My Top 12 Albums of 2017

Top 10 is an arbitrary number and I felt like there were at least two projects that were worth tagging on regardless of the format. Before we start, however, I’d like to give honourable mention to a couple of artists whom my appreciation of did not coalesce around the medium of a single album. Namely, Toro y Moi, Kendrick Lamar and the band No Vacation; they all released new material in 2017, but here I loved the singles more than I did the finished products. So, without further delay, here goes, a list of my favourite sounds this year has had to offer:

  1. In Mind by Real Estate

Melt into 45 minutes of gorgeous jangly glory. This album will rock you gently; while perhaps lacking in drama this doesn’t mean it’s uninteresting. Supremely crafted guitar textures and fertile counter-melodies abound. If you escape being lulled into a blissful slumber, then there is much detail to drink.

‘Saturday’ is for me the highlight here. It has a measured and sombre reverb-heavy piano intro, which gradually gives way to a guitar’s arpeggiated embellishments before the drums kick in and we find ourselves in the familiar, uppity, shimmering world to which we’re accustomed. The tone remains melancholic though, and we are reminded of the plodding chords with which the song began when the train winds down for a jilted phaser-filtered lead solo in the bridge.

So dry!

  1. In Memory Of by Catholic Action

This is the only debut album on this list, but it’s earned its place just like the others. Catholic Action sound like they’ve been around for longer; their first full-length release is a witty, angst-ridden opening statement that promises good things to come. Their sound is shaped in Scottish indie tradition – I’d point to Franz Ferdinand and Belle and Sebastian in particular with a nod to Weezer for good measure. That being said, the band has a unique voice in the stories they tell and the post-punk sheen they wear on some of the more charged tracks.

The song that really drew me in was ‘Propaganda’ – a mere 1.49 burst of concentrated energy. It gets right down to business with a fraught melodic bass line accompanied by bright soaring synths. Never letting up, the song’s rallying cry is frustrated mantra of “music to tick boxes”.

  1. Masseduction by St Vincent

Annie Clark’s fifth studio album under the name of St Vincent was released four years after her self-titled project. Since this it seems she has undergone a stylistic transformation, embracing the slick and provocative world she so deftly satirises in a radical re-imagining. This is reflected in the musical direction also. Where St Vincent was a rip-roaring ride of quirky angular riffs and abrasive synths, Masseduction looks to the brash and bombastic pop music of the eighties as an overarching framework. This doesn’t mean that the fuzzy acrobatics are forgotten; they just appear less often as part of a wider, decidedly more sugary landscape. The album is huge in scope, and for that reason struggles to be entirely coherent; nonetheless it’s worth a listen for the valiant attempt to work from such a varied palette.

‘Pills’ is probably the song that sums up the new trajectory most succinctly. Don’t be put off by the childish refrain, its hook is punctuated by cutting verses and Prince-esque guitar moves. There is also a majestic bridge with saxophone thrown in for good measure.

  1. Lotta Sea Lice by Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile

This is a dream collaboration between two witty self-styled slackers from opposite ends of the globe. Melbourne-born Barnett and Philadelphian Vile bounce off each other in a way that feels meant to be – that being said, if there was criticism to make it might be that neither really challenges the other; the music they create sounds just as you’d expect it. Nevertheless, it is humorous and spread thick with interesting guitar textures making for ideal lazy day listening.

Top pick from this record is the charming ‘Continental Breakfast’. It speaks about the vagabond and interconnected life of the touring musician that allowed such a meeting of minds to take place.

  1. Memories Are Now by Jesca Hoop

Jesca Hoop seems to have kept a remarkably low profile for being such a manifest and accomplished song-writing talent. Memories Are Now is her fifth album and demonstrates just what a practised craftswoman can achieve after years of refinement and experimentation. As a genre it’s difficult to pin down with elements of folk, country and electronic sounds; one thing is certain, however – it is utterly beautiful.

‘The Lost Sky’ is an exemplar of this wrought, sensitive approach. The tension it weaves is spectacular, full of crescendos that build to abrupt retreat – Hoop is an artist operating at the height of her power.

  1. Uyai by Ibibio Sound Machine

This album is distinct fusion of disco, post-punk and afrobeat your ears will likely never have heard before. It’s a bold and confident statement of a band who know what they are about. With lyrics a mix between English and the Ibibio language and influences including West African funk, Talking Heads and Joy Division there seems to be an inexhaustible well of sounds to draw from.

A personal highlight is ‘The Pot is On Fire’, which is a frantic and paranoid electro banger accentuated by tense retro synths.

  1. A Deeper Understanding by The War On Drugs

I was mesmerised by Lost In The Dream in all its sweeping shoegaze-y grandeur. At last, a real rock band beyond the millennium was prepared to take us over the eight-minute threshold on a single. With supreme confidence in its motifs, finally a group was prepared to devote the time to expanding them to their fullest potential. If I had one criticism, however, it was that these songs seemed to tend to linger rather than drive forward. Cue the release of the first single from A Deeper Understanding, ‘Holding On’ – I was thrust firmly aboard the hype-train.

Where Lost in the Dream was expansive to an almost incomprehensible extent, A Deep Understanding is punchier and more clearly focussed. Nonetheless it retains a sense of sprawling vastness that made its predecessor so impressive. The vocals are pushed further into the foreground too, but this is perhaps to the album’s detriment, as the poetics seem rambling and illogical where the music is minutely arranged. Lost In The Dream’s abstract blending to create a euphoric unified soundscape gives way to a crisper style of production where each element has its chance to shine – particularly effective on the album’s epic fuzzy guitar solos.

As mentioned above, ‘Holding On’ was a favourite and perhaps demonstrates the band’s shift in sound the best.

  1. Antisocialites by Alvvays

By contrast, I seem to have been a little later cottoning on to this band’s well-deserved acclaim. This Canadian outfit takes shoegaze and imbues it with a human touch, managing to tell heartfelt stories through the layer upon layer of distorted guitars. The ethereal and pixie-like vocals cut through the mix and bring more than just an elegant contrast to the gritty overdriven tones below; Molly Rankin’s tales are tragic, defiant and witty.

‘Plimsol Punk’ gives me hope for the future of music. The tones are fantastic and reminiscent of Sonic Youth at their best, yet Alvvays are firmly their own, making equally inventive use of synthesisers.

  1. Every Valley by Public Service Broadcasting

As with about a third of the bands on this list, I first heard PSB on BBC 6music. It was then their Race for Space album in the spotlight, and particularly the furiously paced single ‘Go!’ Invited through the University of Edinburgh’s student radio station, FreshAir to cover their concert in Usher Hall, I became completely enthralled by their unique approach to crafting music.

Every Valley is an album about the decline of the coal industry in South Wales. I love that I can type that sentence. The subject matter is so daringly unglamorous and out-of-fashion – but so is almost all great art. PSB are bold, but they are so lacking in pretension that this pays off massively. They weave archive recordings in and out of epic and sensitive instrumentals, letting the people who lived and worked in these villages do the talking. My album favourite is probably a song that’s half in Welsh and half English bare clean guitar and a swelling string section towards the close.

For an introduction to the piece I would recommend ‘They Gave Me A Lamp’.

  1. This Old Dog by Mac Demarco

I got introduced to Mac Demarco in what was probably exactly the way he would have intended: mindlessly browsing YouTube videos in the search for something new. His videos are in some ways anti-YouTube, harkening to a bygone era of home video. With the parting shot of ‘Ode to Viceroy’, where he smokes several dozen of said cigarette in one overwhelming puff, the character of Demarco is unforgettably branded onto my mind.

This Old Dog is in some ways a departure from this persona. The scumbag antics recede to make way for a more mature, thoughtful Demarco, who uses the album to confront a difficult past. In terms of song-writing, the tracks are as smooth and silky as ever but punctuated now with icy, piercing synths – particularly on the track ‘On a Level’.

  1. Something to Tell You by HAIM

This choice on the list is not intellectually motivated; HAIM just really know how to make a good pop album. Here they prove that they are more than the Fleetwood Mac inspired niche they carved for themselves in 2013. One regret I have is that their studio version of ‘Right Now’ is inferior because of its production gimmicks in comparison with the live promotion video they put out in the run-up to the release of the record.

What better introduction to the hook-crammed riot than the endless chorus and bombastic slap bass of the lead single ‘I Want You Back’?

  1. Drunk by Thundercat

There is an album, and there is what an album represents. This one takes the top spot more because of the latter than the former. One can say the track listing is chaotic, that Thundercat’s vocals are rather samey or that many of the songs feel like underdeveloped skits – all of these criticisms are valid, but they must be taken in light of the project as a whole. No one sounds like Thundercat and no one has attempted what Drunk attempts.

Drunk is an introduction to the world of Thundercat. It’s at times incoherent, messy and crazy. However, because of all of these things and not in spite of them, it is absolutely authentic. It helps that he is an accomplished song-writer too of course, this knack shining through on the incredibly flavoursome yacht rock ballad ‘Show You the Way’ featuring Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald.

To understand why the album has been constantly revisited over the course of year, listen to this song ‘Friend Zone’, typical of the track listing.

So much for a year. You made it to the end. Did you discover something new, do you agree and what were your favourites?

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Where fishmen lounge at noon

Last weekend I went to London to attend the UK-German Connection seminar, which facilitates the starting up of joint projects between foreign language assistants in each of the respective countries. Before this I’d only ever driven through or skirted the vicinity of the city on the way to somewhere else. As a result of my brisk pedal-powered departure from Fleestedt (which is south enough of the Elbe to be technically Niedersachsen) at 4.30 am, I had more or less a full day in the UK capital to myself.

“When one is tired of London, he is tired of life” is a quote from Samuel Johnson, famous for writing one of the first dictionaries of the English language. The fact that it’s stood the test if tune makes me strongly want to believe that it’s true. Delve not too far below the surface of this enigmatic epigram, however, and you might find an implied criticism of anyone who expresses even curiosity to venture beyond the city’s bounds. Yet I like to see it as: everything you could possibly hope to experience in the wider world can be found here, in due proportion, if you’re willing to seek it out. All that the globe contains in concentrated in this spot – a true Weltstadt.

And yet, London is also, well…London.  In spite of the hostile symbolism of the Houses of Parliament and the perpetual spin of post-millennial global capitalism finding constant renewal in the fickle-flitting sponsorship of the epitomising London Eye, we are all, in some essential way, at home here. So much of what we culturally consume originates from this locus. The novels we read, the TV we watch and even the board games we play (my initial thought on entering the city was that I was, in a very tangible way, inside Monopoly). Although ostensibly the environment’s a complete novelty, navigation is somehow a matter of confirming the internal map so vividly etched onto my consciousness by unavoidable saturation in television and books. When I turn a corner in the ‘unreal city’ (I add anecdotally with pride when a fellow literature student points out the church of St Magnus the Martyr, that he’s the patron saint of Orkney) I am hit not with foreign awe at the constructions of folk unknown, but with a welcoming wave of proxy familiarity.

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It’s very hard not to be impressed though; and believe you me, I wanted to be cynical.

Cynicism comes easily, for example, on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile where screeds and screeds of tartan tat is touted daily and the superfluity thereof only serves to emphasise the total vacuity of it all. Unlike in the Scottish capital, London’s tourism is not so mercilessly concentrated in geography or season (August/the Festival) and thus here a sight more bearable. Edinburgh’s branding is painfully contrived and inauthentic, whereas London succeeds in the subtler cues of its sense of identity in the constant, but gentle insistence to “mind the gap” on its celebrated public transport infrastructure, the charming sixties-style typeface of said underground and the cohesive elegance of its street signage. I’d like to meet someone who thinks Lothian buses possess a similar spirituality, although I would have to admit Glasgow’s subway does have something special about it. Of course, barring logistics and layout, there is that factor of history that goes hand in hand with a city’s soul. Edinburgh has more of that than a lot of places, but here it runs alongside daily life, integrated in continual innovation, not lamented as a warped Romantic ideal.

Rewinding on the subject of tourists, my experience was not entirely unmarred by them. In a previous post I praised the universalistic, egalitarian, municipal spirit of Manchester for allowing me to visit all of its art galleries and museums for free. This point still stands, and I must say for the record that I remain fully supportive of the absence of admission fees, but to provide a counter I must say something about my visit to the National Gallery. Aiming to do a vaguely circular route that would use up the hour I’d allotted on my schedule, and having rushed through the Renaissance and Early Modern stuff, I pushed open the door to the 19th century and was arrested by Turner’s turbulent, stormy landscapes. However, before I was able to draw breath and examine these subtly crafted masterpieces in detail an atonal braying started up at the other end of the room. It was a class trip, and now having been on one or two myself from the other side, I know how draining these can be. This was almost physically painful. It had nothing to do with irritating kids and everything to do with the utterly dominant, patronising, nasal racket in which this educator delivered her excruciating lecture. I had to leave, but I could not escape.

In the next hall was Van Gogh. I had hoped that my experience with his Sunflowers would be if not spiritual, then at least warm and allow me to warmly reminisce about now cherished art lessons in primary school with one of my favourite teachers. All potential for this kind of nostalgia was obliterated by tourists smothering the works to take selfies. I still have these memories, and that especially poignant Doctor Who episode to keep Vincent alive in my consciousness, but to me it seems almost futile to have his paintings on display if that’s the only response they’re going to elicit.

My visit to the British Museum conjured further memories of that beloved TV series with its exhibition on the history of money. There was a small section on production companies having to print fake currency when they use it on screen. A clip from the first Christmas special of New Who was playing on loop in which the Doctor uses his sonic screwdriver on a cash machine to make it spit out a flurry of banknotes in order to create a diversion between him and the approaching killer Santa Clauses. The notes used have David Tennant’s face on them. Oddly enough, a love of Doctor Who is something I have in common with my equivalent German language assistants, Sina and Jule. I suppose the show is something you could name among things that are archetypally British, and I don’t mean this in a pejorative sense at all. Thinking about it, I would say it’s probably one of the best examples of British culture precisely because it rarely tries to be and it’s also a bit rubbish. Partly, this is why I also enjoy Public Service Broadcasting’s music. Anyway, I could go on for hours about the subject, so I’ll quickly move to the seminar.

To my complete surprise and delight, I met the German assistant placed in Orkney. Only the day before I’d been introducing my group to the stanzas of George Mackay Brown, so you can imagine my excitement. We’re going to do a project focussing on regional identity, particularly through language, and this will involve the usual strategies of letter exchange, but also hopefully artistic collaboration and a joint, multi-lingual blog to which the pupils will contribute.

Right now, it’s called “Opposite Sides of the North Sea”. It’s very much evolving. If it’s possible I hope we can learn about Plattdeutsch – a variety of German spoken in the North with some affinities to Dutch, and ultimately see each other’s countries not simply as undifferentiated monoliths closed unto themselves, but as moving conglomerates of distinct regions defined by interrelationships. Of course, somewhere along the line this needs to be translated – quite literally – so that hamburgisch/Orcadian secondary school pupils can understand it, but we’ve got a few months for that.

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Luther, Lyrik, Lieder und Leipzig

Trees increasingly denuded, the mulch on the path starting to settle, I find myself stumbling into the final third of November. Since my impromptu excursion to Manchester at the end of October, Hamburg’s schools have gone back, but of course, academic business could not fully be resumed without commemorating 500 years of Reformation in unique style.

Martin Luther Day began with an assembly of all the pupils in the hall, where the appearance of a special guest was announced. After a rather dry introductory film, one of the teachers walked out on stage dressed as the man himself in earnest monk’s robes. He paused dramatically and unfurled an authentically yellowed scroll. This document carried the pope’s lengthy response to the 95 Theses, which announces Luther’s excommunication. It was read out in full. Faux-Luther then took the parchment and held its corner to an atmospherically flickering candle stage left. Lifting the letter, now alight, he placed the pontificate’s denunciation in a glass (presumably to some degree heatproof) bowl, where it was left to burn as he vacated the stage to rapturous applause.

So, an odd, but interesting beginning to my second term at Immanuel Kant Gymnasium. I hasten to add that the day was not uncritically swallowed wholesale by the whole school. Many questioned the suspension of the normal timetable for a not uncontroversial religious leader who many saw as irrelevant due to their atheism/agnosticism/membership of other religions.

Regarding my school life, it seems again that I’m not entirely avoiding Britain on this ‘Year Abroad’ – next week I’m off to London as part of my participation in the UK-German Connection programme. Although I’m not sure of all the details yet, what it will basically involve is a parallel project that I create with a German language assistant working in a UK school. Currently I would like the project to address questions of regional, national and European identity as explored through literature. I am aware that this is probably definitely too ambitious, but I’m of the school who think it’s better to overreach and fail to fulfil all your objectives rather than be overly modest and achieve mediocrity.

In preparation for this trip, and inspired, partly by the German literature class I help in’s working on Theodor Fontane’s poetry, I’m reading Ein Sommer in London. I went in expecting a sort of sentimental sycophantic praise common of contemporary travel writing (this blog not excluded!), but I was refreshingly surprised to find this was not to be found. It’s humorous and keenly sceptical of British culture, even if the author clearly remains in the ‘Anglophile’ camp.

The top-grade English class are also reading about the capital, but in this instance of Airstrip One under Ingsoc. Here, the landmarks are somewhat different though. The pupils give pertinent responses, without the benefit of context, to the three slogans of the Party. Just war is given thorough scrutiny, detailed references to the German constitution’s obligations for citizens in a proudly post-dictatorship country are made and the benefits of wilful oblivion are measured in relation to Eastern Europe’s response to the refugee crisis.

Since I last wrote I’ve had the chance to go to a couple of Hamburg gigs, and one even further afield (Berlin). The Mojo is a fantastic venue; just about the perfect size and shape to support dazzling light shows and bone-resonating bass while still retaining a closeness and sense of collective experience. I saw synth-pop folktronica duo, Sylvan Esso there to Kick, Jump and Twist things off with intricate, syncopated electronics and crystalline vocals. The following week I caught Canadian hip-hop/jazz/electronica quartet BadBadNotGood in the same club, whose set was masterful and virtuosic without being alienating – keeping its human soul with tight funky grooves as a vital underscore to mind-blowing solos.

I went ridiculous lengths and suffered sleep deprivation to go and see Mac Demarco at Berlin’s Astra (incidentally Hamburg’s famous beer) Club. Was it worth it? Absolutely. It’s impossible not to love him. Even though a sizable chunk of his set was comprised of extended jams and faffing around, he still played all the songs you wanted to hear and the spontaneous nature of all the tomfoolery made it easy to forgive everything. The crowd was certainly on side. Occasionally literally, with topless audience members of both genders making successful stage invasions.

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Hard to make out, but that’s Mac Demarco crowd-surfing in a drum case.

My latest gig was Girl Ray at Hafenklang, whose melodic basslines I adore, supported by the charming and articulate guitarist Fake Laugh. Tomorrow I’m seeing Public Service Broadcasting at Knust, who you’ve probably heard of if you follow this blog at all. Their use of the spoken word as opposed to sung vocals leads nicely into an experience of a different kind this past week.

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Set-up at Hafenklang. Little did I know, that’s actually the frontwoman and bassist to the right.

Poetry slam is big in Germany. I can now tell you that first hand. On Thursday I attended a Städebattle between the rival cities of Hamburg and Leipzig. There were many reasons for me to want to go, not least that I’m due to study in the former in the spring of next year, but also because the event description made explicit reference to Plattdeutsch and Sächsisch, dialects I’m interested in as crucial facets of regional identity. Unfortunately, there were few direct instances of these languages during the ceremonious competition, nonetheless it was highly entertaining.

The evening began unusually, with the charismatic compere asking audience members’ Abi (Abitur – the exam Germans take at 16-19 [the age of examination is a subject of fierce debate and varies in different Bundesländer] which determines job prospects, university entry and it seems, crucially, status) scores in order to gauge whether they were fit to be judges of the performed poetry. This was bizarre, but also somehow typically German. At the end of it all, Leipzig, where Goethe went to uni after all, had a higher score by the judges reckoning, but Hamburg won the popular clamp-o-meter vote – unsurprisingly, in home territory. This I felt was justified as Leipzig were the better team, although Hamburg had some outstanding individuals.

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Ankunft in Bremen

To bring you right up to date, yesterday, in an attempt to see a bit more of this country, authentically this time and not just through going to English-speaking international acts, I visited the free Hanseatic city of Bremen – Germany’s smallest Bundesland and about an hour and a half by bus. The weather was quite poor, but I managed to spend an overcast late morning wandering through the Bürgerpark before the deluge began and I retreated to the shelter of a café for lunch. I explored the interior of St Petri’s Dom before venturing out to reach the Kunsthalle, which occupied the rest of my afternoon with its exhibition of modernist Max Beckmann, a show taking a critical look at Bremen’s colonial involvement and an impressive collection of fin de siècle and 1960s pieces. Just managing to snap a silhouette of the town’s iconic windmill blades before sunset, I boarded a slightly delayed Flixbus home.

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A Free Admission

Midday in Manchester; streetlamps lit. The overcast gloom was a mental association, acquired thanks to Morrissey and co, satisfyingly confirmed as I was transported through a city whose psychogeography was already etched deep into my mind and which was later reinforced by Valette’s magnificently bleak canvasses. Names like Strangeways, Rusholme and Salford all held specific emotional resonances despite my never having visited them; but this was about to change thanks to the happy alignment of dirt-cheap Ryanair flights and two weeks school-free because of the Herbstferien. I trundle along on a Metrolink tram. Used to the depersonalised tannoy assertions of “Nächste Haltestelle x” in Hamburg, I’m warmed by the comparatively wordy announcements delivered in here in an authentic Mancunian.

Some part of me needed to justify this trip on grounds more solid than the convergence of variables. Although I regard myself tolerant and open to diverse cultures I’m not particularly travelled. How can one fully accept/reject or comprehend what you’ve never encountered first hand? It was a struggle for me to accommodate a visit to the UK within this philosophy – it seemed more motivated by sentimental notions nurtured in me through devotion to a band. Well, I thought to myself, it might be possible if I considered England foreign, but as much as I might like to, I don’t fully feel that, on a personal level, to be the case. I shy away thinking in terms of ‘foreign’ generally, preferring to think of people as citizens of their own nations rather than incomprehensible outsiders, of which I think the term carries connotations.

As Scots we know the English; they are not us, but they are not foreign. When we talk about someone who is foreign, it is usually because we can’t place where they’re from, but they give off strangeness in their speech or ethnicity. Besides this, culture can also make someone a foreigner, and this, unlike political institutions, can take generations to shift. Culture, in this context, I take to mean a guiding underlying ideology common to the majority of citizens of a particular place – not high art.  At the moment I believe Scotland and England share a culture in this sense, which is markedly distinct from a German or a French one. It operates tacitly, subconsciously affecting decisions, designs and our day-to-day interactions with one another; most importantly, it can only be noticed through comparison. This shared culture may be diverging, but it could take the next generation to determine this. Anyway, this is a topic for another day. In the end I managed to come up with two solid reasons:

  1. I might as well actually see some of the UK before I dismiss it altogether, and I don’t think being driven along the length of it on a school trip behind bus blinds really counts.
  2. I’ve not seen much of England apart from passing through on the way to other places and an anomalous weekend in Bournemouth.

Upon arrival I was immediately antagonistic. The ticket machine wouldn’t accept my banknote and the patriot in me screamed, “It’s legal tender!” at the bastard. Later, in an attempt at de-escalation it was suggested to me that this might be because of a shift towards plastic cash. The UK’s change had changed, I noticed as I was handed a shiny handful of new pound coins, the old having gone out of circulation this month in my absence.

Seeing with different eyes, I observed the ubiquity of self-service in a service-based economy. In Germany there is almost a total lack of this option, except for travel tickets. The supermarket is a stressful (items must be packed as quickly as possible and paid for with exact change) but less lonely experience. Perhaps forced contact with actual human beings in the purchasing of Lebensmittel helped me out in the long run by giving me confidence to visit restaurants and cafes on my own where I’d normally have been put off by the necessity of direct face-to-face interaction.

The first place I visited, once my tram finally reached the city centre after a protracted crawl through suburbia, was the central library. Its featured exhibitions were on the world of Harry Potter and its medieval precedents in terms of the subjects taught at Hogwarts for the 20th anniversary (meh), and the relationship between the twinned cities of Manchester and Leningrad to mark the Russian revolution’s centenary. Entirely free of charge and not requiring a card or membership to access, I was able to explore the vast reading room. Not wanting to spend too long in somewhere overtly academic, I managed to see the music section, which houses pianos in wee alcoves for anyone to play; this had me grinning from ear to ear and praising the great municipal spirit that permits such things. Later Mia told me they had rehearsal rooms for other instruments too, including drumkits and DJ decks – imagine starting a punk band in a library!

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Then I saw the gallery. It was laid out in a pretty similarly to the National one in Edinburgh, with different time periods for different rooms, although there was probably more of a thematic distinction here as well. One of my favourite pieces was a Japanese feature garden kitted out with hidden synthesisers in the undergrowth playing ambient, sequenced noise. Early 20th century impressionist artist Pierre Adolphe Valette also caught my eye for his masterful depiction of Manchester’s urban gloom.

After nabbing a copy of the new Ibibio Sound Machine album in the Northern Quarter, I sat down for an indulgent strawberry milkshake with a slice of Victoria sponge. Waiting for what seemed like an inordinate length of time, I was presented with my milkshake. The wedge of cake was balanced on top of the drink, secured by two wooden skewers with just enough space to slot in a straw; a skirting of white chocolate was fused around the rim. Although the golden fork was a nice touch it didn’t really help me tackle the immediate problem with any more dignity. I had no companion to advise me, so was forced to set about the task with all the inelegance one might expect, and after all that the cake was dry and in some parts undercooked.

That night I saw Fickle Friends at Gorilla. They were supported by a Norwegian trio whose name escapes me, and Google’s not proving fruitful. Their exuberance in triggering samples failed to quite match the music they were playing but their clunky literal translations into English did amuse me. Fickle Friends had taken a different direction since I’d last seen them at Electric Circus in Edinburgh, which is probably a plus because their older material is so similar as to be virtually indistinguishable from track to track – luckily, it’s a good song though.

After a blissful night’s sleep in a (sorry Germany) proper double duvet, I visited HOME whose name kept making me think of that vapourwave artist every time I saw it, not helped by its insistence on all caps. In front of the entrance stood a strident statue of Friedrich Engels, co-writer of the Communist Manifesto who spent the best part of two decades in the city; this effectively signalled another exhibition exploring the 100-year anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. This time there was more of a pressing focus on the present, examining the idea of when a dream of the future becomes the past. Probably the most affecting thing I saw was a photography display depicting Ukraine’s so-called ‘Leninfall’ from 2014 onwards – later I learnt that the statue outside was actually transported out of the country by artist Phil Collins, and was the source of some controversy. These images were conflicting to look at. I don’t pretend to understand exactly what went on there, but it seems pretty drastic to suddenly abolish 70 years of history in the space of a few months, even if a part of that was unimaginably horrendous manmade famine and when the population is up against an intolerable Putin-led Russia, who is unfortunately symbolically conflated with the iconography of Soviet communism.

Manchester’s main museum reminded me surprisingly of Stromness’s with its extensive natural history collection of taxidermy. I didn’t spend too long there before I moved to the Whitworth Gallery of modern art. My kind of modern art is the big installation sort, and with its vast space the Whitworth was able to play host to sprawling sculpture and immersive 3D concepts. A highlight was a room with two walls covered in clocks whose hands pointed to words like ‘euphoria’, ‘guilt’, ‘ecstasy’ and ‘depression’ instead of numbers. Above each clock was the name of a city, although alongside genuine place names were “fictional” metropolises such as Atlantis, Shangri-La and Babel.

As the afternoon drew to a close I met up with Mia, who I met in second year through The Student’s music section and who encouraged and inspired me to start my own radio show on Fresh Air while she was head of music there. Footage, where we met, feels very much like a student union and it’s located on Oxford Road, home to several universities and colleges on this street alone. Choked up from a lingering cold she talked about her masters in journalism and the opportunities to be had in and around Salford’s Media City, and I my work at Immanuel Kant Gymnasium, during which I had to account for the randomness of my appearance in Manchester. We moved to a restaurant and had the pleasure of sampling the niche cuisine of Nutella fries. Abhorrent? Perhaps. They tasted divine.

Mia helped me find the right trams and we said goodbye. I was off to another ‘pre-booked whim’ – Reggie Yates was launching his debut book about his career in documentary making so far. I’d been to a couple of book launch events before, the one that stands out though is probably Margaret Atwood’s for her novel Hag-Seed – a re-interpretation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In the front row and sat next to incredibly beautiful phenomenon of nature, also attending on her own, I spent the evening awestruck from several angles.

This was quite another experience. Reggie, and I’m calling him Reggie, not out of disrespect or lack of authorial prestige but because we all know him as that through his work on Radio One and CBBC, does not inspire the same goddess-like reverence as Atwood. He is essentially straight up, quick and to the point while never abrupt; he possesses a manner ideal for talking to difficult people about difficult subjects. This lies in contrast to Atwood’s supremely measured, dry wit and tantalising enigma, which one is never likely truly to understand.

Reggie’s certainly had a varied career and he was refreshingly candid when it came to questions of money, relationships and his own vanity. He stressed a dislike of industry jargon, but his natural slippage into the corporate shorthand he allegedly wanted to avoid made me question his commitment to reforming the culture. At the end of the event, and unlike at Atwood’s where we were handed out pre-signed copies of the book, we were given the chance to meet him personally and he’d autograph it there and then. This was done highly efficiently – you handed over your phone to a guy who would snap for the obligatory Instagram post and it was all over in about 10 seconds, most of which I spent spelling my name!

The most interesting aspect of the evening was probably meeting a guy in the queue who handed me a copy of his self-published novel in exchange for a review on Amazon. It reminded me of my younger, more naïve self who had embarked on something very similar in the past (although it must be said I never printed a physical copy). Anyway, he seemed nice enough, but I tried to advise him in the nicest way possible, after he revealed to me the number of downloads he’d had, to keep trying for publication through a literary agent or competition win as this was, as harsh as it may seem, the only real route to serious, or for that matter even moderate, success. I sat reading the book in the airport with mild amusement and frustration in equal measure (feedback: overuse of italics) as the passengers for flight number xxx to Kirkwall via Edinburgh were called to proceed to gate for immediate boarding.

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The return of Twin Peaks: a classic revived

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It is unusual for a writer to revisit his work after such an extended period of time away, and stranger still for him to successfully gather almost all of the original cast for the return. The only comparable example that comes to mind is the recent Harper Lee sequel to the acclaimed To Kill A Mockingbird entitled Go Set A Watchman, which was published, the year before the author’s death, in 2015 with an impressive 55-year gap between the two novels!

1989’s Twin Peaks was ground-breaking on several fronts, not least for its reticence to be shoehorned into any one genre. Lynch and his writing partner Mark Frost created something that was on the surface a crime drama, this morphed into something more like a soap opera, as the show became as much about the subplots of the inhabitants lives as the murder. Add to this mix quick-witted humour, sharp dialogue, cleverly drawn characters and increasing elements of horror and the absurd, and you have recipe that shouldn’t work on paper but which realises itself beautifully in practice. This is not to mention the show’s compelling dream-like soundtrack composed by Angelo Badalamenti. Lynch is also one of the pioneers of cinematic television, taking a broad arc rather than episodic approach to the series and incorporating extended establishing shots of the North American landscape.

Did we want a new series? We hoped for it, but we were equally concerned that a new incarnation could tarnish the legacy of the original. Did we expect it? Most didn’t. Twin Peaks seemed so rooted in its particular time and place that it was hard to imagine the small-town charms breaking through into the 21st century. Yet there was always a sincerity in the prophecies of the original that made it hard to ignore Special Agent Dale Cooper’s final threat of “I’ll see you in 25 years” in the concluding episode.

Instead of the microcosm of 1989, Lynch presents an American odyssey grounded in 2017. Unbound by the constraints of a network he is free to indulge in what is almost painfully slow and intricate pacing. The iconography of the original is persistent, and the motifs recurring – Lynch, so it seems, is ultimately the show’s biggest fan. There are moments of genius (episode eight in particular) but whoever embarks upon this mammoth voyage must be warned that these instances of ecstasy come at the cost of hours of borderline tedium. The viewer, as much as the director, must suffer for his art.

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Lübeck: charmingly wonky

The weather this Sunday is disconcertingly mild for October, it seems stolen from a summer past or future, wrenched anachronistically into autumn. I cower in a room saturated with light. Creamy, lumpy walls that have a vaguely pebble-dashed texture encase me in their nondescript magnolia embrace. Sun streams in from a hunched over window – through this single portal a slice of serendipity filters into this wee attic flat in Seevetal.

Quarters are comparatively spacious, that is with slumming it in Edinburgh’s Buccleuch Street. The snows of Hamburg are yet to affront this fortress, but so far, the insulation seems sufficient.

Alas I must delineate the cons, for although I’ve finally had something of a success in the city’s hectic rental market, things could, as always, improve.

For a start, there is no kitchen. Well. There is and there isn’t. A plug-in hob rests on a shelf and there is at least a microwave; we’ve also been given the luxury of the use of a fridge-freezer.

There is no washing machine, which means that I must trek to the Harburg laundrette when I start to run out of clothes. The busses are frequent enough but not great logistically for weekends, when I’m going to have to crash or leave absurdly early.

Luckily administratively things seem to be heading in the right direction. I have a bank account and plastic, a sim card and university library membership. Hamburg’s library annoys me though. While I managed to withdraw the resources I needed, the process saddened me. It seems that you can’t take out books older than 10 years (most) from the shelves; one must order them and then they appear on a ledge next to your surname at some point the next day. To me that destroys all the fun of libraries, by which I mean the searching in old shelves, the smell of yellowed leaves and the discovery of the quaint, unexpected and most importantly, not directly relevant.

I must turn to matters less peripheral, to the reason I am where I am. The cause of my being at liberty to write such a tract are the Herbstferien, or October holidays. With no tatties to pick I’m free to explore the locality and reflect on my progress thus far, this greatly enabled by stable accommodation after a hellish Wohnungssuche and a rather gorgeous-looking, if a little impractical, bicycle.

The terms’ concluding fortnight has been an interesting one containing varied experiences, from correcting primary kids’ grammar to instilling considerable excitement about the world’s shortest scheduled flight. I finally managed to pick up and devour Lessing’s Emelia Galotti in a single night in preparation for a German literature class I’m helping with, only to be told the following morning that the students were on ‘Praktikum’ (some kind of work experience placement I presume). This particular edition, found filed in an entire wall of cute yellow Reclams, was purchased in the midst of a storm, which toppled several trees and left train tracks blocked, hence I had time to browse the Hauptbahnhof bookshop, waiting out the delay.

However, where some opportunities fell through others arose and I got to participate in one of the upper grade’s lessons concerning the theme of dystopia/utopia. Although the teacher was less than enthused, I was in my element. We watched a Black Mirror clip, Thomas More was on a PowerPoint slide and 1984 was set as holiday reading.

At the Immanuel Kant Gymnasium, the final week of term was known as Projektwoche. This meant that all five days were given over to a particular topic be it anti-bullying, health and well-being or drugs education. I chose to accompany the main class I work with on their HVV project, which stands for Hamburger Vekehrsverbund – the public transport system of the city. This, as well as the standard busses and trains, also includes public ferries on the river Elbe. In addition to learning the ins and outs of this system there were also many team building games, poster making and quizzes, which culminated in a class trip. Although I was not required to go on the main trip, which took the form of some kind of city-wide treasure hunt I believe, I did manage to help out on Friday, when the pupils went on an excursion to the Wildpark Schwarze Berge.

This safari park, contrary to most found in the UK (I think, though it’s not as if I’m a frequenter), was home to European native species only. While narrowing the field of exotica somewhat, this still allowed for the spotting of wolves, lynx, beavers and boar amongst other species. Our guide was very patient and knowledgeable, despite the inevitable interruptions cause by the intrusion of a wasp into the company of children.

Yesterday I began my personal exploration of the surrounding region by taking a train to the wonderful medieval town of Lübeck, lying northeast of Hamburg. The train station is subtle and refined and flooded by natural light, unlike grimy tiled Harburg’s insipid jaundiced glow and the Hauptbahnhof’s tenebrous interior. Once you step outside you realise you were housed in a building whose mock-medieval turrets will match the town to come. From here it’s only a short walk to the old gate, flanked by two chunky red-bricked towers topped by copper domes. The first thing you notice is how squint they are, emanating a markedly different vibe versus Berlin’s classical grandeur. It’s a sign of things to come – Lübeck’s charmingly wonky.

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The market square is surrounded by municipal buildings with heraldry indented in their sides. As far as emblems go, a double-headed eagle guarded by a red and white shield isn’t half bad. Passing under the arches I discover, having done minimal research pre-departure, that this town is renowned for marzipan manufacture.

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After a delightful (and most importantly, excellent value) lunch at an inexplicably Peter Pan themed restaurant, which plays the audiobook through speakers in the toilets, we wander down the many winding alleyways of Lübeck. Pastel coloured facades and higgledy-piggledy rooftops lace the descent to the dock, which resembles a sleepy sort of Speicherstadt but with more greenery and much less commerce. A quick peak in the door of one of the oldest municipal hospitals in the world and we’re ready to go home stocked with Süßigkeiten and Hanseatic pride.

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Ein Kölsch, bitte

I’m writing after the end of my first complete week in Germany, the country which will be my home for the year to come, and there is already a lot to tell.

This is how it went down:

Day 1: Edinburgh to Cologne

I fly from the Scottish capital, my home of two years and where I study German & English Literature at the university (the former part of my degree having a compulsory year abroad and the excuse for the whole adventure) to the most populous city on the Rhine to attend a four-day training course provided by the Pädagogischer Austauschdienst on behalf of the British Council, who organise a foreign language assistant exchange programme.

Arriving a little early, in order for me to be able to explore the city a bit before I’m whisked away to the relative seclusion of a place called Altenberg on the outskirts, I have some time to consider a couple of coincidences that seem to bode well for the year ahead. For a start, the notebook upon which I’m writing these reflections is a Leuchturm, not only made in Germany, but more specifically Hamburg, where I’m spending my assistantship. The second coincidence is relevant to Cologne; just the previous evening I’d had a last hurrah in Edinburgh with a good friend and after a delicious Thai meal we paid a visit to our regular craft beer paradise where they play B-movie horror films on low in the background. Anyway, I asked for a citrusy pale ale (it’s the kind of bar where that’s necessary, not solely pretentious by virtue of the regularly rotated selection of indie beers on tap) and I was presented with Kölsh – a beverage for which Cologne is renowned.

Day 2: A Tourist in Cologne

Only getting to the city in the early evening, I resolve to try and see as much of the sights as possible. The cathedral is impossible to miss and dominates the townscape (pardon the pun lol), it’s gothic architecture makes me feel oddly conflicted – I want to feel awe at what medieval society was capable of but knowing a bit of the history introduces something more complicated. It was only actually completed by 19th century enthusiasts when the middle ages were in vogue, and much of the structure is in fact a reconstruction after the intense bombing at the end of the Second World War. Adding to this, it’s hard to experience anything approaching spiritual when there is such an influx of tourist traffic, people taking selfies when a father instructs his children to kneel in prayer before a shrine etc.

Seemingly I have a knack for coming to Germany on open days, or that most of them fall in early September and that’s when I’m there. Today is Der Tag des offenen Denkmals and this meant that I got to explore the medieval Rathaus free of charge. Apparently, it is one of the oldest still in use in Europe. Part of it is highly modern, but the medieval sections are remarkably preserved. In some ways, it is reminiscent of the Reichstag building in Berlin in that it combines styles from different architectural eras. It evokes craftmanship, guilds and the hanseatic leagues.

I try to reach the cable car for a bird’s eye view over the Rhine, but it’s closed for repair and I only manage the botanical gardens. The chocolate museum seemed like a good deal for 9 euros and unlimited free samples in the guise of something educational, but the reality was about three pieces in total if you didn’t pay more.

Day 3: Arrival in Altenberg

Having walked around most of the city to the west of the Rhine, I decide to cross over to the east to kill a couple of hours before I travel, a bit counterintuitively, back to the airport where the rest of the language assistants are meeting to get the bus out to our training course. Apart from the rather grand Köln Messe/Deutz train station there is really not much there.

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On arrival in the airport I feel awkward, but conversation soon starts flowing. I’m able to relate an icebreaker anecdote about my lack of appreciation for “Wurst mit brötchen” being exactly that, with sausage and bun being completely separate items – to top if off even the Senf came in a separate plastic pouch.

It takes a bit of faffing but once we’re all in the coach, given rooms and fed we get quite an extensive admin talk. After this we’re told (to at least my surprise anyway) that the bar opens at half eight, and there’s nothing else to do in this place (apart from view the cross-denominational Cathedral with, apparently, the largest stained-glass window in Northern Europe, which is admittedly impressive) other than to make use of the facilities on offer.

Day 4: The course properly begins

We are taught how to teach.

Day 5: Final day

Employing these very freshly acquired skills, we give lessons we spent the previous day preparing. There is a pub quiz and I feel inordinately proud of myself for knowing who Heidegger is.

Day 6: To Hamburg

Some (most) had overindulged the night before, but somehow I ended up in one of the more sensible teams, so got off lightly. We are bussed back to the Bahnhof and several of us catch the train to Hamburg. I am seated beside a Canadian; more of them seem to know where Orkney is than English folk! We both get off in Harburg, where I meet my mentor, who tells me that the city has more bridges than Venice.

Day 7: Zur Schule

I commute south to the school I’m placed in. Correctly identifying the three pop-art style images of the philosopher after whom it’s named, I meet the head teacher, who seems to warm to me. The first class I observe have a lesson in Hispanics in the United States; the primary school pupils who follow them all come to the front and compare heights with me and find the question ‘do you have a girlfriend?’ absolutely hysterical. I wish I could see the funny side with the answer I give them…

Day 8: Some of the city is seen

Confirmed: Hamburg does have many bridges. Its canals, harbours and warehouse district are beautiful. Even what could be ugly concrete facades are transformed by the citizenry into vibrant and engaging murals.

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Day 9: A stroll around Altona

Pick a tourist attraction that’s open on a Sunday or is free; go there. This happened to be the Altonaer Balkon, which gives a magnificent view of the harbour and commercial cargo vessels. I have to squint to make them out in glorious sunshine. However, after a trip to the train station to scavenge some lunch the sky breaks with a crack to unleash a thunderous downpour and I’m forced to retreat to base for the day.

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