Thursday, September 17, 2020

About Des

I thought the crime drama Des, which finished last night (although, in these streaming days, when does anything truly finish?) was excellent and not just, I hope, because it stirred in me memories of when the horrible details of the real Muswell Hill murders were trickling through in the 1980s.

The media response has been pretty much unanimously positive, although obviously that’s not enough these days. I’m intrigued my the modern model of writing about TV, which seems to consist of watching a show, describing what happens, then transcribing what people are saying about it on Twitter. Clive James it ain’t.

For example, here’s the Daily Mail, reporting that viewers were shocked by Dennis Nilsen’s decision to plead not guilty at the end of episode two. This wasn’t, of course, a piece of dramatic wrong-footing that the writers plucked out of the air, like the death of the Keeley Hawes character in the overrated Bodyguard; it was a historical event. It happened. Back in 1983, it made the news. Now, apparently the fact that some genius took the time to tap out “Excuse me what? My heart dropped in my chest when he said ‘not guilty’. God give these families peace.” is also news.

As is the fact that the main takeaway for some viewers from a drama about a serial killer is that there was too much smoking.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

About Jane Austen

This could only be more depressing if she’d been studying, analysing etc Hard Times.

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

About the Oscars

The new guidelines to ensure diversity in Oscar-nominated films seem to be laudable, in intent at least. For a film to get a nod, it will need to ensure that more women, ethnic minorities, LGBT people and those with disabilities will need to be involved on screen or as part of the production process.

But the fact that this comes a few months after Parasite won the Best Picture award suggests the application of these requirements may be trickier than it seems at first. Certainly, Bong Joon Ho’s social satire/thriller would have ticked at least some of the right boxes as far as the Academy is concerned; except that in South Korea, one of the most racially homogeneous countries in the world (96% of the population is ethnic Korean), it doesn’t really look that way. It’s a great film, it’s clearly not the sort of movie that would prompt the #OscarsSoWhite complaint, but, in terms of race, diverse it ain’t.

Parasite was the first film not in the English language to win the big prize, which can be seen as small green shoot of linguistic and cultural diversity poking through the concrete of Anglophone hegemony. But presumably, the only way in which such a film would qualify for next year’s awards would be to indulge in a gentle, well-intentioned moment of cultural colonialism, and apply strictly Western standards of what constitutes diversity.

PS: In the Telegraph, Robbie Collin calculates how some other past winners would have fared:
Since Jews and Italians don’t count as under-represented these days, there’s bad news for The Godfather (and its sequel), Annie Hall and Schindler’s List, while the conspicuously un-woke Gone with the Wind and Driving Miss Daisy both pass with flying colours.

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

About Tenet

If people can’t stop themselves from talking and eating in cinemas, I don’t see how we can impose any kind of social distancing in the darkness, so I won’t be seeing Tenet on the big screen in the near future. Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s succinct review suggests that I’m not missing much, but at the same time, I’m intrigued...

Friday, September 04, 2020

About Blackwatertown

(Disclaimer: I’ve known Paul Waters for many years and I’m one of the many supporters who helped fund the publication of this book.) 

Blackwatertown, by Paul Waters (Unbound)

Sinister goings-on in rural Northern Ireland aren’t exactly brand new territory for fiction writers (Colin Bateman comes to mind) but Paul Waters offer a sardonic yet sensitive take on the genre. His protagonist, Macken, is a Catholic cop in the predominantly Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary, at a time when systemic bigotry against the religious minority was commonplace. Relocated to a village on the border with the Irish Republic, he follows his own private quest for truth while always being alert to his outsider status; a resurgence of IRA violence gives his colleagues plenty of excuses to query his loyalties. Love and a potential escape route arrive in the form of the enchanting Aoife, but will happiness ultimately be dashed from his grasp?

The location is crucial to the story. The nature of the border as an indistinct, liminal space – it defines the boundaries of the policemen’s authority, yet seems impossible to define itself – adds a sort of metaphysical oddness to what is essentially a period thriller, with the slightest whispers of Flann O’Brien. And I don’t think it’s too fanciful to see Thomas Hardy as an influence too, with the landscape as much an active, brooding participant in the narrative as the human characters. It’s grounded in the reality of time and place but, as the author reminds us in an afterword, it’s also a fiction, and the reader has to negotiate that fuzzy border too.

It’s not perfect. Sometimes Macken’s internal monologues can drag a little, and I suspect a more ruthless editor would have ordered Waters to slaughter his innocents and trim the length by 10 or 15 per cent. But the pace picks up smartly in the last 100 or so pages with a succession of genuinely shocking (but ultimately plausible) plot twists and a rather beautiful, if melancholy, coda. If you want a thoughtful thriller peopled with believable, flawed characters rather than monochrome, two-fisted ciphers – and maybe a gentle history lesson on the side – read Blackwatertown.

PS: There’s another key plot point that plays around with the idea of fiction becoming a reality, that reminded me, of all things, of the last episode of The Wire, which is clearly a good thing but, y’know, spoilers.

Wednesday, September 02, 2020

About landfill indie

I’ll be honest, by the time the likes of Razorlight, Kasabian and the Pigeon Detectives were being touted as musical Next Big Things, I was already of an age where it would have felt undignified to care. So the Vice story about The Top 50 Greatest Landfill Indie Songs Of All Time was only of interest as an academic curiosity; I’m fascinated by the formation of cultural canons and this seemed to be a tongue-in-cheek exercise in imposing a hierarchy of significance on a genre that, the authors asserted was never particularly significant in the first place. The subhead refers to “the best most average songs in British music history”, which feels right. The fact that this came hot on the heels of the 25th anniversary of the Battle of Britpop – which really was significant, even if you didn’t want it to be – is another kick in the tender parts to The View, The Enemy and The Wombats. No useful book about Britain in the 1990s can fail to mention Blur and Oasis at length. I wrote a book about The Noughties and guitar bands of the era (I namechecked the Libertines and Franz Ferdinand) earned a single paragraph, which also feels about right.

But Maximo Park and Larrikin Love still have their doughty defenders. Step forward one Mark Beaumont, who was writing for NME at the time those bands arrived and is still somehow plying his trade within the cavernous husk that remains of that title. Beaumont asserts that even the use of the term “landfill indie” is “pure snobbery... sneeringly reductive”. To which the only sensible response is, Mark, you say that like it’s a bad thing. Snobbery and reductiveness are what ensured the NME mattered in its glory days in the 1970s/80s. It might not have been kind, it might not have made sense (aesthetic, cultural, historical, even financial), but it was critical statement, a line in the sand, a declaration that some things are good and some things are bad. Beaumont’s defence of Hard-Fi and The Holloways rests pretty much on the fact that people enjoyed them and it’s a bit horrid to say they shouldn’t have:
Don’t let all these jaded old gits tell you that your youth wasn’t as brilliant as theirs – I was watching you losing your shit to ‘Killamangiro’ from the Club NME DJ booth and it absolutely was. The ‘00s UK rock scene was as exciting, energised and unpredictable as Britpop or punk, and far more varied than both.
There’s a distinct sense here that Beaumont is not only asserting that the music mattered and still matters, but that he, Beaumont, also still matters, because he was there and the Club NME DJ booth was really the Lesser Free Trade Hall and The Good Mixer combined and you’re a jaded old git if you disagree. If only such a desperately quixotic, gloriously muddle-headed rage against the dying of the light had informed the music at the time, it might have been more interesting.

PS: In similar territory, Joe Muggs responds to Mic Wright’s interview with Conor McNicholas, which I mentioned last week:
The NME could and should have become a British Pitchfork, but the diminishing of it to a wilfully illiterate fan letter to sub-Libertines, sub-Strokes haircut bands in the 00s - a total cultural reductionism at a time when alternative music was defined specifically by diversity - ensured that would never happen. The NME should still be relevant to the musical offspring of the exciting scenes back then - Trash, Green Man, FWD>>, the birth of grime, etc etc - instead it only speaks to a tiny cluster of wankers in Doherty trilbies pissing on their own shoes and repeating Chris Moyles jokes at some “sheeeeeyine” festival somewhere. Ugh.
PPS: I’ve just remembered, two decades ago I also indulged in a bit of narcissistic scene revisionism.   But at least I was aware of my own ridiculousness. At least I hope I was.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

About You're Dead To Me

On the face of it, the Radio 4 show/podcast You’re Dead To Me meets all those cosy Reithian criteria about informing, educating and entertaining. It’s essentially a history lesson for people who think they don’t like history, fronted by Greg Jenner, who has acted as a consultant for the Horrible Histories TV series. The format, however, is closer to the long-running In Our Time; a historical subject (the Mughal Empire, Eleanor of Aquitaine, the Victorian Christmas, etc) is on the agenda, with Jenner taking the Melvyn Bragg role of an informed host, asking questions of an expert. (IOT usually offers more than one expert, which sometimes provokes a bit of friction, but the dynamic is similar.)

All good so far, but YDTM introduces a new worm into the apple, in the form of a comic voice. And this, as far as I can work out, illustrates the key difference between the two shows; its assumptions about the listener. With IOT, Bragg is the representative of the audience, someone who may know a bit about the subject matter, or has at least taken the time to glance at the relevant Wikipedia page to acquire a rudimentary foundation upon which the experts can build. In YDTM, although Jenner is fine as a host and the academics are all well-chosen, the voice of the listener is the comic, who may just as well have been pulled in from the street at random.

One egregious example of this is the show about the American emigrĂ© performer Josephine Baker; a wise don, Michell Chresfield from the University of Birmingham, is regularly interrupted by the comedian Desiree Burch, whose contribution is essentially half an hour of not knowing, and letting us know it. And she’s not even terribly funny while she’s doing it.

The closest analogy is those unaccountably popular YouTube clips of people listening to a classic song for the first time; we are encouraged to be consumers of their performative ignorance, pretty much the antithesis of Reith. And I’m increasingly worried that You’re Dead To Me is being set up not simply as a variation on In Our Time, but as its replacement.

Oh well, we’ll always have Josephine.

Friday, August 28, 2020

About music journalism

Conor McNicholas, who edited the NME way back in the Noughties, interviewed by Mic Wright:
The moment paper music journalism ceased to matter was in 2006 when Pitchfork reviewed the second Jet album. They just put up a gif of a monkey pissing in its own mouth. It wasn’t about the nature of the criticism - it really was an utterly forgettable album - it was the manner in which it was delivered. It wasn’t the product of a subs desk trying to shape something into the NME-style or the Q-style, it wasn’t crafting words to communicate a devastating putdown. It was a uniquely contemporary digital response to a band that felt like it was from another age. It was a new age sticking two fingers up to a previous generation in a way that they couldn’t respond. It was something that could be shared on mobile phones. Print was fucked from that point.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

About Gen Z

I once came across an English Language school textbook from the mid-1960s. The author clearly wanted to make a connection with the new breed of teens who formed his audience and one of the tasks he set was to create some publicity material for a fictional new “Pop” (because I’m sure it was within quotes) Group formed by their school friends. He was even good enough to think up a name for the combo – “THE GAY SWINGERS”.

And, more than half a century later, it continues....

Monday, August 24, 2020

About age

One Jay Hulme, an “award winning performance poet” posted this earlier today. Poetic licence?

Thursday, August 20, 2020

About the canon

Apparently Blogger is enforcing its new interface from tomorrow and I can’t get it to work on my venerable laptop so there may be a bit of a hiatus. To keep you nourished in the meantime, here’s a first attempt at a 21st-century canon of literary fiction. Will such a concept (in fact, either concept, lit fic and/or the canon) survive to the 22nd?

(Incidentally, Murakami’s in there, which ties things up quite neatly.)

Saturday, August 15, 2020

About punctuation and masks

As is the way of such things, the above tweet prompted first healthy respectful discussion and disagreement and then within hours things got nasty and Ms Cosslett deleted the whole thing. My response was that yes, I’d become aware of this a few years ago when a younger colleague asked if she’d done something to annoy me. It turned out that my use of (what I thought was) correct punctuation had expressed grumpiness too her; as if I need a full stop to be grumpy.

Cosslett’s real point was that online communication is developing as a distinct linguistic ecosystem and rules that apply elsewhere don’t necessarily need to be used. But why, I wonder, do “younger people” get to call the shots? They didn’t invent the medium. I first sent a tweet in 2006, a text message in 2000, an e-mail in about 1992 and nobody back then told me I overpunctuated. I’ve learned not to call people out for their spelling/grammar infelicities (unless they’re criticising educational standards or the supposed poor English of immigrants, in which case they deserve both barrels) so I’m rather hostile to the idea that I might be called out for actually getting things right.

Is the problem, I wonder, that younger users perceive orthodox punctuation, sentence structure, capitalisation, etc as a passive-aggressive rebuke to their own, apparently more free-form language? Deep down they know they’re in the wrong, but they project their self-loathing outwards because it feels better that way. A bit like – in the context of the current pandemic – non-mask-wearers yelling abuse at those who cover up. As also happened to me yesterday, by a charming gentleman who wished to inform me that covid is a myth created by the Illuminati and something vaccine something Stonehenge blah blah sorry I can’t hear you with my mask on. And no full stops.

PS: More here, from proper academics and that.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

About Britpop

I’m back on Times Radio tomorrow morning (around 6.50, if you’re vaguely alive at that hour), discussing the 25th anniversary of the Battle of Britpop and trying not to sound or feel too ancient.

Saturday, August 08, 2020

About Brain of Britain

BBC Radio 4’s Brain of Britain returns from lockdown this coming Monday, August 10 at 3pm. I’m not taking part this time round but you may indulge in a knowing chuckle at about the half-way point. Listen again and all that jazz available here.

Sunday, August 02, 2020

About bad people

Adam Rutherford, regarding the murky legacy of eugenicists such as Francis Galton and their ghostly presence in modern academia, expresses an attitude that could equally be applied in the arts and elsewhere:
I think Galton’s a shit, but he’s also a shit who’s a genius, whose legacy we absolutely rely on... We’ve got to be mature enough at a university to recognise that people can be both brilliant and awful at the same time.

Friday, July 31, 2020

About the 1990s

Intriguing research here about the extent to which the teenagers of today recognise, or don’t, the music of the 1990s. “Song decay” is the term Matt Daniels has coined to describe how a track that’s hugely successful at the time of its release fades away – or, more accurately, never gains traction – in the consciousness of successive generations. That said, looking at the list (Phil Collins, Celine Dion, Ace of Base, et al), I’m a tad envious of Generation Z in their blissful ignorance...

Sunday, July 26, 2020

About columnists

A pretty sound analysis of the significance of opinionated columnists to the ecosystem of a newspaper. It was written in 1968, so some of the practical details have changed, but the essential truth still holds, I reckon.
The columnist’s fenced-in but independent thinking gives the whole paper the aura of independent thinking. The columnist’s outrageousness gives the paper the aura of outrageousness. The columnist’s occasional and courageous expression of unpopular ideas gives the paper the aura of courage to express unpopular ideas. By investing in the columnist’s originality, non-conformism, and independent thinking, the publisher pays for appearances – in order to publish his paper not only for profit, in the sense of the classic definition that the press is a business “that produces empty space for advertising which can be financially offset by an editorial section.” If, on occasion, an advertising contract is cancelled because of the views expressed in a column, this is viewed as proof that the paper is nonconformist.
The only awkwardness derives from the identity of the author: the notorious Ulrike Meinhof, who two years later became a founder member of the Rote Armee Fraktion terrorist group.

Friday, July 24, 2020

About Taylor Swift

On spanking new Times Radio, I opine briefly about Taylor Swift’s even newer, knitwear-obsessed offering and the whole surprise album phenomenon just before the 30-minute mark here. It’s quite good, btw. The album, I mean.

PS: Had I been given a few more minutes, I would have suggested that these surprise launches are, to some extent, operating in the same tradition as Banksy and Marc Quinn; the guerrilla tactics become the art and The Thing (mural, statue, album, etc) is a MacGuffin that runs the risk of fading into the background. As I said, I think Folklore is too good to do that. A more considered view from Carl Wilson at Slate.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

About Madonnas (various)

#BlackLivesMatter has prompted an number of entertainers and groups, including Joey Negro, Lady Antebellum and the Dixie Chicks to reconsider the propriety of their adopted names. The latest is the Black Madonna, who now prefers to be known as the Blessed Madonna. The DJ (real name Marea Stamper) takes her name from Catholic and Orthodox icons that present the Virgin and Child with dark skin; no word yet as to whether they’ll be changing their names too.

Nor, indeed, whether Stamper will be Blessed much longer, seeing as how one David Adams has set up a petition complaining that her new name is also offensive, but to Christians this time; indeed, he co-opts the language of the BLM protesters, accusing her of cultural appropriation, although since Stamper chose the name in the first place because of her own Catholic upbringing, I’m not sure how that works.

Still, to give Adams his credit, he’s dogged in his pursuit of musical miscreants:
I have contacted Black Sabbath, Madonna, and the Jesus Lizard, but as of yet have had no response.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Thursday, July 16, 2020

About Banksy and Quinn

Two recent events, independent of each other but thematically linked, have prompted mass chin-stroking with regard to the definition and legitimacy of art.

First, Banksy’s mask-related modification of a Tube carriage came and then went, removed by a cleaning crew unaware of its provenance (or, indeed, of its potential monetary value to cash-strapped Transport For London). It’s a sharp reminder that, despite the mystery graffitist’s claim to be the most famous living artist in the country, a huge swathe of the population has no clue who he is or what he does, and presumably cares even less.

And then Marc Quinn, of blood head fame (although, bearing in mind what happened to Banksy, perhaps “fame” should be enveloped in multiple ironic air quotes) replaced the fallen statue of a long-dead slaver with one of the campaigner Jen Reid.

And then, no sooner was the Reid statue up, it was removed again, albeit by direct order of the local council. One could of course argue that the permanence of Banksy’s and Quinn’s pieces is not the point; their surreptitious installations are the real works of art in both cases. And because they are both working in these guerrilla traditions, the worst thing that could happen would be for the graffiti and the statue to be permitted, condoned, recuperated by the authorities. The twin erasures, accidental and then deliberate, represent not the destruction of the art, but its culmination and validation, proving that the graffiti and the statue are both too dangerous to exist.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

About Parler

The new-ish social media site Parler is, according to who you ask, a) an oasis of free speech and a refuge from the woke cancel culture of Twitter or b) a previously uncharted circle of Hell where people compete to demonstrate how much they love Donald Trump. I hate to rely on hearsay, so I actually went and had a look and let’s just say that this is pretty much the most representative post:

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

About cancel

An open letter warning that a culture of public shaming is stifling debate has attracted more attention for the names attached to it than for its content.

Chief among them is, almost inevitably, JK Rowling, whose descent from hero to zero has been more precipitous than that time John Lennon said something apparently disobliging about Jesus and saw his records being burned in the deep South. But other names – Chomsky, Steinem, Rushdie, Amis – will probably prompt blank looks among the millennials and Gen-Z-ers who are propelling the so-called cancel culture that the letter addresses. They know Margaret Atwood for that TV show.

Some of the responses have matched the spirit of the original letter. Emily VanDerWerff, a trans writer at Vox, expressed her regret that one of the founders of the site had signed the letter, but accepted that he was entitled to his own opinion – a liberal attitude that feels quietly heretical amidst all the shrieking.

By contrast, one of the other signatories, Jennifer Finney Boylan, swiftly recanted her own involvement, not because of the content of the letter, which she describes as “well meaning, if vague”, but because of some of the other people on the list. Which raises two points: first, why add your name in the first place to a “vague” letter on such a contentious issue?;  and then, if it’s the other names only the list, doesn’t that rather reduces the whole argument to the level of a high school popularity contest? That said, a question of who sits next to whom in the cafeteria may resonate more with the target audience than the musings of Noam Chomsky do.

PS: And now Jodie Comer gets it in the neck for, uh, what her boyfriend’s politics may or may not be.

PPS: I actually got round to reading the full list of signatories and notice that it includes two of my cultural favourites, Greil Marcus and John McWhorter. But should that in and of itself encourage me to agree with the letter? Or, conversely, if I don’t like what the letter says, should I burn my copy of Lipstick Traces? It’s so confusing...

PPPS: Another view from Billy Bragg.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

About Dampier and Casablanca

Stuff I learned today when truffling around the interwebs in search of something else.

1. The explorer, naturalist and privateer William Dampier (who I first encountered around the age of seven in L du Garde Peach’s masterpiece A Ladybird Book About Pirates) is cited in the OED for the earliest recorded uses of 80 words, including “barbecue”, “sub-species” and “chopsticks”; he also gave us the first recorded recipes in English for guacamole and mango chutney; and crew members on his voyages were the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

2. Casablanca was banned in Ireland until the end of World War II because its negative depiction of Nazis and Vichy collaborators contravened the country’s policy of neutrality; as late as 1974 it could only be shown on Irish television if Ilse’s lines about loving Rick (despite being married to Victor) were removed. Meanwhile, when it was released in Germany in 1952, all the scenes containing Nazis were removed, and the uncut version was not shown until 1975.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

About male/female

I’m wary of getting pulled into the scrap over trans issues that’s damaged the credentials of even the sainted JK Rowling, beyond making the bland assertion that on a purely social level, if someone is happier identifying with a particular gender identity, I’m equally happy to let [insert correct pronoun] get on with it.

Two observations, though. One is that, even as a dreaded cis het white male, I’ve often felt frustrated by the dead hand of traditional gender expectations, the idea that men talk about cars and drink pints and women talk about shoes and drink Prosecco and anyone who doesn’t fit into these boxes is a bit weird. One might have thought that increased relaxation of the binary divide between His and Hers might have pushed us closer to a world when such distinctions mattered far less, if at all; in fact, it feels as if one’s gender identity, whether the one assigned at birth or the one adopted later, matters even more than it used to. It’s certainly making a lot of people very cross.

The other is that so much of the disagreement and tension in this area is less about things, more about words about things; ultimately, semantics. The use or non-use of a particular pronoun in regard to an individual takes on a massive significance, far more than any real actions or behaviours. Obviously, words matter; but not to the exclusion of all else, including what they represent.

So I was heartened to read this article in the New York Times, which appears to offer a way out:
“Sex” is a biological framework, a panoply of possibility on its own. “Sex” needs precise words like “male” and “female” and “intersex” to describe the origins, components and functions of bodies. But we can’t maintain this precision if we use words about sex to describe gender — the social and political roles and possibilities we take on as women, as men, as something else or none of the above... That is to say: Stop using “male” and “female” to refer to men and women. In fact, stop using sex-based words to refer to people at all. They’re words for bodies, not for people with hearts and souls and minds.
So, as I understand it, a penis is “male” and menstruation is “female”; but the individuals to which they apply may be either or (preferably) neither. As technology pushes us on to a more transhuman state of being – a process that can only have been accelerated by the enforced separateness that we’ve seen in the past few months – we should be closer to a situation where nobody, not even JK Rowling, argues about gender because nobody cares.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

About Bennett and Eliot

Despite the plague, life goes on. Alan Bennett has admitted that, since his Talking Heads monologues were put on the A-level syllabus he’s frequently pestered by students seeking help with their homework; his advice is to “treat me like a dead author who was thus unavailable for comment”. It may just be a way to shake them off, or it could be a subtle attempt to introduce them to the works of Roland Barthes. Who knows?

In other news, the current craze for protecting statues has extended to George Eliot in Nuneaton, although some have suggested that the defenders have confused her with the late blackface entertainer GH Elliott, whose gravestone is to be removed from his Sussex resting place.

And The Sun’s idea of a “highbrow drama” is, uh, Downton Abbey.

Tuesday, June 09, 2020

About Little Mix

The decision to replace human editors on with robots was already controversial; but the fact that one of the Hot Metal Mickeys confused two members of popular beat combo Little Mix is in reality just the sort of dumb mistake flesh-and-blood hacks make. The racial angle to the cock-up is embarrassing, especially in the wake of the current #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations but again, humans have made similar mistakes.

The real problem is that MSN doesn’t actually do any of its own journalism; it just takes stories from other sources, including what we used to call newspapers. And this is where it all gets a bit meta, not to mention sinister, as a real journalist in The Guardian reports:
In advance of the publication of this article, staff at MSN were told to expect a negative article in the Guardian about alleged racist bias in the artificial intelligence software that will soon take their jobs... Because they are unable to stop the new robot editor selecting stories from external news sites such as the Guardian, the remaining human staff have been told to stay alert and delete a version of this article if the robot decides it is of interest and automatically publishes it on They have also been warned that even if they delete it, the robot editor may overrule them and attempt to publish it again.

Monday, June 08, 2020

About statues

The simple action of pulling down a statue is, in and of itself, morally neutral; it’s the context that matters. Most of us would have regarded the destruction by the Taliban of the Buddhas of Bamiyan as a bad thing; the toppling of Saddam’s likeness in Firdaus Square as welcome. So the damp demise of Edward Colston in Bristol yesterday should be viewed in the same context. Ultimately, if we believe that Colston’s egregious sins as a trafficker in live human flesh outweigh his endowment of a few entertainment venues, he should have been toppled many years ago.

Interestingly, a compromise had long been available; for the statue to remain, but a plaque putting Colston’s deeds in context to be affixed. This option was foolishly rejected by the good citizens of Bristol but an ad hoc variant was yesterday applied to Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square with the helpful addition of the words “WAS A RACIST” to the plinth.

Well, yes, he was, by modern standards at least (although it shouldn’t be forgotten that his greatest achievement was to save his country and the world from someone who made him look pretty woke by comparison). It could of course be argued that “Churchill was a racist” should be added to the pervasive “#AllLivesMatter” in a list of comments that are empirically true but not particularly helpful in the current circumstances; and the same could apply to the misdeeds of Nelson, Wellington, Cromwell and plenty of others who are still celebrated in bronze.

Not just Dead White Males either. Gandhi expressed some pretty nasty views about Africans; and many of the leaders of the American civil rights movement were less keen about extending said rights to gay people. And doubtless if we dig deep enough into the lives of recently commemorated figures such as Millicent Fawcett or Mary Seacole we’d find something that would at least spark a bit of a Twitterspat if it were said or done today. Doubtless one day there will be a JK Rowling statue in Edinburgh, accompanied by strident demands for it to be tossed unceremoniously into the Firth of Forth.


Friday, June 05, 2020

About #blacklivesmatter

We’re encouraged to speak out but sometimes it’s best to maintain a watchful silence.

Monday, June 01, 2020

About lockdown life

Dickon Edwards on taking part in a live event that suddenly had to migrate to Twitter:
It’s a frustrating experience, as not only is my computer slow, but I realise I am so much slower at tweeting than most. I manage about three questions before the 30 mins of questioning is up... I am a little unhappy about this, feeling forced into a new digital Darwinian era that favours only those who have fast computers and fast computer skills. I worry now that I have even less place in a pandemic-hit world than I did in the one before.

Friday, May 29, 2020

About movie posters

In February, Black History Month, the US book chain Barnes & Noble added special covers  featuring “people of color” (I have issues with that phrase but it’s the one they used) to a range of classic novels; the logic was that nowhere in the texts does it say that Dorothy Gale or Frankenstein’s monster or Captain Ahab is white, so why not make them black or Asian or Hispanic. There was a backlash. This was “literary blackface” according to one critic, and instead of blacking up characters in books by white authors, B & N should have been promoting books by black authors instead. (Of course, the real problem with focusing on texts by non-white writers to the exclusion of all else is that you give the impression that there was very little literature before World War II; just as a focus on female authors turns everything before 1800 into a creative wasteland. Even Virginia Woolf didn’t argue that we shouldn’t read Shakespeare.)

The BFI is, I guess, making itself liable to similar accusations with by commissioning new covers for its Film Classics series, with a new focus on “women, LGBTIQ+, black, Asian, mixed ethnicity and the Global South”. It’s a tougher call than book covers, because while you can plausibly imagine that Frank Baum’s Dorothy is black or Bhutanese, there’s no such wriggle room when you’re presented with Judy Garland in the role. The BFI cleverly got round this by offering the artists “a short description of the film, along with an idea of certain characters or a scene central to the film”. Rather than telling them to, uh, watch the film, which may have confused the issue.

PS: Vaguely connected with both the above: a review of a talk about female artists that spent so long raging about the sins of male artists (among other stuff) that hardly any women got a mention. Includes a visceral condemnation of Gauguin by someone who admits to knowing nothing about Gauguin.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

About a fiddler

I need to say from the outset that I do not disbelieve Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman when she says she got a job pretending to play the violin while a CD played, at the behest of a man she describes only as The Composer, who didn’t recognise Beethoven’s Fifth when he heard it. Instead – and her current role teaching creative writing at Northern Kentucky University may be relevant here – I might suggest that her account of her time with The Composer, her poverty-stricken Appalachian childhood, her drug addiction and mental collapse occupies a sort of Schrödinger’s Cat space on the fact/fiction continuum. Essentially, it’s better all round if we’re not quite sure if it’s true or not, whether this is a raw, honest memoir or an arch, postmodern, subtly metafictional conceit adopting the trappings of a raw, honest memoir. A solid decision either way makes the narrative a bit less interesting.

I dealt with this area a while back, discussing Salman Rushdie’s attempts to block a memoir by his own protection officer, which had apparently dipped its toe into the jacuzzi of fantasy; the problem being that Rushdie’s whole career had been based on a similar creative fudging of the boundaries.

Again, I’m not saying that Ms Hindman is playing similar games; just that I wouldn’t be surprised or upset if that turned out to be the case. But I would experience a tinge of regret that the ambiguity is over.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

About Shakespeare and Company

A confession. When, several years ago, I ambled into the bookshop Shakespeare and Company on the Left Bank and was growled at by the owner George Whitman (I think I interrupted his lunch), I thought I was following in the footsteps of Hemingway, Joyce, Pound and all the other expats who decorated Paris between the wars. Only now do I discover that there were two completely different shops, and that Whitman renamed his own in 1964 as a tribute to Sylvia Beach’s place on the rue de l’OdĂ©on: she closed it in 1941, having refused to sell her last copy of Finnegans Wake to a Nazi officer, which is a story in itself, surely.

Which is only a preamble to the news that you can now find out who made use of (the first) Shakespeare and Co’s lending library, and what they borrowed, on this fun site. And, connected only by being around at the same time, you can wonder through Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas from the safety of your own lockdown.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

About reviews

Still, I think, my favourite Amazon review of all time. It’s about the first instalment of Mark Lewisohn’s massive Beatles biography but that really doesn’t matter.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

About Klout

Many years ago, there was a thing called Klout, which looked as if it might become a very big thing, but didn’t. It aimed to quantify an individual’s social media influence across various platforms, as a score out of 100, and to offer rewards to those who scored high. Anyone who saw the Black Mirror episode Nosedive, about a dystopian future in which everyone’s worth is determined by the vagaries of likes, will be relieved that Klout is no longer with us.

I wrote a blog post about the app, musing about the fact it judged me to be an expert on some mysterious entity called “#pak”, which turned out to be a reference to two or three tweets concerning the 2011 Cricket World Cup. And there the whole thing would have rested, until I received an email this morning from one Sarah Miller, editor of something called Fitness Volt. The missive is headed “Love your article about back pain! (and a proposal)” and goes on to explain:
My team actually just published a comprehensive article on Lower Back Pain: Common Causes and Prevention For Athletes which I think your visitors would truly appreciate and add value to your awesome article.
It’s not as random as it seems. The title of my original post was “Klout: I get a pain in the back of my neck”, a reference to the profoundly old Cleese/Barker/Corbett class sketch and a reference to the idiotic hierarchies that such apps support. What had happened, presumably, is that Ms Miller conducted a massive search for blog posts including the words “back” and “pain” and hoped that one or two of the authors would be interested in the “added value” she could offer. The funny thing is that her blunderbuss approach made the same error that Klout did, scooping up some random text and trying to squeeze it into the desired meaning hole, even if it didn’t fit. Back pain is the new #pak. She did actually unearth something that could have been useful to her; if only she’d got round to reading it.

Wednesday, May 06, 2020

About VE Day

This coming Friday, we are officially encouraged to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe in the above manner and a number of questions present themselves. Not least is the sense that the current crisis of Covid-19 is, to an extent, being presented in explicitly martial terms, with invocations of the mythical Blitz spirit and the pretty risible notion that our current Prime Minister in some ways embodies the spirit of Churchill.

I guess there are good reasons to pretend that the current crisis has unified the nation, but it’s a pretty fragile unity. Even the Thursday night pot-banging prompts resentment from the left (who argue that increased funding to the NHS would be rather more helpful) and the right (who would far prefer the NHS to be replaced by something shinier and more profit-driven).

And of course the idea that Churchill himself is or was a genuinely unifying force is little more than a comforting myth. Which speech will be played? Not the one where he justified sending troops to quell the Tonypandy miners, nor the one where he described Gandhi as a “malignant subversive fanatic”? No, obviously it will be one of his wartime efforts; so we need to brush aside the fact that his appointment as Prime Minister was far from popular with many appeasers and Nazi sympathisers in Britain, and a couple of months after VE Day itself he was turfed out of office in a Labour landslide. Once you dig down, he is ultimately, like most of us, neither hero nor villain, just a complex mix of aptitudes and frailties. But that looks crap on the posters.

As for ‘We’ll Meet Again’, I’ve never quite bought into the notion – being peddled now as it was during the war – that it’s purely about catching up with your friends and family once the current inconvenience has ended. Surely the lyrics can bear a more melancholy interpretation, implying some sort of reunion in a loosely defined (“don’t know where, don’t know when”) afterlife? I always associate Vera Lynn’s version with the apocalyptic ending of Dr Strangelove; and in any case, my own favourite rendition is this, recorded a year or so before Cash’s death. If the mawkish, ahistorical jingoism gets too overbearing, I’ll just play this loud.

Sunday, May 03, 2020

About the Millennium Bug

Anyone remember the Millennium Bug? The panic was that All The Computers Would Fail, but two decades ago, many of us had only the sketchiest idea of what that would mean. I was maybe a bit ahead of the curve, having worked in the hinterland of IT and multimedia for a bit, but I still didn’t have a mobile phone, or even a personal email address. I wrote cheques, I posted letters. My TV had five channels. All we really knew was that if the bug were really that bad, and all the computers stopped, the aeroplanes would fall from the skies.

Today, computers are the only things that are working, while nine-tenths of meatspace grinds to a halt. And the aeroplanes don’t fall from the skies, because they don’t go there in the first place.

Friday, May 01, 2020

About analogue memes

In a plague-ridden world where physical contact is taboo and We Are All Digital Now, it’s comforting to note that analogue culture is still thriving and even reproducing.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

About Captain Tom

Captain (now Colonel) Tom Moore, who has raised over £30 million for NHS charities is inevitably going to become a contested symbol of the current epidemic. At the moment (it’s his 100th birthday today) he’s all but untouchable, but, splendid as his achievement is, more cynical souls know that things like this don’t just happen without some serious behind-the-scenes lifting from PR and marketing people. But nobody wants to point this out right now, for fear that his (doubtless quite accurate) image as an ordinary old soldier just trying to help out will be damaged.

In an odd way he has much in common with Harry Leslie Smith, the crotchety Corbyn fan who devoted his last years to railing against the evils of austerity and supporting the NHS. But of course Captain Tom has been embraced by mainstream media in a way Harry never could – because that prickliness, of course, was just as much Harry’s brand, and he was just as much a PR confection as Tom.

In Situationist terms, Tom represents a recuperation of the Harry brand, the plucky old soldier who still wants to do his bit – but this time, doesn’t want to ask too many awkward questions.

Monday, April 27, 2020

About guest posts

Just received an email:
I’m reaching out because I wanted to contribute in creating some 🔥 content for Culturals Now.
To be fair, maybe it is time for a rebrand.

Monday, April 20, 2020

About Malevich

I’ve been impressed by the ingenuity of so many people taking up the Getty Museum Challenge and whiling away the lockdown hours by recreating art masterpieces with whatever they have to hand. Behold, my own humble contribution, an attempt at replicating Malevich’s Suprematist Composition: White on White.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

About a dissertation

I finished my MA course last year, and submitted my dissertation in September. It’s been prodded and poked and evaluated and checked for plagiarism and moral turpitude and probably verrucas, but I was waiting until I’d officially graduated to spread the picture on a wider screen. The current pandemic, of which you may have heard, has rather put paid to that, so sod it, here it is.

There are a couple of typos in there, and a few things I wish I’d expressed a little more cogently, but there we are. It’s about 15,000 words, so you should be able to get through it more quickly than you did The Irishman. Take care now.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

About Fran Lebowitz

From The New Yorker, Fran Lebowitz on lockdown:
The only thing that makes this bearable for me, frankly, is at least I’m alone. A couple of people invited me to their houses in the country, houses much more lavish than mine. Some of them have the thing I would love to have, which is a cook, since I don’t know how to cook. And I thought, You know, Fran, you could go away and you could be in a very beautiful place with a cook, but then you’d have to be a good guest. I would much rather stay here and be a bad guest. And, believe me, I am being a bad guest. 
(Thanks, Clair.)

Saturday, April 11, 2020

About conceptual art

This week, I unearthed something that I wrote in 2003. To put it in context, it was an entry for a competition run by the Spectator magazine, seeking essays on the subject of conceptual art. It was shortlisted but didn’t win; as a result I was invited to a pleasant champagne reception at the Speccie offices, where I made the acquaintance of the bizarre and ultimately tragic writer known as Fergus Gwynplaine MacIntyre and, less interestingly, one Boris Johnson.

It’s a bit dated, from the reference to a long departed dog to the casual references to Young British Artists as if they were copper-bottomed celebrities; and some of the observations regarding Magritte, Duchamp et al will seem pretty well-rehearsed, tired even, to anyone who’s spent any time on this blog. And right now, its insistence on seeing art close up, in all its flaky analogue glory, is too poignant. But overall, it’s less embarrassing than I’d have guessed. What do you reckon?

From Troglodytes To Tracey: The Concepts Of Art 

The desktop of the computer upon which I type this essay bears the image of my dog, Bert. Occasionally, in whimsical moments, I pick Bert up, and place him nose-to-nose with his alter canis. Bert, of course, is unimpressed. Dogs do not seem to respond to two-dimensional images, even of themselves. In a similar vein, there is the story of an explorer who transported a Polaroid camera into the heart of Papua New Guinea, where he took photographs of the tribespeople. But when the locals saw their own images, they did not register the connection between themselves and the shiny rectangle. These may be the same tribespeople who regard the Duke of Edinburgh as a manifestation of divinity, but I’m not sure.

Neither the perplexed Papuan nor my dog is stupid. They were, or are, simply unaware of the concept – and I choose the word deliberately – that a combination of coloured marks on a flat surface is meant to represent a moving, breathing, multi-dimensional entity. Representational art is something that we all take for granted, from The Very Hungry Caterpillar to the finest works of Titian and Velazquez and Delacroix and Stubbs. We see a picture of a jolly man in an unfeasible hat, and we say: “That is the Laughing Cavalier”. But, of course, it isn’t. It is some paint on a canvas, intended to convey to us the idea, the concept, of a laughing cavalier.

When Magritte painted the image of a pipe, then wrote underneath “Ceci n’est pas un pipe”, he wasn’t being cute. He was telling the truth. It isn’t a pipe. It’s a picture of a pipe, and the link between the two is something that we have learned.

“All right, already,” you sigh. “Enough of the Gombrich manquĂ©. You’re supposed to be convincing me of the merits of bisected cows, of grimy bedspreads, of Madonnas constructed from elephant dung.” Patience. I’ll be getting into bed with Tracey shortly.

Every so often, A Big Idea shakes the art world. The initial reaction of most people is a dodgem ride between outrage, contempt, incomprehension, and indulgent amusement. The Big Idea might become the norm, but some people continue to hold to those views. So, Picasso and Braque saw that most shapes could be broken down into geometric forms. Today, most people have got the hang of Cubism, but plenty still think it’s infantile doodling. Five centuries before, Brunelleschi noted that big things look smaller when they’re further away. He was instrumental in defining the Renaissance standards of perspective. But that doesn’t stop some people preferring those delightful medieval landscapes and allegories, where everything seems piled on top of everything else.

And why should it? Some of the earliest surviving examples of representational art are the cave paintings of Lascaux, discovered in 1940. In our terms, they are not realistic depictions of men and beasts, but they are close enough for us to see the connection. However, imagine the anonymous daubers of Lascaux being transported 15,000 years or so into their future, and a wee bit north, to the Louvre. Consider what they might make of, say, The Apotheosis of Henry IV and the Proclamation of theRegency of Marie de Medicis on May 14, a characteristically flamboyant everything-but-the-kitchen-sink work by Rubens. Perspective, shadow, the illusion of a third dimension, the rich palette, the classical and religious references, the wobbly chins and bosoms – Messieurs Ugg and Ogg would, one suspects, see it as a meaningless pattern, no more than gaudy wallpaper. They would be as receptive as the Papuan with the Polaroid, as comprehending as my dog. Or they might have the same reaction that the Pope had when Giotto, with an arch-conceptualist masterstroke, communicated his genius to the pontiff by drawing a big, red, plain, but perfect, letter ‘O’.

It was a similar sense of confusion that posessed the aesthetic arbiters of the Paris Salon in 1863, when they refused to exhibit works by Edouard Manet. It was not just the impropriety of a female nude in the company of males in contemporary dress (Le DĂ©jeuner sur l’herbe) that befuddled them. It was the combination of blotches and flecks, the almost mask-like countenances of the subjects – damn it, it was simply a bad painting. And yet, less than 150 years on, Manet and Monet and Renoir are ubiquitous on posters and tea-towels, almost to the point of tedium. We have learned them. We have grasped the concept.

“OK, you smartarse sophist. So all art is conceptual. So far, so glib. But you know the stuff I’m talking about. Chaps from Goldsmiths who roll their own cigs. Lights going on and off. Surely you can see they’re different from Renoir and Monet? Splodgy Parisiennes with cherry lips, and nice bunches of flowers, I can hang them in my living room. I wouldn’t put that head made of frozen blood in my lavatory.” Talking of which… If that whole Goldsmiths/Saatchi/Jopling/Turner Prize/Tate Modern posse has a single starting point, it is Marcel Duchamp’s exhibition of a pseudonymously signed urinal, in New York in 1917. “It was the idea that mattered,” Duchamp said later, and he expressed his disdain for the precedence of execution over concept by knocking up so many copies of his definitive works, that, in some cases, nobody knows where the original is. Duchamp’s rejection of “artistry”, his reaction against what the critic Robert Lebel called “the senseless glorification of the hand” succeeded in the sense that it annoyed people. As part of that mighty rush of bourgeoisie-baiting that included Stravinsky, Pound and the Dadaists, his work is a crucial emblem of the 20th-century aesthetic credo, where cosy popularity equates to second-rate mediocrity.

But the Great Conceptualist, and his little tadpoles, the Hirsts, Quinns, Emins, Chapmans, Turks, Muecks, Wallingers, have not managed to kill art. Maybe accidentally, they did it a great service. You may well not want Quinn’s head, or the grotesque mannequins of Jake and Dinos, or Tracey’s absent Christmas tree, above the telly. But you might not want a life-size replica of the Sistine Chapel either. The “glorification of the hand” that Duchamp so hated, combined with the cheapness and accessibility of modern printing and other reproductive technologies, has rendered many fine paintings into clichĂ©s. By the time I saw my first real Dali, in New York’s Museum Of Modern Art, its ubiquity on the walls of moderately intense teenagers created an inevitable sense of anticlimax.

With the shark, and the bed, and the sheep, and the tent, however, we knew that a reproduction could never do justice to the original. We can only appreciate the grisly impact of Marcus Harvey’s Myra Hindley portrait when we see the thousands of tiny hand prints that form it. We only shudder at Ron Mueck’s sculpture when we almost trip over it. Jake and Dinos Chapman’s fantastical rendering of the Holocaust only makes sense when we walk around, blending into the crowds of mutant Nazis and staggering skeletons. Duchamp’s urinal only makes sense because of its setting – it shocks simply by being in a gallery. And so we go to galleries. In our hundreds of thousands. Now, it would be foolish to argue that only conceptual art can pull in the punters. Monet was so popular that the Royal Academy turned into a 24-hour waterlily fun palace. But I would contend that it was Sensation, at the same venue a couple of years before, that made going to art galleries an essential activity. If people cannot sate their aesthetic appetites on calendars, postcards and novelty erasers, they’ll just have to flippin’ well enter the belly of the aesthetic beast. They’ll have to get into the habit of looking at art. 

Conceptual art is not always pleasant, or easy on the eye. Neither is the work of Bosch or Goya or GĂ©ricault. Conceptualists can be tiresome. I doubt if Michelangelo was always fun to wake up to. If sheer niceness were a condition of artistic worth, we would have forgotten Swift and Waugh, and the latest Mills and Boon would win the Booker Prize. But there is another reason that lovers of Giotto or Rubens or Manet should at least look kindly (if not fondly) on the conceptualists. Lovers of Proust are sniffy about Harry Potter. But the myopic warlock gets the X-Box generation reading books for pleasure. Which, surely, is a good thing? By being loud and media-savvy and ugly and iconoclastic and rich, the children of Duchamp – Marcel’s new wave – are dragging people into looking at, arguing about, loving, hating, doing art. All art. From the Lascaux cave paintings, via Giotto or Rubens or Manet, to… well, whatever comes next.

Which, surely, is also a good thing?

Thursday, April 09, 2020

About Elvis Costello

I’ve probably told this tale 20 times, but I did a phone interview with Elvis Costello once. I was expecting – indeed, deep down, hoping for – spleen, invective, bitterness, all the stuff that characterised his public persona, but he was charm personified, relaxed, modest and polite. He even apologised for being five minutes late. The bastard.

I thought of that just now when I found another interview with EC, from a few years before mine, in which he says something that seems to sum up his attitude particularly (and mine, to an extent):
I don’t think that I’m particularly awkward. It just seems to me that everybody else is awkward.