Monday, December 31, 2012

Hitler at Hogmanay


I did consider ending the year with a strokey-chinny meditation on Maurizio Cattelan’s praying Hitler sculpture in the Warsaw ghetto and wondering whether it was more or less offensive than the recent von Hausswolff painting and guessing that the Chapman brothers are probably a wee bit pissed off that their own Hitler crazy golf effort suddenly looks a little anodyne; and then trying somehow to link it to the fact that the most popular page on the German version of Wikipedia has been revealed as “cul de sac”. But it didn’t hang together and ultimately it’s my blog, not Hitler’s, and as such it’s all about me, isn’t it? So...


And just to remind the various disembodied bots and Charlotte Rampling fans who show up here trying to sell me Ugg boots, my Infinite Jest blog is still twitching occasionally and several of my books remain available in the usual vicinities. Have a good one, people.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Gilbert Gottfried and the decline and fall of the American empire

In the New York Review of Books, Tim Parks describes the frustrations of being an English writer working for the US market, and I know what he means. It’s not just about the divergences in word use and orthography that have set in since we benevolently decided the colonial bicycle could run without stabilisers; it’s about a whole host of assumptions and inferences, about shifting expectations of what readers might know or not know. (It’s also about tone, so if any passing American Republican readers feel obliged to point out that my metaphorical analysis of the endgame of their Revolutionary War is a tad indulgent to the British, please look up “sarcasm” before commenting. Have a nice day!)

Anyway, language and content. Parks is relatively relaxed about using “gotten” where his instinct would be to put “got”, because that’s a clear cut example of how the language has developed on each side of the Atlantic. What does irk him is that he’s forced to convert to miles, fahrenheit and the twelve-hour clock, even when he’s writing about Italy:
Slowly, as well as being concerned that some sentences were now feeling clunky and odd, I began to wonder if American readers really needed or demanded this level of protection. Wouldn’t they soon figure out, if I said “the temperature was up in the sizzling thirties,” that I was talking Celsius? Or at least that in another part of the world people had another system for measuring temperature where thirty was considered warm? Mightn’t it be fascinating for them to be reminded that the twenty-four-hour clock, which Americans usually associate with military operations, has long been in standard civilian usage in Europe? Italy introduced it as early as 1893.

There are two things going on here. The first, of course, is American cultural hegemony, which means that the average Italian (or a Briton or a Malaysian or an Algerian or whatever) will almost certainly know more about American culture than a similarly random American will know about Italian culture. But there’s a rider to that; because Americans are exposed to so little unfiltered foreign culture, they’re not expected to be able to cope with it. So a Brit may not know who Gilbert Gottfried or Sandy Koufax is, but will probably be able to work out from the context a rough idea why they’re famous; the gatekeepers of US culture will feel the need to explain Norman Wisdom or Monty Panesar to consumers, or even delete the references entirely. (I discussed this a few years ago, in relation to the TV show Extras being tweaked for American viewers.) And we never know whether those consumers have the curiosity to solve the riddles, because they’re so rarely put in a situation where such ingenuity is necessary. Way back when I was working on the North American edition of the Guinness Book of Records, I was specifically ordered not to put metric equivalents alongside US measures “because it’ll only confuse them”.

Another example. I’ve got the US edition of The Salmon of Doubt, a posthumous collection of Douglas Adams’s writings. Now, someone has apparently decided that references to “Britain” or “the UK” will be too taxing to readers, so they’ve been replaced by “England”. Most of the time this doesn’t matter much, since although Adams was British, he was also English; he was born and educated in the English bit of Britain and spent most of his life there. But then you get to a sentence such as “But I also believe that England should enter the European Monetary Union.” Apart from the fact that this would have been a constitutional impossibility, surely an American who knew what the European Monetary Union was would also know that England and the UK were two different things?

The fact is that the US has been able to maintain this glorious aloofness because of the economic and cultural advantage it has enjoyed over much of the world for the past 60 years or so. Now that the end of that period of domination is in sight, will they be able to cope with the fact that kilometres and cricket and Norman Wisdom exist, whether they understand them or not? Or are they simply going to disengage from everyone else and celebrate their glorious post-imperial decline by watching endless clips of Gilbert Gottfried? Whoever the hell he is.

Friday, December 21, 2012

What have the Mayans ever done for us?


Well, if today goes according to plan, DJs will be playing plenty of REM and Skeeter Davis, maybe even Bobby Womack, as their decks implode before their melting eyes. If it’s all a false alarm, it’ll be the Super Furries. But if you’ve really caught the apocalypse bug, you could do far worse than watch Don McKellar’s Last Night (1998), a movie so deliciously Canadian that the world can’t even be bothered to end with a whimper, let alone a bang; more like an apology. See you on the other side!

 

PS: And if you haven’t completely given up hope, I’ve even written another post for my not-dead-yet Infinite Jest blog.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Cuts in arts funding

The National Portrait Gallery has purchased a self-portrait by the late Craigie Aitchison, complete with slashes that the artist inflicted on it after an acquaintance described it as “flattering”. This comes in the wake of a two-year sentence handed down to Wlodzimierz Umaniec, who defaced a Rothko at Tate Modern as a means of publicising his Yellowist ideology. Now, since the painting was Aitchison’s own work and property, no charges were levelled when he indulged in his own bout of practical self-criticism, but one does wonder whether his amendments have added to or detracted from the monetary value of the piece. Also, taking into account Duchamp’s desecration of the Mona Lisa and the Chapman brothers having their wicked way with Goya, it must be asked whether there’s some sort of hierarchy at work. If a more exalted artist than Mr Umaniec were to whip out the felt tips and improve an existing work, would there be a different reaction. An Aitchison slashed by Aitchison costs £36,512; how much for an Aitchison slashed by Rothko?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Kim Wilde: you took my dreams from me



Yesterday, somebody posted a video of 80s songstress Kim Wilde and her brother Ricky drunkenly performing two of her old hits on a commuter train coming out of London. It went, as they say, viral, as the YouTube clip migrated to Facebook, Twitter and then to the mainstream media.

What was its appeal? Three things, I think. One is a persistent affection for Ms Wilde herself; never a great singer in a technical sense, she has forged a career with a combination of looks, charisma and self-deprecating good humour. She’s a trouper, a sex symbol who’s also one of the lads. If an American equivalent of Kim Wilde (Debbie Gibson? Cyndi Lauper? Tiffany?) had started belting out her back catalogue on the New York subway after a few too many tequilas, she would have been in rehab by the time the networks got hold of it. Not in Britain. So Kim Wilde likes a pint. What’s not to love?

The second is that the clip reinforces a stereotype about the uptight British not wanting to get involved, not wanting to join in, not wanting to show themselves up, especially on public transport. One or two of her fellow passengers get the joke (“It’s actually her!”), a few join in with the chorus (“Woh-oh!”) but those in camera shot just try to pretend the whole thing’s not really happening. Although to be fair, maybe some of them were too young to have remembered Kim in her hit-making days. Or maybe they were foreign. If they are going to rewrite the test that newcomers to the UK have to take before they become citizens, perhaps they ought to demand a knowledge of the lyrics of ‘Kids in America’. Or, as I’ve long argued, the theme song to It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, complete with bellowed “SHUT UP!” and sitar obbligato.

But ultimately it fits the modern mood of Christmas, the bitter, battered, rueful, ‘Fairytale of New York’ attitude. Kim could have been someone, but instead she’s (metaphorically at least), the old slut on junk and Ricky’s the scumbag, the maggot; while Beyoncé might be sipping Moët in the back of a limo with Mr Z, Kim’s on the train, a bit pissed, wearing antlers, with her bald, chubby brother, and she gets off at Potters Bar. Happy Christmas your arse.

Anyway, whatever the reason, the clip became popular. “This is the best thing on the internet, ever,” typed some. “Made my day,” was the more restrained response of others. And then, pretty soon, people were taking to Twitter to say how bored they were of Kim Wilde drunk on a train and they wished their friends would stop posting the link. We’re talking minutes, not hours; not even ‘Gangnam Style’ became so annoying so quickly. And at about the same time, I started to wonder aloud – and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one – whether the whole thing wasn’t just a stunt staged for the benefit of the radio station where she works. The person who posted the clip, who supposedly just happened to be in the carriage at the same time, specifically mentioned that the Wildes are on the way back from the Magic FM Christmas party. How did she know? In any case, why should she mention such a thing unless it’s all part of the publicity game? When Ms Wilde took to Twitter to admit that she was recovering from her exertions, she also took the trouble to keep the message on-brand. Something apparently so spontaneous, so daft and fun, was just another cold serving of capitalism gruel; in Situationist terms, an act of recuperation. It was that moment when you realise a flash mob is an advert with ideas above its station. Happy Christmas right up your arse.

So the needles were already beginning to fall from the tree, even as the horrible news started to trickle in from an elementary school in Connecticut. And at that point, we all got off at Potters Bar.

PS: The Daily Mail even mentions the radio station in the bloody headline. Which suggests that they know it’s a stunt, but they’re quite happy about the fact.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Raymond Briggs: everything melts in the end


I never properly got the bug for comics and/or graphic novels, but my childhood was definitely enhanced by the mordant brilliance of Raymond Briggs. I think his masterpieces are Fungus the Bogeyman and When the Wind Blows (with the later, heartbreaking Ethel and Ernest coming up behind) but usually when I mention his name I have to explain that he was the man behind The Snowman. It’s a good story but the lack of text means we’re deprived of Briggs’s facility for verbal wit and irony. And although the film is perfectly watchable, I’ve always been pretty ambivalent about the Yuletide add-ons that have made it a seasonal favourite (although they do allow us to point and laugh at dunderheads such as this bloke). It’s not about Christmas; it’s about death and loss and the end of innocence. All the stuff that really matters to kids, in fact. And Briggs himself agrees, it seems.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Friday, December 07, 2012

Carl Michael von Hausswolff and the value of bad publicity


The Swedish artist Carl Michael von Hausswolff has claimed that he used ashes from the Majdanek concentration camp in one of his paintings. Of course, this has provoked outrage, which was probably the whole point; it makes dead sharks and elephant poo seem positively sedate. The question is, would it be more or less outrageous if he subsequently announced that he’d been making the whole thing up?

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

The Descendants: muck this for a laugh


I’ve only just got round to seeing last year’s The Descendants, directed by Alexander Payne and featuring an Oscar-nominated performance by George Clooney as a man facing up to the imminent death of his wife. And it was good; sensitive without being sentimental and peopled with flawed but ultimately sympathetic characters. But either you know that already, having seen it, or don’t care, having decided not to; I’m assuming that I’m the last person on the planet who did want to see the thing but was too idle to do anything about it. The only serious flaw was ultimately my own fault; I watched it on a plane.

It wasn’t the small screen size that disrupted my enjoyment, nor the guy in front of me experimenting with his seat incline. Nor was it even the nasty, rigid headphones. No, it was yet another example of the infantilisation that everyone has to undergo when they step on a plane these days. OK, plastic cutlery and having your toothpaste confiscated, I can grudgingly see the point of that. but censoring every film to make it suitable viewing for a Victorian maiden aunt doesn’t make me feel safer; it makes me want to commit acts of random violence, possibly involving duty free goods.

OK, let’s deal with the obvious ones. Air passengers aren’t allowed to hear the word “fuck” or variations thereon, even though I’m sure they get muttered sotto voce every time someone is told to remove his belt at security. In this version of The Descendants, there are two alternatives. When it’s used as an all-purpose modifier (eg “What’s your fucking problem?”), the syllable is replaced by “freak”. When it’s a transitive verb, however (a usage that comes into play when Clooney’s character discovers his comatose wife had been unfaithful to him) we get “Did you muck my wife?”

So far, so Harry Enfield. But the swearing in The Descendants actually serves a purpose, indicating Clooney’s clumsy attempts to impose a little discipline on his variously dysfunctional offspring. So when his younger daughter calls her sister something odd but innocuous like “motherless girl”, Clooney’s response is to berate her for her bad language; an exchange that only makes sense if you know the phrase is a stand-in for “motherfucker”. And if you know language like that, surely you’re already corrupted.

That said, it’s not just George Carlin’s seven words that cause problems for the inflight Bowdlers. They also have to contend with the warriors/worriers of political correctness, such as this blogger who objected to the use of “retarded”. Again the word becomes the subject of an exchange about appropriate usage, although Clooney’s character is the bad guy here; but because the word itself isn’t heard, the whole scene is effectively meaningless. (The dubbing is particularly inept here; I assume they tried to replace “retarded” with “repugnant” but it ends up as something like “retugnant”. Which is potentially a good word, and I must think of a meaning for it some time.)

But the best moment comes when the elder daughter is trying to convince Clooney of his wife’s infidelity, explaining that she saw her going into a house with a man. Clooney suggests there must be an innocent explanation, but the girl’s having none of it: “He had his hand on her arm,” she says. But I don’t think she really said “arm”.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Bullshit defective

I am grateful to Mikaloguer for alerting me to the existence of the Blablameter, which exists, it says here, to determine the level of bullshit in a piece of text. That said, when I enter anything that I’ve written, it judges the BS level to be low-to-non-existent. The only possible explanations I can think of are that the thing doesn’t work; or that I genuinely don’t write bullshit (unlikely); or that my bullshit is just really, really effective.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Presidential piss and pork products


Polemicist-cum-weeping-buffoon Glenn Beck has put a model of President Obama in a jar of urine. Meanwhile, a 16-year-old has been arrested in Sussex for throwing ham at a mosque. One or both or neither of these is art. My head hurts. I blame Duchamp. Let's put him in some urine and throw him at the Pompidou Centre. Maybe we should just declare Year Zero and go back to cave paintings and start again. Although there would doubtless be some fur-clad* numpty in the cave, claiming that a child of five could do that.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Twitter: computer shall talk nonsense unto computer

A while ago I signed up to a service called TwentyFeet; at least, I assume I did, because I have no memory of doing so. TwentyFeet analyses the verious comings and goings of one’s Twitter account, which it then packages into a single weekly report. Not the content, though; just how people have responded to the content, what they’ve done to it. So the most recent report reads:
My week on twitter: 112 retweets received, 1 new listings, 5 new followers, 100 mentions. Via:
And that report is sent as a tweet from my account. Now, one of the problems with this is that some people might think that I’m making a conscious decision to tell people how many retweets, new followers etc I’ve had in the past seven days. And although I’m not as a rule bothered about what other people may think of me, there’s one significant and paradoxical exception; I’m bothered that people may think that I’m bothered about what people think of me. And if people do think I’m a bit needy, is it worse to blow one’s own trumpet, or to get a bit of software to blow it for you?


There’s another service, to which I haven’t signed up, called Paper.li. It goes through the feeds of the Twitter accounts that you follow and collates articles to which they’ve linked, turning them into a sort of virtual newspaper. Now, the problem with this is that it just goes for the content that has been linked, cutting out any contextual comment made by the user. So if I send a tweet saying:
Cuh, this article in the Mail on Sunday/Huffington Post/Goat Breeder’s Quarterly is a bit rubbish!  
...what appears in the finished product is said article with my Twitter identity attached, which implies that I’ve somehow sanctioned it. Again, it doesn’t bother me unduly that people might think I approve of an article in Goat Breeder’s Quarterly, but sometimes it just ain’t so. Anyway, someone called Colin Campbell (not this Colin Campbell, as far as I know) follows me on Twitter and the dull, ruminant bots of Paper.li appear to have seized on my tweet (the TwentyFeet status update, not the one about the goats, which I made up, OK?) and incorporated it into his paper. But all they took was the page to which it links, which is a anodyne explanation of how the TwentyFeet aggregator works, which I don’t think I’d ever seen before and certainly wouldn’t bother to recommend to the Twitter massive.

And suddenly I have an image of the near future; a newspaper concocted by a machine, comprising tweets sent by a machine. And Colin Campbell and I get our names attached but that’s the limit of our involvement and we don’t even read the bloody stuff, let alone write it.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Radiohead and the allergy to now


When I started reading about Velma Lyrae, a London woman who suffers from electromagnetic hypersensitivity syndrome, my immediate thought was, “She sounds like something out of a Radiohead song.” Her condition means that she suffers multiple debilitating symptoms if she comes into contact with computers, mobile phones, even hairdryers, and she spend most of her time inside a protective cage in her Blackheath flat. The Radiohead connection was because of Thom Yorke’s contention that one of the defining themes of the band’s 1997 albums OK Computer is “fridge buzz”, the inescapable background noise, actual or metaphorical, that pervades the modern world, and which the band covers in the song ‘Karma Police’. Damn, another missed opportunity; when I was writing my Radiohead book (hey, the Cohen and the Noughties ones got plugs in the past few days, I’m only spreading the love) I should have created a mythical, rejected song called ‘Velma In Her Cage’, featuring Jonny Greenwood playing an ondes martenot through a bank of vintage detuned radios and Thom curled in a ball, mumbling about how he can only communicate the evils of technology and capitalism by utilising the fruits of technology and capitalism, innit?

But hey, what’s this? Velma says:
I used to love going to festivals and experiencing live music, but because everyone has a mobile I can’t even go near a gig now. The last gig I went to was Radiohead. I knew I was getting worse and wouldn’t be able to go to any more so I wanted to make it a good one.
I can just picture her, heart pounding, joints aching, desperately hanging on Thom’s every baleful squawk despite the distraction of the tens of thousands of iPhones surrounding her, pulsing their evil ones and zeroes into her throbbing skull. And then I start to feel a little heartless as I wonder whether the whole thing might be some sort of conceptual joke to plug the next Radiohead album seeing as how an anagram of Velma Lyrae is

“rave lamely”
 
(And incidentally, that Infinite Jest blog of mine has shuddered back into some semblance of life, if anybody’s still pretending to be interested.)

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Christy Wampole and the decade that perhaps never happened

Christy Wampole’s interesting article about ironic hipsterdom in the New York Times includes this paragraph, suggesting that in the last decade of the 20th century, sincerity ruled:
Born in 1977, at the tail end of Generation X, I came of age in the 1990s, a decade that, bracketed neatly by two architectural crumblings — of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the Twin Towers in 2001 — now seems relatively irony-free. The grunge movement was serious in its aesthetics and its attitude, with a combative stance against authority, which the punk movement had also embraced. In my perhaps over-nostalgic memory, feminism reached an unprecedented peak, environmentalist concerns gained widespread attention, questions of race were more openly addressed: all of these stirrings contained within them the same electricity and euphoria touching generations that witness a centennial or millennial changeover.
Now, I’m a little older than Ms Wampole, but I’m not yet quite so senile that I’ve forgotten that decade completely.  And my 1990s may have included a bit of grunge earnestness at the beginning (incidentally, Wampole seems to have overlooked Cobain’s wit, and that of the smarter punks), but it was also about the pop postmodernism of The Modern Review and the raised-eyebrow laddishness of Loaded (before it became just another vehicle for tits), the louche poses of loungecore, Jarvis Cocker vs Michael Jackson, Madonna when she was still funny, the Young British Artists ditto, Tarantino in his trash-referential pomp, Trainspotting, the hilarious implosion of John Major’s government, Monica Lewinsky, Lorena Bobbitt. Irony wasn’t just a desperate pose to fend off the reality of economic and environmental omnishambles by growing a moustache. It was just how it was. With great big air quotes around it.

So is this divergence between Wampole’s memories and mine a matter of age or gender or nationality? Or was everybody’s decade just entirely different? In my book about the Noughties, I suggested that it’s very difficult to find a generic image that sums up the 1990s, which distinguishes it from the preceding decades (mini-skirts and flowers; flared trousers and picket lines; power suits and Filofaxes). I even posited the idea that the decade never happened at all, existing merely as “a history-free buffer zone between the ideological polarities of the 1980s and the socio-religious anxieties of the Noughties.” So there. And lest I be accused of even more egregious touting of my wares than is normally the case, I’ll balance it by recommending John Robb’s excellent tome about the 90s, aptly subtitled What The F**k Was All That About?

But anyway; how was it for you?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Maybe there’s a God above...


Three years ago I wrote a book about Leonard Cohen and if you haven’t read it you really should, but first read this article I wrote about LC and religion for Aeon magazine.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

On brows

In The American Thinker, William Deresiewicz seeks to add some 21st-century nuance to Dwight Macdonald’s famous identification of ‘Midcult’, mass culture that masquerades as art.

Actually, I say “famous”, but while Macdonald’s pronouncement caused a stir in the States back in 1960, it was pretty much ignored in Britain, where slagging off the middle brow had become an established and respectable hobby for several decades. TS Eliot, for example, was a devotee not only of serious, abstruse cultural endeavours, but also of what would be regarded as trash. He loved the cheery vulgarity of musical hall, writing an adoring epitaph to Marie Lloyd, and was also a big fan of detective thrillers, especially the works of Georges Simenon. However, he was remorselessly rude about the stolid seriousness of then-successful but now almost forgotten writers such as John Drinkwater, whom he dismissed as “dull, supremely dull”. As Arnold Bennett put it, “Good taste is better than bad taste, but bad taste is better than no taste.” Although I suspect Eliot might have dumped Bennett with Drinkwater in the recycling bin of middle brow.

Anyway, Deresiewicz does not argue that Macdonald’s middle brow has ceased to exist; it’s still the stuff that wins the big, mainstream prizes. But he has identified a new brow, younger, hipper, but still neither high art nor avant garde, and he dubs it “upper middle brow”:
It is Jonathan Lethem, Wes Anderson, Lost in Translation, Girls, Stewart/Colbert, The New Yorker, This American Life and the whole empire of quirk, and the films that *should* have won the Oscars (the films you’re not sure whether to call films or movies).
Deresiewicz suggests that such works – like the old-school middle brow – are designed to flatter their audience; the only thing is that the audience is different. The funny thing is, not so long ago, such art would have been defined not by its audience, but by the economic context of its production. We would have called it “indie”. Wouldn’t we? 

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Savile, McAlpine, Petraeus and the truth about Leonard Cohen and me


 I wasn’t going to say something about the latest bizarre developments in... well, what I don’t even know what to call it for a start. It’s not Savilegate, because things are moving so fast that Jimmy Savile, who a few weeks ago had become some sort of conceptual synthesis of Myra Hindley, the Yorkshire Ripper, the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Satan himself, has almost been forgotten; when you’re brought on as a stooge so that a not-fondly-remembered Doctor Who can say he didn’t like you much and oh, by the way, I’m going into the jungle with Nadine Dorries, then you know you’re on the margins. Well, you would know if you weren’t dead.

No, the story’s moved on, spewing out rumours and counter-rumours. Reputations of the living and dead have been left in shreds; not least that of the BBC, which was still apologising for not acting on allegations of sexual abuse when it was forced to apologise for acting on allegations of sexual abuse. Lord McAlpine is threatening legal action, even though he was never actually named by Newsnight; maybe he’s going to sue Philip Schofield’s piece of paper.

Two things, though. First, this is by no means a new story; I first became aware of the (unfounded, scurrilous, etc) allegations about McAlpine over 20 years ago. There’s been lots of grumbling about how various social media are to blame for rumour and innuendo taking hold, but in truth the likes of Twitter only amplify and accelerate the effect. The other point is that, allergic as I am to most conspiracy theories, I can’t help but wonder if somebody with an agenda (Anti-BBC? Anti-Twitter? Attempting to discredit accusations of abuse and those who make them? Any or all or more of those?) set some sort of journalistic honeytrap, an apparently solid story that was going to fall to pieces as soon as it saw the light of day, thus destroying the credibility of those involved in bringing it to public attention. Again, I’m not suggesting that MacAlpine was any part of this; he’s a MacGuffin.


But I wasn’t going to talk about that, was I? In the States, they’ve got a sex scandal that seems to be – on the face of it at least – far more straightforward. David Petraeus, the boss of the CIA, has resigned because he’s been having an extra-marital affair. Now I’m not sure whether he’s broken some particular clause in his contract, or if he’s just falling on his sword (oo-er) because he feels he’s brought shame upon his office; if the latter, it seems terribly old-fashioned, but there you go. No, the weird thing is... well, the first weird thing, as a number of people have pointed out, is that the whole messy business seems to have been prefigured in a problem page in the New York Times back in July (see the second letter). But the really weird thing is that the woman with whom he was cavorting is also his biographer. Which raises all sorts of questions about objectivity and the awkward threesome formed by subject, writer and reader. I mean, would we read Boswell’s life of Dr Johnson differently if we found out that James and Sam were an item? What of Charles Moore’s only-when-she’s-dead tome about Margaret Thatcher? Paradoxically, I suspect that even as the credibility of Paula Broadwell’s book about Petraeus falls apart, sales will rocket.

So I suppose it makes sense for me to announce, in the light of disappointing sales for my 2009 biography of Leonard Cohen, that I have enjoyed regular bouts of rudeness with the septuagenarian crooner, although he kept his fedora on at all times. Hallelujah, indeed.


PS: Ooh, and the New York Post does well on the Petraeus front:


PPS: And a rather good blog post concerning the meme that says Morrissey knew all about Savile way back when...

PPPS: And yet more; Buzzfeed kicks Petraeus when he’s down, but does it well.

Friday, November 09, 2012

On Stuckism


Charles Thomson (I’m assuming it’s really him, but since I’ve been following the US election on Twitter my ability to distinguish trolls and sock puppets and non-specific pranksters from the real deal has completely evaporated) has responded to a passing mention I made of him in a post about Damien Hirst’s new piece in Ilfracombe:
I not only existed, but was exhibiting art, performing poetry and staging events, when Damien Hirst was still at primary school. I can assure you that I was not in the slightest annoyed by Hirst at this time, as I had never heard of him. 
...to which I responded that yes, I accept all that, but my reference was specifically to Stuckism, the movement for which he’s become the de facto spokesman and as far as I know that didn’t come into existence until the late 1990s, by which Hirst and his chums were pretty well embedded in the public consciousness. No YBAs/BritArt/New Conceptualism, no Stuckism. This doesn’t reflect on Thomson’s own talents as an artist; I rather like his fusions of Pop Art and Expressionism to be honest, certainly more than I care for most of Hirst’s vapid gestures. But the fact remains that when Thomson appears in mainstream media, it’s more likely to be as part of a story about Hirst’s art than Thomson’s. Stuckists have become defined by what they’re not rather than what they are or what they do; in effect, they’re critics rather than artists, the provisional wing of Jackdaw magazine. I’m not saying this is an ideal state of affairs, or fair, or a good thing in terms of art, but that’s how it is. In hindsight, art historians may well come to agree that the Saatchi/Serota generation was an enormous, bloated con trick and Thomson and his gang were right all along but – notwithstanding the recent critical kicking that Hirst’s had in some quarters – the not-so-Young-any-more British Artists are still on top right now.

Put it this way, Charles: most Express readers probably loathe Damien Hirst and his works and everything he and they stand for; until they’d read the article I was discussing, most Express readers had no opinion about you or your work, because they’d never heard of you. We’re in Oscar Wilde territory here; which would you prefer to be?

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Bodypainting: what’s it all about? (NSFW)


Is bodypainting art? Or is it mere craft, with a bit of titillation thrown in, sometimes on the verge of soft porn? Danny Setiawan, I suppose, thinks it’s art. His stuff is available through Saatchi, although I’m not sure whether when you buy one of his works, you also buy the person on whom the art is painted. Where does the art stop and the canvas start? More to the point, when Setiawan paints a Klimt on a model’s chest, is it more or less art than if he’d used an original design? Maybe we could argue that Klimt is art; copying Klimt is craft; copying Klimt onto boobs is porn? Or is that unfair? Would painting a Rubens nude (art) on a real nude (porn) confuse the issue further?

We can have even more fun with Olaf Breuning. He’s also inspired by other artists when he paints on naked people, but his stuff is less about copying an existing, well known painting, more about identifying a theme. But some of the artists he chooses were known for their own paint/skin interfaces, such as Keith Haring:


and Yves Klein:


In fact, one could argue that Klein’s art was in fact the marks left behind by his blue-painted models, rather than the models themselves; so what Breuning is creating is a simulacrum not of Klein’s art, nor even his canvas, but of his paintbrushes. In fact, since his pieces depend entirely on our knowledge of the original works and our response to them (if we like or dislike Haring or Klein, does that make us like or dislike Breuning’s takes on them more or less?) then what he is doing isn’t so much art or craft or porn – it’s more like criticism. With boobs.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Leonard Rossiter, The Sun, weirdness and wanking

 
Here we go again. Someone else has made an allegation of sexual misconduct against a deceased showbusiness personality at the BBC. As I said about the Savile stuff, such claims need to be taken seriously, although the Leonard Rossiter file would appear to be rather slimmer.

But again, I’m more interested in the way the story’s being played, particularly by the BBC’s less placable foes. The Rossiter claims were first published in The Sun, but were quickly picked up (with attribution) by the Daily Mail. Now, normally when one paper runs an article that’s based on an exclusive by another story, they at least have the grace to hone the facts to their own in-house style, rather than simply copying and pasting the original. But there are a couple of stylistic quirks that struck me as interesting in the original version, and were then carried over in the Mail’s version of events. The first is the description of what it was that Rossiter was doing. In The Sun, Stephen Moyes says that he “performed a sex act”. Leon Watson’s story in the Mail uses exactly the same language. 

Now, I don’t know exactly what was going on, but I’m guessing that the allegation is that Rossiter was masturbating. I can’t honestly see another interpretation, although I’d be happy to hear any ideas you might have. Now we know that both The Sun and the Mail have a weirdly conflicted attitude to sexual activity, drooling over young flesh in various levels of undress, but steering clear of anything too anatomical. But both these articles demonstrate how morally bankrupt such guidelines are. It’s a story about an allegation of attempted rape and in both papers, the word “rape” is used several times. Quite right too. But neither Moyes nor Watson can bring themselves to say outright that Rossiter was masturbating. The only feasible explanation is that the journalists (or, to be fair, their respective editorial overlords) think their readers will find an act of masturbation to be more horrible and disturbing than an act of rape. I don’t know about you, but this strikes me as a rather peculiar paradigm of sexual morality, especially in newspapers condemning the “cesspit of depravity” (quoted in both stories) that apparently exists at the BBC.

The other oddity is about the context in which the assault is alleged to have taken place; during the production of Nigel Kneale’s play The Year of the Sex Olympics. Both Moyes and Watson use the same adjective to describe the work: “weird”. Now, I don’t know if either Moyes or Watson has seen The Year of the Sex Olympics. If they haven’t, I wonder on what basis they presume to assess its weirdness. They might like to know that it’s a dystopian fantasy about an elite that controls the moronic masses with a stream of crass media programming, ranging from non-stop pornography to a reality TV show that descends into murder. And I wonder, in the event that they ever get round to watching the show, whether these employees of Associated Newspapers and News International might experience a nervous frisson of recognition. If they don’t, they must be a bit weird.

PS: My friend Nick has given the story a bit of a fisking and, to say the least, the details don’t really stand up. In his words: “(a) There aren’t any rehearsal rooms at Television Centre; (b) What was an extra doing at rehearsals anyway? (c) The scenes being described were, in any case, shot at Ealing Film Studios.” But if they’d mentioned that, it would have rather diluted the BBC connection that was the only reason the story made it into The Sun.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Debenham's versus Abroad

Debenham’s, the archetype of don’t-frighten-the-horses retail, has revealed that 70% of its customers have difficulty with the Italian-ish names bestowed upon warm beverages and that from now on, cappuccino will be “frothy coffee”, latte will be “really, really milky coffee” and so on.

Of course, Debenham’s isn’t really responding to the linguistic befuddlement of their punters. Instead, they’re grabbing a few bytes of publicity by positioning themselves as defenders of good old English common-sense, in the face of all those noisy foreigners and their funny talk. If a fine, upstanding Englishman such as Nigel Farage ever stopped bellowing for long enough to drink a coffee, one supposes, he’d want to drink a really, really milky one, not one that probably tastes of garlic and subsidies and committing adultery in the afternoon.

But why stop with the coffee? Next time I go to Debenham’s, I don’t want to be troubled by fanciful verbiage of any variety. If I want to buy a jumper, I want it to be called a jumper, and nothing else. Well, maybe a blue jumper, or a really, really baggy jumper. And the same goes for spatulas and duvets and footstools. In fact, the very name Debenham’s is an affectation too far. They should tear down all their signage and replace it with a small sheet of paper bearing the words “A SHOP”. And have Nigel Farage on duty outside, in a Union Jack waistcoat, shouting at anyone who uses a word that ends in a vowel.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Amnesty Interactive


Amnesty International in New Zealand has come up with a neat idea. If you go to this site, your Facebook history is scanned and you find out which of your activities will mean you fall foul of the authorities in specific countries, and how many times you might risk imprisonment, torture or even execution. Of course, their app is simply searching for specific words, so it’s potentially as clunky as Facebook’s own attempts to determine what sort of person you might be from what you post, and thus which advertisers might have an interest in you.

For example, because I had expressed a fondness for the popular beat combo XTC, the Amnesty bot decided that I take drugs. XTC = ecstasy, geddit? Also in the likes list was gospel music, as a result of which I am assumed to be a Christian. Now neither of these is the case, which at first implies a certain flaw in the whole thing. But then you realise what it really means; if a state decides that being a Christian is against the law, you don’t actually need to be a Christian to fall foul of that law. In just needs an authority figure to infer that you’re a Christian, perhaps from your CD collection. Oppression is just as bad when it’s incompetent, arbitrary and misinformed as it is when it’s ruthlessly efficient.

And if you’re interested, by Amnesty’s calculation, for my online sins I’d be beaten 55 times, tortured 52 times, imprisoned 47 times and shot dead just the once.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The death of fiction?

A sequel of sorts to the previous post, prompted by a piece in the Globe and Mail. Ignore for a moment that the author begins his narrative while he’s doing a poo and focus on his argument for the resistance that his students display to reading long books:
English teachers have held on to the 19th- and 20th-century novel with grasping, wrenching fingers. I’ve been one of them, and truthfully I’m not sure why. The novel is a distinctly Western convention, and a new one at that – it arrived two centuries after the printing press. The Industrial Revolution increased leisure time, so longer pieces became more attractive – and writers benefited from being paid by the word. While a teen’s reading material 100 years ago might have been as narrow as a few books on a bedroom shelf, a student in my class today has an endless range of possibilities.
All true; and moreover, the notion that novels written in English could be the subject of serious academic study, on a par with Greek and Latin classics, is even newer. But if its period of cultural ascendancy is at an end, we have the problem of a period of transition. Older people will hold that knowledge of Austen, Dickens and Updike is a crucial part of our culture, even if they haven’t actually read them; the young can’t even be bothered to pretend. I don’t know if Hirsch has a prescribed list of novelists that must be “known”, but this does again suggest that by the time anyone has identified such a canon, the goalposts will have moved. 

Friday, October 26, 2012

ED Hirsch and his unknown knowns

Suddenly the name of ED Hirsch is popping up all over the place. Doesn’t ring any bells? He promotes an educational theory that he calls Cultural Literacy, which revolves around elements of knowledge that students are expected to have acquired by a specific stage in their learning, to enable them to function in the modern world. It sounds pretty good so far, especially to a grumpy old sod whose preferred leisure activity is banging his head against the floor in response to the slack-jawed idiocy of some of the contestants on Pointless, but particularly those who identify themselves as students.

However, even a moment’s thought reveals two serious objections to Hirsch’s ideas. One is that it has the potential to turn education into a vast, Gradgrindian exercise in knowledge dumping, with no time allocated for real understanding. Did you ever collect Panini stickers? Do you remember going through someone else’s collection and muttering “Got that... got that... got that... haven’t got that...” I’m sure that’s not what Hirsch had in mind, but when his system is allied to the league table approach of British education, that’s what you’re going to get. The other problem, of course, is the question of who actually decides what these all-important facts should be, and what educational (or political or moral or social or economic) criteria they use to reach their decisions. And at the same time, what precisely do they mean by “knowing” a subject? For example, the right-of-centre think tank Civitas argues that by the end of his or her first year of education, a child should be expected to know about English Civil War. Which I think is wonderful, because this means that from the age of six, kids will be well versed in the ideas of the Levellers and the Diggers and the Putney Debates, and from then on it’s a doddle to get into the fine tradition of British dissent, of John Wilkes, of Tom Paine, Peterloo, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Chartists, the Rebecca riots, the Suffragettes, the Kinder trespass, the Jarrow marches, the 43 Group, the Committee of 100, Grosvenor Square, the Miss World protests, Greenham Common, the Poll Tax riots, Swampy, Brian Haw, Occupy St Paul’s and... Do you reckon maybe they didn’t think this one through?

In any case, if every single schoolchild did end up knowing about every single subject on the list, sharp-elbowed middle-class parents would insist on their own offspring knowing more. If the kid next door knows about acorns, Mexico and Henry Moore (all on the Civitas year one list), yours needs to know conkers, Bolivia and Degas. Until you find out that the brat down the road knows mistletoe, Honduras and Bernini. And ultimately, it’s the same kids as it always was who get left behind.

However desirable it is for members of a society to have a common corpus of knowledge, its actual components will ultimately be pretty arbitrary unless there happens to be a dominant ideology (overt or otherwise) behind their selection. Of course, if I were in charge, I’d insist that every three-year-old had an intensive knowledge of spin bowling, tapas, the novels of Douglas Coupland and the first three Velvet Underground albums. (I’ve always thought Loaded is overrated.) Because, seriously, how can you cope in the modern world, let alone go on Pointless, without knowing stuff like that?

PS: If you really want arbitrary, check out this list of the six best novels since 1919. How many of them should a child have read by the end of school, Dr Hirsch?

PPS: And you are still reading my Infinite Jest Blog, aren’t you? That’s OK then.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The browning version

Bruce Norris, the author of the play Clybourne Park, has refused to allow his play to be staged in Berlin after he discovered that one of the African-American characters would be played by a white performer in blackface. Meanwhile, the Royal Shakespeare Company has come under fire when it emerged that the Chinese play The Orphan of Zhao would be performed by a mostly Caucasian cast.

Meanwhile, a glance at the credits for Baz Luhrmann’s much delayed movie version of The Great Gatsby reveals that the corrupt Jewish businessman Meyer Wolfsheim will be played by Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan. But he doesn’t white up. So that’s OK.


PS: Accusations levelled at Cloud Atlas as well. Such larks.

PPS: Tom Sutcliffe covers similar ground in The Independent

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Blessed are the Piss-Takers


Thousands of Muslims descended on Google’s London headquarters last weekend to protest against the apparent “age of mockery” in which we find ourselves. This could easily turn into another anti-Islam diatribe (Jeesh, not only are they opposed to gay rights and bacon sandwiches, they haven’t got a bloody sense of humour either!) but these tiresome, beardy placard-wavers are far from the only ones. Indeed, some of the most unlikely people seem to have developed unusually thin skins recently.

Frankie Boyle, for example, scourge of political correctness and all that, is suing a newspaper because it said a horrid thing about him. And check out the guidelines on the comments thread of the Liberal Conspiracy site: “Abusive, sarcastic or silly comments may be deleted.” So silliness is a threat to liberal values now, is it? Some have argued that the problem is about excessive reliance by the police and others on section 5 of the Public Order act, under which a student was arrested for calling a police horse gay, among other travesties. I just think it’s a sign of the coming apocalypse, which probably puts me in the same boat as some of the bores and loons of varying religious and ideological persuasions who are complaining the loudest. Funny old world, innit? Oh sorry, I forgot, you don’t do humour, do you?

It should be fairly obvious, and I’ve gone over it umpteen times before, but I’ll spell it out. If an institution, whether it’s a religion or a political party or a football team or whatever is liable to fall apart at the first hint of piss-taking, then it’s probably a pretty decrepit institution in the first place and the mockers are only hastening an inevitable decline. And if said mockery offends you or hurts your feelings, well just sit yourself down while I list all the things that offend me on a regular basis until you die of abject boredom.

Are we really entering an age of mockery? I don’t know, but looking around, I bloody well hope so.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Damien Hirst vs the (Art) World

 
Well, maybe one shouldn’t expect cutting-edge coverage of contemporary art from the Express, but I reckon they’d be pretty good at picking up the vibe in Ilfracombe. The blameless Devon townlet is the location for Damien Hirst’s latest project, a 66-foot brass figure called Verity, and one Karen Farrington went to find out what they think of it. Opinion is mixed, as it usually is when it comes to big new statues. Paul the hotel porter can’t stand it and neither can Julie the Lib Dem councillor. But Peter from the yacht club and Dawn who owns the pub both think it’s fab. Caroline who runs the chippy doesn’t like it much herself, but thinks it’s a good thing if it attracts tourists.

But Karen’s not satisfied with that, oh no. She also wants to find out what yer actual experts think. And do you know what? They bloody well hate it and they bloody well hate Damien. But hold your bifurcated cows for a moment; which experts did she ask? Well, Julian Spalding, whose anguished Jeremiad about conceptualism I discussed a few months ago; his quote about Hirst being akin to the Mafia provides the article’s headline. And David Lee, who publishes The Jackdaw, the main purpose of which is to lay into conceptualists and their hangers-on. And of course Charles Thomson of The Stuckists, who simply wouldn’t exist if Damien and his like weren’t around to annoy them. The most staunch defenders of the YBAs, the likes of Jopling and Serota, Collings and Saatchi, don’t get a look in. So if you only had to the article to go on, you’d get the impression that Hirst has no support whatsoever in the poncey, up-its-own arse modern art world, whereas a lot of the good folk of Ilfracombe are prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. Rather than being a sinister conceptualist Mafioso, Hirst comes across as an honest craftsman, cast out of fashionable London society but finding respect with the decent Express-readers of the provinces; he’s like LS Lowry, maybe, or Beryl Cook.

I’m not entirely sure that’s the impression the article was meant to convey. In fact, the piece is so out of sync with its headline, maybe it should be considered as an arch piece of conceptual art in its own right. Karen Farrington for the Turner, I reckon.

Monday, October 15, 2012

On Looper


So I saw Looper at the weekend, and it was pretty good, I thought. Clever concept, good acting and although there were effects, they were used sparingly, to legitimate ends, not simply for cheap thrills. I’d heard a bit about the make-up work that supposedly helps us to believe that Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis are the same person, but to be honest, it just made me think that Joseph Gordon-Levitt was wearing a funny nose, so he looked a little bit less like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but not noticeably more like Bruce Willis. I did like the diner scene, where they sat staring at each other as if they were in any number of films in which one actor plays two roles and – through the magic of split-screen or some such jigger-pokery – confronts himself. Ideally, of course, they’d have made use of the technology depicted in the film and sent an older Gordon-Levitt back from the future; or pulled a younger Willis forward, whichever is cheaper.

But is it just me, or do films these days tend to be more about other films than about people or things or ideas? Of course, this doesn’t mean that the director is consciously borrowing from other film-makers, or paying homage or spoofing or – heaven forbid – ripping them off. To be fair, Rian Johnson doesn’t set out to be the cinematic answer to DJ Shadow or The Avalanches, concocting art almost entirely from samples of other art; it just feels that way. The author dies as soon as he signs off the final edit; this is all in the reading.

So in Looper I spotted thematic or stylistic elements of, in no particular order: The Omen; Carrie; The Terminator; A Matter of Life and Death; North By Northwest; Twelve Monkeys; The Sixth Sense; Mad Max; The Matrix; Léon; The Usual Suspects; Source Code; Back to the Future; Blade Runner; Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea; not to mention a fat handful of Doctor Who stories (say, Genesis of the Daleks, with its killing-baby-Hitler parable, City of Death and The Angels Take Manhattan). Oh, and given the fact that the only women in the story are reduced to the archetypes of wife, mother, servant or whore (or combinations thereof), sexual politics straight out of Mad Men.

But again, maybe that’s just me.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Jimmy Savile: a few thoughts


No, this isn’t really about Jimmy Savile himself, or what he did, or what he’s alleged to have done. That’s all bad; it’s pretty clear that the man was a vicious abuser who used his charitable deeds as both cover and as a cynical, implicit bargaining tool; you don’t need me to tell you any of that. This is more about the responses and reactions to what we know.

First, about the rumours that were apparently circulating for decades about Savile’s behaviour, and the fact that nobody ever acted about them. Well, of course there were rumours, because Savile was a very famous person and there are always rumours about very famous people. Way back when I was completely outside the media loop, I heard rumours about Jimmy Savile; oddly, all of them revolved around his apparent fondness for acts of necrophilia, which he supposedly indulged under the cover of his voluntary work as a hospital porter; I don’t recall anything about child abuse. And I heard other rumours too, about all sorts of people, about the Queen Mother and Michael Portillo and Morrissey and Bobby Moore and Prince Edward and Bill Treacher and Jason Donovan and Patrick Moore and Kevin Keegan and Gerald Kaufman and Una Stubbs and any number of Radio One DJs. Some were accusations of serious criminal behaviour, some were about harmless quirks that, supposedly, the relevant parties preferred not to disclose. Anyone remember Scallywag magazine? The John Major story was pretty bland compared to some of the stuff they came up with.

I have no idea how many of these tales were wholly or partly true and I probably never will. I’m not suggesting that the accusations about Savile are fabricated, but if journalists followed up every celeb-related rumour that some bloke in the pub insisted was God’s honest truth, there would be a hell of a lot of libel suits knocking around, and even more dead-cert stories that turned out to be dead ends. You need more than urban myth or gut instinct. Yes, Savile was odd, eccentric, weird, creepy. People said dodgy things about him. He had strange hair. The same goes for Chris Jeffries, the entirely innocent Bristol landlord caught up in a murder investigation a couple of years ago. That didn’t end well for the papers concerned, did it?

But a big chunk of the press seems to be using the Savile saga as leverage to redeem itself after the whole phone-hacking/Leveson enquiry saga. Look what happens when celebrities get the upper hand, they bleat, when the fine upstanding spirit of British journalism is cowed by libel and privacy laws. Which is utter bollocks, frankly. If they were using their various scams and skulduggeries to expose real, serious, extensive wrongdoing rather than just dicking around below the surface of Hello-magazine banality, then we’d be impressed. It was in the public interest to know that Savile was abusing girls; it was not in the public interest to know that Charlotte Church might be having boyfriend trouble. Which one made the front pages?

Moreover, certain papers also see the scandal as a stick with which to wallop their eternal nemesis, the BBC. Yes, I don’t doubt that there was a culture at the BBC in the 60s and 70s and even into the 80s that by modern standards would seem pretty toxic and that some men were able to use their power and influence to take sexual advantage of people with less clout. Again, that was bad and wrong, and we need to know about it. But are we to understand that everybody employed by The Sun and The Mail and The Telegraph at the time was entirely without sin? Or that, had any equivalent rumours been knocking around about high-profile journalists and editors at those papers, there wouldn’t have been a temptation to either cover things up, or deliberately look the other way?

Again – bollocks. The BBC was a product of its time, as was (and is) every other institution. It looks wrong now, but it was wrong everywhere, not just in the studios of Top of the Pops or Radio One. Low-level sexual assault could be passed off as horseplay and if anyone complained, it was evidence of a sense-of-humour failure or lesbianism or the time of the month. And once you allow that, the tolerance level for bad behaviour rises incrementally, until you get vulnerable girls being molested in dressing rooms.

But that wouldn’t be tolerated now. And this is the ultimate, sanctimonious hypocrisy of those currently laying into the BBC. A modern-day Savile would be stopped in his tracks because women and children would be empowered to speak up. He wouldn’t get the benefit of the doubt just because he was rich and popular and male. And do you know what caused this turnaround? Not the fearless investigation of plucky newspaper journalists, that’s for sure. No, it was the changes in attitude wrought by feminism and by so-called political correctness, gone mad or otherwise; the very social forces still roundly condemned on a regular basis in The Sun and The Mail and The Telegraph. As it happens.

PS: In the London Review of Books, Andrew O’Hagan goes deeper and further back.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Rothko vs the Yellowistzzz


OK, I’m officially bored with people defacing works of art in the name of art (or anti-art or something along those lines). The joke’s just become too ingrown. Yeah, yeah, Vladimir Umanets, you got your name – and that of your precious Yellowism – in the papers. But you also knew that deep down that for most people your stunt would simply provide yet another excuse to trot out all those tiresome “a-child-of-five-could-do-that” whines about modern art; which LC, incidentally, has curated into a rather fetching conversation piece in its own right. Maybe he should ask Mr Umanets to scrawl all over his blog.

And in any case, there’s nothing new about it. I ran through the most notable examples of recent years a while ago; but some restoration work on frescoes in Valencia Cathedral has uncovered an even older example. Apparently a 17th-century workman had scratched a full set of gentlemen’s trouser equipment into an angel’s wing. Unfortunately he isn’t around to expand on his aesthetic justification.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

A few words about gay marriage


I don’t think I’ve made any particular reference to gay marriage in this blog before, mainly because I didn’t see much point. I mean, I’ve long assumed that the whole thing would just trundle into existence eventually, to a few bleats of outrage and then within a matter of years we’d look back on the days when consenting adults weren’t permitted to marry someone of their own gender with the sort of bemused horror we now reserve for bear-baiting or child chimney sweeps. But apparently not. It seems that David Cameron is under pressure from Conservative constituency chairmen to abandon the whole idea.

Now, let’s be very clear. I support traditional marriage, which I take to mean marriage between a man and a woman. 12 years ago, I entered into such a traditional marriage. And if I thought that allowing two men or two women to marry would disrupt or destabilise my marriage or that of other traditionally married people, I’d be rather concerned at the prospect. But nobody has yet been able to explain to me how the legalisation of gay marriage would harm my own traditional marriage or any other traditional marriage to the tiniest degree. And since the so-called institution of marriage is nothing more than the sum of all those traditional marriages, past, present and future, I really don’t see the problem. Several million multiplied by zero is still, so far as I recall, zero.

I’m also baffled by the opposition coming from the Conservative Party. My hazy grasp of modern political philosophy tells me that Conservatives (see Republicans, right-wingers, etc) favour freedom as their guiding principle. Labour (Democrats, the left) lean towards equality. Many ideological clashes occur when these two great principles come into opposition. So you’d think that a law change that offers both freedom and equality would meet with rousing acclamation on both sides of the house. Apparently not.

Now, one argument against gay marriage that I do encounter is that it offends the sensibilities of various religious groups. Well, that’s a pity but, you know what? There are probably several thousand things about the modern world that offend me: reality TV; the smell of Kentucky Fried Chicken; fake tan; people who say “less” when they mean “fewer”; the brain-dead loudness of most action movies; my own increasingly saggy and decrepit reflection in the bathroom mirror. To be honest, I also get pretty offended by the inane platitudes of a lot of the aforementioned faith groups, and I’ve never quite understood why my aesthetic prejudices are less deserving of protection than their supernatural taboos. But it’s a modern, complex, interconnected world, with all the mess and noise that entails, so I just do my best to avoid KFC and my face and religious fundamentalism; and when such encounters are unavoidable I grit my teeth and remind myself that there are other, more delightful things around the corner that might compensate for the temporary glitch. Maybe those who oppose the idea of gay marriage because an old man in a dress tells them to could follow my example and just try to ignore it. It won’t go away, but you may find that it stops bothering you if you stop bothering it.

And it’s become something of a cliché, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true: if the idea of gay marriage offends you too much, maybe you should try to avoid marrying a gay person.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Hanbury Street: who nose?



Not entirely sure what to make of this. An LA graffiti artist, Mear One, has painted a mural in Hanbury Street, east London, which, according to how you choose to interpret it is either an attack on global capitalism or a collision of several different bonkers conspiracy theory tropes with a distinct stench of anti-semitism. “Oh, but those big-nosed guys on the Monopoly board aren’t meant to be Jewish,” say the picture’s defenders. “They’re just, y'know, capitalists. With big noses.” The fact that the mural appeared in a predominantly Muslim area has escaped nobody’s attention.

Without wanting to descend to a pointless game of whataboutery, maybe those Danish cartoons were just pictures of some bloke. With a turban. Oh, and while we’re there, check out Amazon’s Dachau jigsaw; and, from a free speech perspective, William Saletan at Salon. My view? None of these things should be banned; but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s sensible to do them either.

Meanwhile, on a cheerier note: over here, I write an entire blog post about one footnote.

PS: Panic over. The mural’s going. But not before it becomes the victim of another moment of impromptu street art.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Hooray! It’s the return of old-style blogging!

This blog has been going nearly seven – count them – not that it’s all that much effort to count them – unless you’re really bad at counting – although, thinking about it, that “nearly” does make it a bit trickier, so maybe the last one’s a sort of “seve” rather than a “seven” – years. And this is my 1,251st post, which means... well, it certainly means, although whether it means anything in particular. Maybe that I missed some sort of milestone in the last post? Dunno. Anyway, yes, right, and in that time, well, woo, hasn’t everything changed? Well, not really, give or take a few iPhone models. But this blog has changed, and so has blogging as a whole.

I mean, back in those oldenny timey days I had no shame in doing compendium posts on any number of only tangentially related subjects, usually ending with an arbitrarily chosen picture or YouTube clip; and everyone would weigh in with their contributions and contradictions and corrections and it was, as the sainted Patroclus called it, one big conversation; but then something happened somewhere along the line; and I’m still blogging, but Cultural Snow seems to have turned into a continuum of discrete articles, each about a subject. And plenty of people are reading what I’m writing (I don’t know if it’s more or less than it was in the old days, because I’ve only had the magic thingy wotsit that tells me how many people are reading for the past three years) but far fewer are commenting.

So, if I were blogging now under proper old-style blogging conditions (only one substitute allowed, two points for a win, highlights later on Match of the Day), I’d probably have some choice words for Booker judge and all-round silly sausage Peter Stothard, who said of the rise of literary bloggers:
Eventually that will be to the detriment of literature. It will be bad for readers; as much as one would like to think that many bloggers’ opinions are as good as others. It just ain’t so. People will be encouraged to buy and read books that are no good, the good will be overwhelmed, and we'll be worse off. There are some important issues here.
...to which I’d point out that bloggers are simply people with opinions, just like professional literary critics and that while there are doubtless some literary bloggers who are a bit crap, anyone who tries to argue that every paid literary critic on a highbrow newspaper or magazine knows what s/he’s talking about is either arrogant or stupid or probably both. And then I’d point out that criticism is no longer (never was, to be honest) about a select few handing down verdicts from above; it’s about argument and dialectic and kite-flying, and about how very often a statement can be wrong, but can still have value because of the intellectual fireworks it provokes in others; and I’d probably remind my readers that this is what Stothard is saying is pretty much what Andrew Keen said, and Keen was talking bollocks as well. But it doesn’t matter because between them they’ve prompted me to say something far more sensible, which is how this whole thing works, so thanks guys, you bloody imbeciles. And this would have been pretty much par for the course, because looking back, we didn’t half blog a lot about the nature and purpose and meaning of blogging.

And that line of argument would sort of trail off a bit, and I’d start talking about how I don’t much like the sound of Steven Poole’s new book, which appears to argue that because he’s not that interested in food, we shouldn’t be either. And then I’d remember that I was quite rude about his previous book as well, and then felt very guilty because he was subsequently very generous about my Radiohead book, but in fact I didn’t feel guilty, it was just an excuse to squeeze in a mention of my Radiohead book and maybe some of the others.

But then I might have changed tack completely and reflected on the most recent episode of Dr Who, with its scary cherubs and time paradoxes and, ooh just a little splash of Dennis Potter, maybe. And then I’d ponder the metafictional nature of Melody’s pulp novel, with its plot lines that the characters are doomed to follow, which rather obscures the fact that the characters are really doomed to follow the diktats of Steven Moffat, who wrote the script. And I’d ask whether the Doctor cheated by reading the chapter headings, whether they exist in advance of the action or in parallel to it. 

And I’d make a clumsy effort to pull together various elements of the above (blogging and self-aggrandizement and postmodernism, basically) and suggest once again that you really ought to be reading my Infinite Jest blog, in which I am currently exercised by David Foster Wallace’s cavalier attitude to chapters and chapter headings. Oh, and snot. There’s lots of snot going around.

And then I’d say, yay! That Rockmother’s blogging again!

And finally I’d probably put in a picture of Helen Mirren and/or Charlotte Rampling not wearing very much, but still tasteful, like. OK, Helen it is:


But of course I won’t do any of that, because we don’t do that old-style blogging any more, do we?