Thursday, October 30, 2014

A death in Kensington

A man has been found dead in London. Not in itself a huge news story, but the context brings it to the attention of a national publication such as the Daily Telegraph. For a start, he was impaled on railings, which adds a certain gruesome curiosity value to the event; Gothic overtones, maybe, flashbacks to Satanic spearings in movies such as The Omen.

But it’s not just the mode of his demise that matters. Apparently the railings are next to the school attended by David Cameron’s children, which is on “Kensington Church Walk, one of London’s most exclusive streets, on which the average property price is £1.6 million.” So it’s not just a death – there’s a splash of celebrity and a stiff dose of property porn in there. And the privileged setting adds a rather ironic twist to the current line of enquiry, which is that the (anonymous) deceased was homeless; the spikes can be seen as an extreme manifestation of the “hostile architecture” increasingly used in public spaces to deter undesirables from hanging around for too long. In the words of the Parks Police constable: “We do have a problem here with homeless people and the number of them has increased by 200 per cent in the last year. It is a growing problem which we are tackling.” 

Never mind. I guess this is one less “problem” for him — and for David Cameron — to tackle.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The dislike button

Bret Taylor, inventor of Facebook’s “like” button, has explained why it has no negative equivalent, and probably never will:

The reason we launched the [like] button in the first place was that there were a lot of times that people wanted to acknowledge something someone did, but didn't have anything to say. And a lot of comments were one word like ‘cool’ or ‘wow’ so the like button let people did that with a single click. It wasn't really just a sentiment of ‘like’. 
So the “like” button serves to save inarticulate users the trouble of hitting three keys when one will do. Fair enough. But wouldn’t a “dislike” button serve the same purpose, offering an alternative to the intellectual effort of typing out “dude, this sux”? Hell, why not offer readers three options, as I do on this blog, allowing them to indicate their joy, loathing or – worst of all – bored indifference to what I post? No, says Taylor:
I have the feeling that if there were to be a ‘dislike’ button is that you would end up with these really negative social aspects to it. If you want to dislike something, you should probably write a comment, because there’s probably a word for what you want to say. 
Really? So people who can’t be bothered to type “wow” have the time and inclination to compose a thoughtful, cogent, sensitive explanation of their own negative reactions to what their friends have posted? In the past few days, two of my Facebook friends have lost their fathers. Both have received many messages of condolence, all of which are doubtless honest, caring and heartfelt, but the majority are variants on “Sorry for your loss, thinking of you”. There’s nothing wrong with such standardised mantras, of course – but by the same token, there would be nothing wrong with a one-click acknowledgement that the post brings bad news rather than good, rather like an anonymous candle lit in someone’s memory, or a teddy bear affixed to a tree at an accident black spot. What does rather spoil the mood of kind thoughts and virtual hugs in adversity is that each announcement has also attracted a whole bunch of “like”s, which to me would suggest “cool, wow, I’m happy your dad’s dead” – not the message the sender intended, I assume.

I simply don’t buy the “negative social aspects” of Taylor’s argument. Social media should reflect the lives of its users and life includes some negative stuff, whether it’s the death of a beloved parent or an annoying paper cut. His concept of Facebook as a cheery, positive, Pollyanna-ish thumbs-down-free zone is just a case of avoiding reality. Although since, as TechRadar points out, it’s probably more a case of dislikes being less useful to Facebook advertisers, he’s simply being disingenuous about the whole thing anyway. But hey, who ever looked to social media for expressions of sincerity?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Bentleys, Borges, Bros and the fine art of disingenuous damage

From a letter to the Guardian about the late Jocelyn Stevens:
He was so wealthy that, when his car was written off in an accident, he instantly bought another Bentley (or whatever) and told his garage to make on it the same scratches and marks as were on the original so that his wife wouldn't know about the crash. 
Whether the tale is true or not (the correspondent believes it is but can’t be certain) there’s something deliciously Borgesian—via Baudrillard, naturally—about this, with the new car as a simulacrum to disguise the reality of the old one, and the crash. But the new car can’t just be a replica of a thing; it also has to replicate a history, events, time. Or maybe it’s just like the late 1980s, when people (OK, we) deliberately ripped holes in their Levis while insisting they’d occurred naturally.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

About ‘God Only Knows’


‘God Only Knows’ is probably my favourite Beach Boys song. So, it’s not the most crushingly obvious choice (that would be ‘Good Vibrations’ or maybe ‘California Girls’), nor is it just trying to be obnoxious for the sake of it (‘Kokomo’) but it’s not exactly out of the box either. A proper smartarse, offering his personal BB fave for a 20-page retrospective in Mojo or Uncut, would plump for something rather more obscure from Smile or Surf’s Up. But I like ‘God Only Knows’. So shoot me.

Or you could just shoot whoever decided to make ‘God Only Knows’ the latest Everyone Gets To Sing A Line, Even The Token Bloke From Senegal Or Wherever, Quite Yer Moaning It’s For Charity, Can The New John Lewis Christmas Ad Be Far Behind BBC Children in Need single. No, stop, don’t really shoot. In purely musical terms, I’m sure it’s not the most hideous version of the song ever committed to whatever it is songs are committed to these days. (The Bowie one was pretty sucky, for a start.) It’s not even the aura of smug self-satisfaction that hums off these records that’s the problem; the BBC has been getting so much politically motivated flak in recent years, any reminder of the extent of its riches has to be a good thing, even if that encompasses a cameo by old tortoise-face from Coldplay and Brian May doing the same guitar solo he’s been playing since about 1346.

No, it’s not so much what they’ve done to my song, ma, it’s more about how it changes my relationship with that particular piece of music. Within a few days, ‘God Only Knows’ will cease to be a Beach Boys song. It will become a charity single and if people chance to hear the original they’ll be confused because they’ll be expecting Emeli Sandé or One Direction or Stevie Wonder or that nice trumpet lady or the skinny choir bloke to be on there. Of course, the same thing happened with ‘Perfect Day’, which suddenly ceased to be a wistful paean to heroin and became a song about a day that was quite nice actually, with a bit by Westlife. In fact, ‘Perfect Day’ occupies a similar place in Lou Reed’s oeuvre to that of ‘God Only Knows’ in Brian Wilson’s; the mind-numbingly obvious pick would be ‘Walk On The Wild Side’, while clever-clever music critics would pick side three of Metal Machine Music.

But in both cases, the BBC has a lucky charm against any criticism of the recording. “Look, it can’t be that bad,” they’ll chide. “Brian Wilson’s playing on it. Just like Lou Reed did.” Which of course smudges over the fact that both Wilson and Reed are/were spectacularly odd and damaged individuals, a fact that is intrinsic to the weird brilliance of their music but has also led them down some pretty awful avenues (such as their collaborations with Status Quo and Metallica respectively). The cosy niceness of the BBC singles is just a minor late-period mis-step when seen in the broader context of their careers. Still, it’s a pity. ‘God Only Knows’ suddenly isn’t my favourite Beach Boys song any more.

PS: The Daily Mash gets it right, as is so often the case.

PPS: And this, by Lisa Cordaro. “A line in the sand”. Yes.

PPPS: ...and Michael Hann gives each performer on the BBC version marks out of 10.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Bailey, Banksy and the thing too horrible even to be mentioned


Racism is bad. I trust we’re all on the same page as far as that’s concerned. But what to do about racism, how to respond to it, how to discuss it — these seem to be rather more divisive questions.

Take, for example, the installation Exhibit B by Brett Bailey, which features chained black actors in an effort to represent the true horror of human slavery. Or rather, it featured them, until protests against the “complicit racism” of the show forced it to close. The artist wasn’t actually suggesting that slavery or 19th-century human zoos were in any way a good thing; but people were offended by the scenes of degradation on view (or not on view — it’s not clear how many of them had in fact seen the show) and blockaded the venue and that was that.

Then, the good burghers of Clacton-on-Sea took against a new piece by the artist Banksy. Here it is:


OK, not one of his best works, maybe, but the message is pretty clear, I would have thought. Racism, including the disingenuous I’m-not-a-racist-but anti-immigration message being touted by the likes of UKIP (widely expected to win the imminent by-election in Clacton) is pretty bird-brained. But the image disappeared within hours and Nigel Brown, the council’s communications manager, said: 
The site was inspected by staff who agreed that it could be seen as offensive and it was removed this morning in line with our policy to remove this type of material within 48 hours. 
Get that: “it could be seen as offensive”. Presumably they understood that the artist’s intentions were entirely right and proper, but on the offchance that someone, somewhere, somehow might misinterpret them, the image was destroyed. The eternally sage and perceptive Annie pondered on Twitter whether the fact that the artists in these cases were white may have had a bearing in the case (although there’s no evidence that the factotum who erased the bird mural even guessed who’d created in, which adds another level of dumbness to the equation). But then I discovered that US school students’ access to novels by Toni Morrison and Alice Walker has been restricted because of their depictions of racism.

What unites these cases is that the intention of the artists is entirely irrelevant. The protesters and censors and council scrubbers seem to be worried that the very subject of racism is being raised in anything but the blandest, most nuance-free terms. Racism has become Voldemort. And although they don’t specify who is liable to be harmed by these artworks and books, I’d infer that its members of the ethnic minorities who are foremost in their minds. Which in turn suggests a rather patronising frame of mind, an assumption that non-white people are intellectually or emotionally incapable of coping with the subtleties and ambiguities of creative communication. And there’s a word for that.

For a more sensible approach to the whole subject, here’s Tom and Jerry. No, seriously. Aware that some people are uneasy about the depiction of the character Mammy Two-shoes in the evergreen cartoons, Amazon and iTunes have added a disclaimer:
Tom and Jerry shorts may depict some ethnic and racial prejudices that were once commonplace in American society. Such depictions were wrong then and are wrong today.
There you are. Nothing censored, nothing prohibited, nothing scrubbed off the wall. Just a pale amber alert, a gentle acknowledgement that some people may not like something included in the product, like a “MAY CONTAIN NUTS” warning. It would be nice if some of those who’ve objected to the works of Bailey and Banksy, Morrison and Walker could take the same attitude; but I’m not holding my breath.


PS: More on this by Laura Mallonee at Hyperallergic, with specific reference to Scandinavia.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Post to ensure that I don’t feel obliged to say anything about the Scottish referendum result

Apologies to people who follow me on various social media thingies, as you may have seen these already. I don’t know whether this is original but I do rather like it:


And, on the same lines, these may or may not be the authentic musings of a teenage girl, but they still made me smile anyway:

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

That Kent State shirt and the ultimate triumph of consumer capitalism

Back when I was young and halfway pretty, I got myself involved in a bit of studenty politicsy shenanigans that ended up with a bunch of us barricaded inside the offices of the university vice-chancellor. (He’d attempted to carry on working for half an hour or so while various middle-class Trots and greboes glowered at him, but in the end gave up and vacated his space, presumably deciding that he’d get more done somewhere that didn’t smell of an army surplus store.) 

After a brief period during which we luxuriated in our triumph over The Man, the realisation began to sink in that: a) we weren’t quite sure what to do next; and b) we were breaking all sorts of laws and were running the risk of getting arrested and/or chucked out of university. Damn, we were political agitators, a threat to global capitalism itself — they’d probably send in the SAS to get us out. That was when I, working on the principle that the best way to get to know someone is to check out his/her bookshelf, noticed that our unwilling host owned a copy of the official report into the Kent State University shootings that resulted in the deaths of four students after the Ohio National Guard opened fire in 1970. Shit, as I don’t think we said back then, suddenly got real.


Which is a roundabout and slightly self-indulgent way of acknowledging the brouhaha created by Urban Outfitters’ decision to market a sweatshirt that seems to nod to the Kent State tragedy. And yes, they’ve been forced to apologise, but that’s not the point: we’re talking about Urban Outfitters without them paying us to. That’s the point. It’s a perfect example of recuperation, the process in which radical images and concepts are co-opted to reinforce the status quo. They won, comrades. We lost. And they didn’t even need to send in the SAS.

But while we’re here, do people really still wear sweatshirts?

Monday, September 15, 2014

Her, by Harriet Lane


The late Joan Rivers was known for a comedic style apparently uninhibited by moral qualms or social taboos but when asked if there might be any subject unsuitable for a joke, she responded: “the death of a child”. I’ve often wondered how far she might have stretched this self-imposed restriction: do adolescents count, for example? And now, unless she’s left us a few surprises in her posthumous archive, we’ll never know.

Rivers died while I was reading Her, the second novel by Harriet Lane. If we place it alongside her debut, Alys, Always, it would appear that Lane has a certain fascination for women doing damage. Not in the Hollywood model of psychopathic nannies and bunny-boiling spurned lovers, but more subtle, slow-acting, psychological poison that tears individuals and families apart without them realising what’s going on until it’s too late.

The newer book tells the story, in alternating first-person chapters, of two middle-class women in the early 40s. The apparently happier and more confident Nina bears some long-standing grudge against Emma, the true nature of which is not revealed to the reader until the closing pages; and Emma herself remains unaware that she might have done anything wrong, even at the end of the story. Indeed, she has no memory of her fleeting acquaintance with the other woman when both were teenagers, so when Nina chances to see her and engineers a meeting, she just thinks she’s made a new friend among the London yummy-mummy set in which she finds herself an uncomfortable inhabitant.

Nina ingratiates herself with Emma’s family and begins to exact a slow, subtle revenge. Some of this is simply deliciously banal — ensuring that Emma’s husband Ben sees the receipt for an expensive pair of shoes that his wife bought without telling him — and some subtly monstrous: she lures away the couple’s elder child Christopher while they are walking in the park and takes him home with her for a few hours, then claims to have found him, lost. The key point here is that there doesn’t appear to be any intention on Nina’s part to inflict any mental or physical harm to the boy, at first at least — she just wants to make Emma suffer the agony of imagining the danger he may be in.

Lane’s brilliant stroke here is that she doesn’t make Christopher an adorable moppet whose welfare we feel obliged to hold sacrosanct. Instead, he’s whiny, needy, apparently slightly dim three-year-old, whose presence, alongside that of his infant sister Cecily, is clearly grinding his parents down. They love him, but... As Nina finds increasingly ingenious ways to ratchet up the pressure on the oblivious Emma and her family we are never placed under the illusion that Christopher himself is anything other than a snot-encrusted pain in the arse. As such, even though Nina’s motivation for tormenting Emma turns out to be remarkably specious, we don’t see her as an entirely cold-blooded monster; let’s be honest, who hasn’t wanted to slap the hell out of someone else’s obnoxious brat at some point, if only to get back at the parents whose fault the child is? As the tension becomes all but unbearable in the final chapter, we don’t necessarily actively want the boy to come to any physical harm, but we can enjoy a certain detached ambivalence as Nina’s plotting comes to fruition. Although Joan Rivers might not have approved.