Category Archives: Existentialism

Freshers’ Week

Oh Freshers’ Week. I’ve seen… 15, I think, of you roll by now. One was mine and 14 have been other peoples’. Even though that first one is almost half a lifetime ago now, I still recall it vividly: I remember being left alone in that brown room with a duvet and some posters and a stereo for company. I remember standing around, hundreds of us, outside the Student Union in light drizzle on the first Sunday night, no one sure what was happening, someone suggesting people go into town to find a nightclub, and that seeming like the worst idea in the world. I remember Jon (still the worst human being I’ve ever met), who seemingly had no possessions other than the clothes he stood in, writing the words “YOU FUCKING CUNT” on a hundred pieces of paper and Blu-Tacking them up all over his room like some profane wallpaper. I remember him meeting a girl he’d been at school with, neither of them knowing each other well or knowing that they were coming to the same third-rate university, and them ending up in bed together inside a week, even though she swore she wouldn’t, because, presumably, in those strange, disorienting first few days and weeks, you will cling to anything familiar and reassuring, no matter what. Or did she know Dan from school, and he introduce her to Jon? I don’t think so; Dan was Welsh and they were from Eastbourne. I remember Adam, with his Versace jeans (I had never seen anyone wear Versace jeans before; didn’t know what the logo was), and his enormous cathode ray tube television set, which literally filled his entire desk, preventing him from sitting at it and opening a book. I remember Ginger Nick, with his separates hi-fi and his hip-hop CDs. I remember Dave, from Birmingham, downing a pint in the kitchen and then bringing it up, seemingly still 100% lager, straight back into the stolen pub glass. I remember the guy from Crawley who owned a vintage MG back at home and whose girlfriend wasn’t here and who didn’t seem to deal with things very well. None of us seemed to deal with things very well. Sometimes I think that 18 and 19 year olds today are far more clued up and sussed out than we were. But I doubt it. I remember the delicious, disconcerting freedom, the distance from home, the not wanting to leave campus in those first days because, as strange and unsafe and uncomfortable as it felt, at least I had a safe space within it, however small. I remember not taking part – in societies, the students’ union, the student paper, in studying itself, much of the time – and feeling like I didn’t want to. I remember the incident in the kitchen one night, when I’d been ‘home’ (in the halls of residence flat) reading stuff for a lecture early next morning, and somehow, due to some kind of racial altercation with some guys outside, someone from the flat next door put his hand through our kitchen window whilst drunkenly trying to punch someone on the other side. I remember stemming the blood flow and picking shards of glass from his palm and getting someone to phone an ambulance. I’m sure I’ve written this before in an attempt to exorcise it and make myself feel like I had a more worthwhile university experience. Every time I think about it I’m transported to a set of emotional memories that belong to a different person, a less happy person. I remember a trip home, a desperate, expensive train ticket and a five-hour journey, a night out with whatever friends were left, everything that ought to have been familiar feeling unreal, as if it had slightly tilted off its axis, uncanny and uncomfortable when it should have been reassuring. I remember Magnus the mature student, an impossibly old 28 or so, who had rented a house with his wife, who I could talk about music with. I remember Friday afternoons in The Charles Bradlaugh with Olly and James and Ben and whoever else, reading The Guardian and drinking Guinness. I remember a drama lecturer telling me that after 30 years he had a particular “academic sense of smell” and that I had potential, or likewise, which is what teachers had been telling me, and I’d been ignoring, since I was about 10. I remember it still being flattering. I remember Andy, who was a few years older than us and local. I remember Kazi, who asked me to manage his rap group because I knew who Public Enemy were. I remember Emily and James and the girl with curly hair whose name I can’t recall (Liz?). I remember Ben, and the other Ben, and the third Ben, doing Fine Art. I remember Cat. And her friends who Olly was always in love with. And the two Welsh guys who looked alike and drank together and did their washing, drunkenly, by stealing a shopping trolley and piling their clothes into it and putting it in one of their en suites. I remember the nightclub on three floors – sofas downstairs, dance in the middle, indie and cheese on top – that might have been called The Lounge? I remember buying a Nick Cave album in a tiny independent record shop. I remember John the Geordie, who gave me a Richard Dawkins book, and whose accent was so thick that people thought he was Irish. I remember bumping into James about 6 years after graduating, randomly, in Piccadilly Station while I traversed London after a conference I’d attended. I remember thinking “what are the odds?” I remember Ben asking me if I wanted to go to London with him to take some diamonds across town for his uncle, or something. I remember drinking leftover absinthe at two in the morning rather than write an essay. I remember playing one game of football, scoring a nice left-foot volley that took everyone but me by absolute surprise (because why is this geeky lost guy even playing football) and then not playing again for three years because I hated the football guys on my corridor so much. I remember supporting Roma because the only free-to-air football was Football Italia with James Richardson. I remember evenings buried in the computer room, hours wasted being angry at people on the internet in forums and chatrooms, minidisc player glued to me, convinced the £250 was worth it if I spent 10 evenings spending no money rather than spending £25 on 10 nights out. I remember walking across campus, across town, in the middle of the night, melting my eardrums to Ride or Idlewild or Orbital or whatever. I remember riding through the nature reserve at the back of campus. I remember discovering red wine and jazz and sex and cooking and not understanding or knowing what to do with any of them. I remember seeing a fox on a path in the middle of the park as I walked home at 5am, looking it in the eye. I remember the hoarders who lived next door and the crazy guy three doors down who emptied his house and sold all his possessions at boot sales. I remember buying a hi-fi for the first time; a mobile phone with a contract for the first time; salmon for the first time; chorizo for the first time; a DVD for the first time. I remember going in HMV and Virgin so often that the staff would say hi to me. I remember Spinadisc, and returning a couple of years after graduating and finding it had been turned into a Connexions centre for young people to find training and jobs. I remember not going to graduation. I remember begging to move flats because the football guys on my corridor hated me as much as I hated them (or did they?). I remember the first thing Olly said to me: “I bet you’ve got a wicked stereo”. I remember discovering that Graham was into archery and Charlie sometimes took his kids to McDonalds “because it’s easier”. (Idealistic me thought less of him for that; now I understand.) I remember Mike leaving to go and teach at a better university and feeling like we’d lost something. I remember Xavier and the postgrad with long hair. I remember people turning to each other and mouthing “what the fuck” during initial lectures on critical theory and Marx and semiotics and ideological state apparatus, and me thinking “yes”. I remember Charlie playing the video for “Come To Daddy” in a lecture. I remember getting half a dozen firsts in a row for Philosophy essays. I remember Charlie reading Deleuze out loud and proclaiming it genius even though he didn’t understand it, and thinking this was bullshit. I remember an exam on a Saturday morning in a sports hall that wasn’t even on campus. I remember feeling like it would never end. I remember modules in photography and postmodernism and aesthetics and moral philosophy and directing a play that scored a (really) high first for everyone. I remember being baffled that anyone would stay in that damn town after finishing. I remember rushing home every holiday. I remember drinking alone. And with John. And with Olly and James. And with Ben and Cat. And with Magnus. And with Tom. I remember meeting school friends in the summer and talking about what we were studying and each of thinking we were studying the most important thing ever. I remember kicking down Eli’s door with our landlord because he’d moved out without telling us and left it locked. I remember Liz not turning up for the third year because she’d transferred to another university. I remember Emily telling me that “even your anorak is cool”, which just goes to show that, even if you feel like the most uncool person ever, someone else probably thinks you’re not. I remember thinking my hair looked normal in that first term after I’d dyed it back to brown over the crazy bleachjob I’d had done that summer, only to go home halfway through term and see my reflection under non-striplights and realise I looked ridiculous. I remember wearing flares and a giant corduroy coat a lot. I remember the guy who used to walk a ferret near where we lived in second year. I remember sleeping through a raucous results party. I remember the guy who’d been in our flat the year before coming round on our first night there to sell us drugs. I remember Biggles and Caroline and Chico and Chippy and Miriam and playing Playstation in the kitchen and the guy with badly dyed indie hair (like I can talk) and the Spanish girl and the guy from Exeter who I swear I saw the other week and Tom and Pin and the other Adam who was almost a bit goth and Luke who lent me a Fugazi album and drinking in local pubs that didn’t like students and seeing Coldplay in a tiny venue in town way before their first album (double-header tour with Terris) and going to London and Wolverhampton and Leeds and Blackpool and loads of other places for gigs and album launch parties and waking up in Kingston and getting lost in Brixton and shaving my head and growing my hair and dancing and laughing and drinking and writing some essays and going to some lectures and Graham saying something about the 60s being made up by 100 people in London and his t-shirt of him at the statue of Karl Marx that he wore every week and which got progressively dirtier and dirtier and podiatry and leather technology and occupational health and the library being massively expanded one summer and realising all the buildings were named after nearby villages. I remember having a good time, some times. I didn’t think I’d remember much.

That’s OK

Some words about parenthood, three months in.


By and large social media is a highlights reel or a trailer for how your life is. And we all know that we can be duped into seeing a crappy film by a fancy trailer that edits out the shit bits. By extension, we must also all know, surely, that the person most conspicuously having an easy time of it also has days when they get shat or vomited on or screamed at or woken six times in a night by a baby who just wants to sit on their boob and not actually eat, or days when they feel absolutely isolated and incapable and alone. And that’s OK.

To put it more simply, “There are days when I eat a whole pack of Oreos and cry at you when you get home,” said Emma. And to be fair they’re pretty few and far between – which is great – but they do happen and we should acknowledge that.

We’ve been very lucky – Nora is a pretty smiley, contented, happy baby, and she came into the world, from conception through pregnancy to birth, with relative ease – but she’s also clingy, and sometimes decides that sleep is for wimps, and she’s alert, which means she doesn’t want to be left alone, and she’s also a baby, and babies are gross and disgusting and full of congealed milk and yellow shit which quite often leaks out of both ends at once. And that’s OK.

“I think it’s about how you perceive it. Some people might be going through the same things that we are right now and really struggle. And I’m really trying, which isn’t like me [except it is, Nick], to just accept this and be lead by her.”

We both spend a lot of time trying to put ourselves in Nora’s shoes, as it were; what is she thinking and perceiving right now, how is she feeling, what does this mean to her? And this is incredibly difficult because Nora, three months ago, started from a base of absolutely nothing; no physiological, emotional, or intellectual experience at all. As smiley as Nora is a lot of the time, the entire world is still entirely new to her, and that means it is baffling, and terrifying, and confusing sometimes. And brilliant at others. But when she wakes from an afternoon nap and immediately screams as if she’s terrified, and nothing but loud Aphex Twin and bouncing will calm her, that’s OK, because she’s a baby and the entire world is entirely new to her, and wouldn’t you scream, too?

There are no magic bullets here. If there was ‘one weird old trick’ to getting your baby to sleep / eat / stop crying / lose weight / gain weight / walk / sit up / beg / roll over [delete as appropriate] then the entire world would all be doing it and there’d be no enormous industry selling books (or websites, or apps, or whatever) of advice to paranoid new parents. But every baby is different, and every parent is too, and that’s OK.

This post is pretty unfocused and rambling, and the paragraphs don’t necessarily follow on logically from each other, and that’s OK too; it’s not easy to concentrate on anything for long when the baby monitor might explode. I’ve barely written anything in months – even before Nora arrived – but I’ve had it relatively easy. I’m sleeping in the spare room (so I am actually sleeping, almost as much as I used to), and I still manage a bike ride most weekends, and I’ve had record club a handful of times. But Emma’s life has been turned upside-down as mine’s just been tilted.

“I can’t believe we talked about getting her adopted, and we really meant it [we did!]; looking back she wasn’t ever that difficult.” She wasn’t (mostly still isn’t) a crier, and she slept relatively well early on (even if that’s not the case right now), but in those first few weeks you simply don’t know what the hell is going on or how to deal with it or who/what your baby is, and it does feel like a massive, idiotic mistake, and like you should have bought a house with one less bedroom and a bigger garden and wouldn’t a dog be easier?

“I guess feeding was an obvious issue; she always fed well, but… I was in fucking agony.” We had to get Nora’s tongue-tie cut twice, and she still sometimes causes Emma a lot of pain through latching lazily or coming on and off the boob absent-mindedly (absent-mindedly? She’s a baby!).

Before Nora arrived I kind of expected – and this is ludicrous, but it’s the way culture teaches us, through both religion and science (evolution) to think about ‘progress’ – that there’d be a kind of linear upwards curve in her development and sleep an so on; that is, that she’d get a little bit better every day. But that’s nonsense, and if there is a graph to be plotted then it’s a jagged mountain range of a line, which, yes, is ascending, but with crazy, almost unpredictable troughs caused by developmental surges and growth spurts and “the 4-month sleep regression” (how terrifying does that sound?). And that’s the same for everything. Evolution took millions of years to get from amoebas to ragdoll cats, and, you know, there were dinosaurs and dodos and duck-billed platypuses and all sorts of other miss-steps and oddness en route. Why should babies be any smoother? And that’s OK.

“I know you said [this post] is disjointed but to me it feels really disjointed.” And that’s OK, because I think that’s kind of my point, and the medium is the message, or something. Em’s read plenty of stuff – blogs, books, forums, etc etc – about parenting, because she just naturally does research things without thinking, but we’ve both tried not to read too much stuff (I’ve been very successful at this, as usual), because we want to just kind of work off instinct as much as we can. “Sometimes I let this stuff [points at phrase ‘blogs, books, forums, etc etc’] cloud my judgement, but I’m trying not to. I’m trying to just go with it. Not worry about routines and sleeping through the night and all the things that books and other people put pressure on you to do.” And that’s OK.

On bicycles

I can still remember the first time I cycled from Dawlish to Exeter. I was 22, and, like most feats of vague idiocy at that age, it was inspired by a girl. I’d met her a week or two earlier, and she worked in a record shop in Exeter. The bike was a red mountain bike that I’d bought for £150 as a student so I could get from campus to campus more easily. The ride to Exeter, 13 miles each way, seemed enormous and insurmountable and insane. I’d never done it before and didn’t know where to go; I just had a vague inkling that you could get all the way up a trail alongside the river Exe. I didn’t even know Exeter well enough back then to know how to get from the river to the city centre. The things we do for girls we’ve just met, eh?

I think the ride took me about two hours each way, which makes me laugh these days; I’ve hammered down the main road to Dawlish in about 45 minutes. But back then, on that sunny Saturday, it felt like the most amazing adventure, venturing into uncharted territory both literally and emotionally. Crazily, although it was the start of a relationship – thirteen years later we’re married, own a home together and are expecting our first child – it wasn’t the start of a hobby; the bike went in the garage not long after and rusted away for years. It wasn’t until we lived in Exeter and got married, nine years hence, that I got a new bike and was slowly, surely, bitten by the bug.

On Sunday afternoon we were driving to Dawlish and passed, down Barrack Road, a gang (for want of a better word) of boys – teenagers, perhaps 15 or 16 – out on their bikes together. Four on road bikes of various kinds – an old steel racer, a tourer, a modern compact alloy frame, etc – and one on a mountain bike. No helmets, no lycra, no cleats; just jeans and trainers and t-shirts and a backpack each, heading out on the first day of summer for an adventure, weaving across each others’ paths, laughing, talking, pedalling like mad for a split second and then freewheeling downhill. They looked like they were having fun, and I was far more jealous of them than of any Sunday morning peloton I’ve seen hammering the tarmac to Tiverton or down the Teign Valley.

It’s that sense of freedom, and adventure, and excitement, that I really love about cycling; it’s why I feel far more inspired by John Prolly’s Instagram feed than by the Tour de France. It’s why, no matter how much I love my racing bike, I love my steel cross bike more, even after only two and a bit weeks. It just feels like a different kind of riding; partly because ramping off a kerb or swerving across a grass verge or heading across a gravel trail isn’t an issue at all, but more because… it just makes me want to explore, to turn down roads I’d otherwise ride past, and the knowledge that I can makes me approach riding differently.

So this summer my priority isn’t hitting personal bests, or increasing mileage month-on-month; it’s recapturing that feeling I got when I rode to Exeter to see Emma all those years ago, about getting a hint of that euphoria those boys were heading for last Sunday as they freewheeled down the road towards wherever it was they ended up. About enjoyment.

Since 2006

A lot of stuff has happened over the last eight years. On a personal level, we bought a flat, lived in it for five years, sold it, and bought a house (which we’ve lived in for more than a year). We got married. My brother and his fiancé had a baby. Four of my best friends and their wives had babies. More colleagues than I can count have had babies. Another friend got married twice and divorced twice. I took up cycling, bought three different bicycles, and pedalled more than 7,500 miles. I got three new jobs, and start a fourth new job in April.

Les personally, some significant cultural figures died: Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussain, Michael Jackson, Jimmy Saville, Nelson Mandela, and Margaret Thatcher, amongst others. And the News of the World. And Oasis. And Woolworth’s. And smoking in public buildings.

Globally, culturally, technologically, and politically the world has changed beyond measure: we’ve endured a global recession inspired by dodgy banking and insane housing markets; the Arab Spring; the rise of social networking, mobile internet, smartphones, high-speed broadband, and on-demand TV – in 2006 YouTube and Facebook were tiny start-ups and Twitter didn’t exist – have changed the way we communicate with each other and consume media in absolutely unimaginable ways; 3D films made a comeback; Man City won the premier league; Arsenal didn’t; we didn’t elect a coalition government but got one anyway; America elected a black president who prefers assassinating people to starting wars…

I could go on.

The point is that things are different. I’m not the same; neither is the world. Nothing is. Existence is a process, not a static state.

A year in the saddle

This time last year I’d ridden a total of 15 miles, which was a New Year’s Day figure-of-8 through Rockbeare and Broadclyst that took about an hour. I rode again on January 5th; a regular 15-mile loop down to Lympstone, over Woodbury Common, and back into Exeter down the Sidmouth road.

And then I stopped.

I rode once in February – a variation on the Woodbury Common loop on the 16th – and then I didn’t ride again until April 20th.

In truth, I hadn’t really ridden since late October 2012. That month I rode three times, totaling 64 miles. The September I’d ridden three times, totaling 110 miles. August was five rides and 140 miles. I’d ridden 250 miles in July, 165 in June, 220 in May, 151 in April, 180 in March, 100 in February, 240 in January. What happened?

Weather happened; it rained in 2012 like I’ve never known it rain before; twice we took a week’s holiday to ‘staycation’ – looking for houses, tending our allotment and bike riding was all that was on our itinerary – and each time it rained all day, every day. Our vegetables died, the allotment flooded. There are only so many sodden bike rides one can stomach.

I’d ridden more than 3,000 miles in 2011, having got a bike for the first time since I was a student the year before. A simple, solid commuter, that I took to hammering down cyclepaths with in the evenings, which gave way to a cyclocross bike a year later, which I put skinny tyres on, made as aggressive as I could, would take over Dartmoor whenever I had the chance, rode 100 miles on in a day with Peter one (the only) hot July day, just to see if we could.

But in November 2012 we moved house – to a house, a proper, sensible house, from our awesome, cool flat in the desirable part of town – and the bike went in the shed and didn’t come out again. The move was expensive and protracted and stressful, and I couldn’t face cycling for a while; things needed decorating (most of them still do), and a year of rain with barely any summer had taken its toll. Once you fall out of a habit, it’s hard to get back into it.

I rode 80 miles last April, 70 in May, and 23 in June, despite the weather being better. Cycling didn’t seem like something I did anymore.

But then something changed. On a prosaic level, I took my bike to get a service, and it had a new bottom bracket and headset fitted, and became a pleasure to ride again. I cycled 300 miles in July, 300 in August, bought a new bike (a proper road bike) on September the 1st and rode 300 miles that month, too. The light faded and I managed 240 in October, 180 in November.

In the last 28 days I’ve ridden 344 miles. 225 or so of those have been since Christmas Eve. I’ve already done as many for this January as I did in January, February, and March or last year added together. I intend to keep it up.

What else changed? I bought myself some cycling indulgences to encourage me – a new helmet, new shoes, a new jersey, prescription sunglasses, a softshell – and though none of these on their own were amazing revelations (bar perhaps the sunglasses; how have I managed 20+ years without?), added together (with the bottom bracket and headset too) and considering the glorious summer we enjoyed, the aggregation of marginal gains made a massive difference to how it felt to ride.

It reminds me a bit of how I felt about music through 2008 and into the start of 2009; I was tired, alienated, bored, but a new pair of speakers in spring 2009 reinvigorated all the music I already owned and also made me want to get out and hear new music, too. A new bike, new shoes, new jersey, etcetera have made me want to ride all the old routes I used to ride, and also made me want to turn down different, newer roads, too. And I’ve got a nice network of people to ride with now, much like I have a couple of record clubs to keep my listening fresh, too.

I’ve nothing profound to conclude here, no insight to offer or epithet to close with. I want to ride 3,000 miles again this year, ride some more new roads, take the bike to different parts of the country, and just keep riding, and enjoying it. A year ago I’d have hated the 28 damp miles I did this morning (and being bitten by a dog while doing them!) but today I loved them. It’s the bit before you start riding that’s awkward, and those first two miles. Once I’m pedaling and beyond the city, I’m free. And once the days are longer…

On criticism

On Tuesday 15 October 2013, on the main ‘new releases’ index page for music on the website Metacritic (a service which aggregates reviews and gives an average score) out of approximately 200 albums listed only 14 scored 60% or less on average. Metacritic assigns colours to scores on a simple traffic light system; 61 or more gets green, which stands for ‘generally favourable’ between 61 and 80, and ‘universal acclaim’ for anything above that; 60 to 41 gets amber, which stands for ‘mixed or average reviews’; 40 or below gets red, which means ‘generally unfavourable’. No album listed on that first page receives an average score in the red. See what I mean by having a look for yourself here.

Now have a look at the same page for movies. Of 26 ‘wide releases now in theatres’, 10 are green, 10 are amber and 6 are red. That’s quite a difference in the general critical landscape from one popular cultural medium to another. Why?

One quick answer might be that films, generally, are worse than music, or that it’s easier to make a bad film than it is a bad record; logistically films need a much larger crew and budget and a longer gestation period, and so there are simply more things that can go wrong over a longer period of time, and result in a poor end product. Good films, great films, stand proud above the rest of the landscape even more. Perhaps that’s the case and all there is too it. But I’m not so sure I believe it. I think there are plenty of average and, yes, even bad records.

I’ve been perplexed and irritated by this dichotomy between film criticism and music criticism for the best part of two decades; as a teenager I was irritated no end by the propensity, when publications marked albums out of five, for the vast majority of releases to receive 3/5. To me this score always read like a shrugged ‘meh’ of indifference, a ‘quite good if you like that type of thing’ avoidance of stating an actual opinion in case you upset someone or get called out for not knowing what you’re talking about, or, worse, for being a snob.

Of course music and films are not analogous, and you can’t directly compare the two with any worth anymore than you can compare a pizza to a curry; there are good and bad examples of each, but if you fancy a pizza a curry isn’t going to scratch that culinary itch and vice versa. (Of course there’s fusion cuisine the way there’s multimedia art, but let’s not go there right now.) Thus it makes sense that the criticism-topography (for want of a better phrase to describe the undulations, or not, of the landscape resulting from the marks doled out by our cultural gatekeepers in newspapers and magazines and online) of each would be different. I’m sure the criticism-topography of video games is equally different again, but as I have almost exactly zero interest in video games I’m going to leave that area well alone for fear of looking like an idiot. I studied film and critical theory at university, and I wrote, and still do write, music criticism. I also love both forms. Those are my credentials. (The failure of popular music theory and criticism to be accepted as an academic discipline like film theory and criticism has long been a bugbear, too, and I see it as part of the overall problem I’m addressing here.)

That sea of green in the criticism-topography for music strikes me as strong evidence that music critics aren’t the gatekeepers they might like to think they are; you can’t be a gatekeeper if you never call out bad art, surely. But why do music critics seldom call out bad art? I’ve read what seemed to me to be hatchet jobs of reviews, semi-excoriating their subjects, which then awarded 3/5 or 6/10 once you got to the bottom, never going for critical equivalent of the jugular. I’ve mentally urged critics on to ‘finish him!’ when reading reviews of records (see? My video games references are 20 years out of date), hoping to see a 3/10 or a 1/5 (or, for the decimally inclined pedants out there, a 2.7/10.0; please read that clause in the scathing tone of voice with which it was intended), wincing to myself when another ‘generally favourable’ score gets given instead, obviating any point that may have been imparted through the subtleties, or not, of the actual words above the rating.

There might be two reasons for this failure to savage bad art by music critics (well, there might be a million reasons, but two seem logical to me); either critics don’t know what bad art is for whatever reason (lack of technical knowledge; lack of confidence; lack of critical faculties; lack of contextual knowledge), or else they’re afraid to say when they see it, for whatever reason. The industries of music and of journalism are both faltering; the later in particular is in dreadful health, and people are desperate to survive. If that means damning a record with faint praise rather than tearing it to shreds, in an attempt to keep a PR or a record company or an editor or a dwindling readership on side, then so be it, perhaps. Except that the dwindling readership is still dwindling, in terms of willingness to pay for criticism (and almost every other type of content), so this tactic, if that’s what it is, clearly isn’t working. I wonder if the readership is dwindling precisely because of the criticism-topography; if you’ve been repeatedly mis-sold products by weak and apathetic or inept criticism, then you stop trusting it. If Vauxhall sell you a duff car you find another manufacturer. If Melody Maker sell you a suite of duff records, you find another conduit that you feel you can trust, which may not be another magazine at all, but a website, or a streaming service, or whatever comes next. Undervaluing the criticism, letting anyone do it, leads to a lack of criticism, leads to a further undervaluing of the criticism. A vicious circle.

There’s a lot of talk this week about the value of the critic. Some of it is very good. Here’s Simon Price writing at The Quietus about The Independent dropping its own arts coverage in favour of a Metacritic-like aggregation of other people’s opinions. Here’s Neil Kulkarni being interviewed about boring reviews, lazy criticism, and keeping the hell out of London. Both pieces are well worth reading, and seem, to me, to be pointing in vaguely the same direction.

Price finishes his piece by saying that “a world with uncriticised art gets the art it deserves”, which I agree with whole-heartedly. But I fear that we’ve been leaving music broadly uncriticised for far too long already. That sea of green is testament to our lack of critical spine, or to the fact that a babble of semi-conflicting voices seldom manage to form a coherent consensus. There’s too much of it, and not enough of it is any good. One of my main motivations as a critic was to encourage musicians to make better art, so there would be more stuff that I wanted to listen to myself; a selfish impulse, granted. I was guilty of hatchet jobs and of over-praise too. But I wrote, always, from the point of view of a fan; most of the records I’ve ever written about I’ve paid money for, one way or another, which I felt gave me a worthwhile and different perspective to some (not, at all, that people who get sent records for free can’t have valid opinions; but they’ll always have a different perspective).

What’s criticism for? I’ve never cared about it as an art form, like some do; but is it just to help us determine wheat from chaff? Is it to help us understand what wheat and chaff are, in order to encourage the wheat and discourage the chaff? Is it to help us realise what wheat and chaff are for? I don’t know, and the problem, I suspect, is that neither does anyone else. Least of all the people who might be reading and writing the stuff.

Why the vinyl revival can sod off as far as I’m concerned

Straight off the bat, for the record, I love Danny Baker as a radio broadcaster; his Saturday morning show on Radio 5 live beautifully demonstrates his story-telling skills, his appreciation of the mythology of the mundanity of everyday life, his understanding of how the format of radio works, and his extensive charm and humanity. It’s funny, and fun, and moving, and I love it.

But last night I watched the first part of his Great Album Showdown on BBC4 and it pretty much infuriated me from start to finish.

I could blame Jeremy Clarkson, one of the anointed foursome discussing what makes a great ‘rock’ LP, but by this point his persona as a caricature of a grumpy old man stuck in the 70s is beyond the worth of criticising. He is who he is, and if you take him seriously, in either direction, you’re an idiot too. I could blame Kate Mossman, for her bizarre assertion that glam and punk were opposites, which is a strange bit of garbled received wisdom that was rightly shot down by the other three (received wisdom being the enemy of criticism and thought in general). I could blame Baker himself, for his unwittingly throwaway sexist remark about not expecting “a woman” to like a particular record (presumably let alone a young, pretty one). Stephen Street, a self-confessed pop fan rather than a rock fan, and the final member of the four, looked uncomfortable, squirmed in his seat when Clarkson anointed Supertramp as the greatest thing ever, and seemed annoyed with the rockism ambushing him from all sides. He was the only one I could really identify with.

So instead, I’ll blame vinyl.

But of course, I’m not really blaming vinyl as a material, or even as an inferior vehicle for the delivery of recorded music (CD has a wider dynamic range when used properly, etcetera); I’m blaming it as a signifier, as a loaded totem of rockist bullshit.

Every time someone eulogies vinyl, they seem to necessarily slag CDs at the same time, and in the process of doing that they’re voiding the cultural experiences and values of a large swathe of music fans.

Because there are lots of people around my age for whom CD was the format through which they experienced music; certainly in our house there are a couple of thousand CDs and barely a hundred pieces of vinyl. Even my brothers, 9 and 11 years older than me, who’ve both been in bands and worked in record shops and so on, have shelves stuffed with CDs rather than crates full of vinyl. We don’t love music any less than the likes of Clarkson and Baker and Mossman, but you wouldn’t think so from last night’s program, or the seemingly endless vinyl-fetishists waxing lyrical about their favoured delivery method online or in print for what seems like the last decade.

Physically, to me, vinyl is an awkward, ungainly thing, difficult to hold in 12” form, easily scratched and made dirty, literally degrading every time you play it (by scraping a needle over a delicate material!), easily warped if not stored with great care. I dislike having to break a mood to change sides, the awkwardness of trying to access a specific song.

In terms of the sound, the warmth that so many people describe vinyl as enjoying just sounds like surface noise to me most of the time, a veil through which detail often has to struggle to emerge. I know a well-maintained vinyl collection and record player can sound superlative, but I prefer the sound of a good CD player; and it’s easier to look after, too. (I use a Rega Apollo for preference; noted for its warmth and detail, if you’re concerned about that type of thing.)

Vinyl’s also expensive and hard to find these days compared to CDs, and in my music-buying history, the last 20 years, has always been thus. Aside from the choice 12” decorations displayed in Urban Outfitters, I literally can’t buy any new vinyl in the city where I live. There is a secondhand shop, catering to old music obsessives and ignoring those after the thrill of the new and the now, but the secondhand market for original pressings and other collectors’ items baffles and disgusts me; scarcity and exclusivity are the two favourite assets of free-market economics and capitalist frenzy. If it’s rare; it’s worth more. Last night Danny Baker mentioned that one LP he had was worth well over £1,000. If you place more onus on the fiscal worth of your music’s format than the emotional and aesthetic worth of your music’s affect, then we’re talking at cross purposes from the very start. I used to deliberately buy debut vinyl singles by indie bands in the 90s and sell them on, circa debut album success and higher profile, for big profits, because it enabled me to buy, and enjoy, more music. The most I’ve ever paid for an album is £36, for the 4CD box set of Zaireeka.

In terms of the wider mythology and affection which surrounds vinyl, the stories people tell about it beyond, y’know, actually listening to it, well; all the things people enthuse about having done with LPs – read the lyrics while listening, studied the artwork, pored over the production credits, even skinned up a joint or chopped out a line on them – people have also done with CDs. These experiences are every bit as valid and meaningful and powerful as their wax analogues, and dismissing them – whether deliberately or as a side-effect of the display of your own preferences – is unpleasant and unnecessary.

Because the discourse which so often surrounds vinyl can often and easily be alienating and elitist and gatekeeperish. Vinyl fans will dismiss CDs as soulless, but the 12” LP evolved directly as a capitalist tool of record companies to increase profits by coercing music fans into paying money for songs they may not necessarily want.

Chris Molanphy gave a presentation at the 2011 EMP conference about the history of the Billboard Hot 100 chart and how it, well, charted the (US) music industry’s tempestuous relationship with the single and the tactics it’s used to make us buy albums (and the way it’s marginalized black and female performers by ghettoizing the genres they often work in as ‘singles’ genres, thus keeping big album profits by and large for white men). I wasn’t at the conference but yesterday Chris kindly sent me a PDF of his slides and notes; it’s fascinating reading. I’ve asked him to put it online permanently for posterity, and if he does, I’ll link it.

My conclusion from Chris’ work is that much of rock mythology is a lie, concocted, like most lies since the industrial revolution (and probably since the dawn of human history), in order to make people part with something in order to benefit the liar. The music industry wants us to worship the LP rather than the single in order to draw more money out of us, and the esteem within which vinyl is held is a part of this mythology. The side effect of this, of course, is a whole heap of wonderful albums that we love, but the application of even the slightest bit of Marxist cultural theory should make us question the ontology of the music that we love; the means of production influences the means of consumption, and vice versa. It’s partly this questioning that makes me favour the CD as my musical carrier of choice. The CD just fits best, for me, right now. And has done for 20 years.

(I got my first CD player 20 years ago this May, for the record; for my 14th birthday.)

The CD has its issues as well, of course – it’s encouraged hideous mastering practices, and made incalculable profits for a greedy industry in the 90s, the fallout of which is being felt now. (Interestingly CD sales, and thus profits, start falling at about the time CD mastering starts going off-the-scale into idiocy, which is also when downloading begins to get a foothold; there’s a PhD’s worth of research and pontification here.)

I asked people on twitter, unrelatedly, just before the program started last night, to tell me one thing that made them love a particular song; I got a dozen and more responses, and none of them mentioned the format it was on. Lyrics, melodies, sounds, specific bits of arrangements, emotions; all mentioned. But no one mentioned vinyl, or CD, or MP3, or Ogg Vorbis or wax cylinder or 8-track or cassingle or anything else. It was the music they were bothered about, not the delivery system.

So I think what irritated me most about last night’s show, and the vinyl revival in general, is the idea and myth of rock music, this hoary, old, patriarchal dog that refuses to die. Vinyl, in its totemic form, is a symbol of that. The people programming the media now – the executives and controllers and senior presenters – are in their 50s and 60s; vinyl is their format, rock is their era, and they wont let us forget about it. But their experiences are not everyone else’s. They’re certainly not mine. If rock was ever about change and energy and youth and the future, it needs to get over its past.

So, essentially, I’m irritated by the vinyl revival, if we’re calling it that, because I often feel like my experience as a music fan is being written off as invalid because it wasn’t mediated with vinyl. I resent being made to feel as if I don’t like music as much as someone else because I was born at a time when the ‘wrong’ format was in vogue. The format itself is fine, and beautiful, and can sound wonderful, and if you prefer it as your carrier for music, all power to your elbow. But don’t diminish my experiences to do so.

Purely by chance, Sony have announced that they’ll cease production of their final minidisc player in March, news of which lead me to this old ILM thread from 2003 pitching minidisc against MP3 (minidisc seems to come out best!), wherein Jonesey drops some science about why CDs actually are better than vinyl on a technical level, busting myths about sampling-rates and so on.