Making Plans For The Holidays

I was reminded, via a random tweet recently, about a Christmas tradition from my childhood that I’d entirely forgotten about, and which feels as if it recasts the Christmases I’d experienced then, compared with how I remember them today.

Back in the day, my family would know that the holiday season was officially underway by the fact that the Christmas Radio Times and TV Times had been released; as the names almost suggest, both magazines were filled with television listings for the next week or so for different channels. (You can tell this is back in the day; all the BBC listings were in the Radio Times, which mixed BBC TV and radio listings, while the TV Times was filled with upcoming listings for ITV and Channel 4; other networks didn’t even exist at the time, so we didn’t have to worry about those.)

When those listings magazines were released, they were attacked by my family, or at least the three kids; we’d go through them, day-by-day, and mark down the shows we wanted to see. The three of us would use different colored highlighter pens to differentiate what was a me show, versus one of my sisters’, and vice versa. Anything that more than one of us wanted to watch, as far as I can remember, would be claimed by whoever went through the magazine first. (Almost certainly me, as the youngest.)

What’s surprising about this, for me, is how important the television was for the season. I’m not exaggerating this, even though I’ll be honest and admit I didn’t really remember this until someone tweeted a picture of this year’s Radio Times; the arrival of these listing magazines really did feel like a signifier that the holidays were now, properly, underway. Knowing what I was going to be watching, and when, somehow, meant that the Christmas period was in a shape that I understood and could plan for.

It’s not really the same, scrolling through Netflix and HBO Max these days. Maybe if someone made a listings magazine to help…

Hello Doctor, My Old Friend

By accident, I’ve fallen back into watching Doctor Who regularly for the first time since… fuck, three years? Four? I dropped out a few episodes into the first season featuring Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor due to a combination of circumstances — this was the period just after leaving my ex-wife, after all; my attention was elsewhere — and, to be blunt, not really enjoying the show that much anymore, due to what seemed to be a general downtrend in writing. Subsequent attempts to catch up were plagued with that feeling continuing; maybe it’s because I was such a fan of the Steven Moffat era, or perhaps my head was just in a different place, but Doctor Who didn’t feel like a show for me anymore.

Nonetheless, I have fallen back into the rhythm of watching weekly, thanks to (a) it being available to stream without additional cost for the first time that I can remember, and (b) being curious enough to try out the “all season is telling one large story, also, it’s only six episodes this year” experiment. I’m not sure if the show has improved significantly since the last season that I temporarily dropped into, only to dip back out of, but something has changed to keep me tuning back in, week after week. (It’s still not a great show, but there’s enough to keep me watching.)

What’s been particularly surprising about this whole thing is how… happy I am to be into the show again; it’s as if I’ve reconnected with an old friend, if that doesn’t sound too ridiculous. It’s surprisingly pleasing to be watching Doctor Who again, to be excited at the prospects of seeing a new episode every weekend, again. A fandom reborn turns out to be a very good thing indeed, as it turns out. It almost makes me want to check out other old favorites again, just in case.

I Remember When, I Remember When

There’s a meme that makes regular reappearances on social media, in which people use metaphor and reference to explain how old they are; “I’m [Insert Generational Marker] years old,” they’d say, and everyone else who shares that particular experience reads it and goes, oh, remember [Generational Marker]? I remember that, they’re just like me, I’m not alone. I mention this not to shame anyone taking part in whatever incarnation of this meme they might have seen, but because I found myself accidentally thinking in terms of that meme earlier today, upon realizing I lived through a moment in pop culture history we’ll likely never see again. You see, dear reader, I can remember when Star Wars was not only uncool, but considered a dead franchise left in the past.

To be a late teen in the early 1990s was quite a thing, especially in the UK; there was grunge, or whatever the British echo of that proved to be (People listening to Nirvana records, basically), and then there was Britpop, the musical movement that seemingly encompassed everything around it. For a certain generation of teen nerd, however, there was also the experience of finding fast friendship with other people who were Star Wars fans, and this being both a novelty and a sign that you’d found your people, or something close to it.

I can remember talking to people and making reference to things in The Empire Strikes Back and some people just not getting it; they hadn’t watched the movies as kids, or if they had, they hadn’t rewatched them and read the comics and the novels, and the details had simply left them, replaced by more important things necessary to ahead in life. This was the culture back then, and it’s one that I miss — when Star Wars was a niche interest (at best) and not a lifestyle supported by multiple industries dedicated to ensuring that Content Is Always Available No Matter What.

I know that, today, Star Wars is in a strange holding pattern outside of a handful of television shows, but still — there are those TV shows, and the comics, the novels, the toys, and the inevitable movies still to come. Even if there isn’t a new movie every year, it’s not something that will ever fully go away ever again, and I find myself sad about that. Sometimes, it’s good to let these things just be nostalgia again, at least for awhile.

Home Taping is Making Music

When I think about the various signposts that made me into the music fan I am today, I always gloss over the importance of my local library growing up, for some reason. I’m not entirely sure why, given just how central that place probably was for some of my more outré choices of listening; while it didn’t play the same kind of role that certain friends did in shaping my musical identity — I can still think about people specifically recommending or lending me particular albums or CDs or tapes, and how big that felt in the immediate aftermath, even if that particular band isn’t a cornerstone of what I listen to — it was, nonetheless, an introduction to all kinds of things that I wouldn’t have otherwise discovered, and a cheap way to explore some of my stranger curiosities when it came to sounds and tunes.

I was helped, greatly, by the fact that the local library’s music collection was seemingly curated by someone with extremely eclectic taste. To this day, I can remember being a nervous teenager leafing through the bins of vinyl — all in protective plastic sleeves, because of course — and just stunned by the number of things I’d never heard of, and didn’t know what to make of. I remember, years after the fact, in the mid-90s when the Divine Comedy broke through to the mainstream, realizing that somehow my local library had the obscure early albums all along, and I’d never stopped to check them out. (Literally.) The same with all of the many jazz albums they had that I, in my youth, flipped through with an internal jazz, ugh, only to wish years later that I’d had the common sense and good luck to listen to and get my little teenaged mind blown.

Nonetheless, the library was responsible for my love of Jellyfish, of Randy Newman, of the Guys and Dolls soundtrack, of discovering Jeff Lynne and ELO through the War of the Worlds double album; I listened to so many movie soundtracks, and developed a strange appreciation for orchestral scores. I’d take all of these albums home, obsessively listen to them. In their own way, they paved the way for some of the odder things I love now, even if I didn’t recognize that at the time.

Remember Remember

Fireworks Night in the UK was always supposed to be a thing, but I struggle to remember any from my childhood that ever came close to living up to the hype. Sure, we all know the rhyme about “Remember, Remember, the Fifth of November,” but I genuinely can’t think of any Fifths of November that were worth remembering.

One of the problems is the time of year. Let me tell you something about the beginning of November in Scotland, at least when I was a kid: they were wet and cold, and the very opposite of the conditions that would be optimum for starting a bonfire, or hanging around outside to watch fireworks. Many were the Bonfire Nights that I gamely went outside hoping for the best, and just stood there, shivering and damp, wondering if things were ever going to get exciting or even worth being outside in the first place. (Spoilers: they didn’t.)

I couldn’t tell you if every Fifth of November failed for me because I have no real interest or excitement surrounding fireworks, or if I have no real interest or excitement surround fireworks because every Fifth of November failed for me; it’s a snake eating its own tail made of disappointment and a frustrated belief that, for real you guys, isn’t this meant to be fun? It’s something that’s followed me to the U.S., though, where Bonfire Night isn’t really a thing — the Fifth of November here is mostly a day for V for Vendetta fetishists, from what I can tell — but the Fourth of July is, and I can (un)happily report that, even in the summer, there’s not that much to see that’s worth standing around with your neck craned in case some explosions are more colorful than others.

All of this, I know, marks me as some terrible killjoy, but the reality of the situation is… I am. Stay inside, and watch something good on television, instead. Catch up on Doom Patrol; this season’s been really something.

Sunk in Reverie

Sometimes, I think about the idea of inherited nostalgia. Or perhaps borrowed nostalgia is a better term; no matter what I call it, the idea is the same — the idea of feeling some kind of longing for something from the past that didn’t really mean that much to you at the time.

Oddly, it’s a record that got me really thinking about this. There’s a new quasi Primal Scream album out this year, although it’s officially credited to Bobby Gillespie and Jehnny Beth (that’s not a typo; it really is “Jehnny”) — the rest of the band act as backing band for the credited two vocalists — and it’s a good listen. It is, however, also an album that borrows liberally from the past, and that’s where things get complicated.

The issue isn’t that it’s a Primal Scream album that steals other people’s sounds and ideas; it is, after all, a Primal Scream album. Listening to it for the first time, though, I’d hear echoes of influences and songs and recognize them, thinking, Man, remember how great that was? even though I was thinking about things that I didn’t really have any direct contact with first time around. It was as if it had become institutionally “classic,” worthwhile purely because it was old, and because I was aware of the reference, I instinctively felt a fondness for it.

I’ve caught myself doing the same when it comes to movies and comics lately, too. Scrolling through HBO Max, I’ll come across movies I’ve never seen but half-recall being promoted — the poster will be familiar, or even just the title or the star — and I’ll have a flash of, Those were the good old days before remembering that I have no basis for actually thinking that beyond a onesheet I saw in Premiere magazine way back when.

Is this merely a sign of being old? Am I losing track of what actually matters, in the grand scheme of things? Or is there an argument to be made that there’s more of a coherent shared popular culture consciousness to be found than I’d previously believed…? You be the judge.

Secret Origins, Part 23

My earliest memory of a movie theater is something that I’m not entirely sure if it’s real or not, set in a place that hasn’t existed in something close to four decades, and seems just a little too on the nose for comfort. And yet, it’s something that, to this day, feels fresh and clear in a way that many other memories from childhood never could — which, let’s face it, might be another sign that it’s not entirely true and never was.

I was, by some simple math, three years old or so. Maybe four? I think I was in the theater for The Cat From Outer Space, which is what I remember so clearly: the poster for the movie, which featured this orange cat and a flying saucer shooting a beam down towards the ground. I remember the smell of popcorn, too, even though I’m pretty sure that it would be at least a decade or so before I even tried popcorn for the first time.

(The smell of popcorn has always meant the movies to me, and it’s something that’s almost entirely disconnected from the idea of popcorn as something that you’d eat — or, for that matter, popcorn as anything other than that movie theater smell.)

What’s so weird about the whole memory is, even as I’m utterly convinced that it’s all about The Cat From Outer Space, there’s a lingering suspicion that, somehow, Star Wars is involved. The timing would work out; we’d be talking somewhere in the region of 1978, so Star Wars might have been on re-release, or maybe just sticking around a long time from its original release, but still — was I actually there to see Star Wars and I just remember a poster for The Cat From Outer Space? Were my parents the kinds of people who’d take me to Star Wars when I was four?

(My dad was, at least.)

I’m not entirely sure what my first movie was, but there’s something about it being sci-fi no matter what that feels oddly fitting, if somewhat cliched. I was always going to be myself, I think.

Don’t Ask, Just Buy It

One of the stranger things to consider upon realizing that you’re a middle aged comic book fan is that you have likely been reading the adventures of a particular character or group of characters for a number of decades. Just think about that for a second; it’s not only that superheroes are one of the only forms of serialized media in which the same characters are omnipresent for that length of time — serialized prose isn’t really a thing anymore, and even so, stories didn’t last for that long, and even TV soap operas tend to change out characters as actors leave to do other things — but the fact that, if you’re anything like me, you’ve actually been reading stories about the same “person” on at least a semi-regular basis for more than thirty years at this point. That’s just surreal, to me.

I started thinking about this the other day, upon discovering a copy of Superman #1 in the collection; this being comics, I should specify that I mean the mid-1980s Superman #1, by John Byrne and Terry Austin. I was, I think, 12 when this came out — I think it was released late in ’86, but it might have been ’87 — and I still remember the thrill I felt in finding a copy in a local newsagents: the first issue of a Superman comic? Surely this had to be a big deal, and how could I fail to pass it up?!? (I was young, so the naivety can be excused, I hope.)

It wasn’t the first American Superman comic I’d bought for myself — there was an issue of Action Comics I remember from years before; it had the Justice League and the Teen Titans in it, so it too triggered the “this has to be a big deal” fever — but it was the one that led me to buy every subsequent issue I could get my hands on, as well as copies of Action and Adventures of Superman, for a number of years following, through until at least the early ’90s and Superman’s death and rebirth.

Even after that, I’d revisit him on something approaching a regular basis, even going so far as to pick up all the books every month between 2000 and, I think, 2003 or 2004 — and then again, starting in 2006 and going through to 2010 or so. In an odd way, I’ve spent more time with Superman across the years than with some real life, actually-alive, friends. I can’t work out if that’s a good thing or simply a weird thing, but I feel like I should at least be recognized as one of Superman’s Pals in the same way that Jimmy Olsen is.

Nibble Away at Your Window Display

I’m not entirely sure this is true, but I feel as if I started existing on the internet somewhere around 1997 or 1998; I can remember dial-up, and I can remember sitting in the computer room of the art school I went to, logging on to see whatever the hell was actually on the internet at that point.

More than that, though, I remember getting my first computer — an iMac, colored “Bondi-Blue,” if I’m remembering the name correctly — and that bringing the internet to me at home, if I was able to convince everyone to stay off the phone for an appreciable amount of time. I remember all-too-clearly that I would spend far too much time looking at the nascent comics internet of that period, which was a million miles away from the area that I now make my living from, and I’m curious just how much we’ve lost from those days in the rush to whatever internet we’re in now.

(Man, remember “Web 2.0,” when social media went mainstream?)

The olden comics internet was infinitely more fannish in its existence; it was dominated by the hardcore fan sharing their hardcore fannish theories and thoughts with a void, almost certainly in colored text with a colored background and a hit counter at the bottom to add that particular element of authenticity.

But it was, despite all of this, fun — there were these long, long screeds about why certain characters mattered or were cool, theories about the history of a certain idea or publisher or creator, and everything felt as if it was being shared in the sense of, if not friendship, then at least community. There wasn’t really any gatekeeping as audiences would recognize it today, because… being into comics and comic culture was still subculture enough that any attention was still deemed a good thing, perhaps…?

I remember cutting and pasting massive essays into documents and printing them out, to pore over them obsessively at my leisure. It feels miles away from what’s out there now, with everything monetized and commodified, and I can’t help but feel nostalgic about what used to be, even as I wish I was contributing more to the monetization and commodification, so that I could earn a living.

Start Getting Real

Watching The Real World: Homecoming or whatever it’s called yesterday proved to be a nostalgic experience, if not for the exact reasons that the show’s makers had intended. Don’t get me wrong, it was fun enough to watch Kevin, Heather, Julie, Norman, and the other three whose names I forget go on at genuinely extraordinary and dull length about how unbelievable it was that they were in exactly the same loft space as they’d been in 29 years earlier — that the show couldn’t have been filmed a year later to coincide with an actual anniversary feels as if it says everything about how lazy and contrived the whole thing is, wonderfully — but the nostalgia I felt wasn’t actually anything to do with the show itself, not really.

In the UK, the first season of Real World didn’t air on MTV, but as a Sunday lunchtime show on mainstream network Channel 4. As such, it picked up a lot of viewers who would otherwise have passed it by out of ignorance or simply never watching MTV. For example, me. Even better, for a further example, my mother.

While I’ll happily put my hands up as a fan of reality show trash, the same would never be true of my mum, who never watched an episode of Big Brother or any similar show in her life. But that first season of Real World obsessed her as much as it did me, feeling like the social experiment that the show claimed to be at the time — Michael Apted’s 7Up series on fast-forward and filled with particularly insufferable people.

We’d watch the show together as we ate lunch, the rest of the family doing more important things. (It was a Sunday, so they were probably reading the newspapers; buying seven or eight massive Sunday papers, with all the supplements and the magazines, was a weekly tradition in my family; we’d spend the rest of the day reading them.) It was a small, silly thing, our watching together and getting breathlessly sucked in — and reacting together, at whatever ridiculousness was happening that week — but, even at the time, it felt comforting and important, an unexpected thing we shared and bonded over quietly.

Far more than what had happened to the original cast, that’s what the reunion made me think of; a summer of lunchtimes with my mum, almost three decades ago. It’s a favorite memory, when I return to it.