Hey! Angry car drivers! How about a huggle?

Standard

Hey you lot. You, angry car drivers. Seriously. You over there. You seem up tight. Get yourselves over here, let’s share some love.

Now – hang on, get in a little closer – now, what’s the problem? Come on, you can tell me. What can possibly be getting your knickers in such a twist that you have to shout at me and swerve at me and wave your fists at me and beep your beepy car horn things at me whilst i’m riding my bicycle along the road?

I think I know what it is, but it just seems so silly that, well, I don’t really want to believe it. I’ll, well, okay, I’ll lay it out and maybe you can let me know if I’m on the right track. No need to speak, just give me a nod, okay? Okay. Here we go.

I think you might be annoyed that I’m riding my bike on the same road as you. Specifically, I think the thing that’s annoying you is the idea that I might be slowing you up somehow. Is that right? Just give me a little signal if it’s right. Okay, got you.

Really, it’s nothing to worry about. Don’t sweat it, you silly old sausages! You, you over there, the woman in the little red car that went past me on the Pinhoe Road in Exeter this evening, while we were both on our way down to Broadclyst. Come over here, let me stroke your hair and make you feel a little bit better about the world.

You see, here’s the silly thing. I know that it seemed to take you a couple of seconds to find a chance to pull into the other lane and go past me, and I know from the shouting you did that this annoyed you, but really, what did you lose? There was another car, probably a blue car, just 30 yards in front of us both, pootling along at the speed limit. We both saw it. So, the sum total impact of my pedalling presence was a couple of seconds’ delay before you were able to accelerate up to the bumper of the car in front.

Now, I can see how that would be a big deal for you. It taking two seconds more before you can start following the car in front, which is no farther ahead or behind of where it was always going to be. No. No, actually, I’m sorry, I’m afraid I really can’t. Look at me for a second. I know it’s a little embarassing, this human contact, but don’t worry, you’re amongst friends here. So look at me.

I didn’t really delay your journey in any conceivable way, did I? Take a breath now.

I never really do, do I?

So why then do you find this scenario so worrisome that you feel compelled to wind down your window and shout something that sounded like ‘… use it!’ at me? It worries me and it clearly worries you. Stress isn’t good for your big old heart you know?

What’s that? The cycle lane?

Ah, the cycle lane. I know, I know. You have a bit of a thing about the cycle lane, particularly down on that stretch of road where cyclists are allowed to ride on the nice wide pavement. Let’s see if I can help you with that. Come on, listen up and together we can turn that frown upside down!

Now, you know that when I’m on my bike I don’t have to use the cycle lane if I don’t want to, don’t you? I know you know that. Just as an aside here, cycle lanes can be a real pain to use. They’re often scattered with debris that will shred my tyres. Also with cars. Now, I know you seem to think that cars and bikes shouldn’t be in the same places, but judging by the way some of the other naughty car drivers park in cycle lanes, swerve in and out of them and open their doors across them, they all seem much more relaxed about shared space, which is nice, isn’t it?

As for those times when the pavement is designated as usable by cyclists, well… I just feel a little bit icky about it. You see, I’m moving along at something between 15 and 20 miles per hour when I’m on that road, mainly because I’m quite keen to get home. And although I’m soft and squishy and loveable, when I’m on my bike, I’m also partly made of spinning metal teeth. And that pavement is also used by people walking. I don’t really want to be riding my bike past them. It’s a bit tricky and if I made a mistake then I could catch one of them and my bike could actually hurt them quite a bit and – no no, don’t cry – but that would be sad, wouldn’t it?

I know I could ride a little more slowly but, like you, I’m in a bit of a hurry, and, whaddya know, there’s a nice wide road with a much better surface and no kerbs to go down and up every 20 yards right here. So, y’know, I usually prefer to just use that. Because it’s better. Because I’m allowed to. And yes, silly, of course I appreciate your clever irony in suggesting I squeeze onto a carriageway with pedestrians who will delay my journey, because I know how happily you accept having your journey delayed by me. Cheeky!

So, in order to get to where I need to get to a little more quickly, and wishing to present less of a risk to the other people who are using the roads and paths with me, I choose to ride on the main carriageway. Put another way, I choose to put myself at greater risk, at least partly to reduce the danger I might pose to others. Now, I realise that this might put you at a slightly greater risk when you drive your little car up near me. We’ve already discussed the risk that you might be a couple of seconds late catching up to the car in front, but there’s also the risk that we might collide. Hey! Why the sad face? Come on gloomychops, there’s nothing for you to worry about, truly. All those stories you must imagine you read about on your Car Drivers Facebook groups where poor unassuming car drivers are killed outright when a bicycle hits their big metal sides at 12 miles per hour can seem very scary for you I know, but trust me, they’re mostly not true. That story only works the other way around.

And yes, I know that sometimes if can be a little difficult for you to wait, to resist pushing down on the accelerator to get past me, until you’re 100% sure that the road is clear of oncoming traffic. Sometimes – it’s okay, you can admit it – you even misjudge it and have to pull back in the avoid a collision! They say a problem shared is a problem halved, so here’s another little secret for you: sometimes when you do that, you knock us cyclists off our bikes and into hedges, just like on a sitcom! Or lampposts. Or other cars.

Don’t worry though, if you ever do get it really wrong because you can’t wait a couple more seconds for a properly clear road, then your head-on-collision won’t just kill you and the other driver, it’ll most likely take me out as well. And some pedestrians. So you’ll have some company. We’re all in it together.

A couple more things, now we’re finally talking – come over here, let’s get physical – we really are in this together you know. It seems sometimes like you think that cyclists become cyclists as some sort of protest against you and your car drivingness. Seriously, it’s not you, it’s us! Some of us ride bikes because we can’t afford to drive cars. Or we’re not old enough yet. Some of us ride bikes because it’s good exercise. Lots of us ride bikes because it’s lots of fun. Finally, and here’s a big secret that will blow your freaking m-i-n-d: most cyclists are actually car drivers too. I know! We’re not just like you, we are you! Sort of.

Come to think of it, don’t you have a bike? And don’t you ride it once in a while? Fun isn’t it? I hope no-one shouts at you while you do it, because, well, it’s less fun when that happens.

One last thing, now we’re snuggled up together. I hate to raise it, but we both know I have to.

The lycra. What is it about the lyrca with you? I know from the way you shout and the things you shout that you find the sight of me in stretchy, skin-tight, black fabric unusually… exciting, but come on, do yourself a favour. There are places you can go to explore that side of you. Clubs you can visit where they’ll help you work it out. There’s, y’know, the internet? You’ll be happier if you can just come to terms with it and be yourself. Just saying.

Okay, that’s me. Are we cool now? Can we huggle please?

And no, no thanks, not one of those huggles you sometimes try to give me while you’re driving please. It’s nice when you zoom by in your car and you or your passenger tries to reach out of your window and grab me when I’m on my bike. I’m all for a bit of contact and affection, a friendly squeeze, but seriously, that could also kill me. There’s a time and a place for huggles.

And that time is now.

How about it?

Advertisements

Heroes

Standard

I never connected hard with David Bowie’s music. It’s one of the great misses of my musical life. For those of us who were not experiencing pop music when he was performing wrenching transformations on it with his bare hands in the early 70s, we had to wait for a way in, and for me that never came. I had friends who were into almost everything else, but none who wanted to impress Bowie on me. He was around in the early 80s, when I was fresh for imprinting. ‘Ashes to Ashes’ freaked me out as a nine year-old, partly because of the enduring image of a radioactive clown about to be crushed by a bulldozer. That song, above any others, has stayed with me and still transports me back to a time where I was discovering that music could change my world.

I envy those many millions who did get Bowie. His records and the worlds he built around them were clearly so rich, so rewarding, so deeply meaningful for those who immersed themselves that I know I have missed something that I will never know. It’s only in the last ten or fifteen years, as many of my favourite artists and writers began to look back to Bowie, to reminisce about him as a past force rather than a current one (before his wonderfully successful re-emergence in 2013) that I really felt the size and shape of this absence. To hear Adam and Joe, for instance, discussing Bowie as a figure they obsessed over as teenage boys, is to hear the strange sounds coming from a club you will never be able to join.

I wish I had really fallen for the music, so much of which I really like, but of course there is still time, in theory, for that to happen. Perhaps even more I wish I had been there at the time to fall hard for Bowie the artist. The lessons he taught the generation lucky enough to be turned on to him as Ziggy Stardust and to follow him through Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke and beyond were truly life-changing. Lessons about defying convention, being yourself, living your own life, and then embracing reinvention to live a completely different one. From the vantage point of the new millennium, Bowie’s peerless influence on Western culture is clear, unassailable and incredibly positive. He opened up worlds of possibility and entire generations followed him and populated those worlds. I may not have genuinely loved his music, but it is likely responsible for a good 60% of the music that I do love, so much of which would not have been conceivable without him. To my mind he has had a career that no-one else in the history of popular music can come close to rivaling in the breadth of its achievements. No-one else has gone on for so long, built guise after guise, created art so fearlessly and done it for so very long without ever settling back and trading on past glories. Not Elvis, not the Beatles, not Dylan, not anyone.

In thinking about the artists that I did give my heart to as a younger man, I’m forced to reflect that to some extent I chose heroes that I either couldn’t or wouldn’t want to emulate. Captain Beefheart. Mark E Smith. Nick Cave. Bob Dylan. Lou Reed. Ian Curtis. Morrissey. It seems to me that all of these were wildly iconoclastic, inventive, shocking, one-off dead-ends. No-one can follow any of these heroes, because they each identified new cultural territory and then filled it. The only exceptions I could come up with this afternoon were JG Ballard and Kurt Vonnegut. Perhaps writers are different.

Bowie, however, opened up new worlds and then the hordes piled in behind him and built entire cultures. He was, perhaps more than any of the guiding lights in my own firmament, a leader.

2015 – Done and Undone

Standard

I organised myself to do some additional regular stuff in 2015, as is my wont. I also stopped doing a couple of things in 2015, as is also my wont.

I carried on using the Seinfeld/Chain method for habit-forming to drive the sort of repetitive behaviours I want to have. Here’s what.

Things I did, every day…

As throughout 2014, I wrote for at least 15 minutes of every day of 2015. Sometimes there were prolonged periods of working on one thing, sometimes it felt very scrappy as I scratched around for something I felt like writing. One way or another the words piled up. I wish I’d been a little more focused with some of it but, to give an example of how much is reasonably possible with a little commitment, amongst dozens of blog posts, scraps, poems, bits and bobs, I also wrote 36,000 words of a novel that I had not even conceived this time last year, almost all of it done in sessions of only 15 minutes at a time. I make no claims for the text (seriously, none at all) but at the very least, and possibly the very most, it’s close to half the length of a credible novel and if I keep that up for another year then, sitting amongst the pile of other words may be something that resembles a shoddy first draft of something none of you will ever read, but that I think I may be pleased at least to have written.

I also did 15 minutes of chores of one description or another every day this year. I don’t have a record of what I did, but it feels as if I did much less housework and much more admin. Not sure that’s the balance I’m after, but either way it’s kept things ticking along and kept that nagging swarm of ‘things to do’ mostly shooed away.

Stuff that was different, or new

I switched ‘daily exercise’ for ‘daily exercise OR guitar practice’. Not sure quite how that has worked out. My guitar playing has got better, but is still essentially hopeless. I’ve done enough to realise that just working through Russ Shipton’s books and trying to find easy things to play from Ultimate-Guitar.com does not a virtuoso make. I probably need lessons and if I can ever get organised to do that then the discipline to give 15 minutes practice each day will presumably be just what I need.

Exercise has been fine, but introducing the musical joker card has probably meant I did less cardio work this year than any of the preceding 20. Would like to do more in 2016.

I read every day, which was great. The pile of books I finished isn’t that high, partly because fully 3 months of the year were devoted to chipping away at the 700 pages of ‘The Magic Mountain’, but just doing it was, of course, pleasurable and sustaining, encouraging the sense that I was keeping a flame alive and adding just a little bit more to my life every day.

I drank a litre of tap water every day. This presented more of a physical challenge than I had expected. Without wishing to go into too many of the details, it took me 6-9 months to adapt to be able to handle this sort of increased input and even now, unpredictably, some days I am able to absorb it much better than others…

I’m glad I did it and I’m going to carry on, but I can’t honestly say I’ve noticed any great health benefits. I felt sick as a dog for most of the first 5 or 6 months of the year, which may have obscured any water-related gains, but generally I think I feel the same as before. Just a little moister inside, I guess.

Managing

Overall it became easier to discharge these duties. Now, two years into using this approach it rarely takes a lot of mental effort to remember that I have these fixed things to do. Certainly during the last half of this year the nagging sense that there are things left undone in any given day has started to recede. Getting the five ticked off each day has become much more natural, much less forced. That, I hope, is the feeling of something becoming an ingrained habit, rather than an externally imposed requirement.

Stuff I didn’t do

I like to stop doing things almost as much as I like to do things in the first place. This year my aim was to go through the entire year without buying a single drink in a disposable cup or bottle. I almost achieved it.

Not buying bottled water was pretty easy, although this was largely due to my decision to drink a litre of water each day, which meant I carried a drinking bottle with me almost everywhere I went. If you can get into that habit, then it’s a cinch to take the extra step and just not buy plastic bottles just to recycle of landfill them. As soon as you begin you’ll realise just how many of these pointless, wasteful things you can churn through in a day or week without even thinking about it. So, a whole year went by and I didn’t buy, or have bought for me, a single disposable bottle.

Disposable coffee cups are, somehow, even more annoying. In practice, many are now compostable or recyclable, but I think there’s still something distasteful about them. It has to do with the way they are carried as a soggy status symbol declaring, essentially, ‘look at me, I’ve bought some big brand coffee, and now I have a big cardboard cup, a plastic lid, a corrugated cardboard sleeve and also a couple of napkins and I’m going to bin the whole lot somewhere after ten minutes’ use’. Hurray for you.

So, this year I bought a Joco cup and kept it in my work bag. It’s slightly more onerous to remember than the water bottle, and quite a few times I’ve found myself sitting among other people drinking coffee, unable to join them because I forgot to bring it along, but ultimately that’s no great hardship.

I slipped up three times across the year. Firstly in a sports centre cafe in Plymouth where I ordered a coffee and instead of serving it in one of the china cups they had stacked behind the counter, they brought it out in a paper cup, which is stupid. Secondly when a colleague bought me a coffee for a meeting and I forgot to specify not to get a paper cup, which is my fault. Thirdly when buying a coffee for another colleague and tea for me I got distracted thinking about how crap the coffee there was and forgot to think about what they were making it in.

So, could do better, but by trying I reckon I saved around 50-100 cups from the bin, which sounds like not very much. However, doing this and thinking about the consumption of coffee as I went, really sensitised to how much we waste, to the point where I began to have unkind, santimonious thoughts when I saw passers-by brandishing their big label brew in compressed paper pulp containers.

It does seem to me like disposable cups and bottles are so easily avoided that it’s almost criminal not to do so. A quick google suggests that in the US they use 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour. Here’s the other thing: water is better for you than almost anything else you’re going to be able to buy in a plastic bottle, and buying water when you can get it for free from the tap is just stupid. I drank 1 litre of water every day this year. Another google tells me that this would have cost me 65p per day if I’d bought Evian from Tesco. Over the course of the year that would have cost me £237.25 and left 365 bottles for recycling or landfill.

I’m not one for proselytising, but come on, buy a reusable bottle and a reusable cup and save a bunch of money and waste.

2016

I’m pretty happy with where I am in terms of these habits, so I’m going to stick with them for the next year. I’d like to focus my writing a little more, so we’ll see how that goes.

There’s only one new thing I’d like to try to introduce and that’s mindfulness meditation. I’ve been meaning to give it a proper sustained go for a couple of years. It does seem as if there’s quite a lot of evidence for it as a stress-reducer, and that’s something I could benefit from. I’m really not sure where I can fit this into my day, particularly not in the ways I squeeze the others in during snatched 15 minutes in the midst of the hurly burly, but I’m going to start by trying to get up 15 minutes earlier and to begin working through the sessions in the Headspace app and see where that gets me.

So that’s me. I hope you have a rewarding 2016 and that you help someone else to have one too.

Friends

Standard

I saw some of my friends today. Not all of them by any means, but a few, more than I think I’ve seen all year, and these only for two hours.

They are people I’ve shared experiences with for more than 20 years and who, despite that, will still show up to slop around a muddy field playing disc golf on a December morning.

We didn’t talk about much. Afterwards my wife asked me how everyone was doing, what was happening in their lives, whether we might see so-and-so at such-and-such an event next year. I couldn’t really answer any of those questions. We didn’t really cover them.

Instead we laughed at each other, tried to put each other off our shots, cheered when the mud rose towards welly-overtopping level and, so it seemed to me, enjoyed each other’s company in the simplest possible fashion.

Just being around people for whom you need put up no sort of front at all is such a holy relief. Having people you can see for the first time in two years and pick up with as if it were last week is a blessing.

When you’re isolated from your friends, it can feel as if the wellspring of your being is being choked off. Certainly the most satisfying, nurturing and just plain pleasurable things in my life come from connections with other people. Unfortunately, making and sustaining connections is not my natural mode of operation.

I had friends at school and lost these when I went to college. I lost all but one of my college friends when I went to university. Through a combination of circumstances, I also managed to lose all my university friends over the five years after graduation, the space being taken by friends I made through ultimate frisbee. Now I don’t play ultimate frisbee any more, and so my connections are beginning to crackle and fade. I miss them badly.

Where I live, I could cover a radius of 60 or 70 miles counting the people I have known for more than ten years and, discounting family and workmates, I would only need the fingers of one hand. And not all of those. It’s a poverty.

So when I drove over to see my friends this morning I knew it was rare time and that the only way to make the most of it was to pretend that it wasn’t. Keep cracking the same old gags, keep probing the same old sore spots, keep comically playing up the same flaws and weaknesses, knowing that in this company all those things are permissible, expected.

You never know what you’ve got until it’s gone. I love where we live, I love what we do, I love the people I spend time with, in and out of work, but my heart has been compensating for the fact that my old old friends are so very very far away by growing hard to that fact. Instead of dealing with it by contacting them, finding ways to spend time with them, staying in touch in a meaningful way, I’ve subconsciously focussed on closing off that part of me and imagining that it doesn’t matter so much. And that sucks really badly.

As an aside, this morning also forced home the sense that two hours of meaningless waffle with my friends is worth more than a year of thumbing up and down a screen, wondering what they are up to and whether any of them remember me. I deleted Facebook from my phone this afternoon. Not because I think it’s an evil but because checking, rechecking, thumbing, is a drag on my mind and every time I do it, it reminds me, in some very small degree, about the real friendships I’m not looking after.

To all you lot out there, I really miss you.

My albums of 2015

Standard

Because I listened to most of my music in 2015 via a steaming service, I got a handy report last weekend telling me that the first song I listened to this year was ‘Wanderlust’ by Wild Beasts and that since then I have listened to 26,000 minutes of music by 525 different artists across 2,992 different tracks. Which is nice to know. Those are the sorts of life-stats that make me wish there really was a tally-keeping God after all.

Amidst this all-you-can-hear aural buffet I also bought records, although only 12 were made in 2015. These were those, in no particular order:

Kendrick Lamar – ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’

On the face of it ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ fulfils the role of record of the year. Of the choices available to me, and being upfront about the fact that I don’t follow this sort of thing at all, this album feels like the one that landed hardest and made the biggest mark.

Every time I listen to it, it kills. It’s fresh, dilligent, wild, focused, sweeping, whip smart in the way it plays with genre, style, influence. On top of all this, it’s musically gripping.

So why hasn’t it had me coming back time after time? I dunno. Maybe it’s just too much. Maybe I like it at arms length. I think I feel a little too reverential about it. I certainly don’t want to wear it out. Whatever. the result is that it could be both my album of the year and the one most unfairly left behind.

John Grant – ‘Grey Tickles, Black Pressures’

Goodness only knows how hard John Grant has to work to make his records sound so effortlessly engaging, honest, funny and heartfelt. Proof once again that it’s possible to be cynical, downcast, self-loathing and confused whilst remaining charming and fun to be with (paging Father John Misty…). ‘Grey Tickles, Black Pressures’ ramps up the schizophrenia of the soundscape in order to match the lyrics, switching between winningly lumbering power ballads and head-cracking, space-age glam-rackets. As well as some of the best words of the year, this record also has some of the best noises of the year. I present as exhibit A whatever sort of saxophone (oboe?) it is that squiggles around the bottom end of ‘Down Here’ like a lost sea snake trying to bury itself in the sand.

Oneohtrix Point Never – ‘Garden of Delete’

I feel like if I was asked to ditch all the other records from this year and carry only one forward into 2016 then I would reach for ‘Garden of Delete’. I’m only just getting used to it, but Daniel Lopatin seems to be doing something no-one else within the range of my hearing is managing. Yes his music is inventive, evocative, provocative and exquisite but it also seems, in some mysterious way, to be anticipatory. His touch and feel for the things around him and how to fold them together into new possibilities that also echo the fractured times we are living in is unsurpassed. This might not be one I will want to crack open and play to the grandkids in 40 years time (jeez I love the idea that Oneohtrix Point Never will sound Carpenters-tame in the future) but right now it’s the only departing liferaft I want to jump on, desperate to see where it washes up.

Vince Staples – ‘Summertime 06′

Woozy, committed, blunt, serious hip-hop, building a world from sea-sounds, heartbeats and a dark insistence. On ‘Summertime 06’ Vince Staples sounds like he’s still in the thick of it, trying to force his way out through sheer force of will. Where Kendrick Lamar is battling depression, politics, fame and expectations, Staples is mired in families, partners, gangs, deals and expectations. This may not show the wild stylistic vamping of ’To Pimp A Butterfly’ but as a singular statement of how it feels to be a teenager in Long Beach, Los Angeles, it’s enveloping and compelling.

Courtney Barnett – ‘Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit’

For a while at the start of the year it seemed like this was the only record around. And fair enough, who could begrudge Courtney Barnett, the bed-head poet slicing through the mores of suburban Australia with her band of miscreants in step behind her? The record is sharp in both the important ways: it bites and it cuts and in doing so it draws laughter and tears. ‘Pedestrian At Best’ may have copped one of the most lifted riffs in history, but when it’s put to such laceratingly joyful use, who cares? Topped off with a piledriving monotone vocal it’s still one of the tracks of the year despite my efforts to wear it down, and there are 6 or 7 almost as good on this long-player.

Viet Cong – ‘Viet Cong’

A record which I could have sworn was released last year, but apparently not. I like the idea of Viet Cong and I like what I hear when the idea becomes reality, but somehow it feels more of a technical accomplishment (look guys! look who we managed to sound like, all mixed up together!) than a musical one. There’s stuff on here that I really really like, and I’m nowhere near done with it yet, but ultimately it’s smartness of the sounds that seems to keep bringing me back, rather than the brilliance of the songs.

Olafur Arnalds and Alice Sara Ott – ‘The Chopin Project’

I did not expect to be buying new releases on the Mercury Classics label this year, but hearing a beautiful, mournful track on ‘All Songs Considered’ led me to this album on Spotify and I’ve barely stopped listening to it since. The result of a collaboration between Olafur Arnalds, Icelandic composer, multi-instrumentalist and all-round renaissance man, and classical pianist Alice Sara Ott, the collection comprises pieces reinterpreted from, or inspired by Chopin, pulled together on various instruments and pieces of vintage recording equipment around Reykjavik. The result builds a bridge between the quiet restraint of a classical chamber piano recital and the minimalist modern compositions of Nils Frahm or Stars of the Lid.

This has been the easiest record for me to reach for this year, a feeling supported by my end of year Spotify report which tells me I listened to the album 128 times. Perfect for work, home, foreground or background. More often than not, when I’ve been unsure what I want to listen to, this is what I played. It has yet to disappoint.

Joanna Newsom – ‘Divers’

I’m not quite there yet with ‘Divers’. The vinyl splits 50 minutes of music across four sides of vinyl with no digital download to give you a hand up so it’s not been easy to get to grips with. I like what I hear. I get some of the gripes i’ve heard, that the lyrics, an honest and deep examination of what time does to love and vice versa, come over a little sixth form. I guess it’s easy to conclude that back when Newsom was singing about meteorites, monkeys and meadows then her words were essentially unparseable and therefore unimpeachable. On ‘Divers’ she is stepping out from behind them and baring her most intimate fears. There are things in the record that should touch everyone and, like it or not, the attempt is worthy of applause. I think I’ll like it a lot.

Torres – ‘Sprinter’

One of only a couple of records I picked from the shelves without having listened significantly before online. One of ‘Sprinter’s most distinctive traits was an early barrier for me. Produced in PJ Harvey’s birthplace (Bridport, Dorset) by PJ Harvey’s drummer (Rob Ellis) who also picked up sticks for this record, the dynamic expansion of Mackenzie Scott’s sound takes her directly into the territory somewhere between ‘Dry’ and ‘Rid of Me’ on half the songs on the record. Whilst those are the most accessible, there’s also such a resonance of Polly Jean that it’s hard to hear them on their own merits. The secret key lies in the more melancholy tracks and in the lyrics throughout which are distraught, confused, seeking and heartbreaking. Once I had properly digested the devastating closer ‘The Exchange’ the rest of the record opened up like a dark, musky flower.

Grimes – ‘Art Angels’

It sounds like a sad cliche, but this year, the one when I turned 44 years old, was also the year when I started to let bold, bright chart pop music back into my life, by my reckoning for the first time since the Human League and Frankie Goes To Hollywood ruled the hit parade. It’s a tragic stereotype, the middle-aged man who suddenly drops the worthy music habit he’s spent his life curating and dives head first into a world of chirruping young folk and rampant poptimism. I’m not quite there yet (although let’s be clear, if there’s a mid-life crisis on offer then i’ll take three please).

Up until my early 30s, through radio exposure, I still knew what was in the charts. Whilst I never had a dogmatic aversion to pop music, I eventually just wanted to spend my time listening to other stuff. Since then, I just lost touch. That’s fine. I now use the radio to find out what’s happening in the world instead of in pop music although I can’t honestly say it’s made me happier. All the while amazing ‘pop’ music was finding it’s way in to my records, from Missy Elliott to Destiny’s Child to Adele.

This year, there was some sort of breach. Somewhere in the space between Katy Perry riding into the Superbowl on a massive space tiger and me hearing Charlie XCX’s ‘Doing It’ via a Pitchfork playlist, the door began to creak open. The breach was cemented by ‘Switched On Pop’, a great podcast in which two musicologists gleefully deconstruct the big pop songs of the day giving them the full treatment as befits the jewel-encrusted works of art they so often are, and with Carly Rae Jepsen and others getting glowing notices and end-of year placings right across the board, it did feel like a shift of some sort, for me at least.

Grimes closes the loop. She’s an artist I struggled to get to grips with when I thought she was a 4AD electronic twinkler. As soon as I heard ‘Kill Vs Maim’ I knew I had her all wrong all along. The whole record is savage, screaming, electrifying pop, and listening to it and placing it in the landscape seems to magically bring together whole genres and sub-cultures so they can hold hands and lace daisies into one another’s hair.

Nils Frahm – ‘Solo’

Here’s another of the most reachable records of the year, or any year come to think of it. Alongside ‘The Chopin Project’, ‘Solo’ and has accompanied more of my thinking and doing time in 2015 than any other sound. We’ve been over this ground before, worrying about the utility of music instead of just getting on and utilising it. This is a beautiful record full stop and that cannot be lessened by the use I have made of it. In fact, far from being mere tools for filling backgrounds, if there are two records from this year that give me a warm and fuzzy feeling of gratitude when I think about them then it’s these two.

There were whole stretches in the autumn when I couldn’t write without ‘Solo’ playing in the background. I’d be lying if I didn’t put its utility down to its smooth surfaces and the absence of hooks to lodge in the mind. But also, perhaps subconsciously, there is something about this record that speaks directly to notions of creativity and the image of a human at work. Nils Frahm created these pieces during a mammoth improvisation session on a handmade, 12-foot tall upright piano. As in some of his earlier work you can hear and feel the join between man and mechanism as keys are depressed, hammers lifted and wires struck. There’s a sense of a blank page, of someone sitting down to figure out what can possibly be done and then how to go about doing it.

It’s still, spacious and gorgeous.

SWANS – ‘The Gate’

All things considered I think this may be the most expensive record I own. It’s strictly limited edition, has a sleeve that is handmade and signed by Michael Gira, and had to be shipped here from the U.S. On top of that I even chucked in a load more money just for the heck of it.

I haven’t listened to it yet, and that doesn’t really matter. One day I will, when I have 2-3 hours free and have been able to clear a perimeter around the house, preferably of a quarter of a mile or so.

I paid a bunch for ‘The Gate’ because it is the latest in SWANS established cycle of releasing live albums to crowd-fund the recording of their next studio release. I want to hear their next album (and I missed the tour that ‘The Gate’ comes from) and so I did my bit. In a year when I listened to the vast majority of music through streaming services, including almost all of the above, I still chose to buy physical copies of some of my most-listened to albums of the year, partly to have them, and partly to support the artists making such life-enhancing art. I chose to buy this one too, to help one of my favourite bands continue making music, and so ‘The Gate’ is officially my least-listened to album of 2015.

Speed trials

Standard

I took a Speed Awareness Course this morning. Reactions varied when I told people where I was going. Lots of people had done them previously – I learned today that 1 in 27 drivers in the country have done the course, or something similar – and most had comments to make about how boring it was, how ‘varied’ the attendees were and, generally, what a waste of time it had been.

I went in expecting a trial, after all we were here partly as punishment for having been caught breaking the speed limit, and a lecture, after all we were stupid/careless/irresponsible/reckless enough to be speeders. The retribution never came. We were told from the outset that we were not here because we were criminals and that the offer of the course had been made to us because we had been caught breaking the speed limit by only a few miles per hour. In my case, I was driving at 36mph in a 30mph stretch of dual carriageway at 5.30am, when mine was the only car around. The course is designed not to scold or reprimand, but to encourage and support, to incentivise us all not to break the speed limit, and to give us techniques to use to help us stay legal.

I found the four hours deeply affecting. Yes, we heard a fair share of horror stories, and why not? When a car hits a small child at more than 30mph, what do we expect other than horror? We spent a short period in groups plotting out the impact that a car hitting a pedestrian could have on the victim, their family and friends, the driver and their family. We proved that it doesn’t take much imagination to spin the tales out, and they are unpleasant in the extreme.

But, having accepted that hitting a pedestrian or cyclist, or just crashing solo, could be devastating in many uncontrollable ways, and also that whether you as a driver ever did so was essentially also just a matter of blind luck, we were also given memorable, practical advice on how to stay within the speed limit and thus minimise the chances of finding ourselves in that most horrific circumstance.

Here are some things I took away with me:

  • It takes a well-rested, alert SAS member who has been told that he is taking part in an emergency stopping exercise 0.7seconds to hit the brake when someone runs out in front of him. In that time a car at 40 mph will have travelled 41 feet. It won’t stop for a further 80 feet.
  • Stopping distance and residual speed. If a lorry jack-knifes in front of you on the motorway and you are the exact stopping 70mph distance away from it, then if you’re driving at 70, you’ll stop a few feet short of it. If you’re doing 100mph, you’ll still be travelling at 70mph when you hit it. And then you’ll be dead and so will everyone else in your car.
  • Keeping track of how the speed limit is changing as you drive through mixed environments is not straightforward. Signs are fine but they aren’t always there and in their absence you need to know about what makes a dual carriageway, what constitutes a system of street lighting, and how the speed limit might vary depending on what sort of thing you’re driving. At the moment I’m a lot better at working this stuff out than I was 24 hours ago.
  • A super-simple way to stay within the speed limit is to match your gears to the number. If it’s 10mph, stay in 1st. 20mph in 2nd, 30mph in 3rd etc. Makes it tougher to push over the limit.
  • New drivers these days are taught to change gears in blocks, i.e. from 1st to 3rd. Not sure why that’s safer, but apparently it saves on fuel.
  • For a car stopped on the hard shoulder of the motorway the average time before another car hits it is, wait for it, 11 minutes.

Here are some things I decided to try to do differently as a result of attending:

  • Think about those residual speed figures. The tutor kept on repeating “This is physics. You cannot beat it.” And he’s right. I drive around thinking I’ll be okay if someone steps out in front of me. I’m pretty sharp, I think (spoiler alert: i’m not), so I’ll probably be able to stop, or swerve, or something. That’s stupid, and in complete denial of the facts. The only thing I can actually do to control the chances of me killing someone, including my family, is drive slower.
  • Put a visual reminder in my windshield to make me think about this stuff whenever I climb in behind the wheel.
  • Look at using the speed limiter on my car. One of the toughest things to do is recognise the frequent changes in speed limit and adapt to them. I have a little toggle on my steering wheel that sets an upper speed limit and allows me to adjust it up and down by 5mph at a time with just one touch. Why not use it all the time?
  • Think about making a big money deal with my wife, like a significantly life-changing amount. So, say, we each agree that the next person to get caught speeding has to give the other £1000. Or charity.
  • Take more breaks on long drives.
  • Put my phone in the glove box when I set off, unless i’m using it for sat nav. I can pre-programme a list of podcasts really easily, so I really don’t need to be looking at it at all.
  • Try the gear matching thing.

And then, after four hours, I left the course and drove to work, trying to stick to the speed limit. And driving this way felt like a completely different activity from ‘driving’ as I ordinarily do it. Here’s how:

  • Firstly, if you diligently stick to the speed limit, you realise immediately, IMMEDIATELY, that everyone speeds all the time. If you don’t believe me, just try it, especially in a 20mph or 30mph zone.
  • You spot it first because it just feels weird not to put your foot down and surge forward, not to be hitting corners like you’re in a (low wattage) racing game, not to be attempting to get wherever you’re going as quickly as you can get away with. As an aside, one of the points the tutors made well, but which some of the attendees just could not accept, was that it doesn’t really matter how quickly you go, you won’t get there any quicker. Unless you’re into repeated overtaking then you’ll still get there just after the car in front of you, and there’s not much you can do to make them go quicker. Motorways and multi-lane highways are probably an exception here.
  • It’s not just that there are stretches that feel slow, everything feels slow. And that’s weird, and disconcerting, but not, ultimately, such a bad thing. In fact, driving at or below the speed limit opens up the whole experience. It’s almost like slow food, it feels like a reclaiming of an activity. It’s relaxing, not stressful all of a sudden.
  • The simple fact that everyone speeds all the time means that, for the non-speeding driver, two things change instantly. Firstly, yes, there’s a queue of traffic behind you. You need to be ready and willing to deal with that. The tutor this morning tried this line: “They may be annoyed with you now, but on time in a hundred you’ll be their best mate when they follow you round a corner and there’s a mobile camera waiting.” That doesn’t really give me what I need, but fortunately I do a really good line in piousness and I also, I don’t mind people thinking I’m a dick so long as they know I’m right. Suddenly, being the slow driver at the front of the queue sounds like something I might actually enjoy.
  • The second, surprising, thing that changes, and this is obvious once you’ve experienced it, is that you have a totally clear, open road ahead of you. It’s incredible. No brake lights to look out for one or two or three vehicles ahead. No danger of the car in front doing something erratic or just annoying you somehow, no need to read their dumb-ass bumper stickers, because they’ve gone because everyone speeds all the time. Again, driving becomes a weirdly relaxed experience.
  • You realise just how many of the roads through any urban area have 20mph limits. They are that way because there are lots of, as our tutor described them, ‘squishy people’ around there. People like me or you or your parents or your kids or your best friends. And those people have asked for a 20mph limit to stop cars killing them. When you actually drive through these zones at 19 or 20mph, rather than a lazy is-this-good-enough 27 or 28mph you actually think you might be able to stop if one of those squishy people ran out into the road.

So, there you have it. I’m going to try hard to stick to this new way of driving. If these speed awareness courses were free to attend, then I would be recommending you all to take the time to sit through one. Luckily, most of the material is, ultimately, stuff we all already know. So why not save yourself 4 hours and £80 and just go out today or tomorrow and try really hard to stick within the speed limits as they change across your journey. You’ll find out, as I did, that it’s better in all the really important ways.

Result

Standard

12.30 on Saturday

I was out in the park when the result was announced. I called my Mum to hear the numbers, a landslide by any reckoning. I had a vote and I cast it for both winners. I don’t feel jubilant like many supporters of the new leader, instead I feel uneasy. The coverage of and commentary on the election campaign has found and driven a wedge into the fissures that surround my beliefs and what I want to see happen in politics and ultimately the country. I’ve been told, almost unequivocally, that a vote for the policies that most closely reflect my personal beliefs is a vote for electoral annihilation. I have to say that I think that’s a fair analysis and a possible, perhaps likely, outcome. (I was interested, however, to hear a couple of medium term tory voters dragged in front of the Five Live microphones in the immediate aftermath of the declaration saying that they would consider a vote for the new leader over the others as he represents ‘core labour values’ rather than being a ‘tory in disguise’. Minor, anecdotal, unimportant, but interesting).

The alternative I was offered – to be frank almost all commentators were herding us all towards it – was to vote for electability by supporting a candidate who did not, on the face of it, share my values and who would, from the little I could gather about them, implement policies I could not support. To be able to do anything, you have to be able to win. That’s fair. But why should I support a winner who will do things I would rather they didn’t, or, if they would do things I would be happy to support, are too scared to come out and say so because they don’t want to upset a press and public that don’t support them anyway?

I’m sick of being asked to support a party that refuses to attempt to articulate an alternative to the destructive, discriminatory, devastating ideology of the Conservatives. ‘We’re a bit nicer than them’ just is not good enough. It never was. Every time I hear a Labour MP talk about being a party of aspiration my blood boils. Fair enough, people have aspirations. Most people, given half the chance, will take steps to better their lot, sometimes at the expense of others, especially if the impact on others can be successfully obscured or ignored. I’m no longer going to support a party that supports individual aspirations over the needs of the less well off. If you want to talk about aspirations, be clear. Have the courage to stand up and say that we should all aspire for the least well off in our society to be safe, secure, fed, housed, educated and healthy. That’s my aspiration. I want to be able to vote for a party that will look me in the eye and tell me I should pay more taxes for the benefit of the poorest people. Because I should. Why can’t this party face down the rest of us and tell us that this should be everyone’s aspiration. If they did, who knows? People might even vote for it.

I’m off track now. Jeez I hate that aspiration schtick.

Ultimately, if I ever wanted to see a genuine attempt at a left-wing political movement in 21st century Britain, then how could I vote against it now? I have no idea what is going to happen next. In truth, I’m fearful. The end of the Labour Party or a bounce back even further to the right seem two entirely possible outcomes. But the alternative was to vote for politics that I do not support, so that politicians could get elected to enact policies I would not support. How could I do that? If there is ever to be a grass-roots politics in this country that articulates a genuine collective alternative to mean-spirited, selfish, money-grabbing toryism, then it has to start somewhere. I don’t know if that somewhere is here, but, for now, I’m an optimist. A fearful optimist.