modern bedrooms with ancient problems

August 30, 2011 § 1 Comment

I feel like it’s time to start my blog again. So here’s a short, edited piece that I originally posted in rough form on my Goodreads account about an issue raised (kind of) in a short ebook I read recently (and recommend) called Reading in Four Dimensions, by a writer called Andrew Losowsky, whose website has a page with links relating to it here.

Alarm clock

I’m not interested in reviewing Reading in Four Dimensions, It’s a very good, thoughtful essay, and it forms a strong part of an ongoing discussion about digital mediums and the way they shape both what is written and how it’s read, fairly profoundly – as all form and mediums do. So here are a few thoughts about that, and the issues raised by the writing and reading of works that exist as timed, almost performance pieces, tied to the internet.

Losowsky gives a lot of space in this essay to discussing a blog that contains Samuel Pepys’s diary, and how it has developed out over a number of years, while still aggregating  the original diary entries faithfully. This can be treated like any other blog, and read all in one go after the act (or in various visits every few months, going back through the archives) or it can be followed through RSS feeds and so on. Blogs are tied to the internet in the sense that they often contain discussion, and pretty much always contain hyperlinks, which don’t work on the printed page. But most blogs don’t lose much if you read them a week, a month, or three years after you read them. The experience is largely the same. The blog can contain Samuel Pepys’s diary because the forms are very similar – one developed from the other. What is added is the community, the reading experience that allows the work to be read as if it were unfolding in something approaching real time. But really it just allows the reader to slow it down, to come back to it when they can fit it in, around their schedule, in a way that books do not always encourage us to do. It is the book broken apart, and our expectations of how long it should take us to read a book, broken along with it.

In contrast to this, the essay moves on to discussing fictional writing being posted on Twitter as works that only really make sense in those few moments following their publication, before the fast-moving feed that they are published into becomes swamped by something else, like people crying about Kim Kardashian’s wedding. I follow various fictional twitter feeds, but they’re largely joke-based – I did follow the Such Tweet Sorrow project a while ago (an RSC production where they got people to act out Romeo and Juliet on Twitter) but mostly, the more elaborately constructed Twitter works kind of pass me by, despite my interest in them. The ideas behind them often excite me (and I recently spent an afternoon at TextCamp11 discussing the possibilities of this sort of medium, some notes from which are here), but the problem is – I use Twitter and stuff when I have time for it. I check it throughout the day, but in various moments where I’m catching up and only see what’s just been posted. I have a job, and I can’t dedicate my life to what other people are sending out into the void every few minutes, even if I wanted to. Yes, to a certain level the inflexibility can add to the experience of work built like this – the idea that it is unfolding in its own time, and not the readers’, is kind of the whole point of it. Nobody expects you to read everything they post, and so fictional twitter feeds are often less based around narrative and more based around atmosphere, working on building up the kind of moody noise that often acts as the world-building or character-building behind a story driven by something else. But if there is more of a drive than this behind what’s being written, as in the fake Twitter account for Rahm Emanuel that got stranger and more apocalyptic as time went on, then there also reaches a point when readers with lives with schedules that don’t fit around the work can’t experience it, because going back through a Twitter feed after the fact is a different, clunkier experience. Sure, it could be funny to just every now and then see a joke message about disasters happening where you live when disasters aren’t actually happening where you live. I got this visceral thrill when searching for ‘Oxford’ on Twitter during the London riots (no, nobody has set the Cowley road Tesco on fire no matter how many times you claim that they have, thank you). But it’s more difficult to connect the whole story that has unfolded, to experience it as anything more than the odd disconnected joke.

And, then, what if you’re in another time zone to the writer of the story that you’re trying to follow? I’m in the UK, and a lot of these projects happen overseas. It’s an exciting new way to write and engage with the writing of others, especially as the real-time element changes what has always (to me at least) seemed like a pretty static medium to a fast-moving, shaky one – but the logistical elements of real-time publishing need to be thought about before we decide whether to tether what we write to these reasonably inflexible systems. Plays are repeated, and are usually presented in ways that minimise distraction – they are not filled with the noise of other people talking, of news channels updating us, of magazines trying to discuss our favourite foods with us, unless that is a deliberate point that they are making. Other real-time mediums are not so filled with the rest of the debris of our lives and conversations, are not so stuck in one single moment that won’t be repeated again. Do we want the people who can interact with our work in the way closest to how we intended it to be interacted with to always be those whose schedules are the most like ours? Those who are the most like us? Because that’s one of the outcomes of using Twitter and other social media sites to present stories in real time. And making your work only really accessible to those whose lives work like yours is a quick way of closing it off to a lot of valid, helpful scrutiny. It’s an interesting trade-off, and I’m not sure what can be done to get around it.


noli me tangere

March 21, 2011 § 6 Comments

I’ve been having trouble writing recently. My degree is in English Language & Literature, and there’s no creative writing element. Fine, traditional, why should I need to study creative writing etc. etc., and there’s a lot of debate at the moment whenever these courses are mentioned as to whether they’re valuable, whether they’re harming literary culture or whatever. Obviously there is some value to being in a formal creative writing teaching environment, if you pick a good course – time to work/write, time to discuss your writing with other engaged people, which can be otherwise hard to get if your friends aren’t into the same things as you or you know. But my problem isn’t so much that, and if I’m honest I’m not so interested in the courses’ inherent value, since it’s just a mixed thing – my problem is that I’m having difficult connecting what I read with how I write.

I’ve never been a very political writer of poetry, although I’m into politics and am fairly critical of the way that broadcast/print media in particular tend to represent women (and other groups that are often marginalised – people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, people who identify as lgbtq…). This didn’t translate well across to how I read for a long time. I think this partly comes from reading for a degree that is mostly based on texts that are pre-1830. The debate usually becomes, to crudely generalise, “in what ways is this misogynistic and racist and in what ways is it progressive for its time” rather than “is this misogynistic/racist”. Obviously this is the appropriate way of approaching a lot of medieval/early modern/romantic texts, and it’s all fairly relative, and it doesn’t stop me from necessarily enjoying all of my favourite old poems. After a while, you get kind of used to it – and with plays in particular, you look at how they can be reinterpreted to suit modern ideas and purposes. But you surrender to the idea that characters/personas/people who aren’t privileged straight white men will probably be treated with less respect than the characters that are privileged straight white men. Which is often most of them, really.

So this isn’t a problem in itself, since I think you really have to read sixteenth century poetry with an awareness of sixteenth century issues if you’re planning on writing well on it. Obviously if you’re reading for fun you can do whatever you want. But then it meant that when I started reading poets that were writing much, much more recently than all of the other writers that I’d studied, I discovered that they were still at it in the mid to late 20th century, still writing all this hateful stuff that I was, by now, used to – most memorably, Ed Dorn’s sequence ‘Oxford’, which starts with a description of all the women he sees on the train and their legs, nationalities and cunts shining at him or some shit like that. It might even be a good poem, I don’t know, but I read the whole thing and all I can remember is him leching at these women’s legs and all and it makes me feel kind of disgusted. Is that my problem? Should I not care? Should I say oh well, it was the 1960s which is in the past even though it was a few years after The Feminine Mystique and almost two decades after The Second Sex and at the same time that Lorine Niedecker was writing and the year that Veronica Forrest-Thompson published Identi-kit and actually maybe he was the one with the problem? Or maybe he’s being ironic? Maybe I’m just not in on the joke. Except, mostly, jokes are more funny when they’re not just saying exactly what everybody else has been saying for hundreds of years and nudging you in the ribs and telling to you to just fucking laugh. Like all the Facebook groups that people were joining about a year ago where men ironically pleaded with women to stop talking over Modern Warfare and make them their lunch. Why do you think that’s funny?

Also, I don’t hear Ed Dorn laughing.

But because I haven’t been reading or writing about modern poetry for the past year and a half (and I wrote very poorly about it in first year when I did try my hand at it) I’m now stumped. I don’t know how I’m meant to respond to this. I feel too stupid in the monolithic face of it – like right now I’m worried about even saying all that about Ed Dorn because I feel I don’t know enough, like some Black Mountain warrior is going to come and sit on my hands and tell me I know nothing worthwhile. In Emily Critchley’s little piece before the poem she has in Infinite Difference, she talks about how her thesis:

concentrated on understanding socially the dominance of the Language scene by its male writers, while claiming feminism as one of their key political concerns

& she also talks about these problems rearing their heads once again in Cambridge, decades on. So what’s changed? I don’t want to have to say I find this poem sexist, therefore it is Bad Art. Hundreds of years of poetry that’s sexist has shown me that that’s not true, or wasn’t until recently, and there are probably still some sexist men writing Good Poetry. But do I want Good Poetry? What do I want to spend my time writing, even if I read all of the sexist and non-sexist stuff that I can get my hands on, because mostly reading anything good/interesting/weird/bad should help me improve? I have never really been able to think of my own writing in the way that I think about the texts that I read – I can barely rhyme, despite being obsessed with rhyme’s development across the centuries (ever want to discuss Byron’s use of polysyllabic rhyme? drop me an email). I don’t feel comfortable shifting margins about or splitting lines across the page or even using typography to express much, despite having written a 2000 word essay on Chelsey Minnis’s use of the ellipsis for a language paper in my second year here. And I think this is tied to why I feel afraid of pointing out poets that are sexist. It doesn’t mean they’re bad.

It doesn’t mean I should have to stand for it, either. I should be able to write about it. And I need to start feeling like I can write like the people I read, or from the same place as them at least – I shouldn’t just be stuck writing how I wrote when I was sixteen just because a few people liked my poems when I was sixteen. It’s only my own fault if I don’t. No more timidity, and no more cowering at Charles Olson’s feet.

short story: madeline

March 4, 2011 § 1 Comment

Towards the end of January, I posted a couple of very short stories that I wrote a few years ago. I haven’t been posting much recently because of essays and extended essays and reading and stuff, and I’ve got a short story that I always meant to do something with but never quite did, and so I’m going to post it here, just in case anybody’s interested. It’s a couple of years old, and not anything like what I would write now if I had the time – but the friends I showed it to at the time seemed to quite like it, I think. It’s about a girl. It’s one of the only short stories I’ve ever attempted – as I’ve said before on this blog, I don’t really get on with prose fiction, most of the time – and it’s not very long (although it is the longest thing I’ve ever posted on this blog). I hope you like it, but if not, hey, why not tell me what’s wrong with it in the comments.


The only gift Madeline gave me before she left was a pair of gloves that were far too small for me. I managed to squeeze one of my hands in and sat there, inspecting my palm, and the stretched stitching became like a map that I couldn’t quite get the right way up. Madeline smiled at me and rubbed the soft back of the glove on my hand, then told me that they’d never kept her warm and she wouldn’t miss them, so she didn’t mind that she had to leave them behind. The gloves had probably originally cost more than anything I own, so I kept them, but didn’t bother trying to wear them again. Madeline wouldn’t have liked me to.

After Madeline left, I’d find things that she’d owned at some point or another everywhere. The gloves were the only possessions that she had directly bequeathed to me, but there were three glittering bottles of mascara on the windowsill, a bottle of perfume that had barely been opened stashed at the back of the medicine cabinet, and five vegetarian meals in the freezer that I didn’t even remember her buying. A year later I found her glasses caught up in dust and rubbish under my bed, and a few years after that I found a single crystal earring, winking at me from a dusty eggcup. Though there was no way I could get these things back to Madeline, and I knew she wouldn’t want them anyway, I couldn’t use any of them. I was hardly likely to want perfume or mascara, anyway, but I also didn’t want to pass them on; Madeline was strong, like glue, and I couldn’t quite remove her from the objects that she had so carefully hidden, or unthinkingly left behind. Her name carries power, even now; Madeline, Madeline. I can’t imagine anyone else smelling like her, or dressing like her. Madeline was like nobody else.

The last time I saw Madeline, she was fifteen and I was eighteen. Too old. When she first came to stay I was seventeen, and she was fifteen, just, but she looked older than me, small but wiry, and her hair was permanently set in perfect waves. We had no mutual friends, no relation to each other, but through an advert for a lodger on a website on my end and a strangely-worded letter of enquiry on hers (one of only two enquiries I received, and I was fairly desperate for the money) she ended up living with me for the best part of seven months. Why was I living by myself at seventeen? A number of reasons, none of them interesting, but I had an inheritance that was running out and the bills were rising. I did not want to move in with my only nearby relative, an uncle who had last cleaned his flat fifteen years before, and so advertised excessively for lodgers and did any kind of work I could find in my spare time, no matter how demeaning. Madeline first met me on my way back home from a call-centre, and I think forever saw me as destitute and willing, perhaps, to do too much for money.

Legally, Madeline could do nothing. Fifteen year olds cannot work, smoke, drink, have sex, live apart from a legal guardian, drive, vote, marry, buy lottery tickets, buy scratchcards, buy knives or fireworks or pretty much anything that could be in any way dangerous. Madeline, of course, was above the law. Madeline swore blind to anyone that asked that she was nineteen (eighteen was too obvious, she told me once) and only drank red wine, didn’t work (as far as I knew), never mentioned anything about parents or a guardian of any kind and wasn’t into gambling or playing with knives. Madeline acted more like she was thirty than fifteen. I never asked where the money that she paid me came from, but there was no lack of it; she paid more than she needed to, and covered the bills more than once when I was having a particularly difficult month. She came to me in February so she was around through my exams, and didn’t mind that for two months I was barely bringing in any money or food. She had wanted a place to live where she could pay with cash and without a contract, and I gave her that. The rest was unimportant.
I replied to her enquiry letter the day after I received it, and despite the fact that on paper she’d sounded fairly odd, I’d asked if she could move in at her earliest convenience. I can’t overstate enough how much I didn’t want to give up my independence. I’d arrived back from the call-centre at about six, and had seen a small figure just standing by my front door with a trunk and a glimmering purse in the shape of a clam. I’d received no phone call warning me that she was coming, let alone a note, but I took in the thin dress and stockings, her perfect hair and beret that seemed firmly held in place, and realised straight away that this was my lodger, the girl who had signed herself Madeline. She didn’t have a surname.

“I’ve been here for an hour,” she said, in a fairly deep voice for a fifteen year old girl.

“You must be Madeline,” I said, still slightly taken aback, and reached out to shake her hand.

Later that evening, I knocked on the door of her room to ask if she wanted coffee, and to see if she wanted to order fast food with me or (more likely) if she wanted me to show her how the oven worked and perhaps cook her one of the meals involving aubergine that I had stacked in my freezer. She opened the door and I saw a room transformed; there were small, carefully clipped photographs of her and various well-coiffed girls in rows on the walls, new purple curtains, and large maps of both North America and Europe were hung up, perfectly straight, in faded browns and turquoise. Everything she owned looked like it had belonged to some other girl more then fifty years earlier. She chose the fast food.

That evening ended with us both on my sofa, a small pile of foil containers that had once held noodles and sweet meat and rice now under the table in front of my television, which was playing a terrible late-night chat show that neither of us could be bothered to turn off. Madeline had used chopsticks, slowly and badly, but she had used them and had eaten everything in front of her. I was impressed, since she’d apparently never tried chopsticks before. I ate with them deftly, and fast; my mother grew up in Hong Kong and I’d lived with her until I was ten. There are some things you can’t help picking up. I caught Madeline watching me, her eyes darted from my hands when she realised that I’d noticed, but then she looked at her own hands, and the television, then my hands again. She didn’t like that I was better than her at even the smallest, most inconsequential thing.

Madeline didn’t go to school. I wasn’t surprised (it was clear even from the beginning that she was from out of town; she had a northern accent, and at the start asked directions almost daily), but it was strange since she was so young and obviously wanted to learn everything. She only told me that she was fifteen when I asked why she didn’t want a contract, and that was in a clipped, unwilling voice. She didn’t invite questions. I’d come back from college, or a call-centre, or whatever other workplace had hired me on a temporary basis and would often find her reading some difficult philosophy book from the library, an expensive fashion magazine written in another language, or sometimes just the newspaper that I had delivered. She read all the business stories, all the shit about economics that I knew I should have cared about but really didn’t understand. She also spent too much time looking at the clothes people were wearing in photographs, and sometimes kept the magazines that came in the paper on Saturdays just so she could clip people out and keep them. After she left I collected the things left in her drawers, mostly pressed flowers and broken kirby grips, and in the bottom one found dozens of photographs of women in powerful dresses and oddly-coloured silk just scattered across, their edges curled, faces blank.

Madeline never came with me when I went on infrequent trips to cheap restaurants or bars with my friends, and never met more than two or three people that I knew, but they all became aware of her pretty quickly; one often dropped by my house to watch television or sleep on the sofa when his parents were fighting (which was at least once a week, often more) and others called at various times. Almost everyone was jealous of me for living as I did, but they all kind of pitied me at the same time, and so mostly I was left alone, and people soon gave up on trying to have endless parties at mine when I made it clear that I lived here and had no parents to bail me out or smooth things over with the neighbours. I didn’t actually like many of my friends, and they treated Madeline like a curiosity; she took great pains to present herself as something crystal, or, no, that’s not quite right. Madeline wanted to be made of something like crystal that was impossible to shatter, and something that you could never quite warm to. They were all too willing to believe that, but worse; they joked about her, bitched about her, played with the hairclips and scarves that she left scattered on the coffee table or wrapped around the handle to the fridge. I wasn’t in love with Madeline, understand that. I just thought she deserved more respect than people were often willing to give a girl of fifteen.

“Why’d you choose to move here?” I asked Madeline, once, late at night after a few drinks, huddled up on the windowsill while she curled up on the sofa which was slowly falling apart beneath her.

Madeline shook her hair out and looked at me. “I needed to get away from people I knew,” she said.

I ran a hand through my own hair, which was curly and a bit too long, but the only barber in town was a friend of my parents’ and liked to ask me difficult questions. “Okay,” I said.

The sofa finally broke a week after that, and Madeline helped me choose a new one. It was second-hand and the colour of peaches. She’d been with me for sixth months at this point, but it felt like forever. I turned eighteen a week after that, and her sixteenth birthday was soon; I knew that she was leaving soon, and so we went out for a meal for the first time. She somehow knew of a Vietnamese restaurant on the outskirts, and that time she was faster with chopsticks than anyone I’d ever seen.

“I’m moving,” she said, when she finished her ice cream, and smiled at me. She smiled a lot, but this smile was kind of sad. I can’t quite pinpoint the distinction, come on, she was fifteen and pretty and she smiled at me a lot, I was just happy that she knew me and didn’t know anybody else. But usually there wasn’t really an emotion there. This time there was.

I didn’t help her pack, she would have hated that. I knew that she only wanted to take the one trunk she’d started with, and it was small, so for the last week she’d always leave the house with things to donate to charity shops, and on the last day she started throwing broken or worthless things away. For a few weeks after she’d left I’d see a hat of hers, or a pinafore, or a string of pearls that I’d last seen her twist between her fingers on a mannequin in the window of one of the shops, like they were trying to entice me in. I bought the pearls but didn’t know what to do with them, kept them for a few years, then gave them away to a friend who didn’t even wear jewellery and passed them on herself.

Despite all this we weren’t really friends. I never really knew her. Madeline said few things to me that weren’t superficial; one was the reason that she’d moved to our town, the second was “Madeline isn’t really my name but it’s all anyone in this town’s going to get” and the third? Maybe I’ll tell you later. That one actually did mean something, and I’m not going to give it away like she gave away those gloves.

The morning she left I helped her carry the trunk to a taxi and watched as it went to the train station. I found a lot of money in a container in the fridge, and a column of coins on my bedside table. I don’t count these as gifts because they were just more debris, like the jewellery and makeup, but because I had no way of contacting her (I didn’t know where she was going, after all, and she obviously had no forwarding address or phone number) I kept it, and it helped me pay the rent until I found another lodger. The house was full of debris, some of it was just more useful than the rest.

She sent me one postcard, a month later. She didn’t sign it, but her handwriting was the same as in that first letter she’d sent me what felt like a lifetime before. Hey, eight months can contain a lot of changes. Imagine how different Berlin was one month before the wall fell and eight months after that. Our lives change quickly, and I was a different person after she left, although she’d directly done very little. I asked my friends to call me Isaac, which is my real name, instead of Ivan (which is not, and is a fairly illogical nickname that I never quite shook off since I acquired it at ten) soon afterwards, but nobody ever remembered, and eventually I gave it up as a lost cause. Madeline had the right idea; if you’re going to change your name, or anything substantial, you probably have to get away from the people you once knew. Madeline started out named Frances, or Deborah, or Karen, but she chose differently for herself and the name she chose became her completely. Everything she did was Madeline, the tights she tore when cooking late at night, the dresses she wore in inappropriate weather, and the lipstick she applied even though there was no need for purple lipstick when watching tennis on the television. I could be Ivan, or Isaac; it doesn’t matter. I’m boring, I’m barely even a person. Madeline was one of those girls she stuck on her wall, just allowed out to stretch her legs and eat food sometimes. You ready for the third real thing now? She told me the night before she left that she was really twenty, she’d just wanted me to think that she was naughtier than she was, or more otherworldly, or stranger, or something. She was just wary of contracts. I reject this, though, and believe that this was a different girl talking, someone named Susan, maybe, or Kristen. The last time I saw Madeline, she was fifteen. I was eighteen. She will never grow any older, but I’m sure she’s out there, somewhere, standing awkwardly in a series of photographs, looking blankly off camera left in silk and some uncomfortable town where nobody knows what name to call her.

(picture by josef.stuefer, from flickr)

what’s making me happy this week – podcast edition

February 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

One of the first posts I made on this blog was a list of the best the podcasts I’d listened to in 2010 – at the end of it, I mentioned the podcasts I wanted to listen to in the year ahead, and asked for some recommendations. Over the past couple of months I’ve spent a lot of time listening to radio programmes and podcasts – more of my spare time than I’ve spent on books, certainly, since the more work my degree entails and the closer I get to my finals, the more reading feels stressful and difficult. Listening to people talk feels like a break, a way to relax, more than reading does, in a way I can’t quite explain.

There’s no ranking here – I’m altogether too tired and my choices too splintered and disparate for that. I make no grand claims. But these are all things I have enjoyed, and that you might enjoy too.

pop culture happy hour

I love pop culture. There. I always liked Chandler on Friends, and that was largely because he referenced Gloria Estefan lyrics and whatever else people liked in the silly distant/recent pop cultural past (also he was neurotic and less annoying than the other characters, at least until the last few series). I like television shows and films and songs that quote other television shows and films and songs. I like when people put serious effort into discussing the more traditionally ephemeral parts of culture, the kinds of things that people engage with for fun rather than out of a sense of obligation (usually, at least). That’s kind of why I started this blog. So a weekly podcast dedicated to in-depth pop culture discussion, covering a lot of the things I like? That involves discussions of magazine articles, video games and the super bowl, an American institution which I am only aware of because of all the American sitcoms I have wasted my life watching?! Yes, please.

It helps that all the people on it are funny and aware, and that they genuinely seem to be having fun putting the show together. I’m working back through the archives at the moment, fairly haphazardly (once I’ve finished writing this I’m going to listen to a show from August just because it’s about Scott Pilgrim), and they’ve all been good so far.  Linda Holmes hosts it, and she’s wonderful, but really, so is everybody involved. I listened to my first episode of this while waiting for like forty minutes for a train to Canterbury, and I have not looked back. I play it on speakers in the kitchen while my boyfriend’s cooking dinner. I listen to it when I’m breaking from work. It’s genuinely funny while also being informative and smart. What could be better than that?

Also, I nicked the title for this post from the feature that they always end with. Whatever. I steal because I love. That’s a valid defence, right?

planet money

One thing that will become very clear from this list is that I have basically fallen for NPR. I tried listening to shows through an NPR app a year or two ago and just didn’t get it, I didn’t understand what they were or what they were for. I get it now. Planet Money is a show that gets put together twice a week or so about economics and finance and all that stuff that usually scares me and sends me to sleep. Stuart recommended it to me after I posted my list of podcasts up over the Christmas vacation, and although he said it really honestly wasn’t boring and was really worth a listen, I was still a bit scared, a bit like, I don’t know if it’s what I want to spend my time listening to. I was wrong. I was listening to an old episode of This American Life (on which I will write more later) and the best segment in it was one that was put together by the Planet Money team, when they went to see fruit and vegetable buyers bartering with sellers in a warehouse throughout the night. They interviewed everybody around, and talked about how the mood and power balance shifted throughout the night. It was fun and the people were normal and interesting and funny in places, and I came out of it suddenly knowing more. When my college has some weird fruit in for lunch now I find myself thinking well I bet the sellers just had too many of these. Planet Money means I find myself talking to my friends about tiny Spanish savings banks until they glaze over. I listen to twenty minutes about the gold standard before bed and suddenly know something about the Great Depression.

NPR do a lot of great, informative programmes about politics and current affairs, but a lot of them are too long for me – I can’t take an hour or more out of my day to listen to a list of daily programmes about whatever’s happening in the world, although I wish I could, honestly. But Planet Money is twenty minutes, it’s not daily, and I can fit it in. I have to, now.

this american life

Okay, so This American Life is wonderful. It basically, as Ira Glass says at the beginning of every episode, takes a theme and then gathers stories around that theme. Sometimes it’ll focus on just one story for the whole show, but usually there’ll be about three to five different stories covered. It’s not comedy, but it’s often very funny (one of my favourite stories they’ve done, “Brooklyn Archipelago”, is largely narrated by a teenager called Alex, in this edition – he’s great), and it’s not meant to be particularly educational or informative like Planet Money is… but it just is anyway. I’ve learned so much surprising stuff – from the piece about food sellers and buyers that I mentioned above, from the whole episode dedicated to the story of Bobby Dunbar, the boy lost to a swamp who appeared to have come back from the dead, and from the episode about a rest stop, where they talk to Ukrainian college students who spend their summers working in a remote part of the US, a man who works giving tourists incredibly detailed information, and people just passing through.

It’s so comforting. I’m finding it harder to talk about than the other two (although I rarely shut up about it in real life), but I recommend it so strongly. Start here. Or here. Or at any of the shows I’ve already linked to – the Bobby Dunbar one is possibly my favourite, but they’re all good.

answer me this

My friend Matt kept going on about this, and they had a book out over Christmas which, in my head, made me believe that they were on some sort of superpodcast level, because, you know, a book! They don’t even have an ironic tumblr like these dicks! But I still took ages to get around to actually listening to them.

It is actually really funny – probably the most hilarious of any of these, but then again it is the only one that is meant to be a funny above all else. They basically answer questions that people have phoned in with (or emailed to them) in an amusing way – it’s all there in the title. I’m amused by the fact that Martin-the-soundman, who is essentially the third presenter of the show, always has an echo on his voice, as if to distinguish him from Olly. They don’t even sound similar! (If anybody from Pop Culture Happy Hour is reading this, though, adding an echo to like Trey Graham’s voice and making Stephen Thompson high pitched so I can distinguish the men from each other would be a great step forward. Just a suggestion).

You don’t learn much from it (although it depends on the episode) but then that’s not really the point. If you want to feel educated and smart then listen to Planet Money. It’s not very relaxing, either – mostly quite hyper and loud. But it’s quick and smart and full of an incredible array of jingles made by comedy friends (Josie Long!) and, you know, all that good stuff. I might ask them a question and hope they make me feel special by answering it in a sarcastic way. Yeah! That’s a good way to spend my Monday night, right!

This is also the only British (and non-NPR/PRI!) show on my list. I’m not only a pop culture fan, it seems, but mostly a fan of American pop culture. Please, recommend me British podcasts/radio shows in the comment. I feel like there’s a massive Radio 4-shaped hole in my radio knowledge.

Other podcasts/radio shows/whatever that I’ve listened to recently have included Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me (which is great and you should listen to), Radio 4’s Americana (which is also good but I need to dedicate more time to), and… WTF.

WTF is one of those big podcasts that features high-profile interviews (most notably, for me, Marc’s interviewed Stewart Lee and Ira Glass). It’s interesting and well-made but… I just cannot get into it. I’m halfway into the Ira Glass interview at the moment, and although it’s one of the most interesting discussions I’ve listened to in forever, I find Marc Maron, who does the podcast… kind of irritating. I can’t really explain why. He’s quite self-obsessed, but so are a lot of podcasters. Maybe he seems kind of self-righteous, or self-referential, in a dickish way? Baffled. Anyway, listen to it if you want to hear good, long interviews with comedians – he’s good at what he does – but don’t come to me for advice about where to start with it. Sorry. I tried.

(photo at the top from flickr, by patrick tobin)

art deco advertising, sydney, 1930s (picture perfect #4)

February 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

Art Deco advertising, Sydney, 1930’s / Sam Hood | Flickr – Photo Sharing!

If you want to know the stylistic development of culture and pop culture in the 20th century and you don’t have that much interest in the details of its content, I think you just need to look at and watch as many adverts as you can. This advert from the 1930s uses art deco stying – look at the head of the woman to the right of the Nestle picture! – to advertise small, mundane things. Advertising moves almost as fast as we do. Right now it’s stuck in some kind of hideous viral video rut, which I find particularly annoying. People  just watch something funny and talk about it, same as ever; I think aiming for the style of stupid videos on Youtube is a bad idea, because it’s not really the style that makes them go viral – it’s whether or not it’s funny, or whether or not people find it genuine and entertaining. Maybe we’ll get more great adverts like the Hovis one that swept through the 20th century, which takes the style of some popular homegrown British films and telly shows and runs with it, clutching a small loaf of bread as it goes (becoming a minor viral hit itself in the process), or maybe we’re just going to be stuck with stupid men singing annoying songs forever, as they become less and less interesting. Or maybe the marketers and ad men will find other things to become obsessed with.


Sorry I haven’t posted much recently – I’m spending a lot of my time reading Lorine Niedecker, Shakespeare plays and Charles Olson for essays and general university stuff at the moment, which doesn’t leave that much time for other things. I am really glad, though,  that the BBC is running a lot of shows about books at the moment, and if I get time I want to talk about In Their Own Words, which was on last year and is being repeated at the moment. It’s amazing and smart and unassuming, in all the ways that Sebastian Faulks’s show (the first episode of which I found sexist and irritating) just isn’t. It’s educational and mentions issues to do with gender etc. without needing them to be the focus of the show. It talks about Barbara Cartland, Evelyn Waugh and Alice Carter. If you didn’t catch it last year, you should watch it now. It’s on iplayer. Go on.

cat posed with mexican serape (picture perfect #3)

February 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

[Cat posed with Mexican serape] | Flickr – Photo Sharing!.

This photograph is from circa 1860. It’s such an early photograph – only a few decades after photography was invented, after the deaths of Byron, Shelley, and all that lost generation of dead beautiful young public figures who were the last that we will never see photographs of, and will never really be able to imagine living around us. And many people in the 1860s couldn’t afford photographs, and they were still a fair novelty, still something that required effort and love. Yet, even in the 1860s, people cared about their cats enough to photograph them – enough to get them to pose at a studio, even! I love this. I love how the cat is slightly out of focus, and looks slightly annoyed at the whole charade. I love that the photo’s been put in this ornate, beautiful frame. It’s such a wonderful glimpse into the smaller things that people cared about, even people back in 1860s Texas.

i have to go when the whistle blows

January 31, 2011 § 3 Comments

early morning at new cross station by chrisphin

I spend a lot of time on trains. No, really. Between living four hours away from my boyfriend when I’m not at university (and he lives a train-ride away from the nearest big town anyway), and visiting London a lot from both places I live, and the business of just going home and back again… it comes up a lot. A lot of people seem to be able to work on trains – commuters and Busy Men get out their laptops/ipads and try their hardest to look like yes, they are Busy Men – while it seems fairly common to read, too. I don’t often get much done, no matter how long the journey. I enter some kind of train stupor, stare out of the window listlessly, listen to music/a podcast and just think, aimlessly. For hours. Riding the train feels like nothing else. I like it a lot – possibly because my Dad’s really into steam trains so I spent a large portion of my childhood (well, my life, really) riding on steam trains like they were the coolest thing ever. Our holidays revolve around them. Or possibly because, for me, they are a space to just sit and think and listen and look. Nobody expects you to do much. That’s great. It’s what I need. Especially when you add the anticipating that builds up of where you’re going, who you’re going to see, what you’re going to do when the journey’s over and you’re stood on the platform, holding a case that’s too heavy and peering around through grey platform rain.

Here are some songs.


born on a train

This even sounds sleepy, kind of sedated. It sounds like trains have made him tired, have made him slow down and think about it all. It sounds like he’s still going strong, it’s not his station yet, it’s the night and he keeps seeing car lights but he’s on the train, it’s not a sleeper but he’s almost asleep anyway, who knows, whatever.



this song starts with the taxis all turning off their lights; when they’re hailed by the wrong people, they don’t want to know. but then they’re on a train, and there’s not much else to do, and it’s cold and they’re drinking, but it’s okay. or, it’s not okay, but at least they’re inside and they’re sitting together. there’s that.


ghost train

Sometimes the train just does what it does. It takes people away, then they come back, and it happens all over again. If you catch the one that comes first, it might be too slow. You’ll be waiting forever as it stops at all these tiny stations whose signs you can’t even read normally – Maryland, Seven Sisters, Stratford, Stevenage. It doesn’t make it any easier for you, but probably for somebody else. Right? And this song even starts with the sound of a train moving, leaving. Sometimes the journeys just don’t end.



Then there are other times. The other songs here are about train journeys, too – but this one is about the night train, starting as the other journeys end. You know you’re going home – or somewhere better than the place you were. It’s like, when you’ve been in London for too long. When you look out of the window and it’s dark but between the stations there is nothing much, not much at all. And you’re going somewhere where it gets dark, where you can sleep and walk and not have to see everything, all night, all day.


my my metrocard

Sometimes you just want to get somewhere fast.