Tuesday, June 27, 2006

A few questions

1. Is there a special word for that gummy glue used to attach free CDs to the covers of magazines?
2. Where do chunky, florid upper-middle-class men (25-45) who work in the City purchase those puke-yellow corduroy trousers they wear with brown brogues and navy jerseys when they go to the pub for Sunday lunch? Is it the same place old ladies buy their old lady hats?
3. Russell Brand. Can someone explain the attraction? Please?
4. When I receive an e-mail suggesting "Let’s make our ejaculation like steel. You gape for shooting like you had seen in those films…" how am I supposed to react?
5. Am I alone in thinking Ghana could beat Brazil?

Friday, June 23, 2006

Park life

O2 Wireless Festival, Hyde Park, June 21

I've never really bought into the whole rock festival thing. It's not that I have any objection to roughing it for a few days; it's just that if I'm going to hunker down in a flimsy tent for the night, I'd prefer my nightmares to be of owls and sheep rather than acid-addled Mudhoney fans from Swindon who've suddenly discovered the delights of fire-eating. The answer is, of course, the current spate of one-day quasi-festivals, with all the bad toilets and worse beer of Glastonbury, but they finish early so that Giles can get into the City on time the following morning.

And so to Hyde Park on the longest, but far from warmest day of the year. By the time we work out how to get in (Signs? Maps? Stewards? Is this the Lost Vagueness thing that Glasto freaks talk about?) Dirty Pretty Things are half way through their set.

DPT, if you aren't aware, is the band that Carl Barat started after the Libertines disintegrated in a confusion of drugs, burglary, Blakean aspirations and supermodels. The joke (ha ha) is that, by comparison with his former co-worker Mr Doherty, Barat is relatively clean, and, let's be honest here, not nearly as pretty. Whether or not he is a thing is best left to the existential noodlers who might find the band's no-nonsense punk heroics a bit too oomphy. Sadly, inspiration seems to have deserted him, in rather the way that George Michael got dull when Andrew Ridgeley went surfing. The biggest cheer comes for the set closer, 'Bang Bang You're Dead', which is also, oddly, the most Libertines-esque number. Funny, that.

Another performer trying to emerge from the shadows of a much-hyped band is Jack White. The difference between the Libertines and the White Stripes, however, is that the Stripes deserved much of the media frenzy. Their punk/blues minimalism was like a refreshing spurt of Beconase on a hayfevery day; so it's a little depressing that with his new outlet, the Raconteurs, White seems to be obsessed with sludgy, Canned Heat-style fretwankery. A double bass drum is only an improvement on Meg White's primeval tubthumping if you believe that Carl Palmer (late of Emerson, Lake and...) is a better drummer than Ringo Starr. And if you do, you're just wrong. Less is more, as someone who called his second album De Stijl ought to know. White also appears to have porked out a bit, and the ladeez in the house (well, park) seem more entranced by his new chum, Brendan Benson, who has the doomed elegance of someone who might have been in Big Star once.

Throughout the Raconteurs' set, a young woman sits, her back defiantly to the stage, earnestly reading Sarah Waters' Fingersmith. Who could be on next, we wonder? As the folky strains of 'Stars of Track and Field' ring out against the encroaching wind, Small Boo asks the most telling question of the afternoon: "Why do all the women in Belle and Sebastian look like Emily Watson? And half the men as well?"

B&S are no longer the stage-frightened shamblers of old. Stuart Murdoch is a wry ringmaster, and the sheer strength of songs and musicianship can win over the most sceptical of audiences. But their whimsical instrumentation (Maracas! Melodicas! Vibraphones! Fuck, is that a Casiotone?) is no match for the surroundings, and lots of musical nuances get lost, even when they attempt to stare down the elements with 'Song For Sunshine'. But the songs from their latest, most successful album are strong enough to win over the agnostics in the scrum. Guitarist Stevie rings the changes in his Elvis Costello c. 1979 garb, and his wild Peter Crouch callisthenics are a highspot of the day.

A quick hop to the Xfm (are they still going?) Tent brings us the sad sight of Bob Mould doing a solo set for about three men, the dog having gone off to check whether this guy did indeed release the NME's album of the year in 1992. Super Furry Animals have more success but, as ever, their Beach-Boys-meets-Black-Sabbath soundscapes take a while to get into gear. When they up the tempo, they're scintillating, and you remember that 'God! Show Me Magic' is that rare thing, a rock anthem that's simply too damn short. I remember that I first saw these guys when they were sandwiched between Kenickie and Northern Uproar, and I feel old.

And then the headliners, the Strokes. They're Small Boo's pick of the bill, but not my cup of warm Carlsberg. I don't dislike them, but I can't get excited either. Julian and Co do manage to puncture the myth that all their songs sound the same; on the other hand, it's all their best songs, such as the searing 'Last Nite' that sound the same, and when they try to deviate from the formula, things get a bit limp.

So that was Wireless, the festival for people who don't like festivals. Sponsor presence wasn't a crassly overpowering as I'd been led to believe, although some of the phone-based services seemed a bit naff. Not only were you able to post your own portraits to the screens either side of the stage (waving behind Keith Chegwin for the 21st century); but you could also download the view from the stage onto your own handset. The image of people paying 40 quid for a ticket, and then paying extra to watch people jumping up and down on a little screen, says something a little sad about the poor old Zeitgeist.

Of course, none of the performers at Wireless managed anything so controversial as a political statement, which distances the whole thing even more from the Woodstock myth. However, Tom Stoppard's new play Rock 'n' Roll, at the Royal Court, suggests that, contrary to the received wisdom, it's not the politically committed bands that can make the walls shake, but the nihilists and the fun-seekers.

The action spans the years between the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968 and the death-throes of Communism in 1990, through the eyes of Cambridge Marxist academic Max (Brian Cox) and Czech unwilling dissident Jan (Rufus Sewell). There's a bit of rancorous dialogue about the October revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat; but Stoppard's key offstage presence is not Marx or Dubcek, but former Syd Barrett. The deposed Pink Floyd leader hovers at the beginning in the form of Pan; and remains entwined in the lives of Max's daughter and granddaughter as he cycles around Cambridge, bald, fat, but still oddly bewitching.

In parallel to Barrett is the influence of the Plastic People of the Universe, a Czech band that kept the spirit of dissidence going, not through sloganeering, but through playing chaotic cover versions of Velvet Underground songs, thinly disguised as art lectures to throw the authorities off the scent. It's this spirit, suggests Stoppard, that is truly subversive (which incidentally makes the snide observation, that today's anti-war rockers are dominated by old guarders such as Neil Young, seem pretty irrelevant). Jan and his friend Ferdinand survive prison and the constant attentions of the security services; but it's when Jan returns to his flat and finds his beloved vinyl smashed on the floor that the biggest collective sob engulfs the audience. It's like High Fidelity, reworked by Ingmar Bergman.

Scene changes are punctuated with blasts of rock, from the relevant (Dylan, Velvets, Floyd) to the preposterous (Guns N' Roses). For the nerds among us, recording credits, even including studio details, are projected, white (light?) on black. At the end, Jan, Ferdinand and Max's daughter Esme leap around as the Rolling Stones rock the newly liberated Prague in 1990, and Esme (Sinead Cusack) bellows the final, crucial line: "I don't care!" A poster for the event appears; and at the top, you can just about make out that it's sponsored by Anheuser-Busch.

Phew, rock 'n' roll, eh?

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Stainless stealing

Professor Sally Brown of Leeds Metropolitan University suggests that kids today plagiarise because they don't know any better. "They are post-modern, eclectic, Google-generationists, Wikipediasts, who don't necessarily recognise the concepts of authorships/ownerships," she argues.

So, next time you're busted for shoplifting in Tesco, blame Baudrillard.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Peaks and troughs

Apologies for the absence. Have been in the Peak District, doing a family reunion/parents' ruby wedding/mother's birthday/father's day thing. Web access was damn near impossible, and even radio and TV were sketchy. The isolation was refreshing, but I did begin to feel a bit lost without Google on hand to settle trivia arguments with my dad.

We managed to kick ITV into life for Thursday's Trinidad match. The last few weeks of hype had already sabotaged any last vestiges of empathy I might have for the England team, and their woeful performance vindicated my cynicism. I was happy to join with the Anglophobe Scots in cheering on T&T, and after Gerrard scored it was the pain in the eyes of Shaka Hislop - a onetime darling of Fratton Park - that will be the lasting memory.

Patriotism (of a lefty, Orwellian, JB Priestley hue) returned the following day, as we shook off the hangover with a trek past wild rhododendrons and wilder sheep up to Win Hill, and the glorious view over Ladybower. The temptation to hum 'Jerusalem' was immense, especially as we had our backs to the cement works that scab up the vista on the other side. And all was well with the world...

...until yesterday, when we went to Chatsworth, ancestral seat of the Dukes of Devonshire. (Why the Dukes of Devonshire have pitched their tent so far from their nominal stamping ground is a mystery beyond me. Anyone?) It's not the sort of place I'd go out of my way to visit, but it seemed a shame to miss out when it was on the doorstep. And it's all very nice, with Landseer, Tintoretto, Canova and Lucien Freud all existing in unlikely harmony. However, I went into full-on pedant mode when I saw the explanatory caption to one of the fab ceilings (by Laguerre) supposedly depicting episodes from the life of "the Roman emperor Julius Caesar".

Now you don't need to have had a posh, classical education. A passing knowledge of a couple of Shakespeare plays would do. Or even a quick scan of I, Claudius. Or simply watch that ludicrous Rome shagtacular. JULIUS CAESAR WAS NEVER EMPEROR! THE FIRST EMPEROR WAS AUGUSTUS! In the whole inclusivity/accessibility debate about culture and heritage, surely someone ought to be ensuring that people who might be dipping their toes into the whole Western art canon for the first time are presented with information that isn't ignorant bollocks? Maybe?

But to end on a positive note, if you're passing through the village of Hope, Derbyshire, do check out the Cheshire Cheese pub. The beer's good, and the food portions are vast, as might be guessed from the landlord's ample frame. We dealt with our haddock, chips and a hillock of mushy peas, but Small Boo stalled halfway through the similarly generous chocolate sponge pudding, and went to bed early with a tummy ache. While I stayed up, grumbling about Julius bloody Caesar. Like you do.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Eau well

I had the slightly unnerving but entirely enjoyable experience last night of putting some names to faces, as Patroclus (cranberry and soda), Slaminsky (Carlsberg), Wyndham (Scotch and Coke, very early Beatles), Pashmina (can't remember because of the Absolut Citron) and myself (er... Absolut Citron) met to put the worlds to right and bitch about how crap everybody else's blogs are. Apart from the startling discovery that Patroclus is in fact a burly stevedore called Brian, and that Wyndham is a pseudonym for popular and talented TV presenter Davina McCall, there will be no further revelations that might imperil our plan for global domination and the imposition of a consistent style for links.

Except to reveal that no Perrier was consumed, which is a pretty lame connection to the story that Perrier is to stop sponsoring the award ceremony at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. "We felt that it is time for us to explore new opportunities," said the MD of the fizzy water people, which as we all know translates roughly as "Nobody gives a fuck any more so we're cutting our losses." In fact, does anyone drink Perrier any more? Or does it smell too much of large phones and unfeasible shoulderpads?

However, unlike the Booker Prize, which still commemorates its original sponsor after the relationship ended, the awards have been fully renamed to acknowledge the new kids on the block, the considerably less fizzy (but, on the other hand, untainted by associations with Nestle) Intelligent Finance. The awards are to be known as (and I can only just about bring myself to type this) "the if.commedies". Awards director Nica Burns claims that the new name incorporates: "Edinburgh; the name of our new sponsor; the word comedy."

Well, why not call them the Edinburghintelligentfinancecomedy Awards then? It's hardly less crass and unwieldy, is it? Not that it matters, because Ms Burns hopes that the awards will be known as 'the Eddies', the implication being that Eddie is fit to rank alongside Oscar, Tony, Emmy and all the proper awards that people care about.

Now, the important thing about the Oscars is that nobody really knows for sure how they got that nickname. It wasn't a case of spending days cooped up with branding consultants, only to emerge and humbly drop a hint, like Desdemona's snotty Kleenex, that calling them the Oscars might be a nice idea. It just happened. Although, to be fair, if nature were allowed to take its course in this case, we might find the cream of comic talent competing for the Iffies.

P.S. And while we're on the subject of nomenclature gone a bit rubbish, how about a Hall of Fame for musicians that nobody's heard of?

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Cufk, Tish, Sips

The day after the guy who got shot in Forest Gate said "fuck" on Radio 4's The World At One (but he was quoting the police officer who was allegedly trying to throttle him, so that's OK), the engagingly preposterous Zoe Williams tries to reclaim "cunt" in The Guardian.

David Baddiel once said something quite interesting (there's a phrase you don't hear much these days) about the c-word. He suggested that the main problem with it is aesthetic, that it's a nasty, ugly, angular word, entirely inappropriate to its primary meaning. (Is there a word for the opposite to onomataopoeia?) As such, he wanted to reclaim it solely as a term of abuse, and forbid its association with the female genitalia. Unfortunately, the cogency of his argument was somewhat blunted by the fact that, even on Channel 4 in the early 90s, he wasn't actually allowed to say the word itself.

In any case, it's all slightly academic. As any fule kno, there is one super-expletive that banishes all others to the nursery slopes of offensiveness. And that word (sorry about this) is...

Sunday, June 11, 2006

A thought

Maybe it's just jetlag, but is blogging the new tamagotchi?


Friday, June 09, 2006

Beggars, babes and the Bible

Rembrandt Etchings: Central Chidlom, Bangkok

Thanks to Amazon and iTunes and dodgy DVD stalls, my exile in the place of the olive plums means that I'm doing OK for books and recorded music and movies. Other manifestations of Western culture, however, are somewhat sparse, unless you're into third-rate Noel Coward or (help) The Eagles.

So when I journey back to the Land of Jade and ASBOs, I tend to gorge on gigs and plays and, above all, galleries. Oddly, just before we were due to leave for our latest homeward jaunt, we discovered that Bangkok has suddenly come good on the pretty picture front. The Dutch embassy has organised an exhibition of etchings by the art world's greatest cloggy (Vincent fans may cough discreetly here), Rembrandt van Rijn. The event honours the 60th anniversary of HM the King's accession to the Thai throne, as well as marking 400 years since Rembrandt's birth.

By the nature of the medium, the pictures are small, but there are 88 of them. Some are finished products, intended for clients; some are preliminary studies for paintings; and others are pretty much spontaneous doodles, an arm here, a head there, an old man leaning into the frame at 90 degrees to everything else. Here we see what distinguished Rembrandt from his predecessors; he was one of the first major artists to take on the teachings of the Renaissance and interpret them in a humane, emotional way (as distinct from the intellectual rigour of, say, Leonardo). He's fascinated by light and shade, by the imperfections of skin, by the effect of ageing. His Diana is no glam superhero; this girl's got cellulite you wouldn't believe.

His images of Amsterdam's many beggars and vagabonds demonstrate a wry tenderness that contrasts with the sententious, implied criticism that previous artists had shown. The poor and homeless were widely believed to be responsible for their fate, but Rembrandt's ability to characterise them as flawed but dignified individuals means that his pictures would fit neatly into the works of Dickens, 200-odd years later. Looking at the peg-legged 'captain', head bowed, his arm in a sling, you can't help but muse on the misadventures that might have brought him here.

Rembrandt works within the boundaries demanded by the artistic tradition of his time, but his buzzing fascination for the real, the fleshy, means that he always seems to be chipping away at the expectations holding him back. All his contemporaries were dutiful chroniclers of scenes from the Bible, but he reminds us that this was stuff that happened. His 'Descent from the Cross' doesn't depict a slim, ethereal presence, elegantly dead. One nail is out, and the released arm hangs useless, broken. A chunky, Dutch labourer, not a non-specifically eastern Mediterranean figure, wields the pliers. This is the muscular, in-your-face Jesus of Dennis Potter, not Robert Powell's blue-eyed pretty boy. This is the work of a man with, his religious faith notwithstanding, a lust for life. Sorry, wrong Dutchman again.

So, Rembrandt hits Bangkok, which is all well and good, with a few buts. The fact that the etchings are on show in a department store rather than a gallery seems, on the face of it, to be a positive, egalitarian move, bringing great art to the masses. But it's probably more an indication of desperation, that Bangkok lacks a gallery space to compete with the likes of Singapore and Shanghai. Moreover, in this city, a store like Central hardly opens its arms to the curious, unwashed masses. In any case, if any member of the hoi-polloi were to slip into the show, the fact that the explanatory captions are only in English renders them pretty useless.

I look at his street people again. His predecessors thought they'd brought their misfortune on themselves. In fact, this is a fairly prevalent view in Thai Buddhist culture, which sees a lowly social position as being the karmic result of bad behaviour in a previous existence. Rembrandt was no anarchist, but there's a sense that exposing the masses to his energetic, inclusive humanism might be, for some people, just that little bit too dangerous.

Monday, June 05, 2006

The Bob Swipe Memorial Post

In the course of the research for my next book (he says, trying desperately to sound like a proper, grown-up writer), I've been trying to locate the first use of the word 'indie' in reference to a genre of music, rather than the status of the company that releases the music. There have been numerous dead ends, but I've always been fascinated by the haphazard, murky way in which neologisms stagger backwards into the limelight. It's not necessarily the first use that's important; it's the moment at which usage of the word or phrase hits some sort of critical mass. And, in many cases, the event should really be accompanied by a substantial side-order of WHY???

For example, why has the sensible, descriptive 'weblog' been superseded by the ugly 'blog'? Was that extra syllable really such a chore? As Alison Bradley puts it: "Blog is truly an unfortunate word. Far from appetizing, a blog inspires John Carpenter derived images of a blob in the fog, meandering through the web."

See, it could have been worse. We could all have been writing flobs.

Which is silly, of course, but not nearly as daft as this piece by Catherine Bennett in last Thursday's Graun, which suggests that the blogverse is characterised by "a redneck approach to sex and women", including "devil-may-care asides about porn, notes on the ugliness of women commentators, the beauty of young waitresses, or remarks... on the 'totty situation'".

To which the all-too-obvious response is to suggest that Ms Bennett stop worrying her pretty little head about such matters, and make us a cup of tea. On the other hand, if you would like to contribute your euro's worth of vitriol and hearsay to the continuing debate about flobbing, sorry, blogging, you could do worse than to allow Patroclus to delve around in the recesses of your grey matter for a few minutes.

Love-on y'all,


Friday, June 02, 2006