Hello. Welcome to Border Crossing issue #61.
I hope you’re well. Thank you very much for reading these emails, it means a lot that you’re signed up. If you’re caught in this week’s big heatwaves (UK or otherwise) lots of love and I hope you’re able to stay comfortable.
This time it’s my annual ‘halfway through the year’ review of the best culture so far.
May I suggest reading this with an ice lolly.
Robin Ince is one of the great standups, despite seeming to spend more time organising and hosting events, or as a foil to Brian ‘big universe’ Cox. Robin is also a lovely human, who moves through the world at an intense pace. This is a more personal blog than he usually writes and made me stop and think about how easy it is, when people such as Ince are so consistent and ever-present, for us to take their work for granted.
Writing for Current Affairs, Darshana Narayan dismantles some of the ‘science’ behind Yuval Noah Harari’s wildly lauded mega-seller Sapiens. I enjoyed much of Sapiens but also was brought up short by annoyingly obvious holes in the fabric of its reality, so it’s heartening to see people flagging up the flaws in Harari’s work.
Thank you for your kind emails after the last issue. Most weren’t for publishing but I got a great reply from Jon Southcoasting (of The Family Grave) and I want to share a bit of it. Jon writes:
I noticed that it’s impossible for me to have the same intimate relationship with records (new music or old) that I had when I was young… Music mattered when it helped articulate and soundtrack the stressful, challenging but most exciting times that being young definitely is. Glad to know you’ve found some music to feel passionate about again, as have I. For me, it’s the growth of Kevin Morby, whose latest is extraordinary and my favourite of the year so far. But there are others I’ve adored (Porridge Radio comes to mind, and I feel privileged to have been one of the first to recognise their genius). I go to far fewer live gigs than I did, but I think I’m starting to appreciate them again.
That’s spot on Jon, thank you. I’ll give both Morby (who I’ve not listened to) and Porridge Radio (who I already like) a proper go this week. Jon was too classy to ask but I shall also recommend his own songwriter identity The Family Grave, which is very good indeed.
Last issue, when I listed artists at Primavera Sound I’d scored 9/10, I accidentally missed out Dinosaur Jr, who played the finest set I’ve ever seen them do, in front of a vast, thrilled crowd. Immense. How on earth is Lou Barlow so rocknroll beefcake, when he was a nerdy saddo for twenty years!?
Best of 2022 so far…
As usual, since we’re halfway through the year, here’s a list of the culture I’ve enjoyed the most, January through June —
In Benjamin Myers’ novel The Great Golden Circle two men create crop circles around the Wiltshire and Dorset countryside at the end of the 1980s, working anonymously at night, while their elaborate mysterious artworks take flight in the public imagination in the day. I believe Myers wrote this one unexpectedly, when he’d been planning to take a break from novel-ing (he’s been prolific for a decade and must be tired). It is a short, straightforward — at least on the surface — series of encounters that allows its human portraits to paint themselves over gorgeously expansive countryside. The odd couple are sublimely rendered, landing somewhere between the Detectorists and the KLF. Tim Key reads the audiobook, which is a pin-drop perfect bit of casting.
In non-fiction, Laurie Penny’s tour-de-force Sexual Revolution leans into some prime well argued leftie polemic (yum), while unpacking today’s noisy, dispiriting gender politics. Penny at her ferocious best. But it’s also a hard, in some ways demoralising read, when the times are so dark for vulnerable people who don’t conform to others’ perceived (too often powerfully platformed, deeply ingrained, rooted in trauma) ‘norms’.
So in (selfish) truth, Slate film critic Dana Stevens’ brilliant cinema history Camera Man is my favourite non-fic so far in 2022. Stevens utilises the life story of Buster Keaton to frame a deep dive into the first half-century of American cinema. She wears her vast knowledge and research lightly. It’s a clever, yet accessible, humane work that balances biography with rich social history. Keaton’s childhood career in vaudeville, becoming famous while still a tiny child, being chased around (and often physically assaulted) onstage by his drunken father as part of a family comedy troupe, is astonishing and vivid. Imagine: fully normalised child abuse while a crowd roars with laughter and the newspapers give you great reviews. Stevens’ narrative voice is familiar for me, as she co-hosts the Culture Gabfest podcast that I’ve followed for a decade. It was great to experience her smashing it in a longer format.
We didn’t see Mass in the cinema but at home. It’s almost a one room film anyway, so watching it in private on a smaller screen may even have been more impactful. The set-up is grief-drenched: two sets of parents meet after a school shooting. It draws utterly stunning performances from four key players, Ann Dowd, Martha Plimpton, Jason Isaacs (hello) and Reed Birney. Given Isaacs’ scene-stealing swagger in other kinds of film and TV show, this is a quite staggering downbeat performance from him. Somehow Mass isn’t a depressing film. Instead, by the end, I found it incredibly uplifting, though I can’t fully explain why. One of those magic times when a small film offers revelation on some of the great forces driving humanity. It was overlooked in award season earlier this year but it’ll last.
In the cinema, we loved Everything Everywhere All At Once and I was moved by both Flee (the Danish animated doc about a young refugee’s journey from Afghanistan) and Stray (the Turkish fly-on-the-wall doc about abandoned dogs and therefore abandoned people). They’d work well as a pair.
For the first five months of 2022 we watched bucket loads of TV (brilliant and awful). We’re up to speed with the Emmy nominees, for example. But then in late June, quite suddenly, without discussion, a total gear-shift: we just sort of stopped. We’d finished that weekend gorging on Glastonbury live at home, channel-switching between the BBC’s five different music stage live-streams, surrounded by snacks, pretending we were at a festival. This was only two weeks after we’d got back from Primavera Sound — and quite a few artists we’d seen in the flesh in Barcelona were also on the tellybox from Somerset. That comparative experience was fuel for thought about live music versus the same seen through cameras (maybe for another time). But anyway, after Glasto, apart from occasional bits of sport and a Rifa-driven casual watch of Freeze The Fear with Wim Hof, the telly has stayed switched off.
Prior to that, easily my favourite 2022 television series so far has been Station Eleven, based on Emily St. John Mandel’s sci-fi novel from 2016. Twenty years after a virus wiped out 99.9% of people on Earth and destroyed civilisation, a group of actors and musicians (the ‘Travelling Symphony’) journey slowly around a vast lake, performing Shakespeare to small communities of survivors. Their origin story unfolds in lengthy flashback and there’s a mystical element too, rooted in an obscure comic book. You get an excellent scary ‘prophet’, a ‘museum of civilisation’ in an old airport and, earlier, just as the lethal new strain of the virus swept the world, a fading film star dying onstage playing Lear.
After watching Station Eleven I got hold of the novel and enjoyed that too, key differences included. But the TV series is better — its ideas are a little braver and it does very smart work keeping the worst of an apocalyptic world offscreen, without losing any horror. Even in a television era brimful of dystopias and post-apocalyptic fiction, Station Eleven does things I’ve not seen before, truly encapsulating the pre- / post- apocalypse cognitive generation gap, and the inherited grief, and other stuff. The show invokes the same intense conflicted feeling as when (in real life) we spotted those beautiful little portions of nature quietly renewing themselves during earlier Covid lockdowns. If you’re looking for it in the UK, we accessed it (legally) via Prime and the Starzplay add-on. Honestly I think it’s my favourite TV fiction since The OA.
There is something of the rock band Big Thief in Station Eleven’s ‘Travelling Symphony’. Both are fragile and strong and determined and human in these parallel ways.
So Big Thief, then. Since I over-shared about music in the last Border Crossing I’ll not get too bogged down. As I wrote last time, I’ve rediscovered a passion for music generally, to an intense degree. It feels magic. This year also brought me the odd experience of falling deeply in love with a band that I already liked quite a lot. Previously, I’d put Big Thief on ‘end of year’ lists — singer/guitarist Adrianne Lenker’s solo work too. But in 2022, initially via YouTubes of live sessions, rather than their actual albums, I’ve become fully besotted with this peerless, transcendent quartet. The double-album Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You grows into an outstanding monster of light and shade — but their whole catalogue over a half decade is exceptional. Plus, the amazing thing with Big Thief live sessions is how they can vary the songs — performance by performance — because they’re so intuitive and human and unafraid to bend into the moment. It’s the timeless brilliance of the songwriting (Lenker is a greater writer than her heroes) coupled with effortless, unostentatiously superb playing togetherness, both self-possessed and fully outwardly curious (two qualities that are usually mutually exclusive features of a rock group). Big Thief embrace to the hilt the unadorned process of being a guitar band.
The rest of my albums list at this point is a mess that will need revisiting in late autumn. Kathryn Joseph and Keeley Forsyth (both of whom I reviewed for The Quietus), Kendrick Lamar, Aoife O’Donovan and a couple more. Yes I’m onboard with Wet Leg, by the way, they’re excellent, way beyond the breakout hit.
A quick Wet Leg digression for people falling for the ‘Wet Leg fake hype band’ conspiracy. May I present some actual technical, physical evidence that they are the real deal? Unlike most acts across all genres working at their level, Wet Leg are not yet using in-ear monitoring for their live sets. They’ve toured relentlessly around the world since that first song broke big and clearly haven’t yet had a chance to stop for breath and introduce in-ear monitoring into their live setup. So this summer, they’re often playing on festival stages where every other artist is already using in-ears, while they still use conventional onstage monitors. If Wet Leg had been a pre-planned hype (rather than just working frantically to respond to the viral smash of ‘Chaise Longue’) they would certainly have had in-ear monitoring in place as part of their live show tech, way ahead of time. They didn’t, so they’re the real thing.
In the late dusk of Primavera Sound’s urban sprawl, Lorde was perfect — literally perfect. By contrast, her Glastonbury set had magic in it but overall was a bit too ‘Sunday afternoon mellow’.
Evan Ratliff’s podcast series Persona investigates an infamous French-Israeli scam artist but has some terrific twists and turns. It flirts neatly with that notion of admiring the villain. It’s ahead of The Trojan Horse Affair and Jon Ronson’s Things Fall Apart on my podcast series list.
The ‘fine art’ chart has too many shows I haven’t seen yet, including most stuff currently at the Tates, Black Fantastic at the Hayward and lost genius Glynn Philpott’s long overdue major retrospective at Pallant House in Chichester. Tate Britain’s large-scale group show Art Between Islands is the outright best thing I’ve actually made it to so far this year, with a cheesy grinning nod to Anicha Yi’s In Love With The World (those lovely floating propellor-powered aerobes in Tate Modern’s turbine hall, left over from last year). On Friday, I popped back to Tate Modern, knowing I’d be writing this today, to check out Lubaina Himid, casually assuming her show would be a highlight of my year. But it was a bit disappointing. Trying to navigate the Tate on a hot summer Friday before the schools have broken up is borderline horrible.
In May, during Brighton’s Open Houses, we were kindly given an unofficial curator’s tour of the Regency Townhouse combined original group retrospective and new student show, Towards The Light. Curator Claire Wearn, moonlighting from her other gig as Festival Director of the Photo Fringe, was just brilliant, and totally sweet for spending time with us. She brought an already fascinating show vividly to life.
The Westin at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, where I had breakfast and then went back for lunch three hours later, has probably been my favourite restaurant so far this year, though it is a low key spot. The setting and its quietness were factors and there is a sour note: an appearance by the Sackler Family in the list of names of initial funders by the entrance. I wonder if that’ll be quietly erased by the time we go back next year, or the year after. The food was much, much better than it needed to be, in context. Dull, chunky Damien Hirsts looming over the fields nearby, not so much.
An honourable brunch mention goes to Es Bien in Barcelona with their ‘scrambled egg bomb’, which I ordered by mistake, thinking it was normal eggs. A vast hollowed out bread roll, big as a baby’s head, filled with a scrambled mix of eggs, cheese and tomato, a thin potato-y layer and then more cheese, before a whole nother egg, fried, placed on top. Fried egg on top of scrambled egg. Then the lid of the bread plopped back on. Catalan genius. I wonder if it’s the best European cuisine of all, for relentless egg and potato.
I will (yes, I will) get back to The Ethicurean in North Somerset before the end of the autumn, to check out how my lovely punk touring friend — now Head Chef — Mark McCabe is getting on. If it’s anything like last time’s outstanding post-lockdown summer picnic, it’ll set a high benchmark for the rest of 2022 eating out. Meanwhile, on a short family break near the Witterings, my foodie brother-in-law Al created a bloody delicious squash wellington for the vegetarians, which hasn’t been equalled by any restaurant main dish this year. He had a mega umami layer of mushrooms done with marmite. This is despite Al being a big old meat-eater himself — his beef wellingtons looked insanely good, so it was impressive and gratifying that he nailed both on the same dinner.
With my coffee obsession gone (I’m now 95% heartbroken decaffeinated) instead I’ve been constructing finer, stupider cocktails and general drinks shenanigans than I have before. Last month I foraged and bottled up elderflower cordial for the first time and it was banging. We left one hidden behind the low wall on the door-step, for Ben when we went away to Catalonia, but he didn’t have time to collect it. When we got home, it was gone. I hope whoever grabbed a little bottle of nondescript coloured liquid from a stranger’s front porch had the nerve to actually sample it, because it smashed the living shit out of posh brand mixers. Next year I’ll make a bunch more, attempt a mildly alcoholic ‘champagne’ version as well, and/or just load up on elderflower lemonade like my Grandma from the Welsh valleys Hilda used to stir up in huge tin buckets every summer. Tell you what, if I figure out delivery and make enough product, next June I’ll batch up and send out a free small bottle to all you paid subscribers.
The nicest cocktails I’ve had in 2022 (always with Ben) were the killer negroni and ‘sage against the machine’ at Plotting Parlour, this end of Kemptown, and a first class Mary Pickford at Atelier du Vin in Seven Dials. But now I’m talking cocktails as we swelter and it all starts to feel too smug to continue.
Reading back, I like that this almost feels like a normal, cheerful year.
Apologies if that seems entitled. It’s nice to think of some good things for a few minutes and bypass the sheer catastrophic shonk of everything else. Have a lovely few days. If you’re stuck in the heatwave, stay shady and hydrated.
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Please look after yourself and your people.
All my love and all good things, as always.