Podcast Recommendation : History of Rome

Probably not much of a revelation to most this one. Mike Duncan’s excellent ‘History of Rome’ podcast has been around for years now, long enough for me to have run through it two or three times at least. The first time out of pure interest in the history but with subsequent listens as much to relax into the stories of Rome as anything.

All through the 180 or so episodes Mike does a brilliant job of tracing the lines of Rome’s rise and fall with just the right balance between interesting detail and a coherent, listenable flow. And it’s all rich enough to be immersive, drawing you into the ancient world just as well as any fictional effort can.

It’s not a course in academic history, so if you’re already an expert don’t expect revelations, but for the more casual historians amongst us, or those who just enjoy the story it’s perfect.

Mike’s also gone on to do other historical podcasts, all of which are, I’m willing to bet, very good although I haven’t gotten around to them myself yet.

You can find the History of Rome here on the blog, and I believe there’s also a full YouTube playlist which’ll save you from having to pick each new episode.

Highly recommended.

Athletico Mince Podcast

My recommendation for the day is the Athletico Mince podcast with Bob Mortimer and Andy Dawson. Mostly it’s two blokes talking absurd bollocks for a bit and then stopping, which is great really. If you’ve seen Bob doing stuff like Would I Lie To You? then you’ll know he can spin a ridiculous yarn even when he’s not going full, prop heavy surreal. And without even saying much he can crack you up with nonsense. Andy Dawson’s a bit more sane but he’s got plenty to offer and makes a perfect foil – and break – from the weirdness. Even if ‘break’ is a relative term given his own fine line in bollocks talking. It does (very, very) vaguely circle around football but really, even if you’re not a fan, that shouldn’t put you off because Gangs of the EPL and the adventures of Steve McClaren and his snake are something the whole family can enjoy.

Not every character/sketch works for me but you can always recognise what you might want to skip and the stuff that’s good is great, so you never need to skip far.

I finished binging it over the course of a week and even paid a couple of quid for the recording of one of the live shows they did, well worth it and a show I’m happy to support. Anyway, if you like nonsense, tall tales and the idea of Steve McClaren’s snake throwing up a lot give it a go.

You can find Athletico Mince here.

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

I’ve been on a mini Bacigalupi streak recently – Wind Up Girl, Ship Breaker and now The Water Knife, a minor diversion into post-apocalyptic and dystopian misery which, to be honest, is a bit exhausting.

To start with the good The Water Knife is an efficiently well written and occasionally very immersive book, Baigalupi seldom drifts from the essentials of his characters and story telling and while the prose has flair to it there’s little that doesn’t also serve a purpose. So it’s readable, very readable.

The story is set in a water starved Southern and Mid-Western US where thirsty power blocs – California, Las Vegas, Colorado – vie for rights to the ever diminishing supplies under the decaying and largely indifferent gaze of the government back East. Throw in straggling hordes of refugees from the dried out state of Texas, narcos from the now formally declared Narco States, Chinese corporate interests and local gangs in Phoenix, the broad focus of the book, and you’ve got enough apocalyptic fodder to depress anyone. Which Paolo does, constantly.

There’s an ensemble cast of characters, all unified by their existence on the edge. On the edge of legality, criminality, their own societies, their own professions, morality. Bacigalupi’s world here is one with no interest in or time for the masses or the middle which, as far as an action driven plot goes, makes perfect sense. His perspective is one held just beyond the breaking point, his characters either spiralling towards it or long since submerged into a chaotic mess of cruelty and survivalist necessity. Which does work, for the most part, as I said this is a well written and eminently readable story. One which is set in a interesting world too, a compendium of human paranoias and fears about climate change, cultural decay and societal oblivion all brought to their pinnacles in one hellish, desertified landscape.

The one problem I found with that though was that his focus is a little bit too relentless. In Wind Up Girl, the first of his books that I read, things weren’t that much less extreme but in some characters at least he did allow a little humanity to survive. Even as it was shattered by another, similarly brutalised, world there were elements and characters which spoke to a remnant of recognisable humanity which wasn’t entirely despairing. With The Water Knife though there’s pretty much no redemption, no trace to be found of anything positive about our species and what minimal nods there are to a world beyond the extremities of the main characters are only ever given as a prop to demolish in the greater service of making everything worse.

I’m not saying this should be a book which offers hope mind, it obviously didn’t set out to be and grim as the reality he’s created is there’s not much scope for it. But even in the world Paolo builds there is evidence of something else, some ongoing collective struggle and sense of community existing within the horror. The shanties of the thirsty future aren’t just killing grounds, the streams of refugees aren’t solely comprised of those who’ve turned to obscene cruelty and violence as a basic state. Again though, as far as the story goes they exist only to further the main cast’s misery, to reinforce and, through suffering, prove their own descents into moral oblivion and incomprehension. There are hints that this is being presented as a comment on the US itself, a condemnation of the spirit of ultra-individualism in times of crisis which, maybe, wouldn’t be the same in other cultures. But if the relentless hopelessness is meant to push that line then it’s almost comically extreme. Pushed too far to make the point as anything short of a hammering horror story.

It’s a lack of balance which stops a good book from being a great one for me. The best exposures of human misery, in my experience, are the ones which don’t forget that there are humans in the story. The ones which don’t forget that, for most people, there is a desire towards community and a sense of security, even in situations which refuse to allow for it. That’s not to say there are happy endings or that some fantastical ‘good guys’ get their moment of victorious glory but there is some desire and, well, hope that things could be more normal. Something which Bacigalupi seems to revel in repeatedly smashing down as fodder for corruption.

On the generous side you could say that, given the issues of the books covers, like climate change, resource scarcity and societal decay an element of over the top grim-darkness is justified. Maybe that was an active choice for this story and, to be fair, in his YA Ship Breaker book there are hints of solidarity and (attempted) decency even amidst a similarly decaying world. With The Water Knife though it’s so completely, resolutely absent that it almost just feels like nihilism. Paolo has concluded that humanity will turn to cruelty without hesitation or even much resistance when circumstances demand it. All of humanity, more or less, with any hold outs falling quickly enough to be exceptions that prove the rule. A certain relish for violence, especially sexual violence, in this book (and The Wind Up Girl) doesn’t do much to dispel that notion. It’s evil all the way down here, with the only question being how long it takes any given character to descend, or be butchered before they can.

That said it’s still a good book, it’s still very well written and very strong in its intent and dystopian vision. Just as The Wind Up Girl was before it. When I circle back to his work though (and I will) it’d be nice, maybe even necessary, for him to allow for a view from the centre. Not one that’s any more upbeat or hopeful perhaps, but one where there are characters at least allowed to attempt decency without being knocked down with knowing disdain by a sense of absolute misery. Perhaps even allow a sense of agency for them, show that not everything, from society to family, is a flimsy front for inherent cruelty.

Sanitised Inhumanity

Sterility is one of the true markers of our time. As we live, try to understand and to create we repeatedly assume that to cleanse, to add a polished shine is to imbue quality in what we do.

In cities we gentrify, bringing order to urban chaos in the form of kit ready assemblies to be erected over the rubble of human growth. That same human growth suddenly dismissed as almost bacterial, disordered and messy. It’s judged as bad, while newly erected chains and cut to template homes are held as pure and good. A concerted effort to appease an imagined middle perhaps, where any number of fears, uncertainties and phobias can be soothed by uniformity regardless of how thin the slice of humanity is which requires such complete psychological security to exist.

In culture even the darkest and most honestly chaotic experiences, truths and ideas follow the same path. Without an ounce of realised hypocrisy or awareness the most fractured and incomprehensible portions of our human condition are buffed to a camera ready sheen where the words might survive unchanged but the force is disinfected away to aid the digestion of the now deified consumer. To do otherwise, to offer the unadorned and un-gilded without comforting context or a soft focus is to break the laws of appeal. An ironic requirement which means even the most unpleasant of subjects need to be sold to an audience by a ready set of tricks, tropes and focus grouped obligations. And even where art ignores those demands and tries to force forward with honesty there’s the whole industry of marketing waiting to insert itself and do the job in the creator’s place. An overwhelming process which can turn even the most determinedly transgressive rejection of the polished product into a marketable asset without the option to resist ever arising.

In our news the same occurs. Unending and unyielding stories are distilled down to bite sized packages, a war is the story of the week and forgotten with the weekend, natural disasters blossom up in live feeds and tragic set pieces before magically being healed in the viewer’s unconscious once the cameras stop rolling. Nothing is so bad, so inhuman or so crippling that it can’t be subsumed into the calm waters of cleansed presentation. An unnatural act, like a story cut off before the final act and one which leaves the audience to wonder why there’s some gnawing doubt digging into them. The news moves on, but humanity doesn’t, even if the outline of events is forgotten the feelings they inspire aren’t. They just add to a never ending pile of oppressive anxiety and insecurity which grows with every rotation of the news cycle. A more bare boned honesty would seldom offer much more by way of resolution but it might at least highlight the need for thought beyond the first hit of action rather than proclaiming the past passed and leaving the results of it to silently fester.

Maybe this is the evolution of human control at work. Perhaps the desire was always to sterilise what we saw and how we saw it. Perhaps this is just the first time in our history where so much force – political, capital and social has come together to give us what we want though. Where before the drive to not see was a desperate aspiration maybe it’s now become a readily offered boon from a society and media which is finally in a position to both offer and profit from it. If that’s so then it’s us who need to shake out of our own overstuffed comfort zone and seek some sense of humanist masochism. We need to start rejecting the comforts of a story, world or home which is marketed to us rather than grown and experienced by us. Or we just need to reject the snake oil salesman whose potion has proven itself, in a way, to work. And if this isn’t our natural desire carried through to artificial completion then why do we have it? Why is such simplicity and razor sharp definition of our world being forced onto us and what lies across the lines beyond which confusion is being partitioned off?

Either way the side-effects of our anti-bacterial fixation are going to keep on mounting up and, sooner or later, we’ll need to face them or let them take a toll on us no less devastating than the messy truth itself would.

Unnoticed Art

Sometimes art struggles, even very good art. It emerges from the source with pure intent, hopeful that it contains some value, some message or potential to provoke thought that can and will make a difference even as it’s shared as a passive act of promotion. But then it falters, it finds an audience that circles and murmurs, offering praise or disdain with a detached separation, happy to admire or dismiss but still unaffected by the work. If that was always the case then it’s even more tangible now. Take something like The Wire, universally praised, endlessly discussed and held up as a totemic awareness of the state of the communities depicted. Brandished as whip for scouring the guilty conscience and framing the villains of the piece. The real people speak, actors give lectures, the producer meets the President, the whole enterprise becomes a watchword for the injustice of a system which even in itself bows down to take a measure of blame when confronted with the representation of it’s own actions.

But then nothing. The real people speak and nothing, the actors give lectures and nothing, the producer meets the President and nothing, guilt is recognised and even in its clarity continues to be ignored. The issue at the heart of it, the driving force of it, the message of it is marginalised and all that’s left is the circling curiosity of the crowd. We all get to enjoy the purchase of awareness, we all get to know what the problems are and add the understanding to the inventory of our possessions. Another act of ownership made abstract from problems which no one ever admits their share in, at least not enough to do anything about them. It’s defeating and not at all unique. Almost every book, film, show, exhibition or talk which contains any form of unspoken plea for action and change becomes muted into an artefact to be hoarded. A prize for those who mistake interest for concern and awareness for understanding. All the while leaving the same handful, the same struggling few to actually work towards solutions.

That’s understandable in most. After all from such an absolute distance what can be gleaned from artistic enlightenment other than a rarefied sense of awareness? The message exists exactly because the separation makes the truth so incomprehensible and blurred never mind the limitations of waking up every day and facing a world which, even before understanding it, seems already to be defeating our better selves. For others though that explanation can’t exist, any more than whatever value they see in their own indifferent, or at least shallow, understanding. There are those who can act and don’t, those who should be driven and aren’t, those who should beat themselves for their own culpability but instead do nothing but smilingly nod at their guilt. I suppose, if nothing else, the good art creates a hammer to use against them. A reminder that, even though they fail through their own lack of effort, they were warned, they were shown and there is no excuse for what came next. That’s a familiar outcome though, not much more. Anger is already the currency we have, resentment is already the comfort and at least once it’d be good to see those underdog attempts at levelling the field replaced by a positive passion for what can be done and what is allowed to be done. Otherwise the art that attempts to translate loses value and what comes next will be beyond culture, for better or worse.