For those of us hoping for a positive start to 2021, after (gestures vaguely) all of this, the first week has been a long year. The three horsemen of disaster—Trump, Covid, and Brexit—are abroad in the land, with Seasonal Affective Disorder loping along behind them like a particularly morose hound. After everything we’ve been through, self care remains very, very necessary.
One of the easiest ways to let the overtaxed brain drift away is to dive into some old-fashioned media consumption. But what to watch in these trying times? Netflix, Amazon, and their ilk have plenty to offer (I’m partial to a bit of Ted Lasso on AppleTV+ myself), but sometimes even the most easy-going narrative can require a little too much focus of the viewer. When seeking respite, it’s better to let someone else do as much of the work as possible.
At such times, YouTube is your only man. Cooking and baking channels are massively popular and might seem to fit the bill, but don’t be fooled. There are traps inherent in even the most alluring recipe video: not just the hunger they’ll inevitably spur, but also the subconscious guilt at the fact that you’ll never cook any of these delicious dishes, even though you could at least give it a shot. No, if you’re looking for pure guilt-free, stress-free viewing, you need to watch something where there’s no possibility of copying the feats depicted.
For me at least, I get that service from crafting YouTube. There’s an entire universe of YouTube videos in which expert crafters demonstrate their skills, and many of them rank among the Internet’s most soothing experiences. Stick on a video, or cue up an entire playlist, and let some of these voices (ranked below from least to most relaxing) ease all your cares as they demonstrate their skill and knowledge.
Born from the remants of the second version of the Man at Arms metalsmithing channel, That Works features a small group of forge-addicted smiths and their supporting craftspersons, mostly recreating weapons from popular media like games and TV shows, but also talking about their tools and working on more personal projects. They’re a lively and talkative bunch, and when they build a weapon there’s always a closing montage of it being used to stab, smash, and slice innocent fruit and veg. Even so, the actual process of smithing and grinding can easily lull you into restfulness, and perhaps a little bit of energetic destruction right at the end might be just what the doctor ordered to work off the last of your stress.
Metalwork on a much smaller and more precise scale than That Works, Clickspring sees a genial, soft-spoken Australian called Chris narrate his way through the creation of fascinating clockwork mechanisms. He seems to have only recently restarted posting after a bit of a gap, and he’s currently working on a recreation of the Antikythera Mechanism, but there are plenty of videos in his backlog, featuring both precision metalwork and the creation of the tools needed to do so. As long as you don’t have a problem with all the grinding and filing, or the Ozzie accent, Chris’s dulcet tones might be the perfect guide to a world of satisfying clockwork, demonstrating some of the surprisingly simple techniques that watchmakers have developed over the centuries of their craft.
A step further even than Clickspring in terms of precision and dulcet tones, Baumgartner Restoration offers up the wisdom and skill of Chicago’s Julian Baumgartner as he takes the dingiest, most damaged artworks and restores them to something close to their original form. There’s a lot to compare in the two channels, as both hosts are keen to emphasise the need to do things the right way and will occasionally throw in a wordless video as ASMR bait for their followers. However, Julian probably just has the edge in terms of the warmth of his voice, and there’s something exceptionally satisfying in watching cack-handed old restoration being removed and repairs to fine art being undertaken at the smallest scale. Plus, whereas Clickspring’s Chris breaks down his work into multiple short videos, Julian usually completes one restoration per video, ensuring a satisfying reveal of the finished work at the end.
For the ultimate in relaxing craft viewing, it’s to Japan we turn, and specifically the Ishitani channel of a Japanese maker of custom furniture. Carving, sawing, and hammering in a workshop set in unspeakably idyllic surroundings, these videos are almost entirely without narration of the kind that might tax a stressed viewer’s cognition. Instead, you’re invited to enjoy the simple satisfaction of seeing hunks of lumber being brought from their raw state into the form of furniture that you would weep to possess, with occasional cameos from the craftsman’s family and pet dog. In fact, the envy engendered by watching this furniture come into being, and the inevitable dissatisfaction with your own paltry surroundings by comparison, are some of the only minor issues with Ishitani. The other is the fact that the channel hasn’t posted a new video in over half a year, but with over three years of videos to watch, you won’t run out for a while.
One day I will go to the San Diego ComicCon (SDCC). This year, though, is not that year. Instead, while Northern Ireland prepares for its annual renewal of sectarian grudges, my brother provides me with my second niece, and my sister’s kids do their best to physically and mentally exhaust both my parents and myself, I’ve been keeping up with ComicCon online.
Over the past few years, as SDCC has risen to become the flagship event of the geek-driven media industry, the stars have been the movies of Marvel Studios’ superhero super-franchise. This year though, Marvel Studios is absent, presumably to await a dedicated event of its own later in the year. So the field was open to new challengers, with another Disney super-franchise foremost among them.
With the weekend mostly over, then, it’s time to take a completely subjective look at some of the standout offerings.
SDCC is well-timed for Doctor Who, which is returning to screens this autumn. So at the panel this year, in addition to the cast and crew, audiences got their first peek at the new season. And it all looks…very Hollywood and action packed. Which isn’t a bad thing in a trailer, but part of the appeal of Doctor Who is a protagonist who eschews violence in favour of intelligence. Nu-Who (the series since its relaunch) has had some great moments but the last few series in particular varied wildly in quality. So a polished trailer raises hopes that those variables might come into alignment this season, but it doesn’t do much to convince.
Speaking of variable quality, when Sherlock is good, it’s very, very good, but when it’s bad it’s…still watchable, due mainly to the two leads. Instead of a new season, there’s only a special episode on the way (Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch both being in heavy demand these days), and accordingly we got somewhat less than Who provided: a snippet of a scene instead of a trailer. Given the success of retelling the Victorian-era stories in the modern day, it’s odd that the special takes the characters from the revamp and puts them back into the Victorian era. It’s all a little odd, if not counterproductive, and the scene released online does suggest that it’s all going to lean on humour rather than drama. Which, given the indication that the eventual return of the show proper will see some very dark and dramatic turns, is probably a good thing.
With movies absent, Marvel’s comics presentations had a prominence that they haven’t had in years. Which is well-timed, as the company’s current Secret Wars crossover is probably its most critically acclaimed in years and looks set to lead into something of a soft reboot, with the best parts of its Classic and Ultimate lines mashed together and cleaned up by its stable of writers in order to welcome in a bevy of new readers. (Multi-media marketing being what it is, there’s some alignment with upcoming movies as well.) There were plenty of new titles to announce and discuss, but my detachment from the majority of superhero comics these days can be measured by the fact that one of the characters depicted in the fourth blurry image on this page was by far the most exciting thing in their entire presentation for me. (If you can guess which one, you get a cookie.)
Marvel’s TV output stands as the poor relation of the movies, which is a shame, as the quality is quite high. But they were definitely lost amid the rest of SDCC. Not much was to be heard of the new season of Agents of SHIELD, though the midseason miniseries Agent Carter got a welcome push, with its period glamour and post-war pulp stylings boosted by a move from New York to Los Angeles. I’ll be tuning in for that, as well as Marvel’s Netflix series: the return of the excellent Daredevil and the upcoming Jessica Jones. Neither of those were brought to SDCC, but we got images and castinginformation to keep the hype bubbling away and keep existing fans paying attention.
Sort of an unfair description, but then Marvel sold off the rights to its key properties years ago, back when it was in bankruptcy and long before Iron Man paved the way to cinematic dominance. Sony has since moved its Spider-Man into the orbit of Marvel’s franchise, but 20th Century Fox’s X-Men and Fantastic Four properties are still out on their own, and they have a fair amount to recommend them. Their presentation was a mishmash of everything they have planned, from the upcoming Fantastic Four to the further-out X-Men Apocalypse and the R-Rated Deadpool. There’s a lot of talent involved, but not much in the way of coherence, and in the age of colour-coordinated mega-franchises, that’s actually a little refreshing.
What is this strange feeling? Could it be the human emotion called…hope? In my head, JJ Abrams has a lot to make up after the twin travesties that were the two nu-Trek movies (wherein the corpses of the classic movies and TV shows were savaged and the result ground up with an excess of lens flare and quality actors, then slung in the oven until undercooked and served to the rabid masses), but I can’t really complain about anything that’s been done with Star Wars so far. True, we still don’t know a lot about the upcoming The Force Awakens, but I like that. Keep the trailers few and far between, and maintain a bit of secrecy in this era of instant gratification. What we’ve seen so far looks to be in the spirit of the original trilogy, with a dusty, lived-in universe inhabited by dashing scoundrels, noble heroes, imposing villains and the scum of the galaxy. In short, it looks like Star Wars, on the kind of epic scale that modern CGI allows. If Jurassic World showed just how bad the overuse of CGI could get, The Force Awakens might—just might—show how good it can be when it’s done right. (The free concert for convention attendees may have been a stunt, but it was an impressive one.)
And now I’m doomed to be disappointed, aren’t I?
Though I’m a Marvel fan, not a DC reader, I’ve seen most of the movies that DC have put out though (even if Green Lantern was only because it was free and on a trans-oceanic flight). Given how little I thought of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and how my opinions of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns have trended downwards over the years, I really wasn’t expecting much from a movie that looks to be the product of an orgy between those two and every other major DC comic hero, all desperate to generate a franchise to match’s Marvel’s billion-dollar success. So, perhaps it’s my low expectations talking but…that’s one hell of a trailer. The grimdark tendencies of the Nolan Batman movies are balanced, if not exactly tempered, by Snyder’s operatic excesses, and enough of the story is hinted at in order to suggest that Ben Affleck’s Batman might actually be justified in kicking the crap out of Henry Cavill’s Superman. Plus, Jesse Eisenberg as a Mark Zuckerberg-esque Lex Luthor remains an inspired piece of casting. It could still all collapse into a complete mess, but there’s a spark of excitement that wasn’t there before, and DC might just have lit a fire under Marvel’s ass that could benefit everyone further down the line.
Random Other Stuff:
The new season of The Walking Dead and its spin-off Fear the Walking Dead both received new trailers and heavy promotion. And I…don’t really care. I’ve stuck with The Walking Dead way longer than its entertainment value warranted, and I couldn’t even be bothered to fire up the new trailer. I’m sure it’ll be a huge hit.
I’d put Quentin Tarantino in the same category—his movies can be fun, but have always seemed more flash than substance to me. Still, the news that the western he’s working on will be scored by Ennio Morricone? Worthy of your attention at least.
One of my favourite ever comics series was Vertigo’s Lucifer, which used Milton’s rebel angel (as first shown in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman) to examine obsession and self-determination. It’s now being brought to TV as a…police procedural? Where the devil helps cops fight crime while running a piano lounge in Los Angeles? It sounds utterly terrible, but early reviews suggest it could be fun. I’ll be tuning in out of morbid curiosity if nothing else.
The Man From UNCLE is one of those old TV shows that was regularly repeated when I was a kid. I even had a Man From UNCLE annual once upon a time. So this hits my nostalgia button squarely on, and I don’t mind admitting that I love the look of it. Suave secret agents butting heads, feisty women, 1960s glamour, and action aplenty. Again, there’s only a couple of trailers to go on, but Henry Cavill could be getting some more of my cinema money in the year to come.
Joss Whedon has earned a deserved break after the madness of Avengers: Age of Ultron, and his next project is…a Victorian female Batman. Which from anyone else might seem odd but seems right in Whedon’s wheelhouse. Sadly, it sounds like we’re going to be waiting a long time for Doctor Horrible 2, but such are the vagaries of life.
My experience of Warcraft the game was limited but fun, much like the information released to the public on the upcoming movie. Duncan Jones is a director to trust, and the cast and early imagery are very promising, but even though the built-in fanbase is sizeable, it’ll have to work to reach beyond it. Taking the Star Wars path of teasing rather than showing could be a wise move.
DC’s other movie properties (unlike Marvel, their movie and TV properties operate in unconnected universes) operated in the shadow of Batman V Superman, and they’re too far out to judge as yet. A lot’s going to depend on whether BvS is a success, but they seem to have learned from the mistakes of the past at least. As for the TV properties, Arrow and Flash have a lot of fans, and while I’m not among them, I may just tune in to Legends of Tomorrow to catch Doctor Who alumnus Arthur Darvill in a new role.
HBO makes good TV. Jonathan Nolan (Christopher’s brother) is responsible for one of my favourite series in Person of Interest. So bring the two of them together for a relaunch of Michael Crichton’s Westworld and you have my interest. Sadly, Vladivostok’s favourite son Yul Brynner is no longer available to reprise his role as the deadly android gunman, but this could be something special.
Speaking of good TV, Bruce Campbell is always worth watching. Bruce Campbell revisiting his Evil Dead glory days in a TV series? Practically required viewing. Do yourself a favour and watch the only trailer that rivals Deadpool in the humour stakes.
Also in the quality TV arena is Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle. It’s an impressively faithful adaptation of one of Philip K. Dick’s best books, and the pilot episode showed massive promise. The fact that it’s going to be made into a full series makes me very happy.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies kicked off an entire subgenre of rewriting classical literature to include fantastic elements. Diminishing returns kicked in long before publishers lost interest in the idea, and the movie version of the original of the species languished in development hell for ages. It’s here now though, and it looks to be adopting a straight-faced approach to the silliness of its concept. That may help it to avoid being a complete mess, but the amount of trouble it had getting to the screen does not bode well.
One Last Thing
The sheer quality and amount of cosplay on offer at SDCC never ceases to amaze. I’m genuinely impressed by all of it and not a little jealous. If I ever do get to attend SDCC, a decent costume will definitely be part of the agenda, no matter how overheated San Diego in July is likely to be.
Certain authors and novels, if you come across them at the right age, will change your life. Terry Pratchett was one of those authors for me, and while his recent death was long anticipated, due to the cruelty of early-onset Alzheimer’s, the news, when it came, proved just as gut-wrenching as the original announcement of his illness had been.
Already, there have been plenty of appreciations of the man and his work. It’s a mark of both the nature of the man and the talent of the author that someone who primarily wrote comedic fantasy touched as many people across as many fields as he did.
I never met Terry Pratchett—the closest I came was during one of his visits to Dublin, when I spotted him walking in College Green, heading from Trinity College to (presumably) a pub, surrounded by a gaggle of students and admirers. It would have been nice to have the chance to talk to him, but at that stage he’d been talking to me through his work for years.
Books like Good Omens, Small Gods and Pyramids reduced me to helpless giggling more than any since Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. (Another author and decent human being taken too soon.) Across the 40 books of the Discworld series, Pratchett mixed the deftest wordplay with humour both low and cutting and serious thoughts that stole upon you in the midst of the laughter and stuck around long after the jokes were done.
As a kid growing up in a Northern Ireland still caught up in the lunacy of the Troubles, Pratchett provided constant reassurance that there was a better humanity out there. That being decent to other human beings mattered most of all, that you ought to be suspicious of anyone or any organisation that would tell you what to think, that being curious, patient, and argumentative were all good things. Thoughts that I found it hard to express, even as I was working them out in my own head, I found reflected in his prose.
As an aspiring writer, the most important thing I learned from him was that it was possible to underlay fantasy and science fiction writing with serious topics without preaching to your audience. I learned as well that language was a game, one that you won if you brought a smile to your audience’s face, or just made them pause and consider for a moment.
As a human being, he was, like his collaborator Neil Gaiman, like Douglas Adams and Charles Darwin, one of those people it was possible to admire without having to look up to them. Possessed of immense talent that never overwhelmed his innately decent humanity, yet driven by an inner anger that allowed him to churn out books of breathtaking quality and wit year after year.
That same anger helped him to deal with the unfairness of his diagnosis. Deeming it “an embuggerance,” he continued to live his life even more fully than before, fighting on behalf of those suffering from Alzheimer’s and those who believed that they had a right to end a life that had become unbearable. His eloquent arguments in favour of the right to die in the manner of his own choosing revived a debate that is still going on.
Reading Pratchett and authors like him and growing up where I did and among my family and friends has led me to the belief that if we have a purpose in life, it’s to increase the amount of happiness in the world, both your own and that of those around you. Far more than the number of books he sold, the joy that his work and personality brought to so many is a marker of his success in life.
If I ever have any kids, I’ll enjoy sharing his books with them. And whether or not they turn out to be fans like me, I hope that some of the lessons that I’ve learned in reading his books will be the same lessons I share with them.
Two men who had a lot of influence on the Northern Ireland I grew up in died last week. One was the taoiseach who first brought ceasefire talks with the IRA to the highest levels of government, beginning the process that led to the Good Friday Agreement and a halt to three decades of slaughter. The other was a radio DJ who, through those years, provided a wry, human voice for those trying to live a normal life.
I don’t think it’s any insult to the memory of Albert Reynolds to say that for me, Gerry Anderson was by far the more important of the two.
Let me clarify that. One of my very earliest recurring memories is of travelling in the family car with one or both of my parents. The school my sister and I went to (and where my parents taught, and where my two brothers would later go) was several miles away from where we lived. So in the morning and the evening, we’d be driven there and back. Whenever that happened, and indeed whenever we were driven anywhere else, the radio was usually on, tuned to one of Northern Ireland’s local radio stations.
This was the 1980s, when the Troubles in Northern Ireland were more than a decade old and had become soul-grindingly mundane. I would be much older before I learned that being stopped in the middle of the night by soldiers in full camouflage, wielding automatic rifles; that cycling past police stations that looked more like fortresses; that listening to the news and hearing the tally of the latest bombings, shootings and burnings wasn’t something that everyone else in the western world had to deal with on a day-to-day basis.
The radio shows, which mostly mixed music with phone-in segments, were a means of holding together the majority of the population who didn’t support the lunatics on either side and didn’t care for living in a militarised zone. They maintained the thread of normality, of entertainment, good humour and common experience that frayed every time another bullet was fired or car bomb exploded. You could listen to them on the way to Belfast, arrive and have to deal with a city centre that had been fortified, then return and listen to them on the way home, restoring some sense of balance and sanity to your world.
Gerry Anderson was my favourite and still embodies much of what I think of as the best of Northern Ireland. For me, his dry humour, the way he dealt with the myriad strangenesses of daily life in the North, and his insistence that all those things were, in their own way, more important than the blood and thunder of the lunatics, is quintessentially Northern Irish. Famously, he was the man who cut through the Gordian knot of the Derry/Londonderry debate by renaming the city Stroke City. A Northern Irish solution to a Northern Irish problem if ever there was one.
Twenty years ago, the IRA ceasefire began, marking yet another step in the peace process, which has now taken firm, if occasionally painful hold on Northern Ireland. As bad as the Troubles were, those of us who lived through them were, in a way, lucky. We had the space to hold on to normal lives in the midst of it all, with the help of Gerry Anderson and many others. It’s hard not to look at the Middle East today and the chaos swirling around Syria and Iraq and wonder just how many people there won’t have as much of a chance. How much of their way of life is being destroyed. I hope that when the sound of the guns and the bombs fades away, there might be the sound of a radio somewhere, and of a dry-witted host engaging with everyday concerns before reaching for another record.
There are two main approaches to Valentine’s Day. The mass-market one, adopted with varying degrees of enthusiasm or resignation, is that of getting involved, making an effort and celebrating that one special person. The sophisticated approach, adopted by cynics and singletons, is that it’s nothing more than an exercise in raising sales of flowers and chocolates, and is best avoided by anyone with a genuinely romantic bone in their body.
I don’t wholly subscribe to either viewpoint.
It’s not much fun being single on Valentine’s Day, when the world is reminding you, in red and pastel pink, how wonderful relationships are. However, it’s not always a lot of fun being in a relationship either, facing a dose of societally mandated pressure to “celebrate” your significant other by splashing cash on
However, human beings are crap when it comes to relationships, as much as they’re crap at anything else. We’re forgetful, we fall into bad habits and we take the most important things for granted simply because they’re always there. Getting a kick up the arse, even from an unwelcome direction, isn’t a bad thing if it reminds us that, hey, this is something worth a little celebration.
Only once a year though? (Add in a birthday, an anniversary and Christmas and you have four times a year, which still seems a little lacking.) Rampant commercialism doesn’t seem like the best way to set a mood either. It’s very hard not to be cynical when you see stores clearing away Christmas goods just to replace them with an array of Valentine’s Day products. (My local Tesco has a permanent “seasonal products” aisle, so you always know where to go to be reminded what the next thing you’re supposed to spend money on is.)
Cynicism, then, may be the healthiest response to Valentine’s Day. However, that ought to be cynicism towards the marketing rather than the message buried deep underneath. Responding to a prompt to do something nice, to give the person that means the most to you a little extra thought, doesn’t mean you’re giving into capitalism. After all, the form the resulting action takes ought to reflect both you and the relationship you’re in. However weird it may be.
So, opt out of Valentine’s Day and its avalanche of cards, flowers and chocolates by all means. Or opt in, and personalise it. Either way, it ought not to be just one day a year, and any reminder to be a better person ought to be appreciated.
This modest proposal has been brewing in my brain for a while. Pretty much since St. Petersburg, and that was several months ago now. It might not seem that way, but it was.
If you spend any length of time in a museum or art gallery in Russia, you’ll note a common feature to almost every room: the presence of a middle-aged to elderly lady sitting in the corner. Her purpose? To watch over the unwashed hordes who troop through her fief every day and threaten to do unspeakable things to the wonderful things that have been collected for their perusal. Her only defence against this dark threat: a stare that could reduce a hardened Red Army veteran to a sobbing wreck in only a few seconds.
I have to admit my admiration for the genius of this use of an underutilised resource. Who in Ireland does not know the power of a mammy’s disapproval? Even worse when she has risen to the exalted heights of grandmotherhood and can express her disdain over several generations at once. I shall not even speak of greatgrandmothers, lest I inadvertently draw the attention of one.
Such is the threat that these women wield that they rarely have to employ their glare: being in the same room as one, no matter how large or imposing the room, is enough to remind you of all the times when, as a child, you contemplated raiding the biscuit tin, only to turn and find yourself face to face with someone who knew what you were thinking before you did. I suspect that they only leave their seats to have a natter with one another just to reinforce the connections in their victims’ minds between those childhood guardians and the wardens of Russia’s treasures.
Perhaps, in this time of economic distress, we should seek to make similar use of the deeply-felt power of the mammy. I don’t speak of situating them in our museums, or even our banks or shops, where they would surely make any would-be thief pause in his criminality and slink away, shamefaced. No, the places where we need to situate our mammies are boardrooms and parliamentary chambers. No sooner would a captain of industry contemplate an ethically questionable shortcut to profit or an elected official dream up a scheme to enrich those who aided their rise to power than their inner guilt would kick in, they would look over to the corner to find a pair of steady eyes staring back at them over a copy of Ireland’s Own, and they would then return to find some more difficult yet more virtuous means of attaining their goals.
The price for all of this would be small: an increase in general stress levels among the powerful of the land, a few extra chairs and cushions here and there and a constant stream of tea and biscuits on demand. The rewards, I’m certain, would be many.