Monday, February 26, 2007

Nothing so ridiculously teenage and desperate

My new book, Welcome to the Machine is back from the printers. Not that I've seen a copy yet, of course; they're all in boxes somewhere in New Malden. Although this isn't my first book, it's the first one that feels entirely mine, and I know that for the first time I'll start taking reviews and sales figures personally, rather than regarding them as an amusing whim of the publishing business. This time, I suppose, it's personal. Please expect a higher than normal level of neurosis and soul-searching on Cultural Snow over the coming months, interwoven with the inevitable plugging.

And major respect to the lovely Dame Helen. Bet that weeping cyst on the gall-bladder of humanity L Brent Bozell is having a crisis of faith right now.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Broken spectacles

Geert Lovink on blogging, quoted by Mick Fealty on Comment is Free:

"Blogging is a bleed-to-death strategy. Implosion is not the right word. Implosion implies a tragedy and spectacle that is not present here. Blogging is the opposite of the spectacle. It is flat (and yet meaningful). Blogging is not a digital clone of the 'letter to the editor'. Instead of complaining and arguing, the blogger puts him or herself in the perversely pleasurable position of media observer."

And why not?

Friday, February 23, 2007

Bring the noise

All taxi journeys in Bangkok come with a soundtrack, whether you want it or not. The drivers tend to prefer the luuk thung and mor lam sounds of their native Northeast, which to most untutored ears end up sounding like the Dixie Chicks going Bollywood. Occasionally, a switched-on cabbie will notice it's a farang that's hailed him, and select one of the Western pop stations, although that usually entails a high-cholesterol diet of Mariah Carey, Kenny G and Blue.

Every now and then, however, you chance upon something that steps outside the boxes. Just the other day, I was in the quasi-Zen state of mental absence that's the only way to cope with being stuck in the tail-end of the evening rush hour on Rama IV Road, when a new sound startled me back to reality. The most arresting component was that wooop! woooop! siren noise that turns up in 70% of Public Enemy tracks. Every now and then it was edged out by some fantastically fast and complicated and silly Eddie-Van-Halen-style guitar pyrotechnics. And over the top of it was a gravelly voice that created a zone of its own somewhere between singing, rapping, toasting and cackling like the Wicked Witch of the West. It took me a moment to place it, but I'm pretty sure I've now heard the Thai answer to the late, great Judge Dread.

In an ideal world, this would be the sort of phenomenon that points the way to a new musical dialectic, merging East and West, black and white and yellow, rock and rap and reggae. In reality, it sounded bloody horrible.

On the other hand, by the time it finished, the traffic had cleared.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Tambourine players of the world unite

I've always been fascinated by the people on the margins of big events, the observers, the sidemen. Maybe it's because the first proper, grown-up play I saw was Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, well before I ever read Hamlet. My favourite poem is The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock; my favourite novel is Vile Bodies. All are about people who look on as big stuff happens, beyond their influence, and almost - but not quite - beyond their comprehension.

Sheridan Morley, who died last week, was a man who spent most of his life writing about the theatre. Even when he created his own shows, they were made up of bits of other people's stuff. I'm sure his was a full and satisfying life, but I couldn't help noticing that the bulk of his Telegraph obituary was taken up with his own recollections about other people's (Coward, Olivier, Gielgud, et al) witticisms. Patiently waiting in the wings, Dictaphone at hand, Morley seems to fade into the shadows, even in what should be his big send-off. Boswell to a hundred Johnsons, he lives on only as a medium for everyone else's one-liners.

"Once, crossing Leicester Square, Morley and Coward saw a poster for an adventure movie starring Michael Redgrave and Dirk Bogarde entitled The Sea Shall Not Have Them. 'I fail to see why not,' Coward remarked. 'Everybody else has.'"

Wonder if he'd collected any amusing aperçus about Iraq...

Saturday, February 17, 2007


Happy New (Chinese) Year to the lot of you, especially the Pigs. Firecrackers are going off all over Bangkok, and subtle, usually unspoken racial jealousies become just that teeny bit more piquant, as all the people of Chinese descent don celebratory red t-shirts, just to remind us about who really owns the vast majority of Thai businesses. This weekend's celebrations should of course be distinguished from the wet t-shirt contest that is Thai New Year, or Songkran; and the Western New Year, which was most recently marked by a still unexplained bombing campaign.

Globally, however, the Chinese version is the most significant, because the Chinese will probably be running the world by about 2050. In fact, the current proprietors seem increasingly eager to end their lease at the earliest opportunity. To commemorate the dying days of the American Hegemony (b. 1989), I offer you this, the best YouTube video for a song based on the 2003 State of the Union address that I've seen all week. Thanks to Shane Richmond for pointing it out.

Thursday, February 15, 2007


Seven things I have wanted to be:

• Clown
• Zookeeper (reptiles, probably)
• Art historian
• Protest poet
• Theatre critic of The Guardian
• Pyrotechnician
• Doctor Who

Seven things I have been:

• Barman
• Teacher
• Factory worker (packing trifles for M&S)
• Wordsearch puzzle designer
• Computer technician (how the hell did that happen?)
• Music journalist
• Editor of the Guinness Book of Records

A meme beckons, methinks. Seven dreams and seven realities, job-related if you like, but maybe not. Off you go.

Monday, February 12, 2007

The parental Panopticon

Fresh from her excitement at becoming a bridesmaid, the blessed Spinsterella lays into the importance laid upon that most sacred manifestation of domesticity, parenthood. Coincidentally, my latest contribution to the potluck dinner that is CiF goes like this.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Colly flowers

England just beat Australia to win the CB Series.

While you're attempting to get your befuddled, still-a-bit-hungover heads round that quite preposterous turn of events, may I remind you that Chasms of the Earth is still trundling along, and would welcome your impassioned defence of the literary majesty of Dan Brown; and that the competition to win a signed copy of my new book is also live.

And here's a joke that my very splendid nephew George (age 5 and a bit) just told me.

Q: How do you get a baby astronaut to sleep?

A: Rocket!

Under normal circumstances that would be joke of the day, but I think the cricket result pips it.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Auto biography

This last week, I did a few things I should have done before. I watched Dominik Moll's excellent Lemming, which is about infidelity, suicide, flying webcams, the nature of reality and, above all, plumbing. I listened properly to Stephin Merritt's Showtunes album, which is fey and funny and prickly and good. And I read JG Ballard's Crash.

The last one had been the most serious omission, not just because it's older than the others (first published in 1973) but because I referred to it in some depth when discussing 'Airbag', the opening track of OK Computer, in my forthcoming book. (Sorry, but I haven't mentioned it for a few hours.) The sexual/spiritual rush that Thom Yorke's narrator seems to achieve from near-annihilation on the road is prefigured by Ballard's deadpan prose. Many people have also remarked on the extent to which Ballard seemed to foresee the extent to which Princess Diana's fatal crash became a media event, riddled with psychosexual potential, even as she lay dying. Try this:

"A middle-aged cashier at the airport duty-free liquor store, she sat unsteadily in the crushed compartment, fragments of the tinted windshield set in her forehead like jewels. As a police car approached, its emergency beacon pulsing along the overhead motorway, Vaughan ran back for his camera and flash equipment. Taking off my tie, I searched helplessly for the woman's wounds. She stared at me without speaking, and lay on her side across the seat. I watched the blood irrigate her white blouse. When Vaughan had taken the last of his pictures he knelt down inside the car and held her face carefully in his hands, whispering into her ear. Together we helped to lift her on to the ambulance trolley."

It's as if the various stages in the narrative arc of Diana's life are scripted by different writers: Barbara Cartland for the introduction and development; Jackie Collins for the crisis and its immediate fallout; and a bizarre switch to Ballard for a highly unlikely (but, in retrospect, utterly inevitable) finale.

Which opens things up to you, dear reader. Take a historical or contemporary figure, and decide which writer or, even better, which peculiar combination of writers could best have written his or her life. And no conceptual gewgaws this time. As penance for the implication that I'd read a book when I hadn't, the author of the best one will receive a signed copy of my Radiohead book when it comes out.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007


Doing one of my periodic clearouts of the mountain of dead tree that I still accumulate, I found this, in the FT magazine from last February. It's by Trevor Butterworth, who, in the course of an extended poo-pooing of blogging,* argues:

"In contrast to the British and European media, which had their origins in the Enlightenment and the belief that journalism was a forum for debate and argument - even philosophy, according to David Hume - the American press is a 19th century creation animated by the pursuit of fact. Blogging - if you will forgive the cartoon philosophising - brought the European Enlightenment to the US. Each blogger was his, or her, own printing press, spontaneously exercising their freedom to criticise. Which is great. But along the way, opinion became the new pornography on the internet."

Maybe this explains the differing reactions of old media practitioners on each side of the pond. Many American hacks hate blogging, because it does something different, and thus confuses them. Many British hacks (see examples passim) are equally scornful, because it does the same thing as they do, often better (?) and thus threatens them.

* It won't work because it won't make money, he says - cf Patroclus's PR-related comment appended to the previous post.

Monday, February 05, 2007

The late Tim Footman

I'm not a technophobe, but I've always been a fairly late adopter of gizmos and gadgets. The kids in the year below me were the first at my school to do Computer Studies, and I think that explains a lot. I don't own an iPod or a BlackBerry; my parents had mobile phones before I did; and I've never quite seen the point of computer games. It was a long time before I could get my head round what the essential attraction of Second Life was, and even now I like to think of it as something akin to the time Roy of the Rovers joined the England football team, and met Trevor Francis and Malcolm MacDonald. Or maybe that bit in the 'Take On Me' video when Morten Harket drags his girlfriend through the cafe table. Am I close? Or even close to close?

But I know that, eventually, I'll succumb to all these things. Which is a long-winded way of saying that I've finally switched over to the new Blogger, before they make me do it at the point of a bayonet. And, apart from the fact that half of the commenters on my previous posts seem to have disappeared into a morass of anonymity, it's about as underwhelming as waking up on New Year's Day, 2000. You're all meant to be living in robot-controlled bachelor pads and travelling by jetpack!

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Dim sum

Aside from my Radiohead-related efforts, I spent much of last year in the unfamiliar realm of business books, especially those dealing with the more hard-nosed end of human resources. You know, the sort of thing that gives quasi-academic credibility to the brutally Nietzschean process of firing people in Northampton and North Dakota and shipping their jobs to Bangalore and Bangkok. Learn To Make Underlings Love You Even As You Destroy Their Puny Lives And Condemn Their Families To Penury With A Single Keystroke On Your Spreadsheet. All that.

So it was with some joy that I discovered from, via Shisaku and Richard's Asia Exile, that at least one great myth of management-speak has been shown up for the absolute crap it always smelled like. The next time some David Brent clone with a functional grasp of PowerPoint tells you that "the Chinese word for crisis comes from a combination of danger and opportunity" I give you unequivocal permission to give him an authentically Chinese burn, then kick him in the fortune cookies. Because, like suicidal lemmings, and Marilyn Manson playing the hero's best friend in The Wonder Years, it just ain't so.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Remake, remodel, rewrite

Chasms of the Earth staggers on, and if you haven't pitched in yet, there are still seats in all parts. As I grind my way through The Da Vinci Code, feeling a bit like a gigolo who's drawn a seriously short straw, I begin to wonder if the problem is not so much bad writing as bad editing. At various times I've had to edit the work of people I'd previously admired as decent wordsmiths: reading their raw copy, I realised that their reputation was at least partly down to outside help. So maybe Brown really isn't as hopeless as he seems in comparative terms: he's just been let down.

But Dan Vinci is not alone. Increasingly, I find that writers that I've admired for some time are coming up with some absolute horrors. Are they losing their touch? Am I getting more picky, more Lynne Trussy? Or are the invisible editors upon whom these writers rely becoming more slapdash, more ambivalent about leaving their charges on the literary equivalent of a Spartan mountainside? Here's a sentence - yes, a single sentence, of 104 words - from Alan Bennett's most recent prose collection, Untold Stories:

"When I do perform - and it is a performance, as Larkin, who refused as he put it to go round pretending to be himself, pointed out - I generally read from some of the stuff I've written, with my diaries the most popular (plenty of jokes), and then I take questions from the audience before finishing up with five minutes more reading, almost always ending with a speech from my 1980 play Enjoy in which a character describes the contents of a mantelpiece in a working-class household, a passage I have read so often it has become almost like an old-fashioned parlour recitation."

I know Bennett's an excellent nostalgist, but does he think rationing is still in force, and that it's been extended to cover full stops?

PS: Ian Hocking also considers editing, in all its various flavours.