Tuesday 31 December 2019

Nineteen in '19: The Three Dimensions of Freedom

I've read far less in recent years than I would like. To help remedy this, I've set myself the modest target of reading nineteen books in 2019. When I finish one, a thumbnail review here will follow.

16/19: The Three Dimensions of Freedom by Billy Bragg

The blurb: At a time when opinion trumps facts and truth is treated as nothing more than another perspective, free speech has become a battleground. While authoritarians and algorithms threaten democracy, we argue over who has the right to speak.

To protect ourselves from encroaching tyranny, we must look beyond this one-dimensional notion of what it means to be free and, by reconnecting liberty to equality and accountability, restore the individual agency engendered by the three dimensions of freedom.

The review: in the 1985 Spitting Image book there was a spoof of Smash Hits magazine, in which fictional lyrics by contemporary artists were printed for comic effect. One featured artist was Billy Bragg, and the biting satire of the day imagined his lyrics to be something like (and this is from memory, I don't have the book any more ) "Kids are good, grown-ups are bad, vote Labour, vote Labour, vote Labour. Vote, vote, vote - Labour!". I know, hilarious, right? But it made a point, of sorts. For Bill, always engaged, always an activist, knew what he felt and knew what was wrong. In his keenness to tell us all, sometimes the message was muddied, or incomplete. I remember going to see him in Brighton in the very early 90s, with The Man Of Cheese. Between songs, Bill would give his views on the rights and wrongs of the political landscape, something he is still inclined to do. But I remember feeling disappointed by it at the time, as it really wasn't that far away from the Spitting Image parody - it was essentially, "Good things are good, bad things are bad and have to change." Truisms without solutions, basically.

The great thing about the Bard of Barking, though, is that he maintains the courage of his convictions, stays true to his roots, and knows that to be active, to be effective, you need to learn about what is going on. To continue the paraphrasing, you need to understand what has led to the good things and bad things. Only by understanding the bad things can you affect change on them. Only by learning how we've got into a sorry mess can we hope to pilot a route out. And Billy has learned, oh yes. It's no accident that he appears regularly on Question Time these days. He is no longer the working man proclaiming simplistic messages - he's the informed voice of the liberal, common man. Nowhere is that more evident that in this short polemic, the first of Faber Social’s new series of political pamphlets.

Billy starts with the famous Tony Benn quote, "If one meets a powerful person, ask them five questions: 'What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?'" (amusingly, he later quotes Danny Dyer on the same theme), before going on to define his three dimensions of freedom as liberty, equality and accountability. There follows a section on each, all of which are effective and one of which works brilliantly.

For where the messages on liberty and equality are, at times, slightly overlapping and prone to occasional thematic repetition, the chapter on accountability really hits the spot. Liberty and equality are very much viewed through the lens of history, whereas in his perspective on accountability, whilst still explored in an historic context, Billy finds much more amiss in the current landscape. Whilst there is nothing to really disagree with in any of the chapters, it is the section on accountability that comes closest to a clarion call, and is all the better for it.

The only real problem with this book is something that Billy recognises himself - our current political and societal landscape is so polarised, so divided, so entrenched in immovable opinion, that this book is unlikely to win anybody over. Indeed, I doubt very much that it will be read by anyone who doesn't already agree with the opinions expressed between its covers. That's a shame, because it's a book that makes you think, that leaves you wondering what you can do to make a difference. Because there are still no solutions ... just more to think about as you try to come to your own conclusions about what needs to be done. That, at least, has to be a good thing, right?

The bottom line: thought-provoking personal political opinion that leads you to the inevitable conclusion that, in the words of the song, there really should be no power without accountability.

Since everything online is rated these days: ★★★★★☆

Sunday 29 December 2019

Sunday shorts: There Is A Place In Hell For Me And My Friends

For the purposes of this series, my perennial New Year's Eve song can come two days early.

Here endeth Sunday Shorts.

Wednesday 25 December 2019

The Twelve Days of Impeachment

Not that I expect anyone to be checking their blogroll today but ... in case you missed it.

Sunday 22 December 2019

Sunday shorts: Imagination

I've written about the album from whence this comes many times before, so if I haven't persuaded you to seek it out yet, I guess I never will.

It is wonderful though. Happy (early) Christmas.

Friday 20 December 2019

Nineteen in '19: How Not To Be a Boy

I've read far less in recent years than I would like. To help remedy this, I've set myself the modest target of reading nineteen books in 2019. When I finish one, a thumbnail review here will follow.

15/19: How Not To Be a Boy by Robert Webb

The blurb: Robert Webb tried to follow the rules for being a man:
Don't cry
Drink beer
Play rough
Don't talk about feelings
Looking back over his life he asks whether these rules are actually any use. To anyone.

The review: on the face of it, this is a memoir about the blond one who played Jez in Peep Show. So if you enjoyed Peep Show, you should read this. There. End of review. Except there's quite a lot more to this book than that. And actually very little about those nine series of that show you enjoyed. So what is it about?

The clue is in the title and, for once, the blurb. For this is really a story of how someone kicked so hard against the stereotypes he didn't conform to that he ended up conforming to them. So here's sensitive, angelic Robert, growing up in rural isolation, doting on his mother, but surrounded by tough-talking, beer-swilling, football-loving, fist-throwing male archetypes. You might imagine this was a recipe for disaster and, in some respects, you'd be right. For here is young Robert, markedly different from his much older brothers, frankly fearful of his father, feeling different from them from an early age and yet navigating a possible path out of it all through selective education and grammar school, where the encouragement of one teacher in particular makes him realise another world is possible. That maybe that other world includes Cambridge, and performance. And then, on the cusp of getting out, the escape tunnel collapses as Robert suffers personal, familial tragedy.

The story might have ended there. Towards the end of the book Webb pauses to consider how different his life almost was; he doesn't use the phrase Jonbar points but that's what he's talking about. But even all this autobiography, and the years that follow - Cambridge, Footlights, meeting David Mitchell, meeting his future wife, Peep Show, Let's Dance for Comic Relief, marriage, parenthood - that's really just the means by which the real point of the book is illustrated. For really, this is a book about gender stereotyping, feminism, mature masculinity (Robert's phrase, not mine), societal conditioning, all that... and the inevitable, damaging effects they have on, well, everyone really. But especially those who don't conform to the stereotypes. They're the ones who are scarred.

So this is an autobiography of sorts, but one with a theme. Webb is two years younger than me, grew up shy and sensitive in a rural nowhere, feeling that he didn't fit, and then found a way out via grammar school and university, so for this reader there was plenty to relate to. But this isn't the sort of autobiography that recounts anecdotes from Peep Show or That Mitchell and Webb Look or Ambassadors or Back or any of the rest of it. Indeed, the only time his career really gets a look in is when something in it illustrates either how messed up he had become or how he found a path out of, in his own words, being a "pompous dick". And he has found that path - no pompous dick would be this open, this honest, this raw about themselves.

What do I make of it all? Simply that this is a book that I think everyone should read, regardless of age and gender. And more than that, I think this is a book that middle-aged men must read. Oh, and if, like me, you used to watch Peep Show then inevitably the first-person narrative of this book will have you hearing Robert's voice in your head, Jez-style. But that's not a bad thing, is it?

Since everything online is rated these days: ★★★★★★

P.S. This is the 900th post on New Amusements. Hooray for me.

Thursday 19 December 2019

That Was The Year That Was: 2019

A Brexit stamp
This is the ninth time I've recapped a year like this (for completists, here are the others), but this time it's going to be brief - just winners, maybe the occasional runner-up. Why? I'm tired and time-poor, and this nonsense doesn't write itself. Plus, you know, I'm no influencer and nobody really gives a monkeys about what I think. Yes, that makes this whole post an exercise in vanity ... but exercise is good for you, right?

Best album

I haven't bought many new albums again this year but, of the few I have, The Modern Age by Sleeper is most worthy of a mention. Everything you want (and expect) from a Sleeper album, after all this time. Who'd have thought? Also brilliant (but a bit of a cheat, being a compilation) was Best Of Billy Bragg At The BBC 1983 - 2019 - something fundamental is wrong with you if you don't love this. Another compilation worth a listen is the Killing Eve, Season One & Two Soundtrack - a brilliant, evocative, eclectic mix. And don't judge me but I enjoyed California Son, by he who shall not be named, more than I expected.

Best song

Ghost by Such Small Hands (aka Melanie Howard, bassist with The Wedding Present) wins here, a slice of ethereal beauty. A runners-up spot here for Pixies, with On Graveyard Hill, which is much more of a blunt instrument but is still tremendously effective.

Best gig

It's been another good year for gigs. Paul Weller in Thetford Forest was pretty special. The Specials, together again, were also pretty ... er ... special. But I've seen The Wedding Present three times this year and they've been brilliant every time, even with the maternity/paternity-enforced new line-up of the most recent gig. Clear winners.

Best book

Best I've read this year? No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy. Best I've read that was published this year? The Sea Inside Me by Sarah Dobbs. Best I've been involved with this year? Oh ... none. Must. Write. More.

Best film

I haven't been to the cinema as often as I might like and, even when I have it has often been to see screenings of old films (Carrie and Misery stand out here). Best new film I've seen this year is Doctor Sleep (spot the King theme emerging), but I must also give a mention to How To Train Your Dragon - The Hidden World which unexpectedly caused me to get something in my eye. Don't ask.

Best television

Usually the most fiercely contended category but this year, an easy choice, with Years and Years getting the nod. Inventive, speculative fiction that seems more prescient with every day that passes.

Best comedy

I was lucky enough to be in the studio audience for a recording of Dave Gorman's new TV show, Terms and Conditions Apply. Paul Merton and Alfie Moore were also both very good.

Best sport

This might be a minority view but the sporting highlights of 2019 for me were Dina Asher-Smith in the World Championships 200m and especially Katarina Johnson-Thompson bringing home gold in the heptathlon at the same meet. Both utterly brilliant. Yes, cricket and Ben Stokes; yes, Lewis Hamilton again. But Dina and Kat were my golden moments.

And that's it for another year. Yes, I know, even fewer categories than in year's gone by. I was going to add a Politics category, and re-introduce the Man/Woman/Tool of the Year categories, but those four all got messed up in my head, and it started to get a bit depressing. And it has been a depressing year. Better, then, just to keep this to the highlights, and hope that 2020 is better.

Monday 16 December 2019

At last, a Christmas #1 campaign I can get behind

As you may have already seen, a campaign has started to get Running the World by Jarvis Cocker to the coveted Christmas number one spot.

You know what it's about. You know the lyrics, or at least their sentiment. It may be a trivial idea in the grand scheme of things (as is the idea that the Christmas number one still matters) but still, it seems a fitting riposte to last week's election news. And even if you don't feel politically motivated, there's still the idea of getting such a fantastically sweary record to the top spot. A win either way, surely?

Enough preaching to the converted. Please, head over to Amazon or iTunes and buy it. It's only 99p. As I write, it's the second best-selling song on Amazon, behind some fluff about sausage rolls. You know what to do.

Sunday 15 December 2019

Sunday shorts: Own Up Time

Play loud, preferably before putting on your twin-tipped Fred Perry, your favourite sta-prest and a parka, jumping on your GS scooter and heading off for a Northern soul all-nighter...

Wednesday 11 December 2019

I'm going to need all your help (aka "What have I done?")

Back in October 2018, I speculated about possibly undertaking a huge physical and mental challenge in eleven months time. Some of you were intrigued in the comments. I was deliberately obtuse, for fear of committing myself, but at the time I wrote:

"...if I were to undertake and achieve this challenge, well, it would be quite something. Something that most people never do. Something to look back on when I'm old(er) and grey(er). Something for my child to remember, with pride and maybe even amazement, when I am gone. I don't know if it would qualify as a life-changing experience, but I can see how it might be in that neighbourhood, a tiny bit."

I didn't do it. Eleven months later (Sept 19) came and went.

But now... now I am signed up. I am doing it in September 2020 [EDIT: postponed because of COVID, I'm now doing it in September 2021!] And "it" is... cycling 980 miles from Land's End to John O'Groats... in nine short days.

I know...what am I thinking?

It's an organised ride, I'm not doing this solo (unlike my "145 miles in one day ride" earlier this year), and I've paid for my place. There's no going back now.

I have a charity place on the ride. Full disclosure - it's cheaper (though still expensive) for me to sign up but I have to commit to a fairly steep fundraising target. I don't have a massive social network, so for me this is going to be as hard as cycling ~109 miles a day, every day, for nine days in a row.

[Pause whilst I absorb that last line again...gulp]

Anyway, I have chosen to fundraise for the Alzheimer's Society. My aunt died recently, and her last years were blighted by this awful disease. Other family and friends have also been affected by it, this wretched condition that steals away our loved ones piece by piece. I think it's a pretty excellent cause, as causes go, and I hope you agree. Because, of course, I also hope that some of you might sponsor me, or have friends and colleagues with corporate charity sums to donate. Any and all contributions will be very gratefully received at www.justgiving.com/fundraising/martin980

Thank you, thank you, thank you. And wish me luck...

Sunday 8 December 2019

Sunday shorts: World View Blue (acoustic version)

From the Loved E.P, the first Blue Aeroplanes record I ever bought, from a stall on the market in 1990.

Friday 6 December 2019

Nineteen in '19: The Sea Inside Me

I've read far less in recent years than I would like. To help remedy this, I've set myself the modest target of reading nineteen books in 2019. When I finish one, a thumbnail review here will follow.

14/19: The Sea Inside Me by Sarah Dobbs

The blurb: In an England ravaged by civil strife and terrorism, Newark-by-the-Sea has trialled the Process – the removal of traumatic memories to eliminate crime and fear from the minds of its citizens. Processing Officer Audrey is instructed to tail Candy, a girl whose memories are inexplicably returning. As the Process is about to be rolled out countrywide, a dark conspiracy coils smoke-like into view. Dobbs’ prose is vivid and emotive, crammed with stark images and disturbing insights into the way we are and where we are heading.

The review: there's a quote that the publishers of this novella, Unthank Books, are using to promote The Sea Inside Me and it's this, from Guy Mankowski: "Evoking Ishiguro and Philip K Dick, this story couldn't be more now." And you know what, he's right. Dobbs's portrayal of a near-future England, familiar yet going to ruin, did put me in mind, at times, of Never Let Me Go. Similarly, her extrapolation of modern life, and its direction of travel, to conjure a realistic and all-too conceivable future world reminded me of Minority Report.

Those are pretty grand comparisons to make, but The Sea Inside Me justifies them as a slice of dystopian science fiction. But that's not all. Like all the best speculative fiction, Sarah's tale uses the prism of an imagined near-future England to shine a light on contemporary issues: gender inequality, trafficking, the commodification of women, worrying developments in the use of technology and, looming large over the whole story, climate change and environmental catastrophe. Those are all heavyweight issues, yet the author lays them all out for us to consider deftly, without them overshadowing the narrative; these themes serve the story, not the other way around.

What's more, Dobb's liquid prose style is a joy to read, even when the subject matter is grim. She has a distinctive voice, conjuring inventive descriptions and using words in unusual ways, that is both exciting and rewarding to read. She is also terrific at evoking a sense of place with great economy, brilliantly describing sensory details that place the reader very firmly in Newark-by-the-Sea. Similarly, there is concise but effective characterisation here - Dobbs provides enough of a character to instantly draw a thumbnail sketch of them, with further tiny details drip-fed as the story progresses, allowing the reader to join the dots. For an author, this is a real skill; for a reader, it is a joy to behold.

I'm keen to avoid spoilers, but I can talk about the Process because it's described in the blurb. It's such an intriguing idea, and it's been on my mind for days since finishing the book. Because if you can blank people, ostensibly to remove traumatic memories from victims, do you also create people to whom anything can be done? That's a pretty scary idea... but then if speculative dystopian SF doesn't scare you a bit, it's not doing its job properly, I'd say... And on that note, I'll leave the last word to Sarah's protagonist, Audrey, who closes The Sea Inside Me with this:

Mostly I wonder about stories. About how, while they might not change the world, they at least let us ask the questions. Don't you think?

The bottom line: brilliantly, beautifully written slice of speculative dystopia, deserving of a wide audience (and a three-part TV adaptation by the BBC, in my book)

Since everything online is rated these days: ★★★★★☆

Tuesday 3 December 2019


It occurs to me that it's nearly Christmas. Once more, I feel disinclined to construct a New Amusements Advent Calendar - sorry about that. They're a lot of work to put together (bah) and finding decent alternative Christmas tunes gets harder every year (humbug). Plus, you know, life has a funny habit of taking the shine off such trivial pursuits... like silver jewellery going black if you don't wear it. Who wants to hear 24 festive indie tunes when old Wotsit-face Tiny-hands is over here for a visit, and our domestic breed of politicians are promising everything in the full knowledge that they cannot deliver it all.

Anyway... the calendars from previous Christmases are all still here for your listening/viewing pleasure, in case you're feeling jollier than I which, let's face it, is quite likely. Knock yourselves out...

Advent 2015   •   Advent 2016   •   Advent 2017

Sunday 1 December 2019

Sunday shorts: Underneath The Bunker

As one of the YouTube commenters correctly observed, this sounds like it ought to be on a Tarantino soundtrack.