Wednesday, May 30, 2007

One thing and another

1. A bit of utopian what-iffery about education policy at CiF.

2. There's one thing I still don't understand. If that watch contained all the essential nuts and bolts of the Doctor's personality, and represented the only chance that he might get his real self back, might it not have been a sensible idea to entrust it to Martha, who knew how important it was, rather than leaving it with the oblivious 'John Smith', who just bunged it on the mantelpiece and didn't even notice it had been swiped by the blond kid? Or am I missing something?

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Six degrees of conversation

A list of famous people to whom I have spoken on the telephone, but have never met.

Elvis Costello, Mark Almond (pop stars). These were both phone interviews. Costello was in a very jolly mood, despite the fact he'd just been on The Big Breakfast. This was disappointing, as I was hoping to get him to say something dyspeptic and cruel. He was rather uncomplimentary about Status Quo, but otherwise he just mused about playing gigs where the punters have to get home before midnight, because that's what they arranged with the babysitter. Marc was a bit scatty, but charming. And, no, I didn't ask about the stomach pump, and it's not true.

Herbie Mann (legendary jazz flautist). Another interview. A little crabby, but he was dying at the time, so that was fair enough. Admitted the only modern music he listened to was Sting, which really wasn't fair enough.

Steve Lillywhite (record producer and ex-Mr Kirsty MacColl). He called my flat because he needed to speak to his next-door neighbour, a violinist who was getting off his face in my living-room. I said, "I'll just get him." Steve said, "Thanks."

Justin de Villeneuve (who discovered Twiggy). He wanted to talk to my flatmate, because she was working on a play about his life, starring Paul King (who sang 'Love and Pride', and ended up working for VH1). I said, "I'll just get her." Justin said, "Thanks," but in a more languid manner than Steve had done. This, I think, epitomises the difference between the 1960s and the 1980s.

Sir Ranulph Fiennes (explorer, marathon runner, posh nutter). Needed to talk to the editor of a magazine I was working on. I said I'd get the editor to call back. Sir Ranulph said: "Well, there's not much point in calling until it gets dark. I'm going to be hammering in fenceposts for the rest of the afternoon."

Simon Hickson (off of cult kids' TV duo Trevor and Simon, the analogue Ant and Dec). Phoned to discuss a request I'd made to numerous worthies to contribute their memories of university to a book I was compiling. Nothing came of it. On second thoughts, maybe it was Trevor, not Simon.

Your turn.

PS: As soon as I posted this, I remembered two more: Steven Wells, aka Swells, aka Seething Wells, aka Susan Williams, who used to place thinly-disguised SWP tracts in the NME, disguised as glowing reviews of disposable pop guff and/or death metal; and Manda Rin from Glaswegian lo-fi trio Bis (who did 'Kandy Pop').

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Dick's flicks

Film critic Richard Schickel holds forth in the LA Times on the amateurs encroaching on his patch:

"Let me put this bluntly, in language even a busy blogger can understand: Criticism — and its humble cousin, reviewing — is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions of a book (or any other cultural object). It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author's (or filmmaker's or painter's) entire body of work, among other qualities."

Which is true-ish. There's a difference between an opinion poll that deems Star Wars to be the best film ever made, and one that gives the gong to Citizen Kane or Rashomon. It's not just snobbery; it's that a higher proportion of people who voted for Kane have also seen Star Wars, than vice versa.

Where Schickel falls down, and very heavily, is in his arrogant assumption that the paid critics are more likely to have done the intellectual legwork than the bloggers. Let me put this bluntly, in language that even Schickel can understand: many people who are paid to offer their opinions in newspapers and magazines are fatuous, ill-informed arseholes. Many people who offer their opinions for free, in blogs, are knowledgeable, articulate and perceptive critics.

Ah, but it's not the bloggers himself, he suggests, perhaps suddenly aware that an increasing number of his elite friends are also edging into this strange discipline. It's the medium:

"The act of writing for print, with its implication of permanence, concentrates the mind most wonderfully. It imposes on writer and reader a sense of responsibility that mere yammering does not. It is the difference between cocktail-party chat and logically reasoned discourse that sits still on a page, inviting serious engagement."

The notion that Mr Schickel's finely-honed aperçus are more 'permanent' than those of a blogger because they end up dead-tree media rather than on the Web is simply too idiotic to contemplate. Being a gentleman from the former colonies, he may not be aware of the phrase 'tomorrow's chip wrapper', but I think he might be able to get the gist of it. In any case, the only reason I came across his senile, poncy witterings is that I found a link to them on another website.

But does the fact that I don't have a subscription to the LA Times mean that I'm not one of his intimate circle of chums who can distinguish between 'disciplined taste' and mere opinion?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

All of a sudden, I'm very self-conscious about capitalisatioN

LC tears himself away from contemplating norkage just long enough to indulge the burblings of some bitter, twisted old expat. Meanwhile, John Crace in The Guardian thinks that publishing is a bit conservative, and reckons that embracing new technology - like blogging, perhaps - might not be such a bad idea, and he can even hazard a guess about where bears shit.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The perfection paradox

I think I've already mentioned the moment I fell out of love with the theatre. I was 19, sitting in the front row of The Swan at Stratford. It was Deborah Warner's production of Titus Andronicus, with Brian Cox. It's a real blood-and-guts piece, rough-and-ready early Shakespeare, but the immediacy of the performing space, combined with the pace of the production, gave it a fantastic intensity. We were showered with spit and Kensington gore, and I never washed those trousers again. At one point Peter Polycarpou, who was playing the villainous Aaron, came on stripped to the waist. I was so close that I could see he had a big spot on his back; I was so caught up in the action that I wanted to squeeze the spot, to cause him pain. I stopped myself, halfway out of my seat, and slumped back down, shaking.

And that was it. I knew then that no theatrical experience could ever recreate that, and anything I saw, however good, however powerful, would be second-best. I didn't give up on going to the theatre by any means, and I've seen plenty of good things since, but it's never been top of my list of priorities. It was that feeling you get when a relationship ends, and you think nothing will ever replace it. In this instance, nothing did.

I had a similar experience with live music. In 2002 I saw Brian Wilson's Pet Sounds concert at the Royal Festival Hall. Of course, it's thrilling, lump-in-the-throat music, and the fragile figure of Wilson centre-stage added to the poignancy. I started crying at 'God Only Knows'; but it was during the encores that the whole thing became utterly overwhelming. We were up in the gods, standing on our seats, dancing as if the Pacific was sending its last ever wave our way. Suddenly, a small boy, 10 years old at most, hurled himself to the front of the balcony, dancing to 'Help Me Rhonda' as if he was in some sort of voodoo trance. I knew I'd never experience what the child was going through; in fact, I'd probably never again experience what I was feeling at the time, just by being in his proximity, watching the ecstasy on his face, in his flailing limbs.

Maybe it's the knowledge that a live performance can never be replicated precisely; but I've not had the same experience with a static art form. I've come close with books: American Psycho; Wuthering Heights; the damnation sermon in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Each left me shaken, knowing things would never be the same again; but they didn't stop me reading books, hoping for something similar. I get goosebumps every time I see the Marseillaise scene in Casablanca, and it's been my favourite film for a quarter of a century; but I keep looking.

Theatre and concerts, though? Nah, been there, done that. Which is frustrating in many ways. Should I avoid any brush with revelatory genius, because it makes me dissatisfied with anything else? Or maybe the experience is worth the sacrifice, that I can never go into a theatre without thinking, "Well, it's all right, but..."

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Trans-Europe Excess

Exile brings a few consolations: I managed to miss last weekend's attempt to re-stage the Treaty of Versailles, and so I have yet to see or hear the Serbian lesbian torch song that managed to pluck everyone's votestrings (except Malta's). I can't even comment on whether Sir Terence's liver was under more intensive strafing this year than last. But Small Boo came up with a gem of an idea that might help to transcend all the petty factionalism and block-voting that has marred recent Eurovisions. Each country is allowed to pick one song that has previously been entered in the competition, and enter an all-time Eurovision Playoff. Since the event's been going since 1956, some of the original performers may be unable to come up with the goods, so a substitute is permitted, but it must be a passport-holder for the relevant nation. (None of this Celine-Dion-pretending-to-be-Swiss malarkey.)

For example, one presumes that the good people of Sweden would choose 'Waterloo' to be their entry, unless a massive, collective brainfart gives the honour to 'Diggi-Loo, Diggi-Ley'. But, as any fule kno, Abba will be unavailable, since Agnetha (the one we all fancied back in 1974, before dismissing her as being too blonde and obvious, compared to dark, mysterious Frida, but then, a few years ago, we realised, nah, it was Agnetha's bum that did it for us all the time) is a recluse who refuses to come out to play, even for all the peroxide in Gothenburg. So maybe the honour should go to The Hives, or Peter, Bjorn and Jon, or her off of the Cardigans.

But of course, this presupposes that the best songs get entered for Eurovision. Which is, of course, piffle. I can only think of three entries that might possibly represent the best of their respective nation's art: 'Volare' (Italy, 1958); 'L'amour est bleu' (Luxembourg, 1967); 'My Star' (Latvia, 2000). Significantly, none of them won.

So let's tweak the concept. Each country is allowed to enter one song that has been written since 1956, whether or not it's been a Eurovision entry. And this is where my knowledge of Euromusic starts to fall down, and where I need your help, people. If you know a heart-wrenching Cypriot ballad or a slamming slab of Hungarian techno that encapsulates all that's best in its country's musical tradition, let's hear about it. Or even something really cheesy you once heard on holiday. In the meantime, here are a few to get you thinking.

Austria: What else but 'Rock Me Amadeus'?

Belgium: Jacques Brel's 'Ne me quitte pas' (just edging out 'Ça plane pour moi').

France: 'Playground Love' by Air.

Germany: Can, Kraftwerk and Rammstein offer some choice morsels, but it's got to be 'Da Da Da'.

Iceland: 'Ammæli' (aka 'Birthday') by the Sugarcubes, the best thing Björk's ever done.

Ireland: presuming we're restricting consideration to the Republic, which raises a whole number of questions, as well as excluding Van Morrison and the Undertones, I'd plump for 'The Boys Are Back in Town'. U2 and the Corrs can do the catering.

Norway: 'The Sun Always Shines On TV'.

Spain: 'Black is Black' by Los Bravos.

Sweden: 'The Winner Takes It All'.

UK: Time for Morrissey to come up with the goods, I feel. 'Everyday Is Like Sunday', maybe?

Any suggested amendments/additions?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The white stuff

Thai people often have trouble with certain English consonants. When they attempt to say "dry ice", for example, it comes out as "die eye". This is more of an issue than you might imagine, as dry ice is a rather useful commodity in this climate. Most significantly, when you purchase a tub of ice cream, the only way you can get it home in a vaguely edible state is to have it packed in solid carbon dioxide.

Even better, the main distributor of the stuff in the Kingdom is a company called Thai Dry Ice, which inevitably comes out as "tie die eye". The only question is whether it's possible to produce dry ice in a colour scheme other than boring old white, perhaps adding a vaguely hippyish theme, and creating "tie-dye tie die eye". If someone from Newcastle were to be put in charge of the process, and an Italian were to ask him what he did for a living, he could reply "Why-aye, eye-tie, I tie-dye tie die eye". The possibilities are, if not endless, more endful than I ever thought during my quixotic attempts to pass O-level chemistry.

(Dry ice achieved its greatest cultural impact in the 1960s and early 1970s, when it became a staple special effect in Hammer horror movies, enhancing spooky laboratories and misty graveyards alike. This, of course, is the sole reason I've put up a picture of Madeline Smith.)

PS: Jerry Falwell gets the send-off he deserves at Comment is Free.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Puff piece

A new species of hummingbird has been discovered in Colombia. Which must be very exciting for Colombian ornithologists, although the bird itself probably doesn't care one way or another.

But what I love about the story is the name they've given it: "the gorgeted puffleg". Doesn't that just ravish the eardrums? It sounds like something wonderful yet slightly preposterous from the more obscure writings of Lewis Carroll, or maybe Mervyn Peake. The gorgeted puffleg, incidentally, is already at risk from human encroachment. "Human". No, I don't like that word nearly as much, preposterous as it may be.

Closer to home, wherever that is these days, a response to the redesign of the Guardian website: "I hate the new front page. It looks like a blog rather than a newspaper."

Which surely prompts a question along the lines of the one about how many gorgeted pufflegs can dance on a pinhead: what does a blog look like?

Sunday, May 13, 2007

I don't want no satisfaction

Way back when, 18 months or so ago, I started Cultural Snow (go there - it's like another world) with a vague idea in the back of my head that I'd use it to log what I was reading and watching and hearing, and what my responses were. My adherence to that intention has been patchy, to say the least. Part of the reason is that I find my attention span is reducing: books remain half-finished; there are DVDs I mean to watch; CDs I'll buy when I get round to it. What's worse, I can't even point to anything significant that's getting in the way, other than watching the sales of my own book grind to not much, despite the not-bad reviews for which Amylola watches the skies. (My publisher reckons the figures will pick up next month, when the 10th anniversary of OK Computer sparks fresh interest in all things dystopic, middle-class and wonky-eyed. That's what publishers do. They're optimistic on your behalf.)

Anyway, just to prove I don't spend my whole time Googling myself, here are a few thoughts on the last three books I read, none of which mention Radiohead.

My Year of Meat, by Ruth L Ozeki, is the story of Jane Takagi-Little, a documentary maker tasked with producing a lifestyle/cookery show for Japanese television. The show is sponsored by an American meat consortium, and Jane finds herself under constant pressure to present gaijin flesh in the best possible light, even when she uncovers some nasty truths about the way it's produced. Her story is interwoven with that of Akiko, the meek, traumatised wife of the show's tyrannical, macho producer.

It's an involving read, as the two women learn more about the world and themselves over the course of a year. However, Ozeki seems intent on cramming every issue under the rising sun into the narrative: the dark side of food production (fair enough); cultural clashes between Asia and the West; domestic violence; commercial manipulation of media; the politics of fertility; medical malpractice; racism; homophobia. All of which are important things, and valid subjects for fiction, but when they're all in the same place, the book starts to feel like an all-purpose down-with-this-sort-of-thing rant, rather than a coherent story. The quotations from The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon at the start of each chapter over-egg an already dense (steak and kidney?) pudding; and the unlikely happy ending seems to offer the same sort of compromise with commercial forces that the pro-beef advertorials represent. But Ozeki does have an ear for the wry humour inherent in people juggling the competing claims of job and principle. As Jane pleads, in a fax to the producer after she puts a mixed-race, lesbian, vegetarian couple on Saturday morning TV: "Thank you so much for this chance to redeem myself. From now on I will only make wholesome programs about beef and normal people."

Taichi Yamada's In Search of a Distant Voice also deals with East-West relations, but the similarities with Ozeki's novel pretty much end there. It's set in Tokyo, with an extended flashback to Portland, Oregon, the source of the traumas that bedevil the central character, immigration officer Kasama Tsuneo.

It's essentially a story about memory and guilt, with overtones that hint at the supernatural. In this, the most obvious link is with the work of Haruki Murakami: the conflict of male bourgeois mundanity with female transcendence, and the deadpan, slightly melancholy style accentuate the comparison. The disembodied voice that addresses Tsuneo, making him doubt his sanity, also hints at Waugh's Gilbert Pinfold. But if there's a single work that's echoed here it's Nicolas Roeg's adaptation of Don't Look Now: we get a sudden, traumatic death; a quest that combines redemption and explanation; a blind woman; one character is even likened to Donald Sutherland. The publishers rather hammer home the similarities by placing a small figure in a red hood on the cover.

There's an element of resolution in the narrative: we discover the details of what happened in Portland, and the identity of the mysterious 'Eric'. But the voice that haunts Tsuneo remains elusive, without a conclusive twist or tidy answers.

At first, Christopher Priest's The Separation seems to be on the genre-driven path to neatness and completeness. It's fairly clear that we're in the realm of alternate realities, as a fictional historian investigates a World War II that left Britain prosperous, America broke, and Madagascar taking a far more important role in proceedings than we imagined. We then flip back to the Berlin Olympics of World War II, and find that two of our key characters are identical twins. Everything seems set for a tale of intrigue that revolves around mistaken identities and chance happenings that change the course of events, probably with historical figures appearing in the fictional narrative.

But Priest is cannier than that. True, for long stretches, we're not completely sure which twin is which, and this is mirrored by reference to persistent rumours that both Churchill and Rudolf Hess were impersonated by dopplegangers at various points during the war. Unreliable narrators - dontcha just love 'em? But this is more than just a what-if-the-Nazis-won? scenario (see Robert Harris's Fatherland, or Stephen Fry's Making History). But as the book flips between voices of varying veracity, the plot seems to fall apart in the reader's hands. The alternate history (in which Britain pulled out of the war in 1941) and the legitimate one (I hope we know what happened there) become tangled together, depending on who's talking, and what his state of mind is. One reality seems to be imagined, but at the end, it's still not clear which one. A story that, at first, seems to be predicated on a simple "wouldn't it be funny if..." notion becomes a wry consideration of the liberties a fiction writer can take with fact.

As I get older, I find myself more and more drawn to books, like Yamada's and Priest's, that fail to offer trite conclusions. Maybe because the realisation slowly dawns that life is drawn in shades of beige, rather than the primary certainties that seem so appealing when you're young. The odd thing is that Ozeki's book is, superficially at least, the most 'realistic' of the three. But a novel about an immigration officer who talks to ghosts, and another that shows Hitler living to a ripe old age, are essentially the ones that feel true to life.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Tony Blair memorial post

Milking more encores than James Brown, he's finally stumbled back to the dressing room to enjoy a responsible low-alcohol lager and a bowl of M+Ms with all the red ones taken out. No groupies, just Hazel Blears to service his ego.

Like most of us, I'm still not really sure what to make of Mr Tony, so I offer you an appropriately disjointed and confused post, borrowing bits and pieces from various places to present something that looks coherent but isn't really. I'm also slightly hampered by the fact that YouTube is still verboten in the Land of Smiles, so the usual recourse for bloggers devoid of inspiration and energy is not available.

But anyway: the lovely Amylola draws my attention to another review of WTTM, this time at 3am Magazine; coincidentally, about three and a half years late, I uncover a roundup of music books that describes one of my previous efforts as "sugary and a bit tacky", which is pretty close to the truth, to be fair; everything you always wanted to know about stock photos; happy birthday, Helvetica (and yah boo to Comic Sans).

And I know I shouldn't find the story about virtual paedophiles in Second Life remotely funny, even in a bleak and disturbing way, so let's just call it oddly Ballardian (which is pretty much the same thing, with literary pretensions).

Monday, May 07, 2007

Pseuds' corner

The last word about blogging vs old media, for the moment at least, I promise. I was looking for something Adorno said about ukeleles, for some completely different purpose, when I came upon this:

"Pseudo-activity is misguided spontaneity. Misguided, but not accidentally so; because people do have a dim suspicion of how hard it would be to throw off the yoke that weighs upon them. They prefer to be distracted by spurious and illusory activities, by institutionalized vicarious satisfactions, than to face up to the awareness of how little access they have to the possibility of change today. Pseudo-activities are fictions and parodies of the same productivity which society on the one hand incessantly calls for, but on the other holds in check and, as far as the individual is concerned, does not really desire at all."

Now old Theo was talking about DIY, of all things. But I think there's an interesting point to be made about blogging as well. Of course, plumbers and carpenters and electricians and other skilled tradesmen felt threatened by the post-war DIY boom (although they probably recouped any potential losses with the exorbitant rates they could charge for emergency repairs whenever some klutz stuck a rivet through the gas pipe). But I think the reaction of many journalists to blogging is slightly different. They may sneer at it, as a pseudo-activity, as a parody of what they are paid to do. But if they did a bit of soul-searching, and looked at the recycled press releases and witless lifestyle guff with which so many of them lag the cavities of the media (and I must clarify that I'm not casting aspersions on all hacks here), they suddenly realise that what they do is just as much a pseudo-activity as what I'm doing here. Exactly what value do the 3am Girls offer that, say, Billy doesn't?

At least when you pay someone to come round to repair the gas pipe, you get your cooker working again.

Saturday, May 05, 2007


Ineptly heralded in the previous post, my ideas on whether or not Comment is Free is really a blog, and whether we need a new word for these hybrids. Oh, and punk rock as well. Many thanks to Patroclus for her inspiration on this one.

Interestingly, a few other bloggers have been raising similar issues of identity in the past few days. Anna Pickard, who blogs here but also works for The Guardian, seems fully signed up to the notion that what her employer calls a blog, is a blog: on yet another Guardian blog, on which she slags off Radio 2's blogging-related sitcom, she begins her piece "Hello. This is a blog." Which is nice and unequivocal, although I'm a bit worried that she might have expected a Radio 2 sitcom to be anything other than inane arse. (Which it is. And the central character is also a Scummer, which is worse.)

Iain Dale, meanwhile, who is best known for his own blog, but also blogs (should that be "neoblogs"?) at Comment is Free, often about blogging (are you confused yet?) points out that two prominent political bloggers have actually been enticed to dump their own blogs and reinvent themselves under new, corporate colours (in this case, those of The Spectator).

This is an interesting development. If someone were to pay you to neoblog on their site (presumably for money, but possibly with other contractual strings attached), would you be prepared to leave your own blog behind? Depends on the strings, I suppose. And the money. Although the question remains: would you still call youself a blogger?

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Irritable Jowell syndrome

New Labour's wannabe croupier Tessa Jowell made an appearance on Comment is Free yesterday, arguing for "civilised parameters of debate" within the blogosphere, or "Ourspace" as she so tweely dubbed it. The comment facility on her post is, of course, disabled. Which really sums up my thoughts about the whole neither-one-thing-or-another nature of CiF,* which I did express in a post for them, although they seem to have chosen not to run it. Entirely up to them, but also a tad ironic, I think. I'll put the piece up here if it doesn't appear in its intended slot by the weekend.

Anyway, for a better idea of what blogging can be, and maybe should be, go and say hello to my new blogchum Brian. It's an oddly uplifting experience. As is the new, philosophical blog of our old friend Chaucer's Bitch.

Also putting ones and zeros to excellent use: Shane Richmond, who blogs here and here, gives Welcome to the Machine a quick once-over here.

*It also rather sums up what I think about Ms Jowell and her chums, although Geoff Hoon's recent comment on Iraq, that "we didn't plan for the right sort of aftermath" is rather more succinct, pithy and depressing than anything I could have articulated.

P.S. More WTTM response here.

P.P.S. Just had a lovely note from CiF to say my piece will be run at the weekend. (It was delayed by some election or another, apparently.) Panic over, the tanks can reverse away from Farringdon Road. And they'd also like to make clear that the reason the comments were disabled for Ms Jowell's CiF piece was to ensure that people posted on their Politics site instead (is that a blog?), where (as I'm sure you'll agree) she demonstrated the engagement and incisive thinking that has made her the most formidable and respected minister named after a defunct tax-exempt savings scheme in the whole Blair government. Has he resigned yet, btw?

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Rotting in stupid bliss

This morning, I emptied a pot of coffee-grounds into the sink, and accidentally recreated the cover of the Pixies' Come On Pilgrim EP.