Monday, July 30, 2012

Still not sure about the big baby: a few more thoughts about the Olympic ceremony and that

Some stuff that should probably gone into the previous post.

1. Previous opening ceremonies either dutifully toed a political line (Berlin 1936, Moscow 1980, Beijing 2008) or expressed a prevailing zeigeist (Los Angeles 1984, Sydney 2000) that happened to tie in quite neatly with what the government wanted saying anyway. If Boyle’s efforts were truly subversive, was he just expressing a general mood that stands in opposition to what Cameron et al want Britain to be? Ai Weiwei liked it, which makes one wonder how many flavours of excrement would have hit the fan had he been in charge four years ago.

2. That said, I’m still slightly confused about the whole Industrial Revolution thing. Some right-wingers, claiming the whole thing was a leftie plot, have suggested that the event presented Brunel and co as evil, rapacious capitalists intent on tarmacking over Merrie Englande, whereas Boyle’s collaborator Frank Cottrell Boyce says that the huge technological upheaval was one of the “things we loved about Britain” and wanted to celebrate. I suppose it does expose the incoherence of English conservatism, yearning for an idealised, quasi-pastoral past while lauding the entrepreneurial spirit that wiped it out.

3. That Daily Mail article. Oh dear.

4. For some reason I keep thinking back to that poor man who died at Tate Modern last week and the rumour that some people initially thought it was a piece of performance art. If something hideous had happened during the ceremony, how soon would it have been before someone twigged? And would it be appropriate to quote Bill Shankly?

5. Not directly related to the ceremony, but anyway: the empty seats fiasco; and the problems in TV coverage of the cycling being blamed on excessive Twitter use. Do people still need to attend sports events in person? Do they still even need to see them on TV? I didn’t watch the opening ceremony live, but I followed it on Twitter. In 20 years’ time, will athletes be fencing and diving and underclad-volleyballing in near-empty stadia, accompanied only by the tap-tap-tap of a few accredited live tweeters?

6. David Hockney’s response to the whole thing:

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Olympic opening ceremony: being Boyled

(The following thoughts are pretty much a synthesis of about 14 different conversations I’ve been having on various online media over the past few hours. As such, they are probably neither original nor coherent. You have been warned.)

I was a bit torn a few weeks ago when the news came that the test for prospective UK citizens will contain more questions about history. On the one hand, this is something I can only applaud, because it’s impossible to understand what makes a country or culture tick without knowing how it came to be where it is. But when you get to the nitty-gritty of which bits of history should be included, things become more complex. Nelson and Wellington and Churchill, fair enough; but what about the Putney Debates, the Rebecca Riots and the Tolpuddle Martyrs? The Jarrow Crusade and the Battle of Cable Street? Too political you say? But Churchill wasn’t?

You see, even if you agree on the basic facts, there are always multiple histories, parallel, interweaving, depending on the emphasis you choose to place on those facts. And in that spirit I bloody loved Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the Olympic Games. His was a people’s history of the UK, Blake rather than Kipling, suffragettes rather than Beefeaters, Dizzee Rascal, not the Last Night of the bloody Proms. And the CND badge and the Brookside lesbians and, of course, the glorious in-your-face-Cameron salute to the NHS. Anything that provokes Telegraph readers into splenetic online rants about the evils of multiculturalism has to be good value.

But hang on a moment. Was it really as cheeky and subversive as it seemed? Boyle wanted to make a story about revolutions but rather than Hegelian dialectic we got phallic chimneys appearing from the ersatz countryside as the industrial revolution brought pollution and capitalism to the countryside, turning everything dark and satanic. And yet Brunel and his top-hatted, bewhiskered chums were still presented as the good guys, forging the modern age and beginning a continuum that leads inexorably to a benign Tim Berners-Lee at his desk. Take that, greens and lefties alike. And there was still Elgar and there was still James Bond, purveyor of thick ears to assorted dangerous foreign types. And yes, there was still the Queen, even if she didn’t appear to be enjoying it as much as she’d revelled in that strange boaty jamboree last month.

Baudrillard would have argued that we’re simply blinded by the razzmatazz and spectacle of the whole thing, that obscures and eventually supplants the reality, including historical reality. And sure, there were lots of fireworks. But there’s also a sense that the very real spirit of subversion and nonconformism and sheer bloody-mindedness in British history has been appropriated; what Debord and the Situationists called recuperation. Yes, there were bits of the Stones and Bowie and the Sex Pistols and Frankie Goes To Hollywood, music that shocked and disturbed when it came out. But punk rockers became a posse of outsized marionettes, far more funny than scary. It all came through the door marked HERITAGE.

This is the problem when a nation decides to build its post-imperial identity around irony and self-deprecation, where the worst sin is to take oneself too seriously. To be truly subversive, to truly shock, Boyle would have had to come up with something utterly po-faced and self-important. A bit like the Beijing gig four years ago, in fact.

Maybe that at least would have made the Queen crack a smile.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

#savethesurprise: a sneak preview of the bloody Olympic ceremony

Well, the Olympics have already started, with comedy flag mishaps and racist tweets aplenty, but at the same time they haven’t started, because the opening ceremony hasn’t happened yet. Apparently Schrödinger’s Cat has managed to sponsor the bloody thing without anyone noticing.

Actually, ignore that. Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony has happened, but it was only a trial run and everyone who was present has been put on spoiler alert, encouraged to keep schtumm by the slightly emetic Twitter hashtag #savethesurprise. One wonders why there was all that trouble about G4S security guards not turning up; the terrorist threat could be neutralised at a stroke with a hashtag along the lines of #pleasedontblowusup.

Well, this isn’t Twitter. Apparently, what Boyle has done is to remake his first and best film, Shallow Grave, with Sebastian Coe, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt finding that their new flatmate George Osborne has died of acute self-awareness, stealing his suitcase full of cash and using it to rebuild a replica of the Millennium Dome which turns out in fact to be a Ron Mueck sculpture of the Duke of Edinburgh’s inflamed bladder, stuffed with sheep and WAGs and Morris dancers, all of whom perish horribly to the strains of the theme song from It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. As the only-slightly-racist Land of Hope and Glory bit fades away, all that’s left amidst the carnage is Princess Beatrice, dressed in nothing but that bloody hat and a single fake Burberry sock, attempting to recite the words “They think it’s all over... it is now!” but failing, again and again, forever.

PS: At least Oddbins gets the joke.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The infinite knot of aboutness and my ebong hair

I spent the weekend in Hong Kong, mainlining dim sum and Picasso, just about dodging Typhoon Vicente and barely even looking at the  wondrous interwwwebblynets, so it was something of a surprise when I got back home and found that I was suddenly part of a Facebook group called Bloggers. Maybe this is what the future looks like, one bit of social media talking about another, Tweeting about a LinkedIn group for MySpace diehards, taking to Weibo to ask to what extent your Klout score is affected by your activities on Pinterest, Instagramming your LibraryThing profile page and posting the picture on Google+. And real life falls down somewhere between the cracks, where the WiFi connection isn’t so great. By the way, the picture isn’t really anything to do with all this, except that I vaguely remember I found it on Facebook and it’s now on a blog, so feel free to decide how relevant that is and scrawl your findings in magic marker on the nearest wall. And the following email that I just retrieved from my spam folder has even less to do with anything, but it may serve to fill the gap while I think of something actually worth blogging about:
Am Engr william philip.I hail from lancaster UK,I attended oxford university,where i studied marine engineering,Am 47 years old single and work as a marine engineer in the submarine section. Am elegant,vibrant,vigorous and full of life I was opporturned to glance through your page and personnality profle.You seem to be the woman of my choice.You scarlet lips,ebong hair,well biult physique charming face,sedycing eyes are of great intersest to me.In fact,your entirety commands my variety of interest
PS: And a neat line by Daphne Wayne-Bough from the aforementioned group: “Facebook is like meeting in the pub. Blogging was more like inviting people round to your house.

Friday, July 20, 2012

In the dark

20 or so years ago, I was in New York, watching Coppola’s Dracula movie, the one with Gary Oldman. It was in a cinema in Times Square, which wasn’t quite the piss-stained hellhole it had been, but still had a certain grubby frisson about it, a potential danger in the shadows. Around 40 minutes in, raised voices cut through the soundtrack a few rows in front of me, an argument about a woman apparently. And then I saw the shadow of a man rising from his seat and throwing a flailing punch. The house lights came on almost immediately and at least a third of the patrons were already hurrying for the exits. “Damn, that guy could be carrying anything!” hissed the man next to me as he made his move. Security guards arrived; the brawlers were removed; the leavers cautiously came back to their places; the film restarted. But there remained a distinct air, in amongst the tropes of horror and vampirism and possession, of a very real violence out there. My hotel was only about four blocks away, but when the film was done, I got a cab.

It’s too early to know exactly what happened a few hours ago in Denver. But it’s interesting that when the shooting began, people in the cinema next door assumed it was some sort of promotional gimmick and only when bullets started coming through the walls were they shaken into reality. When I saw the newsflash, my immediate reaction was pretty similar; it’s a stunt, and someone in the audience has panicked and tweeted it and some idiot news editor’s taken it seriously. And then the horror sank in; the bullets through the walls. Are we now so meekly accepting of the dominant role of bullshit in our lives – even if we know it to be bullshit – that when reality does intrude, it takes a while to sink in?

PS: Except the FBI did it, of course.

PPS: More tragedy that accidentally becomes art. I might come back to this.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Hitchens, Orwell, Lenin and the virtual slop-pail of fame

In his introduction to a 2010 edition of Animal Farm (also included in the almost-posthumous collection Arguably), Christopher Hitchens makes this observation on Orwell’s cast of characters and their equivalents in the Russian revolution:
There is, however, one very salient omission. There is a Stalin pig and a Trotsky pig, but no Lenin pig... Nobody appears to have pointed this out at the time (and if I may say so, nobody but myself has done so since; it took me years to notice what was staring me in the face).
Well I noticed when I first read it, probably around the age of 14 or 15, at the same time I was covering the revolution in my O-level history class. And I’m sure I pointed it out at the time, although I wouldn’t be surprised if none of my peers paid any attention. And I’d be astonished if thousands of people over the years hadn’t read the book and stroked their chins and thought, “Hang on...” Of course, that’s not what Hitchens means. He means that nobody within his golden circle pointed it out, nobody with whom he was at Oxford, nobody who wrote for the New Statesman in the 70s or Vanity Fair in the 00s, nobody with whom he drank and smoke and roistered and even doistered. If I’d had a blog (OK, its analogue equivalent) back in the early 80s I might have raised the matter then, but I suspect even if I had it wouldn’t have come to his attention. Some writers, it would appear, are more equal than others.

Incidentally, if you key “animal farm” into the first site that comes up is an adventure park in Somerset, where you get to meet Peppa Pig. Maybe she’s Lenin.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Tomorrow I'll Wake Up and Scald Myself With Tea: 30 years on

Huge chunks of what I know and love about movies I owe to BBC2. Younger readers may not believe that the channel was once something other than a repository for antiques shows, cookery shows, quiz shows and combinations thereof but in the days of three analogue channels and that’s yer lot it was a trove of unexpected gems. There was still a Reithian educate-and-entertain meme in the programming, so they were big on themed seasons that gave an overview of a particular genre or period: over successive Saturday nights I’d watch the Warner gangster movies with Cagney, Bogart and Robinson; the Astaire/Rogers musicals from RKO; contrasting double bills of a Universal horror movie from the 1930s and a Hammer equivalent from the 50s/60; or they’d get the auteur bug and give you a couple of months of Buñuel or Wilder.

But the real joy came when you came across a movie of which you knew absolutely nothing, that had no connection with what came before or after, that just seemed to be thrown into the schedules on a whim. This was pre-Wikipedia, pre-IMDb, remember; all you had to go on was what the Radio Times told you (unless it was in Halliwell’s Film Guide or Elkan Allan’s Movies on TV, the only other references I would have had to hand). So I was rather under-prepared when, at the age of 13 and a half, Auntie presented to me a Czech film,  Jindřich Polák’s 1977 science-fiction comedy Zítra vstanu a opařim se čajem, aka Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself With Tea.

I’ve mentioned this experience – not just the film, but the fact of catching it by chance on a winter weekend in 1982 – to many people over the years. Most of them respond blankly, presumably because they were doing what people were meant to do on a Saturday night in 1982, drinking sweet cocktails to a soundtrack of the Human League. Or maybe they were watching the football. But every once in a while I find someone who was about the right age and the right level of social ineptitude to have been on the sofa, watching the only minority channel going. They usually offer that face of bafflement easing into vague recollection, followed by a specific aspect of the film suddenly leaping back into their consciousness after all this time. “The twins!” “The green faces!” “The comedy Hitler!” I wouldn’t say I’ve consolidated lifelong friendships this way, but there’s a tenuous network of geeks and losers who now understand they weren’t alone, united as they are in a sort of extended water-cooler moment across the decades.

The only reason I know the solid facts about that fateful transition (that it was on Saturday January 16 at 9.35pm, and so on) is that they’re laid out in this review of the DVD, from 2006. As soon as I read it, I felt an urge to get hold of the disc, but at the same time a certain reluctance. Although my 13-year-old self loved the film, something told me that the 40-something me would immediately realise it was a bit crap. So I held off. Until, a few days ago, I happened to come across the whole bloody thing online. And I gave in.

OK, here’s the basic set-up. In the 1990s (or a mid-70s imagining thereof), time travel is a feasible leisure activity and a group of fascists decide to use this to go back to 1944 and give Hitler a hydrogen bomb. They bribe a pilot on one of the time flights to help them; he lives with his identical twin, a scientist who was responsible for developing the technology. On the day on which the trip is scheduled, the pilot chokes to death on his breakfastl; his brother, who knows nothing about the plot, dons his uniform and goes to work in his place.

Well, it wasn’t quite as good as I’d remembered, nor nearly as bad as I’d feared. The budget was evidently tight and the effects now seem primitive, but that’s never bothered me too much; I still enjoy episodes of Doctor Who and Blake’s 7 from around the same time. Polák clearly assumed that the 1990s would look much like the 1970s, but with a few hi-tech innovations thrown in, so flares, fedoras and kipper ties abound alongside the aforementioned time travel, and also washing-up liquid that simply dissolves the dirty dishes. I remember being stunned at the audacity of playing Hitler for laughs (as distinct from something like The Producers, which played *the idea of Hitler* for laughs) but we’ve been through so many Downfall spoofs these sequences have lost their impact. That said, the casting of the historical Nazis is spot on; Goering and Goebbels in particular look just right. And allowing Hitler to converse with a pair of Chicagoan time tourists by having them both speak fluent Czech presents no problems; in my world, Daleks and Zygons and the Sevateem all spoke English.

I must have been so swept away in 1982 by the weirdness and audacity of the premise that I failed to pick up on some fairly contrived bits of plot, such as the anti-ageing pills that a Nazi officer takes to remain pretty much unchanged 50 years after the war. And it’s never properly explained why Jan, the sweet, clumsy scientist, immediately assumes the identity of his amoral brother Karel; there are elements of resentment and jealousy at work (Jan carries a torch for at least one of Karel’s several girlfriends) but the switch seems to be driven by the need to set up a situation rather than arising naturally from the action. The relationship between the two brothers is evidently dysfunctional, but would Jan really be so blasé about Karel’s sudden demise? Other incongruities don’t even have a reason for existing: why, for instance, would a Nazi have a black secretary? And if you’re going to set up a bit of slapstick by the contrivance of having a trampoline on a roof, at least make the ensuing carnage somehow worth the effort.

What does feel uncomfortable – something that would have passed me by 30 years ago – is the political subtext. In this version of the 90s, the Berlin Wall didn’t come down and, we assume, Czechoslovakia never split in two; the last we see of the pro-Hitler plotters, they are being driven away, presumably left to the tender mercies of the Communist authorities. The film was made less than a decade after Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into Prague; are we to infer that a plot to hand the H-bomb to Stalin in 1944 would have been perfectly OK? And the final twist, which I won’t give away, almost steps over the line between black humour and pragmatic callousness. Only the excellent, understated performance by Petr Kostka (as Jan/Karel) stops things from getting too icky.

What still works, after the sometimes clunky exposition of the first half, is the insane confusion of the conclusion, with characters returning from the 1940s to a time just before they left and thus populating Prague with several versions of themselves. Again, I was already attuned to temporal paradoxes and multiple realities but Polák pushes the idea far further than I’d ever imagined possible, while still keeping things under control; it’s always clear to the viewer which model of each character is which.

Beyond the merits of the film itself though, there’s the whole issue of how we see films now. Sure, Polák’s work is far more available to people who might want to see it, anywhere in the world, whenever they want, whether or not there’s football going on elsewhere. But according to the counter on the video site, fewer than 1,500 people have taken advantage of such an opportunity; whereas back in January, 1982, several hundred thousand did so, even though they were forced to do it at a time when the BBC2 schedulers demanded. And if I hadn’t seen it 30 years ago, I probably wouldn’t have done it again this time. And this time, I can’t go into school on Monday morning and say “Bloody hell, did you see that bizarre film with the Nazis and the green faces?” in the reasonable expectation that maybe two or three people might have decided not to watch the football.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

(What he really means is, he couldn’t be bothered to write anything) anyway, there I was, debating whether to write something in response to this article about SEO content farms or maybe this one by Michael Chabon about Finnegans Wake, or possibly even bring the two together. (If an infinite number of monkeys all with James Joyce masks spent a thousand years typing and then put the results up on Blogger in what position would the post appear on Google if another monkey – this one in a Kim Kardashian mask, perhaps – searched for “bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk”?)

But then I saw these fabulous renditions of movies as Ottoman artworks by Murat Palta

and these wonderful photos of Hollywood stars by the centenarian Editta Sherman

and I got to thinking that words are a bit overrated really, aren’t they?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Fifty Shades of Grey: taking your mind off the ironing

No, I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey, EL James’s mummy-porn blockbuster. The last time I made a conscious effort to read a book simply because people were arguing about how bad it was, I ended up creating a whole new blog about the bloody thing in a vain attempt to analyse the weird, compulsive appeal of its awfulness and I really don’t want to take another trip into that cul de sac of brain-sapping banality.

Not that I really need to read Fifty Shades to hold an opinion on it, because the debate has moved on beyond whether the book is any good or not, in literary terms at least. The word is that it’s reaching out beyond the main book-buying markets, luring previously reluctant readers into bookshops (real and virtual), reminding them that reading isn’t just something that other people do. And, goes the argument, if a small fraction of those converts go on to become regular book-buyers and/or book-readers, that can only be a good thing. It’s another matter whether the potential benefit of these eager new customers turns out to be enough to counteract the depressing reality that agents and editors will ignore for the next three years any author presuming to write anything other than monochrome-covered tomes oozing with female-friendly spanky smut. On the other hand, in the last decade it was all pubescent wizards, so at least this is something slightly different.

One thing that many observers have noted is the way Fifty Shades has divided its readers, with the number of 1- and 5-star reviews on Amazon dwarfing the middle ground. This is probably inevitable when so many people are reading it less in anticipation of pleasure and more to see what all the fuss is about; I guess Lolita or Lady Chatterley would have elicited a similar spread of reactions. The difference is of course that Nabokov and Lawrence were deemed to have written proper literature; EL James is writing for a mass market and her fans inhabit a broad demographic. A skim through those who gave her book full marks throws up the likes of:
I am not a fan of reading but all girls i work with are reading the triology and everyone rated it so i gave ib an actually bought all three at once (the only books i have bought in past are for uni. I started reading them on Saturday 2nd June and by the evening of the 5th /june i has finished the lot, i loved everey book and gutted that i have finished them, its true they are kinkier than expected but there is a story line behind it. I just hope the movie livesd up to the book when they decide on a cast :)
...which may simply reinforce the prejudices of Grey-haters, as well as giving some ammunition to those who bemoan the current state of higher education. More interesting is this comment:
I read with interest the reviews before buying. They seem to come from two angles. Those with their literary glasses on and those expecting a bit of escapism. Now I've read it the literary reviews seem laughable. Prose? Grammar? Syntax? This is simply a book that is meant to take your mind off the ironing and it certainly does that.
Rather than taking on the one-star haters, who criticise the clunky, repetitive style and the two-dimensional characters, the argument seems to be – to the above reviewer at least – that such niceties simply don’t matter. No, EL James is not Prince Nabokov, nor was meant to be. A book such as Fifty Shades of Grey is allowed to be poorly written from a strictly literary point of view, but can still succeed on its own terms, temporary displacement of domestic duties included. The real question is – and I asked this about The Da Vinci Code and never really came to a satisfactory conclusion – does it actually *have* to be badly written? 

PS: And then there’s the brown sauce story.

PPS: And this is quite funny (with a tangential Fifty Shades mention at the end). 

PPPS: And for more Amazon reviews that fart in the face of the critical consensus, go here.

PPPPS: And yet more – this absolute gem, flagged up by the lovely Broken Biro, makes me even more glad I never bothered to read the bloody book. 

PPPPPS: But what’s this? A defence of the book, in the New Statesman no less.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Georgia Ford and the unforced error of Twitter fame

As gawky Spider Man doppelganger Andy Murray wielded his claymore in the vague direction of the Swiss Tarantinobot, a young woman in Sunderland by the name of Georgia Ford asked a question:
Is wimbledon always held in London?
Unfortunately, she asked it on Twitter and within minutes it was being RT’d around the planet; last time I looked, about 5,000 times. Ms Ford was clearly embarrassed; she mustered some admirable Mackem defiance, but her unwanted fleeting celebrity was evidently too much and she deleted her account.

That was when the sanctimonious finger-wagging kicked in:
Anyone who abused for a simple mistake need to have a long hard look at themselves. Sort yourselves out for goodness sake... Why would anyone be mean to her?? It was cute!... theres a line between banter and abuse... Can people stop being horrid to please. The tweets may have been more than a tad amusing but no excuse to be mean to her!?... To the pitiful excuses for human beings that hounded Georgia Ford from twitter. Every moment of your life will be under scrutiny….from me... I wish that had not been shamed into deleting her Twitter account. Time for those who mocked her to eat some crow...  if you're reading this then ignore the haters and hold your head high. x... I miss Georgia Ford.
...and so on. Now, I don’t know whether it was the sheer volume of responses that persuaded Georgia to shut down, or one particularly vitriolic message in particular. As far as I can see, the vast majority of the RTs were unadorned with anything apart from the occasional raised eyebrow (or emoticon equivalent thereof). And I know online bullying is a serious problem, especially when one person is singled out by a pack. But this wasn’t some sort of Twitter Borg acting in unison; it was just something that lots of people independently thought was funny, and was thus passed on to some more people, and so on and so on. The Huffington Post sprang to her defence, but in doing so they had to mention the original tweet, surely compounding the original problem. 

A journalistic myth has appeared in the last few years, about “Twitter lynch mobs” and “concerted Twitter campaigns”. I’m sure these things exist, but more often than not, they’re the result of a large number of people independently coming to a similar opinion about something. It’s not much different from lots of people liking a catchy song and humming it, or lots of people laughing at joke on a TV show and retelling it to their friends. It’s very sad that Georgia Ford felt the need to leave Twitter, but what do her erstwhile defenders want? The next time someone asks a silly question, we should just grit our collective teeth and act as if nothing happened? That wouldn’t just harm Twitter, it would bite a huge chunk out of modern culture and discourse.

And now, back to the tennis.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Daily Mail? Arse!

Carping about the Daily Mail is as easy and pointless as throwing confetti at a rhinoceros but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. And this time it’s (very tangentially) personal.

A few days ago, the Mail ran an article about Carole Middleton, the mother of the woman who is married to the Queen’s balder grandson. It’s a rather snotty, sneery piece, focusing on her “little social weaknesses” – which is odd because I would have thought Middleton’s story (one-time air hostess who made something of herself) matches the Mail’s default readership profile, or is at least the sort of narrative to which they aspire. But I don’t want to add to the reams that have already been written about the paper’s extraordinary ability to persuade women to read articles that tell them how vile they are.

No, the real problem comes a few paragraphs in, when the article’s author Paul Scott suddenly starts discussing one Tim Atkinson who apparently “writes a regular blog for the Party Times” (the website of the Middletons’ hugely successful business). In his blog, Tim occasionally pokes gentle fun at the royals and, on this occasion, mused about that batty Palace directive that Kate Middleton should curtsey to the offspring of Prince Andrew, her husband’s cousins, the gormless-looking ones with the bizarre headgear that looks like beige fallopian tubes. Scott quotes the post’s headline – “Sister of woman with nice arse officially inferior to Beatrice and Eugenie” – which began life as one of my tweets and which Tim A very politely asked if he could borrow, because he’s got good manners. See, I told you it was all a bit tangential. I thought the Mail asterisked words like “arse” though, preferring “derrière” or “posterior”. Apparently not.

Anyway, Tim Atkinson doesn’t write a regular blog for the Party Times. Whoever puts together the Party Times has chosen to link to Atkinson’s blog. Scott does actually mention that the offending screed “appears on the tackily titled ‘blogroll’ section”, but he doesn’t appear to understand what a blogroll is. Look, I’ve got a blogroll. It’s a roll of blogs, so that’s why it’s called a blogroll. It lists some blogs I quite like. But the people who write those blogs aren’t writing regular blogs for Cultural Snow. They’re doing it for themselves. And if Annie Bookcrossing suddenly declares that all Paraguayans should be drowned at birth, or Blackwatertown suggests that punching baby pandas in the face is fun, that’s not my problem, OK? Atkinson offers his view of the whole thing here.

OK, so Paul Scott is a silly old fart who doesn’t understand how social media works. Big deal. But the problem is, he’s writing for the Mail, which operates the most-visited news website in the world. Millions of people are (apparently) gulping down their tales of minor celebrities and their bikini malfunctions, and how Katie Holmes ate an ice cream so she’s probably OK now. Columnists such as Peter Hitchens, Melanie Phillips and Simon Heffer meanwhile bellow about the increasing banality and shallowness of modern culture, ignoring the fact that said banality is helping to pay their wages; the exquisite doublethink is neatly dissected here. But maybe they’re just like Scott, and still haven’t got to grips with how this big, strange interwebby thing really works. Maybe none of the Mail journalists really understand, and neither do the editors or the owners, and they’re all just helpless little hamsters in an Escher-like continuum of interconnected wheels that’s been thrown together for a giggle by some malevolent HAL 9000-type computer that turns out to be the cyborg love child of Mary Whitehouse and Paul Raymond. And as they die of exhaustion and embarrassment and self-loathing, the last thing they hear will be the voice of Carole Middleton explaining what a blogroll is.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Walk away René Magritte

I very rarely find myself in an “I-wish-I’d-had-a-camera” moment because I’m hopeless at taking pictures and in any case deep within my DNA I think there’s a little bit of that superstition (Amish? Inca? Nepalese? Can never remember...) that capturing someone’s image is a way of grabbing their soul. And I’m really rather shy, so I could never do that thing of stopping perfect strangers on the street and asking to photograph their groovy clothes; and I’m also very wary of confrontation, so I could never risk taking pictures surreptitiously, in case the subject objected. No, words is what I do, which is why I was massively tempted to turn the end of that last sentence into a pun about word order, by inserting the word “verb” but I didn’t, so hurrah for me.

But anyway, on Saturday night, in the gift shop of a posh hotel in Bangkok, I wished I’d had a camera. A youngish couple walked in; from what I could hear of their conversation I think they were Korean. He was wearing a blue-and-white striped polo shirt and on the right breast was Magritte’s pipe. Oh, you know the one:

That’s the chap. Except he just had the pipe – not the words. The words that seem to be a lie and then you suddenly realise they’re telling the truth, because it’s not a pipe, it’s a picture of a pipe. The words that encapsulate Magritte’s dry, self-deprecating, deliciously Belgian wit; the words that brought metafiction to visual art; the words that make you look at all art before or since through different eyes; the words without which it would still be a pipe, because nobody’s telling you otherwise. But I didn’t take a photo, for all the reasons I mentioned.

And because I don’t know the Korean for “Do you mind if I take your photo for my new website”