Kiss Me While The World Decays: Pick Of The Year 2023

Apologies to the two accidental guest stars on the cover. You know who you are.So lie near the wall
And cover your head
Good night and God bless
Now fuck off to bed

- for Shane MacGowan, 1957-2023

It’s now 25 years since my long-running Pick Of The Year compilation series transitioned from cassette to CD. Over that quarter of a century, people have been trying to ring the death knell for CD as a music format, but not me: I happen to like the constraint of having to cram all my favourite tunes of the year into 79 minutes and 57 seconds.

But in 2023, I’ve finally had to admit that there’s one part of the process that is dead – the CD jewel case. It’s becoming almost impossible to get hold of writable CDs with full size cases, and you have to go to specialist dealers if you want to buy cases separately. And commercially available CDs almost completely avoid using them in their packaging. I had a look at the few CDs I’ve bought this decade that came in jewel cases – the Specials, Half Man Half Biscuit, Tom Jones - and realised with a jolt that the full size case has become a signal that This Is The Sort Of Music That Old People Like You Like.

So for both practical and ecological reasons, with a bit of personal shame thrown in, this year’s POTY is the first one to come packaged in a slimline case, with a single 5x5 bit of card containing both the cover image and the track listing. Not that this is relevant to most of you, who’ll be listening to these songs on Spotify or YouTube – just the half a dozen or so people on my Christmas list who’ll be getting a CD copy. As ever, you could be one of those people, if you enter the competition to win a CD at the bottom of this page. But first, let’s see what you’ll be listening to.

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Spank's LFF Diary: The Wrap Party 2023

Our coverage of London Film Festival 2023 is dedicated to the Suzanne Vega Fanclub, who passed away at the end of October this year.

Suze was, as regulars will know, one of the key members of this site’s LFF reviewing team, up until the point where he moved out of London a decade or more ago. But his regular grumpy outbursts in the comments sections were always welcome, no matter where he was living at the time. (Even if a lot of those comments were complaints about my not having a letters page any more, meaning that he could only write about stuff I’d already mentioned.)

When The BBG and I were arranging our civil partnership do this year, inevitably he was high on the list of people to be invited. So it was a shock to get a reply from him saying he was too ill to travel. The best we could do was send him a link to our photos from the day, and he seemed happy with those.

Suze’s final appearance in these pages was in the comments on my writeup of our subsequent trip to Palermo, where he said nice things about the short bit of video I shot there. No surprise there - photography was one of his interests, and one that had a bearing on the films he liked the most. I wish now we’d had a bit more time with him, so we could have discussed the James Benning film I got to see at this festival.

We’ll all miss you, Mike.

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Simian Substitute Site for December 2023: Sea Monkey Christmas


Books: Let’s make this clear up front: there are two books out there called Topographia Hibernica, and the one you want is the new one. The old one was written by Gerald of Wales in the 12th century as anti-Irish propaganda, describing the people as savage ignorant brutes and thus ripe for colonisation by the Brits. It's the sort of Irish lore that Blindboy Boatclub often raves about in his podcast, which is why he's reappropriated its title for his third collection of short stories. This particular Topographia Hibernica is a huge step forward from Blindboy's earlier books, although the stories still fall into two broad categories: dark character studies with a surreal twist, and slabs of dystopian grimness. The grim ones are still grim, but now they feel less like an author being a bastard to his characters, and more like organically formed tragedies: podcast listeners will work out fairly soon that one of the saddest ones, The Cat Piss Astronaut, is taken from an incident in Blindboy's own life that he's talked about before. But when he throws his surreal humour into the mix, the results are like nothing else out there - whether it's the visual image at the heart of The Donkey distracting you from what the story's really about, or the way the macho posturing in I'll Give You Barcelona ultimately resolves itself. It's the first time he's had a book published over this side of the Irish Sea, and hopefully we're going to get more.

Comedy: Blindboy’s got a successful podcast, sure, but he’s got a long way to go before he can pull down the numbers of Off Menu. The simplicity of its premise probably helps – Ed Gamble and James Acaster interview a celebrity about their dream meal – but the sheer variety of the responses they get to that question is what keeps fans coming back week after week. And, I guess, also has them packing out theatres during their just completed run of touring live shows. We caught them during a weekend in Brighton, and given that the live show guests have been locals, I was hoping that at some point we’d be treated to a shout of “POPPADOMS OR BREAD? POPPADOMS OR BREAD, NICK CAVE? POPPADOMS OR BREAD?” Not to be, sadly, but Joe Wilkinson proved a fine alternative, and was a perfect illustration of what makes this work as a live format: the audience, cheering on his basic bitch dinner of chicken Kievs, chips and peas, but turning on him when he announced that cheap Kievs were just as good as expensive ones if you overcooked them enough. All the live shows have been recorded, so if you follow Off Menu's podcast feed you should get to hear it eventually. (In the meantime, our own food recommendations from our Brighton weekend would have to include the fabulous Asian vegan nosh at Bonsai Plant Kitchen, and the combination of bao buns and brilliant beer on offer at The Pond. We didn't have the pizza at Dead Wax Social, but it's a fabulously unpretentious place for drinking and dancing, so we'll recommend it anyway.)

Music: Max Champion wrote and performed dozens of lightly comical songs on the London stage at the start of the 20th century, but until the recent release of the album What A Racket! you couldn’t have heard any of them. There’s a good reason for that: Max Champion never existed, and neither did his songs. What we have here is Joe Jackson – yeah, that Joe Jackson – writing and recording eleven pastiche music hall songs from scratch, and putting together a short film full of tremendously subtle horseshit to persuade the gullible that they’re the real thing. Given all the genres of music Jackson has experimented with since his debut in 1979, it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that he’s found another one. What is a surprise is how much fun it all is. Despite Jackson's hints that Max is somehow ‘speaking from his London of the early 20th century, directly to us in the early 21st’, that angle’s never pushed too hard. Everything just feels right for the period – the cheeky humour, the laments for the lot of the working man, and the odd bit of sentimentality where you least expect it. And thankfully Jackson still has an ear for a solid tune and a quirky arrangement, so it all works musically as well. Observe:

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BrewDogging #85: Dublin Outpost

Surprisingly popular despite only apparently being open for 2 hours 24 minutes a day.It's late August 2023, and it's my first time in Dublin in several years. It's a visit that's been on the cards for quite some time, because among other things it gives The Belated Birthday Girl and I the chance to visit our first overseas BrewDog bar in over a year. More than a BrewDog bar, in fact: it's an Outpost, the name they give to bars that are effectively brewpubs. (See also Tower Hill, Manchester, and possibly Itaewon although still nobody at BrewDog wants to admit that it's been dead since mid-pandemic.)

It's the 85th one of these reports I've had to write, and every time I arrive in a new place I'm always trying to find a different angle. So: we're in Dublin. Are there any other breweries in town that we could compare this one against? Anyone?

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Edinburgh Festival 1989-2023: An Index

A hair salon, Edinburgh, 2005. Do you see what they did there? I admit it, the Edinburgh Festival coverage on this site is all over the place - a combination of REPOST pages written for the old site and ported over to here, SPANK GOLD pages written years after the event, and pages that were actually blogged live from Edinburgh as they happened. Anyone just diving into the Edinburgh folder will probably have a hard time working out where to find stuff.

Until now!

What follows is a set of links to the writeups of all the Edinburgh Festivals I've attended since 1989, plus a couple where Spank's Pals went up without me. (Which means nowt for 1993, 1997 or 2000, so don't look for them.) For each year I've included a vaguely chronological list of all the shows that are mentioned in the entry by name. I'm now having a minor freakout at just how many shows that is, but that's not your problem.

The plan is to update this index after every Festival, so this page will mostly remain at the top of the Edinburgh folder. If that's how you got here in the first place, welcome: feel free to browse through the pages linked to below. And if you like the reviews, maybe you'd like to pay me some money to own them in book form? See bottom of page for links.

(Updated November 22nd 2023 to include 2023 reviews)

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Simian Substitute Site for November 2023: Spunky Monkey


Comedy: Yes, there's a lot of stuff that's late on this site at the moment. Look on the bright side, at least it's being updated more regularly than our Bermondsey Beer Mile site. It's been a year of turbulent change on the Mile, but The BBG and I can never quite find the time to document all the bar closures and openings: more often than not, we're relying on the people who leave comments on the site to update us with the latest happenings. One of our recent commenters was Ben Clover, who runs a monthly Bermondsey Beer Mile Comedy night at the London City Runners clubhouse on Druid Street, on the first major stretch of the Mile. It's an enjoyable night out: on our visit we saw decent sets by Dan Fardell, Sam Golin, Ed Mulvey and headliner Maria Shehata, with Ben himself doing excellent work as the compere. We really should be bigging this up on the Beer Mile site, but the problem is that it's let down by, ironically, its beer: with only Camden, Beavertown and Brooklyn available on tap, it's by far the least interesting collection of brews on Druid Street. Presumably running and nice beer are considered incompatible, which is a shame for Ben and his clubnight. But if you're not so much of a Craft Beer Wanker as we are, maybe give it a visit.

Food and Drink: Meanwhile, over on my Moblog - which is somehow still going, even though I suspect the site owners abandoned it many years ago - we've still been keeping up the once-a-year traditional of literal real-time updates for BrewDog's Collabfest. In previous years, these have been four-day epics in which we've run frantically between a dozen or so of BrewDog's bars in London, trying to sample as many of the 70-80 beers their bars worldwide have made in collaboration with local breweries. Times are hard, though, and this year the event's been cut way back: only 31 beers, and only 4 of the London bars serving them. As such, the Moblog entries - written in the bars as we were drinking - don't deteriorate over time as much as they have done in previous years. But not as many people are getting to read the Collabfest reviews since I stopped promoting them on Twitter, so here they are for your entertainment. Over nine bar visits, we drank the beers from Shepherds Bush, Hull, Brighton and Edinburgh Cowgate: Dundee, Goteborg, Dublin and Aberdeen Castlegate: Reading, Newcastle, Oxford and Stockholm: Rotterdam, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester: Tallin, Frankfurt, Canary Wharf and Grunnerloka: Norwich, Bristol and Nottingham: Camden and Glasgow: Shoreditch: and finally Exeter and Bournemouth. This means we got to try at least 1/6 pint of 28 of the 31 beers, which is an acceptable strike rate. There should be another page on Moblog where we say which were the best of those beers, but I'm afraid that's late too...

Travel: "No. No no. No no no no no no." Not my words, but the words of a young woman in front of us who'd just discovered that the almost naked Japanese man standing in the middle of Trafalgar Square was about to be joined by thirty schoolchildren. After a few years off the scene for inevitable reasons, it was a warm welcome back to Japan Matsuri, central London's annual festival of Japanese culture, looking like it had never been away. Too much like it had never been away, to be honest. In the past, you could be reliably surprised by the acts on offer - for me, the absolute peak was the year when the festival was invaded by mascot characters, including the legendary Kumamon. But in the years leading up to the pandemic hiatus, it started getting into a bit of a rut, with the same people appearing time after time. And it's still the same people in 2023. Yes, Joji Hirota and his taiko drummers are great, but they've been the headliners for several years in a row now. We also get the usual martial arts schools, Radio Taiso demonstrations, traditional tunes from the SOAS Min'yo Group, more traditional tunes from Okinawa, and an artist I refuse to name who pops up several times throughout the day and really, really shouldn't. There's one act here who couldn't have appeared before this year, and it's the aforementioned Tonikaku Akarui ‘Tony’ Yasumura of Britain's Got Talent infamy, posing for a solid twelve minutes in his undercrackers while pretending to be naked. The poor kids didn't know what hit them. Anyway, Matsuri is still a fine afternoon out, but a few more food stalls without massive queues wouldn't hurt, and neither would a few new faces on the stage.

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