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.