Wednesday, 10 September 2014

20 Years of The Holy Bible - Richey Edwards' Testament to the World

Last week a piece of popular culture celebrated its twentieth anniversary. I use the word 'popular' loosely. On its release in 1994 it did not enter the cultural conscience of the British population, nor was it an outstanding critical success. Although reviews were predominantly positive, there were no awards forthcoming. Those went to contemporaries.

Two decades on since it was unleashed on an unappreciative public, the Manic Street Preachers third album, The Holy Bible, is now held in great reverence, often appearing at the sharp end of the omnipresent 'best ever album' lists so beloved by a failing music press as it desperately strives for relevance in the digital age. Yet, even now, were you to ask the alternative music fan on the street for their most memorable mid-nineties album rarely would The Holy Bible be on the tip of their tongue.

A shame, for it is, after all, a masterpiece; and not just in the sense of being an exceptional indie rock album but in the wider context of a truly great work of literature or modern art. Its title couldn't be more portentous - just consider the nerve of calling your album 'The Holy Bible' - but it speaks of a complete and total defining of the band's message, a sacred scripture of their own. The album's 13 tracks could conceivably be seen as lead lyricist Richey Edwards' own personal commandments, his own truths begotten to the human race, not in stone but in rock music - "I know I believe in nothing but it is my nothing."

The album itself is intense and unforgiving, lurching from themes of exploitation and cheapening of the self (Yes), to the male weakness for beauty and lust (She is Suffering), then again to the horrors of the holocaust (Mausoleum and The Intense Humming of Evil). 

At one point, J G Ballard's voice can be heard: "I wanted to rub the human race in its own vomit and force it to look in the mirror". It is a defining moment on the album. The Manics are attempting to peel back the layers of century upon century of humanity's facade, not only in a bid to expose the realities of our human deficiencies but to accuse us of being complicit in their ongoing prevalence. "Who's responsible?" screams Of Walking Abortion. "You fucking are!" comes the tearing reply.

Hearing The Holy Bible can't help but be an excercise in self-evaluation. How many sins are you guilty of listener? "Pure or lost? Spectator or crucified?" Throughout the album confronts you. Challenges you. Opens your eyes to a reality not previously perceived.

And yet piercing the caustic aggravation are moments of tragic, aching beauty. Richey Edwards' inner turmoils are well documented but never before had they been so apparent in his lyrics. 4st 7lbs is a song about anorexia which frankly borders on the horrific but still clings to a kernel of admirable self worth in self control. "This discipline's so rare so please applaud" Richey dares us, whilst, perhaps most poignantly, delivering a sucker punch..."I want to walk in the snow and not leave a footprint", his belief that his - and our - very existence taints the world, is both beautiful and heartbreaking.

In hindsight, Richey's disappearance the following year seems the ultimate realisation of this idea. It's the final proof of his complete sincerity, of the authenticity of his emotion and intellect. In a sense, his vanishing is the ultimate full stop on the artist and his masterwork. 

Of course lyrics alone, no matter how inspired, do not make a great album. An album is an audible medium and the impact of The Holy Bible would be reduced massively were it not for the interpretations of both James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore in writing the music. Imagine being confronted with those words and having to strive to concoct a fitting 'score' that channelled the rage, disgust and self-flagellation without becoming an incoherent, self-indulgent mess.

That they achieved such a raw, stripped down and urgent soundscape from, albeit, the finest of raw materials is an achievement worthy of almost equal praise to that which Richey receives. That these obtuse stanzas have been crafted into an incessant, pulsating, post punk rock album allows The Holy Bible to not only be a cerebral experience but a visceral one.

Hear how James spits the lyrics of Mausoleum, a constant stream of rhythmical emphasis on each, carefully chosen word "idolise, despise and scrutinise" barely stopping to breathe throughout; behold the unmimickable guitar solo coda to Archives of Pain, punishing the listener with each squealing intricacy; consider the verbal volley of PCP, lines spewing forth like bullets from a machine gun - 'ack, ack ack'!

And finally, of course, there's the artwork. Jenny Saville's triptych of an overweight human in their underwear demands us to strip ourselves naked, to observe our every flaw from every angle and in the cold, white light of day. It's a deliberately unsettling image; The Holy Bible is a deliberately unsettling listen but it is also a cathartic and empowering one. 

For if there is a grain of hope to be found in this most excoriating of records - and despite its horror I feel compelled to try and find one - it's that through an understanding of the true evils of our past we can attempt to recognise them in our present. The bright white magnesium burn of rage that is The Holy Bible takes an ultimate, defiant stance against our human weakness. It is fuelled by an uncompromising mentality and an incredible integrity, that which Richey Edwards cherished above everything and everyone.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Scotland, Europe - Are we being honest with ourselves?

When is one ever politically objective? I wonder whether my political beliefs will ever afford me true clarity on any political issue of the day, least of all the debate on Scottish independence from the UK...

The Scottish wing of the three main British political parties, Labour, The Liberal Democrats and The Conservatives (plus these 200 celebrities no less) are all putting their considerable weight behind the 'Better Together' campaign for the continuation of the union, based, primarily, on the perceived economic benefit of remaining in the UK.

The opposing 'Yes' campaign counters that the Scottish economy is strong enough not only to sustain but boost the nation's prosperity under independence. Whilst still in the union, they suggest, Scotland is diluting its wealth into a wider British economy.

Understood, but regardless of the economic, social and cultural points both sides raise, surely the crux of the debate should be the opportunity the referendum will afford Scots to finally choose self-empowerment as a nation. Something which many feel is long overdue.

The evidence does indeed bear this out. The Conservative party has won eleven UK general elections outright since 1900. That's an approximate total of 55 years they have ruled Scotland in the past century or so, devolution notwithstanding. 

Scotland as a nation has never voted a Conservative majority within its borders in that time. No wonder there is anger the ultimate power broker in Scottish politics remains a perceptibly distant group of politicians in Westminster.

True self empowerment has clearly not been apparent for Scots through the union. Scotland is not governed by those who reflect the ideals of its people.

However, if I extend that same argument to the UK’s membership of the European Union surely you would find me supportive of David Cameron’s call to renegotiate our ties within Europe..?

And yet, that a continent twice rent asunder by war can come together to support itself economically, as Europe has done during the recent recession, feels to me like a wonderful achievement more than justifying an ongoing togetherness. "Ah", I hear you say, "but surely this togetherness comes at the cost of ceding power to a similarly distant group of politicians in Brussels? Furthermore, isn't the United Kingdom also an example of once opposing nations coming together to support each other?"

I realise I am arguing for decentralisation of power in one instance whilst supporting the ongoing centralisation of power in another. How can I pick and choose when I am for and when I am against a community of people governing themselves? I understand there are obvious differences between the structure of the UK and the EU but in principal there's surely a valid comparison to be made?

Inevitably, my argument is swayed by my own politics - I am for Scottish independence because I believe that it will give rise to a more socially conscious, leftist Scotland. I am against repatriation of powers from Europe to the UK because I believe it to be motivated by a desire to manoeuvre the country to the right.

An argument for Scottish independence on any other basis, I concede, is objectively poor and, worse still, dishonest.

Are my views fed by a desire for self-empowerment above all? Evidently not, though they probably should be. Instead, I admit, they are driven by my wish to see a more socially democratic world, one more in tune with my own beliefs. Not necessarily a bad thing - obviously, I hold these beliefs because I consider them to be right - but I wonder how far one might be capable of using the economy or any other facet of the argument to attempt to justify a stance that forwards a hidden cause?

Let's be honest with ourselves when we argue the case for Scottish independence (or indeed our relationship with the EU). For dangerous it would surely be to allow the smoke screen to purvey, especially when considered in the context of our past (and future) history...

http://bettertogether.net/
http://www.yesscotland.net/
http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jan/18/britain-europe-eu-essential-guide
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-20314150

Friday, 8 August 2014

Some Blog Housekeeping 2013

Only just realised I hadn't published this draft from 2013...

Reading 

The Blizzard Issue 9 - Edited by Jonathan Wilson
Soccernomics - Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski
The Catcher in the Rye - J D Salinger
Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald
The Blizzard Issue 8 - Edited by Jonathan Wilson
From Russia With Love - Ian Fleming
Rex Libris: I, Librarian - James Turner
The Nightwatchman - The Wisden Cricket Quarterly Issue 1 - Edited by Matt Thacker
Entertaining Strangers - Jonathan Taylor
The Blizzard Issue 7 - Edited by Jonathan Wilson
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? - Philip K. Dick
The Blizzard Issue 6 - Edited by Jonathan Wilson
Back Story - David Mitchell
To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee
Naked Lunch - William Burroughs
2010: Odyssey Two - Arthur C Clarke

Listening

Rewind The Film - Manic Street Preachers
The Electric Lady - Janelle Monáe
Sequel to the Prequel - Babyshambles
AM - Arctic Monkeys
Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action - Franz Ferdinand
Born to Run - Bruce Springsteen
Sticky Wickets - The Duckworth Lewis Method
Electric - Pet Shop Boys
...Like Clockwork - Queens Of The Stone Age
Shaking The Habitual - The Knife
m b v - My Bloody Valentine
Job Lot - Chas & Dave
Random Access Memories - Daft Punk
Modern Vampires of the City - Vampire Weekend
Silence Yourself - Savages
Bankrupt! - Phoenix
Praxis Makes Perfect - Neon Neon
Mosquito - Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Light Up Gold - Parquet Courts
Machineries Of Joy - British Sea Power
Comedown Machine - The Strokes
Bloodsports - Suede
The Next Day - David Bowie
Amok - Atoms for Peace
Holy Fire - Foals
Arc - Everything Everything
Jake Bugg - Jake Bugg
Lonerism - Tame Impala
An Awesome Wave - Alt-J

Watching 

Beasts of the Southern Wild (Blu-Ray)
Sound of Cinema: The Music that Made the Movies - BBC4
Star Trek Into Darkness (Blu-Ray)
Lincoln (Blu-Ray)
My Hero: Ben Miller on Tony Hancock - BBC2
Richard Pryor Live - BBC4
Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic - BBC4
Burton and Taylor - BBC4
Warhorse (Blu-Ray)
Das Auto: The Germans, Their Cars and Us - BBC4
Run - Channel 4
Top of the Lake - BBC1
Brave (Blu-Ray)
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (Blu-Ray)
Django Unchained (Blu-Ray)
The Returned - Channel 4
The Fall - BBC1
Case Histories - BBC1
The Americans - ITV1
The Cabin In The Woods (Blu-Ray)
My Hero: Hugh Dennis on Ronnie Barker - BBC2
Roy Orbison: The 'Big O' in Britain - BBC4
Hillsborough: How They Buried The Truth - BBC1
Clare Balding's Secrets of a Suffragette - Channel 4
David Bowie - Five Years - BBC2
Argo (Blu-Ray)
Arne Dahl - BBC4
Not Like Any Other Love: The Smiths - A Culture Show Special - BBC2
The Magic Tricks of JJ Abrams - A Culture Show Special - BBC2
Skyfall (Blu-ray)
10 O'Clock Live - Channel 4
Culture Alienation Boredom And Despair - A Film About Generation Terrorists
Amour (Blu-ray)
Imagine... David Bowie - Cracked Actor - BBC4
It's Kevin - BBC2
Looper (Blu-ray)
The Big Reunion - ITV2
The Dark Knight Rises (Blu-ray)
Newswipe - BBC2
Les Misérables
Berberian Sound Studio (Blu-ray)
Dancing on the Edge - BBC1
Utopia - Channel 4
Spies of Warsaw - BBC4
Prometheus (Blu-Ray)
Borgen - BBC4
The Iron Lady - Channel 4
Storyville: Pussy Riot - A Punk Prayer - BBC4
Stephen Fry's Out There - BBC2

Friday, 9 May 2014

Extract from 'Reflections of An Atheist Headteacher'

The following is an extract from a blog post on headguruteacher.com which so perfectly encapsulates my personal position on Christianity, religion and faith, that I felt compelled to publish it here as if the words were my own. They aren't - I'd struggle to write anything as eloquent - but in light of my wife's faith, which I don't share, it offers an explanation of how I can accept both her beliefs and be open to the benefits of raising our two children in a church community...

I am an atheist; but I am not anti-religion.  That’s not what atheism means for me [...]. Although I don’t believe in a God, over the years I have developed a perspective on religion that I find necessary in order to acknowledge and accept other people’s faith in God. When people for whom I have enormous respect as individuals and intellectuals, are also serious Christians, Sikhs or Muslims, I find it isn’t helpful to dismiss their faith as a delusion. In fact, increasingly I find it better to interpret religion as a natural expression of our humanity; our human quest for understanding.

To me, the fact that dispersed and isolated human societies have all developed religions of different kinds over the centuries, suggests that religion meets human needs on a number of levels.  Fundamentally I see all notions of a God as a proxy for connecting to our shared humanity; religious faith, to my mind, gives people an accessible vehicle to express a range of ideas and feelings that all humans share, regardless of faith:
  • A way to rationalise our existence on Earth and to face our mortality as individuals and, ultimately, as a species
  • A means of expressing a sense of gratitude for the joy of living and the love people feel for each other
  • A context for communal activity, sharing expressions of wonder at the power of our shared humanity – including communal singing and prayer
  • A framework for a moral and ethical code reinforced through stories and philosophical teachings
  • A source of hope and comfort in a confusing world where, amid the joy, sadness, loneliness, pain, hunger and poverty are all too prevalent [...]
  • A way to give meaning and purpose to our existence; that yearning for a bigger scheme of things, beyond a humble biological human life.
Christianity and all the other religions seek to address these things and, in many respects, succeed for those who believe in them.  But they are all common themes in human society, God or no God. I find that, with this spirit, I have a great deal in common with my Christian colleagues; we share the same views about a range of moral and ethical questions and about the science of our origins.

Obviously, there are important differences that we need to face and acknowledge.  There’s a major conceptual gulf between believing in a supreme being and not believing in one. As an atheist, I don’t regard the Bible or the ideas about Jesus being the Son of God as anything more than a collection of folkloric tales and recollections distorted through the passage of time.  Most Christians believe some spiritual or miraculous experiences and concepts to be real when atheists regard them as beyond rational possibility.  Some aspects of religious practice are challenging and occasionally offensive to me – such as the link between church and state and the belief that any one religion could be more valid than any other or imposed on others.

 But, I can still value the core of religious ideas as humanistic and genuine. The rituals and rules of religion – the places of worship, symbols,  prayer ceremonies, rules about food, marriage and clothing – are to me entirely human constructs, handed down through generations. Again, that is something that I can accept and embrace - provided I’m not expected to give these things undue meaning or reverence. I also feel we should be able to challenge these things at times – because they are human and not divine in origin.

 At Christmas time, I can go one stage further. The Christmas story has been passed on for centuries – a true story for Christians with deep significance.  But, as an atheist, I can still appreciate the value in celebrating a human life with a story about forgiveness, suffering, peace and hope. Not only that, but I’d argue that since for centuries, English culture has been filtered or carried by Christian institutions and rituals, they are a genuine part of my cultural heritage whether I like it or not. I don’t have to believe the Jesus story to appreciate the significance of the underlying human themes.  Of course, in my family, Christmas is all about Santa, turkey, Rudolph and the tree; but when I take part in the Nine Lessons and Carols service at Chelmsford Cathedral I don’t feel like a fraud; it’s a story that we’ve all grown up with and the moral messages are common to us all.  I actually feel that it’s my story too; even though I don’t believe it is literally or historically true, it’s part of my culture...

Extract from 'Reflections of An Atheist Headteacher' http://headguruteacher.com/2013/12/07/reflections-of-an-atheist-headteacher/

Friday, 20 December 2013

Jocky's Top 25 TV Shows of 2013

25. The Big Reunion - ITV2
24. Arne Dahl - BBC Four
23. Burton and Taylor - BBC Four
22. Run - Channel 4
21. Imagine: David Bowie - Cracked Actor - BBC Four
20. The Sound of Cinema: The Music that Made the Movies - BBC Four
19. Utopia - Channel 4
18. Dancing on the Edge - BBC One
17. The Americans - ITV1
16. Borgen - BBC Four
15. The Day of The Doctor - BBC One
14. Clare Balding's Secret of a Suffragette - Channel 4
13. Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic - BBC Four
12. It's Kevin - BBC Two
11. David Bowie - Five Years - BBC Two
10. Das Auto: The Germans, Their Cars and Us - BBC Four
9. An Adventure in Space and Time - BBC Two
8. Stephen Fry's Out There - BBC One
7. Top of the Lake - BBC One
6. Toast of London - Channel 4
5. Storyville: Pussy Riot - A Punk Prayer - BBC Four
4. Storyville: From the Land to the Sea Beyond - BBC Four
3. Mad Men - Sky Atlantic
2. The Fall - BBC One
1. Hillsborough: How they Buried the Truth - BBC One

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Jocky's Top 25 Albums of 2013

25. Days are Gone - Haim
24. Shaking the Habitual - The Knife
23. Comedown Machine - The Strokes
22. Push the Sky Away - Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
21. Bankrupt! - Phoenix
20. Praxis Makes Perfect - Neon Neon
19. mbv - My Bloody Valentine
18. Sticky Wickets - The Duckworth Lewis Method
17. The Electric Lady - Janelle Monáe
16. Arc - Everything Everything
15. Light Up Gold - Parquet Courts
14. Holy Fire - Foals
13. Amok - Atoms for Peace
12. Reflektor - Arcade Fire
11. AM - Arctic Monkeys
10. ...Like Clockwork - Queens of the Stone Age
9. Right Thoughts,  Right Words, Right Action - Franz Ferdinand
8. Silence Yourself - Savages
7. Machineries of Joy - British Sea Power
6. Electric - Pet Shop Boys
5. Rewind the Film - Manic Street Preachers
4. Bloodsports - Suede
3. Modern Vampires of the City - Vampire Weekend
2. Random Access Memories - Daft Punk
1. The Next Day - David Bowie

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Bigger on the Inside — What to make of 50 years of Who?

The BBC celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the first airing of Doctor Who are now being confined to our collective memory but what did this global televisual event really symbolise for Planet Earth…?

Like me, you’re probably suffering from an acute case of Whovian fatigue, so ubiquitous was the raft of programming dedicated to the science fiction phenomenon as it approached its half century. It left one feeling somewhat over exposed. Much of the fanfare, it has to be said, took the form of self-referential, superlative waff, but to dismiss the nostalgiafest as wholly vacuous would also be extremely unkind.

For any television programme to have existed so long in today’s fast moving and fickle world of entertainment is an achievement worthy of note. One only trumped on UK television by Blue Peter, The Sooty Show and ITV’s soap opera Coronation Street.

Although here’s where you could argue the BBC is being somewhat disingenuous. All those shows have run continuously since their inception but the BBC’s opinion of Doctor Who hasn’t always been so affectionate. The Corporation cancelled the show in 1989 and, with the exception of one aborted attempted to resurrect the series in 1996, Doctor Who was de facto defunct for 15 years between 1990 and 2004. Only now, due to the unexpected global audience the show has garnered since its 2005 rebirth, are the BBC confident enough to go ‘all in’ on the ‘Who ha’!

Even from a critical standing it all seems a bit much, bearing in mind the show's second coming has only occasionally spun the considerable chaff of a full seven series into the rarest of TV gold. 

However, just as I was tiring of all things TARDIS, along came Mark Gatiss’s ode to the First Doctor, a dramatisation of the show’s origin story. As I settled in to 'An Adventure In Space And Time', a practically perfect love letter to Doctor Who, I began to feel all my cynicism ebb away.

For here was the essence of what makes Doctor Who special. David Bradley’s excellent embodiment of William Hartnell, the insecure, ageing ‘character actor’ whose ill health eventually led to the regeneration conceit, was truly something to behold. To see the despair in his realisation that his time as the Doctor is coming to an end is both heartbreaking and portentous, symbolising at it does, the fear we all feel at the transience of our limited time on Earth, that our existence is but a mere, insignificant footnote in the history of humanity.

Imagine you were the only actor to have played the role, how gut wrenching it would be to consider it continuing in your absence. As Hartnell meets his successor in the form of Reece Sheersmith’s Patrick Troughton, it becomes clear the game is finally up – “Why does everything have to change?” he bleats, but, of course, it must; the only permanence in our lives being impermanence.

Yet what he couldn't realise at the time was how the foundation he laid would still be bearing the weight of the whole Doctor Who canon some 50 years in the future.

Many viewers of the anniversary episode, screened simultaneously worldwide, would have registered a similar feeling to Hartnell’s melancholy. For those younger than me, it would have been at the appearance of David Tennant’s Doctor, for those older, the cameo from Tom Baker.

But, then, perhaps the passing of an everlasting torch from one (re)generation to the next is our only salvation from the spectre of our inevitable mortality; whether it be the ideals, beliefs and knowledge that a parent passes to a child or the skills and experience a mentor passes to a trainee?

After all, if even the Lord of all time and space can’t free himself from that one great certainty, then perhaps we humans shouldn't feel so aggrieved we are also denied an eternity.

Doctor Who is to be cherished for so much – its morality, its faith in science, its wonderful escapism – but perhaps it is the sense of belonging that each generation’s Doctor gives to their audience that makes the show a true diamond in the rough? It has delivered a different meaning to different sets of fans the world over, each imprinting on their version of the Doctor their own, distinct, self-image.