Sunday 23 October 2016

On Festen

Last night I saw the Oxford Theatre Guild’s production of Festen. And this isn’t a review. Because 1) there’s not much point reviewing a play once its run has finished, and 2) I know a small but not insignificant number of the cast/creative team, so any objectivity would be hideously out of the window. But it was astonishing - by the end of the show, I saw about four audience members in tears, and most people I talked to afterwards were too shellshocked to be particularly articulate about what they’d seen. And yes, I’ve seen a few professional shows that had this sort of effect on people, but only a few. And I’ve never seen amateur theatre have this effect on people.

I can be prone to hyperbole. And like I said, some friends were involved. But there’s a chance that this was the best amateur show I’ve seen.

Tuesday 18 October 2016

Everything I Saw at Oxjam Oxford Takeover 2016

I think seeing twenty local bands between 2.30 in the afternoon and 11.30 at night was pretty good going, especially given that I took more than an 90 minutes for dinner. I saw the whole set of about a quarter of these bands, but most of the time I stuck around for around 15 minutes before moving on to see what was happening in the next room. I’m not reviewing anything where I saw less than two whole songs.

Wednesday 5 October 2016

Such Hard Blues

Given its history, Nick Cave's Skeleton Tree wasn't the sort of album you could first listen to in the background at work, or in the car. I started listening to it at twenty minutes past midnight, and finished it around one in the morning. Music always sounds best at the border of sleep: vivid images spring up in an almost synesthetic way. The shapeless layering of Magneto's sounds becomes a series of small wooden objects placed on a table surrounded by the dark. The muttering, aggressive drumming in Anthropocene becomes a threadbare black cloud, perhaps made of pencil markings or perhaps of birds, floating above the song's space. The thick, slow synthesizer notes in I Need You become rising columns, made half of light and half of fat metal piping.

Monday 12 September 2016

The Waxwing Slain

I'm a year late to the party with this, but The Beginner's Guide is... a metafictional videogame tragedy about literary theory? I'm so glad that it exists.

The closest thing I can think of to it, formally, is Nabokov's Pale Fire. In both cases, we're being guided through an oblique artwork (or, in The Beginner's Guide, possibly a set of artworks) by an editor and commentator whose conclusions are flawed and whose motives are suspect. In Pale Fire we have a poem with a commentator who might be mad, leaving the whole book as a puzzlebox with no readily available solution. In The Beginner's Guide we have a series of strange, short videogame levels presented and narrated by an enthusiastic fan of their reclusive creator - a fan whose tendentious readings and airy editorialising seem to undermine the original "meaning" (if indeed, there was any meaning) of the levels.

Sunday 4 September 2016


A poem from 2013, written on the notes function of a mobile phone, which is my excuse for the metre sometimes being a bit of a mess.

A dozen miles since dawn in the frozen

Fog, and the weathered Scots in front refuse

To tire. I'm drunk on cold. No: more than drunk,

Already face down, collapsed in gutters

Barely human and barely breathing. Christ,

Can't they understand? It isn't human to walk

This far, this fast, in this tight, relentless,

Brutal chill.

Tuesday 29 March 2016

A Haunted House

When I was a child, Snowshill Manor was an astonishing place. I vividly remember the fleets of wooden ships, the shelves overflowing with theatrical masks and musical instruments, the darkened room full of Samurai armour at the top of the stairs. As an adult, the magic is a little faded. You become more discriminating, notice how the vast collection contains nonsense as well as wonders. You see the acres of bad paintings and the faded stuffed toys. You wonder at the necessity of hundreds of bicycles jammed incongruously into an attic. Beautiful workmanship nestles against rotting kitsch.

You notice other things too.

Sunday 28 February 2016

The 50 Best Songs of 2015

It's rather late this time, but my embarrassingly labour-intensive tradition continues. As ever, songs get better as you go down the list, anything that appeared on an album/EP/single this year is allowed, and 'song' is defined as loosely as necessary. New rules this time round: I've added a 25 minute time limit on music, which means that you don't get an entry for 'Africa Express Presents... Terry Riley's in C Mali' (forty minutes of hypnotic mid-century minimalism, rearranged to be played on traditional Malian instruments). And the list only includes songs I first discovered in 2015: this means there's nothing from Aidan O'Rourke's 'Music for Exhibition and Film' (like the best of Eno's ambient stuff, only with fiddle instead of keyboards; best experienced in cars late at night) or Rhiannon Giddens' 'Tomorrow is my Turn' (American folk with mind-blowing vocals; would easily be in the top twenty of this list). All that stuff is on Spotify if you want to explore further.

Speaking of Spotify, the playlist for this year's list is here:

It's probably been the best year for music since I started doing this list, with the entries at 1, 2, 4, 7 and 9 all coming from records that I've felt are my album of the year at some point or other. And while I usually have to scrabble around to find music for the bottom end of the top fifty, this year I had a shortlist of 65 to choose from. This is all very good stuff.