I’m one of those bores who still plays Championship Manager 01/02, a football management sim that came out in 2001, as you’ve probably guessed. There’s a few thousand of us around the world, all orbiting around the champman0102.co.uk website, where volunteers faithfully update the game data in line with each new season — data we then mostly ignore in favour of the original databases (3.9.68 for a smoother game experience and the Super Greeks, the roguish 3.9.60 for crashes and bugs like an Australian season that repeats forever and the cheat player Tó Madeira).
The main reason I continue to play is inertia. I loved the game back then, it has continued to run on all systems I’ve had since, and it’s been available as freeware for at least the last ten years, with the added bonus of pro bono updates from the champman0102 team. But what I really love about it is the potential for romance you’d never see in the real world, short of Leicester’s fairytale Premier League win in 2016. Right now, I’m managing Queens Park Rangers (real life: perennial second- and third-tier battlers, recently sponsored by failed gambling/fraud enterprise Football Index) in a tilt at a second consecutive Premier League title. I got Q.P.R. promoted from Division Two (then the third tier of English football) all the way to the Premiership and now have them as the upstarts of Europe. I have former Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldinho up front alongside Luke Beckett, whose real-world career peaked at Stockport County. All this on a shoestring budget, with most players bought for less than £2million and a wage bill a fraction of Man United’s or Chelsea’s.
That’s what’s really fun about Championship Manager 01/02: taking a small team and leading them to glory over a long period. I’ve tried managing Liverpool or Barcelona; you can sign whoever you want and win the league right off the bat. Boring. Back in school, I created an absurdly talented team based on my 2nd XI teammates, then watched as we won every game at a canter. No challenge, no fun. But I still remember taking over German minnows TSV Aindling, with no money and not even any players (how do you have a football club without players?), then dragging them to the top of the Bundesliga. Likewise Izarra, a tiny Basque club, who I took through the ranks to ultimately disrupt the Barca-Real Madrid duopoly in Spain.
The impossibility of these scenarios is what makes them so intoxicating. Except it did happen in real life, more or less, with Leicester City. A League One (new name for the third tier, in case you hadn’t yet realised the absurdity of all the rebranding and tinkering with the football ‘product’) club in 2009, Leicester’s Premiership victory a mere seven years later came on a millions-strong wave of goodwill from across the globe. They were 5000-1 outsiders; who doesn’t love a genuine underdog? Never mind that they were got there on the back of Asia Football Investments money, which is pumped in by King Power International Group, which has a duty-free monopoly in Thailand thanks to its close ties with the Thai government, which took power in a military coup and has messed about freely with democracy and freedom in Thailand. Still a fairytale, damn it.
The fact that Leicester, with all that money and the soft power of a foreign state, could still be a beloved football underdog shows how messed up football has become. They were nothing next to Manchester City (plaything of UAE monarchy) and Manchester United (got big by winning everything, got bigger by prioritising shareholders over football). Or Chelsea, or Arsenal, or even Spurs.
And they were nothing next to Liverpool — my beloved Liverpool, who had their own plucky underdog success in the Champions League in 2005 and finally claimed a long-desired Premier League crown in 2020; a fandom I inherited from a football-mad stepfather. Despite not winning much for a long time, Liverpool remained a ‘big club’ because of the fandom of people like us, most of which originated in a period of extraordinary English and European dominance in the 1970s and 1980s. All of us with pound symbols above our heads. So in came the American investors — first Hicks and Gillett, Jr., then Fenway Sports Group — to tap the brand. THIS MEANS MORE, bellows Liverpool’s slogan of today: “more than win or lose, more than going to football, getting together in the pub and going home”. But also more money.
Today, those six clubs — Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, and Spurs — joined six more from Spain and Italy to announce a breakaway super league to commence next season, with a few others to be announced. They’ve been threatening it for years; it seems the time has come. There will be no promotion or relegation; just the moneyed elite, duking it out in perpetuity, although they say they will still deign to grace their domestic competitions. The Premier League, La Liga, and Serie A have some questions about that.
Also today, I join many other fans of these clubs from around the world to say: good riddance. Go and roll about in your banknotes while your bored princelings follow the script on the pitch. For it will have to descend into WWE-style plots to maintain any interest. Yes, Liverpool too. Football will be improved by your absence. Without the distraction of your constant agitating for more money and power, football will lose the outlandish transfer fees, the relentless packing in of fixtures, the Instagram beefs, the laughable branding and merchandising. Imagine! It might actually be about football again. I’ll do as I’ve intended to do for years and follow Cambridge United as they yo-yo between League Two and League One on a single-camera stream with jerky highlights. Or go to watch Stop Out in a blustery July southerly next to that brown industrial creek in Seaview.
I know that isn’t how it’ll go. The breakaway league will be more powerful, more visible, and a lot richer. It’ll poison the rest of the game with diminished resources and a new, power-hungry elite, among which Leicester might well be at the forefront. In which case I’ll go back to Championship Manager 01/02 and pretend there is still some romance in football.
I see Ashish Seth as a kindred artistic spirit. We both wrote for The NRI, an online magazine active in the early 2010s, and I spent a lot of my writing time listening to his Problem Child EP, which he released under the Mustardapple moniker.
As is now common for people linked across countries — Ashish in Canada, me in India (and then New Zealand) — we became Facebook friends, where he often posted heavily edited photographs with enigmatic captions that struck a chord with my love for art that’s off-kilter and opaque but still recognisably of this world. These photographs were often linked to a blog post, often a poem, sometimes a new piece of music. Transient vignettes of a life filtered through multiple artistic disciplines.
Like most other artists, Ashish does none of this professionally. How do you find an audience for your self-produced music in the Spotify era? (Or for your self-published travel memoir?) Through hustle and grind, mainly, sinking hours into promotion and research for a few more eyes or ears on your stuff. Those hours are hard to find when you work full time. It’s hard enough to find time just to make the art. So there are legions of us out there, toiling away at projects that will likely never generate widespread appeal, driven to write and chop and edit despite this fact. We know it’s for us more than it’s for anyone else. A necessary release of pressure. A therapy.
That said, I suspect I’m not the only person in Ashish’s orbit to connect with his music. I loved the Problem Child EP for its cinematic feel, especially ‘The Faceless Hero’, which to me evoked one person’s minor life-and-death struggle; a kid standing up to bullies in the projects, maybe. The tracks were raw and rough-edged, probably ripe for re-editing to smooth out the sharper sounds — but I liked its unpolished feel.
Ashish’s recent full-length album, Firstborn, released under his own name in the wilds of 2020, has a richer and more refined sound. This is the work of a musician whose production ability has evolved to match the sounds he wants to make. It is as sample-heavy as his earlier tunes but the samples now serve the song without drawing much attention to themselves. Again, I find myself listening to the whole thing on loop as I work — albeit at my day job, rather than at home working on my own projects. There’s a comfort to the way it flows from one track into the next, and a comfort in the cut-and-spliced melodies, which stand out enough to keep you engaged but never to the cost of the overall piece.
Firstborn was produced between approximately 2013 and 2015, then shelved for five long years. It’s a concept epic of syncopation and reverb, and the fantasist in me wants to say five years of fermentation gave rise to those rich echoes and overlaps, even though the reality is they were always there by Ashish’s design. He questioned that design, though, weighting his first full-length album with expectations he didn’t think he could meet. So he put it into the archives and had to coax it back out five years later. For all his doubts, it sounds to me like the work of a clear artistic voice.
There are other voices, though. A long list of collaborators could fill the liner notes. I’m not talking about Hemant Badya, whose guest vocals anchor the meditative ‘Aum’ at the centre of the album, but about the many other works sampled, all of which hint at a clearly universal struggle: I could be better, do better, but how? Among them: Death of a Salesman, Cutty from The Wire, ‘Passing Through’ by Rare Bird, F Scott Fitzgerald’s famous line about American lives not having second acts. Ashish is tallying up evidence across years and art forms to prove that anyone who tells you’ve they’ve got it all figured out is full of shit. He himself seems to be ‘looking for an answer’, as the refrain of ‘Somehow’ goes, and finding only the persistence of the question.
That ultimately seems to be a comfort, to my ears anyway. ‘Give Up’, the penultimate track, starts out gloomy and ends with hope; to me, it’s the hope of acceptance, not resolution. Of prizing the act of creation and claiming its inherent worth. But I’ll let Ashish tell you what he thinks. Then, listen and decide for yourself. It’s 100% free (or pay what you want) and freely available, so you might as well.
Your new album is called ‘Firstborn’. Why?
I called the album Firstborn because it is my first completed work. That’s the practical, uninspiring reason. It just seems like the simplest title. The artsy, literary, reason for the name is because the album, in a way, tells the story of a first-born child. I love concept albums so I tried to do that here. I am the first child in my family, with a younger brother. The expectations, experiences, and general anxieties of being the firstborn, or being the first one, or of being born and having arrived, all echo in the album’s story. So, in a way, the title suited the theme and underlying narrative of the album.
I also hope to release more music in the future so the title was is an apt signal for the start of something new.
What were you hearing (or not hearing) in Firstborn when you shelved it in 2015?
I don’t know what a lack of confidence sounds like but that’s what I was hearing when I shelved it. I don’t have a background in music or playing in a band. I don’t have any musical training. I play guitar but just for fun.
Unfortunately, it took a long time for me to get over the mental barrier of what’s considered legitimate music. The traditional notion of playing in a band, basic song structure, and the old teachers in my head prevented me from seeing it as a piece of music. Then there were the copyright issues.
Eventually, perhaps after seeing how liberal music has become, I decided that there was a place for me and my music.
What changed in order to convince you it was worth putting out into the world?
I wanted to move on. Start something new. But I knew I couldn’t until this project was complete. It’s been strange, surreal times. The pandemic. Something about that compelled me to look at it again. As I said previously, I think with platforms like Spotify, Bandcamp, and Soundcloud, artists like myself feel a lot more confident that there is a place for the type of music we make.
What software/hardware did you use to make Firstborn? It’s quite sample-heavy, right?
I mostly used Ableton Live and some other VSTs and patches to create the album. I’m really into sample-based music, repurposing, recontextualizing, cutting and pasting. Unlike hip hop producers who dig crates for vinyl to sample, I dug the internet. I pulled sounds from my library of music, all the music I collected before streaming became the new way we listen to music. There are some guitar licks and bad keyboarding on it as well. I tend to throw everything at the wall.
Back in 2009, I began producing music with DAWs like Sony Acid Pro and Soundforge. I’ve always been very music-minded and these new tools, instruments in their own right, made the medium accessible for me. I began obsessively trying to create unique sounds and imitate artists like J Dilla, Burial, and DJ Shadow. I’ve always loved hip hop and sampling as a form so I just buried myself in trying to mimic those guys and do it myself. I knew a bunch of producers who were making beats for MCs and initially thought about doing that but it never appealed to me. I preferred finished songs that could stand on their own. I wanted to create a record with the dense samples of Endtroducing…… and the distant ethereal quality of Untrue by Burial. You can probably hear some of their influences in it.
Do you have a favourite track on the album?
My favorite track is “Dreamcatcher.” It was the first track of the album and the one in which I really felt I’d gotten better as a songwriter.
I really love the strong beat of ‘Give Up’, the catchy string sample, the playful percussive stutters in the final stretch. It seems hopeful and decisive in a way that most of the other tracks don’t. So why is it called ‘Give Up’?
As I mentioned earlier, I envisioned the whole album as a story. This song is the climax. “My Own Church” is the denouement. “Somehow” is the end of the dark second act. I think a part of me wanted to be subversive and ironic. “Give Up” starts very doomy, as if the narrator of the song or character has come to the end of their rope and has lost all hope, until he sees a glimmer of inspiration which he carries to its logical conclusion. The ending is meant to be a hiccup in the road towards the end of the goal you’re trying to reach, and it ends on an ambiguous note. It is up to the listener to decide.
You write, take photos, and make music. There’s probably other art in you that I don’t know about. Which medium did you love first, and which do you love most?
The medium I loved first, and still do, is writing. That’s my first love. I’m an aspiring novelist. I completed my MFA in Creative Writing two years ago and have been working – chipping away is the better way to put it – on my first novel. Being able to express myself creatively is a critical aspect of my life because it fuels me. And I think a creative life, beyond whatever an artistic life is, requires the constant pursuit of creating.
I’m currently reading Moby-Dick. I try to read the classics. Certain truths ring true through the test of time. I found a quote in this book that kind of represents a mantra I want to follow. It’s a quote I read recently so it’s not something I’ve always had – I’m not trying to be pretentious – but it resonated with me and reminded me what it’s all about. It goes: “[t]hough I am but ill qualified for a pioneer, in the application of these two semi-sciences to the whale, I will do my endeavor. I try all things; I achieve what I can.” I try all things, regardless of my aptitude or skill because I have to in order to get where I want to go. The book Moby-Dick is such a tome of knowledge on a whole bunch of things, most especially whales. It can be a slog but when you step back to consider the wonder with which he writes about whales, not the authority, it kind of boils down the truth that perhaps life is a struggle to comprehend and the only thing you can do is try if you want to participate in meaning making. By trying, who knows what can be achieved.
You’re also a teacher, which I imagine demands a lot of you. How do you make time — and room in your brain — to make music (or art more generally)?
This is the ongoing struggle – balancing these two parts of me has never been easy. Carving out spaces of time is really difficult, especially of late. Balancing the two areas of my life is something I’m constantly figuring out and getting better at. But every so often growth spurts of creativity will make it happen. You can only plan. I try to carve out time for my craft every day. I start small, five minutes a day, to ten, to fifteen, and eventually momentum builds. Finding a discipline and relentless passion to keep going in the face of it all is the real artistic battle.
On your website, you mention the period during which you made Firstborn as a difficult time. How did that colour the music?
I was going through an existential crisis. I don’t wish to say much more on the particulars. I wrote the bulk of the tracks at the end of 2013 in a frenzy of productivity and just poured all the despair into it. Whatever was going on, all of that colored the music, in the sounds I sampled, the structure, the mood. I think if anything was captured, it was that. And out of all that, an album came out.
Also on your website, you once wrote that “if you sit with an idea for too long [it] loses creative vigor and nothing seems natural”. But Firstborn has undergone a rebirth of sorts after five years locked away. Do you have other finished or half-finished projects sitting in a drawer that could be worth another look?
I think that’s what happened with this album. Everything takes so long to finish that you wonder whether it’s even worth doing and then at the same time you’re wondering whether the creative ideas you’re trying to reach are just you getting in the way of yourself. I take so long to get things done. I can say that also about the novel I’ve been working on.
But then when you take a step back or put a significant amount of time between the work and yourself, and grow in the interim, and then come back to it, you see it with different eyes, hear it with different ears, and you realize that perhaps it was fully finished when you left it. I think all creative people who work on something for a long time are constantly wrestling with the work, trying to figure it out, negotiating with it, churning it, molding it, and by turns, it molds them, forces them to consider new avenues, grows with the happy accidents that occur in the process and that we leap to put our name on when we see worth to them. And in the end, the totality of it all, the successes, the misfires, the signature it ends up taking on, what it sounds like, feels like; all of that is in some ways an illustration of the struggle of who you were putting it together, and once you understand that, trying to get it perfect makes no sense. It is what it always was. Once I came to terms with that, I had to accept it and move on, lest it sink me and prevent me from growing past it.
I’m glad I went back to it with fresh eyes and ears. Seeing the joy it brought to my loved ones was even sweeter.
I am ticking all the expected boxes of my thirties: marriage, house, kids, minor existential crisis. I earn more money than ever before, more than I ever imagined I could be earning, and through a time of increasingly precarious employment at that, and I can confirm that shooting past the median wage does not in itself bring happiness. But I am content most of the time, rarely low for longer than a few days.
Our amazing house needs work. A lot of work. So many people come to help us but still it overwhelms. Meanwhile, my brain fills up with writing ideas waiting for the time to be put down. The kids are growing up so fast. My wife and I do our best to make time to look at one another. In lieu of close friendship, I read books. And I try to stop sometimes to take notice of the world around me. Check out all my privilege, for God’s sake.
Like no other year I can remember, 2020 defies easy summary. It was all so new. I got so accustomed to it being 2020, with all the twisty connotations that number came to represent, that I couldn’t believe it would ever be 2021. And yet, here we are, spinning along the same unfamiliar trajectory. Anyhow, here are 5000 words trying to make sense of what I saw, felt, heard, did.
SARS-CoV-2 spiked its proteins into all of us in some way or another this year. I am one of the lucky billions not to come into contact with it and develop COVID-19, largely because I live in an island nation that took an elimination strategy in fighting the pandemic. Meanwhile, millions died around the world, and as I write this in the days between Christmas and New Year, much of the world’s humans are still not safe to go out.
My most repeated phrase about COVID-19 has been ‘we’re only five minutes into this thing’. With the vaccine rollout commencing in other countries — mostly for rich and important people — I might now admit we are a couple of hours in, albeit with a concerned finger pointed at the new, more infectious mutations and steepling case number rises in certain countries. Say we are all vaccinated or otherwise immune, though, and the spectre of COVID-19 recedes into the past. Do we carry on just like we used to? Arguably the real triumph of New Zealand’s COVID-19 response was the resultant flattening of influenza infections by 99.8%, meaning 500-odd people didn’t die who in any other year would have. So why are sick people still coming to work, sniffling and sneezing and unmasked?
The answer, usually, is they feel like they have to. Their workplace doesn’t have extensive sick leave, or doesn’t allow them to work from home. More broadly, paid work is what our society is oriented around, and the inability to carry it out is a personal failing, not a social failing. So people keep showing up when the obvious choice should be to stay at home. You’d need a lot of resilience and financial backing to fight and change this.
In the middle of the year, I went to the dentist and had a wisdom tooth removed. For a month afterwards, I kept remembering the dull feeling of the machine grinding through numbed tissue and bone to cut it out – especially the sounds, a sharp, whirring ‘screee’ and the gurgle of my blood and saliva being suctioned away. I’d never undergone a procedure like this and was surprised at how it could simultaneously be less taxing than expected and also indelibly violent. That ‘screee’ is my sound of 2020.
It seemed you couldn’t move in this fragmented year without hitting another message about breathing, grounding, centering, practising mindfulness. You’ve got to look after yourself. It’s okay to look after yourself. Everyone was saying it, from the Prime Minister to my favourite podcast hosts. I was saying it myself, writing comms after comms reminding fellow staff this is not normal and we understand how you feel and here are some tips to help you through these unprecedented times. It began to feel hollow after a while. But the alternative, ignoring the struggle, would be worse. In the meantime, I continued to ignore all the advice, doomscrolling first thing and jamming headphones into my ears at every opportunity.
In June or so, I saw a helpful infographic about the places we hold tension in our bodies. My unconscious mind turned it into a how-to guide: in addition to neck, shoulders, and jaw (got those sorted already, thanks) I tensed my abdomen and held air in my lungs, forcing it back out with my eyes darting and unfocused, taking in anything except what was in front of me. I downloaded an app that had a little animation to help you breathe deeply, and halfway through the first minute, I was surprised to feel my eyes welling up, as though this app had unlocked some complex emotion that had been trapped all year.
It seemed to be a year of struggling to breathe for most people I know. And no one I know got COVID. Looking back, it may have been a year of seeing exactly how poorly we were taking care of ourselves, so that we can learn and try new ways. A year of genuine mental health awareness. More likely, that’s just me having my own epiphany, and you all have been there or have it to come.
About two months ago, having spent the entire year and probably the ten before that responding to ‘how are you?’ with ‘I’m all right’ or ‘I’m okay’ or ‘Not bad’, I started saying ‘Good’, regardless of the mess of home and work tasks clouding my head. Because it is true on many levels. I am here, and my body is able, and my mind is bursting with ideas, and I go home each to day to people I love. By saying ‘Good’, I am making a conscious effort to iron out the petty doubts and worries of the day or week. I am reminding myself that my life can be summed up with the most basic positive. ‘Good’ is an affirmation.
We have been coasting in the era of capital for long enough. Or struggling, more likely. Day to day, week to week, month to month, trying to make it all add up, trying to stay above water. The ruthless few get all the cream and most of the milk, too. The investor class gets their imaginary money in carefully structured bank accounts to work for it while they retreat to the beach in sunglasses. A privileged few scramble their way onto the property ladder and watch their asset grow in imaginary value (hi!), finally safe from the churning wheel of rent and inspections. The Earth slowly burns in an ash cloud of rainforests and boiling seas.
This awful moment brings it all home. We’ve known where the inequity rests, and the various pandemic responses show the value of collective effort and inclusivity in opportunity. We might just have the social and political capital to finally do something about it at the highest level.
So what did we do? What blueprint did our leaders offer, what vision did our democracy of three-year terms lap up with gusto?
A book is a beautiful thing. It’s full of promise before reading, and also pleasant to hold, which it will always be. After reading — if it was any good — simply looking at it brings words, characters, and ideas flooding back. In your mind’s eye, it now represents all it contains. And it retains the promise of hours of possible reading, or re-reading. It doesn’t matter if it’s your book or someone else’s, or if it was borrowed from a library. The book has all the same potential.
I spent quite a few spare moments in early 2020 flitting from one charity shop to another buying piles of secondhand books, especially those on my 2020 reading list. Five-years-ago me would’ve been confused: why gather so many of these objects when you could get almost all of them from the library or the internet? Even current me is a bit confused, for the same reason. But I live in a big house now, with a set of bookshelves just for me, and I want to fill them. I want to look at the spines and sense that potential. I do however resolve in 2021 to focus my buying in books I know and love, lest I end another year with another pile of books I’m never going to read. I have enough of those in my annual reading lists (here’s 2021, if you’re interested).
Here, in reading order, are some books I particularly admired in 2020.
HUNGER by Knut Hamsun (1890) DEAD PEOPLE I HAVE KNOWN by Shayne Carter (2019) NVK by Temple Drake (pseudonym for Rupert Thomson) (2020) FIERCE BAD RABBITS by Clare Pollard (2019) HOWARDS END by E. M. Forster (1910) THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE by C. S. Lewis (1950) ON WRITING by Stephen King (2000) NOTHING TO SEE by Pip Adam (2020) THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS by N. K. Jemisin (2010) RUFUS MARIGOLD by Ross Murray (2019) HELLO MUM by Bernadine Evaristo (2010) USE OF WEAPONS by Iain M. Banks (1990) MOSHI MOSHI by Banana Yoshimoto (2010) BEN, IN THE WORLD by Doris Lessing (2000) UNDER THE SKIN by Michel Faber (2000) PRODIGAL SUMMER by Barbara Kingsolver (2000) SURFACE DETAIL by Iain M. Banks (2010) THE MINISTRY FOR THE FUTURE by Kim Stanley Robinson (2020) OWLY: THE WAY HOME by Andy Runton (2004) FIRST CONTACT by Soni Somarajan (2020) CHINAMAN by Shehan Karunatilaka (2010) (re-read) AKISSI: TALES OF MISCHIEF by Marguerite Abouet & Mathieu Sapin (2014)
My favourite of these was THE MINISTRY FOR THE FUTURE. I’m still so taken with it, and I’ve noticed a cult of fellow readers spreading the word on Twitter and Facebook. Those that love it REALLY love it. So here’s my review, initially posted on Goodreads and shared in my monthly email newsletter. I hope one or two of you track it down and read it.
THE MINISTRY FOR THE FUTURE by Kim Stanley Robinson, 2020 Let’s see if I can do this. The effects of escalating carbon emissions will lead to human catastrophes of extraordinary scale – heat waves, inundations – and when the representatives of affected countries turn up angry to international symposiums and throw their numbers of dead on the table, the world will take notice – but it won’t take action until there is mass financial disobedience, the simple refusal to pay trillions of imaginary dollars owed, at which time the entire financial system will collapse and be reborn under the auspices of central banks trading in currency backed by carbon sequestration. They will only be following the money, true, and money will still rule everything, but the money will now have a sound moral and ethical underpinning. In the meantime, those who hang on to the old ways and power structures — the shipping and airline industries, for example — will be hit by violent acts of highly organised eco-terrorism on a mass scale, some carried out by dark wings of international organisations, whose commitment to a lasting greater good will accept a few million dead if it gets the point across; this in addition to targeted assassinations of the most obscene polluters and pursuers of inequality. Socialism will finally overthrow capitalism in this way, ushering in public ownership of all the basics — home, food, water, job, energy — and a comfortable minimum standard of living mandated through democracy across much of the world. All this but all that carbon has still been burnt, the glaciers are still melting, so some very expensive geological interventions will be necessary: drones to recover the Arctic with sea ice, pumps to draw water up from underneath glaciers and spray it on top so it freezes again, dye sprayed in oceans and over land to reflect more solar rays back into orbit so the sea doesn’t boil so soon. Then there’s the ever-multiplying eco interest groups reforesting and creating larger habitat corridors and generally giving more of the planet back to non-anthropocentric ecosystems, leading to government-backed schemes to buy whole towns out and move their populations to the suburbs and let fauna wander their deserted streets unbothered. A more equitable society is the result, and a more equitable planet, in which humans might endure for longer than they otherwise would have.
So. I found this book utterly compelling, to the point that I need to find some sceptical reviews (edit: found one here) to pick holes in Robinson’s science, which is explained in frequent short chapters and seems sound. These crash courses are so frequent as to comprise about half the book; reading it is like going on a curated Wikipedia tour on climate change economics. There is plot dropped in, often revolving around the titular Ministry and its head but also darting in and out of dozens of other communities across the planet — refugee camps especially — and it is propulsive enough. But it’s the way Robinson constructs his utopia in asides that drew me in so thoroughly. I’ve never read anything like it.
As in 2019, I fixated on one album early on and hardly listened to anything else. And as in 2019, it was an album from 2019: ‘Perfumed Earth’ by Purple Pilgrims. They were the third-billed act of three at a big Arts Festival concert I attended the weekend before lockdown, where Weyes Blood (fav artist of the year before) had second billing (you what!) and Aldous Harding was the main act (I left early).
I’d never heard of Purple Pilgrims before. The levels were wrong, the bass drowned them out, they veered occasionally into ethereal floaty pop cliché (billowing tunics and yogic movements), but I’d heard enough to try them in the headphones — and then in the car, and while I was cooking, and while I was washing the dishes. It’s one of those albums with no dud track; I’m Not Saying doesn’t fit with the others so well, but it’s still a really good pop song. Big synths, beautiful and slightly off-kilter guitar and vocal harmonies, killer lyrics that hint at true love and darkness. Ancestors Watching was my most-played track of 2020 (ignoring all the hits from the musicals mentioned in the Movies section below).
Aaron Tokona died in June. I spent two weeks listening to Let It Go and Calling On on repeat. Like thousands of other Kiwis, I imagine, screaming “like I’m suffocating” at the climax as they finished off the dishes.
It was a great year for new music, according to Vulture and Wisconsin Public Radio. I surfaced from under my Purple Pilgrims-shaped rock in about November and blasted through a number of acclaimed releases. Dua Lipa, Perfume Genius, Phoebe Bridgers, BC Camplight, Ariana Grande, Moses Sumney, Rina Sawayama, Fiona Apple, Four Tet, Ital Tek, Laura Marling, Yves Tumor, Beatrice Dillon. Each album tried a couple of times, then left alone. I liked most of these, could’ve loved some of these, but not now.
A few new albums somehow got through to me. EOB’s Earth was catchier and deeper than I initially realised. TENGGER’s Nomad gave me the sense of a pleasant bush walk, with harmonious synths over trickling streams. HAIM’s Women In Music Pt. III brought my favourite new chart pop in years, although it is very much a summer sound, despite the often cynical and self-flagellating lyrics, so it took me until December to actually get into it.
Then there was The Soft Pink Truth’s ‘Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase?’, named for a Bible verse in which Paul the Apostle is fed up with everyone carrying on as they always have in comfort that their Lord will forgive them. Drew Daniel wanted “to make something that felt socially extended and affirming”, and there are several ecstatic moments that make me feel warm inside. But I hear a rough, hard edge through it all; the shimmering bells of ‘Go’, the horn blasts of ‘Sinning’, the major chord call and minor chord response of ‘That’. Not that any of this matters in isolation. It’s the cumulative effect of the album that gives these moments their power, especially in the context of #2020, where some other power is behind the wheel and you’re not sure where you’re headed. Thankfully, ‘Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase?’ has a happy ending. I go straight back to the start and go through it all again.
Finally, Ashish Seth’s Firstborn saw the light. It was finished in 2015 and shelved due to the artist’s lack of confidence in the material, then released in 2020 for free, with little fanfare. It gave me many hours of listening pleasure and is layered enough that I’m still noticing new things months later. It’s particularly good to write to. I’ll post my interview with Ashish soon.
A playlist of songs by the artists discussed:
I’m trying something different with music in 2021, following the release calendar more closely and updating a playlist with my favourites each week. Here’s that playlist. Follow along with me?
It’s all online now. I went to the cinema once in 2020 (PARASITE). Our household subscribes to five different film and TV streaming services:
I have never before had immediate access to so many films I want to watch. I try to make sense of them by dutifully adding preferred titles to my watch list, rather than letting the algorithm decide for me, and I pile up 50-odd titles on each service. Of them, I’ve only comprehensively combed SKY Go for content that interests me; each of the others could have dozens or hundreds more films I might enjoy.
Maybe I should give in and follow the algorithm. I’ve spent far more time researching and adding to my watch lists than I have watching the titles on them. I don’t have a lot of time to myself, true, but when I go, and I open up one of the lists, I’m immediately paralysed by indecision. Invariably, I close the tab and go back to my book.
The nadir of this behaviour was SHOPLIFTERS. Kore-eda Hirokazu is one of my favourite directors, one whose films I make a point of seeing. SHOPLIFTERS appeared on the SKY Go one day in 2020 and I thought, yes! Finally!! I get to see this modern classic, Palme d’Or winner, the film that finally brought Kore-eda to wider recognition! I’ll put it on the watch list.
It disappeared off the platform three weeks later. I had not watched it.
Not that I didn’t watch a lot of movies in 2020. I just watched the same ones, over and over. In March, my wife instituted Movie Night on Tuesdays, which quickly expanded to Saturdays as well during lockdown. The four of us took turns choosing what to watch, and because my children were two years old, we watched the following films several times:
HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL
THE CAT RETURNS
THE MANY ADVENTURES OF WINNIE-THE-POOH
Any of the Julia Donaldson shorts
And I am not complaining. I am in fact incredibly proud of my children for taking to THE CAT RETURNS and COOL RUNNINGS, which are slower-paced than most modern fare (in fact, they seem to respond better to more sedate viewing than flashy, heavily edited films). I’m not even complaining about HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL, whose catchy and knowing songs have become central to our household’s shared set of references (see above). Varsity-age me would’ve been appalled I’d gotten into HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL. To be honest, so would last-year me. But here we are. Never been a better time to let the sunshine in.
And then there’s HAMILTON, which we all took to so quickly. The kids know the words to most of the first act. It’s still our default car music. HAMILTON is an imperfect masterwork, harmed by its absences but gloriously elevated by pretty much everything that’s there. It works on a number of levels for every second of two and a half hours, with great tunes delivered by incredible vocal performers. I didn’t see how a musical about the founding fathers could be anything but cringeworthy — then I watched it, these people of colour claiming the problematic past for themselves, and I got it.
These are the new-to-NZ films and TV series I saw:
PARASITE (good, but enormously overrated) UNCUT GEMS (Safdies with another bleak, high-tension gift) DEVS (formally superb, some interesting ideas wasted on a dumb plot) THE GOOD PLACE: Season 4 (blasted through the entire show in a couple of months, a great initial gimmick built on and sustained to make the defining sitcom of the era) ONWARD (lesser Pixar but still very enjoyable, and another difficult landing superbly stuck) HAMILTON (still an obsession several months later) PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE (stunning, with two moments of spine-tingling movie magic)
There’s one other film I saw for the first time in 2020 I’d like to mention specifically, and that’s FIRST REFORMED. It’s as bold and brilliant as all the reviews at the time suggested, and dovetails nicely with my favourite book of the year above. Whether or not he gives up in the end, the economy with which director Schrader and star Hawke drag so many of our current social and economic demons to the surface is — as Rev Toller says at the moment of his awakening — exhilarating. In case you’re not getting it, we absolutely must do something about the many ways in which we are destroying our planet. FIRST REFORMED asks: what would you do? How far would you go? And could it ever be enough?
Traditionally, sports fans have mythical power, especially in football. They’re the reason for it all, the ever-loyal brotherhood (because they are mostly men). Their deification has graduated from sporting custom to the strategic plan — because to alienate them would surely be economic suicide (although the board at Manchester United have made a fine fist of running a football club with only the shareholders in mind). It’s normal, therefore, for coaches and players to show willingness to engage with fans as they enter the stadium; to give them a quick high five as they run down the tunnel, for example.
In mid-March, a week or two before the Premier League was suspended indefinitely, and a couple of weeks before New Zealand’s level 4 lockdown commenced, Klopp was having none of it. As he strode out with his players, he looked up at the faces of the fans stretching their arms out, hoping for brief physical contact with their heroes — including the wunderbar German manager who had delivered the team’s greatest success since the 80s. He did not indulge them. Instead, he bellowed, “Put your hands away, you fucking idiots!”
And that’s why Liverpool won the league. Klopp wasn’t there to muck around. Every detail would be analysed, every drop of effort expended to the most efficient purpose. And when tradition stood in the way, Klopp shoved it aside. None of his players contracted COVID-19 until after the season was over.
During lockdown, I completed 100 keepy-uppies for the first time in my life. I’d break off from the relentless stream of work a few times a day and do two or three attempts, usually getting to about 40, before bounding back inside to the juggling of Word documents. Eventually I got to 80 keepy-uppies, then 90 keepy-uppies, then 100 keepy-uppies. No one was around to see me do it.
I reflected on the wonder of practice; how you can improve a skill simply by repeating it. And I reflected on talent, and ambition; also during lockdown, a friend who plays proper football at club level achieved the ‘around-the-world’ trick, clockwise and anticlockwise. I had as much interest in following suit as I did in perfecting ball tricks when I was in high school, which is zero. My natural talents are to pick the right pass and shoot accurately from distance, not to showboat, and I am content to ply my trade in lunchtime indoor five-a-side every few weeks.
That’s a far cry from the lofty sporting ambitions of my childhood, when I imagined myself a dual international in rugby and cricket. But I’m satisfied I’ve found my level.
Ha ha ha. Well. We managed our usual summer holiday in February, to Hawke’s Bay, during which I got sick and we argued a lot. There were some great moments too: descending the grand staircase in an old convent/school we stayed at for a night in Featherston, days on the beach in Waimārama, and particularly our visit to Splash Planet, which begat a long and pretentious blog post.
You move around the world and colour in the parts you see. You flood your senses and your mind and try, sometimes desperately, to commit them to your memory. But you can never hold onto them as they were, because your memory is fallible and the world’s constant physical change is undeniable.
There were also two joyous weekends at holiday houses in Foxton Beach. And an expensive night in Auckland during which I ate one of the best (certainly the most expensive) meals of my life. We in New Zealand were lucky to be able to do all this without fear. I wonder when we’ll be able to rock up to Tokyo or Paris again.
Tara is everything to me. She’s my love, my rock, my inspiration; a source of frustration; my comfort at the wordless end of an exhausting day; my partner in the biggest work of our lives; my favourite cook; my cheerleader; the one who will stare daggers at me or look away in disgust, the one who will look at me with pure openness the way anyone would long to be looked at. I will ignore her sometimes in favour of my phone; other times I follow her around the house like a silly little dog. Long-term intimacy has brought almost everything out of us and I would say we love each other more than ever, even with all the worst parts of ourselves left in. We may never sand those rough edges off. Life is probably more interesting with them.
Whenever anyone asks me how the kids are, I try to talk about the things they are doing, rather than ascribe personality traits that may change next week. But they are getting to the point where the things they do are their personalities, in a way. June builds towers out of anything, but especially blocks, and is quite happy to spend two hours in her room each afternoon stacking Duplo on her desk until she can’t reach any higher. Nora wants to be around people as much of the time as possible, and if she can’t be around people, she’ll hold birthday parties for her toys. Both are generally quite shy but increasingly surprise us by introducing themselves to a shopkeeper with confidence. Both want a lolly, right now. They started kindergarten in 2020 and can now use a potty and a toilet; guess which was the bigger milestone in our view. I ignore them sometimes in favour of my phone, too — sometimes you have to if you want them to get to sleep, or to discover the world in their own way — but as much as possible, I try to be with who they are today.
If and when Tara’s parents move in with us, and if we have another child, the times of our little unit of four will come to an end. I’d miss it, of course, but changes like these would bring at least as many gains. Ask me again a year after it happens.
We had the usual visits from far-flung family generous enough to make it to us because we can’t afford to make it to them right now. My dad and stepmother from Auckland, my brother/sister-in-law/niblings from Dunedin. We spent time occasionally with family who live locally, and I always came away thinking ‘we should do that more often’; same goes for the few friends we saw sporadically. But it was a year of focusing on the family unit, especially during those two months or so between March and May. In the worst times, we felt horribly isolated. In the best times, our days seemed crammed full of joy and wonder. I can’t do any of it justice.
During lockdown, I would stop work through the middle hours of the day — approx 1130-1400 — to play with the kids, have family lunch, and put one of my children down for an early afternoon nap. She’d stretch out in my lap, on her back looking up at me, and smile as I rocked her from side to side with my legs, humming songs from MOANA and HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL and FROZEN. The smile would fade, the long blinks would eventually begin, then she would fall asleep. I can easily imagine looking back at the end of my life and thinking, that was as good as it got.
I’m usually pretty good at putting myself down for a nap, a skill I picked up on draining afternoons under the humid, orange sun of South India (stay tuned for my forthcoming book ‘Saip Shock: Three Years in Kerala’ and weeks of increasingly grating promotion). Set alarm for thirty minutes from now, lie down on stomach, head on folded arms, fall asleep.
But today, seconds after I stretched myself out on the mattress, I was in the lion enclosure. It didn’t have any lions at first; it may in fact have been an open-air library, or a biodome. But the exit was about a ten-second walk over there, and the possibility of those ten seconds was enough to place three or four bored, hungry lions inside the chicken wire with me.
I turned to run, then remembered reading somewhere to neither turn nor run in this situation, so I turned to face them again and backed away slowly. My brain then scattered them in such a way that it would be impossible to keep them all in my field of vision. It also removed the exit.
I then focused on figuring out a way to have them attack and eat my legs, which would be expendable in comparison to my head and torso. Then I teleported myself halfway up the chicken wire and watched as they barrelled towards the fence, gathering speed with each stride, coiling to pounce three metres up in the air to where I perched. Again, the legs are expendable; I’d brace with my fingers through the netting for all I was worth and kick down at their eyes and jaws as they rose to bring me down.
Then I decided all this was a bit silly, and instead thought about Andrew Mehrtens’s miracle dropout fifteen minutes into the 1995 Rugby World Cup final, which bounced into touch a couple of metres from South Africa’s goal line. How did he do that? Partly through luck, obviously, but how did he have the vision to notice the opportunity? And the skill to execute such a long kick less than a second after seeing the space? A forgotten moment of sporting genius.
So I didn’t nap properly; just these idle daydreams, a toe dipped into sleep. Better than lying awake at 2am thinking about parenting or money or work. Next time I find myself struggling to get back to sleep in the dark of the night, and need to calm myself down, I might put myself back in the lion enclosure and dream up more ways to survive.
Everyone, everywhere, Santa Fe to Timbuktu, is talking about the same thing.
Has there ever been a time like this? Instant information, distance from the environment, and a global threat to public health: a new set of conditions to steer all seven billion of us down the same path. I suppose you could argue that any conversation during either of the World Wars was ultimately about the war, but you could still go out and get drunk, and there was still a side to take. COVID-19 is in everything, and despite the efforts of some charlatans to spin it to their own ends, the virus brings with it undeniable truths — contagion, illness, and death, but also hand-washing, elbow-sneezing, and flattening the curve — to alarm and compel.
If it’s true that everyone reverts to a base state during a crisis, I appear to be a pessimist, or at least a cynic, drawn to the more troubling scenarios than the hopeful ones. It might instead be that a media diet of RNZ, The Guardian, and Twitter leads the average person to doubt humanity in general. I am trying to leave the tabs closed more often.
The hard part, though, is that I, a know-all hipster since I could talk, am forced to live through COVID-19 with everyone else. There’s no lesser-known virus you probably haven’t heard of. I am in this and this only, just like you. How irritating.
But — also — how hopeful, actually. When has every person in the world had to stare down the same disastrous consequences and act in unison to prevent them? And when have so many signed up so willingly?
There’s no medicine. People are the medicine, in so many ways. And it’s just as well I don’t have anything different to say, because it isn’t my job to make sense of it; to zoom out and paint the picture in a way others might understand. My job is to stay home.
After the Prime Minister’s announcement of an imminent shift to COVID-19 alert level 4 (mandatory self-isolation and physical distancing, essential services only), I immediately went out and panic bought a slide.
I entered Kmart as at least three other parents exited with literal armloads of board games. A woman and I circled around the two last remaining slides — massive boxes that wouldn’t fit in our trolleys — until I finally pounced. She stood staring at the last one for a few more seconds before hauling it up.
I only learned at checkout that it cost $139. An insane amount of money, and completely out of character for me, but what if we need it? What if the country locks down even further? What if vigilante mobs sweep the streets in snarling, two-metre-spaced rows? What if the Defence Force is deployed to enforce a full curfew? These are the kinds of thoughts you have because no one knows what, exactly, is going to happen. No one in the country has ever lived through anything like this before. Even in wartime, you could still go out for a drink.
It was just me and the other parents, mostly, stocking up on games and arts and crafts. A minimum of four weeks at home with the children. We love them — they’re a blessing, a joy, we are so lucky to have them and all that — but can you see why we were panic buying playdough and poster paints?
There was also a guy in stubbies yelling into a cellphone, “Nah mate, I’m at Kmart. Yeah nah, it’s basically dead here.” Compared to queues out the door at the supermarket, most definitely.
We’d already been to the supermarket that day. Limit: two of any similar item per customer. I tried to buy a third bottle of milk for my friends in self-isolation (trim milk! As if I would drink that swill) but was quietly and awkwardly denied by the cashier and her supervisor.
When I jetted off to do the Kmart run and pick up those same friends’ dear little dog from the kennels, I forgot to take the trim milk. It’s still sitting in our fridge, unopened. Maybe I’ll end up drinking it after all.
I had an embarrassing realisation earlier this week.
I’d been following the news closely for months, keeping an eye on the COVID-19 cases map, and responding daily to its escalation at work.
But I still wasn’t taking it seriously until last Friday, when they cancelled the sport.
For a certain kind of person, news of global contagion and measures to stop its spread don’t hit home until the Premier League is postponed or the cricketers fly back home. It turns out I am that kind of person.
Tens of millions of people in lockdown overseas? Well, that’s a shame. Crystal Palace v Norwich has been called off? Oh my God, I need to fill the cupboard with tins and stop touching my face and talk to the people I love, slowly and clearly, about this not being a drill.
Embarrassing, as I say. But I know there were plenty of other people the world over twiddling their thumbs on the weekend and thinking the same thing.
And it’s not even the best wake-up call in our house this week. For Tara, the pandemic wasn’t a central concern… until they closed Disneyland.
Who’s the leader of the club that’s made for global stress?
“I don’t know if you know what’s happening back in my country,” said Natalie Mering aka Weyes Blood in a whispery Pennsylvania drawl, “but we’re all… kinda… freaking out.”
It was Friday March 13 2020, a day when a lot of people who weren’t already freaking out about COVID-19 began to do so in earnest. The bog roll all left the shelves days before; now people are realising it won’t be enough.
“I’ve spent most of today crying,” she said, as laconic as ever. You wouldn’t know it from her singing voice, sharp and true, as certain as anything in this wild time. Some artists — Weyes Blood above all for me right now — give me the impression they observe the Earth as a pale blue dot from space, seeing and understanding and making sense of it all for the rest of us. I often marvel at how her lyrics cut through the muddle of human existence to coruscate with clinical beauty:
Lift the heart from the depths it’s fallen to We all want something new But can’t seem to follow through
Some people feel what some people don’t Some people watch until they explode The meaning of life doesn’t seem to shine like that screen
Lost and tangled up in you Everyone knows you just did what you had to Burning much more than ever before Burning down the door
It was hard to believe someone seemingly so plugged into ecstatic truth could be so vulnerable. But there she was, a person, imploring us to get on our feet and move with her in this frightening time.
A couple did. I wish I had. But I’m a shy Kiwi; it’s not in our nature to push our way to the end of the row and boogie in the aisle when overcome with the music. Instead, I sat there and let it fill my heart.