Monday, April 21, 2014

Hitchhiking into the past

How was your weekend? Mine was pretty much taken over by earnest online excavations of my childhood cultural experiences. The biggest shock came when I discovered that the postcode of BBC TV Centre was not, despite Noel Edmonds’ repeated assurances, W12 8QT after all. Those of you rather older than I will fail to grasp the extent to which this shatters the foundations of my faith: those younger might ask what a postcode is.


Also, thanks to the efforts of Messrs Berners-Lee, Zuckerberg, et al, I got embroiled in a discussion about the BBC’s (mis)use of the above picture in its online plugs for the repeats of the Hitchhiker’s radio shows and to confirm my nerdy instinct that the photo was taken during the recording of the seventh episode (broadcast on Christmas Eve, 1978), I referred to Nick Webb’s biography of Douglas Adams. Apart from noticing for the first time (duh) that the book is named after a Pink Floyd song (rarely a good idea) I came across this passage, intended to demonstrate Adams’s wish to include his friends in his enthusiasms, about the time he went to see Paul McCartney and David Gilmour play in Los Angeles:
In high excitement, Douglas phoned her from the auditorium. ‘Listen to this,’ he said, holding a mobile phone above his head. ‘Just listen.’ And Sue listened to a wall of sound relayed through the tiny microphone of a mobile.
Now, this would have taken place in about 1999, when mobile phones were still pretty much about telling people you were on a train; and even in 2003, when the book was published, the experience of being unexpectedly patched into a concert was still something to be remarked upon. Now we’d just wonder why there were no pictures. Of course Adams died in 2001, so his infectious passion for gadgets and techie things is frozen at that moment: we can only imagine what he’d have made of iPhones and YouTube and Facebook, the medium on which we were kvetching about the photo. His death came a few months after the launch of Wikipedia, the closest thing to a real Hitchhiker’s Guide that we have, but I don’t know if he ever saw it.

But the extent to which Webb’s reference to the phone call has dated made me think of Adams’s own description of humans as “so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.” Which would, of course, have sounded rather arch and ironic in the late 1970s but anybody reading it now would just nod, or wonder what a digital watch is, and whether it might be something to do with a postcode.
Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea. - See more at: http://www.planetclaire.org/quotes/hitchhikers/#sthash.B2JHhVtQ.dpuf
Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea. - See more at: http://www.planetclaire.org/quotes/hitchhikers/#sthash.B2JHhVtQ.dpuf
Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea. - See more at: http://www.planetclaire.org/quotes/hitchhikers/#sthash.B2JHhVtQ.dpuf

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

That interview with the Mellons


A New York Times interview with Nicole and Matthew Mellon has been bouncing around my various social media streams over the past few days. One thing that’s interesting is that the people posting it haven’t been offering much in the way of editorial comment: variants on “just read this” appear to be enough. So maybe you ought to read it, then come back here and we can discuss it a bit more. Off you go.

There. Well, then. Obviously the bit that people have been chewing over the most is Nicole’s “I’ve never been to Africa, but I feel like I have this deep affinity for it,” with the punchline about the Meryl Streep movie but really, for the full impact of the couple’s vacuous self-entitlement to sink in, you have to read the whole thing. But I’m less interested in them as people than I am in the way the article was written and published and then disseminated further, and the motives and thought processes behind that.

First, why was such an a piece commissioned in the first place? The couple have launched a clothing brand, the website for which is conveniently embedded in the story and the interview appears in the Style section. Having a vague idea of how such transactions work, I’m guessing that the Hanley Mellon will be advertising in the Times and the decision to run an interview with the founders was not unconnected with that contract. The title is after all “The Mellon Lifestyle as a Brand” rather than “Talking to Two Random Rich People”. It’s an advertorial, effectively, although I’m not sure to what extent the Mellons got copy approval. 

Next, we have to consider the motives of the article’s writer, one Marisa Meltzer. Was she seeking – either before or during the interview, or after it took place – to stitch the couple up? She could certainly defend herself with a straight face, because they appear to damn themselves with their own words. Of course this may be the result of judicious editing: maybe Matthew made any number of thoughtful, cogent, witty, perceptive remarks, which she ditched in favour of the bit where he made a dick of himself by confusing Sam Taylor-Wood with Taylor Swift. But in any case, even if Ms Meltzer had a hidden, malicious agenda, the article would have been seen by several other people before it came before the public gaze. If there is an subversive intent, she couldn’t be the only one in on the joke. Any conscious attempt to make the Mellons look like inbred cretins would have had to be collective.

It’s been several days since the interview was published and I don’t doubt that many people have commented on it. Not within sight of the article itself: those who run the Times website have not permitted their readers to say directly what they think of the Mellons or their views on art or on Africa and how it smells, or whether Tuleh is an appropriate name for a teacup Yorkie or even whether the clothes they sell are any good. What will have happened is that someone at the Times will have noticed that this particular article is getting lots of attention on Facebook and Twitter and elsewhere and is thus racking up plenty of traffic for the newspaper’s website. And that, in the modern media economy, is a good thing. What would not have been so apparent to the number crunchers, although I hope someone within the organisation has worked it out by now, is that people are not encouraging their friends to read this article because they will be enlightened or inspired or because the Mellons seem like nice couple: it is because they appear to be stupid and vile exemplars of the undeserving one per cent and if the rest of us can’t actually be bothered to organise an end to the preposterous state of affairs that spawned them and their like, the least we can do is point and laugh.

The other question is: at what point did the Mellons themselves realise what was going on? Because they must have done by now. Musn’t they? Or maybe they’re so rich and so fabulous, with their apartment at the Pierre and their Basquiats and their dog and their fashion company and their children with faintly daft names, that they just pay someone else to do their self-awareness for them.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Mole

I first met Adrian Mole in 1982, when he was still called Nigel. His diaries formed the basis of a Radio 4 series, to which my father and I listened during a rather rainy camping trip, somewhere in the north of England (I think Yorkshire, but he will probably correct me). Before Nigel got to print, thus making his creator Sue Townsend one of the most successful British authors of the decade, someone pointed out that his name was too close to that of Nigel Molesworth, anti-hero of an earlier series of books, and so he swapped with his best friend Adrian. Dad and I had spotted this immediately: he’d been a fan of Molesworth as a child and passed the enthusiasm on to me. And we both adored this new hero, at once self-obsessed and utterly lacking in self-awareness, pretentious and gauche, annoying and vulnerable, utterly of his time and place but also universal. I don’t even know the name of the actor who voiced Nigel/Adrian’s thoughts in those broadcasts but his deadpan delivery, battling with the swoops and croaks of a breaking voice is the one that comes to mind whenever I read Townsend’s words. I later read an interview with her in which she said that the brilliance of his performance was down to the fact that didn’t really understand that what he was reading was funny – also the secret behind Peter Jones’s work as The Book in another of my comic touchstones at the time, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

I’m pretty close to Adrian’s age (one year, one month and five days younger, to be precise) so it was a given that I’d identify with him; and yes, I had my share of Pandoras and wanted to be an intellectual and wrote some bloody awful poetry as well. I wasn’t so sure why my dad liked him as well, seeing as he was so much older. And it was only when I heard of Townsend’s death this week and recalled listening to the diaries as rain hammered on the roof of the car that I realised that in 1982 he was a good few years younger than I am now. Maybe I should write a poem about it.

PS: I am informed it was Snowdonia, so not even England. See, I told you he’d put me right.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Peaches Honeyblossom Geldof and all that that entails

I had a minor difference of opinion a few hours ago (on Twitter, so it doesn’t really count) about certain aspects of the media’s response to the death of Peaches Honeyblossom Geldof. My main beef was with this BBC article, which described her as “Writer and TV presenter Peaches Geldof”. Neither of these attributes is inaccurate but they are slightly misleading as to the reason she was a source of endless fascination to the media. She was of course famous in the first instance because both her parents were famous: their relationship and its public unravelling, lurching from tawdry farce to squalid tragedy, inevitably pitched her into the public eye, even if she only occupied a supporting role in the early days. Once that was done, she was essentially famous because she was famous. Yes, she wrote things, yes she presented TV things but when someone admonished me – “that was her job. That’s how she should be remembered” – I think a point may have been missed. And yes, as if it’s really necessary to say it, the whole business is unutterably sad and while we gawp and some of us shed a few vicarious tears, other people are grieving, really grieving, for a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister. But none of those job descriptions showed up in the headlines either. Of course there’s a strong element of de mortuis in people’s sensitivities, but I wonder how many people are scrabbling through their own digital footprints trying to erase any negative comments they may have made about Ms Geldof and her various adolescent idiocies. The irresistible comparison is with Princess Diana: oh, if Twitter had been around in 1997...

In The Telegraph, Bryony Gordon attempts to defend Geldof’s reputation as a writer (she had a column for the paper when she was 14 years old) but unfortunately the passages she quotes rather have the opposite effect, focusing as they do on her solipsism, in particular the joys and pains of having a peculiar name. Fair enough, she did write (“She wrote. Therefore she was A WRITER,” as another of her online defenders put it, which would imply that everyone on Twitter is A WRITER as well) but ultimately she wrote about being who she was, which is why she got the job in the first place: Gordon does acknowledge “obvious accusations of nepotism” without ever really deciding whether they might have been justified. The Mail describes her as a “socialite” and that seems to fit the bill rather better.

It’s the name that dogged her whole life: not just the surname but the whole “Honeyblossom” thing, the whimsical kitsch that defined the criteria for the labels that famous people are now expected to apply to their offspring. When I heard the news of her death, I immediately tried to remember which of her siblings had the middle name “Frou Frou” before I realised that it’s actually a character in the Celeb strip cartoon in Private Eye. Of course, that doesn’t mean that a daft monicker necessarily guarantees a trajectory of fame, debauchery and an early demise: her own sister, Fifi Trixibelle, has apparently managed to bypass all that. Peaches embraced it and then passed on the curse/blessing to her own children, Astala Dylan Willow and Phaedra Bloom Forever. Ultimately, Peaches’s death made the news not because she was a writer, not because she was a TV presenter, not even particularly because her parents were who they were: people are interested because she was called Peaches Honeyblossom Geldof and that doesn’t require any further qualification. She became A WRITER the moment she first signed her name.

PS: Katie Hopkins (someone else whose obituaries will include some negotiable job descriptions) gets it in the neck for thinking that the probity of the nation’s legislators is more important than the death of someone with whom she had a row on telly a few weeks ago. I have little time for Ms Hopkins, who is either genuinely vile or she just makes money from pretending to be so, but in this case I’ve got a very modest dash of sympathy for her.

PPS: Tanya Gold on Peaches’s digital death.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Douglas Coupland vs La Tricoteuse

I’ve probably been more than a little snooty in the past about reviews on Amazon, and not only those that have neglected to offer unabashed praise to my own work. Too often their combined effect is to reinforce one’s prejudices about a particular book rather than to provoke or challenge. Sometimes they can completely confound their intended purpose. Consider, for example, the reviews of 50 Shades of Grey: the one-star dismissals suggest the book might be a source of dumb fun if read while very drunk, while the five-star paeans conspire to make it sound tedious. And that’s before you confront your snobbish instincts and ask whether reviewers’ poor spelling and grammar entitle you to disregard what they have to say about the literary quality of a book.

But every now and then a review catches me off guard. I was particularly taken by what Annie Wright had to say about Douglas Coupland’s essay collection Shopping In Jail:
I probably didn't understand the reason for this book being written in the first place or maybe it's just gone ovr [sic] the top of my head. 
Oh, the sneery literature graduate in me might want to dismiss Ms Wright – whose main interests, if her Amazon profile is anything to go by, revolve around doing interesting things with wool – but those 26 words do what all great literature should. They tantalise, they tease, they make the reader wonder. Why did Annie put down her knitting to read this book? It’s not one of Coupland’s novels, something she might have overheard them discussing on Front Row, or just picked up because the cover looked enticing and she needed one more paperback to make the 3-for-2 work. It’s a short, slightly overpriced selection of his musings about contemporary society, more like a selection of blog posts than anything.

But Annie’s going to have her say, oh yes she is. And her say is devastating: not that this is a bad book or a dull book or an offensive book, but a book that, as far as she can see, has no reason to be. It’s worse than bad. It’s pointless. Sadly, the cultural cringe then kicks in and she starts to wonder whether it’s all her fault after all. But for half a sentence, she was the critic who lives inside every writer’s head, the one asking why you even bother to turn on the laptop of a morning. Her tone is level, polite, even apologetic: oddly, she reminds me of one of Coupland’s own characters, Karen from Girlfriend in a Coma, who wakes up from a 17-year sleep, at once confused by the world into which she has appeared and also more aware of what’s happening than anyone else around her. It’s as if Coupland has been confronted by his own creation, who calmly stabs him through the heart with a huge knitting needle. And to be honest, if I could provoke a reaction like that from a single reader I’d be more than happy. So long as she gave me at least four stars.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Blog your heart out, if you still have one


Swazi from Chocolate is not the only fruit – that rare thing, a blogger I knew in meatspace before either of us started to blog – tagged me to “blog my heart out” — a blog post that tells readers more about me and my blog. The idea is that I answer five questions and then tag five other bloggers to do the same. Which will give a brisk gust of nostalgia to one or two readers as it’s the sort of thing we were doing back in about 2007. But hey, with everyone from Kate Bush to Menswe@r back on the road, what’s wrong with dusting off a few fondly remembered b-sides once again? Tags and memes and endless ruminations along the lines of “what is blogging?” Them was the days...

Here are the questions:

Who/what encouraged you to start blogging?
I’d completely forgotten about this until a few months ago: I just used to say that I’d read lots of articles about blogging and thought I may as well give it a go, little suspecting that I’d still be at it more than eight years later. But there was a specific moment in 2005 when a colleague asked me to explain what a blog actually was. I gave the standard schtick as I understood it (it’s an online diary and the posts appear in reverse chronological order) and immediately thought that there had to be more to it than that. And I realised that in all the pieces that I’d read about blogs, the positive stuff came from people who were involved in their creation and the negatives were from people standing on the sidelines – at the time, mainly broadsheet columnists who could see the potential for their cultural and economic privilege to be eroded. Under normal circumstances I would have sided with the sneerers but I did get the feeling that a standpoint of ignorance and fear isn’t that sustainable so I ought to at least find out what this whole thing was about. And here I am.

How do you choose what topics to blog about?
Once I got the hang of metrics and worked out how to see how many people read which bits I saw that my most popular posts were those about stuff that was somehow newsworthy – the Olympics, Jimmy Savile, most recently the MH370 disappearance – and if this had particularly bothered me I’d just be plucking stuff from the headlines. (To be honest, the truly popular posts are those that feature certain actresses in states of undress, but that may be another story.) But I’m just as likely to write about a book I’ve just read or a film I’ve just watched, even if it’s something that’s five months or 50 years old. But I have to have something coherent to say about it, other than “I just read this book”. So maybe it’s the opinions, the angles, that drive the choices, rather than the topics themselves.


In fact my original plan of action was simply to write a review of each thing I read or watched or listened to. That’s how the name of the blog came about: it’s from a passage by Haruki Murakami in which a critic bemoans the tedium and banality of his art – scroll to the bottom of the page to see the full thing. The funny thing is, Murakami’s critic specialises in restaurants and that’s something I’d never actually done when I started blogging. Here’s my first attempt. Now it’s pretty much the only thing I write about outside the confines of Cultural Snow.

What is something most people don’t know about you?
I once auditioned to be a presenter on the early-1990s TV show The Word.

What three words describe your style?
Sarcastic, neurotic, rhizomatic.

What do you love to do when you’re not blogging?
A few months ago I was self-diagnosing myself with anhedonia – that is, the inability to experience pleasure. Now I’m not so sure. My problem is that I go through patches where I dislike several books or films or meals on the trot and I think I’ve stopped enjoying reading or eating or whatever. But in fact I’m just reading bad books and eating bad meals and then I come upon a good one and I realise that all the bad stuff is just part of the process and makes the rare good ones seem even better. Which is something to do with being a critic, I guess. Sorry, this is a roundabout way of saying that I still love the overall ideas behind art, books, films, music and food even if I’m not actually loving doing any of them right now. I’m working on it, though.

Now it’s my turn to nominate five bloggers to do this. It may have been a different list way back when, as many of the people who used to lurk in this vicinity have been lost to Facebook or Twitter or work or babies or ennui or death. Others have hung around but narrowed their scope so there’s no longer any place for such tomfoolery. Whatever, here are five people who blog, or who were at least still blogging when I last checked. Let’s see what they make of this deeply retro challenge:

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Criticism: it’s not what you know

It’s frequently said, with varying degrees of regret, that there’s no need for full-time critics any more. Do potential punters really need to know what someone from The Guardian or New Yorker said about a specific book or restaurant or movie or conceptual installation, we’re asked, when anyone can see that it got four and a bit stars on Amazon or TripAdvisor?

I’m a little torn on this. I see exactly why TripAdvisor exists, and I’m glad that it does, but it does require a healthy dose of scepticism on the part of the reader; not just when it comes to disguised conflicts of interests (giving a crap review to a rival, for example) but also straightforward ignorance from the reviewer. I was talking to a hugely skilled and experienced chef yesterday, the sort of guy who can take all sorts of criticism on the chin, but he was deeply irritated that someone had said that his ravioles were all wrong. Not bad, note – wrong. “I make them how they’re meant to be made,” he sighed. “If someone doesn’t like that, fair enough. But I really don’t know what this guy’s comparing them with.”

I sympathise with the chef, so you’d expect me to be singing hosannas to Ted Gioia, who in a Daily Beast piece last week railed against music critics who don’t have any grounding in musical theory. Well, no. Apart from the fact that I used to scrabble around on the fringes of the music crit biz and I couldn’t tell a diminuendo from a diminished fifth, this does suggest that technical ability should be the most important consideration when it comes to judging music, which would ultimately mean that Emerson, Lake and Palmer or Level 42 are somehow empirically better than Bo Diddley or the Ramones, a prospect I simply refuse to countenance. And moreover, modern popular music – even more than any other art form – has been about rather more than the music for several decades. How could one possibly contemplate, say, a Public Enemy album in purely musicological terms? (Further responses to Gioia’s piece from Ian Rogers at The Vine, Jody Rosen at Vulture and Mike Powell at Pitchfork.)



So who are the authority figures supposed to be? What are the criteria? Who judges the judges? As the BBC announces plans for an updated version of its legendary art history series Civilisation, heads are being scratched as to who would be the best frontperson. Kenneth Clark, the original civiliser-in-chief, certainly knew his stuff, but would a similar level of patrician assurance suit Civ 2.0? No, but at the same time we wouldn’t fancy Ant and/or Dec in the role either. Or, for that matter, someone randomly plucked from TripAdvisor. We need an expert whose expertise is implied, not woven into his bespoke suit.

At least art and music benefit from functioning criticial communities, both professional and amateur, informed and otherwise. I’ve long wondered how the fashion industry would function if there were a solid mass of critics who felt sufficiently empowered not simply to report on the latest Versace show but to offer a qualitative analysis, to say that a whole collection is good or bad or mixed, just as their counterparts in other fields would be able to say about a new Beyoncé album or Martin Amis novel or Tracey Emin retrospective. Indeed, what are the chances of there being a successful fashion journalist who argues that Versace’s clothes look as if they’ve been designed by a committee of colour-blind drag queens? Sure there are catty fashion blogs, such as the still-funny-sometimes Go Fug Yourself, but they do seem to reserve their vitriol for the people wearing the clothes rather than the people who make and sell them. If such a daft concept as normcore had come along in any other field, the critics’ knives would have been out, but Vogue journalists seem to have their bullshit detectors disabled when they get their first paycheck: all they can offer is a very gently furrowed brow. Surely it’s better to risk the occasional interruption from someone who doesn’t know who Donatello or Donatella are than to jettison all critical intelligence entirely?

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

51 things the MH370 story is about


  1. It’s about 239 people.
  2. It’s about an aeroplane.
  3. It’s about mystery.
  4. It’s about absence.
  5. It’s about the families and friends.
  6. It’s about the several meanings of “missing”.
  7. It’s about the pilot.
  8. And then it isn’t.
  9. It’s about Anwar Ibrahim.
  10. It’s about blondes in the cockpit.
  11. It’s about the point at which the certainty of grief would be better than the ignorance of hope.
  12. It’s about corridors.
  13. It’s about Schrödinger’s cat.
  14. It’s about 9/11 but, seriously, what isn’t?
  15. It’s about China. Ditto.
  16. It’s about too many disaster movies.
  17. It’s about pings.
  18. It’s about being told to pray.
  19. It’s about the sneaking suspicion that the much-vaunted transition to the so-called Asian Century may involve more than a few mis-steps along the way.
  20. It’s about stolen passports.
  21. It’s about –stans.
  22. It’s about conspiracy theories.
  23. It’s about the Zionists.
  24. It’s about the Illuminati.
  25. It’s about electric cars.
  26. It’s about the point at which Buzzfeed does a “What sort of MH370 conspiracy theory are you?” type of thing.
  27. Or maybe there’s a Hitler parody.
  28. It’s about cockups.
  29. It’s about the internet.
  30. It’s about how 24-hour news has to be filled with something, anything, even if it’s nothing.
  31. Especially if it’s nothing, because that’s cheaper and easier.
  32. It’s about sharks, circling, jumping.
  33. It’s about wondering how this story would be turning out if more than three Americans had been on board.
  34. It’s about press conferences.
  35. It’s about The Rapture.
  36. It’s about the Marie Celeste.
  37. It’s about Lost.
  38. It’s about Glenn Miller.
  39. It’s about how quickly we forget Ukraine. And Oscar Pistorius.
  40. And Syria. 
  41. And whatever it was we were concerned about before Syria. I forget. Edward Snowden? Phone hacking? 
  42. Dave Lee Travis?
  43. It’s about 4’ 33” by John Cage.
  44. It’s about Smile by the Beach Boys, or at least Smile as it existed in our imaginations, at the point where multiple different bootlegs intersected, before they actually released the real album and all the fun went out.
  45. It’s about Google Maps.
  46. It’s about people who are suddenly experts on aviation.
  47. It’s about Chris Goodfellow and his startlingly simple theory.
  48. It’s about Rupert Murdoch.
  49. It’s about Courtney Love.
  50. It’s not about you.
  51. It’s about _____________
PS: Will Self on the collective delusions that get us into the sky in the first place.