Sunday, October 24, 2021

About offence

Yesterday afternoon, two things occurred that got me thinking back to my Religious Studies O-level. On Radio 4’s Any Answers programme, the subject under discussion was the Assisted Dying bill currently in the House of Lords, and a woman called in to describe the last, horrible, cancer-ridden days of her mother. It was a grim but entirely necessary lesson, even as she relived the end-stage faecal vomiting; but it was her utterance of the dread word “shit” that prompted Anita Anand to apologise to listeners for any offence caused.

No blame lies with Anand, who was just following Corporation guidelines. My issue is with the people who make those guidelines necessary, who are more agitated by a slang term for bodily wastes than hearing about an old woman’s pain and humiliation, something that might have been relieved had more enlightened legislation been in place.

Minutes later, at the Crystal Palace-Newcastle match, fans of the south London club wielded a banner detailing the moral failings of the Saudi Arabian government, the effective owners of the visiting team. And inevitably the police response was to deal with the “offensive” material.

Motes and beams, anyone?

Thursday, October 21, 2021

About The Modern Review

I bloody loved The Modern Review. Its glory days coincided with my first few years living in London and as such it defines the early 90s for me more than fax machines, shoegaze or Amanda de Cadenet. Having gone through three years of the English literary canon, the idea of applying chin-stroking critical techniques to the guttersnipes of pop culture felt deliciously transgressive. And, yes, I miss it (although maybe there’s a distinct element of still being the right side of 30 that I miss) and on more than one occasion, I’ve yearned for its return, despite the subsequent political missteps of its co-creators, Julie Burchill and Toby Young.

Be so, so careful what you wish for. Burchill crashed and burned in 1997 with a glossy reboot that lasted a mere five issues; and now Young, who has in the intervening decades recast himself as a champion of free schools and lockdown scepticism, is having a crack at it, promising something rather more serious. Ms Burchill, always skilled at repurposing sour grapes as a conscious career move, claims to be pretty happy with that state of affairs. 

Will I buy a copy? Oh, probably. Will I be disappointed? Certainly. But just as the original version reflected my own faith in words and art and subversion back at me, the new one will do the same with my middle-aged dyspepsia. It will be just the magazine we deserve.

Monday, October 18, 2021

About Squid Game


I’m only three episodes into the current Netflix sensation Squid Game and so far I’m not exactly underwhelmed, but the whelm levels are definitely less than I might have expected from the hype. It has elements of things I have enjoyed (the Japanese book and film Battle Royale; the Korean film Parasite; the British TV show The Prisoner) without quite reaching those heights. But I’ll stick it out.

And, while it’s all pretty visceral, I don’t think I’ll be throwing my weight behind Central Bedfordshire Council, which is warning parents not to let their school-age children watch it, because they (the kids, not the parents) are re-enacting the games at the heart of the narrative, replacing the sanction of shooting for the losers which a good old-fashioned beating-up. For a start, it operates on the basis that parents are even capable of preventing their kids from watching telly; moreover, very few of them are watching the show itself, being more likely to watch reenactments of the juicy bits on Tik Tok and similar platforms.

Moreover, in a strange way, what the kids are doing (or are rumoured to be doing) is rather admirable. The producers of the show have appropriated playground games like Grandmother’s Footsteps and imbued them with a glossy, hyperviolent sheen; the kids are just recuperating a chunk of their own culture, and taken it back to its tarmac roots.

That said, I really want the tracksuit.

PS: I’ve now stuck it out to the end. Without prompting too many spoiler klaxons, it’s the marbles episode that takes the show into the realms of greatness; and I’d add Kubrick and maybe Buñuel to the influence list.


Monday, October 11, 2021

About Brain of Britain, yet again

Another fleeting appearance on the best quiz show on the wireless. 3pm today, repeated on Saturday night (both on Radio 4), Sounds for a month or so thereafter.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

About the BBC

I’m quietly impressed by the way that modern conservatives manage to reconcile the sort of contradictory realities that would send wiser, more reflective individuals into an intellectual death spiral. For example, they’re quite capable of trumpeting their support for what they define as traditional family values, while at same time aligning themselves with insatiable shaggers like Trump and Johnson.

Their attitudes to culture are similarly, shamelessly incoherent. A conservative, one would assume, appreciates the canon, all that tradition holds to be best in literature, music, art and so on; not least because such works provide us with a link to the past, to the history of our own civilisation. At the same time, though, most conservatives are in thrall to market forces; logic dictates that what sells is by definition right. The recent appointment to the role of Culture Secretary of the preposterous Nadine Dorries, with her visceral suspicion of anything “elitist”, embodies this trend. And, of course, modern conservatives really, really hate the BBC.

In the Telegraph, Ben Lawrence dares to tackle the cognitive dissonance head-on, arguing that what is popular (Strictly Come Dancing, for example) is not necessarily good and that the Beeb must justify its special status by daring to be on the side of the elites. 

You could argue that, in its old-fashioned Reithian approach, the BBC did always patronise its viewers. However, I think there is a crucial difference in the way we used to be talked down to. Indeed, doesn’t a bit of pedagogic paternalism now seem rather refreshing? ... It sort of goes like this: fearing that it may lack working-class cred, the Corporation is now giving the public what they think the people want, and perhaps in the case of Vigil they have got it right. But otherwise, it feels like the equivalent of Sir John Gielgud donning a flat cap and trying to speak with a Cockney accent (actually, I am sure Gielgud’s accent would have been flawless, but you know what I mean). In other words, it is shrinking people’s horizons … And who is to say that a binman might not want to watch a profile of Stockhausen?

At least it’s a coherent, considered view. But then the bloody readers – few of whom, I suspect, would watch a Stockhausen doc either – go and spoil it with the usual gammony whines about lefties and the licence fee. And Nadine Dorries breathes a sigh of relief.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

About Jens Haaning

I’m quietly impressed by the Danish artist Jens Haaning, who was commissioned to reproduce one of his old works, but delivered a pair of empty frames, claiming that his failure to deliver on the contract was the art. Were I in charge of the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art in Aalborg, which spent half a million kroner on said work, I might not be so enamoured.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

About iconoclasts

“Iconic” is on my list of words to avoid, because it’s been abused to the point of meaninglessness, but it might still be usefully applied in a few select cases. And in that spirit, following on from a chat elsewhere about Julie Burchill (although it might equally apply to John Lydon, Guy Debord, Oscar Wilde, or anyone else who appears in the index to Lipstick Traces), what happens to iconic iconoclasts? Do they inevitably self-destruct?

Thursday, September 16, 2021

About Nadine Dorries

There’s so much to unpack regarding the new Culture Secretary and I know it’s very lazy just to post endless tweets but I’m quite busy at the moment and this sums up the neo-liberal attitude to everything that matters better than anything I could write. Something more considered at the weekend, maybe.