The Null Device

2020/3/27

Dear diary;

It has been two weeks since The Covfefe forced us into hiding. Or, more precisely, since everybody at the company I work for was strongly encouraged to work from home. A Google spreadsheet was set up where those needing monitors or office chairs could request them. The weekly Friday afternoon fika was moved to a video meeting, a sort of non-work-related status report. Other than that, things stayed the same: the company is an IT company, and most business is arranged over Slack (or occasionally email), so not a huge amount changed. People who work in other industries are undoubtedly less lucky.

Other than that, Stockholm is calm, or perhaps in denial. The bars are not only not closed but quite busy, though as a concession, are only offering seated table service. A tobacconist near where I live has started selling surgical masks, though nobody has started actually wearing them. There are perhaps slightly fewer people out and about, and perhaps more social distancing going on, but not a huge amount. Some rationalise it by saying that Sweden has an advantage in social distancing even in normal times; others point to the consensus-seeking nature of Swedish society, always trying to find a lagom medium between the extremes.

It feels in some ways like the calm before the storm. As I write this, and people go about their routines, the Covfefe is undoubtedly spreading silently through the population. It seems unlikely that Sweden will escape the necessity for a comprehensive shutdown of non-essential services. (What constitutes an essential service, of course, is a sticking point; various US states have listed gun shops and golf courses as essential services; I imagine a case could be made for Systembolaget and providers of freshly baked kanelbullar to be given the same status here.) As of today, events of 50 or more people have been banned; this is down from 500 or more a few days ago.

On a personal level, a number of things are up in the air. I was going to be going to London this weekend, on occasion of the Even As We Speak gig, but of course, that is not happening. In fact, it is hard to consider any future plans in the next 18 months, if the shifting nature of The Covfefe may mean restrictions being adjusted tactically at short notice. (Some say that the current lockdown may last a few months, leaving a window in July and August, before the colder weather causes a resurgence of infections.) On the other hand, I might finally get around to reading some of those books. In terms of socialising, going out for a meal or a drink is, of course, not feasible, though people have been looking into online alternatives, such as Discord servers or the new Animal Crossing game. (I have set up a Discord server as an experiment, though have yet to buy the aforementioned game for my Switch.)

Also, if I am going to be spending a prolonged amount of time in my flat, I should probably consider adopting a cat.

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2020/3/1

Melbourne independent record shop PolyEster Records is closing down; after having been a fixture on Brunswick Street, the once epicenter of the bohemian/countercultural inner-north, since 1983, and outlived numerous other storied record shops including Gaslight and AuGoGo. The shift by consumers to streaming, independent bands to Bandcamp and major labels to limited CD releases backed by streaming and lossy downloads, and the upper limits on how much vinyl the market can absorb (especially as an increasing proportion of the market grew up with CDs and do not associate the characteristic distortions of vinyl with an inherently more authentic musical experience) undoubtedly didn't help. Though it may be argued that, as soon as the neon Dobbshead disappeared from the back wall, the shop's days were numbered.

All of which leaves little of the old Brunswick St.; for record buying, there's still Dixon's Recycled, with their racks of second-hand CDs; as far as live music goes, Bar Open has gigs of some sort. PolyEster's companion bookshop, notorious for its flouting of obscenity laws, closed several years ago (though its awning still decorates the fixture of the restaurant that took its place, as if protected by some unofficial heritage listing).

One could say that the closure of PolyEster Records is the culmination of a process which began 18 years earlier, when the Punters Club, a pub and venue that was a keystone of the Melbourne live music scene, closed down and was replaced by a Chapel St.-style pizza venue named Bimbo Deluxe, its PA system playing house music. That was the beachhead of the slick, trendy south of the Yarra's expansion to and annexation of the inner north. The closure of PolyEster is the demolition of the last nail house of the old indie-rock bohemian Fitzroy, and the confirmation that the virtual Yarra now runs somewhere between Alexandra Parade and Merri Creek.

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2020/2/2

As of midnight last night, the UK is no longer a member of the EU. The occasion was met with the characteristic boorishness from the triumphant bigots and pub bores assembled in Parliament Square; meanwhile, in Norwich, signs went up telling people that from now on, only “Queens English” (by which, presumably, they did not mean the English used in Run-DMC lyrics) may be spoken from now on.

In Brussels, the occasion was marked more salubriously: MEPs sang Auld Lang Syne, and some predicted that the UK may return to the EU some day; or in their words, this is “not adieu but au revoir”. However, I suspect that this will never happen.

In the long term, it is unlikely that the UK will rejoin the EU, primarily because, the more time passes, the more likely it is that either the UK, the EU or both will not exist. The imminent end of the EU, of course, was gleefully welcomed by the Faragists and their friends in Moscow and the Reactionary International, with Brexit being intended as the first domino in the unravelling of the post-WW2 liberal international order, and its replacement with a Hobbesian arrangement of spheres of influence, as per Aleksandr Dugin's Eurasianism (Eurasia, of course, would be governed, some parts more directly than others, from Moscow; the English gammon, however, are free to convince themselves, that in the oceanic sphere, Britannia will once again rule the waves as God intended). Of course, the other dominos failed to follow suit, and in fact, the travails of Britain, the one-time exemplar of level-headed pragmatic governance immune to hot-blooded ideological fervor, have arguably inoculated other European states against wanting out. (For example, in Sweden, both the far right and far left repudiated their goals of leaving the EU.) So it looks like Putin's troll farms have their work cut out for them.

The end of the UK seems less remote. Already, Northern Ireland, that unwieldy holdover of Empire, has been more or less sacrificed after the DUP overplayed their hand. (The post-Brexit arrangements will involve an effective border in the Irish Sea, leaving Ireland economically as a cohesive unit, almost as if it wasn't the 17th century any more; meanwhile, public opinion in Northern Ireland is shifting steadily in favour of, or at least non-opposition to, reunification with the Irish Republic, which by now is quite obviously (a) no longer a Catholic sectarian state, (b) currently quite a bit more reasonable than the UK, and (c) a member of a powerful economic club.) Opinion in Scotland was also strongly in favour of remaining in the EU, and is arguably shifting towards support for independence and rejoining the EU as a separate country, where former EU head Donald Tusk said they would be welcome. However, this may not be straightforward.

Scotland, in theory, resolved to rule out independence for at least a generation if not for all time, with their referendum shortly before Britain voted to leave the EU. Of course, part of the incentive was that a Unionist Scotland would have remained in the EU, whereas an independent one would have had to queue for accession somewhere behind Albania. In any case, Prime Minister Johnson, a man known for his personal integrity, has ruled out any further independence referendum for Scotland. Which lands things in a stalemate.

Perhaps Westminster genuinely believe that they can head off any Scottish secession, and presumably over time, neutralise the SNP and reduce Scottish separatism to a quaint form of local colour, alongside Cornish pasties and gurning contests in Carlisle. Possibly there are people in the Conservative and Unionist Party and/or the Home Office who are keen for a test of modern counterinsurgency tactics, and who bet that, had Britain known in 1916 what they do now, they would still have Ireland as a loyal dominion today. And with modern mass-surveillance technology, there is a point there. The security services have the means to get an abundance of data on everyone in the UK today, from social graphs of contacts to GPS traces of mobile phone locations. Given sufficient investment and effort, that could be turned into a social graph of the entire Scottish population, with each person's degree and form of connection to the separatist movement being known, and searchable. If, for example, MI5 need to find a handful of people socially connected to separatist activists but reluctant to get involved, who may be amenable to pressure to act as informants, that is a graph query. On a more acute level, every organisational graph has a few key nodes which, if taken out, could discreetly disrupt its operations. A query could tell the security forces exactly whose brakes would need to fail on a treacherous road in order for recruitment to run out of steam 18 months down the track.

That is assuming that the goal is to crush the rebellious Scots and retain a pacified Scotland as a province of the UK. It could arguably be more rational for the Tories to rile the Scots into leaving, put in a token show of trying to stop them, and rejoice in the fact that the remaining United Kingdom of England and Wales will have a permanent Tory majority for at least a generation. Unless, of course, one is suffering from Dunning-Krugeresque delusions of far greater competence than one actually has.

Of course, this is in the long term. There is also the possibility that the Brexit project will run into trouble in the short term: that the British people's innate knack for free trade and/or True Brit won't suffice to allow them to reconquer the globe and, unconstrained by political correctness and beige Belgian bureaucracy, build a new empire even more glorious than the one Queen Victoria presided over; and instead, that a humbled Britain, bleeding from self-inflicted wounds, will show up in Brussels with a handful of petrol-station roses, begging to be readmitted, and conceding to adopting the Euro, entering the Schengen zone and replacing its power plugs with sensible ones. And as comforting as that thought might be, it is probably the least likely outcome of a crisis, considerably after others, such as Britain becoming a Puerto Rico-style US protectorate (under, of course, the sort of predatory terms one would expect from the Trump kleptocracy, which would probably involve Haiti-level debts on the shoulders of every Briton), joining the Eurasian Union (free trade with huge countries like Russia and Kazakhstan, and no politically-correct human-rights regulations to annoy the Daily Mail readership), or just doubling down and transitioning to a Juche-style ideology of isolationism, with public hangings of “traitors” and “saboteurs” on the BBC every week to distract its starving population.

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2019/12/31

It's the last day of 2019, and as such, here are the notable records of the past year:

  • Article 54The Hustle (BandCamp)

    In Australia, the rolling political unpleasantness is tackled by feral larrikin mashup artists; in metropolitan London, though, they do things differently. As is the case of Article 54, a crack team of London live music veterans led by Rhodri Marsden, charting the arc of the ongoing Brexit situation through the medium of lush 70s-style disco. Luscious soul strings, funky clavinet licks and wah guitar, along with ostensibly peppy yet slyly subversive lyrics and samples apparently culled from countless hours of talkback radio. The trajectory of the situation itself is evident in the arc of song titles: beginning with the ebullient Piece Of Cake, breezily asserting that “saying goodbye is easy as pie”, and ending on a more downbeat note with Hard Is Better, itself fading out into the sound of street protests. Freedom Of Movement, a 1970s-style light-music track chiding the foolishness of Britons who aspire to vamoose to Lisbon or Toulouse or set up home in Budapest or Rome, sounds Scarfolkianly redolent of the cheery propaganda of totalitarian regimes; Let's Go WTO, meanwhile, sounds almost like an old radio ad jingle for car insurance, while Backstop and Canada Plus wouldn't sound amiss in a Sardinian nightclub in 1982, and Alternative Arrangements has a groove worthy of Luther Vandross. Ironically smooth sailing.

  • BodikhuuRio/Bodianova (BandCamp)

    Tired: Scandinavians making chillwave electropop dreaming of Caribbean beaches. Inspired: Mongolians making instrumental hip-hop dreaming of Brazil. In this case, Bodikhuu, who works as a construction crane operator in Ulaanbaatar, but spends the winter, when it's too cold to work, making beats in his apartment with an Akai MPC and a stack of old Brazilian records to sample, and releasing his tracks digitally into the Mongolian hip-hop scene. Rio/Bodianova assembled from two such self-released EPs, consists of lush, intricately layered tracks infused with samba and bossa-nova, not a world away from J. Dilla. The image of the fabled Brazil of Bodikhuu's imagination permeates every track, with its tropical heat and breezy languor. The chill-out record of the summer.

  • Cigarettes After SexCry (BandCamp)

    No huge surprises here: if you loved Cigarettes After Sex's eponymous debut, this delivers another package of the same. Expect music with echoes of Slowdive/Mazzy Star/Julee Cruise/Cowboy Junkies/&c., androgynous vocals singing of longing and desire, catchy melodies, and track titles like Don't Let Me Go, Pure and, umm, Hentai. Cry follows on from Cigarettes After Sex's eponymous debut without any major changes, and without the mist of ambiguity that shrouded it, Greg Gonzales' songwriting persona has coalesced into a bit of a softboi cliché; yeah, he's constitutionally incapable of commitment and yet obsessively in love with you, likes porn and blowjobs, and yet finds tenderness and beauty in sleaze; a tender pervert for the generation who grew up on Vice Magazine, permanent austerity, climate catastrophe and cheap cocaine. Though I guess if you prefer more psychodrama with your libidinous pop, there's always Of Montreal.

  • Holly HerndonProto (Bandcamp)

    Herndon's previous albums combined academic experimentation with generative composition using Max/MSP with a raver's love of of electronic dance music and critiques of the interplay of technology and society; this next one is a bit of a divergence, having been arguably the first commercial album composed in collaboration with an AI. For this project (which also formed part of her PhD thesis), Herndon and her collaborators trained a sound-generating neural network named Spawn, and gathered groups of singers around its microphones to sing around it, drawing on the sacred and folk song styles of her native Tennessee, and then got it to gradually synthesise what it learned. We witness the AI learning, emitting choral drones and glitchy syllables and converging on an otherworldly song. This is intermingled with actual dancefloor bangers made using Spawn's input, with collaborators like footwork maestro Jlin.

  • Alice HubblePolarlichter (Bandcamp)

    Hubble, formerly one half of electropop duo Arthur & Martha, makes a solo debut with an album of warmly analogue music, half instrumental and half pop; at once a virtuoso showcase of electronic sound and a love letter to legendary practitioners such as New Order, Kraftwerk and OMD. Hubble is not merely a veteran pop songsmith but also has her finger on the (metronomic) pulse of this genre, and as such ends up hitting all the buttons. Highlights include the bittersweet pop of Are We Still Alone, the cubist pastoral of Atlantis Palm like a ride down the changing voxel landscapes a video-game Autobahn, the waltz-time electronica of Hunt For The Blood Red Moon, and Kick The Habit, arguably the best glam-rock anthem ever written from the point of view of a lapsed nun.

  • Jenny HvalThe Practice of Love (Bandcamp)

    As a musical artist, Jenny Hval has a reputation for fusing ethereal pop sounds with an intimacy and a sometimes visceral frankness, as evident on previous albums like Blood Bitch and Apocalypse, Girl. Her latest album is thematically a gentler affair, eschewing the body horror and (most of the) sex in favour of meditations on love, “love”, death, intimacy and other corners of the human condition, over beds of synth washes, clubby baselines, trancy arpeggios and programmed/sampled beats reminiscent of Dubstar, Decoder Ring or early-90s Momus. Hval's voice weaves in and out of the mix, singing in reverb, or whispering confessionally, sometimes joined by three other collaborators, including Melbourne's Laura Jean, and occasionally teasing the border between chillout and ASMR. The title track sits in the middle and borrows the conceit of The Velvet Underground's The Murder Mystery, with Vivian Wang talking about the word “love” on the left channel and, on the right, Jean about childlessness and regarding oneself as a supporting character, over ambient synth pads and arpeggios; the beats resume on the following track, Ashes To Ashes, an upbeat pop song about dreams of death. It doesn't have any lines as immediately memorable as Apocalypse, Girl's “I beckon the cupcake, the huge capitalist clit”, but it more than makes up for this in its enveloping lushness.

  • Sleater-KinneyThe Center Won't Hold (Bandcamp)

    The group's new album, with Annie Clark of St. Vincent producing, takes a departure from the punk-rock purism of their previous albums and towards a more electronic sound not too far from Le Tigre; more programmed beats and the odd synthesiser mixing in with the spiky guitars, live drums, handclaps and vocals. Thematically, The Center Won't Hold engages with the situation of the world in 2019, from social media to economic precarity, from the political situation in the US and abroad to the importance of personal bonds in the uncertain world, making a humanistic stand.

  • Star HorseYou Said Forever (Bandcamp), and SpunsugarMouth Full Of You (Bandcamp)

    There is a bit of a shoegaze moment taking place in Sweden right now, and these two bands are examples. Star Horse have been around for a few years, though have only released their debut full-length album this year, and are on the poppy side of shoegaze, sounding somewhat like Secret Shine, all ethereal vocals floating above a wash of processed guitars. If they don't get the support slot at the next Slowdive gig in Sweden, it will be a crime. Meanwhile, Spunsugar are a young band based in Malmö, and sound exactly how the name suggests: crunchy, drum-machine-backed shoegaze à la Catherine Wheel, with a touch of baggy and whatever Curve and Caligula were, and if you listen carefully, a hint of metal; clear vocals floating on an ethereal reverb haze over jangling guitars and fuzz. At the moment, they only have one four-track EP out, but with any luck, they should go far.

  • Teeth Of The SeaWraith (Bandcamp)

    The London dark-psychedelic ensemble's most recent album continues their line of uncategorisable yet compelling works (not to mention clever titles), and shifting it up a gear. The opening track, I'd Rather, Jack. begins like a grimdark Radiohead, before escalating into a postapocalyptic soundscape of the usual elements; grindcore chugging, spaghetti-Western guitars, coruscating synths, mournful mariachi-meets-Taps trumpets, Reznorian drones, though with nothing dominating the mix, but instead slowly building and twisting into unsettling yet compelling textures. Further on, Fortean Steed brings vaguely elfin ethereal vocals and picked acoustic guitars over an aurora of synthesiser textures, evoking a liminal state when the veil between this world and another is at its most diaphanous. Following this, VISITOR begins with pulsing synth arpeggios, soon joined by hair-metal guitar shredding and Ottoman/balkan-style drums, building to a cinematic crescendo over its eight minutes, and the closer, Gladiators Ready, ends the album with a rave in a wasteland (think Giorgio Moroder as the Doof Warrior from Mad Max: Fury Road and you'll have an idea). Brutalicious!

  • Underground LoversA Left Turn

    The Undies' second act continues into its third album, and shows no sign of losing strength. There's luscious dreampop (the opener, Feels Like Yesterday with its chorused strums and indiepop harmonies, and Dunes, with with guitars and delay floating over a chunky drum loop), vaguely kraut-ish indie-rock anthems (Bells, with its motorik crunch and harmony choruses, and Hooky, whose title may or may not come from its high-played bass guitar), techno synth pulses and those guitars, not to mention an anthem to the subjective experience of hanging out and partying, Melbourne-style (in this case, Seven Day Weekend, which threatens to turn into techno before the fuzzy riffage kicks in).

With honourable mentions going to: Agent Blå, Morning Thoughts (the Gothenburg band's latest, like a smoother, softer Makthaverskan); The Ballet, Matchy Matchy (soft-spoken indiepop about the travails of being single and gay in New York as if sung in a bedroom over a drum machine; like Magnetic Fields meets The Postal Service); Caterina Barbieri, Ecstatic Computation (luminous soundscapes of analogue arpeggios and reverb, made on modular synths); CHAI, PUNK (a slight misnomer, as it's more slightly skronkier-than-usual J-pop, with the usual Big Melodies underscored with driving bass guitars, and choppy sampling work reminiscent of early Shibuya-kei); Duncan Barrett, Seven Temples (the frontman of Tigercats turns his attention unexpectedly to ambient music, and it's pretty good somewhat new-agey with touches of IDM; layers of pulsating, shimmering synths weave in and out, over subtle field recordings, the odd rainstick and, in places, Barrett's trademark kalimba); Be Forest, Knocturne (Chiming minor-key guitars and pounding drums; like shoegaze/post-rock taking The Cure's Disintegration as a starting point); Bodywash, Comforter (post-Cocteauvian dreampop (or “cream pop” as they call it) from Montreal, nudging tentatively into pad-and-beat-driven electronica, a bit like Love Spirals Downwards' drum'n'bass turn or the German shoegaze band Malory); The Boy Who Spoke Clouds, Fields (the swansong from Melbourne's Adam Casey's solo project; languid compositions for guitar, organ and electronics, in the local post-rock tradition); The Catenary Wires, Til The Morning (Amelia and Rob return with more indiepop ballads for grownups, with their customary wit); Death And Vanilla, Are You A Dreamer? (the Malmö haunto-poppers were robbed when they weren't tapped to write the soundtrack to Midsommar; nonetheless, here's a new album, full of retro-styled hypnagogica that's almost gentle and reassuring); Haiku Salut, The General (a score to the eponymous 1920s Buster Keaton film, breaking the clichés of what a score to a silent film should sound like); Hot Chip, A Bath Full of Ecstasy (a luminous, euphoric affair, of coruscating dancefloor anthems and Autotune-driven quiet-storm numbers; a love letter to the power of dance music to connect people); Jens Lekman & Annika Norlin, Correspondence (a series of songs, alternately composed by Lekman and Norlin in correspondence with each other; witty and thoughtful); Parenthetical Girls, The Scottish Play: Wherein the Group Parenthetical Girls Pay Well​-​intentioned (if Occasionally Misguided) Tribute To the Works of Ivor Cutler (what it sounds like: Zac Pennington reëmerges with a set of covers of the late Scottish absurdist's oeuvre; with cover artwork by David Shrigley, no less); Seablite, Grass Stains and Novocaine (catchy indiepop from the Pacific Northwest, not that far from Rose Melberg's oeuvre); She Past Away, Disko Anksiyete (synthpop for goths, in Turkish; file alongside Cold Cave); Le Superhomard, Meadow Lane Park (lighter-than-Air Europop, like the aforementioned French Band fronted by Dusty Springfield or perhaps an ice-cool continental Saint Etienne; in places sounds like Dots And Loops-era Stereolab, in others, Apricot Records indiepop); U-Bahn, U-Bahn (angular Little Band-isms from Melbourne, with a tightly-wound DEVO-esque sensibility, though owing more to The Models than Kraftwerk's The Model); Vanishing Twin, The Age of Immunology (languidly hypnagogic, post-Broadcast, library jazz acoustic gtr, clunking bass, twinkling west-coast synths and Cathy’s vocals waxing Trishesque).

2019 was also a good year for rereleases; the obvious ones were Stereolab coming back from hibernation, reissuing their entire catalogue with generous liner notes and an abundance of bonus tracks (luxury vinyl optional) and touring it; though other than that, there was early-80s Melbourne new-waver Karen Marks' long-unavailable electropop gem Cold Café, queer pagan transgressives Coil's ice-cool club-techno soundtrack to the first (just about legal) gay sex education film made in Britain, and My Favourite's expanded version of the final album and arguable masterpiece of their first incarnation, The Happiest Days Of Our Lives.

Were I to designate a record of the year, it would be either Alice Hubble, or Jenny Hval.

There is a Spotify playlist here.

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2019/12/5

Even before the summer arrived in Australia, large swathes of the country are already on fire. The images coming in from Sydney of the city immersed in a soupy brown haze, the sun a baleful orange circle, a dusting of ash covering everything and every second person wearing a white PM2.5 mask, look like something out of dystopian fiction. Meteorologists are predicting that this situation may continue through the summer, quite possibly becoming the “new normal”; throat-searing brown smoke being a feature of Sydney as much as diesel smogs are of London. Meanwhile, Australia is doubling down on fossil fuels, with the conservatives charging ahead, passing laws to prevent energy companies from divesting from coal, and Labor (who got so thoroughly thrashed in the last election that they still don't know what year it is) joining in.

Officially, in Australia, the bushfires have nothing to do with climate change, if that even is actually a thing, which there is just no way of knowing. The bush has always burned, there have always been heatwaves, also something about 4000-year sunspot cycles and/or there being no wookiees on Endor. Which is not to say that climate change denial is official Australian orthodoxy; by now, it's more of a paralytic agnosticism. It's not known as a fact, for example, that the idea of “climate change” is a Cultural Marxist plot to destroy the foundations of Western civilisation. That's one of the many possibilities; it could also, for example, be aliens, or Bigfoot. Or, for that matter, the whole crazy idea could be true.

The mainstream consensus would probably read somewhat like this: we have no idea what's causing the bushfires, or even if they are out of the ordinary. While some on the left say that it's global warming and coal (and, by definition, in Australia, people who hold that climate change is true and coal mining is irresponsible would be “the left”; much like how, according to the Murdoch press, the Australian inner cities and university campuses are full of “Marxists”, most of whom in reality wouldn't know historical materialism from a halal snack pack), other people may say it is the Lord punishing us for gay marriage/Womens' AFL/turning away from traditional values/shops being open on the Sabbath or something. (And note that this sentiment is attributed to “other people”; not “God-botherers”, “crazies” or “outer-suburban snake-handling pentecostal churches comprising the local Liberal Party branch”, but just other people; suburban battlers and daggy dads with MMM stickers on their Holdens; the Quiet Australians).

Or it could be just the way it has always been. Which, going forward, may become the official line. There is no global warming; it has always been like this. Just as there have always been 40° 45° 50° heatwaves, the Summer Smoke has always been a mildly annoying yet quintessentially Australian feature of life, like the intrepid blowflies. Don't listen to stories of clear-skied summers with maximum temperatures rarely touching the mid-40s, they will warn; much like tales of a vibrantly colourful Great Barrier Reef teeming with exotic fish, or public-service ads telling kids they can play outside if they put on a shirt, some sunscreen and a hat, those are a fantasy with a sinister political agenda behind it, spread by ratbags and troublemakers.

australia climate change culture war global warming 3

2019/10/31

As of today, I have lived in Stockholm for a year.

A year ago, I arrived at Arlanda on a one-way flight from London, with two checked bags and carry-on luggage; I caught the train to Stockholm, and a taxi (regular car-shaped, though a Tesla with a large iPad-like screen in the middle) to a friend's house. The following day, I picked up the keys to my new flat and went to awaited the arrival of the removalists with a lorryful of packed boxes. It got dark before they arrived, and I noticed my first difference between Swedish apartments and their Anglospheric equivalents: light fittings are not included. Other than the kitchen, each room was devoid of ceiling lights, having only a small socket (of a standard type) and hook on the ceiling. I quickly bought one light from a nearby thrift shop, and the flat wasn't completely dark by the time my things arrived, borne up the stairs by two muscular Russians who could plausibly have been Olympic weightlifters.

I stayed at my friend's place for a few more days as I made the flat habitable; gradually reducing the ziggurats of boxes to piles of flattened cardboard and a mass of familiar objects not yet having a canonical place, and making repeated trips to IKEA. After a while, it was habitable if cluttered; the clutter would take longer to fully dissolve.

Other aspects of getting set up in Sweden went relatively smoothly, if not always quickly. I was able to get a basic, limited bank account in a few days, though it took me a few months to get a Swedish personnummer (ID number); having one of those unlocks many of the mechanisms of the highly digitised, largely cashless society that is Sweden, including a digital identity infrastructure used for pretty much anything to do with finance and the Swish mobile payment system, which is used for everything from buying at flea markets to squaring up tabs. Trading my British driver’s licence for a Swedish one was pretty seamless. Other than that, there was not much hassle; for the moment, my British passport is sufficient to let me live and work here, and I’m informed that, in the worst case, I’ll have a year’s notice if that changes. I am, of course, hoping it doesn't come to that.

The year passed relatively quickly; winter came, shrouding Stockholm with snow and treacherous ice; spring followed, the ice melted, trees came into bloom, and the city came to life as the days became longer. By midsummer, there was barely any night left, only a few hours of twilight, though after the solstice, the night gradually began pushing back. I travelled a little, finding myself back in London more than I expected; first for a gig, then work, conferences, and en route to other events. London changed and yet remained the same (my old flat, with its low ceiling, stifling summer heat and the aroma of kebab grease never far away, had found a new tenant pretty much immediately; a favourite café closed down); friends were mostly still around, and I caught up with various of them on various visits. Ironically, my travels outside the UK have been fairly limited so far: a trip to Denmark for an exhibition, a visit to Barcelona for Primavera and a small amount of travel within Sweden.

Every change of scene brings with it a change of perspective, and a test of assumptions. Moving from Australia to Britain, two cultures with historical connections and cultural similarities, was a subtly uncanny experience, partly from the differences between British and Australian cultures, but also between the actual Britain and any number of idealised Britains, absorbed through old books, childhood TV viewing, pop music, or other media. A move to Sweden, a country that can speak English and yet is not officially an English-Speaking Country, and that was always separate from the British/American sphere, was a jump to another subtly parallel universe; one familiar and different, in different ways than London was from Melbourne.

There are the obvious things: traffic, for example, drives on the right (which, if you cycled in left-driving countries, requires some retraining of muscle memory; I'm still not at the stage of favouring my right leg to rest on at stops). The architecture is more continental, and vaguely mitteleuropäisch, a world of art-nouveau apartments around courtyards in the Germanic fashion and more recent geometric modern blocks of post-Bauhaus functionalism, rather than either the Victorian terraces and semi-detached houses of Britain or the more Italianate terrace houses, motel-style flat blocks and American-style suburban bungalows of Australia. (My eyes, trained on the Anglosphere's landscapes, pick out echoes of other parts of continental Europe; a bit of Paris in Norrmalm, a cleaned-up, more affluent Berlin in Södermalm, and so on.)

Then there is the landscape the city is built on, which, being spread over a set of islands and peninsulae, is slightly fantastic. The pieces of land are often dramatically rocky, and as such, the city is full of sets of parallel streets on different levels, connected by steep stairways, dramatic overpasses and houses with different ground levels. (London has a few of those things as well, though nowhere near as many; Edinburgh probably comes closer.) Sheer rock faces often jut out on the sides of roads carved from them, with the entrances of parking garages or other facilities hewn into them. All this is surrounded by harbour views that make Sydney look bland by comparison. Out in the harbour are hundreds of islands of the Stockholm Archipelago, some inhabited and sporting timber houses, linked by a system of ferries. Then there is the city's small scale (it has only about a million inhabitants), and the fact that nature is never far away, which warps the perception of its space in interesting ways: I can leave my flat in Södermalm, cycle for half an hour (and Stockholm is a great city to cycle in, at least for the 8 months or so of the year when one can cycle without coming to grief on treacherous ice), and find myself in a secluded cove that, other than specifics of vegetation, looks like somewhere one may reach after driving for three hours out of Melbourne.

And, of course, there is the question of language. In Sweden, English is everywhere: almost every adult speaks it very well, companies which hire international talent use it internally, and one sees English around in the city: not just in bilingual signage, but in ad slogans, business names and repurposed neologisms (an “afterwork”, for example, is early-evening drinks in a pub). Some of this Swedish English does have a slightly uncanny feeling one can almost put one's finger on: shops with generic-looking names as if out of an architectural rendering, or English-style pubs with excessively English names, usually related to Charles Dickens. And yet, of course, the language of intellectual and cultural life here is not English but Swedish. After a while, one becomes aware of this, of there being layers one is not privy to. The locals generally are polite, and switch to English when a non-Swedish speaker joins their conversation, though it's there. This also exists in places where there is no language difference, only a different cultural history; while I have lived in Britain for 14 years, and have absorbed enough second-hand knowledge of recent British cultural history, I will never be British enough to understand the references in a Half Man Half Biscuit song. The language difference, though, adds another dimension to this; it is as if there were a membrane between oneself and the cultural life of the country; that until the moment when one becomes fluent in Swedish, one is disconnected, floating.

Sweden has an English-speaking personality, and a subtly different native-language one, which manifest themselves in their culture. The parts of Sweden one sees abroad are different. For example, if one were to think of Swedish indie music in, say, Britain, the US or Australia, one might think of Jens Lekman, or The Radio Dept., or perhaps The Knife. In Sweden, though, the biggest indie band was Broder Daniel, who, while they sang in English, did not match their local success abroad. (Second to them is the solo project of their drummer, Håkan Hellström, who did not sing in English.) Generally, Swedish indiepop in English was strongly influenced by British indie, particularly things like Sarah Records, C86 and the Glasgow school; switch to Swedish, and the reference points often become more elusive and unfamiliar, made for a domestic audience. On the subject of music, the live music scene in Stockholm appears a lot smaller than in London or Melbourne, with fewer gigs and venues; I'm told it used to be much better, before a lot of venues closed down, and/or in the Golden Age Of Swedish Indie, which was some 10-20 years ago.) What venues survive do so tenuously: the last outpost of the institution known as Debaser is facing an uncertain future, as its lease may not be renewed after next year. Record shopping also is a bit thin on the ground; in shops that sell new records, the range of new releases is fairly small; in one shop, the featured CD wall may have half a dozen recent releases, surrounded by rereleases and back-catalogue; if you want to fill in your Black Sabbath or Queen collection, you're sorted. There isn't really anything on the scale of Fopp, let alone Rough Trade, here (perhaps everyone in Sweden is over buying music, and just streams it on Spotify?), though for some reason, there is an abundance of secondhand record shops.

Other things: there is an abundance of high-quality baked goods made with cardamom, cinnamon and/or saffron; Sweden is to those what Australia is to coffee, in that what passes for a cinnamon roll abroad would be unacceptable here. Sweden is a coffee-drinking culture; traditionally filter, though espresso is common now. If you want non-dairy milk in your flat white, there is generally one brand of local oat milk, whose ads are obnoxiously ubiquitous; a few places have soy milk, though nobody seems to import Bonsoy or make anything similar. The supermarkets have an abundance of dairy products, including pourable yoghurts in cardboard cartons (fun fact: Tetra-Pak is a Swedish invention), though Icelandic skyr is less popular than in the UK; oddly enough, Swedish supermarkets include things like caviar in toothpaste-style tubes and entire aisles of different types of bearnaise sauce. Sweden has a reputation for expensive drinks, though a beer is not much more expensive than in London; a gin and tonic, however, will set you back at least twice as much. There is also the state liquor monopoly, with its extensive network of well-provisioned booze supermarkets, previously discussed here; they are closed on Sundays for historical reasons. Sweden is historically Lutheran (and, before that, of course, Norse pagan), though no longer has an established state church. As far as I can tell, the Swedish ideas of lagom and Jante Law are, in practice, a bit like the English idea of social class: there's a grain of truth to them (though with many untidy exceptions), but they're vague enough that any commentator can find them in what they see, like a Rorschach inkblot.

In any case, Stockholm is a good place to live, if perhaps a bit quiet at times. It is easily the most beautiful place I have lived so far.

personal stockholm sweden travel 2

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