Obviously I don't want to jinx it, but... dare we utter the words 'the after times'?

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November 2020

Light At The End Of The Tunnel?

You know how history tends to get things in the wrong order, right? People assume that the Civil Rights movement culminated in the JFK presidency, or that the Sex Pistols were a response to Thatcher’s government? Yeah, well... what are the chances that future generations of movie fans look back at Avengers: Endgame and say “Ah yes, ‘the Snap’ – that must have been a response to the coronavirus pandemic...”

Can we just take a moment to appreciate the full majesty of Donald Trump being voted out?

In the last episode, I was wondering how Christmas was going to work. Since then Donald Trump has been comprehensively defeated in a general election and, although he may still have some surprises in store, that in itself feels like it’s changed the whole political landscape. 

The expression I’ve found myself using is that for some years now Western Democracy has been a packed train on fire, heading for a cliff. And now, suddenly, if only for a brief moment, it is no longer on fire! And that is a cause for celebration, even if just briefly.

Added to that, a blossoming (that’s the collective noun) of so-far-effective covid-19 vaccines leads to an intriguing question: is it time to start thinking about life after the pandemic? And if so, what changes should we make?

I think the big changes to society might not happen right away. I suspect in many ways life will go back to the 'normal' of 2019. But it will be in the next two to three years that we'll really notice we're on a different path. And there's no way of knowing for sure, but I think a lot of that will be positive. This pandemic has caused so much reflection and introspection in so many areas of life. I think we might well see the rise of new technologies, but also... if not new philosophies then at least new perspectives on what makes for a balanced, happy life.

But I digress. Before I've even started.

Back to the newsletter: what's on this month?

There was a new batch of microsongs that just missed last month's email, so the highlights are included here.

In terms of recommendations, there's some much-needed sleep science, some YouTube psychiatric help, and a general celebration of 'ologies'. There's Fiona Apple's cover of a song from my childhood. And there's a whole genre of online video: US rap fans reacting to Akala.

And there's my strange tendency to vicariously live out my narrowboating fantasies through other people, even though I am typing this while on my narrowboat.

Let's roll the opening credits...

New Music This Month

I did a bunch of microsongs recently. I’m just going to feature two this time. Both are extremely silly.  And pretty short.

Probably my favourite microsong so far.
Also very silly.

Upcoming Events

Friday 11th December

Every second Friday of the month. And also...

Thursday 31st December

New Year's Eve, baby. This one is the "Four Seasons Total Landscaping" special...

These are online versions of the Bastard English Session which has haunted the Isis Farmhouse Pub in Oxford for over a decade now.

And please note... WE HAVE A NEW ZOOM LINK! (Which I bollocksed up last time, but hopefully I have it figured out now...)

You simply click this:

And then enter the password, which is:

  • bitshowy

And a reminder of the New (well, now Old) Bastard Protocol:

  1. If you’re performing, you’ll need to change your Zoom settings to ‘Use Original Sound’.
  2. It’s a one-at-a-time performing thing, and I have to mute everyone during each performance (because of audio lag) (and also, because I get an enormous kick out of it).
  3. Feel free to use the Chat function throughout!
  4. Also, I find all Zoom calls weirdly tiring, so feel free to hide your video, and wander in and out.

All my recorded music thus far...

I mention this each time now, but it occurs to me that, since I've stripped the newsletter format down for lockdown, I don't actually have any links to the website. So I thought I might as well just chuck this in here.

Click on the image above for a link to my (now... kinda old) music. (I mean, even the stuff that wasn't old when I recorded it is now kinda old.)

Hope you enjoy! And now, here are this month's recommendations:


214. Lockdown relaxed! A day trip on my narrowboat on the Coventry canal

I have become weirdly obsessed by this YouTube channel.

Weirdly because, as mentioned, I am also a narrowboat dweller. And yet, as any of my boat neighbours will tell you, I almost never take it anywhere, because I am so precious about it that I turn into the worst person imaginable. I am stressed, irritable, easily rattled. Oddly, I’m okay piloting my boat alone (even though it’s much much more work), or I can let someone else pilot it completely and take no driving responsibility. But in that grey area in the middle I am a nightmare.

So I tend to enjoy cruising the canals of the UK via Narrowboat YouTube. Which, it turns out, is a huge sub-genre.

And one of its leading lights is this chap: David Johns, a former local TV reporter who makes the kind of gentle stress-free content that terrestrial television can only dream about. With his obsession with cheese sandwiches and cups of tea, he’s like an equal balance of Wallace and Grommit.

Admittedly, I’m kind of obsessed about the waterways as it is, but I think even for the non-obsessives this is a great stress reliever.

This is my Bake Off, basically.


AKALA IS A COLD MAN | AMERICAN REACTS TO Fire in the Booth – Akala Part 4 | Chicago Reaction

So, Akala is a UK rapper, journalist, activist, poet and author of bestselling book Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire one of the major books on being black in Britain (and one I recommended here a while ago). And "Fire In The Booth" is a live performance show on BBC Radio 1 Xtra.

Well. I've discovered another sub-genre of YouTube: “US hip hop fans react to FITB Akala 4”.

The wider genre is rap fans who video themselves listening for the first time to rappers that their YouTube subscribers recommend, so viewers can see from their faces what they think.

“Okay, y’all keep asking in the comments… Akala Fire In The Booth 4, here we go”.

I have a postage stamp's worth of knowledge about hip hop, but you don't need to know any more than that to enjoy watching these guys start skeptical, get impressed by his technique, and then...

For the last six minutes Akala takes out the beats, and basically moves into poetry, exploring the history of human violence and cruelty, through slavery, colonialism, empires, you name it. Empathising with the oppressed, and even with the oppressors.

I’m fascinated by that history, and have been for years, and I don’t know a fraction of what Akala knows, so…

It’s just great fun to watch these rap fans just… kind of stop nodding their heads to the beat and almost go into a trance. And at the end, you see tears in their eyes and they’re all “I… I mean… I don’t know what to say.”


Sleep is your superpower | Matt Walker

This video is a TED talk based on the book I'm recommending here: Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, a genial Liverpudlian with what looks like a Donald Trump wig but it's probably real.

Anyway, I was having some difficulty sleeping, and so asked H (who works in publishing and knows All The Books™) "what's the current big popular science book on sleep?" And she recommended this.

And actually, it seems to have helped. I've shifted my routine round to fit closer to the standard 1.5 hr sleep cycle that someone my age should expect. I was also wondering whether maybe I just needed more sleep, but with a bit of experimenting I think I don't – I was just timing it badly.

This is a popular science book, so it's obviously quite sciencey – if you want a summary then his TED talk above should do the trick.

But if you're into it, I would highly recommend getting a bit more of a bigger picture.

For example, dolphins... can sleep with half of their brain, while the other half is alert. And then they can switch.

Oh, and the medieval 'first and second sleep' thing where they'd wake up and hang out for an hour or two in the middle of the night? Seems like that was a Western European thing, and not found elsewhere before or since.

He also starts off by saying that if his book sends you to sleep, he is the only author who will be very happy with that result.


Inception Analysis: Cobb Is The Villain

I'm guessing that this YouTuber's real name is Will. And that he is a genuine psychotherapist.

Basically, he picks characters from popular films and applies detailed diagnostic procedures as if they were his patients.

It's actually a really good way to learn about psychopathology – not by learning about real people diagnosed out of context, but by applying the fundamental principles to fictional characters, in a light-hearted way.

For example, he does a series of videos on how every Batman villain represents a different facet of Batman's Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The video above is a great one: it turns out that Leonardo DiCaprio's character from Inception is actually a high-functioning narcissist, and... probably the villain.



Podcasts! We all need more podcasts, right?

This is another lighthearted look at some heavy science. Alie Ward, science correspondent for CBS News, explores a new 'ology' each week: finding academics with very specific niches and then, in her own words, "asking smart people dumb questions".

For example, she asks volcanologist Jess Phoenix (is that not an amazing name for a volcanologist?) which movie is better: Volcano or Dante's Peak. Turns out, Dante's Peak, and not just because it has Pierce Brosnan in it.

These are very much informal chats, with occasional swearing, and with deliberately silly questions.

Very easily digestible. 


(this video has 61 million views!)

Finally, I'm late to the internet party phenomenon that is Bill Wurtz. But this is very funny, surprisingly historically accurate, and insane.

Dear Diary...

Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits (1979)

Okay. Totally unrelated to the Before, During and After Times, a little saga has been unfolding on YouTube.

But first, a little context. Music fans, particularly of my age, may be familiar with the first major hit from band Dire Straits: Sultans of Swing.

Released in 1979, it's a song about a real incident. Frontman Mark Knopfler, escaping from the South London rain, dipped into a jazz club. There he heard a band that charmed him so much, with their somewhat threadbare glamour, that he wrote a song about them.

Well, in the course of escaping the Twitterstorm a while ago, I dipped into a video by explorer of London history Jago Hazzard, entitled "Who Were the Sultans of Swing (and where?)" The video description reads: "Apparently The Sultans of Swing was based on a true story. So I did a bit of detective work."

Who Were the Sultans of Swing (and where?)

In the video he says no one knows the identity of the real jazz band.

This moved me to leave a comment, and the correspondence (edited for length) is as follows:

James Bell

Well, here's a story I've been waiting 30 years to tell. I learnt the song Sultans of Swing from my French teacher, name of George Walker, who told me that he was the subject of that song. He said he met Knopfler when he came into the pub, and he and the band had a nice chat afterwards. He would have been in his 40s in the late 80s (I'm guessing), and his jazz band played occasionally at our school (in West Sussex). Yes, he was a rhythm player, and yes he knew all the chords. I think he played a sunburst Gibson 335. I don't think he was professional or ever released a record. He was a very down-to-earth bloke, and he didn't seem to be bragging when he said this story – he just mentioned it as an interesting anecdote to a keen young guitar player (i.e. me!) The teachers seemed to know this story and no one seemed to doubt it. Of course, he might have been mistaken, it might not have been Knopfler, or I might have remembered it wrong. But I've been boring the socks off people for decades now with that bit of trivia.

Jago Hazzard

Not boring at all!


That is very interesting, James.

Cat Hat

Which pub and was his band called The Sultans of Swing?  If he's still alive he must be about 90?

James Bell

I don't remember him ever mentioning the pub name or the band name – certainly the band I saw him play in had a different name (probably different members, as he was presumably living in Sussex – maybe Brighton? – not London). He was pretty overweight when I was at school, and I think he might have been a smoker, so I don't know whether he would still be alive now. I hope so — he was a lovely guy!

Jane Morrow

This is such an important story! Thank you so much for sharing it. There must be ways of checking it out....

James Bell

I did a bit of Googling to see if I could track him down, but no joy sadly. I'm a little wary of sharing too much personal information online, but if anyone wants to DM me on Twitter (@jamesbellcentrl) I'd be happy to give out the name and address of the school – they should have a record of him. He should also be in a school photo on the wall somewhere.

Michael Fisher

You can’t both have been boring the socks off people with this story for decades AND been waiting to tell the story for thirty years.

James Bell

I should have qualified – waiting to tell *to someone who might be interested*!  ;)

Gary La

Do you collect socks?

James Bell

Good god no. Once the socks have been bored off them they are discarded. It's the thrill of the chase I love, not the acquisition.


So James, I believe you may have the missing link ... The one thing that I can add, from an interview a long time ago, was this.   The band itself  wasn’t called “the Sultans of Swing“.  Between breaks they would jokingly announce things like, “we are the kings of Creole “ just before they went off stage.  And every time it was a different “name or  saying”.   One of those names between breaks was, “We are the Sultan’s of Swing “.  And those quirky stage exits caught Mark Knopfler’s attention as he thought it was humorous or interesting.  So I don’t know the bands name, but I do know it wasn’t the Sultans of swing.  It’s just something they made up, as if they were cracking a joke every break or  stage exit.  So, I’m pretty sure that your teacher was the guy, and it was his band, just like he said it was.

James Bell

Hadn't heard that, but I can well imagine it. :-) (I never actually heard 'Mr Walker', as he was to us, really talk in detail about what happened that night – it was kind of something he just mentioned in passing.)

Dave Murrell

Fascinating, James. I know that Ted Walker, later to become a well-known poet and broadcaster, taught at Chichester High School in the 1960s. I seem to remember being told, at the time, that George was his brother, although that may have been idle schoolboy chat.I also remember Georges name in connection with the local jazz bands at the time. A long time ago and I was only just starting to get into music, so I might be mistaken!

James Bell

Well. THAT is a lead! I just did a quick google, and found this: It gives a number of details: Ted and his father (and brother?) shared a French tutor. And his brother was 10 years younger, which fits. And whilst the photo of Ted doesn't exactly remind me of George, it's certainly not dissimilar. But get this... there's a comment on that link left by... his brother George! Who gives the address of the house they grew up in, so if anyone wants to play detective, there's plenty to go on here. Put it this way, there's nothing in this link that suggests to me that it isn't the same George Walker that taught me French.

And, as yet, that's as far as the story goes. Stay tuned for more as it happens...

Of course, I didn't mention the whole story: that after teaching me to play Sultans of Swing, Guitarist George presented me with his guitar, glowing gold from some hidden ethereal light, and told me that I was the anointed one, destined to bring balance to the harmonic scale.

I'll save that for the biopic.

So What Have We Learnt?

This month has had its light, but it has also had its darkness. H, myself and our wider friendship group have been rocked by the recent, random death of someone who I would call a friend, who came to our wedding, but who I felt I was only just beginning to get to know. And who I'm sure I'll think of whenever I think of clockwork.

And that's really all there is to say about it here. So I'll just end with this cover version I stumbled upon recently, of Fiona Apple singing The Whole Of The Moon.

"The Whole Of The Moon" performed by Fiona Apple

Ask me things

If you have any questions then seriously, do please drop me a message using one of the pretty social media buttons below. About the recordings. About the folk session. About life. About the universe. About unicorns and cannonballs; palaces and piers; trumpets, towers, and tenements; wide oceans full of tears; flags, rags, ferry boats; scimitars and scarves. And every precious dream and vision. Underneath the stars.

  • Click on the images to see the originals. (It just means less admin for me this way.)
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