Quiet, quite busy

Sorry for the ongoing neglect of this blog: I’ve been really busy with the twin demands of work, which has been crazy, and writing a book. But I haven’t forgotten about the blog, and I want to start blogging again fairly soon.

If you haven’t already seen on Facebook, Twitter or heard on the radio, I’m writing a book about what it’s like to grow up trans/non-binary and to find a way to be who you want to be. I’ve written lots of it already and what’s there so far is alternatively honest, interesting or funny. Just like the author, heh.

I’ll share some of it soon, but in the meantime if you want to stay in touch and we already know one another please hit me up on Facebook, or come and say hello on Twitter.

Bye bye, blog?

I’m thinking of shutting this blog down and replacing it with a static site: WordPress is under pretty much constant attack and the hassle of removing dodgy files, patching vulnerabilities etc is becoming a bit too much for me at the moment. If there’s anything here you particularly treasure, such as my legendarily busy article about defrosting plates (no, really), then it’s maybe worth downloading it just in case.

I’m still on Twitter and Facebook, of course.

You’re so Venn

Bands are musical Venn diagrams: each member has their own tastes in music, and the music the band makes is located where those individual tastes overlap (in most cases, anyway: it’s different if the dynamic is more like Oasis, where one strong personality basically bosses everybody else about).

That means bands tend to be fairly consistent, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing – for example if one of Chvrches wanted to do a death metal song or Angus Young decided to embrace jazz-funk, you’d hope the others would veto it – but it does narrow your musical horizons a little bit.

If you’re making music, is that a good thing?

I haven’t played in a band for a long time – ten years or so, I think, maybe more – but of course I’ve continued to write and record music with my brother and partner in musical crimes, David. And because there’s just two of us, and because we often write separately, and because we don’t have the issue of wondering how we’d play something live, we don’t have the consensus or compromise that you’d get in a larger group. The songs we’re working on at the moment include straight-ahead rock, grinding EDM, very delicate acoustic stuff, shimmery pop and at least one track that sounds like Donna Summer.

The thing is, though, while that’s an accurate reflection of the kinds of music we like, it isn’t a reflection of individual bands we like: each of them does a fairly specific thing. For example, Faith No More will do the odd bit of mexicana or a Commodores cover, but 99% of what they do is what you’d expect Faith No More to do. Eels are so consistent they often record the same song with different words. Chvrches aren’t going to start doing ska.

The only bands I can think of that don’t stick to a single recognisable sound or genre, who’ll flit from genre to genre without a care, are parodists. And that worries me, because I don’t really want to be part of a club that includes Weird Al Yankovic and the crap songs on comedy sketch shows. I’m not using arpeggiators and drum machines because I want to parody dance music, or big guitars because I’m taking the piss out of metal bands; I’m doing these things because they’re what the songs demand. The Donna Summer-esque song needs that Moroder chug. The shimmery pop needs those synths. The declaration of intent needs to sound like an invading army. And so on.

And yet I feel that I’m doing something wrong.

Am I?

I’m not a Nat

One of the irritating things about post-election reporting is the way many (English) publications keep banging on about a nationalist surge. The SNP vote was based on many things, and for some people I’m sure nationalism played a part. But for me, and for many of the No voters I know who voted SNP in this election, it wasn’t about nationalism at all. So kudos to the LSE for today’s blog on the subject of Scottish nationalism and voting:

To just make the point absolutely clear: Scottish identity or sentiment has not been increasing, but decreasing gradually since the advent of devolution…  the strongest determinants of both independence and SNP support were pragmatic evaluations about economic prospects, trustworthiness and political personnel. For most people in Scotland the SNP is a normal party, that they like, hate or are indifferent to, but those evaluations for most are based on whether people agree with their policies and how they evaluate their representation.

In The Night Garden is Jacob’s Ladder for kids

You end up watching quite a lot of kids’ TV when you’re a parent, and it gets pretty boring pretty quickly. So you let your mind wander. You create imaginary backstories for the presenters on the assumption that the perkier the presenter, the more depraved the private life. You take things out of context for your own amusement, such as the bit on Baby TV where a creature dressed as a scoutmaster growls “I will take the little ones.” And more than anything, you imagine what the programme is really about.

A good example of the genre is Chris Brown’s Teletubbies video, which is based on the discovery that the Teletubbies in black and white are quite frightening.

But I prefer the theory that In The Night Garden is Jacob’s Ladder remade for kids.

If you’re not familiar with the film, Jacob’s Ladder was a 1990 film directed by Adrian Lyne and starring Tim Robbins. I’m not sure how it’s aged, but I remember it as one of the most frightening and disturbing films I’ve ever seen. It’s very difficult to explain without giving away the whole story, so let’s just leave it at this: it’s about death.

In The Night Garden is about death too.

The programme starts with the main character, Igglepiggle, alone in a boat. It’s dark and the seas are high. Igglepiggle takes down the boat’s sail, lights a light, and is transported to the Night Garden where he meets the love of his life, Upsy Daisy, along with a cast of characters including midget families and giant inflatables with faces on them. After a bit of excitement everybody goes to bed and Igglepiggle goes to sleep on his boat.

Here’s an episode I’ve just watched with my son.

It’s all very lovely, until somebody on the internet tells you that the whole thing is desperately sad. Igglepiggle has been shipwrecked. He’s out of food and water. He’s hallucinating. And everything that happens in the episode is a fever dream as his body shuts down.

Viewed through that prism, it all makes sense. The weird characters. The voice of God (well, Derek Jacobi) talking to the characters. The way everybody leaves, leaving Igglepiggle alone in the garden, wishing the fun would never end. And through that prism, when Derek Jacobi says “Don’t worry, Igglepiggle. It’s time to go”, it’s absolutely heartbreaking. It’s the equivalent of this bit in Jacob’s Ladder (spoiler alert!):

“Don’t worry, Igglepiggle. It’s time to go.”

The camera returns to the boat, where Igglepiggle is silent and still, and the melancholy theme tune swells as the boat disappears into the horizon.

Devastating.

Next week: why Peppa Pig is secretly about Satan.

Sometimes winning elections is very simple

As an elderly woman told our newly elected MP during last week’s canvassing, she was voting for him because he was the only person coming to her door with reasons to vote for a candidate. The only thing the other canvassers talked about, she said, was why she shouldn’t vote for their rivals.

See ya, Saab

A friend of mine drove one of these off a cliff, and survived.

A friend of mine drove one of these off a cliff, and survived.

I’ve written before about my love of Saabs, but sadly it’s reached the end of the road: I’ve just sold my knackered old 9-5 estate to WeBuyAnyCar.com (who offered me exactly what it’s worth – I was selling it because it wasn’t viable to repair anything any more) and I very much doubt I’ll get another one.

That isn’t just because Saab went bust. My budget means I’m always in old-car territory, and there are plenty of pre-closure 9-5s out there. Certainly, if I wanted to I could drive Saabs for another decade or so.

Sadly, I don’t want to.

Saab is a great example of what can happen when a marque knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Before General Motors came along, Saab was famed for its engineering and its unconventional belief that throwing all the power in the world through a car’s front wheels was a good idea. And it was, because hot Saabs were an absolute hoot.

And then General Motors got involved.

All of my Saabs have been GM-era Saabs: a 900 hatchback, a 9-5 petrol estate and a 9-5 diesel estate. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the 900, which was the one least messed about with by GM, was my favourite. My most recent 9-5 was essentially a Vauxhall Vectra in drag with one of the worst diesel engines imaginable – a tractor engine teamed up with sports suspension and low profile tyres, a match made in hell. I think it’s safe to say brand loyalty blinded me to the hopelessness of that one.

Before GM got involved, Saab was mixing it with the BMWs and Mercedes of the world. Once GM got involved, quality plummeted and despite Saab engineers’ best efforts, the cars weren’t mixing it with BMW and Mercedes any more. If I’m honest, my wife’s 14-year-old VW Golf is a better car than either of my 9-5 estates were.

I still have enormous affection for the Saab of old, but not so much that I want to drive an old Saab. So, like many Saab owners before me, I’m going for a German car instead.

2014 and all that

Here’s my 2014 in a nutshell: it’s Hallowe’en, and I’m at a fancy dress party. I’m dressed as Alice Cooper. I have Alice Cooper’s trademark top hat. I have Alice Cooper’s trademark make-up, including the black lines coming down from the mouth and the slashes across the eyes. I have Alice Cooper’s trademark mess of black hair courtesy of a cheap and horrible wig. And I am wearing a T-shirt with ALICE COOPER: SCHOOL’S OUT on it.

All night, people call me Ozzy.

I didn’t have a great 2014. Professionally it’s been awful, with good friends treated terribly by publishers and broadcasters, august titles canned and long-running programmes pulled. I’m still blocked on the two novels I’ve got in progress, and while David and I have made lots of music that I’m very, very proud of (and which you can get for free from here) I haven’t failed to notice that while we’re making the best music of our lives it’s being heard by the fewest people we’ve ever reached. Ho hum.

The big news here in Scotland was of course the referendum on independence, which the No side won 55 to 45. I’m not going to dig through it all here, but other than renewing my faith in (some) human nature, the takeaway for me was profound cynicism about politics and the media. The Telegraph’s Scottish Editor Alan Cochrane epitomised it, writing in his referendum memoirs about how he thought helping the No side win was more important than being a proper journalist. According to Private Eye, Cochrane was promised a bonus of £10,000 to £20,000 by the Telegraph’s Chief Executive if No won; Cochrane denied the allegation. I’d love to see his post-referendum bank statement. The Yes side might not have won the referendum, but if I’m typical then a lot of people are paying a lot more attention to Scottish politics, its reporting and its discussion on social media than ever before.

Personally things were a little rough, although they’re improving, and some great music saved the day again and again: Beck’s Sea Change, Taylor Swift’s 1989, the Royksopp/Robyn collaboration, King Creosote’s From Scotland With Love, Babymetal… okay, probably not Babymetal. And there were some truly exceptional gigs, including a spine-tingling Staves, a superb Pet Shop Boys, a triumphant Chvrches, a ridiculously entertaining Marmozets and old-school fun from Public Enemy (patchy but still great) and Jesus Jones (superb, honestly). Other gigs were less successful, though: shows by Wild Beasts and The 4 of Us both suffered badly from arseholes-talking syndrome and a Bob Mould show I’d been looking forward to for months was murdered by the sound mix from hell.

Music aside, though, I’ll be glad to see the back of 2014 and I’m looking forward to seeing the beginning of what I hope will be an interesting, exciting and happy 2015. I hope that whatever you do and wherever you are, 2015 brings you everything you want and nothing that you don’t. Happy New Year when it comes.

The Magazine Diaries is now on sale

I’m one of 100 contributors to The Magazine Diaries, a book by and about the magazine industry that’s raising money for a good cause.

Here’s the blurb:

In 64 pages, 100 magazine professionals tell their stories, 100 words at a time. All magazine life is here, the optimists and pessimists, veterans and newbies, pixel heads and page sniffers…

Buy a copy. You’ll nod your head, shake your head, throw it across the room then rush to pick it up so you can read the next 100 words. Most of all it will help MagAid get magazines into schools and develop a love of reading in under privileged school children.

What a difference a week makes

I’ve been meaning to write about the referendum result for a while, but I haven’t had the time or the inclination: unfortunately for me it coincided with a particularly nasty bout of depression and some major work stress, so blogging has been fairly low down the list of priorities. I’ve cheered up now.

With hindsight, I of all people should have realised that the online Yes campaign was existing in an echo chamber: when you’re surrounded by people on one side of a campaign, it’s easy to assume that you’re in a majority. Of course it turned out that we weren’t.

I understand the anger and the desire for someone to blame, but allegations of vote rigging are nonsense and claims that No voters were tricked are nonsense too. I’m quite sure very many No voters were just as well informed as their Yes equivalents; they just reached different conclusions because the Yes campaign didn’t answer their questions satisfactorily.

Of course there are headbangers on the No side, as we saw in George Square the night after the referendum. But there are plenty of headbangers on the Yes side too. I think they balance one another out.

That doesn’t mean it was a fair fight, though. I tend to take claims of media bias with a pinch of salt – if the media’s doing its job properly, it’ll piss off somebody – but in the run up to the referendum, the claims had merit. The Yes campaign I encountered online, in the streets and in mass rallies was generous, cheerful, inclusive and multi-racial. The Yes campaign I read about and saw on TV was a bunch of “vile cybernats” and angry men with beards.

While some broadcasters were scrupulously fair – broadcasters such as John Beattie on Radio Scotland and James Cook on BBC TV – others really weren’t. It was particularly noticeable in news programmes and phone-ins, where the former routinely reported scare stories that didn’t add up, personalised the news (“Blow for Alex Salmond”) and continued to give the impression that the Yes campaign and the SNP were the same thing, just like the No campaign wanted them to. The latter treated Yes callers with aggressive contempt while No callers were given more airtime and weren’t challenged on even the daftest claims.

Incidentally, I know many of the people involved in producing those programmes and they’re all good people; the issues I noticed were with particular presenters, not the production teams.

Between that and every single daily newspaper taking the No side, it’s hardly surprising that the Yes campaign didn’t win. What is surprising is that despite having the entire weight of the establishment ranged against it, it still got 45% of the vote. That’s amazing.

I wonder if it would have been higher still if some Yessers hadn’t played into the No campaign’s hands. Calling the Yes campaign “team Scotland” and demonstrating outside the BBC demanding the silencing of a journalist doesn’t play well among undecideds. I suspect current talk of “the 45” as a movement to take Yes’s place is equally divisive.

Incidentally, I wonder if some of the most passionate pro-independence campaigners were the biggest liabilities. My wife got talking to a local Yes canvasser, and during the conversation the canvasser worked herself into a foam-flecked fury talking about No voters. When a householder told her they were No, she said, she informed them that they were traitors and Quislings. This, in an area of fairly affluent elderly people who don’t use social media and buy the Daily Mail. You can be certain that every single person she said that to told all of their friends about the crazed SNP woman who’d been at their door. My constituency voted overwhelmingly for No.

Anyway, it happened, and now we’re bombing Iraq for the third time at a predicted cost of £3 billion (money we don’t have for the health service or to alleviate poverty, but it’s fine if we want to chuck £27K laser-guided missiles at brown people), the oil isn’t running out after all, more austerity is coming down the pipe irrespective of who wins the 2015 election and the Central Belt of Scotland is going to be fracked for fun and profit. If only there was some way we could have prevented that.

We can’t go back in time, and calls for another referendum are daft. What we can do, though, is try to maintain the energy. I don’t feel like I can go back to numb acceptance now the referendum’s over: if the fight was to have a better, fairer country then that’s something we can still try and achieve. Some of the powers to make that happen are already in the Scottish government’s remit; others should be. I think one of the best ways to influence those issues is to join a political party. In my case that means I’ve joined the SNP; many of my friends have joined the Scottish Green Party. I’ve also found myself joining in crowdfunding projects such as the plans for a Scottish news programme from the people behind the excellent Dateline Scotland.

I suspect that’s going to be more helpful than my other plan, which was to buy loads of badges saying “don’t blame me. I voted Yes.”