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Vegemite, have launched a bizarre new variant to their ever popular brand – a cheesy blend called iSnack2.0 – and then withdrawn it in the face of ‘public hostility’.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 BĂȘte 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.