Showing posts from 2013

The odious machine

I am on strike today. I have been struggling of late with a sense of despair about the state of contemporary life, and not knowing what to do about it. None of the mainstream political parties in Britain reflect my values, my sense of what is fair and equitable, my growing anger and horror at a country run for and by millionaires while, at our local Tesco, volunteers ask for donations to the food bank, because people do not have enough money to eat, or to feed their children.

I am a university lecturer. I teach English. I have been struggling of late to make sense of a workplace whose principles run counter to what I believe a university should be and what it should be for: the pursuit of learning, of research and scholarship into science, into society, into culture, of dissemination of knowledge that has a direct social and political function, an understanding of the world that helps people make better lives, personally and collectively: NOT a machine for making money, NOT a busines…

Out of Time

Today is, of course, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F Kennedy, as well as that of the deaths of Aldous Huxley and CS Lewis. I note with interest that today’s Google doodle does not correspond to any of these three men, but to the 50th anniversary of Dr Who, which was first broadcast the evening following these events. But the advent of a popular science fiction tv series based upon the wanderings and adventures of a time traveller seems curiously appropriate to 1963, somehow.
Sometimes I feel myself to be out of time. Born in 1969, I can claim ownership to that decade not only because I was born in its fading months (I was round for the Apollo 11 landings, for Altamont Speedway, for the deaths by drowning of Brian Jones and Mary Jo Kopechne, for My Lai, for the first episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus; hell, John and Yoko got married on the day of my birth), but because growing up, the Sixties were immediate history. My Dad told me about 60s tv befo…

Khora: the voice and the Essex shore

I went down to the Shorelines literary festival, held at Leigh-on-Sea in Essex, over the weekend. Leigh is the next town along the A13 from the town I grew up in and in which my family still live, Hadleigh; Leigh is where I worked for 2 years, and where my friend Ed lived, whose house, the Vicarage by St Clement’s church, was the rehearsal base for our band Tortoisehead, and the launching-place (and often late-night video watching) for our Friday and Saturday night nights out at a sequence of Leigh pubs (The Olde Smack Inn and latterly the Crooked Billet in Old Leigh; but mainly the Grand Hotel, the favourite watering-hole of the Feelgood’s singer Lee Brilleaux).
One of the sessions had a particularly poignant moment for myself and old friend Simon, who had also come down from elsewhere to sample the festival’s events. This was a group walk around Leigh in the company of Justin Hopper, whose poem sequence Public Record: Estuary memorialises the disasters and loss of life that regular…

Nearly: a confession

So, a kind of confession. The kind a person might make on reaching what used to be called the ‘middle age’, when you’ve reached a point in professional life, a foothold; more than that, when you’ve reached solid ground, something near to achievement. Nearly.
Antonio Salieri is the patron saint of mediocrity; or at least, Peter Shaffer’s Salieri, I mean. In Amadeus, Salieri is a composer at the court of the Emperor of Austria whose gifts of devotion and hard work are superseded by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s carelessly curated genius, a creative gift from God that Mozart knows not how to pursue properly. Mozart is excessive: scatological, childlike, wanton. Salieri is the consummate courtier.
There are two brilliant moments of appreciation of Mozart’s music in Milos Forman’s film adaptation of Amadeus (which now exists in theatrical release and ‘Director’s Cut’ forms; much of the tonal difference between them is in the depiction of Salieri, who is much more sympathetic in the original …

Star Wars / Star Trek

If it came down to a choice between Star Wars and Star Trek, for me, it’s not much of a contest: for all that I grew up watching Star Trek (TOS) re-runs on terrestrial tv, watched the entirety of the runs of TNG, DS9 and Voyager (Enterprise didn’t do much for me) in the 80s and 90s, and have a deep and abiding fondess for Shatner, I only own a couple of the movies on dvd, and only Star Trek: The Motion Picture is one that I re-watch for pleasure. By comparison, I own all the Star Wars films, have the Clone Wars dvds, Star Wars Lego, and even went to see The Phantom Menace at the cinema twice (the second time on its recent 3D re-release). (That’s dedication.)
However, I recently sat down to watch Star Trek Into Darkness, and while the post 9/11 analogies are a bit pat, the question that is poses about the Federation itself – Scotty says to Kirk at one point, when questioning the arrival of advanced missiles aboard the Enterprise, ‘I thought we were meant to be explorers’ – is a parti…

A Beautiful Con: The Tree of Life

The Tree Of Life is a very unusual film.  Not because of the dinosaur.  Well, partly because of the dinosaur.  But mainly because it uses the register of cosmological science fiction – in particular 2001 – to tell what is, it seems, by fairly conventional domestic story : the traumatic loss of a son and brother; father-son conflict; rites of passage in 1950s America; the failures of authoritarian patriarchal masculinity.  The film is presented in an extraordinary way, as a series of moments, often of striking beauty, in which dialogue is generally absent (crucial thematically), time is dislocated on a local, global and cosmological scale (seconds, minutes, years, decades, eons), but a sense of wonderment at (and the wonderment of) life is immanent.
This wonderment, even bewilderment, is carried not only in the extraordinary image-track, but also in the familiar Malick device of the disembodied voice over, in which baffled and self questioning voices express the interiority of key char…

The gift and Twitter (science) fiction

In Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test, the author uncovers the case of a strange book called Being or Nothingness by Joe K being sent out to unwitting academics, mainly those in fields pertaining to AI. The first chapter of the book narrates Jonson's attempts to get to the bottom of this literary prank, partly through the work of Douglas Hofstadter (author of Godel, Escher, Bach and I Am A Strange Loop) whom Jonson at first suspects, but then discovers had been sent some 70 copies in English and 10 in Swedish of this very book. I won't give away the solution to his odd riddle, though it's pretty prosaic (and is really Jonson's book's Macguffin), but it fascinated me; not only that someone would go to the expense of producing a high-quality item but that they would send them out as gifts to unknown parties. I've thought of buying one - there's a couple on Amazon - but this would be a bit beside the point. I'd love to receive one through the post, thoug…

Modernist Morecambe

‘Can you see the Real Me?’ (‘The Real Me’)

Driving up to the Placing Morecambe symposium held at Lancaster University a few weeks ago, I listened to The Who’s Quadrophenia album. This was a happy accident. A few days before, trawling through the hard-drive on our Freeview receiver, I noticed that the excellent BBC4 documentary on the making of Quadrophenia was still there, and sat down to watch. Later, the psyche gave me a nudge and I put my Who box-set and Quadrophenia in the car. Only half-way up the motorway did I realise the appropriateness: in the story told by the concept album, Jimmy, the young Mod, suffering from a personality disorder that Townshend dubs ‘quadrophenia’ (Pete wanted to make the album in quadraphonic sound, but it turned out strictly stereo, four faces condensed to two) has a kind of breakdown, and travels from his South London home to Brighton, where he has an epiphany at the sea-side. The album ends ambiguously: the listener doesn’t know whether Jimmy ends his…