I spent a good chunk of July rather frantically working on multiple projects (as usual…but more so) but I spent the last week on a well deserved break with my mother-in-law coming over from Germany to visit for the week. A good excuse to do some touristy things…or it would have been had the rain let up a little and had our local castle not been closed for preservation and restoration works.
Instead, we spent the one dry day we had in the garden, tidying up and painting the fence that is being rapidly superseded by our willow hedge. It’s been truly lovely seeing the growth and development of the soil in the garden – which until we moved in had mostly lain underneath concrete slabs. Also wonderful to see has been the number of insects visiting or living in the wee oasis that is our wildflower meadow. It’s a sharp contrast to the mowed lawns or outright fake, plastic grass that typify many other “gardens” in the area (and, if anything, takes even less work to upkeep because not doing much work is the actual point) and a reminder of what we’re trying to save in this world of increasing climate emergency.
In terms of books, I’ve just started reading Kirsty Sedgman’s “On Being Unreasonable” which is probably a good read for political activists in this time of increasing restrictions on political activity. Its core thesis is that “playing by the rules” – whether the rules are actual laws or merely social convention – can lead one into the trap set by those powerful enough to make those rules and to arbitrate on those rules in their own favour. I’ve only just started this one but it’s already got its teeth into me so I’ll let you know next month what I thought of it.
I’ve found myself enjoying a lot of new music this month.
In particular, one of my favourite bands, PVRIS, released their new album Evergreen this month. Even more of a departure from their pop-rock origins into electro and synthpop, they describe their latest release as “a reclamation of control in our post-pandemic culture, posing a complex discussion on fame, technology, spectacle, and female autonomy”.
Meanwhile, although I would not describe myself as a ‘fan’ of Taylor Swift, I still found myself one of millions who signed up for the presale for next year’s European leg of her Eras tour, intrigued at the popularity of the ongoing US leg, and the idea of going to appreciate a good performance if anything. While I was unlucky and missed out on tickets to her three Edinburgh dates next June, the presale having sold out within seconds, I’m still enjoying listening to her latest re-recording of her back catalogue, Speak Now: Taylor’s Version.
Following a copyright dispute with her old record company, Swift has been re-recording her older albums in order to regain ownership of her music. These releases, including previously unheard tracks “from the vault”, have been met with much fanfare, and made her one of the bestselling artists of this century. Speak Now is a nostalgic call back to Swift’s country roots, and the ‘vault’ tracks Electric Touch (featuring Fall Out Boy) and Castles Crumbling (featuring Hayley Williams) have fast become firm favourites of mine.
I was in Sicily with Cristina so I took the opportunity to read Tomasi Di Lampedusa’s great Sicilian classic The Leopard (I’d seen the film but never read the book). It tells the story of the transition from Sicily as independent kingdom to Sicily as part of a united Italy, all through the eyes of one aristocratic family. And I must say it was absolutely magnificent, certainly taking a spot among my very favourite political novels. It tells you a depressingly large number of relevant things about contemporary Scotland too, with its ability to ‘keep everything the same by changing everything’.
Upon return we caught up with one of the best-rated TV series of last year, The Bear, the simple and moving tale of a top chef who returns to run the family sandwich bar after his brothers death. And it is sublime. There are few TV programmes which seem perfect to me, genuinely unimprovable – and this is one of them. It makes you feel everything and you barely notice them making you feel it. I highly recommend.
As always I’m listening to a lot of music – as a bit of a Lana Del Rey fan I am enjoying her new album Did You Know That There is a Tunnel Under Ocean Boulevard and Maps by rappers Billy Woods and Kenny Segal has some wonderful lines in it. A shout out for Scots singer Josef whose album Permanent Damage is smooth, radio-friendly RnB, not my usual genre but a very pleasant listen. But I think, to my surprise, my favourite album of the month is by former Supergrass singer Gas Coombes and Turn the Car Around, an intelligent and memorable rock album for adults – though a mention is also due to glam-rock experiments from Yves Tumour whose new album title is too long for me to type out here..
Something to read: Having spent the last week on annual leave in the South of France, I had ample time to get stuck into some reading, and was really pleased that I was able to finish Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. I’m not a quick reader and have only really in the last 12 months properly got back into reading books so this is a big milestone for me. The book is great, it uses statistics (and gaps in statistics) to illustrate how women are forgotten about in the planning and design of so many things: from daily life and running around with care responsibilities, to impacts on the workplace, to housing, to going to the doctor, to uniform design, to public life and more! Let alone how astounding some of the statistics Criado Perez uses to illustrate her points, the lack of data (and indeed sex disaggregated data) on so many issues blew me away. Even if you know there is a patriarchy, or if you think that women’s equality has largely been achieved, then this book will surprise you just how baked in systemic bias against women is – and to be honest this book makes the case for Common Weal’s National Care Service extremely well.
Something to listen to: Reading last month’s recommendations I do have to agree with Amanda’s Olivia Dean recommendation – my girlfriend and are top fans and Messy surely is a fantastic album. For myself, though, ever since watching Rick Astley (the guy’s got range!) and Blossoms at Glastonbury (on the TV) perform The Smiths classics I have been enjoying going over some old Smiths records. My favourite has always been This Charming Man, but here’s a great clip of them performing There is a Light That Never Goes Out, the crowd is electric: https://youtu.be/wQ0rEnp8kmw
It’s great to see some wonderful songs still being performed, despite Morrissey’s descent into madness, as they are wonderful and express a kind of morbid malcontent with the state of the world that was so vibrant in the 80s indie scene, and that feels incredibly pertinent today – maybe that’s why so many Smiths songs are trending on TikTok? I’m still not sure what line to walk when separating art from artist – can you? There’s a great chapter by Owen Hatherley in Grace Blakeley’s book Futures of Socialism (2020), called A Study in the Politics and Aesthetics of English Misery which I think provides an absolutely spot on analysis of Morrissey as representative of that generation and the pitfalls various ‘radicals’ and ‘rebels’ can become victim to. (Incidentally the rest of the book is a great self-reflection on the successes and failures of the Corbyn project).
Something to do: I totally forgot to include in my last recommendations the Banksy exhibition in Glasgow, Cut and Run. I went in the evening around 9pm I think, and to be honest I think this is the best time to go because it’s still busy enough to not feel the spotlight on you, but it’s not rammed. I love Banksy’s humour, and I don’t think I really knew a lot about the way their work came about so it was a fascinating exhibition for me! It’s also very immersive, and I think given the nature of street art this is definitely the best way to do it. I won’t give anything away, but it’s on until the 28th of August at Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art (a carefully selected venue for reasons explained in the exhibit), so while Edinburgh Fringe madness is going on on the East coast I highly recommend you cut against the grain of the crowd for a trip to Glasgow.
Last month was mostly a well-practiced juggling exercise between sanity, work and entertainment (not necessarily ours) for R and me as the kids are on their summer holidays. As a result, most of what I’ve watched and classified as ‘adventuring’ has not been the most sophisticated, but hey! It has so far kept the peace and that is definitely a win in my books!
Among the interesting highlights of July for me was my involvement in a fabulous stage debut tour for Braw Clan (a Clydesdale-based Scots language-focused theatre ensemble), but that experience was so amazing that it needs its own article. For now I will only say that I am extremely proud of being part of it and that I am delighted at the impressive success of this first tour. I have also been doing my usual foraging (which has come much earlier and full-on this year), but I feel there is not much more for me to say at the moment about it all than what I have already written in these two previous articles: Eat Weeds and I Worry About Nuts .
We did however flee the country as soon as schools were out and treated ourselves to a week’s holiday in Sicily. It was fabulous! It was definitely not the most restful choice, but the price to that sacrifice was a week filled to the brim of exciting experiences, memories, new flavours and cultural enrichment. Luckily for us, we timed it just right and we returned to bonnie Scotland just as the heat started soaring past the 40s. We stayed at the Eastern coast of the Island, in Acireale and Catania. There is history and beauty everywhere you turn and the smells, flavours and sounds are a pleasure to the senses. Our family highlight was a day tour up to Mount Etna and the lava flows. Our tour guide was just amazing and her love for volcanology was infectious. Places like these have a very humbling effect. It is good to understand how small in space and time we are every once in a while.
In terms of recommending something closer to home, though, I will admit I Cassandra-ed myself into carrying too many books with me on our journey this year with the firm belief that I would read them all (last year I had to borrow the teenage child’s material, since I ran out of my own at the late stages of our holiday). However, between all the wonderful adventures, the build-up of exhaustion from the weeks preceding it and the enjoyment of the richness around me, I found myself a provider of cultural tours and transport to unopened books, happy to just sit them on my lap while listening and staring at life around me while instead.
One that I did finish and enjoy enormously was Franky Boyle’s ‘Meantime’. It’s the kind of book that you cannot help bursting into laughter with while reading it. My 10 year old found it extremely annoying, as usually I would have shared bits and pieces of whatever I read with him and more so if they brought out a smile or a giggle, but as you can all imagine, this was just not advisable on this occasion. Boyle is funny. We know that. But in this novel, he also reveals himself as a wonderful observer of human character. For the last few years, he has rightfully gained a good reputation for his sociological and political commentary and some of this definitely seeped into the internal dialogue of his main character, dropping wee jewels of analysis on the social inequality, cultural oppression, political corruption and emotional isolation that plague Scotland. In Meantime, the unlikely hero is a nihilistic, junkie on a downward spiral to self-destruction, his environment pretty much transfers the same traits into a barely functioning urban ecosystem and Boyle skilfully weaves their past, present and an the the omnipresent, overbearing oppression of addiction into a safety net for us to catch all the meaningful existentialism of his characters while they crash into chaos like a wasp in a jar. The plot is gripping and moves you along in a nice rhythm, but as much as I enjoyed it, there is a lot of Franky’s delivery as a stand-up comedian in it. While the characters were fabulously described and carried, I couldn’t help picturing him under a stage spotlight, microphone in hand delivering some of the cleverer lines.
In conclusion, I loved the book. It made me laugh out loud many times, and -without revealing much- it brought me to tears at one point. I actually had to close the book and gather myself. His characters, though a touch on the Irvine Welsh spectrum of exaggeration, grew on you; even the nasty ones, and the plot and its twists made you feel like you were part of the schemes and plans rushing through the pages. I definitely would recommend reading it and am looking forward to discovering whatever he writes next.