Sunday, June 29, 2008

Restricted view

Well, that was a funny 48 hours. For some reason, I've been unable to access any Blogger blogs, including my own. I could get into Blogger itself, and add a post to Cultural Snow; could also read comments, because they're copied to e-mail, although I couldn't comment myself. I could even spot when some of my faves had been updated, because they showed up in my Technorati feed. But I couldn't read them.

It was an odd experience: hovering over my digital back yard, seeing bits and pieces of what was going on, but unable to take part; mouthing silently, hoping that some kind of e-telepathy could alert people to my plight; an eternal spectator, albeit one with the worst seat in the house, stuck behind a family of five fat people with Afros; Scrooge seeing his past, present and future; George Bailey watching Bedford Falls mutate into Potterville; and the modern reinterpretation, Donna Noble experiencing what might have happened if she'd listened to her mother.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Thou shalt not

I'm stroking my chin in a number of directions these days. The entirely deserved rebuke I received from Talen over copyright issues has got me pondering the slapdash, will-this-do? essence of this and other blogs. And then Rob Peters argues that good, old-fashioned, diary-style blogs are falling off the radar; just as Radio 4's comedy department seems to be catching up with them.

Some backbone is needed: possibly the manifesto that should have been concocted during my first and only blogmeet. And since one of the participants at said meet has now identified my "grumpy-old-man persona", let's make that manifesto utterly joy-free and gittish. Think Dogme; think the New Puritans; hell, think the Old Puritans.

1. No pictures from outside sources. They create copyright dilemmas, and disrupt the interminable sprawl of the text.

2. No YouTube. Too easy.

3. All direct quotes should be attributed; academic footnotes in MLA style are preferred. Footnotes to footnotes are too postmodern by far.

4. No memes. Self-indulgent.

5. No nostalgic ramblings about the popular culture of one's youth, of the sort that can be mistaken for a clip from an I-Heart-the-70's show. Earnest pontification about Fassbinder movies, shorn of subtitles or any bits with Hanna Schygulla in her pants, may be tolerated.

6. The words blonk, yummers, teh, oh noes! and interwebs are proscribed.

7. Blogmeets must be held on non-licensed premises, and any subsequent incidences of inter-blogger intercoursing shall be kept secret.

Any other suggestions?

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Hard-boiled recovered meat product and the bottom of the can

Lost in the supermarket, something catches my eye and imagination: the Chicken Soup for the Soul stable of 'inspirational' books (that shifts millions of units a year although nobody you know will ever admit to ever having bought one) has diversified into, uh, pet food.

A few thoughts trickle through: the old-school literati complaint about retailers 'selling books like baked beans'; wondering whether, say, Paulo Coelho is furious at having missed a trick; but above all, the idiocy of punters who react with Pavlovian inevitability to the clicked fingers of the brandmeister. I like the books with their inanely heartwarming platitudes: therefore my cat will enjoy the food, with its bits of reconstituted chicken.

And then I read about the 2009 Murakami diary and I'm horrified at the depths to which the publishing industry has fallen, and at the same time, y'know, I kinda wouldn't mind one...

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

This isn't pop

More mature readers may be able to dredge from the recesses of their stewed memories the misunderstanding I had with Simon Reynolds a couple of years back over the odd behaviour of his US publishers.

So here's something (from an interview Reynolds recently gave to ReadySteadyBook) with which I couldn't agree more:

I used to have this stance that music writing should focus on pure sound, a sort of reaction against the over-emphasis on lyrics, biography, etc -- which to me at the time (late Eighties) seemed to be an evasion of the sonic, and linked to lingering hang-ups from the punk and postpunk era that constantly sought to validate music through its relevance, political content, redeeming social value, etc. Being all hopped up on Roland Barthes and the rest of the French theory crew, I was trying to do writing that was purely about jouissance, focusing on that aspect of music to do with ecstasy, convulsive bliss, ego-loss, excess, oblivion, etc. Today I think that stance, while understandable in its context (opposing the middlebrow rock critic fixation on lyrics and meaning, which never seems to go away), was misguided, in so far as pop/rock has never been purely about music alone. It's a hybrid art form, radically impure, with a whole other set of factors being as important as the sound: lyrics, persona, biography, performance, the broader social and cultural context, the discourse at any given time around music (including criticism), the design and packaging of records, the way fans make use of the music and invents its meanings, and quite a few other frames.

Part of the reason that concentrating on the secondary factors is so important is that few writers about pop music have more than a rudimentary technical knowledge of the subject; and even fewer of their readers could tell a countermelody from a contrabassoon. Jarvis Cocker once told a music hack that he pitied him, "because you'll never get anywhere near to what you're trying to write about." So you communicate the essence of your subject by allegory and metaphor, by writing about something else.

Which may also explain why I'm still fascinated by music, even if I've stopped listening to it.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The day the music died

I've been dreading the arrival of this resilient meme, encouraging me to list seven songs that I'm into right now, but I suppose it was inevitable. If Patroclus hadn't tagged me, some other bugger would have. The thing is, my musical mojo appears to have gone walkabout in the last month or so. It's not quite amusia: more a catastrophic tailing-off of interest; if you'll pardon the analogy, a collapse of libido rather than any physical dysfunction. Temporary, I hope.

So the best I can offer is seven songs that just happen to be around me for various reasons, occupying approximately the same space as my ears. Songs, I suppose, that are into me, rather than songs that I'm into. Sorry. But it'll have to do.

1. 'Fitter Happier', by Radiohead. I'm writing a chapter about Baudrillard and Radiohead for a forthcoming book in Open Court's Popular Culture and Philosophy series, and I've focused on this and the next track. Authenticity, with all the flim-flam of rock histrionics stripped away. Or is it?

2. 'How To Disappear Completely', also by Radiohead. See above. The loss of the self, the final anchor (according to Descartes) of any notion of reality. What's it like to be someone that millions perceive only as a simulacrum?

3. 'You And I' by Rick James. Even when I listened to music, I still didn't dance. With a few exceptions, this being one.

4. 'Toe Jam', by The BPA featuring David Byrne and Dizzee Rascal. Quite jolly, I suppose. Archly quasi-ethnic, as is the case with anything to which Byrne has attached his name since about 1985; Peter Cook sings Paul Simon. But it's doomed to be remembered as a cracking video with quite a nice tune attached, rather like Weezer's 'Pork and Beans'. Thanks to Slaminsky for flagging it up.

5. 'How High The Moon' by Ella Fitzgerald. Because even if I've given up on music, I know my dad hasn't.

6. 'Smoke On The Water' by the Kabuki-za Orchestra. Transcends irony and guitar shop clichés. Rocks.

7. '4' 33"' by John Cage. Says it all, really.

And no, there is no bloody podcast.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Moral compass

We've been enjoying a deliciously lazy weekend on the outskirts of Pattaya, away from the sleaze and Slavic gangsters. A highlight (apart from friends, dogs, food, sea air and amusing Germans in very small pants) was a visit to the Sanctuary of Truth, a vast structure that claims to synthesise all the best bits of Hindu and Buddhist culture: the fact that it's made of wood, and thus in a constant state of renewal and repair, is in itself a reference to the Buddhist notion of anicca, or impermanence; all is dust, and will at some time become one again with the universe from which it arose.

There's a bit of cultural chauvinism at work here, though, as a snippet from the website suggests:

From the Cold War era until today, the world has been under the influence of western civilization, accentuated by materialism and devotion to advanced technology.

Which is a fair point. Yah-boo to Judaeo-Christian capitalism. Except that the entrance fees for the Sanctuary are subsidised by horse and elephant rides, speedboat tours, quad bikes, go-karts, a dolphin show, and so on. It's like a Vedic Sistine Chapel, but with a bit of Alton Towers chucked in to keep the heathens sweet. Impermanence, it seems, doesn't come cheap.

PS: Apologies to anyone who spotted the rather saucy image that made its way onto this post earlier, thanks to some unknown force. And thank you to the kind reader who drew my attention to the problem. Who, embarrassingly enough, was my mother...

PPS: Chastened late addition: Photographer: Talen; Site:

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Guten Tag

I've been debating with myself whether to create a tag cloud for Cultural Snow. On balance I think not, partly because I'm not sure how to do it and I'm too indolent to find out; I can't even seem to ape Alistair's lovely clouds for his various publications, because for some reason I can't get the right upgrade of Java to load; damn it, I can't even link to the right post on Alistair's blog, just to the overall URL. Feeling distinctly analogue, pre-millennial.

In any case, there's very little room to put a cloud in, since my blogroll's now so vast that it sometimes pushes the additional matter further south than the last post that appears. Of course, that may be because my recent posts tend to brevity and droll aperçus, rather than the sprawling rants about Deleuze and Douglas Coupland and Classix Nouveau that were once my stock in trade; in fact, this may turn out to be the longest post I've written in months. And I also haven't worked out how to compress the archive into neat little six-month chunks (see above Luddite whinges). Any conceptual cumulus would almost certainly find itself down among last week's posts, with the Technorati (pah!) widget.

In any case, there's little point, because I don't think the most common tags here will come as any great surprise to someone who spends five minutes perusing the site. The big hitters are: Comment is Free (which doesn't give much idea of content, I know, so there's a rough-and-ready cloud for my CiF articles here); music; blogging (ooh, how meta); Thailand; books; film; words; stupidity (hurrah!); TV; writing. Radiohead and Baudrillard both make it into double figures, which I probably didn't expect when I started blogging; neither Morrissey nor Murakami does, which would also have been a surprise back in 2005.

But the real fun comes with the little tags - those that would barely be visible in a cloud. So let's hear it for the stealers of scenes, the stand-in rhythm guitarists, the second assistant dolly grips, the tags that have appeared once and once only on CS:

419; 9/11; aesthetics; Alan Bennett; anagrams; anarchy; anniversaries; anthropology; Austen; bastards; Beatles; birthday; blandness; BNP; Borat; Borges; Brecht; Bret Easton Ellis; bureaucracy; Burroughs; Chasms of the Earth (remember that?); chocolate; colours; consumerism; creationism; creativity; Deleuze; delusion (interesting conjunction there...); design; Diana; DIY; DLT; DNA (even better one); Don DeLillo; drink; drivel; Duchamp; e-mail; editing; embarrassment; existentialism; expat; explosions; fame; fashion; feminism; footwear (thinks of something smartarsy to say about Sex and the City, thinks better of it); freebie; gardening; glue; health; honours; Hornby (middlebrow midlife I think, not trains); hypocrisy; ice hockey; illness; inconsistency; industrial action; Jeffrey Archer; Jimmy the Hoover; jobs; jokes about astronauts; jokes about dentists; knob gag (so there's this astronaut and this dentist, and one of them gets out his...); law; lesbians; log-rolling; marketing; masculinity; maths; memories; mental health; metagoogle; Miles Davis; mime; mistakes; Modernism; money; national identity; Nazis; neoblogs; nephews; nightwear; NIMBY; nocturnal idiosyncrasies; Nordic pop classics; opera; Orwell; pants (possibly my favourite word in the whole world); Pelevin; Philippines; photography; pigging out; pith (fruit? helmet? taking the?); post-hippy self-indulgence; prevalent misconceptions; pudding; questionable taste; quiddity; quiz; quiz shows; recycling; redemption; Russell Brand; Russia; sabotage; Seijun Suzuki; self-knowledge; self-promotion (slightly more abashed than normal); sense of humour failure; shpeech impedimentsh; Situationism; smoking; snoring; social apartheid; spotty virgins with too much time on their hands (trolls, I think); Star Wars; strained Miltonic analogies; strange combinations of racial stereotypes; Syd Barrett; synergy; tat; teacher; testosterone; This Life; Toby Young; Torchwood (was going to make a joke about recycling, redemption and Russell Brand, but this one conjures up a more eye-popping image); towels; trivia; trousers; truth; university administrators with amusing names (the legendary Drummond Bone just got a knighthood, btw); up-its-own-arseness; upgrade; weather; weight loss; Wikipedia; Zadie.

The last of which occasionally has me waking up in the middle of the night wondering over and over: "Talent or cheekbones? Cheekbones or talent?" Neither of which, you will notice, have I used as a tag. Yet.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Surface provider

In The Atlantic, Nicholas Carr asks, via Kubrick, McLuhan, Nietzsche, Turing and Google, exactly what the www is doing to our grey matter:

My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

Although, as Carr points out, the magnificently named Hieronimo Squarciafico offered similarly gloomy prognostications about the long-term effects of Gutenberg's printing press on the 15th-century mind.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Nobody's fooled

As an agnostic heterosexual, I'm surely the best person to pontificate on the subject of gay Christians. Aren't I? Oh well, at least I didn't mention St Sebastian:

Several years ago, I got chatting to a middle-aged gent at a party. For some reason, the conversation got around to the early-80s pop combo Haircut 100, renowned for their Arran sweaters, knickerbockers and fresh-faced grins. My new friend mentioned that he had recently sat behind the band's singer, Nick Heyward, on a plane, and had had great trouble resisting the urge to stroke the nape of his still-boyish neck.

The discussion followed in this vein for some time. The silver-haired charmer was not simply homosexual: he was effusively, dramatically, openly camp, full of gossip and innuendo, often lapsing into well-enunciated polari. Forgive the stereotypes, but I guessed he might be an actor, or maybe the manager of a louche members' club. Until, that is, he glanced at his watch and announced that he'd better be going sometime soon, because he hadn't finished writing tomorrow's sermon...

More tea in the vestry.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The world's a stage

JG Ballard appears to be still firing on all cylinders:

Today only bad actors can lead a nation, as Reagan and Blair showed. Poor Gordon Brown needs six months at Rada and a tryout at the Old Vic.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Running a book

Haruki Murakami (the author who gave this blog its name) has a new book due out in August, but this one isn't about mysterious girls offering manual relief to shy jazz musicians while spaghetti falls from the sky and a cat watches. Instead, it's an extended meditation on his chosen profession (writing, often about the previously mentioned spaghetti, handjobs, etc) and the relationship it has with his preferred pastime (distance running, specifically marathons).

In this extract, he describes his preparation for the 2005 New York Marathon, and his experience of the race itself:

An understated, rainy-day-sneakers sort of conclusion. An anticlimax, if you will. Turn it into a screenplay, and the Hollywood producer would just glance at the last page and toss it back.

Which gives some sort of validation to my dislike of fiction that offers too neat a closure, and also explains why I love Murakami so much. Life isn't bound by a Robert McKee-ordained three-act structure; it's not designed to fit bloody narrative arcs. So why should fiction - if it has any relation to life - have to follow those rules? Murakami doesn't. Long may he, um, run.

PS: Ariel Leve on a similar theme in the Sunday Times.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

...and statistics

A CV is not a document of one's employment history. According to the winner of The Apprentice, it's a conversational tool.


And thanks to Mrs Peel for directing me to this: someone has devoted 22,000 words to the last scene of The Sopranos.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Education, education, er...

Nick Cohen in The Observer, on new plans to reform higher education funding:

"[The government] plans to replace the judging panels with a computer, which will record the number of times an academic's name is mentioned by his colleagues. The theory is that the best academics receive the greatest number of acknowledgements in footnotes. Let a database identify who these oft-cited professors are and - bingo! - you have found the finest minds of your generation."

Essentially, the question of whether a university department thrives, shrivels or even ceases to exist, will be decided by Google.

Monday, June 09, 2008

The unkindest cuticle

Lord Snowdon, writing to Princess Margaret at a particularly iffy point in their marriage:

"You look like a Jewish manicurist and I hate you."

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Cover versions

Thanks to Miss Schlegel for pointing this one out: a collection of fake book covers of imaginary books by a non-existent author; the literary equivalent of Mingering Mike, perhaps.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Zweiunddreißig Prozent Erdnussanteil!!!

Ah, the wonders of globalisation. It is now possible, in Bangkok's more upmarket food halls (and potentially also in Buenos Aires, Brisbane and Barrow-in-Furness, I presume), to purchase that glorious German speciality, Mr Knabbits Flips. Sounds like pet food, I know, but it's a crunchy, corn-based snack. Imagine Wotsits, slightly past their best-before date, left to marinate in peanut butter for a few weeks. I know. Yummers and then some, eh?

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

I looked into the soul of another boy...

From a Times article identifying the 10 weirdest exam questions:

"Set, write and mark your own question on any aspect of the course.”

Whoever was setting the French papers at Leeds University in the late 1980s, I love you.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Bo Deadly

I owe a small debt of gratitude to Bo Diddley, who died yesterday. I saw him play the Clapham Grand in about 1995, and was so taken by his three-chord charisma, I sent off a fevered gig review to Mojo. They liked it, but didn't have room, but would I like to write about a compilation of Pet Shop Boys b-sides instead? Thus was I introduced to the bizarre mindset of music journalism. No Bo, probably no earnest tomes about Radiohead and all that malarkey. I thank you, Mr Diddley, even if nobody else does. In fact, if it's all the same by you, I might even relax that pesky self-imposed YouTube prohibition.

PS: Musical genius from the polar opposite end of the spectrum; Radio 4's Lost Albums strand goes all alt. hist. on us, and forces us to wonder how modern culture might have mapped out had Stephen Duffy never left Duran Duran. (Repeated on Saturday, or online here for the next week.)

PPS: "Polar opposite end of the spectrum"??? A scrambled metaphor with a side order of cliché. Apologies.

Sunday, June 01, 2008


Former Gawker editor Emily Gould writes 6,000 somewhat self-indulgent words in the New York Times magazine, and gets a flaming even beyond the nightmares of Max Gogarty.

Journalist Philip Weiss does something not dissimilar in the same publication, and gets a rather more sympathetic reaction.

Rebecca Seal, in The Observer, spots the discrepancy and cries sexism.

I've only glanced at the two pieces, but my instinct is that the difference in responses is more due to the fact that Weiss's, a bit whiny as it may be, is actually about something of general interest (the male urge to infidelity), whereas Gould's is about, uh, Emily Gould. And blogging, sort of, but mainly about Emily Gould. However, I'm not going to devote any more time to the subject, because it's the weekend, and I've got a backlog of deadlines, and I still haven't finished The Unconsoled and that mysterious bruise on my right thigh still hasn't shifted. Which, were I a lifestyle journalist, is where I would have started. Before cutting off my typing fingers and sending them in a jiffy-bag to the editor of the New York Times magazine.