Sunday, October 31, 2010

It isn’t, it really isn’t

Heaven knows, in these postmodern, cross-cultural times, the borders between plagiarism, tribute, pastiche and coincidence are so blurred that they might as well not be there. That said, it might have been nice if Selfridges had chosen to set up their Christmas window display while Frank Sidebottom was still around to enjoy it.

PS: Seems as if Selfridges has been nudged into doing the right thing.

Friday, October 29, 2010

In your satin tights

Michael Chabon on comic-book fanboys and the impossibility of getting the costumes just right:
This sad outcome even in the wake of thousands of dollars spent and months of hard work given to sewing and to packing foam rubber into helmets has an obvious, an unavoidable, explanation: a superhero’s costume is constructed not of fabric, foam rubber, or adamantium but of halftone dots, Pantone color values, inked containment lines, and all the cartoonist’s sleight of hand. The superhero costume as drawn disdains the customary relationship in the fashion world between sketch and garment. It makes no suggestions. It has no agenda. Above all, it is not waiting to find fulfillment as cloth draped on a body. A constructed superhero costume is a replica with no original, a model built on a scale of x:1.
I reckon The Simulacrum would be a fabulous name for a comic-strip villain.

Monday, October 25, 2010

People like us

One of the more difficult by-products of the UK Government’s recent spending review has been that everybody’s been forced to talk about social class again. As a public conversation it’s embarrassing enough, but it’s further complicated by the fact that no two people can agree on the precise vocabulary, or what it means. So the Guardian and Mirror argue that “the poor” will suffer the most; while the Mail and Telegraph chronicle the indignities to be endured by “the middle classes”. Clearly there is some sort of connection between income and socio-economic status, but it’s pretty hit and miss; think of anomalies such as poor, middle-class vicars and wealthy, working-class builders. The slightly ghastly sounding Middle Class Handbook classifies the tribe as those earning between £30,000 and £200,000, whereas the average income in the country is closer to £25,000, which suggests that in financial terms at least, the middles are somewhere near the top. Maybe we should just call them the bourgeoisie and shoot them all and be done with it.

One almost yearns for the years when everyone had a defined station in life, and stuck to it, as depicted in that epitome of guilty pleasure, Downton Abbey. Julian Fellowes, the creator of the show, has something to say regarding those who have found fault in its historical verisimilitude:
The real problem is with people who are insecure socially, and they think to show how smart they are by picking holes in the programme to promote their own poshness and to show that their knowledge is greater than your knowledge... The fact of the matter is that the really posh people are pleased to see something on television that isn't about a dead prostitute in a dustbin, and they seem to just be enjoying the programme.
Thanks, Julian, that’s explained everything. Although, as some have cruelly pointed out, Fellowes is married to a lady-in-waiting to Princess Michael of Kent, which makes him about as classy as a Big Brother contestant puking WKD over her Burberry tracksuit.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Truth and beauty

A couple of newsfarts that feel as if they might have some sort of thematic connection to the previous post. The first is the revelation by egregious Tory MP Nadine Dorries that her blog is “70% fiction and 30% fact”, although she subsequently explained that “I think I probably meant to say it was 30% fiction.” Of course, the perfect get-out clause would be to explain that the blog is 100% opinion, but I rather get the feeling that Ms Dorries is too stupid to cope with such nuances.

And then there’s the revelation that Jane Austen’s stylistic elegance might have owed rather more to her editors than we previously believed. Although the canon must be defended at all costs; so Kathryn Sutherland suggests that revelations of dodgy punctuation and idiosyncratic grammar
...reveal Austen to be an experimental and innovative writer, constantly trying new things... even better at writing dialogue and conversation than the edited style of her published novels suggest.
So she’s still a great author – just a completely different great author from the one we’ve always believed her to be.

PS: Of course, the most cogent response to either of these is as follows:
The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is an indispensable companion to all those who are keen to make sense of life in an infinitely complex and confusing universe. For though it cannot hope to be useful or informative on all matters, it does make the reassuring claim that where it is inaccurate, it is at least definitively inaccurate. In cases of major discrepancy it is always reality that’s got it wrong. So, for instance, when the Guide was sued by the families of those who had died as a result of taking the entry on the planet Traal literally – it said “Ravenous Bugblatter Beasts often make a very good meal for visiting tourists” instead of “Ravenous Bugblatter Beasts often make a very good meal of visiting tourists” – the editors claimed that the first version of the sentence was the more aesthetically pleasing; summoned a qualified poet to testify under oath that beauty was truth, truth beauty, and hoped thereby to prove that the guilty party in this case was life itself for failing to be either beautiful or true.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Say it ain’t so

I’ve never had much time for the prim adage that insists if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything. I can understand a principled objection to verbal bullying or witless abuse; but let’s face it, some things are crap and it doesn’t do anybody any good to deny the fact.

Not everyone agrees. In many Asian cultures, explicit criticism is taboo, especially when it’s expressed to the subject’s face. Several years ago, when I was working for a Thai magazine, I wrote a rather dismissive review of a business book, describing its content as parochial and accusing the author of a lack of intellectual curiosity. The editor was not pleased, demanding of me, “If this book is no good, why are we telling our readers about it?”

Of course, this isn’t an exclusively Asian phenomenon. In the mainstream media, it’s inevitable that the sincerely held opinion of an individual contributor will at some point come into conflict with the corporate party line, which may upset advertisers or disturb cosy relationships with political or business contacts. But there used to be ways around this. Several lifetimes ago, when I used to pen reviews for Mojo magazine, I was less than enthusiastic about an album by A Certain American Singer-Songwriter. When I filed the review, I was informed in no uncertain terms that the editor profoundly disagreed with my analysis; they subsequently ran a long interview with the artist in question, in which the album was drizzled with praise; in fact, it ended up as Mojo’s album of the year. But, to give them credit, they didn’t spike my original review, or even tone down its essential meh-ness. I was asked my opinion of the album, and I didn’t like it much, and I said so, and that was OK.

Things seem to have changed, even in the virtual world. Check out this review of the latest waxing by San Fran garage band The Fresh And Onlys, then scroll down to the response the journalist received when she submitted it to another music website: “ was a little harsh, I can’t really post stuff that opinionated as we just won’t get anymore from the label.” (As I asked, how opinionated is stuff allowed to be these days?) And with the memory of Andrew Marr’s blogrant still fresh, we learn that the Washington Post has issued guidelines on how its journalists  should and shouldn’t make use of Twitter:
Even as we encourage everyone in the newsroom to embrace social media and relevant tools, it is absolutely vital to remember that the purpose of these Post-branded accounts is to use them as a platform to promote news, bring in user generated content and increase audience engagement with Post content. 
Rather than using them to, you know, actually say stuff. I just wish I’d been able at the time to come up with a coherent reply to the editor who asked why we were reviewing bad books. Because if we don’t explain why the bad books are bad, we lose touch with any sense of critical dialogue or debate. If we don’t explain why the bad books or films or blogs or albums by Certain American Singer-Songwriters are bad, there is no context in which to decide why the good ones are good.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Cooking the books

Graham Greene, in the foreword to The Comedians, argues against the notion that all fiction is essentially autobiographical:
‘I’ is not the only imaginary character: none of the others, from such minor players as the British chargé to the principals, has ever existed. A physical trait taken here, a habit of speech, an anecdote – they are boiled up in the kitchen of the unconscious and emerge unrecognizable even to the cook in most cases.
It’s the “unrecognizable even to the cook” bit I like, although whether Greene was tacitly acknowledging the postmodern concept that the author should not be privileged over the reader, or just affecting a sort of gentleman amateurism about the whole process of writing, I’m not sure.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

In order to save the mainstream media it became necessary to destroy it

Annie Bookcrosminsky worries that the blogosphere is shrinking. And yes, she’s got a point. Many of the old names who were around when I started Cultural Snow nearly five years ago, when memes were pretty cutting edge and you sent a thank-you note if someone added you to their blogroll, have gone on to other things, like death or babies; or they only pop in when they’ve got something really profound to say. And yet blogging, the idea of blogging, the feel of blogging is bloody everywhere.

I’ve just watched Claudia Winkleman’s first outing at the helm of Film 2010. Now, I’m old enough to  remember Barry Norman in the same chair in the late 70s. He’d tell you what he thought of a film, then there’d be an insert from Hollywood with that bloke with a moustache, then Barry would tell you what he thought of another film, then he might interview some up-and-coming whippersnapper like Alan Parker, then Barry would tell you what he thought of one more film, and that it wasn’t as good as a Howard Hawks film that I probably hadn’t seen at the time, but I made a mental note to look out for it if it showed up in the Radio Times. Because Barry Norman said I should, and he was presenting the film programme on the BBC, so he should know. It was classic, old-school, implicitly de haut en bas media.

But Barry sells pickled onions now – that’s not a euphemism for death, he really does sell pickled onions – and Winkleword is something rather different. It’s not just that they’ve got a self-confessed blogger on the team, in the person of Charlie Lyne from Ultra Culture. The show is live, and we’re encouraged to tweet our thoughts, and Claudia’s got an in-house sounding board in the person of some bloke from the Guardian who acts a bit like Mark Kermode’s little brother. (The real dweebs wanted Dr Kermode to take over from Jonathan Ross, but he knew his quiff wouldn’t fit.) It’s no longer the baggy-eyed lecture that Bazza made it, or the stand-up routine that Wossy offered. It’s a conversation, people, just like blogs were when there were enough of around to converse with.

I’m not the only one to have laboured the obvious analogy, but blogging is a bit like punk rock. Punk as a vital, revolutionary force burned itself out after about 18 months, with the greatest talents re-focusing their energies into the sort of musics that Simon Reynolds has chronicled; the others either died, or have played their two-and-a-half chords on the fundamentalist nostalgia circuit ever since. But at the same time, those who were cast as the villains in the McLarenite morality play, the Rolling Stones and Rod Stewart, Genesis and Pink Floyd and Yes, were all changed by the experience. Their songs and trousers became tighter; their guitar solos and haircuts shorter. Punk didn’t destroy them, but it did make them change their tune, figuratively and literally.

So it is with blogging. Some of the pioneers have been absorbed by the mainstream media, still a bit spikier than the norm, but now with advertisers and libel lawyers to trim their nails if they get too sharp. Charlie Lyne appearing on Film 2010 is like Plastic Bertrand appearing on the cover of the Smash Hits dummy. And even the anti-bloggers, the Street-Porters and Dejevskys and Marrs, have realised that some of the core aspects of blogging – the immediacy, the interactivity, the links – will have to be taken up if mainstream media is to survive.

Annie’s probably right that the blogosphere is shrinking, if she means that sites with ‘blogspot’ and ‘wordpress’ in their names are less likely to provoke excitable debate at fashionable dinner parties by the time Film 2020 rolls around (by which time it will probably be introduced by Justin Bieber, or the woman from the Shake ‘n’ Vac ad, or maybe an artichoke). But that’s not because nobody’s blogging any more; it’s because everybody is.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Chin music

I remember the excited register of the sleevenotes on one of Stanley Jordan’s early albums: something along the lines of “your ears do not deceive you – there is only one guitarist on this album!” This was a reference to his startling tapping technique, which enables him to play two separate melodies at the same time. If you didn’t know better, you’d think there were indeed two guitarists on the record, or maybe one guitarist, double-tracked. The question was whether one’s listening pleasure was at all enhanced by the knowledge that the sound came from one man, playing one guitar, once. On this, I was something of a sceptic, never really buying the notion that there’s a direct correlation between technical aptitude and good music. Jordan is clearly good, but is the noise he makes really better than that made by someone only playing one tune at a time?

So I wasn’t exactly beating down the doors of the ticket office when he played in Bangkok last week. But I went. And he was good. He was good when he was playing one tune, and good when he was playing two at once. He was good when he was playing the guitar with his left hand, and the piano with his right, and good when he swapped hands. He was even good when he played three tunes  at once: left hand; right hand; chin. He was even good when he played Mozart’s 21st piano concerto, although it wasn’t entirely clear why he might want to do such a thing.

But the best moments – the stuff that actually transcended pure admiration for his agility and had me revelling in the noise he was making – were the most straightforward: a hard-bop rendition of ‘Autumn Leaves’; and a coda to ‘Eleanor Rigby’ that became a blur of Townshend riffing.

“It’s because you don’t play the guitar,” said Small Boo. “You don’t understand.” And it’s true, I don’t play – although I understand the basics, what the right and left hands usually do – and she does. But should that really matter? The gig was sponsored by a guitar magazine, which was also pimping a concert in a few weeks’ time by some godawful US thrash outfit. I’m sure lots of people would have tickets for both. The attraction, it seems, is not jazz or rock, but what someone can do with a guitar; the playing, not the music.

Two thoughts. First, Nick Hornby’s comment on the disproportionate number of novels about writers, urging readers to “resent the repeated implication, by publishers and books pages, that my profession is more interesting than yours.” If someone like Paul Auster is writing about writing, is Stanley Jordan playing the guitar about playing the guitar?

And then, about Les Paul, the first man who worked out (through his innovations in multi-tracking) how to make one guitarist sound like several. Here’s the two of them together. Jordan’s playing is clearly more complex, more unorthodox, more technically challenging, and I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that Paul’s stuff is better; but I’m damned if I can see that it’s worse.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Except that my mother doesn’t have a basement

I have a certain amount of time for Andrew Marr, but he really shouldn’t go around casting aspersions on other people’s physical appearances. Apparently he told an audience at the Cheltenham Literary Festival that:
...most citizen journalism strikes me as nothing to do with journalism at all. A lot of bloggers seem to be socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed young men sitting in their mother's basements and ranting. They are very angry people... OK – the country is full of very angry people. Many of us are angry people at times. Some of us are angry and drunk. But the so-called citizen journalism is the spewings and rantings of very drunk people late at night. It is fantastic at times but it is not going to replace journalism. Most of the blogging is too angry and too abusive. Terrible things are said online because they are anonymous. People say things online that they wouldn't dream of saying in person.
Perhaps Mr Marr ought to look in the mirror before popping anybody else’s pimples. Or, as I suggested at The Wall:
Clearly Sturgeon’s Law – “90% of everything is crud” – applies to blogging, but it applies to most other things, including mainstream journalism. Marr might like to kid himself that his profession is characterised by plucky foreign correspondents and dogged investigative reporters, but to be honest, that’s just a thin layer of cream atop a mountain of recycled press releases, parochial banality, celebrity tittle-tattle (much of it entirely invented; “a friend said…”), dog-whistle political shit-stirring, and the sort of un-researched off-the-top-of-the-head lifestyle columns (Liz Jones, Jan Moir, etc) that uphold all the worst qualities that Marr and friends ascribe to bloggers. Clear out your own back yard, first, Andrew.
PS: Shane Richmond weighs in @ the Telegraph; also Robin Bogg, Roy Greenslade @ the Standard.

Paper Rroses

You know how Tom Lehrer supposedly claimed to have stopped writing songs when Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, because reality had finally triumphed over satire? And how he subsequently denied he’d said that, probably because subsequent events (George W Bush as President, Ann Widdecombe on Strictly Come Dancing) made the Kissinger thing seem almost sensible?

Well, anyway, here’s Marie Osmond reciting Dada poetry. Hat-tip to my beardy college chum Nick Abrahams.

PS: And on the subject of transgressive art, how about the phantom coat thief?

Friday, October 08, 2010

When I am an old woman...

I am grateful to the lovely Great She Elephant for nudging Urlai through the back door of my perception. It is a site that claims to be able to analyse the text of a blog and extrapolate the gender, age and general mood of the author.

Close study of the previous 12 posts tells us that Cultural Snow “is probably written by a male [OK, fair enough] somewhere between 26-35 years old. [Thank you!] The writing style is personal and upset most of the time.”


PS: And still on blog-related matters, anyone who happens to be in Bristol on October 22 might find this interesting.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Society of the spectacles

When Jonathan Franzen’s publishers announced that thousands of copies of his novel Freedom would be pulped after the wrong version was printed, the dials on my cultural bullshit detector immediately flipped into the red. It’s just the sort of story that liberates an author from the high walls of the review sections, and into the news pages, where normal people might go. It’s an amusing cock-up story, but not one that reflects badly on the writer himself; a bit like that time when Jeanette Winterson’s manuscript was left at Balham Tube station.

But the next événement to spice up the drudgery of Franzen’s UK promotional tour was at the same time too banal and too weird to have been dreamed up by some fresh-faced catamite in the Fourth Estate PR department. At Monday’s launch party, someone swiped the poor man’s glasses from his nose, dropping off a ransom note at the same time. The location of the attack (the Serpentine Gallery) and the preposterous demand (£100,000 to you, guv) immediately suggest some sort of neo-Situationist prank, probably carried out by art students.

But no. The spec-snatcher, James Fletcher, is indeed a student, but a student of computational aerospace design. Any aesthetic motivation appears to have been subconscious, as he wrote afterwards in an article for GQ:
Some articles have suggested that the theft was perhaps a display of some kind of art... I’d just like to comment that if art is defined as something which provokes an emotional response, then I suppose it was art.
Instead, the attack seems to have been motivated by far more mundane factors:
We sat drinking excessive champagne for a while and talking to some of the guests there until I realised just how dull it all was... I’d mentioned several times to my accomplice how much I admired Franzen’s frames... I remember shouting as I snatched the glasses off the bewildered man's face that I was with Channel 4 doing a comedy stunt. Looking back, I’m not exactly sure what that meant or why I said it.
All in all, then, a terribly 2010 manifestation of artistic outrage: a combination of drunkenness, boredom, material avarice and the incoherent, atavistic desire for some kind of fleeting celebrity, however ill-defined. It’s the sort of thing someone should write a big fat novel about. What’s Jonathan Franzen doing these days?

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Death of Venice

Venice, in common with many beautiful places, is subject to a terrible paradox: it needs a stream of visitors to fund its upkeep, but those visitors, their feet and fingers, their breath and sweat, are partly to blame for making the upkeep necessary. So it’s little wonder that the city’s inhabitants and elected officials have a somewhat ambivalent attitude to the camera-toting grockles who come to gawp at the loveliness. The mayor, Giorgio Orsini, seems to have decided that, all things considered, the bloody tourists are more trouble than they’re worth, hitting back at those who complain that many of the best bits are hidden by giant billboards. “What difference does it make if the scaffolding shows a picture of the building underneath or an advert,” he asks. “If people want to see the building they should go home and look at a picture of it in a book.”

Maybe he’d rather they went to the Venetian in Las Vegas, that Simulacrum of Sighs, the Likeness of Lagoons in the middle of a bloody desert. Or, better still, the version in Macao, which copies the Vegas Venice rather than the Venice Venice. And doubtless, in the coming years, a succession of Venetians in Rio and Riyadh and Reykjavik, anti-Xeroxes, each one brighter and sharper and more hyperreal than the last. While the real Venice, the first Venice, sinks beneath the water, forsaken and forgotten, the last sound to come from it being a bubbly entreaty from Mayor Orsini, trying to sell you one last overpriced postcard.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Slip of the tongue

Still on a vaguely Gallic theme, I do have a degree of sympathy with the MEP Rachida Dati, who managed to confuse inflation with fellatio in a TV interview, something I suspect we’ve all done at some time or other. Her faux pas brings to mind an earlier French icon, France Gall, who in 1966 recorded the Serge Gainsbourg song ‘Les Sucettes’, apparently entirely oblivious to its, um, inflationary subtext; she remained in blissful innocence even after making this promotional clip. When someone (I bet it was Gainsbourg, the cad – I’ll never forgive him for what he said to poor, lovely, pre-crack Whitney Houston) explained what was going on, she hid in her bedroom for weeks, and never made a decent record again.

Next week: Ann Widdecombe attempts to warn us about the possibility of a double-dip recession, but accidentally starts talking about bestiality in the middle of the paso doble.