letters page link.)

Vox pop

I woke up this morning panicking that I didn't know who Gillian Duffy is backing for the General Election - so this article came as something of a relief. The political preference of someone who has previously claimed that Ed Miliband lacks the "authenticity" of Nigel Farage because the Labour leader is uncomfortable drinking a pint is definitely worthy of report.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Street spirit

Copywriter by day, Captain Zip by night. Phil Munnoch may have got changed in his office toilets rather than in a phone box, but his transformation was nevertheless pretty remarkable - and he's something of a superhero to fellow London punks of the late 1970s for chronicling the antics of those who met up on the King's Road with the help of his trusty Super-8 camera. A shame the resulting documentary Death Is Their Destiny - or at least Munnoch's commentary on it for ITV - appears to perpetuate the myth that punk was an exclusively English phenomenon, but that's a minor gripe.

(Thanks to Tony for the link.)

Quote of the day

"They had men's underwear on for half price and I bought a bunch that was clearly too small for me. I find it difficult to sit for any length of time."

Canadian MP Pat Martin explains why he struggled to sit through a recent vote in parliament. If the chafing doesn't hurt, the embarrassment surely will.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Health check

With more than two months to go until the General Election, I guess I should get used to this sort of article, featuring comments blighted by ignorance, short-sightedness and misinformation. Yes, immigration places an additional burden on NHS budgets and yes, the NHS "is creaking at its foundations" - but how much of that is down to government cuts? It's a fact lost on far too many people that there wouldn't even still be an NHS if weren't for immigration - something even the Murdoch-controlled Sky were happy to acknowledge.

Incidentally, Victoria Ayling, the UKIP candidate standing in the Great Grimsby constituency visited by BBC reporter Matthew Price, has drawn attention to herself by asking what will happen when renewable energy runs out. Erm...

Every little helps?

The Detroit Walking Man: when well-meaning charitable actions backfire. Here's hoping the man at the centre of it all, James Robertson, can get back on his feet soon and inspire others to do likewise.

(Thanks to Damian for the link.)

Friday, February 20, 2015

Repeat offender

Stewart Lee and Frankie Boyle may have expressed dislike or distrust of each other's work in the past, but they have also been put in the same bracket (albeit by the Daily Heil's Jan Moir) and have both claimed to be playing a kind of character on stage, so I wonder what Lee would make of Boyle's views on offence and free speech. He'd probably bristle at the barbed comments about political correctness, but otherwise I suspect there might well be plenty he'd agree with - particularly the critique of the media.

Articles like this show Boyle in a favourable light, as a thoughtful and articulate commentator on comedy (not unlike Lee), but they don't quite square with Boyle the public performer, whose material regularly suggests a comedian prepared to ignore his moral compass and go off piste in an attempt to provoke laughter and/or offence.

(Thanks to Rob for the link.)

Quote of the day

"Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace."

Thus begins the remarkable address that Richard Nixon would have given had the Apollo 11 moon landing gone awry.

(Thanks to Tom for the link.)

Fun?

In Abingdon on Tuesday morning, I witnessed a member of Oxfordshire 90s indie royalty performing a song about baby poo to an audience of mums and pre-schoolers in a church hall. Can't see Thom Yorke ever doing that.

(He was good, by the way. We'll be back - he's there pretty much every week.)

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Know Your Enemy

"The Telegraph’s recent coverage of HSBC amounts to a form of fraud on its readers. It has been placing what it perceives to be the interests of a major international bank above its duty to bring the news to Telegraph readers. There is only one word to describe this situation: terrible."

Peter Oborne opens the lid on the circumstances surrounding his departure from the Telegraph and in the process delivers a withering verdict on his former employers.

While Oborne's comments about the broad appeal of the paper should be taken with a pinch of salt, he should certainly be applauded for standing up for his principles and resigning as a result of both rapidly declining standards under the Barclay brothers' stewardship and, more significantly and troublingly, the fact that anxieties over advertising revenue now appear to be dictating editorial policy. He's not alone in his concerns, either.

(Thanks to Simon for the link.)

Green (Man) with envy

Sadly I'll be missing out on Green Man again this year, but that hasn't stopped me from casting an envious eye over the bill. Personally speaking, St Vincent and Viet Cong would be the biggest draws, but there's plenty more I'd be getting excited about if I had a ticket - not least Hookworms, Sun Ra Arkestra, Goat and The Fall.

At present Green Man and Field Day are the only UK dates that Viet Cong have confirmed for this year. Fingers crossed there are more to be announced - I'd happily go to London to make their acquaintance, if necessary.