Dysgu Cymraeg

For the longest time now, I’ve had a hankering to learn Welsh. It’s not that I exactly want to reach a substantial level of fluency, although that would be ace; I just want to know enough Welsh to be able to hold a conversation in Welsh without looking like a complete n00b should the situation ever arise. When I started studying at the Open University a few years ago, I briefly toyed with doing a Welsh language module but never signed up to it. Similarly I’ve listened to a lot of beginner’s Welsh podcasts and suchlike, have a Welsh/English dictionary at home, and have learned a few phrases and words that I thought might prove useful – along with some fun ones like “that sheep is beautiful” (Bod defaid yn hardd) and “what beers do you have?” (Pa cwrw sydd gennych?) However, I don’t use the language frequently enough for the vocabulary to really stick, so my Welsh has remained poor at best.

What I really needed was something that I could dip in and out of that was able to challenge me by questioning what I learnt, and using different questions from session to session. So it was with delight that I happened across DuoLingo, an online language tutoring portal that hopes to teach you at least a functional proficiency in a variety of different languages: among them, Welsh. Better yet, it was (a) free and (b) was available in the form of a phone app, which I duly installed on Thursday and which I have been duly using every day since.

Each language course consists of a large set of exercises based on various topics. Each set of exercises is comprised of a couple of dozen questions which take a variety of forms (Welsh to English, English to Welsh, listening to Welsh and either translating it into English or reproducing the Welsh spellings and grammar), supplemented by randomized sets of questions designed to test your knowledge given the exercises you’ve completed. All this is done via a clear, uncluttered display that allows you to play back the Welsh audio in full or in segments, or build sentences out of word/grammar blocks.

It’s still early days, and there’s a definite feeling of drowning in a sea of new vocabulary, but I can already sense it having an effect. I retain words and pronunciations more readily, and am able to translate sentences fairly consistently at my limited level of knowledge. It’ll be a good long time, if ever, that I’m able to converse in Welsh at the level I’d like to, but DuoLingo provides a handy, user-friendly way of picking up the basics of a language and I’m having fun with it. If you fancy trying your hand at Welsh – or one of the various other languages the service provides – get yourself along to DuoLingo’s website (or install the app) and give it a try.

If Only You Could See The Things I’ve Seen With Your Eyes

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is my favourite film of all time. It has been so pretty much since I first watched it in the mid 80s; I didn’t see it when it was released in 1982 as I was a mere 10 years old at the time and was only dimly aware of it. Strangely enough, my first contact with Blade Runner wasn’t the film itself or even the book that inspired it (Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?), but a comic book adaptation of the film that was serialized in the weekly Star Wars comic I collected back then.

The comic adaptation – which, thanks to the excellent blog All That I Love, you can read here – was a revelation to me. Although I already liked my sci-fi, I hadn’t read anything quite so dark or quite so near-future plausible. The art was impressive – even more so once you’ve seen the film and realize how closely the mood and style of the film was mirrored – and I found the ideas underpinning the story intriguing. After finishing the comic, I remember thinking that I had to see the film as soon as I could, and it wasn’t too long afterwards that I actually did. I was not to be disappointed. The film is a visual and sonic feast, and while Philip K Dick’s book may have inspired the film, the screenplay struck out in its own direction whilst incorporating the majority of Dick’s ideas. Strictly speaking, the story is very simple indeed, but there’s a whole heap of subtext about mortality, playing god, slavery and cultural disposability that lends a lot of weight to events.

So it was with a great deal of trepidation that I discovered that a sequel was being made. Originally Ridley Scott was to direct it, but although he has remained the executive producer for the film, he has ended up giving the reins to Denis Villeneuve (who helmed the impressive Arrival) – probably because he’s too busy with the ongoing Alien mythology films to be as hands-on as he might prefer to be. There are plenty of dangling plot threads for a new film to pluck at, but I think my major worry is that a sequel won’t be able to capture the gritty yet oddly dreamlike mood of the original as successfully. The original film is hugely influential on modern-day sci-fi: everything from the miniature work to Vangelis’s majestic and incredibly atmospheric score has been endlessly emulated in the years since the original film was released. A sequel cannot hope to be as mythic in scope or execution, but then again, with Ford returning to play Deckard, Villeneuve in the director’s chair and Scott still overseeing the project, I feel there’s scope for optimism – even in the absence of Vangelis (Hans Zimmer is scoring the new film, but as you will hear in the trailer, Vangelis’s musical legacy has had a dramatic and deserved impact on Zimmer’s score).

And so a trailer has now landed for Blade Runner 2049, and I have to say, it has properly blown me away. The striking visuals are certainly intact, given a 21st century makeover as you might expect. It’s too early to say about the score, but based on what little you hear in the trailer, it sounds like Zimmer proved to be right man for the job. It’s easy to be dismissive after all these years, but I dunno, I prefer to err on the side of optimism here. For the most part, the people involved in making this film happen have an excellent track record. The only thing I do know for sure is that when the film is released in a few months, I will be front and centre.

Ew, that’s better

Thanks to everyone who’s asked about Maya in the wake of her visit to the vets. Things seem to have settled down now, and we also seem to have discovered what was at the root of her feeling so rough. On Thursday night, she was out cold in her cat bed, but suddenly leapt up from her place of repose and started to upchuck, and our hearts sank. Y’know, the whole “oh man, here we go again, she’s still not over it” sort of thing. However, rather than the puddle of undigested food and bile we had expected to see, she had thrown up an enormous fur ball – a proper, tightly-packed frankfurter of bile-covered, compacted fur over a foot long. Clearly, this was the root of the problem, as her mood improved rapidly and she’s been fine ever since.

Yesterday we took her back to the vet for a previously arranged appointment that was essentially just one final check up. We told the vet what had happened the previous night and he wasn’t in the least bit surprised – we’re fortunate that she managed to get that enormous fur ball up, or we may have had to resort to surgery (by the vet, not by us, I hasten to add). Given the evident improvement in her condition, we closed our case and, with a deep sigh, paid our sizable vet bill. Obviously how much Maya’s treatment was costing wasn’t our primary concern, but I have to admit I’ll be happier once our insurance claim is processed. Still, Maya’s continuing well-being is a bargain at any price. She’s Our Girl.

The moral of this story: if your cat suffers from hairballs, make sure you treat them for it – especially if you have a particularly shaggy pet. We’ve invested in a new can of anti-hair ball gel and will be feeding her anti-hair ball cat treats regularly as well.

Prophecy Girl

I can’t quite believe it, but Joss Whedon’s wonderful Buffy The Vampire Slayer is 20 years old this week.

I’m not at all sure what I expected when I heard that Whedon was making a TV series out of the concept underpinning the 1992 film Buffy The Vampire Slayer. I remember seeing that film a few months after its release and being thoroughly underwhelmed. I thought the concept – essentially, that a high school cheerleader had been born into the role of ‘The Chosen One’, destined to defend the world against the depredations of the supernatural – was kooky fun, but although the film raised a few chuckles it was all a bit too B-movie for its own good.

So when I noticed the show had been imported from the US courtesy of the BBC, I wasn’t especially interested at first. The fact that the show had been gifted an early evening dinner-time slot didn’t bode well to my mind, either. I had visions of a show very similar to the film: a kitschy semi-sitcom affair with little in the way of character development, hokey effects and limp, uninvolving scripts. Indeed, a few episodes had already aired by the time I found myself switching over to watch an episode, in a spirit of “Ah, what the hell, I feel like something lightweight and fluffy for an hour.”

I was not at all prepared for what I saw.

It was just so much sharper, all round. The dialogue was quick-moving, witty and loaded with jokes and pop culture references – not to mention the ‘Whedon-speak’ slang used by most of the characters, which rapidly became endearing and entertaining all on its own; the cast were superb, too – there was immediately a sense of a connection and symbiosis between everyone that made a huge difference. The writing, too, was a great deal more subtle, and I was surprised how much I got behind the characters in the space of one episode. The effects, too, were a huge improvement on the film, making it all feel a great deal more rooted in reality. Add in Nerf Herder’s immortal theme tune and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I actually felt sad when it was over. The episode in question was Out Of Mind, Out Of Sight – by the time I started watching, the first season of the show was almost over. When the season finale aired the following week, I was already kicking myself for taking so long to give the show a chance. When the second season started airing, I was there from the start. Not long after it started to air, the first season was released on video, which was a day-one mandatory purchase. I binge-watched that first season over the course of a weekend, and finally felt properly abreast of all things Buffy. I would record each week’s new episode and watch it perhaps half a dozen times, by which time the next episode would be broadcast – and so it went on. By this time I was – as you can tell – a diehard Buffy fan.

So much has been written about the show during and after it’s seven-year run – not bad for a show that almost everyone felt sure at the time would never make it to a second season – that it’s hard to feel that anything I could write about it would be something that people haven’t heard a million times, but here I am, trying, anyway. I’ve seen very few TV series that were written as well as Buffy was. Watching each new season was like being strapped to a rocket. Many shows write to a formula, or write ‘bottle shows’, where little or nothing has changed significantly for the characters when you compare the situation at the start of an episode and the situation at the end. Buffy dispensed with that attitude very early on, gleefully killing off cast members, introducing new ones, pitting friends against each other, turning established characters on their head in fascinating ways – the tangled webs of relationships between the characters was a feature from early on in the show’s run, and made for compelling viewing. The show was also ruthlessly serialized: although many (not all) episodes featured a self-contained threat, every season served up a new long-running challenge for Buffy and her band of allies. Episodes frequently turned up story elements from previous shows, so watching regularly made the viewer aware of a whole slew of subtexts and plot devices that more casual viewers would miss altogether. Finally, in its last three seasons, the show dispensed with self-contained episodes altogether, and essentially served up 22-hour long films, split into hour long chunks. The writing never flagged: it was always so inventive. The cast and crew made 144 episodes in all, and whilst some are obviously more impressive than others, I don’t think they ever made a bad episode. That’s practically unheard of.

Great though the writing was, without such a great cast, the show couldn’t have become the enormous success that it was. To a man and woman, the cast were absolutely amazing. The extended cast of Buffy is still the gold standard for an ensemble cast for me: their chemistry was remarkable, even early on, and naturally enough things only improved over time, as the cast grew into their characters and the histories of those characters informed their performances. Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Buffy Summers was an incredible creation: one of the great flawed heroes. Amazing as she was, it was her relationships with the other characters that made the show work. Everyone was so well-drawn, from the shy Willow; the class clown Xander; Queen Bitch Cordelia; the brooding Angel; the madcap ex-Vengeance Demon Anya; the bookish Watcher, Giles; the wonderfully sarcastic British vampire Spike; not to mention the numerous others that cropped up over time. Great characters, played, without exception, brilliantly. The voyages of personal development all these characters went on were wonderful to watch – and Buffy always managed to get me to feel for the villains as well as the heroes. Some episodes were almost totally focused on one character, but never failed to hold your attention, whoever was being featured.

When the series started, Buffy Summers was in High School. Seven years later, we’d watched Buffy and her friends literally and figuratively grow up before our eyes. They faced every kind of challenge along the way, many of them not even remotely supernatural. I had been there every step of the way, and I loved them all. So when the stakes were raised substantially in the latter years of the show and characters I had known for some time started to die, and the characters left behind had to deal with that fact, the show carried some serious emotional weight. The show broke every character at some point: had them face up to unacceptable things about themselves or their friends and loved ones that led to some hugely emotional pay-offs.

I think, more than any of the other shows I’ve watched and enjoyed in my time, Buffy is the show that is the most misunderstood by the people who haven’t watched it. I’ve happened across very, very few people who have given Buffy a chance and haven’t warmed to it, but still many of those who haven’t watched it feel that it must be some kitschy teen soap with PG-rated comedy vampires. In the wake of the Twilight franchise, the people holding that opinion only seem to be further entrenched in it. I can understand where that feeling comes from, because – as I mentioned above – that’s exactly how I thought of the show… before I actually watched it.

As Buffy’s 20th anniversary celebrations continue and the show is fondly remembered by legions of fans – and a still-besotted cast and crew – my hope is that some of the sceptical onlookers are moved to give it a try and discover just what an incredible show it is. I’ve deliberately not included any real spoilers in this blog entry; as with any show, the real joy is in not knowing what’s coming. That said, Buffy remains one of the most endlessly re-watchable shows I’ve ever seen, and you can be sure I’ll be indulging in the pleasure of a repeat viewing in the near future. It’s been a while now, and the anniversary feels like the perfect excuse. Not that one is ever needed for a show this creatively successful.

Yes, there are vampires, and ghouls, ghosts, witches, demons and who knows what else. Yes, there are magical scrolls, eldritch books and monsters. There are also detentions, relationship problems, sexual awakenings, hangovers, bad hair, misunderstandings both comic and tragic, deaths, births, sacrifices and great joy. All of life – and death – is here. If you’ve seen the show, then you know why I love it so much. If you haven’t… well, better late than never.

Happy Birthday, Buffy. I hope someone got you cake. Thank you for 20 years.


“Don’t tell me to calm down!”

I’m getting well psyched about the return of the Alien series to the big screen in a few months time. If pressed, I’d probably tell you that the Alien films are my favourite film series of the whole bunch – yes, even the much-maligned Alien: Resurrection has plenty to recommend it in my view – so you can well imagine that I’m excited about the upcoming Alien: Covenant, which fills in some of the Alien timeline between the prequel Prometheus and the original 1979 classic, Alien itself. Like Prometheus, it is helmed by the director of Alien, Ridley Scott, who still seems to have a stronger handle on the mood and aesthetic of the series than the other directors who’ve helmed installments of the series (although I think David Fincher pretty much nailed it too). On the surface it looks like it’ll knit together the plot strands left dangling by Prometheus with the bio-mechanical xenomorphs we’ve come to enjoy so much from the other films, and with the usual Scott panache.

Recently, this little scene-setting short was unveiled, which whets the appetite nicely. See how many direct callbacks to the original Alien you can spot (everything from dialogue, to scenery, props and even costumes – I was giggling to myself in absolute fanboy raptures by the time it was halfway through):

And it looks like it all kicks off big time after that. The first trailer was extremely promising…

The second trailer, unveiled this week, is even more full-on:

I cannot wait to see this. Sure, I’m an Alien fanboy of old, but I’m getting a great vibe from this: it really feels like a logical extension for the series. These days, when we’re talking so much about the feasibility of colonizing corners of our solar system, and eyeing up exoplanets a few light years away, wondering aloud if they could support human inhabitants, it feels like Ridley Scott is reminding us just what a hostile place the universe is, and how inimical to life alien environments could be. The rest of the series has always shown how hostile alien environments can be, even without help from everyone’s favourite xenomorphs: from Acheron/LV 426 to Fiorina 161, these are not worlds that you’d relish living on, even with an arsenal of terraforming technology at your disposal. It looks like the destination of the Covenant is going to be no different in its own way. And I’m fascinated to see how they link this story to the events of Prometheus – I can make a few educated guesses, but I don’t doubt that there’s a lot more going on than is immediately apparent.

It’s going to be quite a ride, I reckon. Well excited here.

Shut Up And Play Yer Guitar

The last year or so has been a thoroughly surreal experience for much of the western world, really. Why? Politics. You only have to turn on the news these days and your senses are assaulted by one bizarre update after another. I’m not just referring to ‘Brexit’ or to Donald Trump (although neither seems to ever be more than a few seconds from everyone’s minds, and not without good cause), but to the whole shooting match. Obviously my perspective is largely geared around events here in the UK, but even cursory web use these days will show you in uncertain terms that almost every country on Earth appears to be undergoing their own seismic political shifts. As the old curse goes, we are living in interesting times. Great yawning chasms are opening up between different viewpoints and belief systems, and the result, inevitably, is conflict, and lots of it. Much of it, thankfully, is not armed with anything more lethal than some choice invective, but make no mistake, that could easily change. Broadly speaking, there are two mindsets in the world: not ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ (whatever those words mean this week), but those who fear difference, and those who embrace it. In the UK and USA, the fear is having its way for now, fed by politicians who really should know better than to fall behind it and enable it. But that’s an entirely personal view and doesn’t get us to what I want to talk about here.

Naturally, times likes these ensure that people are more invested in and passionate about their own political beliefs, so it’s probably not a shock to see creative people including political content in their work – perhaps most especially musicians. ‘Protest music’ has been around for as long as political systems have existed, so there’s nothing new about it; similarly, the longevity and continued potency of some well-known protest songs is testament to how powerfully such music can capture people’s emotions. At its root, music is an emotional process for both the musician and the listener, so naturally something that musician, or listener, or both, finds especially emotive is likely to lead to some pretty powerful music.

However, there’s another mindset, one that claims that music is entertainment, and since talking about politics is a serious business, musicians should have nothing to do with it. This mindset is often reinforced by media stereotyping, which casts all musicians in the role of drug-addled millionaires, who are kept comfortable by their record labels – if they’re not living overseas with their mountains of cash already – and so clearly could not know the first thing about the lives of ‘ordinary people’. The media is so filled with stories of larger-than-life pop star behaviour that people assume that the 99% of musicians who are rarely, if ever, featured in the tabloids are no different.

This mindset does everyone a disservice. It makes musicians increasingly reluctant to address issues that they may feel very passionately about in their music – and we all know that perhaps the most important thing a musician can do is write about topics that they feel passionate about. It also means that there is less material around with that kind of content, meaning less people are exposed to it, and may not as a result form an opinion about it – not everyone is inclined to read about a topic in the media, if they were even aware that the topic is a matter of concern.

Perhaps my biggest misgiving is this: music is art; yes, it is entertaining in that like a good book, or a well-made film or TV series, it allows us to experience something that hasn’t happened to us, something that – hopefully – engages our emotions. This is the purpose of art; so the concepts of art and entertainment are intertwined. However, the word “entertainment” has become so bloodied and bruised through misuse that we’ve created a neat divide between the two concepts that doesn’t exist. “Art” is serious; “entertainment” is not; the logical extension of this argument is that “art” is for elites, and Joe Public has only entertainment. Art is opera, classical music, “art” films and exhibitions, whilst entertainment is about The X Factor, Coronation Street and whatever fucking number we’re up to in the Fast and the Furious series now. The bottom line is that some people just don’t value music as art; it’s just whatever is on the stereo whilst they’re loading the dishwasher or doing the hoovering. Disposable, mildly diverting stuff that they don’t have to think too hard about. It’s a view that is anathema to me, and hopefully to everyone reading this, but this is, sadly, the case with a great many people. They’ve just never engaged with music on a meaningful level – it’s never made them feel something that made them stop and think, wow, man, that’s something else. I need to hear that again. I really need to listen to it.

It gladdens my heart, then, that two musicians I admire from utterly opposite ends of the musical spectrum, are in the process of making political statements with their music. The first is Roger Waters, of whom many of you will know I am a long-standing fan. Pink Floyd’s chief songwriter was never been reluctant to write about political issues in Floyd’s music, and has not been shy about inserting political themes into his own material in the time since he left the band. He’s been outspoken about a great many political issues in his time – most notoriously his recent ongoing commentary about the situation in Gaza, where he has openly and roundly criticized the Israeli government’s actions, and encouraged other artists to join him in a cultural boycott in the hope that censure will guide Israel towards a more equitable handling of the long-standing conflict with its beleaguered neighbour. Waters’ stance has earned him a great deal of criticism, most of it entirely unfair – he has been repeatedly pegged as an anti-semite, which is patently absurd as Waters himself has explained. Now, Waters is in the final throes of completing work on his long-awaited new studio album, which he has elected to call Is This The Life We Really Want? It doesn’t take much thought to get a sense of what the album is going to be chiefly concerned with, coming as it does in the wake of the excellent Amused To Death, an album that describes our obsession with entertainment, and how our short-sighted pursuit of a momentary escape from the world we’re slowly destroying will lead to our own destruction. In support of the album, Waters is about to take to the road with a new tour, entitled Us and Them (after Floyd’s song of the same name, which is concerned with social inequality – something that I and others would contend has led to the current political ructions in the West and elsewhere). Playing a set comprised of Floyd classics and his own material, much of it with plenty of politically motivated content, Waters will no doubt continue to bring his chiefly humanitarian message to his listeners, and the usual suspects will no doubt continue to delight in catcalling him from the sidelines for daring to speak out. Roger clearly doesn’t give a flying fuck, though. As this recent performance of Floyd’s Pigs (Three Different Ones) goes to prove.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have Katy Perry. I actually have a lot of time for Perry: she attracts the usual criticism from fans of other genres of music for making “dumb processed pop”, but I think most of us are adult enough to grok that, even if it’s not the kind of music we tend to prefer listening to, good pop music is incredibly hard to write and perform, and her popularity and longevity in this world of five-minute pop wonders seems to indicate that she’s the real deal. This week she launched a video for her new song Chained To The Rhythm, which makes some pointed and unsubtle digs at the state of politics in the USA, or at least how reluctant many people are to actually engage with it.

Ask yourself – in a world where Katy Perry, ‘entertainer’ (never mind singer, songwriter and businesswoman, and so forth, eh? It’s amazing how reductive the word ‘entertainer’ is when used this way. You may as well say “clown” or “dimwitted numbskull”) feels passionately enough to pour her own time, energy and money into recording that song and making that promotional video, can you really afford to tune out politics from your preferred listening? Our lives are dominated by politics – politics is not the preserve of be-suited Oxbridge graduates with a silver spoon in their mouths. It affects us all, and we should not be ignoring it – even if it arrives in the form of a song on your favourite band’s latest CD. Perhaps especially not if it arrives that way. Because if we tell artists not to write about things they really care about, we’re overlooking a key part – a key purpose – of something hugely important and valuable.

Settling In

Hey all,

One of the main reasons for setting up hippytowers.net was getting all my online stuff in one place, so I’ve decided to move my blog here as well – yeah, I know, I’ve moved blogs several times already. Hopefully this will be the last time. Who knows, having a shiny new blog might encourage me to update it a bit more regularly. Anything’s possible, right?

Just settling in here at the moment, faffing around with the settings, themes and suchlike – basically all the usual set-up malarkey that integrates this into the site as best I can. I’m using WordPress again, as I was so impressed with the web-based service. I’ve never messed with an actual installation of WordPress before, though, so if something looks dodgy or not how it ought, bear with me whilst I fiddle with it.

More updates once I’ve settled in here. Until then, be excellent to each other :-).