2024 – welcome to the/a future(s)


Another year – and the actual name of the year itself gets ever stranger and more unlikely and exotically futuristic, if you grew up in the era when the film 2001: A Space Odyssey was still set in the future. And here’s the annual attempt to get something onto this site at the beginning of the year – just made it in the first week this time – and hopefully, to post more often. The goal is a minimum of once a month but I think goals are better than resolutions so that’s as far as I will go.

2023 was the usual mixed bag of things; I didn’t see any of the big movies of the year yet. I have watched half of Saltburn, which so far makes me think of the early books of Martin Amis, especially Dead Babies (1975) and Success (1978) – partly because I read them again after he died last year. They are both still good/nasty/funny, especially Success, but whereas I find that having no likeable characters in a book is one thing, and doesn’t stop the book from being entertaining, watching unlikeable characters in a film is different – more like spending time with actual unlikeable people, perhaps because – especially in a film like Saltburn – you can only guess at their motivations and inner life. So, the second half of Saltburn remains unwatched – but I liked it enough that I will watch it.

Grayson Perry – The Walthamstow Tapestry (detail)

I didn’t see many exhibitions last year but am very glad that I caught Grayson Perry’s Smash Hits in Edinburgh. I didn’t really plan to see it as assumed in advance I wouldn’t like it, but in fact I loved it and ended up having a new respect for GP that only partly evaporates whenever I see him on TV.

Kristin Hersh by Peter Mellekas

I can’t be bothered going in depth about my favourite music of the year because the year is over and I’ve written about most it elsewhere. Old teenage favourites came back strongly: Kristin Hersh’s superb run of albums continued with Clear Pond Road. I hadn’t thought a lot about Slowdive in years but I really liked Everything is Alive and was very pleased to see them get the kind of acclaim that mostly eluded them when I was buying their first album a million years ago. Teenage Fanclub’s Nothing Lasts Forever and Drop Nineteens’ Hard Light were good too, and The Girl is Crying in her Latte by Sparks was probably my favourite of theirs outside of their early 70s classics. There were some excellent black metal (or black metal-related) albums too; much as I don’t like to think of Immortal without Abbath, Demonaz did himself proud with War Against All. Niklas Kvarforth returned to form with the brilliant Shining and Skálmöld’s Ýdalir is as good as anything they’ve recorded. In less guitar-oriented genres, I loved Kid Koala’s Creatures of the Late Afternoon and the latest Czarface record but my favourite album of the year if I had to choose one was the loveably lo-fi and enigmatic compilation Gespensterland.

I read lots of good books in 2023 – I started keeping a list but forgot about it at some point – but the two that stand out in my memory as my favourites are both non-fiction. Lauren Elkin’s Art Monsters: Unruly Bodies in Feminist Art  is completely engrossing and full of exciting ways of really looking at pictures. I wrote at length about Elena Kostyuchenko’s I Love Russia here. Kostyuchenko introduced me to a country that I only knew via history and stereotypes and her book is an exercise in what good journalism should be – informative, interesting, compassionate and readable. Both of these books cut across a wide range of subjects and examine unfamiliar things but also analyse the familiar from unfamiliar points of view; you should read them, if you haven’t already.


It’s no great surprise to me that my favourite books of the year would be – like much of my favourite art – by women. Though I think the individual voice is crucial in all of the arts, individuals don’t grow in a vacuum and because female (and, more widely, non-male) voices and viewpoints have always been overlooked, excluded, marginalised and/or patronised, women and those outside of the standard, traditional male authority figures more generally, tend to have more interesting and insightful perspectives than the ‘industry standard’ artist or commentator does. The first time that thought really struck me was when I was a student, reading about Berlin Dada and finding that Hannah Höch was obviously a much more interesting and articulate artist than (though I love his work too) her partner Raoul Hausmann, but that Hausmann had always occupied a position of authority and a reputation as an innovator, where she had little-to-none. And the more you look the more you see examples of the same thing. In fact, because women occupied – and in many ways still occupy – more culturally precarious positions than men, that position informs their work – thinking for example of artists like Leonora Carrington, Kay Sage or – a bigger name now – Frida Kahlo – giving it layers of meaning inaccessible to – because unexperienced by – their male peers.

The fact that women know more about themselves but also more about men than men do – because they have always had to – gives their work an emotional and intellectual charge often missing from those who belong comfortably within a tradition. This is a pretty well-worn idea – it’s why outsiders like Van Gogh or dropouts like Gauguin’s work speaks to us more clearly than the academic, tradition-bound art that they grew up with. Anybody on the margins, in whatever sense, of “mainstream society” has to have a working knowledge of that society, just to exist. Society has far less need to understand or even notice those people. – therefore their points of view are likely to not only be more individual, but more acute when it comes to observing the world in which they live. Class, race, gender; all of these things are always fascinatingly central to art and art history and the gradual recognition of that fact is making art history ever more exciting and vibrant. For now at least; we live in a time of conservative backlashes which attempt to restore order to those with a comfortable position within yesterday’s world – there will probably be an art historical backlash at some point, and the reputations of the mainstream stars of art in Van Gogh and Gauguin’s day, like William-Adolphe Bouguereau will find their reputations restored.

If that backlash comes, it will be from the academic equivalent of those figures who, in 2023 continued to dominate the cultural landscape. These are conservative (even if theoretically radical) people who pride themselves on their superior rational, unsentimental and “common sense” outlook, but whose views tend to have a surprising amount in common with some of the more wayward religious cults. Subscribing to shallowly Darwinist ideas, but only insofar as they reinforce one’s own prejudices and somehow never feeling the need to follow them to their logical conclusions is not new, but it’s very now. Underlying  ideas like the ‘survival of the fittest’, which then leads to the more malevolent idea of discouraging the “weak” in society by abolishing any kind of social structure that might support them is classic conservatism in an almost 19th century way, but somehow it’s not surprising to see these views gaining traction in the discourse of the apparently futuristic world of technology. In more that one way, these kinds of traditionalist, rigidly binary political and social philosophies work exactly like religious cults, with their apparently arbitrary cut off points for when it was that progress peaked/halted and civilisation turned bad. That point varies; but to believe things were once good but are now bad must always be problematic, because when, by any objective standards, was everything good, or were even most things good? For a certain class of British politician that point seems to have been World War Two, which kind of requires one to ignore actual World War Two. But the whole of history is infected by this kind of thinking – hence strange, disingenuous debates about how bad/how normal Empite, colonialism or slavery were; incidentially, you don’t even need to read the words of abolitionists or slaves themselves (though both would be good to read) to gain a perspective of whether or not slavery was  considered ‘normal’ or bad by the standards of the time. Just look at the lyrics to Britain’s most celebratory, triumphalist song of the 18th century, Rule Britannia. James Thomson didn’t write “Britons never, never, never shall be slaves; though there’s nothing inherently wrong with slavery.” They knew it was something shameful, something to be dreaded, even while celebrating it.

But anyways, the kind of avowedly forward-looking people we that are saddled with now, with their apparent concern for the future of the human species – especially the wellbeing of thus far non-existent future humans, as opposed to actual real living humans are, unlike the Amish, okay with progress, in the material sense of cars, computers, aircraft, spacecraft. But that only makes their core concern with traditional values and what is natural/unnatural even more nonsensical. If the defining thing about human beings is nature – men are like this, but not like that, women are like that, but not this; that nature dictates that compassion and medical science ate wasted on the weak and inferior, etc, then why draw the line at controlling gender and reproduction? Why get excited about the use of vaccines, or whether or not people “should” eat meat? If nature/”natural” really is the be all end all of human existence, why wear clothes, drive cars, cook food, use computers, build houses?  At what point does nature dictate what we do or can or should do? Isn’t everything humans do inherently natural because we have the capacity to do it and actually do do it?

Again, despite the supposed rationalism that fuels the superiority complexes of so many powerful people in whatever sector, their bullshit traditional ideas are dictated against – and always have been – by the lived experience of almost everyone in the world. If ‘real men’ are strong, rational and above all heterosexual, how come most of us will have met, throughout our lives, emotional, irrational men who can’t cope with pressure, who aren’t in control of themselves or their environment? How come homosexuality has existed since the beginning of recorded time and does not go away no matter how traditional or repressive society becomes or how much generation after generation insists that it is unnatural? If ‘real women’ are weak, gentle, sentimental, maternal, submissive and above all heterosexual, how come (etc, etc, etc, etc) Because of decadent western society? Well Western society is partly founded on the ideas of Ancient Greece, which though pretty misogynistic, famously did not have quite the same views on sexuality. And how come these people equally exist in every other society too? Could it be that traditional ideas of ‘human nature’ have nothing to do with actual nature but have always existed in western patriarchal societies simply to reinforce the status quo in the interests of those at the top of the hierarchical tree? From monarchies to oligarchies to modern democracies and communist states – all of which have their own ruling class, even when it is explicitly labelled otherwise – it’s been in the interest of those in charge to prevent anything which fundamentally changes the way things work.

For similar reasons, people in western society (perhaps elsewhere; I am no expert) who live unremarkable and mediocre lives within essentially complacent, and often apolitical circles are increasingly drawn to right rather than left wing extremism to gain prominence and (importantly) material success. Extremist views across the spectrum are entertainingly “edgy” and titillating to people who like to be entertained by controversy and/or shocked by outrageous behaviour, but right-wing views are far more acceptable within the media – and therefore are far more lucrative and rewarding – because they don’t threaten the financial basis that underpins the media and political structure.

So in short – only joking, this will be a long sentence (deep breath). If comedian or podcaster A) gains millions of followers who are excited about disruptive ideas that undermine the state by questioning the validity of the (sigh) mainstream media, by interrogating ideas of media ownership and the accumulation of wealth and power and so on, that represents a genuine threat to Rupert Murdoch, Viscount Rothermere, Meta and Elon Musk in a way that comedian or podcaster B), gaining millions of followers who lean towards ideas that disrupt society by attacking progressive, egalitarian or (sigh) “woke” culture does not. Regardless of the actual or avowed political beliefs of these media magnates, is comedian/podcaster A or comedian/podcaster B going to be the one they champion in order to tap into the zeitgeist (which media magnates have to do to survive)?

BUT ANYWAY, it would be nice to think that these things would be less central or at least more ignorable in 2024. It would also be nice if people in power could not enable the worst elements in society (where the two things are separable). It would be more than nice if the governments of the world would listen to people and end the butchering of helpless civilians. It’s important to remember that it is in the interests of governments – even relatively benign ones – that people in general feel powerless. But we’re not. If making resolutions works for you then make them, if not then don’t, if you have goals then aim for those and you may achieve something even if not everything you want to achieve. But if something is unacceptable to you, don’t accept it. You may have money, power, time or you may have little more than your own body and/or your own mind, but those are 100% yours and the most important things of all. Happy New Year and good luck!

cycle; woods and fields and little rivers


With apologies to Paul Gorman, whose beautifully written accounts of bike rides partly influenced this article, although Paul actually knows about cycling and I don’t; this is essentially a surrogate fast walk.

setting off

I thought I’d take to the roads early (just before 7.30 am) because it was a beautiful morning that was forecast not to become a beautiful day, and because, even in 2021 there’s not much traffic on the road early on a Sunday morning. A recent bout of not atypical heavy rain and not unprecedented (one of the overused words of the last 18 months of so) but still definitely unusual-in-May extreme hailstorms left the roads shining in the morning sun and the fences strung with light-catching water droplets; it was very pretty.
Once out of the village, the landscape here is so flat as to look almost Dutch, aside from the Lomond Hills; still half buried in morning mist. In fact, despite living here most of my life, this was really the first time I had considered that this must be what is meant by the ‘Howe of Fife’ and indeed a quick googling confirmed it; “The term ‘howe’ is derived from an old Scots word meaning a hollow, valley or flat tract of land.” The Lomonds themselves, and Bishop Hill on the far end (not visible from my viewpoint) are really not particularly big, but almost give the impression of mountains from the vantage point of the plain below.

the Howe of Fife looking towards East Lomond

The nice thing about rural cycling is that, although much faster than walking, it doesn’t disturb anything much around you, and on a quiet morning (on my 8-10 mile cycle I was passed by one car, one proper cyclist and rode past one dog walker and a jogger) like this, nature seems not to pay much attention to you. It turns out that this area is infested (not the right connotations, but there were so many of them) with Yellowhammers, looking almost canary-like in the spring sunshine, plus innumerable sparrows, blackbirds and the odd village idiot-like pheasant shouting in the middle of a field.
The natural landscape is pretty enough on its own, but because, presumably, of the sort of person I am, I love the unexpected moments of geometry caused by human interference (ploughed furrows deep in shadow in one field, strips of plastic sheeting over rows of berries* in another) and of course the semi-wildlife, like a paddock with three huge, but mellow looking bulls that made me think of the work of Rosa Bonheur.

local bull

Although her work – and her life – is 19th century in almost every respect, Bonheur is a potent figure for the 21st century. Brought up in an egalitarian Christian-Socialist sect by Jewish parents, Bonheur was a troublesome child who developed a love for animals and for painting and as a young woman studied animal anatomy (in abattoirs) and dissected animals at a veterinary school as well as studying live animals. She was openly lesbian at a time when it was, if not illegal, certainly frowned upon by the French government; so much so that she had to request permission from the police to wear trousers, as cross-dressing for women was forbidden by law (until 2013!) Her official reason was that it was better clothing for attending sheep and cattle markets, where she made studies, but although that was certainly true, she was generally known among her friends for her masculine clothing and short hair; both very much against the conventions of the time. Nevertheless, she went on to become a mainstream success and in her own way an establishment figure, both in France and (especially) in the UK, where she met Queen Victoria and painted some anachronistic Highland scenes; she may have been revolutionary by nature and personality, but she seems to have been quite conservative by taste and inclination; never underestimate the complexity of people.

*I mean, maybe berries? Despite growing up in the countryside and actually on farms for a fair bit of childhood, I’m none the wiser about that

Rosa Bonheur – Ploughing in the Nivernais (1849)
geometry imposed on nature
and again; with plastic

Looking at the scenery, the wildlife, the roads, you have to wonder; why would anyone not care about this? I don’t mean the Howe of Fife, or Fife, or Scotland, or Britain, or Europe, or the world (although those too); just wherever you happen to be; place. Landscapes should and must change, as we change; not just the geometries and geographies we impose on them, like the furrows and plastic (though it would be nice to do away with the plastic itself), but everything. 500 years ago the Howe of Fife was covered in forest and the monarchs of Scotland hunted wild boar here. A thousand years ago, a Scotland that was different in shape, size and culture was being ruled by Alexander I, then near the end of his life, having recently lost his wife Sybilla of Normandy, the French child of Henry I of England; Alexander would be succeeded by his brother David, then Prince of the Cumbrians; by James’s time all of these details would seem strange. Two thousand years ago, the Howe of Fife was part of southern Caledonia, that is the land to the north of the river Forth; at least the Romans, still fifty years from their attempted conquest, called it Caledonia, whether the inhabitants of Caledonia had any name for the landmass in general, as opposed to their own local chiefdoms, isn’t recorded.

These back roads are quiet, but although nature is everywhere, it’s deceptive, hardly a natural landscape at all. It has been shaped by generations of human beings, by agriculture and the politics of land ownership, no less in King James’s day, when forests belonged to the King and had their own laws, than now. It reminds me both of my childhood love of Tolkien and of a line from The Fellowship of the Ring; where Bilbo says “I want to see the wild country again before I die, and the Mountains; but he [Frodo] is still in love with the Shire, with woods and fields and little rivers.” Tolkien loved both the wilderness and the smaller, more familiar (Oxfordshire-like) scenery of the Shire, but in his landscapes change is almost always bad; both on the larger scale of the desolation that evil brings to Mordor and the fiery chasms opened in the earth when the Dwarves delve ‘too deep’, and on the local level where the Shire is ruined by the arrival of industry. Michael Moorcock writes perceptively in his I think overly scathing (“The Lord of the Rings is a pernicious confirmation of the values of a morally bankrupt middle-class ‘Epic Pooh’, in Wizardry and Wild Romance, Gollancz, 1987, p.125), but often right and always funny essay about Tolkien, Epic Pooh (1987) about the essential conservatism of much of heroic fantasy fiction, and the points he makes are even more relevant today. The climate emergency will – regardless of the political will to do so – at some point need to be dealt with, as the pace of change outstrips the ways in which our society functions, and it’s important that the necessity to move forward doesn’t become an attempt to turn the clock back; always attractive in ever-nostalgic Britain. What Tolkien only reluctantly accepts – or accepts in a tragic way that fits with the more fatalistic (and Christian) aspects of his vision – is that change is inevitable. In Moorcock’s own heroic fantasy fiction, he not only takes change for granted, it becomes the backdrop against which his series of heroes who make up ‘the Eternal Champion’ fight their never-ending battle for equilibrium in a multiverse where change – in itself neutral – is the only constant:

“Then the earth grew old, its landscapes mellowing and showing signs of age, its ways becoming whimsical and strange in the manner of a man in his last years – The High History of the Runestaff”

(quoted from Count Brass, 1973, but appears lots of other places too)

the Lomond Hills after the mist burned off

The landscape of the Howe of Fife is not yet – the odd wind turbine aside – whimsical and strange, but there was a certain surreal quality in the way the beautiful spring morning (which felt more like early spring than early May) followed days of hailstorms and thunder. Surreal anyway to someone old enough to remember when seasons seemed to have a set pattern. In another twenty or thirty years will British Christmas cards still have snow scenes on them, even though most of the heavy snowfall seems to happen now in March or even April? Human culture is perhaps slow to catch up with the changes it creates; bearing in mind that the traffic on the roads today is light because even after decades of change there’s a convention that people don’t work on a Sunday, for the most archaic of reasons – but I’m still glad of it. These kinds of thoughts, and Rosa Bonheur too, were partly on my mind because this week there were elections which, although not regime-changing, were important. The results were locally, fairly positive, nationally (Scotland) pretty much as expected and extra-nationally (UK: not quite international, yet at least) a bit disappointing. The collapse of any real kind of left-wing movement has been happening over a long period of time and I suppose at this point all you can say is that people in general don’t want one; or not enough of them to make it happen. On the other hand a general liberalisation has taken place that possibly just makes it seem unnecessary to large numbers of people. And of course, the left eats itself, as always; yesterday I saw online a list of “people that socialism needs more of” (working class people essentially) and “people it needs less of” (non-working class people, basically), whereas surely the whole point is, it needs all people, if it’s going to work. But whatever.

the remains of yesterday’s rain

A nice thing about cycling is that, aside from looking around, you can’t really do very much. It clears the mind in a way that car travel, with its technical aspects and its music or radio, doesn’t usually do. It would be possible to listen to the radio while cycling, but probably not very sensible; and in an election week the lack of human noise is very welcome. After watching/listening to/reading political propaganda and analysis before and after an election it becomes clear just how versatile “the media” seems to be. This week I’ve seen people criticise it essentially to suit their own viewpoint; it’s too right/left wing, too politically correct, too reactionary, too critical, not critical enough. Which makes it seem as though the UK media is pretty good at covering all bases. But TV, radio and the newspapers are a distorting mirror at best. Witness the way that the ‘working class’ – whether positively or negatively – is treated as a monolith. The viewpoint of the media (understandably, given most of its staff and ownership) is middle class; and therefore on TV, on the radio and in newspapers the middle class becomes the norm from which everything and everyone else (both working class and upper class) are observed and commented upon. “Reality TV” features the rich or the poor as something other, something to be looked at and entertained by. But it’s a norm that ignores the facts. The working class, insofar as there is still such a thing (I am of it and I’m not even really sure) is technically the norm, in the sense that it’s the majority, just as it always has been. The UK is (albeit in a less precise way than a century ago) a pyramidal structure, with monarchy and government at the top, the middle class – bigger and both richer and poorer than before, but still identifiable – in (yep) the middle, and the working class as the wide base, incorporating a layer of underclass which fluctuates depending on which government is at the top (it’s bigger now than it was a decade ago). How do you change that false picture the media presents? You don’t really; not without changing the society. Marx and Engels wanted the means of production to belong to the workers; in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that stood for something real and meaningful, but while its egalitarian spirit is eternally relevant, in the 21st century the statement itself needs so many qualifications as to be almost meaningless. What are the means of production? Producing what? Who are the workers? The working class of Marx’s day would barely recognise the working class of today – and they might well look at our lifestyle and be encouraged that the struggle wasn’t in vain. And of course it wasn’t, but that doesn’t mean that the post-industrial 21st century is really much more fair than in the industrial age, certainly capitalism is even more rapacious and entrenched than ever before, and as callous too. The more things change, the more they stay the same, as the tedious saying goes.

the flatness of the Howe

People of course do want change; the right kind of change anyway. And elections are one way of securing it. But this week people who were asked on TV for their reasons for voting gave ‘change’ as a reason for voting for parties who have been in power for 14 years (Scotland) and 9 years (UK) – which seems at best like wishful thinking or at least suggests a lack of exciting or convincing alternatives, to say the least. Arguably of course, a vote for the SNP in Scotland is a vote for a bigger change than just who currently sits in parliament, but familiarity breeds indifference and at this point it’s probably good for their cause that they are no longer the only party in favour of an independent Scotland. And in a depressing kind of way, circumstances have aided them too. In 2014 it was easy, personally speaking, to vote against independence on several grounds; a disliking of Nationalism as a principle, so closely related as it is to xenophobia and intolerance. As someone who was very happy to belong to the EU too, independence seemed (laughably in retrospect, though still not wrongly) to endanger Scotland’s membership, since the UK and not Scotland was the member. And there were niggles about the economy, not because Scotland couldn’t function outside of the UK – one of the most irritating arguments for the status quo; I think it’s pretty obvious that it could and can – but because the Salmond leadership seemed to be saying (ie he was saying) that he wanted nothing to change regarding the currency etc. Which would seem to put Scotland in the surreal position of being a supposedly independent nation which has its economy regulated by the Bank of England. Why the Bank of England would accept that, or anyone on either side of the border would want it is mysterious, to say the least. But anyway, here we are in 2021; nationalism and xenophobia look like being worse and more virulent in the UK than outside of it. We are already out of the EU and, while an independent Scotland being a member state is far from a foregone conclusion, the UK rejoining is definitely not about to happen anytime soon. And Covid-19 has given the economy a beating that will take a lot of recovering from, whatever we do. So why not independence? I would of course prefer to have a democratic socialist party in charge of it, but not having a rabidly inept right-wing one would be a step in the right direction.

apparent rural idyll

Without wishing to get bogged down even more in the minutiae of British politics, the story of the Labour Party (it’s probably not quite dead yet; it always has a far more cyclical life than the Conservative Party) is an instructive one. There’s always been a tug of war between the left and centre elements of the party, but since the 90s there’s always been the dubious argument that veering to the right is the way to win votes and power. But although New Labour was definitely uncomfortably right-wing for a supposedly socialist party, that wasn’t what brought it success. It was the ‘new’ part; drawing a line under history and saying ‘the past ends here and this is what we stand for’ was a big, optimistic step at a time when British politics – as now- had become stagnant and unappealing. The Corbyn left managed something similar, with a younger demographic, but for all its radical ideas, it was immediately familiar to anyone over a certain age. Much as Blair and co’s propaganda looks vapid and empty in retrospect (because it essentially was), not invoking Marx or even socialism was a key to their success, not because of where they or their supporters sat on the political spectrum (I think it’s true that the majority of the British public probably don’t think of themselves being especially political), but simply because people will, every now and then, give new ideas a chance, if they look exciting enough and if they’re bored or disgusted enough with the status quo; It’s worth bearing in mind. None of which has nothing obvious to do with this road on this morning, with the patches of bluebells under the trees, which might be left over from the great forest of King James’s time; where wild boar hid, evading the men and the dogs, before they were hunted to extinction.



birds & murderers; raptorama

As I write these words it’s the first day of summer and I’m sitting in my study (sounds pompous, but ‘room full of books and records where I work’ is less economical), with Atom Heart Mother playing, looking out at a beautiful sky of quilted dove-grey clouds receding towards the Lomond hills, over a typical rural Scottish landscape; a bit of wasteland filled with flowers and few decaying disused buildings and beyond, a park (the part I can see currently empty except for white goalposts) and then woods leading up to the hills. It’s nice. Despite the semi-optimistic whingeing of my last post I’ve really not been any more productive; at least I haven’t finished writing many things. But I’ve made lots of notes, and reading through them there seem to be some (perhaps tenuous) links and themes running through them. So here are a couple of them.

On work days part of my routine is to fill the bird feeders in the garden before breakfast. At around 6.30 am the bird traffic outside the kitchen window is pretty steady; for someone who has lived in rural areas my whole life I’m mystifyingly ignorant about nature, so I’m surprised to find how many birds I can identify. At the feeders (there’s a central metal lamppost-looking part with two hanging feeders and a tray, plus two smaller ones in the shape of flowers, a poppy and a daisy); uncountable numbers of sparrows (recently including puffed-up, demanding sparrow chicks, bullying their parents), a couple of blue tits (looking the worse for wear as apparently they do when they have young), a contrastingly pristine great tit, a robin, a tiny coal tit, a few increasingly bloated wood pigeons and a pair of elegant and extremely skittish collared doves. On the ground, feeding off the seeds the sparrows throw about the place; four (sometimes five) yellowhammers, the males like little canaries, the occasional chaffinch (I think always the same one), two big, luxurious-looking crows, more sparrows (of course), the odd magpie and a few blackbirds (a young one has taken to landing on the tray and flowers too, the first time I’ve seen one do that). In the last week or so, mysteriously less welcome, a small flock of starlings. The baby who came first was, to start with, a cute, rotund, almost kiwi-esque creature, but although the other birds mostly don’t seem to mind them too much, and though I would hate for them to starve, I’m not pleased to see them. Ted Hughes’s fault? I rarely read poetry nowadays, but I haven’t forgotten the note he wrote in Moortown Diary (by far my favourite of his books, it was published in 1989 as an expanded version of 1979’s Moortown) about his poem Poor Birds:

That winter, in particular, was doubly darkened – by bigger hordes of invading starlings than I have ever seen. All day long they would be storming down onto the field beside us, or roaring up, wired to every rumour, in a bewildered refugee panic, very disturbing , even slightly depressing, and somehow ominous, since they couldn’t be ignored…
Moortown Diary, p.61, Faber & Faber, 1989

Although there are at most 6 or 7 starlings in the little flock that visits here, they bring something of that doom-laden quality, possibly just by association (I grew up on farms, where they are never welcome), or maybe just because of their oddly un-pretty greasy-looking speckled plumage. Dilemma; how to harmlessly discourage starlings without discouraging everyone else? Conclusion – you can’t, they have to eat too, it’s fine.

But then, this week, one morning I glanced out of the window just in time to see a collared dove take off in panic from the top of the feeder where it was perched, just as a bird of similar size and colour landed. I edged towards the window and standing there looking fairly furious was what I am reliably informed (corroborated by google) was a sparrowhawk (see bad phone photos taken at the kitchen window below). I assume it’s a young one, since it was about the same size as the dove it scared off and since ‘tis the season for young birds. It (I want to say he, but I have zero idea how one would tell the gender of a hawk – but in fact a friend pointed out to me that males are grey while females are brown, so I can reinstate his gender!) seems to have a very short visiting window, between 6.20 and 6.35 am, but after day two, when I looked just in time to see his claws, holding (I’m pretty sure) a dead fieldmouse, disappear into the air, he has returned every day. Not that I’ve seen him every day, but there is a particular, slightly unsettling stillness and tense silence in the garden after he has visited. At least, the silence feels tense to me, because it’s so unusual; even the near-constant chattering in the laburnum tree (more sparrows, I presume) is subdued for a while and I can hear the sound of traffic in the distance. And yet, I don’t feel the same dilemma as I did with the starlings; here is an actual predator who definitely means harm to the birds I feed, but while I would hate to think I’ve fattened up the sparrow babies to feed him, I don’t try to think of ways of scaring off the hawk without scaring everyone else. Of course, like the starlings and everyone else, the hawk needs to eat too. But, less altruistically, there’s something in me that would apparently rather see a single hawk than a whole flock of sparrows – understandable perhaps; I see sparrows every day, I didn’t even know what a sparrowhawk actually looked like until this week – but not a thought process one would want to extrapolate outwards into other areas too much.

But, coincidentally, I’m going to do that anyway…

If there’s a human equivalent of the sparrowhawk, I suppose it would be the apparently endlessly fascinating serial killer. There are people (they are easy to find online) who think that their fascination with serial killers marks them out as being in some way edgy and ‘different’, but the depressingly inexhaustible stream of TV shows, books and films about them (aside from the recent excitement about Zac Efron playing Ted Bundy, there are entire channels on TV now that seem exclusively to consist of shows with names like ‘I married a serial killer’, ‘the killer next door’ ‘killer kids’ etc) should be enough to show that, far from being different or marginal, this is a mainstream interest. It’s The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal and Psycho and the majority of cop shows; it isn’t revelling in obscurity, it’s the same crap that everyone is interested in. The irony is (I’ve watched those kinds of shows too) that – I was going to say ‘in contrast to the feathered raptor’, but that’s just not right – the more you learn about genuine psychopaths, the more you realise that while people in general are unique, complex and incredibly varied, the psychopaths themselves have a strong family resemblance and are far more limited and in fact far less interesting than ‘normal’ people. If you remove the frisson of fear which is the real attraction of the films and books, take away the violence and horror; these are very boring people indeed. I don’t want to rob birds of emotions and personalities that I can’t prove they do or don’t have, but to the inexpert human eye (mine), sparrows seem like a fairly interchangeable bunch, they mostly do the same things in the same ways. Hawks may do likewise, but I rarely see them up close and they have a certain glamour and rarity value for that reason. Serial killers on TV are a constant, sparrow-like presence, their tiresome lack of empathy making them far more drab and uniform than their unfortunate victims.

Which is probably why there are so few documentaries about the psychopaths who don’t violently kill people. But actually – maybe there are. I don’t want to brand anyone a psychopath particularly, but thinking about the kind of reality shows which focus exclusively on interchangeable, self-aggrandising, egotistical ‘personalities’ who – irony – have no actual discernible personality as such, just an insatiable appetite for self-publicity, maybe the non-serial killer psychopath documentary is just as prevalent as the serial killer kind. It’s a possibility.

As you’ll have noticed I am not a nature writer, and it doesn’t come naturally (nice choice of phrase) to me. I don’t read much nature writing either, unless you count William Horwood’s Duncton books, which I read many years ago. You don’t? Well, if you are interested in reading nature writing by people who are actually good at it, and excellent analysis of their work, there are lots of good things to be found here.

Not the Releases of the Year 2016


‘Album of the year’ lists are fine for representing a specific time period in music, and interesting because of how personal and subjective they are  – an element which becomes eroded by time, as is easily seen from the consensus found in the majority of ‘great albums of the 60s/70s/80s’/etc lists and the fact that ‘new’ classics from those eras can be discovered decades later.

Claire Waldoff
Claire Waldoff

Anyway; all of this is to ask what importance a ‘releases of the year 2016’ list can really have for someone (i.e. me) who was listening to Claire Waldoff on his way home from work. One way to find out is to look back over the last few years to see how many of my own previous releases of the year have stood the test of (a relatively short amount of) time to become actual favourites. So let’s do that.

My records (pun shockingly not intended) of such things only go back a few years and I am sticking to things that actually made it onto my lists and not the many things I have subsequently discovered from those years (2012-2015 I think), but blah blah blah; disclaimers aside, here’s what the stalwarts of the last few years (and 60 or so albums) look like, plus notes related thereto:


Ihsahn – Das Seelenbrechen (Candlelight Records)




What I said then:

Metal acts are all too often praised for bringing any kind of non-metal musical influence into their work (tentative, seriously out of date bits of techno or hip-hop are probably the least daring way to ‘innovate’); but with Das Seelenbrechen, Ihsahn made an album that wasn’t just ‘extreme metal with (whatever) elements’. The electronic, gentle and improvised parts of the album are no less natural than the heavy riffs, raw vocals and Nietzschean philosophy. Clever, extreme (in lots of different ways) but accessible, because at its heart are great songs which don’t necessarily belong to any particular genre.

What I say now: I think Das Seelenbrechen has gone on to become Ihsahn’s least popular solo album, but I stand by what I said and, for me this, together with the 2007 Hardingrock album, is the artist at his creative peak (so far). This year’s Arktis. is a great record, and arguably much more fun than Das Seelenbrechen, but also far more conventional. Not a bad thing, but Das Seelenbrechen sounded at times like Scott Walker and a group of jazz musicians playing metal/metal musicians playing jazz, Arktis. sounds like someone who loves 80s metal and rock interpreting it in their own style.

Collectress – Mondegreen (Peeler Records)



What I said then:

Experimental string quartet Collectress make music that has many moods but is always interesting. On Mondegreen, the sound ranges from the bustling, Steve Reich-ish ‘Spell‘ to the haunting, tense ‘Harmonium‘ to the wistful, minimalistic and strangely nostalgic-sounding ‘Owl‘. It’s a beautiful album, each song creating its own pervasive mood but somehow becoming an entirely coherent whole; and it sounds absolutely nothing like anything else I heard this year.

What I say now: I still feel the same about the album, but what strikes me most now is the way each piece of music conjures up its own visual world; it has a strange, benign doll’s house feel to it, theatrical and haunted without being spooky.

David Bowie – The Next Day (ISO/Columbia)



What I said then:

A great album (if not a ‘return to form’ exactly, since his form has been pretty dubious for a long, long time), with a few lesser moments (the 90’s-ish indie-ish attempts at being modern grate a bit) which don’t however spoil the whole.

What I say now – This is an odd one, in that the album disappeared from regular rotation for a good year or so, only to be rediscovered with so many other Bowie albums, after his death. Still, I don’t think it’s one of his best overall (certainly less good than Blackstar), but the best songs are ‘classic Bowie’

Sangre de Muerdago – Deixademe Morrer No Bosque (self-release)




What I said then:

Moody, windswept and mysterious Galician folk music; beautiful, desolate and organic.

What I say now – One of the ‘lesser’ albums of the year at the time, but it has outlasted many records that I preferred back then. The slightly hushed quality and campfire sound effects etc give it a unique charm; I keep meaning to check out more of their work (and have listened to bits and pieces) but I kind of like having this one perfect album.

John Baizley, Nate Hall & Mike Scheidt – Songs of Townes Van Zandt Vol II (My Proud Mountain)



What I said then:

Powerful versions of Townes Van Zandt’s earthy folk/blues songs, all the better for the starkness of the recordings.

What I say now – another one that was a bit of a sleeper; I liked it, listened to it a lot, and moved on. But at some point it suddenly felt very relevant and I feel like I know/feel the songs much better now.

Nebelung – Palingenesis (Temple of Torturous records)



What I said then:

This instrumental ‘dark folk’ album is probably one of my most listened-to albums of the year; beautifully atmospheric music that seems imbued with the essence of autumn.

What I say now – not much to add to that, really. This year the band released a re-recording of their  checked out the recent re-recording of their 2005 debut, Mistelteinn  and it’s really good, but I prefer the purely instrumental album.

Sonny Simmons & Moksha Samnyasin – Nomadic (Svart Records)



What I said then:

There’s a very Miles Davis-y feel to this album, despite the psychedelic and drone elements. The blend of Simmons’ sax with Moksha Samnyasin (Michel Kristoff’; sitar, Thomas Bellier; bass, Sébastien Bismuth (drums, electronics) is what great free jazz is about; not aimless noodling, but intuitive, almost telepathic interplay and the exotic atmospheres and intense moods that result.

What I say now – Nomadic ended up being one of those albums where what were initially my least favourite tracks have ended up being my favourite ones. Its richness keeps it alive.

Secrets of the Moon – SUN (Lupus Lounge)



What I said then:

There’s not a lot of emotionally complex black metal music out there; a shame, because the expressive possibilities of the form are arguably greater and more powerful than any other metal genre. Also a shame, because, as with any genre of music, the best black metal transcends its idiom and is simply great music; and such is SUN, the sixth album by the always-dependable Secrets of the Moon. ‘Dependable’ is rarely used as a huge compliment for a band, but although the last few Secrets.. albums have been powerful and mature, none of them really suggested an album as immense as SUN. Inspired to a large extent by the suicide of ex-bass player LSK, it’s a work full of strange, desolate yet apparently hopeful imagery. Mysterious, elusive, it’s an album whose emotional punch is as unexpected as it is tangible.

What I say now – SUN was consistently an album whose songs popped up on shuffle and amazed me with their greatness. Although a black metal album of sorts, it doesn’t really follow any of the genre’s conventions; what I said above, in fact.



Ancient VVisdom – Deathlike

I loved this at the time, but even then I preferred their debut A Godlike Inferno – and now I find I still listen to that, but rarely Deathlike

Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest

The downside to BoC’s more ambient approach with this album is that it is great while it’s on, but I rarely think about it between times

Manierisme – フローリア

I have failed to convince people of Manierisme’s genius more than almost any other band. And I still think Jekyll is a genius, but the balance of horribleness to sepia-toned nostalgia isn’t as successful here as on his earlier work.

Eleni & Souzana Vougioukli – To Be Safe


I’d absolutely still recommend this brilliant and beautiful album to anyone, but it ended up having less longevity for me than I expected

Beastmilk – Climax

See above; a very good album, but retro gothy rock felt surprisingly fresh when Beastmilk (now Grave Pleasures) released their debut; now it doesn’t

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away

Possibly I am just spoiled for choice with Nick Cave, but at the time I thought this would take its place with Tender PreyThe Good SonHenry’s Dream etc, but I listen to those regularly, this only every now & then

Absentia Lunae – Vorwarts (ATMF)

It’s not that I don’t like this fine black metal album, it’s just that I want all of their work to grip me in the same way that their mighty In Vmbrarvm Imperii Gloria does. And it doesn’t, quite.

Mirel Wagner – When the Cellar Children See the Light of Day (Sub Pop)

I remember this being great, and I think it is – but I haven’t really gone back to it since the initial excitement wore off.

Scott Walker & Sunn O))) – Soused (4AD)

My initial (but positive) impression that this is somehow just slightly less good than either Scott Walker or Sunn O)))’s usual records has grown – it’s not as good.

YOB – Clearing the Path to Ascend (Neurot Recordings)

Don’t get me wrong; this is one hundred percent a fantastic album, it’s just that its main legacy for me has been to send me back to Mike Scheidt’s criminally underrated 2012 solo album Stay Awake


Jarboe and Helen Money – Jarboe and Helen Money (Aurora Borealis Recordings)

Pretty simple – great record, but I wore it out by listening to it too much. It may come back though.

Odessey & Oracle – Odessey and Oracle and the Casiotone Orchestra (Folkwit Records)

Same – brilliant album, but extremely strongly flavoured in a way that makes it not for all moods…

Valet – Nature (Kranky Records)

A good album that I barely remember; will have to check it out again at some point, though.

Right; time to get on with the albums of the year….


La Flamme et le Lys: Métal Noir Québécois

metal noir quebecois

Firstly, the black metal of Québec (at least the black metal I am talking about) has little or nothing to do with Canada. Nothing against Canada (or Canadian metal for that matter), but what makes this scene so distinctive is the backdrop of the history of Québec/Nouvelle-France as a nation (lots of fascinating info here), not to mention the French language, especially romantic perhaps, to people like myself who don’t understand it.

hossTwo ironies recur endlessly in black metal: firstly, despite the avowed individualism of almost every BM band, the genre has come to be defined in part by national scenes, with various identifying features. The most obvious (because most famous and because it put many of the genre trademarks in place) is the Norwegian scene of the early 90s, but for me, the Québec scene has arguably been the most distinctive and consistent over the last decade or so.

Secondly, despite the rhetoric of superiority common in certain areas of the genre, much of the Cornelius Krieghoff 3 caribou hunterbest black metal (especially the nationalistic/heritage-leaning kind) takes a large part of its melancholy atmosphere from a history of defeat and hardship rather than one of victory and supremacy; the image of snow covered ruins or desolation that grace the cover art of a large proportion of black metal releases may represent the defeat of black metal’s enemies, be they the Christian church, or modern urban civilisation, but the fact is that nowhere in the world is there or has there been a black metal elite ruling over a subjugated population of cowering slaves.

blizzzIn fact, more commonly than not, ‘heritage BM’ (absolutely horrible term, can’t think of a less insulting one) has at its heart the supplanting of native cultures and traditions by Christianity, but with Québec the focal point historically is the destruction of the colony of New France and the (to a degree ongoing) marginalisation of its culture and traditions within the later UK/US-influenced construct of Canada.
This kind of history of hardship, neglect and respect for nature and tradition is the exact mixture of musical/historical/ideological inspiration that can make nationalistic (a sinister word, but it doesn’t necessarily have the fascist connotations of National Socialist Black Metal, of which see here) BM such a potent-sounding music.

It should be pointed out though, that the settlers of Québec were not the first people there, and little ppicthe history of the native peoples of Canada is even more marginalised and bleak than that of the first European settlers.
Sadly I have yet to hear any native American black metal, if there is such a thing (I would like to hear it if there is). Possibly the essentially European (and, taking into account the influence of the blues, even African) nature of heavy metal makes it unlikely to be embraced by heritage-minded individuals of native American backgrounds.
Still, the fascinating history of New France and Québec is more than troubled enough to account for the emotion that exudes from the best black metal of the nation.

CKsnawThere is no doubt that in the New France the settlers’ lives were difficult; even aside from the daily hardship that was (and in many places still is) inherent in the lives of people living from the land, the extreme climate and landscape of Québec – especially in the winter – made peoples’ existence precarious at best.
The paintings and drawings of Dutch emigrant Cornelius Krieghoff (seen here) – in some ways a parallel figure, in BM at least, to Theodor Kittelsen in Norway – vividly cornkriegdepict these struggles while also representing something of a nostalgic ideal through their picturesque depiction of an isolated and self-sufficient community. It should be noted though, that the history of New France dates back to the 1500s, so by the time of Krieghoff’s travels in Québec in the mid-19th century, the people’s connection with France was already a near-mythical one.

Perhaps because of the vast differences – not just in terrain and climate, but also government Cornelius Krieghoff 3 caribou hunterand society – between France and its colony, New France quickly gained an independent identity of its own. Though the language and many of the traditions would remain French, the connection between Québec and its mother country would quickly become minimal, despite various rebellions against the English-speaking oppressors throughout the 19th century.
All of these factors have helped shape the character of Métal Noir Québécois. Although not one homogenous sound, most of the bands have some common ground. Much of the imagery of the genre is that common to black metal in general; the iconography of forests, frost, snow, autumn and winter landscapes – it is particularly appropriate for Québecois black metal. There is a strong vein of nature mysticism in the music, often lurking as a subtext, but occasionally, as in Neige et Noirceur’s masterful Hymnes de la Montagne Noire, taking centre stage.

Forteresse 1Likewise, the use of folk elements is hardly new to black metal, but the distinctive folk music of the area uses instrumentation unusual to BM (such as accordions as well as fiddles) and has a unique, archaic flavour which is extremely evocative when used well. Neige et Noirceur again provide a good example with their strangely sea-shantyish Ancien Folklore Québécois.

It’s not all ‘New France’ though; although primarily French-speaking, other influences helped shape Quebec, as the presence of Dutchman Cornelius Kreghoff in the colony suggests. In fact the excellent-but-mysterious one-man project Ziel Bevrijd has a Dutch name, suggesting (maybe?) an alternative heritage, although Viingrid writes lyrics mainly in French.

Musically speaking, the strongest influence on the Québec bands is probably Burzum, specifically the albums Hvis Lyset Tar Oss and Filosefem, the primitive mix of fuzzy guitar and fairly basic synth being surprisingly adept at conjouring epic wintry landscapes as well as desolate misery.


Recommended Listening:
I can’t stress strongly enough that I am not in any way an authority on the black metal of Québec and there is every chance that I have missed out major artists as well as minor ones. A good rule of thumb is that if is from Québec and released by Sepulchral Productions or Les Productions Hérétiques it’s probably worth a listen. These are all good:

Sorcier Des Glaces

This band has been around since the late 90s and if not the most distinctive – or the first – of Québec’s BM bands, they have never made a bad record. Atmospheric but more upbeat (as well as faster and less French) than many bands in the scene, albums like the definitive Snowland and 2011’s The Puressence of Primitive Forests are highly recommended to fans of expansive post-Burzum BM.



A pretty marginal band, but with a name derived from the year of the Québec patriotic uprising and a (to my knowledge) sole EP, Prologue (2010) to their name, 1837 seem in some ways to be just what obscure local BM is all about. The EP is strong, but pretty harsh, very similar to Celtic Winter-era Graveland.



Forteresseforteresse 2
Perhaps the greatest of all Québec BM bands, their manifesto-like Métal Noir Québécois defined the genre, bringing together Burzum-esque epic-but-melancholy BM with traditional Québec folk music and imagery. Les Hivers de Notre Epoque is if anything even better, less ferocious but even more atmospheric.



Sombres Forêts

sombres 1In a similar vein to Forteresse, but slightly more ambient and snow-shrouded and less folk-influenced, Sombres Forêts are one of the more melancholy bands in the scene. To my ears their best album to date is 2008’s Royaume de Glace, a despairing masterpiece with some of the best vocals of any Québec BM album, especially when Annatar shrieks hoarsely over relatively clean guitars on songs like the great The Forest.



Neige et Noirceurneige 2
Another one-man band whose style veers close to Forteresse (and indeed Burzum) at times, NeN have a discography which encompasses folk, ambient and of course atmospheric BM elements, all albums are good, but Crépuscule Hivernal sans fin sur les Terres de la Guerre from 2009 has a particularly intense and obscure atmosphere.



Neige Éternelleneiget
Pretty much a definitive Sepulchral signing, the best songs on Neige Éternelle’s 2013 self-titled debut bring a strongly Darkthrone-like flavour to the Quebec sound (check out L’appel de la Mort for a perfect synthesis of Burzum, Darkthrone and Métal Noir Québécois)



Brume d’Automnebrume
A somewhat schizophrenic band, Brume d’Automne veer between some of the most folk-influenced music in the genre (for example La mort d’un patriote from their debut album Fiers et Victorieux) to a strongly punk-influenced sound on songs like Quand Les Corbeaux Crient Leur Haine.



Monarquemonarque 2
Far more typical, being essentially a very prolific one-man project (sort of – Monarque is sometimes joined by a live drummer) in the epic/atmospheric BM vein. Another artist with no bad releases (that I’ve heard) but the 2013 opus Lys Noir is particularly strong.



Grisgris 1
Another great band signed to Sepulchral, Gris play extremely poignant-sounding, at times lush BM, very sophisticated and with at times a Shining-like quality. It’s hard to choose between their two excellent albums, the first, Il Etait Une Forêt somehow has a magical, almost hushed quality even at its most raw, heavy and tormented, while their latest A L’Âme Enflammée, L’Âme Constellée… has a vast epic grandeur.



A strongly folklore-inspired band where Québec BM meets Falkenbach, Chasse-Galerie specialise in high-velocity melodic BM with at times a heroic flavour and lots of good tunes.



Ziel Bevrijdziel
Mentioned above, this strangely-named act is far from prolific (and sometimes scorned for the lo-fi qualities of its output), Ziel Bevrijd’s self-titled album and split with Csejthe (a very good band who don’t quite fit what I am writing about) should definitely be checked out by anyone into bands like Marblebog or (of course) Burzum.



Pretty standard orthodox BM with a strong atmosphere, NS by reputation (hard for me to say based on song titles in French) and pretty good despite a slightly thin sound.



Ciel Nordiqueciel
To date, Ciel Nordique have released one demo, in 2005, but it’s a very accomplished one, balancing aggression and melancholy perfectly.



Still relatively new on the scene, Délétère so far have one excellent full length album, Les Heures de la Peste to their to their name. Better still, because more raw and concentrated, are the demos collected on De Ritbus Morbiferis; a set of songs that utterly embody the raw melancholy and stormy, snow-covered landscapes that define Métal Noir Québécois.


And that’s probably enough for now….