Thursday, June 08, 2017

Prison: From the Inside – transcript excerpts

I suffer from mental health problems
I have to take antidepressants and antipsychotics
Because it's just

I used to self-harm, and it's hard not to
It's very hard not to

For the hurt and the pain that I've caused
You feel guilty
You feel like, when you're on these courses
Why do I deserve this?

Especially when you hear a lot of prisoners have took their lives in here
And you think to yourself, like,
That should have been me

Kids that are in for nothing
You hear kids outside hanging themselves

Why is the Lord taking them?
Why is he not taking me,
for all the bad things I've done?

You know, for all the people we've made suffer
Whether it be a small crime or a big crime
People do suffer through our actions

And that's
It's not easy to live with

...

Something happened in my life
I was raped
That's neither here nor there at the minute
But I became
Like
All hurt and closed up
And full of pain, full of emptiness
You could have drove a bus through the emptiness
And it was bad
It was really bad
But I kept drinking the peace in and the peace out
To kill this pain and to kill this emptiness

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Scottee: Bravado, Camden People's Theatre review – Blimey, Scottee, fucking hell

I first came across Scottee in Edinburgh 2010 I think. I wrote in this blog at the time that he was unquestionably a star, immensely likeable, frolicking about in outrageous outfits, compering a cabaret show with supreme camp confidence. Since then, I've kept a rough eye on him, from time to time, and it has turned out over the years that he's not only a star, but also an artist.

Now, stars are easier to take than artists, especially performance artists. Artists have all this challenging shit to get through, all this art to make, whereas stars just want the glare and the lights. More importantly, stars are focused on entertainment, because they need your satisfaction to keep their lights up, but artists are mediating their own needs of self-expression/self-indulgment. I haven't always really checked for everything Scottee has done in those intervening years, but he's always interesting and challenging and truthful and he's growing and developing all the time. So, when I saw his new show was on, I booked.

The ad warned that

This show is not for the weak hearted - it includes graphic accounts of violence, abuse, assault, sex and love. 

So, not yer standard drag miming queer cabaret type of thing then. Instead, an exploration of Scottee's surprisingly rough upbringing.

The stage was pretty bare, a couple of TVs on flight cases and some fluorescent bulbs that flickered on and off. The TVs played fuzzy VHS recordings of 90s era programmes – Gladiators, Strike it Lucky, Arsenal v Man U's 1999 semifinal – the sort of things, I guess the teenage Scottee was watching on video in his council flat in the Queens Crescent. 

Now, that's my manor. When I was born, my mum lived in a flat on Queens Crescent, though we swiftly moved up to Kentish Town; I went to primary school on the border of the sprawling estates. The two worst bullies in my class were both from the flats; the Crescent was infamous as a den of thugs, thieves and drug dealers. Many of the kids who lived there – even, or especially, my class bullies – were terrified of the bigger kids who lived there. 

It wasn't just the Crescent. My friend lived on the periphery of an estate up in Kentish Town and sometimes we'd fall under the purview of the local bully. Once, when he had us cornered, he told us he'd beat us up if we didn't knock on this Indian girl's door with our cocks hanging out and when she answered ... well, I can't remember the rest. Nothing came of it; I guess he lost interest. But for me, that incident crystallised the idea that the big, sprawling council estates were inward-looking nests of sexual shame and bullying.

Scottee's tales started with stories about his alcoholic family; his uncle bottling someone outside a pub, and his first, pathetic fight on the estate. But he went up a gear with stories about friends who turned on him, first humiliating him, later forcing him to 'perform a sex act', as the police have it. And then there was brutal tales of his drunk dad strangling him of a Friday night. The climax of the show came with a description of when he passed by two of his friends/abusers on his bike, years after moving away from the estate.

I was still fiddling with my phone as the show was starting, and missed exactly what words flashed up on the screens, asking for a volunteer to come up and do the performance. But that's what happened – a game bloke got up and read Scottee's testimony off a screen in front of him. For most of the show I wasn't really sure what I felt about this – I guess I wasn't supposed to. It was certainly a bold move from an artistic point of view – keeping the audience off balance, toying with their expectations. But it was hard not to feel ripped off at paying £12 for a show in which the star didn't show, was probably not even in the building. Was this art or some self-indulgence? Had Scottee risen to such an Arts Council-funded ivory tower he didn't even feel the need to turn up? 

The question nagged at me throughout, even after I'd accepted that we wouldn't catch sight of the great man himself. It added to the discomfort of the whole thing: the uncomfortable chair, too close to the bloke next to me; the uncomfortable side view I'd ended up with; the uncomfortable material. 

And when I left, my first word, as I hit the air of Hampstead Road was: "Nah". Nah, did he need to not be there; I didn't feel it needed the distancing that the clever ventriloquist manoeuvre provided. Because I thought I wasn't shocked by the tales. I wasn't surprised – that is what it was like. Not for me; I mean, I had my own problems, but nothing as bad as this, but that is what it was like for some of those I grew up with. I wondered if perhaps Scottee had been hanging around with too many middle-class Arts Council types, and lost his perspective.

But I was wrong. The full force of the show was yet to hit. As I stood there, watching the crowd leave, I fell into a kind of shock. It took me half an hour to move on, and then I went to a pub and took an hour to drink one pint. I don't think it was the tales, although they were in retrospect pretty shocking. In the end I decided it was the final section, where Scottee faced his mixed feelings – his rage, his hatred, his low self-esteem, but also his lust, his desire for his abusers, his desire for their love – that set me off. It was where he tied together the show's themes, bringing out thoughts about sexuality, masculinity, childhood, violence, abuse, shame, victimhood and survival.

I don't think I've been so affected by something for a long time. It left me deep in thought. I've barely been able to articulate much here of what it churned up in me. The irony was that as I left, they handed out flyers with phone numbers of people you could get support from, if the show had left you 'triggered', as they say. I took the flyer thinking I'd never need anything like that. But an hour later, I was beginning to wonder.

It was incredibly impressive and, in the way Scottee faced and embraced those mixed feelings, it was – that old cliché – fantastically brave, even without his being in the building. In its power to truly affect me, to truly disrupt and upset me, to, yes indeed, trigger me – this was the real deal, proper fucking art.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Leroy Hutson, Union Chapel review – sweet but short

Back on more familiar ground for me, with soul legend Leroy Hutson in town. A cult name on the rare groove scene of the late 80s and early 90s, his 70s soul-jazz hits, such as All Because of You, Lucky Fellow and Lover's Holiday, encapsulated the midtempo soul style known as two-step, before UK garage gratuitously stole the term in the late 90s. More melodic than funk, but less muso-y than jazz-funk, two-step got its sound from the likes of Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield (a mentor of Hutson in Chicago) and carved out a niche of smooth, lovers-friendly music that you could both dance or smooch to depending on how your night was working out. Hutson himself wrote and produced a good few tunes for other people, including stone-classic The Ghetto for his friend Donny Hathaway.

It was a nice gathering of the blue-eyed soul tribe at the Union Chapel, a few more pairs of loafers than you see on an average night out, and that suburban London twang that you don't hear so much of any more. A room full of Robert Elms-es is basically what it was, lots of people dressed like they were going out to Dingwalls in 1987 – and everyone I spoke to was very friendly and relaxed.

A post shared by Sandra Roberts (@mrchoops) on


The band came on and launched straight into All Because of You, and, sporting a spectacular blazer and sunglasses, on came Mr Leroy Hutson, as the MC kept referring to him. The soundman took a while to get a hold of the levels, and the band took a while to find their cues. "Can you believe we only rehearsed for the first time yesterday?" said Mr Leroy Hutson at one point, to which the only answer was: "Yep." Still, he didn't mess about, giving us three of his best tunes straight off the bat, before leaving the BVs girl to sing a couple. Then the band did a funk workout, at which point the suspicion began to arise that we were going to hear more of a London session band than we had necessarily signed up for. A decent band, obviously, but, you know, not £35-a-ticket decent. But back on stage Mr Leroy Hutson came, twiddling from time to time at a Korg keyboard at the front to no obvious effect, to do a few more classics.

The sound improved, and you got to hear a bit more of his vocal, which sounded in pretty good shape. The band did another funk workout, this one more impressive as they found their feet. Things cut a bit looser after the encore, when the soul massive clambered out of the chapel pews to dance happily to the finale, after which Mr Leroy Hutson cut loose himself, getting off the stage with indecent haste, the clock barely hitting the hour mark. It's been a while since I've seen someone do the absolute bare minimum at a show, and it left me a bit cold, I'll be honest. I know he's 71, and has an earned a few easy paydays, but it's always nice when they give you a little extra. Especially as the sound had been sorted, and the crowd had warmed up and was right for it. I'd have been content just to hear All Because of You again, but it weren't to be.

Truth is, we're lucky he's still alive, cos so many of them aren't – this the day after another soul legend, Leon Ware, died. And, at 71, Mr Leroy Hutson can still hold a tune, and what great tunes they are.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Maurizio Pollini, RFH review

If you ever, as I once did, discover a love for Chopin's piano pieces, you will inevitably find yourself listening to Maurizio Pollini. Along with Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Martha Argerich, he'll turn up in your YouTube searches soon enough, although, it turns out, he ranges farther and wider in the classical realm than good old Fryderyk Franciszek.

Anyway, I was surprised to hear that he is still alive, and booked a ticket for a recital at the RFH, exactly my cup of tea, just a piano and an audience, and someone to play it, in a nice room. No microphones and all that modern jazz. Not modern jazz, modern ... stuff. But not modern jazz either. Chopin, my favourite.

Since I haven't, in the few weeks since the Daniil Trifonov concert, added anything to my threadbare understanding of classical music, my critical insights remain no better than mundane. This guy has the knowledge, if you're interested. But still, you know, I'm having a crack.

My friend, my resident classical music know-it-all, had warned me that Pollini was now too old and it was likely to be a bust, because who can really perform at 82 or whatever he is, and he'd seen him before and it had been terrible. But it turns out that Pollini is only 75 and, so far as my limited critical ability could tell, can still tickle those ivories in a roughly congruous manner. As I strolled up to the South Bank, feeling all cosmopolitan because for once I'm actually going out in London somewhere not the pub at the end of my road or some overpriced twat citadel in Hackney; as I walked up I was thinking, well, I know Chopin quite well, so it'll probably just be him playing Chopin and how transcendent can that be? I mean it'll be what it is. No surprises, I suppose, is what I was thinking.

And I was right, but also I was wrong, because there were surprises, and they weren't just related to having nowhere to sit in the bar beforehand, or how they made you buy a programme to find out what he was going to play, which you might have thought would be included in the price of the ticket, if you knew nothing about anything. No, the surprises were that despite listening to what I thought was quite a lot of Chopin, I didn't know Pollini's choices very well. So I got to enjoy fresh Chopin, while still enjoying Chopin, because Chopin is Chopin and whether nocturne, ballade or scherzo, operates in the same lilting, gorgeous register, streams of ethereal melodies and an endlessly interesting colour chords. Of all his choices, I most loved the Berceuse in D flat, a short, playful nursery-like dream that manages to combine meditative stillness with gobsmacking pianistic athleticism.

The thing with Chopin is that the tunes are so clear and well-articulated that it holds your (my) attention much more effectively than, say, the Debussy that Pollini played after the interval. It's possible to hear what's going on with Chopin, even as he illustrates and elaborates in all directions. With the Debussy – or some of the things Trifonov played – while it's all very nice, beautiful, spectacular, dripping with imaginations, whatever, I find I start to drift; the storyline is submerged, and my mind begins to wander. But with Chopin, I'm held, able to follow exactly his beautiful, lyrical, aching forays into romantic delirium. Towards the end of the Debussy, by contrast, I began aching for him to finish.

Pollini himself seemed in good health. He did look like an old man, with the beginnings of a stoop as he padded to the piano, and perhaps Trifonov's fingers were more emphatic, but there was nothing I could hear that suggested he wasn't up to it and he played more or less consistently well through two hours. He did take a lot of bows, for an old guy. Up after every piece finished and bowing round the great hall, which had added rows behind him on the stage. After the Debussy he padded off, then padded back on again to take more bows. He got a bit of a standing ovation at this point, but it was hard to tell if it was a real standing ovation or if people were just trying to get out ahead of the crush. Then he padded back off again, then back on again – possibly trying to get his Fitbit numbers up – and finally settled down to play an encore. He played three encores, each separated by a good deal of padding to and fro; by the third one the guy next to me was exasperated that he had to stay to listen to more music. But it was some more Chopin, so I was happy. And by the end, everyone joined in the standing ovation.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Daniil Trifonov, Barbican review

Away from the nascent fascism, rising global anxiety and a nice day out protesting against Trump, and to the Barbican, for a classical piano recital. I read about Daniil Trifonov, a 25-year-old wunderkind, in the New Yorker and, after watching a couple of YouTube clips and reckoning he looked the biz, saw he was in town and bought a ticket. Not even very expensive. And the cocktail bar outside is quite nice and not overpriced either.

Not really my usual haunt, though, and it showed. At the interval I tried to buy a cocktail, but the barman told me they don't serve them in the break. "Why?" I asked, witlessly. "Do people get too lairy?" "No," he deadpanned. "It just takes too long to make them." What he didn't say, and fair play to him, was: No, you cretin, this is the Barbican, not Croydon High Street. People who come to the Barbican to watch classical music don't get lairy on one too many cocktails.

Anyway, as this anecdote obliquely shows, I don't know a mouse's morsel about classical music, so if you're hoping for some kind of knowledgable review of proceedings, you are likely to be disappointed. The nuances of how good Trifonov really is, what choices he made on interpretation and so on – the kind of things you might want in a review – are not really available to me. (You can try two wildly different reviews here and here.) In the absence of intelligent things to note, I settled mainly for trying to come up with some good metaphors as I watched him – from up in the gods – wave his fingers in front of the keyboard, and, in the first half, coax the romantic airs of Schumann from the grand piano. And then, as the Schumann went on, moved from coaxing to a kind of conjuring.

At other points he crouched over the piano like a teenager on his computer, and I, tired from staring down, moved my gaze to the rafters and instead of listening to the piano, just listened to the room. In a way, a room like the Barbican hall, with its exceptional acoustics, becomes the instrument, or at least an extension of the unmic-ed piano. Being January, however, the acoustic melange included a fair amount of coughing, and I suffered a few minutes wrestling with my tickling throat. (An important lesson for classical newbies here: always take a bottle of water.) And when I gazed back down to the stage, it suddenly looked as if Trifonov and his Steinway were a tiny musical box sitting on an oak table.

After the interval the programme shifted to 20th-century Russia (I know this because I bought a programme at halftime) and some of Shostakovich's preludes. A friend who is familiar with such matters had told me that this part would be hard work, and – the extent of my critique – I did find myself drifting, although that might have been the interval G&T. Before the second half began, someone had taken a mic to tell us that Trifonov would play an extra prelude – this brought gasps of excitement from the people next to me, which seemed a bit excessive – and it was good that he did, because the final one seemed to bring a new power and dynamism out of him. Suddenly, instead of conjuring, he was writhing, almost birthing the music through some long, complicated and exhausting labour. With this, and the Stravinsky that followed, Trifonov became more of the classical classical pianist, a whirl of technical prowess and bombast, nicely contrasting with the subtle grace of the first half.

I wouldn't say it was exactly wasted on me, but it was definitely partly wasted on me. Couple of the metaphors were alright though.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The tone of voice that sonnets call to arms

The tone of voice that sonnets call to arms
Is much too fine for me
Too regal and too well-mannered
It doesn't llow for getn spannered
And speech's clarity

Let's chop the legs off words and cut their hearts
So rhythm flows through all our poem's parts
Let's hack away, let's prune, let's turn around
Let's smash our words into the ground, let's tune
their resonance to suit our needs
Let's untie them from what they usually mean
Let's clean extraneous parts
Let's bite heads off, chop out the guts
And add more when there's not enough

For words are words and we're their masters—
Don't let them tell you otherwise
They're cheeky little bastards

Friday, February 10, 2017

Praia da Zambujeira do Mar

The seething, scalding, whirling, churning morass of break and spray
Coursed in with all the rage of boiling lava
Lines of white foam horses strode on to the sun-stroked sands
And lashed the ground with thundering hooves of swirling phosphorus

As I approached, amongst the frothing clamour
As constant crash and passion sloshed my ears
The wrath of rushing planes blew out my idle —
and deafened me to my unceasing thoughts


Praia da Carvalhal

As the sun packs down and the heat goes out
And the shadows run from the lazing light
The beach dwellers gather and make their way
Like litter thrown on the evening winds

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Fleabag review – on twists and shouts


Fleabag

One big spoiler, so get yourself over to iPlayer and watch it first – it's only 3 hrs

Let's get the good bit out the way first – Fleabag is brilliant. It's a brilliant, funny, truthful, poignant, modern, bold, frank sitcom that follows the eponymous heroine (creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge) as she crashes through her life, reverses over the bodies and sideswipes passersby, veering from random sexual partners to ex-boyfriend to failing cafe to acid-evil stepmother and disloyal father to neurotic sister and lascivious husband to flashbacks of her dead best friend and back again in a kaleidoscopic whirl of grief, casual sex and alienation. It lightly skips the abyss between cutting truthfulness and absurdist satire as and when it chooses. And it talks about the corrosive effects of grief with a beautiful clarity. It's fucking brilliant and if you haven't seen it, you shouldn't definitely watch it before I give away any more about it.

Go on, go and watch it

Last chance. Don't say I didn't warn you.

It's brilliant, but I've got a lot to say ... So, there's a big twist in the last episode – as you know, because you've watched it. It turns out that it was Fleabag's betrayal of her best (and possibly only) friend Boo that brought about Boo's suicide/accidental death. But, as much as I loved the show, the twist left me cold. 

It is a good twist; it reveals something unexpected about her character, something that her unreliable narration and supposed confiding in the audience had not. And it's not that I haven't, in retrospect, come to accept it. I mean, I can see that it would be, just about, possible that, despite all the flashbacks of her and Boo being BFFs, Fleabag could have done the great boyfriend-shagging betrayal. I mean, she could have – she might have been jealous, and worried about losing her BFF to him, perhaps, but it's a lot they didn't show. And perhaps the night Fleabag spends wondering the streets in guilt and grief is because she knows we the viewers – who she has confided in all along – have found out; I mean, obviously, she must have already known the truth, so being reminded by her sister wouldn't have pushed her to that existential climax, would it? And I guess that her sister could have only brought it back up in anger after Fleabag's revelation about her husband almost pushed her to divorce – I suppose, but it seems weird after the show built up so much love between the two of them. But what I'm saying is: I can do the mental gymnastics to make the twist plausible, but it's hard work, it doesn't trip off the mind, and I think that they sacrificed a lot to get the twist in, and I think it was probably a mistake.

For the TV writer, big twists are basically the equivalent of a line of high-grade cocaine – they give a great, unexpected, exciting jolt, but can be deleterious for your character. The balance between plot and character in fiction is so fraught that a huge plot twist can take the character right off the page with it, and this, I think, is what happened here. 

But perhaps it's to do with me. Perhaps I'm resistant to the twist because I really liked Fleabag's character and didn't want to deal with her horrible betrayal, or perhaps I'm jealous of the accomplishment of the sitcom and want to take it down a peg, or perhaps because I've struggled with the same problem of twists – and considered more or less than same twist, revealing an unreliable, unlikable and guilty narrator, I wasn't as surprised as I could have been – I don't know. I definitely had the experience of creating a character as isolated as Fleabag, and faced the problem of why, if they're likeable enough to be a main character, they are so isolated. And the two main reasons I came up with are both in Fleabag: grief and guilt, although the show does a great job of adding the further level of hideous supporting characters, which I didn't manage.

I'm not sure they telegraphed the twist enough to make it work – putting in enough pointers to her true character early enough – but they may have done, and I may have just missed them. In the end, I think it's more that I was loving the way they built such a touching portrayal of grief in the guise of comedy, and I was disappointed they threw that away at the last for the sake of a big shock. 

There's so much great about the last episode; when Hugh Dennis leaves the cafe after her outburst, without giving her the loan she needs – but then, when you're gasping for it, he comes back, to give the bit of good news that you, and Fleabag, desperately needs. And the story is, in the end, about redemption and forgiveness – we all make mistakes, it says. Quite a Christian topic, and I watched it on Christmas Day, so it was like my very own Archbishop's speech. But, if that was the case, it might have been more honest to have brought the guilt in earlier, rather than save it for the big reveal. And that's the trouble with a big twist: it's a bit grubby, a bit of a manipulation, and when something was as truthful and brilliant as this show, it deserved better.

Prayer

Why can't I live
in the kind of place
Where everything makes sense?

When will I stop
blaming myself
That I can't understand

This world's chaotic and frenetic
frenzy of disorder?

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Carnival

Suddenly we're trapped between two sounds
Tried Ladbroke Grove – if anything it's worse
The only way is through the throbbing crowd
Riding a ragga sound, the tune is building

I've folded up the chair, she's got the baby
We push on through the throng as women taunt
That children's day is Sunday not today
Which isn't helping our predicament

We're by the speaker stack, tune fit to drop
The crowd is thick strung, strong and poised to rave
I push on gingerly apologising
As yet another woman curses us

And then a hand reaches, grabs hold of mine
A big man by the speaker, licked with weed
'Blessings,' he says to me – I squeeze his hand
His lighthouse guides us through the treacherous seas

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Waterfall

It started as one great body of water,
until the river, at the cascade’s head, 
was distributed in a million drops. 
Each had its character and course defined; 
combined, they drew a veil across the rocks.
None chose to fall; and though each individual
cast its arc, and suffered eccentricities,
its path was largely chosen by its start.
Some tours were short and barely underway
when they were dashed, left scattered on the rocks.
Others swooned from start to end in glory
their vaulting bows sang hymns straight to the heart
But all, once at the bottom, met again 
in that great body from which they’d emerged

Sunday, January 15, 2017

While up in Epping Forest for the day

While up in Epping Forest for the day 
We met an old bloke fishing. We chatted 
and he showed my boy his pot of maggots 
and his line. And when he left he waved to us. 
Ta-ra, he said. See you, ta-ra.” Ta-ra?
I haven’t heard that said since I was young,
in the Co-op on the high street. Ta-ra,
the checkout girl said to my mum. And outside
in the street, this tramp gave me a wink.
I’ve kept that wink for my entire life

At the Salisbury

Let's drink drink
till the words don't link
till the words fall flat
don't interact
The chat gets slack
and doesn't pack
the meanings that
we'd hope —
If we weren't drunk
and losing track

Let's blur the words
until they melt
and mean nothing
a conjuring
encompassing
no fucking thing

Fuck it, let's sing

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Robots and the future for humanity and beyond

A new report from the EU parliament suggests that we are on the cusp of a new robot-led industrial revolution. It seems that, while we writhe and curse over immigration, robots are coming over here, about to take our jobs. Soon, it is suggested, robots will be more intelligent than people—after which point, anything goes. Automation will destroy our society by putting the vast majority of people out of work, while a tiny elite enjoy all the blessings wealth can bestow, protected by a security army of, you got it, robots.

So the MEPs have been discussing robots and the fears of economic apocalypse, but also our likely Terminator-esque future, in which Nazi robots take over and ubermensch the shit out us. To counter this, the MEPs made recommendations taking inspiration from Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, which he devised for his 1942 short story Runaround.

These rules state:
A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm
A robot must obey the orders given by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the first law
A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second laws

In addition, robots would have to be installed with a 'kill switch', for when Skynet gets too big for its boots.

However, these rules seem to me to be fairly pointless, beyond furnishing an illusionary sense of security as we plunge headlong into the new industrial revolution. After all, once the robots are in charge, it's hard to see what would stop them changing the rules as they see fit. If they are indeed more intelligent than us, they might know better than us. In any case, we wouldn't be able to win the argument intellectually, let alone force them to do what we wanted. It's hard to believe that any security we had installed couldn't be bypassed by a greater intelligence. As we're seeing in the US, all the safeguards you might install are only as safe as the people you entrust to keep them. Once the robots are in the presidency, the Senate and the House, so to speak, they can change the constitution to whatever suits them.

So, it appears that robots could soon relegate man back down to less than top dog. Finally we will be subservient to another—and our vanquishers will be of our own devising. And while the possibilities for apocalyptic outcome just trip off the tongue, there are, if not good reasons to be optimistic, then at least ways of thinking about it that don't require smoking ruins and robots zapping the last few John Connors.

Because we're going here, no two ways about that. For all our science fiction fears, and realistic worries about automation, we aren't going to stop. This is humanity—we could no more not go down this road than we could have not built a nuclear bomb, or climbed Everest. So, we should be welcoming the rise of robots—if only because we have to—and finding good things about it.

For example: the rise of Trump has brought a constant shriek of "where are the adults?" Perhaps robots are going to be the adults that prevent Trump from destroying the world in a social-media related fit of pique. Perhaps robots are going to be the ones that save democracy, by defending it from its worst excesses. If we cannot be trusted to elect decent leaders, or to be decent leaders, perhaps robots, with their hyperintelligence, will have to do it.

Perhaps robots can help us not destroy the planet, or at the very least get those climate change deniers to shut the fuck up on Facebook for five minutes. Perhaps robots can solve the philosophical problems we have been unable to—the 'hard problem' of consciousness, for example, or that of free will and determinism, and thereby usher in a new Athenian idyll.

Talking of the Greeks, it's just possible that our fear of robots is analogous to the fears the Mount Olympus gods once had of us. Perhaps we are destined to be the new gods, and the robots our progeny. And hopefully they would respect—even worship—us, for a while anyway, before casting us aside as we did to ours.

And looking further forwards: perhaps robots are, in the end, the way that we will ensure the survival of life. Because if life has a purpose—or at least, if humanity's grasping towards knowledge has a purpose—it is, presumably, to get off this spinning space rock before we blow it up, an asteroid smacks it or the sun consumes it. We know the chances of humans surviving deep space travel are extremely low, and the Star Trek world of humans living in deep space is even more unlikely. Robots, however, built by us to reproduce and adapt on a survival-of-the-fitness regime, could plausibly go out and thrive in the great yonder. OK, it wouldn't be organic life, but we can probably, um, live with that. Perhaps our robots would be so clever, they could make themselves organic. But it would ensure the continuation of a working intelligence, even a consciousness, one blessed, at the outset at least, by humanity.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Love & Friendship – film review

Kate Beckinsale shines as the devious, manipulative and indefatigable Lady Susan, in Walt Stillman's adaptation of the Jane Austen novella. Cast by circumstance on to the largesse of distant relatives, Susan remains ravishingly confident, in a succession of stunning dresses, as she cheats, tweaks and seduces whomever expedience demands. The story itself is amusing but slight, and co-star Chloë Sevigny, as Susan's American pal, is curiously absent; she barely inhabits her scenes and appears at times to be reading the script from a very long way away. The rest of the cast have great fun, as the English middle-class always do when called upon to play the gentry. And the film is only 90mins, so win-win. 

PS Searching for Sevigny on Google brings up this fantastic selection of her quotes 




Saturday, November 12, 2016

On Thomas the Tank Engine and Tom Moss, his evil alter ego


My lad loves Thomas the Tank Engine. Loves it. Could watch it through the apocalypse, and may have to, the way things are going.

You might have found certain programmes that you enjoyed as a child that you later, as an adult, realise had ironic depths, hidden jokes that had kept the adults entertained while leaving your enjoyment undisturbed. 60s-era Batman, with its campestry, or 80s-era Danger Mouse, with its puns, is the sort of thing I mean. Thomas the Tank Engine is the complete opposite of that. Thomas has no hidden depths, or if it does they are all awful hidden depths, the sort of hidden depths that vote Ukip. The island of Sodor, where Thomas and his pals reside, is a joyless, quasi-fascist regime. Everyone knows their place, one man's word is law and the trains do, indeed, run on time.

OK, that's not quite fair. The original TV show had Ringo Starr narrating, evidence that the makers did in fact have a sense of humour. Moreover, the island of Sodor is not actually a fascist regime. Sodor is much more an idealised British land of deeply stratified class, in which all engines know their place and fascism isn't necessary because even the basics of class consciousness have yet to manifest. In fact, Sodor represents a sort of Victorian capitalist vision of religious utopia, in which the Fat Controller stands in for Our Good Lord, dispensing stern, all-seeing justice to the misbehaving toddler-engines who populate the railway.

You might ask why, as a member of free society, I don't just turn it off. But I don't live in a free society; I live in my very own fascist regime, run by my small child.

Lately, even he's got bored of politically suspect tedium, and begun to demand "Toy Thomas" videos. My initial reaction, as with most things, was to say no. These videos, made by "enthusiasts", are a sort of YouTube fanfic. They employ copious supplies of Thomas-branded toy railways, dubious editing skills and what it would be generous to describe as "rudimentary" animation techniques. All these achievements are marshalled to tell new Thomas stories, of which, as you probably now realise, the world has absolutely no need. Furthermore, the more successful of these enterprises have become vast advertorials for the toy firms, so while you're off getting five minutes peace at the kitchen sink, your child is absorbing about £500-worth of plastic-tat desire.



I held out for a while – constantly trying to switch over to "real" Thomas, as if that was any better – but, as with all things child-related, I eventually caved in. And I'm glad I did, because it turns out these Toy Thomas stories are infinitely better than the dud-handed official ones. My and my son's favourite features 12 tales of a renegade engine named Tom Moss the Prank Engine (you can see what they did there). Tom Moss skulks in the deep forest of Sodor, where the other trains are too scared to go, sporadically visiting the town centre to pull absurdist pranks on the sheeple-engines of the trad Thomas realm. What's more, Tom Moss always gets away with it, speeding off back to his forest lair after pulling his stunts, which seems to me to be a much healthier life lesson than the Fat-Controller-is-always-right turgitude of the original.

It's a great relief to see the pompous idyll shattered by a much-needed trickster visitation, to watch the squabbling suckups of Sodor get comprehensively gypped by a giggling reprobate with a penchant for exploding pumpkins and guerrilla helium attacks. Occasionally, the Minions and Peppa Pig turn up, for no apparent reason. My boy watches in enthralled silence. I find myself drifting into questions about Dave, the mysterious narrator of the Tom Moss offshoot.

I think he's called Dave – I seem to remember he mentions his name in a Brechtian moment at one point. As a professional journalist with keen research skills, I went as far as to peruse the YouTube channel whence these videos issue. This reveals that the moviettes are made by an Ian and Ali Phillips, along with their three boys, Chris, Dave and Mike. Dave sounds a bit old to be of the younger partners in a film-making dynasty, but, well, what do I know. Their channel has more than 1.5 million subscribers, and has notched up more than 2.5bn views. For reference, the official Thomas & Friends channel has 310,000 subscribers, with 464m views. Perhaps, as a professional journalist with keen research skills and lofty, broadsheet standards, I should phone up the Phillips family and ask what the inspiration was behind Tom Moss, and other questions a professional journalist with such skills and standards would ask. I give you one guess whether I'm going to do that. Besides, my boy wants the computer to watch Thomas.