Well, here we are. New Year's Eve has come around again and I sit here wondering what 2017 has in store for us all. I suspect that the reviews of 2016 will be overwhelmingly negative, as the year has given just about everyone some hard times; for a lot of people, 2016 will be a year that they'll be glad to see the back of. The fallout from some of the year's events is going to continue for years to come, and I doubt that 2017 is going to improve much on its predecessor. The implications of what the UK leaving the EU will mean for us Brits continue to crawl into the light, and they are turning out to be negative in almost all cases - the latest being that UK citizens travelling in Europe will be paying much higher mobile roaming charges.
As for America, well, I'm still trying to process what the US thinks it's doing. Given the current conditions in the Arctic, where temperatures are some twenty degrees higher than they should be, it's clear that urgent radical action on climate change is needed. Instead, the United States have just elected someone who thinks that it's all a bunch of hooey. Maybe I'm just getting old, but it's beginning to feel like the people in control really don't have the faintest idea of what it is they're supposed to be doing. Where have all the sensible people gone? Where are the grown-ups, the ones who ought to be in charge? Do they even exist any more? The current zeitgeist of "who needs experts, anyway?" both at home and abroad is deeply troubling. People seem to be turning their backs on knowledge, science - even truth. If the world's governments continue to ignore what's happening as the ice caps disappear, something like Teresa May deciding that the UK is going to opt out of the European Convention on Human Rights - which in any other circumstance would be a matter of grave concern - may well turn out to be the least of our troubles; the planetary climate may be heading for a tipping point that we really, really don't want to reach. We may well find ourselves looking back on 2016 with nostalgia; not to put too fine a point on it, but it's been years since the future looked this bleak.
But on a personal level, this year has had many high points. The biggest change for me has been getting a new job, which I'm still hugely enjoying. I'm no longer worrying about how I'm going to pay the bills each month, and that's always a good thing. I've learnt to judge my physical and mental wellbeing by how easy I find it is for me to get a good night's sleep, and these days I sleep like a log. It feels good.
One of the best things that happened to me this year was that I reconnected with a dear friend who I hadn't seen for thirty years. It's been really great to catch up and find out what has been happening. I made some new friends, too. And I was able to hang out with friends both old and new while we celebrated some wonderful occasions, including a very memorable wedding in the Belgian city of Bruges.
In 2016 I laid some old demons to rest at long last; the album that I released this year was a deeply personal chronicle of my experiences with depression - a condition that I'm happy to report has been entirely absent for many months now. I finally managed to jettison some emotional baggage and move on, and I think the wider change in my circumstances this year is a direct result of that progress.
This year, as with 2015, I've made huge advances in my music. It feels like I've finally managed to level up, and taking part in February Album Writing Month and Fifty/Ninety played a big part in making that happen. I worked with some of my favourite FAWMers and together we've made some fun pieces of music. As far as my creative endeavours are concerned, I'm really looking forwards to see what happens next year.
As for everything else, I guess I'll just have to wait and see what happens...
I'm back home after a couple of days in Norfolk. After a fairly quiet drive back last night I arrived here under a starry sky with frost crunching underfoot on the front path. At noon today it was still just below freezing outside, and there's still plenty of frost anywhere where the Sun didn't reach. At 4pm, the conservatory roof was still covered in ice. So I'm glad I've got a few days where - now that I've been to the supermarket to stock up on food - I don't have to go anywhere. Wintry conditions like this are always nicest when you can look at them through the windows of your home.
Even though it's still December, I've already started thinking about what I'm going to do for February Album Writing Month. I haven't any plans for big purchases to expand my arsenal of sound-making gear, but Toontrack are doing a Christmas sale with some deep discounts at the moment, so I might grab a couple more expansion packs for my EZDrummer collection.
I don't intend staying inside all the time, though. The forecast for the weekend is for rain, but it looks like we're going to get a cold snap next week. If we do, I think I'll go out walking with the camera and if I get any decent shots they'll no doubt end up on the blog.
I hope you're having a good time, whatever you're doing this week. If you celebrate Christmas, I hope you're having a particularly merry one.
I had a very quiet Christmas Day all to myself. My Christmas dinner was a success (and from now on I will be cooking black pudding to go with the roast parsnips every year, as I discovered to my surprise that they go extremely well together.) I'd bought a 2.5 kg bag of white potatoes at the supermarket on Friday for the ridiculous price of 39 pence, and somehow I managed to roast them to absolute perfection; they tasted far better than the Maris Piper spuds I normally cook that cost five times as much, which doesn't seem right, somehow. Today I'll be cooking a third batch to accompany the leftovers from yesterday, but that will do me for a while, I think - there's no way I can compete with Andy Park (who recently resumed his Christmas-dinner-every-day habit, I see).
All the same, I really needed that large mug of coffee this morning. And I've skipped lunch. I dread to think how many calories I've consumed so far this holiday so I'm not going to bother figuring it out.
Maybe it's because I'm getting older, but I'm really beginning to notice how frequently the Internet recycles old stuff. Many websites don't put the date a story was written on the page, which doesn't help things. The most recent example I've seen of old news spreading as if it was new is a photo of an edible model of Frank Lloyd Wright's astonishing house Fallingwater, made out of gingerbread and Smarties. I remember seeing it on BoingBoing back in 2010 but in the last week it's gone viral.
At least the model did actually exist. These days the Internet is full of stuff that never really happened at all, mixed in with a bunch of material that you wish was fake, but unfortunately isn't.
It was much too warm to get a white Christmas here, but the weather forecast for the next few days is interesting, with a ridge of high pressure building over the UK. That means clear nights and low temperatures, and the surface barometric pressure is expected to reach 1040mb.
That's nowhere near the global record of 1083.8mb (which was recorded in Siberia in 1968) and not even close to the UK record (1054.7mb was recorded in Aberdeen in 1902) but it's still pretty high.
I'm off to my father's place this evening for a couple of days, and as the skies there are amongst the darkest in the UK, I may well do a bit of stargazing while I'm there. I'm also going to take my freshly pimped-out laptop with me to do some more blogging, so there should be at least one more entry here before the year's out.
I don't often find myself blogging on Christmas Eve - the last time I did so was back in 2013 and before that, 2011, and in both cases I was writing about spending Christmas somewhere else. In the last six months I've driven the equivalent of once around the world, so this year, I'm just going to chill out at home.
Whatever you're doing for Christmas, I hope the next week is quiet, restful and uneventful.
As I'm at home for Christmas, I'm taking the opportunity to catch up on my film viewing. I'll be watching at least the first two Die Hard movies, because it's Christmas; I also have the Meryl Streep biopic of Florence Foster Jenkins to watch - my Aunty Mary was a big fan of the woman who performed opera at Carnegie Hall (despite her complete inability to carry a note or get within a couple of hundred yards of the correct pitch.)
Yesterday I was flicking through the films available on Amazon and ended up watching a film with quite possibly the most clumsily punctuated title in the history of cinema, Scooby-Doo! And Kiss: Rock and Roll Mystery which was even worse than you're currently imagining it to be. It starts off with two funfair employees, played by Kevin Smith and Jason Mewes, dicking about on an unfeasibly large rollercoaster and things rapidly trundle downhill from there. I'm not sure which is worse: the animation, or the script. Both are appallingly bad. The only laughs I got from the thing were from the repeated digs at Kiss's habit of sticking the band's logo on anything, if they thought they could make a buck out of selling it.
I bought the box set when I saw it on special offer months ago, but I've only just started working through the Lone Wolf and Cub movies directed by Kenji Misumi and Buichi Saito. They're films that had an enormous influence on a number of very important western film directors (the Three Storms in John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China - which I will also be watching this Christmas - were a direct lift from the second film in the series.) The Lone Wolf and Cub films are not even remotely festive but hugely entertaining. Misumi's directorial style is bold and brash, making lots of use of foreground objects to frame the action. Tree trunks or gateposts cut across the screen with huge blocks of impenetrable darkness; characters withrdaw from the light and become silhouettes. I also found it striking how much the film uses water: from the purification of the ritual blade in the opening scene, the river in the first fight, the torrential rain that accompanies Ogami Itto and his son Daigoro as they trek through Japan's beautiful countryside, to the hot springs where the final scenes play out. I'm going to be subjecting these films to repeated viewings, I think.
Watching Sword of Vengeance reminded me of the early 80s when my friends and I used to have movie nights every week or so; one week we rented director Robert Houston's somewhat eccentric edit of the films, which was notorious back then: Shogun Assassin was eventually banned by the BBFC as a result of the "video nasty" moral panic that was orchestrated by Mary Whitehouse and her cronies. It's difficult to see why today. The swordplay and gore are so overplayed that they become comedic; how anyone could think otherwise is beyond me. The Black Knight scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail is an obvious reference - tonally, they're identical. These days it would be more accurate to say that Shogun Assassin helped to introduce grindhouse as a genre. But much of the mastery of the originals is lost in Huston's cut - watching the source material rather than its later iterations is always enlightening.
I'm sure I'll be watching television, too. I didn't bother getting the Radio Times this Christmas, but I know there's another Agatha Christie adaptation in the works. I really enjoyed last year's adaptation of And Then There Were None so I'll be making sure to set the timer to record The Witness for the Prosecution.
There are a few DVD- or Blu-Ray-shaped boxes under the Christmas tree, too, so I'm looking forwards to watching some surprise additions to my collection.
One of the best things I did last year was go to Robin and Brian's Christmas Compendium of Reason at the Hammersmith Odeon, and on Friday night I was back there for this year's event.
I went straight from work, but got stuck in traffic in West London so when Robin tweeted that the first act of the night, the Jack Lieback Quartet were about to take the stage, I was still on the Piccadilly Line. By the time I made it to my seat, the quartet had handed over to Public Service Broadcasting who were storming through their set, and by the time I'd sat down I was a fan. Their music is a heady mix of electronica, samples from film and television and funk, and the samples they've used - many unearthed following a collaboration with the British Film Institute - pushed a lot of my geek buttons, as did the fact that they had a full-scale model of Sputnik 1 on stage, rigged out with its own LED light show, and from a muso perspective, so did the fact that they were using an Ableton Push to control the triggering of samples! Their single "Go!" shows the sort of vibe they produce. Their track "Spitfire" is great. And who can resist a band with a trumpet player who performs in a spacesuit? Go see them, they're awesome.
The stage curtain closed so PSB's gear could be moved offstage, and we were entertained by Dr Helen Czerski, who talked about her work as an oceanographer with just an inflatable globe as a prop and less than a meter of stage to move around on. Her description of the 11-metre long buoy that her research uses was fascinating and her story of the competition to name it (the front-runner name was, of course, "Bob") was hilarious. As she held up the globe to show us the extent of the Pacific Ocean, I couldn't help thinking of the quote, usually attributed to Arthur C Clarke:
"How inappropriate to call this planet Earth, when clearly it is Ocean."
Next up was computational biologist Dr Andrew Steele who was introduced as a "recovering physicist" (is there any other kind?) He raced through a presentation on science spending based on his research project Scienceogram and dropped some very sobering numbers on us. While we each spend an average of £17 every year on toilet rolls and a staggering £600 on booze, the country spends just £2.80 for each of us on cancer research and a miserly 69p per annum per person on research on strokes - this despite the fact that as a cause of death, stroke accounts for ten per cent of the population. He was preaching to the converted with the audience he was speaking to, but the message is clear: science funding is not only vitally important for the economy, it saves lives. The most jaw-dropping figure he gave was this: Apple could fund all research into the development of nuclear fusion - all £60 billion of it - just from the profits that it makes from selling iPhones.
Next up were some favourites of mine: Matt Parker, Helen Arney & Steve Mould, otherwise known as The Festival of the Spoken Nerd. Steve couldn't get his laptop to talk to the projector; Matt had an old carousel slide projector and had put all his slides in the wrong way round; Helen gamely accompanied the chaos with her ukulele. But they had an ace up their sleeves: A BAR CHART MADE OUT OF FIRE that plotted the frequency of Helen's singing. It was brilliant!
The "Just For Graphs" folk were followed by the patron of the Shark Trust, Steve Backshall, who spoke passionately about the need to protect an animal that has survived pretty much unchanged for 300 million years but is now in dire straits thanks to - what else? - mankind. Steve explained that you can judge a Great White Shark's threat level from its posture; a hunched back and pectoral fins pointing down mean that the shark is upset, defensive, or hungry - and that means trouble. This guy has swum with Great Whites so he really knows his stuff and the enthusiasm with which he presents on stage and on TV is infectious - he's a great speaker.
Next up was science broadcaster and Latitude Festival stalwart Dr Adam Rutherford, whose talk was spurred by a recent episode of the TV show "Who Do You Think You Are?" in which Danny Dyer had been told in dramatic fashion that the programme researchers had managed to trace his lineage right back to Edward III, who is his 22 times great grandfather. "I just gotta get this in me nut," Mr Dyer had responded. But, Adam explained, if you do the maths it turns out that pretty much everyone else in the country with English ancestry is, too. Edward III had at least thirteen children, and we know that eight of them lived to maturity (which was quite an achievement back then, what with the Black Death and everything). He had at least 245 great great grandchildren, and - you can probably see where this is going - by the late 1500s one English person in every 200 was directly related to Edward. Working from the present, even if you make allowance for double counting (when first cousins marry, they have the same grandparents), the probability is that we don't just have one ancestor directly related to Edward, oh no - we have, on average, 131 of them. Adam then went further back, to the reign of the Emperor Charlemagne and revealed that if you're of European descent, the statistics show that you must be directly related to the founder of the Carolingian Empire - the probability of this is 100%. That's quite something to mull over on a Friday night.
The Sky at Night's Chris Lintott was on next, explaining how the LIGO experiment had detected ripples in the very fabric of space caused by the collision of two black holes. This, Chris explained, has ushered in a new era - that of gravitational astronomy. We've got a fair way to go when it comes to improving the resolution, though; at present we only know that the signal that LIGO detected came from a chunk of the sky that was roughly 90° across...
Professor Alice Roberts and Dr Ben Garrod did a clever sketch about evolutionary biology in which Dr Garrod was a Neanderthal caveman and Professor Roberts was God (complete with robe and fairy wings). They made some clever points about how much inconvenient evolutionary baggage the human body has - it's very much not the result of intelligent design, what with the problems our upright posture creates with our spine, with varicose veins that happen when the valves in our legs wear out, to say nothing of the inconvenience that males suffer with having external gonads - as well as dropping a few gags about Neanderthals interbreeding with modern humans ("very modern," Dr Garrod's caveman quipped in a grunt.) It was a hoot.
The curtains drew closed again and Robin introduced award-winning stand-up James Acaster, who was indeed very funny, delivering a routine that was largely made up on the spot.
The first half of the show was drawn to a close by Nitin Sawhney, who, together with another guitarist (whose name I didn't catch, I'm afraid) did a wonderful version of David Bowie's Life On Mars with vocals from Eva Stone. I've been a fan of Nitin's music for years; the Bowie cover was a real spine-tingler.
The second half kicked off with Robin reading a brief passage from Kurt Vonnegut's God Bless You Mr Rosewater - "God damn it, you've got to be kind" - before handing over to the Hackney Colliery Band, who had paired up with what was now the Jack Lieback trio. Few things get the adrenalin flowing better than a brass band who are really going for it, and under the direction of Steve Pretty they were really going for it. They were joined on stage by Sophie Ellis-Bextor for the night's tribute to Prince, Nothing Compares 2 U. She was followed by pianist Clifford Slapper and David McAlmont on vocals for a stirring rendition of Bowie's song Sweet Thing.
While the music gear was cleared away behind the curtain, Robin and Brian were joined by Chris Lintott and a fellow Sky at Night alumnus, Dr Paul Abel for the evening's Q&A session. I love the fact that 10-year-olds are asking questions about dark energy and black holes; there are still inquisitive bright kids out there and that gives me hope for the future. I felt sorry for Robin, though, as they'd only brought out three chairs for the panel and he ended up both standing up and fielding questions from his laptop.
Next up was Lucy Cooke to tell us a lot of things about the beaver that I wasn't previously privy to, including the fact that you can buy dried beaver musk glands on the Internet (and get nectar points for them into the bargain) which are an FDA officially approved alternative to vanilla food flavouring. She has not convinced me to change from ordinary vanilla extract, I'm afraid.
Blue Peter's Greg Foot brought Matt Parker back out on stage and shot him. It was a fake gun, of course; this led on to a live, rather messy physics experiment to determine how fat you'd need to be to stop a bullet. It involved a cylinder of jelly and a paintball gun and the answer was that you'd need to be surrounded by 48 inches of fat on all sides, which I suspect would be just as hazardous and possibly even more unpleasant than being shot.
Dr Ben Goldacre hurtled through an extraordinary presentation so quickly it seemed like he was about to spontaneously combust, and he did so apparently without taking a single breath. The good news is that his campaign for open data in science, particularly in clinical trials, is gaining a considerable amount of traction and some fairly hefty funding - he now has a posse!
Ben was followed by one of my favourite comedians, the great Milton Jones. The fact that the two of them had similar haircuts was not lost on Milton. Two days on, I'm still chuckling at the stream of perfect one-liners he kept dropping ("I was brought up by my non-biological parents. My biological parents brought me out in a rash.") I really wish he'd had more time on stage, I really do. He handed over to Robin and Brian, who brought on someone who has been a fixture in the Compendium shows for several years: Commander Chris Hadfield, who had somehow made it to Hammersmith despite attending a book signing session in Brighton earlier that evening.
Chris described the physical sensations of travelling into space and back, and when he caught himself as he mentioned John Glenn I think just about everyone in the venue had a lump in their throats. As the three of them were talking, there was a lot of frantic activity going on behind the curtain. A large guitar effects pedal board was brought out and placed at the front of the stage besides them, and I could see giant confetti cannons being wheeled into position. Even so, when Chris Hadfield finished his talk by saying how Planet Earth was so beautiful that the only way you could describe it was with music, I wasn't prepared for who was revealed when a synthesizer boomed out over the PA and the curtain drew back.
Only Duran Duran, that's who!
They roared through "Planet Earth" "Wild Boys" "Rio" and a couple of other numbers and most of the presenters from the evening were right down at the front bopping away with everyone else in the audience. For a few moments we all reverted to being star-struck teenagers, and quite right too. It was a brilliant way to finish the evening - I was absolutely gobsmacked. How they're going to top this next year, I don't know but I'm really looking forwards to finding out; I've already bought my ticket for December 1st, 2017.
I got home slightly earlier than last year. It was exactly 3 o'clock in the morning when I walked through my front door, having driven through rapidly thickening fog down most of the length of the M4.
Robin has alread written about Friday night's proceedings on his blog, where he talks about folk who were sniping and complaining about the schedule, or the choice of acts, or how long people were on for, or a bunch of other ridiculous stuff on Twitter. This is grossly unfair on the event as a whole, and on Robin in particular. Robin's one of the good guys, and I know just how hard he works at putting something together like this (the idea of "taking time off" would never occur to him - he was already sending out emails to start the ball rolling for next year's Compendium on Saturday morning), so criticising the proceedings for anything at all is, in my opinion, wilfully missing the point; the evening is organized to raise money for Médicins sans Frontières and the Sophie Lancaster Foundation. Given the richness of the bill I've just described, which was all delivered for a fraction of the ticket price you'd have to pay to see a single artist at somewhere like Wembley Stadium, complaining about any aspect of the night is being uncharitable in many different ways.
I had a splendid time, and Friday was definitely another of those peak experiences that will stay with me for a very long time. Let us hope that reason is celebrated in years to come. We could definitely do with having much more of it around.
2016 just won't quit, will it? The year's bad news keeps on coming: Greg Lake died on Wednesday. The first album I ever bought was ELP's Pictures at an Exhibition and it remains one of my favourites. Reactions to the band's excesses on the road are often touted as one of the drivers of the punk rock movement; at one point their touring organization was so large that, as Greg told the Melody Maker in 1974, they had 100 road managers to keep everything under control, but this does their music a great disservice. All three members of the band were prodigiously talented. Greg, too, had one of the most memorable voices in popular music. His passing hit me really hard, and I never met him; what it must be like for his friends and family right now I can only imagine. They have my condolences and my sympathy.
With just ten days to go until the Winter solstice, I'm struggling to fight the urge to hibernate. There are few things better than staying in a nice warm bed on Sunday morning, particularly when you've been struck by a profound sense of lethargy. I might have finished my Christmas shopping, but I don't really feel festive yet. I have yet to dig the Christmas decorations out of the loft, and after going on a fire safety course at work last month, the idea of leaving the Christmas lights to come on with a timer has gone right out of the window. The car remains in the garage, unwashed (why clean it, when I know that it'll be filthy again by the time I get home tomorrow?)
I have managed to tidy up the garden and clear all the detritus off the dining table, though. That'll have to do for the moment.
It's the first of December (and not, as my resolutely mechanical watch tells me, the 31st of November - I must wind it on). Where has this year gone? It seems to have flown by. In January I was worried about the future and having trouble sleeping. Now I have a new job and I fall asleep almost as soon as my head hits the pillow. I'm still worried about the future, it's just I'm worried for different reasons...
I got back from London last night and even thought I'd set the heating to come on for a couple of hours each evening while I was away, the temperature inside the house had dropped to single figures. Outside at midnight it was -5°C and the night before, the minimum temperature had plummeted to -8°C. The simplest solution was to fill up a hot water bottle and wrap myself up in the duvet. Although it's sunny outside, there's no warmth to the sunshine. Winter has definitely arrived.
Today I've been working at home, so I felt quite justified in turning the gas fire on for a bit. It provides a different sort of warmth to the central heating system: it's less subtle, more powerful (as is quite obvious from the kilograms of carbon dioxide my smart meter says I've produced so far today). It's a more satisfying warmth than a central heating system can provide, somehow; it might not be in the same league as a wood-burning stove or a real log fire, but it seems to fulfil a primal need for comfort far more readily than a bunch of pipes and radiators does. If I ever move house again, a proper fire will be high up on the list of must-have features of the property.
At this time of year, once the structure of the house cools down, it takes quite a while to bring the temperature back up again - there's a lot of mass to get warm. By lunchtime the outside temperature was still stuck below zero, and the ice on the roof of the conservatory hadn't shifted at all even with a fan heater running in there. I'm going to take this as an indication of how good the double glazing is in insulating the inside from the outside...