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Someone in a podcast recently described Zoom get-togethers as like powdered milk: all it does is remind you it's not the real thing.

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May 2020

Powdered Milk

This is going to be a newsletter about acceptable substitutes. Substitutes for things that the pandemic is taking away from us. Especially social contact. And, long-story short, I suspect that for the time-being we may need to get used to powdered milk, figuratively speaking. But… there might also be alternatives we can stock our figurative shelves with, and there may be condiments that make it go down better.

Also, facemasks! When is the UK going to embrace using facemasks in public, all the time, even in situations when it feels like ‘we don’t need to’? 😩

More on that exasperated emoji as it happens…

(Oh, god, emojis… since I have discovered emojipedia.org my life has been forever changed. I’m going to have to try very hard not to disrupt yours with that knowledge, and keep this to a single emoji email.)

I think this month’s cultural recommendations are all very… pandemicky, shall we say. Not in terms of content, but in terms of form. Put it this way, I’m not recommending any epic tomes or landmark documentary series. It’s all bite-sized remedies for boredom.

And then after that I’m writing a lot more about powdered milk, so… shall we?

Recommendation

THE MANDALORIAN

This is the way.

I resisted.

I’d heard so much “oh Baby Yoda is so cute!”, but it actually felt a little cynical to me: the story of a badass bounty hunter going on adventures whilst protecting a baby (not Yoda but the same species) seemed like a cutesy Disney way of trying to appeal to the widest demographic possible.

But The Mandalorian (an exclusive Star Wars television series launched as a flagship for the new Disney+ streaming service) is anything but cynical, even if many of its characters are. The show-runners have said that the chief inspiration was the films of Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone, two of the world's most acclaimed directors, whose work focuses on how to have a moral compass in a world without one.

And the child’s cuteness is an essential plot point. This seemingly cold-hunted bounty hunter (who, it turns out, donates his spare cash to an orphans charity) is tasked with bringing in a baby to a gangster who wants to ‘extract materials’ from the child. (The fact that the gangster is played by German director Werner Herzog is gift-wrapped perfection for film nerds like me.) 

Anyway, the bounty hunter goes ahead and does this, and that’s why the cuteness is important. As you get into the episodes you start saying “you’re not seriously going to give that child to the gangster?” Then, of course, as I’m sure you can guess, shit goes down.

I mean, I resisted The Mandalorian partly because I resisted, and resented, Disney+. One more subscription service? Do they offer anything new? And the stuff that they do have is all fluffy, with the edges taken off.

Well, it turns out, fluffy with the edges taken off happens to be exactly what I want right now. And so I’ve really been bingeing on the ol’ Star Wars – particularly the cartoons (Clone Wars and Rebels) which I would also share here but, yeah, you get the drift…

Recommendation

SIMONE GIERTZ'S PROUD PARENT MACHINE
Proud of you, son.

Simone Giertz, Swedish-American YouTuber and Queen of Shitty Robots, builds a machine that will pat you on the shoulder and say “Proud of you, son.” For 25 cents.

I know I’ve recommended Simone before. And probably more than once. But watching her YouTube videos has been one of the few things that H and I can both agree on watching at dinner. Our tastes seem to be radically different, sometimes opposite (which tends not to be a problem in the cinema, because you commit to your choices, but I’m really impatient with television that I don’t like!)

Anyways, over time, I’ve come to the conclusion that Simone might be the best at YouTube: her style is the most entertaining, her humour is the sharpest, her drone baby-carrier is one of the darkest, funniest things on the internet.

But also, since she got a brain tumour which had to be surgically removed, there’s an added layer to watching it. Each subsequent video has the almost audible sigh of a fanbase saying, “We’re so glad you didn’t die, Simone!”

Recommendation

GOOGLE EARTH
Yeah, it's kind of Powdered Milk... but you can fly!

Okay, so… holidays are out of the question for the foreseeable. But. Google Earth is NOT THE SAME as going to a place in real life. But.

You can go anywhere. And really, anywhere on the planet, that is above ground/water. You can tour through any city, you can learn about cultures.

You can’t do this in any depth whatsoever. You are limited to one sense: sight. But.

You can do breadth! You can do epic breadth. You can travel from Paris to Singapore in seconds. It's like you can fly, dammit.

And, in the New Normal, I feel like we have to take our kicks where we can find them.

I don’t work for Google by the way.

(But then again, if this newsletter had been entirely generated by Google A.I. from the beginning, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell.)

Recommendation

CHRISTOPHER WALKEN READS THE THREE LITTLE PIGS
Never heard Christopher Walken say "Bacon butties!" before?

In times of isolation, I tend to fall back on my familiar pastimes. Such as working on my Christopher Walken impression.

And, in doing so, I inevitably end up imitating the best Christopher Walken impersonator there is: Christopher Walken.

This video is a great example of him doing an impression of himself. He has such a clear idea of his persona, as this extremely sinister character actor with a very strange pattern of speech.

I was reading recently that he took this too far when he did a sketch for Saturday Night Live (“more cowbell!”) that quickly became the only thing that people quote at him. But I don’t think it’s going to be what he’s remembered for, even if he's worried it will be.

I think he’ll be remembered for being one of the best movie villains ever: this extraordinary mix of menace, charm, humour, charisma and linguistic ticks.

But he might also be remembered for being impersonation candy.

Recommendation

JEFF HK'S FREIGHT SHIP TIMELAPSES
Ooo... priddy!

Another substitute for travel here – in space, and perhaps in time too. I’ve been talking with my narrowboat neighbours recently about the strange attraction of living on a boat, and I’ve been reminiscing about how part of me… is terrified of boats, and terrified of bodies of water. Particularly the sea. I blame the movie Jaws. Doesn’t everyone. I think I read somewhere that it was originally going to be titled “Fear of a Calm Blue Sea”, and that expresses it perfectly for me.

But it’s a fear and a fascination. I cannot imagine not living on a boat in some form.

Large bodies of water have enormous power. When Oxford floods, the water has power. And I suppose that’s what the Romantic poets got all excited about when they wrote about the Sublime: seeing something in a tranquil state that can so easily squash you.

And that’s essentially what this YouTube timelapse video is: a crewmember from Hong Kong (Jeff) on a giant freight ship navigating around the world, loading and unloading the resources that keep the world turning.

Recommendation

DR HOPE'S SICK NOTES

YouTube channel by junior NHS doctor Ed Hope

To be fair, you might not want to know anything about hospital doctors at the sharp end of the pandemic right now, but if you feel like you want to learn about the actual experiences of NHS staff… this is the YouTube diary of Dr Ed Hope, a junior doctor at a hospital in Essex.

A fascinating insight, I think. It’s not all doom and gloom by any means (e.g. he spends quite a lot of time dispensing free Lego to hospital staff). But it’s not all rosy either.

This episode is a slightly more sombre one from a month ago, musing about when the lockdown is likely to be lifted.

Also available in tweet form: https://twitter.com/drhopesicknotes/

Upcoming Events

Friday 12th & Friday 26th June

Every other Friday. It's now A Thing.

This is an online version of the Bastard English Session which has haunted the Isis Farmhouse Pub in Oxford for over a decade now.

In order to log in, you need to click this link:

And then enter the password, which is:

  • bitshowy

And a reminder of the New Bastard Protocol:

  1. If you want to perform something, click on 'Raise your Hand'.
  2. If you’re performing, you’ll need to change your Zoom settings to ‘Use Original Sound’.
  3. 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).
  4. Feel free to use the Chat function throughout!
  5. 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...

Oh... yeah. 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.)

Dear Diary...

It’s a little bit scary to me how normal it’s all become.

In several different ways. Firstly, how quickly I’ve settled into this routine. I guess both H and I are people who have been in lockdown training for our whole lives. But also, politically, it feels like April was the troops meeting in No Man’s Land for a football match, and late May is a return to hostilities.

Trying to stay positive and do something constructive, I bought a sewing machine a while back, and taught myself how to make facemasks, so I could make a mini-factory line and donate them somewhere.

Because I have been fully expecting that everyone would be wearing them in public all the time – even when it might seem the risk was low. Kind of as a courtesy. But according to the BBC we don't even need them for schools and workplaces now.

Basically, I was foolishly assuming that as a nation we’d start looking at South East Asia’s experience of SARS and MERS, and see what lessons they learned from that. But… no.

I think there’s an assumption (particularly in government) that they’re all poor nations who don’t really know how to do science properly. Which, given the comparative death rates, is tragically absurd.

‘Never underestimate the English superiority complex’ is an increasingly good motto, I’m finding.

Anyhoo, I have all these nice masks, and no one to donate them to.

Have emailed local charities and heard nothing back.

Although, that said… I mean, this is actually probably just a Marketing 101 problem: I have been much more focused on how to make them than what to do with them once they're made.

Which reminds me, in a roundabout way, I’m about to put all my professional music-making plans to one side for a bit. For quite a while I have been focused on building a career making music for film and television, but with so much of the entertainment industry on ice I just can’t rely on that for income right now. 

For me personally, now is the time to take the safest bet job for the short-to-mid term. So when I was offered the possibility of full-time work from home I snapped it up.

Although, I am spending pretty much all my free time on making music for myself, because it is so wonderfully therapeutic.

So there might even be some new music here before too long...

I’m also exploring ways to reproduce the sense of community I feel I’m missing from things like the Catweazle Club. And I’m finding the idea of powdered milk really interesting in this context.

Tangent: H once made a healthy chocolate brownie alternative out of sweet potato (from a recommended recipe). She hated it, thought it was disgusting. We occasionally bring it up in conversation, because it’s a good example of a particular phenomenon. Because I thought it was pretty good! Just not as a chocolate brownie. The moment you called it a chocolate brownie, it was truly disgusting. It was just wrong.

But if you don’t think of it as an ‘alternative’ to something familiar that you love, but instead as something completely new… okay, even then it needed a bit of work. But there was definitely something in it.

So, online music communities, and powdered milk. Friday night was another Bastard Online Session, and I feel I’m starting to get the hang of them. Yes, I keep accidentally muting myself, but that’s a running joke now. Indeed, if I didn’t keep giving the camera serious side-eye once I realise everyone is laughing at me because I’ve been talking enthusiastically for 30 seconds and no one can hear me… it wouldn’t be the same event.

It is not the Bastard English Session – it is something different. It definitely lacks a big part of the energy and (weirdly) intimacy of a pub packed full of people. But it does have the benefit of including people who live all over the world. It has the benefit of including people who struggle with social anxiety – who can just switch their camera and microphone off, but still feel part of the experience.

It’s interesting, actually – something else I’ve recently been talking with H about is my self-appointed role as being the one who initiates social events with 112% enthusiasm. This is definitely something I’ve learnt from gigging. Something I often say that H reminded me of this morning: you’ve always got to be prepared to play to an empty room. Because literally 80% of all the solo gigs I’ve ever played started with an empty room. And it’s down to you, the performer, to be confident, enthusiastic, show no signs of embarrassment, and draw people in.

Here is an example from Friday’s online session. This is how we kick off these days:

Bastard Online Session (first 2 minutes) : Friday 29 May, 2020

The online space is different, but it still requires the same thing: a lot of me being loud for the first 20 minutes, and then – if the atmosphere feels welcoming enough – less and less of me and more and more of everyone else.

As to which platform makes the best online space, right now it does still seem like Zoom has the best technical foundation, even though Instagram and Facebook are where a lot of the music stuff is happening.

But I’m getting more and more interested in YouTube. You might notice that all of my recommendations in this newsletter are YouTube these days. I spend more time on YouTube than watching telly or listening to music, or audiobooks, or podcasts. And I actually feel like I have a pretty good understanding of what works on the platform. It’s not a community platform like Facebook… I mean, there is a community, but it’s more geared to people who post videos on their own YouTube channels, perhaps.

But I’ll be very interested to see if it moves more in a direction of letting non-creators take part in live online events in real-time, the way that Zoom does.

And… here’s the thing: in England, there has just been another government directive relaxing social distancing rules. Now more people can gather together in the same outdoor place. And lots of people are out in the public spaces, hanging out. The weather is amazing (seriously, when in England has it ever been so good for so long?) And there is a general sense that we’re over the worst of the pandemic, and everything is pointing to a winding down of the lockdown.

Everything, that is, except the science.

And… I think this is something that the English public is grappling with. The signals from government and some media are that it’s coming to an end, but we all know that this is just the first wave, and even that might not be coming to an end right now. And we need to prepare for the rules to tighten again at any moment.

So we really need to be planning for how we cope with social distancing in the longer-term.

For those that are able to at the moment – who are not buried by the pressures of the pandemic – I feel like we have a responsibility to get moving on this now. There is so little certainty in life, but… weirdly, coronavirus gives us a certain amount of certainty, in that it can tell us what specific things we are NOT able to do in 6 months time.

Let’s use the summer, as much as we can, to put systems in place to look after ourselves and those around us.

Because winter is coming.

So What Have We Learnt?

Well, it’s currently Week 9 (?) of lockdown, so… even though we should be preparing for the long haul, instead we’ve learnt how to build a cannon out of 50,000 matchsticks.

50,000 Matches Chain Reaction Domino effect

This video has a little disclaimer in the description saying “Don’t try this at home”. But when you get to the end of the clip, I’m sure you’ll agree: you shouldn’t try this anywhere.

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 facemasks.

You want some facemasks?

My new ones have pleats!

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PHOTO CREDITS:
  • Click on the images to see the originals. (It just means less admin for me this way.)
Copyright © 2020 House of Lyra, All rights reserved.


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