Wednesday, 30 December 2015


Ian Fraser 'Lemmy' Kilmister has died, and lots of people are sad.

I am not going to write some sort of douchebag THEY SHOULDN'T BE YOU KNOW blog. But it is interesting to me why his death has touched so many people.

Both he and his band Motörhead have maintained a profile that far outstrips their actual commercial success – they've not really been what you'd call meaningfully 'popular' since about 1982, and folk memory has essentially whittled the sum total of their achievements to one (admittedly awesome) song (The Ace of Spades, obv). That's not to be disparaging: from the ever-accurate social barometer that is BTL on The Guardian, Motörhead fans seem as bemused/irritated as anyone at the scale of the mourning for the man.

It is very apparent that it is Lemmy's unapologetically hard-drinkin' etc lifestyle that was key to his appeal as this almost sort of folkloric figure: he was ugly and unfashionable in a way that transcended ugliness and fashion, he looked broadly the same throughout all 40 years of Motörhead's existence, and people used to fondly joke about his indestructibility, especially with regards to The Booze and The Drugs.

It's good that The Booze and The Drugs didn't kill him (not directly, anyway) because that might have felt like some sort of awful cautionary tale about drinking and drugging too much. But no! Drink away. Drug away.

So that's a victory. Maybe a major victory. I think on some level people are sad that Lemmy is gone because we had colluded in this myth of his being indestructible, and though none of us *believed* it, we wanted it to be true. I can't link to it, but a friend posted a cracking anecdote on Facebook that strongly suggests Lemmy didn't really drink a huge amount after the '80s, but thought it very important to 'keep up appearances', not (I would imagine) because he gave a shit about the Motörhead 'brand', but because he knew he'd disappoint millions of people if he gave the public appearance of mellowing. We believed in Lemmy's indestructibility less than, say, gravity, but more than Father Christmas.

I am 34 and for my generation and the generation before and maybe even the generation before that (I am always hazy on how long 'a generation' is) Lemmy was a constant – he was simply THERE, less a human being, more an archetype (if you're feeling extravagant you might even say he occupied a position tantamount to a minor god of the modern cultural pantheon). I think maybe him going is upsetting to far more people than those who knew him or who were serious fans of his music because he was one of the great constants of our age and he has winked out: for me there has always been a Lemmy, there has always been a Paul McCartney, there has always been a Queen Elizabeth, there has always been a Morgan Freeman, there has always been a Keith Richards, there has always been a Stevie Wonder… they have always seemed about as old to me, mostly because all of them have essentially spent their entire lives playing the same role, and it'll be a shock when they go (and in probably 20 years they'll all be gone).

He was a 70-year-old man who played his last ever gig – a full-on rock gig, probably louder than then ones he was playing 40 years ago – a fortnight before he was diagnosed with cancer. He died two days after that. He didn't fade out or retire. I honestly don't think that's how I want to go (provided I can still write I quite like the idea of twilight years), but there's something intensely admirable about it all: Ian Kilmister was Lemmy until the very end, and then he stopped. It's not a tragedy that he's gone, but it is a diminishment.

Saturday, 26 December 2015


My memories of the 1999 release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace are numerous but hazy: there was definitely a lot of hype, and for some reason I remember the guy who played Darth Maul (Ray Park?) doing a lot of telly promo (surely Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman must have done some as well..?? I genuinely don't remember them doing any) and I remember that the conventional cultural wisdom that it was awful was definitely not formed straight away… but I don't feel like I was overwhelmed by excitement and I don't think I saw it at the cinema upon release (this despite having gone to see all three rereleased editions of the originals a couple of years beforehand) though when I started uni I did catch it at some random cinema in Leeds that I never went to again.

That was almost half my lifetime ago, but I feel like the film was treated differently to Episode VII: The Force Awakens not because it was a long time ago (in a university far far away) but because the (perversely reflective) cultural narrative of the original trilogy being degraded by the prequels and needing redemption via a new, younger generation had not yet been established.

With The Force Awakens I'm fascinated by the extent to which we – and I certainly include myself – find ourselves wishing to believe in the greatness of what is nominally the least cool sort of art going, the seventh film in a blockbuster SFX series of space films created by bastard evil corporate bastards Disney. People are not only excited about it but terrified of having it 'spoilered', lest the purity of the experience be contaminated for them (though as a sidenote it was probably surprisingly difficult to have a film spoilered in '99 unless somebody explicitly talked you through the plot). It's difficult to think of another artform that could elicit the equivalent reaction: there is no theatre or visual art or book that is too big for cynicism.

But maybe that's the point: the Star Wars films and series are of such monolithic scale and ubiquity – a scale and ubiquity that could only be achieved by a Hollywood blockbuster – that they can act as a form of common ground between far more members of the human race than any other medium could hope for.

Maybe that's not quite right: they represent the IDEAL of a meaningful shared experience between all of us, the hope or promise that their appeal lies not in series of weary, familiar, loud, button-pushing gestures a la so many blockbusters, but because they have heart and imagination and even a degree of depth: their appeal is 'of value' compared to Michael Bay-style garbage. (On a sort of connected sidenote: my friend Andy is a live artist who sees and curates an intimidating amount of experimental theatre and roundly despises every mainstream theatre show I take him to – admittedly I tend to deliberately take him to shit ones – but he absolutely fucking loves the films of Kevin Costner. He's explained to me that a lot of the appeal lies in the essential charm of Costner's unswerving, all-American, everyman decency – he doesn't have much acting range, but what range he has connects with large numbers of people in a positive way: you feel enriched rather than manipulated after watching Costner be Costner).

And at the very least it's difficult to regard the Star Wars with serious antipathy. All of them are a lot better than probably 95% of films with the equivalent or higher budgets, they have wonderful characters, the vivid palette of quirky aliens in the original trilogy in particular is just gloriously imaginative, and if only by dint of its cultural ubiquity the notion of 'The Force' feels like an acceptable reclaimation of the idea that goodness, decency, etc is something to be aspired to that's not couched in either schmaltz or religion.

It genuinely delighted me when esteemed theatre blogger and professional cynic Andrew Haydon – admittedly a lot cheerier these days – did a Facebook status update that simply ran 'Star Wars seen!! :)' – because if he's not going to be cynical about Star Wars, then maybe part of its appeal is that it exists as a thing that none of us need to be cynical about, or if we are cynical about certain aspects of it – ie Disney – then the grand sum of Star Wars is somehow removed from all this.

PERVERSELY, it's the very scale of the Star Wars love has sort of brought out my obsessive need to devil's advocate, not least for the poor benighted (smash hit, multimillion dollar) prequels. I remember when I first started getting into REM in about 1997 and there was a sort of underlying received wisdom that Monster wasn't very good – it had sold a truckload of copies but it became a bargain bin staple shortly thereafter. As this was the pre-streaming age and I didn't have much money I think I probably put off getting it for something like two years because of its reputation, which was stupid because it is a fucking righteous album. A lot better in fact than The Phantom Menace, but MY FUCKING POINT OKAY is that I think it's pretty rare that the cultural narrative wherein a hitherto beloved artist or series of works suddenly loses all merit – especially when people appear to have only decided this in retrospect – is entirely accurate.

I rewatched the second two prequels recently and they're not horrible: grandiose and overblown and rambling and a bit CGI-shiny and with crappy dialogue, but I liked (most) of the characters, the fights are genuinely remarkable, and Revenge of the Sith has a pretty cracking story and could probably be described as a pretty successful film. Moreover, despite often shooting himself in the foot with a needlessly elaborate CGI-rendered space cannon, it does at least feel that George Lucas has a story to tell (even if much of it doesn't kick in until Sith).

So I feel a bit mistrustful of the new narrative PREQUELS BAD! NEW FILM BRILLIANT because ultimately there are flaws with the new film that are in some respects as palpable as those in the prequels. Also the third coming of Star Wars feels like a special cultural moment at present: I'm genuinely curious as to how all this goodwill holds up in a decade's time, when we'll have had at least four further Disney Star Wars films foisted upon us.

I suppose my conclusion is that I'm delighted Star Wars is back, but I'm torn between awe at its cynicism-levelling qualities and wanting to participate in the love in, and a desire to equivocate a bit without actually spoiling either my fun or anybody else's.

I want to be cynical, but I want to do so with love.

(Is that just the definition of a critic?).


1. It is very good for charmingly random incidental aliens. You could call it all a homage to the original films but obviously require imagination in their own right. Favourites include the massive mega-pig thing that butted Finn away from a water trough, and teh sort of hysterically ponderous scavenger dude who captures the droid BB8 in a net early on.
1b. It is quite good for charmingly random cameos from British theatre actors. Kate Fleetwood as a Star Destroyer pilot! Harriet Walter as a twinkly-eyed medic who humours Chewie about his injuries! It's fun rather than that that sort of 'oh, those poor Brit actors scrabbling for work in an American film.'
2. I like how director JJ Abrams has this eye for looking at the original world and asking 'what if?'. Much as I'm a bit iffy about his relentless post-modernism/self-referencing, a lot of his more compelling ideas – what if we got to meet the person under a Stormtrooper's mask? What if we saw inside a Tie-Fighter? What if we saw a Star Destroyer crashed down to earth? – kind of riff on the originals in an interesting way, zooming in disorientatingly rather than blowing everything up to alienating immensity.
3. Adam Driver is very good. You kind of feel like the character has a bit of coming together to do in the next film to really make sense, but Driver is great as this vulnerable, petulant, not-quite-psychopath.
4. The CGI is good. Much as it's been billed as some sort of return to brass tacks, you can't not use CGI in a modern film and a lot of it is beautiful: the X-Wings hovering in over the spray of the lake is an amazing, imaginative imaginary shot, while the visual realisation of Starkiler Base almost gets around the general silliness of Starkiller Base.
5. It is funny in the right way. If there was one area the prequels unquestionably fucked up it was in the (ironically Disney-ish) deployment of crass light relief characters. Here people just get decent one-liners - huzzah!


1. It is basically a remake of A New Hope. This seems to have bothered me more than a lot of people, but it really nagged, partly because there is the sense that it's ripping up and starting again rather than attempting to carry on 'the story' in the most satisfying way possible, mostly because there's a paucity of original ideas done with the excuse of homage. I mean, there is literally no way George Lucas could have got away with effectively doing the Death Star a third time, but it's okay here because it's somebody else referencing George Lucas doing the Death Star, so that's fine. It feels like it has used homage and (light) post-modernism as a crutch – it is 'clever' because it recycles and references, but is there not an underlying jadedness to that oddly counter to the spirit of the ordiginals?
2. Starkiller Base gets stupider the more you think about it. Kind of a continuation of prev point, insofar as it only appears to exist as a homage to the Death Star. But everything about it is daft, from the physics of it to the idea that nobody had noticed to being built, to the peculiarly underwhelming way Abrams has it murder several billion people but nobody is really THAT bothered about what is by some measure the worst thing that occurs in any of the films.
3. The new good guys aren't that good. Rey is tough and competent. Poe is suave and competent. Finn is more flawed and it's a lovely performance from John Boyega, but actually he's basically a generic joker-out-of-his-depth (interesting that this is a fole often given to black dudes) and much less interesting than he could have been given the character's background. Everyone's just a bit polished, like they're all professional heroes, unlike the dynsfunctional original bunch.
4. There is almost no sense of time passing. People just appear straight away in whatever part of the galaxy is convenient to them, which didn't happen in the original. (UPDATE: As my friend Jim pointed out, it rather undermines the notion of stuff happening on backwater planets, give you seem to literally be able to get anywhere in less time than my daily commute). And while you might explain that as some blah to do with hyperdrive, the final scene is ridiculous: Starkiller Base is blowing up, with the strong suggestion that it's taken about two minutes to do so, but a single line of dialogue – Snoke telling Hux to pick up Kylo/Ben and leave – seems to confidently suggest the bad guys have more than enough time to escape while failing to in any way suggest how this was possible.
5. It aspires to importance bit is often pretty stoopid. Thanks largely to the fanatically secretive launch, The Force Awakens has probably elicited the most obsessively anti-spoiler cult of any cinematic release ever, which gives the feel that its contents are all terribly significant. And I can't help but feel this air of faux-significance has given the moments of sloppiness – that surely wouldn't have been that hard to fix – a free pass. The most glaring bit is the finding of Luke's lightsaber (so glaring they have to acknowledge it), but stuff like Poe's survival and reappearance, Rey's rapid acquisition of superpowers, all the bad guys escaping at the end, EVERYTHING ABOUT STARKILLER BASE is borderline Michael Bay stoopid, but it's been let off the hook BECAUSE WE WANT TO BELIEVE. And maybe that's as it should be, I just can't help but feel the most anticipated film of all time could have been slightly better with minimal effort. Still. It's a larf like.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015


There has been some brouhaha on the internet about the casting of the black actor Noma Dumezweni as the middle-aged incarnation of the fictional wizard Hermione Granger in the forthcoming theatre play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

When I thought about writing this I thought I was going to say that I wasn't sure you could definitely say that any of the people objecting to Dumezweni's casting were racist, though having looked at the comments on a Guardian article about it, it's clear that I was being optimistic and some of the people objecting to Dumezweni's casting definitely are massive racists.

But the point I wanted to make is that I still think the majority of objectors are doing so not because they are awful people, but because of the Insidious Cult Of Naturalism !!! that has come to define the screen.

No arts writers in the world sound cleverer than really clever – pref American – film critics, so I am not going to bang on about this too much when I am not a clever American film critic. But it strikes me that with advances in technology and technique, screen – especially the telly – has gone from a medium almost equally as 'artificial' as theatre – wherein it's basically impossible to pretend you're anywhere other than in a theatre – to something that aspires to simulate reality (ironically by using a whole heap of artificial devices to distract you from its contrivance).

There are obviously plenty of stylised (not to mention supernatural) films and dramas, and certainly it's difficult to wag one's finger at the screen versus the stage when it comes to ethnic diversity generally. You can't (as a rule) colourblind cast a TV show where ethnicity is of prime importance (but the same obviously goes for theatre).

But it's fascinating that in the last few decades, and for all its faults, the stage (or at least the subsidised mainstream and the commercial sector that dips from the same pool) has largely got over the idea that it really matters whether, say, the actors playing two family members are of the same ethnicity or whatever. Because it doesn't. There's not really a particularly advanced point in that – it actually just doesn't.

You can make casting decisions that are so weird it can distract the audience (though film is as bad as anything at casting bizarrely young women as the mothers of bizarrely old men) and you may well offend the odd old duffer/the Daily Mail's Quentin Letts, but as a rule 'we' have simply stopped giving a fuck.

I'm not totally sure why – I suspect increased diversity was visited upon theatre as both a generational thing and via the Arts Council (plus probably the need to find something else to do with Hamlet) and it just turned out the sky didn't fall in and now everyone's cool.

OBVIOUSLY it would be the height of foolishness to pretend British theatre is some sort of post-racial utopia. But you know. I saw Les Liaisons Dangereuses at the Donmar the other night and all three leads were white so whatever, but one of the main supporting cast was a black actor playing a white actor's mum and you know – if it had been the telly then the recent furore over the BBC's The Musketeers would suggest that sections of a mainstream telly audience would be baffled at the presence of a black woman in a pretend 18th century France in which everyone speaks English. Probably political correctness would be deemed to have taken over the asylum over the same black woman MASQUERADING as the birth mother of a white woman. But at the Donmar – more radical than it used to be, but still pretty cosy – literally no-one gave a shit, because it didn't matter.

This seems to be threatening to turn into a rant about why theatre is awesomer than the tellybox, which wasn't really what I meant.

What I mean is that contemporary British theatre has to some extent 'come out the other side' in terms of colourblind casting. But I think it's unfair to call people who don't usually 'do' theatre racist for being confused over Noma Dumezweni's presence as Hermione when they have been brought up on an all-pervasive diet of naturalistic screen casting.

The one really obvious reason why Hermione is assumed to be white is that she has been aesthetically defined by being played by the white actor Emma Watson in the eight Harry Potter films. There are arguments as to why you could assume she was white for other reasons, but the fact is that if she'd been played by a black actor in the films, she would be generally assumed to be black. With Harry Potter and the Cursed Child being billed as the official new Harry Potter adventure, I think perhaps it is understandable that some folk raised on TV and films are taken aback as to the exact meaning of casting an actor who it would be difficult to pass off as an older Watson. A lot of people really fret about 'canon' and 'continuity' and I think on some level there is the worry that the casting of Noma Dumezweni somehow either invalidates the Emma Watson Hermione or – perhaps more likely – underscores the fact that Hermione is not a real person. I suspect these sort of worries are a bit like 'the spoiler' – a nagging bit of modern entertainment paranoia based upon one's anticipation of a piece of work ('what if I can't believe in this Hermione?') rather than one's actual experience of it.

Anyway, it's a great piece of casting and perhaps a really worthwhile one – if the play is good then an entire generation of folk unused to colourblind casting will see there's nothing to panic about, and a few high horses (broomsticks?) can be dismounted from on the other side, I hope.

Friday, 9 October 2015


Like lots of the best things from the 20th century, the glory days of the music press were based on what now seems like a weird anomaly – namely, that until about ten years ago it wasn’t particularly easy to track down a lot of music. So instead you just read about it. In this world – which started eroding at a positively Larsen B-esque rate in my late teens – music had to be obtained physically (meaning a lot of it was extremely hard to track down) and was – as a rule – heinously overpriced, limiting the amount most people could buy. So instead you spent a couple of quid a week reading erudite/informed/unfair/hysterical/biased coverage of popular music, which in many instances was considerably better than the prosaic reality of the music (NB at this point a bit of early levity by inserting my fave ever Fast Show sketch, ‘Indie Club’).

I think probably the main thing to say about the decline of NME is that it’s difficult not to view the jig (I wonder if they ever covered jigs back in the ‘50s?) as being up regardless of its quality: the MOJOs and Uncuts of this world just about battle on as monthly magazines with a heritage bent, but I would think even a weekly of equal quality to that of the music press’s golden age would struggle to find a foothold in 2015, where all music is a click away. The music press – but NME in particular – has been battered by not only a loss of gatekeeper status, but also another byproduct of streaming culture, namely the fragmentation of the national musical conversation that’s resulted from streaming. Both NME and its erstwhile rival Melody Maker dipped in popularity in the late ’90s, because indie rock had fallen out of fashion, something that shuttered Melody Maker in 2000, while NME limped on for a few months before being saved by indie becoming cool again in the summer of 2001 (an event I remember with fondness as normal people – some of them female – suddenly started going to indie discos). But it’s hard to imagine any one scene could now command the nation’s collective attention again, and since 2008 or so NME has floundered around without a zeitgeist to attach itself to. In its last years as a paid publication it sort of meekly attempted to get by as a 90s nostalgia mag rather than making a go of it as a new music magazine.

So anyway, after its circulation dipped way below that of Melody Maker in its final days, NME was shuttered and then relaunched as a free magazine, going where my own dear employer has gone so successfully. General reaction to the cover stars of the new look free NME from the awful snapshot of society that constitutes the people I follow on Twitter seems to have gone from a sort of respect for its chutzpah (Rihanna) to slight confusion (Robert Pattison) to an actual full-on deluge of hatred (Chris Moyles).

In my own sort of detached way I was broadly in agreement without all these points without actually having read it, but then I flipped through the Moyles issue and yeah, it’s a total disaster, though not necessarily in the way I expected. The thing is that the Chris Moyles interview is pretty decent read. It would be the perfect cover story for any weekend mag supplement. But instead it’s in NME, not only feeling inappropriate generally, but more so because everything else in the magazine is unmitigated shit. I follow NME’s newsfeed on twitter, and there are stupid, clickbaity listicles they churn out, because that’s what everyone does these days, but I didn’t think they made it to the mag. Now they basically are the mag - new NME is mostly made of dashed off blogposts (‘the 10 best Simpsons characters to only appear in a single episode’, ‘everything we know about the new Twin Peaks’ [not a lot, it turns out]), a flaccid news section, some half-arsed lifestyle features clearly written by people less good at writing lifestyle features than Shortlist or Stylist and the worst bit, a dementedly incomprehensible reviews section (two album reviews, a recycled listicle ranking Drake’s album, a guide to some E4 show, two film reviews, and another recycled listicle, ’the 10 most important gigs this week’, that stretches on for an incomprehensible five pages despite the fact you could fit the content plus decent sized picture into two pages tops). And in many places it’s HORRIBLY designed, not decision that haven’t paid off but just rushed-looking.

My first thought was that its editor, a chap called Mike Williams, is hugely out of his depth, and probably I’m not wrong. But on reflection the he must have a microscopic budget to work with - it smacks of a cheap rush job, a last roll of the dice from publisher Time Inc rather than a statement of great belief. And on further reflection, three of their now four cover stars – Rihanna, Taylor Swift and R-Patz – were probably not especially easy interviews to land. So after all that effort, why is the rest of it so terrible? Given how expensive it must be to nationally distribute a free magazine, the lack of the further investment required – a couple of new writers, a couple of new designers – to make NME reasonably good is pretty depressing - the model simply seems to be one primo interview, done well, plus whatever other crap they had lying around. I know some people have taken great delight in seeing 'loyal' NME readers dismayed by the pop stars on the cover, but given it's such a generally shoddy product now, with the only bit done well the bit not aimed at the magazine's fanbase, you can hardly be surprised. Christ knows what the answer is, and as far as I know it could be performing incredibly well against all commercial targets, but it just seems so moribund. Do they care? Are they just out of their depth? Might it turn around? If these are the terminal days of NME – and by extension the weekly music press – then they seem not to be spent raging against the dying of the light, just lazily waggling a fist and hoping nobody notices they don’t really care.

Monday, 21 September 2015


So it has been alleged that David Cameron put his wang into the mouth of a dead pig while at university, as part of some elaborate hazing ritual to get into a dining club. A large number of people on social media - including basically everyone I know - have been delighted with this revelation. But why exactly..? Certainly my visceral response was to be amused more than anything, and I think that's the general tone everyone seems to have taken. Is this perfectly normal, or it is a bit weird of us? Is it all just Schadenfreude because we don't like him? Here are some thoughts oh yes.

Nobody seems to think Cameron fucking a pig is a resignation issue

I think this is pretty interesting and significant. I'm sure there is the odd person baying for his blood, but considering how often 'humourless lefties' etc do call for the scalps of rightwing politicians, it's notable that that's not really the vibe here. Should having fucked a dead pig in your youth be a resignation issue? I mean, I suppose it comes down to perception, really: it's presumably considerably less illegal than taking shitload of drugs, which by the same account DC has done, and nobody is bothered about that at all. But if the entire world thinks you're a sexually wayward oddball it surely intrinsically damages the standing of the country that you're nominally in charge of and COULD reach the point of being a resignation issue.

It's more about damaging Cameron, I think

He's a person that even many on the right don't care for (hence the Mail publishing the revelation), and given that things seem to have worked out so well for him, and he always seems extremely relaxed about what it is he does, then maybe it's the idea of his potential discomfort that has thrilled people here. Wipe that grin off his smug face etc. Basically, I think those laughing about it are also well aware that it's pretty petty (but petty can be fun, and funny).

It's probably a BIT political

I'm sure the left have gotten more excited about it than the right, despite the Mail being the origin, and on some level I'm sure their/our enthusiasm has been stoked by both the shrill press attacks on Jeremy Corbyn and the tone of moralistic condensation that Cameron and his party practice (not to mention general left vs right baggage). But again, I don't think people are expecting him to be brought down by this, just have a irritating bit of baggage.

It IS funny

In an absurdist way, I think. I wouldn't exactly say there's a generosity of spirit in those laughing at DC, but I don't think there's any great nastiness. It's funny because it's a pointless, humiliating act. It puts him more in line with stock mad toff characters than, you know, Nixon. David Cameron is a posh guy with a funny looking face, it would be funny if he fucked a dead pig (just as it was funny when Rory Kinnear's PM fucked a live pig in Black Mirror). I think what's apparent to everybody is that whatever the truth, David Cameron is very unlikely to be a mentally ill person sexually attracted to the corpses of livestock, and he did this to gain initiation into some ghastly society that most of us wouldn't actually want to be in.

It definitely is true (sort of)

I mean it may well not be, but I think the fact that 1) people are quick to believe it 2) they don't think it really changes anything about Cameron's premiership suggests all it does is crystallize a certain idea of David Cameron as an amoral, detached toff (just as, on a pork tip, the bacon sandwich photo crystallized a certain idea of Miliband as a nerdy loser). Whether or not he actually did it is irrelevant in a way - it provides the perfect example of what people think he's like. To quote Stewart Lee: 'that story about David Cameron is not true; but what I feel it tells us about David Cameron…' I had been pondering how I'd take it if a major Labour figure had done the same – I suspect that rather than try and defend them I'd be considerably more horrified, not so much about the pig thing as the power thing, that they'd do something humiliating to enter an 'elite' club. But I also think it's almost an immutable law of humanity that unless the Labour politician was an ex-Tory who'd had some sort of 'conversion', then you just wouldn't come from that sort of world and then decide to enter a leftwing party, which sort of proves my point, maybe.

It'll probably blow over (mostly)

I'm sure we've already reached peak pig as there are only so many things you can say about it before you get bored. But he's probably stuck with this for a long time as a joke, and it probably will dent his credibility a little. I'd be surprised if the joke of calling him 'pig fucker' disappears in the next five, ten years.

Saturday, 15 August 2015


This was my tenth year in a row covering the Edinburgh Fringe in a professional/‘professional’ capacity, something I realised about a week in with marked ambivalence. I’m a father now (DON'T KNOW IF YOU MISSED THAT BUT I'M A FATHER NOW) and without pretending it’s some sort of one-man tragedy, leaving little Janek for over a week has been one of the more emotionally gruelling parts of the whole process of fatherhood – aside from just missing him, then there’s also the sense I’m missing out – so much happens to a baby week-on-week, and I was absent for the entire twenty-first week of his life. Plus there’s nothing like THEATRE to make you think dark thoughts about the awful things that could happen to your only child in the future. (NB I miss my wife too, but what’s a week between adults etc).

At the same time, it’s interesting that the extreme settled down-ness of my ‘real’ life – I live in Zone 4, I get up at whatever ungodly hour my son declares to be ‘morning’, and two nights out at the theatre per week is currently the extent of my non-family-related social life – has in some ways exacerbated the allure of the Fringe this year. The Fringe is, I guess, an idealised world, a world of round-the-clock theatre and parties, where everyone is young and hopeful and creative, all the time, where everyone stays up late in a strikingly beautiful city that few of them are actually from, a summer holiday of sorts. It might not be real, but it’s real for three-and-a-half-weeks, which is a bloody impressive achievement. And though I have sort of given myself a couple of early nights, I have largely reverted to being an effusively sociable person who stays up late and goes to parties after a day of excessive theatre-watching. Which is great, but I suppose a decade in and I wonder when the switch point will come – I’m probably the most senior theatre writer who goes for the parties, and the partier to be married with a child, but then I am still the youngest senior theatre. I daresay I’ll still be coming to Edinburgh in another decade, when I’m 44, but will I just revert to my student-y Edinburgh life then, or will I make some conscious decision to become an adult up here? Will the fact Edinburgh coincides with the school holidays change the festival for me?

Is this all a bit ‘Dawson’s Creek? Possibly it isn’t something I particularly needed to share with the wider world, I'm basically just indulging myself by trying to keep some record of my current feelings, a sort of weird cocktail of relief and extreme wistfulness as I leave the city. I don’t really think about the Fringe that much for swathes of the year, and I know that at some point in the next fortnight I will have the thought ‘the Fringe is still going? That’s hilarious’. And in a way my wistfulness is only increased by knowing that. So there you go, dear reader, I am wistful, whoop de do. Still, better than another bloody blog about the Labour Party, eh? Oh, I wrote a top five shows of Edinburgh on Facebook, maybe I'll post it here as 'bonus content' 1. The Encounter – Probably not even a perfect show (yet), but when a piece of theatre makes you genuinely feel like reality is disintegrating around you, you probably shouldn't nitpick.

2. Stewart Lee – obviously this is terribly passe, but he really is SO GOOD. His new urine routine is probably one of the most technically impressive, audacious things I've ever seen in any medium, and is also extremely funny (and not about urine).

3. Ross & Rachel – lots and lots of monologues and work from young 'uns this year, but something about how meta this is really worked for me, it's a really strong show in its own right that uses this ambiguous relationship with the TV show Friends to kind of add another layer, it's sort of tragic and funny at the same time a really sort of doublethink way.

4. A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing – luv a good monologue

5. My Birthday without You – I probably did see better shows that I haven't mentioned, but (possibly because it was my last show) I just thought this really committed parody of confessional poetry/live art solo shows really hit the spot. About half the audience were in hysterics and the other half were completely baffled.

Saturday, 9 May 2015


So that was the general election 2015 eh.

It's easy to be pretty woe-is-me about the whole thing, and this idea that a defeat for Labour/the left/basic compassion was snatched from the jaws of what the polls and the maths suggested was going to be a dementedly convoluted sort of victory.

But maaaaaybe 'we' lost the election because we just didn't want it enough.

That's a frustrating thing to say, because the sad fact is that I have my doubts as to how much the average Tory voter really wanted it. I recently moved to the safe Conservative seat of Beckenham at what should have been the height of election fever, and there was none. The incumbent MP doesn't even have a Twitter account, and I never saw a single poster for him; two elderly Tory tellers outside the polling station was the height of the madness. People vote for the status quo, out of tradition, because their lives are okay and they have no problem with the incumbent. And yes, maybe they also vote for perceived 'winners' and because they've been influenced by nasty, unfair political campaigns and gruesome newspaper oligarchs, but they don't, as a rule, do it out of a cackling desire to shaft the vulnerable and make themselves a load of comedy 80s-stye 'wonga'.

But if you're going to unseat the sitting government you need a bit of momentum, and I'm sorry to say that we absolutely failed here. In maybe the last two weeks of what was essentially five years, folk started getting behind Ed Miliband a bit. Before that and as far as I can tell from my own limited circle, there was not a lot of enthusiasm amidst the liberalsphere for him at all: my impression is that people either bought into the rightwing portrait of him as an ineffectual weirdo, or else were still in a grump over New Labour and found it hard to really rouse themselves to work up enthusiasm for a man who – on the surface at least – was exactly the sort of bland southern SPAD that had come to colonise a one-time workers' party.

I'm not saying it wasn't Miliband and Labour's fault that they failed to counter that argument. But really, what did we expect to happen at the end? Five years of nose-holding and moaning and blathering on about things being better in Scotland or half-heartedly flirting with the Greens (DON'T EVEN GET ME STARTED ON FUCKING VOTE SWAPPING), and suddenly people are acting genuinely devastated that the bloke they've been so ambivalent about failed to get in. OH MY GOD, WHY ARE PEOPLE SO SELFISH AND CRUEL, HOW COULD THEY NOT VOTE FOR THAT PERSON WHO I DIDN'T REALLY LIKE OR IN FACT VOTE FOR.

And JFC, everyone on social media who was boring on about how 'it doesn't matter who you vote for, but you must sign up to vote, people died for the right etc' - given that it seems generally that most of you did in fact have certain preferences, then maybe in an age of mass disillusionment with politics it might have at least proved modestly inspirational if you'd stated yours.

I have absolute respect for Green voters and they have every right to be angry at their lack of parliamentary representation compared to percentage of the vote, but to moan that a different political party to the one you support didn't get in is a bit perverse.

As, I think, was 'our' final goal: what we seemed to be working towards was a vague idea of an SNP, LibDem and Green-supported minority government, which is a STUPENDOUSLY wishy-washy thing to have as an aspiration. Obviously hindsight is a fine thing and the Tories were working towards essentially the same idea, and their shock victory constitutes a fairly feeble majority by any pre-2010 measure, but the end result kind of makes a mockery of our definition of victory.

Much as he ultimately failed to deliver, Miliband did seem to start energising people towards the end - if he'd had five years, or two years or six months of being taken that seriously by own nominal supporters, imagine what he might have done.

So what's next? If you voted Green, I think it's pretty simple - decide how into them you in fact are, and if yr serious then commit to them for the long haul, no whining about other parties not doing well enough.

And Labour? AS I SAID IN MY GLORIOUS LAST BLOG, I do tend to think of Labour as a fluctuating nexus of compassion vs the Tories' fluctuating nexus of, erm… (severity?) I believe Labour is better than it simply being the lesser of two evils, and I think that whatever its failings are it can be renewed into a force that can run the country again without losing its moral authority.

Like a few folk I know, I have joined Labour now, partly out of a vague guilt, partly because it gives me a vote on the next leader (I'M SUPER INTO VOTING AT THE MOMENT). This is not the hideous 'I'VE JOINED AND YOU SHOULD TOO' moment of the blog, as I do feel faintly embarrassed by the whole concept and am very doubtful as to whether I'll ever have the gumption to do anything like going door-to-door. But I thought I should get involved somehow. There is so much shit the new leader is going to have to accomplish and so many tribes to reunite, and maybe he or she will fail, maybe Labour is totally fucked and will never win an election again and we're all going to be boiled down into some sort of esoteric rich person food. But I honestly don't think the election that just happened was Labour's best crack at deposing the Tories, and I certainly don't think it was ours.

If there's a silver lining to all this, maybe it's that it galvanises the left into remembering that we'd prefer our lot to be running the country, and that for that to happen we maybe need to actually go out and do something. And I'm not just saying that glibly: at the age of 34, I have only just had my fourth general election, and first that wasn't essentially a referendum on a party that was propelled to power before I was of age.

Let's try and and at least give it all we've got and fail with that before we start feeling too sorry for ourselves. In the words of John Michael Stipe, let's put our heads together and start a new country up.

Monday, 4 May 2015


Was I the first and greatest Milifan?

Possibly, possibly.

Back in the dark days of 2009, some Guardian columnist or other tweeted about what a ballsy job then-environment secretary Ed Miliband was doing at the Copenhagen summit, ensuring that at least a weak resolution was passed after China had tried to kill things totally. So I think because the summit was still on and he was tweeting from it, I followed him, and then I would assume that's what persuaded him he had the support to run for Labour Party leader.

Between the summit and his ascent to the top, though, was the 2010 general election, and I remember being pretty ambivalent about the whole thing. The credit crunch was a bit like *whatever* – I'd lost my job in it, but I blamed not Labour but 1) capitalism 2) a bunch of arseholes in America 3) the Tory-supporting owners of the company I worked for – but generally the party seemed like a knackered, low-budget thirteenth series of a once-scintillating show that had kind of jumped the shark with the Iraq War in the seventh season. David Cameron seemed, I dunno, nice-ish..? - there is zero chance I would ever vote Tory, but it felt like this was a kinder, New Labour-ified version of the nasty party of my youth, and maybe if they did get in it wouldn't be so bad, a much-needed bloody nose for a Labour that needed to re-invent itself.

Oooooobviously it didn't work out like that, though it's hard to see what a better scenario would have been: had Gordon Brown called and won The Election That Never Was, one suspects he'd have steered us through the aftermath of the credit crunch with less suffering than the Tories have inflicted, but it's hard to imagine any sort of appetite for a fifth New Labour term with more recession thrown in. Maybe a Labour-Lib Dem coalition? Fuck knows. Ultimately much as it's fun to cast the Tories as villains it would have been ideal if they had just been nicer while Labour went off to undergo a necessary renewal.

Or is it necessary? I know a number of people who can't really get past the Blair years, which is understandable enough. I was only 16 in '97, but I think clearly part of the grand appeal of New Labour was the romantic shadow of the old Labour that had disappeared five years previously - it did feel like vindication for popular socialism, even though it was no longer a socialist party per se. That is no longer there. So why not vote Green, why not break out of the two party system?

I suppose the conclusion I have recently come to is that maybe we have a two party system because really there are only two major nexuses of worldview out there - 'Tory' and 'Labour' are to a large extent just labels for a doctrine of self-interest and a doctrine of common interest: much as Labour is flawed, I don't think it's really possible to say Labour is inherently flawed. I look at modern politics, and the MPs I admire - Stella Creasy, Gloria de Piero, Tom Watson, Diane Abbott, heck, Ed fucking Miliband – and they're all Labour, and it's hard to believe it's a coincidence. Maybe one day it won't be Labour – gone like the Whigs and Liberals before them – and clearly there will be other parties, especially when there are big additional big ideas at stake (eg, the SNP). But ultimately it'll boil down to a more compassionate party against a less compassionate party, and sometimes the more compassionate party will become tarnished, or blandified, but this isn't 1984, it's not perpetual, things renew and change. Ed Miliband has made me feel a lot better about Labour via a combination of some hard policies I can genuinely get behind enthusiastically, a palpable break from the ickier bits of Labour's recent past, and perhaps surprisingly importantly the impressive way he's weathered a totally hysterical and depressing smear campaign from the Tories and the Tory press. And, of course, the fact is the Tories have done a lot of damage and need to go.

Having moved from the knife edge constituency of Southwark to the safe Tory seat of Beckenham precisely two weeks before the election, my vote is not going to do anything to unsettle incumbent MP Bob Stewart. I will be voting for Labour's Marina Ahmad, who is fucked, basically, but seems like a nice sort. If Bob's majority of 17,784 can be nibbled into - even by only one - then that's something, and if there's one more vote for Labour logged for what looks like an absurd post-election dick-measuring contest then that's something else, and if I'm over my New Labour grump then that's a third thing. So there you go.

Friday, 3 April 2015


I posted this as a sort of indulgence on Facebook while thinking of things to do while holding a baby, but as at least three people enjoyed it then fuck it, might as well get a blog out of it. Here is my official – OFFICIAL - take on last night's leaders' debates, in which two politicians who might be PM and five that won't spent two hours shouting at each other.

Video: Leanne Wood schools Nigel Farage, Plaid Cymru-stylee

Natalie Bennett (Greens) - don't know that she'll have won the Greens any followers, but reckon she'll have shored up 'brain fade' doubters, and she landed some good blows on Cameron (tho can't help but think that basically just plays into Labour's hands) (7/10)

David Cameron (Conservatives) - sometimes I feel a bit sorry for Cameron, he's basically just the PR man for a party that's far to the right of him and though he was sort of grindingly competent he looked alone and miserable up there (5/10)

Nick Clegg (Lib Dems) - I liked how demob happy he was, arguably he was being a bit childish, but fuck it, blaze of glory innit. (7/10)

Nigel Farage (UKIP) - I don't think I expected him to be so… weird. Objectively he did a good job of keeping things on his own horrible topic, but I dunno, even if I was some sort of megaracist I'm not sure I'd have been down with all the sweating and gurning. (5/10)

Ed Miliband (Labour) - I feel like I have probably reached the stage where I feel so bad for Miliband over his monstering by the press that if he can appear on TV without shitting his pants it feels like the final scene of Rocky to me. But I thought he gave a sparky account of himself and totally outperfomed Cameron. (8/10)

Nicola Sturgeon (Scottish National Party) - I kind of don't get it, loads of people have gone nuts for her bur I was quite disappointed. She seems incredibly competent but I thought she was a total charisma void. Maybe that doesn't matter in the long run, I dunno. (6/10)

Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru) - On the other hand, I don't get people saying she underperformed. I thought she was magnificent, fiery old-school, take-no-shit lefty and the big revelation of the night. As I understand it commentators seemed to think that Sturgeon did better because she talked more about UK and Wood was Wales-centric, but, um, well I imagine that'll play quite well in Wales, and you know, THIS LONDONER WOULD HAVE HER AS PM ETC. (10/10)

Tuesday, 24 March 2015


I'm just going to do this and get it our of the way with and then we can all move on.

Having a child is fucking nuts. In many ways the biggest problem with that there science is that it only notionally demystifies things that no fucker understands. Like you know, I could mutter a few words about how the Sun works or quote you the theory of special relativity, but ultimately it would be laughable to say I understood either of those things even slightly.

Just so evolution: of course I believe in evolution, but people are stupendously blasé when they say things like that. It is totally insane that some single-celled goo – and I have no idea how that got there – spent millions of years of trial and error gradually changing into a plethora of notably more sophisticated things. Everyone should be freaked out by evolution, all the time.

Anyway, I think me and Rachael were always pretty clear we wanted a baby. We 'knew' what would happen. But the reality of your partner's body changing so drastically just really rams home the insane high technology that the passage of an amount of time I cannot even begin to comprehend has bestowed upon us. I'm not going to blah on about it all, but the final trimester you really feel the baby's presence in a way that I feel like people who haven't been through it probably don't quite understand: he moves, he kicks etc, and it's impossible to not be aware there is a third person there. I think one reason people are hardwired to love their children is that they spend at least a couple of months regarding their child as a sort of benignly enigmatic blob whose antics kind of grow on them. It's very very different to that first trimester nerviness/illness and second trimester 'I'm pregnant, *shrug*' thing.

So that's something. Labour is mad too, the body triggering this once or twice in a lifetime chain reaction to expel the baby. Rachael's was essentially short but painful: you hear all these people talking about, like, three-day labours but her body really got involved: when our bemused phone calls actually brought the midwife round to our flat after six hours of contractions, she was astonished to discover that Rachael was pretty much good to go and actually asked if she wanted to have the baby at home. She did not, and an ambulance - complete with a plentiful supply of gas and air – was duly summoned and we were 'blue-lit' into the hospital.

So the labour happened and finished and we're given little baby Janek for the first time, and it's astonishing. He is swaddled up with a little hat on his head, and his eyes are open just a crack, and his eyeballs are moving warily from side to side. As time goes on, his eyes open more but his eyes keep doing the side to side thing. He has never done this since. But he looks for all the world EXACTLY what somebody whose entire experience of the universe is being suspended upside down in a sac of amniotic fluid would be when confronted with the reality of all this other shit. At the time it was just fascinating and relieving and etc but in retrospect this was clearly the greatest moment of my life.

I absolutely 100% love him: it's probably not worth breaking this down too much, BECAUSE I JUST DO, but on one level his sheer helplessness has to be a factor – if the entire population of the planet aged six months or above were wiped out, I assume the rest of the human race would be gone in a week. Whereas if babies popped out clued up and good to go, they'd surely be less endearing. It is weird and interesting to think how little he will bear resemblance to his current state in just a few months, let alone 16 years. I am terrified for him, and endlessly fascinating by him, and I wonder how this will change with time. As I write now I persuaded Rach to go to bed a couple of hours again and Janek is still lying in the travel car seat we bought him home in on. At this age he doesn't do much more than eat and sleep, and he has been sleeping for a while, making little wuffling noises and boxing the air a bit. He is clearly dreaming, but what could he possibly be dreaming about, I wonder, when he has so little source material to go on? I am delighted by him and afraid for him and very happy this has all happened.

Friday, 20 March 2015


I am now so incredibly old that I feel like it may have been over 20 years ago that I first heard of HP Lovecraft. I was an enthusiastically vicarious enjoyer of computer games – my parents seemed to have rather savvily realised that I was basically just as happy reading about them as actually playing them – and I think I probably read about the 1993 game Call of Cthulhu: Shadow of the Comet in some games magazine or other, and you know, the name stuck, a bit – who was this Cthulu? And why was he calling? 

Two decades later, I finally read some of his work after seeing the hipster theatre smash Pomona – which has some explicit, if arguably not very Lovecraftian nods to Lovecraft – having got home and loudly said 'I would quite like to read some Lovecraft' to my wife, who miraculously pulled out an unread copy of Penguin's 'The Call of Cthulu and Other Weird Tales'.

For whatever reason, after reading that that I decided to read every single extant, finished piece of adult fiction he ever wrote, which is arguably a pretty weird thing to do given that I thought some of it was pish, but given the slenderness of his body of work I figured I might as well and that it's done now and I can move on.

I have decided to write a little blog summarising things that I have learned, and to both mark and draw a line under this episode in my life. I thank you.

That cat could write!
'The Shadow Over Innsbrook', 'The Colour Out of Space' and 'The Whisperer in Darkness' are the best horror stories, maaaaaaaybe even the best short stories that I have ever read. This despite 'The Shadow' being about, like, fishmen, 'The Colour…' not even much actually happening, and 'The Whisperer' being one of those stories where everyone is so inept at self-preservation that you're holding back a burning desire to have 'a word'. But they are magnificent, I think to a large extent works of psychogeography, reclaiming New England as a sort of liminal hinterland where supernatural and science fiction are blurred and where Lovecraft uses America's age almost virtuosically – because a decaying two-centuries-old colonial town or city isn't something we have in Britain, because we have no real sense that there were things here before us, whereas in America you absolutely know that. I guess ultimately Lovecraft's whole 'thing' is rooted in mankind's insignificance/transience and the new world – which was 100 years newer back then – is a better illustrative model for our temporal insignificance than, I dunno, Egypt. Or York. Also he could also write about trees very well. And 'The Shadow Over Innsbrook' has a really good chase scene. 

Except not about dreams!

Some of his writing is inescapably pish, and it was an occasionally slightly masochistic experience reading through multiple Penguin collections of his work as it was kind of the same deal each time - the really good stuff at the end (if he'd lived another ten years etc…) the early, pre-Cthulu Mythos stuff is a bit more like conventional horror but largely decent. And then dear me: sort of a third to halfway through depending on the book, there are these staggeringly flouncy stories about posh men having florid adventures in the sort of ridiculous fantasy lands that make Tolkien's Middle Earth look like something out of Kes. Apparently it was all written under the influence of some guy called Lord Dunsany, who was presumably a total arsehole. The only alright one is The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath. which is so mental that it sort of carries it off, partly because it was written at the point where his writing was transitioning to sci-fi and just generally getting a lot better, partly because at points he appeared to be taking the piss quite heavily (there is an awful lot about heroic armies of cats).

Everyone – EVERYONE – is always like 'HP Lovecraft was a massive racist', which is at the very least one of my excuses for not bothering with his letters etc. Is his fiction writing racist? Er, I mean, kind of, I wouldn't so much say he was explicitly pro-white as explicitly anti everyone else. He talks about 'degenerate negroes' and in the occasional vision of the future, the earth is always ruled by an impossibly cruel etc Asian empire. But he doesn't have many bad guys of colour, and does have some minor good guys of colour – I'm sure he was really very racist as a person, but his work is at the very least not so racist that it's a problem (it's interesting, by the by, that we demand fairly stringent moral standards from living artists - is there a maximum we would tolerate from a dead person, provided they hadn't left a Hitler-style legacy of grief?).

I'll tell you who might be aggrieved, mind: Eskimos. Having lived in Canada back when Canadians were still nice I know that's not a very PC word, but I use it because it's amusing the Lovecraft insists on calling the Inuit peoples 'Esquimaux', an archaic French spelling. There is something funny about this, but even funnier how they crop up very occasionally as a sort of byword for pure, prehistorical evil and apocalyptic cults. He basically seems to think that they were the most evil bastards on the entire planet. I would think literally the only reason for this is that they live in the sort of desolate places that Lovecraft liked to imagine to be concealing relics of alien civilisations, but still, the notion that the worst people on the entire planet are Eskimos is a pretty chucklesome trope.

History's greatest footnote
In the form you are reading it, this is the worst point ever, though I will update it into brilliance one day, but in 'The Thing On the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories' (my copy is packed away at the moment due to house move gubbins), editor ST Joshie has made a footnote in the story 'The Case of Charles Dexter Ward' to say that the birthday of one of the characters in it is the same as one of Lovecraft's friends, only Lovecraft was wrong about his friend's birthday... this FURTHER links to a note about an entire paper/essay called something like '[Friend X's birthday] and why HP Lovecraft was wrong about the date'. This is delightful, in that a) why would the date of his friend's birthday be interesting enough to Lovecraft to work into a story? b) while I have no idea as to its length, how in hells is it possible that there was enough mileage in this misapprehension for somebody to write an entire essay? I'm sure there's a really boring answer to both of these things, which is why I fully intend to never find out.

Sci-fi poetry
Despite his sci-fi stuff being his best stuff, I can't really bring myself to read his sonnets cycle 'Fungi from Yuggoth' (srsly) but I'm in principle pretty happy about its existence.

Errrrrr, so there you go, probably I should have done something terribly clever and written this up in the style of a Lovecraft story but whatever. I have completed Lovecraft, this was my book report.

Saturday, 14 February 2015


I was on a panel at the Lyric Hammersmith yesterday, a sort of post-mortem thingy on their Secret Theatre rep project. As clickees on the first link may glean from the interesting spelling of my name, I was a late addition to the bill – subbing for a more important journalist who had to pull out in sad circumstances – but I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a pretty partisan crowd and I was worried that I was possibly there to represent the bastard mainstream media in a sort of mainstream bastard capacity, but I think it went alright and that while generally the contributions of my fellow panelists were appreciated more, I didn't make a tit out of myself and was able to express my slight ambivalence about the project in a fairly constructive way. And I got a few laughs, which is obviously the most important thing when on a discussion panel about avant-garde theatre.

But there were two things I wish I'd said. The first is so minor that it's basically petty: there was a really cheap shot made by somebody on the panel about a theatre I'm a big fan of, and I wish I'd said something manly and rugged in said theatre's defence, hopefully history will note (it has been recorded and archived for the V&A!) that I pulled a bit of a face. It wasn't really a big deal.

The main thing, though, is that I wish I'd got to give an answer to a question one of the audience asked. I don't think there's any particular reason it didn't happen: mostly all three panelists got asked their thoughts on every question, but we were getting towards the end and Tom the chairman was trying to hurry things along and I'd certainly done more than my fair share of talking.

Anyway, the question was something like 'does a project like this require different models of criticism to respond to it?' with the general consensus from the room and the rest of the panel that the bastard mainstream bastard media bastards (there was no such hostility, just mild disappointment) hadn't sufficiently engaged with the terms of the project.

And this reminded me of some thoughts I'd had when much acclaimed etc cult theatre person Chris Goode did a popular tweet the other day (popular enough that I got an email from Twitter about it!) that said this:

And I suppose my longwinded answer to both of those is that I think for reasons that are partly completely understandable, and partly to do with the chronic self-absorption of artists, there can be a great misunderstanding about why bastard etc theatre reviewers write their bastard reviews. 

I suppose my background is music writing, and while I might have given the odd small artist a helping hand and probably encouraged the occasional record purchase, essentially the idea that any music writer beyond the very top tier writes to have any influence over musicians is absolutely hilariously absurd. And even then, I think you look at somebody like Alexis Petridis at the Guardian: he does have clout, but clearly he is very much from the tradition of writing entertainingly, for the love of it, for an audience; not offering academic critique for the artists or – god help us all – feedback

I would say the hallmark of a mainstream bastard is that we write for an audience first and foremost, both in the sense that we are trying to couch things in a useful way to that audience, but perhaps more importantly, creating works of entertainment for that audience, and I think some theatre artists really don't see that, or believe that a lengthy academic critique would be of equal value and entertainment. Time Out London's magazine readership is about 750, 000 people, many of whom read the theatre section, many of whom don't, some of whom might only do so because they're idly drawn in by a nice picture or a rude pull-quote. But I'd never try and write something that wasn't nominally for all of them. 

I don't think even those readers who are regular theatregoers would on the whole enjoy long academic explorations etc. But I think the main thing to say is it's not a compromise to have to entertain them: it just means that the article has to exist somewhat independently of the artist - if a bastard bastard bastard has any importance to readers, it's as a voice that is trusted because you rate their writing THEIR DARE I SAY IT ART. And I understand why that's a bit irritating to artists, to have jokes and analogies and theories and conceits and clunking beginner's context shoved in when they'd just like a piece of writing that was useful to them as feedback. But the review is not for them, it is a piece of entertainment that conveys to an assumed audience another person's opinion of a show. It's more op-ed than academia, though I hope it comes from a place of enough empathy to try and be helpful to the person reading it.

But what of the contrasting writings of the young bloggers?

I don't think the assumption that the young bloggers and the bastardbastardBASTARDS are essentially doing the same thing is at all helpful - it would be arrogant and not a little bizarre for a young blogger to write 'for' a large, general interest audience. Instead they're generally driven by other things, in many cases a desire to completely explore and interrogate their own response to a show, and I think as a rule that's quite appealing to an artist. And certainly beyond that one can even enter a conversation etc with an artist in a way that would be unimaginable in popular music.

So if you're an artist you enjoy the young bloggers more than the bastardBASTARDBASTARDS and maybe the general decline of print media gives you a sort of thought that maybe the print media is in decline because they're not writing 2,000-word-long critiques of your work, or is at the very least poetic justice for it. But maybe, and accepting it would be manifestly moronic to suggest every development in print media in the last 50 years has been good, maybe Kenneth Tynan wouldn't have been that arsed about your show and maybe we're just living in a moderately positive era where the young bloggers are kind of a new thing that wasn't there before and it's nice the young bloggers and the BAAAASSSSSSTAAARDSSAH are living side by side, like when mammals and dinosaurs hung out together.

And having said all that – brilliantly – to the bloke in the Lyric Hammersmith audience, I'd be all like 'so the newspaper reviewers probably were giving a reasonable response to Secret Theatre in light of the fact that they were writing for the nominal man on the street, but the young bloggers were also doing so in light of the fact they weren't, and let's all be friends, here's a cake'. And I'd have got a round of applause and everything would have been alright, forever.

Postscript: hilariously, a week or so after publication, The Stage got in touch to ask me if I'd be up for turning this here blog into a 500-word article, for money - so maybe I'm wrong about the motivations of bloggers, or possibly I'm such a corporate shill that I can't even write an obscure blog post without it going mainstream.

Sunday, 8 February 2015


For reasons that are far too vague and uncontroversial to explain, I've never been 'into' Bob Dylan in the way people are 'into' Dylan. So I assumed I'd never write a piece about him, meaning of all the things I've ever written than make me sound like an arsehole, a Bob Dylan article wouldn't be one of them – because it is a fact that nobody has ever written anything about Dylan without sounding like an arsehole. No exceptions.

Anyway, that was well and fine, until I kind of realised that if I didn't write the review of Bob Dylan's Sinatra covers album Shadows in the Night for DiS then no-one would and long story short I have become obsessed with Dylan's voice and now I'm going to write an arsehole thing about Bob Dylan.

Basically, I wrote the review (here is a link in the interests of not looking ostentatiously humble) and I ended it by using my unparalleled grasp of rock trivia and referencing the time Dylan said 'I don't believe you' to a heckler, but I wanted to check I'd got the quote right so I looked it up on YouTube and HOLY FUCK I watched this…


…which I have maybe seen clips of before and is quite famous (I have a feeling that it's the Manchester 'Judas!' incident spliced into the actual live performance from the Royal Albert Hall show on the same tour) but I've certainly never watched all the way through and to reiterate HOLY FUCK. I have a semi-irrational aversion to watching online videos, partly because everything's so tinny and crappy, but this performance actually seems to work better with that – his voice is just totally fucking glorious, a wild foghorn so loud and rough and untamed that the tape can't record it properly, the top end is all battering ram crackle and it is indescribably exhilarating, by far and away the best live performance I have ever seen on a tiny video on my small laptop. It obviously helps that he was cool as fuck etcetera, but I think the two things that make it for me are the is the sheer, seething impoliteness of it, combined with a madly winning puppy dog enthusiasm… about 4.15 he starts bellowing through his cupped hands while bouncing up and down...  if his records sounded like that I would be writing arsehole essays like this all day every day.

And this fascinates me because while I have been long aware that his voice is a mess now, I didn't realise that he was so good back then. Which kind of makes the mess more fascinating. Seriously, look at this:

Or fuck me, in many ways much worse, this:

Now I am even less of a music expert than I am a theatre expert, but let's be clear about this: it is 100% objectively straight up bullshit to say that his voice sounds in any way good now. It is a gurgle, a deathrattle, enfeebled and sickly. On one level it seems remarkable to me that anyone could possibly fail to appreciate this fact – and on the off-chance this blog has acquired enough SEO for a random Dylan fan to accidentally read it: sorry buddy, it is a fact – and yet go and look at the comments under any of those videos, or an article like this, and you will find very angry people saying his voice sounds amazing, and that indeed the whole sound of it is the culmination of some sort of elaborate masterplan.

On the one hand, this is obviously just partisan silliness. His voice sounds shit, thin, hopelessly diminished: if he had released 'Like A Rolling Stone' in that style the first time around, the limited number of people that would have noticed would have told him to piss off. And let's be clear: there is absolutely no way that Bob Dylan wants to sound like that, because whatever else he is, Bob Dylan is not a fucking idiot.

And yet, and yet… the music Dylan DOES make with his horrible, ruined voice is probably almost as good as the psycho Dylan fans say it is - again, not necessarily my bag, but this, for instance, is something I can get on board with:

My theory after listening to loads and loads of Dylan to try and pinpoint when it all went to shit (he still has some frayed bottom end in 1989's Oh Mercy; 1990's Under the Red Sky is getting gurgly; 1992's Good As I Been To You is full gurgle) is that part of his appeal is his intrinsic tragedy. People like Neil Young and Springsteen have been essentially unaffected by the years; McCartney and Jagger have turned themselves into perfectly preserved theme park attraction versions of their old selves. Dylan, though, is touched by the intrinsic sadness of the fact that you hear not only the death of his '60s self in every ghastly, wheezing syllable, but worse than death: degradation, debasement, decay. He defiles his past every time he tackles one of his old songs. And yet he dusts himself off and makes music that is good, that is different: he is a triumph over adversity, and inspirational, but part of his triumph and inspiration is that he doesn't admit that he's fucked, maybe he doesn't even know he's fucked. And possibly his fans who won't admit he's fucked don't know either.

Sometimes looking in from the outside you want to shriek 'ARE YOU ALL EXTREMELY HIGH?STOP PRETENDING THIS IS NORMAL'.

But like the scene in T2 where Arnie says 'I know now why you cry,' I think I get it. And while Dylan fans may disagree with me, it is worth pointing out that Arnie never actually expands that thought and so it's in fact quite possible that he doesn't know why we cry. Yeah.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Islands: the backlash against the backlash against etc

There has been a theatre play called Islands, and for the sake of acknowledging the fundamental self-indulgence of my writing this, let's just assume you know everything about it already. If you don't, fire up the search engine of your choice and type in 'Bush Islands' and that should fill you in (or take you to some interesting porn).

The show got negative reviews (including one I wrote), and then I suppose in a small way there has been a backlash to the backlash against Islands... am I maybe now backlashing against that? Er, I dunno, but a) I've seen a couple of random arts types throw around the words 'arrogant' and 'lazy' to describe the reviews Islands got, and maybe feel a little defensive, and b) I'm just narcissistically interested in the narratives that build up around shows and the responses to them.

So there was a lot of bumpf about Islands being a satire about tax havens. It's possible to go to a lot of new writing and be pretty vague on what it's about, but not in this instance. And the bumpf (which you can read here) is pretty much in keeping with the general UK Uncut school of populist rabble rousing - this bit

"As you know, I have made fighting the scourge of tax evasion and aggressive tax avoidance a priority…"
David Cameron

We thought Dave might need a hand.

Seemed to particularly nail its assumed colours, I thought.

I think unquestionably the negative reviews were critical of how Islands was unilluminating as satire, not simply in a facts and figures way, but that it didn't particularly have anything to say other than 'the super-rich are arseholes'. And the criticism of the criticism is that reviewers went in assuming Islands was one thing on the basis of the bumpf, and threw a collective hissy fit when it turned out to be a sort of capricious, wantonly tedious bouffon-inflected cabaret. Would we have felt differently if Islands hadn't been introduced in a certain way?

It's notable that the two people who wrote big pro-Islands pieces (Stewart Pringle and Andrew Haydon) did a few days later, having also seen the show later... both are lovely pieces of writing, but they both feel explicitly post the original reviews, maybe a bit l'esprit de l'escalier. They certainly went in more clued up than the 'first wave', and I feel like they both give fine explanations for why the show was 'difficult'. But would I have felt any different if I'd gone in when they did? Despite all the fireworks of Stewart's piece in particular, for me neither really comes out with a 'this is brilliant and this is why' vindication, I didn't see an 'ah, that's what I was missing' moment.

They both suggest it's good because it's formally interesting, but then I get a bit hazier on what they're saying about its political virtues; I think they both sort of conclude its intrinsic formal 'horribleness' is itself comment enough on the super-rich. Which I think is a legitimate interpretation, but I think also most/some of us had that thought on press night and rejected it.

Probably the reason we had that thought is that the show freely acknowledges how punishing it is - at one point we're asked (clearly ironically) if we're having fun; later on, we're actually offered a short window to leave while the cast cover their eyes. And people are taking up the offer: anecdotally, there are large number of nightly walk outs: only six on press night, but Stewart claimed 36 when he saw it two nights later, and a comment under my TO review says 'I have never seen a play where so many people walked out'.

It's punishing, but what are we being punished for? If it's an allegory/metaphor for the super-rich (the cast) shitting on the rest of us (the audience), it's certainly BALLSY, but a) to what exact end? b) if that were the case then surely disliking it is in fact demonstrating a sound moral response and Pringle is a patsy. I dunno, if it was directly confronting a well-heeled crowed it would have more legitimacy, but I'm just not sure it scores a point of any particular integrity by grinding down a young, probably leftie audience lured in by the bumpf. I can't help but feel that the apparent lack of Twitter griping suggests that the walkouts were probably people who agreed with Islands' politics but felt alienated by the medium, and if anything maybe feel guilty they didn't like it, hence the lack of bitching (that's really speculative, but I guess it's kind of how I felt).

Of course, I'm not disputing the fact Andrew and Stewart liked it (which they did while accepting it was difficult), and of course if 36 people walk out of a sell out show at the Bush, it should be pointed out that that's 100 who've stayed. And even if the entire audience walked out every night I don't think that would be 'vindication' of any reviews. But if it's a show that uses alienation as its means of operation, surely there is – at the very least – integrity in not liking it.