Sunday, March 30, 2008

One of those half-hearted posts...

...that's little more than a collection of links I couldn't be bothered to work up into anything more coherent, plus a particularly silly YouTube clip.

1. According to the BBC, my favourite breakfast haunt in the known universe, Tsukiji fish market, is restricting access to tourists because they're getting in the way of the traders. Spokesman Ihei Sugita says that visitors like to photograph fish that come from their own home countries.

2. In The Times, Mark Edwards investigates the cultural chasm between music critics and the poor bastards who actually have to buy music: "Go up to each person in turn and ask them to name their favourite Beatles track. The music journalist is the one who chooses Tomorrow Never Knows... It’s the law. If they choose Penny Lane or Let It Be, they’ll be drummed out of the union."

3. And thanks to the New Yorker, which alerts us to the news that film producer Bryan Grazer is looking for a personal cultural attaché: "Grazer may ask you to read any book he’s interested in."

4. Oh yeah....

Friday, March 28, 2008

The never-ending story

One last valiant attempt to explain to the CiF massive what blogging is/could be/should be. Although I suspect I'll get points deducted by Patroclus for using an MSM analogy towards the end.

"The results of a new survey on the reading habits of 11- to 14-year-olds seem profoundly depressing. To be fair, any survey about teen habits is bound to provoke abject glumness in anyone over the age of about 23. The kids can't win: if they read vacuous celebrity magazines, they're idiots; if they subvert our expectations and read Dickens and Proust, that means they should get out more. And if they have exactly the same reading habits as I had at that age (Douglas Adams, Spike Milligan and Anti-Nazi League leaflets, as I remember), they're probably plain weird.

No surprises, then. They prefer Heat and Bliss to homework and the Financial Times. But the intriguing bit lies in the middle, where a collective thumbs-up (do teenagers still put their thumbs up?) goes to 'my own blog or fan fiction'."

And so on and so forth...

Thursday, March 27, 2008

This much is true

I've always been quite envious of the one-time NME hack and now Radio 2 DJ Stuart Maconie (and I can remember a time when such a career trajectory would have seemed beyond the realms of feasibility) who was responsible for creating the urban myth that dapper game show supremo Bob Holness played the saxophone solo on Gerry Rafferty's 'Baker Street'.

In retrospect, it was a brilliantly crafted porky, not least because Holness has several genuine claims to fame, what with him being the first radio James Bond and the father of one of proto-Girl-Power combo Toto Coelo and all; with a CV like that, one more wacky attribute could easily slip through unnoticed. But I can't believe that the story was crafted as a result of such cold-eyed reasoning; it was just the random collision of two cultural phenomena, creating a stopover on the spectrum that links 'surreal' with 'idiotic'. And it happened to work. Actually, I was more impressed by his story that Roxette had to change their name in the Philippines, because it means 'constipation' in Tagalog, but that one didn't have the same sort of sticking power.

You see, in the world of creative fibbery, you just can't tell what's going to last. Which is why my attempt to secure a similar level of vicarious fame has to be a tad more far-reaching. Which is where you come in, people. I'd like as many of you as possible to go to Wikipedia. Select the entry for a random individual, and insert the following piece of text in an appropriate slot:

"He/she was also one of the alien voices in the Cadbury's Smash advertisements in the 1970s."

I suppose it would make sense to restrict yourself to people who were alive at the time, but that's not compulsory. If you like, you can come back and tell me who you've done, but again, you may wish to maintain an air of mystery about the whole thing (which will also make it harder for the Wikipolice to track things down). Please feel free to get your friends, virtual or otherwise, into the project; the more attempts we make, the more likely one is to slip through the Jungian bullshit detector and become a fragment of reality, or the nearest we get to it these days.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Billy took a walk

OK, call off the search parties, crack open the WKD and cheesy poofs. The Shannon Matthews of the blogosphere has been found safe and well under a bed here.

But is it art?

Been listening to an Astrud Gilberto compilation (of doubtful provenance) that dubs itself 'The Pop Collection', to distinguish its content from the bossa nova stuff that made her name. I think I actually prefer her versions of 60's pop hits like 'Call Me', 'Light My Fire' and 'In My Life' to the more obvious tracks she made with Stan Getz, not least because they haven't quite been hammered into tedious familiarity as background music for every second-rate hotel restaurant from Manila to Montreal.

Another reason may be that her bossa tracks were released on Verve, which automatically labels them as J*A*Z*Z. Gilberto was never a jazz singer as such, and the implicit comparison with, say, Ella Fitzgerald, is farcical. Her sweet, shy, flawed voice stands better comparison with the likes of Jane Birkin, Nancy Sinatra and Marianne Faithfull, dollybirds who fell into singing by mistake, and carried it off through a victory of style, charisma and chutzpah over any notion of technical ability. If you don't know the story, her appearance on 'The Girl From Ipanema' was a pure fluke. Her husband Joao couldn't cope with the English lyrics, so the producer asked her to have ago, although she'd never sung in public before. Because of her amateurishness and lack of anything that might be regarded as technique, when Astrud sings a pop hit like 'Light My Fire', it works; when fine singers like Fitzgerald or Peggy Lee attempt to go pop, it can feel faintly embarrassing, akin to Dame Margot Fonteyn dancing round her handbag to 'I Will Survive'.

But it could all be down to context. Here's a slightly different version of 'Girl From Ipanema', again with Getz, but with any notion of beatnik cool ruthlessly expunged, to create kitsch pop of the highest order. It's from a film called Get Yourself a College Girl, which looks absolutely sublime, in a slightly dreadful way. I particularly like Getz's natty cardigan, the exceptional beehives in the audience, and the cut back to Gilberto after Stan's solo (around 01:52). "What? Me? Sorry, I was miles away."

PS: More groovy footage of young persons have a frugtastic time, from the same movie.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Watch her crave you more with this change you undergo

Someone somewhere has the best job in the world: coming up with the user names for spam messages offering free watches, cheap loans and vast gentlemanly appendages. Whoever he is (and I bet you it's a bloke), he's clearly a big fan of postwar US fiction. The likes of Herrmann Myung, Carsten Spike, Michael J Wnuk, Lilybelle Rutledge, Boerre Digness, Kamaar Marcipont, Schiopulescu Runions, Herculie Llewelly and Piotr Ledbetter are more than qualified to walk alongside Kilgore Trout, Oedipa Maas, Von Humboldt Fleisher, Bucky Wunderlick, Isadora Wing and even Major Major Major Major.

But now I've received conclusive proof that this anonymous genius is a true man of letters: a message offering 'Penis Enlargement Reviews', under the frankly preposterous name of Harper Collins.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The days of heavy balls

The bizarre and almost certainly suspect circumstances that have made Portsmouth the favourites to win this year's FA Cup have spurred me into a little research. (Or to be more precise, aimless wafting through Wikipedia.)

Trivia hounds will know that the only time Pompey have got their salty paws on the trophy was in 1939, and since competitive football essentially closed down for the duration of the war, they claim quite rightly that they have held the FA Cup longer than any other team. Some nerds may also be aware that manager Jack Tinn ascribed the team's triumph to his "lucky spats". What's not remembered so well is that Pompey's opening goal was scored by one Bert Barlow.

I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking that if more footballers were called Bert Barlow (and more managers wore spats, rather than unpleasant branded cagoules), the sport and the world would be a better place.

And it's equally intriguing that in the first FA Cup of which I have a coherent memory (1975), not only were all the players, officials and managers English, but five members of the losing Fulham team were called John.

Monday, March 17, 2008

One day we'll go deaf

I found myself flicking through Welcome to the Machine the other day. No, I haven't quite yet descended into the Norma Desmond zone, transfixed by the flickering image of my own lost glory. I've been asked to contribute to a new Radiohead-related project, and I was trying to calculate how much of the previous text I might be able to recycle without matters slipping through the hazy fence that separates postmodern self-reference from tedious repetition and self-plagiarism.

Anyway, my finger happened to stop leafing at the picture section in the middle. Now, I didn't want pictures in the book to start with, and I had nothing to with the selection or the design. But there is an intriguing collage on the 12th page, just under the representation of a tiresome student's bookcase. (Franz Kafka next to Philip K Dick may be an Alan Bennett joke, but I suspect not.)

It consists of a number of portraits of people I mention in the book as having some sort of influence, however tenuous, on OK Computer. They are: the White-Album-period Beatles; JG Ballard; George Orwell; Samuel Beckett; Kraftwerk; Louis Armstrong; Miles Davis; Kurt Cobain; and someone who I thought might be Umberto Eco (which would have been pretty shrewd thinking on the part of the designer, because I didn't actually mention Eco in the book, although I really should have done) or perhaps the possibly-done-in-by-spooks weapons expert David Kelly, but now I'm pretty certain it's the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki.

Which in turn got me thinking: what a bloody incredible band they'd make. OK, some of them aren't strictly musicians, but those guys could write lyrics and hit cowbells. In fact, I'd like to see Beckett as an on-stage dancer, like Bez, or the naked lady from Hawkwind. I just can't think of a good name for them. Anyone? And is there a deliriously unfeasible dream supergroup you've concocted in your own idle moments?

Saturday, March 15, 2008


Silom Road, Bangkok. About 7.15 pm.

"Hello, sir. What you looking for, sir? A bar, a massage? Nice girl, sir?"

"Actually, what I'm looking for is the Quiz Night at the British Club."

He gives me a look of utter disgust, as if mine is an unspeakably sordid urge, the satisfaction of which is entirely beneath him, not to mention his nice girls.

(We won, by the way.)

Friday, March 14, 2008

These be the verses

When I was less tall, I wrote poems. To the exclusion of much else, as I remember. In Junior School, whenever we were asked to do a piece of 'Creative Writing' (as opposed to...?), I asked if I could write a poem instead of the usual prose. Eventually, Miss Hards demanded that I actually produced something without line breaks, presumably to prove that I could.

Somehow the habit oozed away. I suspect this was something to do with my studying English literature at an advanced level; I was seized by the performance bug, and wrote to be heard not read. The criteria by which I judged my own stuff was set by the Liverpool Poets and the Beats, Cooper Clarke and Zephaniah and Joolz. I remember arguing that Gerard Manley Hopkins is a better poet than Tennyson, simply because his words have a better mouthfeel, like good wine or chocolate. In fact, I still believe that; in vain, as you might imagine. I didn't stop liking poems, but I convinced myself that I had a blind spot as to what 'good' poetry might be. As far as I remember, when I came to do my final exams, I tried my best to avoid anything with a hint of tum-ti-tum. By which point, I'd stopped writing the stuff as well.

So you might expect me to be a wee bit sniffy over the Guardian's attempt to define the seven of the greatest poets of the 20th century. Presumably they mean British poets, although two of them (Eliot, Plath) weren't born British, and two others (Auden, Heaney) elected to renounce Britishness. That quibble aside, I can't see that I'd have done it very differently; maybe to bring in Dylan Thomas at the expense of Sassoon. But I can't believe that anyone with more than a cursory knowledge of the subject would disagree too violently with the selection.

The question is whether this is necessarily good for poetry. The Observer's list of the world's 50 most powerful blogs seems to me utterly wrongheaded, in both content and concept, and apparently I'm not alone. But at least a real debate is provoked (which was presumably the real point); in the Eng Lit canon, debate isn't so much stifled, as redundant.

(Interesting response from Frances Leviston here.)

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Trademark my words

The BBC informs us that an exhibition of pirated goods in Brussels has as its centrepiece a fake Ferrari P4 that was cobbled together in Thailand. This, and the presence of Yasmin Le Bon, is presumably intended to alert us to the dangers of fake product.

But I'm more intrigued by the NGO that gets namechecked in the story: The Authentics Foundation. How frightfully post-postmodern. They sound like the faceless baddies in a Philip K Dick story, ensuring that a passive population experiences not just reality, but the correct reality.

Either that, or it's an early-80s synth band.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Everyone around me is a total stranger

This sounds promising: a language school solely for geeks.

"They don't get along with normal people. Otaku only get along with Otaku people... Everyone at my school is a geek, so you don't have to worry about what everyone else is thinking."

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Reals of film

American Gangster (dir: Ridley Scott, 2007) is a dramatisation of the true story of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), a Harlem heroin kingpin in the 1970s, a time when the NYPD narcotics department was riddled with corruption. Despite the fact this is territory that Hollywood has stomped over countless times before, it's very good, albeit maybe 20 minutes too long. But the familiarity of the milieu means that it ceases to be 'about' Lucas and his nemesis, clean cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe); it's about 101 other films instead. Police corruption gives us Serpico and The Departed (and, of course, Infernal Affairs); heroin suggests The French Connection (to the extent it's explicitly namechecked); Lucas's sojourn in South-East Asia summons the ghost of The Deer Hunter and any number of other Vietnam movies. The fact that the two protagonists don't actually meet until the closing stages of the film is a clear nod - intentional or otherwise - to Michael Mann's Heat; the formation of a skunkworks outside the normal workings of the police shares aspects of The Wire (and Roberts, with his chaotic private life, is a dead ringer for Jimmy McNulty). Walk-on parts from historical characters such as Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali echo the fusion of fact and fiction that novelists such as EL Doctorow deploy; until you remember that this is meant to be fact anyway.

It shouldn't be a surprise of course. Hollywood has become more real to us than reality itself; the characters played by Hackman and Pacino and Nicholson are more three-dimensional than flesh-and-blood humans such as Lucas and Roberts. We're so dazzled by the spectacle, we lose sight of our neighbours, and by implication, ourselves.

Although some people are quite capable of creating their own dazzle, if it serves a purpose. Bars in Minnesota are being redefined as theatres, in an effort to get around restrictions on smoking. As the owner of a heavy-metal bar in Maplewood says of his customers, "They're playing themselves before 1 October - you know, before there was a smoking ban."

Friday, March 07, 2008

Delayed gratification

I've just written a rather good post, if I say so myself, but I reckon it will be more relevant in a couple of months' time. By which time I'll have realised it's a pile of arse, probably.

Which leaves me with sod-all to write about, really. My mojo's handed in his notice; my muse says she's got a headache. Meme? Can't be arsed. YouTube? Oh, go on then.

Have a good weekend, people.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Wednesday I'm in love

I've long had a furtive thing about Christina Ricci. OK, maybe not so furtive. She's all growed up now, and anyway, Small Boo says I'm allowed Lucy Liu and Christina if she's allowed Steve Buscemi and Daniel Auteuil.

But I've just discovered something devastating. Ms Ricci, in direct contravention of my own first rule of the modern intellectual, has admitted to owning more shoes than books.

So, over to you lot. Have you ever felt an intense admiration (intellectual, moral, carnal, your choice) for a famous person, only for the scales to fall from your eyes when that person was exposed as categorically second-rate?

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Tale spin

I've got such a backlog of films I've been meaning to see, it makes a pleasant change to watch a film that I never knew existed. Pasolini's Arabian Nights (1974) is one such. It's the final part in his loose trilogy of literary adaptations, the earlier (and much better known) films being The Decameron (1971) and The Canterbury Tales (1972).

Sadly, it's not much cop. It looks great, but the acting is pretty ropy, and the whole project feels like an excuse for PPP to go out to exciting places (Yemen, Ethiopia, Tibet) and get nice young men to drop their drawers. But it did get me thinking about the idea of linked narratives. Not just the obvious literary tradition to which Pasolini was paying arch homage, but the tradition of portmanteau films, movies that contained a number of discrete narratives, usually linked by some sort of 'stortytelling' framework. The first of these was probably DW Griffith's Intolerance (1916), which tied together four tales of bigotry, from ancient Babylon to contemporary America. But the genre really came into its own after World War II, with Dead of Night (1945), which set the precedent for horror portmanteaus, continued in efforts such as Dr Terror's House of Horrors (1965) and From Beyond the Grave (1973), both starring Peter Cushing. The big-screen versions of US TV shows such as The Twilight Zone (1983) followed this tradition.

All these films stuck to a fairly rigid format, with little or no overlap between the narratives; in this instance, they were sticking fairly faithfully to the guidelines laid down by the likes of Chaucer and Boccaccio. But by this stage, literary fiction had moved on. Novels such as Ulysses and John Dos Passos's U.S.A. contained multiple plot lines that looped around each other to create a whole considerably bigger than the sum of its parts. It probably wasn't until Robert Altman's Nashville (1975) that a mainstream moviemaker tried something like this: Tampopo, 10 years later, is another example. And it was only with Pulp Fiction that the multiplex generation was permitted to dip a toe into the narrative rule-breaking that novelists had been toying with for over seven decades. Think Crash; think Babel. It's almost as if a film that starts at A and ends at Z, with no diversions, isn't even trying (although, as Mrs Peel points out, non-linear narrative is still too confusing for some people).

It's something that's affected my reading as well. Recently, I was flicking through a collection of short stories by Matthew Kneale*, and it felt slightly odd that that's just what it was: a collection of short stories. One finished, then another one started. There was no leaking of characters or situations, no metafictional winks to the reader to remind you that the author sits astride the whole thing like a modern Boccaccio. No hint of what David Mitchell has done, blurring the distinction between the novel and the short story, having characters wander from one narrative to the next, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern coming in before their cue.

If Pasolini made a version of the Arabian Nights today, he'd probably play Scheherezade himself. But he'd still make the Yemeni guys take their pants off.

* A writer I admired even before I discovered he was the offspring of Quatermass and The Tiger Who Came To Tea.