Monday, December 31, 2007

The holy trinity

When I was 17, I was selected to take part in the Canadian National Student Debating Seminar, taking place that year in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Earnest young gobshites from the length and breadth of Canada were billeted on kindly and respectable residents of the town; I was taken in by the mayor of Halifax himself.

As one might expect from a gentleman in such an exalted position, the mayor had met the great and good of all nations, a fact of which he was quietly proud. Above his mantelpiece were three framed photographs, depicting the most prestigious of these encounters: the mayor meeting Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II; the mayor meeting His Holiness Pope John Paul II; and the mayor meeting...

Kenny New Year, everyone.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

This year's model

I've discussed before the fact that those retrospective reviews that pepper the media throughout December bear little or no relation to how we actually consume cultural product. The vast majority of them deal only with things that have been released in the past year: this benefits the culture industry (which packs its marketing resources behind the most recent releases) and the reviewers themselves, who get to prove how terribly Zeitgeisty they are.

Of course ordinary consumers are interested in new stuff. But they mix up recent releases with old favourites, as well as books and films and music that have only just come into view, or have been tottering on a to-do pile for several months. Add to this the fact that most general punters are by definition at a disadvantage when it comes to keeping up with the latest developments (little access to review copies, advance screenings, the chance to read something in proof or even manuscript) and it's easy to work out that for many of us, "the best thing I've read/seen/heard all year" will come from a much broader pool than you might infer by scanning the Sunday broadsheets.

So, the best new book I've read this year was After Dark by Haruki Murakami, although it's only the English translation that was "new", the Japanese original having appeared three years ago. With music I'm on surer ground: The Reminder by Feist, which was definitely released this year, and will doubtless be cropping up in those damned lists, even if Betty hates it. Films? To be honest, nothing with a release date of 2007 has made me sit up and clap my hands. Of course if I'd had the job of identifying the year's best films for and end-of-'07 round-up, I wouldn't be able to write that; at best, I'd have to write a bitter, backward-looking sidebar about how modern film is rubbish. Or, if I'd had that job, I would have got my arse into gear and seen Lust, Caution and No Country for Old Men in time for the end of the year.

But recent releases make up only a small part of what I've consumed. Some of my happiest experiences have come from things I thought I knew, or things I've meant to watch: The Great Gatsby left me gasping with melancholy joy, a quarter-century after I should have read it; and Les Triplettes de Belleville is as weird and funny as everyone said it was when it first came out (in 2003), so I don't know why I left it that long. As for music, the album I've listened to most assiduously this year is a sampler of old Chicago blues and soul stuff that came attached to the front of Mojo magazine a couple of years back. Were I writing a "proper" review, that would be discounted on two counts: too late; and cobbled-together freebie samplers aren't "real" product (in the sense that you can't use them as leverage for selling ad space).

And in any case, by the time you get to my age, categorical "favourites" tend to become fossilised. The best things I've read or heard or seen were my best things last year, and for the decade before that. So that's why the best book of 2007, as far as I'm concerned, is Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies; the best album is White Light/White Heat by the Velvet Underground; and the best film is Casablanca. And, unless something very peculiar happens in the coming months, these will be the best things of 2008 as well, and of 2009, and on and on until I can't read or hear or watch or blog anything.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Wot no Leonardo?

A few disconnected thoughts about the putative highlight of this year's sprout-coma TV. Most of these probably replicate musings on various Whoey talkboards but, hey, great spods think alike.

New, quasi-banging-techno arrangement of theme music. I'd rather not, thanks.

The pitch: The Robots of Death meets The Poseidon Adventure.

Um, Starship Titanic, maybe? And wasn't one of the protocol numbers that the Doctor threw at the Hosts 42? Intertextual metafictional geekoid references ahoy! What next? Captain Jack masters the Vulcan death grip?

Yeah, yeah, fanboys, ASTRID = TARDIS (anag). But it also = STAR ID, which is pretty much what happened to her. And, in a less literal sense, what happened to Kylie. And 'Astrid' may even be an oblique reference to a character in long-lost Troughton story The Enemy of the World? Or is that just showing off?

Talking of Astrid, from some angles, Kylie looks like Janet Leigh. And from others, a young Gloria Hunniford.

In any case, is it appropriate to call a 39-year-old woman a "pretty girl"? Even if you're a dying dwarf Cyborg?

Ethnic Minority Actor In An Ethnically Non-Specific Role? Check.

Ditto crowbarred-in gay lib reference. Yes, they can get married now. We get it.

Bit of a waste of Geoffrey Palmer, I thought. But he was good while he lasted.

But didn't Marjorie marry the Brigadier at the end of the last series? Oh hang on, sorry, that was the other putative Christmas TV highlight. Bit rubbish, wasn't it? But maybe it was always thus, and we just didn't know it at the time.

Queen-and-Corgi cameo: very naff. Ditto the shooting star bit at the end. Eewww.

If 50 million credits is about a million quid, 5,000 credits is 100 quid. Why would it take the Van Hoffs 20 years to pay that off? What sort of economy have they got on Sto?

Hasn't the disabled megalomaniac thing been done to death? We've had John Lumic, now this. Why can't they just bring back Davros and be done with it?

The best (new series) Christmas episode yet, and the best thing RTD has done this year. Neither of which really constitutes effusive praise, but it was fun.

(Small Boo's observation.) The awkward erotic frisson thing between the Doctor and his revolving cast of fit totty (Rose, Martha, now Astrid) is getting a bit tiresome. Is that why they're bringing Donna back, seeing as how there's no way the Doctor would want to shag her without a general anaesthetic?

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Everything I know about psychology, I learned from a trombone solo by Big Jim Paterson

Want to know yourself a little better? Forget EQ tests, Scientology, all that time-consuming hassle. Just decide what your favourite Dexys Midnight Runners song is.

If your favourite Dexys Midnight Runners song is 'Geno', you are a 40-something male, essentially content, but with a distinct feeling that things haven't quite worked out as you hoped they would. You never actually saw The Clash in concert, but you drop hints that you might have done to younger female colleagues, who have no idea what you're talking about, and laugh about you in the toilets. In the film of your life you will be played by Neil Pearson.

If your favourite Dexys Midnight Runners song is 'Come On Eileen', you enjoy nightclubs where the dress code is 'Grange Hill uniform' and your main source of solid factual information about the wider world is those list programmes on Channel 4. In the film of your life you will be played by Jennifer Ellison.

If your favourite Dexys Midnight Runners song is 'This Is What She's Like' (the 12-minute rant from their dressing-like-accountants period), you are a music critic on a broadsheet newspaper, and you hope there is no record of the fact you thought the album was incomprehensible bollocks when it first came out. In the film of your life you will be played by Richard E. Grant.

If your favourite Dexy's Midnight Runners song is in fact from that Kevin Rowland solo effort where he wore women's underwear, you took rather too many drugs at the height of the mid-90s easy listening revival, and you are now physically incapable of distinguishing 'ironic' from 'please summon medical attention immediately'. In fact you are Alan McGee, although when the time comes for the movie you will be played by Steve Coogan, who will just play it as Steve Coogan with a faint Scottish accent, but Alan McGee himself will make a brief cameo, as will Kevin Rowland, probably as a park keeper or bin man.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Modified humbug

I'm not religious but I really like a lot of religious music. Plenty of proper, old-fashioned Anglican hymns (none of your hands-aloft nonsense) seem to be tattooed on my DNA; and I really love classic black gospel, the Soul Stirrers and the Swan Silvertones and Sister Rosetta Tharpe and all that.

Similarly, Christmas I can give or take, but I always used to get a little tingle when the Sally Army band showed up at Victoria station, especially when they got to 'In The Bleak Midwinter'. And I'll probably listen to the carols from King's College tomorrow. Call me predictable.

I did a YouTube search for a little Yuletide titbit to offer my long-suffering readers, and came across Peter, Paul and Mary singing 'Go Tell It On The Mountain', a tune I associate with the year I spent in Canada. It was great, but not quite what I wanted, and foolishly, I then followed a link to 'Puff the Magic Dragon' which is not only non-Christmassy, but also one of the saddest songs ever written: in fact, I'm tempted to say that the single line "A dragon lives forever but not so little boys" packs into nine words more pathos that Blake's entire Songs of Innocence and Experience and the final chapter of The House at Pooh Corner combined. Yeah, OK, I'm not afraid to say that it made me cry.

Which is even more unseasonal, I suppose, if you're worried about that sort of thing. So here's Mahalia Jackson. The footage is a bit primitive, but the old girl's got a decent set of pipes in her.

I won't presume to impose a Happy Christmas on you, but non-specific good wishes are coming your way, and a mince pie may be raised in your general direction. See you on the other side.

Friday, December 21, 2007


The first time I saw a plain-paper fax, I thought we'd finally reached Thee Future.

So, what item of run-of-the-mill technology once gave you a sci-fi-flavoured thrill that now seems faintly embarrassing?

Thursday, December 20, 2007

A whiter shade of... er...

In which I welcome the new, inclusive, ethnically diverse face of boneheaded bigotry.

Also, this reader response from the BBC's online coverage of the England collapse in Galle: "Do other nations think it unfair that England get to bowl more overs and have more turns at batting than anyone else?"

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The worst word in the world

My memory's definitely getting worse. Not only do I regularly forget where I've put my keys, by the time I find them, I've forgotten why I wanted them in the first place. Well, to open something, sure: but to open what?

One interesting side-effect of this encroaching senility is that it's left room for bizarre recollections from decades back to reassert themselves in my befuddled mind. This morning, for example, I remembered a very peculiar conversation I had when I was about 11 years old.

Slightly perturbed at the borderline sociopath they'd bred, my parents went through a phase of sending me on "adventure" holidays, in which I would be forced to engage in healthy outdoor pursuits such as rock climbing and horse riding and other things that didn't involve reading Dr Who books in semi-darkness. The holidays were usually based in boarding schools (which would otherwise lie empty during the summer) and I'd be thrown into a dorm with about a dozen other kids, many of them as socially dysfunctional as myself, which probably defeated the object.

Anyway, here's the memory. As we tottered back to the dorm after the nightly disco, conversation turned to the single 'Jilted John', which had got us all pogoing in our Clark's Commandos. One boy announced that it was "the best punk rock song ever". I demurred, suggesting that the Sex Pistols might have a stronger claim to the title.

But one kid, whose name I really can't dredge up, try as I might, announced confidently that we were both wrong. The best, nastiest, most evil punk song ever was the work of one Johnny Apple, who had been thrown out of the Sex Pistols because he was such an utter delinquent. The song was called 'The Queen is a Niker'. We went a bit quiet.

"Do you know what a niker is?" he asked, with a faint hint of menace. We shrugged. "It's the worst swear word ever," he continued. "It's like calling someone a fucking bloody fucking shitty wanker. But worse."

It was several weeks, by which time I'd returned to the bosom of my family, before I realised he was making the whole thing up. But I like to think that one day someone from the Oxford English Dictionary will drop me a line, asking if I have any documentary evidence of the provenance of this peculiar word, (late 1970's), (vulg.).

I've tried to find footage of the legendary Johnny Apple, but not surprisingly the well is dry: no sign even of the clean version. You'll have to make do with this:

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Basket case

The label attached to a wicker basket, made in China, for a Japanese company, bought in the Bangkok equivalent of a pound shop:

"Your day is filled with happiness and love. It is made of natural material so it may have fungus or insects."

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Radio times

I'm scheduled to make a modest contribution to a debate on Richard Bacon's late night show on Radio Five Live on Thursday night (actually more like 0030 GMT on Friday morning). It'll be available on Listen Again thereafter.

That is all.

PS: Sorry about that. My appearance had to be aborted for technical reasons. And I had all my spontaneous quips ready, in my best handwriting.

Ho ho whatever...

In which I send a Christmas card, or as close as anyone's going to get from me this year.

Also: from the Observer, Mary Riddell on general crapness within the BBC, and an uncharacteristically interesting sprawl of comments to follow; and in the Telegraph, of all places, Rupert Everett further stakes his claim to be a stately homo of England with his comments on cosmetic surgery:

"I'm thinking of having a pubic lift, and maybe a face lift, too, with some rather visible, neatly tailored scars, like the seams on a suit."

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Who burned my disco?

Simon Reynolds reviews a US compilation of UK indie from the 80s and 90s for Salon. He makes some good points, and neatly characterises what Brit fans wanted from their guitar-toting heroes at the time, in terms of lyrics at least: "a slightly heroicized version of the fan base's dreams and fears".

But Reynolds then goes on to argue that what a) unifies most of the music in the box and b) prevented its acceptance in the US, is its rejection of dance culture, rhythm, blackness. Inevitably, Morrissey's recent contretemps with the NME gets a mention.

I've never really understood this analysis of classic indie-pop. Sure, it prioritises texture and introspection over beats and feet. And Reynolds is bang on the money when he argues that the British tradition of world-class, black-influenced drummers seems to have come to an end, although he could have given a nod to Reni.

But why does a desire for melodic introspection automatically become a rejection of or even a reaction against dance music? Why does the fact that Morrissey doesn't want to sound like 50 Cent imply a separatist rejection of black culture, which in turn implies, however faintly, racist tendencies, while nobody questions the fact that 50 Cent doesn't want to sound like Morrissey? And isn't a mixture of jangly guitars and lyrics about loneliness permitted to exist as a positive statement in and of itself, to be lauded or denigrated on its own terms, on the basis of what it is, rather than what it isn't?

PS: And now Billy Bragg's weighing in. It's like a student disco from about 1986.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Ooh la la

Didier Jacob in Le Nouvel Observateur (translated and quoted by Hugh Schofield on BBC News):

"...the American view of France could be reduced to a simple formula: De Gaulle + Sartre + the baguette + Sophie Marceau's breasts = French culture. Whereas - as we all know - it is infinitely more rich."

It's a simple formula, but a bloody persuasive one. I like baguettes.


One good thing about Bangkok is that the hotel bars are littered with pretty decent American jazz musicians offering some elegant tooting and tinkling as you sup your early-evening maragaritas. They're rarely household names, but a lot of them have impressive pedigrees, including stints with some of the big hitters as far back as the 1960s.

So the Bangkok Jazz Festival ought to offer a chance for these guys to get away from being background music to finger food, and actually play a few proper gigs. Sadly not. I'm not quite sure what jazz actually is any more, when I see that the headliners include Blood, Sweat and Tears, Shakatak and Matt Bianco:

To be fair, I was quite fond of MB when I was a nipper. Think it was the houndstooth check jackets that did it. But I rather doubt they'll be performing their most memorable hit in BKK.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Our day out

A day off, it being the 80th birthday of the world's hippest monarch. Small Boo and I decided to take a trip to Pattaya: I've skirted the edges of the resort a few times, but never actually been there. It's actually a fairly grim, tacky place, somewhere in the psychic space between Blackpool and Benidorm, but with rather more tattooed, chain-smoking Eastern Europeans in evidence. Still, one more to tick off the list.

The fun came on the way home. First, we stopped at Mini-Siam, a model village in the grand tradition, with representations not just of Thailand's finest architecture, but many of the world's finest tourist attractions. It's actually pretty good, although the right-most head on Mount Rushmore is more Leonard Nimoy than Abraham Lincoln.

It's a fun detour if you're passing, and there were plenty of local family groups enjoying the holiday. What surprised me was the presence of three vast coaches full of Korean tourists, who were lapping the place up with as much relish as the Thai kids. It did make me wonder whether we've got this tourism business right: maybe its enough to stick models of the Parthenon, Sydney Opera House, Angkor Wat and so on in one venue, and let the punters run free with their cameras. I mean, when they photographed each other in front of an impressive copy of Abu Simbel, they could have been imagining themselves in Egypt, or the Las Vegas version of Egypt? And which would more impress the folks back in Seoul? (Which reminds me, I really want to go to Macao, to see their version of the Vegas version of Venice.)

Obligatory obeisance to Baudrillard duly performed, we proceeded to The Bottle Art Museum, the life's work of the late Pieter Bij De Leij.

The oeuvre of Dutch-born De Leij falls squarely into what art critics with interesting haircuts now call "outsider art". He made rather rough and ready representations of buildings and vehicles, then dismantled them, and put them back together inside bottles. It's what people have been doing with model ships for centuries, but rather more fiddly. The slightly melancholy atmosphere in the little museum tipped over into David Lynch territory when we reached the back wall, only to see pictorial representations of De Leij's six weddings, revealing that he was a dwarf.

The final stop was an orchid farm, but we were stopped in our tracks by a gesticulating man who warned that a randy, rather violent elephant was blocking the road, and if we carried on we'd probably be making a very interesting claim on the car insurance. We took an alternative route, and from the farm we had a good view of the beast being tranquilised, which made me feel a bit Orwellian, albeit in a terribly safe, sterile way.

"It's nearly four," said the orchid man. "The Russians will be here soon." On cue, seven or eight all-terrain vehicles, most of them ridden by burly men in shorts, crash helmets, vicious sunburns and nothing else, rolled up, had a quick drink, and departed. "Tour party," explained our host.

Small Boo selected an orchid cluster, and stowed it in the boot. On the freeway back to Bangkok she glanced at the car ceiling and gasped. It was swarming with large, black ants, which had presumably hitched a ride along with the flowers, and spent the rest of the journey wandering harmlessly over our heads and arms.

"How shall I end this?" I asked her, as she lounged on the bed, tapping into her laptop. She shrugged.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Entirely academic

In which I go back to blathering about education policy.

And serious respect is due to that man Muralitharan, of course. As he said himself: "I like to be a bowler because I can't bat properly."

Saturday, December 01, 2007

The power of three

Thailand is in the middle of yet another election campaign, with polling scheduled for 23 December, coups permitting. Because of the convoluted preferential voting system, candidates tout themselves in slates of three. To a Western eye, many of the posters rather resemble those lager commercials that have blokes going to pubs in groups of three, lest you think they might be homosexualists; or even reminders that you can't fit quicker than a KwikFit fitter. (Pic courtesy of

PS: BiB snags the award for the best opening sentence of a blog post in living memory: "The only reason I’m not a mass murderer is that I don’t have a driving licence."

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Somewhere on a see-saw

Thanks to a combination of holidays and illness and general lack of intellectual ambition, my reading habits in recent weeks have been defiantly middlebrow. Not that any author would want his or her work defined as such: even the marketing wonks of Publishingworld don't seem to acknowledge such a genre. You've got your pile-'em-high blockbusters, the Browns and Ludlums and Grishams, not to mention the pinker, more glittery bits of chick-lit; and you've got your proper literary fiction types, the universe of I'll-say-nice-things-about-yours-in-the-New-York-Review-if-you-do-the-same-for-me-in-The-Observer. But what about the books that hover somewhere between? And how do they get there?

Take The Understudy, by David Nicholls. The author seems to be doing quite nicely as a purveyor of not-very-laddish lad-lit, the narrow segment of the post-Nick-Hornby spectrum that doesn't much care for football. His first novel, of course, had at its heart the noble sport of quizzing, a pursuit that's quintessentially male (competitive, anal) and yet at the same time utterly unmanly (girls don't swoon when you do it). The Understudy brings us another decent-hearted, obsessive nerd, one Stephen C. McQueen, whose middle initial was added by a helpful agent, just in case of any confusion.

Stephen's an actor, you see, although his dreams of stardom are based on the offchance that the megastar for whom he's depping in a West End play about Byron might come to some misfortune. Immediately we're in the realms of the existential hero, watching his youthful dreams getting kicked to pieces, night after night (plus two matinees a week). Chekhov could have created Stephen, in all his tragicomic glory; Beckett and Stoppard have returned again and again to characters, like him, slightly to one side of greatness, literally and metaphorically hovering in the wings, waiting for the call that never happens.

But this is the middle ground, remember? You can throw a few big ideas around, but heaven forbid you toss in any allusions that are going to perplex or challenge your reader unduly. In fact, if you do feel the need to refer to another work of literature, it's better that you get it wrong than run the risk of disrupting the warm and sudsy bath in which your punter wallows.

An example. Josh, the expensively-dentisted pretty boy whose wellbeing obstructs Stephen's lust for glory, takes his underling out for a drink at a private club. "Lead on, Macduff," he declaims as they step out onto Piccadilly and the reader is expected to know or infer that the quotation is from Macbeth. Except it isn't, of course. "Lead on, Macduff" is one of Shakespeare's three great misquotations, alongside "Once more into the breach" and "Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well". It's "Lay on".

Now, if this were Dan Brown, the (mis)quotation wouldn't be there in the first place, or if it were, it would be glossed and footnoted, with detailed notes about the renowned playwright William Shakespeare and his place within the Priory of Sion. And if this were, say, Margaret Atwood or Tom Wolfe or Martin Amis or Don DeLillo, or Chekhov or Stoppard (especially Stoppard), the fact that Josh gets the line wrong would kickstart endless chinstrokery about the fragility of the Canon, or the persistence of solecisms, or an entire alternative literary universe would grind into gear, where Tom or Don or Tom would interrogate Shakespeare as to why exactly he wrote "lay" rather than "lead" and how he feels about everyone getting it wrong and, while we're at it, Will, this literary genius thing is the loneliest game, innit?

But this is David Nicholls, and David Nicholls isn't allowed to (doesn't allow himself to?) play those games. So a misquotation lies there on the page, and you never know whether it's a wry, smartypants dig at Josh's dimness, or a straightforward goof that someone should have picked up somewhere in the editorial process, but nobody did, cue shrugs and sighs all round as Nicholls signs the movie deal. (As with Starter for Ten, it's screamingly obvious that The Understudy was conceived with a movie version somewhere in the DNA. The main female character is American, for no apparent reason other than that this might make the product more saleable in Ohio.)

Maybe Mark Haddon isn't cut from the same cloth as Nicholls. After all, Haddon's own debut, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, won the Whitbread Prize, a fact that seems to scream Proper Literature pretty loudly. And yet, for all its postmodern maths puzzles and clinically unreliable narrator, it was a confidently un-literary type of book, dealing with a small universe of small people who really didn't give a damn about the precise words Shakespeare put in the mouth of his anti-hero. A Spot of Bother inhabits the same universe, as the principals bounce between London and Peterborough in the service of a bourgeois family farce that never quite tips over into the tragedy that hovers at the edge of the page. Infidelity, breakdown, cancelled weddings, mid-life crises, born-again Christianity and eczema add to a bubbling mix of dysfunction; but Haddon's implied message seems to be that, hey, aren't we all dysfunctional, when you look at it? And surely any book that can carry on its inside back cover the assertion that it's "a crisp, light, effortless read" (Sunday Times) isn't seeking the same market that plays spot-the-allusion with the new Ian McEwan.

OK, two very specific points that place A Spot of Bother closer to Nicholls than to The Proper Lit Crowd. First - and this might be worth a quick SPOILER ALERT - near the middle of the novel, one of the characters attempts to cut off part of his body with a pair of scissors. Now, if the novel were identical in every shape or form with what Haddon has produced, except for the fact that the character cuts off another part of his anatomy - yes, well done, that one - this could be a Will Self or an Iain Banks or an Irving Welsh or, indeed, an early McEwan, and it would resonate with dark, sub-Freudian glowerings behind the psychic leylandii, and say something about Blairism into the bargain. But the character does not cut off his penis; characters do not cut off their penises in Mark Haddon's books; readers do not go to Mark Haddon in search of characters cutting off their penises. He's grim, but not that grim, and that's what places him so precisely on the Grisham>McEwan spectrum.

A little later on, one of the characters has the following line: "Sharing an ageing bisexual lover with my own mother... I think life is probably difficult enough already." In fact, it's just a wry one-liner, a droll response to the maelstrom of plot in which the principals find themselves. If it hinted at any kind of internal reality - if anyone really was sharing an ageing bisexual lover with his own mother - we'd be in Douglas Coupland territory. But we're not. We're in Haddonland, and again, Haddon doesn't play those games, and we wouldn't want him to.

Of course, any notion of placing Nicholls or Haddon somewhere on the length of a see-saw (whatever won the Booker this year on one seat, the sequel to The Da Vinci Code at the other) depends on the point of view of the reader. Some people would find The Understudy or A Spot of Bother offputtingly literary, and will never stray from the safe ground of their blockbusters; others will dismiss my notion of 'literary fiction' as utterly lightweight and predictable, because it's not in Armenian and doesn't require intimate knowledge of string theory to make any sense of it. It's like the moment when George W Bush declared that John Kerry was on "the far left bank" of American discourse, a comment that suddenly said far more about Bush's perception of reality and normality than Kerry's. Or maybe, as Dave Hill suggests, it's all down to the colour and sturdiness of the cover.

And then maybe it doesn't matter whether Nicholls and Haddon are 'literary' or not. Maybe it only matters whether they're any good or not. If that's all you want: The Understudy is a bit less good than Starter for Ten, which was kind of ordinary in the first place; A Spot of Bother is an equal bit less good than The Curious Incident..., which was pretty damned special. So Haddon is better (and possibly ever so slightly more literary, if that matters to you) than Nicholls. Case closed.

And hey, he got through a whole post about books without once talking about dead French cultural theorists! Give the man a (middling) round of applause!

Saturday, November 24, 2007


I've been reading LD Beghtol's rather wonderful book about The Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs, surely the greatest triple album ever made, or at least the greatest made by a gay ukulele player with a chihuahua. Beghtol includes polls of fans' favourite and least favourite tracks on the album: oddly, of my own five favourites, two are in the former Top 10 (at 2 and 6); and two are in the latter (2 and 8). This may have some kind of aesthetic or other significance, but I'm damned if I can put my finger on it.

PS: RIP Dr Who's mum.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Just say n....

In which I have to be very careful with my quotation marks.

A tedious necessity

A troll or two I can cope with, but this is becoming... I was going to type 'intolerable' but it's worse than that. 'Boring', that's the word I'm after. Someone's even taken to pretending to be me, which is a bit like that film with two Roger Moores, except that the person in question isn't even George Lazenby.

So I'm using comment moderation for the time being. Apologies for the inconvenience. All else as normal. As you were.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Cold comfort

Please excuse me if this post comes flecked with phlegm, but Small Boo and I have both been stricken by some virulent respiratory lurgy, involving much snuffling and hoiking and sinus pain and all manner of similar indignities. All the more reason to regret that my parents have departed for less sunny climes: despite my mum's temporary manual dysfunction, I'm sure she could have rustled up tomato soup and hot buttered toast, her magical cure for all known ailments since I was about three years old. And you thought chicken soup was the kosher penicillin? Meh!

Anyway, since my mystery ague has sapped my attention span along with most of my other bodily functions, I've given up on books for the moment, and taken to studying the packaging on the various proprietary goods we've used to staunch the flow of goop. I'm particularly struck by a warning on the side of a pack of Kleenex anti-viral tissues:

"Directions for Use: It is a violation of Federal law to use this product in a manner inconsistent with its labeling. Use only as a facial tissue."

Crikey. So if you find yourself having to jot down a phone number, or maybe even a brilliant idea for a blog post, and the only paper to hand is a Kleenex tissue, can you expect the attentions of an armed-to-the-teeth SWAT team, ready to stick a bag over your head and deposit you in Guantanamo?

And where does this leave the ad agency Euro RSCG, who've released a notebook made out of napkins, for just that sort of creative eventuality? Will they, too, be busted by da Feds? Or will this just spiral into insanity, with Andrex selling packets of leaves, or Nokia offering twigs and matches, so you can send smoke signals when you forget your phone?

Maybe when the antibiotics kick in, this will make sense. But somehow I doubt it.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Whisky, you're the devil

A few unattached thoughts about recent travels:

One: Why is it that, for some people, a visit to some site of natural or manmade beauty is incomplete without a photograph: moreover, one that includes the photographer's travelling companion gurning like a moron in front of said site, usually masking the best bit. And this isn't a sarky dig at Japanese people: they do take lots of snaps, but execute them with searing speed and efficiency, so that an entire coach party from Kyoto can aim, shoot and move on in the time it takes for a retired estate agent from Rotterdam to reposition his wife, fiddle with his exposure and wonder whether now would be a good time to try out that pristine tripod.

Two: Am I alone in finding it rather charming (albeit very arrogant) that French people are the only travellers who do not presume that strangers have English as a default language? "Bonjour!" they all chirruped as we met on the path to the weird underwater carvings of Kbal Spean.

Three: Back in Bangkok, there's a delightful French restaurant called Le Bouchon, nestled amidst the deepest, dankest fleshpots of Patpong. The highlight of the pudding menu is vanilla surprise; the surprise supposedly being the massive slug of whisky that the chef adds to the ice cream. In reality, the surprise comes when my mother, about 20 minutes after consuming said delight, staggers into O'Reilly's Bar and starts boogying to the Beatles cover band, wielding her plaster-encased right arm with gay and dangerous abandon.

Friday, November 16, 2007

In every dream home a heartache

Back from our second trip this year to Cambodia, again to Siem Reap, home of the wondrous weirdness that is the temples of Angkor. I had a brief "aaah-this-is-the-life" moment, thinking how delightful it would be to spend my life strolling between ABC stout at The Warehouse and palm wine at the Grand Cafe, with occasional detours to the neo-apocalyptic landscape that is Ta Phrom, a place that adds new levels of meaning to the phrase 'urban jungle'.

But of course that would be Ta Phrom without hordes of doughy Austrian tourists; and Siem Reap without the aching poverty. And I realised what I really want is an amalgam of places: not just Ta Phrom, but the best chunks of Barcelona and Hong Kong, leading onto the more interesting sidestreets of New York and Edinburgh and Tokyo and Montreal and Rhodes; with Niagara Falls and the North York Moors and the Pyramids a gentle stroll away. And a really good Lebanese restaurant and about 143 fabulous bookshops and record shops and a branch of Muji as well. And free wi-fi, of course.

Which leads, I suppose, to a task for the weekend, or maybe a meme, or whatever. What would be your ideal location, concocted from all the fun bits of places you've visited, or even places you haven't? And don't worry that you're leaving out the bad bits. Think of it as a conceptual bespoke travel agent, with metaphysical overtones. Or something.

Normal service will resume next week, probably with a pompous rant about Japanese books and French films and Canadian pop music and stuff.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Playing pool

Just returned from a relaxing long weekend with parentals in Hua Hin, holiday resort by appointment to the Thai royal family, and many lumpy Scandinavians in inappropriately skimpy swimsuits. Highlights: excellent seafood restaurant; cool waterfalls; the temporary loss of my mother's undergarments in the hotel pool, gamely retrieved by father (how they ended up there is a mystery that may never be fathomed); the vain search for the world's largest stone frog (well, that's what it said on the sign); and, best of all, watching two bright cerise dragonflies duelling like a pair of Regency bucks, at least one of them played by Stewart Granger.

On to Cambodia tomorrow. Update upon return, end-of-the-week-ish.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Thai takeaways

One: Inevitably, as the world becomes smaller, the Thai language picks up smatterings of English. Not as much as in some other Asian countries: the lack of a colonial past means that there isn't the semiotic infrastructure that drops English words into, say, Hindi or Tagalog. But it happens, and in the midst of a staccato burst of Thai, what sounds like a fragment of an American sitcom pops out.

The other day, I was in a taxi, and the driver was contemplating the traffic. "Oh. My. God." he said. And you could hear the full stops.

Two: This morning I was at the immigration department, applying to renew my work permit. "This photo is same as the one last year," said the man behind the desk. I had to agree, but suggested that I'm the same person as I was last year. "This old photo," he continued. "Need new photo, more recent. And different colour shirt this time as well."

One of my friends pointed out that he just got a Thai passport for his 10-month-old son. The photo will be valid for five years, shirt and all.

My parents are rolling into town tonight, for the last leg of their round-the-world shenanigans. Will be doing touristy things with them, involving beaches, ruined temples and possibly horses, over the next 10 days-ish, so posting may be a little erratic during that time. Be good, and if you can't be good, be... well, bad, I suppose...

In the meantime, I know YouTube is the last refuge of the blogger bereft of inspiration, but this is fab: 'All The Rage' by The Royal We.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Now it's dark and I'm alone

(Several lifetimes ago, I promised to do a post about Brian Wilson. This isn't quite as long ago as I promised to write something about Haruki Murakami's long-disowned second novel, a post that will probably appear around the time Chelsea Clinton becomes President, but it's still too long. The following isn't ideal, but it's something at least. A promise is a promise, after all.)

If you were to compile an orthodox canon of the most important (not best or favourite) rock and pop acts of all time, you'd immediately spot a neat Atlantic divide. The American acts on the list (Presley, Dylan, Springsteen, Madonna, Jackson, Aretha, etc) will tend to be individuals; the European side of things (Beatles, Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Sex Pistols, U2, ABBA) mostly comprises bands. There are exceptions, of course (the Velvet Underground, Bowie) but there's enough meat there for a good, chunky thesis on US individualism versus European collectivism, with an appendix on the aesthetics of stencilled logos on bass drum skins.

There's one other act that throws a spanner in the works by refusing to fit neatly into the band/solo dichotomy: the Beach Boys. Pundits will argue whether they should be perceived as a band, or simply as a vehicle for their founder, Brian Wilson. Their greatest album, Pet Sounds, was for the most part concocted by Brian with studio musicians, and his bandmates were brought in at the end to provide harmonies.

There's no doubt that Brian was the towering genius of the band, and that the work he produces today under his own name is far more important than the slick nostalgia-fests being touted by the various other surviving Beach Boys, often under some variant of the BB identity. But that doesn't mean that the contribution of Love, Jardine, et al was irrelevant. The true poignancy of Brian Wilson's work is that it evolved from within a group of hormonally-charged males devoted to a proto-Loaded lifestyle of skirt and cars and high-jinks. Brian, shy, sensitive, insecure, chubby, half-deaf, tormented by a toxic relationship with his father, soon to descend into the pits of addiction and madness, would be a freakish outsider if he were playing maracas for the twee-est C86-era indie band. Putting him at the centre of this pit of rutting blokery (didn't Dennis end up shagging Mike's daughter, or was it the other way round?) was like having Franz Kafka turn out for the Springboks.

The result is that even when the songs are about stereotypically 'manly' pursuits (and before the pedants weigh in, I know a lot of the lyrics were written by outsiders) there's still an air of vulnerability. It's as if these all the driving and surfing and wenching is hypothetical: 'Wouldn't It Be Nice' and 'I Get Around' are childish imaginings of masculinity and adulthood; the closest Wilson comes to the reality of adolescence in his early work is 'In My Room', the song of a lonely boy who needs refuge and reassurance.

I think it was Marilyn Monroe who said something like: "lt's a terrible thing to be lonesome, especially in the middle of a crowd." And that's what makes Brian Wilson so perfect: he's in a band, and yet not in it; of it and not of it; eternally, transcendentally, semi-detached.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Coining it

Denis MacShane appears to have invented a new word: "semigrant". It's someone who spends periods working in another country, but has no intention of staying full-time. It sounds good, and might inject some much-needed common sense into the immigration debate. Essentially, people can't really change the fundamental culture of a place if they're popping back to Krakow every three months.

Partly inspired by that, may I offer my own neologism: "eclecture". It's a talk or similar educational event that covers all manner of ground, looping through apparently disparate areas of art, science, politics and so on via the most tenuous of connections: a bit like when you look something up on Wikipedia, and follow an interesting link, and then another, and an hour later you've completely forgotten why you started.

Thursday, November 01, 2007


So there was this e-mail from Amazon, single-breasted slayer of high street bookshops, informing me that "...customers who have purchased or rated books by Haruki Murakami have also purchased A Boy from Nowhere: v. 1 by David Mitchell."

That's fast work by the boy Mitchell, I thought. It doesn't seem so long ago that I was reviewing his last tome, Black Swan Green.

So, what's this one about?

"This is my story - an account of my life which began in the backstreets of the east end docklands and took me eventually through all kinds of experiences and adventures and raised me to a level that many years ago I thought would be impossible. It is a book that should be read by every young man or girl who comes from a disadvantaged background, as i did, but who still maintains a burning ambition to get on in this world of ours. There is little you cannot achieve provided you have the will and the determination to see things through to the very end."

Ah. I think they've mixed up this chap with the other, Booker-nominated and very definitely Murakami-influenced fellow. Although...

And this is where that whole postmodern, metafictional, let's-play-with-the-notion-of-authorship, every-writer's-entitled-to-a-Pierre-Menard-moment, bloody-Nabokov-got-away-with-it thing tips over into absurdity with a smidgeon of paranoia. Because I couldn't shake off the notion that this memoir might actually be an arch, literary jape by the other David Mitchell. There was something about the blurb on the publisher's website that just seemed too authory to be real:

"Leaving school at 14, as most working class lads did then, and without any educational qualifications the story plots his fight to gain success against all odds and tells how he rose to become UK Director responsible for the sale and distribution of all Czechoslovak confectionery products; this brought him into close contact with the communist world, with spies, and explains how and why he assisted MI6."

I think it's the reference to Czechoslovak confectionery products that does it for me. That's just too good to be real. And the problem with feelings like this is, even if I were to read A Boy from Nowhere, even if I were to meet its author, Mr Mitchell, even if I were to see the MI6 files that detailed the microfilms he secreted among the shipment of Curly-Wurlys from Bratislava (I'm guessing that bit), I'd still have the nagging instinct that the book was fiction, that this was all some benevolent con-trick, and that David Mitchell would whip off his latex mask and be replaced by, uh, the other David Mitchell. Or even the other other David Mitchell, the "...and Webb" one. Or maybe Murakami or Borges or Nabokov, or even Patrick McGoohan.

Poor Mr Mitchell (the confectionery one, that is). He's found himself embroiled in a web of intrigue and confusion that will make his dealings with MI6 seem positively humdrum.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Are we amused yet?

I submitted the following piece to Comment is Free yesterday, but I just received a very nice e-mail saying they weren't able to use it; not because of the content of the piece itself, but because somebody might identify the mystery royal in the subsequent comments. I quite understand their difficult legal position, and I don't blame them at all for playing safe. But there's more than a dash of irony here, since the piece isn't really about the blackmail case or about the identity of some minor aristo, but about whether there's any point in the mainstream media being prevented from mentioning something that's bouncing around the interweb like a picture of Lindsay Lohan's naughty bits.

So the article appears here, on the condition that nobody - I said nobody - reveals who did or didn't get the drugs and/or the blowjob. Otherwise we'll all end up in the Tower, and I don't mean Blackpool.

As I write this, I don’t know the identity of the member of the royal family alleged to be the target of a blackmail attempt over allegations of sex and drugs. It’s 5 a.m. in the UK, and most of my media narks will be asleep. Google is as yet unforthcoming.

By the time you read it, however, I probably will know, and so will many of you. The news won’t appear first in the newspaper that broke the story, nor in those papers that followed it up: the heavy hand of libel and contempt legislation will see to that. But I reckon that at sometime in the near future I’ll get an e-mail from someone who’s overheard something, or a site beyond the control of English law will catapult the appropriate tidbit around the world.

To be honest, I’m not that bothered. Back in the early 90s, the Windsors were beset by lurid tales of tampons and toejobs that make the current vague, prim insinuations ("a sex act", for crying out loud) sound like pre-watershed stuff.

In any case, more important questions remain. The first is whether the mainstream media, in Britain at least, will ever again be able to break a proper, meaty sex-and/or-drugs scandal about a major public figure. By the time the libel lawyers deem it safe to go above ground, the juiciest details will be popping into in-boxes around the world.

In 2002, when John Leslie was the centre of nasty (and, it transpired, unfounded) allegations, newspapers and broadcasters weren't permitted to name him, even though his identity was common knowledge far beyond media circles. More recently, Alisher Usmanov may have wreaked havoc in his efforts to silence Craig Murray's allegations, but those allegations are available to anyone with internet access. Cases like these, and the current royal scandal, bring into doubt the future of English libel laws: not because they are too draconian, but because it is so easy to subvert them.

The other lingering puzzle is why the Sunday Times broke the story in its half-baked state, knowing full well it couldn’t offer the most significant details. Everyone will wonder who the person at the centre of the brouhaha is, and the speculation will encompass individuals who are entirely blameless. Beyond that, there will be questions about how the video at the centre of the story made its way into the hands of the alleged blackmailers, thus raising questions about corruption and lack of security at the heart of the Windsor family.

Rupert Murdoch’s republican tendencies are well known: by laying off the key figure, his newspaper has potentially done far more damage to the overall institution of the British monarchy than a comprehensive name-and-shame job would have done.

Still, at least people might shut up about the Diana inquest for a couple of days.

Something else Mani said to me

(Remember that I hadn't seen him for about 20 years.)

"I would have thought you'd have written The Great Novel by now."

There's a kick up the arse if ever I heard one.

Saturday, October 27, 2007


In which I sort out all Britain's environmental and socio-economic problems in one go.

And talking of Dirty Old Men, my old schoolchum Mani just made a lightning visit to BKK, stopping off en route from the Phuket Film Festival to his regular stomping ground of Tehran. He demonstrated all his usual perversity: first he announced that Bitter Moon is Polanski's best film, and eXistenZ is Cronenberg's, which is self-evidently insane, but he's a proper movie director, so I let that go; and then after I guided him and his delightful lady friend through the sweaty fleshpots of Patpong, he decided that he'd pass on a final beer under the shadow of a bikini-clad bargirl's bumping-and-grinding loins, and opted for a nice pot of jasmine tea. Age, it appears, does weary them eventually.

I often feel slightly odd when showing visitors round Bangkok: I know it better than they do, but at the same time, I'm just another outsider, another flavour of tourist. But I'm quite OK with that. I had a worrying moment yesterday, when I read something in Private Eye's Pseuds Corner that had me nodding in recognition and agreement. It's from a piece by a Paris expat called Rick Owens, in the FT:

"I've been in Paris for four years and I still find it exotic. I haven't learned French - I don't need to for work, and it would spoil the excitement of my alienation if I understood everything that was said."

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Money for something

LibraryThing continues to throw up new delights; most recently, a new member operating under the name of golgroove, who apparently owns a single book, or at least just the one that s/he will admit to. Can you guess what it might be?

And in that same sort of area, I'm trying to work out a pitch for a new book. The thing is, I've got two competing ideas: find a new twist on the saga of the Beatles, and add to the long and illustrious list of tomes on that subject; or do something a little further from the epicentre of ordinary but, by definition, potentially less commercially viable. Like, for example, a pop cultural reappraisal of Dire Straits. What do you reckon?

Monday, October 22, 2007

Muddied oafs

No, I didn't watch England losing pluckily in the rugby, or Lewis Hamilton arsing up, but maybe still winning because someone else used the wrong flavour petrol. As far as I'm concerned, rugby and Formula 1 are only of any interest when stuff goes wrong: a match that descends into a blood-and-mud-bath (the Swamp Thing at the top is ex-England prop Fran Cotton, surely the hardest man ever to have a girl's name apart from maybe Shirley Crabtree); or a race that features a massive pile-up, preferably involving innocent spectators. And neither of those things happens any more, it seems. So I'll stick to croquet, ta.

In any case, while all those manly men were driving nowhere in Brazil, I was at the Joe Louis Theatre at the Suan Lum night bazaar here in Bangkok, watching a traditional puppet show about Hanuman the monkey god. Who's a friendlier bloke than the monkeys of Delhi, it seems.

The reason we lurched into such a self-evident tourist trap is the presence of my old buddy and self-evident tourist Emma, who came laden with the sort of stuff you can't get in Thailand, like decent peanut butter and the latest edition of Plan B magazine. Perusal of which seems to suggest that I'm not really that into new music any more, but I still like reading about it. And without reopening the wounds of the Paul Morley skirmish from last week, beginning a review of a subversive Ethiopian funk compilation with a quotation from Roland Barthes is always going to be a sound move in my book.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The dying of the light programme

So farewell then, Alan Coren. Following on the heels of Ned Sherrin and George Melly. It's been a rotten few months for funny old men.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Madeleine vs McLuhan

In which I pretend to identify the socio-economic discrimination that underlies all forms of censorship, but really I'm just taking the piss out of Ben Affleck.

And, hey, guess what: I got a postcard today. That's right, not an e-mail or a post on a holiday blog, but a proper bit of carboard with a photo of a San Francisco cable car, and a purple-inked message (slightly defaced by over-enthusiastic postmarking) from my parents telling me about their Maupin stalking (although by now they're a few steps further on their round-the-world shenanigans, probably here). Every time I receive an example of this superannuated mode of communication, I wonder whether it's the last.

Also, this just in from the Graun:

"Ofsted inspectors found 49% of secondaries were rated no better than 'satisfactory', which is no longer deemed good enough."

And I thought exams were getting easier to pass...

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

I'm living in this movie

Who's Camus Anyway? (Dir: Mitsuo Yanagimachi, 2006) is about a group of students making a film. Uh-oh... already it sounds like the crowded genre of cinema-about-cinema about which I sighed a few days ago.

But this is slightly different. The film they're making is about a student who commits a murder for no particular reason, provoking immediate echoes of L'étranger, by Albert Camus. In normal circumstances, the persistent namechecking of literary and cinematic deities (Tarantino and Visconti and Somerset Maugham and many others get knowing nods) would seem forced and become tiresome, but since these are students, brimming with enthusiasm for new knowledge (Japanese students are different, it seems), it works. The halls of the university swarm with busking students, ensuring that the film occasionally resembles an old-fashioned "let's do the show right here!" production. With the multiple plot strands, it's as if Robert Altman had directed Fame (although even Altman wouldn't have had enough amour-propre to parody his own interminable tracking shot at the beginning of The Player, and then question whether or not it was a single shot, as two characters do here).

But what really stands out is the title of the film-within-the-film. It's called The Bored Murderer, which I reckon is a much better label for Camus's novel than either of the standard English translations, The Stranger and The Outsider; in fact, it sums up a whole lineage of existentialist anti-heroes, from Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov to John Cusack's Martin Blank. Apparently, the distributors were so enamoured of The Bored Murderer that they used it as title of the 'real' film when it opened in Singapore.

I think this misses the point. Who's Camus Anyway? is a cut above your average self-referential movie-about-movies, but that's still what it is. As we reach the denouement, the internal and external narratives become intertwined, and the viewer must keep asking which film - Camus or Murderer - is on screen, whether the actors are acting, what the film-makers are thinking, whether the rug is being pulled out from under the audience. It becomes a meditation on the experience, not just of making a movie, but also of watching one, in the tradition of Rémy Belvaux and Lars von Trier.

So why didn't they call it Altman Bites Dogme?

Sunday, October 14, 2007

A Letter of Paul to the Philistines

In which I annoy Bob Swipe.

And here's a related blast from the digital cuttings file: a sort-of-review of Morley's Words and Music, plus some other stuff, that I did for Tangents four years ago. Your enjoyment may be hampered by: its inordinate length; that thing that happens when all the unusual punctuation marks turn into other characters, there must be a name for that, damn, I probably knew it once, I'm losing it; and some snide remarks about the acting abilities of two actors who have since redeemed themselves, a bit.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Five elephants in one hand

I've only got myself to blame. I was already upset by the story of a blind, deaf, 18-year-old Jack Russell called Sprogget, who fell down a mineshaft and never came back.

And then I sat down and watched Stand By Me for the God-alone-knows-how-manyth time and, yeah, I sobbed, what of it?

When women do emotionally self-destructive stuff like that, they usually blame their hormones. I blame the fact that I just realised I'm older now than Richard Dreyfuss was when he played the yearning-for-his-lost-youth grown-up Gordie in the film.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Chasing Rainbows

I'm not going to review the new Radiohead album because if I did it would just be an anaemic retread of this.

Purple faze

I've been reading Graham Greene's A Burnt-Out Case, and came upon this sentence: "She finished off a horrible mauve dessert before she spoke again."

It got me thinking: we don't really have mauve things any more, do we? Most people, if they could be bothered to express an opinion, would suggest that mauve is just a kind of purple, possibly a bit paler than the norm, which then leads to the question of why the paler versions of some colours (pink, mauve) have special names, while others (light blue, light green) don't. But would you really want to paint your bathroom mauve, or buy a pair of mauve shoes? Would anyone have wanted 2 see U laughing in the dark mauve rain?

Part of the problem is that there's no definitive rule on what's mauve and what's, say, lilac. Until Pantone swatch books become as ubiquitous as Harry Potter, we may as well all be talking different languages. It's possible that lots of things are mauve, but it's the word itself that's become passé, along with the likes of 'buff' and 'tawny'.

Go back to Greene, and you realise he's onto something with the conjunction of 'mauve' and 'horrible'. A purple dessert - something like a nice summer pudding, maybe - wouldn't have had the same effect. 'Mauve' doesn't just suggest a colour. It hints at something fake, concocted, synthetic. Which, of course, it originally was. Maybe that's it: in a world where we're desperate to clutch onto notions (delusions?) of authenticity, mauve just isn't real enough.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Hacked off

It's my own stupid, solipsistic fault for Googling myself, I suppose. But I was a tad disconcerted to find the following in a piece by Brian Viner about the ongoing is-Mastermind-dumbing-down-I-mean-Jennifer-Aniston-what's-all-that-about? debate, published in The Independent on 21 August this year:

"...while one former contestant, Tim Footman, surely gets it right when he says: "Had Mastermind been in existence 150 years ago, a subject such as the novels of Charles Dickens would have been criticised for plumbing the depths of pop culture. It's a memory test and, as such, we should worry about the breadth of a subject, rather than any perceived 'importance' or 'seriousness'.""

No problems there, I suppose, especially since Mr Viner has the excellent taste to agree with me. Except that I couldn't for the life of me recall ever having said or written those words. It took a further bout of search-engine onanism to deduce that they were in fact my doing: I'd offered them in response to a piece by Nicole Martin in the online version of the Daily Telegraph.

Now, I suppose this shouldn't bother me. Journalists are perfectly at liberty to lift short quotations to add weight and flavour to their own observations and opinions. And if they're not writing scholarly reports, there's no need to provide detailed bibliographical references for every quote. That said, lifting a reader's response to an article in a different newspaper does rather suggest that the limit of one's research has been to trawl rival publications for articles on exactly the same theme. Especially because my comment on the Telegraph site linked to this blog, so with a couple of clicks Mr Viner could have contacted me and, at the very least, asked me to say the same thing but in a slightly different way.

A minor grumble, especially when compared to this piece by Tom Geoghegan, on the BBC news site. In fact, it's not such a bad article; a nice human-interest piece, interviewing a handful of sparky, opinionated people in their 90s. But the story is hung on the thread that the UK is producing more centenarians than ever, so a reader can only infer that Geoghegan wanted to do a story about people who were 100 or older, couldn't find any, and settled for people who haven't quite got there yet. Which is surely a bit like doing a story about the Olympics, by talking to people who've done quite well at the Commonwealth Games. To be fair, he draws attention to the idiocy of the whole set-up with this sentence:

"Ninety is the new 80, it seems, and the increasing number of people reaching that milestone has contributed to a record number of 100-year-olds."

We'll leave aside the fact that he's opened with a construction ("X is new Y") that's so hackneyed, Private Eye has been running a column taking the piss out of it for the last few years. No, the real problem is that he's taken the trouble to point out to his eager readers that people wouldn't be able to reach the age of 100 if they didn't get through their nineties first. Thanks, Tom. No, really, thanks.

I suppose I should be heartened by the fact that journalism also encompasses people like Dr Ben Goldacre, who writes the Bad Science column in The Guardian. But when he uncovers stories like this one, about the PR guff alleging that Cambridge mathematicians had developed a formula to prove that Jessica Alba has a nice arse, or something, you realise that the best journalism these days is about the degree to which other journalism sucks.

Which is all delightfully postmodern and reflexive and all that, but bloody depressing at the same time.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Please release me

Well, I'm playing with the big blogs now. Cultural Snow has received its first proper press release. Of course, I get press releases all the blimmin' while, most of them a throwback to my previous existence a music hack. I think I'd feel a bit left out if I didn't get dozens of reminders about a weekender of Slovenian twuntcore being held at a disused greengrocer's in Shoreditch, or a debut album of lame Sonic Youth covers by three bisexual Mormons from San Diego.

But this is the first one that's specifically asking for inclusion in Cultural Snow. It's about a film called Redirecting Eddie, which stars the one who played the totty in orange knickers in Slaughterhouse-Five and the wife of that strange-looking shock jock who said nasty things about some basketball players. Oh, and Drew Barrymore's mum. Drew Barrymore's mum's in it, I mean, that strange-looking shock jock didn't say anything untoward about Drew Barrymore's mum. Moreover, the director, one Laurence N Kaldor, has one leg, one eye and a law doctorate, which is something you can't say about Tarantino, can you?

But uh-oh... he's made another blimmin' film about making a film. Now there's nothing inherently wrong with that, but when Kaldor himself namechecks four different antecedents in his "DIRECTOR'S STATEMENT" (puh-lease) doesn't that suggest it's a somewhat crowded arena? Maybe someone should make a film about making a film about making a film...

A legend in his own lifetime once told me that you shouldn't mention press releases when you're writing reviews or the like, because it reinforces the them-and-us barrier between the critic and the general punter who's not in the PR loop. So forget I mentioned that release. Just imagine I'm being tiresomely postmodern (not a tremendously taxing metaphysical leap), and that I'm writing about writing about a film.

Friday, October 05, 2007

To grunt and sweat under a weary life

Now, it's not as if Toby and I were bosom buddies or anything. But you know what college is like, that big social Venn diagram. We crossed each other's paths, went to some of the same parties, some of the same clubs. In my second year I shared a house with someone who'd been at school with him, and I reckon she still carried a very faint flame. He looked a bit like Johnny Depp, although we probably didn't know that at the time. Maybe when I first saw a Johnny Depp film I thought, "Crikey, that bloke looks like Toby!"

And then he disappeared to the States, and then I heard some vague news that he was back and presenting music shows on some satellite channel, but nobody I knew had satellite back then. That was pretty impressive, and I felt a slight pang because I'd applied for one of those jobs, and they never even replied, and I think it was because I must have seemed too enthusiastic about De La Soul, or maybe I wasn't quite enthusiastic enough, or maybe it was the Soup Dragons. And now I'll probably never know.

And then I bumped into Toby when we both auditioned for a presenting job on The Word and he said "What are you doing here?" and he was perfectly friendly, but in retrospect maybe he stressed the "you" bit just a little too much, but if he did, he was right. I was always going to be a backroom boy, but that's OK. At least he didn't get the job this time. Neither did Davina McCall, incidentally, or that bloke off Teenage Health Freak. Katie Puckrik got it. I knew she'd get it as soon as she walked in, because I'd seen her in i-D magazine. It was the early 90s by then, and these things mattered.

And then Toby ended up on MTV Europe, and he interviewed Madonna and talked about grunge bands. And then he sort of went off the radar as far as I was aware, until I heard him this week explaining techno to Radio 4 listeners. He described the collective emotional experience of listening to techno in a field with 5,000 other people as something akin to winning the Boat Race. Well, it was Radio 4.

I do feel old.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Free Burma with every purchase (terms and conditions apply)

I shouldn't really be here. You see, it's International Bloggers' Day for Burma, and to demonstrate my support for the brave people of that land in their battles with the oppressive and corrupt junta, I'm supposed to stick up a banner instead of a proper post.

Which is all well and good. Like LC, I'm always in two minds about the benefit of gesture politics, but this can't do any harm, and a collective blog strike might help to keep the subject in people's minds, even if it doesn't impinge on the thoughts of Burma's rulers at all.

And then I saw the banner we're supposed to use:

Free Burma!

"10/04/07"??? Hell, 9/11 was bad enough, but I really don't like sullying my blog with perverse transatlantic date ordering conventions. I'm perfectly prepared to support the cause, despite the allegation made by one of my more fruitloopy commenters that the Burmese resistance is riddled with CIA stooges. But I'm not going to pretend that today's the 10th of April for anyone. Not even if Aung San Suu Kyi comes round personally and makes me one of her legendary curries. So it's business as usual here.

Moreover, if the blogosphere is gagging itself, wouldn't it be a splendid day for the generals to do something really atrocious on the streets of Rangoon, leaving us impotently waving our fists as the MSM puts its usual tired, establishment spin on things? Nice sentiment, but maybe a bit more think-through next time, chaps.

PS: Talking of thinking, Sylvester Stallone has some views on the subject.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007


In which I compare Thom Yorke to Damien Hirst, kinda.

(Shane Richmond offers a less poncy overview of the business side of things. Honestly, it's like he's David McCallum and I'm Joanna Lumley.)

P.S.: R.I.P. Ronnie Hazlehurst. Definitely going up...

And if young Nigel says he's happy...

I've long regarded Nigel Slater as our greatest living writer on the subject of food. In fact, let's scrub those last five words: I'm starting to get the feeling that he might be the best writer in English alive today, on any subject, in any medium or genre. He has an eye for the essence of Englishness that would make Orwell envious; his understanding of the lonely terrors of childhood, and the little things that might banish them, rivals that of Roald Dahl. And, without ever getting flowery or pompous, he knows how to do words. In his latest book, Eating for England, he discusses Marmite:

Savoury tar for your toast. As shiny as a lovingly polished army boot, saltier than a mouthful of sea water, stickier than treacle, and somehow the work of the devil, nothing quite polarises opinion like a pot of Marmite - even the advertising campaign plays on the fact that you either love it or hate it. It is sometimes used as the foodie's answer to Norman Tebbit's 'cricket test'. Though why liking or not liking a staggeringly salty, yeast-derived spread only edible in minute quantities should be a sign of one's patriotism is debatable. I am not sure the test even works, as I love the stuff beyond words yet I am hardly what you might call an Anglophile.

"Staggeringly". Exactly the right adverb, and a nice bit of alliteration, but it also tastes right. The agh! that even Marmite-lovers experience when it's spread just a little too thickly; it's right there in the middle of the word. Is there a culinary equivalent of onomatopoeia?

Then, on the etiquette of rice pudding:

The world remains divided on whether or not to add some sort of preserve to rice pudding at the table. For every person for whom a blob of raspberry jam or blackcurrant or black cherry in their pudding is a step closer to heaven (my father stirred in marmalade), there are a hundred schoolboys shouting 'Nosebleed!' at the very thought. Perhaps they are right to question the sullying of something so pure, so white, so gentle.

It's that last word that gets to the heart of things. "Pure" and "white" describe the pudding itself, clearly, objectively, but "gentle" expresses what rice pudding is all about, its emotional baggage, the comforting blandness that makes you want to sob with relief. Like all the best specialist writers, his subject matter is really a means to an end: when he appears to be writing about food, he's really writing about life itself.

And although he clearly enjoys food, and gets suitably enthusiastic about his favourites, he eschews the blokey breeziness that seems to be de rigueur among his contemporaries. At his best, his feeling for that uncomfortable emotional space located somewhere between memory and melancholy echoes Proust and Ishiguro. He's that good.


Monday, October 01, 2007

I married my daughter's ASBO

In which I am inordinately pleased with the headline.

Also, James from Miscellany Symposium alerts me to the news that Radiohead (ask your gran) are banging yet another nail into the increasingly decrepit coffin of the dear old rock album as we used to know it. Or playing a desperate publicity game, it's all much the same thing. Someone should really write a book about the subject.

And finally - who's going to do the wedding video for these two?

And even finallyer - NUNFIGHTING!!! Bet Jeremy Kyle's jealous.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Rangoon experience

I really ought to have written something by now about what's going on in Burma; it's next door, after all. But somehow it seems to fall outside the scope of this blog, or maybe it just forces me to consider what the scope of this blog should or shouldn't be. So, instead, a few thoughts on how the media is dealing with the events unfolding in that benighted land.

First, a note about the terminology. The BBC, and most Anglophone media, refers to the country as 'Burma', and its largest city as 'Rangoon', as distinct from the junta-approved 'Myanmar' and 'Yangon'. The implication is that the junta is in the wrong, and Aung San Suu Kyi and the various pro-democracy organisations are in the right. It's a view that probably ties in with the target audiences of these media organisations, but it remains a view, an opinion, a bias. It's exactly the same problem that arises when dealing with Northern Ireland or the Middle East; any term for a particular geographical entity is going to rile somebody, somewhere, and be perceived as an example of bias. The next time some right-wing wonk demands that the Beeb should be impartial in all things, can we agree that 'impartiality' is a myth; the best we can hope for is some kind of consensus.

Then there's the attention being devoted to Kenji Nagai, the Japanese journalist apparently shot by a goon of the Burmese junta. A horrible event, it's true, but why are we concentrating on him, rather than on the other people who've died so far? Because his death was filmed, possibly. Because he was a foreigner, maybe. Because he was a journalist? Hmmm... This is especially significant because of the unprecedented role being played by brave Burmese citizens, without whom most foreign journalists wouldn't be able to do their jobs. (See RLP's Asia Exile for examples.)

That said, I was ghoulish enough to follow the link in The Guardian to footage of Nagai's death. But when I did so, I got the following message:

"This player requires a faster connection to enable smooth playback of video. The connection speed detected will cause a potentially unviewable experience."

I don't know whether those last three words are a more heinous crime against good taste, or against the English language.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Bangkok to rights

I just discovered the following on my hard drive. I wrote it at the end of 2005 for the column I had in Metro, a Bangkok lifestyle magazine, but it "kind of got lost in the system" according to the editor. Re-reading it, and bearing in mind the political sensitivities one needs to run any kind of business in Thailand, not to mention the irony gap, I can understand why he lost it. The column fizzled out; the editor only lasted another few months, and Metro a couple more after that.

This is the piece as I wrote it at the time. Some of the references are out of date; the airport's up and sort of running now. I've provided links for the really parochial stuff. I think I must have been in a pretty sour mood at the time, but much still rings true.

Title: Truly, Madly, But Not Terribly Deeply

Byline: Tim Footman

The jazz singer Carmen Bradford, we are told, is performing for our louche, retro delectation at Bangkok’s answer to the Village Vanguard, the Sheraton Grande. It would be criminal not to check out her scatty doo-wop, daddio, because, according to the ads, Ms Bradford is “the world’s greatest artist”.

Yup, you heard it right. We’re not just talking about the world’s greatest singer here, with Pavarotti and Callas and Ella and Aretha and, by all means, Tata and Bird all coming to pay tribute on bended knee. She’s The World’s Greatest Artist, in any field of endeavour. Picasso can kiss Ms. Bradford’s arias. Shakespeare can hurl himself into her high C. That lame charlatan Dickens can stick her microphone up his Barnaby Rudge.

You see, in Bangkok, there seems to be a cultural understanding that, if you say something, it becomes true, no matter how demanding the leap between rhetoric and reality might appear.

So it is that a government minister can come up with a comment like “Suvarnabhumi province will be as big as Singapore but it will be more modern with a special administration team to run the new city and the airport.” Responses such as, “Er… no it won’t, actually,” are decried as being un-Thai. When some influential person agreed to pay a perfectly fair and sensible price for security equipment at the new airport, he clearly forgot to ask for a spare bullshit detector.

There are all sorts of culturally sensitive explanations for this Thai reticence to question untruths, delusions, hyperbole and what we used to call when I was kneehigh to a legless beggar, bollocks. Chief among these is the social taboo that means unpleasant confrontations should be avoided wherever possible. Don’t say nasty things about anyone or anything, because that upsets social harmony, increases bad karma, and just to be on the unsafe side, you might get your ass sued.

In a way, this is healthy. If you tell yourself often enough that the traffic’s a breeze, the air’s breathable and the politicians are just in the game to fulfil their patriotic duty, you’ll end up believing it, and you’ll be happy, which is surely what life is about. There’s no bird flu, the war on drugs only took out the bad guys and Kathaleeya McIntosh is a virgin. Focus too much on that traffic cop who pocketed a couple of hundred to overlook a u-turn that never actually happened, and you’ll just get an ulcer. It’s not that Thais prefer lies – they just tend to select the most attractive and convenient option from a wide selection of alternative truths.

This is also why books and movies and restaurants don’t really get reviewed in Thailand. If you’re lucky, a journalist will correct the typos and Thainglish in the official press release before sticking it straight into a publication’s ‘What’s On’ slot. The idea of critical discrimination – of someone sitting down and deciding what’s good, what’s bad and what’s hovering somewhere in the region of mediocre – is anathema to how Thailand works. It’s not surprising then, that so many people honestly believe that the airport will be open on time, despite the fact that the original deadline was fixed in the days of biplanes and airships. This is also why someone, somewhere really thinks that Carmen Bradford is the greatest artist in the world, ever, no questions asked, and Rembrandt and Rubens and Brahms and Liszt and Keats and Yeats aren’t. Although they can be the greatest as well, if they place an ad saying so. Flawed logic is no barrier to reality, Siam style.

Anyway, for your aesthetic edification, here’s the unlacquered truth about what’s been making the cultural running in the last few months:

*Movie reviews: Bangkok World Film Festival. You didn’t miss much. All the decent films were 40 years old and shown in the afternoon, and you can get bootleg DVDs of them in Silom anyway.

*Music reviews: Samui Music Festival. Of course nobody was going to hike down there to see UB40. They’re shit.

*Book reviews: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. You shouldn’t be reading this book if you have more than three pubic hairs.

*Dance reviews: That unfeasibly enhanced one at Cowboy. Don’t be stupid. She doesn’t love you. She just wants your money. And she’s doing a policeman on the side, the one who shook you down for the non-existent u-turn this morning. Grow up, you priapic sap.

Any of the above opinions can be revised if a) the relevant people wish to advertise in Metro or b) someone slips me a few thousand and a new iPod. But this is OK. Thailand is the best country in the world and there is no corruption here. That’s the truth, because I say so, and so does that traffic cop, the one who’s not doing your girlfriend.