Thankyou very much for following Blognostic, please keep reading on christt.com. I won’t delete this archive unless it starts causing problems.
Thankyou very much for following Blognostic, please keep reading on christt.com. I won’t delete this archive unless it starts causing problems.
Here in the UK, the dreadful shooting in Tucson, though powerfully tragic, is a distant atrocity, far away in cultural as well as geographical terms. We look on horrified through that odd hue all American TV footage shares and in particular, however sad we feel, I think sometimes the distance wrongly allows us to accept our lack of understanding. Even the accents on local reporters accentuates that gap. It has similar resonance to the murder of Salmaan Taseer in Pakistan – although rendered bigger news by the dramatic dominance of the USA over our culture (and by how awfully commonplace ideological murder is in Pakistan).
Reeling today, like everyone, I’m convinced it is far too easy for us to sigh and dismiss Tucson, Arizona as some near-alien place of hate-fuelled violence, to fall once again into the heartbreaking pajorative British trap of believing this is ‘normalcy’, that “Americans are stupid and/or dangerous”. You can smell hints of it in even the most sympathetic or liberal of UK newscasting today. Especially when even America itself, hurt and trying to gather perspective, is describing Arizona in such generalised, very negative terms.
This is so damn wrong. Today I need to write this: I’m a middle-class lefty Brit and (at least until the Coalition this year was catalyst for a protest rennaissance) I have long found far more opportunity to talk politics, ideology and social issues in measured terms in the USA than here in the UK, especially with younger people. Whatever their background (though I accept I come into contact with more white, privileged people than other kinds), in my experience it is a complete fallacy to write off yanks – including those away from the two coasts – as dumb or disinterested or isolationist. It is a sceptical (and stupid) mis-reading of sincerity, ambition and indeed cultural language.
And I need to write this: Tucson, Arizona is one of the most beautiful, welcoming cities I’ve ever visited. I haven’t been a lot, just passed through all-too-briefly, in the usual way as touring musician type. Yet for me it is the city of the Airplane Graveyard; beautiful little underground collective-run party shows; of Calexico; being driven up into incredible local desert by publisher Dan; of servers in Mexican cafés who hug spirit into you like a big sister when you leave their diner (in an Amma sort of way, not a Milf sort of way). In San Francisco I gigged with lush, clever prog-folk band Seashell Radio from Tucson – who immediately, unhesitatingly offered strangers a place to stay the second they found out we were coming to town. Albeit in a remote Internet-nurtured way, these are people and places I love and miss.
But I won’t also forget one aftershow conversation in Tucson with three young punk guys, last year – especially vivid and uncomfortable reflected in the light of this tragedy. They were atheist, anti-war, anti-racist and at their core socially progressive. Not trots/commies as we’d understand it – not so tax friendly, much closer to a Libertarian viewpoint – but they had no time for (no interest in) the GOP, religious extremism, FoxNews, big business or any of the reactionary mush. Yet at the same time, a key issue of liberty for them was the Second Amendment: the entire crew each owned guns, could use them comfortably and passionately believed in their right to carry one for self defence. This wasn’t boasting to the Limey – just one part of a broader conversation – what did make them boast excitedly was the bands they’d seen and roadtrips they’d done. The gun stuff was matter-of-fact, an attempt to explain. It was the single clearest social difference I saw between these Tucson guys and, say, southern Californian stoner kids of similar attitude and taste, who’ve (dickheads aside) never seen a gun in real life except on the belt of a cop or school guard.
I don’t claim any generalised presumptions about this, it was just one conversation at one gathering. And I remember being shocked and even, to a certain extent at the time, persuaded – if not of the rightness of it then at least of their sincerity and belief in the ‘right’ without ill intent.
Tucson is not ‘to blame’. Deep down I know Palin, Beck, Limbaugh and O’Reilly aren’t ‘to blame’ either, although the cumulative effect of FoxNews’ relentless rabble-rousing rhetoric and persistent repetition of violent metaphor while encouraging direct action needs urgently addressing. No, it is the availability of, love for and culturally endemic pervasiveness of guns that is ‘to blame’, in as much as it is the major fulcrum that turns anger and murderous intent in disturbed and alienated people into actual murder.
The World Book Night project is getting some hefty plugging from the BBC and the broadsheets, after an initial push on the Culture Show at the end of last year. It was conceived in 2009 by James Byng of Canongate at a talking shop to find new ideas for publishers. It is supported by the BBC along with a range of leading lights in publishing and run (intriguingly) as a ‘charitable company’.
The project asks people to apply to become ‘book givers’, picking a book that they wish to give out to lots of people. Recruits will each get 48 free copies of their chosen book and on one night – Sat 5th March 2011 – amid a co-ordinated wave of excitement and media interest, distribute them to the masses. On the same night, the organisation itself will give away books to places where they’re hard to get (they mention prisons and hospitals). Sounds ace.
I went to apply. I knew immediately what book I’d like to give out: Geoff Dyer‘s Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It. Not because it’s brilliant (though it is) but because of its lost potential as a popular classic. I know Dyer does OK but this book should’ve been huge, should’ve lined the supermarkets. I cannot imagine anyone not loving its heady brew of travel, drug-taking and intellectual detachment. In a post-Seinfeld Bruce Chatwin kind of way, it does precisely what World Book Night says on the tin.
But here’s the rub: there is (of course, how could I not have guessed?) a shortlist of 25 books from which you make your pick. Each of the 20,000 ‘book givers’ is actually giving out copies of one of these books. Now this is all thoroughly above board – the list of 25 was chosen by an esteemed panel, led by Radio 4’s Jim Naughtie. However they are all – without exception – already successful books from the major publishing houses (and written by authors who are already a high priority for those publishing houses). They are a mix of modern classics, recent bestsellers and prizewinners. Not trash by any means; it is a list of real quality, yet they are the big names.
On a personal level, I simply can’t find one I yearn to share. No, not even the Carol Ann Duffy. I’d pick Pullman’s beautiful Northern Lights but it’s the first of a trilogy, which is an appalling thing to give out free, like a first hit of smack. Suddenly World Book Night bothers me. Yet again, someone has a idea about sharing, then proceeds to lock out anyone not within a specific clique or mindset. It looks reductive instead of open-armed. Sharing a book isn’t simply a one-way patronising thing about encouraging people to read more, it’s an inspiration spreading process. Why, damn it, can’t I get 48 free copies of Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It and throw them around instead of the Heaney poetry collection I studied at Sixth Form? All the prizes and marketing games work this way: the ‘threefer’ discount arrangements work this way. The post-Richard and Judy Book Club things work this way.
Nevertheless I propose not an alternative but a complement:
Let’s have a World Book Night Fringe. Let’s not start from a top-down ‘selection’ but start from a bottom-up process where ‘book giver’ applicants pick a book they’d truly love to share. Then the author/publisher is approached with the request; decides how many ‘book givers’ they can afford to supply. Doesn’t need to be 48 copies each time, why not just 10 copies for each ‘book giver’ of the World Book Night Fringe books? Your core 25 authors and their publishers still get the lion’s share of PR, still get lauded on telly for giving some free books out and “promoting literacy” but at least some of those around the edges get to join in and taste a piece of the action. More importantly, the whole shebang becomes a two-way game, genuinely edifying for authors, publishers, ‘book givers’ and recipients alike – instead of just the illusion of a blanket (‘charitable’) initiative disguising simple commercial intention.
Perhaps I’m naive about how many books can be spared for free distribution but I suspect not. And as usual, I propose something I don’t have the wherewithal to put into action. But it would be simple to arrange if someone did – and it would make my own experience of World Book Night vastly better.
Screw the admin, next week I’m writing to Geoff Dyer to ask if he’s got any free copies lying around of that wonderful old book he wrote.
What are your New Year’s Resolutions? This year mine are:
1. stop swearing. *
2. show up. **
3. fewer tweets but more words. ***
4. fewer treats. ****
* songs don’t count but onstage banter does.
** too often in 2010 I missed out by staying home. no more!
*** twitter makes long-form writing harder. Rationing one will fix the other.
**** I finally nailed exercise in 2010, so in 2011 at last I’m breaking the pattern.
Here’s a list of cultural things I loved this year. Please feel free to stick yours in the comments (or a link to wherever you’ve published yours).
Although it was an OK year for culture generally, I think it was weak for music. So much over-complex, expensively echoing indie stuff – and glitchier R&B things with similar indulgence issues – that was hyped up through the year, left me cold. Several acts I love forgot to bring the songs. Also I suppose I inevitably feel detached – antagonistic even – because I had Love Is Not Rescue out there and because I didn’t travel overseas as much as usual, so got a less international feel for the year’s music. That said, looking back through previous years, this year’s Top 10 albums is as strong as any. Also, great telly and books. These moved me more, especially after I had my phone stolen, because I rediscovered reading.
1. Gill Sandell – Tarry Awhile
2. Pulled Apart By Horses – Pulled Apart By Horses
3. Laura Marling – I Speak Because I Can
4. The Xcerts – Scatterbrain
5. Thirty Pounds Of Bone – Method
6. Lianne Hall – Crossing Wires
7. Grasscut – 1 Inch ½ Mile
8. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
9. Bellowhead – Hedonism
10. Taylor Swift – Speak Now
Honorary mentions (this would be my 11-20): Far, Seashell Radio, Napoleon IIIrd, Frightened Rabbit, Corinne Bailey Rae, Grinderman, Lissie, James Yuill, Gil Scott-Heron, Gypo Buggane, plus Springsteen’s remastered Darkness boxset and the private one-copy-only compilation album Songs In The Jim Of Bob that everyone made for Jim Bob’s birthday, which was incredible.
Songs (not on albums listed above)
1. Tom Williams & The Boat – ‘In Love’
2. Caribou – ‘Odessa’
3. Isy Suttie – ‘Pearl and Dave’
4. Kate Nash – ‘Don’t You Want To Share The Guilt’
5. Kanye West ft. Pusha T – ‘Runaway’
6. Frank Turner – ‘I Still Believe’
7. Robyn – ‘Hang With Me’
8. Tinie Tempah – ‘Pass Out’
9. New Pornographers – ‘Your Hands (Together)’
10. Eminem/Rihanna – ‘Love The Way You Lie’
Also nods to: I Am Arrows, Mavis Staples, Anna Madeleine, Robyn again for ‘Dancing On My Own’, LCD Soundsystem, Tim Minchin, Emily Barker, The Fall, The Hold Steady, Warpaint and She Makes War.
Special props here to Jon Boden’s Folk Song A Day project, where he’s released a new recording of a traditional song every single day since June. Without picking one out, the average standard is phenomenal. He’s basically on a one-man crusade to broaden people’s understanding of ‘folk’, which is important.
Books (not necessarily first published this year)
1. Hilary Mantel – Wolf Hall
2. Jim Bob – Storage Stories
3. Kirkman, Adlard, Rathburn – The Walking Dead books 1-8
4. Various – Dark Mountain volume #1
5. Stewart Lee – How I Escaped My Certain Fate
6. Paul Auster – Invisible
7. going back through the collected works of Geoff Dyer
8. Stephen Fry – Fry Chronicle
9. China Miéville – Iron Council
10. Malcolm Gladwell – What The Dog Saw and other adventures
My favourite film by far was Inception which I saw twice at the cinema (which I almost never do). I also got a lot from American: The Bill Hicks Story and Four Lions. But I simply didn’t see enough of the big films out this year to make a list. After even just those three, I’m struggling to name anything.
1. The Walking Dead
3. The Trip
5. Daily Show
6. How Earth Made Us
7. Sherlock (episode 1)
8. Wonders Of The Solar System
10. Have I Got News For You
My lamest year of gig-going for a decade; not for quality but for the few shows I actually attended. Properly gutted about this looking back – a wasted year. I have 10+ potentially great shows still listed in my diary from the past 12 months, where I just stayed home, or had something else to do that wasn’t worth the effort. 2011 will be about showing up… Meanwhile 2010’s best were:
1. Midwinter Picnic 2 at Brighton West Hill Hall (Dry The River, Singing Adams’ debut, Thirty Pounds, Tom White, Ben Marwood, Lianne Hall, many others)
2. Fonda 500, David Ford and Ingie with a live samba band at Mannifest 2010
3. Kathryn Williams at Queen Elizabeth Hall
4. Jim Bob + Isy Suttie at The Garage
5. Ultrasound at The Lexington
6. nine-hour ‘gong pooja’ at Florence House, Seaford, apart from the post-gong silence spoiled by snoring hippies
7. 65DaysOfStatic at Two Thousand Trees festival
8. Robyn Hitchcock at Brighton Komedia
9. Motel and others at Andrew Rayner’s 40th birthday party
10. Fever Fever, Something Beginning With L, Local Girls, Lily Rae at Brixton Windmill
Gigs (played) – rated according to my experience, not (particularly) whether I was any good (though of course that does have an effect). I don’t think my ‘best’ performance is in this list. So hard to tell, anyway.
1. Dartington College – playing an immense Steinway
2. Two Thousand Trees Festival
3. Several gigs on the Love Is Not Rescue tour, especially Newcastle, Bristol, Winchester, Glasgow, Cotherstone, Brighton, London. Memorable in the best way.
4. Hoodrats at SXSC Festival in Winchester
5. Marcus Brigstocke’s Greens benefit at Brighton Theatre Royal
6. Dublin with Frank Turner (Belfast was pretty class too)
7. Hoodrats at Lexapalooza where the music rescued an awful day*
8. Spoonhenge in Mr Spoons’ back garden with Mick Thomas
9. Uncivilisation Festival – for head-fuck conversations as much as anything
10. Bury Fringe Festival with Jim Bob
* sorry, clumsy phrasing: not Lexapalooza itself, which is always lush. I meant I had a stressful day elsewhere and missed 95% of the festival.
1. my Henry Moore walk
2. Brian Eno – 77 Million Paintings at Fabrica / Speaker Sound Flower Installation at Marlborough House
3. David Nash at Yorkshire Sculpture Park
4. Surreal Friends at Pallant House, Chichester
5. Decode at the V&A
Words, not music
1. Fiona Shaw – ‘The Waste Land’ at Wilton’s Music Hall
2. Neil MacGregor – A History Of The World In 100 Objects (Radio 4)
3. Collings & Herrin Podcast
4. Just A Minute (Radio 4)
5. Private Eye
6. Johann Hari’s columns
7. Pecha Kucha on ‘The Nature Of Reality’ at Fabrica, Brighton Festival
8. Chimene Suleyman at War In The Park
9. Now Show into Any Questions on Saturday (Radio 4)
10. Vinay Gupta and Dougald Hine across social media
I wear a white poppy for Remembrance Week for this reason: I want to use this time to remember and think about all those whose lives have been blighted by war, just like others do. But I do not support the Royal British Legion. Instead I prefer a sister symbol that is equally as meaningful and as historically and ideologically valid, with the same underlying intention.
The white poppy has been around since 1933 and grew as a symbol of remembrance alongside – rather than later than – the red poppy. Crucially, the white poppy is an alternative to – not in opposition to – the red poppy. It is not a political symbol, certainly not a combative symbol of ‘the left’ but a quiet, traditional pacifist one. Pacifism is a non-threatening minority belief, often faith-led (such as with the Religious Society of Friends – the Quakers – from whom I learnt the history and significance of the white poppy).
That the red poppy has become so culturally ubiquitous makes no difference: I’m not being grandstanding or oppositional. I accept it is a non-conformist choice but I do not accept that anyone has an inalienable right to take offence at my different choice of symbol. And most importantly I do not want to just ignore this important week and wear nothing at all.
By the way, I don’t ‘oppose’ the RBL and I’m not making any criticism of that charitable organisation in this blog, however it is perfectly reasonable to choose not to support one particular charity. Most prefer the red poppy. That’s of course fine – and I agree that I too prefer to see people wearing a red poppy than nothing at all this week (although I’d never actually attack someone for not wearing a symbol, that would be ludicrous). But please do not be fooled by the current immense dominance of the RBL’s red poppy, into thinking that the other is somehow a lesser response, or that somehow one charity has ownership of the very concept of honouring those affected by war: it is simply not true. In truth, they grew together as they grow together in the ground and white and red poppies are different slants on the same desire to honour the fallen.
I honestly didn’t want to soapbox and I’m also aware that I’m the wrong person to write about it really, since I have such strident, politicised shouty opinions about other subjects; it ought to be someone else. I wish this was Judi Dench’s blog! Obviously, like most, I had family members who fought in the World Wars, though I shouldn’t have to mention this, to make it personal.
But this year I’ve read and experienced more aggressive opposition to the white poppy than in several years wearing one. And today I feel I must write something: the unpleasant straw that broke the camel’s back was this ignorant – non-explanatory yet idiotically, almost psychotically bullying – blog entry by The Telegraph‘s Damian Thompson, who asks that people actually make rude gestures towards those of us who’ve opted for the white poppy – or worse! I do think The Telegraph should be ashamed of such a malignant stance: to encourage assaulting someone for wearing a symbol of their belief is not only an act of cowardice but it’s an attack on exactly what previous generations fought to preserve. Mr Thompson, my experience of white poppy wearers is not of young, ranty or political hippie/lefty types at all: it is primarily of elderly (often with direct experience of war) Quakers. These are quietly some of the bravest, most stalwart and humble people we have in Britain. Furthermore their collective non-conformist, progressive thoughtfulness through our history has made great strides for our stumbling civilisation. If you doubt this, ask a descendent of slaves, or the grandchild of someone from the Friends Ambulance Unit, pacifist Quakers who went unarmed across the front lines of World War One to rescue the injured and reclaim the bodies.
If you truly can’t get over the appearance of the (occasional) white poppy in amongst the sea of red then, at least before sticking two fingers up at an ageing conscientious objector, or debasing your public forum with rude nonsense, please ask yourself this: what would you have us do? Would you prefer we wear no symbol of remembrance at all?
Last night, half-listening to – without watching – one of those TV programmes where bratty errant Brit kids are sent off to unusual camps run by caring Christian Americans…
What would happen if you tried to make today’s young generations fight the First World War? The thought is hilarious, beyond impossible; you’d get laughed at and resisted and ignored completely, with no amount of state or legal persuasion having any effect. And that’s good. When people suggest national service or say “we need a good war” (or even offer less militarised ideas such as civic duty or national community service) as solutions to the ‘problem’ of youngsters today, it has the opposite to the desired effect with me: reminds me that I’d rather see generations of venal, selfish (or at least self-aware/self-absorbed), materialist hoodie kids loping around the place, than the sort of generation who picked up guns, abandoned their families en masse and got on boats and planes without question, to go kill foreigners ‘for their country’.
Yes they’re admired for heroism and our kids miss out on that. But overwhelmingly, the vast masses on all sides were valueless cattle fodder who put themselves through the worst hell imaginable for unexplained ideologies and feuds, to prop up monumental injustices and inequalities of old, massively exploitative systems that they didn’t understand. The little shit with an iPod up too loud on the train doesn’t seem so bad.
True, there are serious, real problems at the extremes that need sorting out and rolling back; drink and drugs and knives, willful ignorance and burgeoning nihilism.
But I don’t think we ought to wish away fiery independence, or strong sense of self-worth, or noisy exuberance, as buffers to our ridiculous modern world.
And true, it’s worth looking back to those times for lost skills and humility as life gets harder.
But I don’t think we ought to over-worship the humble, thrifty, quiet, devoted, loyal, faithful, monstrously stupid motherfuckers who, when the aristocracy demanded, blindly shouldered the burden of killing that was World War One.