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.