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?

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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Copyright madness has crossed the (blurred) line

A court in the US has found Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams guilty of copyright infringement, and ordered them to pay $7m in damages to the family of Marvin Gaye, because their song Blurred Lines sounds like Gaye’s Got To Give It Up.

Now, I hate Robin Thicke as much as the next man, and want to see bad things happen to him, but this idea of having copyright on your art and anything which is a bit like it is bullshit.

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The Daily Mash on phone-recorded gig films

The Daily Mash has really grown a beard in recent years. Once, it was merely an embarrassingly sub-standard attempt to do a British version of The Onion. Now, The Onion has disappeared behind a paywall and no-one’s reading it any more, and it’s The Daily Mash which gets shared virally around social media. Not only that, but the quality of its articles has vastly improved: its choice of satirical targets is spot on, its insights into the absurdity of contemporary politics and society are razor sharp.

For example, there’s this little gem: “Friends enthralled by gig filmed on phone”. Gig-filming is one of those phenomena which are especially bewildering, because everyone agrees it’s shit and people should stop doing it, and yet lots of people still do it.

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Fighting the system in Manchester Central Library

Today, I experienced the most inappropriate and falsely aimed attempt to Stick It To The Man that I’ve ever seen.

I was working in Manchester Central Library. At one point in the late afternoon, someone started playing Elton John’s ‘Are You Ready For Love?’ very loudly on one of the library computers. People were tutting and looking around to see who it was. I think everyone was assuming it was an unruly teenager.

A librarian shouted out to tell whoever it was to stop, but it continued. Eventually the librarian came over and tracked down the source of the music: an elderly lady, who at first appeared oblivious to the fact that the music was even coming from her computer. The librarian showed her how to turn the music down, and left.

About a minute later, ‘Are You Ready For Love?’ was playing at full volume again. The librarian returned, thinking the dotty old crone was a bit confused and had accidentally repeated her error. But this time, rather than apologising and turning it off again, the old woman kicked off, cantankerously arguing with the librarian, calling her a ‘small-minded council bureaucrat’ and insisting on her right to play Elton John as loudly as she liked (on the computer facilities provided to her by small-minded council bureaucrats).

Then, she looked around at everyone else in the room, as if expecting us all to be right behind her in her crusade against petty officialdom. We weren’t. We all wanted her to stop playing Elton John as well.

Udaipur, City of Lakes

It wasn’t the most auspicious introduction to a new city: I arrived in Udaipur on an uncomfortable nightbus, on which I’d been kept awake most of the night by a full bladder. I hadn’t found a couchsurfing host, and the recommended hotel had messed me around and eventually told me they were full, so I’d had to book a more expensive one down the road. Arriving at 7am, I’d had to wake up the duty manager who was asleep on a mattress in the foyer.

For several days before I travelled there, everyone had been telling me how beautiful Udaipur was. I’d been sceptical – I’ve seen a lot of places in India which are sort of beautiful, but ruined by filth and human activity – but eventually my expectations couldn’t help but be influenced by the repeated message.

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The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance

Ever since I accidentally bought a book about British folk traditions on Amazon a few years ago, I’ve been making an effort to attend a few of the more interesting ones. In the past two years I’ve been to the Haxey Hood Game, the Burning of Old Bartle in West Witton, Preston Guild Fair, and the York Mystery Plays.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to attend the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, in and around the Staffordshire village of Abbots Bromley.

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What kind of music do you like?

I’ve noticed that when people are asked what kind of music they like, the usual answer is something along the lines of, “oh, I like all kinds of music.”

You’ve probably said it at some point. Maybe it was just because you couldn’t be bothered at the time to get into an in-depth discussion of what you actually like and why. Maybe you were being merciful and didn’t want to bore the questioner with your fanatical passion for death metal. Or maybe, and I think this is usually the case, you like to think of yourself, and want others to think of you too, as someone who has a broad knowledge of music, and open-minded, liberal tastes. I’ve been guilty of it myself, many times. But I’ve realised it’s bullshit.

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