Thursday, June 26, 2014

Liu Xiabo and the gesture politics of town planning

Anyone who yearns for the glory days of the Cold War, when US foreign policy defined itself by unstinting vigilance against the dread perils of Communism, will have had fun this week. First came North Korea’s reaction to a forthcoming Hollywood movie about a plot to assassinate supreme leader Kim Jong-un. “If the US administration allows and defends the showing of the film, a merciless counter-measure will be taken,” said a spokesman for the hermit kingdom, also promising “a gust of hatred and rage.” Then an amendment was made to the annual spending bill of the US State Department, providing for a street in Washington DC to be named after the imprisoned Chinese dissident and Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo. Not entirely coincidentally, the street chosen is the location of the Chinese embassy.

It’s a childish but effective stunt, reminding me of the time when the Poll Tax was instituted in the UK and local councils renamed their buildings after Wat Tyler (to align themselves with a tradition of popular opposition to centralised autocracy) or Margaret Thatcher (to remind taxpayers whose smart idea it was in the first place). The Chinese response has been less bellicose than that of the Koreans, calling the amendment “sheer farce” and accusing those reponsible of “meaningless sensationalism”. The question is, how is the People’s Republic going to retaliate? The obvious move would be to make a similar change in Beijing, highlighting an American dissident, the most likely candidate being the whistleblower Edward Snowden. But if they really want to needle the Yanks and remind them of the fundamental flaws in modern American society and culture, they need to be a little more subtle. I’m looking forward to residents of Anjialou Road, home of the US embassy, waking up some time soon to find that they’re now living on Kardashian Street.

PS: And yes, it would have helped if I’d spelled his name right in the headline...

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The green rose

When I was 17 I found myself in a strange land full of strange people. Well, maybe not so strange in retrospect; it was Canada, which some would say is a byword for not-strangeness, although of course the ordinariness of things and places and people can become a bit strange if taken to extremes. And when I was 17, a time when a day trip to London was still quite exciting, getting deposited five time zones away, in a place where I knew nobody, delivered a certain frisson. Even if they did speak English, sort of.

The shock was eased by a number of welcoming souls, including a fellow newcomer, a teacher called Campbell MacKay. It was he who introduced me to James Joyce, including this passage, from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which has stuck in my head ever since:
White roses and red roses: those were beautiful colours to think of. And the cards for the first and second place and third place were beautiful colours too: pink and cream and lavender. Lavender and cream and pink roses were beautiful to think of. Perhaps a wild rose might be like those colours and he remembered the song about the wild rose blossoms on the little green place. But you could not have a green rose. But perhaps somewhere in the world you could.  
I still don’t really know what Joyce meant by this, and there’s a valid interpretation that it’s about a yearning for an independent Ireland. But I interpreted it as a more general yearning for freedom and independence, a disregard for convention in a conventional, conformist world (did I mention that I was 17?) and aspiring to something better. I must have bored people silly with my convoluted ramblings about the symbolism and significance of green roses: at my graduate formal (a high school prom by any other name) I was presented with two blooms, one dyed and one made of fabric, to wear on my tailcoat. Yeah, because an ordinary tuxedo would have been too, well, ordinary.

And now I discover that, at last, there is somewhere in the world you could. And inevitably it’s Japan, a society that’s deeply conformist and at the same time utterly weird. Which kind of makes sense. I just wish that Campbell had still been around to see it.

Hat-tip to Richard Lloyd Parry for the horticultural alert.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Oscar was wrong

As Oscar Wilde once said, “In every first novel the hero is the author as Christ or Faust.” 

I’ve made several attempts at some sort of long-form fiction over the past 20 or so years, although to be honest they’ve all been pretty much the same story, albeit with different names and locations. To protect the innocent, you understand. And in every version the hero has been the author as the result of a drunken shag between Morrissey and Adrian Mole. Which could say something about the way the cultural canon has shifted since Oscar’s day, or maybe it just means that I’m never going to finish this novel.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

I do not think that they will sing to me

I grow old, I grow old and all the joys and certainties, the things that made me happy and sometimes even paid my bills, are falling apart before my eyes. Look: reading is dead. Print is dead. Music journalism is in crisis. Blogging isn’t looking too great. And listen: the kids are getting horribly right-wing.

But some of the old reliables are still, well, reliable. Such as black-clad Japanese people playing Beethoven on theremins embedded in Matryoskha dolls. That’ll be around forever.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Waiting for the Bullet: a disclaimer with a review attached

Critics are supposedly obliged, when considering a product created by someone they know, to insert a disclaimer of some kind, to make clear what the relationship is. I’m not sure how scrupulously this needs to be enforced: surely if your career’s at the level where you find yourself on panels at literary festivals and competitions and academic symposiums the chances are you’ll be in a state of at least casual nodding acquaintance with the majority of people whose books cross your desk and it would be more efficient to insert the opposite of a disclaimer (a claimer, maybe?) when you review something by someone you’ve never heard of. Do you need to announce whether you have some particular reason to dislike the person (ex-lover, bullied you at school, once spilled your pint, etc)? And what about people with whom you’ve been in purely digital contact? Does that require a flag of some kind? I remember when the blessed Patroclus reviewed one of my books on Amazon and outed herself as a friend despite the fact we’ve only ever once met in meatspace; which she neatly defined as a very Noughties kind of relationship and hence entirely appropriate to the book.

Still, better safe than sorry: I hereby declare that, yes, I know Madeleine D’Arcy, the author of the short story collection Waiting for the Bullet. Or should I say that I knew her? I worked with Madeleine in the dim and distant early 1990s, in a London office that was supposedly the location of Mrs Lovett’s pie shop in Sweeney Todd. I last saw her in about 1994, although we recently stumbled over each other via Facebook (other social media sites are available). She’s lovely. And Irish. And not very tall. And she says “aargghh” a lot, I mean, she really says it, as it’s written, sounding the Gs. Which is a bit like people actually saying “LOL” and “ROFL” but somehow more endearing.

That done, should the fact that she and I once knocked off work early to amble down Fleet Street in a vain search for hot whiskey affect my response to her book? I hope not. She’s a tough cookie and if I were to make disobliging remarks I’m sure she’d survive the experience. Although she was a criminal solicitor once, so maybe she’d just get some hard acquaintances to give me a fright. It’s academic, because I liked the book a lot. All the stories deal with the flaws and frailties of human relationships and interactions, whether between husbands and wives, parents and children or lovers who are running out of love. Death looms more than once and there’s an air of wry melancholy about most of the stories, often accentuated by the background noise of the grievously wounded Irish economy, but D’Arcy doesn’t bang a drum – her focus is always on the people, in all their bumbling, messy, imperfect glory.

So, there, it’s a good book, and I would have said that whether I’d ever known the author or not. However, there’s something deeper going on, a connection not just with the author but with the book itself. No, I’m not in it. (As far as I know, I’ve only ever featured twice in works of fiction, when my name was appropriated first for a Doctor Who novel, then for a story in the Commando comic series.) But one of the stories did strike a chord, throwing up memories – not at all pleasant ones – of a particular episode more than 20 years ago and possibly even filling in a few gaps for me. Or maybe not: when I waved the evidence under the author’s digital nose her response was simply that “of course it's fiction — only made-up stuff.” Which is of course what they all say, but to protect her sources I won’t reveal which of the stories had that effect on me.

And one day we’ll find that hot whiskey.

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Deborah de Robertis: ceci n’est pas une chatte

At the Musée d’Orsay a few days ago, the performance artist Deborah de Robertis further blurred the lines between performance, art, criticism, gender politics and self-marketing by re-enacting Origin of the World in front of the original painting. Which, if you’re not aware of Courbet’s controversial masterpiece, essentially means displaying her ladyparts to all and sundry.

De Robertis explained her actions thus:
There is a gap in art history, the absent point of view of the object of the gaze. In his realist painting, the painter shows the open legs, but the vagina remains closed. He does not reveal the hole, that is to say, the eye. I am not showing my vagina, but I am revealing what we do not see in the painting, the eye of the vagina, the black hole, this concealed eye, this chasm, which, beyond the flesh, refers to infinity, to the origin of the origin.
...which is essentially a riff on the feminist argument that in too much art, the male gaze at once sexualises the female body and makes it passive. Fair enough. But the stunt (cunning or otherwise) also refers back to the questions raised by René Magritte 85 years ago when he forced us to contemplate the distinction between a real object and a painting thereof. If it’s OK to show a painting of female genitalia, de Robertis seems to ask, why is it so disturbing — not least for the museum authorities — to show the real thing? When we get to media coverage of the event we get beyond reality top the competing claims of different kinds of representation. After all, unless we happened to be present when she sat down in the museum, we don’t see de Robertis’s genitalia, only photographic representations of it — just as we only see Courbet’s rendering in oils of his anonymous subject’s pudenda.

Said media tend to play things safe. In the Artnet article, the Courbet painting is shown in all its glory; Ms de Robertis’s tender areas are blotted out (is this the black hole to which she refers?); but there’s a link to a video in which all is bared and you can also see the upset that resulted. A brouhaha about a hoo-ha, one could say. When Le Figaro covered the same story they were even more puritanical, not even showing the original painting; but in the photo they used an attendant’s leg protects the artist’s modesty, thus making the act of censorship feel slightly less crass. (Indeed, that image rather reminds me of the classic photo of the Twickenham streaker Michael O’Brien, in which a London bobby’s helmet shields us from his, um, helmet.) When the Daily Mail ran a different story relating to Courbet’s painting last year they were equally wary of showing it in all its glory but felt able to offer up a rough sketch: which suggests that its readers can cope with neither female genitalia nor paintings of female genitalia but half-assed doodles of female genitalia are OK.

But let’s go back to de Robertis’s original point, which is essentially about how artists use and abuse female nudity. She’s reasserting her claim to ownership of her body, so the depiction of a naked woman is OK if it’s the woman herself doing it. Context is all. But she may well have been making a feminist statement when she sat down but if you wait till the end of the video clip and go to some of the suggested viewing, you’ll find that some of those who appreciated the ideological intent behind her gesture also wanted to see attractive Italian ladies in their underwear and a story about Scarlett Johansson getting naked. In today’s infinitely connected world, context begins to die after a single click.

Which puts me in a spot: how can I illustrate this story without seeming to be a prim, censorious puritan on one hand or a leering pornographer on the other. I suppose I’ll just avoid the issue, with a pretty picture of a cat, albeit one involving an artist who raised similar questions about the points at which empowerment and titillation intersect. Will this do?

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Audrey Hepburn’s bra: the revenge of the East

God knows the West has had some daft ideas about Asia over the years. From the prurience of 19th-century Orientalism via the half-arsed borrowing of religion and philosophy that characterises New Age thinking through to every movie that’s been badly and pointlessly remade — although I still maintain that The Magnificent Seven is more fun than Seven Samurai even if it’s not actually a better film — I’m sorry. That said, Asia’s more than capable of missing the point when it comes to Western culture. Call it Occidentalism.

For example, a Thai lingerie firm is currently running a big campaign featuring a well-known model/starlet adopting a selection of Hollywood poses that I’d describe as iconic if that word hadn’t by now been devalued to a point where it’s essentially meaningless. The problem is that the images take what’s most obviously appealing about the originals (famous, stylish, beautiful woman) without really delving into what it represents to people who may actually have seen the film rather than just checking out the DVD cover.

So let’s start with Audrey Hepburn. The whole damn point of Audrey Hepburn was that she could be elegant and sexy without the need for big knockers or an enhanced cleavage and certainly felt no obligation to flash around what little she had. If there’s a single movie legend who looks out of place advertising bras, it’s either Audrey or John Wayne. And, as inevitably happens when people try to sum up her particular charm, it’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, one of her worst movies, that gets picked as a reference point. And in it, Audrey was playing a character who may not have been a hooker exactly but was something pretty close, which I’m not sure is quite the sort of role model the brand wants to present to the Bangkok middle classes. Maybe this is just payback from Asia for Mickey Rooney’s horrific yellowface act in the film? If so, fair enough.

Next, on the left, we have Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. Now, it’s a long time since I’ve seen the movie, but as I recall, the whole point of this scene is that Ms Stone’s character isn’t wearing any knickers — which makes it a very odd reference point for a company that makes undergarments. I’m not even sure who the one on the right is meant to be, by the way. Edie Sedgwick? Frankie from The Saturdays? A very young Angela Merkel? Answers, please, on a pair of Sharon Stone’s unworn knickers.

But this is the one that really unnerves me. The reference is presumably to Dominique Swain in the 1997 adaptation of Lolita, which may have been more faithful to Nabokov than Kubrick’s earlier version but was otherwise worse in pretty much every respect. Leaving that aside, child abuse is at the heart of the movie and the seductive, lolly-licking, bra-strap-dropping, skirt-lifting character being portrayed in this picture is meant, in the novel at least, to be just 12 years old. In this case, I really do hope they’ve missed the point.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

How to be indie, part 2

I was rather rude a while ago about a WikiHow article entitled How to Be Indie (for Girls), with its confused, contradictory invocations to “be yourself” and at the same time instructing readers to have an appropriate haircut, avoid tanning and admire Zooey Deschanel. And, of course, the fact that music appreciation appears to be the least important aspect of the whole indie experience. It all seems so inauthentic, so contrived, so superficial, so much what indie culture wasn’t meant to be. Ah, it was better in the old days. Why can’t we have the old days back?

And then I read a review of a concert in Manchester a few days ago that seemed intent on bringing the old days back, in the form of the Wedding Present (not too bad), Ned’s Atomic Dustbin (ummm...) and, uh-oh, Cud, among others: basically a bunch of men in their 40s and 50s — yes, I know, that’s me — spending half a day wallowing in desperate nostalgia for the time when a Chesterf!elds badge and a pint of snakebite and black were all you needed to maintain a veneer of cool. That’s what having the old days back means. The C86 equivalent of Showaddywaddy, essentially.

And suddenly the idea of 14-year-old girls being advised to get a Zooey Deschanel haircut if they want to be indie seems infinitely preferable.