Sunday, May 29, 2011

Last rites

So Gil Scott-Heron dies, and although it’s sad, it’s also pretty remarkable that he lasted so long. Less remarkable are the more odious responses to his Telegraph obituary, although they may have been excised by the time you read this.

I did think of posting a vaguely relevant bit of Scott-Heron’s music, but most of the good ones had been taken. And so the rhizomatic (il?)logic that underpins YouTube’s algorithms leads to Hubert Laws, who in the same year that he played on GS-H’s Pieces of a Man album, released a collection of jazz/classical fusion pieces. It’s normally the sort of thing from which I’d run five miles, but this take on Stravinsky works pretty well, I reckon.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

“No decent career was ever founded on a public”

The actor James McAvoy has complained that British film-makers have taken to dumbing down their product in an effort to appeal to American audiences. It’s a charge that might have had a little more impact had not McAvoy  – a sort of 21st-century Dexter Fletcher – made it while he was supposed to be plugging his own leading role in yet another big-budget comic-book spin-off prequel. But, hey, let’s not quibble. Actually, scrub that, let’s quibble, if only a little, when it comes to dumbing down. Because in a culturally fragmented world, the world of the Long Tail, it’s increasingly hard to make accusations of dumbness stick.

There are exceptions. In a recent episode of the BBC current affairs show Panorama, on the subject of unemployment among the over-fifties, a luckless jobhunter explained that he’d sent out 490 applications; to which the presenter, Fiona Phillips, exclaimed “Four hundred and ninety? That's nearly five hundred!” Now that’s dumb, and especially egregious on a show that used to have a reputation for rigorous reporting and analysis. But once we move away from the empirical certainties of basic arithmetic, it’s harder to make a judgement. When the Ryan Giggs brouhaha began, I had no idea who Imogen Thomas was. Should reports of the case have explained her cultural significance in more detail, to remedy my ignorance? Would that have been dumbing down? Am I dumb because I don’t know who won America’s Got Talent the year before last, and wouldn’t be able to recognise the participants in The Only Way Is Essex if they sat in my lap? Or does that make me clever? How can I wear the stuff I don’t know as a badge of my cleverness?

Roger Ebert side-steps these conundra beautifully in his review of Woody Allen’s latest movie, Midnight in Paris, which involves a 21st-century screenwriter who somehow finds himself hanging out with the expats who cavorted in the city in the 1920s. Ebert remarks:
Some audience members might be especially charmed by Midnight in Paris. They would be those familiar with Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, and the artists who frequented Stein's famous salon: Picasso, Dali, Cole Porter, Man Ray, Luis Bunuel and, yes, “Tom Eliot”. Allen assumes some familiarity with their generation, and some moviegoers will be mystified, because cultural literacy is not often required at the movies anymore.
But Ebert doesn’t ram home an argument that those who do get the references are definitively better people, or even that Midnight in Paris is empirically a better film than, say, X-Men: First Class, the flick in which McAvoy appears. He simply says that he likes it, and that those who know who Man Ray are more likely to enjoy it that those who don’t. His only wider point is that “I’m wearying of movies that are for ‘everybody’ — which means, nobody in particular.” Whereas David Simon, creator of The Wire, achieved a level of bad-ass credibility by declaring fuck the average viewer”, Ebert acknowledges that these days, the average viewer doesn’t really exist. Even the biggest, mass-appeal reality (or structured reality) show still only attracts a minority of potential viewers, and if Midnight in Paris is elitist, so is The Only Way Is Essex.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

One-word biographies

In Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the nine-year-old (rather annoying) hero encounters a man who has created a biographical index: tens of thousands of cards, each containing the name of a person, and a single pertinent word:
Henry Kissinger: war!
Ornette Coleman: music!
Che Guevara: war!
Jeff Bezos: money!
Philip Guston: art!
and so on. I can’t decide what my one word would be. Possibly “words”. Or “baffled”. What about yours?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Bad books

Yesterday I spent a few hours at WordPlay, apparently the first literary festival ever to grace Bangkok. As enjoyable as the talks and events were, it was a passing sentence in the programme that really caught my attention:
If you notice anything strange or disturbing, please contact the event organisers.
Surely at a literary festival, it’s the absence of strangeness and disturbance that would be more of a problem?

Friday, May 20, 2011

Revenge of the analogue

When Mayor of London Boris Johnson decided to stage a Q&A on Twitter yesterday, he must have known that few of the queries would be about the microeconomics of bin collection. I was delighted to have one of my own posers identified as one of the more left-field.

But it’s so easy to take the piss with a keyboard. As pointing and laughing and shopping and banking and flirting and everything else migrates online, it’s far more heartwarming to find the real world flexing its muscles. First, author Andrew Kessler has opened a bricks-and-mortar bookshop in New York City, selling just one title – his own book about the 2008 Phoenix Mars mission. Obviously it’s a publicity stunt – a deception in which I’ve just implicated myself – but it still serves as an impudent yah-boo to Amazon and e-readers and everything else that threatens the world of paper and foxing and remainders and mildew and tachiyomi.

And then there’s the indignity meted out to Fang Binxing, the man who designed the so-called Great Firewall, that restricts what Chinese netizens can see. A virus or a concerted spamming or some other digital inconvenience might have been the obvious tactic, but no: someone threw shoes and an egg at him. It’s Ai Weiwei meets Noël Godin, and quite right too.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A book where men may read strange matters

Annie recently mentioned a bright but book-averse 13-year-old, and now a survey for Pearson indicates that 70% of boys can’t make it beyond the 100th page of a book. It’s suggested that the fault lies with the choice of set texts, but since the books singled out for criticism include Macbeth (violence and skulduggery that make the Bourne series appear rather tame, and a hero who’d fit in quite nicely on The Apprentice) and Of Mice and Men (doomed, dysfunctional bromance, plus violence), I can’t really see it; in any case, neither of them is particularly long.

So should we tinker with reading lists, and include more books that will engage the attention of pubescent males? And if so, which books? Or should we just accept that, as long as they’re functionally literate, plenty of people – not only boys – are happier in a book-free world?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Thoroughly spoiled

Sorry if you’re getting bored with Doctor Who, and apologies also if you’re getting fed up with all these underclad women who’ve started populating my blog  – see previous appearances of Charlotte, Helen, Lily, some feet, etc, – hey I don’t make the rules – although of course the nipples-for-eyeballs transaction is purely abstract if Blogger enjoys another spectacular global brainfart – in which case I’ve already staked a preliminary claim over at WordPress, a bit like a Nazi in around 1944 trying to get his paintings out of Berlin – anyway, yes, Doctor Who – that’s Katy Manning, incidentally, who played Jo Grant, an assistant to the Third Doctor, in the early 1970s, but she usually wore more clothes – but yes, chief writer Steven Moffat has unleashed a fearsome diatribe – I think he was probably wearing clothes at the time – against people who leak plot details of the show before transmission:
It’s heartbreaking in a way because you’re trying to tell stories, and stories depend on surprise... Stories depend on shocking people. Stories are the moments that you didn't see coming, that are what live in you and burn in you forever. If you are denied those, it’s vandalism.
Is it really? Is that what stories depend on? There must be a literary equivalent to Godwin’s law, something along the lines of “As a discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Shakespeare becomes one” and if there wasn’t, there is now, and it shall be called Bradley’s Law, after the deliciously anachronistic Bardic scholar, but anyway – when people went to see Shakespeare’s plays, most of the time they knew what the story was going to be, who was going to die, who was going to get the girl and so on. Before him, the same was true of medieval mystery plays and, even earlier, Greek drama. It’s only in the past few hundred years that the unexpected has become a key element in fiction and drama – think of the Dickens fans in New York calling out to arriving ships “Is Little Nell dead?” – and that readers and viewers have really started to enjoy not knowing what happens next. Indeed, it’s become something of a marketing gimmick, especially for thrillers. Audiences at The Mousetrap and Psycho being entreated not to give the ending away, and TV shows as different as Dallas, Twin Peaks and The Killing being hyped on the basis of the identity of a murderer, successful or otherwise.

But although the revived Doctor Who has helped to recreate the notion both of event TV (it’s nearly six, got to get home for Who) and family viewing, we’re also in a cultural universe that is at the same time more atomised (I’ll watch Who when I choose, not with my family while we’re having tea) and more connected (but if I do watch it live, I’ll Tweet it at the same time). The notion of an entire nation simultaneously gasping as River Song is revealed to be the bastard love child of The Master and K9 belongs to another, happier, less wibbly-wobbly time. And in any case, many of those for whom  stories – according to Moffat – depend on surprise then go and watch the same stories over and over again, having bought the box set. For all the Spoiler Alerts Moffat can try to deploy, he’s fighting a losing Time War. Just ask anyone who’s tried in recent weeks to protect his dignity with a superinjunction.

That said, I only got round to watching the first episode of The Killing last night, so shush, OK?

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Known unknowns

An actor involved in one of these super-injunction thingummybobs has – according to The Sun, at least – confessed all to his wife. Which strikes me as odd, because the man’s identity, along with that of the footballer and the other actor and the comedian and the chef, has been all over the web, and has even made it into mainstream media, albeit in the form of terribly coy, nose-tapping innuendo. If his spouse didn’t at least suspect that something was up, surely one of her friends must have twigged. I don’t want to kick her when she’s down, but she must be a terribly incurious woman.

You see, the whole point of these injunctions is not to stop people knowing about the moral mishaps of the rich and famous: it’s to stop the *wrong* people knowing. And this is something that goes way back. The Abdication Crisis of 1936 gripped the attention of the British masses once it became public, but the upper classes had known all about Edward’s unsuitable girlfriend for some time, and had been happy to gossip about the constitutional ramifications, provided the hoi-polloi didn’t know what was going on. Such information might create havoc, weaken their moral fibre, don’t you know?

I first got came to understand this social distinction in the world of celebrity tittle tattle in the early 1990s, at about the time it was beginning to fall apart. I’d started my first proper job, in a legal publishing company, which meant that I was for the first time operating in close proximity to people who knew where the bodies were buried. I got wind of Paddy Ashdown’s tarnished halo some time before The Sun splashed it, and also heard some startling rumours about a couple of then-Cabinet ministers. These were pretty analogue days, so the tales were literally word-of-mouth. But I was standing by the fax machine when the Camillagate transcripts came over from Australia. Technology had done away with the social apartheid of gossip, to extent that even after the injunctors have joined Andrew Marr in realising the sheer daftness of their position, they will be remembered not for illicit shagging, but for using their wealth and status to hush up said shagging, which looks far, far worse.

Camilla herself was doubtless embarrassed by the publication of her phone messages, but she realised she could do little about it. So she backed off, bided her time, and is now the Duchess of Cornwall. And she’s making speeches lauding the freedom of the press. Maybe one day [REDACTED] and [REDACTED] and [REDACTED] will do the same.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Early closing

Anish Kapoor appears to be a good bloke. Not only does he create large-scale artworks involving mirrors and catapults, that manage to please bohemian chin-strokers and casual passers-by alike, but he has declared his support for his fellow artist Ai Weiwei, who is being held by the Chinese authorities: Kapoor has dedicated his new installation in Paris to Ai, who has been accused of unspecified “economic crimes”.

But what, apart from dignified speeches, can an artist do? Gestures might mean something on China’s doorstep – as the artists of Hong Kong are attempting to prove – but what about Paris or London or New York? Kapoor revealed his preferred tactic on this morning’s Today programme: “Perhaps all museums should be closed for a day.”

Now, as a writer and a blogger, I’m as guilty as anyone of ranting from the sidelines then hiding before anyone suggests I might care to don the captain’s armband. But I’m trying very hard to picture a senior Party apparatchik in Beijing hearing the dread news that the V&A will be shut next Thursday and immediately ordering that the beardy artist should be released. Maybe stick to the mirrors and catapults, mate.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Trump, Osama and the postmodern presidency

All modern politicians are, to a greater or lesser extent, simulacra. The important thing is not what they are, or what they do, or promise to do: we choose to elect or reject them because of what they mean, what they represent and reflect. Barack Obama is a classic example of this, entering the White House as a physical embodiment of hope, change and a vague aspiration towards a post-racial America that aspired to redemption from the past few centuries of slavery and prejudice. The persistent criticism levelled against him since he won the 2008 election – and not just by his political opponents – is that he has remained content to be rather than do, to offer a succession of plausibly hopey-changey soundbites in place of coherent policy and action.  His Nobel Peace Prize was effectively awarded for Not Being Another Old White Guy. As was said of Lord Kitchener, at least he made a good poster.

But then, in the past couple of weeks,  Obama started to do things, or so it seemed. His first act was provoked by the claims from Donald Trump that he had not been born in the United States and as such was not eligible to be President; Trump’s campaign was of course a continuation of the so-called birther movement, that had been making similar insinuations since before Obama had been elected. Again, he was criticised for his inaction: if he really had been born in the USA, why didn’t he just come up with the relevant slip of paper? In fact, Obama was playing a political version of Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope against George Foreman in 1974, soaking up the punishment in the knowledge that he was in possession of the killer punch. Or was it? After all, the die-hard birthers will continue to insist that the certificate Obama produced is a fake. And even those of us who are not members of the deranged wing-nut community have to admit that the certificate is just another simulacrum, a paper representation of an event that came and went nearly 50 years ago, and as such can never be regained.

All that paper became irrelevant when Obama announced that Osama bin Laden was dead, provided you didn’t believe that he’d died four or nine years ago, or that he had never existed at all. Many of those that chose to take the news at face value began USA!USA!USA!-ing in Times Square, but the story soon turned out to be about yet more simulacra, as the White House pondered whether we’d be allowed to see images of the body. Of course, any such image would inevitably have been dismissed as a fake – there had already been a bad fake doing the rounds, just to test the waters – while at the same time being dismissed as triumphalism on the part of Americans. The closest we could get to reality was a shot of Obama and his team watching the action taking place in Abbottabad, but it subsequently transpired that this was a fake as well, or a dramatic reconstruction, whichever is the closest. And in any case, even if we were to see a convincing, authenticated representation of Osama’s body, by the time we saw it the alleged subject of the picture would have been feeding the fauna in the Indian Ocean for several hours, just another event beyond the scope of representation, beyond any notion of truth or reality.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Horny topless smoking Lily Allen (with optional lesbians)

The excellent James Blue Cat recently offered his readers an amusing tale of bad parking, a passive-aggressive note, two sexy lesbians and some rope. In fact, he only guessed that the two sexy lesbians were thus inclined, and I suggested that he only cast them as such in order to drive more prurient traffic to his blog. I was half-joking, I think, but the recent analytical bluebells and dogwhistles that came with my Blogger upgrade (it feels as if I’ve just managed to receive BBC2 at the point when everyone else is getting used to HDTV) have reinforced my gut instinct that my most popular blog posts in recent months were not those in which I ruminate on the Baudrillardian self-deception of modern culture, let alone deconstruct the primal weirdness of Asian street politics, but those that have saucy pictures in. The big eyeball magnets were posts that featured: a saucy picture of Helen Mirren; some saucy pictures of Charlotte Rampling, Anita Pallenberg and Princess Margaret; a saucy picture by (not of) Jack Vettriano; and a picture that may appeal to any reflexologists who need to get out more. (The only exception to this is Monday’s post, which benefited from an inevitable upsurge in interest about Osama, and an element of scepticism about the official line. Sorry to anyone who felt short-changed when their frenzied Googling brought them to a 40-year-old TV clip, but is it beyond the realms of possibility that the Dr Who community and the wacky conspiracy theory community might enjoy a certain overlap? Apparently not.)

Rubber masks and analogue synths aside, it’s not even that the punters prefer that I write about saucy ladies to writing about more serious, cerebral matters. Essentially, they aren’t really bothered what I write or whether I write at all; they just wanted to look at the saucy pictures, none of which were my own work, and none of which, I’m ashamed to admit, I credited properly (except of course for the Vettriano image, and I only mentioned him because I was discussing the essential badness of his art). I recently sighed at the explanation for Tumblr’s success (“With blogging you have to write, and this is just images.”) but now it seems that not only is writing a lost cause, the masses can’t even be bothered to read, beyond a few words that necessarily include promises of sex and celebrity. Of course, if you don’t agree, despite the fact you came here because you wanted a good look at horny topless smoking Lily Allen, please make your displeasure known in the comment box.

In short, where James went wrong was to talk about ropey sexy lesbians while failing to include a picture of them. Fair enough in this instance, you may think, as he never actually saw the ropey sexy lesbians, and doesn’t really know that they existed. But he’d unwittingly created an opportunity: he could have identified them as Kate and Pippa Middleton, with specific reference to the latter’s bottom. Because if a toxic casserole of sex, celebrity, photography and lèse majesté (with a bit of dead terrorist as an amuse-bouche) doesn’t save blogging, I don’t know what will.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Osama bin Laden: what really happened

PS: Osama’s mansion/compound apparently had no internet access, to avoid attracting attention from US intelligence: in the end, this very anomaly was one of the things that attracted their attention. If he’d got broadband, but only used it to look at old Dr Who clips on YouTube, he might have got away with it.

PPS: It’s come to my attention that if you Google “osama bin laden what really happened” at the moment, this post appears on the first page. If that’s how you came here, welcome! Feel free to have a look around. Let us know what you think. Fancy a cup of tea, maybe a custard cream? And, um, yes. Terror of the Autons. Sorry about that.

PPPS: OK, if you do want something a bit meatier, here’s DE Wittkower’s splendid piece on the role of social media in the search for Osama; and here’s a slightly more depressing roundup of some of the Facebook responses to the big news; and here’s evidence that dead-tree media hasn’t been doing that much better.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

The black death

When I was rather smaller than I am today, I was a fan of Doctor Who. Actually, I say I was a fan, but fandom is an entirely relative concept. I watched the show religiously, of course. And I’d also seen both the movies (in which Peter Cushing played the Doctor) when they cropped up on TV. But my loyalty wasn’t all-consuming. I can’t remember ever going to the Longleat exhibition, for example. I did buy and read lots of the Target novelisations, but I wasn’t a completist, and in the end I sold my collection. And although I pestered my mother to up the family’s fibre intake so I could amass the Weetabix card set, I’ve no idea what happened to it; the same goes for the 10th anniversary Radio Times special and the Tom Baker doll. I started to lose interest some time during the Romana era, and by the time Colin Baker’s unlovely persona had dragged the show into an 18-month hiatus, I barely noticed. By comparison with some fans, I was a complete bloody lightweight.

One area into which I did put a little extra effort was in writing my own Doctor Who fiction. To be honest, even there I was something of a dilettante, as I don’t think I ever finished a story. I’d come up with a title, something like The Daleks of Doom, or  maybe Doom to the Daleks, then begin with an incredibly violent opening passage, usually involving the spectacular destruction of several Ogrons. (These were the hulking, simian sidekicks of the Daleks, who helped them with the stuff they couldn’t do in those days, like carrying things and climbing stairs. I think I saw them as analogous to the hard boys at school who were good at football and laughed at my glasses and said Doctor Who was for poofs.) Then the Doctor would arrive and survey the carnage and wonder what was going on and so would I and I’d go off and have some lemon squash and forget about it.

One thing I didn’t do was to attempt to render the stories that I’d seen on TV as prose. This was partly because of the existence of those Target books: I knew that if I waited long enough, Terrance Dicks or Philip Hinchcliffe or someone like them would put each story between covers. Instead, I was intent on creating my own narratives, even if they were never going to go anywhere. Of course, after the show had gone off air, an entire sub-culture of original stories appeared in print form, with hundreds of books to keep the Who brand alive, but as I said, I was well out of the loop by that point.

Although I was careful not to tread on Target’s turf, I probably took a few hints from the books, albeit subconsciously. (Not that I have any examples of my deathless genius to hand, and I suspect they suffered the same fate as the Weetabix stuff, so this is all based on my increasingly fuzzy memory.) I wasn’t a slave to the house style, though: the Target books were careful not to acknowledge the real-world status of Doctor Who, beyond a cursory acknowledgement of the scriptwriter of the story on which the book was based. So the much-derided artwork might depict the actor who played the Doctor, but Pat or Jon or Tom never got a mention. Instead, there would be a stock explanation of which incarnation was in play, such as:

The cover illustration of this book portrays the third DOCTOR WHO whose physical appearance was altered by the Time Lords when they banished him to planet Earth in the Twentieth Century.

Whereas I preferred:

The cover illustration of this book portrays the third DOCTOR WHO who was played by Jon Pertwee.

Moreover, whenever a character in a Target book incurred the wrath of the Daleks, there would be a searing flash of light, a scream, and the unfortunate individual would slump to the floor, often with wisps of smoke rising from his body. Whereas I knew what happened to people who were exterminated. They went negative. You could see it happening. So when the Daleks exterminated someone or something in my stories (I’m not sure how old I was when I realised that “exterminate” was a proper word, not one invented for the purposes of the show, like TARDIS) I’d write something along the lines of “The Dalek fired his gun and everything went negative and the Zygon died.”

In many ways, it betrayed an early fondness for metafiction and similar postmodern japeries, although at that stage I probably thought metafiction was next door to Metebelis III. Yes, that’s the sort of thing that passed for humour back then. These days, although I do like the resurrected Who immensely, it’s more of an indulgent, nostalgic fondness. Although I finally have a sofa with plenty of space behind it, I don’t hide there. And in retrospect, I even feel a tiny bit sorry for the Ogrons.