Tuesday, 24 January 2023

How will you know when you know?

'How will you know when you know' is a song about being in a band and hitting the wall of realisation that you are probably not going to be the next U2. In the first verse, there is excitement and optimism as the musicians plan for another adventure, loading up their van for a gig (in the exotic location of Aberdeen). The second verse is written from the perspective of the morning after the night before, grinding through the daily routine and trying to analyse events through the enervating fog of sleep deprivation. What was last night all about? Why did we do it? Was it really a good use of our time? The video was produced by Eddie Macarthur at Stealth Studio in Glasgow.     


Saturday, 14 January 2023

My Gang

In anticipation of the latest Eisenhowers album (Judge a man by the company he keeps) going double platinum, I somewhat optimistically pressed 2 million CDs. In spite of one decent review on Unknownindielosers.com, we’re still only 0.00085% towards our target sales figure. There is definitely room for improvement, so the PR team at Waste of Point records have organised a ruthless publicity campaign which involves me ‘putting out’ a series of live acoustic performances of various songs from the album. Below, you'll find a link to ‘My Gang’, a song about political polarisation. The most noteworthy detail of the music is that the song (absent lyrics) was written, more or less, in the time it took to play it.

My modus operandi when composing is to sit and strum, pluck or plonk with no particular aim in mind, other than to go in the direction the music seems to want to go. Of course, this will be influenced by how I'm feeling, whether I'm playing loudly or quietly, whether I'm forming chords or picking out single notes and so on. On this occasion, once I found the opening chord and a rhythm that felt right, the forward momentum became irresistible. The sequence and structure arrived within a couple of minutes because the 'song', even in its nascent form, knew where it wanted to go. Within moments, I had a working title and an idea of what the lyric would be about. The subject of political polarization interests me and I wanted to explore a landscape wherein dialogue between opposing sides isn’t just frowned upon or rejected; it is taken to be undesirable. 

There are other ways to write songs; I’ve got material that has been in development for years because I don’t know how to finish it, or haven’t devoted the energy necessary to achieve closure. But this one was signed, sealed delivered in a very short space of time. I believe ‘My Gang’ is a well-written and a well-executed song. It’s not original and it’s not going to change the world, but in three minutes or so, it encapsulated some of the things I wanted to say about what passes for political discourse in the 21st century. The video was splendidly produced, as ever, by Eddie Macarthur at Stealth Studio in Glasgow. 

So … here’s the next blow in my continuing war of attrition with the record-buying public. 2 million CDs (a) take up a lot of space and (b) weigh a ton. Please buy one, because structural damage to one’s house is no laughing matter. ‘Judge a man by the company he keeps’ is available on Bandcamp, Spotify, iTunes, CD Baby and all the usual sources. 


Friday, 1 October 2021

The clean versus the unclean: An open letter to Members of the Scottish Parliament

Dear MSP

I hope you can take a couple of minutes out of your busy schedule to read this.

Today is a big day for everyone in Scotland, but it seems that many people haven’t quite grasped the significance of it. I refer to the introduction of the so-called 'vaccine passports'. I object to them as a matter of principle, but before you are tempted to dismiss me as a crank, I will point out that I’m neither an ‘anti-vaxxer’ nor a conspiracy theorist.

Having watched, with mounting concern, as the British and Scottish governments reacted to the virus by engaging in sustained bouts of psychological warfare on their own people, I welcomed the arrival of a vaccine and was relieved that we were finally able to glimpse some light at the end of a long and very dark tunnel. My age and my caring responsibilities for my elderly father led me to conclude that being double-jabbed was the appropriate choice for me. I have no difficulty accepting that the vaccine has been important in breaking the link between cases and hospitalisations, but the benefits don’t seem to have accrued in quite the way we were led to expect.      

By now, our national conversation ought to be focusing on the appalling damage done by some of the political decisions made in response to the virus. By that I mean the patients not diagnosed, the illnesses not treated, the support groups abandoned, the lost jobs, the destroyed businesses, the suicides and the broken families. And much will eventually be written about the crushed hopes of our young people, often disgracefully traduced by the media as ‘super spreaders’, their education disrupted and devalued by a political establishment which reacts to statistics like a nervous dog reacts to sudden noises in the street outside. Many have come to believe that the Covid cure will eventually be judged to have been more damaging than the disease, but instead of having conversations about that, we are being held in a state of febrile confusion by ever-moving goalposts and increasingly ridiculous and contradictory rules.     

And now, in Scotland, we appear to have accepted the division of citizens into ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’.

History, when we are willing to pay attention, warns us against such developments; it tells us that this has happened before and that it doesn’t end well. It tells us that the unchallengeable invocation of concern for public health provides a golden ticket to those of an authoritarian bent. And, when people are motivated by a desire to exert control over the lives of others, they will welcome and embrace (sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously) any conditions which allow them to consolidate and enhance the mechanisms of control.      

If you are one of those MSPs who view themselves as part of the opposition and you voted against the vaccine passports, I feel that I should disabuse you of the notion that you have somehow discharged your duties. Because it wasn’t your job just to vote against this bill. We all knew that the authoritarians would carry the day; we knew that merely counting the votes in the house would give them the permission they required. Your job was to not to quibble about the practicalities of the bill; it was to oppose the principle of it and make it as difficult as humanly possible for it to pass. You would have lost the battle, of course, because they are currently in charge. But you would at least have given an important signal to a proportion of our demoralised, fearful, but increasingly angry population. And your vigorous opposition would have forced the authoritarians to reveal just a little bit more of their true natures.   

You may feel that what I have proposed would have breached the normal rules of engagement, but perhaps the ‘new normal’ we’re being asked to accept also requires new rules of engagement. You were elected to protect the rights and freedoms of all citizens, not just the clean. Someone has to make a stand, however unpopular that might be, for the unclean. If not you, then who? And if not now, then when? If you are unwilling to draw the line at dividing citizens into clean and unclean, where exactly might you take a principled stand? On compulsory vaccinations, perhaps? Or excluding unvaccinated people from the employment market? Or how about forcing the unvaccinated to wear badges in public?

Some of you reading this will think: “Oh, don’t exaggerate … none of those things are going to happen.”

In response, I’d say: how do you know that? Given what we’ve been trained to tolerate over the last eighteen months, how do you know that?           

The descent into totalitarianism does not happen with a big bang and a sudden announcement that “Big Sister is in charge and you’ll do as you’re told. Dissent is not an option.” The retreat from civilisation is always gradual, featuring hundreds of little steps, some of them barely perceptible, but each with the goal of preparing you for the next one and acclimatising you to the direction of travel. How many of those little steps are you willing to take? Is there any point at which you’ll say ‘enough’? 

I’m just one person -a vaccinated person- but I’ve now reached that point of principle, my personal line in the sand.

I have friends and family who, for perfectly legitimate reasons, have concerns about the vaccine. I will not consent to them being treated as lesser citizens. I will not consent to them being excluded from society on the grounds of choices they have made about their own health. I will not consent to handing a world like this over to my children and grandchildren. I will never present medical papers or proof of vaccination in order to enter a bar, a cinema, a concert or a football match. Going to gigs and big sporting events are two of my favourite things to do. My sacrifice -such as it is- may be modest, but it is one that I feel compelled to make, because my head, heart and gut are completely aligned in opposition to the direction of travel.    

The introduction of this law was a significant and, I believe, shameful moment for our country. You were in a position of relative power and could have made a difference.       

I fear that history will judge that you were weighed, you were measured and you were found wanting. 

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

C to the power 4

I was out for a walk the other day and, quite by chance, came across this challenging and exhilarating piece by the Scottish street artist Fiona Menzies-Cunningham. Her graffiti work, currently on view at various locations around Glasgow, is charged with powerful ideas which force us to think about the nature of power, oppression and patriarchy. 
Menzies-Cunningham, by refusing to exhibit in bourgeois galleries, is one of the few modern artists willing to make resonant her participation in a genuine critical dialogue around toxic masculinity and white hegemony by taking art to the people. Her free-to-view graffiti skillfully interpolates notions of power, class and sexuality into a cultural paradigm which not only transcends materialism, but rages against the malignant logic of the hetero-patriarchal male gaze, all the while acknowledging that social constructs (like gender) are part of the fatal flaw of language and can only be mediated by heuristic approaches to ontological inquiry.

This piece, entitled C to the power 4, is located near Knightswood Park and has already attracted quite a bit of attention. The first thing one notices is that she has chosen to adorn a building in which the windows are protected by wire mesh. The curtains are permanently drawn, a perfect illustration of Brexit Britain's closed-mindedness and isolationism. Each window is, in fact, a unique 'territory' marked by an individual 'cunt'.

At first glance, these four cunts appear to be more or less identical, but closer inspection reveals a devious simplicity in the remarkable way that Menzies-Cunningham manages light. There is a certain morbid fluidity to the brushstrokes, a subtle grading of rage, the insidious chiaroscuro forcing us to acknowledge and confront the nature of oppression. There is an almost subaqueous quality to the spatial relationship between the individual letters in each word, but one might also say that the space between the cunts, the lucid purity of those gaps, delineates a rigorous substructure of deeply critical thinking. 
We expect each cunt to offer a glimpse into its own hellish world, but when we try to look through these windows there is no ‘view’ to be had. The mesh, the glass and the grey curtains merely confront us with a brutal reflection of our own opaque paranoia. It would be relatively straightforward to interpret these cunts as being the four horsemen of the apocalypse (Trump, Brexit, toxic masculinity and white privilege), but a closer examination forces us to consider the subtleties of the artist's worldview.  There is a sense in which these cunts visually and conceptually activate a distinctive formal juxtaposition, asking us to consider whether culture really is interchangeable with truth; only from such a position (which is, surely, a position of trust), can one truthfully forge a constructive feminine paradigm of legitimate expression.

This piece is both menacing and playful because of the way the artist uses the reductive quality of her motifs to spatially undermine the exploration of our response to discursive trans-misogynistic violence. For what it's worth, my reading is that the 'left to right' running order of C to the power 4 would be: white privilege (leading to) toxic masculinity (which in turn leads to) Trump (which is accompanied by) Brexit, but I know that other interpretations are available. One is teased, for instance, by the ambiguous calligraphy of that last cunt on the right; it might actually be 'Clint', which could be an allusion to misogyny and homophobia in Hollywood westerns. 

C to the power 4 bridges the gap between our notion of 'the powerful' and our everyday lived experience. Through the disjunctive perturbation of this negative space, Menzies-Cunningham has asked questions to which we previously had no answers and provided answers where previously there had been no questions. Her beautifully congruent synthesis of consciousness and narrative presents us with a stark choice: succumb to the oppressive constructs of patriarchy or embrace the liberating paradox of fragmentation within an inter-sectional landscape. It is now, surely, time for us to foreground the intrinsic apparatus of equity within a renewed, empowered, 'higher' consciousness in which cunts can only be understood within the critical framework of dialectical third-wave feminism.

Sunday, 20 January 2019

On not being 'there' there

If you have parented a teenager, you will know that there is a difference between going out and going out out. Going out means you are leaving the house to do something with friends, but that ‘something’ won’t involve much in the way of drinking and clubbing. Going out out, by contrast, will involve both of those activities, along with some others that parents would rather not know about. There are certain aspects of modern life which require a similar nomenclature.       

If you’ve been to a concert recently, you may have noticed the phenomenon of people recording the event on their tablet or phone. They will have paid money to be there, but chosen to limit their participation in the gig by mediating the experience through an electronic device, presumably so they can watch it later. But the ‘watching it later’ can only be a facsimile of the actual experience. Someone might claim about a concert that “I was there … look at what I filmed”, but I’d suggest that their decision to film it means that they weren’t there there. The memory of recording an event is not the same as a memory of watching it; by definition, the former will be of a lower resolution.       

I used to think that not being there there was something of a bug in a 21st century life shaped by technology, but I’m now more inclined to interpret it as a feature. For many folk, it seems that any event (a night-out, a birthday meal, a picnic in the park) hasn’t really happened until it has appeared on Facebook or Instagram. But if you’re using up time and energy trying to get the perfect image to post on social media, if you’re already curating an experience you’ve yet to have, you’re not really there there at all. Being there there would not involve putting the actual experience on hold while you recorded it, turning it, effectively, into something else.

This curating culture extends to recording stuff as mundane as people ‘reacting’ to something. You can find hundreds of videos on Youtube of so-and-so reacting to Arsenal’s third goal against Tottenham; or so-and-so reacting to the 'Red Wedding' in Game of Thrones; or so-and-so reacting to the trailer for the new Avengers film.

We are social animals and we crave communal experiences, but where exactly does the pleasure reside in watching someone else react to something? What’s the thrill in observing other folk doing mundane things? The judgemental part of me fears that it’s a bit like sub-contracting your own response to a third party, but the charitable part would concede that it probably just helps some people authenticate a shared experience. Or perhaps it represents something more significant. Maybe digital curation is part of some evolutionary process whereby our species will develop the appropriate neurological software to allow us to become truly technological beings.    

The ‘observing other folk at the mundane’ phenomenon is perhaps best illustrated by Gogglebox, a TV show about people watching TV in order to talk about it on TV. I’m not entirely sure where the appeal of this show lies (I don’t think it's with the sparkling wit of the participants). Is it, perhaps, that we are comforted by seeing other people doing the same lazy stuff as us? Does it somehow validate our decision to sit on the couch and watch rubbish on the telly because we can pretend that what we are doing, like those Gogglebox folk, is having a communal experience, observing and commentating on our cultural milieu? If it is true that watching TV is a passive experience, then how should we describe the act of watching other people watching TV? Not that long ago such an act would have been considered absurd.

Where can it go from here? Are there meta-contexts of curation, observation and reaction that we’ve yet to explore? With a little imagination, we could easily expand our curated universe.  

Perhaps someone should make a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the people who have to edit the footage for each edition of Gogglebox (that must be quite a job, wading through hours of material to find the entertaining bits). Then we, the viewers, could watch this programme and create some home-made content by recording ourselves reacting to a show about the trials and tribulations of the people who edit the footage of the people who watch TV in order to talk about it on TV.

This new programme (let’s call it 'G-Box Infinity') would feature us reacting to watching the people editing the Gogglebox footage. Once that was shown on TV, the Gogglebox people could watch 'G-Box Infinity' in order to talk about it on TV.  

Then, in the comfort of our living rooms, we could watch the Gogglebox people watching and talking about us reacting to watching the trials and tribulations of the people who edit the footage of the people who watch TV in order to talk about it on TV.  

I could go on, but there is a danger that I’ll accidentally set up a temporal feedback loop and blow a hole in the fabric of time.

Monday, 17 December 2018

The collective noun for TV talking heads

The BBC documentary ‘Roxy Music – A Musical History’ achieved something quite remarkable. The remarkable thing was this: it made a tragic, middle-aged Roxy fan boy like me turn off after about ten minutes. Had I kept watching, I’m afraid I might have ended up breaking something in our living room.

Some folk in TV land must think that a definitive template for quality has been established by programmes like ‘The nation’s 100 favourite telly adverts’ or ‘The greatest-ever soap villains’, wherein a bunch of well-worn video clips are assembled for the purpose of showcasing the ‘witty’ and ‘off-the-cuff’ observations of C-list celebrities. You can tell from their eyes that, generally speaking, these TV talking heads don’t know (or care) much about the subject matter; they’re just reacting to clips they’ve been shown five minutes before. 

One of the reasons that online content is often more interesting than TV content is that the folk who make the online stuff usually care (sometimes to the point of insanity) about their subject matter. A talking head on TV, by contrast, only really cares about being a talking head on TV. Such a person will dream of the money shot, the moment they’ll coin a phrase so cute, pithy and resonant that they’ll be hired to do a whole bunch more talking head stuff on shows like ‘Britain’s Weirdest Game Show Contestants.’

I generally avoid this kind of programme, but felt that I could not pass up the chance to watch an hour devoted to one of my favourite bands. Alas, merely 600 seconds into the show, having absorbed a series of blows, all of which sign-posted the grim direction of travel, I had to reach for the remote and terminate my participation with extreme prejudice. Maybe I should have watched the whole thing before writing this review, but those 600 seconds contained quite enough inanity for me to get the gist, featuring as it did some world-class superficiality from Sadie Frost, Shaun Ryder, Alan McGee, Sian Pattenden and Emma Dabiri (no … me neither).

The commentary seemed neither apposite nor insightful, but what made it worse was that some of it was used DURING THE SONGS, the director clearly having interpreted each of the instrumental passages as an opportunity to insert analysis like this:

"Bryan Ferry wore glitter on his eyes.”

And this:

"The instruments all had a part to play in the Roxy sound.”

To anyone interested in finding out about a fantastic band, my advice would be to avoid this programme. Instead, do yourself a favour and check out some old clips on youtube. At least that way, you won’t have to encounter a phenomenon which surely deserves a collective noun, preferably something pejorative and judgemental to reflect its pestilential vapidity.

How about a jabbering of TV talking heads? That sounds about right.

There ... I’ve done something useful with the time I could have spent shouting at the television. 

Sunday, 9 December 2018

You can check out any time you like (but you can never leave).

Watching the news and social media responses to the Brexit negotiations makes me wonder what people expected from a process that was bound to be complicated, painful, protracted and prone to brinkmanship. The level of ineptitude shown by the British Government may have surprised people, but it doesn’t account for the catastrophising zeal of those commentators who consistently attempt to invalidate or sabotage both the goal and the process of the negotiations. 

One of the juiciest cherries atop this absurd cake is the acknowledgement by Scotland's First Minister that the 35 Scottish Nationalist MPs at Westminster will back any proposals for a second referendum on the Brexit terms. One must accept that nationalists will, by definition, view everything through the prism of their desire for independence; with that in mind, it doesn’t take a huge leap of faith to imagine a situation in which Scotland’s 2014 independence referendum might have resulted in a similar melodrama.     

Imagine, for a moment, a world in which that independence referendum had resulted in a narrow win for the Yes team. There would have been all kinds of heated discussion about the future, with just under half of the population dismayed by the result and just over half in a state approaching euphoria. Many within the Yes movement would have been elated, but some might also have urged a note of caution about the challenges lying ahead, perhaps considering it foolish to assume that it would be easy to dissolve a 300-year old partnership.

Our First Minister would have had to appoint armies of civil servants to deal with the many complexities of what, for the purpose of this flight of fancy, we'll call Scoxit.

There would, surely, have been questions over border controls, currency, share of national debt, location of key businesses, ownership of assets etc. Perhaps, given the closeness of the result, there might even have been some division within the independence movement. Hard line Scoxiteers might have argued for immediate secession from rump UK with as little compromise as possible; others may have reasoned that the hopes, fears and aspirations of the half of the population which did not vote ‘Yes’ would have to be taken into account during the negotiations.

Imagine, on the losing side, that a group of rich and influential people (bankers, politicians, business folk, cultural taste-makers) started to cavil about the result. Imagine that their default line of attack was that the Scottish electorate had been ‘duped’ and did not understand the complexities of the issues concerned. These low-information voters, it might have been argued, were forcing us to break up a successful partnership that had endured for centuries. That Scoxit vote, portrayed by some as essentially anti-English and driven by ‘blood and soil’ xenophobia would have to be overturned; a second referendum (or, if you will, a peoples’ vote) would be required.

The discerning reader might consider this to be a dismally low-resolution interpretation of a binary vote, but let us imagine for the moment that such a fanciful notion somehow had the power to gain some traction in the public consciousness.  

As the deadline for the Scoxit settlement loomed, one could envisage the negotiations stalling, perhaps snagging on technicalities and conflicting interpretations of some of the terms contained within the Act of Union. The First Minister would have been caught between a rock (the ‘Stop Scoxit’ movement, agitating for a second referendum, but perhaps willing to consent to a settlement involving as little disruption to the Union as possible) and a hard place (the Scoxiteers, insistent that a newly-independent Scotland should not be bound by rules, terms and conditions dictated by Westminster).

Aiming to maintain a conciliatory approach to an increasingly divisive issue, let us imagine that the beleaguered First Minister might have flown to London to present a compromise deal, one which –arguably- contained just enough juice for both parties to accept, allowing us to get on with the business of forging effective links between Scotland and rump UK. Imagine that this plan was quickly rejected by the Westminster negotiating team and that the First Minister was sent homeward to think again.  

Weary of being traduced for their ‘stupidity’, their ‘ignorance’ and their ‘xenophobia’, it is not difficult to imagine that Yes voters would have started to fear that the prize they had won was going to be denied by intransigence in London. Many would have been angry about a ‘foreign’ power deigning to grant secession only on terms that seemed unduly punitive.     

There is, of course, a possibility that those voters might have weighed up the stalled negotiations, the slights to their First Minister, the endless slanders and calls for a ‘peoples’ vote’ and thought:

"Well ... this is rather more hassle than we expected. Maybe all those celebrities are right; perhaps we should just have another vote."

Or perhaps they would have taken a deep breath and said:

"Now, perhaps, some of you are beginning to understand why we wanted to leave the UK. We were asked a question and we gave you a clear instruction; now, please, give us what we voted for."

Given the circumstances, which of those responses would have been more likely?

To ask that question is to know the answer.