Sunday, December 31, 2006

Minotaurs and metaphors

Something occurred to me recently that's probably occurred to millions of people over the last decade and a half, but I'll bore you with it anyway, like someone who's just discovered Tarantino or olives or spanking, and wants to sing their praises in that constricted corridor of opportunity between Zeitgeist and retro.

The Net and the Web both take their names from similar structures (in Dr Johnson's words, a "reticulated, decussated fabric with interstices at intersections"). Fair enough. But the energy-efficient lightbulb that sputtered to life above my scalp heralded another metaphorical connection. Nets and webs are united not just in form, but in function. They trap; they ensnare; they imprison.

What kickstarted this thought process was reading Victor Pelevin's The Helmet of Horror (Canongate), which reworks the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur through the medium of an online conversation. So far, so Web 2.0/dead tree interface, and we've been here several times before, most recently with the Japanese Train Man phenomenon. Oh look, someone's updated the epistolary novel for a new level of technology. Again. But Pelevin adds some neat twists of his own: the 'characters' don't know where they are, or how they came to be there; they just about know who they are, but any attempt to communicate their identities to their fellow prisoners is ruthlessly ****-ed out by invisible censors. They don't even choose their own log-in names. Gradually, as they swap snippets of various half-recalled and revealed myths, they realise that they're in some kind of Labyrinth, described thus:

"Some accounts say it was a beautiful place with lots of corridors and rooms, according to others it was a foul-smelling cave with numerous branches plunged into eternal darkness. Or it could be that different cultures had different impressions of the same place."

Which sounds like the Babelbabble that accompanies any analysis of the Web, the true believers always balanced out by the tabloid scare stories written by people who've watched one AOL commercial too many. The site they're all accessing is based on the design of a certain British newspaper's Web presence, a fact that brings together notions of digital and religious control: "Our Guardian really is unlimited."

The author throws multiple literary references into the bubbling pot, from Pirandello-style metafiction (a character called Romeo is encouraged to "take a pump-action shotgun and go looking for your Shakespeare") to that old sci-fi standby, the virtual reality helmet, which here becomes inextricably linked to the headgear in which Theseus tracks down the Minotaur, and leads to a neat little diversion on the notions (illusions?) of choice and interactivity that underpin Web 2.0:

Well, imagine you decide for yourself who's going to shoot who when you're watching an action movie. If you decide the main hero gets killed in the first shootout, then what happens to the rest of the plot? If you had genuinely free choice, the results could be pretty miserable. But art is supposed to make us happy, not miserable.

That's for sure. And even when it does makes us miserable, we should feel happy in our misery.

That's right! So there never is any genuine interactivity, only the appearance of it. Or rather, it is permitted, but only within a narrow range where no choice you make can change the fundamental situation. The main problem is to eliminate freedom of choice so that the subject is led unerringly to make the decision required, while at the same time maintaining his firm belief that his choice is free."

It's this engagement that makes The Helmet of Horror my book of the year. I thought it might be Douglas Coupland's JPod, which is very funny, but despite its geeky textures, isn't actually about online existence. It's really about dysfunctional families and studied irony, which is to say, it's about Douglas Coupland. The inmates of Pelevin's mazy mind are good with the one-liners, but they don't really have time to conjure up stuff like "Mom, Kam Fong's head of a Chinese people-smuggling syndicate. He doesn't have time to be Dad's secret gay lover." Instead, they unite against the unseen enemy, joining a protective chorus of half-understood Latin and wailing, wordless vocalese, as primal and universal as Joyce's "Introibo ad altare Dei" and Eliot's "Wallala leilala". Post-post-modernism does a backflip and splashes down in the primitive myths that bubbled under the surface of Modernism. Despite the hype, nothing is truly new.

Pelevin's ideas force me to ponder this quasi-reality that we've built up in the last few years. The otaku who inhabit the universe of Train Man stick to online existence because only there do they feel safe; but we know that, shrouded in anonymity, plenty of people delight in making the virtual world an unpleasant or even threatening place. Pelevin creates a universe that out-Sartres Sartre: not only is Hell other people, but you can't see the other people, don't know their names, don't even know if they exist. And this isn't just an online phenomenon. You might be the Person of the Year, but when was the last time that You, for example, managed more than an embarrassed nod of greeting to your next-door neighbour (who is also You)?

Since I've been indulging in Cultural Snow, I've encountered some of the funniest, wisest people I've ever known. I say 'encountered' and 'known', although I've only met a handful of them in what still remains the real world, and one of my resolutions for 2007 (along with shedding the weight I put on while writing the Radiohead book) has to be to add to that number. Pelevin describes the online experience as being "like Pavlov's bitch gazing into Tarkovsky's mirror". The blogosphere is, indeed, a hall of mirrors, and quite a few of them are broken. It's fun, but it's not the whole story. The cable damage caused by Tuesday's earthquake in Taiwan has reminded a few people round these parts of what the analogue world looks like. I think what I'm really saying is that I should get out more.

So, as James Woods so elegantly put it, "Death to Videodrome! Long live the New Flesh!" I hope that you, and all those close to you, and even the commenter on CiF who accused me of being "slick, smarmy, devious, cowardly", have a fleshy and happy and healthy and peaceful and mostly Minotaur-free new year.

The Chasms of the Earth: Opens Tomorrow

Thursday, December 28, 2006


In an interview in The Observer, the art critic Robert Hughes defines and justifies his elitism thus: "I prefer the good to the bad, the articulate to the mumbling, the aesthetically developed to the merely primitive, and full to partial consciousness."

Which sounds pretty convincing, until you realise that he's probably never enjoyed that sinus-clearing rush you get from dancing badly to some gloriously stupid punk record. There is a place for creative stupidity in the aesthetic universe. But how do we define it? Are some stupidities (the Ramones?) better than others (Crazy Frog?) and, if so, why?

And while we're on the subject of pop music that Australian art critics in their late 60s probably wouldn't like: shortly before Christmas, at a party thrown by my dear friends Bui and Simon, I met a very smart and articulate young man who'd just that day graduated from USC. We got talking about music (duh) and he confirmed something that I'd suspected for some time.

"I've never heard any Joy Division," he said, "but I hear all these bands that apparently sound like them, so I think I know what they sound like."

If anybody, despite my incessant, tedious harangues, still hasn't got the hang of Baudrillard's notion of the simulacrum, that's a pretty cogent example of it.

Coming Soon: The Chasms of the Earth

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Blogging Brown

Many of you will have seen blogs that aim to guide their readers through the less penetrable paths of literature: the Bible; Ulysses; the new Pynchon. These sites vary in their approach, but they are united in a core idea; that these books are in some way important, and worthy of consideration, but they can be pretty tough going. Readers want to read them, but need a fairly intensive level of encouragement. So the blogger takes them through, one page or chapter or section at a time. It's like a micromanaged reading group, I suppose. Or an interactive Coles Notes.

My project for 2007 is slightly different, considerably lazier, but (I hope) interesting in its own way. I want to take my readers by the hand and lead them through a work that is by no means difficult or challenging. On the other hand, it has not only sold shedloads of copies, but has captured the imaginations of thousands of people, forcing them to look anew at religion, history, art, even their holiday plans. At the same time, the conventional critical wisdom is that the book itself is a ludicrous concoction of discredited conspiracy theories, held together with cardboard characters and subliterate prose that makes John Grisham read like Nabokov.

I speak, of course, of The Da Vinci Code. Now, it's already had dozens of books written about it, and plenty of blogs, too. But these tend to focus on the subject matter; whether from the perspective of amateur symbologists and conspiracy nuts who think the book contains some long-repressed truth; or concerned Christians who see it as an equally dangerous lie, and want to pick it all apart.

Of course, I'll deal with some of that. But I'm a writer. I do words. They're my babies. And I want to find out why a book that (by conventional critical standards at least) is so egregiously badly written, is so successful. Does it succeed because of the bad writing, or in spite of it? Indeed, do those standards, maintained in an unspoken pact between Eng Lit departments and broadsheet book reviewers, actually hold water any more?

Anyway, that's the plan. I'm looking to kick off at The Chasms of the Earth on January 1, and proceed at a pace of roughly one chapter a day, which shouldn't be too taxing for anyone. If you'd like to join me for this journey into mediocrity, all you need is a copy of The Da Vinci Code (available at all good charity shops) and the passion for a decent literary scrap. I'm especially looking for people who enjoyed the book, and are willing to defend it. Remember, the end purpose of this isn't to decide whether or not Jesus was married to his mother, or Leonardo was a lesbian Scientologist, or even that the Pope shits in the woods. It's to crack the biggest mystery of them all - why this book was so successful. See you at The Chasms of the Earth, and if anyone's got Audrey Tautou's mobile number...

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Absolute Tosh

Patroclus, the society hostess of Web 2.0, has introduced me to, one of those sites that balances precariously on that narrow rail between "Zeitgeist-defining" and "stupid". The deal is that users simply key what they are doing righthererightnow into a box, and then see what everyone else is doing at the same time. It's like that October 17 mass diary experiment writ large. Or maybe blogging for people with exceedingly short attention sp

Old joke. Sorry.

The effect - sorry, the "user experience" - seemed oddly familiar, but it took a while before I could place it. It's like that episode of Torchwood when Toshiko has a pendant that lets her know what everyone around her is thinking; she puts it on while she's in a pub, and gets thrown back against the wall by the sheer force of people's deep, dark musings, all spilling out like a white noise of frustration, lust and banality.

Except that, after using twitter, you don't automatically get to have a frenzied bout of lesbian rudeness with someone who used to be in EastEnders.

Well, I didn't.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Goose-stepping through Swan Lake

More CiF nonsense, this time about right-wing ballerinas; and the BBC uncovers the flipside to the Lost In Translation symptoms that gaijin experience in Tokyo - Paris syndrome.

PS: Sorry, yet more CiF solipsism. Please go here and vote for Dave because a) he got me the CiF gig in the first place, and b) he's trailing quite badly behind someone who once gave me a funny look in a nightclub.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

You 2.0

Time magazine, snapping its fingers to the Web 2.0 beat like your dad at a wedding, has selected You as its Person Of The Year. At CiF yesterday, Jeff Jarvis said hooray; today, I say hmmm. What do you, or rather You, think? Comments here or (if you can cope with the virtual bearpit) make free with them there.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

My new favourite word


Ooh, it feels like a nice glass of Moscatel on the tongue. But don't bother to look up the meaning, it's deeply disappointing. I think there may be a metaphor for life in there somewhere, but I'm not sure what.

Elsewhere: the first sensible piece of journalism I've read about the Diana business since that Private Eye cover nine years ago; our grotesque apology for a Prime Minister gets an almighty chinning, along with his loathesome catamites, from the increasingly glorious Marina Hyde; and on a happier note, the mighty Patroclus is now officially a blue-chip bluestocking and smartypants, and is entitled to patronise Melvyn Bragg in public places.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Remembrance of rodents past

One last memory of Tokyo. Or a memory of a memory, and a pretty faulty one at that. For many years, I've had a vague but persistent recall of a TV cartoon character from my childhood. I thought that he was some sort of rodent, and he was possibly Polish, but that was all that registered. On the basis of this limited information, nobody else had the faintest idea what I was talking about. "Are you sure you're not thinking of Ludwig?" they said, backing away slowly. My life felt like a Polanski movie. Had I simply imagined it?

And then, in the Kiddy Land toy shop in Harajuku, between the Barbapapa pencil cases and the Very Hungry Caterpillar dental floss, I saw a strangely familiar face. It was the Mole, known here as Krtek, and everything came rushing back, the rabbit, the hedgehog, the little spade, and of course he was Czech, not Polish, and moles aren't actually rodents, I don't think, but everything was OK and then I went and ate that dodgy sea urchin sushi and things got less OK, but at least I wasn't suffering some bizarre manifestation of false memory syndrome.

Now, who remembers Boris the Bold?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


Just as I did with Manila, I'll try to communicate my impressions of Tokyo with just five things, observations, reactions, thoughts. But, because Tokyo is so much bigger, so much more everything than Manila, the five things are also bigger, and also maybe less precise. Think Zen koan, but less profound. Think haiku, but more verbose.

1. At the Senso-ji shrine, there is a big basin filled with burning sticks of incense. People lean into the smoke, wafting it onto their faces and bodies, hoping to bring themselves luck. I see a woman doing this while still wearing an anti-pollution facemask (but not, sadly, the type adorned with the ubiquitous image of Hello Kitty), and I wonder if she gets more of the good-luck smoke (because her lungs are purer?) or less.

2. Many Japanese restaurants put plastic food in their front windows, to tempt passing customers. Kappabashi has several shops that sell nothing but plastic food, from sushi to cheesecake, from beer to bacon. Which raises the question: what do they put in their windows? Back to bloody Baudrillard again, I'm afraid. The purest simulacrum is the copy that exists in the absence of the original. Isn't it? Doesn't it?

3. Japanese companies throw parties for their employees every December. They're called bonenkai, literally "forget-the-year", which strikes me as a far more honest and useful stance than the forced jollity of the Western Christmas bash. Get with it, UK, plc! And let's have compulsory group callisthenics first thing in the morning as well.

4. Harajuku station is the base of operations for schoolgirls who dress in increasingly wild extrapolations of Goth and fetish fashions, as well as older women who dress as schoolgirls and schoolgirls who dress as older women who dress as schoolgirls. As you follow their trail down Omote-sando, you enter a sort of parallel Camden, with shops selling vintage Vivienne Westwood and mod gear from Merc. An alternative alternative? Northwestoneworld? The attention to detail extends even to smells: the odours of tired noodles and musty denim are positively Proustian. And it's here, not in glitzy, Bladerunnery-y Shinjuku, that I suddenly realise what hyperrreality is. I think.

5. Otoro, the fattiest, most prized and revered cut of tuna sashimi, sliced fresh from the belly of the beast and eaten at 8 o'clock on a winter morning in Tsujiki Fish Market, tastes of very little at all, actually.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Perfecting that Bill Murray face

Woo. Made the front of the Holiday section of today's Bangkok Post. This is how I write when I switch off my sarcasm generator.

And, on that travel-related note, we're off to Tokyo. Will attempt to post from the Meiji shrine, or a pachinko parlour or bullet train, or a place that serves cod sperm, or even a love hotel. Or maybe I'll just suffer a terminal postmodern ironic overload and disappear in a powerpuff of hyperreality.

Mata aimasho!

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Santa claustrophobia

I've written before (here and here, for example) about how difficult it is, in a universe of cultural relativism, to pitch a piece of writing. What assumptions can you make about the knowledge base of your readership, or the allusions they might pick up? Each sentence is a precarious balancing act between going over their heads and insulting their intelligence.

Increasingly, it seems that content producers are more worried about the former sin than the latter. But is this wise? Last night I sat down to watch a documentary about some travellers who got into trouble in the Amazon rain forest. I lasted about three minutes, switching off when the narrator boomed "Bolivia, South America". It's straightforward enough; if something's pitched at people who don't know what continent Bolivia's in, I'm probably not going to enjoy it.

And from La Paz to Pacem in Terris (did you see what I did there?), here's the closest you'll get to a Christmas card from me this year. Although, I'll be honest, it's not as good as Llewtrah's festive quiz. But what is?

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

This is not an extra

Is it me, or is it getting kinda metafictional in here? First of all, This Life is to return, reuniting the famous five by deploying the device of Egg writing a roman à clef about his former flatmates; essentially, a fictional fiction that disguises a fictional reality that was successful because it was so 'real'. Fortunately, writer Amy Jenkins has resisted the urge to slap on another few layers of unreality by scripting the whole thing as a mockumentary, or the whole self-referential edifice would surely come crashing down, like an overambitious Black Forest gateau from Heston Blumenthal. Or England's second innings.

But maybe it was always thus. Kingsley Amis's biographer has uncovered the manuscript of an unpublished novel, The Legacy, in which the resolute foe of all flavours of postmodernist silliness creates a hero called - wait for it - 'Kingsley Amis'. Although this isn't actually Kingsley Amis, of course, any more than his son's 'Martin Amis' was really Martin Amis. The 'real' Kingsley described the character as "a young man like myself only nastier", and if you know half the stories of Amis Sr's misdeeds, that's pretty damn nasty.

Of course, if The Legacy had been published in the early 50s, its impact would have been weakened because hardly anybody knew who Amis was. Or, more specifically, it wouldn't have worked because the public Amis persona wasn't fully developed, to whatever extent that related to the real Kingsley. Walk-on roles for TV celebs work because a critical mass of the viewing public will have an idea of what they're like, or what they're not like. Keith Chegwin as bigot, or Chris Martin as cynical opportunist, are ploys that worked in Extras, because they're so comically out of sync with how these people are usually portrayed. (It would be interesting to see how Ricky Gervais might have used someone with a serious PR problem - Michael Barrymore? OJ Simpson? Jonathan King? Mel Gibson? Michael Richards? - and the extent to which they might have been prepared to play ball.)

Most fiction writers can't pull stunts like this, because their lives and personalities don't tend to be so public. Obviously there are exceptions, such as the celeb fiction peddled by the likes of Pamela Anderson, or the bizarre reality fiction genre that I spotted a few weeks ago (effectively, celebrity fiction by non-celebrities).

But most modern writers of literary fiction lead mundane little lives, well below the radar of the paparazzi, although Salman Rushdie's hasn't been without incident, and he had a bash at fictionalising it in Fury. Usually, though, the knowing winks are restricted to Paul Auster-style writing-about-writing. It takes a special kind of writer to merge Austerian metafiction with the pile-'em-high celeb tradition - not because few writers have the technical ability, but because even fewer of them are allowed behind the velvet rope in the first place. Margaret Atwood's fluctuating weight doesn't make the pages of Heat magazine, and nobody gets excited at the thought of a video of Julian Barnes having sex with a rock drummer.

The closest the two worlds have come in recent years was the advent of the literary Brat Pack in the 1980s: and it seems fitting that it falls to Bret Easton Ellis to create this kind of fictional mash-up, which is effectively what his last novel Lunar Park turned out to be. Like Amis (père et fils) and Auster, he creates a character with his own name. But from this mundane starting point, he begins playing with the reader's expectations and preconceptions from the start. Even before the action starts, the book's dedication commemorates Ellis's father (who has a looming presence in the narrative) and his boyfriend (who doesn't, since in this version of Bretland, the superstar novelist is married, albeit messily, to an actress). So, this clearly isn't 'really' BEE - except that so many of the 'real' reference points are there, including fellow BratPacker Jay McInerney, with whom 'Ellis' shares a nostril or two of 1980s nostalgia. And there are countless acknowledgements of his past oeuvre, including the Elvis Costello poster from Less Than Zero and even a fully-realised character from American Psycho, whose significance is surely spotted by the alert reader many pages before the narrator susses it.

It's these literary nods and winks that the author takes to a deliriously illogical conclusion, when Ellis realises that another crucial character has stepped out of the pages of a novel that was never published. Or was it? The McInerney walk-on and the American Psycho brouhaha can raise a knowing chuckle or two for his devoted fans. But did Ellis - the real one, the gay one - write the unpublished novel he describes? Or has he invented it - has he invented the reality of a fiction? Which raises all sorts of subsidiary questions, chief among them: can a fiction be autobiographical if we, the readers, don't know the real details of the autobiography?

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Budem zdorovy!

Russian alcohol producers have called for the introduction of state-subsidised "social vodka" to reduce the death toll (currently about 40,000 a year) from drinking illegal booze.

"He took down from the shelf a bottle of colourless liquid with a plain white label marked VICTORY GIN. It gave off a sickly, oily smell, as of Chinese rice spirit. Winston poured out nearly a teacupful, nerved himself for a shock, and gulped it down like a dose of medicine.

Instantly his face turned scarlet and the water ran out of his eyes. The stuff was like nitric acid, and moreover, in swallowing it one had the sensation of being hit on the back of the head with a rubber club. The next moment, however, the burning in his belly died down and the world began to look more cheerful."

Friday, December 01, 2006

Life imitates art

Small Boo's cracked a pre-molar. The dentist offered her an appointment at half past two. (Remember where we live. Think about it, with particular reference to The Bumper Book Of Slightly Racist Jokes For Kids, and similar tomes... Got it? Great.)

Unfortunately, she had a meeting then, and couldn't make it. I think she's more annoyed about that missed opportunity than about the tooth itself.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Spod corner

Blogger seems to be suggesting, with all the elegant subtlety of a big wet snog from an oiled, naked and up-for-it John McCririck, that it might be in my best interests to shift my ass to the new version. Should I? Pros and cons, please, from anybody who's done it, or has made a conscious decision not to.

Sorry about the McCririck bit.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Birds, Bernini and the blues

Small Boo's been getting well into semi-illicit TV downloads, unearthing old favourites (anyone remember The Changes?) and more current stuff (Torchwood, a show for anyone who quivers with delight at the notion of gay, Welsh Buffy).

But two things have got me stroking my chin in particular in recent days. One is The River Cottage Treatment, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's latest attempt to acquaint us with the gruesome reality of food production.

Ah, that word, "reality". Because yes, much as I like HFW, the vegetarian's favourite carnivore, this is reality TV. Sure, it's the OK end of reality TV, in the guise of Faking It (which James Blue Cat lauded recently), rather than such grotesque efforts as Myleene Klass's new vehicle, I'm A Celebrity, Have I Got Fantastic Tits Or What? But under the perfectly sound idea (Hugh tries to persuade people not to eat shite food), there's the same undercurrent of class-based bullying that taints Jamie Oliver (who, Cockernee mannerisms aside, is as resolutely middle-class as I am, if a few rungs down the ladder from Old Etonian Hugh) and his otherwise noble school meals campaign.

This dirty little secret of British society (we all know class differences are hugely important, but nobody wants to talk about it) threatened to bubble up, like the juice of home-grown damsons through a crumble topping, when Hugh was attempting to get his guests to vow never to buy factory-farmed chickens again. One of his guinea pigs held out, explaining that she had to feed several kids on a tight budget, and free-range chicken was just a luxury too far. "The real world, where I live," she said,"We haven't got chickens running around the farm that we can just kill when we want." She also admitted that she was unswayed by welfare arguments, because she thought chickens were horrible, as opposed to ducks, which are "really, really cute".

Which was the fulcrum for her choice to begrudge an extra quid for a free-range chicken, but to splurge over 15 quid on an organic duck.

And then I realised that this wasn't just a nasty, voyeuristic attempt by Eton 'n' Oxford Fearnley-Whittingstall to give the Essex pleb a holier-than thou thrashing, which he plainly didn't want to do. It was just showing us that the woman was an idiot.

Also on the list was another one of my pet hates, the documentary with dramatised reconstructions. These are OK when the reconstruction actually tells you something (say, how the pyramids were built), but when it just reinforces the script for the slowies at the back, it quickly becomes tiresome. So in Simon Schama's The Power Of Art, it's not enough for the quasi-beatnik don to tell us that Bernini had a cute mistress - we had to see her in the flesh (or at least an actress playing her). The effect was especially pointless, because we then saw the bust that Bernini made of her, which looked nothing like the actress. Most of the show seemed devoted to the soap opera aspect of the sculptor's life, with SS as one point describing him - partly condemning, partly in wistful admiration - as "a complete bastard".

But Schama redeemed himself when he got to the meat of the show, Bernini's Ecstasy of St Theresa. His main point was that Bernini was the first sculptor who was able to render life, in all its fleshly wonder, in marble - even with religious subjects. The Carmelite's face seems to synthesise religious and sexual ecstasy, and Schama was pretty convinced that she was enjoying a shuddering orgasm. And I suddenly realised that Bernini was one of the first artists to depict the creative tension between God and sex, between divine and erotic love, the dialectic that informs the work of Marvin Gaye and Al Green and Aretha Franklin and the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi and so much more. Gian Lorenzo Bernini and St Theresa of Avila as Soul Brother and Sister Number One? As James Brown so elegantly put it, "I feel good!"

Friday, November 24, 2006

You terrible Clint

I tried to write a review of Flags Of Our Fathers, but it went a bit strange and turned into this.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

It's a dirty job, but...

I do like Sight and Sound, but sometimes, just sometimes... This is from Henry K Miller's review of Dirty Sanchez The Movie, which includes a scene where frozen excrement is rubbed on the camera lens and then licked off:

"Writing about the shit-eating scene in Pasolini's Salò o le centoventi giornate di sodoma, the critic Gary Indiana said: 'There is something absurdly winning about Pasolini's explanation of [it] as a commentary on processed foods, and the fact that [he] was being sincere when he said it.' The creators of Dirty Sanchez The Movie, which matches Pasolini's film grotesquerie for grotesequerie, give no such explanation for their antics. Nor does the film's title sequence include, in the manner of Salò, bibliographical references to Barthes and de Beauvoir. Whereas the Italian director framed his descent through his various hellish circles (of manias, shit, and blood - all staples of Dirty Sanchez) within a rigorously 'distanced' aesthetic, eschewing close-ups, Team Sanchez's adventures in depravity are captured without deliberate artifice, with the camera in the thick of it and the crew occasionally on-screen."

That's 140 words to tell us that Pasolini didn't direct Dirty Sanchez The Movie. Cheers.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Jack the wobbler

Investigators believe that this
is the face of Jack the Ripper. Anyone with a passing interest in match-fixing allegations and wobbly knees will know that it's actually the face of
former Liverpool, Southampton and Zimbabwe goalie Bruce Grobbelaar, but with his moustache made a bit more impressive with a felt-tip. And anyway, those of us with even the most cursory knowledge of strange 70s sci-fi films that crop up late at night when you least expect them know that Jack the Ripper looked like David Warner, and that's the end of the matter.

Oh, and I was on Thai telly today. I thought they wanted me to talk about political cartoons, but they asked me what I thought could be done to solve the inter-communal violence in Thailand's deep south. I glanced at the monitor, and saw a small cloud appearing over my head, with a big question mark in it...

Sunday, November 19, 2006

I think therefore I Ambrosia

From the quietly perceptive Book World blog, the parable of the rice pudding - a get-out clause for non-fiction writers everywhere. Also, the tale of Kristian Von Hornsleth, who offered a pig to any Ugandan villager who'd take his name; another case of truth being stranger than the alternative. On the other hand, Mr Von Hornsleth is an artist, so maybe it's a case of truth and beauty being the same thing.

And I'm sure they'd rather have had a Wii.

Friday, November 17, 2006

To ubiquity and beyond!

Well, the truth is out. We now know what the all-time best-selling albums in the UK are. It's a depressing trawl through the mediocrity and safeness of British taste, but that's what we've come to expect, isn't it? More to the fact, it's what we really yearn for, luxuriating in our sense of aesthetic superiority over the drooling tossers who prefer Robbie Williams (six albums!!??) or Robson & Jerome to, plucking a few names, Bowie, Prince and the Smiths.

But there is something interesting about the Top 10. Despite having been smitten by popular music since I was about 13, I've only ever owned three of those albums in any format. And yet each of them provokes a specific reaction, a Proustian babble of memories. They've become so tangled up in our popular culture that we develop responses to them without really ever knowing them.

The chart-topper, Queen's Greatest Hits, is all about summers; specifically lounging by the pool of my friend D's house when I was 15 or 16, flirting ineptly with the cute French and Italian students who brought a sorely-needed air of the cosmopolitan to semi-rural Hampshire in the mid-1980s. "Of course Freddie's gay," I said, a declaration that was met with a snort of derision from D, who now apparently lives with a gentleman friend in Switzerland. I'd always wondered why he never availed himself of the wiggly Eurobabes on offer. The Queen album was little more than background noise, but it's earwormed its way into my DNA, without ever persuading me to buy a copy.

Brothers In Arms, meanwhile, sums up my first term at university. Having endured so many years of philistine conformity, I was eager to plunge into a pool of creative insanity - a collision of Brideshead and Paris 1968 was what I had in mind, or something like it. I found myself in a house with 11 other wide-eyed newbies, every single one of whom owned a copy of Brothers In Arms, and thought it was dead good, especially the guitar solos. Most of them liked Phil Collins as well. This was going to be tougher than I thought...

Anyway, this spawns your task for the weekend. I crave your responses to a creative artefact that you only really know by reputation. Something you've never owned, never properly read, heard or seen, but provokes a specific memory or reaction whenever it pops up on the radar. Conceptual prizes await for the best ones.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Floats your boat

Returned last night from a boat jaunt up the majestic Chao Phrya river. The idea was that we would go north-ish from Bangkok on Monday and make a triumpant entrance into the canals of Ayuthaya, the ancient capital of Siam, on Tuesday morning. However, recent flooding in central Thailand (caused by a typhoon in Vietnam, apparently - Thais are always happy to blame the Vietnamese, it's a safe bet) meant that the river level was too high, and we couldn't get under the Rama VIII bridge until about 10.30 on Monday night. For a Londoncentric analogy, that's like spending 12 hours to get from Tower Bridge to Hammersmith.

Still, the converted rice barge itself was very luxurious, and the crew were wonderful, filling us with chow (possibly to keep the boat as low in the water as possible). And it's not as if we were paying. Will link to the article when it comes out, early December.

While I was away, it appears that the UK Music Hall of Fame has had another bout of inductions: George Martin (well overdue); Led Zeppelin; James Brown; Brian Wilson; Bon Jovi; Prince; Rod Stewart; Dusty Springfield. It does raise the question of what these virtual institutions are actually... hang on... Bon Jovi??? I would have thought there were some British cheese-rock bands with ever-smiling singers who could just as well taken BJ's place. Like the Rubettes, maybe. Or Racey.

Still, if you want rock stardom of a more erudite stripe, the mighty Everett True (blah blah, Kurt 'n' Courtney, rhubarb, first Creation single, blah blah Melody Maker, etc etc) is touring the bookshops of Britain from next Monday, talking about his Nirvana tome, and probably other stuff as well. Pungent and fruity, with an undertone of simmering resentment at the corporate lameness of the modern music press, Mr True comes highly recommended. Schedule: Mon 20, 6 pm, Borders, Bristol; Wed 22, 6 pm, Borders, London Charing X Road; Thu 23, 6pm, Borders, Brighton Churchill Sq; Fri 24, 6.30pm, Manchester Library (with John Robb); Sat 25, 5pm, Forest Café, Edinburgh; Sun 26, 11 am (not a very rock 'n' roll hour - Ed.), Hitherto/Tinderbox, Glasgow. More details on the Plan B site.

PS: My CiF spiel on the Dandy reprint non-controversy; and from the always entertaining London Review of Breakfasts, a cogently argued, if ultimately wrong-headed defence of Starbucks. (Go here for my thoughts on the matter.)

Sunday, November 12, 2006

All eyez on me

Private Eye reports that Colin Randall, Paris correspondent for the Daily Telegraph until he was sacked in September, has started a blog of his own. In the early part of October, he picked up over 200 comments: the eight surviving foreign correspondents blogging on the Torygraph site amassed 29 in the same period. Between them. It's further evidence, I suppose, that (Comment is Free apart, but he would say that, wouldn't he?), Brit newspapers have yet to achieve a useful synergy with the blogosphere. At the same time, it does raise the question of what blogs are really for. Are eyeballs a measure of virtual virility? Should Randall hop on the EuroStar back to London and wiggle his Profile Views in the claret-enhanced faces of his former employers? Or would that be to miss the point?

Lord Gnome also provides us with a wicked précis of that One Day In History mass blog thing that has had such a resonant effect on the cultural landscape. Or not:

My Personal Blog

I got up this morning and had breakfast. Then I went to work and talked to some people. Really busy day. Got home in the evening, had supper, watched some telly and went to bed.
Repeat 2 million times and publish on website which no one will ever read again."

While I was picking up my Eye, an expat staple to rank with Marmite and DVDs of Inspector Morse, I noticed a book on the shelf. It was called Covergirl, by Maura Moynihan, and flashed across the cover, in its own little red circle, was the phrase "REALITY FICTION".

Now, we've been here before, with the likes of In Cold Blood, a so-called non-fiction novel. But Capote was taking a news story, and writing it up in a style that we associate more closely with fiction. Moynihan, daughter of a respected American politician and diplomat, and a former Warhol girl (apparently the sort that didn't even get 15 minutes) appears to be offering a thinly-disguised version of her own life - in fact, the raw material for about 90 per cent of first novels. But flagging it up like this strikes me as a little bizarre. Are people more likely to buy or read a book because it's loosely based on the life of someone they've never heard of? Has the deadly duo of postmodernism and Big Brother finally destroyed any consensus as to what reality actually is (and how it's different from fiction)? I look forward to "REALITY FICTION" stickers being plastered over David Copperfield, On The Road, The Bell Jar, Jane Eyre and Decline And Fall. I'm not entirely sure what goes on in the heads of publishers any more, something that's reinforced by the list of suggested changes to my manuscript that I received a few days ago. Oh well, time to negotiate yet another creative compromise. Story of my life. Hey, maybe I should write a novel about it.

Pausing only to note the suggestion that global conflicts can be resolved by a quick bout of scissors-paper-stone, I'm off on another leisurely jaunt, this time a travel story for the Bangkok Post. Will return with edited highlights mid-week.

Thursday, November 09, 2006


The newly-beardy Ian Hocking tagged me a few weeks back, asking for 'Five Things About Me'. Since I've responded to similar memes in the past, I hope I'm forgiven for offering Five Things About Manila, which is sort of the same thing, since I've been here for a couple of days.

1. Jose Rizal, the hero of Philippine independence, who was executed by the dastardly Spaniards (a more dastardly word than 'Spanish', somehow) in 1896, was only 4 feet 11 inches tall.

2. The locals love calamansi, which sounds like seafood, but is actually a kind of citrus fruit. It looks like a small lime, smells like a tart orange, and tastes like a mild lemon. Which covers all citrus-themed eventualities, really. Except for grapefruit.

3. They're very big on security here. Bag searches and metal detectors are standard when entering hotels, malls and public transport. At the train station, I saw a security guard with an AK-47. But he appeared to be in a cheery mood.

4. At this time of year, you can't go anywhere without hearing 'Last Christmas'.

5. The Pilipino word for 'one thousand' is 'sanlibong'.

Take this tag to the heathens: Anthony; RealDoc; the redesigned Treespotter.


'Remember that it isn't always the sensational stuff that writers are looking for, it can just as easily be something that you take for granted like having raised twins or knowing how to grow beetroot. Mind you, if you know how to fly a helicopter or have worked as a film extra, do feel free to let the rest of us know about it.'

Monday, November 06, 2006

Just cause or impediment

Japanese couples are so keen to have Western-style weddings, local gaijin can make ready cash by pretending to be Christian priests. Which either follows the God-is-dead drift of this excellent article about The New Atheism in, of all publications, Wired, the Bible of all things geekoid; or offers an oblique commentary on the tragic, but at the same time terribly amusing tale of Pastor Ted Haggard and his drugs and massage (unconsumed and unconsummated, respectively); or suggests that Tokyo-based expats are so impoverished and/or shameless, they'll do half-arsed impressions of Derek Nimmo for a bowl of ramen.

Elsewhere: I offer a bit of PR advice to Al Quaeda; supposedly conservative pundit Andrew Sullivan calls Donald Rumsfeld an "incompetent maniac" and hopes that the Republicans are crucified in the midterms; and I also noticed the following quotation from William Burroughs on Treespotter's excellent blog:

"I am not one of those weak-spirited, sappy Americans who want to be liked by all the people around them. I don’t care if people hate my guts; I assume most of them do. The important question is whether they are in a position to do anything about it. My affections, being concentrated over a few people, are not spread all over Hell in a vile attempt to placate sulky, worthless shits."

Which I hadn't heard before, despite having spent many happy hours comparing Radiohead's 'Fitter Happier' to the cut-up texts of Burroughs and Bryon Gysin. It's somewhere between Swift's dictum on "the animal called Man", and Sturgeon's Revelation ("90% of everything is crud").

Tomorrow I'm off to Manila, to cover the annual envelope harvest, and I may be out of contact on Wednesday, which is the first anniversary of Cultural Snow. So, a couple of days early, here's that first post again.

"Welcome to Cultural Snow
In analogue times, people who were slightly drunk and at a loose end might begin writing bad poetry, or stand on a soapbox at Hyde Park Corner, or just phone the speaking clock and scream obscenities at it. In a similar, but defiantly digital mode, I've started a blog. What's it for? Where's it going? Will it change the world, or will it degenerate, like 97% of all known blogs, into tired harrumphing over the rights and/or wrongs of the Iraq War. I really have no idea, but maybe that Polish vodka does.

It's a bit like taking a pencil for a walk, that pastime beloved of well-meaning art teachers confronted by incompetent six-year-olds, but it's a long time since I wielded a pencil in anger. I took a dog for a walk this evening, however. Will that do?

A hint, though, to where this might all be going; the title, 'Cultural Snow' is a reference to the work of the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. I'm too lazy to track down the exact quotation in full, but I'm pretty sure it's from the novel Dance Dance Dance. So maybe you can expect occasional references to Murakami to crop up in future postings. Or maybe not.

I'm going to get a bit more of that Polish vodka from the fridge. Will be in touch. Soon. Unless the vodka beats me to it."

Note that I had yet to work out how to insert pictures or create links. And wot, no poncy invocations of Baudrillard?

Sunday, November 05, 2006

If you remember, you weren't there

Interesting article in the Sunday Telegraph today. Actually, it's not a particularly interesting article. It says kids are running wild, ASBOs are useless and policemen are hampered by excessive form-filling, the human rights industry and political correctness. There's even a lousy poem, the sort of thing Peter Lilley used to perform at Tory Party conferences, to the delight of delegates and the bowel-churning embarrassment of everybody else. Pretty much the sort of thing that's been running in the Telegraph for decades.

What is interesting is the byline. It's by Felix Dennis (above, right), who was one of the troika behind OZ magazine. In the article, Dennis describes how, at the age of 16, he received a no-holds-barred bollocking from a beat copper who apprehended him about to steal a microphone from a pawn shop: "Thus ended my life of crime."

Well, strictly speaking, that's true. After Dennis, Richard Neville and Jim Anderson were prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act over the Schoolkids' edition of OZ, found guilty and given jail terms, their sentences were quashed on appeal, so he doesn't actually have a criminal record. However, the case, for all its focus on a raunchy image of Rupert Bear, was as much to do with official nervousness at the widespread subversion of law and order, and the growing tendency of young people to express their contempt for the bastions of authority, including the police. The case was dramatised in 1991, with Kevin (brother of Keith) Allen as Dennis, and a preposterously pretty Hugh Grant as Neville; it was later satirised in an episode of the sitcom Hippies.

The judge gave Dennis a lighter sentence than his co-accused, because he was "very much less intelligent" than the others. He made no mention of his faulty memory.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Going nowhere

Sacha Baron Cohen's alter ego, Borat, has quickly transcended his role as a comic character, and become a significant prompt for bien pensant chin-stroking in the salons of Hampstead and the columns of the Sunday broadsheets. Who are we really laughing at when we watch Baron Cohen, in his cheap suits and neo-Scouse moustache? Is it racism? What about the donkey? Is it all an Uzbek plot? Is it significant that Baron Cohen is Jewish? Do you know all the words to 'Throw The Jew Down The Well'? Will he be launching his own line of swimwear?

Whatever Baron Cohen's motives, it's clear that the crucial decision was to invent a character that came from somewhere about which we had no firm ideas; even better, many people had never heard of it. We all know the stereotypes, even if we find them repulsive: Indians move their heads from side to side; Nigerians are fraudsters; Poles can install a power shower in minutes. But Kazakhs? Um... weren't they sworn enemies of Flash Gordon? If there's any -ism at the heart of Borat's humour, it's at the expense of the witless rednecks that he lures into expressing their ignorance; Billybobism, maybe.

Borat's ubiquity has prompted the government of Kazakhstan to stage a counter-offensive, and travel journalists to hike to the Central Asian republic in an effort to discover what it's really like. But this misses the point; Kazakhstan is somewhere between a red herring and a MacGuffin. Borat as we know him evolved from earlier Baron Cohen characters who were Moldovan and Albanian. Borat-speak is actually Hebrew with a smattering of Polish. He could have come from anywhere in the world, provided it was obscure.

The same thinking lies behind Daniel Kalder's travel book, Lost Cosmonaut. Kalder's preface is an abstract of the Shymkent Declarations, which resolve that, among other things: "The anti-tourist does not visit places that are in any way desirable... The anti-tourist travels at the wrong time of year... The anti-tourist is interested only in hidden histories, in delightful obscurities, in bad art..."

There's a tenuous link with Borat, in that the Shymkent Declarations are named after a town in Kazakhstan. But Kazakhstan is high-profile, in Kalder's terms; it does, after all, have a seat at the United Nations. We acknowledge its existence, however fleetingly, every four years, when its plucky athletes strut past in the Olympic opning ceremony, and the TV commentator gives us a snippet of trivia about the place.

But Kalder goes where the UN and the Olympics don't. His speciality is seeking those republics that are almost totally autonomous, but are still nominally part of Russia, so aren't quite nations. Tatarstan, historical centre of the Golden Horde; Kalmykia, home of Chess City and the only Buddhist country in Europe; Mari El, hotspot for pagans and internet brides; Udmurtia, where Kalder is pressed to say why he came to such a place, and the best he can come up with is that he likes the name because of its "suggestion of nothingness".

Inevitably, some of Kalder's narrative nudges dangerously close to cheap laughs at the expense of the locals. The "seriously shitty" food in the Sputnik Cafe, where dirt-poor Kalymks take their kids for a treat of gristly meatballs; All Mice Love Cheese, a show for three-year-olds that provides the cultural highlight of the Udmurt State Theater's output; police fail to spot a link when five people within a single square kilometre are decapitated and have their VCRs stolen. A taxi-driver asks Kalder's Japanese companion if he's Yugoslavian. These locals, eh, so dumb and insular, they might as well be... us...

But, like the best travel writers, Kalder's not really writing about these places. He's not even writing about himself, although there's an occasional bout of self-pity and an acknowledgement that he likes films with tits in. He's dealing with something at once bigger and more elusive.

Like Borat, he confronts us with our own ignorance. Those of us brought up during the Cold War still have a tendency to blur the distinction between "Russian" and "Soviet". We can't quite get our heads around the fact that cultural phenomena such as Tofik Bakhramov (the so-called Russian linesman at the 1966 World Cup Final), Olga Korbut and the Chernobyl power station were no more Russian than I'm a Norwegian. (Azerbaijan, Belarus and Ukraine, if you're interested.)

But Kalder goes even deeper than geopolitics. He's at his most profound, and unnerving, when he hovers somewhere over the cusp of national identity and existentialism. "But it is unknown," he muses, "a whole other Europe that might as well not exist for all we Westerners care. In fact, it does not exist for us. They do not exist."

This is Bishop Berkeley territory. If a country suffers, and CNN is not present, does its pain exist? Kalder feels for them. He is, after all, a Scot, another country-but-not-quite. But he knows the best thing he can do is to describe, simply to bring these places into some kind of existence. We might laugh at these hicks, these hillbillies of the Steppes, but isn't that better than being ignored?

Purely accidentally, the publishers manage to express this sense of nowhere, of not-quite-locality, with their North American edition. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, they changed the book's subtitle when it crossed the Atlantic. They also Americanised the spelling and punctuation. But it remains impenetrably British: the experience of consuming Kalmyk tea is described as "like drinking a cup of Bernard Manning's sweat"; Kalder has a Proustian flashback to Littlewood's in Dunfermline. Why will a reader in St Louis be thrown by the diphthong in "faeces" but understand when the author describes something as "shite"? Scribner have founded their own republic, somewhere in the middle of the Pond. But it could never be as bleak and empty and ignored as the places Kalder describes.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Sternal notch

This is all I have to say about the Stern report.

Global warming, schmobal warming. I'm more worried about plain chocolate HobNobs.

Monday, October 30, 2006

For a minute there I lost myself

Yay. All done. I just sent the manuscript to the publisher. Let's see what they make of my attempts to link OK Computer with Barthes, Deleuze, Plato, Kafka, Blake, Gary Numan, Bret Easton Ellis, Albert Camus, the Eagles, Yoko Ono, Jeff Bridges, Czech dissidents, the collapse of the Thai baht and, uh, Snakes On A Plane.

It's already available for pre-order here and here. That's right, the cover was all done and dusted before they saw a word of text. Which can, of course, lead to confusion, as Jim Crace describes in the story of Useless America, his novel that never was, except in the murky backwaters of the Amazon, where passing fancies and misheard phone calls go to die.

Friday, October 27, 2006

You become naked

Had it up to here, not just with Radiohead, but with the two albums generally held to be the main influences on OK Computer, namely Bitches Brew by Miles Davis and The Beatles by The Beatles (aka 'The White Album', although if you need me to tell you that, you probably won't be very interested in the rest of the post).

Now, the Miles thing I've never really got. I've always preferred Dizzy Gillespie and Chet Baker as trumpeters; and Bitches Brew is when he just degenerated into wanky jazz-rock-funk bollocks, although John McLaughlin's guitar playing has its moments. But the White Album has been in my all-time Top 10 for years, so I hope I haven't yet exhausted its wonky charms.

I think the problem is that it's so big and diverse and all over the shop that it just gets overwhelming, like a hyperactive St Bernard puppy. Which leads us neatly to today's game: not an original one by any means, but one that's endlessly diverting (for slightly damaged people staring into the abyss of middle age, at least). George Martin has said on more than one occasion that The Beatles would have made a fantastic single album. Your mission, if you accept it, is to trim down the 30-track expanse of vinyl into a neat, 7-a-side effort. Keep in mind the political necessities of the era (rough balance between Lennon and McCartney, and something to keep Harrison happy). Smartarse points will be deducted for including 'Happy Birthday, Mike Love' and similar Rishikesh offcuts. (That's you I'm talking to, Swipe.)

To get the ball rolling, here's my effort:

Side one
Why Don't We Do It In The Road?
Glass Onion
I Will
While My Guitar Gently Weeps
I'm So Tired
Back In The USSR
Happiness Is A Warm Gun

Side two
Revolution #1
Don't Pass Me By
Dear Prudence
Martha My Dear
Long Long Long
Revolution #9

And two postscripts: CiF piece on the Surrealist subtext of Kylie Minogue's underwear, although somebody's added a standfirst that gives away the punchline, thank you very much; and the news that next month Bangkok will be hosting a conference called Slag in Asia.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Land of smiles

CiF piece on how Thailand's PM wants everyone to be happy (although they edited out my description of Ayn Rand as a "fruitcake"); Nicky Wire on the legacy of C86; Stewart Lee, on last weeks News Quiz defined blogging as: "pornography and descriptions of going to the shops". And, in Bjorn Turmann's novel The Karaoke World of Cortous Haire, I find this:

"You're getting the hang of this expat life. Always find out what other expats are doing, so you'll have more to talk about in the bar when your life becomes truly frustrating and miserable."


Monday, October 23, 2006

Gas gas gas

Pleasant weekend on the relatively-unspoiled-but-not-for-long Koh Chang (Elephant Island). Mostly spent eating, reading, dozing, although some gentle sea kayaking assuaged any indolence-related guilt. Along the dirt roads, it seems that every other shop has a neat display of whisky bottles outside, with a hand-scrawled sign saying "30 baht" (43p to you, guv). Closer inspection reveals that it's not booze, which is cheap, but not that cheap. It's ready-measured portions of petrol for the motorbikes that are the main form of transport around here. In any other country, such a display would be asking for trouble: all you need is a few tampons and a Zippo and you've got yourself a nice little arsenal of Molotov cocktails. Welcome to Thailand, the country where they just can't be arsed to riot.

On Saturday night, I tried to teach Small Boo to play pool which, since I've played it about once, is a bit like Stevie Wonder offering flying lessons to David Blunkett.

SB: This shot's difficult. I think my arms are too short.

TF: Do you need a rest?

SB: I'm not tired. It's just my arms are too short.

UPDATE: "She could also have saved money by choosing 'hard-class' train seats." Another way to get to Koh Chang.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Dumb and dumbing down

Having appeared on several quiz shows, I know how memory starts to melt under the studio lights. Small Boo delights in reminding me that it was the Jackson 5 who sang on Stevie Wonder's 'You Haven't Done Nothing', and that sharks are cartilaginous (two facts that succumbed to on-air Footman brainfarts).

So I was inclined to be sympathetic to Simon Curtis when I read that he'd scored a record one point in his specialist round on Mastermind. I'll admit to an involuntary sniff of derision when I saw that he'd chosen The Films Of Jim Carrey as his subject, but what the hell, knowledge is knowledge, yeah? At least he's not like one of those pneumatic C-listers who choose subjects like Those Shoes That Courtney Cox Was Wearing In That Episode Of Friends That Was On Last Night, Or Was It The Night Before? And Carrey's actually made about three decent films, which is pretty good going for a mainstream Hollywood star. And then I read Mr Curtis's explanation for what went wrong:

"I like Jim Carrey films but I think the mistake I made was not watching them again. John Humphrys ended up asking me about things in the movies rather than simply black-and-white facts so I was stumped."

So... the problem was... let me get my head round this... the problem was that you decided to answer questions about The Films Of Jim Carrey, but didn't bother to watch any of The Films Of Jim Carrey, so when Humphrys asked you about The Films Of Jim Carrey, it all went horribly wrong. And what are these "things in the movie" (presumably plot details, lines of dialogue, character names and so on) if they're not "black-and-white facts"? It's a quiz show, not a forum for postmodernist japery.

What's disturbing is that Curtis managed to make it to the semi-final. He won the first round thanks to his knowledge of The Jam, a feat that, presumably, he managed without listening to any of the records. He just read a couple of old Smash Hits interviews and looked at a picture of Bruce Foxton for a few minutes.

Also... Small Boo once said of me: "He can write about anything except golf." HA!

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Why I love the BBC

On this morning's Today programme, during a discussion about the environmental impact of low-cost air travel, one guest called another one a "quasi-mercantilist".

You don't get that on Virgin.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Publish and be sold

Following my recent misunderstanding with Simon Reynolds, I'm wary of second-guessing the weird cogitations that publishers go through when they amend British books for the American market. So I will simply record an objective fact, and open the floor to the rest of you as we search for the big "WHY?" Daniel Kalder's book about his travels around the less-known bits and pieces of the former Soviet Union, was called Lost Cosmonaut: Travels to the Republics That Tourism Forgot when it was published by Faber in the UK earlier this year. When Scribner brought it out in the States, they kept the title, but gave it a new subtitle: Observations of an Anti-Tourist. (The new cover's also less good, but that's another story.)

So what's the point of that? Exactly how is the new title supposed to have the bibliophiles of Buffalo and Boulder rushing to the tills, when they might have dropped anything bearing the first title with a distaste previously reserved for a text message from Mark Foley? Anyone care to hazard a guess?

Also: Nick Cave [quietly, to Beth Orton]: Who are Busted?

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Pilot error

CiF piece on the recent pitcher/building interface in NYC.

Well trained

Your assistance is required. My father, a fine, upstanding fellow and a core member of Harry Redknapp's advisory panel, wants to track down a record he remembers from the days before he had a beard. It's probably from between the wars, and was essentially a narrative about railway journeys, including French ones. The best bit was that the storyteller provided his own, vocal sound effects (eg "diddy dah, diddy dah, diddy diddy dah"). It would have been played on Children's Hour and the like. Of course, he might be hallucinating the whole thing, but the last time I looked, that was St Bruno Flake in his pipe, with no extras.

It would have been a 78 rpm disc at the time, but he'd be happy to have it in any format, including download. Any ideas? I suspect there's a pint or two waiting behind the bar of the Brewer's Arms in Horndean for anyone who can point him in the right direction.

Thanking you in anticipation,

Yours sincerely,


Tuesday, October 10, 2006

80s revival

I don't usually do politics here, so if you want a reasoned, geopolitical analysis, please go elsewhere. But a few thoughts strike me about the news that North Korea has nukes.

1. When I was a teenager, I used to wear a CND badge, even go on occasional marches. "Ah, but if we didn't have nuclear weapons," said older, wiser, more expensively dressed people, "we'd be at the mercy of the countries that do." Could it not be that Kim Jong-il has been reading old speeches by Thatcher and Reagan and everybody else who poured scorn on unilateralism a quarter-century ago? Could it not be that, like any leader, whether loony dictator (which he is) or altruistic friend of the people, he's just protecting his strategic interests? Well, people, this is the multilateralism that was the bedrock of Western defence strategy throughout the 1980s. Mutually Assured Destruction, they called it back then. You like?

2. George W Bush, in his 2002 State of the Union address, identified North Korea as part of an "axis of evil". Wouldn't it have been terribly embarrassing if the US invaded another country on the basis of WMDs that it didn't have? Surely Kim, like Ahmadinejad of Iran, is only trying to live up to his advertising?

3. The North Koreans have been entirely open in their nuclear plans. They withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. They said they were going to develop nuclear weapons; they then said they were going to test one. They did it. Compare this with the Israelis, who still won't admit that they've got them.

4. Can someone come up with an objective, globally applicable criterion for deciding which countries are allowed to possess nuclear weapons, and which aren't? "He's the kind of guy that Dick Cheney might pick as a hunting buddy" isn't good enough, although it is appropriately ambiguous.

None of this is a defence of the Stalinist hellhole that is North Korea, or its mad dwarf of a leader. I don't want North Korea to have nuclear weapons. It's a bad thing. But seriously, once all the indignation and neocon willy-waving has cooled down, what are you going to do about it? To bomb Pyongyang now would either provoke World War III; or prove that all the arguments that underpinned the Cold War, and the geopolitical status quo thereafter, are less substantial and convincing than Kim Jong-il's Eraserhead hair.

PS: Rather more informed comment from Dan Plesch in The Guardian and Richard Lloyd Parry in The Times.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Let your backbone slip

You know what's it's like when some whining old fart grumbles on about how tedious modern music (or cinema, or fiction, or politics) is, and how much better it was 40 years ago? Infuriating, isn't it, that people should place a buffed-up version of their own youth at the heart of some kind of pop canon, denying the validity of any subsequent innovation, any development that doesn't correlate with their own narcissism? Grumpy, up-its-own-arse, baby-boomer bollocks.

And then you watch this;

and bugger me, the old farts are right after all. If it ever got better than this, I wasn't invited.

Something for the weekend. Play loud. Kick off your shoes. Tear the roof off.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

This is not an extension

A sign at Bangkok's main immigration office:


Also: now the coup is old news, I'm driven to writing about chess and, uh, other stuff; someone who still things that bloggers belong between quotation marks; and thanks to Helen for sending this diversion for film buffs. Groucho Marx for Rhett Butler, anyone?

Sunday, October 01, 2006

You and whose army?

My head hurts. This morning, I read an essay by Joseph Tate in which he applies the rhizomatic techniques of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (bear with me) to Radiohead's Hail To The Thief album.

I should have read Tate's essay before; I've referred to several of the other pieces in the collection he edited, but I've been trying to steer clear of the overtly critical/theoretical stuff while I write my own book about OK Computer. I'm not, after all, supposed to be writing for a specialised, academic audience; I'm writing for Radiohead fans, who are (one imagines), a bit smarter than Oasis fans, but aren't necessarily given to ploughing through tomes of French philosophy of an evening. I've been content to chuck the occasional teasing tapas of Barthes and Foucault into the footnotes, but that's it.

Anyway, I realised that what I'd been doing, unwittingly (not having read any Deleuze myself, but does that make me a bad person?) is applying exactly these techniques when writing about OK Computer. Brief detour for clarification - "rhizome", in a cultural or philosophical sense, refers to an academic method using many and various entry and exit points. It's opposed to an arborescent (treelike) set-up, which involves hierarchy and a fixed canon of sources. Those of you with GCSE biology will realise that the opposed concepts are metaphors drawn from differing models of plant growth: a rhizome is an underground stem from which shoots and roots poke out in all directions; a tree tends to grow upwards and outwards. Rhizomatic cultural phenomena include flashmobs and critical mass cycling events. Wikipedia is somewhere in the same timezone, although it's clearly become a victim of its own success, and less of an intellectual free-for-all.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I'm having huge fun pulling in cultural references from every crevice of my memory and dropping them into the Radiohead mix to see what might happen: recent provocateurs have included John Donne, JG Ballard, the 1997 Asian financial crisis, Lynne Truss, Metallica and mortgage contracts. But now, I realise, what I'm doing is Deleuzian. Or even quasi-Deleuzian, which is better. Marvellous, I think, now I can make the book as up-its-own-arse as I like, on the basis that in doing so I'm being non-hierarchical and therefore accessible and therefore readable. Bollocks, I then think, almost immediately:

a) If I carry on like this, about three people will buy my book, and;

b) I'm meant to deliver the manuscript in six weeks, and if I start pebbledashing it with fresh semiotic shale now, it might just be ready in time to celebrate Sir Thomas Yorke's 50 Years In Showbiz.

In the state of mind that PG Wodehouse defined as "not exactly gruntled", I traipsed off to meet our old buddies James and Jeab for lunch, serenaded by the fabulous New Orleans trumpeter Leroy Jones. Also present was James's tai chi teacher, a veteran anarchist of the Kropotkin variety, who was arrested at Grosvenor Square in 1968.

He does a lot of work with Bangkok's slum dwellers, especially those with HIV/AIDS, and he had an interesting angle on our recent local difficulties here in Bangkok. While no fan of Thaksin (the deposed PM, currently enjoying an extended holiday in London), he said that he was the first Thai politician to acknowledge that the poor existed. Much of this was opportunistic; he offered short-term fixes to buy their votes, and wasn't genuinely interested in improving their lot. But the simple fact that he addressed the concerns of people at the bottom of the heap stirred them out of their apathy; for the first time, they paid attention to what was going on in the wider political and social sphere, because they now realised that it affected them. Although my new acquaintance (I won't name him - the situation is still sensitive enough for the 'wrong' opinion to provoke the interest of the authorities) wasn't sure what form this attention might take, the simple fact that this huge mass of people had woken up was interesting enough. Thaksin had summoned a rhizomatic genie out of the lamp; he wanted to spur Thai people on to become members of the consumer society, but the phenomenon could have gone in any one of a hundred directions, with all sorts of political and other forces pushing it here and there.

I started to feel a little uneasy. Only a few days before, I'd written an article offering a cautious welcome to the coup. Now, I realised that while the generals had undoubtedly rid Thailand of a corrupt and self-serving leader, they'd also rammed the cork back in the Deleuzian bottle. What Thaksin had offered to the poor was not necessarily hope, but possibility; the possibility of bypassing the karmic inevitability of their lot, their preordained role on the outside of Bangkok's gleaming new shopping malls, not even daring to look in. Maybe those other people, the ones who'd been making all those bleaty noises about democracy and the will of the people, had a point after all. Thaksin (inadvertently) provided the possibility of Thai society becoming ginger or asparagus or a fern, with all the options that might offer; under new management, it was back to being a tree, and a tall, straight one at that.

And I came home, and found that the generals had been true to their word, and (as had been rumoured for a few days) they had relinquished power within 14 days. To another general. And then I Googled for a bit (another function that feels pretty damn rhizomatic, but isn't really) and found this fascinating article explaining why Deleuze and Guattari have become so popular in that haven of anarchists and egalitarians, the Israeli Defence Forces.

And the only question that formed in my mind was this: would I have this pounding headache if I'd decided to write about Oasis instead?

Friday, September 29, 2006


Many people have equated religious fervour with the buzz that one might get from sex, drugs, rock and/or roll (delete as appropriate). The whole career of, for example, Marvin Gaye was an attempt to balance their conflicting, yet strangely similar demands. Alternatively, think of the homoerotic cult of St Sebastian, or saucy Hindu art. But, of course, religious people tend not to admit this, because it might involve the painful acknowledgement that they actually possess genitalia. I remember being dumbfounded to discover that the Ayatollah Khomeini was married with kids. Urrggghh... he did it! And so did Ian Paisley! The Catholic Church's objections to The Da Vinci Code aren't about its suggestions that the institution is packed with mad, corrupt murderers; it's the idea that Jesus might have given a little too much of God's love to Mary Magdalene (or Monica Bellucci, as I like to think of her).

No, it's always down to the non-believers to point out that there's not much difference between a Hail Mary and a hand shandy. I just found a story in The Spectator about Francis Crick, discoverer of DNA and committed disciple of the religion-is-bollocks school.

In the early 1960s, Crick was asked to contribute to the establishment of Churchill College, Cambridge, but withdrew his support when he discovered that the college would have a chapel; contradicting, he thought, its stated purpose of prioritising science and technology. He even complained to Winston Churchill himself, who didn't seem bothered one way or another, replying: "A chapel, whatever one’s views on religion, is an amenity which many of those who live in the College may enjoy, and none need enter it unless they wish." Crick sent him 10 guineas to fund college courtesans, with the note: "Such a building will, I feel confident, be an amenity which many who live in Cambridge will enjoy very much, and yet the institution need not be compulsory and none need enter it unless they wish."

Sadly, Sir Winston appears to have returned the cheque.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

More coup-related hilarity

Another attempt to wind up Guardian readers.

But, to ensure balance and fairness: Richard Lloyd Parry doesn't sound entirely convinced that the coup is a reboot rather than a jackboot; anti-coup, anti-Thaksin arguments from a man often described as the only Marxist in Thailand; and Simon Tisdall coins a new verb - "to musharraf".

Well, that was the death of democracy, that was. Unless anything untoward happens (like the generals playing the-cheque's-in-the-post games with the promised delivery of a civilian PM), I'm putting away my white suit and getting back to blethering about Baudrillard and Hugh Laurie and the Guillemots and all that stuff.

PS: But before I leave the subject entirely, the story about go-go dancers being forbidden to gyrate for soldiers made me laugh as well.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

By Jove

A Deutsche Oper production of Mozart's Idomeneo has been cancelled because of fears that a scene in which the severed heads of Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad and Poseidon are presented to the titular king might inflame religious tensions. Apparently, nobody has made any specific threats, but I think we know which particular interest group might be expected to overreact, don't we?

That's right. The fucking Greeks. Not Nikos who runs the cash 'n' carry, he's a good mush. It's them ancient ones who are the worst. They come over here, with their beards and their philosophers and their dramatists and their geometry, and they act like we owe them something. And were we asked whether we wanted them? No. Well, we did bring that big wooden horse thing in, but we didn't know they'd want to stay. Anyway, we're supposed to have freedom of speeech, but if you say anything about them, even if it's a joke, like how you reckon that Aphrodite bird's a bit of all right, and they go fucking mental. It's Platonic correctness gone mad.

I reckon they've lost their fucking marbles.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

The geek shall inherit

Back in the bad old days before I let blogging into my life (let me hear you say "Amen!"), I used to hover around the Guardian Talk site. I remember one day, a regular poster mentioned that another poster was ill, and might appreciate good wishes. Good wishes were forthcoming, as they generally were on that site provided you stayed off any subject relating to the Middle East. It transpired that the poster's illness was more severe than was at first suspected; she had cancer; she had good days and bad days; over the next few months, the bad outnumbered the good, and she died.

Sometimes she would post, keeping us in touch with her victories and setbacks; as time went on, she became too tired, and updates came from her daughter, partner, and other people who knew her in the real world. Two things were interesting about the thread: apart from those irregular updates, it needed very little input from the real world, as I reckon at least 90% of the volume came from people who never knew the woman, or even her real name; and, after she died, there was a great deal of pressure on the administrators to keep the thread up in perpetuity. When this was refused (it had swelled to over 10,000 posts, and was slowing down the server), a number of posters archived the whole thing, and circulated it to whoever wanted it.

This is a constant theme when anyone's contrasting web-specific content with old media, and I've had polite disagreements with Patroclus about it in the past. People love the interactivity, the immediacy, the sense of community, the [insert your own Web 2.0 buzzword] in blogs, message boards and the like; but when a particular fragment of the web gets serious or significant or famous or infamous, there's immediate pressure to turn it into a book or a film or some other facet of the BBL (Before Berners-Lee) universe. Part of the reason is that it's still disproportionately difficult to make cash out of a Web product that doesn't involve the sweatier regions of human anatomy; but there's also a sense that a website isn't quite appropriate enough, permanent enough to mark what really matters.

This appears to be the story behind Train Man (Densha Otoko). Apparently, the story began in March, 2004, when a young man in Tokyo posted on a chat forum. He'd tussled with a drunk who'd been annoying some women on a train. One of the women sent him some posh teacups as a thank-you present. The young man wondered if this might be a sign that his existence as a virginal otaku might be coming to an end. He asked the other posters, most of them similarly inexperienced in life beyond manga and IT, for help; and kept them in touch with his slowly (they don't snog until page 334) developing relationship.

It's not a great book, although it does remind us that, however much some East Asian urban cultures have adopted the trappings of the West, Nice Girls still Don't (or, more precisely, if they do, they don't talk about it). The format is fun, with some extraordinary ASCII pics apparently lifted from the forum; but there's very little that wasn't done by, say, Matt Beaumont's E, or even the 18th-century epistolary novels of Richardson and Laclos.

What is interesting is the way the original thread ballooned into a book, a TV show, a play, several manga and a movie. (The latter, in gloriously metafictional move, has the girl, Hermès, played by the actress that she is supposed to resemble in the book.) It's as if a good story would be wasted if it were left to languish online. Only when it's between covers (of a book or a DVD case) is it worthwhile. The fact that this means somebody's making money out of it apparently adds to the validity of the whole thing.

And the fact that somebody's doing that (the nominal author, Nakano Hitori, translates as "one of us") raises a few more questions. Who holds the copyright on the content of chat forums? Is it jointly owned by the posters, or sucked up by the hosts. The mystery of the whole tale (the protagonists have not come forward) and of the people who nursemaided its transition into other media, add to the confusion.

And then, of course, there's the whole issue of veracity. The James Frey controversy has raised a number of questions about the intersection between non-fiction, fiction and "based on a true story"; but again, this one has been rumbling at least since Truman Capote unleashed the non-fiction novel on us. Whatever the reality, the author (Compiler? Editor? Transcriber? Collector? Cutter-and-paster? Do we need a new terminology for this? I know "the author" is dead, but...) makes the distinction all but irrelevant, by making the characters so bland and two-dimensional that their own mothers wouldn't recognise them.

So, despite all the precedents, maybe "one of us" has managed to create a new form of literature. It's something so bland, so undefined, that anybody can take it and apply it to his or her own life. It's the raw material of a fiction, that can be cooked up into something interesting by the participants. Get him to do this, do that. Tell her you love her. Don't tell her. Has she got a sister? Oh no she isn't! Behind you!

In short, it's got all the potential to be a fully interactive narrative. Which is what it was to start with (whether it was "real" or not), until someone had the bright idea of fixing it into a fairly ordinary book, like a mediocre mosquito, immortalised in amber. What was the point of that?