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.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


The refrain that "social networks are the new blog" has become so tiresome and pervasive that we ought to be looking elsewhere for our clichés. Maybe something like "double viral loops are the new social network".

Still, when Radio 4's comedy warhorse Just a Minute acknowledges the existence of blogging (about nine minutes in on Listen Again; available until next Monday), maybe it's time we bloggers made a dignified withdrawal, or at least resigned ourselves to the status of nostalgic obsessives, like someone who still uses a ZX81 or drives a Trabant. On the other hand, could it not be that "clapped-out parlour games for which we still retain a grudging fondness, because Clement Freud remains a supremely cool dude and Merton's usually good value, are the new double viral loop" is the new "social networks are the new blog"?

Sunday, September 23, 2007

A last walk into the wind

Marcel Marceau died yesterday. I was lucky enough to see him at Sadler's Wells when I was about 12, and I'll never forget his 'maskmaker' routine. He played a craftsman who put on a smiling mask of his own design, and then couldn't take it off; his despair was communicated by his body alone, as his face maintained a serene grin.

He served in the French Resistance during World War II, as did Samuel Beckett. I like to imagine the two of them being sent to blow up a railway line together.

The future's not orange any more

In the olden days, I used to work for an organisation called PUSH, that published an alternative guide to British universities. It was a fun time, because ours was the only such guide that refused to recycle the platitudes offered by the institutions or the student unions. University PR people hated us: but the A-level students, the ones at whom the book was targeted, loved it. One of the proudest moments in my professional life came at a party after a Gene concert (I did say it was a long time ago), when a 17-year-old shook me by the hand and said: "You're Tim Footman? Every sixth-former in Dorset thinks you're God."

I left PUSH in 1997, but I've retained an interest in the various attempts being made to ensure informed choice in an increasingly crowded and complex marketplace. And I can't say I was impressed with the online advertising for one of PUSH's erstwhile rivals, the Times Good University Guide, which appears to be alluding to the Trainspotting movie poster in its online advertising. I know nostalgia comes round in cycles, but isn't that as incomprehensible a cultural indicator to today's nu-ravey teens as, say, Gene? It was released over a decade ago, fer flip's sake! It's as if I'd strolled into the PUSH office in the early 1990s and insisted that we do a marketing campaign based on, I dunno, Olivia Newton-John in Xanadu.

Which is just a long-winded excuse to offer you this:

Friday, September 21, 2007



Back after these messages

If you see an advertisement featuring a woman in a black shirt and white trousers, is your immediate assumption that the advert is for: a) anti-dandruff shampoo; or b) some form of feminine hygiene product? Or maybe some new-fangled piece of jiggery-pokery that does both?

Also, can anybody explain to me what's so offensive about the word 'cookie'? I've got a hunch it's something to do with ladies' bits, but I'm not sure.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Gonna go to the place that's the best

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the life and death of Brian, and the blog that documented them.

One of the regular visitors was a guy called Mark, a real, meatspace friend of Brian, rather than a dilettantish blogchum. Today, I went back to Brian's site one last time, and casually followed a link back to Mark's own blog.

Mark's an enthusiast for "Ulster mission hall gospel music", and chairman of something called the Ulster-Scots Agency. Now, this may raise a few gentle alarm bells among some of you: admit it, lots of us operate under the instinctive prejudice that Irish Catholics tend to be warm and eloquent and loquacious, while their Protestant neighbours are sour-faced bigots. But surely this is as daft as any other overarching cultural or ethnic generalisation; Wilde and Shaw and Yeats and Beckett were all born Prods, and I can't imagine any of them mincing down the Queen's Highway in sashes and bowlers.

Clearly, Mark's a religious man, but I've got no problem with that. Whatever gets you through the night and all. Then I read a little bit more, specifically what Mark said about Brian's last hours and his funeral:

"To the best of my knowledge (ie up until a few weeks ago), Brian rejected any form of personal faith, let alone a saving faith in Christ alone. However his wife Terri told me this afternoon that for the last few days he had been trying to talk to her, through his sedation, about 'God' and 'Heaven'. He was brought up in the red brick streets and mission halls of Woodvale in Belfast. We can just hope and pray - I'm asking you to do so."

And then:

"Brian's funeral was last Sunday, near Carndonagh in Donegal. It's a long story, but the good part is that I met his brother Bill, his friend Ivan and one of Brian's clients (incidentally also called Mark). All three confirmed to me that Brian had professed faith as a young man and took part in many beach missions and open air witnessing in his younger life. I had prayed that morning for some sort of confirmation of Brian's faith, and I got it three times over."

Again, fair enough. I know enough about Christian theology (I've got an A-level to prove it) to understand the importance that Protestants place on salvation through faith. Mark was sincerely concerned for what he perceived as the wellbeing of his friend's eternal soul - a friend who, let's remember, I never met, never really knew.

But then I remembered something that would probably have confirmed some of Mark's suspicions about people who choose a different route to heaven, but at the same time reinforced my own instincts that this religion business is all a bit unpleasant. After my grandfather died (this was some time before I was born), some Catholic friends of the family made a point of explaining to his widow that, because he'd committed suicide, they wouldn't be praying for him. Mortal sin and all that kind of thing. Sorry. Of course, it wasn't the fact that prayers were not forthcoming that upset my grandmother; it was that people who'd called themselves friends had chosen to tell her, in a time of howling grief, that her husband was too wicked to be a fit subject for their discussions with the Almighty.

I can understand Mark's desperation to grab at the slightest straws of evidence that Brian had got God before he died; and I can even understand those Catholics who decided that the method of my grandfather's death put him beyond redemption. Both points of view are entirely consistent with the dogmas and philosophies by which they choose to follow their lives. The same understanding extends to those Hindus who believe that the sand formation between India and Sri Lanka was built by an army of monkeys, or the Muslims who think that a woman with a driving licence is an affront to Allah. And, let's be ecumenical, to the Jews and Jains and Pagans and Parsees and adherents of any other faith who really, really, really believe stuff.

I just wish a few more religious people would display a similar level of understanding when it comes to the reasons I have for thinking that they're talking bollocks.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Flowers in the dustbin

It's depressing that the Sex Pistols are stumbling back onto the nostalgia circuit, with a gig at the Brixton Academy to mark the 30th (say it ain't so, Sid) anniversary of Never Mind the Bollocks. Depressing, but only to be expected; they did, after all, name their 1996 reunion 'The Filthy Lucre Tour', and if anybody's entitled to piss on the Pistols' legacy, it's the musicians themselves. Since their sole purpose was to provoke and disturb, they probably see it as their sacred right to disabuse anyone who still holds a rosy perspective on the whole punk phenomenon; if they were still talking to Malcolm McLaren, he could have told them that anti-art movements such as Dada and Situationism are by their very nature doomed to failure, so there's no shame in making a few quid as you stand amid the smoking ruins. Although, by the look of it, they've worked that out for themselves.

I'm less impressed with the NME, which is apparently encouraging its readers to buy the re-released 'God Save The Queen' single in an effort to get it to Number One, thus righting the wrong that was committed in 1977 (the year of the Silver Jubilee), when the hit parade was allegedly tweaked to keep the disc from reaching the top spot and spoiling all those dire street parties that my staunchly republican mother refused to let me attend. This is wrong on numerous counts: the last remaining rock weekly shouldn't be party to what is, in effect, an attempt to rig the charts; it's another example of the NME's campaign of revisionism to present itself as the mag that discovered punk (it wasn't, Sounds was, that's why the NME needed Burchill and Parsons, etc, etc); and, more than anything, it fundamentally fails to comprehend the essential outsider status that defines alternative music.

The Number Two placing in 1977 defined the Pistols as the enemies of the state. Had the chart compilers acquiesced, and allowed them to seize the top spot unimpeded, it would have been as if the Queen herself had abdicated. A battle would have been won, but the eternal war of attrition - the thing that made punk important - would have suddenly become irrelevant. The Pistols are important because they were so shambolic, because they only recorded one album, because they collapsed in acrimony, because they stalled in second place. What the NME proposes is a retrospective rewrite of musical history that will do more to cheapen the Pistols' legacy than anything Lydon and his associates could ever manage by themselves.

Ever get the feeling they've missed the point?

PS: The news that Blur bassist Alex James has been appointed as an associate editor for Tory fogey weekly The Spectator is, in a perverse way, more punk than anything the Pistols or the NME have managed to produce for years.

PPS: You know, I take that back. The old reprobates can still cause a rumpus, even if it's down to a proofing error. (Thanks to No Rock and Roll Fun for the tip.)

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Woolly thinking

I've mentioned before my theory that the definition of a modern intellectual is someone who owns more books than shoes. But there are other methods of identifying this rare and timid creature. My favourites have to be:

"Someone who can listen to the William Tell Overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger."


"Someone who can be left alone and unobserved in a room with a tea-cosy and not be tempted to put it on his head."

On either count, I fail dismally. Although I hope I just about make up for it with the shoes thing.

Friday, September 14, 2007


Partly on the recommendation of Llewtrah and partly to keep on track with my commitment to read more books by those pesky female authors, I've been reading Kate Fox's Watching the English.

In fact, I'd noticed in the bookshop some months ago, but had put it back on the shelf, and probably wouldn't have picked it up again if Lovely Boo (who is no longer Small Boo, after we watched a documentary about primordial dwarfs and she said: "See, I'm not that small after all, am I?") hadn't brought it back from a recent trip to London.

The thing that had originally put me off was a back-cover quote from the Daily Mail. Now, that in itself isn't a reason to reject a book, but there was just something definitively Mail-y about this particular comment; in particular the observation that "fortunately she doesn't write like an anthropologist but like an English woman".

Now, in the first instance, there's the implication that the two are distinct, that there's something specifically un-English and un-womanly about the discipline of anthroplogy, with all the attendant baggage of the Mail mindset that foreigners are peculiar, and working women are selfish and evil.

But what annoys me more is that the Mail is one of the most strident proponents of the notion that the British education system is dumbed down, that kids are being regurgitated from school with 10 A*s but without the ability to count or spell or remember who won the Battle of Waterloo. Which may or may not be true: but how does this attitude tally with the notion that any kind of incursion of serious academic discourse into the Mail-reader's intellectual universe is something to be avoided? It exhibits a peculiarly idiotic strain of Anglophone conservatism, one that demands academic 'standards' but cowers away from anything suggesting real intellect (which is presumably what those standards are meant to measure, because otherwise they're pretty much redundant). Foreigners and working women may be dodgy, but an academic anthropologist is just plain weird, and probably a damn pinko to boot.

In any case, Fox's book seems to me the best sort of popular science: she's writing for a non-specialist audience but, rather than avoid the technical terms of her trade (acculturation, participant observation, cultural genomics, ethnographic dazzle, etc), when she feels that they'll serve a purpose, she uses them, with an explanation for the uninitiated. She is writing like an anthropologist, but one who seeks to express the joys of her trade to a wider audience. She even creates her own wry technobabble, including The Ironic-Gnome Rule, which is worth the cover price on its own.

It's part of a marketing process I've noticed in recent years: rather than making books or movies more stupid, the publishers and distributors dumb down the blurbs and trailers, making the product seem stupider than it actually is. It's better than the alternative, but maybe still self-defeating: punters lured by the soft sell will find something less accessible than they were hoping; while people who might have appreciated it will walk away. Although I do rather look forward to Century making use of the anonymous review that Private Eye ran of Katie 'Jordan' Price's (try to imagine ironic quotation marks around that apostrophe) latest novel, Crystal:

"It's actually quite hard to open its pages without feeling your lips go slack and the drool beginning to form."

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Done because we are too menny

I wasn't going to write about The Wire. Well, that's not quite true: I was going to write about it on several occasions, but thought better of it. At first I was going to write about how odd it was that a show that had provoked such a positive response from those who'd seen it was being tucked away from view, and whether this was a conscious effort by producers and programmers to keep it cultish and nichey, and what that means for the future of television and other media. And then I was going to write something about Urmee Khan and her very odd CiF piece about the essential maleness of the show and its devotees, and whether art was more or less 'gendered' since the development of feminist criticism. And most recently I was going to write about how annoying it was that those devotees (Charlie Brooker, Nick Hornby, Alexei Sayle – maybe Khan did have a point) seemed unable to explain the greatness of The Wire beyond variations on "It's the greatest TV show ever made, and you've just got to blimmin' watch it, right?"

Of course, this was all before I'd actually watched it, so I'm rather glad I didn't write that last piece, because that's pretty much my pitch as well, although I don't think it's quite the greatest TV show ever, but more of that later. An argument could be made that the truly great works of art are like love and God and hummus, in that they transcend the normal constraints of critical language, and all you can really do is to affirm your own faith in their wonders and hope that someone else takes the hint.

But now I’ve chainsmoked every episode of the first two seasons, I can hazard a few one-liners as to why The Wire is so good. Many people herald its authenticity, but since I’ve never visited Baltimore or sold heroin I can’t comment on that. It comes from the same creative stable (and has the same urban backdrop) as Homicide: Life on the Street, a truly great cop show that has been consistently edged out of the critical canon by the distinctly inferior NYPD Blue (in much the same way as Chicago Hope never had a prayer against the earnest breastbeating of ER). Where The Wire betters its predecessor is that it has the nerve to stretch a single storyline over an entire season, and then to withhold from the audience any real notion of closure. This is why Wire evangelists insist that you can’t judge the show from a couple of isolated episodes. You have to invest time and emotional commitment.

This insistence on challenging and stretching the viewer is shared with The Wire’s only competitor as the greatest American crime show ever – the first season of Murder One, which also had the balls to follow a single case, with all its longueurs and reversals and dead ends, and dare the audience to keep up. (Too few did, it seems, and so by the second series it had become just another bloody lawyer show, in easily-digested chunks. Oh well, it was fun while it lasted.)

Of course, in order to become the greatest cop show of all time, anywhere, The Wire would have to cut free from the safety harness of even that one single, season-long case, and throw its characters into a state of messy, almost plotless existence, where all they can do is react to occurrences that seem beyond their or the scriptwriters’ control. And they’d have to make all the cameras hand-held, and make the sound really bad, and ensure that it looks like it’s about to rain 90% of the time, and have that bloke from Early Doors in it. Oh yeah, and bribe critics to use the word verité in every review. But I don't want to dwell on The Cops; instead, I'll keep it up my sleeve as a card I can play every time someone tells me that American TV is now the best in the world.

Going back to the first time I thought about writing about The Wire, but decided not to, I’m still aware that only a minority have watched it, so this may all be academic. Once again, I’ll encourage you to seek it out, because it is very, very good. But I’d better throw you something a little more inclusive, about which more of you might have an opinion. It’s a tired cliché, usually in the context of high vs low culture, that if Dickens were alive today, he’d be writing EastEnders. This is probably true, and it’s usually predicated on the fact that his novels were originally published as serials. Anyone who saw the fabulous BBC version of Bleak House from a couple of years ago will understand the notion of his narratives as blue-chip soaps.

But Dickens wouldn’t have been able to write The Wire. His plots, however fragmented, always lead to resolution and closure. Not all his characters are absolute demons or angels, but he’s not into moral ambiguity; there’s always a sense of rightness and justice in his authorial voice. At the same time, even when he’s challenging an evil of his age (bad schools, workhouses, the convolutions of the legal system), he’s too conservative to challenge the fundamentals of Victorian patriarchy and capitalism that let them all exist.

Compare this with the best works of Thomas Hardy. Although many of his novels, like those of Dickens, were originally written as serials, I’ve always thought they have more of an overall narrative arc; the self-contained bits of business with characters that pop up for a couple of chapters, then recede, are far less common. Also, he usually spares us those incident-packed journeys from one location to another; instead, his locations have the chance to settle in the imagination throughout a story, so that in many cases (most notably Egdon Heath in The Return of the Native), they can be regarded as characters in their own right (in the same way that Baltimore exists as a brooding presence in the universe of The Wire, and the favelas exert a malign influence of their own in City of God).

Hardy’s characters are as developed and ‘real’ as those of Dickens, but they exist in an amoral universe, buffeted and blown without recourse to any notion of happy endings; if a vaguely happy ending does occur, as in Far From the Madding Crowd, it's as much by dumb luck as by anything, and there's still going to be plenty of collateral damage. Hardy was only 16 years younger than Dickens, but his world view is utterly different: uncertain, agnostic, post-Darwinian. His heroes - think of Jude or Tess - try to better themselves, but get slapped down for their presumption. 19th-century Wessex and 21st-century Baltimore are united by their abject unfairness.

So, the pat response is that if Dickens were writing mainstream soaps, Hardy might be writing something like The Wire, where the environment itself becomes the most important, powerful, predatory player in the game, and the only one that knows all the rules. And, if you’re tired of over-enthusiastic remote-wielders urging you to accept their gospel that The Wire is or isn't better than The Shield or Lost or Balamory, maybe it’s time to sidestep that particular argument, and accept my contention that Hardy is better than Dickens.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Roll play

I've just noticed that, thanks to the odd format of that Thai advert, edging beyond the right-hand margin of its post, anybody using Internet Explorer will have found my blogroll and archive and general gubbins shoved down to the lower depths of the page, only accessible to the sort of people who hang around in the cinema to discern the name of the Third Assistant Gerbil Wrangler.

By my calculations, with this post, the advert and its attendant complications should have gone over to the other side (as Doris Stokes would have had it), so it seems appropriate to commemorate the return of the blogroll. I'm working on the basis that the blogosphere is really one enormous Venn diagram: my blogroll has five names in common with X's blogroll, which has seven different names in common with Y's, and so on. What I want is for you to scroll down my list of lovelies, pick a site that you haven't visited before, go there and leave a message. (Note that a few of them aren't strictly blogs, so you get a second chance if you pick one of them.) It's up to you whether or not you describe in the comment box the route that took you there; or whether you come back and tell us where you went and what you thought of it; or, indeed, whether you put a similar suggestion on your own blog, if you have such a thing. But if you do, it could mean that the blogosphere stops looking like this:

and starts looking like this:

which can only be a good thing, surely?

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Of mice and postmodernists

On the advice of Ian Hocking (who is now, I trust, happily ensconced in Canterbury), I've been reading Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes and it's very good, as he declared. I won't bother to review it, as Ian's done a fine job of that already, but two points suggest themselves.

First, dear God, the title. Before Ian began hymning the book's praises, I'd noticed it on the shelves of my second favourite second-hand bookshop in Bangkok, and walked past, simply because the title seems to suggest some sub-Wildean soft-porn potboiler about golden-haired youths fumbling each other into manhood behind the bikesheds of Eton in about 1905. When a movie version was made in 1968 (of Keyes's novel, not of my imaginary posh gay smut), they retitled it Charly. I normally object to that sort of thing as inane d***ing d**n that insults the intelligence of the audience and the integrity of the author, but in this case I think it was a good call.

The other thing is that some aspects of the novel (or, more specifically my reading of it - hold that thought, I'll come back to it in a moment) provide a neat clarification of Roland Barthes's 'Death of the Author' theory. This is something I touched on in Welcome to the Machine (available at a half-decent bookshop near you, if such a thing still exists), but hell, why not give it another run round the digital paddock?

Essentially, Barthes argues that it's pointless to second-guess the intentions of an author of a piece of writing, whether by reference to his or her biography, or to the words themselves. A book is 'created' not by the author, but by the reader, whose own experiences, opinions, prejudices, previous readings, etc all have an influence on the meaning derived from the reading. By extension, it's quite feasible to argue that Book B is an influence on Book A, even if B was written after A, and even if the author of A never read it. If the reader of A has already read B, it can influence the reading of that text.

In WTTM, my example was the perceived influence of a book by Philip K Dick on the themes of OK Computer, even though Thom Yorke protested that he'd never read the book in question. As I read Flowers for Algernon, elements of the book triggered thoughts of books I'd read before. Parts of the book are written in a deliberately primitive first-person voice, suggesting the intellectual and social 'otherness' of the narrator, as in Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker or Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. (This does raise an unrelated issue, one that's been niggling me for some time: if we're getting to the stage when the majority of people communicate in sub-literate txtspk, how does an author convey the notion that a character is sub-literate? Or will the concept of sub-literacy cease to exist?)

Also, a white mouse plays a more significant role than you might expect (see Zadie Smith's White Teeth and The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams); and the moral ramifications of using medical intervention to take someone to a state of intellectual 'normality' have their echoes in Awakenings by Oliver Sacks. Now, all five of those books were published well after Flowers for Algernon first saw the light of day. But, according to Barthes, they all influenced it, because they affected my reading of it.

By pure serendipity, I just found a quotation from Marcel Duchamp on the Radiohead site Pulk-Pull*:

"All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act."

Now, I don't know whether Duchamp had read 'Death of the Author'; he died just a year after it was published, so the chances are that he didn't. But of course, according to both Barthes and Duchamp, that's a very minor detail.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Fiction factory

When I was young and energetic and inclined to sublimate surging hormonal overactivity into creative endeavour (I don't know which faded first, the hormones or the creativity), I used to write plays. Actually, that's not entirely true: I used to write and rewrite a single play. Because whatever the play was about (revolution; Shakespearean heroes; our old friend Sisyphus), there was always a moment where the central figure discovered a script that showed his life and death were predetermined, proving that he was nothing more than a (wait for it) character in a play. Alert readers will be able to deduce my slavish devotion to the works of Pirandello and Stoppard and Woody Allen; and I'm sure it's quite easy to trace a lineage from them to my play McB, which ended with Macduff telling Macbeth that he couldn't win, because the author wouldn't let him, although, to justify my existence, I had the Thane bumped off by the First Witch, who'd been having an affair with him behind Lady Macbeth's back, but then transferred her affections to Macduff after she'd read to the end of the script. Or was there a lesbian sub-plot with Lady M, who wasn't really dead? To be honest, it's all a bit hazy now. The play was performed on the Edinburgh Fringe in 1989, attracting the description "unbelievably atrocious" from Mario Relich of The Scotsman, thus immediately tripling our audiences, so that we very nearly broke even which, as anyone who's 'done' the Fringe will tell you, is some achievement, so thanks, Mario.

Yeah, anyway. Even in the 1980s, this was a theme that had been done to death in the theatre: what's surprising is that the cinema has usually been resistant to the idea. Of course, there's been metafiction - the technique of drawing attention to the artificiality of a narrative - in movies for decades: Tarantino didn't invent everything. Check out the sublimely daft Hellzapoppin' (1941) if you want to see a movie about the writing of itself. But in recent years it's been more a case of knowing nods and winks, from Ferris Bueller's post-credits appearance to tell the audience to go home, to the slew of horror and other genre spoofs that began in the mid-1990s and were never as good as Airplane! And then of course there's the permanently raised eyebrow of Quentin Tarantino. (Quick break here for a pocket Grindhouse review: the Tarantino half is better; the Rodriguez half is more enjoyable.)

Adaptation (2002) brought the writing process back to the centre of things, with a script by Charlie Kaufman that featured himself as the main character, alongside his twin brother Donald, who doesn't exist, although that didn't stop the Academy nominating him for an Oscar for co-writing the piece. The fact that the script was nominally based on a real book, the author of which appears as a character, adds to the fun.

More recently we've had The Number 23, in which Jim Carrey finds a book that seems to tell the story of his life; and Stranger Than Fiction, with Will Ferrell as a meek auditor who starts hearing his actions being narrated. These turn out to be the words of a novelist (Emma Thompson) with a reputation for always killing off her heroes, so the plot turns into a battle to save his life, made more poignant because he has at last found love with bohemian baker Maggie Gyllenhaal (and serenades her with a Wreckless Eric song). The love story is nicely done, but it distracts from the central conceit, rather blunting the challenge to the audience's sense of reality. Indeed, it combines two tried and tested Hollywood themes: the antisocial nerd redeemed by the love of a slightly uncoventional woman (Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby or Steve Carell and Catherine Keener in The 40 Year Old Virgin); and the man fighting unseen powers for his right to live (David Niven in A Matter of Life and Death).

Hollywood is finally tired of green-lighting genre spoofs, it appears, so they may be room for more of this literary self-awareness, albeit wrapped up in something like the easily digested romance of Stranger Than Fiction. But I doubt it, for two reasons. First, writing isn't cinematic. It's easy to make a film about making a film; much harder to create excitement from someone hammering at a keyboard and drinking coffee. And the other reason lies in Hollywood's politics. Somebody like Charlie Kaufman, a screenwriter who gets as much kudos for a finished film as the director, is an anomaly. Mainstream moviemaking is still in thrall to the 50-year-old auteur theory, that holds the director responsible for a film's artistic worth. Too many films about the creation of a story and the words that tell it, and they'll have to start giving the poor bloody writer a bit more credit.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Life of Brian

Of course, I never knew Brian. Not in the way I know family, friends, colleagues or even the nice lady who works in the mom 'n' pop store where I buy milk and mosquito repellent. I just knew the basics about him: that he lived in Donegal; that he worked in advertising; that he was married with a seven-year-old son. And of course that he was dying of pancreatic cancer, which is why he started the blog in the first place.

Maybe it wasn't a great blog. He never got the hang of links, or tags or blogrolls. The spelling and grammar could have used some attention. But, hell, why should he have cared about little things like that? As he said, his mission was "trying to squeeze the sweetness out of every second".

He was diagnosed in early April, and they gave him between six and twelve months. He didn't even get that. He died yesterday. And as I read his last post, and the bad news from his friends, and the comments from those who knew him and those who didn't, I realised that this is what blogging is about. All the whining about whether blogging is taking over from journalism is an arcane backwater, the preserve of crap hacks who can't stand the heat. It's something bigger.

Patroclus calls it a conversation, which is very true. But there's something else going on. Brian's illness and death obviously affected a lot of people. But through his blog, the ripples went out just that little bit further, so a few more of us got a taste of the quiddity of Brian. Yes, the posts and the comments were a conversation, but the whole thing acted as a sort of amplifier, bringing what can only be described as Brian-ness to a wider audience.

"Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night."
-- Dylan Thomas

"Only connect." -- E.M. Forster