Six Strings Down

*

Last night, I was stewarding at an Eric Clapton concert, which mostly involves watching an Eric Clapton concert and getting paid for it (A+ job tbh). Because I’m ungrateful, I got to hoping Clapton would announce a special guest was sitting in with him on the next song, and out would come B.B. King. Much like every other time I’ve hoped this at a gig, of course, it was not to be.

I used to be quite bad for performative social media grief when a celebrity died, so have tried to pipe down a bit this morning, but I’ve long known B.B. King’s passing would hit hard. And hit hard it did.

Still, King lived to the age of 89 and had an incredible life. There are people far better placed than me to write tributes and obituaries to the man, his life, and, of course, his music, so I’m just going to share a few nice songs, a little anecdote about how B.B. King legit changed my life and then I’m going to go and listen to the 50-song anthology I just found on Spotify while seeking said better writers out.

 

So in 2005 or 2006, Mum was working at the Montreux Jazz Festival and she brought a friend and I along with her to wander about the festival and soak it all in. Of course, this meant our lift back wasn’t until three in the morning, as far as I remember. So we wandered, we soaked, Montreux is a pretty incredible place even if you’re not going for a concert*, but there are limits. The last couple of hours of the night, we spent slumped on one of the sofas, flicking through the old concert clips they have there. That was where we discovered B.B. King. Reckon it was this clip.

 

I’m not gonna lie, dear reader, it was mostly the faces that caught our attention at first. Those faces. There aren’t many guitar players who are easily as fun to watch as they are to listen to, but B.B. King was one of them. But then the voice and the actual playing got to me – I think I must have made Daniel watch that video three or four times that night.

I had just bought my first guitar, mostly inspired off the back of discovering Muse, but the guitar was well on its way to becoming another expensive abandoned hobby when I heard The Thrill is Gone for the first time. Ten years on I’m still not really even fit to try and imitate B.B. King, but pretending I could got me properly interested in guitar, and also set me off on the path to… well, to becoming a tedious blues-rock bore for most of my teens, but there you go. Can genuinely see my life having taken a mildly different turn had I not come across that clip all those years ago, and it was all because of old Riley.

So that’s my anecdote. I’ll leave you with this lovely duet between B.B. King and Buddy Guy – stick around for the little chat at the end.

 

*livid that this doesn’t have video anymore

**the other activity for the day is working out whether I should have spent £100-200 to see B.B. King there on the couple of occasions he played while I was living in the area

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13th of April: Race, Russia, and Reproductive Rights

And a bunch of other stuff, but I couldn’t resist the alliteration.

OK, first off, I was planning to make the “song of the week” thing a regular feature and then forgot about it, so good job there. Basic idea from here onwards will be a pick of my most played of the week, thus keeping it in the “week in review” theme. This week’s song is by Aloe Blacc, who when he came up in a Spotify mix, I thought was really cool and was confused by never having heard of him, which made me feel like a bit of a cutting edge chap. Turns out he’s well known so that just makes me a knob. Anyway it’s a nice song.

 

Serious Stuff

  • Few good articles on race in America here (I’m sure this is the most-used phrase on this blog). One from Jamelle Bouie commenting on the Jonathan Chait/Ta-Nehisi Coates debate currently ongoing (great entry from Coates here). One , very sad, at Buzzfeed about Jordan Davis, the teenager who got murdered for listening to his music too loud last year. Finally, this is really worth reading on a project to rehabilitate people released from prison (mostly for drug-related offences) in West Baltimore (there is, of course, a reference to The Wire).
  • In case there’s any boring “cowardly liberals capitulating to Islam” pieces (*cough*Cohen*cough*) circulating after the Brandeis/Ali thing, this is good on the big problems with the narrative people like Ali push.
  • If you can overlook the classic John Schindler condescension this is an interesting, if dispiriting, take on the trajectory of Russian foreign policy since the fall of the USSR
  • An interesting excerpt on the history of mercenaries in Africa and beyond – cites a book I cited in an essay last year which is mildly exciting.
  • Good review of the Operation Unified Protector (Libya 2011*)  – very balanced while still agreeing with me
  • Grim account of one woman’s experience with Brazil’s terrible abortion restrictions. Upsetting stuff, but worth reading.
  • Dispiriting tract on the decline of London here.
  • Interesting blog on how people interact with Twitter “celebrities” – it was uncomfortable reading for me because I’m sure I’ve done at least half of the things the author criticises.
  • There was a big fuss about the “France bans email” story – here’s a dismantling of it**

Culture Stuff

  • Couple of good cinema-ish pieces – one on the prevalence of racist stereotypes in kid’s animations (the bit about the casting in Rio is particularly baffling), and one on the horror that is going to the cinema for some films as an adult, which I recognise fully. At least the author has a girlfriend to go with.
  • Very good defence of Sansa Stark from Game of Thrones – she seems to be a particular victim of the definitely sexist negative response people have to female characters
  • This is a good takedown of Macklemore’s “Same Love”. There was a lot of hilarious backlash to him around the time of the Grammys***, so it was nice to revisit the reasons behind it.
  • It’s Batman’s 75th anniversary and one of the creaters of Batman: The Animated Series released a lovely little short cartoon to mark the occasion. Some wonderful images.
  • Two great Mad Men pieces. One from Sean Collins on the self-destruction that he predicts from Season 7, and one Buzzfeed recap of some of the gorgeous shots the show has given us over the years ****. Also this wonderful blaxploitation version of Mad Men is great.

And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for. What has Kanye bestowed an eye-roll on this week?

Unfortunately, it’s a Clive Martin piece. I recommended him a couple of weeks ago, but this week he wrote a pretty awful piece on Why He Won’t Be Watching Game of Thrones. For the most part, between the mocking pictures of cosplayers, and the constant sneering at fantasy fans and works (including digs at both LOTR and Muse, which just…), it just reads as a nasty bullying piece written from a position of complete ignorance. For all these crimes and also for being middlingly amusing, I bestow upon it a full Kanye eye-roll.

Image

As an addendum to the Kanye eye-roll feature, I think I’m going to regularly share examples of better versions of the criticised pieces. Part of me wants to accompany them with a second, approving-Kanye gif, but that does just lead down a dark path of this blog being expressed solely in pictures of Kanye West, so I’ll refrain.

A great example of why sensitive discussions of problematic aspects of popular genre works are generally better when they come from the inside – A Song of Ice and Fire: Misogynist or Feminist?”. It’s based on the books, but looks at the show and is pretty spoiler-free to my eyes. It’s just more interesting than the Vice piece.

With that, I leave you for another week. Have a good one, all.

PS: As of this evening, Game of Thrones and Mad Men will be airing regularly so expect an increase in the amount of links to stuff relating to those two. Sorry not sorry. I promise not to link to too many episode recaps though.

PPS: Also, a postscript to the bittersweet success that was the Last Forever review. This afternoon, while too hungover to move, I finished my rewatch of the ninth season of How I Met Your Mother (seriously, I watched about twelve episodes almost back-to-back – I felt myself recover as the wedding weekend progressed). The season as a whole held up and wasn’t ruined. The finale itself was also much better on a second viewing, partly because I knew what to expect, I think, so took it on its own terms. I definitely cried more than I had the first time round – still less than expected. I’m going to miss that fucking program.

*what a dick. Sorry

**I like her columns, but I think it’s got to be a bad sign when people cite a Lucy Mangan column as the basis for an economics story

***also I listened to The Heist again this week – he’s fucking cringeworthy at times. ‘Neon Cathedral’ is great though,

****though I could have done without “lusty shot of Joan’s bum” being one of them.

*whirring*

That whirring you hear is the sound of all the little gears and bits of machinery that power this blog creaking back into life after something like two years. I’ve been meaning to get back to it since the last post I wrote – the Writing folder on my laptop is a desolate wasteland of half-written posts, tossed aside in disgust. At some point since the summer of 2012, I feel like I became a bit disenchanted about my own opinions, and halfway through anything I wrote, I’d start to feel a strong sense of “who actually gives a fuck” and give up. Couple that with the fact that the blog had a stupid title, and it was a recipe for a gradual process of giving up. All the same, whenever I come across the blog in my bookmarks and flick back through the old posts, I’m struck by how un-ashamed of them they are – the opposite of the usual cringe that accompanies reading old work. It all adds to the sense I may have peaked around the age of 18-19, to be honest.  Now, however, as an Erasmus student distinctly unimpressed with the whole affair, I’ve found myself with even more free time on my hands, and I figure now is the time to start dedicating more time to this thing. Similarly to before, there probably won’t be a particularly consistent theme to this. I read less books and more articles, play more videogames and watch more TV, so the emphasis will probably shift in those directions. If I can summon the courage, I might try and do some more vaguely academic bloggery, or at the very least a sort of link-spam post. As ever, there’ll be the temptation to get all personal but I’ll do my best to avoid it.  Let’s see if I can make it beyond three posts.

Finest Hour

Currently reading: All Hell Let Loose by Max Hastings, a history of the Second World War*

Currently watching: The World at War, a documentary series about the Second World War

Currently playing: Company of Heroes, a real-time strategy game set in…  the Second World War

Probably a bit unhealthy, this. The Second World War has always exerted a strange fascination on me. I remember a BBC dramatization of, I think, the Battle for France, but only one scene: the commanding officer of a group of captured British soldiers goes out of the shed they are being held in to ask their captors for water. The camera watches from inside the shed as he is shot at point-blank range, and then the rest of the prisoners are machine-gunned. I was horrified by the cruelty of it all. Later, on the 60th anniversary of D-Day, the media was full of features about it, and again, I was horrified – horrified, and humbled – by the sacrifice, by the gruesome stories of soldiers joining comrades on the beach only to find that they were actually dismembered corpses. That memory has stuck with me to the extent that I am now incredulous when I see how few lives, relatively, were lost on the beaches of Normandy – it simply doesn’t fit my childhood image of all-encompassing horror.

In a previous post, I suggested this horror was one element of what makes the Second World War so compelling. Upon reading that on average, 27,000 people died every day from 1939 to 1945, you can’t help putting things in perspective. While military history as self-help might seem at best absurd, at worst a bit exploitative, I genuinely do believe there is a lot to be learnt from the experiences of those who lived through the war. For example, coming off the back of reading a lot of Camus and Voltaire, this quote from Max Hastings’ Bomber Command:

“‘Strangely, for everyone, the acceptance and the giving-up of hope create and reinstil hope in a kind of reverse-process mental photonegative function. Little things become significant. The next meal, the next bottle of booze, the next kiss, the next sunrise, the next full moon. The next bath. Or as the Bible might have said, but didn’t quite, Sufficient unto the day is the existence thereof.’ […] ‘To be allowed to continue to live – nothing else mattered.’”

is just splendid. **

To my mind, what is consistently fascinating about the Second World War, more, perhaps, than any other period in history, is the sheer scale of everything. Not just the number of casualties, which isn’t so much an element of interest as the sobering fact underpinning it all. Nor is it just the scale of the military forces involved, the production efforts  (in 1943, the Soviet Union built 43 T-34 tanks every day), the material devastation. That may be by turns awe-inspiring and sobering, there’s something more.

At every turn when studying WW2, one is confronted by humanity pushed to extremes; political extremes, obviously, but also the extremes of cruelty and kindness, heroism and cowardice, incredible ingenuity and stunning blunders. Nothing seems half-hearted – while this may just be an consequence of writers of popular histories only quoting the best material, that they have such rich material to draw upon is telling.

These extremes were reproduced again and again across the world. Every front in the conflict has its own story to tell, and each of those stories is the story of hundreds, thousands of lives – for the most part, ordinary lives. At first glance, that whole history books have been written on the battle for one tiny Mediterranean island seems mad, but maybe that explains the enduring fascination with the period – sixty-seven years on, we haven’t run out of stories to tell.

 

*I had set out to make this a review of All Hell Let Loose. It clearly isn’t. It’s a very good book, if you’re interested in WW2, go for it.

**incidentally, I’ve just started readingsome Ernest Hemingway, and was reminded of the following quote from For Whom The Bell Tolls:

““There is nothing else than now. There is neither yesterday, certainly, nor is there any tomorrow. How old must you be before you know that? There is only now, and if now is only two days, then two days is your life and everything in it will be in proportion. This is how you live a life in two days. And if you stop complaining and asking for what you never will get, you will have a good life. A good life is not measured by any biblical span.”” 

“Refuser d’être avec le fléau” (Review: La Peste ~ Camus)

Albert Camus reading a newspaper

Add a trilby and a double of bourbon and it could be Draper himself.

I think watching Mad Men vastly improved my second reading of Albert Camus’ La Peste, not for its commentaries on 60s sexism or corporate America (it’s set in 1940s Algeria), but for its style. One of my favourite aspects of the book is the idea of the central characters being a group of stoic men doing their best against the plague and not really achieving much but just doing their best. That was already cool, but when every single one of those men is Don Draper? Perfect.

La Peste is a very powerful novel. The descriptions of the plague and its ravages are harsh, and in a couple of scenes, Camus describes the sufferings of victims in drawn-out detail as the Don Drapers look on, powerless. The prose isn’t overly lyrical, and the characters aren’t prone to wailing and beating their chests in frustration, which makes the whole thing more moving – it’s understated.

Interspersed with the plot, the narrator discusses at length the effect the plague has on the city and its inhabitants, not just on its victims, but as the city is quarantined, on all those who are cut off from their loved ones. The reflections on separation and exile are brilliant, which I hadn’t noticed before.

On the other hand, what I had always remembered about La Peste, however, was this quote:

“Dans la vie, il y a des bourreaux et des victimes, et tous ce qu’on peut faire, c’est d’être à côté des victimes.”

(“In life there are executioners and victims, and all one can do is be on the side of the victims”)

It’s actually better than that.

“Je dis seulement qu’il y a sur cette terre des fléaux et des victimes et qu’il faut, autant qu’il est possible, refuser d’être avec le fléau. Cela vous paraitra peut-être un peu simple, et je ne sais si cela est simple, mais je sais que cela est vrai.”

(“All I am saying is that there are on this earth plagues/scourges and there are victims, and one must, whenever possible, refuse to be on the side of the plague/scourge. It may seem simple to you, and I don’t know if it is simple, but I know it’s true.”)

Which could be my motto. While obviously, it’s one of those things that does feel a bit self-evident – I’d be surprised if there was anyone who chose to side with the plague/scourge –it comes in the context of one of the characters talking about the death penalty, and it becomes clear that while not many people would set out to be with the plague/scourge*, there are plenty who don’t take side of the victims, which comes to the same thing. All very black-and-white, and I love it.

Also, not that I tend to try and ‘justify’ my  atheism, seeing as it just is, but upon being told by the (brilliant) priest character that in such trying times, one either has to lose faith entirely, or love every part of God’s creation – even the death of a child, the main character snaps, “je refuserai jusqu’à la mort d’aimer cette création ou les enfants sont torturés.” (“I will refuse till the day I die to love this creation where children are tortured”). Which, again, is just all kinds of fantastic.

It’s like that all the way through. Almost every other page there’s a killer observation, a heartbreaking scene, an inspiring idea. It’s just consistently bloody brilliant. Oh, and that dovetail with Candide I mentioned yesterday?

The character’s determination to fight the plague – the narrator makes it clear it’s no more heroic to fight evil than a schoolteacher teaching that 2+2=4 (Hello Orwell), it’s just what needs to be done. Since evil* is, it must be fought.

*I’m quite annoyed that I’ve struggled to translate these words, since they’re kind of key. Fleau is often used in reference to the plague. Google gives me scourge, which seems alright. Mal apparently is evil, but evil seems a) necessarily human in source in a way that a plague, for instance, isn’t it, and b) kind of cartoonish. Make of them what you will.

Review: Candide ~ Voltaire

While I think everyone should read everything I ever review (I rarely read books I don’t like, set texts aside, and I only really feel the need to review very interesting or very good books), I especially think no-one should not have read Candide. That’s partly because fucker is less than a hundred pages long, and written with all the dense prose and complex imagery of a picture book. It’s not one of those must-reads like Ulysses or Capital. And it is an absolute blast. People tell me ‘bimble’ isn’t a word (dictionary aside, they’re wrong). From now on, I think I’ll just point them at Candide. It is very much the tale of characters bimbling around the world. I remember our teacher drew us a map of the adventure – it goes from Westphalia to Bulgaria to Holland to Portugal to South America to France to Venice to Turkey at a rapid pace. Characters return to life more often than the Daleks. But the cheerful absurdity of it all is laced with venom, and it’s the irony that makes this book. Voltaire seems to lash into everything he saw, and every other chapter, something new is getting it in the neck.

I should probably declare an interest – the town I lived in for six years, Ferney-Voltaire, was almost a product of Voltaire. After he was [ejected?] from Geneva in ?, Voltaire took up residence in the commune of Fernex, and set about improving it, building homes, draining swamps, starting workshops to provide employment, etc. He also changed that hideous name, reasoning that there were too many –ex’s in the region (I feel much the same way). This is important beyond it simply being a cool thing he did. While there are a variety of nice little insights and quotes throughout the book (the main character’s dismissal of optimism is a favourite of mine*), the conclusion is what really bears taking away.

“Cela est bien dit, mais il faut cultiver son jardin.”  “Well said, but one must tend one’s garden.”

I’ve left the original quote there not out of a desire to show off (although I think that was a lost cause once I set about reviewing two French books), but because I have no idea how to translate it. It’s often quoted without the “Well said” part at the start, which seems to me to utterly miss the point. At the end of the tale, Candide’s friends are discussing their situation and providing elaborate justifications and reasonings for it, much as they have done throughout the story. The main character, having travelled the world and put his childhood teachings to test and found them wanting, does not disagree with their speeches – “well said”, but sets them aside, because (and I have never known quite how to translate “il faut” – something along the lines of “it is necessary to”, I suspect) there is a garden to be tended.

I take a lot away from that. If I had only written that on the first philosophy paper I had to write last year, I could have saved myself a lot of hassle. To me, the garden to be tended is a life to be lived. But it’s not just a Theses on Feuerbach “the philosophers have interpreted the world” idea – not only is it more important to act then to speak, but unlike Marx, the point is not to aim to change the world. No one individual can realistically hope to change the world. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to change our own little gardens, our little spheres.  Maybe it’s in a “be the change you want to see in the world” vibe, but I don’t much like that saying, because it can end up a bit “RECYCLE IF YOU WANT THE MAJOR INDUSTRIAL POWERS TO STOP DESTROYING THE ENVIRONMENT”. Which, seriously. Die.

Even better, it dovetails nicely with my takeaways from La Peste.

* “Qu’est-ce que l’optimisme? C’est la rage de croire que tout va bien quand on est mal!” “What is optimism? The madness of believing everything is fine when you’re not!”

Boom.