Tuesday, July 31, 2007

It's the perfect dream

Earlier today, I found myself listening to Paul Anka's version of The Cure's 'The Lovecats', on his he's-had-so-much-surgery-you-can't-tell-if-it's-ironic album Rock Swings, and had a small but significant revelation. For nearly a quarter of a century, I'd thought that Robert Smith had been singing "1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3 pretty". It was only when Big-haired Bob's tearful groan was replaced by Unfeasible-haired Paul's languorous tenor that I realised the correct line was in fact "wonderfully, wonderfully, wonderfully pretty".

Don't worry, this isn't going to be yet another post about amusing misunderstandings of rock lyrics, all "'scuse me while I kiss this guy" and so forth. No, the reason I bring this up is that my immediate reaction when I realised my error (after the obligatory nano-moment of scrotum-tightening embarrassment) was that it was Smith's fault for having sloppy diction, and that it was nice to hear someone like Anka, who ensured you could understand all the words.

Oh Christ.

I have become my parents.

Actually, it's rather appropriate that the early rumblings of a midlife crisis (yes, the big 4-0 is the next candle to appear) should come when listening to this particular record. Anka, of course, wrote the English lyrics to 'My Way', which is the song that ghastly people pick on Desert Island Discs when they reach a certain age and want to disclaim responsibility for all their crimes and misdemeanours. (Nice people, like the wonderful Oliver Postgate, pick the infinitely preferable 'Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien'.)

But with his version of 'The Lovecats' Anka seems to present a more realistic version of old age, rejecting the Vegasoid bravado that we associate with Sinatra and a thousand Sinatra wannabes, desperately grasping for the little joys that he was too busy or scared or stupid to use when he was in his prime. "Into the sea, you and me," he croons, "all these years and no one heard." Which suddenly seems to echo another lyric of missed opportunities, and one that's become just as much a cliche for neurotic adolescents (who, by definition, don't yet understand the full weight of the sadness):

I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I don't know much about Eliot's taste in music: probably something deeply choral and Churchy. But I've started to think that, had history been more imaginative, he might have quite liked The Cure. Although he'd probably complain that he couldn't understand the words, and that it was too loud, and is that a boy or a girl, you can't tell the difference these days...

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Zzz top

I snore very loudly and unpleasantly. Of course, without going to the effort of recording my own sleep patterns, I have to take other people's word for this, but those words are unanimous and pretty damning. I could plead in mitigation a long history of respiratory dysfunctions, including pneumonia, bronchitis, asthma, sinusitis, hay fever and a strange-shaped nose; but the fact remains that I when I'm asleep I sound like a pig on the verge of tears. The only other thing I can say in my defence is that my father sounds even worse. In my flagwaving youth, I once joined a sit-down occupation of the office of my university vice-chancellor. This extended into an overnight stay, and apparently the assorted Trots, anarchists, union hacks and assorted opportunists took turns in rolling me over onto my front to stop the guttural racket.

Small Boo, being lovely and dainty and ladylike, does not make such a horrible noise. But I hope she doesn't mind me announcing in a public arena that she does occasionally snore. It's a much quieter, gentler, altogether more pleasant sound than that made by her consort, but it's not without its drawbacks. It's rather like the noise made by a mobile phone set to 'vibrate', when you leave it on a glass-top table. Only last night I got up at about three in the morning wondering who the hell could be calling.

So, your turn. How do you or your loved ones snore?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Drawing the certain

Regular readers will be aware of my fondness for the writings of the cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard, who died in March. So you can probably imagine my delight and general chuffedness when I received an e-mail yesterday from Dr Gerry Coulter, Professor of Theory at Bishop's University in Canada and founding editor of the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, asking for permission to use my tribute to the late, great Stanley Baxter lookalike in their special memorial issue in October. I am, of course, deeply flattered. However, one line in Dr Coulter's charming message unnerves me a little: "Jean was a friend and member of our board and I am quite certain he would have enjoyed your writing."

This, like any praise, is a lovely thing to hear, of course. But in the context of Baudrillard's theories, which revolve around everything, from the Gulf War to Betty Boop, not being what they seem to be (and often not being at all), such certainty is a bit inappropriate, and has added a dash of confusion to what should otherwise be a great honour. Is Dr Coulter really the editor of the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies? Indeed, does such a publication exist? Does Bishop's University? Does Canada? Do they really want to use my piece, or just a simulacrum of it?

On the other hand, I suppose that such uncertainty-provoking certainty is appropriate in this case. And could it be that, in speaking for Baudrillard (a man now beyond the realms of reality and/or hyperreality), Dr Coulter has become Baudrillard's simulacrum?

Ah, I feel much better now. Or do I?

Saturday, July 21, 2007

An untruth universally acknowledged

Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters

(Part of my mission to read more books by female authors; this title suggested by Bellulah.)

I came to this novel knowing only one thing about Sarah Waters; that she writes saucy historical fiction about lesbians. Add to this the fact that the book is published by Virago, and was nominated for the women-only Orange Prize, and I think I'd be justified in supposing that I'm not the target market.

Which may be true, but it would be a pity if anyone were to be discouraged by outmoded notions that Ms Waters writes in a Spare Rib-reading time warp, all bare wood tables, ethnic trousers and dangly earrings. Or, indeed, that it's just smut. Fingersmith is a rollicking, satisfying read, as packed with twists and reverses as the 19th-century novels in the milieu of which it operates.

It's the story of two orphans: Sue Trinder, raised among thieves in a ramshackle house in South London; and Maud Lilly, isolated amid her uncle's books in a damp house in the Thames Valley. Their lives interact in a series of double-crosses and revelations, during which the reader's sympathies ebb and flow between the protagonists. There's quite a bit of mental instability in the mix and, yes, some fumbles of the ladies-only variety.

Which is something you wouldn't find in the works of the great 19th-century novelists, determined as they were not to "bring a blush into the cheek of the young person". But Waters is clearly besotted with her predecessors. For a start, her central figures are orphans, that reliable stock figure of Dickens and his contemporaries; Sue's upbringing among the fingersmiths inevitably suggests Oliver Twist. The theme of insanity echoes Charlotte Brontë's Mrs Rochester; Maud's bibliophile uncle is a malevolent version of George Eliot's Causaubon; the subordinate position that romantic love takes to financial reality hints at Jane Austen.

Of course, Fingersmith is more than a pastiche. Apart from the subjects that Dickens or Eliot could not have begun to tackle, not least the true nature of Uncle's library, it's the Victorian age seen through 21st-century eyes, with the understanding that we should also consider the areas in which we've made little or no progress. An asylum-keeper considers the moral turpitude that has driven one of his potential charges out of her mind:

'But the over-exposure of girls to literature– The founding of women's colleges–' His brow is sleek with sweat. 'We are raising a nation of brain-cultured women. Your wife's distress, I'm afraid to say, is part of a wider malaise. I fear for the future of our race, Mr Rivers, I may tell you now. And her wedding-night, you say, the start of this most recent bout of insanity? Could that' – he drops his voice meaningfully, and exchanges a glance with the doctor who writes – 'be plainer?'

See, a clever woman who doesn't like shagging. No wonder the country's gone to the dogs. But this is no po-faced tract about the tribulations endured by madwomen in the attic. The literary analogies are wry and winking, defiantly metafictional. "I will not swoon," says Maud. "Only girls in books do that, for the convenience of gentlemen." Fiction, after all, is a lie, a deception, and it is deception that acts as the engine to the story. Maud, deceiver and deceived, becomes a writer by the end of the book; is there any difference between her deceptions and the ones that Sarah Waters practises on us?

At its heart, Fingersmith owes the most not to the big Georgian and Victorian hitters of the novel, but to a slightly later, less reverential tradition. Like Cold Comfort Farm and The Young Visiters, like the works of Pirandello and Calvino and Borges, it's a book about books.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Like The Clangers

As a welcome distraction from trolls, MySpacer Jillio (a serious Radioheadhead, it would appear) describes Welcome to the Machine as "weird, yet strangely comforting at times", which is lovely to hear. Thank you, Jillio.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Turn it off again

The return of Genesis fills me with ennui and despair on a number of counts. The classic five-piece line-up embodied some of the worst, most self-indulgent attitudes of 70s prog rock, but at least they had, in Peter Gabriel, a frontman who was prepared to make an absolute pillock of himself in the name of entertainment. Very few of today's so-called pop stars dress as daisies for the delight of the punters, and the music world is poorer for it. But we're not even graced with that version. We have the efficient, sensible, blokey, non-floral, roll-up-your-jacket-sleeves-and-look-slightly-earnest three-piece, with Phil bloody Collins on vocals. It's like the return of Roxy Music without their only certified genius, Brian Eno (although I'm sure Bob Swipe will now weigh in with his pungent defence of the Avalon years).

In any case, I thought this Genesis Lite had been banished to the deepest reaches of Hades when Patrick Bateman, the Alan Partridge of Wall Street, declared himself to be a fan of the band (along with Whitney Houston and Huey Lewis & the News). So, good news for wannabe serial killers with rigorous skincare routines everywhere.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Dirty and sweet, oh yeah

I've been asked to vote in the poll to select The Online Film Community's Top 100, being run by Jonathan Burdick at Cinema Fusion. I feel something of a fraud, as mine isn't really a movie site, in the sense that most of the other voters have movie sites. In fact, it's quite a while since I actually posted a proper movie review. (Musing about the propriety of a hero called Neville doesn't count.)

The other problem is that, unless you stop watching films altogether, your list of favourites is always subject to change. You're unlikely to fall out of love with your Top 10 or 20 or so, but there's always the chance that something new is going to arrive on the scene, displacing something from the lower reaches of the Top 100, threatening to work its way up through repeated viewings, old favourites being shunted aside.

So it was almost inevitable that, as soon as I'd sent off my votes to Cinema Fusion, something new would catch my eye. And that something turned out to be Kyojo to gangu, aka Giants and Toys (Yasuzo Masumura, 1958). The blunt plot details make it sound distinctly unpromising: the film's about the marketing war between three rival candy manufacturers, and the human fall-out from their increasingly cynical tactics. But in among the trite jingles and sickly caramels is a hard-edged two-fister of a movie, peppered with bizarre stylistic quirks and interludes that serve to remind you that this Japan, and in Japan, they tend to do things a wee bit differently.

Goda (Hideo Takamatsu) is a marketing manager for the World company, tasked with increasing sales of caramels. Accompanied by his underling Nishi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), he finds a gawky unknown to front a new campaign. Tadpole-loving tomboy Kyoko (Hitomi Nozoe) is blessed with "vivacious eyes and a long tongue", but cursed with rotten teeth, although this doesn't seem to affect her popularity with the sweetie-scoffing public, and she soon becomes a multimedia sensation.

Of course, it can't last, and the cracks are starting to show in the World showroom, as Goda's cynical tactics and contempt for the customers help him to elbow aside his old-fashioned boss (and, just to rub in the Oedipal overtones, father-in-law) Yashiro. But this is more than a simple moral fable about the black heart of big business. Yashiro makes one last attempt to rein in his son-in-law's excesses by appealing to the ancient Japanese codes of honour. "We're not samurai," sneers Goda.

You see, Giants and Toys is about far more than the ills of capitalism. It was made only 13 years after the end of World War II, and all three companies seem to vie with each other to rebuild Japan in the model of the victorious Americans. Rock 'n' roll, James Dean and toy ray-guns are deployed to appeal to the kids, for whom Yashiro's code of bushido holds no attraction. A trio of disabled war veterans sing for pennies on the sidewalk, ignored by everyone. Sweet bumpkin Kyoko gets her teeth fixed and ends up performing a bizarre, pseudo-tropical nightclub dance routine, looking like a low-rent Maria Montez. It's a wryly conservative critique of the direction that contemporary Japanese society was taking.

Which in turn makes it all the more ironic that Masumura takes so much from American movies. Not only does the Pygmalion-esque plot owe a heavy debt to Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, but the relationship between the brutal Goda and the resentful but subservient Nishi echoes that between Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis in Sweet Smell of Success - both Hollywood classics were released in 1957, the year before Giants and Toys.

But at the same time it's emphatically Japanese. There's a thread of camp hysteria that runs through a lot of Japanese films in the late '50s and '60s - think of the bizarre thrillers of Seijun Suzuki - and a penchant for symbolism that would seem heavy-handed in a Western context. So Goda, even as he rises through the ranks, can never get his cigarette lighter to spark without repeated efforts, hinting at his lack of warmth and humanity, and maybe something more; he mentions that his wife is infertile, but the suspicion remains that he's the one to blame.

In the end, there are no winners, as capitalism destroys opponents and champions alike. Nishi endures the humiliation of touting his wares along a Tokyo street, dressed as a comic, gun-toting astronaut. Yashiro is sidelined by an ulcer; Goda, propped up on a diet of pep-pills, coughs blood over the letter confirming his promotion. Even Kyoko's tadpoles die.

It's true. Too many sweets make you sick.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Plane speaking

I confessed a few weeks ago that I'd referred to JG Ballard's Crash in my Radiohead book, without actually having read it and, like a sinner scrabbling for redemption, I'm studiously going through all the references and noting the ones I haven't actually read, watched or heard. In Chapter 25, I discuss the technological developments that have destroyed the notion of The Rock Album as a discrete set of songs in a non-negotiable order. I compare these changes with the experiments in reader interactivity carried out by the experimentalist writers BS Johnson and Georges Perec, and link these, via a footnote, to the web-based discussions that caused changes to the script of the 2006 film Snakes on a Plane. And, being a complete ponce, the one I hadn't actually experienced in all its glory was the schlocky movie. So today I endeavoured to rectify this. But I only lasted 20 minutes. Bear in mind that I'd managed to plough through Perec's Life: A User's Manual (the 99 chapters of which you can read in any order, guided by a 59-page index, a chronology, a checklist of stories, a floorplan of the building in which the action takes place and a profound interest in jigsaws) and Johnson's The Unfortunates (the 27 chapters of which can be read in any order you bloody well like, although Johnson politely suggests you read the first and last in their conventional places), so a lowest-common-denominator thriller about reptiles running amok on a flight from Hawaii to Los Angeles ought to be straightforward, yeah? Sadly, not. But what stopped me wasn't the wafer-thin characterisation, the cliche-strewm script or even the remedial acting. It was the fact that the hero, the alpha-male FBI agent played by cooler-than-dry-ice Samuel L Jackson was named.... Neville. Now, apologies to any Nevilles out there but c'mon, it's not the sort of name that seeps a cocktail of sang-froid and testosterone from every pore, is it? It's a dealbreaker as far as the audience goes, like finding out that Satan has elected to name his son... Adrian...

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Something nasty on the bookshelf

Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons
(Part of my mission to read more books by female authors; this title suggested by Patroclus.)

Cold Comfort Farm, first published in 1932, is the tale of Flora Poste, who is forced by circumstance to move in with her relatives, the Starkadder family, who occupy the titular farm in the Sussex village of Howling. As I mentioned before, my resistance to the book was based on the fact that it's widely heralded as a witty satire of the rural melodramas (by the likes of Mary Webb) that were popular in Britain in the first half of the 20th century. I've never read any of those melodramas; and I couldn't see the point of reading one, purely to see how accurately it was being mocked.

I needn't have worried, as Gibbons' comic touch transcends mere pastiche. In fact, if there's any author being sent up here, it's Jane Austen: apart from several nods to Mansfield Park, the heroine, Flora Poste, owes quite a lot to Emma Woodhouse, as she attempts to sort out the practical and emotional problems of her inbred relations.

She turns out to be a fine comic writer, with several one-liners more than worthy of PG Wodehouse in their absurd rightness: "My idea of hell is a very large party in a cold room, where everybody has to play hockey properly."; "He was drowsy with killing, in the mood of a lion lying on a hippopotamus with its mouth full." And I really want, with Flora, to see:

...a new play by Brandt Slurb called 'Manallalive-O!', a Neo-Expressionist attempt to give dramatic form to the mental reactions of a man employed as a waiter in a restaurant who dreams that he is the double of another man who is employed as a steward on a liner, and who, on awakening and realizing that he is still a waiter employed in a restaurant and not a steward employed on a liner, goes mad and shoots his reflection in a mirror and dies.

But the looming presence, which hangs over all British comic novelists of the time, is Evelyn Waugh. Again, Gibbons proves herself to be more than a match, using deapdan irony to point out the absurdity of what's happening around her. Indeed, she has the edge over Waugh in some respects, most notably the fact that the novel takes place in an imagined near future. In Vile Bodies, Waugh uses an invented Second World War (his book was published in 1930) as a lumpen deus ex machina that resolves everybody's quandaries for better or for worse. Gibbons is much more subtle, mentioning the Anglo-Nicaraguan War of 1946 only in passing, and inventing video-conferencing with barely a second thought. These oddities serve little purpose in themselves, but they add to the air of unreality that reminds us that it's a fictional form that's being sent up, rather than any kind of reality.

And this is where I think Gibbons loses out to Waugh, if only by a nose. There's an initial sense of discomfort that she's laughing at mad, unsophisticated yokels, until you recall that her target is really the bizarre characterisation of rural people by novelists such as Webb. The metatextual nudges - it's just a story, it's OK, there's nobody really this horrid - take the sting out of her satire. There are digs at the idiocies of polite society, as in the passage where Flora and Elfine, her protégée, discuss the value of reading the regular features in Vogue:

'I like the night-gowns and "Persuasion",' said Elfine, 'but I don't like "Our Lives" very much, Flora. It's all rather in a hurry, isn't it, and wanting to tell you how nice it was?'

'I do not propose that you shall found a life-philosophy upon "Our Lives from Day to Day", Elfine. I merely make you read it because you will have to meet people who do that kind of thing, and you must on no account be all dewy and awed when you do meet them. You can, if you like, secretly despise them.'

These are posh twits, but the huge quotation marks that Gibbons constructs around her fiction mean that they're defiantly fictional posh twits, which means that we can laugh at them without, as Flora advises, despising them. Waugh's venom, on the other hand, is directed at the (real) decadent idiots he saw around him, and when he deigns to notice any characters without a private income, they too get swept up in the tsunami of his misanthropy. Which surely means that Gibbons was a nicer person than Waugh (not difficult), but maybe a slightly less compelling, less necessary author. Why write about writing when you can write about life?

Which leads to my cat-among-the-pigeons query: has any female writer indulged in the unabashed loathing for humanity that men such as Waugh, Swift, Michel Houellebecq or Bret Easton Ellis can get away with? And if she did, would she be lauded as a supreme social satirist, or damned as a freak? Within the excellent comic art of Stella Gibbons, was there a frustrated misanthrope desperate to burst out?

Thursday, July 05, 2007

What are you waiting for?

I was listening to Grace by Jeff Buckley the other day. No, don't worry, nothing's wrong, nobody's died, I'm not suffering from chronic depression or anything. I'd just got the CD player mended, and reached for a random disc to test it. Grace was at hand. Damn, this is starting to sound like a sermon...

Anyway, something struck me as I listened to the album without its customary accoutrements of darkness, candles and stifled sobbing. There's a song on it called 'So Real', and it always gives me a chill when I hear it. But ask me anything about it - the music or the lyrics, anything - I couldn't tell you. Just now, I had to check what the title was. I don't even particularly like the song when I listen to it.

Context, as ever, is all. 'So Real' gives me tingles because it's the track that comes before Buckley's version of 'Hallelujah' and overplayed as that song might be, constantly used as cheap shorthand for emotional turmoil in TV dramas about American teenagers with great teeth, Buckley's 'Hallelujah' sends me to a deep, dark place that very little music can achieve. And 'So Real' is the herald to that feeling.

In my book about Radiohead, I discussed the way that people's listening habits have changed radically in the decade since OK Computer was released. The provision of music as discrete, downloadable tracks, rather than as a fixed album with a beginning and an end has meant that the weird thrill I feel as 'So Real' dies away might soon be nothing more than a quaint folk memory. People will still listen to 'Hallelujah', but it might be prefixed by any track, by any artist, on any iPod.

Kids are growing up who don't know the extent to which a track listing burns itself into your memory. I remember when my dad and I first listened to the CD version of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. In the liner notes was George Martin's first draft of the running order and now, with the newfangled wonders of a programmable player, we could make that order a reality. But as soon as track three began ('Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite', rather than 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds', following 'With a Little Help from my Friends'), it just sounded... wrong. 'With A Little Help' sets you up for 'Lucy'. It just does.

And then there's 'Love You More', from the Buzzcocks compilation Singles Going Steady. It stops, abruptly, brutally, with the line "Until the razor cuts". And then, before 'Ever Fallen In Love' arrives, there's a yearning, anticipatory silence, possibly the most profound silence in rock 'n' roll.

Maybe that's what's been lost as the Great Rock Album bites the dust: the notion that some silences are better than others.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

And you thought Adric was annoying...

Oh, bloody hell.

PS: This has annoyed me so much, it ended up finding its way into a Comment is Free piece about arts festivals, of all things.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Canon to the left of them

I'm still musing over the responses to my last CiF piece. It's not so much the accusations of plagiarism; they can be rebutted quite easily, although very little is truly original any more, so it hardly seems worth it (but thanks, Annie Rhiannon, for coming to my defence).

No, it's more the assumption that I must have read Freakonomics, as if it forms the core of some sort of 21st-century factual-cum-polemical canon along with, presumably, Blink and The Tipping Point and The Wisdom of Crowds and Everything Bad Is Good For You and The Long Tail (although the last one seems to argue, in a consumer universe of unlimited choice, against the existence of such a concentrated canon, which just adds to the paradoxical fun of a best-seller arguing against the significance of best-sellers - rather akin to Douglas Adams's inversion of the intelligent design concept to disprove the existence of God).

Tom McCarthy recently suggested that, in the publishing world at least, the old canon has definitely given up the ghost, as part of a depressing epidemic of d*mb*ng d*wn that affects writers and commissioning editors alike. People have been yowling about this for years, blaming trendy lefty education theorists in the 60s and 70s, and/or their successors, utilitarian Thatcherites who know the cost of Chaucer and the value of an MBA, but little else. I mean, who among you spotted the defiantly old-fashioned poetic reference in the blog header? (Although, I just did a quick Google, and it turns out that somebody made the same joke in 1991, so it looks as if I'm a plagiarist again; a perception reinforced by the above image of a relaxed Dr Levitt, taken before the recent spate of photos of reclining bloggers reading a certain pop-related tome. Ho hum.)

What's replaced the Dead White Males of poetry, drama and fiction is a selection of literate but non-literary social science tomes, more accessible than standard academic texts, less fluffy and inane than Paulo Coelho's Little Book of Chicken Soup or whatever it's called. And I feel as if it's completely passed me by. What do you think? Should I have read these, in the way that McCarthy expects his fellow authors to have read Sterne and Cervantes?

(And talking of things passing me by, this may show me up as a real Johnny-Ramone-come-lately but is Bono Must Die not the best name for a beat combo, like, ever, or what?)