Monday 30 January 2023

Every Episode of Cabin Pressure, Ranked

In 1989, Victoria Wood produced a series of six half-hour TV plays, featuring all her classic collaborators - Anne Reid, Celia Imrie and of course Julie Walters to name a few. My dad - the biggest VW fan I know - introduced me to them, and they really are brilliant (here's a link to watch the first one). But almost as impressive is my dad's almost word-for-word recollection every line in every episode.

My equivalent of this is Cabin Pressure, a radio sitcom following the adventures of a tiny charter airline - one jet, two pilots, the CEO and her flight attendant son. For all of his sketch comedy prowess, it's in this show that John Finnemore (also a huge Victoria Wood fan) shows the real subtlety of his craft. I can quote most of the lines before they come, and its delightful familiarity has earned it the status of 'noise that I put on in the background as I fall asleep.'

Before you ask, yes I did just turn 27, and that means it's time to focus on the important things in life. Like putting every episode of my favourite Radio 4 sitcom in order of preference. For reference, each one is named for the destination the characters are flying to in that episode, and alphabetical order roughly matches chronological order.

If you've never listened to Cabin Pressure before, this is my fervent recommendation. (Series 2 is well worth an audible credit, at least.) If you do heed my advice, let me know what you think! And if you're familiar with the show, I'd love to hear what you think of my ranking.

Tier 3

26. Helsinki
25. Rotterdam
24. Abu Dhabi
23. Boston
22. Fitton
21. Johannesburg

At this point, it’s worth saying that there isn’t a single episode of Cabin Pressure that I don’t like. These bottom six episodes are the ones that I don’t instinctively come back to when I want to listen to one episode on its own. Mostly this is because their plots are slightly weaker and less inventive than average, though there are exceptions.

Helsinki, for instance, takes bottom spot because I can’t stand listening to Carolyn’s great nephew Kieran - despite a compelling B plot concerning Douglas’ small-time smuggling business. And while Cabin Pressure’s bottle episodes all showcase Finnemore’s pleasing knack for one-act plays, Fitton is the weakest among them.

Most of series 1 ends up here, but that’s largely because later seasons are an improvement. I'd still urge the keen radio 4 listener to start at the beginning, because early episodes like Abu Dhabi and Boston do an excellent job setting up the main cast and their relationships. It's always a pleasure to hear how the characters grow from colleagues who don’t really like each other to true friends over the course of the series.

Tier 2

20. Edinburgh (Birling Day #1)
19. Wokingham
18. Timbuktu (Birling Day #3)
17. Molokai (Christmas Special)
16. Uskerty
15. Paris (Birling Day #2)
14. Douz
13. Cremona
12. Yverdon-Les-Bains
11. Ottery St Mary

The middle group is made up of episodes that aren’t my favourite, but that I’m always in the mood to listen to. All of the Birling Day episodes are here - a series-long tradition similar to Brooklyn Nine Nine’s Halloween heists -  along with the stand-out episodes from season one.

Excellent guest performances from Helen Baxendale (Cremona) and John Sessions (Douz) keep their respective episodes close to the top of this group, while the revolting posh boy Mr Birling is another larger-than-life jewel in the crown of Geoffrey Whitehead’s BBC comedy roles.

Wokingham, though an excellent episode, loses points for me because I’m not hugely fond of Martin’s relationships with his siblings - though his mum Wendy, played to wholesome perfection by Prunella Scales, is one of my favourite single-episode characters.

By the same token, Yverdon-les-Bains and Ottery St Mary earn the top spots in this group partly because Anthony Head’s recurring character Herc (short for Hercules - after the aircraft, not the hero) is always a welcome addition to the cast.

This middle group represents the real essence of Cabin Pressure. The world’s smallest airline bites off more than it can chew, hijinks ensue, and everything’s wrapped up in time for tea (with the exception of Yverdon-les-Bains, the cliffhanger at the end of series 4). The comedy is bright and original, and even the most fleeting of characters have a depth and warmth that Finnemore always brings to his writing. Each one is sure to brighten any commute, or send this veteran listener to sleep with a smile on his face.

Tier 1

10. Xinzhou
9. Vaduz 8. Zurich (Two-part Finale Special) 7. Newcastle 6. Qikiqtarjuaq 5. St Petersburg 4. Kuala Lumpur 3. Limerick 2. Gdansk 1. Ipswich

And finally, we have the top ten. Episodes that are, in my humble opinion, among the best half hours of comedy Radio 4 has ever seen (or heard, I suppose). This group is mostly made up of episodes from the second and third series, which I think represents the show’s peak - though it was only once I’d put season 2 episodes in each of the top four spaces that I realised which is my favourite. There’s a strong showing from the final series as well, though. Vaduz introduces us to the delightful Theresa, who disappoints only by turning up so late into the show’s run. Xinzhou is a charmingly silly bottle episode, fitting for the final stand-alone instalment before Yverdon-les-Bains and Zurich tie up all the loose ends. And then there’s the finale itself, a heartfelt ending that is far more than a victory lap, and which truly is worthy of all that came before it. Found among these episodes are the show’s most memorable moments. Comedic ones, like Arthur’s struggles to improve his stewarding skills in Kuala Lumpur; and more solemn, character-driven moments, especially between pilots Arthur and Douglas. Newcastle deserves a special mention here, not only for its excellent guest appearances by Mark Williams and Anna Crilly, but also for that of Tom Goodman-Hill, an emergency understudy for Martin who steps into the role with fidelity and aplomb. There is so much more I could mention about this show. I haven’t even mentioned its stunning, star-studded central cast, which includes a very non-Sherlock-sounding Benedict Cumberbatch. But to say any more would only ruin your enjoyment. So please go find it for yourself, and I sincerely hope that you - like myself and Arthur - think it’s brilliant.

Tuesday 27 December 2022

2022: My Year In Music

The thing about priding yourself in your wide music taste is you have to be able to back it up. This year’s list features several artists and subgenres that I’ve come to appreciate only recently, after long periods of indifference or even resistance. That’s why this year’s list features albums from across the last 20 years, rather than any shortage of good music in 2022.

So, as always, enjoy my Christmas present to you all. A feast of highlights from my 2022 soundtrack, and a post-turkey cheeseboard of new music to bring you into the new year. If you want to join in, let me know which artists and albums you’ve discovered or particularly enjoyed this year in the comments.

Blue Weekend (2021) by Wolf Alice

My brother has been trying to make me a Wolf Alice fan since they released My Love Is Cool in 2015, and not without reason. A female-fronted British rock band with a sense of humour, they should be right up my street. But I found their early work a little too atmospheric for my tastes, and I’ve always  been content to shelve them alongside indie one-hit wonders like The Temper Trap.

But everything changed when Blue Weekend attacked. On this record, they experiment with the noise-rock formula that has served them well so far. Where their first albums’ double whammy of mumbled lyrics behind echoing walls of sound failed to inspire me, the imagination and craft of songs like ‘Delicious Things’ and ‘Feeling Myself’ keep me coming back for more.

This is an album of contradictions. Lyrically, tracks like ‘How Can I Make It OK?’ and ‘The Last Man on Earth’ are mired in fragility and uncertainty, yet here the band feel more at home than ever, and frontwoman Ellie Rowsell finally has room to showcase her true vocal talents. A vein of dry wit runs from track to track, yet their music has never felt more urgent and deliberate. The result? A masterwork of 21st Century rock, which has - my brother will be pleased to know - increased my fondness for Wolf Alice’s earlier work as well.

My Highlights: Delicious Things; Lipstick on the Glass; Smile; How Can I Make it OK?

Punisher (2020) by Phoebe Bridgers

Yes, this album did get an honourable mention on last year’s list. But Punisher has been so central a part of my musical landscape this year that it deserves a review of its own. You might think it’s rich for someone who labelled Wolf Alice’s early work ‘too atmospheric’ to be effusing about Phoebe Bridgers, but bear with me.

It’s a testament to Bridgers’ musical skill that arena rock fans like me find themselves enjoying her lilting, low-energy music. The melodies on Punisher are particularly entrancing (epitomised by tracks such as ‘Kyoto’ and ‘Savior Complex’), as is her ability to create drama and tension with the simplest of flourishes. An audience of thousands singing the title track along with her was a highlight of Glastonbury this year, and as thrilling a live moment as any U2 performance.

Not in genre, instrumentation or vibe is this an emo album. Yet it serves a similar function to me, as I imagine it does for many others. Its lyrics are honest, elegiac poems that explore overwhelming experiences. Yet they are bathed in spine-tinglingly immersive musical arrangements - a cathartic paradox that even My Chemical Romance would be proud of.

My Highlights: Punisher; Savior Complex; Graceland Too, I Know the End

Big TV (2013) by White Lies

Dark, baritone-led, post-punk bands are enjoying something of a golden age at the moment, with established acts like Editors and The National perhaps more popular than they’ve ever been. So this was the perfect time to revisit White Lies - a band I hadn’t listened to since the noughties. A friend of mine introduced me to Big TV not long ago, and it’s been a staple of my work soundtrack ever since.

This album is at once familiar and innovative. The singable hooks and potent electronic landscapes of ‘Mother Tongue’ and ‘There Goes Our Love Again’ recall Depeche Mode at their height, and truly live up to the sonic ambition of the record. But this is an addition to, rather than a replacement for, White Lies’ signature sound. The driving, bass-led arrangements and creative drum lines cement Big TV as a rock album - a true space-age rock album.

But despite the cosmic aspirations of the music, the lyrics could not be more earthbound. ‘Getting Even’ and ‘Tricky to Love’ tell of unreliable relationships, while the title track explores what it means to be at the mercy of a materialist society. This, combined with the new-age-inspired music, gives Big TV the feel of a dystopian novel - an album about the present, wrapped in the high-octane trappings of the future.

My Highlights: Big TV; First Time Caller; Mother Tongue; Be Your Man

Sometimes I Might Be Introvert (2021) by Little Simz

Little Simz’ breakthrough album Grey Area was my favourite among the 2019 Mercury Prize nominees. Her vicious, unflinching approach to her craft meant that even as a relative minnow in the British hip-hop scene, she could hold her own with the best. Her next effort is more considered and introspective, but no less compelling.

Lyrically, Simbi is just as sharp as ever. From the outset, she glides effortlessly from armed conflict to class war to the moral battles within ourselves. Opening track ‘Introvert’ sets out her stall clearly, emphasising how inextricable the personal and political are. And this continues right up until the final track, where her personal and professional struggles are woven carefully with nods to other black women who have had to fight for their place in the spotlight.

It is musically where this album surprises and delights the most. Little Simz joins fellow Mercury nominees Kojey Radical and Ghetts in flawlessly blending seductive hip hop with other genres, from the jaunty R&B of ‘I love You, I Hate You’ to the African influences and ska beat of ‘Fear no man.’ It’s a diverse, mature album from an artist at the top of her game, and diverting from start to finish.

My Highlights: Two Worlds Apart; I See You; How Did You Get Here; Miss Understood

A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out (2005) by Panic! At the Disco

One of my musical highlights of the year has been Hayley Williams' BBC Sounds show Everything Is Emo. Equal parts 'Intro to Emo' class and tour of the Paramore frontwoman's varied music taste, it's a pleasing combo of familiar tunes and new music to explore. And while it hasn't found me many new favourites, it has helped me dive further into artists I thought I already knew pretty well.

One such band is Panic! At the Disco, whose early work I knew very little of. Content with singles like 'I Write Sins Not Tragedies' and 'Nine in the Afternoon', I went on to enjoy the opulent, polished pop-punk of their later albums. But little did I know what I was missing. If Vices and Virtues is the high-end music hall of their florid oeuvre, then A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out is the seedy but pretentious speakeasy down the road. And I mean that as the highest of compliments.

Acerbic lyrics fly past at breakneck speed, processing death, jealousy and criticism of their work with eloquent disdain. The punk aesthetic of the instrumentation belies the musical prowess that shows itself in brief a-cappella arrangements and well-chosen electronic elements. Panic! have always been the divas of the emo scene, and this pulsing cabaret of breathless drama and raw emotions is a perfect manifesto.

My Highlights: The only difference between Martyrdom and Suicide is Press Coverage; Nails for Breakfast, Tacks for Snacks; But It’s Better if You Do; I Write Sins Not Tragedies

Honourable mentions: 

  • Of Brine and Angels’ Beaks (2021) by Azure - Voted ‘best unsigned band of 2021’ by readers of Prog magazine, Azure are all the evidence one needs that Prog Rock is alive and well in the UK. Adventure and scope, humour and tenderness - this epic sophomore album has it all, and I can’t wait to see what they have in store. Start with ‘The Jellyfish’
  • Raw Data Feel (2022) by Everything Everything - Beating out Taylor Swift, Harry Styles and Rina Sawayama for my pop album of the year, Raw Data Feel is as enjoyable as it is prescient. Its lyrics (co-written by a custom AI programme) find connection and hope within our demanding, tech-focused world, while addictive and nuanced melodies hold even the shortest attention span right until the end. Start with ‘My Computer’
  • Birds with Broken Wings (2015) by Ben Caplan - A Johnny Cash for the 21st Century, Ben Caplan’s captivating voice guides us through existential heights and lonely nights with equal dexterity. One of few artists truly deserving of the term ‘troubadour,’ his gift for metaphor can spin even the most mundane threads of thought to gold. Start at the beginning

Tuesday 31 May 2022

5 Concept Albums You Might Not Have Heard Yet

Like any other self-respecting rock fan, I'm a firm believer in the importance of the album. A curated collection of nine to fifteen songs is surely a better way to explore a period of an artists' creative journey than a series of disjointed singles strategically released for maximum radio time. The excessively manufactured sound of chart music in my teen years grated on me, not only because I wasn't a fan of the music, but because of the industry's apparent focus on grabbing attention rather than intriguing or delighting.

At the other end of the spectrum is the concept album - a work so intent on intriguing that it devotes a full-length record to telling a brand new story or exploring a single idea in great depth. So, never shy to review and share my favourite music with you, I've compiled five concept albums that I think make the best use of that precious 40-60 minutes. I hope you'll listen along with me.

Clockwork Angels by Rush (2012)

Whether or not the idea originated there, classic rock is the spiritual home of the concept album. Narrative lyrics, an abundance of sci-fi fans and a penchant for long, multi-episode tracks make Prog Rock the perfect genre for records that explore a single story or setting. Rush's 21st Century output is far from their most popular era, but if you're a fan of their more famous concept album - 1976's 2112 - then their nineteenth and final record is well worth a listen.

The dystopia of Clockwork Angels is more steampunk than the space-age 2112, a move reflected in the heavy guitars and synth-shy mix of the more recent record. But familiar hallmarks of Rush prevail through the heavier sound. Clean guitars and soaring melodies represent the hopeful, ambitious voices rebelling against an indifferent, mechanical world that favours chuntering bass lines and walls of distorted guitar. The result is a sound at once radio friendly and deeply atmospheric, a combination especially evident on the album's leading singles - 'Caravan,' 'BU2B' and 'Headlong Flight.'

In every sense, this album is an epic. Sweeping strings on "Halo Effect" and "The Wreckers" make even the more intimate moments feel larger than life. And the lyrics tell a cohesive story, each song accompanied by a short passage in the liner notes of physical releases. While the world in which the album is set may be fantastical, the themes explored could not be more relevant - we are warned not to accept the world as it's presented, to be careful what we believe, and to and to respond to cruelty and misfortune with love rather than violence. A stunning, focused album that makes a fitting final gift to the world from one of its finest rock acts.

My highlights: Caravan, BU2B, The Wreckers, The Garden

Trench by Twenty One Pilots (2018)

Of the albums on this list, Trench definitely has the most comprehensive world to explore. From cryptic online clues before the album's release to the deep lore explored in the lyrics, Twenty One Pilots work hard to immerse listeners in the dystopian city that the record's characters are trying to escape.

On Blurryface - the band's breakthrough album and predecessor to this one - the sonic landscape is deliberately raw and frenetic, as doubts and stresses attack from all sides. The music of Trench, on the other hand, is maturely crafted and cleanly produced. Pilots' famous genre hopping is still present, but the focal point of the album's narrative blends them all into a cohesive sound. The echoing piano, the drum machines, the reggae guitars all march to the purposeful beat of the banditos' attempted escape.

Like Blurryface, this album explores themes of friendship, loyalty and the drive to overcome one's insecurities; but exploring them through this allegorical setting emphasises the universality of these ideas. The banditos are running through the valley of Trench from the prison city of Dema, a reference to the Zoroastrian Tower of Silence, where corpses are placed to be eaten by vultures. But they are not merely saving themselves from their own vultures, they are a supportive collective. "Though I'm far from home," goes the final track, 'Leave the City'. "In Trench I'm not alone." The journey to self-actualisation is fraught with peril, but we can make it together.

My highlights: Jumpsuit, Neon Gravestones, The Hype, Nico and the Niners

Broadsword and the Beast by Jethro Tull (1982)

I was introduced to this album by my dad, and no car journey with him is quite complete without it. Though reviewers weren't kind when the album was released, it's a particular favourite of ours, and we're in good company - Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett puts it at number 9 in his list of favourite Prog Rock albums.

Despite its mixed reception, frontman and flautist Ian Anderson believed this album to house some of the band's best music, and I have to agree. The melodies are compelling and full of imagination, and the 80s synth leads blend remarkably well with Jethro Tull's trademark folky sound. Broadsword is full of moments that I listen out for every time - from the close harmonies in verse 4 of 'Clasp' and the reversed clap sound on 'Fallen on Hard Times.'

So what makes it a concept album? There's no dystopian narrative here, though for folk-rock giants like Tull, a fantasy-adjacent nautical aesthetic is much more apt. It's perfect for exploring the album's themes, too. Despite the lack of story, the ten songs are connected by a desire for the romance of a life of adventure, expressed through maritime imagery. The title tracks 'Beastie' and 'Broadsword' - one upbeat, the other quiet and brooding - both ask for the strength to face our fears head on. "I see a dark sail on the horizon," sings Anderson on the latter track, but he will not back down. "Bring me my broadsword and clear understanding. Bring me my cross of gold as a talisman." Fan-folking-tastic.

My highlights: Clasp, Flying Colours, Slow Marching Band, Seal Driver

Electra Heart by Marina and the Diamonds (2012)

From Ziggy Stardust to Sasha Fierce, character-based concept albums have been around quite as long as narrative or thematic ones, and Marina Diamandis' Electra Heart is an excellent example. Tongue firmly in cheek, she presents a brilliant pastiche of a materialistic wannabe popstar, each song like an entry in her diary that we cannot help but sing along to.

Marina has never been one for lyrical subtlety, but her persona's voice matches this directness perfectly. Through Electra's twisted desires, we see the hypocrisy of gender politics from a disturbingly innocent perspective. "I want to be a virgin pure / a 21st Century whore," she sings on 'Teen Idle'. "I want blood, guts and angel cake / I'm gonna puke it anyway." Electra is capricious, vindictive and vulnerable by turns. But who can blame her in a world that constantly betrays her sense of self?

The music is as much part of the pastiche as the lyrics. As James Christopher Monger says in his AllMusic review, "Diamandis is trying to expose the artifice of big-box pop music by using its own voice." Electra reveals her darkest secrets, and often contemplates her death on this album, yet the music is designed to keep us listening. Catchy rhythmic hooks and layered, Katy Perry-esque mixes will leave you wondering why choruses exploring mental illness and emotional manipulation are stuck inside your head. It's rare that a pop album with this much emotional depth is so accessible, and Electra Heart is a gift that gives more with every listen. 

My highlights: Primadonna, The State of Dreaming, Hypocrates, How to Be a Heartbreaker

Psychodrama by Dave (2019)

Using a concept album to explore an artist's own life is not a new idea, but Dave's first full-length record is a veritable coming-of-age story in musical form. Starting with an exploration of his childhood environment ('Black', 'Streatham'), Psychodrama uses the framing device of a therapy session to explore what it means to be a young person of colour in 21st Century London. With the concise eloquence that we have come to expect from the Brit-Hop scene, Dave contemplates the incarceration of his brother ('Drama'), his own role in consumer culture ('Screwface Capital') and his transition from a working class London boy to an international music star.

Dave's use of double and triple meanings laced with contemporary pop culture references give the lyrics depth without slowing down a fast-paced, indelibly contemporary album. "Only Ls I'm hiding in my closet have a V after," he quips on 'Environment' - some people may be out to watch him fail ('L' meaning loss), but he always bounces back with a win (a 'v'). L and V together stand for Luis Vuitton, perhaps a reference to his rich lifestyle, or to his authenticity and lack of real secrets. From the deft but unassuming lyricism to the varied musical styles, it's no surprise that a debut album filled with so much musical nous earned Dave the Mercury Prize in 2019.

But for me, it's the collaborations where this album really shines - Dave understands the power of a second voice to deepen meaning. Ruelle's ethereal contribution to 'Lesley' solidifies a female presence in this story of an abusive relationship and lends a spine-tingling end to an already haunting track. Dave's back and forth with J Hus on 'Disaster' contrasts brilliantly with the alienating voice of the therapist and his forced optimism. The album even ends with the voice of Dave's brother, calling from a prison phone, truly driving home the reality that this stunning debut is all about.

My highlights: Black, Location, Lesley, Drama

Monday 28 February 2022

Adventures in Authorship #2: A Favourable Failure

By the end of the first post in this series, I was high on enthusiasm for writing a novel that I'm truly passionate about. This second instalment is about my first big bump in the road towards that goal.

After years of wanting to take part in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), I had finally found myself in possession of the perfect combo: plenty of free time in November and an idea for a story that I was actually excited to write.

With a good amount of planning under my belt, the time was ripe to dive in and begin my novel writing journey. But it was my first NaNoWriMo, and I was not prepared for the challenge that lay before me.


A quick refresher for anyone unfamiliar: NaNoWriMo is an annual challenge in which aspiring authors all over the world attempt to stop procrastinating and get on with writing that novel.

The goal is to write 50,000 words in November, which averages out to 1666 words per day. Even in a month where you have a lot of free time, that is a huge commitment, so it's no surprise that I didn't manage it. Having come out the other side of this intense month, I'm amazed anyone ever completes the challenge at all.

I came in at just under 23,000 words, a figure that would have disappointed pre-November Sam. If you'd told me back then that I wouldn't even manage half the word count, I might have sacked the whole thing off. Writing a novel is difficult enough without the prospect of missing your very first deadline by failing to reach an arbitrary word count.

However, lots of people fail NaNoWriMo. And I'm far from the first person to write a blog post about the positives I've taken from failing this gruelling challenge. But the whole point of failure is to learn, and there are lessons that I'll take with me as I continue writing. So here's what failing NaNoWriMo did for me as a writer...

Quantity Before Quality

Though I hate to admit it to myself, I'm a huge perfectionist. I find it hard to call something complete until I know it's as good as I can make it. While this makes me a good critic for my own work, it can really slow me down when it comes to creative projects. And it's definitely not compatible with a time-bound challenge like NaNoWriMo.

It's not that I can't write to a deadline. But it's one thing to come close to a submission date by editing a short story as I write; quite another thing to pore over every phrase of an entire novel. If I was going to come close to 50,000 words, I had to change tack. I had to force myself to do what lecturers and online articles had been imploring me to do for years - I had to grit my teeth and move on even if I wasn't 100% satisfied with what I'd written.

Though it was painful at first to abandon sentences that I felt needed more work, I wouldn't have made the progress I did make without it. But there was another benefit to this approach that I hadn't expected: leaving edits until later has actually improved the quality of my editing.

My preference for editing on the go stems from an aversion to the idea of multiple drafts - why would I completely rewrite something when I could edit what I'm already writing? But it's funny just how much more clarity I feel when giving myself a few days or weeks between writing and editing. Though this might sound like a no-brainer, it's a new discovery for me and I'm going to stick to it.

Living the Literature

While the shift from "edit as you go" to "just keep writing" was a pretty significant one for me, the biggest change in mindset was actually to do with time management.

As I've mentioned on this blog before, I like to structure my creative time. This helps me to make space in my schedule to further my projects, but sometimes I'm just shooting myself in the foot. I don't like sitting down to work on something unless I know I have a big chunk of time to do so.

Once again, NaNoWriMo put paid to my way of thinking. You don't write 50,000 words in a month by restricting your time - you need to have the world of your novel constantly in mind. Waiting 5 minutes at the tram stop? Note down what will happen to your protagonist next. Waiting for a jacket potato to bake? See if you can finish that difficult chapter.

If that sounds unhealthy, I don't mean it to. Of course I allowed myself to switch off when needed. But relegating creativity to long, uninterrupted sessions isn't always helpful. What NaNoWriMo taught me was to be ready for inspiration all the time, and always be ready to make progress when possible. Lots of my best ideas come outside of my writing sessions, and committing them to paper sooner rather than later has definitely paid off in recent months.

A Kick Up the Backside

Even in the optimistic days of early November, there was a small voice in the back of my head that told me I would never hit 50,000 words. What kept me going during the doubt was that, regardless of my total at the end, I would have a significant chunk of my novel written. A chunk that I had previously refrained from getting down onto the page.

It sounds obvious, but once December arrived, it felt so cool to have a big long document full of... my book! Concepts and characters that had lived for so long in my head were now real and telling the story that will eventually become my novel. Though I hadn't even reached half of NaNoWriMo's word count, the feeling of reading through the first chapters of my story was enough to make this technical failure feel like a roaring success.

I always knew writing a novel would be a huge task, but it's only now that I'm facing the enormity of the legwork involved. Even at points where I know what's going to happen, each word still has to be chosen and added to the seemingly endless ocean of sentences.

That's even before considering the huge time commitment needed to write a novel. My free time fluctuates a lot, so it's difficult to build the momentum that was so easy to come by in November.

My journey through the novel-writing woods is far from over. But NaNoWriMo gave me the space and motivation to step into this forest, and has given me the skills I need to stick to the path even when times are hard.

My authorship journey continues, and progress is slow but steady. Thanks for reading, and I'll see you next time.

Friday 31 December 2021

2021: My Year In Music

It's safe to say that music is the glue that holds my life together. As a hopeless internet native, I struggle to turn off the noise at any point - whether it's an audiobook keeping me company during the weekly shop, or the weekly 4-hour D&D stream that gets me through my less interesting work days.

Of course, there are times when I crave a change from the monologue of myriad creators and streamers chattering in my ear. But it's not in silence where I find the calm in my self-created storm (though it probably should be). It's in music that I can truly centre myself.

This year has been as much of a minefield as the last, if not more so. As a glimmer of hope emerges at the end of this temporal tunnel, the highs have been higher, but the disappointments have cut deeper. In these emotionally taxing days, music is less of an escape and more catharsis - a way of confronting and processing the most complex parts of our own minds and of society as a whole.

And boy has the music been good this year. Below you'll find my five favourite albums - in no particular order - that I discovered this year (though most of them were released in 2021 anyway). I hope you'll take a listen, and appreciate their careful handling of often dark subject matter; and the raw, cathartic beauty that makes music so important in times like this.

Not Your Muse (2021) by Celeste

Celeste is one of those artists who I knew about without knowing that I knew about her. Her 2020 single 'Give A Little Love' was the first original to be commissioned for the famous John Lewis Christmas ad, and her powerful voice sings the chorus of 'Stop this Flame' every time Sky Sports Football goes to an ad break. Both songs feature on Not Your Muse, but they barely scratch the surface of this hugely impressive debut LP.

With its songs about co-dependency, one-sided love and self-image, this record explores the relationships between a person and what other people expect of them. Nowhere is this clearer than on the title track. Celeste doesn't want her output to be shaped by the ideas or agendas of others; "I'll hold my pose," she sings, "but I'm not your muse." The result is an album brimming with personality and confidence.

In a shortlist flush with excellent soul and R&B music, Celeste was my pick for this year's Mercury Prize. What made her stand out is her incredible gift for melody. Her voice soars gracefully over the frenetic arrangements of  'Tell Me Something I Don't Know' and 'The Promise', and finds rest on the more assured 'Love Is Back' and 'Some Goodbyes Come with Hellos.' This careful attention to her song's tunes makes this album a joy to listen to from start to finish.

My Highlights: Strange, Tonight Tonight, Tell Me Something I Don't Know, Love Is Back 

Inside: The Songs (2021) by Bo Burnham

Cast your mind back - if you can bear it - to the middle of lockdown. The one where every third Facebook post reminded you that quarantine is an opportunity in disguise, after all didn't Shakespeare write King Lear when he was in plague lockdown? This mix of existential dread and pressure to behave as normal was a unique feeling. And nothing captures it better than Bo Burnham's Inside.

Both musically and comedically, this is some of Burnham's best work. Not only are the melodies infectious and the production stellar, he's also matured a lot lyrically. Even the pure comedy songs of the special's first half have a deeper meaning to them. My favourite is 'White Woman's Instagram', which achieves the perfect balance of poking gentle fun at middle-class white culture, while also sincerely reminding us that the internet can be a place for genuine connection and self-expression.

While the special itself is quite an intense watch (albeit one I highly recommend), the soundtrack works as a slightly rose-tinted version that you can consume without it consuming you. Like many of us during lockdown, Burnham has taken the time to explore complex themes like white privilege ('Comedy'), political correctness ('Problematic') and mental health ('Shit'). He doesn't have any answers, but since the internet has ruined nuanced conversation for everyone, it's refreshing to see one of the world's biggest comics tackle these topics with real maturity and care.

My Highlights: White Woman's Instagram, Look Who's Inside Again, Welcome to the Internet, That Funny Feeling

Daddy's Home (2021) by St. Vincent

Throughout her career as St. Vincent, Annie Clark has gained a deserved reputation for genre hopping. Her influences vary from Kate Bush and King Crimson to Talking Heads and Tool, and her musical ability is unquestionable. But it's perhaps the breadth of her exploration that has stopped me from settling down as a St. Vincent fan. Well, that is until she dropped Daddy's Home earlier this year.

The sheer volume of musical heritage on this album is incredible - though it will come as no surprise to die hard St Vincent fans. From the Sheena Easton tribute on 'My Baby Wants a Baby' to the Floyd-esque psychedelic soundscapes on 'Live in the Dream,' Daddy's Home paints an immersive image of the early 70s, complete with misogyny, grey morality and Clark's own dry wit.

But what's most impressive about Daddy's Home is Clark's commitment to the cause. Not content with simply referencing the 70s with lyrics or music, she transports us wholly to a seedy lounge bar in New York. And just like Bowie and Patti Smith before her, St. Vincent is transformed into her album persona, ready to guide us through this sultry, addictive record.

My Highlights: Live In the Dream, The Melting of the Sun, Down, Somebody Like Me

Come from Away (2017) by the Original Broadway Cast of Come from Away

It's a story you couldn't make up: a tiny Canadian town sees its population more than double when 38 planes are diverted to its airport in the hours following 9/11. But it's also the most human story imaginable - one of courage, cooperation and compassion in the face of unprecedented odds. The 
perfect musical to discover this year of all years.

As Alison Croggon observes in her Guardian review, the weirdest thing about Come from Away is its lack of a hero. No main character to build the narrative around. But actually that's the best decision Irene Sankoff and David Hein could have made. Without a single protagonist, the small town of Gander - with its thousands of new visitors - becomes a character of its own; a symbol of kindness without borders that is the true MVP of this real-life event.

A good story does not a great musical make. There was still plenty that writers had to get right. And boy did they smash it out of the park. With its quirky characters, uplifting musical numbers, and heart-rending moments of empathy, Come from Away is a small story told to perfection with respect, hope and warmth.

My Highlights: Prayer, Screech In, Me and the Sky, Stop the World

Screen Violence (2021) by CHVRCHES

Chvrches' fourth studio album is a thoughtful study on exploitation - from our desensitization to violence on TV (alluded to in the record's title), to the hypocrisy of the male gaze. These themes come to a head on 'Final Girl', the centrepiece of the album. "In the final scene / there's a final girl / and you know she should be screaming," sings frontwoman Lauren Mayberry, while also wondering if she should have "changed my accent / tried to make myself more attractive." Pop culture has long painted women as helpless objects of desire, with no control over their own story. On this tour-de-force of a record, Chvrches are adamantly stating their intent to flip those outdated narratives.

On Screen Violence, the clean synths we associate with Chvrches are cut with something coarser, a darker edge that suits the often dark subject matter. Real piano and guitar sounds come to the fore at key moments on 'California' and 'How Not to Drown', creating a sound that is at once raw and expertly crafted.

Screen Violence was heralded by many critics as a return to form for the Glasgow trio. And, though I was actually a big fan of their third effort Love Is Dead, I sort of know what they mean. Considering the band's musical evolution since their first album, and Mayberry's tireless advocacy for women's rights, Screen Violence feels like a culmination of all Chvrches' previous work; a creative destination that is not to be missed.

My highlights: He Said She Said, California, Final Girl, Lullabies

Honourable mentions:

  • Back In Love City by The Vaccines (2021) - Perhaps this year's best rock album. From the thumping 'Headphones Baby' to the plaintive 'El Paso', Back In Love City shows off the Vaccines' considerable creativity and proves that a great concept album doesn't have to be high-minded.

  • Sky Full of Holes by Fountains of Wayne (2011) - A well-written, radio friendly record that punches well above its weight. Endearing highlights like 'Richie and Ruben' and 'A Road Song' show that this band have much more to offer than 'Stacy's Mom' might make you believe.
  • Punisher by Phoebe Bridgers (2020) - Lo-fi can be a frustrating genre, with disaffected lyrics sung over increasingly similar-sounding music. This album is the exception that proves the rule. Each song is a wistful poem set to restless, flowing music that gets better with every listen.

Sunday 19 December 2021

Adventures in Authorship #1: Learning to Love Writing

When I was a kid, I thought I loved writing stories. But now I know that's not true. I definitely loved reading, and I loved coming up with ideas for novels. I enjoyed building fantasy worlds based on the ones I explored in books, and I liked imagining what characters might get up to there.

But then there would be actual story writing to be done. And writing was hard. I'd start off well, propelled by the thought of seeing my name - or perhaps a unique nom de plume - on the front of a novel on a Waterstones shelf. But by then I'd have another fun project to get excited about. And busy sixteen-year-old Sam would always favour the shiny new idea over the old one that had become a bit of a slog.

That attraction to writing has never gone away. At each point in my life, when I've had the chance to move away from writing, I've chosen to stick with it. It's been the focus of my A Levels, my degree and now my job. But only now, after nearly 26 years of thinking of myself as a 'writer,' am I enjoying the process of writing a novel. So how have I got here?

Embracing Organisation

The closest I'd got to writing a novel before now was 20,000 words of a sci-fi story set in the near, pollution-plagued future. I spent a few glorious months constructing the time between present day and the start of the novel. I divided the world into 'syndicates,' alliances between nations that clubbed together to fight for resources. I came up with new fuels that humanity was now searching for beneath Antarctica. It was a lot of fun.

The problem was, none of this actually prepared me for writing. The story itself was much more small-scale, focusing on a teenage boy who runs away from his mining community. So you can imagine my frustration when, 10,000 words into my novel, this enormous 'planning' document offered no help as to where the story should go next.

Organisation and planning have never come naturally to me. I never felt like I had to do much planning ahead for school work, so why should I spend my free time doing it? I could only enjoy planning when it didn't feel like planning, and that definitely hindered my staying power when it came to crafting a complex narrative.

As I made my way through A-level and then undergraduate English, I became better at writing long-form prose, and even started to enjoy writing it. And if I could have fun planning and writing complex essays of literary criticism, surely I could give novel writing another go. But, in some ways, my degree in English with Creative Writing was the biggest hindrance to my novel ambitions so far...

Freeing myself from the 'Creative Canon'

Hemingway. Carver. McCarthy. It's not that my creative writing syllabus was boring, but I think I could safely call it limited. It's not that they forced us to write in a particular style, but the modern American short story dominated our lectures and seminars.

I'm grateful for the lessons in concision and subtext that these authors have taught me, but just because short stories are quicker to write and mark than novels, doesn't mean one movement is any better than others. Both Fantasy and Sci-fi have an established tradition of short stories. But did we study Asimov? Chiang? Le Guin? If we did, I don't remember. 

No one told me I wasn't allowed to write fantasy or sci-fi, but I certainly wasn't encouraged to. Every time a tutor would suggest a competition or magazine to submit our writing to, I would find no sci-fi or fantasy in the submission guidelines.

I enjoyed writing in the way we were taught at university. Flash fiction - extremely short stories that capture a moment in fewer than 1000 words - was a particular favourite of mine. But I still hadn't found a home in prose. 

This academic bias against genre fiction stuck with me after I graduated. The fantasy story I wrote for my dissertation was chosen for publication in the English School's academic magazine, and yet I still convinced myself that I had to set my stories in the real world. I found myself toiling for weeks over realist or magical realist stories, just so I could have something I wasn't really proud of rejected by a magazine.

It was time to take stock. I still had lots of other projects on the go. So what writing was I really enjoying right now? And how could I turn it into the basis for an enjoyable writing experience? The answer will surprise very few of you, I'm sure.

Swapping Realism for Role Playing

As someone who has always enjoyed worldbuilding much more than writing, running role playing games (RPGs) is the perfect writing task. I come up with the world and ideas for what to do there, and then I get to watch my players and their characters do the actual storytelling.

RPGs - especially Dungeons and Dragons - is one place where my creativity has never had to stray beyond the fantasy and sci-fi elements that I enjoy crafting so much. The setting where I run my games is entirely my own - could this place and its characters be the place where I can find my novel-writing mojo once more?

Of course, it wouldn't be as easy as adapting my D&D campaign into a story. I've read those books and they're not great. RPGs are fun because you get to be the main character, and simply watching those adventures play out isn't likely to be nearly as interesting.

But here was an original fantasy setting that I had been building slowly, over many years. And I finally had the germ of a story I could set there, something quite apart from my own RPG games. Considering how little I've been enjoying prose writing lately, it was definitely worth a try.

Six months later, I'm having the most fun I've ever had writing a novel. I've been able to combine the planning and discipline I learned at university with the love of Fantasy that I gained long before my degree. The resulting combo is a story that I'm enjoying writing, and that I'm already quite proud of.

This post is the first in a new series, plotting my progress as I head towards completing my first ever novel. I'm only really in the early stages right now, but I have the momentum, drive and most importantly the inclination to press on.

My writing education convinced me that a certain style of writing would yield the best results. But, if my time as an English graduate has taught me anything, it's this: Only a writing experience that I enjoy will yield good writing; and it's only in writing things that I'm truly proud of that I will fall in love with writing once again.

Sunday 6 June 2021

The Thursday Murder Club: An Antidote to Crime Fiction

It's always amazed me that there are people who read nothing but crime fiction. Though I make a point of reading books from many genres, crime is one section I never really visit on my almost weekly trips to Waterstones.

I can see the appeal, of course. You know what you're getting with a crime novel, especially if you're committed to a single author or one of their series. Detective is having some personal trouble which they have to put out of their mind while they solve a murder or missing persons case. Personal trouble keeps haunting the detective, but in a useful way that somehow helps them solve the case and make an emotional breakthrough at the same time.

But to me, this formulaic approach brings little comfort, especially in book form. I've been known to enjoy the odd police procedural, but it's the ingenious solutions of David Renwick's Jonathan Creek and the psychological focus of CBS' Criminal Minds that have appealed to me - quirks that counterbalance what can often be quite unimaginative writing. When it comes to books, I want a challenge; something that makes me think, or laugh, or cry.

Every so often, I try to circumvent my prejudice against the genre. But while a few books have slipped through the cracks, they've never been the complete package. In Charlaine Harris' Lily Bard Mysteries, the the charming cast of small town residents is more compelling than the mysteries themselves. Conversely, the non-crime-related events of Ian Rankin's Rebus novels feel more like filler than insight into the characters.

So it's unlikely that I would have bought The Thursday Murder Club for myself - even as a fan of author Richard Osman's many TV and radio exploits. But thanks to a delayed delivery, I received it last year as an interim Christmas present. And with all the fantasy and sci-fi on my TBR this year, I thought "why not break it up with some crime?"

I'm very glad I did - it's the crime novel that has challenged all my misgivings about crime novels.

Giving Up Trope

No matter how hard you try to defy them, it's hard to avoid the filing cabinet full of well-worn clich├ęs and stock moments inherent to the crime genre. The Thursday Murder Club is no exception, but I've never read a book that subverts them in quite such a novel way.

We've all read the scene where the lead detective, having exhausted all official leads, begrudgingly consults a local organised crime boss as a last resort. Well, what if that informant was really likeable? Someone you'd visit for a drink or a slice of home-baked cake? Well, that's the Thursday Murder Club. 

Four golden oldies living in a retirement village sit at the centre of this murder investigation. Each one has a unique charm and a rich inner life with which we don't often credit people of their age. Even the hackneyed good-cop-bad-cop routine, manages to find new life when attempted by semi-famous unionist Ron and retired psychiatrist Ibrahim; and readers may snicker with delight any time Elizabeth makes use of the global contacts from her apparently classified past.

Making these four pensioners the protagonists of the story is a stroke of genius from Osman. Police investigators Chris and Donna are almost as likeable, but part of me wonders if Osman has deliberately made them a little bland; subtle pastiches of professional detectives who, in any other crime novel, would be the main characters.

Seriously Funny

A particularly tiresome trope of the crime genre - perhaps more closely associated with American writing - is the dry, sarcastic humour that detectives apparently need to display in order to pass their final exams. Well-deployed, it does lend a certain gravity to a character, but like many crime tropes, the depths seem all but plumbed now.

It was very refreshing to find little of this quippy, self-congratulatory comedy in The Thursday Murder Club. The humour - of which the book is full - has a much more genuine edge to it. And - from Joyce's misadventures with technology to Elizabeth's motherly concern for PC Donna's personal life - it's firmly rooted in the characters.

But it's not just where our own observations of older people are confirmed that humour is found. It also appears on the many occasions where they surprise us. We're heading into spoiler territory so I won't give too much away, but don't be surprised if you end up believing that these four septuagenarians could do almost anything if they set their minds to it.

Wheels in Emotion

Finally, it is where most crime novels disappoint me most that The Thursday Murder Club really impresses. From Kinsey Milhone to Sam Vimes, every hard-boiled detective is battling with inner trauma, but it usually plays second fiddle to the crime plot. Either it's an unnecessary distraction to be filed away until it's plot-relevant; or it represents some character growth the protagonist needs to face.

This novel, though, is concerned with the realities of later life, and so the relationships and emotional stress can't help but take centre stage. Elizabeth's dementia-suffering husband Stephen, Joyce's attempts to coax Bernard Cottle out of his shell, and Ron's fluctuating relationship with his son; none of these are lessons they need to learn or annoyances they wish to avoid. They are insights into the lives of humans who - in spite of all presumptions - still have so much left to give.

Such well-realised elderly protagonists bring with them the wisdom of age. Their characters are fully developed, and what insecurity remains is channelled toward others. Their emotional intelligence is what helps the Murder Club to get ahead of the police investigation at crucial moments, and also what brings real heart to the story's more tender moments.

In short, I highly recommend this book - to lovers and haters of crime fiction. Though it opens with the gentle ease of the man sitting behind the desk on Pointless, it's a truly moving story with laughs in its belly and love at its heart. And in September, after many years of failing to do so, it looks like I'll finally be buying the sequel to a crime novel.