Sunday, January 27, 2013

Maggie Mae, mother of rock

YouTube makes it very easy to take an isolated snippet of obscure video, preferably one taken from a cheap European variety show made in the 1970s and then make some sort of snap judgement about Czech or Finnish popular culture entirely based on the odd people dancing badly. Surely it’s more generous to use such oddities to create an alternative history of popular music, especially when one doesn’t actually know much about the performers in question; Maggie Mae, for example, doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page to call her own. So I can make up a history, recasting her as a punk pioneer, a precursor of such quirky, awkward, unclassifiable divas as Nina Hagen, Lene Lovich, Mary Margaret O’Hara and, um, her out of Daisy Chainsaw. And then suggest that with glasses like that she could also have been pretty high up in the Baader-Meinhof gang. Take it away, Mags!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Manti Te’o and what went wrong with blogging

The bizarre tale of the college football star Manti Te’o and his non-existent, non-dead girlfriend clearly says something about modern society but I’m not entirely sure what. We’ve got the media’s demented desire to create narratives and backstories for celebrities, which means that it is no longer enough to be good at football or acting or economics; the modern sleb has to embody some sort of wider narrative as well. And of course there’s also the plausibility of the virtual world, that ensures solid relationships, love even, can develop without the mediation of physical presence (meatspace, as I still like to call it).

I only really began to think about this sort of thing when I started blogging, at which point I realised that relationships of a sort could be formed from ones and zeroes and words and ideas. In reality of course, this was nothing new; there have been epistolary relationships for hundreds of years, but they lacked the immediacy of comment boxes and messaging and e-mail. And then, when I discovered how easy it was to track the numbers of people coming to my blog, and where in the world they were based and which pages they liked and what time of day they were reading, it humanised the process.

Until of course I realised that great many of these apparent eyeballs were in fact spammers and bots and various long-leggedy digital beasties; and that many blogs, begun amid the wide-eyed enthusiasm of the mid-Noughties, had also been taken over by sellers of Viagra and Ugg boots. What once felt like human dialectic, action and reaction and interaction, had become a matter of machines talking to machines, like a Turing test run amok. Which brings things back to Manti Te’o; we know that his girlfriend doesn’t/didn’t exist, but how do we know that Manti himself isn’t entirely a fabrication of the media; two unrealities, cuddling up in a fake but beautiful romance?

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Sergei Filin: another balaclava

When I first heard about the horrible acid attack on Sergei Filin, the director of the Bolshoi ballet, I immediately assumed that it was something to do with politics or money. One or both of those may turn out to be involved (this is Russia after all) and the fact that the photographs of the wounded Filin look like some sort of tribute to Pussy Riot only adds to the sense of murk and menace under the grim shadow of Putin. However, most informed observers seem to believe that it’s actually about dancing. “The only thing I could imagine is that it is linked to his creative work at the Bolshoi Theatre,” said a spokeswoman for the Bolshoi itself.

To a mere Brit, this sounds pretty shocking; as if, say, Tracey Emin had taken umbrage over a perceived slight by Alan Yentob and hired a couple of goons to teach him a lesson with crowbars. That said, people have been known to get rather exercised by which football team somebody else supports. Maybe there’s something to be said for not caring so much.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Renowned author Dan Brown has written a new Dan Brown book that is probably brown

Yes, just as people are finally starting to get bored with EL James and her various hues of hanky-panky, the real boss of unaccountably successful bad writing promises a new tome, Inferno. Now, I’ve given myself several bouts of mental cramp attempting to get to grips with Brown’s appeal, to the extent of starting a blog that attempted to apply some sort of literary analysis to The Da Vinci Code, but ultimately I’m none the wiser. Do most people just not care about bad writing? Or is there something in the wonky syntax and juddering exposition that actually appeals? Incidentally, if you haven’t read Sebastian Faulks’s note-perfect pastiche of Brown’s style, you’ve missed out.

What intrigues me about the latest news is not the book itself (Brown vs Dante, apparently, ho hum) but what the publisher has to say about it. Bill Scott-Kerr of Transworld declares:
I've been working with Dan Brown for over a decade now and every time he delivers a new novel, he never fails to surprise. As a storyteller, he has the great gift of being able to take you on a breathtaking rollercoaster ride at the same time as offering a fresh perspective on what he's showing us along the way. This brilliant Robert Langdon thriller is no exception-in Inferno he returnes to the heart of old Europe and to the territory so compellingly occupied by The Da Vinci Code. It's another star turn from start to finish.
You know how dogs supposedly get to resemble their masters, or vice versa? Could it be that Scott-Kerr’s years with Brown have led to some of the latter’s literary anti-style rubbing off? Look at that first sentence, with the redundant juxtaposition of “every time” and “never”. Then the lame cliché of “a breathtaking rollercoaster ride” from which you’re supposed to get some kind of perspective. “Returnes” is presumably just a typo, and I don’t know whether it came from Transworld or The Bookseller, so we’ll let that one rest, but “so compellingly occupied”? I mean, what? And then two more clichés in the final sentence. 

I’ll give Mr Scott-Kerr the benefit of the doubt; I’m guessing he can actually write a decent press release when he chooses to do so, but made the conscious choice to write a bad one, because otherwise he’d only draw attention to how badly written the main product will be. So, in a way, it’s good writing, because it does its job. Although, by that logic, Dan Brown’s writing is good writing too. Whatever circle of hell he’s working from.

PS: For more deconstruction of bad writing, see this take-down of an Esquire cover story.  

Monday, January 14, 2013

Sunday, January 13, 2013: The day journalism died, pretty much

Julie Burchill wrote something in The Observer yesterday. (Update: As it’s now been removed by the Observer this link now goes to Toby Young’s Telegraph blog, as he’s reposted the whole thing.) You may have heard about it; you certainly would have done if you were within 500 yards of Twitter, which erupted like a lanced bubo of goopy virtual outrage. The whole thing was a classic case of a banal non-event escalating into something bigger, rather like an urban riot beginning with a spilled pint. Apparently, Burchill’s friend and fellow scribe Suzanne Moore had said something mildly disobliging about a few transsexuals; rather more transsexuals overreacted a bit in Ms Moore’s direction; Moore left Twitter over the treatment she was getting; Burchill then really gave the transsexuals something by which they could be offended, when she – oh, you can read it if you really want. It’s not nice.

The people at The Observer must have known something was liable to kick off, because they turned the comment function off as the article sat there in the early hours of Sunday morning. But of course, rather than simply fume in impotence, people took to the Moore-free space of Twitter, haranguing Burchill, Moore (who, I’m guessing, hadn’t actually had anything to do with Burchill’s piece) and, amusingly, The Guardian. (Because many of the two papers’ online functions are integrated, the link to Burchill’s piece made it look as if it was from The Guardian; the editor of the daily paper seemed to spend much of his Sunday tweeting variants on “nuffink to do wiv me, guv”.) Of course, the argument did get made that all the waving of Twitchforks was simply encouraging more curious traffic to the offending article, which is what Burchill wanted in the first place but by that stage common sense seemed to have sneaked off to the pub. I was particularly aggrieved because the online frenzy interrupted my Twitter-enhanced listen to the omnibus edition of The Archers and I was unable to get Ruth’s mention of a #duffbatchofsemen trending, even though it seemed rather germane to the whole issue of supposedly real and unreal sexual identities.

Of course, Burchill was not the only person to write something ghastly yesterday. The reliably vile Liz Jones was characteristically spiteful about Clare Balding in the Mail, an act that would usually have provoked mob of its own, but rather got lost amidst the anti-Burchill screaming. (Incidentally, how does someone who looks like a Goth version of Gillian McKeith get the right to criticise someone else’s appearance?) Then there was the journalist Patrick Strudwick, who took the popular chanteuse Azealia Banks to task for the use of a nasty word and was then assailed by her dim fans who, for the most part, just proved his point.

Amidst the furore, Matt was changing the bulb in Peggy’s porch light, unaware that Lillian (his partner and Peggy’s daughter) was at that moment enjoying carnal rudeness with Paul (Matt’s brother). But did anybody care by this point? (Note to the uninitiated: he’s still on about The Archers, OK?)

I’m not sure what effect this is going to have on relations between feminists and the trans community, and I don’t think I’m best placed to comment on such matters anyway. I do think, however, it represents something of a tipping point in the way journalism works. Burchill has always hungered for attention, and she genuinely doesn’t care whether it comes in the form of adulation or loathing. And now the fragile eco-system of the media has evolved to meet her. Burchill gets eyeballs and that’s the only kind of currency the likes of The Observer can work on. When it gets to the stage when their rivals at the Telegraph and Independent are commenting on the brouhaha and presumably pushing online readers away from their own offerings, if only for a few minutes, the cash-strapped Obs people must be clapping their hands, even if they’ve lost a few alternatively gendered readers along the way. After years of sneering at the shoddy, superficial sensationalism of the blogosphere, the broadsheets have finally cracked. This is how it’s going to work from now on; as Oscar said (I wonder where his sympathies would have rested in this spat), the worst thing is not being talked about.

But the best comment comes almost by accident. I’m assuming that Charlie Brooker filed his latest Guardian piece some time before he’d have had a chance to see Burchill’s screed, but it neatly skewers those who seek to offend and those who rise to the bait, describing the egregious scourge of environmentalist James Delingpole as “laughing like a naughty boy who has just blown off through the headmaster’s letterbox”. Well, just think of Burchill and Jones and their ilk all dropping their drawers and jostling to get their tired sphincters in the optimum position so as to deliver a cabbagey trump or two to the intellectual life of Britain. And if that isn’t a hideous enough image to make you ignore their inane provocations, I don’t know what is.

Meanwhile, back in Ambridge, Kenton’s trying to cadge some milk churns...

PS: Padraig Reidy at Index on Censorship on the fallout from the Burchill affair.

PPS: The Observer has elected to “withdraw from publication the Julie Burchill comment piece ‘Transsexuals should cut it out’”. Whether this amounts to self-censorship or a retrospective attack of good taste, I’m not sure. What do you think? 

Friday, January 11, 2013

Klaus Kinski and the judgement of history

It seems that another eccentric cultural icon with bizarrely blond hair has been posthumously accused of child abuse; this time it’s the late actor and all-round crazyman Klaus Kinski, whose daughter Pola claims that he raped her throughout her childhood and adolescence. Of course, such accusations should be taken seriously and investigated, just as the Savile claims are being investigated, even if the alleged perpetrator can’t be tried. The complication here – again, as with Savile – is that whether we mean to or not, we will also be trying Kinski’s public persona, and also his work. The first doesn’t present too many difficulties; he was widely known to be a very strange man, and not really in a very pleasant way; he never ran a marathon for charity, as far as I know. Adding paedophilia to his many sins wouldn’t be such a big stretch of the imagination. But what do we do about his movies? Do we treat him like the sculptor Eric Gill? The revelations about his multiple sexual misdemenours prompted calls for his works to be removed from public view, but to no avail. Or will Kinski become another Savile or Gary Glitter, pretty much airbrushed, Trotsky-style, from pop history? And why the distinction anyway? Was it because Gill produced proper, worthwhile art and Savile and Glitter were merely vulgar, tawdry showmen? On that basis, will we still be allowed to watch the Herzog Nosferatu, which was A Great Film, but not Jess Franco’s Count Dracula (in which Kinski played Renfield) because it was just a bit of Euroschlock?

Essentially, does artistic worth trump moral revulsion?

PS: In Der Spiegel, Arno Frank writes that – in common with Savile – Kinski hid his proclivities in plain view; but also concedes that his evil was a key component of what made him so compelling a performer.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Die Hardly

You know, in our (post)modern, virtual, hyperreal world, it’s terribly difficult to maintain any notion of quality. I mean, what’s more impressive? Pretending to be one celebrity on Twitter in order to invent the death of another, as Tommasso Debenedetti does? (Shades of Luther Blissett there, I reckon.) Pretending to be a deaf paraplegic and then killing him? Hiring gamers to (virtually) kill your own son, in the manner of Mr Feng? Or just inventing a whole damn war, which stood undetected on Wikipedia for half a decade? I suppose the body count from the last was the highest. Is that how you measure it, then; the number of people you haven’t really killed?

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Destroying Orwell

What’s A Creative, exactly? I’ve heard the noun being kicked around in advertising circles (“This is Miles, he’s The Creative who’ll be working on the account.” “We’ll punt it over to The Creatives, see what they can do with it.”) where it seems to exist as an implied rebuke to everyone else in the organisation. How, after all, do you describe someone who isn’t A Creative? An Uncreative? A Destructive?

And while we’re on the subject, is it these Creatives who are expected to read the magazine called Creative Review? Or has it become something akin to The Economist; I wonder how many readers of that publication define themselves as economists. I only ask because a recent feature (in CR, not The Economist) dealt with David Pearson’s cover designs for Penguin’s new editions of George Orwell’s major works. The one that has attracted most attention is for 1984 Nineteen Eighty-Four, where the title and author’s name are obscured by black foil, and only visible in the right light because the characters are debossed. It’s a bold step, entirely in tune with the theme of Orwell’s novel, but it clearly carries with it certain commercial risks; what if the casual bookshop browser (if they still exist) can’t identify the book? And such concerns are presumably what prompted the following deliciously Gradgrindian comment, from one Graham:
I hate designers that get so keen to impress that they just do something completely impractical like block out all the type. Bottom line: Its a tossy response to a decent brief. The sort of idea a first year graphics student does before realising that they've made something pathetic instead of clever. We can all come up with witty rational for impractical design. The clever thing is when the man on the street can understand the concept and it connects in a genius way. If I was Penguin I'd want my money back. Bollocks to 'covered up'. Start again.
One wonders whether Graham is a Creative, albeit one of a distinctly practical bent. Or is he more likely a bitter Destructive, taking a furtive peek in the Creatives’ magazine and venting all his hatred and resentment on the cool kids down the corridor?

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Two things about Paraguay

A couple of nuggets from a recent Economist article about Paraguay (a country that I’d previously known for its brilliantly bonkers goalkeeper José Luis Chilavert and not a lot else): during World War II, the government sympathised with the Axis powers to such an extent that the national police director named his son Adolfo Hirohito; and in the native language Guaraní, still spoken by 80% of the population, the word for tomorrow translates as “if the sun rises”. I love the bleakness of the “if”. Anyway, what delicious nuggets have you learned over the past few days?

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Myra and the Mail

I’ve always been quietly impressed by the ability of the Daily Mail to maintain two diametrically opposed editorial viewpoints at once without imploding. Scantily clad teenagers totter alongside fulminations against permissiveness and paedophilia; grumpy jeremiads about the dumbing down of modern culture coexist with the latest gibbering bulletin from the reality TV eco-system.

The latest example comes with a feature on the multiple murderer Myra Hindley whose death in 2002 has done nothing to diminish her newsworthiness to the mid-market tabs; not wholly unlike Princess Diana, in fact. Her prison papers have been released early “owing to the huge interest in her life” (I wonder who encouraged that?) and apparently reveal a woman who “longed to be middle class”, who was committed to education (or passing exams at least), obsessed with keeping her cell tidy and imbued with a feeling of superiority over her fellow prisoners; the last of which probably has something to do with the Nietzschean obsessions of her former Svengali Ian Brady. Pretty much the apotheosis of a Mail reader in fact, although the article neglects to mention which newspaper she read in her pursuit of social improvement. If anything, she comes over not so much as a cold-blooded killer, more as Beverley from Abigail’s Party.

So she’s a monster – we get the inevitable pictures of all her victims – but she’s an aspirational monster, a striver, the sort of psychopath who gives Britain its backbone, who might have, had her circumstances not prevented it, become part of one of those “hard-working families” that the Mail lauds at every opportunity. That said, in the Mail’s eyes, no woman can truly have it all:
By 1977 Hindley’s obsession with course work – tackling subjects as diverse as The Age of Revolution, the 19th Century novel and its legacy, and 20th Century poetry – meant she put on weight through lack of exercise.
Not so admirable after all, then. I’m surprised we don’t have long-lens shots of Hindley, accompanied by snide comments about her cellulite.