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Manchester International Festival 2021 (part 1)

[THE SOUND OF TRYING TO FIND SOME DECENT PICTURE CAPTIONS]As we walk out of our central Manchester hotel on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, we see a plane flying overhead. It’s pulling a banner behind it. Because of the sun and the altitude, we can’t see what it says. This is a much bigger problem for us than you might think.

Less than an hour earlier, The Belated Birthday Girl and I had arrived in the city, all set for an extended run of the 2021 Manchester International Festival. Regular readers will recall our coverage of previous festivals – we paid a flying visit to the first one in 2007, had a good excuse for missing the second in 2009, then covered the next four for Europe’s Best Website (see 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2017) before bringing it back in-house for 2019. All six of those visits had one thing in common – they only lasted a weekend, with us arriving late on Friday or early on Saturday, and on the train back to London by Sunday evening.

That’s how it usually works. This isn’t a usual year, though. With our planned foreign holiday kicked down the line for another year, we’re replacing it with a collection of short city breaks that don’t require us to leave the country. So this time around, we’ve spending a full five days (Wednesday to Sunday) at the Festival, although taking things at a slightly less manic pace than usual. The festival itself is an appreciably different shape to what it is normally – new outdoor and indoor venues to cope with social distancing requirements, a high proportion of online and hybrid content, a bit more public art than before – and so we’re going to be an appreciably different shape too. (Literally so, given some of the meals we’ve got lined up in the extended gaps between events.)

That plane I mentioned three paragraphs back is part of one of those public art projects I mentioned one paragraph back. It’ll all make sense in the end, probably – though bear in mind that this is a big enough festival to justify a two-part review, so scrolling to the end of the page won’t entirely help you.

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Playgrounds Will Laugh If You Try To Ask "Is It Cool?"

Here's a thing I said on July 14th, 2020: "Now I guess I've got 365 days to find a better song with the number 23 in the title."

Well, anyone who's ever owned the Jackie Brown soundtrack album probably saw this one coming. Although the YouTube video linked to in the previous sentence gets the title wrong, which is understandable when the phrase 'strawberry letter 22' occurs twice in the lyrics. In case you hadn't worked it out, the song itself is the Strawberry Letter 23 of the title. Aaaaahh.

Anyway, for those of you who don't know what's going on here: The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey first appeared on the internet 23 years ago today, on July 14th, 1998. Happy birthday to me, and thanks to all of you who've put up with this nonsense for any length of time during that period.

Next year should be easier, I think. In the meantime, thank yourselves lucky I didn't go for one of the musical settings of the 23rd Psalm. (Okay, there's one that could have worked, but nobody seems to have put the final scene of The Wicker Man on YouTube.)

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At Home We're A Tourist (part 2 of 2)

Us, underneath the i360, Brighton beach, 16th June 2021. (pretty sure we're in there somewhere)This story is about...

Well, it's part travel guide for visitors to London. It's part historical record of a city coming slowly back to life after months of lockdown. It's part review of a week's worth of culture in June 2021. And it's part pharmacological study, as we hurl everything we can at two people who've had two doses of AstraZeneca to see what we can get away with in public places.

It's part two (part one's over here) of my report on what The Belated Birthday Girl and I did around London on the week of our twentieth anniversary as an item. Awkwardly, it doesn't start in London.

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Simian Substitute Site for July 2021: Northern Monkey


Books: June is the month when our Audiobook At Bedtime initiative went a little bit odd. We started one book, and after a couple of days The BBG announced that she couldn't quite cope with listening to that particular author night after night. So, as a compromise, we're alternating evenings of that book (which I'll tell you about next month) with evenings of another, unrelated book - Neither Here Nor There, Bill Bryson's journal of his travels across Europe. It's a book that I first read when it originally came out thirty years ago, and it turns out it hasn't aged all that well. What Bryson's good at is the abstract joy of travelling - the process of rolling up somewhere you haven't been before and getting to grips with it. Whenever he's in a place he likes, it's that joy that comes across, more strongly than any liking for the place itself. But when he's in a place he doesn't like, he'll cram an entire chapter full of lazy cheap shots, and the gags don't land as strongly now as they might have in the nineties. (In his reading here, he also has an infuriating habit of chuckling at his own jokes. By coincidence, the author of the other book we're listening to this month does the same, but there's a reason why it works in his case.) The big difference between me reading Neither Here Nor There in 1991 and me having it read to me now is that in the intervening 30 years, I've actually had first-hand experience of several of the places he talks about here. I think what I'm trying to say is, if you're going to badmouth Naples you can fuck right off with that.

Movies: We spent a weekend in Sheffield in 2019 for Sheffield Doc/Fest 2019, and enjoyed it enough to want to go back. But by the time Sheffield Doc/Fest 2020 came around, the world had changed. Because people still hadn't quite worked out how pandemicky film festivals should operate, they threw an entire festfull of documentaries online for a month for a bargain price, and we binged on them like crazy. Sheffield Doc/Fest 2021, however, used the model first introduced by last year's London Film Festival - online screenings drip-fed across the duration of the festival, only made available for a 2-3 day window, and accompanied by selected cinema screenings across the country. As a result, our Doc/Fest this year was a little low-key. Online, we saw Men Who Sing (a charming little tale of the director's father's lifelong membership of a Welsh male voice choir) and the shorts programme Some Magic To Fight Oppression (featuring four ethnographic studies that all monkeyed around with the documentary form to some degree or other). And thanks to BFI Southbank, we also saw one of the Doc/Fest films in a cinema, and that was the Opening Gala Summer Of Soul. Back in 1969, around the same time as Woodstock, there was a series of concerts called the Harlem Music Festival, featuring a ridiculously great lineup of acts in their prime - Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and many more. Over forty hours of concert video was shot, which then sat in a basement for almost half a century because no TV network could be arsed to show it. Director Ahmir Thompson (better known as Questlove from The Roots) gets the balance exactly right between presenting these performances uninterrupted, and giving historical context to why this was such an important festival. Summer Of Soul is out in UK cinemas from July 16th, and streaming on Disney+ from July 30th, so try to catch it one way or the other.

Music: Coming at some point this month - the concluding part of At Home We're A Tourist, which covers pretty much everything else The Belated Birthday Girl and I did in June, during the week-long celebration of our twentieth anniversary. You're all culturally savvy people, so you've probably worked out that the title's a reference to the song At Home He's A Tourist by Gang Of Four. It was in turn inspired by the recent release of The Problem Of Leisure: A Celebration Of Andy Gill And Gang Of Four, an album of cover versions of GOF songs by today's top popsters. I know I was grumbling only last month about how many people are falling back on releasing covers at the moment, but this is a pretty great collection, giving you a new appreciation of both the original songs and the artists who've dared to take them on. Case in point is the opening track, in which Idles get into a fight with Damaged Goods: it's finally become apparent to me that my main problem with Idles is their crummy songwriting, because when they have a decent tune to play with they're utterly ferocious. In an unusual move, some of the songs are covered more than once, with Not Great Men turning up here in three different versions - but the multiple perspectives are very welcome indeed. If I have one complaint, it's that there's one GOF classic that doesn't turn up on here at all. Guess which one it is?  

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