Tuesday, January 29, 2008


I don't normally order puddings in Chinese restaurants. Or Indian ones for that matter. In fact, I tend to concur with Jeffrey Steingarten, who argued that Asian desserts taste as if they belong more properly in a lady's bathroom cabinet.

But, you see, I got myself this gig doing restaurant reviews and when you do that, you need to cover the menu. Deep-fried fruit salad sounded the least bad option, and the meal had, up to that point, been really rather good. As expected, the DFFS appeared to be some kind of fritter, and I cut into it with polite interest, if not quite enthusiasm.

"I'm not going mad, am I?"

Small Boo, to her credit, avoided the obvious retort.

"What's wrong?" she asked, feigning interest with great aplomb.

"I've got a horrible feeling that this is a crabstick."

"In your pudding?"

"In my pudding. It's meant to be a deep-fried fruit salad."

"Is there fruit?"

"Yes, there's fruit. Tinned fruit. I'm not sure what this sauce is. Cheese?"

"It's mayonnaise."

"Yes, I thought it might be, but I didn't like to say. I'm eating a crabstick and tinned fruit and mayonnaise fritter. For pudding."

The maitre d' was summoned. Hugely apologetic (and especially mortified when he discovered that I was meant to be writing the meal up), he explained the error. The fritter rather resembled a similar one from the dim sum menu. So a crabstick-tinned-fruit-mayonnaise fritter wasn't exactly a mistake - it was just in the wrong place.

"So what should have been in there?" asked Small Boo. "As a dessert?"

"The same," explained the man. "But no crabstick."

"And no mayonnaise, presumably."

"Oh yes, mayonnaise," he said. "That's how they like it in Hong Kong."

Sorry, there's no glorious punchline to this one. Except to record, for posterity, the fact that I ate a crabstick, tinned fruit and mayonnaise fritter for pudding and survived to tell the tale.

(It was horrible, by the way.)

Sunday, January 27, 2008

London Fleece? Veedon Fields?

The Times is amused that Martin Amis is pulling down 80,000 quid for an annual workload of 28 hours as professor of creative writing at Manchester University. (Although, as a sometime college chum of mine once mused: "What exactly is creative writing? Is there such a thing as destructive writing?")

I'm more perturbed by the fact that Amis fils appears to be turning into...

Friday, January 25, 2008

Clevering up?

Apparently, Timothy Dalton's second outing as James Bond, Licence to Kill (1989), was originally going to be called "Licence Revoked", until market research deduced that the majority of the target audience didn't know what "revoked" meant.

Roll along a couple of decades, and what's the title of Daniel Craig's sophomore effort? Quantum of Solace, for crying out loud.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Favourite worst nightmare

A further refinement to my long and tedious quest to define the modern intellectual: you are an intellectual if you have a recurring dream about going into an exam for which you haven't prepared more often than you have a recurring dream about standing in the school playground in nothing but your pants.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


From today's Comment is Free:

I'm not an expert on the cinematic pedigree of Geert Wilders. He looks like the unlovable lovechild of David Lynch and Leonardo Di Caprio, although since his day job is leading the rightwing Party of Freedom, in which capacity he is a vociferous critic of immigration and Islam in the Netherlands, Leni Riefenstahl and DW Griffith may be closer to the mark.

Nonetheless, Wilders has succumbed to his multiplex muse, and made a film based on his contention that the Qur'an should be banned because it incites violence and is antithetical to Dutch values...

And, as Jimmy Cricket has it, there's more...

PS: In retrospect, maybe the appearance-related cracks were a mistake. New mugshot, I reckon.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

And your granny always tells you that the old songs are the best

A few months ago, Siouxsie Sioux was interviewed by Keith Cameron for Mojo, as part of the promotional merry-go-round for her new album, Mantaray. This excerpt gives a flavour of the encounter:

I want to ask you about JuJu...

Oh, this is... I didn't know this was all going to be about the past. This is really boring.

But this is the Mojo interview: it looks back over an artist's entire creative life.

I know, but I haven't got all bloody day, to be honest. We're at JuJu, and I've just done a new record.

Can I just ask you a couple of questions about JuJu?

[Sigh] All right.

Later on, after objecting to Cameron's fascination with her swastika-wearing tendencies 30 years before, she realised there were just 10 minutes left to cover the new album, stormed out, and subsequently fired her press officer.

Ms Sioux is a diva, and such behaviour is de rigueur for those with such a job description. Also, one can understand her feelings: she had a new record to shift, and the back catalogue stuff was getting in the way. But she was also being a tad disingenuous, because the only reason anyone was interested in her new album (indeed, the only reason that record came into existence) was because of the stuff she did with the Banshees in around 1976-86. Like JuJu, for example, and, uh, that swastika.

It's inevitable that artists want to talk about the film or book or record that they're doing right now. For a start, they'll derive more financial benefit if the punters buy the new product rather than scrabbling in the attic for the battered vinyl that reminds them of the old days. But surely it's something deeper and more personal as well: too much focus on past glories implies that you're past it, out of touch, too damn old. You're not just in competition with other creators - you're facing off against your younger self.

So, every time Siouxsie or Martin Amis or David Lynch plugs their new work, there's a gorilla in the room: interviewer and interviewee collude in the polite fiction that JuJu or Money or Blue Velvet are ancient irrelevances, and that we're only interested in the latest manifestation of creative brilliance. Anything else is tiresome nostalgia.

But is Martin Amis ever going to experience the same sort of once-in-a-lifetime synthesis between inspiration and Zeitgeist that made Money so successful? Shouldn't artists just be honest in acknowledging their own magic moments, and accept that everything else will be in their shadow?

I'll get the ball rolling. I think the high point of this blog came in August and September of 2006: critical theory; religious philosophy; obituaries; live blogging the military coup; L Brent Bozell. Maybe it was because I was deep in the bowels of the Radiohead book at the time: I was waking up with more ideas than I could cram into the narrative, and they had to go somewhere. And nothing subsequently has given me the buzz that I got in those few weeks.

So: what was your golden age of blogging? And you're not allowed to choose your latest post, unless you're Siouxsie.

Thursday, January 17, 2008


In which I lay to rest my previous habit, of linking to a new CiF piece by means of an enigmatic paraphrase, and shamelessly rip off Dave Hill's method of providing a teaser paragraph or two:

Is it my imagination, or is there simply too much pop music around at the moment? At a time when the music industry seems to be on the verge of death, its primary resource - still, after 50 or more years, chiefly comprising songs that last about three and a half minutes and pertain to adolescents fancying a shag - is bloody everywhere.

I'm not just talking about BBC4's current festival of all things poptabulous, in which we put pop on trial, learn how it works, ask what it's good for and probably get it to choose the next president of the United States. Pop has permeated the most unlikely reaches of our cultural lives: our churches, our shopping centres and even political party conferences. It was suggested a couple of decades back that Pop Will Eat Itself: this looks like a bad case of bulimia...

...and then inviting you to read on...

PS: And already I've been called bald and boring-looking, and accused of intimate relations with Julie Burchill.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Unchained melody

As far as I recall, I'd read about the Jesus and Mary Chain before I'd ever heard them. In fact, in those glory days of the NME, it was possible to become a devoted acolyte of the idea of a band well before a specific note had ever punctured your consciousness. And the idea of the J&MC, it seemed, was noise, with a side-order of chaos. I was particularly taken with the bass player, one Douglas Hart, who was asked why he only had two strings on his instrument: "What's the point of spending money on another two?" he pondered, from between the most rock'n'roll cheekbones ever sculpted.

Of course, when i finally got to hear what lay behind the hype, it wasn't that straightforward. Sure there was noise, and sure there was chaos aplenty, but the Mary Chain were really a pop band in the finest tradition. "The Velvet Underground meets the Beach Boys" was the lazy music-hack shorthand, which rather ignored the fact that there was more than a hint of Beach Boys in the Velvets already. ("The Ramones meet Phil Spector" was presumably rejected because the Ramones had already met Phil Spector for real.) Psychocandy, the J&MC's debut album, was full of feedback and crap drumming, but also of hooks, harmonies (of a sort) and the sort of lonely longing that could have booked the Reid brothers a desk in the Brill Building. The Shangri-Las meet Test Dept, perhaps? Goffin and King meet Suicide? Which is why they were a perfect soundtrack for the climax of Lost in Translation: they were scary and alienating, but with just enough sweetness at the heart to make the experience bearable (like Bill Murray, and Tokyo).

Fast forward not quite a quarter-century, and there's another record that I read about before I hear. The Magnetic Fields' new opus, Distortion, is intended by its creator, Stephin Merritt, to "sound more like the Jesus and Mary Chain than the Jesus and Mary Chain". Which is, undoubtedly, deliciously postmodern, as is only to be expected from a musician for whom the idea is almost as important as the sound (a triple album, each disc containing 23 songs; an album on which all the song titles begin with "I"; and so on until ennui sets in and he decides to retrain as an accountant).

The thing is, once you actually listen to the album, you realise that Merritt's mission statement has to be taken literally. The songs do sound like the Jesus and Mary Chain; but that doesn't mean they are like the Jesus and Mary Chain. He's created walls of J&MC-style feedback and noise from his customary anti-rock instrumentation (cellos and accordions and ukuleles) but the songs themselves are what you'd expect from the Magnetic Fields: winsome, witty ditties of polymorphous rumpy-pumpy. Where a Mary Chain narrator, unlucky in love, might sit in his bedsit, staring at the space on the wall where his Stooges poster once rested, the protagonist in a Magnetic Fields song would take his dog for a walk down Broadway and never stop.

For the first time in a long and distinguished career, Merritt has confused a concept with a gimmick. It's as if he's written and recorded a bunch of songs, then panicked because they lack an over-arching cleverness. Slapping feedback all over them may be a heartfelt tribute to one of the better bands of the 1980s, but it doesn't actually make any sense. The J&MC made noise because they couldn't do anything else: when they became better musicians, their music became progressively less interesting. Merritt is already a more than competent musician: by smudging the edges of his own virtuosity, he's just slumming it.

What he's perpetrated is something akin to foisting a dance remix on a rock band that doesn't really want to dance; or the treacly strings that Phil Spector spewed all over Let It Be; the only difference being that here, the artist has done it to himself. Eventually, of course, the Beatles released Let It Be in a low-carb, 'naked' guise: will Merritt ever have the guts to transcend his own cleverness (as distinct from his musical abilities) and do the same?

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Beach balls

(Patroclus asked me to rub my chin in the direction of Echo Beach/Moving Wallpaper. And you don't argue with Patroclus.)

I should have read the instructions first.

Confronted with the first episodes of Echo Beach (ITV's new post-watershed soap) and Moving Wallpaper (ITV's archly postmodern comedy about the making of ITV's new post-watershed soap) I assumed that the latter was the equivalent to the extras on a DVD, or maybe one of those spin-off shows for the benefit of people who can take more Big Brother or Dr Who than government nutritionists would normally recommend. So I watched the soap first, managed to stagger through half an episode and it was shit. I mean, not just Hollyoaks shit, not just cynical, falsely glossy, one-eye-on-the-gossip-columns shit, but Eldorado shit. Albion Market shit.

Then the lovely woman without whom I'd probably be unable to put on my trousers the right way up pointed out that Moving Wallpaper was broadcast first, so maybe I should watch that first. And Moving Wallpaper turned out to be a fairly amusing sitcom about media folk, a bit like Extras, maybe. Although, really, that's not the point, is it? The fact that one show is OK, and one is dire, is swatted into irrelevance by the high-concept 'aboutness' of the whole project. After I'd watched MW, I tried EB again and, although it was still very bad, at least we knew why the hunky harbour master and the Indian barmaid and her off of Footballers Wives were there.

The thing is, despite all the hoo-ha about ITV taking postmodernism to the masses, MW/EB is doing very little that other show-within-show shows (Extras, Larry Sanders, Annually Retentive) haven't done, apart from splitting the two components. All of them were predicated on the fact that the 'real' show (eg When The Whistle Blows) probably wasn't something you'd bother to watch. If the earlier shows were fruit yogurts, this is Müller Fruit Corner. Not so much groundbreaking, more like painting the floor a slightly different colour.

Of course, there's loads of fun here for media theorists to ponder over which shows and characters are simulacra of the other, and which of them are more real. Is the actress called Suzie Amy, played by the actress called Susie Amy, more real than the producer Jonathan Pope, played by Ben Miller, although the real producer of Echo Beach is called Jonathan Pope? Did someone really nut a picture of Michael Grade, and would they have mentioned if he did?

Unfortunately for the makers, the whole 'real'/'fake' interface has been overtaken by... I was going to say real life, but you know what I mean. Stuff on the news. The WGA strike in the States is an intriguing beast, not least because it's drawing people's attention to what writers actually do. There's a paradox here: when we're watching drama, we know that Bruce Willis or Judi Dench aren't making up their own words, but we suspend disbelief. We know we're doing it but, hey, it's all make believe, innit? But when we watch something that's meant to be 'real' (a talk show or an awards ceremony, for example) we also kid ourselves that Jay Leno or Jon Stewart is coming up with his own quips, and our enjoyment really suffers when we know the whole thing's scripted.

Of course, Brecht argued that the suspension of disbelief was a nonsense in drama as well, and deployed the Verfremdungseffekt (alienation technique) to remind people that what they were watching was just a bunch of people pretending. Which is what the people in Echo Beach are doing, and we know that, because the people in Moving Wallpaper told us - but then so are the people in Moving Wallpaper.

Maybe, if we ever get to see another Oscars or Golden Globes ceremony, we'll be forced to watch it in a Brechtian manner. In a strange way, it's not a strike - it's art.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Plain Jane

AA Gill on the latest TV adaptation of Sense and Sensibility:

"It’s about – well, you know what it’s about. It’s what they’re all always about: selling teenage virginity for cash and crenellations. The most astute deconstruction of every plot nuance and character trait in the Austen or Brontë novel can be found in Noel Edmonds’s Deal or No Deal."

Which might be the appropriate time to admit that I've never actually seen Deal or No Deal.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Faking it

Much of the hype about Ang Lee's Lust, Caution revolves around the explicit sex scenes and the accompanying rumours about whether Tony Leung and Wei Tang actually, y'know, did it. I'm deeply cynical about this sort of synthesis of prurience and marketing: unless you can see exactly what's going on (as in 9 Songs), the answer is invariably "no".

But this time, the gossip actually makes sense, because the plot (in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, amateur actress-cum-resistance-activist assumes new identity to seduce collaborationist official and lure him to his death) deals with similar questions of honesty and authenticity. The (anti-?) heroine, Wong Chia Chi, is rarely seen in a context in which she isn't performing: whether acting in an earnestly patriotic play, or in the role of Mak Tai Tai, the respectable businesswoman who plays mah jongg with the wife of the slippery Mr Yee.

As the principals rut acrobatically, the ambiguity sets in. Is she in love? Is she in lust? Is she pretending? Did she start pretending, then start to believe in her own performance? And if we don't really know what the character is doing, why do we presume that we know what the actress, Wei Tang, is up to?

This is especially important in the most disturbing scene - which seems to have been overlooked in all the hoo-ha about the brief appearance of Tony Leung's scrotum - when Yee subjects Wong to a vicious rape. At one point, she appears to be enjoying it, which is usually the point at which my instinctively laissez-faire attitude to the depiction of sex and violence on screen tends to slip (cf the assault on Susan George in Peckinpah's Straw Dogs). But by this stage we know that Wong is taking method acting to the limit, and it's the character she's playing that expresses delight in her own degradation; although we never really know what Wong herself feels. Which in turn reminds us that this is just a film, and Wei Tang is pretending to be Wong Chia Chi is pretending to be Mak Tai Tai.

Which takes us back to the original question of "did they or didn't they?" To which the answer must be that, even if they really did it, they were only pretending.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Two countries, separated by a common celebrity culture

So, it was Christmas, so I watched the last ever Extras. Twice. The BBC version, and the one shown in the States, on HBO. This isn't a case of a no-holds-barred remake, as happened to The Office, but a few gentle tweaks to the script to make it more palatable to a Stateside audience.

First, the scene in the department store. In the original, we heard a Jade Goody doll emitting a racist tirade; on HBO, for the benefit of those unacquainted with Ms Goody, she is replaced by Michael Richards (aka Cosmo Kramer), who had a similar fall from grace a while back. This is just about feasible, as Seinfeld was pretty popular on the east side of the pond. But then the manager's line about Same Difference (Brit reality show act) is replaced by one about Sanjaya (US equivalent, but without the slightly iffy incest overtones, and not from Pompey, apparently). I know this isn't documentary realism, but one of the strengths of Gervais's shows is that they are at least grounded in observation and recognition. It's not just that a British shop wouldn't stock a Sanjaya doll: nobody in the scene, Andy, Maggie nor the manager, would have the faintest clue who Sanjaya was.

Things get even dafter towards the end. In the Big Brother house, June Sarpong claims that she wants to become a proper journalist, but then looks stupid because she doesn't know who Kate Adie is. Except that, for North American viewers, Adie is replaced by Katie Couric. Why would a British TV performer be expected to know the anchor of the CBS Evening News? What purpose does this serve.

I don't want this to turn into an "Americans are stupid" post, because they're not, or no more than the Brits or the Belgians or the Bhutanese, at least. But Americans exist in a media environment which appears to have very low expectations of them, and this can't fail to have an effect. First, there is no appeal to a sense of curiosity. Of course American viewers would be unfamiliar with Jade Goody. Lucky them. But they're never put in a position where they have to find out who she is, even via the simple task of keying her name into Google.

Moreover, American viewers will get a skewed perception of the rest of the world, and will end up believeing that the rest of us know and care about Katie Couric or Sanjaya. The funny thing is, lots of foreigners do know about Couric and Sanjaya: not necessarily because they watch CBS News or American Idol, but because the US product they do see is not adapted for their market, so any such references appear, unamended. So they Google them. Not necessarily the primary use for which this wonderful technology was intended, but hey, wuddeva. The thing is, if America is to remain the sole hyperpower (a status that may come under threat in the future, but we're not there yet), this monocular idea of what's going on beyond the nation's borders can only be unhealthy.

Oh look. Mike Huckabee just won the Republican caucus in Iowa. Point made, I think.

PS: More Huckabee stuff here.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Willy and Dick

Two articles, straddling the new year, both of them speaking up for what the authors believe to be (want to be?) reality.

First, in yesterday's Telegraph, comes A.N. Wilson, suggesting that Wordsworth's acute perception and understanding of the world around him would have been lost if he'd had the digital world to distract him; essentially, that people who spend all their time playing computer games lack that "attentiveness to experience" necessary to write The Prelude.

Now, I must admit to a prejudice or two against Mr Wilson. I first became aware of him when I was about 15, and a fervent devotee of the neo-beatnik performance poetry craze. Wilson appeared on some TV arts show or another, discussing one of the Faber Hard Lines anthologies, which were full of saturnine young things juggling pungent couplets about unemployment and nuclear war and acne and the like. I thought this stuff was wonderful: Wilson, already settling comfortably into his young fogey persona, complained that it was "not very nice". "But dole queues aren't nice, you chinless ponce!" I bellowed at the telly, rather unpoetically.

Back then, at least Wilson had bothered to read those poems before dismissing them. By contrast, his grumbles about the web and Facebook and games seem to be based on a single sliver of knowledge: that they are Not Wordsworth. Oh, in the last line he demonstrates that he's heard of Bill Gates.

Now, this is an old game: John Stuart Mill used to ponder whether Homer was in fact better than pushpin (a variant on bagatelle), since the latter gave happiness to more people; and Christopher Ricks will always be remembered as the man who suggested that comparing Dylan with Keats might be a respectable use for a university salary. But Wilson's argument falls down under the most cursory examination. For a start, the internet and Wordsworth are not mutually exclusive: the simple fact that I can link to an online version of The Prelude is, I reckon, rather wonderful.

If Wilson were simply suggesting that Wordsworth is "better" in an aesthetic sense, or even "more important" than a computer game, I suppose I'd go along with him (although I've always had the feeling that Coleridge would be a more fun person to hang out with). But if his criterion for greatness is indeed "attentiveness to experience", who is to say that Wordsworth was more attentive to his flowers and fells than his modern counterpart might be to the ones and zeroes that make up her own experience of what it is to be alive, to be real? We're in a different bliss, a different dawn to be alive.

Then, in today's Guardian, Sarfraz Manzoor makes a much better argument for the real over the virtual, the analogue over the digital, by hymning the praises of something you can't get from a screen: food. Effectively, Wilson and Manzoor are making the same point, about the deficiencies of the online world, but the latter is far more compelling. Maybe it's because he namechecks Baudrillard. Maybe it's just that, deep down, I'll always prefer a good saag aloo to yet another bloody poem about daffodils.

And, on a slight tangent, Manzoor drops in a neat definition of reality: "that which when you stop believing in it does not go away". It's by Philip K Dick, one of those authors (also Nabokov, Vonnegut) into whom I really ought to dip a toe or two this year, whether or not A.N. Wilson would define them as "nice".