Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Old ideas: stuff you discovered after you’d stopped being young

In The Observer, David Mitchell (see past clarifications) points out the essential redundancy of Michelin stars and restaurant ratings in general, which – since I’ve just completed my annual trawl of Bangkok’s toppermost eateries – feels like rather a low blow. And then he extends the argument to films and implicitly to all forms of criticism, which makes me feel as if I ought to pack this whole blog in and take up pottery. My pots would be very bad, but nobody would be able to say so, or if they did, their criticism would count for nothing.

But then he says something that strikes rather less viciously at the heart of my own intellectual existence, although it’s a bit rude about someone else’s:
People say that we tend to read the books that impress or move us most before the age of 25. Not because we read less in later life but because we get too sophisticated to be so easily awestruck. Once you've read Great Expectations, anything you subsequently read would have to be even better than Great Expectations to impress you to the same extent as Great Expectations did – it would have to compensate for your greater expectations as a result of having read Great Expectations. That’s asking a lot of Nick Hornby.
Which must annoy Nick Hornby, not least because amidst all the Top 10 lists that peppered High Fidelity, there wasn’t one of The Top 10 Records/Films/Books That I First Heard/Saw/Read After My 25th Birthday. And it’s certainly true in my case: the stuff that remains pretty much constant when people ask me “What’s your favourite...” (and yes, I’m such a social imbecile that that’s pretty much the only way people can draw me into conversations when they meet me) is mostly what I encountered in my teens, and a lot of it was already old by that time: Aretha Franklin and the Velvet Underground; Casablanca and A Bout de Souffle; Evelyn Waugh and TS Eliot. The things I discovered later often have a rather more floppy grasp on my affections, and drift in and out. Many of them, inevitably, have been created more recently (69 Love Songs, by The Magnetic Fields; Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen; The Unconsoled, by Kazuo Ishiguro) but it’s worth noting that all of those are well over a decade old. Add to that selection the things that I’ve experienced only recently, even though they’d been under my nose all this time (Messiaen’s Turangalîla; Kurosawa’s Ikiru; The Great Gatsby) and it’s pretty clear that my critical tastebuds are ageing even more rapidly than the rest of me.

That’s as maybe, as we old farts say. What, if anything, entered your own aesthetic hit parade after your first quarter century was up? Or, if by some bizarre quirk of nature, someone under the age of 25 is actually reading this, where did I put my keys?

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Vignette of the middle-class, 40-something, pan-cultural couple in the 21st century (The Gregg Jevin memorial blog post)

So Small Boo and I are having dinner in a French bistro in Bangkok (OK, but the oeuf en cocotte was a bit runny since you ask) and I’m describing to her my various disagreements on Wikipedia and Twitter about the precise status of Godzilla’s nationality and how it might be ascertained and she sighs a little but can’t really sigh too hard because she’s squinting into her iPhone to determine whether the 1970s frozen chocolate dessert called Lovely was produced by Birds Eye or Lyons Maid.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Triumph of the Will (Self)

I am in several minds on hearing the news that Will Self – bearer of the world’s most Nietzschean name – is to take up a post as professor of contemporary thought at Brunel University. First of all it’s a brave gesture of support towards the notion of what a university really should be, an earthy v-sign to the Gradgrindian, box-ticking notion that a degree is nothing more than a preordained step on the ladder between school and a job. As described, Self’s proposed role crosses disciplinary boundaries, trampling over that lazy, banal excuse for ignorance: “Oh, we haven’t done that.” At the same time, I’m pretty sure it’s something of an attention-grabbing gimmick on the part of the university, sprinkling a little celebrity glitter – erudite glitter, but celeb-flavoured nonetheless – over their next prospectus. 

But mostly, I’m just bloody jealous.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Eastern promise

(Image by Chris Coles.)

All the Colors, by Eric Fisher, is according to its subtitle “a novel about Thailand and the search for life beyond Corporate America”. From the Author’s Note:
I have deep respect and admiration for the people of Thailand and their magnificent culture. It’s been many years and many trips since my first sojourn there, yet I remain endlessly fascinated by its beauty. This novel explores only a small subset of Thailand’s diverse beliefs and regions. I encourage everyone to approach this wonderful country in the spirit of adventure and to let it shape its own unique place in your heart.
The first line of the novel itself:
There were two girls in the bed, but he’d only paid for one...

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Not yet retro

If you’re not on Facebook you may not have encountered the above image or its many, many variations: essentially someone picks a job or a location and finds six pictures that illustrate six different perspectives on it. I think I first saw it on about Tuesday or Wednesday, and it was already getting tired by Thursday evening. If there’s a single phrase that seems to characterise modern society, it’s “easily bored”. Remember Benton/Fenton the out-of-control labrador? Within days of his arrival on YouTube the very mention of his name was enough to provoke guffaws from the audience of Radio4 comedy shows; a week later, he was utterly forgotten. If you go for a more-leisurely-than-normal poo, it seems, you’ll find you’ve missed seven flavours of the Zeitgeist by the time you’re finished. Actually, do they still have Zeitgeists?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

And your point is?

I still buy books, you know. Remember them, those papery things that  usually ended up full of receipts and train tickets? Although sometimes I wish I didn’t.  Buy them, I mean. Trawling the discount tables in a Bangkok branch of Kinokuniya, I come across a copy of my Noughties book, reduced to 100 baht (about two quid in old money). Slightly more expensive (but then it is a hardback, I tell myself) is Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood. The title gives the twist away: it’s composed entirely of questions, a structural gimmick to which such staples of fiction as plot and character are pretty much sacrificed. The subtitle – A Novel? – suggests that this is the whole point. It doesn’t particularly work as an overall piece, but there are some passing delights among the queries. For example: “If architecture is frozen music, do we not deserve a whole cookbook of such recipes?” Which almost seals up the puncture wound in my creative ego. Almost.

Monday, February 13, 2012

(O)bits of Whitney

So, after yesterday’s sad news, social media reminds us not just of what Whitney Houston did (which in many cases involved giving performances that were better than the songs merited) but what she meant. There are bits of Whitney (Whits? Bhitneys?) all over the cultural landscape, from the previously mentioned Serge Gainsbourg encounter via mash-ups that span the 80s and the 00s, to her status in the holy triumvirate alongside Genesis and Huey Lewis (and while we’re in the area, this exchange is priceless). Sexuality (as distinct from sexual intercourse) was pretty much invented in the 80s, whether overt (Madonna, Prince, Frankie Goes To Hollywood) or ambiguous (Michael Jackson, George Michael) so Whitney’s brand of sunny, gospel-flecked innocence and purity offered an open goal to anyone who fancied indulging in a bit of cheeky, postmodern defilement. The drugs and the reality TV were an afterthought.

But Whitney’s talent is restored with the overwhelming ‘The Greatest Love of All’, one of the best, most powerful songs ever written about self-preservation and dignity. Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Kim Jong Un and Whitney Houston

Kim Jong Un, the newish leader of North Korea, died a few days ago, shot dead in his bedroom. And then he un-died, as it became apparent that this was just an internet rumour that began in China and was then amplified by Twitter.

It was just confirmed that Patrick Bateman’s favourite female singer Whitney Houston has died. But for a few minutes her death was a Twitter rumour, confirmed, denied, buffeted by scepticism. Social media has created a brief phase when all celebrities (Is KJU a sleb? I guess he must be.) are potential Schrödinger’s cats, at once dead and alive and all things in between.

PS: The Great Successor may have survived the virtual gunfire, but he never had Serge Gainsbourg make a pass at him, did he?

Friday, February 10, 2012

I’m looking over the Wall and they’re looking at me

Yesterday, Small Boo bought one of those sparky thingummybobs that you use to light a gas hob when the built-in ignition’s gone wrong and you don’t want to get someone to come in and fix it because they’ll see how mucky your oven is. It’s called a Robotron, and perusal of the packaging informs us that it was made in the GDR. Which ceased to exist in 1990. Everything was the future once, including this:

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Social media explained

I notice that the following does not include any blogging sites per se.  Not even Posterous. The only thing worse than having the piss taken out of you is of course, not having the piss taken out of you. Have blogs finally gone Betamax?

While I’ve got you though, this is rather lovely. Even if its sole purpose is to sell t-shirts.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Hieronymo’s mad againe

Asperger’s syndrome, we are informed, is to be removed from Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which essentially means that psychiatrists in the United States will no longer be able to use it to end the sentence “You’ve got –––.” Lucy Berrington of the Asperger’s Association of New England expresses the disquiet of many, although the points being made bounce around somewhere on the border between Orwell’s Newspeak and Anselm’s ontological argument; if there suddenly isn’t a word for something, does it cease to exist? However, Ms Berrington rather capsizes her argument by placing Asperger’s in “the parade of neurologically based eccentricities”, which seems to support the notion that it’s not so much an illness, more a harmless personality trait, rather like an excessive fondness for a particular TV show. She also uses – several times – the phrase “the Asperger’s community” which, since one of the characteristics of people with the condition is social ineptitude, I find rather amusing. Sorry about that. (If you’re interested, I dealt with the whole community malarkey a few years back.)

I wouldn’t argue that people diagnosed with Asperger’s don’t have real problems, but I do wonder whether it might soon join the vague words used to explain away deaths in centuries gone by, all those agues and fits and surfeits and fevers. Here’s the writer Benjamin Nugent, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s in his teens:
Under the rules in place today, any nerd, any withdrawn, bookish kid, can have Asperger syndrome... The definition should be narrowed. I don’t want a kid with mild autism to go untreated. But I don’t want a school psychologist to give a clumsy, lonely teenager a description of his mind that isn’t true.
And I rather see where he’s coming from. When I was about seven years old, my teachers expressed concern about my tendency to switch off in class, which sometimes manifested itself in wandering out of the classroom and hiding in the toilet. First they thought there might be something wrong with my bladder – nobody bothered to ascertain that I wasn’t actually doing anything in the toilet, just sitting and thinking – then they wondered whether I might be unable to cope with the work, which in those dim and distant days would mean I was educationally subnormal. So I had a little chat with the educational psychologist. Had I been 15 years younger though, she might have been able to reach for the rubber stamp that said “Asperger’s”, and I certainly fitted – and still fit – the bill for this and other autistic spectrum disorders: socially awkward; insensitive to the social clues that others give off; unable to make eye contact; physically uncoordinated; obsessed with factual trivia; quite fond of Doctor Who. That sort of thing. Instead, she declared that I was, in her considered professional opinion, “bored”. Which seems about right, although it hardly qualifies as an eccentricity, does it? Maybe they’ll let me join their community.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Kindle wakes

Jonathan Franzen hates e-books! But he is wrong, so wrong! They are good! Well, some of them are. Look, you can buy this one by the Shark Blokes, which is full of lists and sarcasm. Or this one by Dr Hocking, which is about ice cream. Or even this one by Jonathan Franzen, but you’d probably better not, because he might get upset. Maybe someone should just steal his glasses. He likes that sort of thing.