Billy Bragg – Saint Luke’s and the Winged Ox, Glasgow, 6th November, 2019

Arriving at this gig, the woman on the door wanted to stamp something on our wrists, but her inkpad had run dry. ‘I’ll remember you,’ she said, which seemed unlikely, given that this was a sold out gig. Further into the venue, her confidence became clear as we realised there were approximately ten women in attendance, and a lot of men.

Tonight’s gig was the first of three consecutive, sold-out nights for Billy Bragg at this venue. His current tour, headed One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, involves playing three gigs in each city on the tour. The first night draws from throughout his career, the second night focuses on his first three albums and the third night on his second three albums. We’d decided to go for the career retrospective; Jenny’s choice as she’s the more informed Bragg fan in our house.

The gig had no support, and Billy Bragg played a two-hour solo set – no band, no special effects, just him and the pretty backdrop of the former church that was converted to a music venue a few years back. Not being a Bragg completist, the songs I already knew were probably the really obvious ones – Greetings to the New Brunette, A New England (featuring a request to sing along in tribute to the much-missed Kirsty MacColl), and There is Power in a Union (which attracted its own rousing singalong). Other singles and highlights included Handyman Blues, introduced tonight by Bragg with a talk on masculinity in its various guises, and Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards.

The between-songs chat is a vital feature of Billy Bragg shows, and tonight he didn’t disappoint, covering topics including Morrissey (he later referred to the current PM as ‘Borissey’), tactical voting and the power of live music to awaken your latent activist. He even took on the topic of Scottish politics in an eloquent and even-handed way, managing not to lose half the audience as many a Scottish speaker would have done. I’m sure that when this tour was planned, Billy Bragg had no idea he’d be playing it in the run-up to a General Election, but as luck would have it, the timing is ideal.

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 31st October, 2019

I missed out on most of OMD’s chart career in the 1980s, not because I didn’t love the songs I heard on the radio, but because I was at the age of having a pocket money budget and an expensive Toyah Willcox habit to maintain. Tonight’s OMD gig is the fourth one I’ve been to since they returned with 2010’s History of Modern album, and I wouldn’t ever willingly miss the chance to see them again; each gig I’ve been to has left me listening somewhat obsessively to them for ages afterwards.

Their current tour is billed as the Souvenir tour, celebrating 40 years of OMD. From our seats in the upper circle of the Royal Concert Hall, we have a bird’s eye view of Andy McCluskey’s dancing, and the windmill moves are even more outlandish than you’d ever have imagined from all those Top of the Pops appearances. As the theme of the tour suggests, this is a show containing everything you’d hope to hear them play, and I’m glad they’ve incorporated songs from their more recent albums; songs like History of Modern (Part 1) (as perky a synthpop song as you’ll hear about the end of the world) have become integral to OMD setlists.

By the third song tonight, 1980’s Messages (probably OMD’s finest moment in a career filled with classic singles), it seems like almost the entire audience is up and dancing. I don’t ever dance, but I’m amazed at everyone’s ability to dance in any consistent way to this complex song – it has so many layers it sends my head off in about twenty directions. The back-to-back playing of Joan of Arc and Maid of Orleans represents another highlight – each time I’ve seen OMD they’ve played these two songs together. It seems incredible now that we ever had a Top Ten that included these two beautiful, atmospheric singles and, as always, they represent a point in the show at which things become distinctly rapturous for both band and audience.

Recent albums have seen OMD unafraid to revisit their experimental side and in particular their love for Kraftwerk, and at one point in the show they position themselves in a row along the front of the stage, in a visual nod to Kraftwerk. They play Almost, the b-side to debut single Electricity, along with the anecdote about this being the single that inspired Vince Clarke to make electronic music. This is followed by brand new song Don’t Go, a song which is so instantly OMD that after one hearing it assumes its place in the back catalogue so convincingly you feel as if you’ve known it for years.

There are more hits to come, including Enola Gay, Locomotion and If You Leave, and then the whole thing wraps up with Electricity. I can’t really stress enough how uplifting a thing an OMD show is, between the incredible back catalogue, the excellent new songs, the fact that they have two great lead vocalists in Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys and the scale of the appreciation between band and fans.

Hot Chip, Barrowland Ballroom, Glasgow, 19th October, 2019

I’ve been neglecting this blog lately, just because it’s been one of those times when too many things happen all at once. In an effort to avoid a short pause becoming another four-year one, I’m going to start by accounting for a few gigs we’ve been to recently.

Hot Chip, Barrowland Ballroom, Glasgow, 19th October, 2019

Standing in the Barrowland Ballroom while the stage was being prepared for Hot Chip, Jenny and I tried to identify which version of Number One Song in Heaven by Sparks was being played in the background. We were both in agreement that whichever version it was, it’s a dangerous choice of pre-gig music, as it’s one of those songs that instantly makes me think, ‘I can go home happy now I’ve heard this one’. (In my defence, I’d only just finished a Saturday backshift at work and being at home seemed momentarily attractive).

Thankfully, this being a Hot Chip gig, the cobwebs were blown away as soon as the band arrived on stage, following an intro that sounded to us like the drums from Rasputin by Boney M. Opening with a trio of singles Huarache Lights, One Life Stand and Night and Day, the bar was set decisively high for a great gig. One thing I’ve noticed on the few occasions I’ve seen Hot Chip is that they never seem to do the ‘promote new album and then encore with a couple of hits’ tours that other bands do. Every Hot Chip show seems to be played as if it might be the only time you get to see them and they want it to be like the greatest festival experience; new songs are curated into an ever-evolving setlist.

There aren’t many bands I like who stray into hedonistic dance territory, and I think the reason I like Hot Chip so much is that this is only ever one side of the coin with them; there’s a real melancholy to some of their lyrics and to Alexis Taylor’s voice, and no matter how celebratory the mood they create, there’s always the sense that it’s a knowing rather than a mindless one. Everything they do seems to be aimed at making you feel better, right down to Alexis’s preposterous baggy silver trousers and the gathering of band members at the front of the stage for the choreographed dance routine they do during Flutes. Hot Chip aren’t strangers to chucking all the big hits into the main body of the set and then doing something more playful in the encore, and tonight it was the turn of their cover of the Beastie Boys’ Sabotage, which sounded about as unlike Hot Chip as it’s possible for them to sound, before they wrapped up the evening with the apt and lovely I Feel Better.

Book Review: Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan (Jonathan Cape)

It’s been quite the year for novels dealing with the topic of artificial intelligence, and when I started reading Machines Like Me, I initially couldn’t help comparing it to Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein, a comparison not dispelled by the fact that Mary Shelley and Frankenstein are mentioned fairly early in the pages of Machines Like Me. This is a very different novel to the Winterson one, though, and the format immediately struck me as being much more of a straightforward story set in one period.

The period concerned is the 1980s, albeit an alternative imagining of the decade. Major public figures and events are familiar, giving the setting a nostalgic yet distorted feel. In Machines Like Me, the UK loses the Falklands War, the defeat ultimately proves fatal to Margaret Thatcher’s Government, and the country ends up with a very different Prime Minister who promptly declares an intention to leave the EU. This re-telling of history veers between playful and cautionary, and more than once I found myself stopping for a moment to check facts, having become suspicious of everything I was reading.

Most significantly for the story, Alan Turing is still alive in the 1980s, having chosen prison over chemical castration and survived to tell the tale. Because of the work of Turing and his contemporaries, the 1980s presented in Machines Like Me is far more technologically advanced than the reality, with state-of-the-art synthetic humans being the latest breakthrough.

Twenty five of these synthetic humans have been put on the market (a mixture of ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’ models) and the protagonist, Charlie Friend, invests a large sum of money left by his mother to acquire an Adam. Charlie is in love with his neighbour, Miranda, a PhD student ten years his junior, and he decides that he and Miranda should create Adam’s personality between them, with each deciding on half of his personality settings, blind to the choices made by the other. In a parallel set of events, Miranda’s desire to have a child is awoken by a chance meeting bringing Mark, a vulnerable young boy, into their lives.

It quickly becomes apparent that Adam’s personality and behaviour, despite the scientific labour that’s gone into producing him, and the settings chosen for him, are going to have unanticipated consequences for Charlie and Miranda. One of the first things Adam does is to reveal that Miranda may have a sinister side, and it doesn’t take him long to disable his kill switch. His forensic ability to gather and examine facts is at times a huge benefit to Charlie and Miranda, while at other times his behaviour causes tension, leading ultimately to a scenario involving life-changing choices for everyone.

I have read references to the ‘love triangle’ in Machines Like Me, and there is an exploration of what it means for a synthetic human to feel love, but this is more than just an emotional drama. Questions are raised about how close technology can actually get to replicating human experience; the Turing Test famously explored the potential for human-machine interactions to be indistinguishable from human-human ones, and on this basis Adam certainly manages to convince people throughout the story that they’re dealing with a person. There’s a suggestion that the line not yet crossed may be to do with human failings; machines may be able to behave and make decisions in line with strict moral and ethical codes, coming unstuck because of our inability to do the same.

Book Review: Oh You Pretty Thing by VG Lee (Tollington Press)

In the foreword to this collection of short stories, VG Lee writes that she’s been asked about her short stories having sad endings. This surprised me, as a fan of the comedy in her writing – based, admittedly, on having read her novels rather than the previous short story collection, As You Step Outside, which I’d struggled to get hold of (I have it now!).

As the foreword notes, the stories in Oh You Pretty Thing include some happy endings, but I think it’s fair to say that the poignant side of VG Lee’s writing seems more prominent in the short story format. Maybe it’s down to the close focus short stories take on particular aspects of characters, events and so on; the people in these stories are captured at various life points, and quite a few stories involve protagonists going through re-evaluations of their own or others’ characters. The familiar humour and warmth are ever-present, too, gently highlighting the absurdity of every day events.

The stories in this collection mainly read like snapshots of real lives, covering a wide range of emotive events from the minor (being put in awkward situations by friends and neighbours) to the life-changing (confronting perpetrators of past traumas). There are three longer stories within the collection, of which two (The Times of Our Lives and Oh You Pretty Thing) were my favourites. The Times of Our Lives examines various family relationships in such a detailed way that I felt I’d spent the length of a novel with the characters, and captures so many familiar features of families, such as the favourite relative that we’ve only ever exchanged a hundred words with, only meeting at family events. I also enjoyed the recurring character of Deirdre in a couple of the shorter stories, a comic character who creates some horrendous situations yet is relayed with great fondness.

One of my favourite aspects of VG Lee’s writing is the level of detail she puts into settings and contexts; everything, down to furniture, choice of drinks and snacks cues us into the period and the nature of the people in the stories.  As she also notes, the stories are informed by her own experiences and are aimed primarily at lesbian readers. As someone who more or less read my way to coming out, this collection would fit very nicely into the selection of books that helped me along the way (the hostile lesbian gatekeepers in one of the stories stirred up particular memories) and I think that although the stories here could be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in people, it’s true to say that they have a special resonance for lesbian readers.

My Big Weekend of Culture, Part 2 – Bloody Scotland

I first went to Bloody Scotland, Scotland’s annual crime writing festival, last year and was struck by the friendly, accessible nature of the festival and how good-humoured it all was, so this year we bought tickets for as many events as we could fit in an afternoon (taking into account the need to get back from Stirling to Glasgow for our cats’ medication time).

First up was an event featuring Professor Angela Gallop, a forensic science expert who’s recently published a memoir, When the Dogs Don’t Bark. With over 40 years’ forensic experience, it was fascinating to hear her speak about some of the techniques used and her involvement in some high-profile murder investigations. She touched on the issue of funding cuts and the police making decisions to order certain forensic tests in cases, rather than allowing for a more thorough forensic exploration, which seems like a potentially catastrophic direction of travel given some of the breakthroughs she’d described.

Our second event was a panel discussion, A Mirror to Society, featuring authors Paul Burston, Sarah Hilary and William Shaw, grouped loosely on the theme of crime writing with a focus on contemporary issues (I recently wrote a review of Paul Burston’s latest novel, The Closer I Get, which involves a case of online stalking). This was a lively discussion, covering topics such as character-driven versus plot-driven novels, issues arising from characters rather than agendas, the importance of places and communities in setting a story, and the benefits and pitfalls of social media. I really enjoyed the informal discussion and the strong sense of respect between the authors; I can think of at least one televised discussion show that would be improved by having authors rather than politicians as panellists.

Our last event of the afternoon, Partners in Crime, featured two couples who write collectively under pseudonyms: Nicci Gerrard and Sean French who write as Nicci French, and Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman who write as Ambrose Parry. Nicci and Sean described their process of jointly researching and taking it in turns to work on a project, emailing each other writing which the recipient can alter in any way, up to and including deleting it and starting again. This might sound like a recipe for divorce, but Nicci French is such a hugely established name that they’ve obviously found a system that works (they did discuss their ground rules, which included, ‘Don’t call each other an arsehole’.) Chris and Marisa described what sounded like a different division of labour, relying on Marisa’s expertise as an anaesthetist and medical historian and Chris’s status as a bestselling author. They talked about issues such as one half of the duo being more of a planner and the other having a more experimental approach to developing a narrative.

Bloody Scotland  is a great festival, making use of Stirling’s venues including the Albert Halls, just a few minutes’ walk away from the town centre. The festival has been designed with lots of little touches which make it feel like the most welcoming book festival I’ve been to, including the two-minute slots which give up-and-coming authors the chance to read from their work before the main events. I’m already looking forward to seeing the programme for next year’s festival.

My Big Weekend of Culture, Part 1 – Glasgow Doors Open Days

I normally work every weekend, so weekends off involve annual leave and a bit of forward planning. September includes a couple of my favourite annual events – Doors Open Days and Bloody Scotland – so I’d had last weekend booked off for ages.

Glasgow Doors Open Days is a festival involving notable buildings throwing their doors open to the public and hosting a variety of events, including guided tours and the opportunity to have a general nosy at the parts of interesting buildings you don’t normally get to see. This year, I took the opportunity to indulge my love of Brutalist buildings, and visited The Pyramid at Anderston, a former church which is now community-owned and hosts all sorts of local groups. Brutalist buildings tend to be under-loved and a few of my favourites are in a very sorry state, so it was brilliant to see this one being cared for and very busy with a local group when we visited – our friendly guide explained that the building had been saved for community use primarily because it was already well-used and valued. I took a few of my usual unprofessional snaps.

We also visited Govanhill Picture House, an Egyptian-style building which would have been my local cinema but is sadly long-derelict. The building has recently been acquired and is now partly in use as a clothing and fabric store. Part of the building, not in commercial use, was open for the Doors Open Days festival, and proved to be a bit of a bleak sight on the whole – over the years it’s been used as a bingo hall and warehouse, and has clearly had most of its original features ripped out. The good news is that the current owner is liaising with an arts group, with plans to convert the unused space into artists’ studios and a place for film screenings, so hopefully this neglected venue can be returned to a fully-working building again.

Book Review: Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson (Jonathan Cape)

The opening chapter of Frankissstein is a retelling of a famous literary event, the 1816 summer trip to Geneva made by Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley, in the company of Lord Byron, John Polidori and Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont. The relentlessly damp weather results in the party spending a lot of time indoors, drinking and conversing about which is scarier, the dead or the undead, leading ultimately to Mary’s idea for her Frankenstein novel.

In Frankissstein, Jeanette Winterson splices the Mary Shelley story with the story of an up-to-date cast of characters, based on the original (real and imagined) people: there’s Ry Shelley, a transgender male who works as an A&E doctor, Victor Stein, a charismatic professor obsessed with ideas of achieving immortality by turning human brains into data and uploading them, Polly D, a journalist tracking Victor’s movements in the hope of making the scoop of her career, Ron Lord, an unlucky-in-love Welshman turned sexbot entrepreneur, and Claire, an evangelical Christian.

As I was reading Frankissstein, I felt that the novel’s subtitle, A Love Story, didn’t quite seem to fit with the book. Jeanette Winterson can convey human emotion like few writers; Written on the Body is one of my favourite books about love, and even The Daylight Gate (her retelling of the Pendle witch trials for the Hammer imprint) made me cry, but Frankissstein seemed to be an altogether more cerebral reading experience. The most emotionally involving scenes were probably Mary’s accounts of the fates of her children and her marriage to Shelley, but these appeared as fragments throughout the novel. The modern-day relationship between Ry Shelley and Victor Stein I found a bit uncomfortable; Ry identifies as a transgender male and is also a professional medic, roles which never really seem to be acknowledged by Victor beyond seeing Ry’s body as an example of his own theories in practice, and using Ry as a supplier of body parts stolen from A&E. There are hints towards the root of Ry’s submissive behaviour around someone like Victor, most notably in Ry’s reaction to a horrific sexual assault.

The publisher’s description of the novel refers to it as, ‘a love story about life itself’. It’s a pretty pessimistic love story, then, ranging from Mary’s accounts of factory workers finding themselves enslaved to the very machines that were supposed to make life easier, to Victor’s ambition to achieve immortality by becoming disembodied data, and Ron’s assertion that sexbots will become our ideal partners, saving a lot of strife by not having things like personalities or pasts of their own. Ry and Mary, the characters most concerned with human relationships, are presented as fairly powerless in the march towards a future in which human intelligence is superseded by AI.

Ron Lord’s scenes provide light relief and some really funny moments, and when Claire inexplicably decides to go into business with him, producing ‘bots for Jesus’, they decide to leave the usual, ahem, sexbot features in place so that users can choose exactly how to relate to their ‘Christian companion’. In places, Frankissstein makes for a challenging read, such as when a funny Ron Lord scene is immediately followed by the aforementioned sexual assault; I found it genuinely difficult to make the switch from reading comedy to reading something so distressing, but I also felt that this was probably the point (I’m sure we can all think of a couple of prominent men who seem able to present themselves as bumbling funny guys while horrific things happen all around them).

I found Frankissstein to be a clever and complex book, rather than a love story. Like all good literary fiction, it gave me a bit of a mental workout while reading it, and left me pondering issues I’ll still be thinking about long after finishing it.

 

 

 

Echo and the Bunnymen, Kelvingrove Bandstand and Amphitheatre, Glasgow, 8 August, 2019

In a week characterised by thunderstorms and torrential rain, Echo and the Bunnymen have struck it lucky, playing an outdoor gig in Glasgow on the one day with a decent forecast. This sold-out gig is part of the optimistically-named Summer Nights at the Bandstand series of gigs which has featured on the Glasgow music calendar for the last few years. It’s the closest I get to attending a music festival these days, with the pretty bandstand and amphitheatre surrounded by illuminated trees, coloured lights and an assortment of food, drink and merchandise stalls (we choose not to have the macaroni cheese with this evening’s gig, however).

I wrote a few days ago that I was expecting the setlist for this gig to consist mostly of singles and the more anthemic Echo and the Bunnymen numbers, and it’s true to say that a lot of singles have made it on to the list: Rescue, Seven Seas, Bring on the Dancing Horses, The Cutter, Rust, Do It Clean and others. Despite this showcasing of the band’s long and classic-filled career, it strikes me quite early on that Echo and the Bunnymen are still a fairly introverted kind of band to be playing a large outdoor gig like this one and, for the first few numbers at least, they’re doing battle with a restless, chattering crowd – I move around a few times when certain loud conversations become more prominent in my ears than the music, but that’s a rant for another day.

Ian McCulloch moves around the stage like a kind of inverse Brandon Flowers, popping out to the microphone to deliver lines and then returning, his back to the audience, to have a drink or a smoke. I’d wondered how his voice was going to sound; you can hear some changes on more recent Echo and the Bunnymen records, and I remember John Peel even remarking on this when Nothing Lasts Forever came out (22 years ago!). Any fears about this are soon allayed, though; a couple of note changes aside, the voice has the same tone and quality as always.

The crowd finally get properly invested in this gig, ironically, when Nothing Lasts Forever segues into a cover of Walk on the Wild Side, with Ian McCulloch changing the lyrics to include Glasgow references and encouraging a singalong. This is no reflection on the performance and seems much more to do with lots of folk using the summery outdoor setting as an excuse to have loud beery catch-ups. The singalongs continue as the big hits appear – Bring on the Dancing Horses, The Killing Moon – and they bring the main set to a close with The Cutter, which gets the best crowd response of the night.

Although he’s quite softly spoken each time he approaches the mic between songs, there are plenty of signs that Ian McCulloch is in good form and enjoying himself – the local references he puts into lyrics, the towel he throws into the crowd – I’m sure I hear him say at one point that he likes Glasgow best after Liverpool. The encores consist of more singles merged with other songs (Do It Clean somehow manages to incorporate bits of both When I Fall in Love and Sex Machine in the middle). And then, just when it seems it’s all about to end on a raucous, jamming note, there’s one more song, Ocean Rain. There’s no messing about or changing this one; they perform it beautifully, and the atmosphere flips on its head in a completely unanticipated way, leaving me with one of my favourite Bunnymen songs lodged in my head for days to come.

 

Book Review: The Closer I Get by Paul Burston (Orenda Books)

The Closer I Get is based on a tale of online stalking; author Tom Hunter, whose first novel was a roaring success but who has since struggled to achieve anything similar, alleges that Evie Stokes, who started out seeming to be a harmless if over-enthusiastic fan, has been stalking him to the extent of turning up at his flat and posing a genuine threat.

Part 1 of the novel introduces us to the characters of Tom and Evie, using alternating chapters to tell the story from each character’s perspective. While Evie’s chapters focus on her court case for harassment and are told in the first person, using a rather stream-of-consciousness style, Tom’s are set earlier in the story, covering some of the background to the case and told in the third person. This initially struck me as a strange, detached way to cover a court case, as we don’t ever get a blow-by-blow account of the trial itself; however, it soon becomes clear that Part 1 is really setting the scene for the psychological drama to follow.

Things step up a gear as Part 2 of the story begins, with Evie having been found guilty of harassment and placed on a restraining order, preventing her from having any contact with Tom. It becomes immediately clear that Evie has no intention of moving on, as she begins a diary in which each entry is headed with a countdown of the number of days left on the restraining order. Tom, meanwhile, appears intent on getting his life back, temporarily relocating to Hastings and trying to put his writing career back on track.

The story continues to be told from the alternating perspectives of Tom and Evie, and it becomes increasingly clear that they are both seriously flawed characters and that nothing is as clear-cut as it might have been. While Evie is portrayed as vulnerable and damaged (and I think her first-person narration helps a lot in establishing her more sympathetic side), she is also undeniably dangerous and a ‘piece of work’ (most clearly illustrated when she starts to run rings around her beleaguered counsellor). Tom is, in the eyes of the law, the victim of a crime and is shown to have been left anxious and fearful, but he is also narcissistic and has an unpleasant tendency to use people and to bend the truth to his advantage. In the background to the story are Tom’s best friend, Emma, who is portrayed as loyal but increasingly frustrated with Tom’s inability to let things go, and Colin, Tom’s elderly neighbour in Hastings, who is the most straightforwardly sympathetic character in the story.

A lot of the tension in The Closer I Get comes from the sense of things lurking around every corner; it’s hard to work out where the unpredictable Evie is headed, and Tom’s psychological distress means that there are false sightings of Evie at every turn. I’m growing wary of the word ‘twisty’, which seems to crop up all over the place in book reviews at the moment, and in my experience can mean anything up to and including, ‘character transformations for all major characters to accommodate a shocking event in the last few pages’. Thankfully, the plotting in The Closer I Get is much more sophisticated; I didn’t work out what was going to happen in this one but the ending, when it came, was grounded in the characters and in the information we’d previously been given. And I learned a lot more than I wanted to know about how stalkers use Twitter and the internet in general!