Friday, April 19, 2019

About persuasion

I’ve written before about the subtle, unannounced move to make the word “stupid” verboten in schools (and then, inevitably, in wider society); and how the process never really addresses whether this is because stupidity doesn’t exist; or just because it’s nasty to draw attention to it; or that, by not mentioning it, it will gradually cease to exist. The political developments of the past three years or so suggest that if the last were indeed the intended consequence, it hasn’t worked yet.

Indeed, a speech by the journalist Carole Cadwalladr about her investigation into the mendacity of the pro-Brexit campaign suggests this is little more than an episode of rebranding. People who believe in dog-whistle lies about Turkey joining the EU aren’t actually stupid, it seems; they’re just “persuadable”.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

About Notre Dame and Nick Cave

Everything that needs to be said about Notre Dame, and plenty that needn’t, has been said. But it does tie in, however loosely, with what I wrote here last week about whether the morals of the artist should have impact on our response to that art; more specifically, the addendum from Nick Cave, who argued that “art must be wrestled from the hands of the pious”.

Except that pious people do make good art, always have. Think of Michelangelo, Bach, Evelyn Waugh. Although the flames ripping through the cathedral prompted grief and despair in the hearts of many non-believers, Notre Dame is almost wholly the work of the pious. Pious people who were doubtless, by the standards of our own time, fervent sexists and homophobes; pious people who were vociferous in their support for Crusades against the infidels and Inquisitions against the heretics; pious people who killed women accused of witchcraft; pious people who sought to silence anyone daring to suggest that the Earth revolves around the Sun, or that life on said Earth took a bit more than seven days to pull together. Ultimately, the combined sins of the people who funded and designed and built Notre Dame easily dwarf anything of which Michael Jackson or Woody Allen might be accused.

And yet, quite rightly, we all cried when the spire fell.

PS: And sticking with piety, a really good piece by Adiyta Chakrabortty about the billionaires noisily chipping in to rebuild the cathedral:
Not least among this litany of ironies is that it takes a Catholic cathedral to remind us that we have barely advanced an inch from the medieval buying of indulgences, when the rich could amass their fortunes in as filthy a fashion as they liked – and then donate to the Church to launder their reputations and ensure their salvation.

Monday, April 15, 2019

About theme tunes

You’d have thought someone might have got the message that plebiscites are more trouble than it’s worth, but an unholy alliance of the Radio Times, the BFI and Classic FM recently asked people to vote for their favourite TV theme.

The winner was Sherlock.

Now, I quite liked Sherlock, a show that took a set of characters and plots that had been adapted and re-adapted to the point of tedium (and with little or no real point since the definitive Granada shows with Jeremy Brett) and punted them into the 21st century; but did so with a self-evident love and passion for the original stories. The music, though? I had to Google it, and as I listened, I realised I’d watched every episode of the show without even registering that it had any music whatsoever, which could just be a tribute to the scripts or the acting, but probably isn’t. Could you hum it? Really? Did you vote for it? Why? Seriously, why?

Online mumblings suggest that the result was down to fervent fans of the show stacking the votes, which is a touching demonstration of loyalty but a bit annoying to people who might actually have read the fine print and gone for My Favourite TV Theme, rather than The Theme For My Favourite TV Show. Many suggested that the winner should have been Doctor Who (which came second), a show that carries with it an equally fervent fan base, but also a theme tune that is immediately recognisable across generations, even to people who seldom watch the show.

However, despite having been an earnest Whovian from the age of four, my vote would have gone elsewhere, to a tune that in the end placed ninth, because it has transcended its source; a theme that has become an earworm across the decades, long, long after we realised the show it graced was frankly rather dull. Those horns. Damn, those horns.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

About Othello, again

I’ve blathered on before (here and here) about all the complex issues that the casting of Othello throws up in the modern world, and to what extent the role should be ring-fenced, and for whom? And now I find a further consideration of the whole colourblind issue which asks whether Ben Kingsley (who is half-Indian) was black enough, but doesn’t really tackle the question of whether Adrian Lester’s black Hamlet makes Patrick Stewart’s white Othello OK. And there’s a contemporary response to the first black Othello of the 20th century, Paul Robeson in 1930: “There is no more reason to choose a negro to play Othello than to requisition a fat man to play Falstaff.”

Which sounds daft, until you think — when was the last time you saw a thin man play Falstaff? And that brings to mind James Corden’s recent bleat about how he’s never cast as the romantic lead. I wonder, what’s the next step  — bodyblind casting?

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

About good art and bad people

Every time I try to gather my thoughts on whether we have lost the ability and/or right to enjoy good art that’s been made by bad people, the goalposts shift once again. Obviously the Michael Jackson saga hangs heavy over the whole subject, disinterring old, half-forgotten scandals involving figures such as Bill Wyman; a documentary about him has been pulled from a film festival, because of his relationship with Mandy Smith in the 1980s. And if we’re not supposed to listen to Jackson any more, does this mean Wyman’s contributions should be excised from old Stones tracks before we can hear them? Or are singers held to higher standards than mere bass players?

But it’s not just about criminal activity. A cartoonist called Nathan Pyle apparently holds some robustly traditional views about abortion, so some people are suggesting we shouldn’t share his designs. Not that he uses his art to express his thoughts on reproductive rights, you understand; it’s just that he thinks these things, so he’s bad, so his art is bad. Hmmm...

And now, in the midst of a scandal about rich parents exercising undue pressure to secure prestigious university places for their stupid children, Netflix appears to have cancelled Felicity Huffman’s new movie. The return of the morality clause? Looks like it.

PS: Nick Cave sees the potential for some sweet darkness to be reborn amidst the bland, tiresome light:
However, in the world of ideas the sanctimonious have little or no place. Art must be wrestled from the hands of the pious, in whatever form they may come – and they are always coming, knives out, intent on murdering creativity. At this depressing time in rock ‘n’ roll though, perhaps they can serve a purpose, perhaps rock music needs to die for a while, so that something powerful and subversive and truly monumental can rise out of it.

Monday, April 08, 2019

About reincarnated magazines

I was sad to learn that Drowned in Sound is to close down, and not just because the music site was kind enough to publish a slice of my own self-indulgence a while back. But even as DiS and other titles breathe their last, old products that started in the pre-www days are enjoying something of a Lazarus moment. The hip young things are getting terribly excited over the return of style bible The Face; and now their grubbier siblings will be ecstatic to know that Sounds is back as well. Even in its heyday, the music weekly was generally seen as third best to mighty NME and Melody Maker, flying the flag for such unfashionable genres as heavy metal and goth rock; but, contrary to the generally accepted narrative it was in the smudgy pages of Sounds that the first hints of British punk were disseminated for the wider world.

I’ll be interested to see how both publications thrive in a fresh, new, multi-platform world; but I’m not going to properly lose my cool until the greatest magazine of my lifetime comes back to annoy us once again...

Sunday, April 07, 2019

About pedantry

Two tweets in rapid succession about how to deal with wrongness, in others, and in yourself.

The first seems straightforward enough: leave them* be; what’s most important is that someone is enjoying a great library and you don’t want to spoil that experience; it may just be an excitable slip of the thumb, and Twitter doesn’t have an edit facility. The second is interesting because it’s about awareness of one’s own fallibility, rather than a desire to flag it up in others. And it prompts a line from Mark Twain: “I never make fun of a man for mispronouncing a word; it means he learned it by reading.”

The problem is, of course, that language needs *some* rules, or it’s no longer a language. By electing to let the misspelling of “Bodleian” (I assume, and Blogger autocorrects that to “Boolean”, which is interesting in itself) slide, we’re acknowledging that another orthographic car crash, further down the line, may be worthy of intervention, before we’re in a Tower of Babel** scenario. And who decides where that point is?

*And yes, I know I’m using a plural pronoun to denote a non-gender-specific singular and five years ago I would have flinched at that, so change is possible...

**And there’s a further dilemma, about assuming a hypothetical reader’s knowledge of the Bible, of whether I need to explain that reference, but maybe that’s enough chin-stroking before The Archers omnibus has started.

PS: Jezz, the originator of the first tweet, wishes to say that he wasn’t being pedantic; he was simply seeking to save someone from potential embarrassment. Happy to clarify.

Friday, April 05, 2019

About Pete Buttigieg

Looking ahead to next year’s presidential elections, pundits in the US are earnestly talking up the chances of one Pete Buttigieg, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and mayor of South Bend, Indiana.  He’s also gay, a graduate of Harvard and Oxford, speaks eight languages and his 10 favourite books include Ulysses and The Little Prince. While it would be interesting to see him run against a man who has probably not read 10 books in his life (not even those with his name on the cover), the tragedy is that such an admission of literacy will do him more harm than good. Imagine how such information can be weaponised among the Trump base.

PS: On similar lines, earlier today I was listening to a radio programme reuniting some of the last surviving veterans of the French Resistance in World War II, a meeting that, given the current state of frenzied unpleasantness over the whole Europe thing, was even more poignant than one might have expected. Someone mentioned that one of the code phrases broadcast to announce the imminent Normandy landings was “Wound my heart in a monotonous languor”, a line from Verlaine’s Chanson d’Autumne; a nugget that will simply serve to reinforce every available prejudice going, confirming to Remainers that the French are romantics and poets even in the most trying circumstances, and to Leavers exactly the same, but that it’s a bad thing.

PPS: Oh hell, this is from 2011.

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

About the Earl of Rocksavage

There may or may not be a rumour that the Duchess of Cambridge (the one who’s married to the bald one, not the one who’s married to the ginger one, who people hate because they’re racist, I think) has had a falling-out with someone I’d never heard of until a couple of days ago.

She’s called Sarah Hanbury in real life, apparently, but in the weird neverwhere where this sort of thing matters, she’s known as the Marchioness of Cholmondeley (pronounced “Chumley”, obviously), which is less a title, more a disreputable pub in Soho that puts on bad drag acts on Thursdays.

Of rather more interest is her husband, who’s called David (so far, so dull), an Old Etonian (fancy!) and the Marquess of Cholmondeley (see pronunciation note above), but also the Lord Great Chamberlain of England, which I assume means that one of his ancestors was tasked with wiping George II’s bottom or suchlike. Even better, before his accession to that title, he was called the Earl of Rocksavage, which just has to be one of David Bowie’s more fleeting alter egos, probably less cool than the Thin White Duke but far, far better than Screaming Lord Byron. Just imagine swaggering around with that title in your teens and twenties, only to be informed, not only that your dad’s dead, but you’ve got a new, very silly name that you’ll have to spell out for people for the rest of your life. And that your 15 minutes of fame come when your wife has, or hasn’t had a row with someone that racist royalists prefer to the other one.

Never mind, at least they’re happy.

Friday, March 29, 2019

About silence

Two interesting and related snippets in the current Mojo magazine. First, the news that Mute records will be releasing a compilation album consisting of 59 different artists’ interpretations of John Cage’s 4’33” (aka the quiet bit). New Order, Depeche Mode, Cabaret Voltaire, Einstürzende Neubaten, Wire and Goldfrapp are all on the bill for what is already my record of 2019 before I (haven’t) heard it.

And a highly Cage-y story about the late Mark Hollis who, in the sessions for Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden, went to great expense hiring and recording a large choir, and then erased their contribution entirely, explaining that he liked that he could hear where they had been.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

About Radio 4

I’m not sure how seriously to take the article below; for a start, it has to be taken into account that it appears in The Times, the sober, respectable manifestation of the virulently anti-BBC Murdoch empire. And in any case, I’m not sure if the phenomenon it reports is really that new; when I was touting my Noughties book a decade ago, I encountered interviewers (on both BBC outlets and Sky TV, part of the same stable as The Times) who had clearly only read the press release, and ultimately, in the course of a five-minute chat, it didn’t really matter. The only thing that strikes me as odd is the assertion that producers have explicitly been advised (“no direct order”) by their superiors to follow this tactic, which would be a bit like teachers specifically telling their students that it’s perfectly OK only to read the CliffsNotes and not bother with the text itself. The teachers know it happens; they’re actually quite glad it happens, because the alternative is that the kids have no chance whatsoever in the all-important exams, which are the be-all and end-all of modern education; but if they were to say it out loud, it would be akin to Toto pulling back the curtain.

It is interesting, though, that what is essentially a “dumbing-down” narrative is presented in the context of a shift in priorities towards younger listeners. Whether this is either fair or accurate is another matter, but the perception seems to be there. I wonder how many people from that all-important under-24 demographic read The Times?

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

About high/low

I was startled today to see a copy of the Modern Review Mark 2 – the glossy, vapid Burchill/Raven relaunch from 1997, rather than the scrappy, wonderful collaboration between Burchill and Landesman and Young and York – selling for over £100 on Amazon, and the psychic shock propelled me back to the days when seeing Roland Barthes and Bart Simpson on the same bill was still something subversive and beautiful.

Now everyone’s doing it, the latest example being modern celebrity culture with moody 19th-century proto-existentialism. But under the egalitarian veneer, there’s a hint at what we’re expected to know or not know. In the Twitter profile, Kim Kardashian is just Kim Kardashian, while we need to have it explained to us that Søren Kierkegaard is a philosopher.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

About Fleabag and After Life

Comedy that brands itself as dark and edgy requires a certain amount of resistance from its consumers to justify its existence, so I’m sure Phoebe Waller-Bridge, creator and star of Fleabag (the second series of which is happening on BBC1) was delighted when several people popped up to declare that miscarriage was not something that should be joked about.

In fact, the miscarriage in the first episode was – apart from its initial shock value, because, no, it’s not something you do expect to happen in a sitcom – more of a McGuffin, setting the stage for a climactic, post-prandial punch-up and developing the awkward relationship between the chaotic Fleabag and her superficially in-control sister. It’s a brave, dangerous show, not least because the central character is a gloriously bloody difficult woman; but it still fits into a classic genre, the British comedy of embarrassment. And now (we’re currently half-way through the series) we’re getting properly self-referential and post-modern, as Fleabag’s droll arch glances and one-liners to camera have been noticed by the sweet, sweary, probably alcoholic Catholic priest (Andrew Scott) she’s determined to shag. If the asides were already Brechtian, the explicit reference to them adds so may layers to the artifice it’s hard to see how she can escape. Verfremdungseffekteffekt, maybe?

Of course, the whole idea of acknowledging the camera’s existence was a key element in the success of The Office, the show that brought Ricky Gervais to most people’s attention. This, however, was in the context of realism, as the cameras were there within the fiction (for the fly-on-the-wall documentary that many of us thought we were watching for the first few minutes of episode one) as well as well as in reality.

In his new Netflix show, After Life, there are no furtive glances at the camera. The closest we come are the video messages that the terminally-ill Lisa has recorded for her journalist husband Tony (Gervais) and the clips he’s shot of the daft pranks he played on her in happier times. After his death, he declares that the only thing holding his back from suicide is responsibility to look after his dog; the dénouement is [SPOILER ALERT] that, despite his best efforts to become a walking, talking delivery mechanism for toxic abuse, there are plenty more people who love and need him: a new young writer on the local paper he is assigned to mentor; his sad, adoring godson; the amiable sex worker who cleans his house. If the narrative leans towards gloomy neorealism, the setting is defiantly artificial, a pleasant English rural location somewhere between large village and small town, constantly bathed in improbable sunlight, where everything seems to be within walking distance, including the beach. This of course only serves to set Tony’s seething agony in stark relief.

After Life has also prompted complaints, from those who think the nihilistic despair of the recently bereaved shouldn’t be a matter for comedy and, to an extent, I think they’re on steadier ground here, because that is actually what the show is about; where they’re wrong, though is that After Life isn’t in fact a comedy. Sure, calling a 10-year-old schoolyard bully “a tubby little ginger cunt” offers the same sort of transgressive giggle as Fleabag’s gynaecological mishap, but ultimately Gervais’s offering is a tragedy in which funny things are allowed to happen; Waller-Bridge is orchestrating a farce that occasionally throws up tragic moments. (Incidentally, with regard to the language, Netflix seems to be more forgiving than the Beeb; Scott’s priest character was originally meant to refer to his brother as “a cunt” but this had to be changed to something less offensive. So the absent sibling became “a paedophile”. Which is better, apparently.)

I still don’t buy into this notion that we’re in some golden age of TV; it’s simply that more TV is being made, so inevitably there’s more good stuff to be found. Sturgeon’s Law still applies. But Fleabag and After Life are both clearly in the top 10% of that top 10%. As to which is better, I’d just say that while Fleabag dazzles with its wit and sheer devilish attitude, After Life is more like getting a punch in the gut when you least expect it. Fleabag I watch behind barely parted fingers, gasping at its sheer bloody-mindedness; After Life I can barely watch at all, for all the right reasons. Fleabag is a superb piece of Art, while After Life is Life itself.

PS: This just in, via Henry Hitchings on Twitter: Nabokov reference (unreliable narrator?) at the bus stop

Thursday, March 21, 2019

About Google+

And so it comes, the e-mail telling me that Google+ will breathe its last at the beginning of April, and that I ought to archive my content before it’s too late. I joined G+ but never quite saw the point of it; what exactly did it do that wasn’t covered by another social media product? In the end, I mostly used it to post things that I’d already put on Facebook, or Twitter, or here on my blog. I linked to things, rather than writing anything original; and inevitably, over the years, many of those links are as dead as G+ will soon be. Not that anyone knew or cared; it usually felt like yelling into a void, with no echo. And it appears that plenty of others had the same reaction, which explains the mournful e-mail.

But it did force me to look back on what I had posted, and has allowed me to curate (ugh) a sort of retrospective of the few years I spent with this ungainly add-on to my digital life, an acquaintance rather than a friend. And of course, when I get the e-mail advising me that Blogger is about to be taken away to the glue factory, I’ll have to do it all over again. (But at least I got the warning, unlike poor old Dennis Cooper, whose story I’d completely forgotten until I looked back at my account, so there’s that. And I also found this wry squib about the invisibility of G+ itself, which I posted on G+ and nobody noticed so it was clearly the truth; this also applied to more serious analyses, also here.)

Anyway, here are the choicest morsels:

And some nice pictures. Because you’re worth it, even if G+ wasn’t.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

About university

The whole sorry Brexit saga is at once tragedy, farce, soap opera and an interminable lecture about Parliamentary procedure, so sometimes it’s worthwhile to get an outsider’s view on the whole bloody mess. Here’s sometime Dubya aide David Frum’s version of articulate, informed sighing. He points out what I’ve said all along, that very few of the votes on either side were really about the EU per se; the leavers on both right and left were touting their own flavours of nostalgia, and those who wanted to remain pushed against that. He also trots out the statistic that a very important indicator of voting intentions was whether or not you’d been to university, with graduates voting two to one to remain and high-school dropouts (do we have “high-school dropouts” in the UK, David?) offering a similar statistical profile in reverse.

Which suits both sides nicely, since remainers think leavers are thick and leavers are sick and tired of hoity-toity experts. Except, of course, the idea that being a university graduate, even from a so-called elite establishment, imbues you with any particular level of cleverness is utter bollocks. I’ve known many people – a disproportionate number of them privately, expensively educated — who learned nothing at school or university bar a misplaced confidence in their own talents that, paradoxically, became a marketable skill in itself.

And on that note, we read about the lengths (and depths) to which rich Americans will go to get their moronic spawn into the best schools. Donald Trump has been unusually Trappist on this story, for some reason; and I don’t know whether this is any reflection on his own college days, because he got Michael Cohen to forced the institutions to keep his grades secret. The only inference I can draw is that his marks were astonishingly high and he doesn’t want the fact to leak out in case it damages his credibility with his base. I mean, clever people are the problem, aren’t they?

PS: In related news, the Ivy League-educated son and grandson of millionaires, whose entire career has been in his dad's companies, tells us how bad the elites are.

PPS: More on the university entry scandal, by Amanda Hess in the New York Times:
You sense, in some of the stories to emerge from these fraud charges, an odd form of intergenerational class conflict, in which wealthy people who did not grow up pampered... are now trying to impose middle-class values (a good education is important) on superrich kids who see little use for them... Many kids compete for elite college slots in an attempt to gain access to a higher social class, but some of these parents are surely seeking the opposite effect — a degree that suggests their kids are not simply coasting on their inheritance while cultivating vanity careers. They are heaping money on their progeny in an attempt to correct for how rich they are.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

About pop lyrics

DJ Taylor muses about the fact that Shaun Ryder of Happy Mondays fame has had his lyrics published in book form by Faber, which leads to all sorts of chin-strokery:
But what are we — the critical, interrogative we, that is — to make of Wrote for Luck, in whose elegant presentation and chaste Faber typeface there lies the hint of something deliberately provocative?
I thought we’d done this to death decades ago, when Christopher Ricks pondered the relative merits of Keats and Dylan, and possibly the more interesting question is how “the critical, interrogative we” is constituted; who’s in, who’s out and who decides? In any case, isn’t Faber renowned for pulling such stunts? As far back as 1983, they gave an editorial job to Pete Townshend, which prompted exactly the same scale of pearl-clutching. And never forget TS Eliot’s heartfelt threnody to the music hall legend Marie Lloyd.

Maybe by “provocative”, Taylor just means that, amidst the white noise of Brexit, Faber knows exactly what it takes to grab a few shreds of publicity from the ether. And it seems to have worked.

Monday, March 11, 2019

About Theresa May

Monday, March 04, 2019

About getting it right/wrong

I’ve just come across an article I wrote for the BBC website in 2009, as part of a retrospective of the decade that was drawing to a close. Pretty uncontroversially, I picked the 9/11 attacks and the collapse of Lehman Brothers as the two events that would be emblematic of the Noughties, but also pointed out that they took place within a few minutes’ walk of each other, and people who live thousands of miles from Manhattan might have a different perspective on what’s important.

And then I took a bit of a punt and wondered if, in years to come, the most important development of that decade might turn out to be the launch of Wikipedia, because of its potential to disrupt the hierarchy and control of knowledge itself:
Along with Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, blogs and the other manifestation [sic] of Web 2.0, it meant that the final judgement as to what was significant would never again be left to a self-appointed elite of media professionals.
Yay! One in the eye for the so-called experts, the big media tycoons, the smug commentators in their ivory towers! The only difference is, in 2009 I thought that might turn out to be a good thing...

PS: The book I wrote about the Noughties is still available, packed with observations I got horribly but justifiably wrong.

Saturday, March 02, 2019

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

About the Oscars

The Academy Awards have seldom been about what’s good in movie-making, more a barometer of, first of all, the internal politics of Hollywood, and later the wider politics of society. So I think it’s quite interesting that three of the four acting Oscars awarded at this year’s host-less event went to actors portraying characters who were gay or bisexual; and absolutely fascinating (and rather heartening) that hardly anyone remarked upon the fact because, well, so what?

PS: I’m aware that the precise sexuality of all of three of the real-life figures upon whom the characters were based has, at various times, been a matter of debate; but within the fiction of the films, none is heterosexual.

Monday, February 25, 2019

About Nectarines

Most of what passes for my working life has involved writing and/or editing things about stuff that actually happened, more or less. So it’s been an interesting experience to have written something entirely made-up. Thanks to the splendid people at the Mechanics’ Institute Review. 

Saturday, February 23, 2019

About Conrad and Disneyland

Two things I learned this week.

1. When Joseph Conrad’s novella The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ was first published in the United States it was re-titled The Children of the Sea; not because potential readers might find the original title offensive but because if they knew it was about a black person they probably wouldn’t want to read it.

2. When Tokyo Disneyland first opened in 1983, rival theme park operators nicknamed it kurofune, a reference to the American “black ships” that forced Japan to open up to the wider world in the 19th century.

Friday, February 22, 2019

About accents

Friday, February 15, 2019

About growing up

When I was about nine, a nice man in a British Rail uniform came to my primary school to talk to us about railway safety and how it was a pretty bad idea to trespass. He told us a few scary stories and showed us a few unpleasant pictures (not the seriously gruesome stuff, but plenty of stitches and broken bones), and then, just so we weren’t too traumatised, he put on a recording of ‘The Runaway Train’ and we all sang along.

A year later, or thereabouts, I was at secondary school, and the very same man came to talk to us. He gave us exactly the same talk, with exactly the same pictures. But he didn’t play ‘The Runaway Train’. He just warned us all to be careful, and left.

I think that’s the moment I realised this growing-up lark wasn’t so great after all.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

About John Hamilton

John Hamilton, the art director at the publishing company Penguin Random House, has died. Someone whose work is known to more people than his name, one would think, and whose demise wouldn’t cause a major stir beyond his friends and family and the worlds of publishing and design. But, wait, what’s this in the Mirror?
Now Jamie [Oliver] has had more bad news with the loss of his friend John Hamilton...
And in Hello!
...the celebrity chef paid a heartfelt tribute to John Hamilton, who was his art director at Penguin books...
And what’s this in Woman & Home?
...Jamie was struck by tragedy again, when he learned that John Hamilton...
We’re supposedly a less hierarchical, less deferential society these days but it seems that we’ve just built a whole new hierarchy, where a death can only be acknowledged if it makes a celebrity sad, and he says so on Instagram.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

About Tomi Ungerer

Much of Tomi Ungerer’s work was concerned with politics and erotica but I’ll remember him best for his children’s books, such as his illustrations for Jeff Brown’s Flat Stanley and above all The Beast of Monsieur Racine. I’ve only just discovered that there’s a film of the latter, which brilliantly captures the book’s lurches from sweet melancholy to deeply weird grotesquerie. RIP.

PS: I’ve also suddenly remembered the time I was co-opted into doing some decorations for my university summer ball, which had a Summer of Love theme. “Do something Sixties-ish,” I was told. I knocked off a fairly gauche copy of one of Ungerer’s Vietnam posters. They didn’t ask me back.

Friday, February 08, 2019

About the DDR

One of my favourite museums in the world is the DDR Museum in Berlin, a magnificent, pocket-sized attempt to replicate the tragicomic saga that was the East German state. So I’m lapping up this splendid Stasi guide to all the scary youth subcultures that threatened the Marxist paradise. Although by 1985, you’d think teddy boys and goths would be the least of their problems...

Thursday, February 07, 2019

About blackface

A man in Arizona is objecting to an old photograph of coal miners in a bar because it reminds him of blackface. He accepts that the picture isn’t intended to represent blackface, but “a business’ photograph of men with blackened faces culturally says to me “Whites Only.” It says people like me are not welcome.” Ultimately, whatever the reality of what the image depicts (and we’re almost getting into Magritte territory here), “the context of the photograph is not the issue.” It’s a starting line, a springboard for a bigger, nastier conversation. Which is probably one we ought to have, but it makes people uncomfortable, so. nah, let’s just take down the photo.

A few days later, a piece in the New York Times traces a fairly convoluted line between blackface traditions and the soot-smeared chimney sweeps of Mary Poppins, rather ignoring the fact that, whatever the original intent of PL Travers, or Walt Disney, or long-forgotten vaudevillians, or even the blessed St Dick of Van Dyke, sweeps’ faces are black because of the nature of their work, not as part of a secret plot to ensure white superiority. Like the miners, they work with dirt.

And just now, I read that Gucci is withdrawing a (frankly hideous but what do I know?) piece of clothing because it reminded somebody of blackface.

The argument is no longer about whether blackface was “just a harmless bit of fun” (it clearly wasn’t) but whether it was something so heinous that any cultural product that might accidentally remind someone that blackface even existed should be cast onto the scrapheap. Clearly this sets precedents. Should we ban the Beatles’ ‘Hey Jude’ because the refrain could prompt flashbacks to Kristallnacht? Or possibly consign the routines of Les Dawson to the margins, not because of his rather unenlightened attitude to his mother-in-law, but because his forename is still occasionally deployed as a homophobic slur?

Beyond the inevitable PC GORN MAD headlines, we need to remember that everything is offensive and hurtful to someone. Coalminers and chimney sweeps and designers of truly horrible jumpers may take offence at the brouhaha that’s arisen from these stories. But as Rashaad Thomas, the author of the article about the miners argues, the context is not the issue. How we respond is the issue.

And increasingly, my response is to search out the nearest coal mine and wonder what it’s like down there.

PS: Katy Perry adds to the fun.