Wednesday, January 22, 2020

About Rebecca and Nicky Haslam


The dissertation I birthed last year (it scraped a distinction, by the way) was about the assumptions regarding knowledge we all make when communicating, and how we justify them. Essentially, what do we feel able to leave out? If we refer to, say, Ophelia, do we explain that she’s a character in Hamlet? Then, do we explain that Hamlet is a play by Shakespeare? Do we explain who Shakespeare was? If not, why not?

And inevitably, I keep coming across bits and pieces that would have made good raw material for my thesis. In Richard Davenport-Hines’s An English Affair, about the Profumo scandal, we get the following sentence:
Bronwen Astor felt as disempowered by Cliveden’s traditions and staff as Maxim de Winter’s second wife in Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca, after moving into his great house Manderley.
Now, I would have thought that the general gist of Rebecca was pretty well known, even to those who’ve never read the book, from film and TV adaptations and just general conversation; especially among people who might choose to read a book of English social history about the early 1960s. Surely something along the lines of “Bronwen Astor felt as disempowered by Cliveden’s traditions and staff as Maxim de Winter’s second wife, after moving into Manderley.” would have sufficed?

Except that, only a few lines later, Davenport-Hines writes, “Nicky Haslam, who had been Bronwen Pugh’s walker...” and I had no idea what that meant, whether it was some arcane role in the fashion world, or a euphemism, couldn’t find it on Google, and had to go to Twitter to see if anyone could help. It turns out it means his job was to accompany her to social functions; and we can infer that the reader being addressed is one who knows this, but nothing about one of the most famous novels of the past 100 years.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

About David Olney


I’m afraid I’d not heard of the musician David Olney until I read of his death; but if there must be death, let it be like his, every time. According to a friend:
Olney was in the middle of his third song when he stopped, apologized, and shut his eyes. He was very still, sitting upright with his guitar on, wearing the coolest hat and a beautiful rust suede jacket...

Sunday, January 12, 2020

About Kenny G and a hole in the wall


Two things, loosely linked by ideas of taste and classification, if nothing else. First, in Jacobin, John Halle argues that we should stop being snotty about Kenny G, not because he’s actually any good, but because critical distinctions between goodness and badness are essentially elitist and potentially obstruct “our goal of developing a social base for a mass left politics”. It’s a more succinct and more overtly political riff on Carl Wilson’s musings about Celine Dion; and it also has a significant bearing on class politics in the UK, US and elsewhere – at what point must we stop telling people they’re wrong about Brexit or Trump or funny-haired saxophonists, before they vote us into oblivion, or worse? However, taken to its logical conclusion, Halle’s argument would proscribe all informed, critical evaluation and discrimination, whether by critics or artists or anyone, leaving any success or failure of an artist in the hands of the consumer, thus handing the whole process over to the workings of the market; hardly a victory for the left, I would have thought.

And, in New Zealand, the bar where the inchoate rage of one of its patrons was transformed into political art (or artistic politics), simply by putting a frame around the resulting damage.


PS: Just remembered, I’ve touched on this sort of thing before – without ever losing hold of the fact that Kenny G’s music is truly dreadful, obviously.

Saturday, January 04, 2020

About quotations

I was intending to say terribly clever things here over the past few weeks, but mundane things, as ever, happened in what we used to call meatspace, so think of this as a place holder. These are collected from the “Favourite Quotations” slot on my Facebook account, which is probably intended to contain something earnest and Hallmarky, but bollocks to that, frankly.

“To look upon writing as a regular profession should by rights be considered a kind of madness.” Friedrich Nietzsche

“I don’t care what is written about me so long as it isn’t true.” Dorothy Parker

“Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” Gustave Flaubert

“Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who have found it.” André Gide

“Straining towards art is confusing and useless.” Mike Nichols

“Always read stuff that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.” PJ O’Rourke

“The young know this. Their anxiety as they enter in upon social life matches the anguish of the old as they are excluded from it.” Simone de Beauvoir

“Remembering names is one of the great American achievements. I still don’t know how Americans do it, or, indeed, why.” Alexander Chancellor

“Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.” Napoleon Bonaparte

“Is it better to endure bad art for the spotless ideology it promotes, or to continue to swoon before sublime art made by awful people?” Ian Penman

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” Flannery O’Connor

“I don’t know if God exists, but it would be better for His reputation if He didn’t.” Jules Renard.

“Of all the noises known to man, opera is the most expensive.” Molière

“If I believe in anything, it is doubt. The root cause of all life’s problems is looking for a simple fucking answer.” Anthony Bourdain

“I drank because I wanted to drown my sorrows but now the damned things have learned how to swim.” Frida Kahlo

“We lend enchantment to vulgar material.” Guillaume Apollinaire

“Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.” Oscar Wilde

“Accessibility means nothing more than being comprehensible to morons.” Jonathan Meades

“As we journey through life, discarding baggage along the way, we should keep an iron grip, to the very end, on the capacity for silliness, It preserves the soul from desiccation.” Humphrey Lyttelton

“I feel like if you have a female comic character and then you see her nipples, then she is no longer funny.” Isla Fisher

“Any view of things that is not strange is false.” Paul Valéry

“Prolonged, indiscriminate reviewing of books is a quite exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting job. It not only involves praising trash but constantly inventing reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feeling whatever.” George Orwell

“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” Thomas Mann

“Good taste is better than bad taste, but bad taste is better than no taste.” Arnold Bennett

“A world with uncriticised art gets the art it deserves.” Simon Price

“If I wanted you to understand it, I would have explained it better.” Johan Cruyff

“There are some parts of London that are necessary and others which are contingent.” Iris Murdoch

“A footman may swear; but he cannot swear like a lord. He can swear as often: but can he swear with equal delicacy, propriety, and judgment?’” Jonathan Swift

“I’m losing my edge to the art-school Brooklynites in little jackets and borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered Eighties.” LCD Soundsystem

“You hear all this whining going on, ‘Where are our great writers?’ The thing I might feel doleful about is: ‘Where are the readers?’” Gore Vidal

“Half the joy of statues is touching the bosoms and the bottoms.” Jane Birkin

“We are here to make limbo tolerable.” Walter Kirn

“Only what is seen sideways sinks deep.” EM Forster

“Fame is a by-product of doing something else. You don't go to a restaurant and order a meal because you want to have a shit.” Banksy

“I’ve always considered writing the most hateful kind of work. I suspect it’s a bit like fucking, which is only fun for amateurs. Old whores don’t do much giggling.” Hunter S Thompson

“And all the stars that never were are parking cars and pumping gas...” Hal David

“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” Philip K Dick

“Real hell is there in the office; I no longer fear any other.” Franz Kafka

“I have long felt that any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armour and attacked a hot fudge sundae.” Kurt Vonnegut

“If you were to mention to grown-ups: ‘I’ve seen a beautiful house built with pink bricks, with geraniums on the windowsills and doves on the roof....’ they would not be able to imagine such a house. You would have to say to them: ‘I saw a house worth a hundred thousand pounds.’ Then they would exclaim: ‘Oh! How lovely.’” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

“As their telescopes and microscopes, their tapes and radios become more sensitive, individuals become blinder, more hard of hearing, less responsive, and society more opaque, hopeless, its misdeeds (those just committed and those that threaten) larger, more superhuman than ever before.” Max Horkheimer

“I shall never be ashamed of citing a bad author if the line is good.” Lucius Annaeus Seneca

“The man thought he seemed some sad and solitary changeling child announcing the arrival of a traveling spectacle in shire and village who does not know that behind him the players have all been carried off by wolves.” Cormac McCarthy

“I guess I just prefer to see the dark side of things. The glass is always half empty. And cracked. And I just cut my lip on it. And chipped a tooth.” Janeane Garofalo

“Some people – and I am one of them – hate happy ends. We feel cheated. Harm is the norm. Doom should not jam. The avalanche stopping in its tracks a few feet above the cowering village behaves not only unnaturally but unethically.” Vladimir Nabokov

“The topic of the younger generation spread through the company like a yawn.” Evelyn Waugh

“The people who must never have power are the humourless.” Christopher Hitchens

“Give me rampant intellectualism as a coping mechanism.” Chuck Palahniuk

“Revolutions are celebrated when they are no longer dangerous.” Pierre Boulez

“I refer to rock ‘n’ roll. It fosters almost totally negative and destructive reactions in young people. It smells phony and false. It is sung, played and written, for the most part, by cretinous goons, and its almost imbecilic reiterations and sly, lewd – in fact, plain dirty – lyrics make it the martial music of every sideburned delinquent on the face of the earth. This rancid-smelling aphrodisiac I deplore.” Frank Sinatra

“The only reason for being a professional writer is that you can’t help it.” Leo Rosten

“If you want to get rich from writing, write the sort of thing that's read by persons who move their lips when they're reading.” Don Marquis

“I have a huge editor in my head who’s always making me miserable.” David Chase

“Surrender your women and intellectuals!” Commander Strax

“But you could not have a green rose. But perhaps somewhere in the world you could.” James Joyce

“We were all pulling in the same direction. We may have been dragging each other off a cliff, but we were all definitely going in the same direction.” Sterling Morrison on The Velvet Underground

“Fuck the average viewer.” David Simon

“I only hit the keys; after that, they’re on their own.” Bill Kerr, Hancock’s Half Hour

“Besides, it’s always other people who die.” Inscribed on Marcel Duchamp's tombstone

“Net-loafing twazmuppet.” Fat Roland

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

About adaptations

That madhouse we call Twitter is full of people complaining about unfaithful adaptations of books they haven’t actually read; or if they did, they’ve clearly missed the bloody point. The most egregious was the collective whining about the “excessively woke” reworking of the anti-imperialist satire The War of the Worlds, written by the Fabian Socialist HG Wells; but either side of it came dismay about Les Misérables without singing and A Christmas Carol without Muppets.

And on that note, generous portions of humbug to one and all, and I’ll see you on the other side.


PS: And now Worzel Gummidge as well...

Saturday, December 21, 2019

About 2019

(Have neglected bloggery of late, for various reasons, so this is just something I lifted from a Facebook post, slightly tweaked. Hope to have a gloriously up-its-own-arse rumination on Brexit here some time before the year dies.)

Books: Most reading, at least for the first 2/3 of the year, was devoted to the endgame of my MA, but beyond that I enjoyed The Twittering Machine by Richard Seymour and Noah Charney’s The Museum of Lost Art. I also had my first work of fiction published, when my short story Nectarines found favour with The Mechanics’ Institute Review, and a very brief squib of mine prompted a couple of giggles when it popped up on Radio 4’s Front Row. Possibly not coincidentally, this is the first year I can recall when I didn’t read a complete work of fiction by anyone else. Or if I did, I can’t remember.

Films: Following the furore over Joker, I now don't know whether A Good Film is one that’s artistically satisfying, or one that ticks a certain number of boxes designed to determine some kind of moral purity. So all I’ll say is that the films I *enjoyed* the most were The Favourite and Knives Out, and the Cohen documentary Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love made me sniffle by the end. Will certainly see the new Star Wars before year end, but that transcends critical analysis; it’s more about remembering what it felt like to be nine years old.

Theatre: The only play I saw this year was When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other, a reworking of Richardson’s Pamela, with Cate Blanchett. So it’ll have to be that.

Art: The Lucien Freud show at the Royal Academy was very good, in that it gave me a coherent explanation of why I don’t really think Freud is all that, actually.

Music: Again, distractions, as a lot of my listening was taken up by preparing for a brief, chaotic appearance on the radio quiz Counterpoint. Aside from that, I really wanted to enjoy Nick Cave’s Ghosteen, but I’ve come to the conclusion that I really don't like what he does with synthesizers, and he should really rebuild bridges with Mick Harvey and go back to analogue and pianos and all that bad stuff in the 80s. Instead, I liked Peter Donohoe’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and the sinus-clearing exhilaration of the Japanese punk combo Otoboke Beaver. And Grandmaster Flash at the Fairfield was huge fun for the old folks.

TV: Three shows that got a bit lost amidst the hype: After Life, the best thing Gervais has done since The Office; Don’t Forget the Driver, proving that Toby Jones is one of our greatest living performers; and Giri-Haji, which may have been a triumph of style over substance, but it was good style, so that's OK. And the ongoing Pullman adaptation is really good Sunday evening viewing.

And talking of telly, you can still watch this until January 6:

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

About footnotes

At the beginning of Richard Seymour’s The Twittering Machine, about the ills of social media:
In writing this book, I set out to avoid burdening it with references and scholarship. I want it to be read as an essay, rather than as a polemic or an academic work. But for anyone who wants to know more, or simply finds themselves asking, ‘How does he know that?’ there are bibliographical notes at the end. If you find yourself itching to research a quote, statistic, or fact, simply skip to the end and search under the page number for the relevant phrase.
You see, I’ve never understood this hostility to footnotes, but every time I’ve written a book, I’ve been encouraged by editors to rein in my enthusiasm, because they put people off, apparently. When did references and scholarship become a burden? (There are notes in the Seymour book, but they're tucked away at the back, so as not to scare the more fragile reader.)


Thursday, November 28, 2019

About Miller and James

News came in yesterday of the deaths of two polymaths, Jonathan Miller and Clive James. I found this chat between the two, astonished that such freewheeling, unscripted, funny cleverness once popped up in a primetime slot on a mainstream channel; note that Miller isn’t plugging his latest product – he’s just there because he can talk well. When people talk about how wonderful podcasts are, I tell them they’re just what TV used to be.



It was a little depressing though that the deaths of two people blessed with such intelligence and knowledge should be accompanied by such outright wrongness. No, Evan Davis on Broadcasting House (Radio 4), Michael Grade did not give Clive James his television break on LWT in the late 70s; he’d had a regular berth on So It Goes for Granada in 1976 and was doing telly for several years before that. On the same frequency, a Front Row presenter claimed that Miller was a Cambridge contemporary of Eric Idle, when there was a decade or so between them. And, most glorious of all was Sarah-Jane Mee on Sky News, happily remembering a contretemps with the Bee Gees, oblivious of the fact she was thinking of the wrong Clive...

And the most poignant thing is the fun they would have had with such gaffes.

PS: Good article in the FT about the way each of them straddled the high/low divide:
Miller and his colleagues said: we refuse to take some things seriously just because respectable opinion says we should. James, you could say by contrast, said: I am determined to take some things seriously even though respectable opinion says I shouldn’t. The two positions are complementary.