Cultural Highlights of 2016

In a year of relentless tragedy and despair, here are a scant few things I enjoyed.

BOOKS

Malcolm LowryUnder The Volcano

This was my third attempt at tackling Lowry’s famously impenetrable novel. The first chapter is particularly gruelling, but after breaking through it for the first time, the dark humour and self-flagellating wisdom which follow make it all worthwhile. For anyone tempted to have a go themselves, I found these notes very helpful in decrypting the dense symbology.

Keith RobertsPavane

The best thing I read all year though, by far, was Pavane. It’s an alternate history novel, in which Elizabeth I was assassinated, the Reformation was quashed, and a triumphant Catholic Church retarded scientific progress. In the 20th century setting of the novel, England has steam-powered road locomotives, a network of giant semaphore towers for cross-country communication, and new stirrings of political and religious revolution.

But the appeal of the ahistorical premise isn’t what makes Pavane such a great book. This year, I also read S. M. Stirling’s The Peshawar Lancers, in which a late 19th century meteor shower destroys civilisation in the northern hemisphere, the British elite relocate to India, and by the early 21st century, a steampunk Anglo-Indian empire is in conflict with a devil-worshipping Central Asian Tsardom. This premise is equally interesting. However, Stirling’s novel turned out to be a huge disappointment: a poorly-written mediocrity, no more than a third-rate Raj adventure story with added airships.

Roberts’s, on the other hand, is so beautifully written it’s almost poetry. By the time you’ve read his description of a steam wagon making its way across the Dorset heath on a foggy night, oiled pistons hammering and scalding water dripping from the tank, or of a semaphore tower, its clacking wooden levers, and the blistered hands of its Guild apprentice operator, it’s impossible to believe that such things never even existed.

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Temper-Trapped

I propose the following definition:

Temper-trapped past participle verb tricked into a buying a music album on the strength of one song, to discover that it’s the only decent one on the whole album.

It’s derived from the band The Temper Trap: I bought their debut album Conditions after hearing the song Sweet Disposition, but was disappointed to find that the rest of the album is utterly mediocre and forgettable.

I’ve recently been temper-trapped again by John Grant. His song Down Here, an infectious indie pop ballad, was stuck in my head for weeks, so I bought the album, Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, which turned out to be weird electro nonsense: not even the same style of music as the one song I’d enjoyed.

What albums have you been temper-trapped by?

Manufactoria: a brain-expanding puzzle game

I finally completed Manufactoria.

Manufactoria is an online puzzle game, which is deceptively simple and surprisingly deep. Your task is to build a factory machine from simple components which takes an object, inspects it and moves it around the factory floor accordingly. In later stages, you get to modify the object as well.

At first you think you’re just moving objects around and printing patterns of coloured dots on them, but later, when you’re thinking of blue dots as 1s and red dots as 0s, and the patterns as binary numbers, you realise that the system is Turing complete and the game’s progressively harder puzzles are teaching you how to build a binary adding machine. It’s a beautiful, powerful way to demonstrate the principles behind mechanical/electronic computation.

While some games, like Angry Birds and Candy Crush, are meant to numb your brain with repetitive tasks, the best ones expand your brain with new skills and knowledge: Manufactoria is in the latter class.

Play the game online here: Manufactoria at PleasingFungus Games

Cultural Highlights of 2015

I know it’s a bit late, but here’s the best stuff I read/saw/etc in 2015.

BOOKS

Railsea by China Miéville

By the same author as the superb The City And The City, Railsea is a post-apocalyptic riff on Moby-Dick. A young cabin boy joins a train crew rattling about on a vast dried sea-bed covered in criss-crossing railway tracks and inhabited by ferocious burrowing monsters, while the captain obsessively hunts her great yellow mole. Ripping stuff.

23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang

Since the era of Thatcher and Reagan, mainstream economics has been dominated by the ideology of the free market, championed by the right wing as the driver of economic success. Meanwhile the left wing has either opposed it on moral grounds of fairness and compassion, or accepted it while trying to mitigate its worst effects. The basic economic argument has never been challenged in public debate: the free market creates a prosperous economy. However, in academic economics, this truism is widely known to be false, and the contradictions and failings of the free market are well understood. Ha-Joon Chang is one of the leading voices attempting to bust the free market myths of public consciousness, and this book is a perfect primer.

One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

One of the hallmarks of a great book for me is how much is lingers in your consciousness after you’ve read it, and for weeks after finishing One Day In The LIfe Of Ivan Denisovich, I often found myself thinking, ridiculously, “this is just like in the Gulag.”

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In praise of Stroud Green

We’re moving to Manchester next week, but for the last two years we’ve lived in London. Trying to pin down the exact bit is tricky. It’s near Finsbury Park, which for non-Londoners means north and a medium distance out from the centre, and for practical purposes, “near Finsbury Park” is what I’ve always described it as. But Finsbury Park is quite large and there are lots of places near it which aren’t particularly near each other.

We’ve lived in the area immediately to the west of the park, not south enough to be Holloway, west enough to be Archway (which isn’t really an area anyway), nor north enough to be Crouch End. The main feature of the area is Stroud Green Road, which runs from Finsbury Park station north west until it becomes Crouch Hill and continues into Crouch End. This road also forms part of the boundary between the London Boroughs of Islington (of wealthy “new” Labour fame) and Haringey (of Baby P fame).

Stroud Green itself was a hamlet a little further north which got swallowed up by nineteenth century suburban expansion; apart from Holy Trinity Church, the site it occupied is mostly residential now and not a distinctive area. Stroud Green Road to the south, however, is the economic focal point, and something of a gem for the diversity and quality of independent shops and restaurants along and around it.

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Return of the Weekend of the Living Dead: Part 4

Return of the Weekend of the Living Dead: Part 1

Return of the Weekend of the Living Dead: Part 2

Return of the Weekend of the Living Dead: Part 3

By the end of Saturday night, we’d watched a total of nine films. Some might say that’s enough zombie films for anyone. But not for the hardcore attendees of Return of the Weekend of the Living Dead. There was still time on the final day, before people had to go home, to get the tally into double digits.

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Return of the Weekend of the Living Dead: Part 3

Return of the Weekend of the Living Dead: Part 1

Return of the Weekend of the Living Dead: Part 2

SATURDAY EVENING

After a gruelling first session on the Saturday afternoon of RotWotLD, we desperately needed something to revive our flagging spirits. First, booze:

Zombie cocktail in a zombie head bowl!

Delicious zombie head juice.

Second, a series of high (and not so high) quality zom-coms Continue reading

Return of the Weekend of the Living Dead: Part 1

A couple of years ago, I hosted a zombie film marathon. Over the course of Weekend of the Living Dead, we watched the first ever zombie film, White Zombie (1932), and the entire George A Romero series (Night, Dawn, Day, Land, Diary and Survival), as well as a couple of more recent examples of the genre (Rec and 2004’s Dawn remake).

Last weekend was the sequel: Return of the Weekend of the Living Dead (or #RotWotLD, as no-one except me was calling it on Twitter). The aim of the second marathon was to move away from big studio productions and well-known classics, and move into the murky realms of low-budget gore, video nasties and forgotten cult gems. Here’s a round-up of what we watched.

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Indian Summers: a wash-out

As a committed Indophile, I was excited to see the trailers and posters for the new Channel 4 drama series, Indian Summers. I was also a bit suspicious though: I mean, I’m really interested in that period of history, and I’ve love to see a quality TV series made about it (Jeremy Paxman presenting The Raj, a documentary series covering British-Indian history as comprehensively as The World At War, would be my pitch). But I was surprised that anyone else was.

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