Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Betamax blogging

I've decided not to close the year with a Best-of-2008 list because, quite frankly, I haven't read/heard/seen enough genuinely new stuff to fill 10 slots, let alone 10 things that have filled me with such enthusiasm and/or loathing that I can stack them in any particular order. Instead, I've been having one of those tedious internal debates about whether to herald 2009 with a bells-and-whistles redesign for Cultural Snow. I've barely done anything to the default design I picked when I started blogging three (!) years ago, leaving it, as Cath Elliott puts it, looking "too much like a Penguin Classic". I do sometimes feel a bit inadequate when I see the lovely pictures and clever squiggly bits with which the rest of you decorate your sites. I haven't even bothered to add on one of those doodads that tells me when the rest of you have updated. (I did try it, but it made a horrible mess all over my dashboard.) I've just bunged a few widgets down the right-hand margin, and if the spacing goes a bit wonky I just go off and make another cup of tea and hope the Blog Fairy will sort it all out.

So what's stopping me from creating Cultural Snow 2.0? Well, sheer bloody indolence for one thing; as well as a distinct lack of confidence in my own technical and creative abilities, the dashboard disaster being pretty much par for the course. And I've always been a late and nervous adopter of technological innovations, although I recently discovered that I was only the third person in Bangkok to sign up to Twitter.

I briefly considered following Mr Frith's lead and putting a call out to a hip young designslinger, although that would inevitably create tensions: as well as being indolent and incompetent, I can be a bit of a control freak when I put my mind to it, a lethal combination. But I've also come to the conclusion that now everyone else has a bells-and-whistles blog, mine no longer looks primitive and creaky; it looks minimalist and a wee bit retro. And I'm also reminded a little of Aunt Percy.

Aunt Percy (real name Persimmon) was a character in one of my favourite childhood books, Clement Freud's Grimble. She lived in a tower block where the flats didn't have numbers; instead, they were all painted different colours to distinguish them. Aunt Percy's door was buff. Unfortunately, because all the doors were exposed to the elements, the paint gradually faded, until all the doors were buff. One resident suggested that they should put their names on the door, but Aunt Percy objected. She'd made the right choice of door colour to start with, so why should she have to bother with putting her name up? So all the others put their names on the doors, and underneath they put "and Aunt Percy doesn't live here".

So when Grimble goes round to Aunt Percy's flat for his dinner, because his parents have unexpectedly gone on a cruise to Peru, he knows to look for the door with nothing on it.

Not quite sure where I meant to go with that.

Anyway, in the current turbulent circumstances, the best of good wishes alone can't hope to ensure a happy new year, per se; but let's hope that 2009 will at least be interesting. Even if your front door isn't.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Dying the death

One of the reasons I stayed on at my secondary school into the sixth form was a desire to take part in the house play competition. As far as I recall, it was the only event in which the four houses (all named after English naval heroes, which gives you some idea of the environment in which I existed for seven years) battled each other in circumstances that didn't require a communal shower afterwards.

The normal process was to choose something sub-Coward, or Rattigan on a bad day; if you had a couple of actors who could attempt a non-specifically northern accent without sounding Sri Lankan, you might select from that unjustifiably crowded field, the School of Hobson's Choice.

We (Charlie, Rick and I) didn't want to play safe. A few years before our number came up, one enterprising soul had staged the first act of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, which was a bit of a disaster, but a brave disaster. We wanted to follow that example, either to triumph, or to go down in a blaze of incomprehension. We elected to put on Woody Allen's play Death (now probably better known as the source material for his underrated 1992 expressionist comedy thriller, Shadows and Fog). I can't remember why we dressed the hypnotist as Aladdin-Sane-era David Bowie, or gave the murderer a Fulham scarf to wear; or indeed why we chose 'Spread A Little Happiness' as the introductory music; but something seemed to work. The judges retired to a more salubrious venue, and the following morning the headmaster announced that we'd won.

It was a few days later that I discovered none of the judges had thought our production was the best. All had placed it second, then disagreed wildly about the merits of the other three plays, enabling us to come up through the middle. Despite our strivings, we'd achieved the one thing we dreaded most: a beta-plus; a polite verdict of all-round competence.

When, several years later, I put on a show at the Edinburgh Fringe, the critic from The Scotsman described it as "unbelievably atrocious". I was delighted, and notwithstanding the entreaties of my colleagues, put the quote on the posters; attendances doubled in the second week.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merrily on high

A persistent urban myth holds that when the sodden corpse of the free jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler was fished out of the East River in November, 1970, it was discovered that he'd been tied to a jukebox. Which surely suggests a particularly bleak parlour game, or maybe the pitch for a radio programme, Desert Island Discs reimagined by Chris Morris: if you were plunging towards a cold, dark, watery, inevitable doom, which records would you want to be playing on the lump of chrome and glass and bakelite that was dragging you under?

Albert Ayler: 'Bells' (1965).

Oh, Merry Christmas, by the way.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

404 = P45

As the economic indicators get so gloomy that Survivors starts to look like a documentary, global capitalism is having to find stylish and innovative methods of making people redundant. I discovered the other night that one major Asian newspaper is so terrified by the notion that spurned employees might deploy editorial depth-charges, the IT department is told who's for the chop before the victims themselves find out. The first indication that you're on the scrapheap isn't an ominous summons to the boss's office, or even the appearance of a security guard with a cardboard box; your computer just freezes, leaving you gazing at a glassy microcosm of what your own life has suddenly become.

But how do they get rid of the IT guys?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

What's it to yah?

I'm trying to compile a list of people who haven't recorded a version of Lugubrious Lenny Cohen's 'Hallelujah', but it's tough. So far I've come up with:

preposterously diminished dart-chucker Andy Fordham;

the late Kathy Staff off of Last of the Summer Wine (who did record a ska-tinged version of Cohen's 'Paper Thin Hotel' in 1979);

that brilliant bloke who threw his shoes at Dubya;

the Ood, or at least one of them;

and former union boss and transcendent erotic icon Rodney "Would lady comrades please keep their knickers on until composite 11 has been debated" Bickerstaffe.

I'm pretty sure that's it. Unless you can think of any more...

PS: Sensible overview of the my-version's-better-than-yours thing from Daniel Finkelstein in The Times.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Sit on this

I've always had the greatest admiration for good salespeople and marketing bods, because it's something at which I'm utterly hopeless. It's a combination of my crapness with strangers, my principled loathing for shopping and consumerism of almost any kind and my utter inability to feign enthusiasm about anything whatsoever, including things I quite like. So I'll say at the outset that Sally, who works for the modern furniture retailer Regency Shop, does good sales. I'm not quite sure why a retailer specialising in modern design should be named after a period of the early 19th century, but hey, maybe that's why I'm not in marketing.

I'm also slightly befuddled as to why Sally contacted me and asked me to put a link to her Beau-Brummell-meets-the-Bauhaus emporium on my blog. To be fair, she does offer a hint:

"I realize that you have knowledge of barcelona :)... it'd be swell if you can place our barcelona chair link on your blog..."

Now I do have a cursory knowledge of Barcelona, having visited the place somewhere between once and three times; well, precisely between once and three times, as in twice, the last being more than eight years ago. It's jolly nice and I hope to go back, this time maybe for more than three days. But I don't know why this should give me any particular insight into a particular piece of furniture about which the only thing I know is that it was designed by Mies van der Rohe. And I'm not even sure how Sally knows about my limited knowledge of Barcelona; a trawl of my blog turns up one reference, in which I make a passing reference to the city in a post otherwise devoted to Cambodia.

But Sally's not done; in a final twist, she clarifies that the Barcelona chair that Regency Shop offers at the very reasonable price of $345 (plus shipping) isn't actually a Barcelona chair, presumably to avoid paying pesky royalties to the Mies van der Rohe estate:

"we call it the ibiza chair."

So Sally wants me to give a mention to this chair, because it's named after somewhere I haven't been. Or, more specifically, because I've been somewhere it's not named after. And you know what? I did!

Told you she was good.

PS: More conceptual Mies stuff here.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

I wouldn't normally do this kind of thing

Been listening to the Pet Shop Boys' recent Radio 2 show, which opens with 'Left To My Own Devices'; as always, that line, surely their most celebrated, leaps out: "Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat".

It's memorable, but does it actually mean anything? There's an implication that Neil Tennant is announcing his own aesthetic manifesto, a fusion of politics (Che) and high art (Debussy) in the guise of apparently throwaway pop fluff. Although maybe these are just words that sound good. But if not, why choose these particular indicators? Apart, of course, from the fact that Che and Claude don't look entirely unalike, as can been seen from the attached pics. It's a linguistic formula ("A and B to a C beat") that could incorporate any combination of unlikely bedfellows as 'A' and 'B', where 'C' signifies a specific musical form; although I reckon the word would have to have more than one syllable: " a ska beat" sounds oddly abrupt.


• Architecture and pessimism to a rocksteady beat

• Pogle's Wood and Julie Burchill to a foxtrot beat

• Darwinism and mumbling to a trad jazz beat

Some of which sound like the sort of thing that Nietzsche might doodle in the margins while trying to get his head round a difficult Sudoku; or maybe they're just candidates for the space under the blog title.

The only potential downside is that constructions inevitably become clichés: think of "X is the new Y"; or the profoundly tired "M is like N on acid". So we'd better have fun with it before the wheels fall off. Over, as ever, to you.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Shelling out

I was eight years old when I went abroad for the first time, a family fortnight in Brittany. To prepare for the experience, my parents took us to a nearby French restaurant, where I entered into the spirit of things by ordering escargots. The starters duly arrived, but mine wasn't among them.

"Daddy," I hissed. "Where are my snails?"

"They take a little bit longer," he explained. "The chef has to go to the churchyard next door and pluck them off the gravestones."

Despite that trauma (which would probably nowadays see my father being prosecuted for child abuse - did you see the story about the teacher who was sacked for telling children that Santa Claus didn't exist?) I grew to love the little rubbery buggers, ordering them whenever the opportunity arrived. But gradually, I realised that what I really loved was the vast quantities of garlic and butter and parsley in which the snails were cooked, and they slipped from my culinary Top 10.

Fast forward rather more years than I'd care to think about; to Saturday night, in fact. I'm reviewing a new French restaurant in Bangkok, in the most excellent company of Charles Frith. Escargots Bourguignon is on the menu and hey, what the hell, let's have some. Although the garlic and butter is present, it's a restrained, elegant version of the dish, not a full-on vampire killer; as a result, you can taste the snails.

"I think these snails must be frozen," I say. "They don't taste of anything." And then the sickening, shuddering realisation kicks in. Maybe snails really don't taste of anything anyway.

It's as if you're a music fan in the late 1980's, and you've just invested in this new-fangled compact disc thingummybob; you splash out on the complete works of your favourite artist on CD. And when you get them home and play them, you realise that what you loved about your old records was the smell of the vinyl, the static as the disc came out of the sleeve, the pop as the stylus made contact, the crackle and the buzz, the familiar label going round slightly more than once every two seconds. And the music you thought you loved was pretty bloody ordinary.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The naked truth: postscript

Just an addendum to my earlier witterings about The Fermata; I read the book last weekend, in a beach hut near Pattaya, east of Bangkok. From the window, I could see lots of (Western) people in various states of undress: bikinis; topless; those tight thongs that German males of a certain age deem to be appropriate beachware. Now, all these people knew they were lurching towards nakedness; but did they know that, by Thai cultural standards, they were exceeding the boundaries of decency? Several Thai families were on the same beach, swimming fully clothed, as is the Thai way. When a scantily-clad farang loomed into view, they just looked in the other direction, feeling awkward but not wanting to make a fuss; as is also the Thai way. Unless the Westerners were being particularly crass and insensitive (possibly believing that with the Thai tourist industry in such a dire state, the locals should be pathetically grateful for their mere presence) I presume that they just didn't know the effect their unclad state was having, the message it was sending.

By watching the Westerners parade about with their nipples twinkling in the sun, the outlines of their genitalia clearly visible, was I being another Arno Strine; seeing them exposed to an extent they didn't necessarily realise? Should I have alerted them, like the serpent in Eden, awakening Adam and Eve (or Helmut und Heidi) to their own fall from grace? Or should I have just watched from a distance, hoping that none of them reads this?

Thursday, December 11, 2008


I'm intrigued by the story of Daniel Hoevels, the Austrian actor who slashed his own throat on stage after a real knife was substituted for a prop. Apparently, the audience applauded ecstatically at the gory effect, then stopped pretty quickly when they deduced that his commitment to art had gone just that little bit too far. As Andrew Lloyd Webber's lyricist said, "human kind / Cannot bear very much reality."

If only it had been the duel scene from Hamlet, which might have offered even greater potential for amusing blade-related misunderstandings.

Less than Jake

Apparently, Brokeback Mountain was shown on Italian TV on Monday night without the gay bits. Which is more ludicrous than Hamlet without the prince. Paris without the Eiffel Tower? Jethro Tull without flute solos? Your turn.

PS: More disappearing homosexuals here.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The music of the spheres

'Genius' is a debased word, but Oliver Postgate had it to spare. I salute his memory with a raised glass of green soup.

PS: Cracking Martin Rowson cartoon in the Graun.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Virgin on the ridiculous

My premier post on Prospect magazine's First Drafts blog. (Awaits collective CiF-style rumination as to whether it's a *proper* blog or not.) Thanks to James Crabtree for the invite. Probably NSFW, by the way:

Before they soundtracked the fall of Communism with the sappy power ballad Wind of Change, the German rock band Scorpions were probably best known for their album covers, which pushed the boundaries of adolescent “ooh-aren’t-I-outrageous?” tedium even by the remarkable standards of European heavy metal...

For full metal mullets and non-ironic lighters aloft, follow this link.

PS: And for a bit of kiddie-porn hysteria that makes the above look entirely sensible, go here.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The naked truth

I've been reading The Fermata, by Nicholson Baker. I think I've read most of Baker's fiction over the years, but for some reason this had slid between the cracks; a phrase that seems fairly appropriate because Baker has two obsessions - sex and language - and investigates them in the minutest detail. "Between the cracks" would probably send him off on a twelve-page discursion about metaphor, cliché and some woman whose bum he accidentally groped, or thought about accidentally groping, in a Dairy Queen on the outskirts of Baltimore in 1979. Perhaps with footnotes.

The Fermata is the peculiar tale of Arno Strine, who discovers a talent for stopping time. (Those of you who've seen Heroes will know what I mean, and will also have further evidence as to how startlingly unoriginal - yet strangely enjoyable - this mash-up of The X Files and The Tomorrow People really is.) Strine uses his gift for two purposes: to get his work done in apparently superfast time (he's a temp typist); and to look at women's bodies.

This makes Strine sound like a pervert, and he is, but (by his own perception) a fundamentally decent, thoughtful pervert. He does actually like women, and would be mortified if anything he did upset them. He looks at their bodies; touches them; even masturbates in their presence; but then ensures that everything is returned to normal when time restarts, so that they never feel violated. Sometimes he seems to overstep his self-defined mark, mysteriously introducing sex toys into the lives of strangers, but his motive is always to bring happiness. Sick he may be, Patrick Bateman he ain't.

Baker adds to the moral confusion by having Strine write pornography, which is offered to us in the course of the narrative. We're distanced from it (it's fiction within a fiction) and Strine's motivation is supposedly honourable; he offers it to the women he sees, to excite them, to bring him joy, although he also masturbates while writing it. But it's definitely porn, not erotica (don't ask me what the difference is, it just is) and can be read as such. Should a reader appreciate Baker's gift for aping the tropes of Hustler and Penthouse? Or enjoy a discreet hand shandy of his/her own? (Incidentally, Mary Gaitskill in the back-cover blurb describes The Fermata as "Rabelaisian" which is one of those glorious critical references that's taken on a life of its own; people who've never read a comma of Rabelais know what he's like because of all the other writers who've been described as Rabelaisian; essentially, people who write about morally suspect things with such joy that you can't hold it against them. There's a similar phenomenon in rock journalism; everything the Stooges and Captain Beefheart ever recorded could be permanently wiped, and their reputations would be unaffected. But we're veering into Baudrillard territory there, and I did promise you a holiday from that.)

The crucial thread throughout the story is that Strine keeps his gift a secret, so none of his 'victims' (and I debated long and hard - ooh, there he goes again - about whether or not to use those quotation marks) know they've been spied on, undressed, fondled. Which, of course, raises all manner of questions about supposedly victimless crimes. If you never know that a man across the road is watching you undress through the curtains, is there a problem? If I don't know that the CIA is reading my e-mails, is there a problem? Because his gift is so bizarre, Strine can only discuss it with his acquaintances as a hypothesis, a parlour game, a piece of conversational fantasy; I know it's crazy, but what would you do if you could stop time? Even in its theoretical state, they tend to be repulsed by the potential invasion of privacy, so he keeps the secret from everyone but the reader until the end of the narrative. And when he does genuinely attempt to persuade someone that it's true, there are unexpected consequences.

The only thing that Baker doesn't address is the notion that maybe everybody has these powers. Since nobody knows when Strine stops time, how would Strine know when someone else stopped time and undressed him? And stepping back a little into the realm that we desperately call 'reality', Baker has constructed a fictional possibility. How would it be if everyone in the world knew that possibility wasn't a fiction; except for Baker? He's merrily playing with the creative possibilities of time, unaware that everyone else in the world is groping his bum.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Lost your bottle?

I've been flicking through a new Bangkok business magazine called Director (I know, it's a pretty rock 'n' roll life I lead) and came across a piece about Diageo, and how they're dealing with restrictions on alcohol marketing in Thailand. The most delicious part of the rules is that advertisers can't actually refer to the products, only the brand. So you can't show a bottle of Johnnie Walker (Diageo's big seller in the region) or even suggest that Johnnie Walker might be something that someone might want to drink. All you can show is the quintessence of JohnnieWalkerness, and quietly hope that someone will be encouraged to buy some whisky on the back of it.

Zanita Kajiji, Diageo's VP (Marketing), says:

All that's left is to focus on the brand... About the positive messages associated with that brand. That makes it easier for someone else to say exactly the same thing, and you then can't differentiate the product for the consumer.

Uh... I would have thought the exact opposite was true. How many consumers can really tell Johnnie Walker Red Label apart from any other big-selling Scotch (Bell's, Teacher's, 100 Pipers) in a blind tasting? Especially when it's consumed, as is usually the case in Thailand, with copious amounts of ice, soda and often slices of lime? Surely all that distinguishes them is the brand, so the marketing restrictions actually make things easier, by doing away with the mundane reality of product, that so often gets in the way of a good ad. I'll let someone else explain:

Thursday, December 04, 2008

History today

Who says bodice-ripping can't be educational?

The first piece I ever wrote for Cif was about Thailand; specifically about the coup in September, 2006. There were a few more articles along the same lines, but eventually I drifted away from the subject, because it felt as if I was wrestling with smoke. Every time I came to a conclusion, something bizarre happened that challenged all my previous preconceptions. Only last month, I wrote a feature for another publication, quoting a senior figure in the Thai tourist industry thus: "and so long as they don't blockade the airport, it doesn't matter". The day after the magazine went to press, the PAD – bitter opponents of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and all his works – blockaded the airport.

Deciding that I'll never understand this place, I watched the first couple of episodes of the civil war drama The Devil's Whore instead; at which point a dim lightbulb popped up above my head...

Further oaths, muskets and heaving bosoms to be found here.

(Picture from

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

How do I love thee? Let me count the bubbles in this Aero...

Small Boo and I have long complained that it's damn near impossible to remember which commodity goes with which wedding anniversary. I mean, all the obvious ones for the big numbers: silver; ruby; gold; they're pretty easy. But the earlier ones are impossible. Which one's paper? China? Leather? And are they different in other countries? Anyway, we decided to create a definitive list, on the basis that we're right and everyone else is wrong, unless they agree with us. But we got bored after about a dozen. So you lot are going to have to finish it.

1 year: dental floss
2 years: belly-button fluff
3 years: pencil shavings
4 years: papier maché
5 years: corduroy
6 years: Arctic roll
7 years: dog hair
8 years: nail varnish
9 years: cough sweets
10 years: xylophones
11 years: gravel
12 years: assorted souvenirs from Radio One roadshows 1974-1979
13 years: over to you...