Cultural Highlights of 2016

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


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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Cultural Highlights of 2015

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


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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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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Failure of leadership at the BBC

I love the BBC. It’s a vital institution: not just a beloved entertainer, but one of our stalwart defences against the hegemony of the media barons. Being publicly funded, it holds a unique moral high ground, from where it should be able to resist the corrupting influence of money and hold to account those who haven’t – such as the once august Telegraph, which is apparently rotten to the core. So it was heart-breaking to read Nick Cohen’s report on how the organisation has forced out the whistleblowers who broke the Jimmy Saville story, and promoted the managers who tried to cover it up.

The BBC’s enemies – that is, every private media company – will no doubt use this as ammunition in their ongoing campaign to destroy the world’s greatest public broadcaster. Yet the problem here is not one of public funding or structure, but of private sector ethos. The BBC has become infected with the same malaise as the rest of the economy: a parasitic class of executives with soaring, apparently uncapped remuneration, but no evidence of any real leadership worth paying for.

The BBC needs less private sector thinking, not more. The actions of its whitewashing managers give the lie to the idea that you have to pay the “market rate” of hundreds of thousands of pounds to get “great leadership”. All you get is a clique of overpaid climbers whose main effort is to protect their own positions and obscene salaries.

You could pull any random Army officers out of Staff College and put them in charge of the BBC – or the Telegraph, HSBC, or any other organisation – and you’d get better, more principled leadership than from any of these self-serving shits, for little more than £50,000 per annum.


So, last night was the final day of Crufts, and I was surprised to discover that people still watch this shit.

The sight of manicured poodles being trotted up and down by a group of vicariously aspirational oddballs is one of those regrettable tastes of former decades, like orange and brown upholstery, prawn cocktails and IRA pub bombings. You’d like to think that these things are all long past. But apparently, Crufts is still shown and enjoyed on prime time television. Perhaps, like the prawn cocktails and decor, it’s experiencing a retro comeback. Or, perhaps, the incomprehensible alien hive mind that is middle England still genuinely enjoys it.

But hey, aren’t I being a cultural snob? Isn’t it all just a bit of fun? Well, no, it isn’t. For a start, there’s the dog who dropped dead, allegedly poisoned, shortly after the competition. Even if it was natural causes, the fact that the owner jumped immediately to the hysterical conclusion of poisoning by a competitor, gives a sense of the type of bitter, deranged competitiveness that Crufts inspires. And if it was poisoning, the conclusion is the same, just more tragic.

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Jumping the shark: the data

‘Jumping the shark’ refers to the point at which a long-running TV programme stops being good. It’s defined on Wikipedia as:

“the moment in the evolution of a television show when it begins a decline in quality, which is usually a particular scene, episode, or aspect of a show in which the writers use some type of “gimmick” in an attempt to keep viewers’ interest.”

The website TV Tropes explains it further:

“The moment when an established TV show changes in a significant manner in an attempt to stay fresh. Ironically, that moment makes the viewers realize that the show’s finally run out of ideas. It’s reached its peak, it’ll never be the same again, and from now on it’s all downhill.”

The term is named after the scene from Happy Days, in the episode ‘Hollywood: Part 3’, in which Fonzie, on water-skis, literally jumps over a shark. However, it’s now used more generally, not just for the introduction of gimmicks which signal the drying up of ideas, but to other changes which signficantly detract from a programme’s quality: executive meddling, or the departure of key cast or writers, for example.

The Graph TV tool, created and published by Kevin Wu, lets us examine jumping the shark moments properly. The tool lets you enter the name of any TV programme, and automatically plots the individual episode ratings from IMDb, sorted by seasons and with trend lines. Now, for any series, we can easily see what the consensus of opinion is on whether and when it jumped the shark.

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BBC Three: a suggestion

According to reports, it looks like BBC Director General Tony Hall plans to axe BBC Three as a way of saving the bulk of his £100m budget deficit.

As with the proposed, then U-turned, plan to close BBC Radio 6 Music in 2010, there are strong arguments for retaining BBC Three. It’s the BBC’s only youth-oriented TV channel, with a target audience of 16-34 year olds. It’s been a testing ground for new ideas and programmes, many of which have gone on to great success. Whether the likes of Little Britain and Gavin & Stacey are to your personal taste or not, BBC Three undeniably provides innovative and unique programming, and caters to a niche which is otherwise ignored by commercial and other BBC channels, thus contributing to the BBC’s public service remit.

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Worst Adverts of the Year 2010

(Originally published on 11th January, 2011)

I didn’t watch much television in 2010, so I didn’t get to see many dreadful, hateworthy adverts. Good news for me, bad news for Worst Adverts of 2010. This year’s list is therefore much less extensive than last year’s. In fact, it’s just a handful of ads I happened to catch which annoyed me for various reasons. I’m sure there were much worse, which you’ll have seen and hated yourself, but here are mine.

At the start of the year, Renault managed to combine both a sneakily misleading claim, and a ridiculous bare-faced lie, in one advert. The former: launching a TV campaign on 1/1/10 which boasted that they would have zero emission cars “next year”. The latter: the claim that Renault has “been there for every revolution in society.” Really? Didn’t notice them at Wat Tyler’s Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.

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Worst Adverts of the Year 2009

(Originally published on 29th January, 2010)

A Hate List spin-off, which I’d vaguely been thinking about doing for about 15 years before finally getting around to it. Presented in the lazy, tired format of an annual awards presentation.

The “I Want To Punch You, Not Buy Your Product” Award

Runner Up: Pringles

“Oh wow! They’re in a bag. I wasn’t expecting the bag.” Presumably because you’re a total cunt in a Pringles advert. Actually, I suspect the end of this vox pops was cut in editing: “I wasn’t expecting the bag… But I was expecting some foul, salty papier-mâché discs, and those expectations have been met.”

Winner: Envirofone

One of the worst vox pops adverts of all time. Every single person who appears in this heinous clip makes you want to kick them in the nuts or fanny as appropriate. There’s a lot more that’s wrong with this whole concept, such as the fact that the company name infers it’s a primarily environmental project, but the ad shoehorns in the issue of the environment right at the very end as an afterthought, after spending 95% of it telling you how much “WONGA!!!” and “READIES!!!” you could get. (Note to admen: try speaking to some real people. Seriously.) But mainly it’s a neck-and-neck competition to see who can annoy you the most in just a few words ham-acted to camera. For me, the “WONGA!!!” guy narrowly loses out to the chap who apparently has an orgasm at the idea of “ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY POUNDS!!!”

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