Whilst I have continued to write Shards (and thank you for all the comments they have received), I have avoided regular updates for some time, in part because it has been a difficult few months. The biggest jolt came at the end of September when Manel, my aunt in the States, died unexpectedly and without warning at the age of 59. Although there were some things I might have said here, my immediate focus was taking care of my family over there (and I was lucky that those with whom I work were so good about letting me do so). Growing up, my family would travel to Louisiana to see the Traylors every other year, for two or three weeks at a time. It led to the incredibly close ties which mean that in the last ten years I have visited the States about as many times. I often talk about the months I worked in Louisiana before university, but most people do not know that I also spent a summer living with Manel and her family after my GCSEs.
Her children’s words at the funeral captured her perfectly: the teacher, the mother, the animal-lover, the rebel, and — at least in passing — the personal neuroses that gave her the unique character that we all grew to love. There is little I could usefully have added but I did have some thoughts at the time that I would still like to share.
Every trip, the five children from our two families would all await one inevitable occurrence: Manel chewing out a service industry worker for some shortcoming or perceived sleight. Mostly it was warranted, if not the viciousness with which she took to the role. We would typically shy away embarrassed whilst secretly enjoying the spectacle.
For Manel, I knew, one’s chosen work was a vital part of life and laziness was anathema to her. She held others to the high standard she held herself. Jenna mentioned her slight jealousy of all those pupils whose foibles Manel knew almost as well as her own children, and a sadness that Manel’s grandchildren would miss out on that personal attention. She immersed herself in her work and, as she saw it, so should everyone else.
But there was more to it that I did not realise for many years. On a trip to Las Vegas, my family and I returned to our room after breakfast on the day of check-out, only to have an irate cleaner burst in and tell us we should not be there. She had, presumably, seen no luggage and assumed we had already left so she could begin work early, only for us to return and (minimally) undo her efforts. Puzzled, we tried to explain but she decided to pick up the phone and call security. We only heard her half of the conversation but I remember the end vividly, “Do they speak English? Yeah, a little.” Being British, I could only find the hopelessly faulty attempt at derision laughable and, bemused, we related the bizarre event to the rest of the family later. Manel was not amused. She was furious.
I visited alone a year later and one day Manel went digging through papers and returned proudly with a letter that she presented to me for inspection. It was from the hotel manager, in response to a complaint she had sent, apologising for the incident and — rather ominously given Vegas’ history — stating that “the employee in question has been terminated”. “Terminated,” Manel repeated with her mischievous cackle, and I began to realise this was not simply glee at the firing of an unforgivably rude employee (nor her potential mafia-style burial somewhere in the desert). She wanted me to understand how important we were to her and this letter was her proof. She was always incredibly protective over those she loved (to a fault, her children might argue, if they ever wished to swim while the sun was out) and, for the few weeks we spent with her at a time, she wanted to guarantee things were perfect.
It took years of being embarrassed to realise someone just wanted to protect me and to show me I was important to them. And in that, I suppose, she really was a mother to everyone for whom she cared.
I stopped writing poetry around the middle of university, essentially upon leaving my teenage years, and most of the writing in the Artist section is actually now over a decade old. Whilst that particular vein of raw emotion seemed to have been mined, it did not mean I stopped writing (obviously, given that you are reading this), but most of the subsequent fiction was never shared beyond a handful of people.
Much of the fictional prose I write tends not be fully formed short stories, but rather isolated scenes and slivers of dialogue. At one stage my intention was to collect them so that they might later be expanded into something more substantial or joined together to form a larger whole. Over time, I came to appreciate them more in their current form: loose sequences that allude to the worlds from which they are plucked, to other stories with details for the reader to fill, open to interpretation and more universal as a result.
I think of these pieces as “Shards”, shattered fragments that reflect their world and whose shapes offer hints at the stories from which they came. As a new project, rather than having them gather digital dust (static, white noise?), I plan to post one of these Shards each week in the Artist section, which has now been reorganised appropriately. Shard I is available immediately. Expect considerable variety in length, style and content, but I am interested to receive feedback and to see what people particularly enjoy; there is every chance I may choose to return to some worlds or characters in the future.
I avoided writing about Alex and Suzi’s stunning wedding in mid-May until the photographs were ready. Now that I have shared them with the bride and groom, they are available for your perusal. They are an unusual set for me in that it is the first time I have shot with the intention of supplementing someone else’s work. Their official photographer was the excellent Jeff Ascough, who is so good at his craft that many barely noticed his presence at all, particularly during the ceremony. I took on the role of official unofficial photographer, or perhaps unofficial official photographer, I am not sure which. They key is “unofficial” — many of you know this is a rule as, whilst I will inevitably take many photographs at friends’ weddings and I am happy to share them, I simply cannot guarantee that I will nail each of the key moments and you only get one chance to do so.
As Ascough would be photographing the bridal party prior to the ceremony, Alex specifically requested that I shoot the chaps over the morning, and in this I was happy to oblige. As an usher, I did not shoot the ceremony at all and broadly sought to stay out of Ascough’s way during the day’s main set pieces. Between these Alex and Suzi largely circulated separately amongst the guests, with the unusual result that I ended up with virtually no photos of the two of them together.
The day began at the RAF Club, some of the ushers nursing their heads in the bright sunlight after two successive nights out with the bridesmaids and family. Corks were swiftly popped on two medicinal bottles of champagne. We had allowed plenty of time to get ready but, being men, required virtually none of it. As an usher, one’s key role before the ceremony is essentially to stop the groom from doing anything dangerous. Like thinking. So we set off to find him a drink. Unfortunately, in the morning before the pubs had opened, the only available option was the Hard Rock Café around the corner — not the most natural venue for a dozen men in full morning dress. The tourists peered at us in bemusement, not entirely sure whether we were preparing for some event or whether this was simply how the British dress for the weekend. We chose not to dispel their confusion.
After a short ride in two gleaming white taxis, the next stop was The Windmill, a pub round the back of St. George’s Church. Given the proximity, it gradually filled up with wedding guests over the next hour, after which we adjourned to the church. Ascough had arrived already and, upon our enquiry about the bridal party, made a slightly cryptic comment. The ceremony itself was a lovely, simple affair inside a beautiful church. It was only afterwards, aboard the routemaster buses that took us on a winding trip around London before returning us nearby at the Lansdowne Club, that one of the bridesmaids spilled their morning’s events to which Ascough had alluded.
Suzi, having awoken early that morning, had decided in preparation for the impending nuptials to transfer her engagement ring. Unfortunately the fingers of her right hand turned out to be slightly larger than the left. Being a determined sort, she was disinclined to back down and it became hopelessly stuck with her finger swelling up. As it began to turn purple she decided it should probably be sorted out and so she found herself in A&E having the ring cut off. Typically calm, she was the one telling her bridesmaids not to freak out as she explained the situation from hospital.
The remainder of the day went far more smoothly, the Lansdowne providing a wonderful suite of rooms as the backdrop for the reception. I caught up with Sarah and Frankie, as well as Amy whose band provided background music. The wedding breakfast boasted a delightfully multinational menu, accompanied by Swedish snaps for toasting and wedding favour bottles of Tuscan olive oil.
I was slightly concerned that Peter, my boss, would be joining for the evening reception, after I had indulged in a full day of drinking. Photography duties slowed my intake slightly and he was on great form, so I need not have worried! The night wound on with much dancing, frivolity and it was the only wedding at which I can remember the bride’s garter being tossed in traditional fashion as well as the bouquet.
As we sent the bride and groom on their way (to the Ritz no less) it was time to recover my top hat and relinquish the morning suit. Whilst I avoid hats because they inevitably destroy my hair, I was disappointed to part with the well-fitting top hat and found myself purchasing a great old-style brown trilby for a film noir themed night a few weeks later. Any wedding that can alter your fashion tastes must be considered a resounding success.
The House of Burlesque are back at the London Wonderground on the Southbank this summer with fantastic new show. Last year I caught the very last show of their run so it was too late to offer you a recommendation. This time, I am pleased to say you have no fewer than four dates left from which to choose. If you don’t see them, that’s on you. Whilst the Spiegeltent is undoubtedly less intimate a venue than many of London’s cabaret spots, it is a stunning environment to showcase the performers, with the space alone allowing the circus acts in particular to shine. Lauren and I both came away impressed.
Hanging out after the show I bumped into Sxip Shirey who is here as the composer for Limbo, the Wonderground’s headline circus show, which has been receiving great reviews. I have not seen Sxip since he toured with Brian Viglione and Elyas Khan as Gentlemen & Assassins a little over two years ago. As we chatted over a couple of drinks, I was reminded of just how great that Icelandic volcanic ash cloud in 2010 really was. Of course it massively disrupted everyone’s travel plans at the time and left people stranded in all sorts of places but, if not for that volcano which actually prevented me from seeing Sxip for the first time, we would not be sharing these drinks together.
In 2010, Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley had a two-person show as Evelyn Evelyn, which was hosted by Sxip. Amanda was already in Europe but the ash cloud unexpectedly prevented the other two from flying, so the gig morphed into a solo show supported by a flurry of bands that Amanda had met who were having similar difficulties as a result of the transport nightmare. Melissa Auf der Maur captured it succinctly, “A volcano and Twitter brought me to you. Do you realise how beautiful that is?” Well sure, but it turned out I would never get to see Evelyn Evelyn.
One of the other support acts that night was a duo called Bitter Ruin. You have seen me rave about (and photograph) Georgia and Ben repeatedly, of course, but my sister and I stumbled upon them entirely by accident at this show. We followed them closely whenever they played in London, which is how we discovered that one night in the March of 2011 they were supporting the newly formed Gentlemen & Assassins. We attended this magical, intimate first gig together for Sxip, Brian and Elyas full of raw energy and a unique spirit as these three musicians crafted something that kept them all centre-stage without any of them slipping into a supporting role. To illustrate this post I have dug up some never-before-seen photos from that gig.
And so, sipping a drink in the Wonderground last night, I instantly recognised a distinctive wild tangle of hair and headed over to greet Sxip. We drank and chatted into the early hours, railing against the shift from state to corporate control, and the socially dangerous results of cutting arts funding (“You fund the arts to stop people being assholes,” says Sxip, “otherwise that’s what happens.”). None of which would have happened without a belligerent volcano that brought European air traffic to a standstill several years ago.
There’s probably some platitude here about “recognising hidden blessings”. But really my point is that sometimes you can only tell just how well something worked out when you look back later and join the dots. People will tell you always to look to the future or to live only in the present. They are wrong. Look back, join the dots, reclaim those moments that seemed awful, now that you know where they were taking you. The past is, of course, the key to understanding who you are now: it may be as simple as plotting the course that led to you having a drink with someone, but it expands to why you are surrounded by the people you are, how your friendship group is constructed through gains and losses, and you just might find something more fundamental that defines you. But I’m not sharing that…
With Netflix, a service about whose value proposition I was sceptical, offering a free one month trial, effective timing seemed at least prudent, if not essential. I restrained myself as their first slice of original programming, House of Cards remade in America’s image, received high praise, because I knew the future held something altogether sweeter, a dysfunctional family whose tantalising promise I could not hope to resist: the Bluths. Following the now all-too-common mould of a not particularly successful TV show whose genius earns it a cult following once it is gone, an Arrested Development film was talked about for at least half a decade. Eventually its saviour proved to be Netflix, embarking on a “semi-original” programming endeavour.
Whilst the nostalgia hit was instantly appreciated, I felt the new season got off to a slightly rocky start due to its approach of focusing on a single family member in each episode. Not all characters are born equal and not all of them can carry an episode. With several years to catch up on, the less interwoven plotlines seemed reasonable but the result was also less of the sharp interaction between all of the family together. However, from around the halfway point, things picked up dramatically. Not only was it clear that the story threads were all still densely layered over the season as a whole, but once these strands were mostly laid, the focus could shift from the story to the characters and dialogue where the show excels. The meticulous detail, with numerous Easter eggs and subtle jokes littering the sets, shines through as the highlight. Whether its future ultimately lies in Ron Howard’s intended film or a further series, things are finally looking up for the Bluths. And for all those who binged on the new season a little too fast, I recommend taking my approach and filling the void with Archer (also on Netflix) as I have for the past few years.
House of Cards, a tough sell for fans of the BBC original, is exquisite. Translating the political thriller to modern American politics works seamlessly and Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood is ruthlessly compelling, his drawl somehow increasing his sense of Machiavellian menace. The production values are excellent and if this is the level of programming Netflix are able to produce on a consistent basis, I’m inclined to keep this subscription up.
The Netflix brand of freedom suggests you should be able to devour TV however you like, so every episode of its shows are made available at once and the viewer can choose to dip in and out or to binge, and its apps run on virtually every entertainment device. I initially approached it via Xbox 360 but, although I am a Gold subscriber of Xbox Live, this restriction proved a serious flaw. With my Internet connection flaking briefly in a manner that did not affect the buffered stream, it did sign me out of Xbox Live and immediately cease playback. By comparison the PS3 add-on sailed effortlessly through such blips. Better yet, the mobile apps detected that I was signed in on another device and allowed me to browse, search and select shows on a mobile or tablet before streaming them to the PS3.
With two high-quality shows in the first half of the year, if Netflix can manage a third that attracts my attention it would justify the monthly fee even without access to a range of older shows and films. And I can always spend the rest of my trial period catching up on Justified whilst I decide…
About a month ago I joked that musically, if nothing else, this year works. I realised in a recent conversation that because, entirely by coincidence, a bunch of friends and acquaintances are all releasing new albums this year, I probably sound far better connected than I actually am. I fully expect the number to drop to zero next year. But for now, I have three album releases to bring to your attention.
I have mentioned jazz singer/pianist Anthony Strong here before, though arguably not as often as I ought. Recently signed to French label Naive records, his new album Stepping Out is fantastic. Quite aside from the fact we have known each other since primary school, the album’s quality has now been independently verified after the reception it received at Keggfest. Meanwhile Lauren and I can both attest that the launch party at the Hippodrome casino was a roaring success, requiring some remedying the following day!
Whilst they have continued to play regular live shows, honing their sound and exploring new ways to increase their exposure, it has been several years since Bitter Ruin released a full-length album. Now Georgia and Ben have turned to Kickstarter to fund their new album after some calculations revealed it would be cheaper to build their own studio than to pay for the studio time they need. Having put up the first £10,000, they needed another £20,000 from Kickstarter. They need not have been apprehensive given the overwhelming support they received, with the entire sum being pledged within 12 hours. They have ten days left to go, and further funds will help with session musicians and the like, as well as securing you some cool merch. Give it a look, if only for the brilliant animated video that charts the pair’s history condensed to a couple of minutes. Personally, I am rather excited to see the end results of the full canvas paintings Georgia has been working on for one of the higher reward tiers.
Finally, although I have seen Jaz Delorean play solo sets on regular basis, I had neglected to see his band Tankus the Henge, despite the fact I am hardly in a position to fault their nocturnal habits (routinely going on-stage around midnight). The release of their debut album seemed like an ideal opportunity to rectify this oversight, with a brilliant launch show at The Lexington. About as difficult to categorise as Bitter Ruin, Jaz describes his gravelly vocals as “like a younger Tom Waits” which is “crossed with Madness” once you add the full band. With smoke billowing out of an upright piano adorned with piping and dials as their fans cavort in steampunk attire, their live shows are certainly quite a sight. You can catch them all round the UK this summer.
Couple these three with finally seeing Sigur Rós in February and Voltaire in May, and you can see why I am suitably content to rely on music to see me through the year, if nothing else will. Any other recommendations are welcome as always.
Few deaths have proved quite so divisive as that of Margaret Thatcher, on the one hand lauded as a hugely successful female role-model* and a Conservative Prime Minister who led Britain confidently on the world stage, and on the other vilified for trampling over the Unions and systematically dismantling the welfare state. As these two sides clashed via social media, a third wave emerged ostensibly to remind people that it is never right to celebrate the death of another human being.
This is true, of course. But it also misses the point entirely and, indeed, a point many of her supporters do not seem to realise about their own comments. Few of Thatcher’s detractors are actually launching an attack on her personally, however their comments are phrased; what they revile is Thatcher the icon, the Conservative ideal. Some will have personal experience of severe family turmoil caused by policies she enacted, but she is largely a figurehead for that understandably emotional response. Similarly, her proponents are rarely showing admiration on a truly personal level. Rather, they are demonstrating support for the ideas she championed, what she represented to them.
Quite aside from celebrating anyone’s demise, the notion that one should not speak ill of the dead is archaic nonsense. When a friend or family member dies, I hate hearing their life whitewashed in eulogies. They are talking about someone I barely recognise. The best, most touching eulogies are those which accept the deceased as unique and flawed. At my Uncle Rajan’s funeral early this year, I loved that the speakers described his passion and the strength of his friendship but also touched upon his flaws. There was no need to dwell on them, of course, but it meant that the church filled with family and friends could smile wistfully and remember the man we knew, not some sterilised Hallmark interpretation of him.
Famous deaths inevitably lead to a dichotomy correlating to proximity. For close family and friends, such deaths are just like any other: deeply personal. But for the rest of us, we have only our artificial “relationship” with the deceased, wholly impersonal and based upon our perception of who they were and what they stood for. Choosing what someone means to us inevitably leads to extremes. It seems impossible to find a “middle ground” Thatcher; those articles which have attempted it tend to list off both extremes rather than achieving any true equilibrium.
I have no idea how Thatcher truly wished to be remembered. All I know is this: when I am dead, I would much rather have people vocally disagree over the choices I made and how I lived than to be praised for being someone I never was.
* I avoid the word “feminist” here since I find myself agreeing with Russell Brand’s assessment that “she is an icon of individualism, not of feminism.”
Ten months and a new phone on from my last round-up of Android apps, it is time for an update on what I am now running on my Nexus 4. On the ROM side, I have now moved back to the CyanogenMod camp, with 10.1 sporting the latest Jelly Bean goodies with a host of additional tweaks. The inclusion of very stable milestone builds in addition to the usual pre-release nightlies is a welcome change.
Swiftkey 4 is once again my default keyboard, although I have spent the past year shifting between Swiftkey, Swype and even the new Jelly Bean stock keyboard. It was the inclusion of swiping with Swiftkey Flow that ultimately won me back.
Action Launcher recently became my default home screen for its subtly improved usability with a new gesture-based approach that fits better with the Android’s “Holo” design language than standard launchers. It is also discounted for the next few days. The super-smooth Nova Launcher remains my second favourite.
Poweramp is a fantastic music player that puts album artwork front and centre both in the main player and its replacement lockscreen (which operates whilst you have music playing). Factor in its impressive graphic equaliser and it is easy to recommend.
Carbon, a new twitter client, seemed like vapourware for much of the past year. Now that it is finally in the wild, it proves to be an exceptionally stylish, gesture-focused twitter client that’s a pleasure to use. It may lack some features a power user may desire, but it has become my default client. As a free app, hopefully development will continue despite twitter’s apparent war on third parties.
Carbon is also, somewhat confusingly, the name of a powerful new sync/backup app from maker of the ClockworkMod recovery tool. The free version will allow you to restore from a PC, the paid version supports cloud restore too.
Press is the first Google Reader client to impress me enough that I have actually started to read my feeds regularly on mobile devices (rather than simply using Currents to browse a small number of optimised sites).
Media: I continue to use DoggCatcher for podcasts, DICE Player for video playback of nearly anything (along with the YouTube and Vimeo apps), SoundCloud and Amazon MP3 for streaming music and SoundHound to identify songs. Meanwhile XBMC Remote controls my XBMC home theatre PC and SmartGlass interacts with my Xbox, nominally for now but presumably more as time goes on.
Utilities: The “automate anything” Tasker remains the most powerful app for Android and thankfully its ageing UI is finally getting a refresh with the beta I have been trialling. Dolphin remains my chosen web browser. Evernote continues to expand its role as my digital brain with the addition of Hello, which mimics human memory by ditching alphabetical lists of contact names for a chronological stream of faces. Dropbox is my go-to cloud storage option (I’d love to switch to the considerably more secure SpiderOak, but cannot until they offer mobile uploads), though rival Box is luring users with increased storage. SMS Backup+ replicates my text messages as conversations in Gmail so that they are backed up and searchable. I only use Full Screen Caller ID for texts, but being able to see hi-res photos of the sender is both more personal and faster to identify at a distance.
Misc: Now that the official Facebook app has finally been rewritten properly from the ground up, I have switched back from the still impressive third party Friendcaster. Pocket lets me save and view webpages from a browser (desktop or mobile) for reading later. DashClock is an extendable replacement for the Android 4.2 lockscreen clock widget, which can display calendar entries, weather, alarms, unread messages and more. It was designed by a Google engineer and is frankly what the default ought to be!
The debate surrounding the solution to violence against women has lately shifted to a conflict between those who think the goal is increasing women’s safety and those who think the goal is raising children who aren’t going to commit these acts in the first place. Both are important considerations but the latter must be the desired endgame. And then I came across Colin Stokes’ TED Talk titled “How movies teach manhood”, which raises a series of interesting ideas even if its depth is somewhat limited, such as its passing reference to the Bechdel test.
The talk arose from seeing the impact that a brief glimpse of Star Wars immediately had upon his 3-year-old son. He felt that its themes of “courage, perseverance and loyalty” are good, but a universe that contains only two women cannot provide any useful context for navigating a “co-ed” world. This kind of failing, he suggested, is actually true of vast swathes of the media to which we subject children during their formative years.
The issue I find most interesting, however, is the use of the relationship as a reward in our fiction. The hero successfully defeats the villain and wins the girl by demonstrating his strength or skill in accomplishing the feat. The kiss or the relationship come right at the end of the story. This instils the notion that a relationship is less a choice by two people fuelled by a mutual desire, but rather it is a reward for performing an act or, perhaps, for living by a certain code. This can easily breed a misplaced sense of entitlement, which is arguably at the core of what others describe as the “nice guy” mentality, a belief that one deserves the object of one’s affections by virtue of one’s decent actions.
The issue is starker in videogames in which, as a less mature medium, the writing generally requires more development. Even with the nuanced relationships between Shepherd and his crew in the Mass Effect series, with hours of dialogue as you learn about them and often help them through deeply personal issues, sex is ultimately reduced to a “reward” for having selected the right series of dialogue responses over the course of the game. The issue, in part, is reserving it until the end. Arguably one of the best written relationships is with Jack, a strong-willed tattooed girl with dangerously powerful psychic abilities who is not afraid to show off her body. Early on, Jack challenges Shepherd confrontationally by offering to sleep with him. Accept and she will follow through, but at the expense of any future relationship with her as the dynamic between you is permanently altered by this choice.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the prime example of twisting the stereotypical approach comes from the pen of Neil Gaiman in Stardust. Yvaine, a fallen star, is literally a token gift, being recovered by Tristan in order to win Victoria, with whom he is infatuated, as a reward for this quest. Over the course of the story, the ridiculousness of this juvenile notion becomes increasingly apparent and a far more natural relationship develops between Yvaine and Tristan. In fact the relationship between them is ultimately the reason for their victory rather than the result of it, and that must be a better message for everyone.