So we’re socially isolated for the foreseeable. It’s a weird time, but I’ve been amazed by how people are being incredibly generous. There is so much kindness out there from everyone despite the uncertainty. Here are some things I’ve come across that you may enjoy while distancing from others that may help you feel connected or entertained.
This essay from Jack Underwood blew me away, because he nails down thoughts I’ve had before but have struggled to put into words. He describes poetry as a necessary counterpoint to the simplification of stories we are being fed today:
They know that nostalgia for simpler configurations and categories is a symptom of fear and frustration. They know that as everything gets worse through deliberate inactivity the more frustrated and scared we become. “The answer is simple,” they tell us: “We must simplify!” Then: “You do not cohere to simplicity. Why are you making this so difficult? Everyone else is so tired of this difficulty. Hey everyone, aren’t you tired of this? Vote for me if you’re tired!”
So many times I listen to or read poetry and it complicates my view of the world in some new way. Each new wrinkle of language provides a new perspective. This is undoubtedly a good thing. Because once you reject the simplicity of simple stories everything becomes more interesting.
Writing poems, I find myself more and more unsure, more lost to the confusion as simplicity is stripped away. I struggle to know what they are about. I know what impulse I started with but the end result is often a mystery to me. Maybe this is a good thing as well. Who can say?
In 2019, I read 66 books, but a lot were poetry chapbooks or graphic novels. You can see most of the list on my GoodReads page if you want.
Heres some of my personal highlights:
Probably because of everything in the world right now, I read a lot of books about escaping into strange dreamlike worlds. I sped through the Annihilation trilogy by Jeff Vandeermeer and Roadsise Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, both of which share a common DNA. They feel less like science fiction and more like moving into a weird world where the rules are never clear.
The book I’d most like to recommened is nominally science fiction but wears those elements lightly. Kindred by Octavia Butler is a furious novel about a modern black woman transported back to the south at the height of slavery. It should be essential reading for everyone as it highlights how injust and obscene slavery was in a visceral, emotional way.
The main nonfiction book I loved was Maria Popova’s Figuring. Popova runs the enormously interesting blog Brain Pickings and this book feels like a digestion and development of that blog. Focusing on a few gifted scientists and artists, mostly queer, mostly women, it asks why they have been unfairly excluded from history. Through its beautiful, elegant prose it also shows the connections between these figures. We often view history a single story, so it was enlightening to see the connections between everyone. It was also fascinating to read about the people who were supremely gifted but we have forgotten about, because of prejudice. Its a long book, but it zips along and is really worth your time.
Liz Berry’s Black Country was a highlight. With some poems written in black country dialect, it is unique in its use of language and imagery.
Ada Límon’s The Carrying is a book by a poet at the height of their powers. Dealing with climate change and having
children, it feels universal and specific in the best way.
To Sweeten Bitter by Raymond Antrobus is incredible but you don’t need me to tell you that.
I also really enjoyed Ross McCleary’s Endorse Me, You Cowards! , which is both hillarious and then deeply troubling in the way nightmares are. He really nails an uneasiness about modern office work. He also helps run the podcast Lies, dreaming, and the episode on Hump Day was really… something else.
Also Stuart Buck’s Become Something Frail, which is full of incredible imagery. Stuart has a unique way with language and the whole collection shines.
So yeah, I got really into reading poetry last year.
I finally got all the way through Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson, which is sadly getting more and more relevant each passing year. Only the idea of the media having strong power to fight injustice feels dated, but the politics and the characters are oddly prophetic considering it was written at the turn of the millenium.
On the other end of the spectrum, Joff Winterhart’s Driving Short Distances was perfectly observed. Nothing really happens but it feels so tragic. Its a book about masculinty and depression which is funny and heartbreaking without ever being didactic or preachy.
Phew, that was more than I thought. Anyway, this year I want to read more widely, especially more books by women to expand my perspective. I might start doing little reviews on this blog as I go, I might not. We shall see.
Recently on Twitter, I replied to this tweet about keeping a private anthology:
I got into a discussion about my commonplace book and why I keep one. I thought I’d follow that up with a larger discussion of why I find it useful and some examples from the book.
A commonplace book is an old tradition, with bits of knowledge stacked on top of each other. Ryan Holiday has a great explanation if you want to know further. I use it to note down quotes, photos I like and poems that speak to me.
Pauline Seawards shared this and I just had to share it as well. David Byrne sings Heroes with a choir who had practiced for just an hour beforehand. It’s utterly beautiful and hypnotizing.
I also love what David Byrne said about the performance:
There is a transcendent feeling in being subsumed and surrendering to a group. This applies to sports, military drills, dancing… and group singing. One becomes a part of something larger than oneself, and something in our makeup rewards us when that happens. We cling to our individuality, but we experience true ecstasy when we give it up. So, the reward experience is part of the show.
There is a persistent view that refuses to be shaken that science fiction and fantasy are pure escapism. Usually, this view is from people with limited experience of the genre. People like Ian McEwan, who when promoting his last book was sniffy about the escapist aspects of science ficiton:
Open mic nights are wonderful spaces. They are brilliant places to try new work in front of audiences and get instant feedback. But more than that, they are places where you can listen to the voices of others and learn from them. It’s essential in these times to be in the same space as others and listen to their words.
Over the last year or so, I’ve been going to a lot of poetry nights in Bristol. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the different nights the city has to offer. I read, nervously at first, but then relaxing into having a space to speak. More than that though, I appreciate listening to varied voices in each night. The joy of open mics is everyone gets their turn to speak. So you hear a huge variety of people from all different backgrounds reading poetry. It can be hugely powerful to hear marginalised voices that you wouldn’t normally be exposed to.
There are people in all open mics who turn up, read their pieces and then disappear. I’d argue these people are missing the point. You read your stuff, yes, but the whole point of the night should be to listen to the other people around you. The nights are not only about you. It’s an exercise in quieting the ego and making sure you stay grounded.
Making art, especially writing, can be a lonely business, so it’s nights like these that link you to a community of people who are doing the same thing. It shows you are not alone in your endeavours and helps you carry on. By listening to others, it also exposes you to different stories, different references, different ways of seeing the world.
Politicians and reactionary tabloids often push simple narratives as a way of managing dissent. The world works like this. Those people are not like you. They exploit and perpetuate prejudice for power. Open mic nights dismantle these simple stories. They allow you to hear other people’s stories from all different backgrounds and empathise with them. It can be incredibly powerful to be in the same room as people and hear their poetry. In these days where we form so many of our opinions online, it is essential to have real-life spaces where marginalised voices can speak freely. It’s also important for privileged people like me to be quiet and listen. Listening becomes a revolutionary act because you are giving your attention to others. It would be a better world if we stopped shouting and allowed others to speak. So stay and linger a while, engage with voices that are not your own. It might be good for you and the world.
It’s that time again when I examine what media I’ve consumed over the past twelve months and pick my favourites. Defining the best of anything is an entirely subjective act that nevertheless, I try to do every year. I’ve moved away from trying to pick the ‘best’ of anything as they are all different experiences, so instead, I have chosen a few in each category I like.
See, this is where the list is entirely subjective and changes from day to day. Is this album the most fun? Does it have the catchiest songs? Absolutely not. But it’s such a unique album whose sound perfectly sums up the chaos of the political situation of this year. After twenty-five years as a band, Low take a sharp left turn and bury their beautiful harmonies under layers of distortion and fuzz. At times it is like being in the middle of a maelstrom. It’s also got moments of quite stunning fragile beauty, such as the gentle and aching ‘Fly’. It’s absolutely not for everyone, but more than any other album this year, this album has grabbed me by the shoulders and hasn’t let go. They are also one of the best live acts I’ve ever seen, hypnotising and powerful.
Cocoa Sugar– Young Fathers I listened to this album on a whim and I’m glad I did. Hard to pin down, their third album sounds like nothing else, spanning multiple genres from hip-hop to dance and gospel. It’s such a unique sound and is thrilling.
Wide Awake!- Parquet Courts Another new band for me. Parquet Courts made uncomplicated guitar music, but it has such propulsive energy and is so much fun that they deserve all the hype they are getting.
Bonfire Night– Talk Less Say More Technically this was released last year, but I only found it recently. Talk Less Say More (aka. Matthew Jennings) writes stupidly catchy electropop that sounds like nothing else. This is the last in the Three Birds trilogy and a suitable culmination of all that’s gone before.
Sorry to Bother You– A razor-sharp critique of capitalism and race roles, this is a bizarre and wonderful trip into an alternate reality that is not far from our own. Tech bros haven’t come up with the idea of voluntary slavery yet, but with the gig economy it can’t be far behind. It’s also very, very funny and uses humour to disarm you and lower your defences. There’s a part about two-thirds of the way through that I did not see coming at all. However, it’s not out of nowhere. The more you think about the final act the more it ties into the themes of the film. Urgent and angry, this is a film that demands to be seen.
Coco- Every time I go into a Pixar film, I swear I’m not going to cry. Then they hit me with another sucker punch. Visually inventive with brilliant music, this is a superb meditation on ageing, memory and of course, death. You know, kid’s stuff.
A Quiet Place- Monsters have taken over the world and have super sensitive hearing, so a family survives in near silence. Unbearably tense in places, this film explores every angle of its premise. It’s also in and out in an hour and half, which takes real skill.
I read 42 books this year, from non-fiction to poetry. You can’t compare any of the below and find a ‘best one’ as they are so wildly different to each other.
Blankets- Craig Thompson– An autobiographical graphic novel about falling in love as a Christian teenager. The art work is beautiful, expressing a huge range of emotion. What’s most impressive about it is how Craig Thompson takes a personal story and spins it into a meditation on religion and the trials of life and the stories we tell ourselves to keep going.
Stories of Your Life and Others- Ted Chiang I loved Arrival, so I was excited to read the original short story that it was based on. I wasn’t disappointed. Each story in this collection is brilliant. Ted Chiang packs more detail and ideas into a short story than most people put into a novel. This is inventive, thoughtful science fiction based on proper science.
How Not to be a Boy- RobertWebb In a similar way to Sara Pascoe’s Animal, Robert Webb blends autobiography with jokes and a serious examination of gender roles. Attempting to conform to rigid masculinity made him struggle throughout his life and made him bury his true feelings in booze. Despite that, it is a laugh out loud funny book, with jokes on every page.
That’s it for 2018. I’ll see you in the 2019, where I will try to keep this blog updated more regularly. If you like this sort of thing, I have a semi-regular newsletter where I send out recommendations.
I finally got round to watching Whiplash. It’s a great film about a drummer, Andrew in a prestigious school who wants to be the best jazz drummer that ever existed. He’s shooting for genius, nothing less. He manages to draw the attention of the best music teacher in the school, Fletcher. Only problem is, Fletcher is a bully and his methods are abusive and dangerous. Continue reading →
I spent a highly enjoyable few months last year watching Twin Peaks, both the original seasons and the revival. Even now, twenty-seven years after the original series debuted, it remains a strange mix of police procedural and occult mysticism. The revival plunges even further into the mysticism and dream elements of the show. It’s not always entirely clear what the story is, but as an experience it is incomparable. Many parts of the show work on a dream logic, with images and moments that only seem to make sense in a subconscious way. The last episode, in particular, is terrifying, even though I could not fully articulate why. Continue reading →
Posts on this blog have been a bit scarce for the last couple of weeks, mostly because I spent a several days in a field in Somerset. I listened to music, watched comedy and saw the odd politician. 1 I was lucky enough to attend Glastonbury Festival, a cornucopia of delights that I have gone to since I was fifteen. This was my seventh time at the festival. I have been to others in the meantime, but it remains the original and the best. It is a marvellous tent town where the outside world is put on hold for a while, where the normal rules no longer apply and where art and hope rules above everything else. I thought I’d write about why it remains so special to me and many others.
Kodomoroid communication android by Osaka University and ATR Laboratories, Japan, c. 2014. Photo by Melissa Wiseman
As I stood before the seated figure, my stomach turned. Every part of my brain was screaming that the face before me was alien. It looked so lifelike. So much like a human. Then it moved and everything felt wrong. I moved on from the robot to the next exhibit, trying to shake the odd feeling those semi-lifelike eyes had given me.
This robot was featured in a fascinating Science Museum exhibition that details the cultural history of robotics. It was the Kodomoroid communication android that weirded me out. The combination almost realistic skin, blank expressions and slight movements gave me physical chills. The feeling I encountered was a strong example of the uncanny valley. By its nature, it is an uncomfortable feeling. Your instincts are to avoid the almost-human. Yet increasingly we find this feeling in the media we consume. It recurs again and again in computer games, in movies and in all culture around us. We have entered the valley and there is a long climb out of it. The robot I saw at the exhibition was just the latest example of a trend that has reached fever pitch in recent years.
It’s taken me three and a half months, but I finally finished Alan Moore’s magnum opus Jerusalem. Made of a number of interlinked short stories set in Northampton, it tells the history of the town as well as the nature of life, death and time itself. It is ridiculously broad in its scope while remaining funny and down to earth, with a serious message about the abuse of the working class. The entire second book occurs whilst a child is choking on a sweet. Each chapter, especially in the last book, uses its own style. There’s an epic poem, a play, a Joycean wordplay chapter. In short, it is a hugely ambitious work that in my opinion succeeds wholeheartedly.