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In which we ask whether 'community' is anything more than a buzzword in modern popular culture. Then send in the trombones.

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July 2019

On the size of towns

Inverness. Port Talbot. Oxford. How big is your town? Or city? Or village? Or cave? This month I will be mulling on how the size of your community can affect how much you feel a part of it. And also how strange it is that you can go to a place and instantly feel at home there, and then go somewhere that on paper you should like much more and really feel alienated from it.

But it's not all fun, games and urban planning. In addition to the usual 'projects that I don't have time for right now', there's recommenations for podcasts galore, there's recommendations for some savvy film criticism, and there's a cheeky reworking of a recommendation from last month.

And I also recommend the biggest pop hit of the year, which really needs no recommendation from me. But it has Billy Ray Cyrus, so rules are rules.

And then I write a lot about towns.

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

A Podcast

You don’t understand. You don’t understand the discipline needed. The self-control required. For me not to start a podcast.

I'm not talking about any specific podcast, on any specific subject.

I'm talking about any podcast. About anything.

I have all of the tools. The microphones. The sound editing software. The NPR voice.

I know I shouldn't. The world absolutely does not need another podcast by someone like me. But by god it just seems so easy...

That video from a few years ago with the stressed people who go into a meditation tent and then the kittens are released...

Cats!

There's a new movie adaptation coming out of the Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical Cats. It's a star-studded cast. Idris Elba, Taylor Swift, Rebel Wilson, Ian McKellen, Judi Dench... The trailer dropped recently. The reaction to it has been mixed. Which is to say, bad.

Here's my problem.

I've actually always liked the musical. I was the right age when it came out. And I've been waiting for there to be a film adaptation, ever since Will Smith's first serious film role in which he was a con man blagging his way into the hearts of a rich family by claiming that his father was acclaimed actor Sidney Poitier and his father was just about to star in a film adaptation of Cats...

The thing is. However good the film is. Is it actually going to be better than just watching a live stream of literal cats in a room for 2 hours? (Which is what I am currently pitching to studios.) If not, what's the point?

Although, to be fair... perhaps you could say that about any film...

Honourable Mentions:

 
Ex-X Men

Logan didn't go far enough. In my new script, Charles Xavier, Magneto, Mystique and Jean Grey are all in their 80s, have long since lost their superpowers, and are now going on a luxury cruise where they just spend the whole time discussing how much money their children make and whose granddaughters got into Oxford. Also they all hate immigrants now.

 
'Master of Puppets' by Metallica performed entirely on bagpipes

I don’t know why this will work.  But I feel it.

I feel it.

 
Toy Story (live action remake)

I mean, this is a joke, obviously. But Disney is still gonna do it...

Recommendation

OLD TOWN ROAD
"You have a good day. Get off my car."

The unlikely pop mega-hit of 2019: rapper Lil Nas X made a country song which went viral on TikTok, and topped the country music charts. Or... it would have topped them, but the people who make the charts disqualified it because it 'wasn't a proper country song'.

So he did a remix, with Country Legend/Pariah and father-of-Miley: Billy Ray Cyrus. And it became a monster hit.

And then they made a video, which is essentially a short film. There's line-dancing. And time-travel. And bingo.

Recommendation

THE 'CUBICLE MOVIE' THESIS
"Why All Movies From 1999 Are The Same"

I watch a lot of YouTube video essays. It's my main form of relaxation last thing at night when I realise I'm too tired to work, but not quite ready to go to bed.

80% of them are unsuccessfully trying to rip off Every Frame A Painting.

10% do it successfully, and this is one of them.

The bold (and admittedly exaggerated) claim of the video's title is that 'all movies from the year 1999 are the same'. The thesis of the video is that a surprising number of box office hits from that year feature the same specific element: a man (white, middle-class, heterosexual etc) who has a comfortable life at a corporation where he works in a cubicle, and this man then goes on to create chaos in his own life and the lives of those around him, because he finds that comfortable life unsatisfying.

On the one hand, it's a trait that seems quaint. On the other, I find there's something deeply sinister about it.

Recommendation

FINNEAS (& BILLIE) EILISH
Inside the Tiny Bedroom Where FINNEAS and Billie Eilish Are Redefining Pop Music

Last month I recommended the song 'Bury A Friend' by Billie Eilish. Since then I have been obsessively listening to the album that it comes from over and over. It's basically been the only album I've been listening to. So... I want to cheekily share it again, by technically recommending her brother Finneas. They're basically a brother/sister double-act. They recorded this massive global hit album in his bedroom, with her performing all of the vocals while sitting on his bed.

And I find that fascinating. And I think it's a sign of the times, and we will be seeing a lot more of this.

There are things that you can't do in a bedroom recording studio. Recording large bands with acoustic instruments gets very tricky very quick. But the technology is now so cheap and so advanced that musicians can really experiment, without having to worry about racking up £££££s in studio costs.

Also, there's a particular kind of intimacy that comes with recording from home. You don't have the pressure of the studio environment -- which can be healthy, but can also be very off-putting.

The Billie Eilish song I've now had properly on loop, by the way, is called 'When The Party's Over'.

Recommendation

THAT CREATIVE LIFE
Peter McKinnon’s “Overnight Success” on YouTube and How He Got Fired

Sara Dietschy-rhymes-with-peachy is a YouTuber who... kind of does exactly what YouTubers do. She's a really good example of the current generation. For anyone not familiar with the ways of YouTube, I think a TV presenter is probably the closest analogy. They tend to have an area of expertise but they'll also branch out into other areas such as interviews.

Dietschy does mainly tech videos, but she's also interested in interviewing people about their creative process. And often their business process too. (In the above video she interviews YouTube megastar Peter McKinnon.) And she also has a podcast called That Creative Life.

It's kind of a specific niche that she covers, but I think that niche is kind of the cutting edge of new media.

And actually, I'm going to go out on a limb and say it's a podcast that should be interesting to anyone even remotely involved in the creative process.

Recommendation

[mystery recommendation]

What could this video possibly be about?

I'm not going to give you any clues as to what this mystery video recommendation is about, except to say that it is very short, and it makes me very happy.

Recommendation

DAVID TENANT DOES A PODCAST WITH MICHAEL SHEEN

Don't be fooled by the thumbnail, it's not with Ian McKellen!

Here's the YouTube link to the other podcast that I've been enjoying recently. One of those ones I just devoured, episode after episode, in whatever the podcast-equivalent of binge-watching is. David Tennant, who is lovely, records podcasts with his celebrity mates. Which could be insufferable, but they're lovely too. Olivia Coleman. Whoopi Goldberg. Jon Hamm. Jodi Whittaker. And loveliest of all, I thought, was with his current co-star in TV's Good Omens: Michael Sheen.

It's quite a bit longer than the other episodes, but I just found it riveting. And actually, it kickstarted a train of thought which... well, I'll leave it to Dear Diary to explain.

Upcoming Events

Friday 9th August

Every second Friday of the month. And for once... I won't be at Sidmouth Folk Week!

Dear Diary...

I was up in the highlands of Scotland for a music business conference at the beginning of the month. I think I’d been to Inverness as a child (maybe even as a teen) so I felt like I had a pretty good idea what it was like. Well, either my memory is pretty bad or our family trips were only in winter, because I was really taken aback the beauty of the countryside in July.

What was I expecting? Perhaps a sort of bleak dreich glamour, undercut by post-industrial poverty. That was not Inverness. I’m sure there’s more than one side to any town, but if I had to describe it in a word, I think it would be... lovely. Not a word I often use. But Inverness struck me as small, intimate, self-contained, and happy even. There seemed to be a lot going on. It seemed to be just a nice place to live.

I find that the older children and younger adults are a good barometer for what a place is like to live in. Are they dressed in extreme fashion, nose-rings through their eyeballs, in protest of the oppressive emptiness of the place, just desperate to get to a city where something is happening? Or are they past caring about their appearance, resigned to the fact they are trapped in this hole and never getting out? The young people of Inverness seemed well-dressed (without being flash), and busy. They were going in largish friendship groups to do things together.

I was there for just a few days, and I have a tendency to read too much into things, but everyone seemed quietly proud of the place. And it felt, oddly, like it was just the right size. I walked across the town centre every morning to get from the B&B to the conference centre, and it was easy to get about in. It was touristy, but not in the brazen way that Oxford is, and much of that tourism was about the specific history of the place (rather than a boil-in-the-bag tartan Scottishness).

I think perhaps what I was expecting was like stories of Wales after the mining industry collapsed. Communities formed over decades, even centuries, around a line of work that disappeared completely within 20 years, leaving a sense of a spirit broken. Which leads me neatly on to David Tennant Does A Podcast With... Michael Sheen.

David Tennant strikes me as being a product of a community not that dissimilar to the one I saw in Inverness. Where everyone knows each other, but not so much that they're each other’s face the whole time. He has that attitude that is down-to-earth without being competitively so. It makes him a great interviewer: he’s gentle, thoughtful, funny, and a good listener. And the podcasts are really entertaining, and mainly deal with success: the struggle to attain it, and then the struggle to adjust to it. The guests are all internationally famous, and clearly driven, and they have much to say on what success means to them.

Michael Sheen’s episode is last, and to be honest I was slightly worried he’d be a super-serious actorrrrr, darling. He wasn’t — he’s funny, and clearly Tennant and him get on like a house on fire. He talks a bit about his career, about fame and success, and growing up in Port Talbot in South Wales. And then he takes a different turn. He talks about living in L.A., and realising that his kids have grown up, and... there’s actually no reason why he can’t move back to Port Talbot.

So he does. And he starts getting actively involved in the community. Deeply involved. And one little story I heard recently really brought this home to me. The artist Banksy recently surprised a Port Talbot resident by painting something on his garage in the middle of the night. The resident awoke to being a celebrity, with the world’s news on his door. Michael Sheen saw what was going on, and called the guy up and asked him if he was okay. He wasn’t: he was overwhelmed and terrified by it all. So Sheen helped him out. Because that’s who he is now: someone who knows everyone, and who everyone knows. Someone who will call you up if you’re in trouble, and will ask how he can help.

This importance of belong to a community wasn't really something I heard from the other podcast guests. They had their core group of friends, but their fame meant they simply couldn't be part of a larger community -- except a celebrity one. But Michael Sheen clearly didn't feel that way.

Hearing him talking about how he felt about Port Talbot was oddly something I found deeply moving. I just don’t hear people talk about belonging to a place like that. Well, outside of the culture of folk music, which I guess is why I was drawn to that genre. (And, to be fair, the many other types of music that are rooted in community.) I feel like being part of a community is not considered to be an important part of a happy and ‘successful’ life in 21st century Britain, but to me it is vital and has been so much of a part of who I am.

Until recently.

So What Have We Learnt?

I crave being part of a physical community. And I think Oxford is the right size for me. Some people need to be in New York. Some in a village. Some in a remote cottage. I want a town you can walk through in a couple of hours, where you can feel like you can get to know everyone.

But I've let all that slip. Perhaps because, more generally, my community has been England - or a very specific idea of England, as an inclusive and progressive nation with a troubled past. And music (I've mellowed about using the F word, but yeah, let's call it 'folk music') has been the way I have engaged with this.

However. The Brexit project is part of a malignant propaganda campaign designed for the specific purpose of inciting bigotry and division. It's a 21st century digital take on the old Roman dīvide et imperā, and it has billions in funding behind it. (For anyone still in doubt on this, a good late recommendation is the new Netflix documentary The Great Hack:)

The Great Hack | Official Trailer | Netflix

And it's really worked on me. It's made me feel isolated from my community. It's made me hate all of the things about Oxford that I hated while growing up, with an even more passionate intensity. It's made me question everyone's motives, especially my own.

I think it's also worked on the English folk scene. And this I've written about in this newsletter a fair bit in the past. But that has been my social context for the last fifteen years. It's been where I found my friends. But that common interest has just kind of dried up. England is clearly not an inclusive and progressive nation right now, and it doesn't just have a troubled past: it has a troubled present.

And I'd love to say that from here on I'm going to invest in my community again. But I have been saying that since 2016. And it hasn't happened. Maybe that's also due to not going out much thanks to becoming a freelancer and feeling like I need to be working every second. But it's also that everything feels tainted now. And it makes me so angry that this tainting is a deliberate strategy, and it's working. Then again, it's definitely a good thing that genuine nastiness embedded in English culture is more difficult to gloss over.

Maybe... I need to keep coming across other people being invested in their communities to remind me that there's always problems you'll need to grapple with. Like any other relationship, the relationships we have with our communities are going to have their peaks and their troughs. And now is still definitely a trough.

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 to make a scooter sound like a Harley by using nothing but a trombone...

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