Saturday, December 31, 2011

Hootenanny state

So, what’s your ghastliest ever New Year’s Eve experience?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Book face

One of the more delectably useless features of LibraryThing is the author gallery function, which arrays portraits of the people who wrote the books in your library, in alphabetical order. This can throw up a few rather startling lookalikes – as distinct from lookunalikes – adjacent to each other. Who’da thunk that Anthony Beevor and Frédéric Beigbeder would be so similar; or Malcolm Bradbury and André Breton; Ian McEwan and Roger McGough? The only problem is that now I don’t want to split up these unlikely twins, which means I’ll probably never sample from the wells of Aphra Behn, Wallace Breem or Leslie McFarlane. Sorry.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Mourning has broken

I’ve posted this in several locations today, initially in response to Peter Oborne’s article on the Telegraph site, where none of the marmalade-flecked tweedbots complained about it, so I guess they approve. It does seem to be ideologically consistent, if nothing else. You can sign the petition here.
Since Lady Thatcher was renowned for “rolling back the frontiers of the State”, I find the notion of a State funeral grossly inappropriate. Could the event not be funded by private enterprise? I’m sure the financial institutions and utilities companies that did so well from her policies would compete furiously for the right to have their logos emblazoned on the coffin and the backs of the pallbearers; and perhaps advertising hoardings could be set up along the route of the procession. The minister in charge of the service would be expected to utter a few kind words about the generosity of these supporters alongside the conventional “ashes to ashes” stuff.

The mourners themselves could be asked to chip in, with the scale of their contributions reflecting their prominence in the service: big donors at the front, plucky constituency stalwarts in a more modest position; the relationship between party donations and awards of peerages, MBE’s, etc could act as a model.

I'm sure it’s what she would have wanted.


Pretty soon it will be possible to concoct bespoke entertainments based on the preferences you express – possibly inadvertently – through your behaviour on Facebook, Amazon, iTunes and the like. A book or movie or piece of music will be cobbled together on the basis that on Monday you retweeted three jokes about Kim Jong-Il and once put a Jeanette Winterson novel on your wishlist. In fact, with the release of Tran Anh Hung’s Norwegian Wood, the process might have been perfected already. It’s based on a novel by Haruki Murakami, who gave this blog its name; it’s set in Japan, a country for whom I hold a befuddled affection; it stars Rinko Kikuchi, by far the best thing in the tiresome Babel; the director was responsible for the excellent The Scent of Green Papaya; and the music is by one of the blokes out of Radiohead, about whom I’ve written two and a bit books. Yesterday, I finally got round to watching it.

And it was... all right, I guess, but could have been half an hour shorter. I think the software may need tweaking.

Monday, December 19, 2011

That was the year that was

One of the five or six people left behind at the BBC after the move to Salford asked me quite some time ago whether 2011 was One Of Those Big News Years. Here’s what I said, even though both Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong-Il were ill-mannered enough to croak the wrong side of my deadline.

PS: Actually, I was wrong. It was 1848.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

And she had to unlearn the trumpet as well

I was going to say something about Dan Rebellato’s magnificent evisceration of the Daily Mail’s half-witted theatre critic Quentin Letts, but there really is nothing I can add: just read the bloody thing. Similarly, I’m not sure what needs to be said regarding the story, reported in The Sun so it must be true, of the Dorset woman who has spent 12,000 of your Earth pounds in her efforts not to look like someone who used to be in EastEnders. One does wonder if there’s a market for a lookunalike agency, which will hire out people who don’t look like George Clooney or Fiona Bruce or my favourite Holy Roman Emperor, Charles the Bald, so they can hover at your party or corporate event, revelling in their antidoppelganger status. Over to you; who would you most like not to resemble?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Friction burns

Following my passing comment about the potential empathy between Asian cultures and punk rock, news arrives from the Indonesian province of Aceh that a large group of skinny-jeaned wrong ’uns have been rounded up and sent for “re-education”. And at around the same time, The Protester become’s TIME’s Person of the Year, and Christopher Hitchens goes to Stage V. Tonight I shall eat oysters, and raise a glass to the grit.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Strauss of fun

Gilbert Adair, who died last week, was best known for his writing about film, but I’m pretty sure the first time I encountered him was via his book Myths and Memories, in which he turned his critical attention to all aspects of modern culture, in an Anglicised spin on Roland Barthes’s Mythologies (with a bit of Georges Perec thrown in as well). A later collection, Surfing the Zeitgeist, was a more conventional round-up of essays.

What did stand out in both books was Adair’s firm ideas about what was and wasn’t worthwhile; not just in the sense of rating a specific author or director or composer above another, but in lauding or dismissing entire art forms. Film was top of the pile; but he was bored by theatre; and yet he did like opera – aghast at some hapless bourgeois who had the effrontery to fall asleep during a production of Der Rosenkavalier – while holding popular music in baffled disdain. His answer to the vexed Keats vs Dylan debate was essentially that Keats is better, of course, and if you can’t see that, you’re a bit thick.

I suppose any critical standpoint is pretty much the critic’s gut prejudices hung on a retrospective theoretical framework. But it does help if, like Adair, you can make the whole thing read nicely.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

I don’t know why I first saw this clip of Korean kindergarteners singing a Ramones song when Everett posted it on Facebook, and he wrote a book about the Ramones, I thought, so he should know, and I thought it was pretty damn cool, especially the kid in green who decides to do air guitar instead of pogoing, so I reposted it and few people whose opinions I trust said they liked it, as in *Like*d it, so that’s OK, but then the Daily arseing Mail caught up with it and said how heartwarming it was, in a slightly patronising way, and so I started wondering whether it was actually that good (a bit like last month, when John arseing Lewis retrospectively destroyed my teenage years) and then I calmed down a bit and had a cup of tea and started thinking about context and connotation and came to the conclusion that the clip’s still quite fun actually, even if I don’t really like small children that much. And maybe not absolutely everything that appears in the Daily Mail is entirely vile and squalid.

I must be getting old.

Hey ho, let’s – in a very real sense – go:

Thursday, December 08, 2011

The 84829942-3a88-11e0-83da-000bcdcb5194 memorial blog post

Both my regular readers will have noticed that recent posts have been enhanced by comments from an anonymous gentleman who feels himself traduced by the ladyfolk of his homeland. While many bloggers would simply have deleted his screeds, I find them rather charming, and see in them the germ of an artistic endeavour. Therefore, to acknowledge the appearance of a new William Burroughs- related tome, I present a literary cut-up, based on the Crimes Against Fathers comment with a few lyrical interpolations from elsewhere, and a nice picture of Charlotte Rampling wearing a dead animal in case it all gets too boring for mere words:

To ALL Few men know that they their children, their hoIn use, their assets and much of. They not his.Most men Assange? You can be deprived of your freedoms before can be arrested people war or why it is being prosecuted. The media has betraye barely perceive. the word and jaile to help themselves. Here is the link to that boo d based on the lie of a woman. Few men kno this FREE d us and remained silent on this issue. One manefas who was criminally victimized by the family courts in Ireland and Australia made it his business to discover a remedy, internet forum and nearly 2 try it ignored the warnings of these fathers if not outright hated on them. Many men have fathers whiners and complainers when they fathers these that many men pay child support to a the government unilaterally? divorce Through Splinter taught them to be ninja teens have been warning of out on the childpx is, and those women who say that are “good women know real problem presume that any such stories they hear are the exceptionsespecially Fathers Khan or Julian”: Today in think “if there and the book he what it has called these brave to say.I am helping out my fellow men by with an hours of word. With so many was a last 30 years. They are getting rapidly more tyrannical. Most men have criminal activities by the governments. (He's a radical rat!) There is a war on fathers just like there is a war on terror and a war on drugs. Not many of a lying woman. Your governments of a woman are posting this the introducing Where Leonardo leads, do police states. The tyran id/216/scope/threads ny of the police states of the English Donatello does machines (That's a fact, Jack!) speaki sh speaking world men live in a tyranny they w can have any trial takes pla ng world have been visited on one mans story tens of destroyed on the criminals women has video, you will learn such things as Dominc Strauss the Engli ault.ce based merely on English speaking men, millions o: my rights come from How do the /D lie. Few men it would ”. Like f men having been their future income stolen from them merely because of with as you will. ubject to the legislation of the Raphael is coolgovernment?How do but crude (Gimme a break!) I refuse the result the jurisdiction is time the family court well as any other courts in your country. freeThis is I am Michaelangelo is a party dude  one young man who read this book (Party!) and of the courts many crimes. It to protect yourself from your governments.This book shows you how to of the government?How do I end my marriage tabid/369to in the courts and more by himself, and write against my government a book about it http://wwwve me. You Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtlesare very lucky to be reading by the criminalsIf you still want to be married?How can I without the remarrying the government? news is to com Teenage Mutant Ninja TurtleseBelieolled How can we hesaandle disputes can learn how to avoid the criminal know about this abuse of the family courts as learned without?How do I rescind my consent to be contr.crimgai /Forums2/ /forumto help in marriages How do without the family court?How can we handle Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the family courts? This may be less ablek. 100 the most valuable book you will ever read.It is yours, of more than three years effort by the author. He is still taking this post. This might just save your be in the been proven and s, to do about false rape, sexual harassment and domestic violence allegations Few men know they I claim them? I exercise them? linernmk to spread How do I defend myself? produced? You those men page even after it remarry my wife eBook, which about tcomes newspapers life if you are a young man Heroes in a half shell who does not know he family courts.Tell all your friends. Your govents are committing do this.
Thanks for listening.
Turtle power! 

But for a more coherent analysis of the whole hacking-stuff-up-and-seeing-what-happens aesthetic, do read this.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

It’s not that long, is it?

You know when writers and musicians and directors and restaurateurs and particle physicists claim not to read reviews of their own work? They’re lying. At least I hope they are, because they’d be missing gems such as this, from Amazon reviewer Mary B Jennings of Memphis, Tennessee, who also has firm views on a doll piano and a Harry Potter colouring book:
Tim Footman’s nose is long and he wears a truss
This is the worst biography I’ve ever read. The facts check out, and there are plenty of insightful quotes, but Tim Footman seems determined to come off as a pedantic elitist, and there is no end to his arrogance. He is unsatisfied with looking down his long nose at anybody who likes (or dislikes) Leonard Cohen, but he never misses a chance to slam Cohen for his early lack of success as a poet and musician, his tumultuous relationship with all women in general, and his drug use. Gee, a musician who had a lot of sex and did a lot of drugs. Imagine! Your honor, I suggest we string this man up by the nearest tree! Footman also manages to talk both down and up to his audience, no doubt a remarkable feat, but hardly one that will win supporters. He uses words like “solipsistic” and then, almost in the same breath, explains to us that Sake is Japanese rice wine. In short, this book is not a biography of Leonard Cohen at all, but instead a monument to Tim Footman’s self centered-ness. I want my money back.
Ms Jennings does raise a useful point about the balancing act that all writers must negotiate, between bamboozling their readers and insulting their various intelligences. But am I the only hack who “manages to talk both down and up to his audience”? OK, so I got it wrong for those who know what sake is, but surely she’s being solipsistic (HA!) if she thinks her own personal checklist of knowledge and ignorance is replicated precisely for everyone else who read the book. That said, I must thank her for one thing: from now on, the phrase “a monument to Tim Footman’s self centered-ness” will be plastered on everything, from book to cheese sandwich, that I create. Starting now.

Saturday, December 03, 2011


Whenever anybody asks, and often when they don’t, I declare that my favourite book is Vile Bodies, by Evelyn Waugh (1930). That said, I hadn’t actually read it since some time in the last millennium, and my battered orange-and-cream copy is currently hiding in a box somewhere in the south of England. So when I noticed it – an American edition from 1977 with a cover in that retro style that’s supposed to bring to mind the glamour of the inter-war years but really makes us think of the Gatsby movie with Redford and Farrow, and thus the 1970s – in a second-hand bookshop the other day, it just had to be mine.

I was dreading it not being as good a read as I’d remembered (although I might have explained that as a case of me being a better reader) but it’s held up remarkably well. Some of the scenes, such as Agatha’s appearance in the breakfast room of 10 Downing Street, remain laugh-out-loud funny, and plenty of Waugh’s sardonic little phrases still work their magic.

But one thing that I’d completely forgotten was Waugh’s own preface:
The action of the book is laid in the near future [which means that Cold Comfort Farm took even more tips from VB than I realised when Patroclus finally persuaded me to read it], when existing social tendencies have become more marked; I have postulated no mechanical or scientific advance, but in the interest of compactness and with no pretensions to prophecy, I have assumed a certain speeding up of legal procedure and daily journalism. In the latter case I have supposed a somewhat later hour for going to press and a greater expedition in distribution than is now generally the case.
Evelyn Waugh, it seems, invented Twitter.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Nicaragua or wherever you come from (The Ken Russell memorial blog post)

Our cultural discourse is increasingly determined by trends and memes and hashtags and newsflashes that turn out to be as ephemeral as a dragonfly’s farts. It’s as if you could miss an entire artistic movement while making a cup of tea. In that spirit, I have decided to start a band called Fenton Marmite and the Tram Racists. We aim to be entirely forgotten by the weekend. And the ironic revival starts in January.

But just to prove that something doesn’t need to be new to achieve a similar level of fickle notoriety: from my new favourite website, here’s the Lactation of St Bernard, painted in about 1480. Funny, isn’t it, that people still get so worked up about the supposed sacrileges committed by Ken Russell, when this sort of thing was sanctioned by the Church for decades?

Monday, November 28, 2011

Quite useless

You know, I rather like Brian Sewell. Even when he’s talking complete bollocks, it’s good value, entertaining, provocative bollocks. As in this interview in yesterday’s Observer, to plug his autobiography, which doesn’t mention his friend and mentor Anthony Blunt, but does retell the story about masturbating for the delectation of Salvador Dali. Asked to name the worst piece of art he’s ever seen, he says:
Well, there’s so much of it. It’s when the definition of art runs out and there is still stuff being produced. When Tracey Emin makes a neon sign, that’s not the “worst art”, it just isn’t art. When Anish Kapoor puts some wonky Meccano structure up at the expense of £16m for the Olympics, that’s a joke, that isn’t art.
Which is just daft. There may be perfectly sound criticisms to be made of Emin or Kapoor (although I quite like the look of the Meccano thingy, I suspect I’m pretty much alone) but to say they’re not art is just lazy, and a charge that’s been laid against pretty much every artistic movement since the invention of paint. What Sewell means is that they’ve hopped over some unspecified barrier beyond which he can’t or won’t follow, which says far more about his own inadequacies as a critic than about their abilities as artists. To blame them for his inertia is petulant in the extreme.

But then he gets something utterly right:
I’m often accused by people who should know better of trying to be academically clever. To that the answer is that I think I am academically clever and I’m not trying. 
It does appear that after all these years Sewell has given up attempting to be an art critic and finally discovered, at the age of 80, his proper vocation – that of Being Sewell.

PS: If you want to see the sort of art that Brian does like, check out Ugly Renaissance Babies.

Friday, November 25, 2011


James Altucher is one of many authors who have gone from traditional publishing to self-publishing, and he encourages others to do the same. I see exactly where he’s coming from. I’ve now had seven books published under my own name, and have been an editor or contributor for about the same number. And with every one there was something about the final product that left me dissatisfied – although, unlike Altucher, I wouldn’t place all the blame for that on the publishers.

What I’m not so sure about is his notion that self-publishing is a no-brainer for experienced bloggers because they’re sitting on a vast treasure trove of material that just needs a bit of tweaking to render it into book form. I know that some people have pulled it off; blooks were all over the place a few years, what with One-Track Belle In The North About Whom White People Are Indifferent and all that. But I did get the feeling that the blogs from which these tomes derived were, for the most part, created with an eye to a publishing deal of some sort.

I didn’t begin Cultural Snow with that thought in mind. I hoped that it might draw a wider audience to my writing, and maybe get me some work as a result, and it did to an extent. But the closest I got to writing a potential book here came with the two posts about the uke-strumming existentialist Stanley Pidd, and his exploits have fallen foul of my usual problem when it comes to writing fiction, the inability to come up with a convincing middle. (The end is bloody brilliant, thanks for asking, and I may well post it here one day.) Most of the posts are written as, well, posts. You know, for a blog. Which means that many of them include explanatory links, and quite a few have video clips or the like; the sort of thing that doesn’t usually work that well on paper.

To be fair, Altucher is right that this blog contains plenty of stuff already. And all that stuff could be updated and expanded, and maybe bulked out even further with various doodlings from other sites. And hey, I could always turn some of the links into footnotes, which I bloody love. In fact, footnotes have been to some degree a sticking point between the publisher and myself in my last three books, but if I did the whole thing myself I’d be the publisher as well, so the arguments wouldn’t happen. Actually, they probably wouldn’t, but at least I’d win the argument this time. Actually, I’d probably lose.

The fact remains that I haven’t been writing a book for the past six years. I’ve been writing a blog. It’s on Blogger, which may give you a clue. And why would people suddenly want to pay money for something they could have freely accessed on line, since 2005? Altucher argues that they’ll be paying for the curation as much as for the content – but doesn’t this mean that they’d also pay to read this stuff online provided I just ditched a couple of the jokes that didn’t really work, changed the font, dealt with the overuse of  the word “actually” in the previous paragraph and tweaked the order a bit?

Ultimately I’m a tad ambivalent about the whole idea. Would you buy and/or read a book made up, for the most part, of posts from Cultural Snow? Bearing in mind that I probably wouldn’t much want to read it. Even though, according to Altucher, I’ve already written it. Let me know in the space below. See, that’s something else you can’t do with books.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

See his picture hanging on your wall

Graffiti drawn by the Sex Pistols when they lived in a rented flat in London in the 1970s has been described by archaeologist John Schofield – who in no way, shape or form is reaching for a headline-grabbing bit of hyperbole that may just raise his media profile enough so that his name is buzzing around the media ether when some desperate producer gets round to making a show called The Real Bonekickers – as “punk’s Lascaux. In fact, much of it appears to be indebted to the wondrous work of Leo Baxendale – begetter of the Bash Street Kids – and as such ought to be preserved for the time when LB finally gets his own exhibition at Tate Modern. This really shouldn’t have been a surprise, as Johnny Rotten was so clearly the bastard offspring of Plug and Steerpike, but hey, now we have proof, and the images that provide such proof must be preserved.

But wait – what’s that I hear? Is it the sound of Telegraph readers harrumphing that this isn’t really art, and what the Pistols did wasn’t really music, and protecting these doodles isn’t what archaeology is about? And the occasional fabulously witty one-liner about unmade beds as well? Leaving aside the fact that the only piece of art a Telegraph reader would really appreciate is a portrait of Margaret Thatcher kicking a wind turbine to death, painted on tweed, it seems as if they’ve been lured into a trap as deliciously effective as the one that ensnared poor Bill Grundy. The Pistols’ credibility has taken something of a knock in recent years, what with one of them hawking butter, and another joining Simply Red (although at least they haven’t yet taken the John Lewis shilling). With their anguished, blimpish howls, the ruddy-faced disgusteds are just proving that the middle-aged punksters can still provoke. Mr McLaren would have approved.

PS: In The Guardian, Jonathan Jones sneers at Schofield’s appropriation of pop culture – then quotes George from Seinfeld.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Mad women

In case anyone needed reminding that the foam-flecked wings of Islam and Christianity don’t hold a duopoly on swivel-eyed witlessness, ultra-orthodox Jews in Jerusalem have taken to ripping down advertising posters that contain images of women. Which is an affront to freedom of expression and insulting to women – until you remember that feminists have had plenty to say about the depiction of women by the advertising industry, and quite a few have taken direct action to express it.

Hmm. Similarly confused thoughts come to mind when watching the following:

Now, according to AdRants, the clip has been “banned”, although I’m sure there was never any intention of using it in mainstream media; it will live and/or die on the web, where it exists as much to sell the reputation of the creative team as it does to shift units of denim (rather like Benetton’s latest attempt to foster intercultural harmony). It’s offensive, in the sense that quite a few people will be offended by it, although different elements will offend different people: the implied lesbianism; the implied necrophilia; the buttocks. I suspect, however, that the big problem comes with the pile of dead women, and the clear suggestion that someone is going round killing them for their jeans. The question is whether it’s less or more reprehensible when we know that the killer is a woman; we can hold onto the notion that killing women is A Bad Thing, but this time we can’t really blame it on the patriarchy, can we? As Camille Paglia said – and she’s a woman, so it’s OK –  “There is no female Mozart because there is no female Jack the Ripper.” But if there were, she’d almost certainly work in advertising.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Paris match

A highlight of my last visit to Paris was Seconde Main, an exhibition of forgeries and pastiches at the Museum of Modern Art. And now we discover that, towards the end of the First World War, the French began building a massive replica of Paris, to confuse the Germans. This can be contrasted with the Americans, who now build massive replicas of Paris and other cities, mainly to confuse Americans; and then in Macao they replicate the replicas, as if anyone cares. But that’s just cheesy postmodernism, and you get quite enough of that here already. If the practical purpose of the decoy Paris was to protect the real city, and to do so the French wanted to create a simulacrum that was identical in all respects, surely there must have come a point at which the builders would have decided the decoy was so beautiful and romantic that it needed protection as well, and so another decoy would need to be built – a replica of the replica – and so on...

Which in turn reminds me of Borges’ story On Exactitude in Science,  in which he discussed the notion of a map that was exactly the same size as the territory it depicted; the question being the extent to which a representation of an object becomes that object. Which almost certainly sounds better in Spanish:

Saturday, November 12, 2011

J’en ai marre

The Smiths, you see, were my band. I was born in 1968, and following the rule that the music that comes into your life during your 15th year is the music that will never leave you, the Smiths have been sitting on my skinny shoulders ever since. They didn’t offer a cure for my teenage ailments – the insecurity, the frustration, the acne – nor were they crass enough to tell me not to worry about them. Instead, they crafted an aesthetic in which all of them, the worry included, were nurtured, even celebrated. Life was indeed a Beckettian mess, but it might be survived, and you might even get to read a few decent books along the way. My flawed, misshapen humanity was as worthy of respect as that of the smooth-skinned, white-toothed hunks who could catch a rugby ball without bursting into tears.

And then the zits and the insecurity faded (although neither really went away) but the Smiths were still my band. I never became a devotee of Morrissey’s or Marr’s solo output, but the material they made between 1983 and 1987 remained, an anchor in bad times, even raising a goofy smile when it caught me unawares.

And then this happened:

Now, I know that in the download age, musicians and composers have to make a living. It’s not as if the Smiths are the first band to have farmed out their back catalogue to the advertisers; the Beatles have flogged running shoes, the Rolling Stones have hawked computers, and I suspect their financial needs are less than those of Morrissey and Marr. And I don’t really mind that it’s a crappy cover version; the song has suffered far worse. It’s not even that it’s John Lewis, a shop that I’ve happily used in the past, although I do wish they’d stop sending me promotional e-mails every few minutes just because I bought a washing machine from them a few years ago.

No. It’s Christmas that’s the problem. The modern, retail-driven Christmas is a festival that might as well have been designed simply to contradict everything the Smiths ever (claimed to?) stand for. It’s about optimism, sentimentality, consumption, warmth, family, hand-knitted comedy jumpers and chocolate liqueurs. It’s about a world in which the anguished yearning expressed in ‘Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want’ can be satisfied with a new pair of football boots or a games console. One can only assume that the person who decided to use the song in this context simply failed to understand it and – far more galling – its composers elected not to disabuse him. I wonder if there might have been a shortlist of other possible songs, if M&M had suffered an attack of scruples; perhaps ‘I Want More’ by Can, or ‘Having It All’ from the Absolute Beginners soundtrack.

It’s as if Morrissey had wandered into my teenaged bedroom, with its postcards of him and Oscar Wilde and Louise Brooks, and offered to do something about my acne, and then proceeded to deposit a huge, steaming, vegeburgery shit all over my face. And then Johnny Marr appeared at his shoulder, volunteering to clear up the mess with a big, fluffy John Lewis towel, which only made things worse. And then I realised they were both wearing Santa hats. And hand-knitted comedy jumpers.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

...but there’s a prize for every one we show

Last week, a cleaner at a gallery in Dortmund scrubbed a stain from a trough, thus ruining – or perhaps enhancing – Marcus Ostwald Martin Kippenberger’s installation When It Starts Dripping From The Ceiling. Much hilarity ensued at the revelation that Ostwald Kippenberger’s piece had been valued at 800,000 euros. It is not real art, we were informed by a phalanx of Sewell manqués. A child of five could do it, harrumphed the people who Know What They Like.

This week, Roy Lichtenstein’s 1961 painting I Can See The Whole Room!... And There’s Nobody In It sold for US$43 million, a record for a work by the artist. In this case, no voices were raised complaining that it’s not real art, although it does have something very significant in common with the Ostwald Kippenberger work; the fact that it relies on a joke. It’s a perfectly good joke (did you hear the one about the people who go to an art gallery to look at some pretty pictures and are forced to think a little bit harder about what they’re doing there?) but it’s not particularly new, and Duchamp and Magritte and Manzoni told it earlier and better.

To be honest, the existence of When It Starts Dripping... would almost certainly have passed me by had the unnamed cleaner not been so zealous in her work, which did make me more than a little suspicious of the whole story; in fact, I’ve long wondered whether such brouhahas as the attacks on Marcus Harvey’s Myra or even the Momart fire that destroyed so many BritArt pieces were not discrete events beyond the artists’ control, but a necessary aspect of the art works themselves. Maybe that’s what the difference is between Lichtenstein and Ostwald Kippenberger: although they tell the same joke, the latter needs someone else to deliver the punchline.

Oops. Ostwald is the name of gallery. 

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Now we are six

I started this blog six years ago today. My first post mentioned the analogue/digital continuum, Bertie Bucket (RIP), Haruki Murakami (see last post) and vodka. Well, what did you expect? Progress?

Saturday, November 05, 2011


The first page of the US edition of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 is annoying me – well, I say the first page, but 1Q84 is clearly A Publishing Event, with all the bells and whistles and publicity budgets that entails, so you only get to the first page once you’ve negotiated the Chip Kidd cover, with its translucent dust cover that reminds me of New Order’s Low-Life album, and a title page that stretches over eight pages (each character in the title being repeated, with one character per page), and a quotation from the song ‘Paper Moon’, and page that reminds you that this is book one of a trilogy, and that’s not to mention the photographs of the moon and clouds, and the page that just says “HARUKI MURAKAMI”, black on white, in case you’d overlooked the prominent mention on the cover and somehow thought you were buying something by Julian Barnes or Zadie Smith or Malcolm Gladwell or Katie Price – then, only then, do you get to the first page. Although it’s actually page 3. And, on the offchance that you haven’t yet had enough of the cleverness, the “3” is printed backwards. That reverse, I’m guessing, is deliberate. I’m less sure about what happens when we get to discussing Janáček.

The action, you see, begins in a taxi on an expressway in Tokyo in 1984, and Leoš Janáček’s Sinfonietta is playing on the radio. The passenger, Aomame, muses on the circumstances of its composition and first performance, in 1926, which was also the beginning of the Shōwa era, the reign of Emperor Hirohito. The first couple of times the composer’s surname is mentioned, it’s as above, with the correct Czech diacritics in place, including the háček or caron, that upside-down circumflex thingy above the “c”. But then something goes a bit wrong in the typography department, and the next couple of times the háček has slipped sideways, so “Janáček” becomes “Janáˇcek”.

And that annoys me. Now, before anybody points a finger, I’ll admit that I’ve written books that contained mistakes. I’ve attributed a Schopenhauer quote to Nietzsche, allowed in a couple of stray exclamation marks, written “Columbia” when I meant “Colombia” (or was it the other way round?) and confused a Leonard Cohen novel with a Madonna song. On the other hand, my books weren’t quite so keenly awaited, their release didn’t coincide with the author being tipped for the Nobel Prize, and Chip Kidd didn’t do the cover.

On the other other hand, maybe it isn’t a mistake. After all, we are informed that the book is called 1Q84 because the Japanese for “nine” sounds like “Q”, so they carried the pun over into the translation, even though it doesn’t work in English, so maybe it will turn out that the disconnected háček has a meaning that I haven’t yet disinterred. I doubt it though. Incidentally, some people have taken to calling the book IQ84, beginning with a letter rather than a number, which may appear to make more sense, but probably doesn’t.

Fans of Murakami who haven’t yet begun the book may care to note that the first page contains no Miles Davis references, no cooking of spaghetti, no talking cats and no disturbed teenage girls into non-penetrative sex.

That said, regular readers of this blog (who will know that it takes its title from Murakami) must surely be delighted to know that there are another 922 pages to go.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Dr Chris Brooks, who once devoted a two-hour tutorial to the first sentence of Great Expectations. Flood update: watching, waiting. And here’s Janáček, trumpets and diacritics and all:

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Everyone will become famous for 15 tweets

In The Guardian, Chris Floyd presents photographs of his favourite Twitter users. Forget Stephen Fry and Ashton Kutcher, though: one or two of them, refreshingly, are those mythical beasts, “ordinary people”, not actors or musicians or even, um, Guardian writers (three of whom are on Floyd’s list). Although now that the temp and the civil servant have achieved this random jolt of mainstream media attention, they will of course cease to be ordinary people, and at same time, cease to inhabit a nice little secret corner of social media; perversely, when they stop being ordinary, they also stop being special. Everybody knows them, and they are ruined. “Ignorance is like a delicate, exotic fruit,” said Lady Bracknell, accidentally inventing quantum theory while she was at it. “Touch it and the bloom is gone.”

Monday, October 31, 2011

Age of discontent

From The Pregnant Widow, by Martin Amis:
As the fiftieth birthday approaches, you get the sense that your life is thinning out, and will continue to thin out, until it thins out into nothing. And you sometimes say to yourself: That went a bit quick. That went a bit quick. In certain moods, you may want to put it rather more forcefully. As in: OY!! THAT went a BIT FUCKING QUICK!!!... Then fifty comes and goes, and fifty-one, and fifty-two. And life thickens out again. Because there is now an enormous and unsuspected presence within your being, like an undiscovered continent. This is the past. 
I’m closer to fifty than I am to thirty-five, so I think I know what old Mart’s talking about. But then I’ve felt that way since I was about eight or nine.

(Flood update: the worst is behind us. Although that depends on which way we’re facing.)

Friday, October 28, 2011

I know a song that won’t get on your nerves

In the Telegraph (I seem to be reading the Telegraph a lot these days, without becoming A Telegraph Reader – I hope), Lucy Jones asks why musical taste provokes such ire and vitriol. She mentions Chris Martin, head castrato of tepid skiffle combo Coldplay, who asked why van drivers yell abuse at him “because of the songs he had written”. I think he (and Ms Jones) may be missing the point a wee bit; although Martin’s music is bland and anaemic, it’s more likely to be his sanctimonious public persona that really gets on the collective moobage of van drivers (and, no doubt, teaching assistants and milliners and plumbers and actuaries and hired assassins as well), a state of affairs that cannot have been helped by his marriage to tearful platitude/recipe machine Gwyneth Paltrow. That and the fact that he looks like a pubescent tortoise. When the multi-millionaire  song-and-dance man has the chutzpah to whine about this state of affairs, it only encourages us to reach for our revolvers once more.

But leaving aside the vexed critical conundrum of the extent to which one should play the man rather than the ball (BOTH! BOTH!), there is the question of why inoffensive music is, to many people, deeply offensive. This morning, I had a hotel breakfast (having finally been driven out of Bangkok, not by the encroaching floodwater, but by the abject uncertainty, the nerve-jangling space between flooded and not-flooded,  neither waving nor drowning, a sort of Schrödinger’s catastrophe) to the strains of some sort of 80’s soul/pop/jazz concoction. I think Michael McDonald and Kenny G might have featured, or if they didn’t, it was people aspiring to be Messrs McDonald and G, which is worse. The music was clearly chosen for its inoffensiveness, but I found it almost unbearable, for that very reason. I fully understand that it’s impossible to choose a soundtrack that everyone will actively like, but is it so hard to pick something that nobody actively dislikes? Is there not a distinction between inoffensive (Coldplay, Kenny G) and not offensive? Nat King Cole, say; while his music wouldn’t be on everybody’s desert island selection, is there anyone on the planet who would run puking from the room if one of his songs came on? Ella Fitzgerald? One of the more restrained, non-Goddy bits of Bach? Over to you: name some music, or any other work of art, that might not send you into raptures, but is impossible to loathe.

PS: Another Lucy (Cage) opines on Coldplay covers, at Collapse Board.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

If we shadows...

Up to 80 people a night, we are informed, have been walking out of the current RSC production of Marat/Sade, revolted by scenes of torture, masturbation and dwarf/bishop sex. The Daily Telegraph would have us believe that those behind the show will be upset by this, I rather suspect that they’re rubbing their hands with delight, and even more keenly now that hordes of Telegraph readers are spitting thick-cut marmalade over their tweed pyjamas at the very thought of such goings on and yearning for the days when they could go to the theatre secure in the knowledge that the closest they’d come to moral depravity would be Richard Briers almost – but not quite – saying “bloody hell”. In a world where boundaries of taste and morality seem about as solid as Bangkok flood barriers, it takes something special to earn one’s transgressive Brownie points. (And would the notion of a transgressive Brownie provoke similar outrage? I wonder.)

That said, the “up to 80 people” (hmm...) are leaving voluntarily, rather than being carried out. I was lucky enough to see the Deborah Warner version of Titus Andronicus at the RSC, nearly a quarter of a century ago, and chatting to one of the ushers in the interval, I was informed that I’d come on a slow night: nobody fainted; nobody vomited; they hadn’t had a nervous breakdown in the audience for over a week. The dwarf and the bishop will just have to try that little bit harder.

(Image by djailledie, after Jacques-Louis David, from deviantART. Flood update: still dry.)

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Gaddafi/Westlife memorial blog post

...and suddenly, when I really ought to be preparing light artillery to repel looters, something leaps unbidden into my head about a piece I wrote for Careless Talk Costs Lives, about going to see the LA band The Warlocks in some smelly back room in London, and how a drunk and/or mad man singing Eddie Cochran songs (or was it Hank Williams?) on the station platform on the way home seemed to act as a sort of digestif to the whole gig, and there were discursions about the Velvet Underground and the Grateful Dead (both of whom had been called The Warlocks at some stage or another) and Beavis and Butt-head (who weren’t, so far as I know) and the article had 17 footnotes, and when they used it in the magazine, it appeared that the designer couldn’t really cope with that sort of thing, but in any case I can’t find a copy of it anywhere, but while I’m in that frame of mind I try to find some songs by The Warlocks and they aren’t nearly as good as I remember, and I start to doubt whether the missing article was all that great in the first place.

Every time I use footnotes, it seems that there’s someone in the publishing chain who can’t cope. They cut them back, or shove them to the end of the book, or both. They really ought to read this article, by Alexandra Horwitz.

Incidentally, thanks to everyone who has expressed concern about the flooding in Bangkok. We’ve been untouched so far, but the run-off is expected to reach the canal nearest us in the next few hours. Our luck may well continue, but if in the event that it doesn’t, we have plenty of food, water, improving reading material and other necessaries, and also the advantage of a second storey if things do get damp down below. The most likely forecast is a few days of grumbling inconvenience at worst. And if the next blog post washes up on your shore in a bottle, think of it as part of the analogue revival I was talking about last week. But in the meantime, this is pretty damn fabulous:

Thursday, October 20, 2011

My heart belongs to Dada

I seem to be stuck in a loop of post-literacy, my only creative impulse being to leach moderately amusing photos from other people’s Facebook posts (so thanks to the rum cove who goes by the handle Hegemony or Bust for these two). Is this what being on Tumblr is like?

PS: And, slightly perversely, a rather literate response to the above at Include Me Out.

Monday, October 17, 2011


There’s clearly something to be said here about semiotics and Saussure and probably Umberto Eco as well but frankly, it’s Monday. Did you know there’s a crater on the moon called Saussure? I really wanted it to be named after Ferdinand, the way I wanted the Scott Memorial in Edinburgh to be named after Terry, but it never is, is it?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Loud speakers

As the news comes in that the old-skool, analogue TV signal will be switched off in the UK next year, one might be forgiven for thinking that the ones and zeroes have finally triumphed. But apparently not. First there’s the story of the Occupy Wall Street protesters getting round a ban on amplified sound by what they describe as the human microphone – essentially an agitprop variant on Chinese whispers. And then we hear of one Nyanza Roberts, a teacher from Hull who is accused of using Facebook to make some unflattering remarks about her students. The neat thing here is that parents only became aware of the comments when some thoughtful soul printed them off and pasted them on walls and lamp-posts around the neighbourhood. Which is, I suppose, nothing more than social networking gone analogue.

PS: This just in from the London protest:

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

China crisis

An interesting (if you find yourself at all interested in that sort of thing) exchange between Andrew Marr and Jeremy Paxman on Radio 4’s Start the Week (about 13 minutes in, available until Sunday). If you can’t be bothered to follow the link, Mr Paxman (who used to present the show, but is there to plug his new book about the British Empire) thinks that the listeners will need a brief explanation of what prompted the Opium Wars of the 19th century; Mr Marr (who presents the show now) reckons they’re Radio 4 listeners, with all the assumptions about class and background and education that are implied by that, so they’ll have a pretty good idea.

I’m not sure. I vaguely remembered what it was all about, but that’s mainly because I did 19th-century history at A-level. Had the subject been the chemical properties of phosphorus or Greek adverbs or the impact of chaos theory on monetarism (or indeed vice versa) I might have appreciated Andy or Jezza giving me a gentle nudge in the right direction. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? Any assumption about the level of knowledge and/or understanding that you can expect from your listeners/viewers/readers is going to leave some of them feeling patronised, others confused.  The pervading atmosphere of media inclusivity, which means assuming as little as possible about the knowledge base of the audience, surely alienates as many people as it includes.

But need it be that way? Supposedly, in this glorious digital age, we should be able to tailor sources of news and information so that we are only told about things that we find interesting. So we could choose to receive less foreign news, more business, not so much celebrity schlock, more sport (but no golf) or any such combination. Maybe the next step is to offer bespoke factual programming that’s crafted to appeal not just to what we want to know, but how we want it expressed; to a specific level of understanding, so the individual listener is neither baffled nor bored.

You see, if it had been the Schleswig-Holstein Question they’d been discussing, I’d have needed some help.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Phil space

In Prospect, Philip Hensher reviews four recent collections of essays, and draws a distinction between writers who voice an opinion, and those who just write about themselves. Which is entirely sound, until we get to:
When a report on personal experience is not that well-written, not particularly unusual, and focused entirely on the state of the individual rather than the experience, we may conclude that the place for this sort of thing in the future is online, in an unpaid and largely unread blog.
Oh dear. I thought we’d dealt with this years ago. No longer is there an impermeable binary divide between mainstream media (well-paid, well-written, well-read, authoritative, influential) and blogging (amateur, sloppy, ignored, unreliable, impotent). Newspapers and magazines are shedding readers quarter by quarter, and as a result the amount of money available to pay writers is shrinking at a similar rate: Hensher writes for The Independent, so I rather suspect he knows all this only too well. Moreover, the notion that poorly-written, self-indulgent witterings about the banal minutiae of a writer’s personal life (occasionally leavened by a smattering of inane opinion unencumbered by any evidence of journalistic research) have no place in mainstream media would be a personal affront to any number of successful columnists, who appear to have based their entire careers on such a technique.

And of course this doesn’t just apply to print media. Howard Jacobson (another Independent hack, and the author of one of the collections that Hensher reviews) describes the existential crisis of a BBC radio producer in his most recent novel, The Finkler Question:
After more than a dozen years roaming the ghostly corridors of Broadcasting House in the dead of night, knowing that no one was listening to anything he produced – for who, at three o’clock in the morning, wanted to hear live poets discussing dead poets, who might just as well have been dead poets discussing live poets? – he resigned. ‘Would anyone notice if my programmes weren’t aired?’ he wrote in his letter of resignation. ‘Would anyone be aware of my absence if I just stopped turning up?’ Again he received no reply.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

The Steve Jobs memorial blog post

I got a new phone this week. It’s not an iPhone, but it looks pretty damn iPhone-y in many ways: without getting into boggy legal territory, let’s just say that if the iPhone had never existed, it’s quite possible my phone wouldn’t have existed either (or would at least have looked and felt and behaved rather differently).

Meanwhile, in China, they’ve been selling bootleg iPhone 5s in eager anticipation of a launch that never happened. So if you’re in Beijing, 28 quid will get you a simulacrum of something that not only doesn’t exist, but has not yet existed, and may never exist.

PS: Lefty analysis of Jobs’s life and the (over?-)reaction to its end.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

The word

It takes a supreme effort to do anything that might make me feel sorry for the ghastly Texas governor Rick Perry, but his rival for the Republican nomination Herman Cain has managed it. Apparently Perry’s family once rented a hunting lodge that we will describe as N-----head, so as to spare the blushes of those who dislike the word “nigger”. (And as a mark of my equal opportunities policy when it comes to verbal offensiveness, “Paki”, “yid”, “cracker”, “faggot”, “fuck”, “cunt”, OK?)

Cain, who is black, and made his fortune from unpleasant pizzas, has declared that there is “no more vile, negative word than the N-word” and I can see how an association with the grotesque process of lynching must make it seem that way; but surely such vileness must attach itself to “rope”, “tree”, “torch” and “mob of inbred bigots” as well. And in any case, the Perrys took action to paint over the offensive word where it appeared on the property; although they didn’t do it immediately, and apparently it was still visible under a coat of white paint this summer. So it’s not really racism or insensitivity for which Perry is being hounded, but sloppy editorial protocols. On second thoughts, the guy deserves everything he gets.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Are you that somebody?

Once again, proof that the 12th commandment (after the one about not getting found out) is “Thou shalt not self-Google”. A peculiar site called True Knowledge, that appears to leach text from Wikipedia and rephrase it as a question, like some clunky, opportunistic rewrite of the quiz show Jeopardy!, throws up the following: “What was Tim Footman’s profession?” Which feels like digital footprints over my grave. While we’re on that subject, my hideously Caucasian tones can be heard interrupting those of many better qualified persons, in the first instalment of Gone Too Soon, Radio 1XTra’s series about deceased black pop stars. This one concerns the lovely and talented Aaliyah, about whom I wrote a book some years back (still available at your local bookshop, if such a thing exists). It’s on at 9pm on Sunday, although you can of course hear it via Radio Teletubby (Listen Again! Again!) at your leisure.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Hacky sack

I’m not really a journalist, you know. I mean, every now and then I do something that might loosely be defined as journalism, but ultimately I’m a bit of a dilettante. I’ve never done any real training (rather like Johann Hari, then) or taken any exams to prove my mettle; and I never quite got round the joining the union.

So I’m not really sure how it would affect me if Ivan Lewis’s proposal, that seriously misbehaving journalists should be struck off, were actually to end up on the statute book. I mean, the people who tend to get struck off are the likes of lawyers and doctors, proper professionals who have to ascribe to codes of ethical conduct. Is journalism in the same sort of zone? I would have thought that proper, trained, accredited hacks would rather welcome such a move, as it protects their jobs from the predations of cheaper, untrained wannabes, but it seems that very few of them have a good word to say about Lewis‘s proposal – possibly wondering whether certain indiscretions in their own professional lives might, under a new regime, provoke expulsion from inky-fingered Eden. In any case, the details are far too blurry: would struck-off journalists just be banned from working for newspapers? All print media? Broadcast as well? And how the hell could you stop them writing for an online product?

Talking of which, Italian lawmakers aligned with Silvio Berlusconi are trying to pass a clause that would enforce a right to reply for those who believe they’ve been defamed on a blog. The blogger would have just 48 hours to accept the submission, or face a potential fine of 12,000 euros. Which seems perfectly fair to me. If I’ve ever said anything horrid about you in nearly six years of blogging, please feel free to answer back in the receptacle provided. In Italian, though, naturally.

PS: Martin Moore of the Media Standards Trust on why a registry of journalists is a silly idea; Hari’s editor, however, seems pretty relaxed about the whole thing.