Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Hacky sack

I’m not really a journalist, you know. I mean, every now and then I do something that might loosely be defined as journalism, but ultimately I’m a bit of a dilettante. I’ve never done any real training (rather like Johann Hari, then) or taken any exams to prove my mettle; and I never quite got round the joining the union.

So I’m not really sure how it would affect me if Ivan Lewis’s proposal, that seriously misbehaving journalists should be struck off, were actually to end up on the statute book. I mean, the people who tend to get struck off are the likes of lawyers and doctors, proper professionals who have to ascribe to codes of ethical conduct. Is journalism in the same sort of zone? I would have thought that proper, trained, accredited hacks would rather welcome such a move, as it protects their jobs from the predations of cheaper, untrained wannabes, but it seems that very few of them have a good word to say about Lewis‘s proposal – possibly wondering whether certain indiscretions in their own professional lives might, under a new regime, provoke expulsion from inky-fingered Eden. In any case, the details are far too blurry: would struck-off journalists just be banned from working for newspapers? All print media? Broadcast as well? And how the hell could you stop them writing for an online product?

Talking of which, Italian lawmakers aligned with Silvio Berlusconi are trying to pass a clause that would enforce a right to reply for those who believe they’ve been defamed on a blog. The blogger would have just 48 hours to accept the submission, or face a potential fine of 12,000 euros. Which seems perfectly fair to me. If I’ve ever said anything horrid about you in nearly six years of blogging, please feel free to answer back in the receptacle provided. In Italian, though, naturally.

PS: Martin Moore of the Media Standards Trust on why a registry of journalists is a silly idea; Hari’s editor, however, seems pretty relaxed about the whole thing.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Hitler has only got one fishball

Sorry, yet another attractive-Asian-teenagers-in-swastikas story, closely following the Japanese cosplay and Thai game show tales. And we’re back in the Land of Smiles, for the tale of a Catholic school in Chiang Mai where the kids interpreted fancy dress in a manner that the present Pontiff might find a little disturbing (albeit less so in his younger days). The link, incidentally, is to the Daily Mail, in case you’re sensitive about associating with such a rag; but since we’re discussing TEENAGERS dressing as HITLER, a certain sense of proportion might be in order here.

However, if you really don’t want to go there, this gist is this. The Sacred Heart school in Chiang Mai has a tradition  of holding an elaborate fancy dress parade on sports day. This year the procession was led by a female Hitler; some students were dressed as SS guards (wielding toy guns) while others waved Nazi flags.  Many offered up an enthusiastic “sieg heil” or two. Some of the expats in attendance voiced their reservations but many of the teachers, let alone the students, simply didn’t understand why anyone might take offence.

And this is the issue. The notion of Hitler as the epitome of evil, a sort of über-bogeyman, just doesn’t resonate in most of Asia, especially with the young. Sure, they know he was one of the baddies – but just one of them. It’s not as if he’s Voldemort.

Still, at least Hitler’s Café in Mumbai has changed its name now.

PS: And some even more startling images from

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Train round the bend

The London Underground has banned a poster for the Lou Reed/Metallica collaboration Lulu because it resembles graffiti. Except that I’ve never seen a graffito that looks remotely like that. Lucy Jones, in the Telegraph, is glad that it’s been banned, but that’s because it glorifies violence against women. Except that it doesn’t, so far as I can see – although some of those commenting on her article probably wouldn’t have much of a problem with that anyway.

And that’s before we get to the fact that Reed took his inspiration from the works of Wedekind and Alban Berg, and the vexed question of whether some art forms (theatre, opera) are allowed to depict ghastly occurrences, while others (heavy metal, advertising posters on public transport systems) aren’t. In any case, I just listened to 30 seconds of the album, and I’m pretty sure the poster will turn out to be the least horrible aspect of it. When did anybody last ban anything on qualitative grounds?

Actually, the Chinese government has done just that, cancelling the talent show Happy Girl, apparently because it kept overrunning its time slot, and because the content was inappropriate for prime time. Although some have whispered that the real reason for its demise was that phone voting encourages notions of democracy; and that it proved to be far more popular than the earnest, plodding programming of China Central Television. Under this analysis, it was essentially shelved for being too good.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A postmodern post-mortem: or, the metafictional paradox of Ernie Wise’s hairpiece

So postmodernism has an exhibition dedicated to it, which probably means that it’s dead. Hari Kunzru (in The Guardian) and Edward Docx (in Prospect) would both agree, although they differ over the precise cause: the former says it was 9/11 and the internet, while the latter thinks we all  just got bored and decided to read Jonathan Franzen novels instead. They are unanimous, however, that: a) postmodernism as a movement was characterised by a desire to break away from pre-ordained notions of taste, morality, even reality, but aside from that it’s quite tricky; and b) the Talking Heads movie Stop Making Sense was very postmodern indeed, thank you. The problem is, though, that as soon as they agree on b), the validity of a) gets a bit of kicking; if postmodernism was tearing up the canon, it’s entirely inappropriate that it can only easily be defined with reference to a canon of its own. (Although in a truly postmodern universe, the concept of “inappropriate” also ceases to have any meaning.)

The same problem applies to such pieces of chinstrokery as Stuart Jeffries’ 10 key moments in postmodernism (also in The Guardian) and a slightly older 61 postmodern reads (from the LA Times). In this instance, if you *are* on the list, surely you can’t come in. Part of the problem is that postmodernism remains all but ineffable, and so rather than formulate a coherent definition of what it is, we find it far easier to point to individual fragments of cultural jetsam and say, yeah, that’s postmodern, so if you see something else like that, it probably is as well.

Which leaves me with two thoughts. First, if authenticity and sincerity  and Franzenicity are the concepts that have replaced postmodernism in our collective affections, then how do we deal with the likes of Jade Goody or William Hung, who have commodified “realness” into a sort of hyperauthenticity, bewitching the media with their finely spun un-spun-ness?

The other notion is that to be truly postmodern is to be self-aware, to go through life flanked by metaphorical quotation masks. And yet if you point too hard and too long, it rather spoils the joke. Which is why the defining artefact of postmodernism should not be a Talking Heads movie nor a Philip Johnson building nor even a pair of Tracey Emin’s pants, but Ernie Wise’s wig, which became a cultural touchstone for an entire generation, despite the minor inconvenience of its non-existence. In fact, it took the notion of the simulacrum into places that even poor, dear Baudrillard couldn’t have conceived: you could see it as an original (Wise’s hair) pretending to be a copy (Wise’s wig) of something that purported not to exist any more (the hair again); or indeed as a reality that wasn’t real, masking – literally and figuratively – something that had never existed (Wise’s baldness).

Now, get out of that.

Monday, September 19, 2011

...than the sword

I know writing isn’t perceived to be the most macho profession around. Sure, there have been writers with a propensity for guns and fighting and similar blokey pursuits – think Hemingway, Burroughs, Mailer, Hunter Thompson – but this usually took place separately from the actual process of wordsmithery; sometimes, indeed, the violence appeared to be a form of compensation for the fey inactivity of the authorial mode.

So I had to flag this one up: West Wing/Social Network scribe Aaron Sorkin has managed to break his own nose while working on a script. You have been warned.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Every day I edit the book

I’m quite fond of Twitter, but every now and then I think of a delightful yet useless task that could be perfect for the medium, were it not for the pesky 140-word limit. What fun we might have with “Elvis Costello songs and/or albums that would make good titles for those Bret Easton Ellis books that aren’t already named after Elvis Costello songs/albums” if it could be squeezed into a hashtag and still leave room for replies.

That said, do you know what comes up first when you Google “Less Than Zero”? Not the Ellis book, nor the Costello song that provided its title, but the film. Which Ellis, in his most recent novel (named after a Costello album, give or take a consonant), describes as “...a beautiful lie... very colorful and busy but also grim and expensive, and it didn’t recoup its cost when released that November.” And if Costello hasn’t written a song called ‘Beautiful Lie’, or even ‘Busy But Grim’, he really should have done.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Back together again

The popular and successful rap singer Mr 50 Cent has, we are led to believe, made another motion picture. Unfortunately, the intended title of the movie was to be Things Fall Apart, which rather annoyed the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, seeing as how he wrote a fairly well-known novel with that name a few decades back. The rapper’s lawyers have explained that “the novel with the said title was initially produced in 1958 (that is 17 years before 50 was born),” (always the get-out clause of dim people on TV game shows) but Achebe has insisted that the title must be changed, to avoid any possible confusion.

Which might provoke a certain degree of amusement among fans of WB Yeats, from whose poem The Second Coming Achebe borrowed the phrase in the first place.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Rhineland’s a fine land once more

There’s been a bit of digital thinking aloud with regard to The Guardian’s abortive @911tenyearsago experiment (although not in The Guardian, oddly enough). Ian Hepburn at False Doorway explained his unease: “We lack neither the immediacy of the events happening now, nor the distance of – say – the World War 2 tweets in a similar vein put out by the National Archive.”

Distance is key it seems, both chronologically and geographically. But as Hepburn suggests, it’s not simply a case that the further away you are (whether in three- or four-dimensional terms) the more you can get away with. I’ve previously discussed the pervasive view of Hitler in Asia, that he was a historical figure who was probably a nasty piece of work, but not really the absolute archetype of evil that he might be in the west. And as such, the idea of dressing up as a Nazi doesn’t seem quite as terrible to Japanese or Indian people as it might to the British (let alone the Germans). Yes,  of course people still do it, but those in the public eye rarely avoid a public flaying, as that amiable halfwit Prince Harry discovered to his cost a few years back.

The odd thing is that as the events of the Second World War grow more distant, the public reaction against this sort of behaviour gets not more indulgent, but less. And then a friend (who happens to be half-British and half-Japanese, which may or may not be significant) reminded me that in 1986 it seemed rather amusing that a cricketing hero should doll up as a Colditz commandant. I doubt his heirs in the current squad would be let off so lightly. Although the Indians might find it moderately amusing.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

How soon is too?

Odd. A Twitter account appears, apparently under the auspices of The Guardian. It is called @911tenyearsago. It describes the events of September 11, 2001, in real time, beginning with “Mohamed Atta and Abdulaziz al-Omari board American Airlines Flight 11 at Boston Logan airport” at 0735 EST. Reaction can best be characterised as surprise, rather than shock; but it picks up nearly 4,000 followers in a couple of hours, so there seems to be a level of interest. Flight 11 hits the North Tower at 0846; President Bush, preparing to enter the Florida classroom, is informed of this nine minutes later. And then... “This account of the events is now ending”. Time freezes at 0905, the South Tower unscathed, Flight 93 still chugging to San Francisco, oblivious to its fate, its role in history and folklore, its forthcoming movie career.

So what went wrong? Were there complaints? Did someone’s bad-taste radar go bleep? And if so, why? Why should an accurate, purely descriptive report of the events of 10 years ago upset people so? No hymns; no prayers; no flags at half-mast; no Paul Simon or James Taylor (baby-boomer sensibilities are more tender than those of mere mortals); no released doves. (Were there doves? There must have been doves at some point.) Feelings are permitted; the facts, suddenly, are verboten. Emotional fascism, Elvis Costello called it. Odd.

PS: The Onion gets it right, but doesn’t it always? And Sam Burnett puts things in their proper context.

9/11: I never could get the hang of Tuesdays

A couple of years back, I wrote a book. Maybe you noticed me mention it. Did you read it, or at least buy it and mean to read it? Some people did, which was nice. It’s still available by the way; as far as I know, no copies were looted. Anyway, it was a book about the Noughties, and as such, there was rather a lot in it about the events of September 11, 2001. Indeed, it’s probably fair to say that I cast 9/11 as the main character in the drama of the decade, the point around which everything else revolved. Which is hardly a radical piece of historical revisionism, but almost as soon as the book had gone off to press, I began to have my doubts. A few years before, I’d written a piece for The Guardian about the way that, post-9/11, the slightest disturbance in New York City seemed to trigger alarms in editorial offices in all corners of the world, even if it turned out to be caused by a common-or-garden accident; so a plane crash in NYC that kills two people is the headline in Le Monde, edging out a train crash in France that had killed 12. But in writing the book, I’d put my scepticism to one side, and worked within the mainstream, Applecentric perspective.

But it still niggled: was this agenda really viable? Was 9/11 really the lynchpin of the decade, for everyone from Beijing to Bamako? Were the 230,000 people wiped out by the 2004 tsunami really a smaller blip on the decade’s radar than the 3,000 who died in the terrorist attacks? In some of the articles I wrote to tie in with the book, I did try to raise the possibility that the overwhelming significance of 9/11 was a question of geopolitical perspective, but I really didn’t have the courage of my convictions. (I hope, however, that I’ve earned a little kudos for linking the phrase “false dawn” to the election of Obama.) Anyway, multiple brownie points to David Rothkopf, whose Foreign Policy article identifies 10 – T*E*N! – things about the past decade that were bigger than 9/11.

Also: the late David Foster Wallace, in 2007, tells the truth by asking questions; Rupert Cornwell on a wasted decade; Blackwatertown offers the journalist’s angle; Mrs Peel checks out the visuals; and Christopher sums up everything so neatly and sweetly that I don’t know why the rest of us bother.

But I will anyway. Since everyone’s been pitching in with their where-were-you-when story over the past few weeks (we’re all Zapruders now), I’ll bore you with mine one last time. I was in the British Museum, which had a small display dedicated to the work of the architect Norman Foster. I was particularly interested in the Millennium Tower, a projected development in Tokyo which, had it been constructed, would have been the tallest building ever. To give some idea of scale, they put the model alongside simulacra of about a dozen other buildings that had been, at the time of their construction, the tallest in the world, going back to the Eiffel Tower. So, when I got the call telling me that the first plane had hit (I seem to remember the news of the second strike coming while I was looking for a pub with a telly) I was standing over a model of a building that never was, and a couple that very soon wouldn’t be.

(The image above is an Indian pharmaceutical ad from around 2003, courtesy of Gothamist. And below is a place where the towers still stand.) 

Friday, September 09, 2011

Jiving us that we were voodoo

Sometimes people send me links to things, in the hope that I’ll mention them on the blog. Apparently they’re not terribly bothered whether I’m nice or nasty or indifferent about them, provided the product gets a mention. I will however take this opportunity to note that Anatomy of Norbiton is delightfully odd; and that High50 isn’t my sort of thing quite yet, thanks, although I did catch myself last night ranting about why people today are rubbish because they listen to Justin Bieber when they could be enjoying Marlena Shaw, so maybe I really should spend more time there. Oh, and I just got an e-mail to remind me to remind you that Rock’s Backpages will be 10 years old in November, but since that’s got some of my stuff on it, that’s hardly a disinterested plug.

A link, however, is just a link; every now and then someone sends me something analogue and meatyspacey. The estimable Howard Male, for example, who put my way a copy of his novel Etc Etc Amen. And I think the solidity, the realness of the book is what caught my attention, rather more than an e-book might have done. The author has had some copies made up through the auspices of, but it’s fairly clear that this is just a means to an end: he wants a proper, old-school publisher to pick it up. And there are plenty of arguments to be had around that notion, and whether a book only becomes a book when a publisher says it is (and backs that up with hard cash) but we’ve been there, haven’t we?

Etc Etc Amen is a novel about rock music. Except that it isn’t of course, because plenty of people have attempted to write novels about rock music and failed: the best stab was, in my far-from-humble opinion, Nik Cohn’s I Am Still the Greatest says Johnny Angelo, but that’s another story, literally and figuratively.

The plot revolves around Zachary B, a glam rock star whose identity clearly owes much to David Bowie and Marc Bolan, but is specifically distinguished from either (Bowie lends him his Stylophone). He’s clearly clever and talented, but not as much of either as he thinks he is. Success makes him something of a petulant ponce; failure just makes him a self-pitying git. Male wisely  avoids attempting to render the actual process of music-making in fictional form, apart from a deliciously bathetic comeback gig in Trafalgar Square. He’s far more interested in those that feed off rock’s festering corpse: the journalist who gets too close; the eerily calm stalker; the fans who turn his slightest utterances into a religion. And this is where things get interesting.

The narrative, which boogies back and forth between London in the 1970s and Marrakech in something approximating the present day, is broken up by philosophical screeds expounding the KUU, the Knowing Unknowable Universe. It’s a sort of fundamentalist agnosticism, and I personally found its details eminently skippable, but then I gave up on the poetry in Pale Fire, so what do I know? That’s not really the point, though. Just as the nature of Zachary’s music is all but irrelevant, so is the content of the KUU. It’s the effect that each of them has on people that matters, the ability of rock and religion to persuade people to do bloody stupid things. It’s not necessarily an original idea (think of Bowie’s leper messiah) but Male is more convincing than most in persuading us that fandom can snowball into something bigger and worse: the climax is like the Jonestown Massacre choreographed by the Marx Brothers. And who’s to say that’s not feasible? People must have looked on the early Christians in a similar manner to the way we see those Bolan fanatics who gather at Barnes Common every September.

Male hasn’t written the Great Rock ‘n’ Roll novel, but then I don’t think anyone ever will. What he has done is to write one of the smartest, most knowing books about fandom since Nick Hornby’s early stuff. The text could possibly do with a modest trim, and there are a few typos here and there, but that’s what publishers are supposed to deal with, right? So, publishers – deal with it.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Before I finally go insane

In the absence of any plausible earworms these days, I make up my own. For some reason I can’t shake from my head the notion of Frankie Howerd singing ‘Black Betty’ although – as far as I’m aware – he never did. No worries, because 90s electro-japesters Fortran 5 had a similar idea. The whole point of their version of ‘Layla’ revolves around the moderately amusing fact that ‘Derek and the Dominos’ sounds a bit like ‘Derek Nimmo’. So this is what they did:

A straightforward concept, perhaps, and the execution was even simpler: just plonk Mr Nimmo in the studio with a pink gin and a lyric sheet and you’re done. A little tougher was their attempt at recording Pink Floyd’s song ‘Bike’, replacing the ethereal voice of Syd Barrett with the rather earthier tones of Sid James; the problem was that James had died in 1976. They resorted to some rather elegant splicing of existing recordings, effectively resurrecting the old rogue as a whimsical hippy:

Which rather throws down the gauntlet, doesn’t it? Should I root around the thricenays and oohmissuses of Howerd’s audio oeuvre to make real the bizarre performance that’s banging around my brain? Or is there a more fitting combination of 70s rock anthem and dead comedian that might more profitably occupy my time? Do let me know.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

The end

These are trying and confusing times for those of us who make words do vaguely interesting things and hope to be paid for our efforts occasionally (apart from full-time Scrabble hustlers, they’re remarkably sanguine about everything). Oh noes, says Ewan Morrison in The Guardian, the book is dead, and pretty soon “writing, as a profession, will cease to exist.” Hey, chill, says Lloyd Shepherd in the same fine publication, it’s just changing, not dying, y’know, like a Time Lord. (I made that last bit up.) And John Walsh in The Independent awakens from a long lunch just so he can worry that kids today don’t read Fowler’s Modern English Usage like they used to. He then worries even more, because his publisher’s buggered off without paying the bill. (I’m afraid I made that bit up as well.)

Meanwhile, Waterstone’s stops doing its 3 for 2 offers.

I know it’s not quite what Roland Barthes meant by the Death of the Author, but it does feel as if the Death of the Author or the Writer or Writing or the Book is only being forestalled by an infinite number of writers writing about whether they are or aren’t dead yet.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Quality control

Sean Adams, top banana at the splendid Drowned in Sound music site, yesterday tweeted thus:
Persnickety perfectionist comment posters unite! Donate to a fund for full-time sub-editors for websites you’re charged nothing to read...
Well, um, yes and no. It must indeed be deeply galling to devote huge chunks of one’s free time to an online project that has brought entertainment and information to hundreds of thousands of readers, none of whom have paid you a farthing for the privilege, and then have one of them point out that in the midst of a 7,000-word retrospective on the career of the big lad who looks like a farmer from Boyzone, the author uses “affect” when she really means “effect” and thus must be a bad writer who knows nothing of the big lad’s work and thus the whole site is entirely worthless. And Adams does hint at one of the dirty little secrets of mainstream media, the fact that plenty of people who appear to be Good Writers (whatever that may mean) probably wouldn’t be labelled as such if it weren’t for the assistance of subs and fact-checkers and other mostly anonymous troubleshooters. Their contribution to journalism is as great as that of plastic surgeons to Hollywood, and don’t you forget it.

Moreover, as budgets at mainstream media outlets get tighter, while at the same time the sheer volume of content required increases, the need for such quality control become more transparently obvious. Every few days, it seems, a local newspaper somewhere outsources its sub-editing function, and the result is never an improvement (except, possibly, on the balance sheet). And then there are those established papers that have jumped on the blogwagon, but don’t feel the need to extend the benefits of an editorial once-over to those who huff and puff under their brand identity. I do find it amusing that Toby Young, who has become a standard bearer for the Free Schools movement, still makes egregious grammatical errors on his Telegraph blog, which are only eradicated after readers (the digital ghostbabies of Simon Heffer, perhaps?) have pointed them out.

But at the same time, that shouldn’t be a permanent get-out clause for writers who don’t have big money behind them. Andrew Keen and his like sneer at bloggers and other one-person bands because they’re not Proper Journalists, even when they’re not trying to be Proper Journalists (which is, of course, different from Good Writers, but that’s another thing). However, that doesn’t mean that bloggers don’t have a duty to use language accurately and appropriately, and even more importantly, to get their facts right, and to respond graciously if someone points out a mistake. To shrug and say, “What do you expect? It’s only a blog,” is to do the haters’ work for them, and reinforces an us-and-them scenario in online media which should have been redundant five years ago. (And incidentally, I know that’s not what Sean Adams was doing. He was, after all, decent enough to let me write a piece for him a while back.)

OK, you persnickety perfectionist comment posters, tell me what I’ve done wrong.