Monday, May 31, 2010

Urban scrawl

It’s a pretty reliable rule of thumb that the worst art tends to provoke the best criticism. Or if not the best criticism, at least the funniest. I have yet to enjoy the charms of Sex And The City 2. It’s all I can do to avoid those shimmering ads that hover on my laptop screen, threatening to burst into squawking life if my cursor brushes too close; since when has checking one’s e-mail required the steady hands of a bomb disposal expert? And yet I have already wallowed in some deliciously vicious reviews of the movie: first, Hadley Freeman in The Guardian; and then, even better, Lindy West in The Stranger. (“‘If I wasn’t rich, I’d definitely just kill myself right away with a knife!’ says everyone in this movie without having to actually say it.”)

In fact, the reviews have been so good (by which I mean they’re aesthetically pleasing in their own right, rather than that they offer a number of stars/thumbs that might make the producers happy) that they’ve now been reviewed themselves, by Liz Jones, of the Daily Mail.

It’s appropriate that such a potentially postmodern task should fall to Ms Jones, because she doesn’t really exist. Or rather, the ‘Liz Jones’ we encounter on the page appears to be a heightened alter ego of the writer, just as ‘Carrie Bradshaw’ is supposedly based on the author of Sex and the City, a sort of Candace Bushnell 2.0. Every escapade and mishap she relates to her readers, from her divorce to her money worries, is at once too preposterous to be believed, and too banal for anyone to bother making it up. Taken as a whole, they present a simulacrum of humanity, a woman who cannot exist in real life, because if she did she would have been murdered years ago, just for being so bloody annoying. Indeed, when a shotgun was fired at her house last year, many observers pondered that she might have brought it on herself; whether because she depicted her Exmoor neighbours as toothless junkies, or because she concocted the whole episode, an ambiguous smudging of gonzo journalism and rural melodrama, Cold Comfort Farm rewritten by Hunter S Thompson and Jayson Blair.

So, what does ‘Liz’ have to say? Well, her first objection is to Freeman’s remark that the film made her “want to be sick in my mouth”. Intriguingly, this phrase was removed when the Guardian article was republished in, uh, the Daily Mail; as was the reference to “women with higher expectations of movies about women than a compendium of cliches from the Daily Mail”. You see, for ‘Liz’, this isn’t really about whether the reviewers were right or wrong about the film being good or bad. This is about the sisterhood; or at least a very precise slice of the sisterhood, apparently the only sector of society that you’re allowed to criticise these days, “the middle-aged, affluent white woman”. Like, say, Liz Jones. That’s Liz without the quotation marks of course, because Liz is affluent, paid a six-figure sum to grace the minds of Mail readers with the benefit of her wisdom; whereas ‘Liz’ is on the verge of bankruptcy, relying on the generosity of her readers to pay her bills.

Implicitly, of course, Mail readers are also middle-aged, affluent white women, or aspire to being so; the crossover between Mail readership and SATC fandom is pretty obvious. But here’s where it gets confusing. ‘Liz’ praises the movie as being something around which women like her can unite and celebrate, exuberantly and without inhibition, enjoying their own empowerment; she tells us that when she attended, “Samantha’s ‘Lawrence of my *****’ joke got the loudest screams of the night.”

Now, this threw me. It was quite possible that Samantha’s joke was the funniest of all time, and entirely deserving of such collective ululation. But because of those Whitehousian asterisks, I had no bloody idea, and was forced to Google for the un-starred version. And do you know what the missing word was? How bad can it get? The word is – more sensitive readers might prefer to look away now:
Er... right. So while middle-aged, affluent white female Mail readers and writers, both real and fictional, should feel free to celebrate the ditzy materialism of the SATC franchise, they must be protected from any reference to the geography of their own bodies, lest, perhaps, such language makes them sick in their mouths. West’s contemplation of the same area (What is the lubrication level of Samantha Jones's 52-year-old vagina?”) is so profane as to be beyond the protection even of those doughty asterisks.

Because, in Mailworld, in ‘Liz’world, those middle-aged, affluent white women are only worthy of support and protection if they stick to the curriculum, which is about liking nice clothes and shoes and cocktails and worrying about whether celebrities are too fat, or too thin, or too old, or whether the celebrities’ clothes and shoes are nice enough, and whether they’ve consumed too many cocktails. Girl Powah! But woe betide any middle-aged, affluent white woman who steps over the line. Radio 4’s Fi Glover, for example, who ‘Liz’ damns for introducing a segment on an Afghan version of Pop Idol. The unnamed “snooty blonde American academic” who announced the death of romantic comedy on BBC2. Any middle-aged, affluent white woman who might choose to attend “the highbrow Hay Festival”. Words such as “academic” and “highbrow” are of course raw, dripping meat to the Mail faithful, especially when applied to women; stockings should be sheer, not blue. ‘Liz’ has “a PhD in the box set” of the original SATC TV series, and that’s all the cleverness any girl needs. (Although of course, if a university were to put the study of SATC on the curriculum, that would be a Mickey Mouse degree, and dumbing down, and probably political correctness gone mad. Do try to keep up.)

This is squalid misogyny, moronic self-loathing masquerading as sisterhood. But, before you reach for your shotgun and pepper the Jones letterbox, wait a moment. It’s not Liz talking, it’s ‘Liz’, the Carrie Bradshaw of the Mail, a character as ironically vile and idiotic as Alf Garnett or the bigots inhabiting the Randy Newman songbook. Liz herself crouches within, a metacritical Sheela Na Gig, poking and provoking us, flashing her labia at Hadley Freeman and the editor of the Daily Mail and vomiting in Lindy West’s mouth and Carrie Bradshaw’s and her own and ours.

PS: More thoughts on SATC from Mark Kermode on 5Live (in the last half-hour), Anna Carey in the Irish Times and, from a few years back, Sarah Churchwell (the blonde academic herself) in the Spectator, and just now a response to ‘Jones’ in her blog.

PPS: And a final few words from Sathnam Sanghera in The Times (after he deals with a particularly violent Alicia Keys gig).

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Triumph and disaster

Still thinking about Malcolm McLaren’s ideas of heroic failure. Is the glory determined by the status of that which was attempted, but not attained? There’s still a faint patina of cool adhering to those (including Nick Hornby and Sebastian Faulks, if I remember correctly) who responded in vain to the NME’s “hip young gunslingers” ad; the jobs went, of course, to these two lovely creatures:

A decade and a half later, I responded to a superficially similar call-out, and auditioned to be a presenter on The Word. In this case, Katie Puckrik got the gig, while the also-rans included Davina McCall and that bloke from Teenage Health Freak. Oh yeah, and me. Somehow, I reckon McLaren would have perceived our failure to be a tad less heroic.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The curse of fatal immortality

Watching the latest Dr Who, as everyone else is focusing on the last-ever episodes of Lost and Ashes to Ashes, and all the loose ends that get tightened, as if scriptwriters were just literary boys scouts, and I wonder: can Dr Who ever really end? I know there’s the idea that Time Lords have a maximum of 12 regenerations, but if they can bring back Davros and the Daleks and the other Time Lords when the occasion demands it, why should that be insurmountable. Canonicity is as tedious as plausibility. Let’s say there’s a climax that leaves the Doctor and his incarnations and various other crypto-selves (including the Watcher and the Valeyard and the Dream Lord), plus the Tardis and all his companions and enemies past, present and future (including those from Torchwood, Sarah Jane, New Adventures and all) exterminated, cremated and broken down to their individual atoms, which are then fired into black holes in 17 different parallel universes where all the return flights have been grounded by volcanic dust. Steven Moffat could come up with 15 ways out of that one before breakfast.

No, it can never really be properly finished. A bit like a jar of Marmite.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Ballad of Damien Day

Tracking the Bangkok brouhaha on Facebook and Twitter and similar media, Small Boo said: “Have you noticed how many people are suddenly calling themselves journalists?”

Live rounds and armoured vehicles and tear gas and looting certainly offer an opportunity for people to become war reporters for the duration, especially because many of them have little else to do right now. (One of the first things the Thai government does when things get hairy is to announce a public holiday; and if that doesn’t work, they announce another one. I think today is the fourth successive day off.) And obviously technology makes things much easier, and a judicious scan of Twitter has provided the most reliable source of information about what’s been happening here over the past week. The best of the self-starters don’t try to offer too much analysis, and just tell you what they can see and hear. They expect their readers to do a bit of work, to check out other sources, and form their own overall picture by putting the pieces together.

Foreign reporters on the whole don’t show the same modest restraint, which is understandable; why would the New York Times say that if you want to find out what’s happening round the next corner you’ll have to read Yomiuri Shimbun or El País? But in their effort to tell a self-contained story that discourages the reader from looking elsewhere, they seem obsessed with recasting the whole sad business as some kind of liberation narrative, implicitly aligning it with those big struggles, some won but many lost, that tend to win Pulitzers: Budapest in 1956; Prague and Paris in 1968; Manila in 1986; Beijing and Berlin in 1989; Jakarta in 1998; Tehran only last year. There’s an element of truth to this treatment; but ultimately, it’s no more the whole story than the lone Tweeter, telling us he’s just seen a dead body or a shopping mall in flames. The Thai media, meanwhile, seems far too close to those who control the political and economic levers; moreover, a combination of legal restrictions and social taboos means that the really interesting stuff is what’s left unsaid. Sometimes it all gets deliciously incestuous, with legit media reporting on the citizen hacks: for example, France 24’s story about the shadowy FreakingCat. Not to mention the bloggers sneering at the professionals...

But do an iPhone, a fondness for Graham Greene novels and a studied disregard for one’s own personal safety really define a journalist? If people outside Thailand wanted to find out what was going on in Bangkok, I’m guessing they went to the BBC or CNN first, then maybe checked the blogs and tweets afterwards; you have to finish your main course before you’re allowed pudding. I don’t know how long that will continue, but for the moment you’re defined not by the work you do, but what happens to your work after you’ve done it.

PS: Manik Sethisuwan offers up some delicious word clouds of all the coverage.

PPS: And Not The Nation gets it right as well.

PPPS: Yet more, from Cod at CNNGo.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

In case of emergency, break glass

You may have noticed that I haven’t really mentioned the current unpleasantness occurring in Thailand, the part of the world where I find myself at the moment. One reason is that I don’t have much to say that might elucidate the situation; as has been said about quantum mechanics and Northern Ireland, if you understand it, you don’t really understand it. A few locals might be able to make a stab at an analysis, but a mere farang has no chance. You have to jettison so many assumptions, that you have nothing upon which to build an argument.

An example. I happened to catch sight of a TV game show yesterday. It’s called English Breakfast, and it aims to test contestants’ language skills, with a bit of general knowledge thrown into the mix. In one round, each team had to answer questions on a specific historical figure, and they were given props to make the whole experience more enjoyable. So those answering on Bruce Lee were given nunchucks; those dealing with Gandhi had glasses and curly moustaches, which actually made them look like comedy Frenchmen; and those answering on Hitler had peaked caps, swastika armbands and, again, stick-on facial hair, this time of the toothbrush variety. The host even did an amusing Nazi salute.

Now, to most westerners, this might seem bizarrely tasteless, even grotesque. But to the majority of Thais, Hitler is just another figure from the last century, and kitting oneself out in Gestapo chic is no more sinister than going to a fancy-dress ball dressed as a pirate. Which is not to say, of course, that they know no similar taboos. Several years ago, I interviewed a senior aide to then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the man whose removal from power provoked this whole mess in the first place. I raised the issue of foreign journalists who had fallen foul of Thailand’s lèse majesté laws. He pointed out, quite reasonably, that even the most free and open countries have limits on what one can and cannot say in public, but those limits apply in different places: “I wouldn’t go to the States and start talking about race,” he said. So, Hitler’s funny, take it or leave it.

Much depends on perspective. To be a redshirt (those associated to a greater or lesser extent with Thaksin, who are campaigning for the current government to stand down) or a yellowshirt (fervent defenders of the monarchy and the socio-economic status quo) is often as much a matter of instinctive tribalism as of coherent political ideology. You read the papers, watch the TV stations, listen to the rabble-rousing speeches that best fit your own chromatic tendency.

But perspective is not just a metaphor. Here’s Thomas Fuller of the New York Times, the journalist to whom the renegade army officer Seh Daeng was talking when he was shot by an as-yet unidentified sniper:
When I sat down to write this article in my apartment, I slipped on my ballistic helmet, a piece of equipment left over from a spell covering the Iraq war that is probably more useful to me in the streets of Bangkok. I donned the helmet because my desk faces floor-to-ceiling windows with no curtains or shutters and outside is the neighborhood where protesters are battling with troops. (Gunfire erupted when I typed the word “protesters.”) I have come to view my windows as an emblem of the turmoil. The architects of this city’s gleaming apartment blocks and office towers did not anticipate gunfire. They thought about prestige and the liberating feeling of floating above a sprawling metropolis, separated only by glass. A city with floor-to-ceiling windows is a confident city. Sheets of glass, unlike the thick walls and tiny windows of centuries past, send a message: We are not worried about what lurks outside. But from my desk, it seems as if Bangkok’s architecture has outpaced its political maturity. Who in Bangkok today would feel confident behind a wall of glass when explosions rip through the night?
The thing is, although the windows of luxury apartments weren’t made to withstand bullets, they do have specific purposes that might not be immediately apparent. They let the light in, and allow the occupants to see out; but the seriously rich can afford a view that takes in the riverside temples but not the canalside slums. Effectively, the more you pay, the less you see. And almost as importantly, they block out the noise and the heat and the smell, the reality in which the bulk of the Thai population lives. It may not be coincidental that the redshirts’ weapon of choice is the humble catapult.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

I agree with... um...

(From the Torygraph)

The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

History today

Been thinking about Joseph Chamberlain:
...In 1885 General Election Chamberlain was seen as the leader of the Radicals with his calls for land reform, housing reform and higher taxes on the rich. However, he was also a strong supporter of Imperialism, and resigned from Gladstone’s cabinet over the issue of Irish Home Rule. This action helped to bring down the Liberal government. Chamberlain now became leader of the Liberal Unionists and in 1886 he formed an alliance with the Conservative Party. As a result, the Marquess of Salisbury gave him the post of Colonial Secretary in his government. Chamberlain was therefore primarily responsible for British policy during the Boer War.
(From Spartacus Schoolnet)

Same again

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Out! Out! Out!

Well, it looks as if we might have some sort of Conservative government coming up, albeit one drizzled with the faintest hint of orange.

For months I’ve fretted about this prospect. But in the last few days, I’ve been coming around to the idea. You see, since 1997, I’ve been torn between loathing the Blair/Brown project and remembering that it’s, like, Labour, and they’re meant to be, y’know, the good guys.

In a bizarre way, the Thatcher years, for all the selfishness and philistinism and yuppies and the miners’ strike and the Poll Tax and Clause 28, were a time of delightful moral certainty. We were right and they were wrong. The only difference now is that the Wicked Witch has been replaced by the Slightly Camp Gammon Robot. I’m almost relishing the battle. Boots laced; badges fastened; spraycan in the inside pocket. Now, where are my fingerless gloves?

(From an idea prompted by Slaminsky. Picture by Susannah Davis, from the 1989 NUS anti-loans march.)

PS: Or maybe not...

PPS: As you were. [Sigh]

Thursday, May 06, 2010


The Sun’s Obama-parody front page has been on the streets a matter of hours, and already the parodies of the parody are kicking about. At this rate, by the next election, the spoof will predate the original.

(From the New Statesman.)

PS: And more of the buggers, with added swearing.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Hung parliament

13 years ago, it was. The new member for Enfield boasts to his vanquished foe about the size of his majority, or something. Adds new levels to “Were you up for Portillo?”

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Cherub rock

I never really bought into the whole Matrix thing, especially the idea that it was in some way indebted to Baudrillard. Just because something looks real but isn’t, doesn’t make it a simulacrum.

SF/theory wonks need to look elsewhere. “That which holds the image of an angel becomes itself an angel.” That’s more like it. And as a bonus, when the Doctor dismisses Pandorica as a fairy tale, and River Song replies “Aren’t we all?”, that’s Barthes and Calvino and metafiction and all that good stuff as a bonus.