Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Crikey, is that the time?

I’ve been blogging here for more than four years, and I think the flame’s spluttering a little. Part of this is for the best of reasons; in work terms, things have been going exceedingly well for me in recent months, to the extent that 2009 was the first year in a long time that I haven’t been forced to do any work I didn’t find at least vaguely interesting or fulfilling. In 2005, the blog served as an outlet for the ideas I was having; now, it seems more like a place where I can tell you about the other places where those ideas are being expressed, which isn’t nearly so interesting. (Talking of which, do check out History of Now: the Story of the Noughties on BBC2, starting next Tuesday.)

Moreover, the best bit about blogging has always been the community, the conversation, and that’s become decidedly quieter lately. Fewer comments are appearing here, about which I can’t complain, as I’ve been leaving fewer smartarseries in the boxes of others. Also, the past year has seen many splendid bloggers – Patroclus, both Annies, Valerie, LC, among others – either cut back their activity, or move away from proper old diary-type blogging, or hang up their bloots entirely. I don’t know if I’m quite ready to join them, but I’m getting to the stage where I feel more of an obligation to blog, rather than a pleasure in blogging, and that’s the wrong way round: “We run tings, dem nuh run we,” as someone, possibly Peter Tosh, or maybe Brian Sewell, once said. And the smell of leaving is heavy in the air. David Tennant, Terry Wogan, Oprah and, most importantly, Malcolm from Spooks have decided to hop off their respective conveyor belts, so I’d be in good company if I ambled into the digital sunset.

That said, I’m not pressing the delete button just yet. Maybe I’ll have a change of heart, and everything will be back to the way it was in about 2006, when I could knock out vast screeds about Baudrillard and Rob Bryden without even breaking into a sweat. I’ll probably pop up here occasionally with a one-liner, even if nobody’s around to read it. A bit like Teletext. Oh no, that’s gone as well.
GUILDENSTERN: Our names shouted in a certain dawn... a message... a summons... There must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said – no. But somehow we missed it.

(He looks around and sees that he’s alone.)

Rosen–? Guil–?

(He gathers himself.)

Well, we’ll know better next time. Now you see me, now you –

(And disappears.)

Sunday, December 27, 2009


If you happen to be in Scotland or thereabouts today, do pick up a copy of the Sunday Post, which appears to have betrayed its self-description as “a thoroughly decent read” by finding space for yet more of my chinstrokes about the soon-to-be-gone decade.

However, my quest for absolute domination of the day’s media has been derailed by the last-minute decision not to include my contributions in this evening’s The Greatest TV Shows of the Noughties on Channel 4. The best I can offer is to use this space as a sort of DVD Extras section for the show, to give you a flavour of what you won’t be enjoying tonight. First I suggested, quite reasonably I thought, that the snivelling BGT moppet Hollie Steel simply proved my contention that the true hero of the Nativity story was Herod. At that point, producer Sean (a very nice man, by the way) stopped me in my tracks; not because I’d casually advocated the murder of a 10-year-old girl, but because some of the viewers might not know who Herod was.

Then, while discussing the success of QI, I made some mild jibe at Stephen Fry (I think I repeated the line about his being a stupid person’s idea of what a clever person looks like) at which point Sean again brought proceedings to a halt and explained that they were trying to get St Stephen to do the voiceover, so it might make things a bit sticky if I said that.

In the event, they had neither Fry nor me. I’m not sure who the talking heads will be, but the tweeting polymath’s replacement is ubiquitous fat lad James Corden. Not that I’m bitter or anything, I’ll just quote the closing lines from Brian Logan’s review of Horne and Corden’s stage appearance in March:
There’s no spark, no dynamic relationship between the two to generate tension or comedy. Nor is there sensitivity, warmth – or the sense of one's own ridiculousness from which comedy springs. Their final sketch, in which two frilly magicians flounce around, performing crap tricks to a bombastic soundtrack, suggests they can’t even make basic silliness funny. “Everybody is going down on you,” sing their Young People’s Church alter egos, with forced innuendo. But it’s Horne and Corden who are going down – and fast. Surely they can’t sink further.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Top of the tree

So this is Christmas, as the third or fourth best drummer in a Rutles tribute band once droned. I’ve been looking for something appropriately festive as an accompaniment to your semifreddo turkey twizzlers, but everything out there is either vile or a bit obvious. (Oooh, Rage Against The Machine, how utterly daring, etc, etc.)

Anyway, here’s something that’s a bit obvious, but not vile, but not terribly festive either. But I like it, and Small Boo likes it, and if you don’t, well, you can just go and stick brandy butter up your bum. Happy holidays, and all that cal.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Blowing a Gaskell

Those lightly soused reprobates The Shark Guys have turned a few passing remarks in my Leonard Cohen tome into yet another list, as if we need such a thing at the end of the decade. Only difference is, theirs is quite amusing, even if I say so myself, and I bloody well do. Go and take a look.

Also, I may or may not be appearing on The Greatest TV Shows of the Noughties, which Channel 4 is parping into your post-festive parlours at 9pm this coming Sunday. I certainly filmed some bits and pieces for them a while back, but they still can’t confirm whether or not I’ve been, ahem, saved for the DVD Extras. In any case, my parents have already informed me that they’ll wait for the repeat, as the first transmission has the temerity to clash with Cranford. Well, we wouldn’t want to upset Dame Judi, would we?

PS: Turns out I’m not in it. That nice Julia Mackenzie breathes a sigh of relief...

Monday, December 21, 2009

Eat it

And now I’m back in Bangkok, with a different hat on. In London, I hold my stuff up to criticism; here, I’m the one doing the critting. Or am I, really?

Many people have mused in the past decade over the extent to which Web 2.0 has made professional critics all but redundant. Never mind the perceptive analysis, seems to be the message; just tot up those stars. Well, yes and no. Obviously there are perceptive critics on blogs and other sites; but to sift successfully through the sludgestorm of opinion on any specific cultural product, the consumer needs to have critical faculties of his/her own; who crits the crits? I’m delighted with the level of response that my books have attracted on Amazon and similar sites, even the negative stuff; it really is better than not being talked about. But I’m always reminded that many ordinary readers have priorities that differ a little from those who review for broadsheets and learned journals. One person complained that my Leonard Cohen biography contained language not known to his Microsoft Word dictionary; several said they’d have liked the Noughties book better if it had had pictures.

And already we’re in dangerous territory. As RATM’s shouty rudeness began to threaten the Yuletide niche that had apparently been granted in perpetuity to his witless catamite of the moment, Simon Cowell accused those behind the campaign not just of attacking The X Factor, but of having a dig at the viewers and voters: “I also think it's incredibly dismissive of the people who watch and enjoy the show,” he said from through his big, fake teeth, “to treat our audiences as if they're stupid and I don't like that.” Of course Cowell can’t call his audiences stupid to their stupid, bovine, let’s-give-our-money-to-Simon faces; any more than I can do a Ratner and call my readers stupid if they want more pictures.

The thing is, people who post reviews on Amazon, or buy copies of the ‘The Climb’, don’t have to answer to anyone. Those of us who are lucky enough to be able to sneer for a living find very quickly that we don’t have an entirely free hand. As I pick morosely over one more high-end soufflé of mediocrity, I’m always aware of the chain that connects the dish to the restaurant to the owner who may or may not deign to advertise in the publication that sent me here in the first place. AA Gill might have the licence to tear a new alimentary canal for every restaurant he visits; most of us mere hacks operate in a fuzzy neverwhere between free speech and advertorial. So I often find myself turning in copy as insipid as the so-called bouillabaisse I endured at [NAME OF OVERPRICED BANGKOK EATERY RESCINDED]

Would restaurants (and publishers and film studios and car manufacturers) really be just as happy with feedback from Amazon reviewers who don’t know much about music but quite liked that one by Coldplay, or maybe Napalm Death, provided said punters were only permitted to offer four- or five-star reviews? Only up to a point. A multi-starred chef would be a tad conflicted by unstinting praise from a diner whose best point of reference is KFC. Those who offer product want public criticism that is to an extent informed, but not in the slightest bit incisive. From the point of view of the producers, the ideal food critic – or the ideal person to decide what is or isn’t an appropriate Christmas number one – is one who knows a lot about food or music, but doesn’t hold any strong opinions; in fact, one who doesn't really like food or music very much.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Friday, December 18, 2009

Definitely maybe not

With the editorial injunction “no French postmodernists please” ringing in my ears, I ruminate on the subject of fakes, hoaxes and why we knowingly fall for them in the latest edition of Prospect. (You need to be a subscriber to read the whole thing online, or you can buy the mag, which may not have the typo in the headline.)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

All the news that's fit to remember

Further book pluggery in the guise of cultural chinnery-strokery: the dénouement of the BBC’s sort-of-interactive review of the decade.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


I’ll be on Radio 5Live tomorrow morning, talking about death in the Noughties. I may get out of bed to do it, but probably not.

By the licking of my thumbs

If you Google the word ‘book’, the first result that comes up is Facebook. Which got me thinking...

Unless they’re related to work, my reading habits seldom follow a particular plan. The selection of a book from the teetering piles of unread matter is down to chance, mood, sleep patterns, energy levels, travel plans, even the weather (or more specifically the shape and size of the pockets of the outer garments I might be wearing at the time).

Sometimes there’s a happy congruence between two successive books: if you pick out a Martin Amis, does this raise the chances of your next selection being an Ian McEwan? But it’s rarer that coincidence brings together two books that appear to contradict each other directly. Even if, after deeper analysis, they turn out not to.

On the face of it at least, Pierre Bayard’s How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read does what it says on the cover. Bayard not only acknowledges the guilty secret that many who inhabit academic and literary circles haven’t actually read Ulysses/A Brief History of Time/anything; he even identifies such a state not as an omission, but as a commission, and a positive one at that:
If many cultivated individuals are non-readers, and if, conversely, many non-readers are cultivated individuals, it is because non-reading is not just the absence of reading. It is a genuine activity, one that consists of adopting a stance in relation to the immense tide of books that protects you from drowning. On that basis, it deserves to be protected and even taught.
Bayard’s thesis is based on the fact that any text is inextricably linked to the cultural context in which it exists; in this sense, his notion of non-reading can be seen as the logical end of Barthes’s Death of the Author (apologies to long-standing readers who’ve been subjected to this several times before). Just as the writer gives up any special authority over a text the moment it is read, so the reader gives up any claim to authority once the text becomes part of a broader culture. We need neither to write nor to read a book in order to own it; which must allow Katie Price to sleep more easily.

There does remain the question of whether Bayard is entirely serious. An air of mischievous irony hangs over the slim volume; and the breadth of references (Balzac; Proust; Musil; Wilde; Soseki; David Lodge; The Third Man; Groundhog Day) suggests that the author’s been reading a little more deeply than he affects to let on. Which in turn discourages the casual (non-?) reader, by framing a whimsical jape in the forbidding context of proper literary criticism.

Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader, by contrast, couches a serious point in the context of whimsy. It’s a brief story about the Queen, who becomes an avid reader late in life; this change disturbs her advisors at Court and in government, who find the monarch becoming less malleable and reliable as a result of her literary explorations, and also begin to feel insecure about their own cultural aridity. Almost in passing, she expresses the point of reading a book, as distinct from being aware of its contents:
“Of course,” said the Queen, “but briefing is not reading. Briefing is terse, factual and to the point. Reading is untidy, discursive and perpetually inviting. Briefing closes down a subject, reading opens it up.”
Which in turn makes me think of Cliffs Notes and similar products that claim to offer us the benefit of reading without actually, y’know reading. I’m not sure whether there’s an equivalent of Cliffs in Bayard’s native France, but I was half expecting a passing reference to them in his book. That said, raising the existence of such non-reading guides might have alerted us to the fact that he’s taking the piss, by implicitly acknowledging the point made by Bennett’s Queen: that it’s not the content of a book that’s important, but the process by which the reader engages with that content.

Not that you need to read this post to know that, of course.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

New York state of mind

Tied in with the Noughties tome, I ponder the news stories of the past decade for the BBC. The temptation to ignore 9/11 entirely, and plump for the return of Davros was immense.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Too much too young

I am becoming increasingly fond of The Word magazine, and not just because they’ve mentioned my Noughties book for the third time in two issues. I suppose it’s because their prejudices gel with mine, not least in their overview of the bests and worsts of the past decade: The Wire, Twitter, winning the Ashes, BBC4, Heston Blumenthal, Brian Blessed on HIGNFY in the first camp; reality TV, The Da Vinci Code and Ugg boots in the latter.

But then we reach their Top 10 books of the last 10 years (I like to console myself with the notion that my tome was hovering somewhere around 11 or 12), and Christopher Bray’s take on Austerity Britain: 1945-1951, by David Kynaston, which is lauded as a “gloriously open-armed account of the era in which Word readers’ parents were setting up home.”

Except that my parents got married in 1966. Does this mean I’m 15 years too young to read The Word?

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Package deal

I’ve never really liked Christmas. Even its few redeeming features are dying out; the Salvation Army band that used to play at Victoria seems to be have replaced by an ad hoc, plain-clothes combo that barely gets through a single verse of ‘David’s City’ before grinding to an embarrassed halt.

So I was delighted to read the thoughts of Joel Waldfogel, who has offered sound economic analysis to support my instinctive distaste for that cornerstone of the modern Yuletide, the giving and receiving of gifts. The transaction, he argues, represents a deadweight loss; the value placed on a present by the giver inevitably exceeds that which the receiver calculates. In any case, in a developed economy, if people want something, they’ll probably buy it for themselves. ‘Gift shops’, almost by definition, sell things that nobody really wants to own.

But then you read down the article, and discover that Waldfogel has a book out, with the Zeitgeisty title Scroogenomics. I can’t help but think that, for all the author’s protestations, more than a few copies will be purchased as Christmas presents; probably for grumpy gits who profess to loathe Christmas. And of course I have a book or two out at the moment, and despite my anti-festive feelings, I’m not going to forbid anyone from buying copies as gifts.

Maybe Waldfogel and I should enjoy Christmas together, scowling across a bowl of lukewarm sprouts, pulling crackers with royalty statements inside and then spending the rest of the day feeling guilty.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The spirit of Hornby

I think the first time I ever posted a comment online came about 10 years ago, when The Guardian tried to compile a list of the 100 ‘greatest’ albums that never showed up in lists of 100 ‘greatest’ albums. What they eventually produced, as I pointed out, was the bottom half of a list of the 200 ‘greatest’ albums. In the same admirable if slightly quixotic spirit, that obsessive cinematic taxonomist Iain Stott has come up with another list, this time of the ‘greatest’ films that have somehow evaded the consensual canon of ‘greatestness’. Here’s Iain’s roll-call of second-bestness; here’s, I dunno, the Conference North; and here’s my own humble contribution to the project. Great.

(And there’s more on lists at my Noughties blog.)

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

This is pop

A quick piece I wrote about the pop/celeb culture of the past decade for the Australian women’s magazine Madison. You need to scroll down before you get to my bit. Incidentally, they removed my stuff about The Truman Show and replaced it with 2001: A Space Odyssey. Their gaff, their rules, I suppose.

And talking of films, when I think of Madison, this is what comes to mind:

Monday, November 30, 2009

That’s what it’s all about

If anybody still doesn’t quite get the hang of Twitter, apparently this is what I’ve been doing for the past year:

And you thought it was all about overturning injunctions and dissing homophobic journalists and bring democracy to Iran, didn’t you?

(Go here if you want one for yourself.) On second thoughts, don’t. Apparently you’d be laying yourself open to hackers. Sorry.

PS: Or maybe not. Sorry, this is just too complicated for me.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Wooh, hello Paddington!

If you happen to be in the vicinity of London’s Frontline Club this coming Wednesday, do feel free to pop in and chuck a bread roll or two while I discuss the past decade. More details here.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


I’ve been topping up my karmic footprint in the past few days, indulging in what Alan Whicker would have dubbed a jet-set lifestyle. And as the recycled, H1N1-drenched air slowly poisoned my brain, a few thoughts seeped through:

1.) I simply don’t comprehend the prevailing neurosis about unflattering passport photos. Surely it’s the flattering ones that should cause the most distress? My own picture dates from 2004, a point at which I could muster respectably pointy cheekbones and enough hair to concoct a pompadour that might offer Little Richard a run for his money. In fact, I look pretty cute in it, if I say so myself. As a result, whenever I present it at immigration, the polyester-swathed lackey’s eyes brim with pity, as if to say “You poor sod, what ungodly trauma blighted your once-carefree life over the past five years?”

2.) Talking of those grounded denizens of the airport, why do they insist on saying “Have a nice flight”? My tongue-jerk reaction is to say “You too”, which rather rubs in the fact that I’m about to fly off somewhere potentially interesting, while they’re just going to spend the next six hours looking at passports, checking in luggage, selling bottles of duty-free Scotch and the like. Must stop doing it.

3.) I understand that, when it comes to picking in-flight entertainment, airlines tend to avoid movies that include scenes of air crashes, hostage situations and the like. Surely it would also be tactful to avoid exposing economy-class travellers to films such as Julie and Julia, which is essentially about the joy to be had from the preparation and consumption of delicious food. I mean, that’s just cruel.

4.) Between flights, my sleep cycle is inevitably buggered up. I find myself leaping fully awake at about 4 in the morning, then crashing out again shortly after lunch. All well and good, except that this would only make sense if I’d been flying from Trinidad, or possibly Tasmania. Which I wasn’t. Jet lag I can deal with, but I’ve never before suffered from someone else’s jet lag.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Hog maws confiscated from a Harlem sanctuary

The good news that Gil Scott-Heron is back on the scene has got me thinking. As he suggested, the revolution will not be televised; but that’s because by the time we get round to organising the revolution, television as we know it will be dead and gone.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Sticks, stones and tweets

Stephen Fry, discussing his on/off infatuation with all things Twittery, reckons that “it is a bit much that somehow people almost feel they have a right to be heard in their insulting of me.” Well, assuming they have the right to say it, I suppose that entails the right for it/them to be heard. Otherwise, Twitter (and by extension, pretty much the whole of Web 2.0) develops into a whole new strain of the Bishop Berkeley conundrum: if Stephen Fry is insulted on Twitter and nobody reads the tweet, is he still entitled to be upset?

But on a more general point, we’re back to the situation in which people who have multiple pulpits, many of them well remunerated, from which to say stuff to a wide audience, slap down those for whom blogs, Twitter, Comment is Free and so on are the only means of being heard. Talking of which, our blogchum Fat Roland gets a mention in CiF, and some of the comments are a bit unpleasant, but I think he’s fine with that. Take note, Mr Fry.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Print’s charming

Maybe I’m just benevolently disposed towards The Word at the moment, seeing as how they gave my book so much coverage, but I was impressed by an article that David Hepworth wrote in the current article, suggesting that the Kindle and the Reader and such like won’t present much of a challenge to the dominance of the conventional book. His is not just a fogeyish argument that books have lasted 500 years so they ought to last for at least another 500; rather, it’s a highly modern observation about how we express our identities today:
...a lot of books and nearly all magazines are read on public transport. In the act of reading something with the cover pointing outwards we advertise ourselves and our attitudes. It’s the most complex and powerful sign language we know. An attractive woman makes herself twice as attractive when she is seen reading an interesting book. How can a brushed metal blank or a piece of nice smooth plastic begin to cope with that? We live in a culture of display, where people pay more for a ringtone than for a record. It’s the worst time in history to be hiding what you’re reading.
That said, here’s another view, from Freek Bijl. (Thanks to Ian Hocking for alerting me to this one.)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Blinking freak

I’d never quite identified a word or phrase that defines all those books (Blink; Freakonomics; The Black Swan; The Long Tail; The Undercover Economist; and so on) that seem to oscillate between economics, sociology, psychology, business, current affairs, pop culture and self-improvement, until Shane Richmond nudge*d me towards this article by Maureen Tkacik about Malcolm Gladwell; she refers to “the competitive thought-generation business”, which nails the whole genre quite nicely. Although, when I come to think of it, I suppose that’s what I do as well, albeit with less success. Ouch.**

*And there’s another one.

**Which might well be another one again.***

***Ah. It is. Sort of.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Not the one with Huffty

Much coverage of the Noughties book in the latest issue of The Word magazine, available from all good newsagents and doubtless a few iffy ones as well.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Reading while bleeding

Got an e-mail from an old friend, apologising for the fact that she’s only just finished The Noughties, because she doesn’t commute and as a result barely reads anything these days. I sort of know what she means; I’ve got piles upon piles of unread books over two continents, that show no sign of succumbing to erosion. Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s only when I’m on trains and boats and planes that I’m forced into a state of prolonged concentration.

This seems to be a fairly widespread phenomenon. I must admit that a quantity of drink was taken on Tuesday night: Red Stripe for Billy, Guinness, then vodka for your correspondent. But not nearly as much as had been encountered by a gentleman I saw on the way home, barely able to stand, blood trickling from a mysterious wound on his flushed, sweaty forehead. But once he’d boarded the train at Old Street and managed, after several attempts, to achieve a satisfactory bottom/seat interface, he got stuck into a battered paperback of Thomas Mann short stories.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Punk pedantry

So it was Talking Musical Revolutions last night, transplanted to a pleasantly dank cellar in Shoreditch, and Stevie Chick is discussing his fine-sounding, just-out book about Black Flag with John Robb, and Stevie mentions that guitarist Greg Ginn was a huge Grateful Dead fan, and how the whole punk Year Zero concept is a bit of a myth, and that the Sex Pistols were really into Yes, and I mutter sotto voce that, actually, it was the Buzzcocks (specifically Steve Diggle) who were into Yes, and Billy completes my thought process by asserting that the Pistols (specifically John Lydon) were more into Van Der Graaf Generator, and I wonder whether we should start a Facebook group or something of that ilk for people to get all nerdy about the banal minutiae of the whole Now-Form-A-Band culture, although wouldn’t it be more punk not to care?

Monday, November 09, 2009

It’s not as funny as it used to be

I’d rather drifted away from Viz, and only picked up November’s issue because it promised a nostalgic wallow in the company of some of my old favourites, such as the Pathetic Sharks, Roger Irrelevant and Johnny Fartpants. (Hey – what happened to Mr Logic – surely the model for Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory?) But there was one gem, in the sub-Tuckeresque midst of Roger’s Profanisaurus: a single word that encompasses all those regional exclamations that don’t mean anything, such as “Howay the lads” and “Och aye the noo”; bolloquialism.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

That was then, this is then as well

I just posted this at the Noughties blog, but I’ve allowed it to come out of its box and run around for a bit, since it doesn’t have school tomorrow or anything. It’s by Patrick West at Spiked, discussing the extent to which the current decade will be defined by its nostalgia for previous decades:
No wonder Philip K Dick’s stories have become so popularised in cinematic form - in the guise of Minority Report (2002) and A Scanner Darkly (2008), which are both paranoid paeans to the past, and to the future. And no wonder Danny Dyer’s fake cockneyism has become popularised in a time when we all long for the ‘good old days’ when West Ham, Millwall and Chelsea fans could kick the shit out of each other. No wonder the backward-looking Life On Mars was a success. Even Dr Who has a decidedly retro feel about it. Yesterday and Dave and various Discovery and History channels have become successful avenues, and with good reason. The Noughties has been an epoch of endless re-remembering.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Return of the old-style cultural theory post!

If I were to frame Larkin’s Law of Reissues, it would say that anything you haven’t got already probably isn’t worth bothering about. In other words, if someone tries to persuade you to buy a limited edition of the 1924-5 sessions by Paraffin Joe and his Nitelites, keep your pockets buttoned up; if they were any good, you’d have heard of them at school, as you did King Oliver, and have laid out your earliest pocket money on them... Everything worthwhile gets reissued about every five years.

Larkin was writing in 1969, in the days when music fans were expected to wait patiently for any audio scraps to fall off the table. But he also seems to speak of an era when nostalgia was rooted in accurate memories, with no potential for revisionism. For example, I certainly didn’t watch this

when it was first on TV in 1980. But in true postmodern style, I’m quite capable of retrospectively absorbing it into my childhood. If, as Roland Barthes suggested, the Author is Dead, did he take the Past down with him?

Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Film of the Noughties

Last weekend, almost by accident, I caught Michael Moore’s latest salvo, Capitalism: A Love Story. It’s what you might expect from the man that Bernard Goldberg identified as the most dangerous person in America; let’s just say that the title’s a tad sarcastic. In fact one could argue that with this and Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore has created a cinematic diptych that defines the Noughties, a two-part Film of the Decade.

In fact, that’s what I thought for a few days: until I saw Chris Atkins’ Starsuckers, which reminded us that, even if our era is bookended by two New York institutions collapsing into dust, many of us have been distracted by Britney and Brangelina, by Jade and Jedward, and by the weird wish that maybe, just maybe, we could have a tiny slice of the same pie. Just a little too late for my book, I’ve found the film that sums it all up.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The quick and the dead

(Adopts Cyril Fletcher voice.) I am indebted to my old schoolchum Diccon Bewes (author of a forthcoming tome about all things Swiss), who alerted me to the Write Badly Well site, which may give some amusement to anybody who followed my Chasms of the Earth blog:
He slowly walked the slow, winding path towards the crooked, run-down old house. With one slow, hesitant hand he bravely, resolutely knocked on the dusty, pock-marked, ancient and frightening door. Slowly, it opened slowly. He slowly poked his brave head through the narrow, foreboding gap.
‘Hello?’ he slowly said, bravely.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Dear Nick Griffin...

Half of my ancestry is of the sort of Anglo-Saxon stock that you revere (possibly with a small dash of Celt, the sort of thing you mention to reinforce the notion that yours is a British rather than English party). The other half is Polish Jewish, a rag-tag bunch that came over in about 1900, economic migrants and asylum seekers.

Should I send my legs back to where they came from?

Saturday, October 24, 2009


Thinking about Cohen and e-books at Rock's Back Pages; and it’s been a week of Stephen Fry and annoying choppers at the Noughties blog.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

We could be heroes

Ah, the London Film Festival, a chance to star-spot (Steven Soderbergh and, er... Nigel Havers) and to feel smug because you’ve seen a movie about a fortnight before your friends get a chance. A few titles tickle my postmodern bone, as they turn in on the film-making process, and ultimately themselves.

Johan Grimonprez’s Double Take comes from the Adam Curtis school of using archive footage, smartly juxtaposed with talking heads. Alfred Hitchcock finds himself introducing not his TV show in the 1950s and 60s, but broadcasters and politicians nervously assessing the Soviets' lead in the space race, and Nixon’s ‘kitchen debate’ with Krushchev. Via a plot borrowed from Borges, the focus shifts to Hitchcock himself, and a weird encounter that may or may not have occurred during the filming of The Birds. We never forget we’re watching a movie, as we’re shown Hitchcock’s body double and vocal impersonator getting into their stride; were Dick and Nikita playing their parts as well?

L'Enfer d'Henri-Georges Clouzot appears to be a more straightforward proposition. It’s a documentary about the efforts of Clouzot (best known for The Wages of Fear and Les Diaboliques) to make a movie about paranoia and jealousy within an apparently happy marriage. The 1964 shoot was a catalogue of disasters: Clouzot didn’t get on with the female lead, Romy Schneider; his habit of waking up his colleagues in the middle of the night with new ideas alienated the technicians; the fact that the artificial lake that was central to the story was due to be drained 20 days after shooting started only added to the pressures. Things got so bad that the leading man, Serge Reggiani, walked away from the film; his replacement lasted a matter of hours; and then while he was filming a Sapphic dream sequence on a boat, Clouzot suffered a coronary, and the whole project was put on ice. The film was eventually made by Claude Chabrol, 30 years later.

The inevitable comparison is with Lost in La Mancha, about Terry Gilliam's doomed attempt to film the Don Quixote story. But the footage here has added resonance, because many involved in the project – including Schneider, Reggiani and Clouzot himself – are dead, adding an extra layer of poignancy to the sense of missed opportunities. And, great as my regard is for Gilliam, he never used blue lipstick as shorthand for a dream sequence, did he?

Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s comeback, Micmacs, is less obviously *about* film, although there are numerous nods and winks: the hero Bazil (Dany Boon) is seen mouthing along to the (French dubbed) soundtrack of The Big Sleep; a security guard does an excruciating De Niro impression; there’s a neat reference to Jeunet’s own Delicatessen, and even to Micmacs itself (via film posters).

But there’s also an implicit reproach to modern Hollywood. Micmacs is essentially a warped superhero movie, in which a band of outsiders pool their talents (contortionism; arithmetic; making stuff out of junk) for the common good. They’re not really freaks; but, because this is Jeunet, they look far uglier – far more like us – than the ravishingly beautiful mutants of the X-Men franchise.

Micmacs is essentially the story of how Bazil, who lost his father to a landmine, and very nearly his own life to a bullet, takes revenge on the rival arms manufacturers he holds responsible. The immediate comparison is with another comic book adaptation, Iron Man, which essentially comes down to a final battle between a good arms dealer and a bad arms dealer (see Chris Morris’s Good & Bad AIDS sketch); whereas Jeunet damns them both. Which may be politically naïve (think Boy George’s analysis of military malfeasance) but does make for better cinema.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Dead Kennedy

From the Telegraph obituary of Ludovic Kennedy:
Indeed he never really lost a certain aristocratic contempt for television and dismissed as ludicrously self-important the views of those television executives who believed that “a thing said simultaneously to 15 million people will carry more influence than something said privately at a pub or dinner party or picked up elsewhere in the course of the day.”
I suspect he never got the hang of Twitter.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

It’s real but it ain’t exactly there

Caught me a bit by surprise, as it’s not meant to be out till next month, but my new Leonard Cohen biography appears to be available from Amazon UK.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Feasting on Stephen

...and the next time someone suggests that poorly argued, badly written, self-indulgent blogs are debasing culture and making it harder for conscientious, thoroughly researched journalism to get a look-in, just refer them to this.

Jondrytay, Anton Vowl, Charlie Brooker and Michael Deacon weigh in, as do many others.

Eventually, Moir apologises, but misses the point. Her worst sin isn’t the snide fag-bashing that’s been a staple of the right-wing tabloids for decades. It’s the standard of her journalism that stinks; and it took the derided Twitterati to point it out.

PS: Another angle.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Breaking glass

I’m not a big jazz person. But I heard Ornette. I couldn’t afford to go in, but I heard him through the window.
–Lou Reed in this month’s Wire
But isn’t that the best way to hear him? And I mean that in a good way.

Monday, October 12, 2009

No, I’d never heard of Trafigura either

The Guardian has been prevented from reporting parliamentary proceedings on legal grounds which appear to call into question privileges guaranteeing free speech established under the 1688 Bill of Rights... The Guardian is also forbidden from telling its readers why the paper is prevented – for the first time in memory – from reporting parliament...
But for how long can such an injunction be effective these days? Go here. And please pass this on. Carter Ruck can’t sue the entire blogosphere. Although the idea doubtless gives the buggers a collective erection.

PS: It’s gone Stateside.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Turn me on, dead man

To Tate Britain, to see the Turner brand of conceptualism. No, not the eager foursome vying for the eponymous prize (Roger Hiorns offers processed cubes of cow brain - has molecular gastronomy at last found the artistic kudos it has always craved?) but that other Turner. You know, dead bloke, bit splodgy. Good at sea, couldn’t do trees, clouds a bit hit and miss.

Apparently, in 1832, Turner asked his friend George Jones what subject he’d chosen for a forthcoming exhibition. Jones said he was depicting the Biblical story of the Burning Fiery Furnace; Turner then asked for the dimensions and materials. And with the same subject matter, the same medium (oil on mahogany), even the same size of board as Jones had used, he came up with something better:

Arrogant? Obviously. A stunt? Yes. Remind you of anyone?

Friday, October 09, 2009

Gore blimey

More YT fun: an old friend’s plug for his book, Way of the Barefoot Zombie. Reminds me of my favourite joke when I was about nine (“Mummy, I hate Granny’s guts...”) Wonder if I should do something similar for The Noughties. But what?

Happy Friday

Recent posts have been a bit dyspeptic. For the weekend, two things that made me smile:

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The value of nothing

If you were to mention to grown-ups: ‘I’ve seen a beautiful house with pink bricks, with geraniums on the windowsills and doves on the roof...’ they would not be able to imagine such a house. You would have to say to them: ‘I saw a house worth a hundred thousand pounds.’ Then they would exclaim: ‘Oh! How lovely!’
—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince (1943)

The accident happened in full view of other parents dropping off children at the £8,775-a-year Russell House School and Day Nursery in the village of Otford, near Sevenoaks, Kent.
Daily Mail report on the death of a three-year-old, 7 Oct, 2009

Monday, October 05, 2009


The CoolBrands 2009/10 supplement that came with yesterday’s Observer does seem utterly self-defeating. For a start, there has to be a variant of the Groucho Marx rule; any cool adhering to a brand would surely be stripped away by appearing on such a list. And even if that weren’t the case, would you accept the findings of an ‘Expert Council’ including the likes of Trevor Nelson, Sadie Frost and someone who describes himself as “an impassioned digital media visonary”?

PS: Elsewhere in the paper, one of Ms Frost’s former husbands is quoted as saying, 30 years ago:
A cultural identity is a great outlet for people's frustrations. Kids have always spent what little they have on records and haircuts. They’ve never spent it on books by Karl Marx.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Lager shouting

I’m looking at one of those promotional things that’s bigger than a leaflet, but smaller than a magazine – any marketing people out there will be able to advise on the approved name for them – intended in this instance to educate us in the all-round loveliness of San Miguel beer. There’s a distinctly Hispanic flavour about it: a competition to win a trip to Valencia; a few tapas recipes; and, just in case we don’t get the message, a reminder that San Miguel will help us to “take some time to sit and appreciate the taste of modern Spain.” Spain, of course, being shorthand for a certain flavour of laid-back sophistication; city breaks rather than package fortnights in Benidorm.

Except that San Miguel isn’t really Spanish. It comes from the Philippines, which in the British, lager-swilling consciousness is more about domestic servants, corruption and shoes. Moreover, if one considers the memories the Filipinos have of the times when Spain ran their affairs, selling a beer from the Philippines under Spanish colours is a bit like selling the glories of Guinness by using images of Tower Bridge and Buckingham Palace.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Noughties media overload

Not only does The Noughties now have its own blog, it’s also invaded Facebook and Twitter as well. Roll up, roll up.

We discussed MySpace, but... naaah.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Beige is the new brown

In what has become a prof0undly tired marketing trope Kraft, purveyors of Vegemite, have launched a bizarre new variant to their ever popular brand – a cheesy blend called iSnack2.0 – and then withdrawn it in the face of ‘public hostility’. But why go to the cost and effort of staging such a lame stunt? Kraft should instead follow the example of Michael LeVell, who plays Kevin Webster in Coronation Street. He’s threatened to quit if the character doesn’t dump his girlfriend and go back to his cancer-stricken wife. No icky new product, no idiotic, early-Noughties name, no fake outrage. Instead LeVell provides the dud product (the infidelity) and the shocked reaction (threat of resignation) in the space of a few sentences. And at Christmas, Kevin goes back to Sally, and we get the chastened climbdown.

Give that man an iSnack2.0 sandwich now!

PS: Tate Modern follows suit, with the help of the Obscene Publications squad.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The goon squad

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending the launch for the latest and fattest edition of Nicholas Pegg’s The Complete David Bowie, which was really an excuse to catch up with a few old chums and listen to Bowie’s long-lost cover versions of songs from Bugsy Malone (or maybe not). In the excitingly new-look New Statesman (“We are using an entirely new headline font, Unit Slab...”) Peter Wilby describes a similar occasion:
...I buy a copy, as is customary on these occasions, and invite him to sign it. It occurs to me that this is more than I have paid for any book since I last attended a launch. Normally, I rely on two-for-one (or similar) offers, Amazon or Abe Books, and tokens I receive as presents. Are book launches, I wonder, the only occasions when publishers and authors still benefit from anything like the full cover price? And, since these launches are attended largely by other writers, do authors now make a living chiefly by selling their books to each other? Is this sustainable?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

This is not a crime

Some rapscallions have swiped Magritte’s Olympia from the museum based in the artist’s former home in a Brussels suburb. Painted in the 1940s, it’s not one of his better known works; I touched on this relatively undocumented period a few months ago.

In fact, because of its obscurity, most media outlets have had trouble tracking down an image of the half-inched canvas. The Times showed some initiative and came up with this:

Which of course puts one in mind of one of Magritte’s more totemic works, the one that provides my blogging avatar. Is that Olympia? Is it a postcard of Olympia? Is it a photograph of a postcard of Olympia? Or even a digital, on-screen representation of a photograph of a postcard of Olympia?

I’d like to think the robbers were suitably attired, in high collars and bowler hats.

Monday, September 21, 2009


New Noughties-specific blog up and running here. Visit, bookmark, forward, comment, deconstruct, whatever.

The defective drum kit

I’ve been wary about discussing Dan Brown’s latest masterpiece, partly because I haven’t read it (although it sounds as if he just went through his last tome and replaced every instance of the word ‘Catholic’ with ‘Freemason’) but mainly because he really doesn’t need the publicity, which could go to more worthy authors such as my virtual chum Bête de Jour and my meatspace chum Nick Pegg (the 473rd edition of whose Bowie book is out any day now) and someone else whose name temporarily escapes me.

But I must point you towards this list of Brown’s most egregious crimes against the English language, which is funny in itself, and then gets quite glorious as DB’s admirers take up cudgels in defence of their idol. Observations along the lines of
Perhaps because this style (sometimes superfluous, sometimes over-dramatic, sometimes completely nonsensical) is simply a more fancy, brushed up version of how a lot of people think or speak?
may sound like the product of effete snobbery until we come across
American’s (like Mr. Brown) do not only have problems with grammatical sensibilities they also have issues with basic numerousy.
Fear not, though, Danny boy. You have a friend among your fellow authors. Unfortunately, it’s John Grisham, who really can’t see why everyone’s having a pop at you. I mean, after all,
Of course, I've read literature in the classic sense. We’ve all got those type of books on the shelves at home. They made me read them at school and I admit that I didn't like them much. I couldn’t understand why they were said to be so good.
PS: Michael Baigent, who admits to having a bit of a history with Brown, identifies what it is that annoys so many of us with Mr Da Vinci. It’s not so much the stupidity of his books as their delusions of cleverness:
It is as if Brown wants us to think that he is a great scholar rather than a deft hand at computer searching.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Next stop, QVC

For those who missed it, my fleeting appearance on Sky News a couple of weeks ago. Thanks to H & P for grabbing it.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Punchcard blues

Modern objections to the prevalence of information technology are largely based on the allegation that omnipresent sources of knowledge – Google, BlackBerry, Wikipedia, iPhone, satnav – reduce us to a state of passive idiocy, unable to retain information without technical support. It’s something I touch on in Chapter Five of The Noughties; not that this is a new observation, of course:
Wife: Have you had a good day at the office, dear?
Husband: No, it was terrible. The computer broke and we all had to think!
(Contributed by Joanne Shakeshaft of Moston to Whizzer and Chips, 8th April, 1978, given away with today’s Guardian.)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


I’ve been enjoying the old comics that the Guardian and Observer have been giving away over the past few days. I’m guessing that, apart from the sales boost that freebies often give to a publication, the project is intended to remind us of the days when buying a comic, made of paper, in a shop was a transaction to be anticipated and then savoured; and that this Proustian tingle can be transferred to our relationship with the dead-tree version of the newspapers.

The funny thing is, the comics, despite having originally been published in the 1970s and 80s, display a level of interactivity that puts many websites to shame. Sadly the edition of Roy of the Rovers is from December, 1981, by which stage the regular ‘You Are The Star’ feature (a point-of-view depiction of a football match, with gaps in the commentary so the reader could insert his own name) had been retired. Each comic strip has a little box in which the reader is encouraged to give it marks out of 10, although whether this information was intended to be communicated to the IPC is not clear. However, much of the content is if not user-generated, user-prompted: for example, ‘Famous Football Funnies’ in which the likes of A. Seaman, Northampton, see their soccer-related quips turned into cartoons; and ‘Blackie Gray’s Talk-In’, in which readers ask the eponymous caretaker player-manager of Melchester Rovers about points of fact and opinion relating to the wonderful world of footie.

It’s Blackie, rather than Roy himself, who fronts the forum because the Melchester legend is in a coma, having been shot by a mystery assailant. A double-page spread is given over to get-well messages from football legends such as Alf Ramsey (who would take the reins of the Rovers until Roy recovered), Trevor Francis, Malcolm Macdonald (both of whom had played alongside Roy in the England team) and, er, Radio One DJ Mike Read. This delicious blurring of fact and fiction would reach its apotheosis in the mid-80s, when Roy was forced to trawl the ranks of fading New Romantic outfits to fill the Melchester roster (see above).

Even more metafictional is the Beano, from November, 1980. This was the 2000th edition of the venerable comic, and many pages are devoted not just to the history of the publication (reminders of such retired stars as Eggo the Ostrich, General Jumbo and Nobby the Enchanted Bobby), but around the commemorative product itself. Almost every story revolves around the eagerness of the central character (Roger the Dodger, Minnie the Minx, Billy Whizz and so on) to get their hands on the comic; but since the resulting escapades and mishaps are described therein, there’s a level of paradox that seems calculated to fry the minds of pre-pubescent readers. It makes the cross-media weirdness that befalls Hiro Nakamura (in Heroes) seem positively mundane.

The giveaway is scheduled to run until Friday, but there’s potential to extend it for weeks – I’d love to see Monster Fun and early Smash Hits tucked away between Toynbee and the crossword. And why stop at comics? Why not old copies of the Guardian itself. Or, since the examples chosen seem chosen for their self-referentiality and postmodern brownie points, why can’t a copy of the Guardian be packaged with a simulacrum of itself?

(And for more conceptually elegant japery, read this, by the wonderful ¡Oye Billy!)

Monday, September 14, 2009

A little princess

A few days ago, I found myself on the Tube, sitting next to a group of three women and a little girl. Now, it’s obviously unfair to make assumptions about people’s sexuality based purely on their appearances, and God knows I’ve been misdiagnosed on many occasions (something to do my tendency to pout at moments of disappointment) but I’d already guessed the adults were lesbians before I clocked that one of them was wearing a “WHAT WOULD XENA DO?” t-shirt. Subsequent eavesdropping revealed that the little girl was the daughter of one of the women.

At one point, the girl asked: “What colour are my eyes?”

Her mother said: “Your eyes are green.”

“Why?” replied the little girl, not unreasonably.

“It depends on what colour your two mummies’ eyes are.”

Hang on a minute. Now, I’ve got no problem with kids being brought up in any combination of parent/carer scenarios: one daddy; two mummies; three daddies, a granny and a sword-swallower; as long as the child is loved and nurtured and protected, it’s really none of my business or anyone else’s. And in a broader sense, people should be entitled to define themselves however they bloody well want, and live by that definition. Unfortunately, biology occasionally intervenes.

Take the story of Caster Semanya, the South African runner whose gender has become a matter of international controversy. Semanya is a woman, in the sense that she was brought up as a woman, and identifies herself as female. Under normal circumstances, that should be the end of it. Unfortunately, she has chosen to take part in top-level athletics, and as such her biological identity - the configuration of her sexual organs, the nature of her chromosomes - also becomes a matter of public interest, in a way that it wouldn’t if she’d decided to be an accountant or a bus driver. The fact that she appears to possess testicles does not mean that she’s not a woman in a social sense, but it does make rather a nonsense of the idea of having separate events for male and female runners if she continues to compete as a female. In biological terms, she’s intersex, or a hermaphrodite, or a person with androgen insensitivity syndrome.

Then there’s Thomas Beatie, the man who had a baby. He’s a man, because he chose to undergo reassignment surgery and live as a man, and no-one else can or should deny him that right. However, he was, is and always will be a biological woman. The fact that he elected to keep his uterus and ovaries after surgery is beside the point; even if he’d had them removed, his biological identity would still be female.

Which brings me back to the little girl on the train. Presumably she’s being brought up by two women, and she calls them her mummies, and they are her mummies, because they love her and care for her, and she loves them back and that’s all lovely. But in biological terms, there’s a father somewhere in the equation, a man who provided his sperm to facilitate her conception. And part of the back story of her green eyes is down to that man. To tell her it’s because of her two mummies is wishful thinking, a nonsense, a lie.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

She feels as if she’s in a play

Just heard Robert Elms and Neil Innes debating not the legacy of the Beatles – see reissues, video games, tribute bands and all – but whether they were any good. Inevitably the discussion turned to the subject of Innes’s own contribution, and he came up with a comment that stumped all present: “The Beatles would not have been the Beatles without the Rutles.”

Magnificent stuff. The author is not only dead, he’s rotting.

PS: Two more excellent posts on the ubiquity of the Fabs, from Art of Fiction and Betty Utility. Because rumours of the death of blogging are premature.

PPS: And this, from John Harris.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Saturday, September 05, 2009

He don’t mean Jack

In the intellectual hothouse that is Twitter, Billy has raised a sound point; who is the most famous person not to have his/her own Wikipedia page? Although of course such a distinction might just prod the individual in question to such a level of notoriety that a page miraculously appears. Upon such paradoxes is the modern world founded.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Two flies land on Kojak’s head and one says to the other...

Been doing much radio over the last week; tomorrow, I stumble sideways into the 1930s and do my first Noughties plug thing in the startling new medium of televisualism. Sky News, 11.15 a.m.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

The kids are all wrong

For many years I’ve been fascinated by the Langley Schools Music Project. Its weird appeal is summed up by Fred Schneider of the B52s, who remarked that “When I heard about the Langley Project, it seemed very interesting, but I did have the thought that it might sound like children singing off-key in a gym.” The point is that it really does sound like children singing off-key in a gym, because it *is* children singing off-key in a gym, but thanks to some strange conjunction of place and time and innocence and the instinctive brilliance of their teacher Hans Fenger, it’s also exceptionally moving. I saw Langley Mark II in action a few years ago, when Fenger worked his magic on some kids from south London schools, and it was lump-in-the-throat time. Old warhorses like ‘God Only Knows’ and 'Sweet Caroline’ became intense hymns of longing and exultation, reducing hacks and mums alike to tearful wrecks.

Fast-forward three decades and we get this:

It’s been made by the children and staff of Lewes New School, an independent establishment in Sussex that aims to offer “an educational environment on a human scale”. And yet that human scale is exactly what their version of ‘Changes’ seems to lack. It’s pleasant, it’s funny, it’s sweet, and I’m sure the kids worked hard and learned a lot and had a fine old time doing it, all of which is good. But there’s something just a bit too slick about the whole thing; for a start, the arrangement and instrumentation is too close to the original to match, say, the Langley version of ‘Space Oddity’. Maybe next time Lewes New School could just offer us some children singing off-key in a gym.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Non-Noughties related blog post

I know Desperate Romantics has had a rough ride from those who object to its preference for freeze-frames and nipples over historical accuracy but, hey, if it gets punters interested in pretty pictures, that’s got to be a good thing right?
I was in Tate Britain this afternoon, and overheard a couple contemplating Rossetti’s Prosperpine, the model for which was Jane Morris (wife of William). The woman wasn’t impressed.
“It doesn’t really look like her,” she said.

Sporty spice

Will be on TalkSport at midnight, talking to Ian Collins about much the same stuff as I talked about last night, but in a more blokey voice, probably.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Gather round your wireless...

...because tonight, from about 11:30, I will be discussing the best and worst of the past decade with Aasmah Mir, Neil McCormick and Zara Rabinowicz on BBC Radio 5live. Let me know if there’s anything I should mention. Apart from plugs for the book, obviously.

(Expect more of this sort of stuff in the coming weeks. Sorry.)

PS: It’s here for the next week; from about an hour in.