Friday, May 30, 2008

Space cadet

(I know, I know, enough of the 70s schtick already. Who does he think he is, Andrew Collins? Plaid Stallions, even? If you can't face more of the same, go and check out Rimshot's short story.)


When I was tiny, I wasn't allowed to watch ITV. My mother's justification was that it was full of adverts that would corrupt my unformed psyche; but there was an unspoken acknowledgement that the real problem with the commercial channel was that it was a bit, well, common.

This left me in a quandary, because playground conversation inevitably revolved around what was on telly, and I was by definition excluded from a great chunk of it. Not all, of course: if we were discussing Dr Who, The Dukes of Hazzard or Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em (all BBC), I was on solid ground. But if the others spoke of The Six Million Dollar Man, Planet of the Apes or The Tomorrow People, I was reduced to vigorous nodding and the occasional non-commital "Yeah, that was a good bit, wasn't it?"

These days, of course, I'd be able to busk the contents of last night's viewing from Wikipedia. But if my nine-year-old self was going to rise from the base of the school social pyramid, I'd need to be more imaginative. My saviour came in the form of the local toy shop, which was stacked with merchandise from all the big TV shows, in particular plastic models of the key characters. By memorising the names and what they looked like, I found it easier to work out what was going on.

One day, the talk turned to Space 1999. The general consensus was that it was really good, partly because the monsters were scarier than those in, say, Star Trek. I was well prepared. "Yeah," I chipped in, "my favourite monster's Allen."

All eyes turned to me. There was a brief, unpleasant silence.

"There isn't a monster called Allen," said one boy.

"Yes there is," I floundered. "Mysterious Allen."

They all laughed and called me a spazmo, but wouldn't tell me why. Crestfallen, I trudged back to the toy shop, and re-checked the Space 1999 toys.

"Mysterious ALIEN," I hissed to myself, and went home to watch Blue Peter, or something similarly middle-class and improving.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Make it cheesy on yourself

I do seem to be in an education groove at the moment, although this one has less of that neo-Grange Hill nostalgia feel about it (with an obligatory soundtrack by The Jam):

In the early part of his career, that evergreen vaudevillian Steven Patrick Morrissey wrote ditties such as The Headmaster Ritual, denouncing as "belligerent ghouls" the teachers who haunted his school days. As he aged, his sympathies shifted, and a decade later he was using titles like The Teachers Are Afraid Of The Pupils.

Many of us have had a similar change of heart in recent years, and the tale of Priya Venkatesan, who has threatened to sue her students for harassment and discrimination, may elicit understanding a world of feral, gun-toting, knife-wielding, happy-slapping hoodlums in hoodies. Except that Dr Venkatesan wasn't teaching in a sink school in the Baltimore projects or the Paris banlieues; she was a lecturer at Dartmouth College, an Ivy League establishment in New Hampshire...

Read the full thing here, and marvel at four YouTube clips plus a gratuitous Baudrillard namecheck.

PS: And when you've done that, read Guy Dammann on drunkenness, because it's wonderful.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Two school memories

1. Infant school. The class next to mine was studying measurement. They identified the tallest boy and girl in the class; laid them down on big pieces of paper and drew around them; then painted on clothes and features in that glorious poster paint, the smell of which does the Proustian rush thing like no other substance; and stuck the cut-out, life-size figures on the corridor wall for the rest of us to see, annotated with "ANGELA IS THE TALLEST GIRL" and "MATTHEW IS THE TALLEST BOY".

It's probably fair to say that nobody had noticed they were so tall before this. Angela was better known as The Fat Girl; and Matthew was The Simple Boy.

2. Secondary school. Fourth year lesson. At this stage, girls were slowly being brought into the sixth form, but the lower years were still all-male. One of the rare females, a particularly curvaceous specimen, joggled past the classroom in her netball kit, attracting the eyes of not a few students. The teacher gazed at her, raised an eyebrow and muttered under his breath, "Oooh, stiff as a poker."

It was a grotesquely inappropriate thing to say, but I suppose he felt that it would assist the emotional bond; that we might see him as a human being rather than as a distant authority figure. And it worked; we laughed, albeit in a slightly uncomfortable manner, like when you hear your mum swearing. And it was several years before we discovered that, in reality, he preferred boys.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Dreams of children

Oddly moving and evocative photos by George Plemper, from his time as a teacher in Thamesmead, SE London, in the late 70s. Background story here.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Alone again or

Yet more proof, if any were needed, that the Daily Telegraph does the most fabulous obituaries on the planet. This time it's the theatre director Frith Banbury, who went to Stowe School:

"He ploughs a lonely furrow," observed his headmaster, JF Roxburgh. "You know what this means?" thundered Rear-Admiral Banbury [Frith's father]. "It means the other boys don't like you."

"But father," replied the young Banbury, "I thought it meant that I didn't like the other boys."

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Doing it for the IDS

Almost getting into political-correctness-gone-mad-territory here, but I think I remember to step back from the brink at the last moment:

"It had been a long time since Iain Duncan Smith caused tea to shoot out of my nose, but he managed it on Tuesday. He was on the Today programme, discussing his amendment to the human fertilisation and embryology bill, which would have forced IVF clinics to acknowledge the need for fathers.

In tune with the caring face of Cameronism, IDS denied that this was a lesbian-bashing exercise; indeed, he declared that his amendment was just as relevant to 'the heterosexual community'.

That's when the Ceylon hit the keyboard..."

Members of the Cif-reading community may continue reading here.

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Dick van Dyke thing

(DISCLAIMER: No part of the following post should be interpreted as 'knee-jerk anti-Americanism'; as I've said many times before, I love Otis Redding and Andy Warhol and Christina Ricci and Converse sneakers and insane conspiracy theories far too much to slag off 300 million people. I'm just saying, though, right...)

When I meet an American, s/he usually asks me where I'm from, which is a perfectly sensible question. To which I give what I hope is a perfectly sensible reply, which is "London".

Because I'm not a complete social retard, I then ask the same question of my interlocutor. Who, more often than not, says something along the lines of: "I'm from the States."

Well, I mean, duh? It's just possible that he's clarifying that he's not Canadian, I suppose. But do Americans not realise that, as soon as they open their expensively realigned mouths, they are announcing their Americanness? We get that bit - where in America? New York? LA? Or somewhere in the flyover states, somewhere that only really impinges our attention when there's a high-school massacre?

Last year, in Cambodia, I met a nice American couple.

"Where are you from?" I asked.

"We're from the States."

"Riiight... Whereabouts in the States?"

"A city called Minneapolis."

"Oh, OK."

"Gee, you mean you've heard of it?"

And rather than saying that I come from London, should I be announcing that I come from England, as if every atom of my being, from my accent to my pasty skin, from my yellow-grey teeth to my fondness for sarcasm, doesn't scream that fact out loud?

PS: Serendipitously, this turns up in my inbox, courtesy of the ever-delicious Very Short List. I like the Scottish one best.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Lovin' it?

Here's a good thing, flagged up by my excellent luncheon companion Charles Frith.

It's called Brand Tags. The deal is that you have a succession of brands flashed at you, and you type in the first word or phrase that comes into your head. Some of the brands are specifically American, which may baffle some, but hey, there are no wrong anwers. As the site develops, a tag cloud is created for each brand - and the fun comes when you try to guess the brand from the tags alone. Fun for the label junkie and the Naomi Klein groupie alike.

(And good luck to Mr Redknapp and his chums this p.m., of course.)

Friday, May 16, 2008

You can never leave

Traipsing around a Bangkok department store, I come to a shelf of DVD players: three different live Eagles DVDs are playing, with three different live versions of 'Hotel California'.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

New musical ellipse

I can never remember if I'm behind the loop or outside the curve, but suffice to say that if there's something conceptual, Zeitgeisty and sort-of-oval-shape-ish, I'm almost certainly somewhere else. The only way I might get a vague idea of the sort of thing to which today's young persons might be frugging in their discotheques is if I chance upon a copy of NME from the week before last, but even then it's just full of people with too much eye makeup, shouting, which is of course precisely the way it's always been, and should be, but in the olden days they were shouting to/at me. Or at least I thought they were.

So I'm slightly confused at the cover story of the most recent copy to tumbleweed its way in my general direction. It endeavours to identify The Future 50: The bands, artists and innovators driving music forward. Shouldn't it be packed with people that I've never heard of, making noises I don't understand? You would have thought. But not only does the Top 10 encompass such gummy old farts as Radiohead, Damon Albarn and Rick Rubin; a little further down the list, at number 38, we find the guitarist for 80's Mackem agit-soul combo The Kane Gang.

Next week, Roger Whittaker goes grime.

Also... from the splendid Stuff White People Like: "Don’t worry, it is impossible for a white person to turn down the opportunity to proofread."

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

You're an intellectual giant, an authority

Guardian journalist Zoe Williams, hauled up before the readers' editor to defend her below-the-belt article about Boris Johnson, responds thus:

"I'm not a reporter... I write comment. I tell people what to do all the time. I don't expect them to take me seriously."

Which is fair enough I suppose, and I've always been fond of Ms Williams' pungent drollery. But that's certainly one to store up for the next time somebody like Andrew Keen disparages amateur, dilettante bloggers by comparing them to 'proper', 'serious' journalists.

PS: Just heard John Mortimer on the Today prog, being very snotty with the poor guy who's written the new Brideshead Revisited adaptation. (Younger readers may not be aware that Sir John penned the 1981 telly version that got us all wearing our jumpers over our shoulders.) One line from the irrepressible old curmudgeon stood out: Brideshead is "...entirely a book about God and homosexuality."

PPS: More on the vacuum where the commentariat's vital organs should be, from the mighty Bête.

Monday, May 12, 2008


We're constantly discouraged from mentioning politics and religion in polite conversation. A recommendation I've blithely disregarded in my latest CiF spiel, although that might not be obvious from the opening paragraphs:

"Inayat Bunglawala's post here on Saturday exemplified all that I love about blogging. This wasn't just a newspaper article, to which we were invited to append our responses; it was a call for advice, a starting point, that only really came into its own as the commenters pitched in, spinning the virtual Frisbee between them, creating a glorious dialectic of literary adulation and execration.

Inayat's premise was simple: he hadn't read as much fiction as he would have liked; recent dalliances with the novel had been unsatisfactory; he went to the Cif massive for advice..."

Further solecisms here.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Two more reasons to miss that deadline

A couple of things to which I'd like to draw your attention:

• The splendidly lugubrious Bête de Jour is conducting a survey of blogging practices. Yeah, yeah, all been done before, I know, but this one's good. Like the best surveys, it actually makes you think about your own actions and motivations as you're completing it. Although I suppose that's not necessarily a good thing, because it means the subject is affected by the act of being observed. Anyway, it's here, so just go and blimmin' do it, OK?

• And the fearsomely intelligent Dr Ian Hocking has come up with an interesting twist on Twitter. (It's cooler than Facebook; John Humphrys said so.) He's writing a novel, and he's having his heroine, Saskia Brandt, send updates on her triumphs and tribulations as the narrative develops, all in 140 characters or fewer. I do wonder what he'll do when he gets to editing, though. If he cuts something out, maybe Saskia will have to send a new message saying that, actually, that thing I did six weeks ago, involving the secret policeman and the teleport device and the tureen of borscht, well, I didn't. Social networking, St Petersburg-1907-style, starts here.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Verse about face

Poets as a species aren't particularly known for their modesty, but they can occasionally be creatively self-deprecating, albeit in a distinctly "aren't I bloody great?" sort of manner. WH Auden famously described his own face as being "like a wedding cake left out in the rain", a line that Jimmy Webb subsequently adapted for inclusion (= stole) in the neo-psychedelic MOR epic 'Macarthur Park'. (Incidentally, David Hockney rather topped Auden by surveying the old poet's battered, furrowed countenance and wondering aloud "If that's his face, what must his scrotum look like?")

And now the famously unlovely (in more ways than several) Philip Larkin has come up with a posthumous cracker, having described a less than flattering photograph of himself as "CS Lewis on a drugs charge", which sounds as if it could be the original of that tiresome construction, "X is like Y on acid", but probably wasn't. It does however throw down a challenge. I've long identified myself as Andy Partridge with gout, but I'm sure my lovely readers can skewer themselves with far more élan than that. Are you Hyacinth Bucket eating Space Dust? Richard Dawkins not sure where he left his keys? Or Mao Zedong desperate for a pee? Over to you.

PS: More Larkin about, from themanwhofellasleep.

PPS: Anyone know where Wyndham's disappeared to?

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

When it's a Jarre

In the fast-moving world of blogthings, memes are just sooooo 2006. Clearly then, Matt from Zenbullets has judged the time right for a revival, or at least a bit of retro irony. He's tagged me to provide 8 Random Facts (at least one of which is possibly a Random Fib) about bouffy-haired Gallic electro-ivory-tickler and laser fetishist Jean-Michel Jarre.

1. Jean-Michel Jarre is the son of Maurice Jarre, who wrote the soundtracks for Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and, uh, Ghost.

2. Jean-Michel is best known for that one that goes "BAH ber-ber ber", that was used as backing music for 86% of the supporting features about skateboarders that were apparently compulsory in British cinemas in the late 1970's.

3. It's called 'Oxygene', by the way.

4. I was at school with a guy called Micky Warren, who was a big fan of Jarre. However, he pronounced his hero's name "John Mitchell Jarry".

5. Despite this, Jarre is no relation to the playwright Alfred Jarry, author of the absurdist satire Ubu Roi.

6. In addition to his high-tech keyboard instruments, Jarre also plays the theremin and stylophone.

7. In 1997 he came second in a poll to judge The Most Ludicrous Haircut In Bland Adult Instrumental Pop, pipped to the post by Kenny G. However, many experts have suggested that Jarre should have taken the award because of his imaginative succession of atrocious barnets, whereas Mr G has stuck resolutely to the same grotesque abomination throughout his career.

8. Despite his tonsorial errors, he has touched the bosoms of many extremely attractive ladies, including Charlotte Rampling and Isabelle Adjani, and may even have seen them in just their pants. Most philosophers suggest this, rather than the Babel fish, is the most persuasive argument for the non-existence of God.

In keeping with the old-skool ethos of this meme, it's not a free-for-all. I must tag eight bloggers, and tell them who they must write about. i think I'll add the further restriction that not all the facts can be scooped from the individual's Wikipedia entry, although the fiction can be. So...

Annie Rhiannon must provide eight nuggets on the subject of Lucrezia Borgia

Betty on Israel Kamakawiwo'ole

First Nations on Friedrich Nietzsche

Geoff on Madame Blavatsky

LC on Traci Lords

Patroclus on one or other of the Chuckle Brothers

Slaminsky on Perkin Warbeck

Valerie on Eric Cartman

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Sunday, May 04, 2008

40 years on

(This is the post that I wrote a couple of months ago but held over until the omens were propitious, and/or the relevant anniversary lurched into view. In fact, that was the post that kickstarted the whole YouTube blogging ennui thing. Crazy days, eh?)

I was born in May, 1968, at the height of the Paris événements, although I should make clear that I was in Exeter at the time, where you don't need to look under the paving stones for the beach - it's a few miles down the river, just before you get to the sea.

Understandably, I don't remember much about the demonstrations, the occupations, the slogans as they were happening, but by the time the 20th anniversary rolled around, I was well up on my Situationist theory and even went through a phase of carrying a lemon around with me, to counteract the inevitable teargas attack from, uh, the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary.

And now we're approaching the 20th anniversary of that 20th anniversary. I've been watching a Channel 4 programme from 1988, which reunited a number of the protagonists, and it seems just as distant, just as weird, as the grainy footage of the occupation of the Sorbonne and all that malarkey. It's not just the technical aspects that date it: the old C4 logo; the wobbly CSO; the obsession that lefty graphic designers had with typewriter fonts. It's the fact that the big players manage to look more old-fashioned than they did in their polo-necks and desert boots as they manned the barricades. Julia Kristeva sports scary blue eye shadow; Daniel Cohn-Bendit, is that a mullet I see? And, bloody hell, somebody's smoking in the studio!

But what really makes the whole thing look old is that Channel 4 was devoting two whole programmes to a freewheeling, intelligent, informed, prickly discussion about history and politics without Vernon Kay or George Lamb or somesuch witless twunt waving his arms around and talking about ringtones.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Do you see what I see?

When a major studio has on its hands a movie it knows to be not just a dog, but the sort of flatulent, ill-tempered dog that will chew your sofa and vomit the stuffing onto your granny, it has the option of cancelling press previews. I've always thought this to be counterproductive: all the reviewers will do is announce to their readers that The Fastest and the Furiousest isn't being shown to the media, which is probably a sign it's a tad canine. Of course, this presupposes that journalists are too mean or poor or halfwitted to buy their own tickets, like civilians. (On a related note, I see that Deutsche Bank employees are being told to keep the bill for business lunches to under 52 quid; of course, the notion that any of them will dip into their vast bonuses and actually pay for something themselves is as far from reality as alchemy, unicorns and the Smiths reunion.)

Anyway, the people behind Vantage Point have unwittingly discovered another way to make a movie critic-proof: it's impossible to offer a balanced review of the film without giving away one of the half-dozen or so plot twists. And without these, the film is essentially:

• A high concept, that of a single event being seen from several points of view. This has been done before, most obviously in Kurosawa's Rashomon, but fortunately the number of people who know that Rashomon is about a single event being seen from several points of view probably exceeds the number of people who've actually watched the film by about 20 to one.

• Lots of stuff blowing up and car chases and veryfastedits and things.

If the critic gives away the twists, the punter will probably not want to see the film; but it's a pyrrhic victory, because the critic will become the bastard who gives the game away, which is like telling the popcorn crowd that there's no Santa Claus, so nobody will listen to a word he says again evereverever. Remember the 11th commandment: thou shalt not forget to use the "SPOILER ALERT" function.

So, at the end of the day, Brian, all we're left with is a bunch of fragmented thoughts and observations. Which, if and when you think about it, is pretty apposite for a film about incomplete information, perspective and all that malarkey. Isn't it. Isn't it?

• Vantage Point nearly says something about the advantage citizen journalism (Forest Whitaker, the Zapruder figure) has over mainstream media, but it kind of gets lost in the noise.

• At the same time, if I were a small kid who'd lost her mommy and things start blowing up, Forest Whitaker is probably the person I'd most want to rescue me. But not if he were in Idi Amin mode, thanks.

• Can Dennis Quaid not smile these days, or what?

• 'POTUS' sounds like the central character in a series of children's books: Here Comes Potus; Potus and his Chums; Potus Goes to the Circus; Look at all the Potus Merchandise; etc.

• Sigourney Weaver plays a character called Rex. Uh?

• For a movie that's purportedly about subjectivity, points of view, compromised reality, and so on, it's deliciously Borgesian that they weren't able to film more than a few establishing shots in Salamanca, where the action is supposed to take place; instead they rebuilt the whole thing in Mexico.

• The film seems to be striving for a level of political neutrality, with hawks and doves, goodies and baddies on both sides (and even a few ambiguous ones, which is brave for the Hollywood mainstream), but there's still a sense that, as the carnage erupts and the bodies pile up, so long as the President of the United States is OK, all will be well. Hmm.

• Ultimately, Vantage Point is an inversion of the Hitchcock formula; here, the MacGuffin is the murder.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Credit crunch

Lionel Shriver argues in The Observer (apropos Harvard getting their mitts on some salacious scrawlings from Norman Mailer's paramour) that we should disregard the details of the writer's life when we consider the works.

This sounds, superficially at least, like Barthes's Death of the Author, arguing that once a writer offers up his/her work to the public, we are all effectively writing it according to our personal tastes, whims, instincts and prejudices. But Shriver isn't going that far. As a reader, she just wants to keep the creator and the creation in separate compartments, and asks that the same courtesy is extended to her as a writer:

"In fact, I do not especially care to know anything about the novelists whose work I admire, for I've found that meeting most writers distracts, if not detracts, from their work. As a whole, we authors are a disappointing bunch. Thus I've never understood why any of my readers would want to meet me, either. My favourite colour should have no bearing on my novels, which you like or you don't."

All of which sounds eminently reasonable: we should take each piece of writing as a discrete entity, with no reference to what the author did before or after or during. Except that, if we take this to the logical conclusion, we shouldn't refer to anything the author has written before or after. And Shriver's article is suffixed with the information that her latest novel The Post-Birthday World is now out in paperback. If we don't care about the author of the article, why should we care about this book she happens to have written? She's also failed to notice that the two living authors who do most to keep details of their personal lives from their readers, Salinger and Pynchon, have made themselves even more fascinating than most writers whose private lives are public property.

So what's Shriver asking for? She seems to demand that 'Lionel Shriver' be nothing more than an authorial brand, a badge of quality that we must promise not to deconstruct. OK, maybe her life, her opinions, her favourite colour really are utterly tedious. But, for good or ill, the punters will be the judges.