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therealus "therealus" (Herts, UK)
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The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science: Costa Winner 2015
The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science: Costa Winner 2015
by Andrea Wulf
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £6.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A masterful account, 4 Feb. 2016
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Andrea Wulf’s biography of the polymath Alexander von Humboldt has rightly earned plaudits and prizes. It is a masterful account not only of Humboldt’s long and fruitful life but also of the wide-ranging influence he had on the world and people around him. That influence transcended an isolated study of the natural world, with Humboldt vociferously opposed to institutions such as slavery, and also began a realisation that organisms did not exist in isolation, that everything interrelated with everything, and that seemingly beneficial human activities today could have devastating effects later by disrupting the natural balance of life.

Humboldt began to develop his view of the natural world as a fully interconnected web of life in South America during his first major expedition. Wulf shows him to have been a relentless explorer during that journey. On Mount Chimborazo his porters refused to undergo the hardships of attempting to reach the summit, leaving Humboldt and his companions to carry on unaided, suffering nausea, dizziness, bloodshot eyes, bleeding gums and constant vertigo. This doggedness never left him, and even in old age his younger companions would be amazed at his ability to walk all day, always dressed in frock coat, necktie and round hat, virtually without respite.

It was also in South America that Humboldt had his first encounter with slavery, an institution he held to be abhorrent, “the greatest evil”. One of those with whom Humboldt was acquainted was the revolutionary Simón Bolívar who, possibly due to that acquaintanceship, in 1816 freed his own slaves and in 1826 wrote the abolition of slavery into Bolivia’s constitution, at a time when supposed progressives in the United States such as Jefferson, another Humboldt acquaintance, and Madison still had hundreds of slaves on their plantations.

Other key figures inspired by Humboldt’s writings included Charles Darwin (Humboldt considered that if he had indeed inspired The Voyage Of The Beagle then that was his greatest success); Henry David Thoreau; Ernst Heackel, who first coined the term “ecology” and whose illustrations influenced Art Nouveau and Gaudí; and John Muir, who successfully campaigned for the creation of a National Park at Yosemite. Muir’s efforts have found an echo in those of the recently deceased Doug Tompkins, founder of clothing company The North Face, who before his death had been purchasing tracts of Patagonian wilderness with a view to preventing the kind of environmental devastation seen by Humboldt in other parts of South America.

For many years in the English-speaking world Humboldt has been neglected due to his Prussian and therefore German origins. Nevertheless, his name graces not only the Humboldt Current, the Sierra Humboldt and the Humboldt penguin but also more than 100 other animals, 300 plants, waterfalls, parks, US counties and numerous other places and things throughout the world. More, in fact, than any other person.

In relating her story, Wulf infuses it with a palpable enthusiasm. She has a clear admiration for and awe of Humboldt himself, his works and his continuing influence. Her writing is clear, and throughout the editing is excellent. Hopefully this book will not only help further perpetuate Humboldt’s work and reputation but also inspire new generations of scientists and preservationists to applying a brake to, and ultimately reversing, the detrimental effects of humankind on the earth.

The Ghosts of Highway 20
The Ghosts of Highway 20
Price: £10.99

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A thing of Dark Beauty, 1 Feb. 2016
The closing track, Magnolia, of Lucinda Williams’s previous release, Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone, can now be seen as a signal that some things have changed. Not the languid Louisiana drawl, not the painstaking attention to detail, not the blistering musicianship of all involved in a Williams-led enterprise. It’s the general tone that’s undergone a transformation.

Where previous records have enjoyed at least a sprinkling of levity, even on some of the darkest songs, those on The Ghosts Of Highway 20 are deeply infused with gravity. There is no doubt that this is a serious enterprise. And whilst Magnolia was a sign, it doesn’t fully prepare you.

The whole collection is, without a doubt, a thing of Dark Beauty, and upon hearing the closing track of CD1, Louisiana Song, I thought I had hit the moonless midnight of that darkness.

Then I heard the first song of CD2, and I knew I was wrong. This, the title track, is a song of exceptional desolation, with a melancholy that you can touch.

A couple of tracks later, Williams’s treatment of Factory takes Springsteen’s blue collar anthem to even greater depths than the original, and upon hearing the reprised first verse I was transported back four decades to my days in the foundry, right down to the smell of burnt sand; a Ghost in my nostrils. I pictured the long walk from home to the factory gates; I heard, not the whistle, but the siren inviting work to commence. Day after day after day.

And then ultimately I reached the final song, Faith & Grace, which really puts Magnolia in the shade! Already on Bitter Memory I’d been reminded of Get Right With God, from Essence. Faith & Grace - a 13-minute opus which initially resembles a slowed down version of Down Where The Spirit’s Protection, but further differentiated by the atmospheric guitar - part-way through has Williams repeatedly intoning “Get it right with God”, like a mantra, with none of the apparent satire of the 2007 song; and when she stops singing you find a groove over which can be overlaid the repeated “A Love Supreme” from Coltrane’s classic.

It’s a piece of incredible economy; not a note is wasted. The bass and drums establish an unshakeable bedrock, and it’s so understated that, in retrospect, I came to consider Louisiana Story as positively rockin’ and raucous.

For eighteen years now I’ve accepted that all I could expect from Lucinda Williams was brilliance. That the beyond-brilliance moment of Car Wheels On A Gravel Road was as good as it got. But I think I now have to accept that there is a new Car Wheels, though this time one that won’t be good played whilst driving unless it is on an unlit backroad in the middle of nowhere, or perhaps in the darkness on the edge of town.

The Lost Broadcast
The Lost Broadcast
Price: £8.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Keep releasing 'em; I'll keep buying 'em, 1 Feb. 2016
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This review is from: The Lost Broadcast (Audio CD)
A package comes through the letterbox and before I know it La Rubia, my long-suffering significant other, has intercepted it. I have some explaining to do. Like I already have the recordings from 10 and 11 April 1970 recorded by Miles at the Fillmore West, and I really really needed the one from 9 April too.

She shoots me a look which is part pity, part solicitude, part indulgence.

Fortunately I am able to show that while the tracks all but one (This) appear on the other records, they are in a different order between the three dates. I know she will not be around to hear how different those versions sound from each other, but she takes my word for it.

And they are. This is yet another document showcasing Miles Davis’s process of musical experimentation, an extraordinary display of collective creativity in which rehearsals took place in real time, on stage, in front of a live audience. Thus each date sounds fresh and new, and it is possible, as I did, to play the records of the three dates (on four CDs, as the 10 April date is a double released over four decades ago by Columbia) and not feel like the player has been left on Repeat. Just marvel at the artistic bravery of all concerned to keep stepping out without a net night after night. Quite often all that is recognisable about each title is the bassline. Sometimes not even that is there.

I love that new “bootlegs” are still being released from the ‘69-’75 period. Keep releasing them and I’ll keep buying them.

Social Class in the 21st Century (Pelican Introduction)
Social Class in the 21st Century (Pelican Introduction)
by Mike Savage
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: £6.29

5.0 out of 5 stars Preaching to the choir?, 19 Jan. 2016
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People of my generation were born into a world of presumed certainties and emerging opportunities. We knew that if we secured a certain kind of employment it would deliver a job for life, that if anything went wrong the welfare state would look after us, and that there were three classes – working, middle and upper – and that to a large extent the one you were born into would determine the path your life would follow. Mostly these certainties were, of course, illusory or misconceived. The jobs for life turned out to be nothing of the sort, and nowadays few if any people have that illusion. (Back in the early nineties I recognised that things were changing so fast that aspiring to a specific role as my next move was futile, as the role would likely soon be disappearing.) The welfare state is not now the unquestioning provider of succour in times of need that it used to be, and has been known on too many occasions to deny help not only to those who possibly don’t really need it but also, too often, to those who really do. But although the three-class landscape turns out to have been oversimplistic, it remains the case that the class you’re born into has a massive say in which class you’ll die in.

Mike Savage, in Social Class in the 21st Century, gives an account of this world, largely by means of interpreting the findings of the Great British Class Survey. Through this means the old tripartite class system, and the six-layer one I learnt in Sociology in the mid-seventies, is replaced by a seven-layered classification. Where you belong within this structure is determined by three types of capital: economic, social and cultural. Economic capital speaks for itself; social capital is in simple terms the kinds of people you know; cultural capital encapsulates your interests and pastimes. The three are to some extent interdependent, but often those born without a threshold level of economic capital will find it hard to break into the social or cultural circles – those comprising professionals of various kinds or involving the arts, sporting activities, or intellectual pursuits such as going to museums - which will enable them to become acquainted with “the right people”.

In that respect, the world Savage describes doesn’t look much different from the one I was born into. Whilst it is true, as he says, that more people from all classes attend university nowadays, tuition fees and student loans or not, more of those degrees are now vocationally oriented, and have become an expectation, not a luxury. Where once technical colleges and colleges of further education fulfilled this requirement, nowadays they are renamed as universities and award degrees instead of certificates or diplomas. The driver is economic – workers need more knowledge now – rather than egalitarian.

Savage pays particular attention to the two classes at the opposite ends of the scale, the elite and the precariat. As a lifetime class warrior with a well-honed sense of irony and working class credentials, it amused me when I completed the BBC website’s questionnaire associated with the GBCS and found myself in the elite class. But then I doubt I’m the only person who every now and then reflects on the fact of being able to afford to do things his or her parents would net even have conceived of. Nor that the same applies to many of the people with whom they grew up with. Luck is, in one prescription, opportunity taken, but sometimes it is also a matter of having taken, in Yogi Berra’s dictum, that “fork in the road”. In retrospect it is possible to see the right moves taken, but also possible to see how things could have turned out so differently had you taken the wrong “fork”.

The chapter dealing with the precariat is perhaps the saddest and most telling. For many people, only too aware of their predicament and with an admirable line in self-deprecation and graveyard-type humour, the poverty trap is all too real, and it comes barbed with stigmatisation and demonisation, aided and abetted by what Savage labels as “poverty porn”, the likes of Benefits Street which unfairly label those on welfare as workshy, using as exemplars the worst of the worst of the worst. Many in the precariat in fact spend much of their time both working and looking for more work, as the jobs they are in seldom pay enough for them to get by. In more enlightened countries it has been found that welfare payments, far from promoting a nation of skivers, gives people the chance to target and educate themselves for their next job. In the UK it is clear that the relentless pressure of the third-party companies to which getting people back into work as soon as possible has been outsourced leads to excessive opportunity costs: instead of finding the right job, people are coerced into the first job that comes along, irrespective of how inappropriate. (Part of my social circle, as a member of the ironic elite, extends to people who have found themselves in this predicament, as well as people who have benefitted from the more enlightened approach I described.)

Unfortunately, the pessimist in me suggests that the audience for this book is the choir – those who are already angry with the way things are going, the people who read Thomas Piketty (guilty), Anthony Atkinson (the same) and François Bourguignon (and again) and nod their heads sadly as they read. This book is extra ammunition, but the real targets have a carapace apparently immune to the evidence.

Paul's Mall, Boston, September 1972
Paul's Mall, Boston, September 1972
Price: £10.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I get away with another one, 19 Jan. 2016
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La Rubia, my long-suffering significant other, casts a weary eye over the playlist of this latest Miles Davis live recording to clunk through the postbox. She’s seen these names somewhere before, she knows, though not as often as she’s seen stuff like Directions.

1972 live recordings of Miles are rare – this is only my second. The other is a Columbia double CD, Live at the Philharmonic, which plays for about an hour and a half. The Paul’s Mall recording is just over fifty minutes, but an awful lot happens in that time. While the underlying groove of the various tunes are recognisable, and therefore enable identification, what’s happening over the top is, as so often, completely different from what you’ve heard before, no matter how much Miles you have. The concert is a live musical experiment; Paul’s Mall the sorcerer’s laboratory where the ingredients are stirred, mashed and refined. There are some intriguing trills, bumps and snorts mixed in to once again create a new experience.

In the spoken Introduction, the radio announcer sets the scene and lists the performers. As he does so he recounts a conversation in which Miles claimed he did not know who was in the band; the announcer admits he only knows himself because he reads Downbeat magazine. Miles was always in transition. This is a document of a particular stage in that transition which had no precedent and would never be repeated.

La Rubia knows the score. The names are the same; the contents vary on a daily and even hourly basis. I get away with another one.

Casio Men's Watch XL Analogue-Digital Display and G-Shock Resin GA - 110TS - 1A4ER
Casio Men's Watch XL Analogue-Digital Display and G-Shock Resin GA - 110TS - 1A4ER
Offered by Ash Global
Price: £88.25

3.0 out of 5 stars Lost a tenner, found a fiver, 19 Jan. 2016
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The first G Shock watch I bought had its frustrations. The display was tiny and making any adjustments, especially when passing between time zones, was a major operation. But in its favour it never, in eight years, needed a new battery because it was charged just by motion, and once set on the right time it remained set, and generally it did what it was supposed to, that is, use a local transmission for time setting, which meant that, all except a couple of occasions, it needed no tinkering when the clocks went back or forward. I just woke up and it had changed. But it always knew what the time was supposed to be in any given location.

Unfortunately it was lost/stolen, but I knew I wanted a new G Shock to replace it, so I bought this one.

In its favour, it looks better than its predecessor, and the display is at least legible, so I’ve been able to use the Stop Watch without having to squint too hard trying to read it. Against it is the fact that it now has a battery which, according to the booklet, will need changing every couple of years. (I looked for information on power for a number of watches before purchasing but none was available that I could find.) It is also manually set, so as soon as I got it I was having to make changes. Worse, on a couple of occasions already – I’ve only had it a couple of weeks – it has changed itself spontaneously, on the first occasion to sometime in 2006, on the second we went back even further! (I left home last Friday, 15 January 2016 at 1600 London time and returned five hours later on a Monday in 2004 at 0210 Tokyo time. Marty McFly has nothing on me!)

Fortunately the instructions are a little better for this one than for the first, though that’s not saying much – I have resorted to translating them into everyday English myself and carrying photocopies of my own notes around with me just in case.

Nevertheless, I’m sticking with it. It still seems good value for money, with a lot of functionality, but I can’t help the feeling of losing a tenner and finding a fiver.

PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future
PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future
by Paul Mason
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.89

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars (Knowledge) workers of the world unite!, 7 Dec. 2015
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Quite fittingly, as I completed my reading of John Plender’s book Capitalism, the next one on the pile was Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism. Plender’s had concluded with the gloomy pronouncement that there was little likelihood that its eponymous economic system was in danger of being replaced in the near future. Mason begins with the premise that the conditions are already ripe for the opposite proposition, that something will come along that is better.

Where Plender tended to tread fairly familiar ground in his survey, Mason explores more unusual ground in drawing his conclusions, although the villains are much the same: the champions of neoliberalism and its principal beneficiaries, who continue to hold their Get Out Of Jail Free cards protecting them from the excesses leading to the 2007-8 crash. What it lacks in that respect, though, is Plender’s Panglossian apologies for a temporary hiccup. Capitalism, Mason believes, is terminally dysfunctional. And, he points out, even Classical economists, including Adam Smith, questioned the system’s sustainability.

One of the realms Mason explores is Marxist economic theory. There are, Mason concedes, some areas where Marx’s predictions failed, as in the notion that mechanisation would de-skill the proletariat. To the contrary, they became more skilled and more educated, and as they did so they developed a new culture accompanied by class consciousness, organisational prowess and solidarity, leading to the formation of powerful trades unions and political parties. During the twenties and thirties this produced a capitalist-backed backlash in the form of fascism, the principal aim of which was to mercilessly destroy the mass workers’ movements. Whilst that attempt largely failed, the progenitors of neoliberalism – most notably Thatcher and Reagan – succeeded in weakening the labour movement, exploiting the consequences of the recession brought on by the oil shock resulting from the 1979 Iranian revolution, to the extent that what differentiates the present wave of capitalist development from those of the past is the lack of a viable countervailing power able to compel government intervention.

But Marx was successful in reconstructing the labour theory of value, something that in my experience, regrettably, is not taught in economics courses (and I stress that that is only my own experience). Furthermore, in the work known as Grundrisse, a set of notebooks only published in the 1960s, a section known as the Fragment on Machines predicted the possibility of machines ultimately relieving people of the need to labour at all, a notion that in its day must have seemed like science fiction but which now, Mason maintains, is not only conceivable but also provides one of the material conditions for postcapitalism, potentially changing the relationship between worker and machine and rendering the knowledge incorporated in the machines as social.

“Knowledge”, and the increasingly free flow of information facilitated by the Internet are, indeed, the key to Mason’s new economic order. He deploys an impressive array of the learned to support his idea that “free stuff” can change the world including Peter Drucker, Paul Romer and Herbert Simon. Mason takes Simon’s 1991 model of the world with its component organisations, markets and hierarchies and adds to it peer-to-peer networks, mediated by the Internet and peer-to-peer free stuff greased with information as his own foundational model. He then advances a To-Do List for postcapitalism which addresses not only the flawed market fundamentalism which continues to run riot throughout the world economy but also some of its fallout, such as unabated environmental despoliation, and its concomitant climate change, and the demographic time bomb in which people essential to the health of the world economy are confined to the places where they can least fulfil their historic role.

I’ll admit that I remain somewhat sceptical. I remain unconvinced by the idea that the networked individual, a character I’ve encountered before in the work of Manuel Castells and other Twenty-first Century soothsayers, is the new gravedigger of capitalism. Instead of “Aux barricades!” will they be shouting “To the firewalls!”? I’m sure that Mason himself does not take seriously the idea that the 1% will be able to take comfort in the knowledge that at least they will be less stressed in the future. In fact, the big omission from my point of view was the lack of concern for the lengths to which the 1% and their agents will go in order to avoid the loss of their private jets, gated communities and island-sized yachts. I suspect that some measure of violence on their part should be anticipated in that respect.

That does not, however, mean I don’t like the idea of a benign postcapitalist order along the lines Mason sketches, and he at least made me feel a little more optimistic for the future than did Plender. Many of his arguments are compelling, his critique of the present state of affairs spot on, and he displays an admirable erudition which in itself makes this book worth the read.

A Love Supreme: The Complete Masters
A Love Supreme: The Complete Masters
Price: £16.29

5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Are they really this shameless?, 3 Dec. 2015
It’s very rare you’ll find a record release this cynical. Having already released the live version and a few outtakes, the record company now does it all over again but with some new outtakes. It’s not even possible to buy the longer ones of these as MP3s.

Anybody coming new to A Love Supreme would find this a real bargain, with one of the most sublime pieces of music ever plus some of the takes that went unreleased originally. Those like me who already have the original, plus a budget CD of the live version, plus the original “deluxe set”, will see it as it is, a rip off.

It's Great To Be Alive
It's Great To Be Alive
Price: £14.96

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best bands in existence? Here's the evidence!, 2 Nov. 2015
This review is from: It's Great To Be Alive (Audio CD)
When I reviewed Alabama Ass Whuppin, Drive-by Truckers’ first live release, when it was rereleased two years ago, I expressed the hope that the band would not allow their ongoing efforts on the road to go the way of those of the Clash, unrecorded. Whilst I doubt I have the ear of Hood, Cooley and the rest of the gang, I’m accepting this as the answer to my plea.

Though it’s impossible fully to capture the excitement, this is an album that captures many of the differences between a good live rock performance and a studio recording. You can’t smell the crowd, perhaps fortunately, but you can hear their enthusiasm and guess at some of the things that are happening as they shout, roar, scream, whistle, whoop and clap, and there’s plenty of all of those at a DBT gig. But the band is also able to breathe new life and new meaning into its songs, as for example with Made Up English Oceans: Cooley explains that the song is aimed at the Klan, and particularly a demonstration they mounted during a visit President Jimmy Carter paid to Cooley’s hometown during the late seventies, which not only disgraced them but shamed the town itself, to the singer’s disgust. Armed with that information it is possible to understand Cooley’s purpose, but the delivery of the song itself conveys, far more than the studio version, the anger he feels at the myopia, idiocy and bigotry, not just in the vocals and lyrics but also in the music, which doesn’t have to be shouty or loud; it just communicates the feelings through its understatement, its accumulating rage. It’s a feeling I just don’t quite get from the studio version.

In a similar vein, Hood provides some additional narrative to the slow-grinding funk-fest Goode’s Field Road, which gains an extra two minutes over the version on Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, and the sublimely executed closing song, Grand Canyon, comes in at a well-deserved thirteen minutes.

Throughout, the playing is strong, and particularly noticeable is the additional dimension Jay Gonzalez’s keyboards give. As has been said by another reviewer, the recordings appear untouched, so the singing is warts’n’all, which is what the best rock’n’roll is. Keep it Dirty!

The song selections rove freely over the band’s career. Like anyone else, I have favourites which have not been included, but some of those are available on previous live releases (including on Jason Isbell’s Live In Alabama), so I’m not going to fret, and it’s great to hear how some of the newer material is performed in front of an audience – it’s a regrettably long time since I saw the band.

It’s nine years now since I bought my first DBT record. Since then I have looked forward to every new one, and snapped up the earlier ones, and this one brings home how much they have changed over that time, but also how much they have remained one of the best bands, live and in the studio, in existence today.

Live In Tokyo 1975
Live In Tokyo 1975
Price: £14.01

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Miles Davis, red in tooth and claw, 20 Oct. 2015
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This review is from: Live In Tokyo 1975 (Audio CD)
Good to see the tapes of Miles keep emerging. Sony are trying with their Bootleg series but other agents are in possession of live material from the seventies. Hopefully there’s more.

This particular one is from the same tour which produced the albums Agharta and Pangaea, just before the period of hiatus of the late seventies during which Miles neither toured nor recorded.

Some bits on this you’ll recognise from the other Tokyo recordings, though not necessarily in the same order. There are bits in between that will be new to you, and some bits that are familiar but played on different instruments or in different ways. It has a rougher, funkier feel from the others, perhaps less smoothed-for-general-consumption, therefore maybe more as Miles would have wanted: Davis red in tooth and claw.

Intermittently, Michael Henderson’s bass is bone shaking, and Turnaroundphrase is a scorcher, threatening to strip the paint from the walls. Features such as these compensate for the fact that there are possibly no guitar breaks quite as good as those on Agharta’s Theme From Jack Johnson, which means that in some ways things balance out.

This is therefore not a substitute for, but a complement to, the other two.

It’s a shame Sony were unable, or perhaps unwilling, to make available the rest of the 1975 set from which Mtume was taken that features on Volume 4 of the Bootleg Series, but it would be nice if someone else could release the rest of it, even if they don’t.

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