Friday, August 16, 2019

About Dickens

A group of disaffected teens with terrible lives do not want to be studying Dickens and Shakespeare last thing on a Friday... We should be encouraging these pupils, not boring them half to death – why not study literature that is relevant to their lives?
(From an article today about the decline in popularity of English Literature A-level)
“She was brought here last night,” replied the old woman, “by the overseer’s order. She was found lying in the street. She had walked some distance, for her shoes were worn to pieces; but where she came from, or where she was going to, nobody knows.”
(Oliver Twist, Chapter One)
“You are to be in all things regulated and governed,” said the gentleman, “by fact. We hope to have, before long, a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who will force the people to be a people of fact, and of nothing but fact. You must discard the word Fancy altogether. You have nothing to do with it. You are not to have, in any object of use or ornament, what would be a contradiction in fact. You don’t walk upon flowers in fact; you cannot be allowed to walk upon flowers in carpets. You don’t find that foreign birds and butterflies come and perch upon your crockery; you cannot be permitted to paint foreign birds and butterflies upon your crockery. You never meet with quadrupeds going up and down walls; you must not have quadrupeds represented upon walls. You must use,” said the gentleman, “for all these purposes, combinations and modifications (in primary colours) of mathematical figures which are susceptible of proof and demonstration. This is the new discovery. This is fact. This is taste.”
(Hard Times, Chapter Two)

Monday, August 12, 2019

About content


Benjamin Schwartz, The New Yorker.

PS: And in a slightly less refined mood, by Scribbly G:

Sunday, August 11, 2019

About Schoenberg

Justification for the continued existence of the BBC, and the licence fee, notwithstanding all its idiocies, in a single, silly sentence:


(Darren Henley and Sam Jackson, Classic FM: Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Classical Music But Were Too Afraid To Ask, p. 149. And they say pretty much the same about John Cage.)

Friday, August 09, 2019

About memes

An interesting piece by Kathryn Watson about how memes actually happen; and, bouncing off Iain Macmillan’s Abbey Road cover, a reminder that they’ve been doing it for years. (Although how many of them have actually listened to the album, I wonder?)

Thursday, August 08, 2019

About the stubborn persistence of the analogue

Further to my baffled musings about stickers, I’ve been aware of a resurgence of communication that doesn’t quite challenge the digital hegemony, but wants to operate alongside it. I guess graffiti is one example; still obstinately analogue, but wanting to be photographed and shared as much as possible. And the serious creators always include their own Instagram tags. And then there’s something like this: whoever stuck it up hasn’t even bothered to use a laser printer or photocopier, and the jagged frills where the page has been torn from its spiral binding shout its wood pulp reality. But there’s no physical location given, or even a phone number; for any useful details, the analogue isn’t quite enough.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

About Scarlatti

I’ve mentioned before the work of Rutherford Chang, who recorded 100 different copies of the Beatles’s White Album on top of each other. And now someone’s done something similar with all 555 of Scarlatti’s harpsichord sonatas. The funny thing is, the massed Scarlatti sounds more like something the studio-era Beatles might have done than the massed Beatles does.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

About stickers

Gilbert Adair, along with Greil Marcus, Morley/Penman and, strangely enough, James Burke, was one of the people who really got me thinking about stuff that would lead me towards this whole cultural theory malarkey; I picked up Adair’s book Myths and Memories in a remainder shop some time in the late 80s, then followed the skein of influence back to Roland Barthes and I was hooked.


However, although he owes a methodological debt to Barthes, his style is rather different; for a start, in contrast to than Barthes’s own droll, sometimes quasi-Martian view of the physical manifestations of modern life, Adair often let his own prejudices burst through and they’re not always pretty. For one thing, he hated pop music and everything associated with it with a passion. In a later collection, The Postmodernist Always Rings Twice, he describes staring at a wall plastered with posters advertising record releases, almost revelling in the fact that he has no idea which bits of text are the bands, which are the titles. And while that flash of ignorance led him to some interesting ponderings on Eco and Malevich, I felt sure that I’d never find myself so baffled by the modern world.


Analogue posters still adorn the walls of London and other cities, even in this digital world and although these days I probably wouldn’t recognise most of the music they advertise, I’ve got at least a vague idea what’s going on. However one thing, on a smaller scale, does now put me in a state of Adairian bafflement - and that’s the invasion of stickers on walls and lamp-posts and bins and the few remaining phone boxes. Obviously there are still stickers advertising political opinions and commercial sex but these are something different, closer to adhesive street art, suggesting some sort of coded meaning that’s permanently closed off to me. But I don’t exult in not knowing, not getting the joke. I just gaze, feeling a bit disconnected, and old. Although, like Adair, I could let it all lead to Eco:
Today in Pompeii tourists are visiting murals depicting Romans with huge penises; originally meant as adverts for brothels, they are now considered great art. In the eighteenth century Telemann was thought a greater composer than Bach; in the nineteenth Eugene Sue a greater writer than Balzac. In 200 years we may consider Picasso inferior to the man currently responsible for the Coca-Cola commercials... So we should never be afraid to analyse marginal or inferior manifestations of our culture.
So, analyse away.



Thursday, July 25, 2019

About tattoos


News comes of a gentleman from Seattle who, his former enthusiasm for Mr Morrissey rather tainted by the singer’s recent toxic outbursts, resolves to do something about his own celebratory tattoo. But instead of having it removed entirely, he has a line put through it and another performer’s – Sheryl Crow in this case but it could be anyone – above. The good memories of what Morrissey offered aren’t wiped out, but his sins are acknowledged. And, of course, if in the coming years Ms Crow should turn into a bumptious old bigot, the same fate could befall her.

I do wonder if this if this might be the answer to all our mithering about representations of people who were once lauded but later turn out to be arses; and also to the existing cultural products of the same. We don’t actually need to tear down the statues of colonialist exploiters or Confederate generals; nor do we remove the works of artists whose behaviours or attitudes transgressed what we now deem to be right and proper, and yes, I’m thinking of the Eric Gill carvings on Broadcasting House. We simply, literally or metaphorically, put a line through them. A small plaque would do, a sticker, an announcement before a performance, a bit of text before a film. If nothing else, it’s a gentle reminder that our own activities (eating meat, using plastic bottles, driving cars, maybe something that today seems so utterly unexceptional that it would seem seriously daft to pick it as an example) will make us look like complete and utter shitbuckets to our descendants. But perhaps, rather than burning our effigies, they’ll be just a little kinder, and add the equivalent of a rueful “tut tut” to what – if anything – we leave behind.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

About German magazines


In the past few days, two German magazines have put out covers depicting two right-wing foreign leaders in highly unflattering guises. That said, the difference in tone suggests that one of the countries in question, as awful as its current boss might be, still needs to be taken seriously. The other, perhaps not so much.


PS: More stuff:





PPS: “...how the others must see the faker...”



PPPS: And, by David Foldvari:

Sunday, July 21, 2019

About Cats



Much bandwidth has been devoted over the past few days to discussion of the trailer for the movie version of Cats, which has been described variously as creepy, demented, drug-addled and uh-why-would-a-cat-need-a-fur-coat? To be honest, I don’t get the horrified reaction; surely the whole point of CGI is to create things that cannot be in an analogue world, rather than just to form a simulacrum of our meat-and-bones existence, but to do it quicker and faster. But then my favourite Marvel movie is the utterly barmy Doctor Strange, so what would I know?

If I were making a movie version of Cats (and I would remind you that when I put on a stage show in Edinburgh, I plastered the Scotsman reviewer’s reaction of “unbelievably atrocious” across the posters and audiences doubled in the second week, so I know how to weaponise visceral loathing), this is what I’d do:

1. Ditch most of the songs and most of the fluffy Americans and James bloody Corden, leaving just Dame Judi, Sir Ian and soon-to-Sir Idris on an otherwise empty stage. Bulk out the running time with bits of The Waste Land (including the notes), The Four Quartets, maybe even Notes Towards The Definition of Culture. (This version of The Waste Land set to the music of Anthony Burgess may give a few hints.) The greatest of Lloyd Webber’s many sins has been to encourage to notion that T.S. Eliot Should Be Fun. He’s got to hurt, people.

2. Don’t worry, there will be cats, but they won’t be actors with CGI fur and tails up their bums. Instead, I’d have inserts of old fashioned analogue frame-by-frame animation, based on the beautiful, often heartbreaking work of Louis Wain, whose art progressed from cute, anthropomorphic moggies to semi-abstract cat deities, mirroring the increasing fragility and ultimate collapse of his mental state. And if you think the current trailer is a bit creepy, you’ll be coughing up furballs of pure terror when this one happens.



Wednesday, July 17, 2019

About Brexit (sorry)


In his review of Rod Liddle’s new book, Fintan O'Toole sums up the gaping vacuum at the heart of arguments for Brexit:
Tellingly, Liddle specifies the moment of perfidy. The conspiracy, as he sees it, began as soon as “the establishment” started talking about a “hard Brexit” and a “soft Brexit”, “whereas hitherto we had simply been talking about Brexit”. In other words, the betrayal started as soon as “Brexit” acquired any actual content. Once “Brexit means Brexit” became “Brexit means this or that”, it was being sold out. There is here a kind of truth – the pure, unbetrayed Brexit could exist only in the abstract. To give it concrete meaning was to sully it. Nowhere does Liddle ever tell us what he himself actually thinks Brexit means in the real world. How could he, since by his own definition that would be an act of betrayal?
A concept so achingly pure, it becomes irredeemably tainted the moment it comes into contact with sunlight, fresh air, empirical reality. Schrödinger’s Brexit anyone?

Monday, July 08, 2019

About Love Island


An interesting piece about the dimness of contestants on Love Island, although the closing paragraph raises rather more questions than it answers:
All reality TV is a stage, and the men and women upon it are mere players. It is impossible to know whether the Love Island contestants know where Barcelona and Rome are, but are performing ignorance for the amusement of viewers, or if they really don’t know. It doesn’t matter. Are you not entertained?
Making yourself look stupid in order to be liked isn’t entirely a new idea, and in the current mood of anti-expert populism it almost certainly happens in circles other than reality TV; idiocy has become weaponised. But back to the adventures of the orange people in Majorca: couldn’t we have maybe one show per series where they all have to pretend to be cleverer than they are? Although, if we accept the findings of Messrs Dunning and Kruger, the main problem is that they probably don’t know how clever they are (or aren’t).

PS: Earlier vaguely relevant musings on the wondrous science of agnotology.

Wednesday, July 03, 2019

About Waters and SF


Two pieces to remind you that funny, clever journalism is still a thing, even in America; first, a Q&A with John Waters in Vulture:
Divine never dressed as a woman except when he was working. He had no desire to be a woman. He was fat. It was too hot to wear all that shit. He couldn’t wait to get that wig off. The tits were so hot. He hated it. He didn’t want to pass as a woman; he wanted to pass as a monster. He was thought up to scare hippies. And that’s what he wanted to do. He wanted to be Godzilla. Well, he wanted to be Elizabeth Taylor and Godzilla put together.
And from Hmmdaily, a (supposedly) AI-generated piece on San Francisco’s existential crisis:
List to become increasingly absurd until mention of either drones, food/laundry delivery robots, and half-joking/half-serious evocation of dystopian science fiction, including George Orwell’s 1984 (book), Blade Runner (movie), or Westworld (television program), including SEO-friendly mention of the premium cable network that produces it.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Not about Morrissey


Just as it happened 35 or so years ago, while I watched Johnny Marr’s Glastonbury set I gawped at his dexterity, musical imagination, effortless cool and implausible absence of body fat. Of course, in 1983 his serviceable singing didn’t come into the equation, because someone else was handling those duties.

Ah, yes, Mr Morrissey. What started out (apparently) as arch, subversive flirtation with the trappings and iconography of the far right has tipped right over the edge into full-on Faragerie and worse. He is, officially, no longer charming, and people are lining up either to agonise over the delight they once took in him and his mots (bon and mauvais alike), or to crow that they never liked the preening bigot in the first place. I’m in the first camp, but I guess you’d worked that out already.

So, when Marr trawls through his old band’s songbook, what reaction should we expect from the woke crowd? Awkward shoe-gazing? A mass turning of backs? A petition on change.org? Or ecstatic bellowing along from thousands of sunburned people who know all the words and the B-sides and probably the messages etched on the inner grooves as well, which contrasts with the polite response accorded to the guitar hero’s own solo work. (Note to self: remember that in the real world, Smiths fans always resembled the rowdy lads on the inside of the Rank gatefold more than they did Alain Delon or even Yootha Joyce.) Hate the singer – or at least express disappointment in how he turned out – while still loving the songs; that would appear to be the best option. Of course, the spirit of Morrissey still lingers over everything Marr does; at once there and not there, Schrödinger’s lyricist, Banquo at the vegan feast. This was meant to be a blog post about Johnny, but it’s not, is it?

The singer/song divide does appear to be an increasingly popular tactic, whether it’s Quincy Jones playing lots of Michael Jackson songs without ever mentioning Michael Jackson, or Nick Cave’s calm response to the misdeeds of Morrissey himself:
I think perhaps it would be helpful to you if you saw the proprietorship of a song in a different way. Personally, when I write a song and release it to the public, I feel it stops being my song. It has been offered up to my audience and they, if they care to, take possession of that song and become its custodian. The integrity of the song now rests not with the artist, but with the listener.
Which, the two or three loyal readers of this blog will know, is pretty much what Roland Barthes (a French theorist who never heard the Smiths but died a beautifully Morrisseyesque death) argued in The Death of the Author. As soon as the author publishes, or releases, or presses “SEND”, he or she leaves the party. I’ve often deployed this as a critical get-out clause; for example in my book about Radiohead’s OK Computer (all good bookshops, etc), I pointed out that the fact Thom Yorke hasn’t read Philip K Dick’s Valis, or can’t remember that the poem that inspired ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’ was by Craig Raine, doesn’t invalidate those works’ relevance to consideration of his own music. I never thought it would also allow us to skip gaily over the sexual or political misdemeanours of our fallen idols, and I doubt old Roland did either – which rather proves his point, doesn’t it?

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

About self-Googling

In a word, don’t.


About Walter Benjamin (yet again)


Obviously, it’s easy to trawl through the work of writers from decades past and find that they’ve (presumably accidentally) had the core idea for some phenomenon that only came into being in our own time. Going back over The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, though, I realise Benjamin leaves the competition standing. Writing in 1936, he comes up with social media...
For centuries a small number of writers were confronted by many thousands of readers. This changed toward the end of the last century. With the increasing extension of the press, which kept placing new political, religious, scientific, professional, and local organs before the readers, an increasing number of readers became writers — at first, occasional ones. It began with the daily press opening to its readers space for “letters to the editor.” And today there is hardly a gainfully employed European who could not, in principle, find an opportunity to publish somewhere or other comments on his work, grievances, documentary reports, or that sort of thing. Thus, the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character. 
And then reality TV...
In cinematic practice, particularly in Russia, this change-over has partially become established reality. Some of the players whom we meet in Russian films are not actors in our sense but people who portray themselves — and primarily in their own work process. 
...in the space of a couple of paragraphs. Nice work, Walt.

PS: Edward Ward asks, Where’s Walter?

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

About Norman Stone


The Telegraph has for many years boasted the finest obituaries in British newspapers, with its emphasis on interesting people who led interesting lives, rather than those who were merely famous or useful or even pleasant. But every now and then the DT’s competitors come good, as in Richard J Evans’s piece for The Guardian on the truly ghastly historian Norman Stone. Evans is scrupulous in pointing out Stone’s gifts as a writer and scholar, but is clear that they were seriously outweighed by his flaws. A small selection...
On one occasion he collapsed in front of [Margaret Thatcher], drunk; but she was well known for her indulgence towards alcoholics so long as they supported her politically.
Knowing that he did little research, never bothered to check his facts and relied on his literary flair to mask his mistakes, the publishers got serious historians to go through the text: one of them sent in a 20-page list of errors, but it was impossible to spot them all and so it was left to reviewers to point out the many further inaccuracies.
And, for dessert:
Journalists often described him as “one of Britain’s leading historians”, but in truth he was nothing of the kind, as any serious member of the profession will tell you. The former prime minister, Heath, was wrong about many things, but he was surely right when he said of Stone during his time in Oxford: “Many parents of Oxford students must be both horrified and disgusted that the higher education of our children should rest in the hands of such a man.”
PS: And, just to be fair, the heir to Stone’s throne as monarch of the right-wing rentagobs pays tribute.

PPS: And here’s Stone’s own hatchet job on another historian, EH Carr.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

About Good Omens

I rather enjoyed the TV adaptation of Gaiman/Pratchett’s eschatological bromance Good Omens, and I suppose the fact that 20,000 Christians have petitioned Netflix to have it cancelled (one of their complaints is that God is depicted as having a female voice) is something akin to a badge of honour.

Especially since the show was actually made by Amazon Prime.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

About masters

An extraordinary story by Jody Rosen in the New York Times, about a fire at the Universal Studios in Hollywood in 2008 that destroyed the masters of sound recordings by, among many others, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Patsy Cline, Bo Diddley, the Andrews Sisters, Etta James, Ray Charles, Burt Bacharach, Captain Beefheart, Al Green, Iggy Pop, Nirvana... essentially, a massive chunk of 20th-century American music ceased to exist in matter of minutes. I’m not sure what’s more astonishing, that such a calamity was allowed to occur, or that its full extent is only now being revealed, more than a decade on. 

But does it matter that much? I mean, it’s not as if the music is entirely lost, is it? Well, some of it is: it turns out that some of the material lost to the flames had never seen a commercial release, had never made it off the tapes in the first place. There’s a bigger point, though, as Rosen argues:
But the case for masters extends beyond arguments about bit depth and frequency ranges audible only to dogs. It enters the realms of aesthetics and phenomenology. Simply put, the master of a recording is that recording; it is the thing itself. The master contains the record’s details in their purest form: the grain of a singer’s voice, the timbres of instruments, the ambience of the studio. It holds the ineffable essence that can only truly be apprehended when you encounter a work of art up-close and unmediated, or as up-close and unmediated as the peculiar medium of recorded sound permits. “You don’t have to be Walter Benjamin to understand that there’s a big difference between a painting and a photograph of that painting,” [producer Andy] Zax said in his conference speech. “It’s exactly the same with sound recordings.” 

Friday, June 14, 2019

About etcetera

Back in the olden days, when I’d get nervous if I hadn’t blogged for 48 hours, I’d often end up with half a dozen half-finished, half-arsed posts, all entirely unrelated to each other, that I’d crunch together into a single slab of incoherence. Inevitably these would usually turn out to be more popular than the finely crafted single-issue bits.

In that spirit, but with considerably less bang for your digital buck: a fascinating look at the Tokyo that nearly was; then a slice of urban strangeness that actually happened, with Simon Reynolds interviewing the late Andy Gill about the Sheffield music scene in the late 70s/early 80s; and this:


and this:


PS: ....aaand how we feel when we realise exactly how bloody old our favourite music is.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

About Cohen and Radiohead

I’ve written two proper books about popular musicians (and, if you haven’t had the pleasure, you really should, no, really), and I reached a similar frame of mind by the time I’d got to the end of both of them; that the music was ultimately less interesting than the people creating it.


I recently had my prejudices reinforced, twice over. First, I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview of Nick Broomfield’s upcoming film, which tells the tale of Leonard Cohen and his long, complex relationship with his Norwegian muse Marianne Ihlen, which lasted from 1960 to 2016, the year they both died, just three months apart. At first, I thought it would appeal only to die-hard Cohen fans, a strange bunch, as I’ve discovered. But ultimately Cohen’s music fades into the background of a narrative that’s really about love and loss, death and ageing, and the search for personal peace. It’s gruffly tender and drily romantic, like the best of Cohen’s work, but exists beyond that oeuvre.

I have a similar attitude to Radiohead; I haven’t been particularly swept away by anything they’ve recorded since the Amnesiac album in 2001, but I still find them weirdly, awkwardly fascinating, not least in their constant awareness of the paradox they embody, a band that forges its identity through its opposition to global capitalism, but can only feasibly exist thanks to the operation of the same capitalism.

And that paradox bubbled up again this week when, after someone hacked into an archive of sessions from the OK Computer period, and held them to ransom for a six-figure sum, they made the whole lot available for £18, with proceeds going to Extinction Rebellion; the glumly realistic – and very British – sales pitch being that the sounds are “only tangentially interesting”.


PS: The Guardian rather misses the point by confusing what’s essentially a spontaneous reaction to digital skulduggery with a proper album.

PPS: Also, this.

PPPS: Then, through the letter box, comes this:


PPPPS: And in further LC news, the Leonard/Marianne letters sell for vast sums.

PPPPPS: Are you still here? I get a mention in Drum! magazine.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Not about Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson fans, we are told, are annoyed that a forthcoming Quincy Jones concert appears to have shifted its emphasis from being a tribute to the King of Pop, to a non-specific trawl through music from the 80s, with occasional nods to Jacko.

But what’s more interesting is that the posthumously disgraced Jackson himself barely seemed to figure, even in the original marketing. Sure, there was plenty of emphasis on his three most important albums (all of which Jones produced) but his tarnished name is conspicuous by its absence. Which is, I guess, a way to get around the whole problem of how to appreciate Great Art By Bad Men; we are allowed once again to appreciate a sculpture by Eric Gill, a film by Roman Polanski, an album by Michael Jackson, without any moral awkwardness, simply by dropping the Bad Man’s name from the credits. I’m pretty sure that this is not what Barthes was thinking of when he posited the Death of the Author – but hey, he’s only the author anyway, so who cares?


PS: And Judi Dench says much the same thing about the works of Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey. And she’s a national treasure so it must be OK.

PPS: And on Twitter, the trauma that ensues when someone decides JK Rowling is A Bad Person.

PPPS: Nick Cave, who dealt with this a couple of months ago, returns.

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

About Wefail

I’ll have to admit that I’ve only just become aware of the art collective called Wefail, the schtick of which seems to be pretending that Francis Bacon is alive and well and still gloriously aghast at the horrors of the world (and also discreetly forgetting that Bacon voted Tory). Nice work, though.




PS: Swift response from Wefail: “Of course Bacon was a Tory, he was a masochist.”

Saturday, June 01, 2019

About the 80s

The latest iteration of the unkillable NOW franchise would appear to be something called Forgotten 80s, a collection of 100 songs that a) were originally released in the 1980s and b) would appear to have been forgotten by someone or other. It’s this last bit that confuses me; who’s supposed to have forgotten them? And at what point are they remembered, if at all? When you read the titles? When you play the songs? Or are they buried so deep in the subconscious that they feel like entirely new songs, thus perfecting the music industry’s preferred tactic of re-issue/re-package to infinity?

I am, presumably, the target market for this sort of thing, having spent the entirety of my teenage years in that strange country we call the 80s. Unfortunately, when I looked at the track listing, I’d stubbornly refused to forget pretty much any of the songs included, whether they were loved (‘Louise’, ‘Da Da Da’, ‘Zoom’, the fabulous ‘Sonic Boom Boy’) or despised (‘Every Loser Wins’ by thin-tied wide-chinned Nick Berry). Which means, I guess, that I’m not the target market after all. The only exception was ‘Living on Video’, a 1983 hit by the Canadian band Trans-X. When I played it, I thought I vaguely recalled the flutey synth riff, but then again that could have been from 20 or 30 other songs of the time. And as I watched the video, which is so quintessentially 80s (The Hair! The Computers! The Earrings!) as to be veering into Lufthansa Terminal territory, I did briefly consider whether it might be also be a gloriously arch spoof, a recent concoction crowbarred into a decade-specific compilation to play games with critics who claimed to remember (and hate) it from the first time round.

And now I wonder if there are other people of my generation, hoping against hope that the one or two tracks they’ve tried and failed to retrieve from their own decaying hippocampi (Transvision Vamp? China Crisis? Sydney Youngblood?) are just tawdry postmodern japes and that in fact, their memories are as pure and clear and entire as they could ever be. Too Good To Be Forgotten, or Not Bad Enough To Be Remembered?


PS: And if you really can’t remember F.R. David or Haysi Fantayzee, you’ll probably have trouble with this as well.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

About Bradley Wiggins


The Times runs a regular Q&A column called My Culture Fix, in which people are asked to offer up their favourite books, films, music and so on. And this week we are welcomed into the soul of Bradley Wiggins, the celebrated cyclist.

Things get interesting at the very start when he declares – not “admits” or “confesses” because he doesn’t appear to be embarrassed about it – that he doesn’t really read books. But it’s his response to the next question, when he’s asked to identify his favourite play or playwright, that really sets the agenda: “No”. In its own way, it’s magnificent, a brutal shutting down of an entire art form, a refusal to let the merest whiff of greasepaint come anywhere near his nostrils.

But he does like Only Fools and Horses.

PS: That said, if you want to hear someone talking about his own cultural favourites intelligently and sensitively, but without getting too technical or highfalutin’, you could do much worse than listen to Derren Brown on yesterday’s Desert Island Discs.

Monday, May 20, 2019

About poetry

This weekend, I took custody of my late grandfather’s collection of Ariel Poems, limited edition volumes published by Faber in the 1920s and 30s by Siegfried Sassoon, Edith Sitwell and, most significantly (to me, at least), TS Eliot; illustrations are by the likes of McKnight Kauffer and Eric Gill. They’re pretty special.


Wednesday, May 15, 2019

About The Handmaid’s Tale


The use of imagery from The Handmaid’s Tale by those defending women’s hard-won rights over their bodies is a clever piece of visual shorthand, instantly reminding us of the theocratic dystopia heralded by policies such as Alabama’s effective ban on abortion. However, I can’t help but think it also reinforces a further message: essentially, “We read literary fiction (or at least watch TV adaptations thereof) and you dumb hicks don’t.” Which may well be accurate, but in the current sociopolitical climate, is hardly helpful.

PS: I’ve been looking at the list of the state senators who voted for the Alabama ban; such names! Jabo Waggoner. Garland Gudger. Shay Shelnutt. Less a political process, more a Pynchon novel. Although that remark presumably makes the same mistake as the red-caped protestors...

Sunday, May 12, 2019

About William James


William James, brother of the more cinegenic Henry, in 1900, reflecting on his time spent in an idyllic middle-class settlement in western New York state:
Now for something primordial and savage, even though it were as bad as an Armenian massacre, to set the balance straight again. This order is too tame, this culture too second-rate, this goodness too uninspiring. This human drama without a villain or a pang; this community so refined that ice-cream soda-water is the utmost offering it can make to the brute animal in man; this city simmering in the tepid lakeside sun; this atrocious harmlessness of all things, I cannot abide with them.
I think I may deploy “this atrocious harmlessness” with unseemly abandon from now on.

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

About Camp

From this week’s Met Gala.


When something is bad (rather than Camp), it’s often because it is too mediocre in its ambition. —Susan Sontag, Notes on Camp, 1964
PS: The reliably tiresome Piers Morgan characteristically misses the whole big thing point by calling one of the red carpet sillies “preposterous”

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

About political correctness

The core idea of PC, I guess, isn’t too objectionable. All societies have codes of discourse, defining what is and isn’t acceptable, and all that has happened since some time in the 1980s is that these codes have been recalibrated so that people are more aware of the sensitivities of previously marginalised groups. Ideally, it makes it easier, smoother to converse with a wider range of people. At least if you offend someone, you’re probably doing it deliberately.

The problem with all such codes, both those stemming from PC and also the ones that preceded them, is that they become rigid and oppressive, ultimately making such discourse harder rather than easier. Even if one’s intentions are pure, fear of being misconstrued, deliberately or not (and the barracking that will inevitably ensue), inevitably shuts things down. And those who do have malign intent realise that it’s bloody easy to get publicity, simply by deploying the occasional outrage bomb. The rise of Trump, Farage, Bolsonaro, et al, can be seen less as riding the populist surge, more like a particularly ambitious burst of trolling. And while they achieved it on the back of the gammon tendency, the disgruntled,  the suspicious, the believers in a fake collective nostalgia, it’s clear that the pearl-clutching snowflakes have also eased their way to success.


A few examples from the past week:

  • In a discussion regarding my last post, about the question of whether the rules of cultural appropriation apply to the interaction between two non-white cultures, I was taken to task for not considering whether the black man wearing the Vietnamese hat may actually have been Vietnamese. When I asked whether such consideration might be extended to white people wearing Native American head dresses... ah, let’s not go there.
  • In another discussion, about the unproven sexual shenanigans of yet another bloody actor, I made the passing comment that the films for which he is most famous are pretty bad, and was sternly entreated to “read the room”. I wasn’t familiar with the phrase, but I understand it to mean “work out what everyone else is thinking, and don’t say anything that challenges it, because it might upset them.” Incidentally, it seems that many of the misdemeanours of which people are accused are down to this inability to read the room, episodes of social gaucheness rather than anything more serious. (Which does make me wonder, how much consideration is given to people on the autistic spectrum; or are some oppressed minorities more minor than others?)
  • The construction “people of colour” (i.e., anyone who is isn’t white) has already been appropriated and tweaked into “people of gender” (which surely means anyone who isn’t non-binary, unless non-binary is a gender in and of itself); and this morning I heard someone on the radio referring to “people of class”. Which means... everyone, surely?
  • Apparently the Oxford Union has invited the usual cadre of tiresome right-wingers to argue against the policy of No Platform and the equally tiresome cadre of student leftists want to no-platform at least one of them.
  • [edit] And now, the whole ridiculous Danny Baker monkey story.

As I said, the core idea of political correctness has much to commend it. In execution, however, it has precisely the opposite effect to that intended, breeding resentment and suspicion and hostility where it claims to prompt support and respect.

Friday, May 03, 2019

About cultural appropriation

This afternoon, in South London, I saw a black man (I’m guessing African-Caribbean, but can’t be sure), wearing an Asian conical hat, the sort that in less enlightened times we used to call a “coolie hat”. Genuine question: is this cultural appropriation?


Tuesday, April 30, 2019

About reading

The biggest political phenomenon in recent years has been a surge in populist resentment towards a very vaguely defined other that is usually called “the elite”. Now, though, many of those leading the charge against “the elite” appear to be wealthy, well-connected, straight, white males, which always used to be a pretty good indicator of elitism. Now, though, the divide is as much cultural as anything. It’s not just attitudes to Europe, or immigration, or gay marriage that set the elite apart; it’s the books they read, or the fact that they read books at all.

For example, a recent ONS report finds that 31% of graduates are “overeducated” for the job they’re doing. Overeducation is a very anti-elite concept; phrases like “too clever by half” characterise a particular aversion to the idea that knowing stuff for its own sake is a good and beautiful thing. The Gradgrindian implication that the core purpose of education is ultimately economic also plays well to the base.

But if you want a single, succinct encapsulation of this attitude though, here’s this morning’s tweet from Adam Boulton (Sky TV, Sunday Times... a pattern seems to form) in response to Andy Miller’s end-of-the-month reading report:

Thursday, April 25, 2019

About Sinatra

My only deep sorrow is the unrelenting insistence of recording and motion picture companies upon purveying the most brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious form of expression it has been my displeasure to hear—naturally I refer to the bulk of rock ‘n’ roll. It fosters almost totally negative and destructive reactions in young people. It smells phony and false. It is sung, played and written for the most part by cretinous goons and by means of its almost imbecilic reiterations and sly, lewd—in plain fact dirty—lyrics, and as I said before, it manages to be the martial music of every sideburned delinquent on the face of the earth. (Frank Sinatra, 1957.)
Sinatra was right, of course. But what the great man failed to understand was that that’s the whole bloody point.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

About Dante

From a children’s edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy retrieved from the garage. I’m astonished that such a thing ever existed, but glad it did. (The book, not the garage.)




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.