Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Marmalade skies

News of the death of Albert Hofmann, inventor of LSD, reaches us just as a giant inflatable pig is reported missing above the California desert. Coincidence? I think not.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Do not write on both sides of the paper at once

While we're on the subject of exams, an e-mail from my mother, and a comment from the fragrant Marsha Klein ("...due to boredom or lack of time..."), both in response to the post from a few days back about The Unconsoled, prompted me to recall my English Language O-level composition paper.

The prescribed theme was 'A scene of destruction', and I endeavoured to depict the aftermath of the sort of party to which I never seemed to get invited at the time, with comatose, semi-clad women sprawled among the spilt beer, scratched records, charred soft furnishings and ground-in cheesy footballs. I rather suspect the whole thing had been inspired by the TV adaptation of Malcolm Bradbury's The History Man, which I'd loved a couple of years before, and not just for the bosoms, and I rather hoped that university life would turn out to be like that, with elements of The Young Ones and Brideshead Revisited thrown in for good measure. (You know what? It bloody was, and all.)

So, in a way, my essay was a dream sequence of sorts, and my chosen ending was a heavy-handed variation on the cliché: 'I' (the narrator) surveyed the scene for several pages, then remembered I had to be somewhere, ran for the bus, and very shortly afterwards found myself in the exam room, confronted by an O-level composition paper, wondering through a fug of cheap cider what on earth I was going to write about... oh, you fill in the blanks...

PS: And this is how to respond to a dumping.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Blackboard bungle

In honour of Comrade Slaminsky's stint on the barricades, a consideration on some of the issues that get left behind if all you talk about is whether teachers are greedy or not:

There was a rare moment of unanimity on Radio 4's Any Questions on Friday night. Asked whether the NUT was right to take strike action, all four members of the panel said not.

But it was once they got beyond the matter of whether 2.45% was a reasonable offer that things got interesting. First, Tory Eric Pickles condemned the union for striking so close to GCSE's. Tim Razzall of the Liberal Democrats agreed: such action was most regrettable as exam season comes round. Surprisingly, Hazel Blears, devoted apparatchik of this exam-crazed government, didn't bring up the GCSE factor, but did express sympathy for parents who might have had to make alternative child care arrangements...

Full version written out in my best handwriting to be put up on the wall for parents' evening here.

PS: Think one or two commenters may have interpreted this as a teacher-bashing exercise. Obviously the type who didn't read the whole paper before they began writing...

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Farewell, Chairman Humph

It's very sad that Humphrey Lyttelton has died, but I'm sure he would have relished the absurdity of having his obituary credited to someone who predeceased him.

And I know I'm not supposed to be posting YouTube clips, but everything about this seems so appropriate, right down to the horrible sweater.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Is anybody there?

I've been musing over the tribulations of Kamol Kamoltrakul, the business writer who's been threatened with a massive libel suit for his criticism of Tesco's operations in Thailand. While I have every sympathy for Kamol, his article did contain one pretty horrendous error: thanks to a misreading of figures, he calculated that the Thai operation contributes 37% of Tesco's global income; he now acknowledges that the figure is more like 3.7%.

I can imagine the combination of lurching stomach and sweating palms that occurred when he realised what he'd done. I've made mistakes, although fortunately none that had such potential for financial misfortune. (I say 'potential' because Thai libel actions are a bit like those damages cases in the States, when someone called BillyBob sues a fast food company because the hot filling in his hot fruit pie was too, uh, hot; the sum that eventually gets handed over is usually a small fraction of the headline demand.)

Anyway, I've gone into print saying 'My Life Story' when I meant the Divine Comedy; attributed a quote of Schopenhauer's to Nietzsche; confused one Asian cabinet minister with another (I mean, they all look the same, don't they?). And, yes, my ankles did go a bit wobbly when I got the product back from the printers, usually on a day when I'd vowed to give up alcohol, or coffee, or pointless self-recrimination.

But you know, that's not the worst feeling. The worst feeling is a slow, creeping sensation over the next few days and weeks and months, after the error goes onto the shelves. It's when the fear of sarcastic letters to the editor, even the fear of legal action, is replaced by a total silence: the realisation that nobody's noticed; nobody cares; for all you know, nobody's read it. It's the worst thing for a writer, or for anyone who does anything for any purpose other than personal gratification. It's the knowledge that what you've created has cast no shadow, created no echo. It's as if you've thrown a stone into a perfectly flat lake, and it's made not a single ripple.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

When in robe

I'm in the midst of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled. I've liked his writing for a long time, but I've avoided this one: partly because at 535 pages, it's about 150 outside my comfort zone (I have no compunction about casting aside a book after a few chapters, but I'm sufficiently bloody-minded that if I do get to the half-way point, I have to keep on to the end, and 200+ is just a wee bit too dutiful); and also because this is the one that makes even devoted Ishiguro groupies raise their eyebrows and change the subject. The back cover quotes include "complex and ambitious" and "a work of great interest", which are often criticspeak for "tries too hard" and "brave failure".

Well, maybe, but it looks OK so far (currently, not quite half-way). Essentially, it's the story of Ryder, a concert pianist who arrives in an unnamed European city to play a concert. Beyond that, he seems at a loss about what his schedule is, although he's happy enough to fall into step with any suggestion made by his hosts; indeed, he seems perfectly at ease in any situation he encounters - it's the past and future that seem to present problems.

At first, you think Ryder's suffering from some sort of amnesia, rather similar to condition of the protagonist in Memento, existing in a permanent present. It's Kafka meets Jane Austen, where the greatest threat is social embarrassment. But things get odder when Ryder goes to a cinema showing 2001: A Space Odyssey - which for the purposes of this narrative stars Clint Eastwood and Yul Brynner. It's when Ryder fails to notice this that a new explanation presents itself. He's dreaming.

More specifically, it's that banal category of dream where every component is normal, but the order and context are just a little bit muddled. People Ryder hasn't seen since childhood accost him on the street, as if they've popped up fully-formed from the deepest recesses of his memory. He overhears conversations from several rooms away, which he couldn't possibly pick up in real life. Most telling, he finds himself at a posh reception in his dressing-gown and slippers. It's a classic dream scenario, the vulnerability of pyjamas-in-the-playground, the sort of experience that would result in abject humiliation in reality, but in the dream state only provokes a mild discomfiture, the sensation that something's not quite as it should be, similar to a familiar film suddenly being recast before your eyes. It also summons up the ghost of Arthur Dent, who in the TV and the movie versions of The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (but not, as far as I recall, the book or radio incarnations) wears pyjamas and a dressing-gown. Which brings up the question - is Douglas Adams's own universe (not to mention life and everything) just an extended dream sequence as well? Another character that comes to mind is Ivan Goncharov's idle anti-hero Oblomov, who gave the Russian language the glorious abstract noun "halatnost", literally "dressing-gown-ness", a state of intertia, apathy, daydreaming and general blaaah.

And somewhere in between the two come my own juvenile scribblings. When I was at primary school, we were supposed to keep a diary, detailing what we'd done at the weekend. Being a pathologically nerdy and anti-social child, what I'd done at the weekend usually comprised watching Play Away, reading half a dozen Ladybird history books and eating cheese on toast, which, frankly, didn't make great copy. So I'd concoct bizarre stories of aliens, zombies, criminal masterminds and general high-jinks, all of them ending with something along the lines of "...and then I woke up."

I'm not sure yet whether Ishiguro is going to reach for the same cop-out. I'll let you know when I get to page 535.

PS: Talking of Adams, this excavation of the long-lost Milliways computer game pulls off the scabs of the creative process; thanks to Dr Hocking for flagging this one up.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Guy Debord vs Konnie Huq

A dialectical exercise, in which I bring together the Beijing Olympics of 2008 and the Paris riots of 1968, and see what might happen:

In 1989, my last year of university, I was inveigled into creating some of the decorations for the Summer Ball. (Yes, it was the kind of university that had a Summer Ball.) It had been decided that the event would have a "1960s" theme, and the walls would be adorned with placards carrying appropriate slogans. I quickly knocked off a "Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" and a few of the gnomic utterances that the situationists deployed at the Paris événements of 1968.

"Hmmm," mused the nice young lady in charge of the project. "Don't you think they're a little bit ... political?" The other contributors, it seemed, had restricted their polemic to Day-Glo variations on "Love and Peace". And flowers. Lots and lots of flowers.

More whimsical nostalgia (with a faint thread of politics running through it) here...

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Toothy, bespectacled™...

...Morrissey favourite Alan Carr on why he doesn't read other comedians' autobiographies:

"I'm steering clear because I'm one of those people who starts absorbing other people's experiences and thinking they're mine. I'd be saying something to my mother: 'Oh, do you remember when that happened?' And she'd say, 'No Alan, that was Poirot.'"

PS: And a variant thereon from Ricky Gervais (although I don't know whether Morrissey likes him):

"I don't read books. I'm sorry. I can't. I can't read books, other people's books. After the first sentence, the first paragraph, I'm off on my own scenario. It's no longer their book. I'm not reading it any more, I've put it down before turning the first page, I'm writing my own chapters, fitting in my own characters, trying to make it take off my way. So this would happen, then that would happen, of course that character would ... no, it's hopeless, so now I just don't."

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Simply the best?

Yet another bloody list, this time from the Telegraph. But at least with this one it's difficult to argue with the core concept: 110 books that changed the world. Although the headline deploys the infuriatingly fuzzy adjective "best", it's really about importance, and any arguments are cultural rather than critical.

Another advantage is that there's no assumption that you need to have read any of the volumes to have a view on their relative importance. At the age of 15, I had it drummed into me by my history teacher that Diderot's Encyclopédie kick-started the European Englightenment, and I've never felt the urge to peruse any of its 35 volumes.

That said, I think the division between 'CLASSICS', 'LITERARY FICTION' and 'ROMANTIC FICTION' seems pretty arbitrary: couldn't Madame Bovary or Tess of the D'Urbervilles have slipped into any of those three camps? And there seem to be some howling omissions, as picked up in the comments: The Bible; The Qu'ran; Dostoevsky; Adam Smith; Graham Greene; and if we're looking at impact over quality, where's Valley of the Dolls?

Never mind, the concept's sound, even if the execution leaves something to be desired. But what do you think are the truly important books? Or, conversely, the books that you love, but know to be utterly unimportant.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Does Emily still love him?

A way to use up some of those YouTube clips I'm not allowed to put on my blog any more.

Anyone who grew up, as I did, during the glory days of children's telly, will smile wryly at this video, part of a campaign to save British kids' TV. Clips from The Wombles are overdubbed with canned laughter and inane American slang, before the reassuring voice of Bernard Cribbins (a knighthood beckons, surely?) points out that only 1% of modern children's programming is new British product.

Shocked, I signed the petition, understanding only too well the moral imperative that future generations should have their own manifestations of Vision On, Jackanory and Roobarb. But then I thought back a little more coolly and dispassionately about my own childhood viewing...

Further soppy wallowing for the Brian Cant generation here.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Chuck out the syrup

The obituaries of Charlton Heston concur: here was an example of life following art. As Moses and Ben Hur, El Cid and George Taylor, he played men who stood for dignity and freedom, and whether or not you agree that civil rights and gun rights are morally equivalent, he stuck his neck out for both. Then, when the scourge of Alzheimer’s confronted him, he faced it as he had faced the Egyptians and the gorillas, with great bravery.

But in one small area, his heroism slipped. Unflinching in his defence of African-Americans and gun-owners, Heston was never quite brave enough to acknowledge his own baldness. He set his granite jaw and battered nose against injustice, but from his own genetic inheritance, he cowered beneath a succession of increasingly preposterous toupees, of the sort that even Frankie Howerd might have spurned as unbecoming. As Chuck wielded his trusty flintlock, his wig looked like something he’d just shot.

As someone whose time in the barber’s chair becomes more cursory with each successive visit, I know that few men welcome baldness. But why do so many still persist in fighting it, and make themselves look even more ridiculous than they would in their natural state? As with boob jobs and facelifts, wigs rarely go unnoticed, especially by the many websites dedicated to seeking them out. And if we know someone wears a wig, we assume that person is insecure, or vain, or in denial about the aging process – surely a worse sin than baldness (or, for that matter, sagging breasts or jowls).

Wigs are about more than baldness – they are about honesty and dignity, or the lack of them. Everyone knows that Bruce Forsyth wears a (bad) hairpiece, but few raise the subject in his company. The man is 80 years old now – is it really so shameful to be bald? Maybe not, but if he were to ditch his syrup now, he would be admitting that he’s been fibbing for the last three decades or so. Increasing numbers – Sean Connery, Patrick Stewart and Bruce Willis, for example – are proud of their slaphead status. But others, and I’m sure you know the names, still cower beneath the weave. Come on, guys, when even Heston’s namesake Bobby abandoned his combover, surely the game was up.

There are obvious parallels with homosexuality. I’m sure there are some people in the public eye who have never bothered to come out because everyone knows anyway, and any big announcement would be an embarrassing anticlimax. But wig-wearers don’t need to say anything. They just need to ditch their hairy friends once and for all, and allow their scalps to shine out and proud. Do it, slapheads. Go to the only place where Charlton Heston feared to tread.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Every black'ning Church appalls

Getting theological on CiF's bottom:

The news that the hymn Jerusalem has been banned from Southwark Cathedral has inevitably been denounced by conservative churchmen as evidence of the politically correct namby-pambyism of the Anglican establishment. But this rather misses the point. In the past, some clergymen have objected to its supposed nationalist overtones, perhaps thinking of its popularity with the braying yahoos at the Last Night of the Proms. But the objection of the Dean of Southwark, Colin Slee, is more nuanced: he argues that Jerusalem is "not in the glory of God"; essentially that, in Anglican terms at least, it isn't really a hymn.

And, you know what? He's right. Blake never wrote it as a hymn; it's the preface to his long, obscure poem Milton, and it was only when Hubert Parry set it to music in 1916, as an attempt to rally a war-weary public, that it began to be interpreted in the jingoistic terms beloved of the Daily Telegraph.

Further arrows of desire here...

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Uh-oh, midlife crisis alert

I've been listening to the first Arctic Monkeys album again, prompted by Mojo's provocative decision to tap 'I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor' as the seventh best British indie record ever ever ever, 26 places ahead of the Sea Urchins. I bought the CD shortly after it came out, simply because I felt I ought to hold an opinion about the band, and was a tad underwhelmed (rather as I was with Oasis, whose early waxings I got for the same reason). Listening again, once the hypeclouds have cleared a bit, I'm slightly better disposed. They do their stuff, and Alex Turner has the same cocktail of articulate intelligence, fey vulnerability and deadpan insolence that attracted me to the Buzzcocks and the Smiths and Pulp. But I discovered those bands between the ages of 10 and 25. I discovered the Arctic Monkeys when I was the wrong side of 30. They're good. Maybe they're as good as the Buzzcocks et al. Maybe they're better. But they're not mine.

PS: A memory that may or may not be relevant. When I was about 15 or 16, my friend Alex organised a charity cabaret at school. Three of our classmates performed Neil Young's 'Heart of Gold', which struck me even then as being incredibly old. A rough equivalent today would be for a bunch of teenagers to play 'Don't Look Back in Anger', 'Wannabe' or 'Firestarter'.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Home truth

Small Boo: "I've got a criticism of your blog. You put up too many YouTube clips."

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Puff piece

As identified elsewhere, there's a certain feeling of ennui infesting the blogverse. So, another bloody YouTube clip seems to be in order.

I'm not sure why, but the Japanese subtitles make it even cooler.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Egg fried life

The biographical blurb for Mei Ng's novel Eating Chinese Food Naked reads as follows:

"Mei Ng was born in Queens and lives in Brooklyn. She wrote Eating Chinese Food Naked while working as a temp."

And then you start reading the story itself, and meet Chinese-American Ruby Lee, who lives with her parents in Queens, works as a temp, and really wants to live in Brooklyn with her Jewish boyfriend Nick. OK, we don't know whether she's going to do it - her indecision, the cultural and emotional dialectics that pull her in two directions at once provide the meat of the novel - but everything is laid out in front of you. Ruby is Mei is Ruby is Mei.

And then, as you go along, you might feel the urge to Google Ms Ng, and you find other hints as to the resolution of the plot; but don't follow that link if you don't like surprises. Is real life just one great big SPOILER ALERT?

That said, the book's not bad. The title suggests an element of chick lit: but it's Noo Yawk ethnic slacker chick lit, which isn't so reprehensible. Here, Ruby's having a distinctly awkward conversation with her mother, Bell:

"Do you come?" Ruby looked down at her hands, which were minding their own business, switching a ring from one finger to another.

"What's that?"

"You know. At the end, when the guy... when the stuff comes out and it feels real nice. Women do that too. But without so much stuff. Usually." Ruby spoke slowly and deliberately, as if she were giving Bell a recipe.

"Oh, that. I heard about that. No, not me. I don't need that." Bell held herself a little straighter, differentiating herself from the women who did.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Putting the jackboot in

I didn't plan to celebrate my 500th blog post on April Fool's Day, but that's how it turns out. Neither did I know that the post would refer to a Comment is Free article comparing the leisure pursuits of motor-racing supremo Max Mosley with those of overenthusiastic Star Wars fans, but that seems strangely appropriate as well.

"The story in Sunday's News of the World, alleging that formula one boss Max Mosley indulged in a concentration-camp-themed orgy with five (count 'em!) ladies of questionable virtue, sounds like a glorious return to the good old days of kinky vicars, wife-swapping parties and overly sensitive reporters making their excuses and leaving. Mosley is offering no comment, but one suspects that only some spectacular explaining will save him.

What exactly has he done wrong, then? Pretending to be a Nazi is not actually illegal in Britain, although it's usually regarded as being in pretty poor taste. David Bowie was castigated for flirting with Hitlerian concepts and imagery; few saw the funny side when Richard Desmond and Prince Harry played the Nazi shtick for laughs. But none of them lost their jobs."

Und so weiter...