Thursday 2 November 2017

SPIEL 2017 - impressions

SPIEL, in Essen, Germany, is incredibly weird. It’s a four day festival of boardgames, which gets 180 000 visitors each year, and is spread out across a seemingly endless series of convention halls. It’s like visiting an alternate universe, where boardgaming is the most popular sport in the world: snaking queues to get boxes signed by designers, crowds pushed against tables displaying new releases, huge advertising banners for niche companies, a bus branded with the logo for Settlers of Catan, hotel bars full until late at night with people playing the games they acquired during the day.

It’s a trade fair, really. An enormous shop. I went with my dad and my brother, and we spent most of our time moving from stall to stall, getting demonstrations of whatever the publishers and designers were selling. By the end of the weekend, I’d played 35 games that were new to me. These were mostly shortened versions of full games (the publishers want to demonstrate to as many people as possible; we wanted to try as many different new things as we could), so don’t take these as final reviews. But this should give you a good idea of what they felt like.

Thursday 1 June 2017

American Dragons

America is too big to understand. Even though it has been mapped and analysed to the most minute level of detail, no mind can take in the size of the sprawl between its cities. We can't block out the signs in our heads that read Here Be Dragons.

We can understand England, though. We can cross it in less than a day. We know the names of its smallest towns. We can imagine the roads that link them. If there were dragons in the fields, we would have seen them.

There's no space to add anything impossible in England’s landscapes. Lewis and Tolkien and Pratchett and Peake had to build new Englands in impossible constructed realities. And yes, plenty of Americans have created imaginary worlds too. But they don't have to. There was still room on the map.

Twin Peaks and Pawnee and Gotham City and Metropolis and Miskatonic University can all be reached by road. Look at the impossible towns in John Crowley's Little Big, or Jonathan Carroll's The Land of Laughs, and they fit comfortably into the landscape. You don't need to work at believing that there's space for them.

Try to do this in the UK, and you need to persuade people that there's room for something new. Alice's Wonderland, or any of Gaiman's hidden places, have narrow doors that few know how to pass. The towns in The League of Gentlemen, or Hot Fuzz, or The Wicker Man are protected: outsiders are repelled. It's not like America, where you can just walk in.

(There's an annoying counter-argument to this divide: 19th century realist fiction, which is full of places like Middlemarch and Casterbridge and Barchester and Coketown. Maybe imaginary places are easier to accept on a small map when they aren't impossible. Or maybe England was bigger before cars).

But in America, we’re happy to accept that there might be dragons. Not kept out of sight. Just in a field we haven’t visited yet.

Wednesday 26 April 2017

Ten Notes Towards an Ideal Folk Session

1) At least half of the music in the session needs to be stuff that you're interested in playing; at least half of the rest needs to be music you're interested in listening to.

2) A strong rhythm section is more important than strong tune players.

Friday 27 January 2017

The 50 Best Songs of 2016

This will probably be the last of my fifty-best lists.

When I started writing these, five years ago, most of the bands I was into had either broken up or were well past the period of their best material. I was hungry for stuff I could get excited about, and making a list was simply a way of recording everything I’d found while ferreting about various streaming services – a way of reminding myself how much good new stuff was out there.

But that isn’t really how I’ve been listening to music this year. I’ve had massive re-listens to Bowie and REM’s back-catalogues. I’ve got heavily into the Hamilton soundtrack. I’ve had the first Whiplash-inspired stirrings of a desire to get into Big Band Jazz (Count Basie just might be the answer to all your questions). I’ve seen more live music this year than I ever have before – I’ve seen Springsteen, Regina Spektor, Bellowhead, Frightened Rabbit, plus everyone I saw at Oxford Folk Weekend, Oxjam Oxford and Latitude Festival, plus everyone my band supported.  And this year was the first year I’ve seen a West End musical, or a ballet.

But I haven’t really been hunting down new music. At least not instinctively. Gathering the songs for this list has felt like a duty, sometimes like a slog. And the lack of real new-ness can be seen from the fact that around half of these songs are by artists who have shown up in my lists before, in some form or another.