There has been little in the news lately but the refugee crisis and the Labour leadership election. I’m here to talk, briefly, before the polls close on Thursday, about the latter.

I just voted, and guess what? For Jeremy Corbyn.

I’ve never been a member of the party before.1 I always thought that I was too independent to toe a party line; too many of my anarchist ideals, forged in the fires of punk, still stood.

Well, maybe. But my anarchism, such as it was, was always on the socialist wing. And I recognise the idealism that drove it. I’d like to think that humans could live without governments and leaders — that we are perfectible, and could form a working society through cooperation. But the fact is, of course, that that is not yet the case. And until it is, there are things worth standing up for, worth believing in. Worth fighting for.

I didn’t want to toe a line; but in May we crossed a line. After five years of a Tory government in all but name, we have a named one. David Cameron and his regime will go down in history as worse than Thatcher’s; but until he does go down, we have to deal with the effects of it.

On the morning after the election I resolved to join the Labour party and do what I could to help. This wasn’t about electing a new leader, though I realised that would be part of it. It certainly wasn’t about Jeremy Corbyn: I made the decision before Ed Miliband had even resigned, and enacted it before the leadership candidates had been nominated.

And for what it’s worth, I joined as a full member, not one of these £3 Supporters that we’ve been hearing so much about.

I think the aftermath of the Scottish referendum had some effect on my decision. Seeing how the failure of the “Yes” vote energised the SNP and led many supporters to join led me to hope that something similar would happen with Labour. As indeed it has.

Anyway, getting back to that choice of leader. It’s long past time that Labour had a woman as its leader, but neither of those standing are right for me. Where we are right now, Corbyn’s views most closely match my own values. When he says things like this:

Paying tax is not a burden. It is the subscription we pay to live in a civilised society.

— “The Economy in 2020

that is exactly the kind of thing I’ve been saying about tax for years.

There is much else. I’m not convinced about leaving NATO, but I don’t think it’s a fundamental policy. I do think we shouldn’t waste vast amounts of money on replacing Trident. The cold war is over, more or less.2 And even if Russia is getting alarmingly expansionist these days, a British not-really-independent nuclear missile submarine is going to worry them much.

Corbyn might not be electable — I doubt that analysis, but let’s go with it for now — but he should at least lead a Labour party in opposition that actually opposes the government. Which, with its slim majority, could actually be vulnerable.

Interesting times ahead.

  1. The title of my blog is partly a nod to my long-time support of it, though. []
  2. I nearly typed “the cod war”, which is also long over, but was much less terrifying. []
books, Books 2015

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel (Books 2015, 8)

I read this under false pretences. Self-inflicted false pretences, to be sure, but nonetheless.

It won the Clarke Award, as I’m sure you know. All I knew about it when I heard the result, when I saw Mandel’s acceptance video at the ceremony, was the title. But it’s a badge of recognition, if nothing else; a clear signal that a group of people, of our peers, perhaps, think it’s one of best books — maybe the best — released in the last year.

I downloaded it on Kindle (I think there was a special offer). I hadn’t read any reviews, not even the blurb. But it’s called Station Eleven: it’s got to be about a space station, right?

Well, “Station Eleven” is a space station of sorts. But this isn’t a story set on it, or in space at all. Well, except inasmuch as Earth is in space, which of course is totally.

Thing is, if I’d known this was actually set mainly in a post-end-of-civilisation dystopia, I probably wouldn’t have read it it at all. Such scenarios really don’t appeal to me much, at face value at least. I’m always reminded of a call for stories in Interzone many years ago, which asked for “radical, hard SF”; but which specifically said they didn’t want the kind of post-holocaust story where the hero gazes wistfully at a can of baked beans.

It’s an image which has stuck with me, but this is not that kind of story (though there are elements of scavenging among the ruins).

It’s also not set entirely after the fall of civilisation. In part it tells the life story of a successful actor (who dies on stage while playing Lear right at the start of the first chapter).

I note that Mandel herself seems to reject the SF label, and my thoughts on it — while loving it to bits — centred around wondering why she chose to tell the story of a present-day actor framed or intertwined within the death of civilisation. Looking at some reviews now I see that people treat the central theme as being the attempt to keep culture alive. And while that is an important aspect, I don’t really see it as being what the book is about.

Particularly if we are to consider it as literary fiction1 wherein characters are usually the main focus. As such it’s mainly the stories of the actor and of the young woman who started out as a child actor who was onstage when he died, but who survived the plague.

The conclusion of this review at the New York Times sums it up well:

If “Station Eleven” reveals little insight into the effects of extreme terror and misery on humanity, it offers comfort and hope to those who believe, or want to believe, that doomsday can be survived, that in spite of everything people will remain good at heart, and that when they start building a new world they will want what was best about the old.

SF or not, it’s well worth reading.

  1. Why not li-fi, I often wonder? []

On Djs, Beats 1, and Talking Over Songs

I hadn’t heard Zane Lowe, as I mentioned before. So when Apple Music launched, with its Beats 1 streaming radio service, for which Zane is the flagship DJ, I was interested to check him out.

A number of sources had led me to the belief that Zane, at Radio One, had effectively been the new John Peel. Nobody can live up to that claim, I suspect, but to me it meant that he must have a particular set of talents and abilities:

  • plays music of their own choice, free from playlists mandated by the station management;
  • actively seeks out new music;
  • communicates their enthusiasm to the listener;
  • plays the tracks in full, without talking over the beginning or end.

I’ve now heard Zane on Beats 1 a couple of times, and he certainly fulfils the first three of those criteria. But he fails dramatically on the fourth.

The thing with Peelie was, he played the track. He respected it, gave it space to succeed or fail on its own merit. Certainly he’d say, “This is the new one from so-and-so, and I think it’s great,” or whatever; but then he’d let you hear the record. The actual record. All of it. The whole thing.1

Zane does not do that.

No, I’m afraid he talks over the records. And not just over instrumental intros or “chasing the fade,” either. I’ve heard him popping up right in the middle of a song with a word or two.

One of the people who spoke highly of Zane was Myke Hurley of Relay FM, the podcast network. In particular I had heard him talking on the Upgrade podcast about what a good guy Zane was.

So when I heard Mr Lowe talking over the tracks, I tweeted with the #AskUpgrade tag, which is one of their feedback mechanisms:

They read out my question on the next episode, 45, I think. Make said I sounded “very angry”, which I wasn’t — just disappointed. And then we exchanged a few tweets:

And that’s about where we left it. I don’t think I got across my main point very well (140 characters is hard sometimes). But I’ve expressed it clearly enough up top there, I think.

Beats One is still interesting, and Apple Music has many interesting features. But I’m still looking for a DJ that knows how to treat records right.

  1. Sometimes that was true even when “record” equalled “album”. []
books, Books 2015, sf

Mind of My Mind by Octavia E Butler (Books 2015, 7)

The next book in the Patternist series after Wild Seed, which I wrote about before. I would describe it as the sequel to the other one, except that it turns out that they were written out of sequence.

This perhaps explains why the character of Anyanwu, who, as you’ll recall, I felt was slightly disappointing in the first book, is completely sidelined and, indeed, thrown away, in this one.

The other reason is that the focus has moved on to a new generation of Doro’s descendants. We are in mid to late 20th-century America, and his breeding programme is finally beginning to pay off. More spectacularly than he had ever imagined, it seems, as some of his telepaths — who up until now have not been able to bear being near each other — form a kind of group or meld they call the Pattern.

This makes them able to both work and live together, and increases their power and effectiveness enormously.

Things ensue. It’s good, but still feels kind of weak to me. I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t that compelling.

Also I thought I had read this one, years ago, but none of it was even the slightest bit familiar to me, so I guess not.

books, Books 2015, music

Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York that Changed Music Forever by Will Hermes (Books 2015, 6)

I started reading this last year — probably late summer or early autumn — in part as preparation for our trip to New York, though in part because I’d have wanted to anyway.

The trip to New York is over now. I finished the book a day or two before we left, and I’m not sure in the end that it made much difference to the trip — though it did mean I knew one or two things that the guy who lead our East Village rock & punk walking tour told us, and I was able to answer at least one of his questions: who might own a bar called “Manitoba’s”? The answer being “Handsome” Dick Manitoba of the Dictators.

But we’re here to talk about the book. The five years in question are 1973-1977, inclusive. They saw the tail end of the hippy era turning into glam, the growth of both punk and disco, and the early years of hip-hop. And that’s just in what we might call “rock” or “pop” in the most general sense. New York in those years also saw the growth of minimalism, with people like Steve Reich and Phillip Glass (both of whom I’ve seen live, incidentally); a burgeoning jazz scene; and the development of salsa and other latin-derived forms.

Hermes goes into great detail about all of these. He was a teenager in Queens at the start of the time (and in fact still a teenager at its end), and it’s clear that he lived for music. He went on, I discover, to write for Rolling Stone and others.

It’s a fantastic book, full of both scholarly detail and fannish anecdote, and I would heartily recommend it to anyone who has even a passing interest in any of those genres, or in New York’s history or that of music.

A minor crossover of my readings of the last half-year or so: we hear of Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers’ trip to London, and how he gave Viv Albertine heroin, as also described in more vivid detail in Viv’s book.


Drive-By Brucellosis

The day after I post linking to Patterson Hood’s NYT piece, I get an email from Amazon recommending a Drive-By Truckers album. I assumed it was a new one.

Not too spooky — I doubt their bots are reading my blog. It’s nothing more than the fact that I’ve bought DBT albums from Amazon before. Only the timing was surprising — plus the fact that I had no idea that the album was coming out. Though further research shows that it’s not actually a new album, making Amazon’s prompt slightly more suspect again.

Anyway the interesting thing about this album — The Fine Print: A Collection Of Oddities And Rarities 2003-2008 — is that it contains a track called ‘Play it All Night Long’. I’m assuming that this must be a cover of Warren Zevon’s song of the same name.

Now, that song is a dissection of DBT’s beloved Lynyrd Skynyrd. Or at least it uses “that dead band’s song” as part of its critique of the South. For DBT to cover it must be an example of “the duality of the southern thing,” of which they speak extensively on Southern Rock Opera.

Of course, large parts of that album are about Skynyrd, so covering a song that is also partly about them isn’t much of a stretch. Thing is, Zevon’s song is less than positive about the South as a whole, or Skynyrd by implication. Not, of course, that the DBTs are entirely positive about the South; that duality again.

‘Play it All Night Long’ is also the only known song — known by me, at least — to contain the word “brucellosis”.

books, Books 2015, sf

Wild Seed by Octavia E Butler (books, 2015, 5)

Halfway through the year and only five books in? This is shocking behaviour!

I’m glad I read this, and I sort of enjoyed it, but I wasn’t entirely happy with it.

There are two main characters, both of whom appear to be functionally immortal, though with different mechanisms for keeping them alive. The shapeshifting, self-healing (and healer of others) Anyanwu is an African woman in the seventeenth century when we meet her. She is already two or three hundred years old.

The male immortal, Doro, is even older. For perhaps thousands of years he has survived by stealing bodies. His consciousness hops from his current one to another when the latter threatens him, or just when he chooses it. The personality of his destination body is of course destroyed in the hop, and the body he leaves also dies. Anyanwu is attracted to his power and the fact that they are apparently the only such long-lived people on Earth, but is repelled by the mechanism of his survival.

As she is by his long-term (really long-term) project to try to breed people with special abilities — many of the subjects of which are, or may be, distant descendants of her, or of his original people (most of whom he killed in panic when he first “died” and found himself in a new body).

I was annoyed at Anyanwu as a character at times, by the way she didn’t resist Doro when he had her do things she didn’t want to do. But he is an expert manipulator and is willing to threaten her kids to bend her to his will. And I guess that cleverly evokes the reality of women’s situation often in history, and certainly at that time.

This is the start of the Seed to Harvest series, and I’m keen to see where it goes.


The Phantom Menace

Just who (or what) is the menacing phantom?

Following on from my On things never seen post, yesterday was Father's Day, and we watched The Phantom Menace.

It is not as bad – not nearly as bad – as nearly everyone makes out.

It starts badly, oddly enough. Not just the dull scroll about the Trade Federation, but then you have the Japanese-sounding guys in charge of the blockade and invasion, who are voiced by people who seemingly can't act. Their dialogue is frankly embarrassing.

But much of it is fine. Sure, there are holes in the logic, places where it doesn't exactly make sense; but what film doesn't have instances like that?

Even – and I realise I'm committing a kind of geek sacrilege as I write this – even Jar-Jar Binks isn't that annoying. Could the plot have worked without him, or with him not being a comedic figure? Of course. But having him as he is, does no harm.

But hey: I liked Wesley Crusher, too.

And that's about as much as I'm going to say about it for now.