The Armageddon Playlist

The ICBMs have been launched. This is it – the End of the World – so what would you like to watch or listen to in the few minutes before a massive EMP wipes out all electronic communication?

There is an urban legend that Ted Turner, founder of CNN, planned to capture this demographic with a pre-Apocalypse video to be played as the last broadcast on his channel, before the bombs fell. It turns out to be true, as reported in the Guardian, and you can see the video here.

Well, what do you think? I think it’s the expression of everything that made a nuclear war possible – sentimental jingoism, aided and abetted by a military band, to convince patriotic Americans that their sacrifice was worth the cause of defeating communism. Appropriating Nearer My God to Thee, famously played by the ship’s band on the Titanic, is particularly cynical. The iceberg was a blameless force of nature, nuclear brinkmanship a calculated political decision.

So what else might we while away the minutes with? Tom Lehrer, who gave up satire when real life began stealing his best lines, brought us this.

See? We’re all in this together. On the other hand, communal spirit sounds suspiciously like communism, so perhaps we shouldn’t go with that. What’s needed is some old time religion, conflating Jesus with the atom bomb.

For myself, the song that’s most associated with the end of the world is Waltzing Matilda. That’s because of Stanley Kramer’s powerful yet understated 1959 film about nuclear annihilation, On the Beach. Nuclear war in the the Northern hemisphere has wiped out all human life, but Australia is unscathed. Unfortunately, radiation is drifting into the Southern hemisphere and Australia waits to see if it will survive. It doesn’t. Everybody dies.

Waltzing Matilda threads its way through the soundtrack, in many different tones and arrangements, as a haunting refrain to the inevitable death of the human race. Here’s the opening scene.

And here’s the final scene.

What’s more sad than a song with no-one left to sing or dance to it?

Gormenghast of the Mind

After the BBC’s disastrous television production of Gormenghast, the trilogy of novels by Mervyn Peake, they are now making amends with a splendid radio adaptation. It’s impossible to translate that Gothic creation of arcane, stultifying rituals and trapped flights of fancy, all captured within a seemingly endless maze of stone corridors, towers and parapets, in a flat visual plane. All the television production did is recreate a gallery of grotesques, rendered ridiculous by too literal images. Gormenghast needs the infinitely liberating power of the imagination, something radio does perfectly.

I remember falling into the novels and knowing nothing of ordinary reality until I emerged, dazed at the end.  A superb fantasy, so grounded in detail that its world seemed as solid as real life.  If anything, real life seemed a bit gray and tenuous for a while afterwards. I fell in love with Fuschia Groan, hating the upstart Steerpike for his cynical pursuit of her, while being forced to admire his ambition and determination to overthrow the Groan dynasty.

So here it is, starting with the first of six episodes, and available for about four weeks.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b016ljn0

Best of all, though, is to read the novels. Here’s the opening paragraph of Titus Groan, first novel in the trilogy.

Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls. They sprawled over the sloping earth, each one halfway over its neighbour until, held back by the castle ramparts, the innermost of these hovels laid hold on the great walls, clamping themselves thereto like limpets to a rock. These dwellings, by ancient law, were granted this chill intimacy with the stronghold that loomed above them. Over their irregular roofs would fall throughout the seasons, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets, and, most enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of Flints. This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.

Al Murray Demonstrates That Britain Is Best

While I’m thinking about stand-up comics, here’s another of my favourites. Al Murray, in his character as the Pub Landlord, perfectly channels the outer reaches of the Faragiste, right wing mentality. Murray gives the rest of the world a well-deserved kicking in this video, all you’ll ever need to know about Johnny Foreigner and Abroad.

Stewart Lee at The Stand, Glasgow

My favourite stand-up comic is Stewart Lee, and one of his funniest routines is this one in 2005 at The Stand in Glasgow, where he takes on Braveheart and the full might of Scottish myth. For a long time I didn’t know where or when the performance took place, but through the magic of Youtube I found a video of the full set, of which the Braveheart segment is only a clip.

So here’s the Braveheart clip, as a taster in case you’ve never heard of Lee, followed by a complete video of the set. He’s a bit like Marmite, people tend to either love or hate him.

The Vile Stuff, by Richard Dawson (not to be confused with Dawkins)

Richard Dawson

I was listening to Late Junction on Radio 3 last night. Max Reinhardt had on a guest musician I’d never heard of before – Richard Dawson – who chose the night’s tracks. He also played live some of his own music.

It sounds like he’s extensively mined his Newcastle youth for material. I was much taken by this track – The Vile Stuff – the story of a school trip, during which someone smuggled in alcohol, and mayhem ensued.