I went back on FaceBook last week; as I said there, it was purely for self-promotion because of Respectable Horror.
It’s been interesting to dip my toes back in, and advertising the book there certainly drew a response. However the main reason I left, the pollution of my newsfeed by increasingly toxic and/or moronic political stuff, has not abated one whit; in fact it seems worse, although it may be that by being away I’m more sensitised to it on my return.
So I’ll be turning it off again soon.
I’m keeping away from Twitter at present too. I like the immediacy of Twitter, and its liveliness, but it is also a cesspool of horribleness to rival even the awfulness of BTL comments in Newspapers (and YouTube). The idiotic stirring of the pot on Scottish Independence has ramped up the stupids even more, so I’m restricting the time I spent there to dipping in every so often to get a flavour, then going and doing something more wholesome instead.
I ought to be writing, of course, and I need to refocus on that.
A couple of posts ago, I mentioned Once More With Feeling, the magnificent 6th season episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’ve been asked a couple of times since then why I like the episode so much, and this is my explanation.
Soliloquies in Song
Off the top of my head, I can only think of three TV dramas in which the characters sing where it has worked: the communal singing of The Pogues’ The Body of An American at funerals in The Wire; the cast singing of 4-Non Blondes What’s Up in Sense8; and Once More With Feeling. The common factor in all three is that the singing was integral to plot and character.
Of these, Once More With Feeling is the greatest.
If characters are to be more than cyphers, they must have depth and an inner life, and it is the inner life that has to be conveyed to the audience. There are many accepted ways of doing this, from “show don’t tell” techniques, to characters saying what they think out loud or into diaries or letters, to characters giving insights into each other.
In theatre a character may well break into a soliloquy, speaking directly to the audience. Life’s a show and we all play our parts, sings Buffy, echoing As You Like It (All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players…)/and when the music starts, we open up our hearts… So we are dealing with theatre, and soliloquy.
In Once More With Feeling the core McGuffin is that a demon forces characters to reveal their innermost secrets and fears as soliloquies in song. The genius of the script is that it takes the undercurrents of previous episodes and, through the cathartic and involuntary revelation of painful truths, triggers the unfolding of the remaining episodes of season 6, rippling through into season 7.
Once More With Feeling is not a novelty musical interlude: it is the pivot on which season 6 turns in terms of character and plot. And it isn’t forced; within the mythos of the Buffyverse, the McGuffin makes sense. The characters realise what is happening and react against it; “That was disturbing, says Xander after I’ve Got a Feeling/Bunnies/If We’re Together.” “I’m just worried this whole session is going to turn into a training montage from an eighties movie,” says Buffy; “Well, if we hear any inspirational power chords we’ll just lie down until they go away,” replies Giles. “It’s getting eerie, what’s this cheery singing all about?” sing Willow, Tara and Anya.
Soliloquies are a device to breach the divide between character and audience, something else not lost on the script: “And you can sing along,” sings Buffy, looking knowingly through the camera at the audience; “I felt like we were being watched, like a wall was missing from our apartment, like there were only three walls, no fourth wall,” says Anya, going all meta on us.
Songs and Characters
Of course the songs have to work, and they do. They cover a lot of styles, but lyrically and musically they are beautifully constructed, even if they use a few old tricks, such as “Walk Through The Fire” having the characters musing in a minor key (Dm) before transitioning to the relative major (F) for the power-chorus. It pulls a similar move with the bridge, hitting the major chords and a three chord trick for the emotional resolution ((C) We’ll see this through, it’s what we’re (Bb) always here to do, and we will (F) walk (C) through the (Bb) fire). “Something to Sing About” pedals from Bm to Bm(dim), a deliberately unsettling motif for Buffy’s big reveal.
And the songs intersect lyrically, sometimes reversing what you think the initial meaning is (the ambiguity of Under Your Spell) or commenting on inner turmoil: What can’t we do if we’re together, sings Tara in the harmonies of Walk Through The Fire, throwing Buffy’s own words back at her, as does Dawn later, repeating a line from the season 5 closing episode; Going through the motions, walking through the part, sings Buffy in the same song, repeating words from her opening number.
Because each song is in essence a soliloquy, except for the first part of I’ve Got a Theory, it must tie to and reveal aspects of the character performing it. Every single song hits the mark in this respect.
A final word on Sarah Michelle Gellar. A lot is made in commentary on this episode of the strength of, particularly, Amber Benson and Anthony Stewart Head’s voices (Emma Caulfield should be added to that list as well I think). I agree. What is less often noted is that SMG had to deliver 4 key songs (Going Through the Motions, If We’re Together, Walk Through the Fire, and Something to Sing About). She lands every one with the force and precision of Buffy kicking down a door. SMG’s performance in this episode is astonishing; she had a hard time with the episode because she never held herself out to be a singer or dancer. It doesn’t matter, because we don’t hear the voice of SMG in the songs, we hear the authentic voice of Buffy Anne Summers.
And that performance, to carry the episode, is the catalyst that raises it into the ranks of the extraordinary.
After my previous post, Lindsay suggested I could probably complete a Buffy DVD collection just by visiting our local charity shops. I went for a walk at lunchtime, and whatdyaknow? Each season at £5 a pop.
I pondered long and hard, but in the end succumbed to seasons 5, 6 and 7, thinking all 7 seasons would be a time vampire, in a way that only 66 episodes won’t be…
Anyway, I had a couple of episodes playing in the office in the early afternoon in the background, resisting the temptation to dive in head first. I did watch the last ever episode over lunch though, reminding myself how neatly it tied things up (yes, I know there was a season 8 published, but I wasn’t that taken by it).
But then late tonight I thought I’d watch a couple of episodes of season 5 only to find the DVDs in that particular boxed set were Region 1, which was kinda sucky. Happily, although Windows Media player threw a hissy, VLC played the DVD without a problem. So big thanks to VLC and Lindsay.
A couple of anniversaries have been on my mind: Rumours is now 40 years old; Buffy the Vampire Slayer hit TV screens 20 years ago. I’m sort of depressed in both cases that things so fresh in my memory have acquired such a weight of years.
I have vivid memories of buying 3 copies of Rumours from Listen records in East Kilbride at Christmas 1977, one for myself and 2 for presents. For a while the album became ubiquitous to the point of cliché, and The Chain is forever associated with Formula 1 (though it may be claimed shortly by Guardians of the Galaxy 2). As often happens, its ubiquity masks its excellence and the qualities that elevated its status in the first place are overlooked: great songs and musicianship (John McVie’s bass on Go Your Own Way–wow!), expertly put together.
And, 40 years on, I can still sing along with every song. Rumours survives because it works and connects and has weathered every change in the musical weather of the last 40 years. Lindy effect, anyone?
To mark the Buffy anniversary, I’ve re-watched the frankly magnificent musical episode Once More With Feeling more times than a sensible person would think reasonable. In part this is because, since I ditched a load of VHS tapes, it is the only episode I still own (on DVD); but I would watch it anyway because, in a full field, it is probably my favourite of them all.
Rewatching it has been a treat for all sorts of reasons. Distance brings perspective. The songs are all still great, but better is that it isn’t, in one sense, a standalone “musical episode”: it is a normal episode that just happens to have an oratorio and score.
And it wasn’t until this rewatch I became aware of just how effortlessly Emma Caulfield (Anya) steals every scene she’s in.
Sarah Michelle Gellar, though she didn’t really want to make the episode, committed to it wholeheartedly, as did all the cast, and turns in a fabulous performance, including probably my favourite of the songs: Walk Through the Fire.
In other news: Respectable Horror is out today. My story The Estate of Edward Moorehouse leads it off. Buy it on Amazon!
And finally, Nicola Sturgeon was stirring the pot of IndyRef2 today. Idiot. As Buffy would say, a world of No!
Further to the post of 17 Feb, this map indicates nicely the spread of my antecedents, or at least the genetic markers they carried, over the past 10 generations or so. This represents the identified parts of the admixture of my autosomal DNA. It will be different for my sisters, in proportion at least, because we all inherit different bits from our parents. Also, because the company that did it doesn’t have good reference data for Ireland yet, I have reason to believe the map might change on later re-examination when that reference data becomes available.
The map was produced by LivingDNA
Way back in the misty long ago, when the world was young and access to knowledge was mediated by either books or a 56k modem that made funny noises as it hogged the telephone line, I read about a new-fangled thing called Google search. I’m almost sure I first read of it in New Scientist, but it would also have been one of Jack Schofield’s columns in the late, lamented Guardian IT pages of the 1990s.
At the time I used AltaVista and Google was a revelation. Firstly, Google was a clean white page with a box in the middle that said “search”; there was no directory or other information filling the screen, just a search box. Secondly, there was the original Google index and search algorithm that worked much, much better than anything that preceded it.
At the time, the internet was in its infancy and still a novelty. The notion of Google indexing pages, then searching the index and ranking results based on the pages most commonly linked to, as a proxy for accuracy or helpfulness, was a good one. But that was then. Now the internet is a sprawling thing, like a ragged old duvet draped over a cesspit. And the search algorithms are increasingly unhelpful as people game the system. Yes, I know the search companies try and correct for this, but the task is too large.
This has been on my mind in two specific cases recently.
The first was when trying to track down information on Major Thomas Weir, a particularly interesting C17 citizen of Edinburgh. The difficulty is the internet is full of nonsense about him, often simply cut and pasted from other sites without attribution. For example, he always comes up as a notorious monster, executed for witchcraft. But he wasn’t: he was accused of witchcraft but the court didn’t convict him of that; he was executed for sexual offences. He was a well-known Covenanter, and the political aspects of his trial, and the subsequent blackening of his name for propaganda purposes are entirely overlooked by pretty much any site that comes up in the first few pages of the search. That propaganda is now the stuff of Edinburgh ghost tours and guide books.
The second was this evening, trying to track down informed commentary on elements of Islamic teaching in the Qu’ran; every site in the first 10 pages or so of the search results, using different search parameters, seemed to be churning out anti-Islam polemic from “Christian” sites, no doubt all expertly positioned in the ranks via diligently applied Search Engine Optimisation techniques.
It’s almost as though it would be worth going back to the pre-Google days, when search engines sat in portals hooked to directories. Other than that, I can’t see any solution.
I had an update from LivingDNA on my autosomal heritage. They increased the time period out from 6 generations to 10; the big 4 regions are unchanged in % terms, but South Central England and Cornwall have appeared in the mix at 7.5% and 3.6% respectively. As I said in the original post, I’m from everywhere.
On 25 January I posted a link to a video on big data and analytics with reference to the Trump campaign. Buzzfeed have investigated further . They take the approach I hinted at in my original post, that there is a hefty chunk of marketing in that video.
So, I saw this today for the first time. I really rather like it.
I had a DNA test done. It was a spur of the moment thing, out of curiosity more than anything else, and I’ve got the results back. I used a new company called Living DNA and the process was simple: buy the kit, take a couple of mouth swabs, post them off, and wait.
Do you want to know the genetic make up of the fine figure of a chap pictured to the right? No harm in that.
My autosomal DNA is 100% Great Britain and Ireland in the last 5 or 6 generations. I already knew that, but it’s nice to have that extra piece of the story. That’s what LivingDNA call the “standard” results and I believe the “cautious” and “complete” results, which are more detailed, are due soon, though I don’t know when.
The test indicates 78.8% of my DNA is from 4 of 21 GB and Ireland regions:
- NW England (22.6%)
- Northumbria (20.6%)
- Central England (19.6%)
- Cumbria (16%)
Trace levels are from SE England, S Wales, Sth Yorkshire, Aberdeenshire, and SW Scotland/N Ireland. You can find the regional definitions on the site. Note the labels are fairly broad–Northumberland stretches from Durham to Southern Fife; Cumbria includes Dumfries and Galloway. My friend Cath Ingham will note that South Yorkshire includes West Yorkshire. Perhaps, then, I’m genetically disposed to Timothy Taylor’s beers? That would explain a great deal, frankly.
More generally, that mix looks about right given what I know of my family history back to 1745. I’m not sure where that Aberdeenshire (Aberdeenshire, Angus, Fife, Moray) comes from, though, so maybe there is something there to have a look at.
My Y-DNA puts me in Haplogroup R-L21, subclade R-DF13. As far as I can tell this makes my Burdon side about as British as British could be, and I can now tell all sorts of fairy stories about the Celtic Twilight (as long as there’s no Enya. Please: no Enya. Really.)
My mtDNA is somewhat more exotic (thanks Mam): Haplogroup V. Apparently this is uncommon in the UK and may, or may not, have origins in Spain around the end of the last ice age. My mam was pleased to know this means she shares a genetic heritage with the Sami people of Lapland and folks from the Basque country.
Where does this get me? To be honest, aside from that trace of Aberdeenshire, probably not very far. One way or another we are all out of Africa, though we took different routes to get here. There is a certain interest in knowing how those routes led to me, but not much more. I see a lot of activity online by people (mostly men, actually; why is it always men?) trying to hone their genetic heritage to prove a link to some Clan or other, which seems to me to detract from the greater message: we are more similar than we are different.
On my Dad’s side, we were only ever one 18th or 19th century mining accident away from non-existence. My Dad told me once that, of those with whom he did his basic Naval training on National Service towards the end of WW2, half stayed in Europe, but half were posted to the Pacific and most of them died when their ship was torpedoed. My sisters and I, and our children, are here because of the accident of having a name at the beginning of the alphabet. And no doubt my ancestors managed to survive the Black Death, famine, drought, wars and skirmishes and goodness knows what other horrors going back into pre-history. That’s more interesting to me, more viscerally real, than my genetics.
The exception, I suppose, is in the context of the British political scene: I’m from everywhere.
My genes don’t make me special, they just prove I’m human. And if you want to know what that means, I recommend a read of Adam Rutherford’s A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived