Saturday, July 30, 2011

You can’t touch this

In the New York Times, Nick Bilton describes his dilemma as he moves to a new city; what to with all his books. “What’s the point if I’m not going to use them? I have digital versions now on my Kindle,” he asks. “If I was talking about throwing away my CD or DVD collection, no one would bat an eyelid.”

The latter is probably true; but if he’d been talking about a collection of vinyl records, eyelids would bat like Stuart Broad with something to prove. Maybe I’m showing myself up – like Roger Ebert – as an analogue diehard, but might it be the case that when we can get hold of stuff by digital means, whether by downloading it or ordering it from Amazon, it ceases to mean that much; and is thus easier to jettison?

(That said, this post is based on a conversation that began on Google+, so maybe I’m not as analogue as I make out.)

PS: And here’s someone quietly raging against the dying of the reading light.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Stuck in a moment you can’t get out of (unless you buy a big new telly)

Marshall McLuhan was born 100 years ago this month. Here’s self-confessed McLuhagnostic and analogue native Roger Ebert to provide a personal/historical perspective – with the help of a couple of Russians – on MM’s “rearview-mirror” concept of the social and technological environment:
I grew up in a world of books, magazines, radio, black & white television, and movies that were shown in movie theaters. I was well enough established in that world that it created an “invisible environment.” It never occurred to me that there was anything new about those forms of media. When Gorky saw the first silent films, he called them “the Kingdom of Shadows,” and added: “If you only knew how strange it is to be there.” When Tolstoy saw a movie for the first time, he said: “You will see this little clicking contraption with the revolving handle will make a revolution in our life – in the life of writers. We shall have to adapt ourselves to the shadowy screen and the cold machine.” He rather liked movies. “The cinema has divined the mystery of motion. And that is its greatness.”

Have you ever (have I ever?) given much conscious thought to the fact that movies move? The very term “motion picture” was coined in a world in which pictures did not move. Yet within a few years after Gorky and Tolstoy saw the first films, Charlie Chaplin was the most famous man in the world, and nobody gave it a moment's thought. The invisible environment had changed to accommodate a new kind of visibility.
Or, as Douglas Adams put it:
...everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal; anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it; anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.
(Image from

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Something to spray

Concern has been expressed at the ease with which someone was able to spray red paint over Poussin’s The Adoration of the Golden Calf in the National Gallery last week, and the event has prompted calls for security checks, protective glass and entrance fees to our great art collections. The latter argument is particularly odd, as it implies that someone with an insatiable urge to damage great art would be deterred if it cost a fiver or so to exercise his or her critical faculties.

In fact, responses to the Poussin attack became rather more measured once rumours arose that it wasn’t motivated by sheer philistinism, but by some quasi-mystical stack of conspiracy theories that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Dan Brown schlockbuster. It wasn’t just dumb vandalism, you see: it was, in a strange way, a work of art. The fact that the damage caused (minimal, as it turned out, thanks to the prompt action of the National’s resident troubleshooters) was just the same as if it had been some bored drunkard wielding the can is irrelevant, apparently.

The notion that it might be some kind of religious protest is certainly feasible; to be honest, I can’t think of an instance where an attack on a major work of art has turned out to have been conducted in the same spirit that possesses a disaffected, Adidas-clad 12-year-old inking a spunking cock and balls on the wall of an underpass. Such assaults usually turn out to be prompted either by genuine madness, or the desire to make some sort of political point (the suffragette who slashed the Rokeby Venus; the attack on Marcus Harvey’s Myra Hindley portrait). And then of course there are defacements sanctioned by the art world itself, such as the Chapman brothers’ hijacking of Goya etchings; or Duchamp’s doodle on the Mona Lisa. The danger invariably comes from someone pissing within the tent. The outsiders don’t care enough about Poussin’s work even to ruin it.

If there were any chance that some priceless work in the National’s collection were to fall victim to the nihilistic whims of a trackie-bottomed ned, it wouldn’t be entrance fees that dissuaded him; it would be the fact that it was in the National.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Gloup, Gloup

The consensus seems to be that Jonathan May-Bowles, aka Jonnie Marbles, the man who tried to liven up the Murdochs’ appearance before the Culture, Media and Sport committee is something of a berk, a wally, a twunt and possibly even worse. A few conspiracists have even argued that he has to be in the employ of News International, because his intervention provoked sympathy for the embattled Rupert (who of course would then deny having anything to do with him, and he certainly didn’t pay him).

The language used to cover Marbles’s contribution is interesting: most hacks have reported the empirical reality that his weapon of choice was “a paper plate of shaving foam” or words to that effect. Had it been defined as a pie or a tart – since, after all, shaving foam is the main constituent of the pies that a circus clown might fling, although you have to let them stand for an hour or two to get the sting out – the attacker might have been seen as a confrère of the heroic Noël Godin (aka Georges Le Gloupier) the Belgian entarteur whose victims include Bill Gates, Nicolas Sarkozy and Jean-Luc Godard.

Those who criticise Marbles suggest that his activities distracted from the bigger story, the ritual inquisition of those ultimately for the hacking scandal; the Labour Party has primly suspended his membership. In reality, with the exception of the redoutable Tom Watson, the committee’s questions were pretty bland, and I’m pretty sure that at one point Murdoch Senior actually nodded off. Marbles is on the naughty step, not because he attacked Murdoch, but because he implicitly attacked the whole rotten system that implicates politicians, police and media, smug pigs with their expensively manicured front trotters in the same trough. He’s in trouble not for what he did, but for what he meant. And the fact that his Twitter following rocketed in the minutes after that sublimely “WTF?” moment should also raise a question mark or several with regard to the shallow, transient celeb culture that the Murdoch press has helped to foster over the past few years.

Which is not to insist, of course, that he isn’t still a bit of a twunt.

PS: Mr Marbles in his own words; and, at Pickled Politics, Sunny Hundal comments on the comments.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Desynchronosis blues

I am suffering from jet lag, but as is usually the case, it is somebody else’s jet lag. Whereas I ought to be operating under the gentle, understandable befuddlement of one who is in Bangkok, thinking it’s Istanbul, a few calculations indicate I actually feel like someone in Lima whose rhythms are still shaking their circadian thang in Mumbai. As a result, when I fall asleep in the middle of the afternoon, it’s not just embarrassing, it’s inexplicable. I reckon every airline on which I travel slips some weird anti-melatonin in my drink, simply to ensure that no matter how ghastly the flight, how loud the shrieks of the feral children, how toxic the snuffles and coughs of the dodgy Vietnamese businessman at my shoulder, once I get off the plane, it will be even worse.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Against the current

The sainted Roger Ebert has torn into an intermediate level ‘retelling’ of The Great Gatsby that replaces great slabs of Fitzgerald’s heady prose with unspeakable blandness:
There is no purpose in *reading* The Great Gatsby unless you actually *read* it. Fitzgerald’s novel is not about a story. It is about *how the story is told*. Its poetry, its message, its evocation of Gatsby's lost American dream, is expressed in Fitzgerald’s style – in the precise words he chose to write what some consider the great American novel. Unless you have read them, you have not read the book at all. You have been imprisoned in an educational system that cheats and insults you by inflicting a barbaric dumbing-down process. You are left with the impression of having read a book, and may never feel you need return for a closer look.
Well, yes, but... As several of Ebert’s respondents have suggested, in the real world, the choice is not so much between reading emasculated Fitzgerald and reading real Fitzgerald, but between reading emasculated Fitzgerald and not reading anything whatsoever. This is a line I used often when I edited the Guinness Book of Records, which was often attacked for being glossy and sensationalist compared to the glory days of the McWhirter brothers: at least we’re getting 12-year-old boys to read books, I said, and that shut them up. Sometimes I almost convinced myself.

Meanwhile, that other great sage Prince Charles has declared that it is “awful” for young readers that there are no more Harry Potter books on the horizon; which would suggest that children eased into the world of literature by the Rowling brand are unable to break out of Hogwarts and attempt more challenging texts. That said, would that be such as great loss if the next thing they reached for was Gatsby Lite?

Saturday, July 09, 2011


My grandfather was a respectable member of the bourgeoisie who ran his own drapery shop and played bowls. I think he may even have been a Freemason. And he read the News of the World, because the sports reporting was good, and because “we need to know these things are going on in the world.”

I don’t think he would have felt the need to know these things.

If the News of the World, as has been suggested, is replaced by a Sunday edition of The Sun, I make one suggestion: that Rebekah Brooks should make the tea. And that she never be permitted to take a holiday.

(Image by Political Scrapbook.)

Wednesday, July 06, 2011


In the midst of a stack of papers, including a 60-page radio script that has my name on the cover, but I’m damned if I remember writing it, I find the filleted remains of a 15-year-old cheque book. The first thing that strikes me as I flip through the stubs is how scrupulously I noted the payee, the amount, and often the product that was being paid for. I even carried over the resulting balance in my account. Apparently I was in the black as well, which is odd.

But some of these messages from the last century now conspire to baffle me. Who or what was JM Cave, and why did I pay him/her/it £1.50 for underwear? Even in 1996, that would only have bought a single pair of pants, surely? Did some unspecified mishap leave me in desperate need of boxers, but bereft of cash? Perhaps I’ve erased the memory of such a predicament from my mind.

And then I turn to the next stub: one of your English pounds to A. Mannion, for something identified as deliceuse. And then £1.20 to L. Hoggett for suicidal lemons and it suddenly all falls into place. These – Underwear, Deliceuse, Suicidal Lemons, R*E*P*E*A*T, All About D, Michael Bolton Looks Like A Potato and so on – were all fanzines. I sent cheques to people, perhaps with stamped addressed envelopes, and they sent fanzines back to me, fanzines full of earnest, whimsical, cute, bitchy, profound, tortured, confused prose about Pulp and Bis and the Manic Street Preachers and how John Peel was going to live forever. Some even had glitter on the covers. I even thought of starting one, went as far as putting a small ad in Select magazine, asking for demos, and some arrived, and most were rubbish, but the mag never quite happened. Bikini Machine, it would have been called. In many ways, Cultural Snow is the fanzine I never wrote. All that’s missing is the glitter.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Hacks and hackers

I know some of my regular readers think I’ve been a little soft on Johann Hari. For what it’s worth, I think what he did was wrong, and I’ve never done it myself; but I’m probably guilty of other varieties of journalistic sleight of hand, and I’m pretty certain many of the hacks who joined in the digital lynching over the past week would also admit to having taken the occasional liberté with the actualité if you bought them a drink or two. In any case, if the latest revelations about the phone-hacking saga are accurate, Hari’s misdemeanours begin to look more like silly youthful indiscretions by comparison.

Anyway, in The National I’ve written a more considered piece about the ramifications of young Johann’s shenanigans. On reflection, I should perhaps have included Keats’s gag about truth and beauty, but that would have been on top of Capote and Eliot. Excessive quoting probably isn’t appropriate in this context.

PS: Some have taken exception, it seems. “Uric philosophy”, indeed.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Orient excess

Two angles on greyish-pink Brits in unfamiliar climes, each of them to some extent food-related. The first is from Stewart Lee’s most recent TV show:

And then from AA Gill’s Table Talk collection, a discussion of durian:
Inside, the flesh is marmoreally slimy, some say silky. Personally, I think it’s like lost babies who have been drowned in baths of whey. The flesh clings to the stones like putrefying muscle. You have to suck and nibble. Few Westerners manage that twice... It defies categorisation and nothing so marks the yawning gulf between hot East and cool West as this strange, misbegotten Caliban food – a vegetable that thinks it’s a cadaver.