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December 2019

The Return of James Bell Central

Happy Tuesday. So, at the end of last year I put the James Bell Central website on hiatus. Now, much though I would love it to reboot tomorrow with a whole catalogue of new music, it’s going to be a much slower return than that. But I’m ready to at least start on it.

The hiatus came about because I just ran out of time, but it was also because I wasn’t happy with the digital content I was producing. And I’ve had plenty of time since then to think about how to do less, but better. I’ve also changed my approach fairly fundamentally. I used set myself targets to achieve each month. Two new tracks (composed, mixed, mastered), a long-form article, a number of short-form articles… Now I’m going to sort of approach it from the opposite end. I’m going to try a bit more trial-and-error, and see what I’m comfortable with. And above all, I’m not going to make the mistake of giving myself too little time to do any one thing really well.

As I write about in 'Dear Diary', this all forms part of a concerted effort on my part to engage with the world more. I’ve been in tunnel vision for a long time now – long enough that I can’t just skip back into the social and cultural life that I had before. It’s going to take work.

So, while we’re here, let’s roll up our sleeves and roundup the year before it slips away from us.

In December’s smorgasbord we have for you a delicious selection of recommendations, including a modern Shakespearean epic, the latest music from folk music royalty, a new (to me at least) comedy double-act and… yeah, Cats.

In this month’s 'projects I very nearly had the time to work on', I reinvent a beloved British dessert, and… well, do the usual pop culture meme stuff. But it's really all about the food.

And, much like last month, I have recorded a cover version of the earworm which has been burrowing into my brain, so hopefully it can burrow into yours.

Shall we?

Featured Track

If. It. Kills. Me...

On the day of writing (which is pretty much always the day before publishing) this newsletter I spontaneously decided to record a cover of this song by The Mountain Goats, as it seemed to be the song of the moment. It’s certainly been going round my head for a couple of weeks.

Happy new year. Don’t drink and drive, kids.



Yep, this again. But how could I not?

Ever since the trailer for Cats dropped in July, Patrick H Willems has been obsessed by it – calling Cats his most anticipated film of the year. And, as he explains at the start of this YouTube video essay... he's not entirely sure why.

With interviews, archive clips and great editing, he uncovers what cinema-goers the world over have been discovering these last few days: this may not be a straightforwardly good film, but it is... somehow... kind of amazing.

And if nothing else, it's an example of a mainstream Hollywood studio giving us something they almost never do: a film that is entirely new.


King Lear, but it’s Rupert Murdoch

The first season of this joyfully cynical series aired on HBO in 2018, and it’s written by one of the co-creators of Peep Show (Jesse Armstrong), about a Rupert Murdoch-type figure (basically, it’s Rupert Murdoch) who is in his 80s, in failing health, and about to hand over his gigantic media company to one of his heirs. Or is he?

Every character is various shades of monstrous, and it’s full of cringe-making awkwardness, and that alone would normally put me off, but I’ve enjoyed every second of it so far. (I’m about half way through the first season.)

Because in 2020, a show about the inner family politics of a media tycoon feels to me like more necessary viewing than watching the news.

And it’s seriously entertaining, and you can chew through a few episodes without even noticing.


The return of the Greatest Folk Band In The World™

I mean, I’m partly saying that because there’s a chance that band members will read this, but even so, a new Threepenny Bit album is always an event. No one else puts traditional English tunes through quite the same assault course – their arrangements are like a giant Wallace & Grommit machine that kneads, stretches, flips, beats with a hammer, until at the end a conveyor belt produces a rocket ship powered by tea bags.

One word of warning: this is a very egg-based album. If you have any allergies please consult your GP.

Now available on Spotify, but for full points, visit their Bandcamp page:


Hogwarts’s inner city counterpart

Lately I’ve been binge-watching sketches by US comedy double-act Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. Jordan Peele has since gone on to become one of the most talked about Hollywood directors, thanks to smash hits like Get Out and Us, but clearly these two had a blast doing sketch comedy.

This video shows what life is like in an inner city wizarding school, but basically pick any video – the average standard is really high.



Deutschland Deutschland...

I haven’t listened to classical music for... what feels like years. But I was recently reminded why I love it.

Or, to be a bit more specific, why about 5 composers have written some of my favourite music ever, and I can pretty much take or leave all the others.

This video should hopefully start at the second movement, which is a hymn that composer Joseph Hayden wrote for the monarch at the time. And it’s now the German national anthem.

But the bit that I love is after it has gone through once, and we get just two melodic parts: the main tune, and a counter-melody doing elegant gymnastics around it.

Projects Which I Would Do If Only There Were 25 Hours In A Day…

Noughties Nostalgia TV

So, the decade's nearly over. Why wait? Let's right down to a fantasy-horror-noir Stranger Things type series, set in the 2000s. Referencing the music of The Killers, OutKast and Tinchy Stryder, and lovingly namedropping The Office, Life on Mars and Mean Girls, this would be the story of a young boy who dreams of being Pete Doherty and then grows up to find that he is, actually, Pete Doherty.

I know the Noughties had the Iraq War, the Financial Crisis and the first visible signs that modern Western democracy was sliding into the sea, but even so, it still feels more comforting than today.

Facebook: the Opera

Comedy aside, I actually think there might be something in this. If not an opera then maybe a musical?

And I’m not talking about just The Social Network with songs. I’m talking about the later Cambridge Analytica-era Facebook. The hysteria, chaos, money, celebrity, rivalry and eventual defeat at the hands of (Facebook-owned) Instagram.

Something like Matt Winkworth's The Assassination of Katie Hopkins. With the big climax perhaps being Zuckerberg's interrogation by Congress. Ending in a gigantic Busby Berkeley dance number.

Honourable Mentions

Finnegans Wake as a graphic novel

I like a challenge.

Sherbot Holmes

It’s been long enough since the last twist on the world’s most famous detective, so… it’s the 23rd century, and Holmes and Watson are both robots.

Cheese Trifle

Instead of custard, cheese. Instead of whipped cream, more cheese. Instead of sponge, bread. Instead of sherry, balsamic vinegar. Blowtorched parmesan instead of chocolate sprinkles.

I know, right?

Upcoming Events

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Every second Friday of the month. And for once, not Friday 13th.

Dear Diary...

Allergic to Social Correspondence

So. Funny story. (Well… story.)

A couple of weeks ago I was having a drink with my brother, and found myself apologising, as I often do, for being so slow to respond to any kind of digital communication. Email, social media, texting, you name it.

It was a subject I had been thinking about for quite some time. I knew I was bad at it, but…

I found myself saying that actually, no… it wasn’t something that I was ‘bad at’. It was actually much worse than that.

This was one of those conversations where you find yourself saying something that you’d never quite realised.

I’m not bad at replying to people’s messages. I am almost incapable of replying to people’s messages.

I’m not sure if I would quite use the word ‘phobia’, but it’s something approaching that. And I’m not normally a New Year’s Resolutions type person, but dealing with this block is mine for this year. I’ve known for a while now that I’m actually just being rude to my friends and family, and this is something that has to stop.

And it’s part of a bigger life shift for me. Or rather, a life correction – as I feel I drifted off-course a bit. I feel like my social life has kind of faded away, and I’ve known it for a while, but I'm still grappling with what to do about it.

I have to be honest: generally speaking, I can never remember what I’ve written in previous newsletters, so I’m always a bit wary I’m repeating myself each time, but I imagine in the recent past I’ve mentioned something about (i) feeling like I’m disconnected from people and (ii) recognising that I need to do something about it.

Well, the conclusion that I’ve come to about this, in 2019, is that there is no simple single cause for this problem. And therefore there’s unlikely to be a simple single solution.

I think this problem has come about for a number of reasons – some related, some coincidental. And I think it’s going to take a fair bit of work to correct.

One obvious reason, I think, is marriage. When I was single and living by myself, I had to get out 2 or 3 evenings in a week, and at least once on a weekend, or I would go stir crazy. But now, I just don’t have that same internal pressure. I can only spend time with H and not feel the need to socialise at all (apart from some kind of structured work environment, which I think I’ve written about before).

Another obvious reason was a shift in my work, which has become all-consuming in the last couple of years. And there have been points recently where the need to pay the bills really did mean that I didn’t have time (or money) for socialising.

And then there’s Brexit Britain, and how the toxicity of the political climate has made any kind of celebration of English tradition feel radioactive – and so much of many social life has been involved in English Trad in some way.

There’s also the fact that… Neil Finn always used to say that a successful band has a natural life of about 10 years, and beyond that the band members just feel like it’s kind of mission accomplished, and time to move on. And I coincidentally reached a similar point with a bunch of my social activities, where… I didn’t feel like I wanted to ‘move on’ as such, but also didn’t feel able to do them with the same intensity.

But back to that problem of digital correspondence: replying to emails, texts, social media messages, etc. I think a fair few of the above problems feed into this. And to that list I’d also add the fact that a while ago I deliberately organised my phone apps so that I get notifications of business-related messages, but not social ones. Work messages get answered pretty much straight away. It’s the non-work ones that are left hanging.

In fact, maybe that’s symptomatic of the more general problem for me. It can seem like a smart idea to separate work life from social life, to make sure you get your work done. Because the work is important. But the knock-on effect of that is that, by implication, everything other than work is not important.

So What Have We Learnt?

Actually, that idea — how ring-fencing your professional life because it's ‘important’ can reduce the importance you give to everything else – just occurred to me while writing this. Basically, I think I’m still figuring all this stuff out.

But one clear conclusion for me is that it’s going to take work. And by work, I mean organisation. I am hopelessly disorganised when it comes to my social life right now.

Which kind of ties in with slowly restarting the James Bell Central website, I think, in that I feel I’ve been getting it wrong, and have some kind of block with it, but now feel like I have a sense of how I can get over that block.

And it’s not going to happen right away. But it needs to happen.

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 gigs. About life. About the universe. About how I look in a wig. Pretty great, right?

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