Category Archives: social media

Life with aphantasia (not being able to see things in your mind)

“Picture yourself in a boat on a river / with tangerine trees and marmalade skies.” Nope. Not a thing.

Remember all those times at school when you were asked to close your eyes and imagine yourself on a beach, or in space, or whatever? To picture the blood running through your veins? I was a drama club kid, so I had more than my fair share of this. But I never saw anything when I closed my eyes. I assumed no one else did, either, not really. “Imagining” for me was a purely… imaginative… process. Intellectual. Conceptual. Not visual. Not in the slightest. Because I have aphantasia – an inability to see things in my head. A lack of a “mind’s eye”. No visual memory or imagination.

Except I’m not sure “have aphantasia” is the right way of putting it. I am aphantasic, perhaps.

So I got myself on the local news website the other day because of my slightly unusual brane (I’m the human interest hook to an exhibition which is the news hook to an academic conference; this is how media works, kids), and the reaction has been interesting; people either seem to have gone “my brane works the same way, I didn’t realise it was weird” or else “omg I can see things in my mind and you can’t this has Blown My Mind how do you even survive?”, which is an interesting dichotomy that leads me to believe that it’s not that uncommon to lack a mind’s eye. In fact, I suspect a mind’s eye is, like most things, a continuum, or spectrum, with people positioned all the way along it, from seeing nothing at all to having photorealistic imagination and recall.

I distinctly remember a conversation when Nora was small old between me and Em, where Em said she couldn’t picture Nora’s face when she closed her eyes, and that this made her feel bad as a parent somehow. My immediate reaction was that I didn’t actually see pictures in my head, and I wasn’t sure anyone really did in that way, and we both know what Nora looks like, so what’s the problem?

Around about the same time, a press release came out of the office next to mine at work about aphantasia, which I read with interest, but didn’t go doolally over. It wasn’t until several months later that a guy who used to work for Mozilla and Facebook wrote a blog post which went a bit viral.

I read that and went… not quite doolally, but certainly ‘oooh’. My sense of identification increased as I read, as I recognised points about my daily thoughts being a constant monologue rather than a stream of images, about not hearing music in my head beyond the “dum-de-dum-de-dum” of my brain silently humming (rather than recreating an entire arrangement), about how my memory is shocking (good recall on facts, awful recall on who spoke to me when – I’m forever telling things back to Emma that she told me first – or on other details of events in my life), about how I have certain pre-loaded descriptions and anecdotes queued up in my mind that I can reel off when necessary, about being unable to write fiction despite being told by numerous people that they expected me to do so, about the books that clicked with me and the kinds of books that didn’t. Salman Rushdie’s indulgently descriptive prose lost me completely, for instance, but anything where ideas and linear plot are placed ahead of literary evocation tends to stick – even so, I rarely read fiction as an adult, and always, always struggle to follow descriptions. If I do read a book I’m never disappointed with the film afterwards,

I don’t completely identify – I can (or could) draw, I do dream (but it’s nothing like watching a film), and I feel like I do have some, albeit miniscule, degree of visualisation (like catching something in your peripheral vision and turning quickly to look properly but it’s gone), but I definitely felt like I understood his experience far more than the opposite. I catch myself saying “I can see them but I can’t think of their name” quite often, for instance, but I’m not ‘seeing’ a face in my head, I’m just… knowing that I know who they are, and would recognise them if I saw them.

I think of myself as a very visual person – I’m a decent (amateur) photographer, I commission and instruct professional photographers, I write design briefs and approve design schemes in my day job, I sign-off artwork, I used to draw and paint all the time when I was a kid. (I wonder if I could visualise and if it’s slowly evaporated as a skill as I’ve got older? I don’t think it has; I think I never could.)

So I took the test on the BBC site, and came in the bottom 5% of the population for being able to visualise things. I’m not completely brain-blind like Blake is, but any ‘images’ I do get are very, very indistinct, and so fleeting that I can’t concentrate on them at all. Off the back of that I volunteered to be part of Professor Adam Zemen’s further study, which meant filling in various questionnaires and having an FMRI scan on my brain while being asked to picture famous people in my head after being shown pictures of them, the aim being to see if the same areas of my brain lit up while imagining them as when I could actually see them. Because it was an academic study I didn’t get given my individual results, but I might ask for them, as I’d quite like to see scientific proof of the lack of activity in my brain…

This revelation has explained to me a number of behaviours and instincts. I’ve stopped tagging anything or pursuing followers on Instagram, for instance, and have reconciled with myself the fact that I look at my own photos considerably more than I look at other people’s. Because social media is my repository in the absence of my brain doing the job. It’s not *just* that I’m a narcissist.

Some thoughts, in a list…

  • “Catching” the memory of a face out of the corner of your eye is a great way of putting it that I saw somewhere. As soon as I try and concentrate on it, it’s gone.
  • I much prefer impressionist, abstract art to figurative; I like swirls of colour. A strong visualiser I used to share an office with was very much the other way around and hated any abstract art. Is there a connection?
  • I always used to assume that people who said they were, for instance, picturing sheep to count to fall asleep, were being weird and kind of lying. Or just saying “one sheep, two sheep, three sheep” etc silently in their head.
  • I don’t tend to get anxious or stressed; I assume partly now because I don’t visualise negative potential outcomes. I don’t really get nostalgic either.
  • I also don’t really get that excited about the future, for presumably the same (inverted) reason.
  • Yes I am creative; I need to move ideas from the abstract into the concrete, or they get lost. I’m learning more and more as I get older how methodical I need to be about this to preserve ideas, though, and methodical is not always my nature.
  • I do not understand ASMR – autosensory meridian response – that thing where people get tickly necks and rushes of warmth from hearing other people whisper into microphones and stroke balloons and slice cheese and stuff, and I wonder if this is related, if aphantasia is connected to how all sorts of sensory inputs are interpreted and relayed by the brain?
  • I’ve never done psychedelic drugs so I have no idea whether LSD would bust my mind’s eye open or not. A friend at uni told me I was psychedelic enough already. But it appears I’m not! Not like that, anyway.
  • I prefer doing to watching or having done – football and cycling being two examples. I have very little interest in watching other people do these things. I also find it difficult to predict what will happen tactically in a football match?
  • Yes I dream; my dreams give a sense of a landscape without any detail.
  • I am very intrigued by how hyperphantasia and photographic / eidetic memory work together; I suspect they’re related.
  • Yes I know what my wife and kids look like – I can describe them on a factual level, and I would never not recognise them – I just don’t ‘see’ them when I close my eyes. Or you, or anything at all.
  • I was very intrigued by my own reflection as a kid, probably more so than usual. I’ve trained myself not to be as an adult (hence very few selfies) so as not to appear to be a narcissist, but I don’t ‘know’ what I look like beyond the brief factual description; brown hair, brown eyes, glasses, beard, 5’8”, etc etc.
  • Don’t ask how I masturbate. I’ve got a pretty good idea of how you do. (Joke stolen from somewhere else but I’m damned if I remember where. QED.)
  • I think in a pretty constant monologue. Certainly no pictures. Just words, all. the. time. Like I’m writing constantly. Or doing a silent internal commentary track on what I’m doing. If I’m not paying attention to you, if I miss something you’re saying, it’s because I’m paying attention to this internal monologue. Or thinking, as other people seem to call it.
  • I wonder if people who were born with sight and become blind through illness or accident can still visualise (if they could before). What about people born blind? How does that work?
  • Those people on Record Breakers when I was a kid who could remember a pack of cards by visualising and turning it into a story? Never understood even remotely how they were doing that.
  • I don’t really do ‘memories’; I can recall facts about my life, but there is no visual component, just information and, sometimes, emotion.
  • I’m pretty level emotionally most of the time.
  • I’ve had deja vu but only about four times in my life.
  • I experience art, music, and film as evocative, especially the more abstract end – Turner, Dylan, and Loach don’t really do it for me.
  • I prefer what I’d call “ambient world building cinema” (good grief that’s a wanky term) where you can revisit, semi-ignore plot, and just kind of hang out in that imaginary world for 90 minutes. Blade Runner 2049, Totoro, Star Wars, Zootropolis, Children of Men.
  • Lyrics are not generally that important to me; or seldom the *most* important thing aout a piece of music.

I am amazed at the staggering level of variation in human brains; you cannot take for granted that other people can see, feel, or even perceive things in the same way as you, because they clearly don’t, and I think actually, now more than ever, research about things like this can help us understand and accept that people are different, and hopefully make us more compassionate as a society and culture.

Since 2006

A lot of stuff has happened over the last eight years. On a personal level, we bought a flat, lived in it for five years, sold it, and bought a house (which we’ve lived in for more than a year). We got married. My brother and his fiancé had a baby. Four of my best friends and their wives had babies. More colleagues than I can count have had babies. Another friend got married twice and divorced twice. I took up cycling, bought three different bicycles, and pedalled more than 7,500 miles. I got three new jobs, and start a fourth new job in April.

Les personally, some significant cultural figures died: Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussain, Michael Jackson, Jimmy Saville, Nelson Mandela, and Margaret Thatcher, amongst others. And the News of the World. And Oasis. And Woolworth’s. And smoking in public buildings.

Globally, culturally, technologically, and politically the world has changed beyond measure: we’ve endured a global recession inspired by dodgy banking and insane housing markets; the Arab Spring; the rise of social networking, mobile internet, smartphones, high-speed broadband, and on-demand TV – in 2006 YouTube and Facebook were tiny start-ups and Twitter didn’t exist – have changed the way we communicate with each other and consume media in absolutely unimaginable ways; 3D films made a comeback; Man City won the premier league; Arsenal didn’t; we didn’t elect a coalition government but got one anyway; America elected a black president who prefers assassinating people to starting wars…

I could go on.

The point is that things are different. I’m not the same; neither is the world. Nothing is. Existence is a process, not a static state.

On vinyl vs CD (again)

People say some bloody silly things about vinyl.

Take this guy, who taught his 13-year-old son the “sheer joy of listening to vinyl” via the medium of Cameron Crowe’s bullshit rose-tinted rock-mythology nostalgia-fest, Almost Famous.

The particular scene Nostalgia Dad bangs on about – “when the young aspiring music journalist has his mind set free by his older sister, who leaves him her LP collection under his bed when she leaves home” – isn’t actually about vinyl; it’s about music, and adolescence, and family, and missing someone, and a million other things. The fact that the music is on vinyl is a chronological accident because the film is set in the 70s, and is about as important to the emotional impact as the fact that the bedspread is made of polyester.

I could get angry and swear at Nostalgia Dad – for describing Miles Davis and Art Blakey as “cats”; for teaching his son that his father’s adolescent experiences are more valid than going out and forming his own; for making his son listen to Dire Straits and Dark Side Of The Moon; for confusing mythology and nonsense with significance and lived reality – but I’ve already written a ranty, opinion-spouting thinkpiece about the whole mythology side of the vinyl-vs-CD debate, so instead I’m going to gather some actual evidence and make a reasoned argument with supporting quotes from people who know far more about vinyl and CD as formats than I do. Because you can quote Henry Rollins waxing nonsense about “the sublime state of solitude”, or you can quote the guy from Pere Ubu stating that vinyl distortion is “NOT what we wanted” and link to him explaining exactly why.

Because, frankly, there have been a raft of blog posts, puff pieces and shitty listicles this year telling me how great vinyl is, and none of them have contained any evidence whatsoever beyond borderline solipsistic pontification. “Vinyl’s great! It’s really warm! You can hold it! The artwork’s really big! You can skin up on it!” This is post-blog writing at it’s worst, the kind of navel-gazing that we’re in increasing danger of mistaking for journalism (and increasingly replacing journalism with), where all you need is an opinion and a feeling and a few people to click ‘like’ or ‘share’ to give that opinion instant validation, even if it’s based on nothing at all.

Take that Buzzfeed piece (sorry Matt; I know it’s your job and fully understand why pieces like this have to live alongside the proper stuff); half the things it posits as being great about vinyl are dreadful things that I hate (surface noise; crate-digging; super-specific genre names in independent record shops that act as obfuscating gatekeepers rather than navigation aids), and the other half are completely incidental and can be ‘enjoyed’ with CDs (amazing set of speakers; sorting things alphabetically; supporting local independent shops; meeting someone cute while browsing). Neither Nostalgia Dad nor Fetish Hipster substantiates any of their proclamations with evidence, research, or fact; they just make vague claims and allusions and presuppose that the weight of rock mythology will carry them aloft. Well I hate rock mythology and I pretty much always have.

Some context.

A few months ago I pitched a feature idea to NME about the relative merits of vinyl and CD, with specific focus on the negative side-effects that the current resurgence in vinyl sales is having. Dan Stubbs, NME’s news editor, said yes, and commissioned 600 words from me on the subject, which got published a couple of months ago. Sadly, Dan and NME have style and deadlines and readership and publishers to think of, and 600 words weren’t really sufficient to explore this massive, divisive, and hearsay-riddled topic, and I had many, many thoughts, quotes, and pieces of evidence left over, so I’m going to use them here.

One of the main thrusts of my NME piece was essentially that demand for vinyl is outstripping supply, vinyl pressing plants being unable to press vinyl as quickly as they used to in the past, because no new vinyl pressing machines have been manufactured since 1981; so the industry is relying on old machines. Poor technology + increased demand = falling quality. Vinyl gets used as a marketing hook, and has become a signifier of a premium product, promising you more than CD; the elusive experience that so few people seem to be able to qualify or quantify properly. It’s priced, packaged, and sold correspondingly, but it’s often not actually fit for the purpose it’s meant to be for; at least not as fit as it ought to be for the premium. Remember that the redemptive obverse of a record is to play music, not to look good on a shelf.

So here’s Steve Albini on the merits and demerits of clear, black, and coloured vinyl at The Quietus; scroll down to the penultimate answer, which starts with: “There’s a theoretical point there, which is that polyvinyl chloride is colourless, so if you’re adding something to it to colour it, then you’re changing the chemistry of it slightly, and that has potential to make it sound not as good by having inclusions.” The conclusion? New coloured vinyl probably sounds like crap most of the time, and is a gimmick, a piece of ‘added value’ designed to make you buy a record on one format rather than another (i.e. to buy it at all, rather than download it for free). Records for looking at, rather than listening to.

But Albini’s got no beef with vinyl as a format if it’s done properly, and that’s fair enough. Some people do, though. This is what David Thomas of Pere Ubu has to say about some technical myths regarding vinyl on his website:“The putative ‘warmth’ of vinyl is another one of those mass-hysteria hoaxes that the human race is prone to. ‘Vinyl warmth’ is not some semi-mystical, undefinable phenomenon. There is actually a technical term that audio engineers have for what you are hearing – it is called distortion. The bottom end is distorting. Now, distortion is a valuable audio tool, and an Ubu favorite, but only when the distortion is distortion we choose. You may like the phenomenon but it is NOT what we wanted and it is NOT what we heard in the studio.”

Which seems to contradict what some people claim regarding vinyl being closer in sound to the master tape than CD is. David Thomas isn’t the only person to think so; here’s what David Brewis from Field Music said to me via Twitter the other day: “When we’re putting records together, I have to steel myself for the deficiencies inherent to the vinyl pressings, even though I enjoy those same deficiencies in other people’s records – especially when combined with the ‘sit and listen’ element.” So vinyl is deficient, isn’t the sound people hear in the recording studio, and isn’t necessarily how they want you to hear their records, even if it can be enjoyable.

Michael Jones, much-loved ILX poster who works in digital media somewhere, and who co-engineered The Clientele’s lovely debut album, The Violet Hour, and mastered a bunch of Matinee comps for CD, dropped some serious science on ILX a decade ago, regarding the myths and misunderstandings about what CD and vinyl each bring to the table, from relative resolution and sample rates to analogue waveform reproduction and the happy euphonic accidents that David Brewis alluded to. Highlights and key points include (questions Jonesy’s responding to in italics; his answers in quotation marks; my emphasis in bold):

are you saying that 24/96k can rival the resolution in the grain of good vinyl? (I realise it’s not really comparable and that there are many other factors involved)
“Well, what is the resolution of good vinyl? In information theory terms (resolution = dynamic range x bandwidth), vinyl is miles behind – not even very close to 16/44.1k. It’s a mistake to think that an analogue system is inherently more ‘natural’, or has more detail. Every recording and replay system has its limitations.”

Do circuits exist that can provide a smooth (actually analogue) interpolation between the x levels available in a digital recording? Do good digital players do this?
“*All* digital equipment does this. There are no gaps or stair-steps in the sound – a continuous analogue waveform is reconstructed from the sampled info. The Nyquist theorem states that we only need sample a waveform at at least twice the highest frequency within that waveform to gather a complete record of the data. Now, bandwidth-limiting a musical signal to just above the upper limit of adult human hearing may produce its own set of problems, but we can be sure that the subsequent sampling doesn’t chuck anything *else* away.

“The fixed number of amplitude levels associated with digital means a limit to how small successive changes in the amplitude can be – but with analogue and its greater associated self-noise, the limits are even more restrictive. The noise obscures anything smaller than itself. So there’s *less* resolution in the amplitude domain with analogue despite it being a continuous system.

Is this one reason that LPs can sound better?
“There are lots of artefacts associated with vinyl replay which don’t completely go away with even the most exotic turntables or pristine pressings. Happily, many of these artefacts are euphonic – phase anomalies magically expanding the stereo image, tonearm resonance warming up the mid-range, HF roll-off giving that silky tone. It’s more of a case of what vinyl adds to reproduction, than what CD omits. Beyond that it’s a matter of preference.”

Why not watch him say some of this stuff in person on Youtube? The ‘closer to the master tape’ fallacy gets mentioned here, too.

You can also read the Hydrogen Audio FAQ he linked me to when I asked him for a quote for the NME piece.

Graham Sutton is my usual go-to record producer and technical guy when I need a quote about dynamic range compression or distortion. Sadly he was out of the country working when I wrote the NME piece, but here’s a quote from an interview I did with him a few months ago which has some serious relevance here: “As an aesthetic, for the sort of music I’m involved in making, I also find I don’t like the sound of tape. I don’t want the medium to sonically alter what I’m hearing, I want a linear response and I don’t like hiss. I think part of why digital gets a bad rap is because engineers early on tried to apply the same tape-based tricks to digital without really using their ears, and things came out excessively bright and hard as a result. There’s also a sentimental attachment in the ‘rock’ world, bordering on elitism, to analogue – the smell of tape and the love of big old dusty machines – that just isn’t there in many other areas of music, for example classical, jazz, EDM, broadcasting, film, where this debate ended a long time ago.”

So love of analogue warmth seems like it might be a rockist hangover, a comfort-blanket for an industry, which, 40 years ago, was forward thinking, and cutting edge, but which is now retrogressive and paranoid and faltering. Looking through the records I’ve bought and enjoyed in 2013, and there’s notably less and less ‘rock’ (and pop and associated genres or whatever) and more and more electronica, jazz, avant-garde, whatever-you-want-to-call it. This has been an increasing trend in my tastes for quite a while now.

If you really wanted, you could visit the Steve Hoffman forums and get involved in some of the ranty exchanges that the vinyl-vs-CD debate regularly inspires over there. Neither side comes out looking particularly good though, and it’s very easy to descend down the audiophilia wormhole, which I’ve got no interest in.

A few years ago I got really into headphones and spent far too long (and far too much money) on Head-Fi, where I noticed that people would describe Sennheiser headphones as being ‘veiled’ in terms of sound; i.e. that the sound signature was dark, obscuring detail a little via a thin layer of distortion or lack of focus. This description is how I hear vinyl, pretty much; as if someone is holding a layer of net curtain between the speakers and my ears, which takes away clarity and space, stops me fully getting a hold on individual sonic details. For me a lot of the magic of recorded sound is how psychedelic and otherworldly and magical it can be, and clarity is a big part of that. Mythology isn’t, and though I like the fact that we have shelves full of CDs and I have to pull them out and put them on one at a time in a CD player, that’s less about ritual and mythology than it is about convenience and concentration and not feeling like a data-entry temp.

Here’s another shitty listicle by Matt, except that this one isn’t shitty, and actually talks some sense, in that it admits that a huge amount of vinyl fandom is about aesthetics and lifestyle and not about sound quality.

So I guess I am saying that CD is better than vinyl, in terms of cold, hard, technical, objectively measurable factors like dynamic range, frequency response, and resolution, but that’s not really the key point here: the main thing is that I prefer it; it suits how and why I listen much better than anything else. Vinyl sounds different, and if you prefer it, that’s fine, just don’t tell me, sans evidence, that it’s “better”. Because it isn’t.

(While we’re at it, let’s not conflate and confuse the terms ‘vinyl’ and ‘record’ anymore: ‘vinyl’ is the format, the medium; ‘record’ is short for ‘recording’, and is the content delivered by the format. My ‘record collection’ is mostly on CD, which is how I like it.)

A few people have asked me why I don’t just listen to MP3s (or any other digital file type). The answer is quite simple: I’d rather browse shelves than databases when choosing what record to listen to. Accessing and maintaining a digital music collection mostly makes me feel like a data entry temp. I used to look after library databases for a living. I’d rather not do it for my hobby.

It’s also been suggested that I’m the only person banging on about this debate and that no one else cares. That may be so, but I get sent a lot of links to articles, lists, and opinion pieces about how great and magical vinyl is (and occasionally about its actual merits as a format). In addition to the pieces linked in the original piece, here are some more things that people have written about vinyl over the last few years, some of them stupid, some of them sensible.

“Vinyl, they say, just sounds better, warmer, more immediate than digital.”

A whole radio show devoted to vinyl mythologizing.

A sensible piece by Graham Jones.

Over-pricing for packaging and ‘feel’, rather than sonic benefits.

“Vinyl-only” New Year’s Day; on a digital-only radio station.

Mark Richardson talking sense at Pitchfork.

Another Steve Hoffman debate.

Do records really sound warmer than CDs?

“We tried an A and B test with some vinyl freaks and found that they could not really tell the difference but they still genuinely swore that vinyl was the king.”

Top ten reasons why vinyl sounds better than digital. Particularly check out point 6, which is so unbelieveably wrong-headed and loaded that it makes me actually angry. “The quality [of vinyl] is incomparable as each groove contains every intended detail captured holistically, every frequency shift perceived.” Just nonsense. Never mind points 5 and 4.

Sense from a mastering engineer. Even if he does like Dark Side Of The Moon.

At least this guy knows he’s semi-coherent.

“I am sure I know absolutely nothing about how it all works and why, but the one thing I know for certain though is that music sounds better on vinyl.”

Reddit gets in on it.

£2,500 vinyl records. Insanity.

Here’s another quote from Graham Sutton, which he posted on Facebook yesterday in a conversation about the original piece: “I hope you guys realise that almost all vinyl cuts (with a couple of notable exceptions) for the last few decades have passed through a digital delay via A-D-A converters, as a last safety stage before hitting the cutting lathe head, regardless of the analogyness or otherwise of the Master medium, or indeed whether the sequencing had been assembled on Sadie or whatever.

“If you like your music with added distortion that you find pleasing then great, but for anything else this argument is bunk. Vinyl has so many technical limitations it ain’t true.”

And that’s enough for now.

On the long demise of HMV

On Sunday I went in HMV Exeter desperate to spend £20 (that I don’t really have, because it’s January) on season 4 of Breaking Bad on DVD. I vaguely hoped it might be in the fire blue cross sale. It wasn’t, because, they didn’t have any copies of it. I asked at the counter. They didn’t offer to order it in or tell me if they were expecting restock of it. For what are now obvious reasons. (They were pretty obvious then, too.)

I’ve written about my family affection for and recent frustration with HMV before, of course, because this has been a long time coming. If HMV goes, there will literally be nowhere in Exeter to buy a DVD on the high street, apart from Sainsbury’s.

I’m pretty sure I ordered a copy of Ege Bamyasi in my Local HMV, at age 16 or 17, and picked it up from the shop the next week. That’s how things worked then. Not long after that they got a copy of Tago Mago in, possibly inspired by the fact that some enthusiastic kid had ordered in another CAN album, and I bought that, too. I bought the remasters from that bloody rainforest though.

I had a little Twitter spat last September when Grizzly Bear’s album was released and Exeter HMV didn’t have a copy for me to buy until the afternoon, because stock hadn’t come in yet. I’ve been into HMV with a vague wishlist of things I’d like to buy; acclaimed (if sometimes esoteric) new releases, back catalogue stuff. They never had anything. We spend somewhere in the region of £750 a year on new music, on average (at a quick calculation for the last three years or so); my tastes aren’t that weird or leftfield.

I gather HMV moved to central stock ordering sometime in the late 90s, which would have thrown local knowledge and product specialism out of the window as far as staff go, and turn them into little more than cash-register operators and shelf-stackers. Ludicrous. For the last two, three, five years, HMV Exeter piled Kings of Leon albums and Lord of the Rings DVD sets higher than you could reach to pick up the top copy. Doesn’t everyone who could possibly ever want to own Lord of the Rings on DVD already own it? Do people who go into HMV really want JLS badges and One Direction mugs and jelly sweets?

Phil Beeching had HMV’s advertising account for 25 years, and wrote an eye-opening piece last August about how clearly he’d pointed out to them, 11 years ago, what the threats to their business were (online retailers, downloading, and supermarkets, of course), only to be angrily dismissed by the then MD, told that downloading was “a fad”. Three quarters of UK music and movie sales are still physical media, but come on. Consider that HMV decided to try and sell consumer electronics at the same time as the high street retail of consumer electronics collapsed.

We’ve been quietly boycotting Amazon for a few months now, partly because of them remotely deleting customers’ Kindles, partly because of distaste with general e-book DRM and proprietary format issues, partly because their ‘next-day’ service is nothing of the sort, partly because of their massive tax-avoidance, and partly because, these days, they seem like a baddie, and boycotting baddies seems like what responsible people ought to do. I fear that, increasingly, we can justify anything in this country, this culture, by either making or saving money. Tax avoidance? But CDs are a couple of quid cheaper, so who cares. Abusing kids in a hospice? He raises lots of money for us by running marathons, so who cares. Yes, I just compared Amazon to this country’s most evil serial child molester. Like I said, they seem like a baddie.

Before Christmas, on the Monday after ATP weekend, we went to Bristol to see Patrick Wolf, and I nipped into Rise Records and happily, quickly, spent £40 on Fugazi, The National, Liars, and Local Natives records that I’d been vaguely hoping of coming across in our local HMV (or Fopp in Bristol, which I’d checked futilely a few weeks before) for ages, but never seen. The week before Christmas we went to Totnes’ The Drift and spent another £30 on Perfume Genius, Fiona Apple, and Julia Holter albums. HMV Exeter doesn’t have a marker for Fugazi anymore. They didn’t even have the new Fiona Apple album in. Acclaimed, loyal-fanbase, major-label Fiona Apple, appearing high in end-of-year lists all over the shop, and I couldn’t buy her CD in Exeter in December. (To be fair, I could, and did, buy the Deerhoof album.)

We’ve decided that we’re going to make monthly music-buying pilgrimages this year, alternately to Rise in Bristol and The Drift in Totnes; keep a wishlist of what we’re after, and buy a bunch of albums all at once. Chat to the staff. Have a browse. Make an impulse purchase. We might also buy some stuff direct form record label websites, where they’re transactional and I haven’t seen stuff in either Rise or The Drift; we’ll try and support the shops first and foremost. Because they seem like goodies. I’d like to be able to walk into Exeter and buy the records I want, but I can’t.

Because these independent shops have embraced online retailing, have taken to social media, are run by and staffed with people who care about music, who can describe the Perfume Genius album cover to the new girl at the drop of a hat so she can see if she can see if it’s behind the counter because they’ve not put the new stock out yet. They understand that music can (should?) be about community and communication just as much as it can be about anonymous online transactions and listening in commuter silence via headphones. The Drift send a monthly newsletter to email subscribers recommending their favourite records of the past four weeks. Before Christmas they published a list of their favourite 100 records of 2012 online and in printed, fanzine-esque form that you could pick up in the shop. They sell turntables. Their stock is curated like a gallery rather than lumped together like a warehouse or piled high and cheap like a supermarket. They run a listening club (possibly inspired by ours!). They recommend music to you in any number of ways. As NickB asked on ILX, “Can you even listen to sound samples on the HMV website?” No, you can’t. They’d rather sell you some coasters than some records, or so it feels. Has felt for too long.

Michael Hann wrote in The Guardian today about visiting the Oxford Street branch today, and reminisced that he had probably realised the game was up for them a few years ago when Fleetwood Mac were touring and he popped in to pick up Tusk. “The biggest record shop in Britain did not have a copy of a legendary album by one of the world’s biggest bands even as they were on tour in the UK.” I’ve repeated his experience dozens of times in microcosm, the last time being the Fiona Apple failure.

(As an aside, I completely empathise with Michael’s fondness for the big chain in the face of sometimes snooty and elitist indies – it echoes some of my teenage experiences.)

Bob Stanley wrote brilliantly a year ago, and republished today, a piece about the things HMV could have done to stave off what many are talking about as being inevitable. None of these things are outrageous – they’re happening under HMV’s nose, practically next door.

I won’t miss HMV, because I’ve barely bought anything in there for years. But I will miss the act of going in a record shop every Saturday in the hope that something would catch my attention and fire my imagination and make me fall in love. Because that used to happen; didn’t it?

(I know, of course, that the entertainment industry wont let HMV just die, that branches, that the brand, will live on somehow, but allow me this moment of drama and mourning. Even as I write, Canada might be coming to the rescue. Whatever the salvation, though, things will have to change.)

(I ended up buying season 4 of Breaking Bad from eBay. I literally didn’t know where else to get it from.)

(When I say ‘records’, obviously I mean CDs, because they’re just better than vinyl, aren’t they? But there you go. The fact that vinyl sales have been on the up for years, and HMV in Exeter, as well as other branches I gather, failed to stock any vinyl at all, is yet another reason we’re nailing their coffin shut, metaphorically. Let’s hope we bury them with a claw hammer so they can fight their way out.)

On end-of-year lists…

End-of-year lists seem to be coming earlier and earlier each year – the last couple seem to have hit even before December has started, presumably in a joint effort to a) attract attention by getting yours published (and ergo talked about) first, and b) inspire increased sales of the year’s anointed releases in the lucrative Christmas period (judging by the state of HMV on Saturday, December is the only month that a lot of people physically go into record shops – it was bedlam).

Having been involved with and run various polls over the years, I know how long it takes to logistically organise one – by my reckoning, contributors are going to have been totting up their individual lists in October, with 8-12 weeks of potential album releases yet to come. If you go through the Metacritic recent releases there are dozens of records getting high scores that would have come out after voting deadline. (The general amount of high scores given out by record reviewers compared to film reviewers is another issue, which I’ve written about before. Apparently it’s worse in games reviews, though.)

After individual lists are done, votes need to be matriculated, final placings argued over (even if the matriculation is taken as law and not gerrymandered to reflect politics and commerce and editorial whim taste, there’ll still be arguments), blurbs commissioned, written, edited, and formatted for publishing, whether that’s online or in print (though obviously the print ones pretty much all get published online before the paper versions hits magazine racks). For lists to be published even before December begins suggests that only three quarters of the year gets considered. But record companies know this. Reviewers know this.

Hell, every music fan on the internet knows this: I was moaning about people talking about records as being “potential albums of the year” back in March, if not before. Amongst a certain subset of music fans it seems as though the narrative of what gets in your personal end-of-year-list, and the minute politics of the ordering thereof, is the most important part of being a music fan. I doubt anyone actually feels this way, but the urgency and importance and eagerness with which phrases like “my album of the year” and “it’ll definitely be in my end-of-year-list” get bandied about feels that way. Listen to it once. Assess its import. Allocate it a space in your list. Never ponder it or listen to it again.

Again, I doubt people actually consume music quite like that. But I’ve done the whole “my album of the year!” thing myself, and I don’t think it’s a good way of thinking about or categorising music. It feels too much like listening in order to form an opinion rather than listening for pleasure. One of the reasons I’ve pretty much stopped writing record reviews is that this kind of listening – which is not necessarily critical (and critical listening is not necessarily a bad thing, either) – doesn’t seem to lend itself to enjoying music; it seems like listening to have listened.

I worked in a library for a few years, and catalogued films: I felt like I knew an awful lot about a huge amount of films – who directed them, who was in them, their historical significance, even an idea of their aesthetic from cover design and stills on the reverse – but I barely watched any of the films I knew about. I barely appreciated any of them. And I certainly didn’t love any of these films that I catalogued but did not watch. It can take so long, so many listens, to unravel a record, that forming an opinion after one or two exposures seems like great folly.

(Side note: if, as a reviewer, you strongly suspect that you’ll never listen to a record again after you’ve sent off your 150 or 400 or 1,000 words about it, if you think you will have no use or love for it after you’ve slotted it into a critical taxonomy, then say so. Don’t let the instinct towards authority or objectivity make you hedge bets. Don’t give 3/5 for something you’ll never play again. I’ve bought too many records over the years just in case they were really good, when in fact they were inconsequential simulacra. I mean you, Maccabees, Django Django and Alt-J, just this year. But this is a whole other post, let alone a side note.)

(Second side note: another reason why I prefer CDs to digital files is the effort that it seems to take to “maintain a digital music collection” – I’ve seen so many people moan about iTunes 11 over the last few days, conversations about listening to music turning into conversations about data-entry and file-management and folder structures and back-up archives and so on and so forth. This type of conversation bores me to tears at work; I’m not taking it home, too. “Opinion-listening” feels like another symptom of the same disease.)

(Third side note: imagine a long paragraph linking all of this to The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord here.)

(Fourth side note: imagine a paragraph about decimal point scores in record reviews here. Or grading records like sixth form essays. Oh god.)

This post was originally going to be called 12 from 12, and be a list (!) of my favourite dozen records of this year, with a little blurb about each, in the chronological order that they were released rather than any order of preference (because how the hell do you even come up with an order; it’s utterly arbitrary), and this “rant” was going to be 100 words at the start about end-of-year lists getting earlier and earlier and how stupid that is. Obviously it’s not gone to plan. I’ll save that list (!) for later, if I do it at all. Swans would feature.

My most played album?

@LPGroup, which I like as a concept but not so much as an actuality (the communal nature of voting and decision making over what records to listen to and tweet about together seems to often result in safe choices – but that’s always the result of democracy, isn’t it? [There’s also a lot of canon-favouring middle-aged white men involved – I know I’m only a handful of techno and pop records and ten years away from that myself, but still.]), was pimping the theme “My Most Played Album” for their session the other week. I looked at the list and thought about voting, but there wasn’t much on there that might qualify as my own most played, I suspect. It was my own fault for not catching nominations in time enough to put something forward. But it got me thinking about what records I have listened to most in my life, about the types of records they’ve been, and how those types of records have changed over the years, and in turn how the way I listen to records has changed over the years, as life has got busier, time shorter, and collections bigger.

17 years ago the answer would have been simple – The Stone Roses’ debut album, which I played incessantly and repeatedly, and convinced myself was perfect and imbued with magical powers. 16 year olds are odd. A year before that, Revolver. A year after, In Sides by Orbital. 4 years ago, after a year living in together in our flat, it was probably The Milk Of Human Kindness by Caribou, which became our default go-to record while just going about our lives – washing up, reading, cooking, pottering, doing those mundane day-to-day admin tasks that adult-life requires. Inoffensive, undemanding (unless you want it to be), but always interesting. In 2004 it was Drive By by The Necks, the seamless groove and ambient nature of which made it the kind of thing that I could literally play anywhere, anytime, whilst doing anything.

This year I’ve probably played Plumb by Field Music the most, although a considerable factor to consider there is that it was released early in the year. Also, it’s quite short; it fits almost four times into the length of The Seer by Swans, and can easily get played twice back-to-back on a short-ish car journey. In fact the title track of The Seer is almost exactly the same length as the whole of Plumb. At other times this year I’ve binged on Silent Shout by The Knife, Red Medicine by Fugazi, Grizzly Bear, Heartland by Owen Pallett, and WIXIW by Liars. But other than Plumb, the two things I’ve played the most are similar records by similar artists – Pink by Four Tet and Orchard by Minotaur Shock, which both, like the Caribou and Necks records mentioned above, lend themselves to being put on whilst doing other things. Pink, which I started off thinking of as a weird dancefloor compendium, has unfurled over the months to reveal itself as a superlative “livingroom” record. Which is where it gets played most often.

There’s a danger that one can make these records sound prosaic and inoffensive, that “most played” = “most utilitarian”, that their value comes in their palatability rather than their art or power. 17 years ago I thought music should be entirely magical and transformative, passionate and wild or exultant and irresistible. I worry suspect that these days I value the beatific over the outright brilliant sometimes, the tasteful over the transcendent (whatever that means). But actually, as always, it’s more complicated than that. There’s a certain degree of compromise in sharing living and listening space with another human being: I can’t blast Tilt by Scott Walker at a whim, but then again I’m not sure I often want to. And actually, Em would be more irritated if I played Embrace than if I cracked out one of Scott’s latterday opuses.

Sometimes I choose to listen to a record because I love it, and it transports and challenges me, and stretches my brain and soul. And sometimes I choose to listen to a record just because it fills space, beautifully. I probably do the latter more often, and, on average, probably have done so for the last dozen years since leaving the weird cocoon of university. I guess the choice is what you choose to fill that space with, and why: is it a comfort blanket of familiarity, or is it something else?

The Pitchfork People’s List

So Pitchfork have put together a little list thingamajig where you can very easily put together a visual list of your favourite albums of the last 15/16 years (since P4K itself started, essentially). If you submit between 20 and 100 albums, then your list will be thrown into a poll of readers’ favourite albums. Which is fair enough.

I put one together myself just here. The ordering is pretty arbitrary, especially once you get past the first 30 or so, but I think it’s pretty representative of my tastes over the last 15/16 years.

Edit. I’ve been tweaking my entry slightly, using old NME lists and other things to prompt my memory. It’s causing some serious cognitive dissonance having to put late 90s albums alongside stuff from the last 18 months – the world is a very different place, and I am a very different person, and Wild Beasts sit very oddly next to Michael Head & The Strands, at least in my mind.

God bless Danny Boyle: the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony

I wasn’t planning on watching the Olympic opening ceremony last night; Emma turned it on, which was unexpected as she’s been a vocal Olympic cynic for years now, pretty much since the day after it was announced, when the London bombings smashed the sense of celebration and positivism that should have resulted.

Living the best part of 200 miles from London, in a part of the country not really associated with sports, I’ve not felt the Olympic spirit. Earlier this year we visited the shopping centre that’s sprung up adjacent to the Olympic Park, and it felt like an awful, crass monument to capitalism, a soulless vacuum of a place. We spent a chunk of the evening in a casino, feeling miserable for the people who were throwing away money. I’ve not been expecting to feel impassioned or involved in what’s going on over the next two weeks at all.

Part of me suspects Emma wanted to watch it to be part of a shared spectacle, something which we’re both seemingly increasingly keen on, in our own funny ways, and which social media is aiding massively. On a Friday evening we’d normally stick a film on or watch aimless American comedy, crack open a bottle of wine, and mentally and physically unwind. Last night we sat on the sofa, drank water, watched a celebration of sport and culture, and tweeted with people from around the world who were all, as far as I could tell, feeling the same way we were.

It seems shallow, but I knew the Olympic Opening Ceremony was going to be… different… the moment that I recognised the sound of Surf Solar by Fuck Buttons soundtracking the introductory film. It wasn’t the Tory-friendly, establishment-reinforcing, monarchist approach I’d expected.

I wasn’t expecting much from Danny Boyle’s ceremony, but it blew me away. It wasn’t about corporations or politicians or even, bar one brief, grand, tongue-in-cheek entrance (as much about frolicking corgis as dutiful monarchs), about heads of state: it was about this little cluster of islands and countries, joined but different, and the people who live in them, and the culture we create together, and the sportsmen and sportswomen, who come from all conceivable backgrounds, and compete not for money or fame, but for glory, and for joy, and for each other.

I could write about everything in great detail and at great length, from the soundtrack, which was wonderful, or the historical references, or the cultural nods to TV, film, literature, or the moving tribute to people who should have been there but weren’t, or the celebration of the NHS, which our current government seem to want to do away with but which embodies the spirit and helps the people of this country far more than our political system or our monarchy or even our sports, but I wouldn’t do it justice. I regularly had tears in my eyes. Even this morning, reading last night’s tweets from all and sundry, or the reports in online papers, or seeing footage of our cycling team talking about riding for each other, I’m welling up again.

I don’t, as a rule, identify as a patriot, instead preferring to trot out a line about where you’re born being an accident, about how you should be proud of things you choose, not random things that happen to you. But actually, last night made me realise that being patriotic isn’t about loving the place you’re from. It’s about loving the people, and the crazy, insane, beautiful, compassionate, ludicrous and wonderful things they do.

God bless you, Danny Boyle, for making me feel humble and proud.

Mass observation diary – 12.05.2012

Yesterday, rather than just make a note of all the music I listened to, I diarised everything, in order to help out some researchers. As I was diarising my listening already, it didn’t seem like too much of a stretch to record everything else as well. And I love helping out researchers.

Awoken by Cosmo the cat, who wanted to snuggle in by my elbow. Read The Guardian, Twitter, and ilXor, and checked blog stats on my iPhone. Tried to get back to sleep, without much success, because our bedroom faces the morning sun, which was bright even at this time in the morning.

Got up and went to the loo. Went back to bed.

Got up properly. Ate a slice of granary toast and drank a glass of orange juice. Listened to Endless Summer by Fennesz. Tweeted my music choice. Got Emma’s breakfast stuff ready, as she was going to work in the shoe shop today for her dad. Did yesterday’s washing-up.

Because Emma is working (every other Saturday or so, to help out her dad over the summer) I have alternate Saturdays pretty much entirely to myself, which is strange, because we’ve spent practically every Saturday together for the last ten years. It does mean that I can go on guilt-free bike rides without having to leave at 7am so I’m back before she’s awake, though.

Sat down at the dining table with the laptop and typed up yesterday’s listening diary. Spoke with Em about my plans for the day; explained the diary research. Fought with Bob the cat half-heartedly because he’d rather I stroke him than type on the laptop.

Went down to the yard and flipped my bike stem to make the handlebars a bit racier. I’ve been pondering a new stem for ages; it took Pete getting a new bike and being told that he could flip his stem over to make it more aggressive for me to realize that I didn’t need to spend any money, just undo some bolts and then do them back up again.

Went for a bike ride, only my second in two weeks since damaging my knee again (the first was the night before, with Peter). It seems counter-intuitive to some people, but cycling is actually quite therapeutic for your knees if you used clipped-in pedals; the motion is entirely linear (it’s lateral movements and twists that cause my knee to give way) and with clipped-in pedals you’re not putting as much force through the knee on the downstroke. I took a few photos on the way and tweeted them, because it was a beautiful, sunny morning. I thought about the nature of psychedelic music whilst cycling up a sizable hill, and how Paul’s Boutique by the Beastie Boys is psychedelic, and vaguely planned to write a blog post about it. Had Ill Communication lyrics in my head for whole ride in a bizarre internal medley. It’s amazing how your brain works to distract you from the hill you’re cycling up; I’m pretty sure I’m only concentrating on the road and my speed when I’m descending quickly. I cycled 21 miles altogether, on top of 32 the previous evening. Near the end I picked up my t-shirt from Rick’s house, which I’d left in his car after playing football last week.

Stopped off to water the allotment on the way home.

Got home, showered, got dressed, and went out to get lunch. It was the first day this year that I’ve put shorts on apart from to cycle or play football – normally I live in shorts, when I’m not at work, from about April to October. My mum rang, to ask what we’re doing on my birthday, which is next Tuesday. She offered to buy us a Chinese takeaway if we went down to see them after work.

Bought a slice of pizza and a brownie from my favourite delicatessen. Whilst out and about I met our old neighbours, who have moved because they had a baby. I also met Tony the sociology professor from work, and we discussed knee injuries – he damaged his whilst skiing. Met Rob from work and his wife and baby on the cathedral green, where I ate my lunch. Heard a man playing Spanish-style acoustic guitar on one side of the cathedral green, near Abode, possibly heard a trumpet on other the other side. The combination of the two reminded me of Sketches of Spain by Miles Davis. Bought a ginger beer in M&S. Browsed HMV for a few minutes, and heard Let Forever Be by The Chemical Brothers for the second time in two days, which felt like an odd coincidence as I’ve not heard it in probably years. I started to feel very tired after two bike rides sandwiched around not much sleep, so I walked home.

Got home, and lolled on the sofa listening to Truelove’s Gutter by Richard Hawley, which was excellent.

Went down to the yard to clean my bike, listening to the ‘I need this song on my iPhone’ playlist on my phone, via my Koss Portapro headphones. I took the wheels off, gave the gears and chain a damn good clean, and changed the tyres to my slick summer pair.

Finished cleaning my bike, came back inside, and jumped in the shower to wash the grease and dirt off my hands and feet because they were filthy.

Lolled on sofa whilst listening to Giant Steps by The Boo Radleys. Ate an apple; it was straight from the fridge, so I peeled it first. For the record, it was a Pink Lady, which I feel guilty about because of the air miles, but we had a voucher, and I love them.

Popped out to B&Q to buy gardening shears so we can cut the grass easily at the allotment tomorrow, and to get onions, ginger, poppadoms, and beer from Sainsbury’s.

Got home and started cooking a sweet potato and spinach curry, whilst listening to the last seven track of Giant Steps, which I’d paused before popping out.

Got to the end of Giant Steps, so I put on Ill Communication. Still cooking the curry, which wasn’t to a recipe, but off the top of my head. I’ve done this curry before, and just apply various curry-cooking principles I have picked up fro recipe books and websites to the set of ingredients I wanted to use.

Emma got home from the shoe shop. I was still cooking. We ate bits of poppadoms with lime pickle, mango chutney, and diced onion and coriander. I let the curry simmer gently whilst Emma phoned her mum.

The curry was finally ready to serve. Put the telebox on; Come Dine With Me was the only thing even vaguely worth watching. I drank a beer (an IPA) and Emma had a glass of white wine.

Finished dinner; Emma washed up and I put portions of leftover curry into Tupperware containers; five in all. Three went in the freezer, and two in the fridge for Monday.

I spotted on Twitter that Japandroids are playing in Bristol in a week and a bit. Told Emma, and she bought tickets.

Sat on the sofa, watching old episodes of Grand Designs (and then a new episode of Casualty) and typing up this diary, which I’d been keeping in the Notes app on my phone, and then transferred to Word on the laptop so I can flesh it out and make it into a full blog post. Drank a second beer.

Switched to Channel 5 to watch CSI:NY. Drank a glass of white wine. Exchanged tweets with various people. Noticed two Massive Attack songs (both from Mezzanine; Angel and then Risingson) on the CSI soundtrack.

Went upstairs, cleaned teeth, and went to bed.

Fascinating, n’est pas?

Legal disclaimer – I have to include this bit so that the researchers can use this diary.
“I donate my 12th May diary to the Mass Observation Archive. I consent to it being made publicly available as part of the Archive and assign my copyright in the diary to the Mass Observation Archive Trustees so that it can be reproduced in full or in part on websites, in publications and in broadcasts as approved by the Trustees.”

Exeter Shorts Film Festival

About 18 months ago I managed to convince the manager of our local multiplex cinema that she ought to screen the film Splice, because Mark Kermode had made it sound intriguing and nowhere else in Exeter (not the other multiplex, the arts centre, nor the chain arthouse cinema) had it scheduled. Amazingly, for someone who works for a corporate behemoth, she agreed, on the condition that I convince 12 other people to come along so that she could break even (and on the understanding that it would be screened at 11pm). Me being me, I went to Twitter and Facebook and emailed some contacts from when I ran the film department of the university library, and managed to gather 20 odd people for a Friday (late) night at the cinema to watch some schlock sci-fi horror. At least half a dozen people I didn’t know also turned up, and I gather that at least someone went to watch it each night it was on that week. Everyone’s a winner.

About a year later that same multiplex manager, Ros, announced that she was going to run a short film competition for local young filmmakers, and asked me, on the grounds that I’m gobby and not shy of giving an opinion, if I’d be on the judges panel. Of course I said yes; having judged battles of the bands, and both assistant directed and acted in short films by excellent local film makers, it seemed both a pretty logical step and a nice way to return the favour she’d paid me with Splice.

So Ros pretty much single-handedly went about setting up a website for people to upload films to, organising a judging panel (also including the director of Animated Exeter, a young filmmaker on Ros’ staff at the cinema, someone who works for a local film & TV production company and who teaches at Plymouth University, and a local arts education specialist), and soliciting entries from young people across the region in two categories; under 16s, and 16 to 24.

Many months, many emails, many films, and several meetings in person followed, culminating in last night, when the finalist’s films were shown on the big screen in front of a sizeable audience (replete with popcorn) at Ros’ cinema. Each finalist got a certificate and a splice of celluloid from an actual film (frames of Twilight and Sherlock proving unsurprisingly popular – the cinema is replacing all its film projectors with digital over the coming months), with the winners and highly commended choice in each category getting another certificate (we’d have loved to have given something more substantial as a prize, but had literally no budget; website et al was entirely due to people’s generosity) and a day’s work experience at the TV & film production company.

Judging was made difficult by the surprisingly high standard of the entries; every film had something to commend it, and there was significant bartering and opinion-swaying amongst the judges. We had stop-motion animations, experimental black + white mysteries, action films, zombie films, and more – and that was just in the under 16s category. A tight visual joke, an unexpectedly stylish camera move, a sophisticated use of sound – the pleasures of the under 16s films were many and varied, and I can see several of the entrants going on to do even better things in the coming years. In fact, if they don’t, I’ll be having words.

Joe, the u16 winner, submitted several stop-motion animations, all characterised by being very tight, funny, and sophisticated, often fulcrumming on a simple visual joke (often very clever and metatextual in nature, like the punchline of Cat Golf, which revolved around the cat’s golfball not going down the hole because, obviously, the hole isn’t a hole at all, but a black plasticene circle – Magritte-esque) and containing absolutely no narrative or visual fat. He’s 11, and you could see definite progression in the films chronologically as he tried new ideas (lip-synching to audio! Human intervention in his plasticene characters’ worlds!). I suspect that a future at Aardman beckons. This is the winning entry, which we thought combined humour, pathos, and ambition in spades. And all portrayed by a lump of plasticene.

The u16 highly commended entry was another stop-motion animation, an ambitious project from a local village primary school which included almost all the pupils from 7 years old upwards, whether they were scripting, animating, voicing, or filming. The aspiration behind such a large venture, getting a whole primary school involved, and giving kids in a tiny, sleepy, but beatific (I ride through it semi-regularly) Devon village the chance to engage with the kind of creative arts normally reserved for city kids was wonderful. Plus, again, it was pretty funny!

Unsurprisingly there was a quality leap from the under 16s to the 16-24 category in some ways; many of the 16-24 entrants were doing A levels or degree courses in media-related areas, with access to equipment and expertise that younger kids just wouldn’t have. Projects were longer, generally live-action, and ambitious in scope, if often more than a little adolescent in subject matter – there was a raft of horror films (mainly from female directors; it was heartening to have so many female entrants in this category, actually), and some were predictably much better than others. Again, though, there were pleasures to be had from every film; a surreal and effective performance by an actor, a breathtakingly well-composed bit of framing, tight storytelling that managed to convey a narrative without any dialogue, or a genuinely multi-layered grasp of humour.

The winning film didn’t come from someone with the support of a media studies department at school though; the director is from a grammar school which eschews that kind of subject, and this was the first time he’d ever tried to make a film, shooting the entire thing on a DSLR with a 50mm lens, experimenting with lighting and capturing sound as best he could. Talking to him last night confirmed that narrative was almost an afterthought, which we suspected, but nonetheless we felt that Platform One was exquisitely shot and well edited, and felt like the most “high quality” submission we received. As a film competition, we felt we had to reward the best film qua film. That he could so effectively tell a slight story suggests great things in future; give the man a proper narrative and slightly improved pacing, and he’ll make something even more impressive.

It was a close call over which film won, though, and in fact the ‘highly commended’ award was suggested by me as a way of distinguishing between the top two films in this category. Because the runner-up would have won on any other day, I suspect, and only some slightly loose editing and pacing (which, to be fair, was tightened up quite a bit for the screening) cost this spoof music documentary, or rockumentary if you will, the top prize. A film most definitely of the YouTube generation, with its to-camera asides, editing that somehow recalls the humorous use of html strikethrough tags, and gags about inappropriate search-engine-optimisation in song titles, it’s layered with laugh-out-loud moments which come from an array of places; gentle mocking of its principal characters’ pretensions, an irreverent attitude towards both music makers and fans, visual gags, and tiny references and subtleties you simply don’t notice first time around (the hapless documenter being named after Holden Caulfield, for instance). If you’ve ever played gooseberry between a “rockstar” and a female admirer or felt that the depth of your fandom deserved attention from the object of that fandom, you’ll cringe just as much as laugh. Give these guys a budget and a camera crew, and let them concentrate fully on scripting and acting, and they’ll be amazing.

I had a great time being a judge for Exeter Shorts, unsurprisingly, and we’re hopeful, given the success and attention this start-up venture has had (plenty of coverage in local media; a full cinema screen – that picture up top is from the screening; and some amazingly promising work by young filmmakers), that Vue Cinemas will continue to support it, and, with luck, make it a national thing; as far as I’m concerned, it’s exactly the sort of venture that big cinema companies should be undertaking in order to encourage the development of the talent that needs to feed the industry if its to continue to be successful; not everyone who takes part will go on to become Terence Malick (or even Michael Bay), but there are countless editors, producers, cinematographers and so on and so forth who make film & television what it is, and who need to cut their teeth.

There was much applause, as there should have been, for the filmmakers last night, but I need to make a word of thanks to Ros; not only is she the kind of person who’ll challenge her management for the sake of a good idea (be it screening some obscure, atypical-for-the-chain film at the behest of a mouthy customer, or something actually worthwhile!), she’s also the kind of person who gets things done through force of will and energy. She’s given dozens of kids a platform through which they can gain experience and exposure, which is invaluable. Good work.