Saturday, January 31, 2009

Never mind the flintlocks

(I'm very busy this weekend, so I hope you'll forgive me if I resort to the last and lowest refuge of the lazy blogger, the YouTube post.)

Popular music, of all the art forms, seems the best able to craft precious jewels from dollops of rancid ordure. But I was still disturbed to discover, during one of those aimless, witless YouTube trawls, that one of the most scintillating slices of 80s Scouse anthemic pop:

may owe rather more than we might have guessed or wished (from 1:21) to a band that would probably be entirely forgotten were it not for the fact that their drummer was a Tomorrow Person:

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Do you copy?

A few thoughts arising from Nicholson Baker's Double Fold, about the continuing drive in libraries to destroy original copies of books and periodicals, replacing them with microfilm and other media.

It's as much a bureaucratic farce as anything. Daily newspapers, as Baker reminds us, tend to come out in several editions through the day, to catch up with late-breaking news, sports results and so on: standard library policy, however, is to put just one edition on microfilm. The problem with this becomes obvious when considering the Sept 17, 1970 edition of the Chicago Sun-Times. The early edition quoted President Nixon's off-the-cuff remarks about a potential crisis in the Middle East; White House staff complained, and the words were cut from the later edition. Guess which edition was saved to film?

Baker quotes historian Jeffrey Kimball:

"For my new research project, a larger study of 'smoking-gun' documents, Nixon's quoted remarks have a critical bearing, but all I can get hold of now is the microfilm copy of the evening edition of the Sun-Times, which does not quote Nixon's comments; that is, all microfilm copies of this newspaper for this date seem to be of the evening edition."

So, not only does the quotation not exist; but because we can't compare the two editions, all evidence of its removal has also gone, like Trotsky airbrushed from the revolution. The only difference is that this state of affairs seems to be the result of sort-sighted cost-cutting rather than conspiracy.

One of Baker's particular beefs with microfilm is that it doesn't offer a true copy: we lose colour; marginal text is often cut off. Scanned pages saved to disk are often little better, with text recognition software still inferior to the combination of human eye and human brain. The author goes so far as to set up a non-profit organisation to save some back issues of the Chicago Tribune that were destined for disposal:

Sixty-three thousand dollars, or about fifty dollars a volume, may seem like a lot of money to pay for old news, but it's actually a bargain. To buy the equivalent microfilm run from Bell and Howell would cost about $177,000. We're at a bizarre moment in history, when you can have the real thing for considerably less than it would cost to buy a set of crummy black-and-white snapshots of it which you can't read without the help of a machine.

Baudrillard, of course, wouldn't have found such a state of affairs bizarre. Nor would he have particularly raised an eyebrow at the title of a report by digitisation champion Michael Lesk: "Substituting Images for Books".

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


In 1987, I was on the Exeter team that got to the quarter-finals of University Challenge.

We lost. But not like this.

PS: Further grisly details here.

Good dog

RIP Mr Murph.


First, they came for the documentary producers...

Let's get things straight: the situation in Gaza is dire; and the BBC should have broadcast the DEC appeal (although what with the fallout from Brand/Ross, the Queen's exit/entrance, the Blue Peter cat and all the way back to Gilligan, it's clear the corporation's in a permanent damned-if-you-do situation).

That said, the issue has dragged a few nasties from the ideological woodshed. Here's one Josie Hines of Bradford, on Saturday's Any Answers:

"You're not permitted to say anything against Israel. If one says anything, as an individual, one is automatically anti-semitic."

Her point may have carried more weight had it not been prefaced with:

"It is possible that perhaps a large part of the hierarchy of the BBC may well be Zionist Jews who will have a great influence on the situation."

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Known unknowns

One of the rules that most writers learn is to be very wary of the word "famous". The phrase "the famous actor Judd Nelson" is wrong, goes the logic, because if he is indeed famous, the adjective is pointless, and if he is not famous, it is untrue.

I used to follow this diktat, until I started working in Bangkok. Writers here seem desperately keen on the adjective "renowned", which is really just "famous" with a built-in positive spin. A hotel bar will be proud to present "the renowned jazz saxophonist Wally Schtuppe"; a restaurant will promise diners traditional Thai dancing from "the renowned Hogplum Theatre".

At first I cringed at all this incessant renown; until I worked out what it really meant. You have to understand that Thailand, as a rapidly developing nation, has people in positions of wealth and influence whose parents were rice-picking peasants; it is also home to a great many expatriates who would have led fairly humdrum lives at home, but suddenly find themselves in a lifestyle they might previously only have seen in the pages of Hello magazine. Add to this the overwhelming social pressure, prevalent in many east Asian societies, to maintain face at all times; and you've got a critical mass of people who are suddenly expected to be au fait with fine wine, classical music, designer frocks and all the cultural gewgaws associated with a successful lifestyle.

So what "renowned" means in these cases is an implicit nod to the culturally befuddled: this person is worthwhile, it says; this person's name is worth dropping. And if everybody in Bangkok (or everybody in Bangkok who matters) reads that Wally Schtuppe is renowned, then everyone will believe it. The fact that Wally Schtuppe's been playing bar mitzvahs in suburban Omaha for most of his career is neither here nor there, and certainly not to be mentioned in polite society.

Of course, once you leave Bangkok and start raving about Wally, and the Hogplums, and the renowned modern artist Cornelius Ding, and the renowned post-fusion tapas chef Mimosa Pondicherry, you're on risky territory. You might be exposed as someone who knows nothing about jazz or dance or art or food, beyond what you read in a fawning advertorial in a free magazine in Starbucks at Central Chidlom. On the other hand, you might discover that your new friends in London or New York know bugger-all either, and they'll start hymning these people's praises too, just as art critics began fawning over the entirely invented Nat Tate. And from such combinations of chance and embarrassment are lasting reputations made.

(All names changed to protect the irrelevant.)

Friday, January 23, 2009

Tim's fashion tips

Like anybody, I've worn things that ought to bring a shudder of embarrassment if I catch a glimpse of the photos. Dungarees. Hawaiian shirts. Leather tie. Braces. Drainpipe jeans. Floral waistcoats. (Not all at once, I hasten to add.)

But, since I've rarely been a casual employee of fashion, let alone a slave, I can usually brush aside such indiscretions on the basis that I didn't really make a conscious, calculated decision to make those purchases. Most appeared in my wardrobe by a sort of retail-related osmosis, the only thing pushing me towards any kind of proactivity being the fact that the alternative was public nakedness.

The only time I've ever felt particularly part of a fashion gang, and made appropriate purchases, was in around 1987, when I used to hang around on the fringes of a bunch of people who were into rare groove and its associated genres; essentially, old soul, funk, Latin and jazz records, and a smattering of house and hip-hop, played in ramshackle warehouses and basements, in atmosphere that combined louche irony and sneery elitism. (I discussed the scene in more detail here.) There was a uniform of sorts, and damn, did we adhere to it. Odd that most of us were still celebrating our recent freedom from institutions that tried to force us into uniforms but hey, this isn't an exhibition at the V&A.

This is the way we wore:

• Black Doc Marten shoes or boots, but not the knee-highs favoured by Goths and gay skinheads; possibly brogues or brothel-creepers at a pinch. Black, white or Argyle socks. NO TRAINERS. Trainers were naff. People who wore snow-washed Wranglers wore trainers. We didn't even wear trainers when we were dancing to Run DMC's 'My Adidas'.

• Blue, black or (if you had the legs) white Levi's 501s, rips optional, provided it wasn't too obvious that you'd done them deliberately (a difficult trick to pull). Or black or khaki chinos.

• Plain white cotton shirt, or black polo-neck. Option of plain white t-shirt in the summer. ALL TO BE TUCKED IN. Worn with black or navy blazer/suit jacket, or Levi's denim jacket, or MA-1 flight jacket. For smart occasions, an ironically flamboyant - but not consciously comedic - silk tie could be worn.

• Headgear was optional: black trilby or red spotted bandana; beret at a pinch.

• Females could wear any of the above: in addition, they had the options of tight black skirts and cream-and-blue striped Breton tops.

The thing is, I don't feel the slightest bit embarrassed by any of this, except maybe the bandana. Can anyone else look back at what they were wearing about 20 years ago and think, "Yeah, I looked pretty good"?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

12 books

One thing I love about LibraryThing is the chance it gives you to create whole lives for strangers on the basis of their book collections. But I'm almost at a loss when it comes to one bfromma, who I noticed because he owns a book that I wrote but of which I don't appear to own a copy (and wouldn't want to, and I only wrote it because I really needed the money).

Bfromma, if we can judge from her/his online catalogue, owns 12 books. One could make a few assumptions on this basis alone, but wait: the 12 books cover six subjects. There are two volumes each - no more, no fewer - on the following subjects: Blink-182; Slipknot; Pink Floyd; Motley Crüe; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; and the Manson killings.

A collection such as this does not come about by accident, I feel. This is a man (it has to be a man, no?) who wakes up one morning and declares: "I wish to become more acquainted with the story of Iowa's finest mask-wearing nine-piece rock combo, Slipknot." Having perused one volume on the subject, he realises that all such narratives are necessarily subjective, and acquires another. He reads that, and now, he feels, he gets Slipknot. If someone at his place of work holds forth about Slipknot, he can keep up with the conversation. "Ah yes," he will remark, "but did you know that they were originally called The Pale Ones?" His colleagues will be impressed. Perhaps they will ask him out for a drink, or invite him to join their shove ha'penny team. Maybe Francesca from marketing will be sufficiently moved that she will be persuaded to touch him in an intimate manner at the Christmas party. This is what happens when you possess two - two - books about Slipknot.

Next, Charles Manson...

Monday, January 19, 2009

So you have quenelle...

Last week I reviewed five restaurants of varying degrees of conceptual delusion and this week I'll almost certainly do the same, or more. As a result I believe am perfectly at liberty to say that this is the best scene of any film ever ever ever:

(And it may be the last video I post here, as YouTube interface appears to have gone utterly hatstand. Has anyone else found this?)

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Late adopters of the world unite

Maybe I had to wait until Patrick McGoohan died.

Yes, I am now just another number.

I am on Facebook.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The bigot in the woodpile

I've written before about the difficulty of reconciling an artist's work and politics, and how it's sometimes necessary to draw a veil over some writers' more rabid asides.

For example, here's that old rogue Jorge Luis Borges, describing the return of the Gods in the parable 'Ragnarök':

It all began with a suspicion (perhaps exaggerated) that the Gods did not know how to talk. Centuries of fell and fugitive life had atrophied the human element in them; the moon of Islam and the cross of Rome had been implacable with these outlaws. Very low foreheads, yellow teeth, stringy mulatto or Chinese moustaches and thick bestial lips showed the degeneracy of the Olympian lineage.

...which isn't exactly an extract from Der Stürmer, but still, it's not really the sort of thing we like to hear nowadays, is it? There's a number of possible responses to this sort of thing. You can excuse it through context: it's a dream sequence; maybe it was translated badly; it's postmodern irony, stupid. Or you can treat it with polite, strained embarrassment, as if JLB were a glum uncle who's had one too many gins and starts mumbling about the blacks and the poofs and how they ought to bring back flogging.

In any case, within the space of a few lines, Borges offers up a sentence of pure, audacious magnificence:

We took out our heavy revolvers (all of a sudden there were revolvers in the dream) and joyfully killed the Gods.

Which is so glorious that it makes everything feel OK again. Doesn't it?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Wot no euphoniums?

Mooching at a dodgy DVD stall on Silom Road yesterday, I come across a copy of that underrated Britflick Brassed Off. The packaging, it would appear, is taken from the US release. It presents the movie as some kind of daffy romantic comedy, with Ewan McGregor and Tara Fitzgerald being the only actors of interest. There is no mention of the 1984-85 miners' strike, which forms the backdrop to the film.

Nor, oddly enough, is there a single reference anywhere to brass bands.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Brothers in rhythm

The next time some plausible bigot starts wielding The Bell Curve or a similarly specious tome to justify, ever so politely, the notion of white racial superiority, I'll just show them this:

followed by this:

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Only the coney

In her comment on the previous post, Patroclus was kind enough to compliment me on my modest facility with amusing headlines. It's thanks, I suppose, to many years' experience as a sub-editor, although even then the muse would desert me.

I once spent a couple of weeks working on Vox magazine, around the time that Echo and the Bunnymen reformed and released a new album. Three of us must have spent at least half an hour filleting dictionaries and thesauruses and hazy memories of minor characters in Watership Down before coming to the unanimous decision that, no, there is not a single feasible rabbit-related pun in the English language that has not been thrashed to death five times over. And that includes "Warren Piece".

In the end, I think we went for something along the lines of "OOH LOOK, THAT MR ECHO AND HIS BUNNY BLOKES HAVE PUT OUT A NEW ALBUM, THAT'S NICE, ISN'T IT?"

Saturday, January 10, 2009


I've always thought that when Vint Cerf and his chums concocted the Internet, the mental image they had was along the lines of a Mondrian painting; but once the blessed Sir Tim got hold of it and added his magic W's to make it accessible to the likes of us, it turned into something a bit more Jackson Pollock.

Now, however, we are in the age of Twitter, with everyone from Stephen Fry to MC Hammer muscling in on a slice of 140-character action; Stan Bête recently enumerated its delights. But this time, there's no need to guess what the inspiration was:

Paul Klee: The Twittering Machine, 1922 (Museum of Modern Art, New York City).

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Nail biting

More Goddy stuff, I'm afraid. And, whether by coincidence or something spookier, this is my 666th blog post:

The lamented Bill Hicks used to imagine Jesus Christ returning to Earth and seeing his followers proudly wearing the instrument of his torture and execution; as Hicks pointed out, it's a bit like commemorating President Kennedy by wearing a little Carcano rifle.

I don't know whether the Rev Ewen Souter is a devotee of the Hicks oeuvre, but he would appear to have been thinking along the same lines when he removed from his church in Sussex a sculpture of Christ writhing in agony and replaced it with an unoccupied cross, in stainless steel...

Further carpentry tips here.

Diet of worms

I've got a feeling this may be the greatest advertisement ever created:

It's the double-whammy combination of initial kitsch overload, followed by the ghastly realisation (half-way down the right-hand side, maybe five seconds later) of what it's actually selling. Thanks to Eric D for bringing it to my attention.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Sexual swearwords ( Simon Bates)

Prompted by the bootylicious Slaminsky, I have submitted Cultural Snow to a rating service, which supposedly identifies an appropriate age restriction for the site. I am reliably informed that this blog warrants a PG, thanks to "...the presence of the following words: death (5x); dick (1x)."

Which puzzles me on a number of counts. For example, does Bambi get a similar rating? Is any site that links to the redoutable Dick Headley similarly restricted? And, most significantly, the rating would appear to have disregarded entirely the verbal sewer we emptied over the ginger head of L Brent Bozell a couple of years back.

So it's tempting to dismiss the whole thing as a lame attempt to plug a dating site. (Follow the link and that's where it takes you.) Until you remember that Culture Secretary Andy Burnham thinks a real website rating system might be a jolly good idea.

Which only tempts me to suggest that Mr Burnham resembles a rancid secretion from the more intimate regions of Mr Bozell's anatomy, which would at least earn me the 18-certificate I've sought all my life.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Jesus built my hotrod

I saw the above image on the back of a car over the weekend. Now, I'm fairly laid-back when it comes to the whole Creationism debate. People hold all sorts of apparently crazy, illogical beliefs but, hey, whatever gets you through the daily grind, you know? If I were to tell someone he wasn't allowed to believe that a beardy man in a nightshirt made everything out of magic clay in six days flat, he could just as easily turn round and tell me that, notwithstanding my own deeply-held beliefs, The Smiths were rubbish and hummus tastes like acrid Polyfilla. It goes nowhere, so I usually let it go.

But this badge nagged at me. OK, the owner of the car has rejected most of the fundamental assumptions that underpin modern biology, palaeontology and geology. Fair enough, his choice. But if he's gone that far, he's just as likely to reject the basic tenets of physics and engineering.

And should someone like that be in charge of a motor vehicle?

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Bloody awful poetry

I've finally read Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, at the third or fourth attempt. Which, if nothing else, allowed me to savour for the first time such linguistic dim sum as " old but unused pocket diary optimistically maturing there until its calendric correspondencies came round again" or "...when I hear a critic speaking of an author's sincerity I know that either the critic or the author is a fool." And it's not even his first language, the bastard. Now I start to understand why the likes of Martin Amis turn into swooning schoolgirls at the merest whisper of Nabokov's name, and why his long-awaited posthumous novel is provoking such drooling anticipation; it's not just the one about James Mason being a nonce.

It's important to explain Pale Fire's unusual structure: it consists of a foreword; a four-canto, 999-line poem, 'Pale Fire', by the late John Shade; a wildly discursive commentary on the poem, by Charles Kinbote; and a brief index. In the course of the commentary (by far the longest section of the text), we learn that the three-way relationship between Kinbote, Shade and reality is not as it may seem, although the fine details of what the internal truth may be are still getting thrashed out by Nabokovians.

So how did I manage to get through it this time? Simple: I skipped the poem, which is where I came to grief at previous attempts. As I've said before, I seem to have lost the ability to process poetry; but 'Pale Fire', the poem, as far as I can deduce, is a MacGuffin, a framework upon which Kinbote hangs his delusions. The notes are the important bit.

As Shane Richmond pointed out a few months back, Tolstoy's historical ruminations in War and Peace are sometimes excised from the main text and put in their own appendix, which is surely an implicit admission of skippability. But is this justifiable? Isn't it like reading a Reader's Digest Condensed Book, or going into an exam with nothing but CliffsNotes in your head?

David Frum, sometime speechwriting wonk to the soon-to-be-ex-President of the United States, developed an intellectual defence of such superficiality:

When I was in law school, I devised my own idiosyncratic solution to the problem of studying a topic I knew nothing about. I'd wander into the library stacks, head to the relevant section, and pluck a book at random. I'd flip to the footnotes, and write down the books that seemed to occur most often. Then I'd pull them off the shelves, read their footnotes, and look at those books. It usually took only 2 or 3 rounds of this exercise before I had a pretty fair idea of who were the leading authorities in the field. After reading 3 or 4 of those books, I usually had at least enough orientation in the subject to understand what the main questions at issue were - and to seek my own answers, always provisional, always subject to new understanding, always requiring new reading and new thinking...

Except that the last bit sounds like wishful, rather than new thinking.

So, what's the biggest thing you've read or seen or heard or done, without really doing it properly?

Friday, January 02, 2009

The drawing board

Last night I had an idea for a novel, or maybe a film. Or possibly even an opera. The details were sketchy, but I know it involved some men in turbans and some other men in bowler hats who go to a troubled Arab nation to meet a soul singer. All I'm sure of beyond that is the title:

Sikhs and Droogs, Iraq and Rawls.

I think this is what industry people call high-concept.