Make mine a double-double

Waiting for Tim Hortons to open

We took the kids to Tim Hortons this weekend. Put them in touch with their Canadian heritage again. It’s a new experience – the shop only opened Tuesday, and it’s just the second stand-alone Tim Hortons shop in the UK (first was in Glasgow a few months ago). I had heard rumours of Tim Hortons material available in Southampton several years ago. And about three years ago, I was in Belfast doing some fieldwork and happened upon Tim Hortons coffee canisters and sell0-wrapped baked goods in a corner of the Spar. It seemed hidden, abortive, and not necessarily very good.

The opening of the Cardiff Timmies, by contrast, was full of hoopla. It was advertised at its storefront for a couple of months beforehand (picture above is us back in September, sad not to already be eating donuts). When we told the kids, they were surprisingly sophisticated in their response. Having just been to Canada in August, my middle child reflected that if the things that are special over there are available over here, they don’t become as special, somehow. Globalisation summarised by my nine-year-old.Coffee date à deux

They got over any reticence by this weekend and were just happy to go have a donut. The boys put on their Toronto Blue Jays ball caps (I know), and my daughter swapped her Canada 150 lapel pin from her backpack to her jumper so she could prove her national bona fides. They were a litle miffed that we got the jump on them, having made time in the mid-afternoon for a coffee-donut date à deux.

The irony in all of this is, of course, that Tim Hortons is not my favourite coffee. Nothing like. (And if Macleans’s highly unscientific poll is to be believed, that holds true for many Canadians.) When Cardiffians ask me if it’s as good as their Canadian contacts make it out to be, I have to let them down gently. They answer that, by the standards of British coffee, even bog-standard is a cut above. Fair point. Continue reading

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What drove and drives you drove and drives me too

Gord Downie in Cleveland, Ohio 2015

The Tragically Hip – House of Blues – Cleveland, OH – Jan 16, 2015, by The Tragically Hip; found on flickr.com; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

At the risk of turning this blog into nothing more than a moan at dead musicians (farewell, Tom Petty), I need to write about Gord Downie. I wrote last year when he shared his diagnosis with us all. I stayed up til 2am local time to watch the webcast of the final concert in Kingston. (Canadians abroad – it’s what we do.) And I grieved when word came down last week that he had died. I was just heading out my office door to catch a series of trains to Cambridge, and I was pleased that the usually sluggish wifi on the train perked up, allowing me to dip in and out of Twitter and all the obits and personal memories.

The best resource that’s come out of it (external to Gord himself, of course; we’ll grab his new solo album and learn once more what an artist can teach us about how to die) appeared on YouTube a few days ago. Fifteen videos from Canadian musicians, recorded at George Stroumboulopoulos’s place for CBC – initially for New Year’s Day as part of a four-hour indulgence of our not-so-latent passion for The Tragically Hip.

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I think it’s great, and overdue. It strikes me that, for such a massive band, few definitive covers have surfaced. Short of Sarah Polley’s brilliant and understated “Courage” (recorded, let’s note, by someone who’s primarily associated with film), there’s been pretty much nothing. (Nothing, I should say, in a recorded and shareable way; bar bands from Tofino to Tuktoyaktuk and Sarnia to St. John’s have pulled out “New Orleans Is Sinking” and “Grace, Too” at the flip of a coaster, but that’s a different thing.) Justin Rutledge had to carry the can almost singlehandedly, though by inviting Jenn Grant to guest vocal “Fiddler’s Green”, I guess we diversified a little more. Covers seem to draw either from  classics of the past or wry renditions of Top 40 pablum. Covers of The Hip were neither iconic nor ironic, it would seem.

Then we learned that Downie’s days were numbered. And out came the hastily produced covers, the phone-videoed versions from the front row of the first gig various artists played after they heard the news.

Continue reading

Father (for Chris Cornell)

Father’s Day, like Mother’s Day, is not a big deal in our house. (If it was, we’d be in trouble, because as Canadians living in Britain, we have two Mother’s Days to deal with.) It was a big deal growing up – and sometimes a raw deal, when it would fall on the same day as my mother’s birthday and then my brother and I were on the hook for two breakfasts in bed with no help in the kitchen. So I have some residual feelings, stoked by all the advertising propaganda that’s been building for a few weeks now, reminding me how funny I am and how I am always there. Apparently.

But this Father’s Day, I’m thinking of another dad – one who is no longer there. That would be Chris Cornell, once the singer, guitarist, and lead songwriter for Soundgarden, and a corking big influence on me as a little grungey kid on the West Coast in the 1990s. Found dead in his hotel room after a gig in Detroit, Michigan just one month ago, Cornell leaves behind not only a legion of fans and some crushed and confused bandmates but three children.

So really, when I say Cornell is in my thoughts, it’s his kids who are more heavily in my thoughts. I found a video this week that broke my heart, clicking through YouTube as I do from time to time over lunch break. It was posted just three days after he died, but the video comes from a concert in Seattle in 2007. Continue reading

Late adopters

Advert at the Moscow stationers

So last month I got a smartphone.

It’s been incredibly low on my priority list for, like, ever. I won’t bore you with a long list of reasons why. Suffice it to say, it has to do with cost, durability, replicating technologies I already have, and a desire not to be plugged in like someone from an Aldous Huxley dystopia, staring at a small screen in my hand while navigating through the world.

I’ve been a late adopter to various media and technologies: though I was quick on MySpace, as a musician, I was late to Facebook. Only got on Twitter towards the end of my PhD, when I started applying for academic jobs and realised that they might wonder why this young guy, clearly of the digital native generation, who is applying for media and comms positions, doesn’t know about this groovy medium. My wife and I held off mobile phones themselves for way long, capitulating when we moved to London and would have to balance her work, my studies, and this strange new world of school pick-ups and drop-offs. (Still, its primary use was and remains messages of the “coming home x” and “ok x” variety.)

So you see that when I have adopted a new technology, however late in the game, it’s been for the most practical of reasons. Continue reading

Muslims Like us is more Geordie Shore than a real challenge to stereotypes

Honest and proper reblogging. I wrote this piece for The Conversation, which is a news analysis site that is free to read, written by scholars all over the world. No, we’re not paid for it, but it is an extension of our research and teaching interests, so like with journal articles and whatnot, we’re already paid for what we do. This is just one way of doing it. And it’s Creative Commons licensed, so it can be used all over the place.

This article responded to a BBC programme that also aired this week. It’s right up my alley: media representations of Muslims in Britain. I took a little umbrage at the reality TV aesthetic getting credited as a documentary, but I do realise that a lot of thought went into its creation, just as it might for someone doing… er… a PhD on the topic. Can TV deliver in the same way? Read on – no spoilers. Except to note that more people watched this programme than would ever, I mean ever, read my thesis. So, choose yer poison.


Muslims Like Us is more Geordie Shore than a real challenge to stereotypes

Michael Munnik, Cardiff University

In my filter bubble, the diversity of Muslims in Britain is already a given. It certainly doesn’t merit a two-part “constructed documentary” that brings ten Muslims with a liquorice all-sorts of dispositions together in one house, complete with camera crew and a producer who asks questions periodically to provoke interesting television.

But my bubble, as 2016 keeps reminding me, is not the only bubble.

Muslims Like Us wears its social importance like an ironic t-shirt slogan: many people in Britain are still uncomfortable with Muslims, and the programme is handcrafted to challenge stereotypes and make people think again. Continue reading

Hey, that’s some way to say goodbye

Leonard Cohen live in Nîmes

Leonard Cohen in Nîmes, 2009. Photo by gaët, found on flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0

Well.

By mid-November, no one needs to be told that 2016 has not been a very good year. Taking my cue from the historian Eric Hobsbawm, who posited the idea of the short twentieth century (starting 1914 with WWI and ending in 1991 with the fall of Communism in Russia), I hoped desperately and publicly for a short 2016. It would start on 10 January, when we learned about the death of David Bowie, and end on 9 November when Hillary Clinton was elected president of the United States. We know how that prediction worked out.

In the midst of our (okay, my) rage and incomprehension, word of the death of Leonard Cohen hit – not like a bomb, but like a cone of silence that allowed me to leave aside internal wranglings about politics over which I had no control. It forced a kind of stillness and attentiveness on me, and I was the better for it. Many sobbed and sighed and thought, “Why are we losing Leonard Cohen precisely when we need him?”

I had a different reaction. Grimly, cynically, I felt he got out in time. But more reflectively, I think he has given us everything we need already. He has so adequately prepared us for our own mortality by musing on and confronting his own. He’s left us a body of  literature and song that deal so squarely with death and grief, with life and beauty. He has told us what we need to know. Continue reading

Footballers Have Opinions, Too

Gary Lineker’s been getting some stick from the anti-immigrants for speaking up on Twitter about the child migrants coming across from Calais before France bulldozes the camps. Cabinet ministers and tabloid newspapers have questioned whether some of these kids look too old to count as minors, and the former Leicester City and England striker dared to call out those statements and even acknowledge the struggles these people have experienced prior to arriving on the French coast.

I don’t need to get deep into it. Plenty’s been written about it already. I just remember when Pearl Jam and other musicians were playing during the US presidential election campaign of 2004, and rocking Republican Alice Cooper called such action “treason”.

“When I was a kid and my parents started talking about politics, I’d run to my room and put on the Rolling Stones as loud as I could. So when I see all these rock stars up there talking politics, it makes me sick.

“If you’re listening to a rock star in order to get your information on who to vote for, you’re a bigger moron than they are. Why are we rock stars? Because we’re morons. We sleep all day, we play music at night and very rarely do we sit around reading the Washington Journal.”

-Alice Cooper

I make no secret of my great and abiding love for Pearl Jam, and this response from Eddie Vedder made me love him and the band all the more:

“I read a piece from a musician I respect, Alice Cooper, who wrote that musicians really need to keep out of political discussions. For one, they’re idiots, he said. For another, when he was a kid and his parents started talking politics, he ran to his room and put on the Rolling Stones and turned it up as loud as he could. And I agree with Alice. I don’t think any of us want to be doing this. . . . But my problem is that my stereo does not go loud enough to drown out the sound of bombs dropping in the Middle East.”

-Eddie Vedder

I think Cooper will find plenty of fans old and young who disagree with the limits he tried to impose (and still imposes, in lock step with Trump). People who rocked out to Cooper in the 70s may have gotten switched on a few years earlier by Dylan or Buffalo Springfield. Why deny their experience? Similarly, why deny Lineker his views? If he does nothing more than read the headlines, he’s as well informed as most in this country. No surprise that those ridiculing the rock pulpit or the sports pulpit seem to disagree with the views expressed from those celebs, though they couch their opinions in a critique of the person, instead.

I’ll give my last word on this to a biting blog. I found it on Twitter.

That’s When the Hornet Stung Me

Summer’s here, and I’m on annual leave. Kids are out of school, and when my wife isn’t bashing away at the keyboard upstairs, we’re finding lots of time for other good things. Picking blackberries, riding bicycles, eating/making hummous that makes your bread look like a slice of watermelon. Reading Tragically Hip think pieces (including my own).

Hummous that makes your bread look like a slice of watermelon

Hummous that makes your bread look like a slice of watermelon.

It’s also a good time to reflect on summers past, and share a few stories. The one I’m sharing here was inspired by my wife’s blog from a few weeks ago about a wasp trapped in her office; she melds it with a memory of a wasp from her childhood, full of danger and suspense and blessed maternal rescue. I’m biased, of course (reader, I married her), but I think the writing is exceptional.

One afternoon, I sat on the swing, kicking my sandaled feet, and a wasp settled between the straps. I froze. I couldn’t swat it away because I had to hold on to the chains of the swing. I tried to kick, very gently, to dislodge it. The wasp crawled over the strap and down along my foot. Then it crawled onto the bottom of my foot, its tiny feet and buzzing wings moving between my sandal and my skin.

Sometimes, speech is impossible, but I must have said something because my little brother ran for Mum. I gripped the swing’s chains tightly. The wasp explored. No wind moved the leaves above my head. Everything stopped. Except for those tiny, tickly feet.

-Katie Munnik, “Wasp”

I have felt those tiny, tickly feet. Continue reading

Quick

So my last post was about how long it took to get a blog published (not on this site, obviously). Just thought I’d ad a quick counter-narrative about a guest blog that got published superfast.

My wife keeps a regular column on the Presbyterian Record website. Notionally, it updates every Monday. Sometimes, that competes with other things, and a couple of weeks ago, we had very dear Canadian friends visiting – Presbyterians, to boot, so when the kids were all in bed and we were having a cool drink around the kitchen table, it was time for her to sigh and start to crowd-source some ideas for the blog. (Or canvas lots of, “No, no, just write it tomorrow” comments; sadly, the Presbyterianness of our visitors meant they cared a lot about what she wrote and thought it would be good to put something up on time and in good order.)

So in my typical offhanded way, I start spouting off things she could write about, and after just a couple of minutes of this, she says, or I say (I can’t remember, and that’s probably what’s good about being married) “Why don’t I just write it? Another guest post – when was the last one I did?” It had been over six months, and that was a Christmas present and something I had already plotted and planned.

Rather than retiring to the upstairs office to write, which is what my wife typically does, I just gassed up the ol’ laptop and started typing right at the table while the other three laughed and told funny stories about when we used to live in the same neighbourhood or cute stories about what our kids do. No more than twenty minutes, it was done, even with me interjecting once or twice in the conversation. She vetted it: it looked fine. Some writing I thought was actually quite clever (my wife noted that this had some similarities in tone to Roald Dahl’s Danny, the Champion of the World, which we had been reading as a bedtime story).

Here’s a sample:

“Were you and Mummy confirmed?”

“Yes,” I say. “I was just a bit older than you are now.”

“Some of the kids who were confirmed today are in the same year of school as me,” she says.

“Hmm.” We pedal a little further on. “Would you like to be confirmed?”

“Well, I’d like to taste the wine,” she replies. Now that’s an honest answer. “But they said the bread tastes like cardboard.”

“No, it’s not like the bread your mummy bakes.”

The whole thing is here.

Solace in Quantum

Cover of Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed

Sometimes it takes a long time for a piece of writing to get out there.

I don’t mean “long” in cosmological terms, like Douglas Adams, who likens a walk to the chemist’s as “peanuts” compared to space. But when you put your writing into someone else’s structures – their spaces, their publishing formats, their agenda – you have to wait. It’s not the case with a blog like this, of which I am in full control (and therefore have no one else to blame for how infrequently it gets updated, but I never promised you quantity here.)

But while you have to wait, and sometimes you have to adjust things to suit your editor, there are real benefits to publishing with other people. Like reach. An audience wider than the friends on Facebook who bother to click the link (Note: ‘liking’ is great, but I’d love for you to read the posts, too. And comment. And share them. Go ahead.) The relevance of that audience can be a factor, and so I’m pleased that after a long wait, a blog I wrote has finally found a public home.

It began as a little musing I was going to post here, several months ago. Last year, in fact, before Christmas and just after I’d finished my first term lecturing at university – a course on social theory, which is not incidental when you read the post. Continue reading