Hi, I'm Rob, and this is where I log the books, films, articles and other cultural flotsam that has caught my attention.

Week notes 2020-06

  • If I’m honest, this week has all about one man: Jack Reacher.
  • I’ve been aware of Lee Child’s slightly cartoonish (and maybe more than slightly outdated) protagonist ever since Tom Cruise was hilariously miscast in a couple of films. But I’ve never read one of the books (I only just found out Child is British and went to uni’ in Sheffield).
  • But the other month I picked up the fourth Jack Reacher novel in one of those train station book exchange ‘libraries’, and got round to reading it this week. It was an entertaining, actually-way-better-than-I-thought-it-would-be adventure romp and I may read more of them at some point.
  • Full disclosure: last year the Times Literary Supplement ran a column about how great Lee Child’s books are. Am I the kind of person who only reads ‘trash’ if the TLS says it’s ok to do so? No, but I’m adjacent to that person.
  • Last weekend we sat down as watched the new Todd Haynes film, Dark Waters (Mark Ruffalo versus a huge chemical corp in one of those ‘My God, they knew!’ true-ish stories). Cue paunchy, dour Ruffalo and lots of miserable blue/green shades seeping into every frame like a toxic chemical. It’s ok, but doesn’t deserve it’s 127 minute run time (not a lot does these days… am I just getting old?).
  • Buster has been with us for five weeks now and his personality and behaviour are settling down into something resembling routine. We chose the worst couple of weeks to get a dog (we’ve had to keep an extra tight grip on his lead to stop storms Ciara and Dennis whisking him away like Toto) but it’s very much worth it. There is a special kind of contentedness that comes from lying on the sofa, one hand turning the pages of your book, while the other strokes the dog sitting at your feet.
  • A bit of music to finish off the week. Here’s the new album from a guy who was one of the people who I met in the early days of the internet (when the social web was fun and inviting and creative): Dr Rubberfunk’s My Life at 45.

Week notes 2020-05

  • Oh how I can relate to that (not the bra bit, obviously).
  • A bit of a video special this week but before we get to that, a couple of wordy, ready things:
  • Definitely my favourite thing of the week, from a website I’ve spent way too much money at over the years: Oi Polloi’s In Praise of TinTin.

“Think of Tintin and you’ll most likely picture a round-faced, ginger-haired grass who hails from Belgium, yet has a suspiciously good British accent. And while the aforementioned is mostly certainly, definitely true, what you’re probably missing from your list is: cultured menswear fashionista.”

  • Meanwhile, from Bloomberg, it’s I Sabotaged My Boss With Ransomware From the Dark Web (not nearly a risky move as the headline would have you believe, but still an interesting read).
  • And here’s the second article about dancing and Little Women of 2020! (It’s the Oscars tonight and for the first time in my life I really don’t give a fuck about who all the old white men decide to give their statues too. I love some of the films nominated, but the fact that Lulu Wang and Greta Gerwig aren’t even noinated for Best Director – and Todd Philips is – just makes a mockery of the whole thing.
  • First video: The Hustle is Real is “a story about creating your own lane to make money doing what you love and the hustle and grind that goes along with it,” (starring DJ and the man behind Fleamarket Funk, DJ Prestige):
  • In a similar vein: it’s Every Sample from the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique:
  • Here’s a trailer for The Street, a brilliant-looking documentary “Following the lives of residents and business owners on Hoxton Street, Zed’s film urges us to consider the impact of gentrification.”
  • Did I mention I’m obsessed with the band Haim a bit right now? Well I am, so here they are on the Price is Right being amazing:
https://twitter.com/PriceIsRight/status/1220073649547378689?ref_src=twsrc^tfw|twcamp^tweetembed|twterm^1220073649547378689&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fnews.avclub.com%2Fajax%2Finset%2Fiframe%3Fid%3Dtwitter-1220073649547378689%26autosize%3D1
  • A few more trailers… First one for David Simon’s take on Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America:
  • And then one for another documentary, The Booksellers:
  • Around these parts we normally sign off our weeknotes with something music-related. So here’s Paul Simon explaining Mrs. Robinson to Dick Cavett in 1970:

Week notes 2020-04

  • It has been a relatively hard week this week.
  • The week started on Monday morning, just after 4am, when I was woken by the sound of barking and whining from the kitchen, and came downstairs to find Buster had…. well his new diet wasn’t agreeing with him, let’s just leave it at that.
  • Two days of wiping up dog excrement from my kitchen floor were followed by two late nights in the office getting a pitch together (and by late I mean anywhere between 10pm and midnight). To be fair, that doesn’t happen very often these days, and there’s a bit of me that enjoys pitching and a team of people coming together to get something done etc etc… But if you’ve been awake from 4am cleaning up poop then its a fraction more difficult.
  • (And, yes, parents, I know: Your heart bleeds for me. That’s why I’m not complaining that hard!)
  • Between me writing that last point and writing this one, I made Sunday dinner while my wife changed the sheets on our bed… And then Buster promptly went upstairs and pissed all over that same bed. Something he’s never done before. The delights of owning a dog.
  • Being angry with a dog is difficult!
  • Meanwhile, in none dog news…
  • They Might Be Giants were the first band I saw live. I was about 12 and Birdhouse In Your Soul was in the Top 10 and they were playing the Sheffield Octagon, so me and I guess what you’d have to call my first real ‘girlfriend’ went, and it was pretty amazing. I’ve always been very grateful that they were my first gig experience. Anyway Flood turned 30 ths week and Spin magazine asked a bunch of musicians what the album means to them.
  • The Guardian interviewed Brian Cox about Succession and being ‘touched up by Princess Margaret’ and it’s pretty great.
  • The Baffler‘s John Semley wrote about two of his favourite films of the year, one of which I’ve seen, one which I haven’t and neither of which have been nominated for Oscars.
  • Does monoculture still exist on the internet? is a very long, but I think pretty crucial, read from Vox. It’s much more about TV and music than it is about writng and opinions, but still an interesting and slightly worrying read.
  • And talking of monocultures and methods of discovery: a much shorter article from the Washing Post about The accidental book review that made Jack Kerouac famous contains these lines:

The persuasive power of an individual review today is vastly diluted by the fragmentation of the media and the frantic chirping of cable channels, Facebook posts, Twitter feeds and text messaging at all hours. Abbreviated attention moves on at an almost mindless speed. A trend rises and vanishes, all but forgotten before it ever sticks. A book and a book review — even if capturing a cultural turning point — today can’t help losing the competition for eyes to Twitter bursts and viral videos. One might wonder what social transitions are never noticed these days in all the noise.

So yeah. Twitter would have buried On The Road basically.

And with that depressing thought, I’ll leave you.

Maybe some They Might Be Giants wil make it better.

Week notes 2020-03

  • That’s Buster. Isn’t he great?
  • One thing no one mentioned about getting a dog, is how much it calms you down. I mean, maybe they did mention that (there’s a lot of talk about how pets are good for your mental health generally) but the thing I’ve noticed in the one week we’ve been dog owners is how our movements and our speech and our demeanour have shifted into this calm, soothing register (most of the time). I think part of it has to do with Buster being a rescue dog who has obviously been through some shit times in the past, and us trying not to spook or upset him.
  • There’s that of course, and then also the fact that you have another living thing around you that you have to dedicate your attention and focus to, and therefore away from your own petty shit.
  • I realise that all the parents reading this will be going, “Well, duh!”.
  • In the time I’ve not been doting over Buster I’ve mainly been readng. I finished Little Faith in just a few days. It’s beautifully written and very moving and I took a lot away from it.
  • I also finished The Art of Noticing (subtitled 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, and Discover Joy in the Everyday), which I actually started reading before the end of the year, but it’s one of those ‘dip in, dip out’ books so it’s allowed. I highlighted quite a few bits that I hope to revisit throughout the year.
  • Believe it or not, I’m now reading E.B. White on Dogs (my brother bought it me for Chtistmas, we knew a dog was on its way to us at that point).
  • Just one film this week; the classic 1945 Gothic horror/noir-murder-mystery The Spiral Staircase (as recommended by The Pure CInema Podcast). I’m really enjoying these old horror-ish films a the moment. Not sure why. There’s just something about that quaint, black and white look and the clipped accents and the style of the clothes… mixed with gruesome deaths, that really appeals to me.
  • For your listening pleasure this week: there’s still a few days to listen to DJ Shadow’s great New Year’s Day set on Radio 1.

Week notes 2020-02

  • We got a dog this week! Actually we’ve been looking to adopt a rescue dog for over a year now, but it’s not the easiest of processes. But, after a few false starts, we finally found Buster, a six-year-old mixed breed dog from the streets of Romania. Buster was delivered to our door at 4:30 am this Saturday morning, very nervous and dirty (and smelly!). Since then it’s been a slow process of acclimatising and settling in, as well as getting him to trust us. Needless to say we are totally besotted already. (No photos yet, there will be plenty of time for that.)
  • Only one film watched this past week: Mystify: Michael Hutchence. I dont’ have any strong affinity with INXS or anything, but this is a pretty solidly made documentary, and there’s a lot I didn’t know about his story. Plus, 90s Kylie MInogue is The Best.
  • Got 2020 reading off to a flying start though. Finished The Topeka School by Ben Lerner and went right into A Cosmology of Monsters by Shaun Hammill. Difficult to descibe this one, but it’s horror-ish with a real family element thrown in that makes it feel more grounded… until the monsters show up. I read it in record time and was both entertained and genuinely disturbed by it.
  • I’m on to Little Faith by Nikolas Butler now. My wife rattled through this over the Christmas break so I’m hoping it will keep my reading momentum going at pace.
  • Read quite a few articles about death and dying this week it seems: Commentary: John Simon, Clive James and the future of criticism in our culture from the LA Times is about dead critics and the next wave of them; while The Art of Dying from The New Yorker is written by a critic who is quite literally dying (of lung cancer), and he writes about it here with amazing beauty and clarity. The Lingering of Loss (also from The New Yorker) is subtitled ‘My best friend left her laptop to me in her will. Twenty years later, I turned it on and began my inquest’. But it’s less about the laptop and more about the friendship.
  • An article I read this week that’s not about death or loss: Lived in Bars from Good Beer Hunting is about giving up alcohol but still frequenting and trying to enjoy your favourite bars.
  • Below is one of the tunes that’s caught my attenton in the first couple of weeks this year:

Week notes 2020-01

  • I’m changing the format of these posts for 2020. It’s not all about the media I’m ingesting anymore, a few more observations and random asides thrown in.
  • So first off: Happy new year! I spent the end of 2019 and the beginning of the 20s in Copenhagen. It’s a lovely (if damned expensive) city, which really comes into its own on new year’s eve. It turns out there’s no real law governing the use of fireworks in public spaces in Copenhagen so as it gets closer to midnight you see people carrying personal arsenals of flying explosives towards the city center and then… Boom, all hell breaks loose at the stroke of midnight. Despite the somewhat warzone atmosphere it was a lot of fun (see IG picture above).
  • We spent the hours leading up to midnight in a very nice restaurant enjoying their tasting menu (a lot of fish) and wine pairing. The most memorable part of the meal was when a woman at the next table casually leaned over and vomited on the floor. If that had been me I would have probably left at a sprint, apologising profusely and leaving a massive tip. But this woman and the people she was with (her parents!) styled it out and let the staff clean up around them. I was, and still am, gobsmacked.
  • We watched Dracula on the BBC, which was good… Right up until that third episode when it took a steep nosedive (not a controversial opinion, I understand). The Mark Gatiss Dracula documentary was more enjoyable I think.
  • I started reading The Topeka School by Ben Lerner. It’s very beautiful, and just off kilter enough to keep me intrigued. Should finish it this week.
  • I also read Grayson Perry’s The Descent of Man and the graphic novel Off Season by James Sturm (a Christmas present), both of which I really enjoyed.
  • Watched over the Christmas break: Uncut Gems (loved it, should really be on that top 10 I posted last week), Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love (not a huge Broomfield fan but this was ok) and Marriage Story (as good as everyone says it is, but not as good as Little Women).
  • Also this week: back to Park Run in Crystal Palace park. Got a personal best this week despite a wickedly cold wind. Something to build on through the year.
  • Read over the break: An essay on Class and coffee, a short article on Dancing with HAIM (loved this), Oliver Burkeman on Why time management is ruining our lives, and Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig On longevity and community
  • Here’s some Irish hip hop to ease you in 2020:

My 10 Favourite Films of 2019

I just got back from seeing Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, and I’m putting it right at the top of my Favourite Films of 2019 list.

Am I doing that annoying ‘the last thing you experienced is your favourite’ thing? Maybe, but I don’t think so. This film is over two hours long and when it finished I just wanted to start watching it again (it’s also one of those films where I instinctively wanted to start applauding when it ended, I didn’t of course, I’m English.).

Why did I love it so much? It’s beautfully shot and it looks amazing. The cast is out of this world, and Saoirse Ronan is phemonenal, she need to win all the awards for this performance. The structure is clever but not too gimmicky or showy. Most of all though, it’s incredibly entertaining and effecting. It is 100% pure cinema: it will make you laugh, cry and everything inbetween, plus the dialogue is whip smart and it’s an adaptation of a book which is over a century old, yet if feels incredibly modern.

I love a film that does something new and different (it’s why Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood and Parasite are second and third on my list), but to take something that’s a recognised classic, and which has been adapted so many times already, and then produce something so fresh and so beautiful – that’s talent.

Honourable mention: The Standoff at Sparrow Creek

Consumed the week of 9 December, 2019

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What to say about this week? How about I let William Gibson say it instead. There was a brilliant profile of the author in the New Yorker this past week, some of it commenting on his amazing ability to create ficton that takes the present’s most ‘fucked up’ qualities into fascinating and sometimes terrifying areas:

‘In writing “The Peripheral,” he’d been able to bring himself to believe in the reality of an ongoing slow-motion apocalypse called “the jackpot.” A character describes the jackpot as “multicausal”—“more a climate than an event.” The world eases into it gradually, as all the bad things we worry about—rising oceans, crop failures, drug-resistant diseases, resource wars, and so on—happen, here and there, to varying degrees, over the better part of the twenty-first century, adding up to “androgenic, systemic, multiplex, seriously bad shit” that eventually kills eighty per cent of the human race. It’s a Gibsonian apocalypse: the end of the world is already here; it’s just not very evenly distributed. One character reacts to the jackpot equivocally: “Either depressing and scared the fuck out of me or sort of how I’d always figured things are?”’

So, yeah. That’s my current state of mind: androgenic, systemic, multiplex, seriously bad shit is happening and it’s simultaneously scaring the fuck out of me and feels horribly inevitable.

The image above is from Photos of the U.K. in the Shadow of Brexit, a photo essay from the New York Times. Browse it and weep.

Also read this week: The Schedule and the Stream, Matt Locke writes about the cultural and political impact of digital environments and the context-free algorithms that underpin them.

Very related to that is I became part of the alt-right at age 13, thanks to Reddit and Google from Fast Company. I am so glad I don’t have kids right now.

And, related to that (sorry, this doesn’t get much more cheery this week) is Checking in on the Masculinity Crisis from Long Reads. A look at a couple of new books that promise to examine the ‘phenomenon’ of white male disenfranchisement.

And you can’t talk about white males without talking about comic books and pop culture, so that takes us to The Decade Comic Book Nerds Became Our Cultural Overlords via Medium, and This Was the Decade That Spoiler Culture Changed Everything from Gizmodo.

We watched the documentary Tell Me Who I Am on Netflix last weekend. It is brilliant but very harrowing and pretty hard going in places. Proceed with caution, but proceed if you can. I also watched Michael Mann’s debut film, Thief, starring James Cann, which has been on my list for ages. Really enjoyed it.

Amongst all the depressing events I did manage to lose myself in James Lovegrove’s latest, Sherlock Holmes & the Christmas Demon. Thank god for escapism!

Musically this week here’s two American talk show appearances, one from 1983 and one from this week. First is Takling Heads doing I Zimbra on Letterman (chosen because Byrne annonced this week that the band were NOT reforming, I admit I had got my hopes up). And after that, Vampire Weekend on the Late Late Show doing Harmony Hall with a bit of Christmas Time is Here thrown in there for good measure.

Merry Christmas?

Consumed the week of 2 December, 2019

A few music-related things to kick off this week.

First, one of my all-time favourite artist, DJ Shadow has a new album out so he’s being doing the rounds, talking to Billboard about the Universal Music Fire Losses and Why It’s a ‘Pathetic Age’, and to The Ringer about why he’s still breaking new ground.

Then there’s this GQ oral history of Suede’s second album Dog Man Star. Oh, Bernard, why did you have to leave?

Gong to talk politics for two seconds. There is a general election this week after all.

First Pankaj Mishra writes brilliantly about nationalism and the election for the Guardian: England’s Last Roar.

Second, the ever-interesting Douglas Rushkoff examines why “the hippies’ effort to destabilize the American dream may have worked too well” in an article entitled Operation Mindfuck 2.0.

Elsewhere The Cut examines why Ketamine is the drug of choice for our dissociated moment: A Party Drug for the End of the World.

While Boing Boing gets Inside Alan Moore’s Head with the help of some YouTube videos (and, Watchmen just gets better with every episode)

Jason Kottke writes about The Secret to Enjoying a Long Winter (something that definitely seems to effect me more as I get older I think), inc.com explains why The Secret to More Refreshing Weekends Is the Exact Opposite of What You’d Expect (excuse the click-baity headline) and mathematician Dan Rockmore explores The Myth and Magic of Generating New Ideas in The New Yorker.

New film watched this week: Hustlers (nicely shot and some great performances, but not quite enough plot to sustain it).

Old film watched this week: Times Square. An interesting cultural curio but the soundtrack is better than the movie (couple of great dance sequences though, see above).

Classic film I read about his week: Why Clerks Still Works.

Finally, It’s that time of year again: 52 things I learned in 2019.

Consumed the week of 25 November, 2019

I missed an update last week, but I have a good excuse: we were in Berlin with a couple of friends of ours. We drank beer, ate bratwurst and beetroot and potatoes, went record shpping, tried out the electric scooters and generally had a great time.

This week, it was back to earth with a bit of a bump, especially as the great Clive James and the brilliant Jonathan Miller both died. I walked past Miller once years ago in Camden, and I got very excited about it. Too excited probably, but the guy was a bit of a legend to me. Just the way he used to pop up on BBC2 talking with effortless brlliance about opera or literature or film or…. anything really; his gangly limbs all wrapped up around himself. He was an incredible person and it wa a little bit of a shame his death was overshadowed by that of James (and Gary Rhodes!)…

…Having said that, Clive James was amazing too. He is the man who said “A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing,” after all. A rule to live by right there. He said and wrote a lot of incredible things, some of which are documented in this Washington Post obit.

Both Miller and James were exponents of the belief that creativity and genius could flourish in any arena, high or low. I love that idea, and it seems to me that Dipti S. Barot might too. She wrote this essay for Longreads talking about her lifelong love of the film critics Siskel and Ebert. I didn’t grow up watching these two (and their thumbs) but I did grow up with a genuine appetite for watching “intelligent people who actually respect each other disagree so passionately that it’s as if sparks are ricocheting off the screen…”. It’s why I love Clive James and Jonathan Miller, and why this is one of my favourite essays I’ve read all year.

The only other thing I want to point to this week is this incredible performance from David Byrne on Jimmy Fallon. I know someone who saw his American Utopia show on Broadway last month and they loved it. I was very very jealous. This life-affirming video will have to do for now.