Monday, January 31, 2011

True crit

Something I posted in response to the reponses to Neal Gabler’s piece in yesterday’s Observer about whether the interwebs killed the critical star.
The democratisation of critical opinion has forced us all to make use of our own critical faculties, applying them not just to cultural product – books, movies, music, restaurants, etc – but to criticism itself. We might see 20 or 2,000 different opinions on the same work, so we have to ask ourselves who the most convincing, persuasive arguers are. Do they seem to have a modicum of knowledge about the subject? Do they understand the cultural/political context in which the work was created? Do they put together a coherent argument (why a poem or record or souffle is good or bad) or do they just say that they loved or hated it? Can they spell?

Critics employed by mainstream media are perfectly capable of competing in this bearpit, but they have to understand that they will be judged on their own merits. The vicarious self-branding that comes from being on the books of The New York Times, the BBC, The Observer etc no longer carries so much weight. You have to convince us how good you are, just as authors and film-makers and musicians and chefs have to convince you.
It didn’t get much of a response there, possibly because of the absence of come-hither pictures of Helen Mirren or Charlotte Rampling (or Anita Pallenberg or Princess Margaret or Yootha Joyce or whoever). Anyway, pretty soon after I’d posted it, I discovered a site called Poptimal, which in an apparent effort to distinguish itself from the cultural elite (which according to Gabler may no longer be an elite – do try to keep up at the back, there’ll be an exam later) claims to offer “Pop Culture Reviews From People Like You”. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but neither is it by definition an entirely good thing either. What do you think? (Respondents  must identify three distinct criteria in which they are People Like Me.)

And then I learned that the composer and mathematician Milton Babbitt had died over the weekend. It was Babbitt who wrote the notorious 1958 article “Who Cares If You Listen?” Although he claimed the provocative title was the work of an editor, it pretty much summed up his argument that if music was to progress, it would have to get difficult, demanding a level of commitment that not everyone might be able to muster. And with a few tweaks, the question applies to those who contribute to Poptimal, and those who chipped in to comment on Gabler’s article, and with a nod to the Tim Radford piece I mentioned in my previous post: Who Cares If You Write?

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Audience figures

Tim Radford, in The Guardian, offers his 25 commandments for journalists. The first:
When you sit down to write, there is only one important person in your life. This is someone you will never meet, called a reader.
A nice idea, but for many hacks there’s a third person in the marriage: the advertiser. And if you’ve already taken that into account, what about the person who only comes in search of gently fruity pictures of Charlotte Rampling? (Or for that matter Helen Mirren, Anita Pallenberg, Princess Margaret, Su Pollard...)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


I had hoped that the thousandth post on this blog might have been a happier one, but not so. Farewell, you magnificent beast.

The garden of forking streams

Chilean author Eduardo Labarca has declared that pissing on the grave of Jorge Luis Borges (or at least pretending to) is “an artistic act”. Although it turns out that the act was motivated not by any disapproval of Borges’ writing, but as a response to his support for General Pinochet and other reactionary leaders in South America, which surely makes it a political act. Now, is that better, or worse, or at least less messy? And would I be able to justify vomiting on the mausoleum of Martin Amis (who isn’t dead, as far as I’m aware, but he hasn’t  written anything this century that particularly excited me) on one or other or both grounds?

Feel free to add your own author-death-bodily function combo in the space below. Bloody hell, is this a new meme?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Tip of the tongue

One of the odder things to have happened to me in the last few years is that I’ve been reinvented as a food critic. I deliberately use the passive voice there: I never made a conscious decision to become a food critic; it wasn’t that I discarded the tired, caterpillary things I’d been doing before, and retired to a chrysalid state with copies of Jeffrey Steingarten’s The Man Who Ate Everything and AA Gill’s Table Talk, only to emerge three weeks later as a sarcastic butterfly with a tongue dipped in wasabi. No, it was all rather more banal: a friend asked me to take over some editorial work on a restaurant guide after some personal differences had hastened the exit of the previous incumbent; and then I did a few of the reviews themselves, because there was a looming deadline; and before you could consume a waffer-thin mint, CNN had decided that I was a “writer and food critic” and suddenly people were inviting me to oyster tastings and giving me free cheesecake and well, that was that.

I’d always liked food, and like anyone, I can offer a list of Proustian rememberings that transcend mere taste: sardines on toast while watching Doctor Who; disappearing strawberry tart and budget-sapping lobster on family holidays to France; chilli dogs in Montreal and warm pretzels outside Penn Station; a sushi breakfast at Tsukiji market. But I’d never really felt so passionately about the subject that  I thought my opinions might be of interest to anyone else.

And then I realised that the food wasn’t entirely the point, and that for most of my adult (if you can call it that) life, I’d been a critic of something or other. At university, I spent three years pressing my thumb into books to see how ripe they were; later on I swirled music around in my mouth before spitting it back into the face of readers, when, of course, I wasn’t biting into of universities to check that they’d been cooked al dente. I had, without quite realising, devoted my existence to an analysis of exactly how many levels something worked on. Indeed, this blog was originally conceived as a vehicle for my supercilious pokings of books and music and film and art and other stuff that could probably have been done better if they’d only asked my opinion in the first place.

But now isn’t a great time to be a critic. No, that’s not entirely true. It’s rather a good time to be a critic, and very easy to put your criticism in a place where someone might want to read it. But it’s a bloody lousy time to be a critic if you want lots of people to pay attention to what you say, and take it seriously and allow it to affect their own behaviours. Even more so if you want someone to pay you for your efforts. Many professional critics have taken to grumbling about the fact that their privileged position is apparently under threat from the massed ranks of bloggers and Amazon reviewers. I don’t share their paranoia, but neither do I believe that one opinion on a book/song/restaurant is equally as valid as another. And obviously everyone is entitled to express an opinion. I just think that critics should be judged on merit, rather than on the basis of the particular platform from which they hurl their opinions. There are thousands of food bloggers, for example, the best of whom are undoubtedly far better than some of the bloated hacks who might pontificate over the profiteroles in the mainstream media. But for far too many, the model of a restaurant review is “WE WENT TO [RESTAURANT X] AND AFTER WE WERE SHOWN TO OUR TABLE I HAD THIS [INSERT PHOTO] AND IT WAS NICE AND SHE HAD THIS [INSERT PHOTO] AND IT WAS SORT OF OK AND THEN FOR MAINS WE HAD...” until you want to eat your own eyes rather than read another bloody word.

I have thought – and have said so — that what distinguishes decent critics, whether bloggers or paid journalists or poncy dilettantes in art galleries is their knowledge of the subject matter. And that’s still part of the deal. But then I came upon this passage from The Gourmet, the first novel by Muriel Barbery (better known for The Elegance of the Hedgehog). As France’s greatest food critic lies dying, his reminiscences and those of his family and acquaintances (he appears to have few friends) intertwine. His daughter remembers a ghastly holiday in Greece, when he made her eat the fried, honey-drenched pastries called loukoumades:
‘Do you like them?’ he asked, in his grating voice.
Panic and disorientation. Next to me Jean was breathing quietly. I forced myself.
‘Yes,’ I muttered timidly.
‘Why?’ he pursued, his tone increasingly dry, but I could see that in the depth of his eyes, which were actually inspecting me for the first time in years, there was a new spark, something I had never seen, like a little speck of cautious anticipation and hope, inconeceivable, harrowing and paralysing, because for so long I had been accustomed to his not expecting a thing from me.
‘Because it’s good?’ I ventured, hunching my shoulders.
I had lost.
Criticism requires more than opinion: it needs argument, analysis, elucidation. If a few soi-disant critics realised they were expected to go somewhere beyond “because it’s good” or “it was sort of OK” then maybe they’d be taken more seriously.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Pneuvel cuisine

And in my latest screed for CNNGo, I sabotage what nugatory chance I might once have had of becoming a Michelin inspector.

PS: Jay Rayner also had something to say.

Thursday, January 20, 2011


Small Boo and I enjoyed a rather pleasant lunch the other day, at a hotel restaurant we’d expected to be at best vaguely competent. Later, I was idly spooooling through the establishment’s website when I came upon the mention of something called “Wine O’Clock”, which would appear to be the phenomenon we oiks might know better as happy hour. It all sounded a bit cheesy, but not bad enough to obliterate the memory of the quite excellent rhubarb and strawberry sfogliatina I’d had a few hours previously. And then: “On Thursdays Wine O’Clock pays tribute to ladies. All ladies receive a 5% discount for every inch of those high heels worn.”

Er... pardon? OK, leave aside the use of “ladies”, which sounds a bit twee to anyone who doesn’t regard “feminist” as a term of abuse. But the heel thing: essentially, they’re offering financial encouragement to women to wear heels as high as possible. Why, for crying out loud? Does an influx of tottering, unstable females automatically make the restaurant a more enjoyable environment for other diners? Does the potential for a spectacular, crashing collapse across a table, or even a more modest and discreet twisted ankle add to the savour of one’s steak or risotto? Who, exactly, benefits from this?

Not me. Heterosexual men are supposedly turned into the personification of drooling lust at the sight of a stiletto, but I just don’t get it, and never have. (The same, incidentally, goes for stockings and suspenders.) Give me a flat Courreges boot any day. And I don’t see why women should be applauded for wearing footwear that renders them incapable of running for a bus, when Nicolas Sarkozy is mocked for giving himself a little lift in the shoe department.

On the other hand I suppose it all fits. The cheaper you look, the cheaper your drinks are.

Monday, January 17, 2011

A shallow piece of dignity

Much rabble-rousing was occurring in the Twitsphere yesterday around the hashtag “#savelibraries”, a response to proposed cuts to library services in England and Wales. People were encouraged – initially, as far as I can tell, by the comedian-cum-provocateur Robin Ince – to explain in sub-140-character form why they thought these temples of auto-didacticism were a good idea. And there were many heartwarming tales of people finding refuge in these temples of bookishness, and of using them as springboards to better things, better worlds, better lives.

Every now and then, someone popped up to suggest that the best way to support libraries is to use them; politicians would not dare to cut back a service that millions of voters used on a regular basis. I felt a little guilty at this. OK, I haven’t been in the UK much in recent years, but when I have, I haven’t exactly been battering down the doors of my local reference section. I’m not sure whether I’ve even had a library card since I was a child. Do they still have library cards, or do users get a chip implanted in their necks? I don’t know.

But then why should I feel guilty? I don’t make use of housing benefit or income support or domestic violence refuges or soup kitchens, but I still think they should be available as part of an overall need to iron out the social creases. Which suggests that my perception of libraries – a place for people who can’t afford to buy that many books – is diametrically opposed to that of the head of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, who  claimed that they were too white and middle-class. So should the sort of earnest Guardian readers who campaign to save libraries visit them to demonstrate support, or avoid them because they can afford to buy books at Waterstones, and they’re crowding out the single mums? God damn you England, why does even reading have to be a class issue?

One observation, or maybe two. When I was editing the Guinness Book of Records, I’d be on the receiving end of accusations that I was dumbing the product down, that there were too many pictures of luscious babes in the world’s most expensive bikinis and elderly Indian gentlemen hammering nails into various bits of their anatomies; and not enough info about the world’s rarest tulip. My argument, then and now, was that we were persuading the most book-averse demographic – boys of about 12 – to ask for a book for Christmas, and around that time it was only us and JK Rowling who could do that. And I still maintain that that’s not a bad thing to be doing.

On the other hand, when I enter a bookshop or library, and wander to the fiction section, and seek out the C’s, and I see half a dozen Jonathan Coes and even fewer JM Coetzees, separated by a vast breezeblock of Paulo Coelho, I do wonder whether simply saying to people “Here are lots of books; why not read some of them?” is quite enough.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Don’t call me whitey...

I feel a little inhibited about commenting on the news that Professor Alan Gribben has brought out a new edition of Huckleberry Finn with the word “nigger” removed; or that the Canadian Broadcasting Standards Council has banned the Dire Straits song ‘Money For Nothing’ because it includes the word “faggot”. I became even more reticent after the movie critic Roger Ebert was digitally roasted for expressing his opinions on the former controversy. His offence was to tweet that he’d “rather be called a nigger than a slave.” The objection, apparently, is that Ebert “would actually say which word he would rather be called when he will never be called neither [sic].” Actually, if these are the criteria, maybe I am allowed to comment, because I’ve been called a faggot more than once; and I’ve even been called a nigger, although I think my interlocutor on that occasion was trying to call me a nigger-lover, but got a bit lost half-way through an uncharacteristically polysyllabic word.

No, it’s all too sensitive. I don‘t want to get embroiled in this never-ending argument about whether particular words are good or bad or only to be used by qualified individuals with the appropriate genetic makeup. Instead, I’d just like you to consider a scenario. Imagine that a whole load of wise and wonderful scientists and medical workers had announced that they wouldn’t in fact develop and implement vaccination programmes that would save millions of lives; that instead, they’d decided that if they just stopped people from saying those nasty words “smallpox” and “polio”, then everything would turn out OK in the end.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Madness and civilization

The casual reader, so we are constantly told by erudite literary pundits such as Charlotte Rampling, Anita Pallenberg and/or Princess Margaret in the bath, is usually won or lost within the first couple of sentences. Here’s a fine example of how to begin a book review (in this instance, of George W Bush’s Decision Points, by Eliot Weinberger in the London Review of Books):
In the late 1960s, George Bush Jr was at Yale, branding the asses of pledges to the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity with a hot coathanger. Michel Foucault was at the Societé française de philosophie, considering the question, ‘What is an author?’

The two, needless to say, never met...

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Decline and fail

Evelyn Waugh, interviewed in 1964, offers his opinion on James Joyce:
He began writing quite well and you can see him going mad as he wrote, and his last books... only fit to be set for examinations at Cambridge.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Jammy Helen Mirren there we were, Charles Frith and me, lounging in Bed Supperclub, watching the floor show (gymnasts, gay pharaohs, a surveyor in teeny hotpants, King Kong), debating whether gorgonzola tart really classifies as a pudding and discussing hallucinogens and religion and search engine optimisation and I pondered the number of people who come to this blog on the promise of underclad images of three specific ladies, Charlotte Rampling in particular and whether they were more significant than adding catnip keyboards like *bosoms!* *bottoms!* *extreme  sexy rudeness with bosoms and bottoms!!!* and for some reason we decided that the most tempting come-on would be the three-word phrase at the top of this post. So there.

But then I received an e-mail from my dad asking why I had yet to commemorate the passing of Pete Postlethwaite, custodian of the finest cheekbones in the business, so here’s a little something that probably won’t grab so much traffic but hey, ultimately, who’s counting?

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Biting the hand

At CNNGo, I grumble about all the nice restaurants that give me free meals. Cleverly naming no names, so if anybody gets shirty, I can say “No, of course I didn’t mean your place...”

Sunday, January 02, 2011

My new favourite song

I must admit that I’m not all that familiar with the work of the punk-jazz quartet The Bird Architects, although they do seem to push a few Ornette-shaped buttons, which would suggest that they’re worthy of further investigation. Never mind that though... just look what this tune’s called:


Bird Architects | Myspace Music Videos