Friday, December 31, 2010

Just for a riband to stick in his coat...

As time passes, which is what it usually does, my instinct grows stronger and surer that I will never be offered a royally sanctioned honour. I trust that, in the event of a catastrophic administrative error (“...for services to writing about fey Swedish indie bands and vaguely competent Japanese restaurants”) I would have the presence of mind to refuse such a bauble; although, every New Year’s Eve I find news of one or two people whose acknowledgment by the shadowy decision processes seems entirely right and just, and I can’t begrudge them their fleeting date with Her  Maj, or whoever happens to be doing the pinning. This time round it’s the thoroughly splendid Burt Kwouk, OBE. Bloody well done, sir.

What I can’t be doing with is the sort of response that Dame Harriet Walter gave: “I have reservations about some parts of the honours system. I fear it’s not very fair and I think there are lots of people not recognised who should be,” she said, before claiming that she accepted her promotion because it would allow her to speak up in defence of theatre. It’s beyond me why she feels a daft title gives her this right more than, say, the fact that she once simulated acrobatic rudeness with Bill Nighy. If you turn an honour down, it’s up to you whether you make the fact public; if you accept the gong, you implicitly accept the whole idiocy that goes with it. The only exception is people who accept peerages, who really do have the opportunity to boot down the edifices from the inside. Not that many take it, mind you.

Anyway, I’ve just received a text message from some poncy sunglasses shop, advising me of an “Aggressive new year sale”, so I’m rather concerned that 2011 will arrive wielding a sock full of snooker balls. I trust that all my lovely readers have a less traumatic transition to the new twelvemonth, even those of you who haven’t been awarded anything. And to play you out, here’s something from someone else who’ll be ambling to the palace in the next few months:

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Still we get the same old gruel

Last night I enjoyed a delicious, genre-defying meal in the charming company of the Michelin-starred chef who had devised it, so it is instructive to remember that hacks and chefs don’t always get on so well.  Consider the example of the Beverly Hills restaurateur who has barred the LA Times critic from his establishment, as well as putting her photograph, pseudonym and even mobile number on his website. Noah Ellis of Red Medicine said of the critic, Irene Virbila:
We don’t care for her or her reviews. Our purpose for posting this is so that all restaurants can have a picture of her and make a decision as to whether or not they would like to serve her. We find that some of her reviews can be unnecessarily cruel and irrational, and that they have caused hardworking people in this industry to lose their jobs.
Of course, it’s up to Mr Ellis whether or not he allows Ms Virbila into his restaurant, although it’s possible to argue that his own cruel, irrational behaviour, if replicated by others, might cause hardworking people in the restaurant review industry to lose their jobs. And it’s also interesting and maybe a little cheering that, amidst the clamour of food bloggers and the like, he believes a single dead-tree critic still wields so much power.

But ultimately to pick on one critic for being a bit nasty (“cruel and irrational” rather than “wrong”) is to miss the point. Critics don’t exist to close restaurants or musicals or careers. They should provoke and cajole, encourage and query, nudging others to think about food or drama or words or music in new ways. A healthy critical dialogue – which is just as likely to be kind and rational as anything else – is proof that people care deeply about the subject matter, and ultimately encourages them to consume it. In the long run, if that doesn’t happen, a hell of a lot of people stand to lose their jobs, no matter how hard they work.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Finger food

One of the odder things that’s happened to me since I became a part-time ethnic minority is that I have turned into a food writer of sorts. Not, it must immediately be said, a food critic – a combination of cultural sensitivities and media economics mean that I’m rarely able to unleash the full-strength AA Gill-style vitriol that some establishments deserve. If the pasta’s overcooked, I find that biting my tongue offers the full al dente experience.

I have thought of setting up a food blog to vent my frustrations, but that would eventually put me in the potentially awkward position of slagging off an eatery with which I’ve previously had to play nice. And I’d have to take photos of all the dishes and, as Small Boo can attest, I’m the world’s worst photographer. Many people meeting her in person for the first time have expressed surprise that she possesses feet, or a whole head.

So any honest attempt at food writing has to be a bit of a guerrilla operation, ideally dealing with food from somewhere I’ve never worked. On this basis, and inspired by the magnificent Jen Ken’s Kit Kat Blog, Small Boo and I carried out a taste test on five Japanese Kit Kat varieties.

The first thing to be said about these particular bars is that they’re sweet. I mean, ordinary Kit Kats are sweet, but these are ostentatiously, painfully, pancreas-assaultingly sweet. It soon becomes clear that the success of each variety depends on the extent to which the additional flavouring is able to stand up to the sugar overdose. So, clockwise from top left:

Tamarayua-honten Wasabi: Well, it looks right, or at least appropriate. The chocolate has the pale green hue of the legendary Japanese horseradish that perks up sushi across the planet. But then, as you taste, there’s a disconnect; your tongue is assailed by an intense white chocolate flavour, as if you’re being snogged against your will by the Milky Bar Kid. Only after the shock of the assault clears do you get the pleasing hotness of the wasabi, but even then it’s just a passing hint, like the vermouth in a super-dry Martini. Frustrating. 6

Uji Maccha (green tea): I love Japanese green tea itself, but I’ve never been fond of green-tea flavoured things. Again, this gets the colour right, but again the milk/sugar overload leaves the bitterness of the tea fighting a losing battle. Imagine dropping a tablespoon of double cream into a cup of weak, sweet Typhoo. Not great. 3

Satsumaimo-Aji (sweet potato): A yellowish bar this time, and a pretty accurate aroma of baked sweet potato; it makes you think of Violet Beauregarde chowing down on a three-course meal in chewing-gum form. Unfortunately, the deception isn’t maintained once it passes the lips, as an oddly floral note begins to dominate; it’s as if someone’s dosed your spuds with Febreze. Disconcerting. 4

Sakura Maccha (cherry blossom and green tea): Cherry blossom has deep and resonant cultural implications for the Japanese people, so one wonders how they feel about the weird, cough-medicine taste on offer here. It stages a mini-sumo bout with the bitterness of the tea and the vaguely coconut tones of the biscuit, and nobody really wins. Icky. 1

Syoyu-tumi (soy sauce): The only variety that I’d actually choose to eat for pleasure. For once, the novelty flavouring is powerful enough to withstand the sweetness, creating something not a million miles from a salty caramel. Not bad at all. 8

Overall: I’m sure all chocolate manufacturers come up with wacky ideas like this on a regular basis, but Nestlé Japan seems to be the only one that takes them all to market. As it stands, they’re like the purest form of conceptual art, with the ideas far more successful than the execution. Still, at least I’m allowed to slag them off...

Monday, December 20, 2010

Every day I close the book

A few recent articles kicking around some similar ideas to those contained in my post last week about the value of arts and humanities courses. In The Guardian, Terry Eagleton goes all serious on us (“What we have witnessed in our own time is the death of universities as centres of critique.”) while Charlie Brooker is brilliantly, witheringly sarcastic: “instead of studying the whole of human history, why not focus on a concentrated period, such as the most exciting five minutes of the second world war?” And in a similar spirit, blogger Robin Tomens vows to join the philistines: “Perhaps I could reinvent myself as the type who doesn’t watch foreign films or listen to ‘weird’ music. This could be my New Year’s resolution. After all, who would care or notice?”

Read them all. Because you can.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

I’m a celebrity, get me a bowl of nutritious, tasty breakfast cereal, mmmm...

From next year, product placement will be allowed on some British TV shows. The reason this is necessary, we are informed, is that technological changes have made it easier for viewers to avoid advertising placed between programming. But I suspect it’s just as much because viewers have developed a more sophisticated understanding about how advertising works, and are thus more cynical about it. Introducing product placement to the likes of Coronation Street may work, but only on those viewers who remain a bit naïve and trusting about the essential benevolence of consumer capitalism and the way it manipulates human desires; the unaware; the incurious; the dim. And inevitably, as product placement becomes a more popular revenue model for TV companies, programming targeting the dim and incurious – indeed, actively excluding the curious – will become even more prevalent.

And we will look back on the current glut of celebreality shows as a golden age of British TV.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


Jeffrey R Di Leo argues, in the US Chronicle of Higher Education, that The Book As We Know It is not necessarily dead, but at the same time is certainly no longer integral to the educational process. Indeed, his point is much the same as the one made by that disgruntled Simpsons fan on Amazon, although Dr Di Leo quotes Barthes rather than Bart (a joke that was a tad creaky when first made in the Modern Review in the early 90s, and rigor mortis was setting in by the time Stephen Bayley got hold of it, but I still like it).

Di Leo types:
Many concerns about the intellectual quality of digital publications are valid, and digital content can be easier to plagiarize. But those concerns are historical, not permanent. There is nothing intrinsically inferior about spreading knowledge on a screen rather than on a printed page, and plagiarism is an ethical issue, not a material one. Words may look better in print, and a book may feel better in your hands than a Kindle or an iPad, but the words are the same.
Most of which is true, but I’m not sure it’s wise to dismiss so brusquely the *feel* of a book. Even in academia, where books are often read to a purpose other than pleasure, they still provoke an emotional response – a relationship, even – that transcends the mere process of getting facts into the reader’s brain. The words may be the same, but that’s not always the point.

Moreover, while the potential for digital books to enhance the reading experience is obvious, I’m not that sure the punters will actually go for it. There have been many innovative experiments in digital publishing, such as Geoff Ryman’s 253, a hypertext novel about a Tube journey, and Train Man (Densha Otoko), which began life on a chat forum, but neither of them achieved anything more than a niche reputation until they were remastered in more conventional formats (Train Man became not only a book, but also a TV show and a movie). Di Leo would argue that this was the fault of critics and consumers, who failed to seize the opportunities that the digital versions offered. And this hesitancy persists.

I’ve always been a big fan of footnotes in dead-tree books, and when, over a decade ago, I first encountered the hypertext version of The Waste Land – which offered annotations to Eliot’s own annotations – I squealed with delight. This, surely, was the way forward for writers and publishers: not a reference was too obscure, not a word too difficult, because anything could be explained, elucidated, glossed, translated, without breaking the flow of the text. I think I’ve discussed before some of the other books that might benefit from such treatment (Nabokov’s Pale Fire; Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius; BS Johnson’s The Unfortunates; Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual; Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman) but there seems to have been very little action on this front. The received wisdom is that today’s multi-tasking youth, who can simultaneously play Grand Theft Auto, message their friends, watch The Inbetweeners and roll aggressively towards policemen will have no problem flitting between text and notes. But few, it seems, want a book that’s anything other than linear in structure. I’ve been informed in no uncertain terms by several publishers that readers (of print books) find too many notes distracting, and that they should be a) reduced in number and b) sent to the back of the text. I can’t see that they’ll be any more keen to have their leisure reading interrupted by hyperlinks.

Although I adore conventional books, I don’t object to their being challenged by digital versions: as Di Leo says, the words are the same. But it would be something of a pity if the only reason e-books succeed is because they’re cheaper to distribute, and easier to take on holiday, and nobody wants to take advantage of their other possibilities.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Cultural no

Punk neo-Stalinist Eduard Limonov, interviewed in The Observer:
Europeans are so timid they remind me of sick and elderly people. And Europe is like one big old people’s home. There is so much political correctness and conformity there that you can’t open your mouth. It's worse than prison. That’s why there is no culture in the west anymore. Just dying screams. In Russia, fortunately, the people still have some barbarian spirit. But Europeans and Americans are just dying, sick invalids.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

White write

Something I penned for The National, the English-language daily in Abu Dhabi, where I have never been, unless you count the inside of the airport. Still not happy with the ending. But I rarely am.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Monday, December 06, 2010

...but nice

Somehow I don’t think this classic of live radio will acquire as much repeat airplay as Brian Johnston’s leg-over of blessed memory. So it’s up to the rest of us to disseminate it. Oo-er, etc.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Gentlemen and prayers

I was going to liven up your Sunday with a fairly long and convoluted post about how recent events have proved Marshall McLuhan right – how the process of transmitting information becomes the story – people focus on Wikileaks itself more than on the US spying on Ban Ki-Moon or Prince Andrew sanctioning corruption – tabloids blaming the BBC’s coverage of FIFA skulduggery for the failed World Cup bid, ignoring the skulduggery itself – and even as I type, I see someone complaining about a supposedly offensive Twitter hashtag, demanding that the complaint is RT’d, thereby managing to turn said unremarkable tag into a global trending topic. (Thinks: what’s the Thai for “D’OH!”?)

But I won’t, because all I want to do today is to share this picture with you:

Friday, December 03, 2010

Plunk rock

I’m sorry to say that I’ve never been able to play a musical instrument, but deep down I know I should really have been a bass player. It’s all about temperament; it’s the Eeyore-ish, resentful glumness about them, based on the fact that, excepting the case of those who operate in the realms of funk and reggae, only about 10% of the audience will be able to identify the noise they’re making, above those ghastly egomaniacs, the guitarists and drummers and saxophonists. One way that bassists do assert their individuality, though, is through the medium of deliciously preposterous names. Don’t believe me? All the following are American jazz bass players; bar one, who’s a fictional character in a book by Thomas Pynchon
Ronnie Boykins
Wellman Braud
Monty Budwig
Jimmy Butts
Spanky DeBrest
Malachi Favors
Squire Gersh
Chris Lightcap
Cecil McBee
Grachan Moncur II
Kurt Mondaugen
Buell Neidlinger
Lonnie Plaxico
Esperanza Spalding
Victor Sproles
Hank Van Sickle
Ike Sturm
Leroy Vinnegar
Virtue Hampton Whitted
Chester Zardis
The fact that you almost certainly can’t spot the ringer suggests to me that the majority of bassists are in fact minor characters from the works of Pynchon (or Kurt Vonnegut, or possibly Philip K Dick) who have temporarily invaded what mere mortals (and trombonists) foolishly know as ‘the real world’.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The ballad of Samuel K Amphong

Some time in the late 1970s, when the letters page of NME occupied an equivalent level of cultural significance to, say, Stephen Fry’s Twitter feed today, the following epistle appeared:
Where is Beatles band? This band who have not been as of late clear of circumstance. Beatles Band! Can we no longer hear there medolious throng? John! Paul! All in Beatles Band come forth! What question have we to put? Now? Arguments neccessary can begin with whole results expected for any return. Ringo! Here in Thailand Beatles band experience is long loved and can be hurt away from John, Paul etc. Please give any news to Samuel K. Amphong of address similar to above. yours as in rock!
Samuel K Amphong, Thailand
It is lost in the mists of time and sulphate as to whether this was a genuine enquiry or a bit of space-filling devilment on the part of Danny Baker, but more than three decades later, I set off to find out. The answer is here. Sort of.