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’Odéon: 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 manqué. 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 Déjeuner 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 clichés. 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 Géricault. 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.

Friday, April 03, 2020

About coronavirus

2016 was the last year that seemed to be characterised by lots of famous people dying and now as then the relative significance given to one dead celeb over another speaks volumes, dragging into its orbit issues of taste and class and the dreaded canon. Who, ultimately, matters more, the bass player of Fountains of Wayne or the fat one from Little and Large?

And if you don’t think there’s anything worse than death...

Friday, March 27, 2020

About Bob Dylan

Twas a dark day in Dallas, November ’63 
A day that will live on in infamy 
President Kennedy was a-ridin’ high
Good day to be livin’ and a good day to die 
Being led to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb 
He said, “Wait a minute, boys, you know who I am?” 
“Of course we do. We know who you are.” 
Then they blew off his head while he was still in the car. 
—Bob Dylan's new song, his first in eight years, ‘Murder Most Foul

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay! 
Alas! I am very sorry to say 
That ninety lives have been taken away 
On the last Sabbath day of 1879, 
Which will be remember’d for a very long time. 
—William McGonagall’s old poem, ‘The Tay Bridge Disaster’

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

About reading

Wondering whether the world will die first of a virus or claustrophobia, I suddenly have time to read and plot the end of society. Where should I start?

Sunday, March 15, 2020

About The Decameron

The latest tranche of Dickon Edwards’s online diary brings us up to date with Covid-19 and mentions The Decameron, Boccaccio’s collection of tales purportedly told by a group of people holed up in a villa to avoid the plague in 14th-century Florence – a reminder that social distancing has a long and noble heritage.

I remember flicking through my mother’s Everyman edition, in which parts of the naughtiest tale – that of Alibech and monk Rustico – were left in the original language, which I always felt was a particularly half-arsed flavour of censorship, suggesting that we are all potentially corruptible, with the exception of those who have taken the trouble to learn medieval Italian.

About chapter headings

The greatest ever. From Greil Marcus’s In The Fascist Bathroom.

Sunday, March 08, 2020

About a plague

Tuesday, March 03, 2020

About k-punk

Cultural Snow staggered into life in 2005 and once I’d got my head round how to link and comment and all that jiggery-pokery, I actually became part of a little community, some members of which I actually met in what passes for real life (or meatspace as I still like to call it, although that seems to baffle anyone under 40). Of course, we were a mere fragment of what was called the blogosphere and despite the medium’s aspirations to inclusivity and democracy, there was clearly a hierarchy at play. But in those halcyon days, it wasn’t just down to follower numbers or clicks or eyeballs. A blog such as k-punk, the online home of the late Mark Fisher, certainly had more followers than I did, but that wasn’t the important bit; it was the sort of blog that changed minds, changed lives, that would continue to prompt this sort of discussion (in the Sydney Review of Books: Part One/Part Two) years after its creator had stopped posting. Key take-out quote: “If, reading it, you have the feeling of being plunged into a conversation that began some time ago, and might carry on for ages yet — well, that’s what the blogs were about.”

The old gang has mostly dispersed, their blogs shut down or at least mothballed. And yet I still bugger on, blogging about blogging about blogging, a digital ouroboros, almost too scared to put this thing out of its misery.

Sunday, March 01, 2020

About tsundoku

I love the Japanese word tsundoku, the practice of buying books and never actually reading them, the most profound retort to bloody Marie Kondo. And now the legendary journalist Jan Morris prompts the question, appropriate for St David’s day: what’s the Welsh for tsundoku?
“People always say: ‘Have you read them all?’” she says. “No. but I have an emotional attachment to them all. I pick an old book out and if it is interesting I read a few pages. I put letters and photographs and cards in them to find later.”

Friday, February 28, 2020

About a joke

OK, it’s not the best joke in the world, and probably not the newest, but it made me laugh on a grey, wet morning. Anyway...
Q: Darth Vader goes into a boulangerie. What does he order?
I did warn you. But it’s an interesting joke to me because it ties in with my interest in the cultural canon, the idea of the knowledge you’re expected to have, the references you’re supposed to get. Like a lot of gags, it works as a sort of cultural Venn diagram, the intersection between People Who Know Star Wars and People Who Speak A Bit Of French And/Or Enjoy French Baked Goods. And I’m really not sure how many people occupy that space.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

About politicians

I’m uneasy about the simplistic, knee-jerk idea that all politicians without exception are evil and corrupt, because of the even greater wrongness that can and does poke its head through the cracks when we lose our respect for the political process. That said, this is good.

Friday, February 21, 2020

About Trump and Parasite

Donald Trump’s comments about Parasite winning the Oscar for Best Picture have done what they were meant to do – energise his base and annoy his non-base. The film has all the necessary attributes to make it a hate object for the president, being cast entirely with people not lucky enough to be white Americans, and it’s subtitled, which requires reading and concentration. His ignorance is genuine, but it’s also performative and weaponised. This is not just about people who don’t watch foreign films with subtitles, which doubtless covers most Americans; it’s about those who react to such films with an instinctive fear and loathing, as if they represent all that is wrong with the world. People who do enjoy them are weird, dangerous, the other.

And if Trump had actually bothered to watch the film, he’d have discovered that it’s about the perils of an unequal society, especially because it pokes fun at rich people who, like Trump himself, barely manage to conceal the visceral loathing they feel for the poor people without whom they would be unable to function. He compared it unfavourably with Gone With The Wind, which he obviously hasn’t seen either, because it’s too long and isn’t about him, or porn, but he does know that it’s reassuringly racist and sexist and was directed by the enthusiastically pro-Nazi Victor Fleming, so it must be OK.

The paradox of Trump when it comes to matters of culture is that, despite his feeble attempts to pass himself off as a man of the people, he was born into enormous wealth, and enjoyed an eye-waveringly expensive education; an education, however, that seems to have passed straight through him like cultural Olestra, never touching the sides and leaving nothing but a greasy residue.

PS: Maureen Dowd in the New York Times.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

About soaps

An article with the hook of two big TV soap operas having significant birthdays this year provides a window on the extent to which fandom and the act of viewing have become primarily performative acts:
“I watch EastEnders, Emmerdale and Hollyoaks but Corrie is the one I have to watch live,” Moran says. “I have to be alone and in silence so I can tweet reactions to my followers. Then I rewatch each episode so I can properly follow the story.”

Sunday, February 16, 2020

About Caroline Flack

Following the death of TV presenter Caroline Flack, fingers are pointing not just at the court system that was preparing to prosecute her for assault (even if the alleged victim argued against it), but also at Love Island, the TV show she presented, as well as the tabloid press that reported on her antics in such a prurient, intrusive way. And of course, to the keyboard vigilantes of social media who added to the pressure.

I know little of Ms Flack’s life and work, beyond the fact that, obviously, I’m very sorry she’s dead. But I will say that, while I hope a few TV and press executives might take the opportunity to stare into the dark recesses of their souls, none of this would have happened if millions of people, ordinary, apparently decent people, with lives and jobs, family and friends, didn’t lap at the foetid trough. If you don’t watch and read this vacuous crap, they won’t produce it and maybe, just maybe, the horrible events playing out now wouldn’t have happened.

So, faced with a media landscape where the raw power of money and market forces seems to be pretty much the only language spoken, the government decides once again to kick the BBC, one of the few places where eyeballs aren’t the only consideration. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

About Cruel World

Under normal circumstances, reports that a whole load of my teenaged self’s idols would be playing together in May would have me at least casually scoping flights to LAX but after about 20 seconds I remembered that most of the names on the bill would turn out to be wizened, excavated shells of their original selves, and I’d be surrounded by a whole load of other people who used to have interesting hair and nice cheekbones and we’d all be in mortal dread of Morrissey saying one of those Morrissey things and to be honest I don’t think my knees are up to it any more and oh God this means I’ve finally grown up doesn’t it?

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

About subtitles

Following on from the previous post: if stupidity is going to be lauded and weaponised, there will inevitably be overt hostility towards any manifestation of knowledge or learning. I just happened across a radio report about how few showings there are of subtitled films for deaf and hard-of-hearing  cinema-goers; a representative of the cinema trade body said that if (hearing, presumably) people go into one of these showings by mistake, they often demand their money back. Let’s be clear, these aren’t foreign language films with subtitles; they’re your standard cineplex blockbusters, Disney, Marvel, whatever, that just happen to have a thin strip across the bottom with text representing the dialogue. You don’t need to read it if you can hear the soundtrack. But the very presence of stuff that *can* be read is apparently enough to ruin some people’s enjoyment.

PS: As Bong Joon-ho, the director of Parasite, says: “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

PPS: Sandra Garcia in the New York Times: “For people who dislike subtitles, common complaints have been that they distract from the action onscreen, are hard to focus on, or that reading them can feel like work if a plot is complicated.”

Saturday, January 25, 2020

About stupidity

James Melville on where we are now:
Anti-intellectualism has become the new political populism and politics has become a culture war against insight and knowledge. Idiocracy has become normalised. We now appear to be at a point in our society where we simply lack the political critical thinking to call out the falsehoods. We appear to be learning facts about what doesn’t matter, but not how to think about what really matters.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

About Rebecca and Nicky Haslam

The dissertation I birthed last year (it scraped a distinction, by the way) was about the assumptions regarding knowledge we all make when communicating, and how we justify them. Essentially, what do we feel able to leave out? If we refer to, say, Ophelia, do we explain that she’s a character in Hamlet? Then, do we explain that Hamlet is a play by Shakespeare? Do we explain who Shakespeare was? If not, why not?

And inevitably, I keep coming across bits and pieces that would have made good raw material for my thesis. In Richard Davenport-Hines’s An English Affair, about the Profumo scandal, we get the following sentence:
Bronwen Astor felt as disempowered by Cliveden’s traditions and staff as Maxim de Winter’s second wife in Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca, after moving into his great house Manderley.
Now, I would have thought that the general gist of Rebecca was pretty well known, even to those who’ve never read the book, from film and TV adaptations and just general conversation; especially among people who might choose to read a book of English social history about the early 1960s. Surely something along the lines of “Bronwen Astor felt as disempowered by Cliveden’s traditions and staff as Maxim de Winter’s second wife, after moving into Manderley.” would have sufficed?

Except that, only a few lines later, Davenport-Hines writes, “Nicky Haslam, who had been Bronwen Pugh’s walker...” and I had no idea what that meant, whether it was some arcane role in the fashion world, or a euphemism, couldn’t find it on Google, and had to go to Twitter to see if anyone could help. It turns out it means his job was to accompany her to social functions; and we can infer that the reader being addressed is one who knows this, but nothing about one of the most famous novels of the past 100 years.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

About David Olney

I’m afraid I’d not heard of the musician David Olney until I read of his death; but if there must be death, let it be like his, every time. According to a friend:
Olney was in the middle of his third song when he stopped, apologized, and shut his eyes. He was very still, sitting upright with his guitar on, wearing the coolest hat and a beautiful rust suede jacket...

Sunday, January 12, 2020

About Kenny G and a hole in the wall

Two things, loosely linked by ideas of taste and classification, if nothing else. First, in Jacobin, John Halle argues that we should stop being snotty about Kenny G, not because he’s actually any good, but because critical distinctions between goodness and badness are essentially elitist and potentially obstruct “our goal of developing a social base for a mass left politics”. It’s a more succinct and more overtly political riff on Carl Wilson’s musings about Celine Dion; and it also has a significant bearing on class politics in the UK, US and elsewhere – at what point must we stop telling people they’re wrong about Brexit or Trump or funny-haired saxophonists, before they vote us into oblivion, or worse? However, taken to its logical conclusion, Halle’s argument would proscribe all informed, critical evaluation and discrimination, whether by critics or artists or anyone, leaving any success or failure of an artist in the hands of the consumer, thus handing the whole process over to the workings of the market; hardly a victory for the left, I would have thought.

And, in New Zealand, the bar where the inchoate rage of one of its patrons was transformed into political art (or artistic politics), simply by putting a frame around the resulting damage.

PS: Just remembered, I’ve touched on this sort of thing before – without ever losing hold of the fact that Kenny G’s music is truly dreadful, obviously.

Saturday, January 04, 2020

About quotations

I was intending to say terribly clever things here over the past few weeks, but mundane things, as ever, happened in what we used to call meatspace, so think of this as a place holder. These are collected from the “Favourite Quotations” slot on my Facebook account, which is probably intended to contain something earnest and Hallmarky, but bollocks to that, frankly.

“To look upon writing as a regular profession should by rights be considered a kind of madness.” Friedrich Nietzsche

“I don’t care what is written about me so long as it isn’t true.” Dorothy Parker

“Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” Gustave Flaubert

“Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who have found it.” André Gide

“Straining towards art is confusing and useless.” Mike Nichols

“Always read stuff that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.” PJ O’Rourke

“The young know this. Their anxiety as they enter in upon social life matches the anguish of the old as they are excluded from it.” Simone de Beauvoir

“Remembering names is one of the great American achievements. I still don’t know how Americans do it, or, indeed, why.” Alexander Chancellor

“Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.” Napoleon Bonaparte

“Is it better to endure bad art for the spotless ideology it promotes, or to continue to swoon before sublime art made by awful people?” Ian Penman

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” Flannery O’Connor

“I don’t know if God exists, but it would be better for His reputation if He didn’t.” Jules Renard.

“Of all the noises known to man, opera is the most expensive.” Molière

“If I believe in anything, it is doubt. The root cause of all life’s problems is looking for a simple fucking answer.” Anthony Bourdain

“I drank because I wanted to drown my sorrows but now the damned things have learned how to swim.” Frida Kahlo

“We lend enchantment to vulgar material.” Guillaume Apollinaire

“Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.” Oscar Wilde

“Accessibility means nothing more than being comprehensible to morons.” Jonathan Meades

“As we journey through life, discarding baggage along the way, we should keep an iron grip, to the very end, on the capacity for silliness, It preserves the soul from desiccation.” Humphrey Lyttelton

“I feel like if you have a female comic character and then you see her nipples, then she is no longer funny.” Isla Fisher

“Any view of things that is not strange is false.” Paul Valéry

“Prolonged, indiscriminate reviewing of books is a quite exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting job. It not only involves praising trash but constantly inventing reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feeling whatever.” George Orwell

“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” Thomas Mann

“Good taste is better than bad taste, but bad taste is better than no taste.” Arnold Bennett

“A world with uncriticised art gets the art it deserves.” Simon Price

“If I wanted you to understand it, I would have explained it better.” Johan Cruyff

“There are some parts of London that are necessary and others which are contingent.” Iris Murdoch

“A footman may swear; but he cannot swear like a lord. He can swear as often: but can he swear with equal delicacy, propriety, and judgment?’” Jonathan Swift

“I’m losing my edge to the art-school Brooklynites in little jackets and borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered Eighties.” LCD Soundsystem

“You hear all this whining going on, ‘Where are our great writers?’ The thing I might feel doleful about is: ‘Where are the readers?’” Gore Vidal

“Half the joy of statues is touching the bosoms and the bottoms.” Jane Birkin

“We are here to make limbo tolerable.” Walter Kirn

“Only what is seen sideways sinks deep.” EM Forster

“Fame is a by-product of doing something else. You don't go to a restaurant and order a meal because you want to have a shit.” Banksy

“I’ve always considered writing the most hateful kind of work. I suspect it’s a bit like fucking, which is only fun for amateurs. Old whores don’t do much giggling.” Hunter S Thompson

“And all the stars that never were are parking cars and pumping gas...” Hal David

“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” Philip K Dick

“Real hell is there in the office; I no longer fear any other.” Franz Kafka

“I have long felt that any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armour and attacked a hot fudge sundae.” Kurt Vonnegut

“If you were to mention to grown-ups: ‘I’ve seen a beautiful house built with pink bricks, with geraniums on the windowsills and doves on the roof....’ they would not be able to imagine such a house. You would have to say to them: ‘I saw a house worth a hundred thousand pounds.’ Then they would exclaim: ‘Oh! How lovely.’” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

“As their telescopes and microscopes, their tapes and radios become more sensitive, individuals become blinder, more hard of hearing, less responsive, and society more opaque, hopeless, its misdeeds (those just committed and those that threaten) larger, more superhuman than ever before.” Max Horkheimer

“I shall never be ashamed of citing a bad author if the line is good.” Lucius Annaeus Seneca

“The man thought he seemed some sad and solitary changeling child announcing the arrival of a traveling spectacle in shire and village who does not know that behind him the players have all been carried off by wolves.” Cormac McCarthy

“I guess I just prefer to see the dark side of things. The glass is always half empty. And cracked. And I just cut my lip on it. And chipped a tooth.” Janeane Garofalo

“Some people – and I am one of them – hate happy ends. We feel cheated. Harm is the norm. Doom should not jam. The avalanche stopping in its tracks a few feet above the cowering village behaves not only unnaturally but unethically.” Vladimir Nabokov

“The topic of the younger generation spread through the company like a yawn.” Evelyn Waugh

“The people who must never have power are the humourless.” Christopher Hitchens

“Give me rampant intellectualism as a coping mechanism.” Chuck Palahniuk

“Revolutions are celebrated when they are no longer dangerous.” Pierre Boulez

“I refer to 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 its almost imbecilic reiterations and sly, lewd – in fact, plain dirty – lyrics make it the martial music of every sideburned delinquent on the face of the earth. This rancid-smelling aphrodisiac I deplore.” Frank Sinatra

“The only reason for being a professional writer is that you can’t help it.” Leo Rosten

“If you want to get rich from writing, write the sort of thing that's read by persons who move their lips when they're reading.” Don Marquis

“I have a huge editor in my head who’s always making me miserable.” David Chase

“Surrender your women and intellectuals!” Commander Strax

“But you could not have a green rose. But perhaps somewhere in the world you could.” James Joyce

“We were all pulling in the same direction. We may have been dragging each other off a cliff, but we were all definitely going in the same direction.” Sterling Morrison on The Velvet Underground

“Fuck the average viewer.” David Simon

“I only hit the keys; after that, they’re on their own.” Bill Kerr, Hancock’s Half Hour

“Besides, it’s always other people who die.” Inscribed on Marcel Duchamp's tombstone

“Net-loafing twazmuppet.” Fat Roland