Thursday, June 30, 2011

Wayne on a plane

I’d heartily recommend the efficient and friendly services of Turkish Airlines to anyone, provided you cover your eyes and ears when the safety video comes on.

Leaving aside the fact that for every customer who responds positively to the Manchester United brand there will be at least one who retches, the treatment of the footballers reminds me of how black actors were expected to perform in Hollywood movies in the 1930s: all that’s missing is the eye-rolling. Is it really surprising that millionaires who are paid to goof around like overgrown eight-year-olds might lose any grasp they may have had of the niceties of social behaviour or responsibility that are expected of other adults?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

I’m Johann Hari! No, I’m Johann Hari...

The journalist Johann Hari stands accused of plagiarism, but plagiarism of a very specific kind. He has admitted that when writing up interviews, he sometimes takes remarks that his interviewees have made in other media and inserted them in his own piece, if they make the relevant point better.

The fact is that printed interviews are seldom accurate transcriptions of the words spoken. “Um”s and “ah”s are excised; evident malapropisms and grammatical infelicities are corrected, especially if someone is not speaking in his or her first language; very often, what goes in is what the speaker clearly meant to say, not what was said. If this didn’t happen, interviews would be all but unreadable. If journalists are being dishonest in tidying text up in this manner, then I plead guilty to dishonesty.

Hari has been accused of deception, in suggesting that his interviewees have said things to him that, in fact, they said or wrote on other occasions. But people who are interviewed on a regular basis often find themselves being asked the same questions, and inevitably come up with similar answers each time. (I mentioned this phenomenon in my Leonard Cohen biography, if anyone out there has yet to acquire a copy.) All Hari has been doing is to offer the most elegant variation on a theme that his subject has uttered.

In fact, it could be argued that Hari’s behaviour is marginally more honest (less dishonest?) than that conducted by most hacks. When someone just tidies up a transcript, the resulting phrase is something the interviewer never said; when Hari lifts from the interviewee’s previously reported comments, at least it’s the real deal.

(Although, come to think of it, if Hari’s lifting from an earlier interview, who’s to say that the relevant journalist hasn’t already done a bit of judicious tidying to the text? And if he’s lifted from the interviewee’s own writing, it’s quite possibly been edited to a greater or lesser extent – by someone other than the writer – before seeing the light of day.)

Hari may have been rather more cavalier with his sources than his readers might have guessed, but provided the meaning is intact, little real harm has been done. Perhaps those of his fellow hacks baying for his blood should be required to swear to the absolute accuracy – remember those “um”s and “ah”s – of the quotations in their own material.

PS: And then, the inevitable Downfall video...

PPS: Hari’s own take on the brouhaha.

The Turks and their tortoises

Osman Hamdi Bey, The Tortoise Trainer (1906), Pera Museum, Istanbul.

Fikret Mualla, Circus In Red – The Tortoise Trainer, Istanbul Modern.

Sunday, June 26, 2011


Hagia Sophia in Istanbul began life in 360 as a cathedral, became a mosque in 1453, and then reopened as a museum in 1935. The resulting juxtaposition of Christian iconography and Islamic calligraphy says much about the city’s location at the cusp of Europe and Asia, and one can derive all sorts of optimistic fortune cookies about people of all faiths and cultures and races just getting along fine. It also suggests that there was a time when Muslim culture was a little more relaxed about depictions of human figures.

As you come out of the main dome area, and a sign to your right points you to a gallery. It’s not quite clear whether this is meant in the architectural sense – a long balcony – or the more conventional modern notion, of a place to put pictures. In fact, if you wind your way up a series of cobbled ramps, you find that it’s both. The area offers a a closer look at the magnificent dome, and also a view down on the nave, and all the other tourists taking photographs. But there are also a few more artworks hanging here: and at the moment they are photographs of the mosaics that you’ve just seen, and that the people down there are photographing. I can’t decide whether it’s deliciously postmodern, or all just a bit redundant.

Then we go to the gift shop and buy fridge magnets.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Dog whistle politics

At CNNGo, I admit to not understanding the Thai election campaign, but I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one...

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Bad news bared

It’s been argued that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but the phenomenon of organisations deliberately creating negative stories about themselves would appear to be a relatively new one. It started in a small way with food manufacturers releasing made-up stories that they planned to modify or do away with treasured brands (such as Vegemite iSnack 2.0) and comic publishers killing off beloved characters, or just threatening to do so, as has happened to everyone from Superman to Desperate Dan; the latest victim of this trend being poor old Spider-Man. The only risk is that devoted fans won’t be quite as outraged as was expected, and a valuable property will be sacrificed in ignominious obscurity; or, more deliciously, they’ll have to go through with a move that they never intended to execute in the first place, because consumers don’t tell them not to.

Virgin took things to a new level in early 2009 when they released a letter complaining about the standard of their in-flight catering, although they rather gave the game away by having the letter begin “I love the Virgin brand”, thus immediately identifying the author as an advertising executive; real people don’t love brands, or if they do, they’re not aware of it. But things have really kicked off in the past few months, when Simon Cowell got in on the act: first with the whole Cheryl in the USA saga; and then the distinctly fishy e-mail that essentially accused Cowell of grooming a contestant on Britain’s Got Talent. And this week we have the “news” that the dating website has accidentally allowed 30,000 uglies onto its books, and has had to kick them off again. Cue outrage from those who believe that beauty lies within: cue free publicity.

I just think it’s odd that high-profile entities are paying good money to concoct unpleasant stories about themselves at the same time that certain high-profile individuals are also shelling out in order to quash such stories. And I wonder if it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that one or more of the stories that are being suppressed by injunctions (super or otherwise) might turn out to have been entirely concocted as well.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The appetite may sicken

I used to be a music journalist of sorts, and more recently I’ve been a food journalist of similar sorts, and I’m well aware of which one gives me more countercultural brownie points. I still retain enough of a Camden-backroom sneer to have snorted with derision when I saw the advert for Harvest, the latest wheeze dreamed up by bassist-turned-cheesemaker Alex James: it’s described as “the food and music festivals”, which sounds like the ultimate bourgeoisification of rock and roll Avalon: for people who might quite fancy a gentle boogie in the field, provided they won’t get their Boden chinos and Cath Kidston accessories grubby, and that there’ll be something suitable to eat for the kids, because young Hengist’s iridologist has warned us that he might become temporarily bipolar if he goes within 50 yards of non-organic ciabatta, while dear Melpomene is flirting with pesco-fruitarianism.

And then I looked at the line-up and thought, ooh, Hughley Fergley-Wergley, I like him... and Mark Hix, went to one of his places, that was good... Jay Rayner, writes amusingly grumpy reviews... Gennaro... Yotam... this sounds fun... And I thought, God, it’s happened, I really am middle aged.

But, in a move that might have been calculated purely to make me feel a whole lot better, the music line-up appears to be a load of bland, lame, Jools-friendly toss. Food has become the new rock and roll, simply because the rock and roll isn’t rock and roll any more.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

More thoughts about Andy Warhol and stuff

But I was talking about Andy Warhol, wasn’t I? I suppose I first became interested in Warhol because of the Velvet Underground, and I was interested in the Velvet Underground because of Joy Division, and how much further back do you want me to go? I was in my first year at university when he died: I remember the nascent artist/film-maker Nick Abrahams leaping out at me, hissing “Have you heard? Have you heard?” as I ambled along the High Street. I’d imagine we were both wearing Doc Martens, but that his were cooler than mine.

The following year, I took a course in writing radio drama, and one of my submissions was a sort-of-interior-monologue-cum-collage about Warhol’s last few minutes, largely drawn from his book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: from A to B and back again. I vaguely recall Edie Sedgwick making an appearance as the Angel of Death (which was in turn influenced by Jessica Lange’s role in All That Jazz). The funny thing was, at that stage I knew very little about Warhol’s life, beyond the stuff he chose to make part of his public persona. It wasn’t until I read Victor Bockris’s biography of Warhol that I found out he was gay, for example.

I know, it seems astonishing now, but even in the mid-to-late-Eighties, such things weren’t as widely discussed as we might remember. There was simply an assumption of heterosexuality, the sort of thing expressed in this airline commercial.  Diehard Queen fans would get aggressive if one suggested that Freddie Mercury might not be entirely straight. John Inman and Larry Grayson, Kenneth Williams and Frankie Howerd refused to be drawn on the subject. Even the Pet Shop Boys refused to confirm or deny. Men flew Braniff because they liked the girls, unless they explicitly stated otherwise, which for the most part they didn’t. Remember this when people say Warhol made his life his art. Or was it the other way round?

It wasn’t just about sex, of course. Until I read the Bockris book, I don’t think I’d sussed that Warhol wore a wig either.

And I’m just about to post this when I realise that a few months after Warhol died, the Smiths broke up, and remember that we’ve just passed the 25th anniversary of the release of The Queen Is Dead, and I can’t think of much to say that hasn’t been said too many times already (often by me) but I’m certain that for some reason the occasion does need to be marked.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Haroun and the sea of pixels

Salman Rushdie has decreed that television is really great, and that’s where all the good writing is, although whether he worked this out before or after someone offered him loads of cash to write a TV science-fiction show isn’t clear.

It does raise a useful question, though: at what point does an art form achieve intellectual respectability? English literature, for example – y’know, Shakespeare and Milton and that – wasn’t considered a subject worthy of serious academic study until the second half of the 19th century. More recent manifestations of creativity, such as video games, are still on the periphery, to the extent that it’s quite possible to admit that you have no knowledge of or interest in them, and still be regarded as an intelligent, informed person. Some have suggested that LA Noire will be the tipping point for games, although it’s interesting to note that many critics have indicated its cultural worth by saying how similar it is to another form (in this case, film); in the same way that cheerleaders for The Wire and The Sopranos compare them to 19th-century novels.

The problem is that, once an art form is judged to be worthy of attention from the Rushdies of this world, there’s a retrospective rewrite of cultural history; works that we now see as canonical often barely registered when they first appeared. Here’s HL Mencken, writing in December, 1927, by which time DW Griffith had already produced his best work, Chaplin had made The Kid and The Gold Rush, Murnau had created Nosferatu and, at the beginning of the year, Fritz Lang had released Metropolis:
I have now seen about twelve movies, four or five of them to the end. I liked them all pretty well, but am not tempted to go back.
PS: Although some seem sceptical about the pretensions of games to Hollywood standards of plausibility just yet.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Amina that most sincerely, folks

Following the revelation that Amina Arraf, a lesbian blogger in Damascus, was in reality Tom MacMaster, a straight, male American postgraduate student in Edinburgh (who had borrowed Facebook photographs, taken in Paris, of a Jelena Lecic, a Croatian woman living in London), now seems as zeitgeisty a moment as it could ever be to admit that I am not, as I  previously claimed, a straight, balding, grumpy British man who occasionally  writes about restaurants in Bangkok, but a celibate Belgian woman who runs a small hardware shop in Montevideo, Uruguay. I hope my readers will a) forgive me; and b) take note of the special offer we have this week on rawlplugs.

While we’re on the subject, though: who are you, really?

PS: Zeitgeist update: now the woman whose photos were hijacked has her own publicist.

PPS: And if fake lesbians are what floats your boat, here’s another.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Is this the way they say the future’s meant to feel?

Andy Warhol, in addition to painting soup cans and movie stars, and making extremely long films, and getting shot, and generally being Andy Warhol for a living, was nominally the manager of the Velvet Underground in their early days. However, it’s probably fair to say that his duty of care to the degenerate art rockers was no more hands-on than his attitude to production of his art (which, once he’d had the idea, was often undertaken by his acolytes). In one interview around that time (1967-ish), he admitted that the band members didn’t actually get paid for their labours. “But how do they eat?” asked the journalist, aghast. “Um, well, they go to a lot of parties,” deadpanned Andy.

This came to mind a few days ago, when a marketing guy from one of the big riverside hotels in Bangkok asked me if, in my sometime capacity as a food journalist, I’d like to come over and sample the delights of the Italian restaurant there. I said I’d be delighted, but I wasn’t sure whether the usual outlets for my prandial witterings would be able to find space any time soon. “No problem,” he said. “If you could just give it a mention on your blog, that would be great.”

It all falls into place: Warhol had unwittingly created the model for journalism in the 21st century. Readers don’t want to pay for journalism, and advertisers are increasingly unwilling to subsidise it. The only way a hack without a private income can survive is on freebies, scraps from capitalism’s table (almost literally, in the case of food writing).

Two problems present themselves here. The first is that it gives an unfair advantage to those writers who specialise in the necessities of life, such as food and shelter and clothing. I have an image of emaciated literary bloggers desperately attempting to trade in their review copies with their foodie colleagues in the hope of getting a decent meal for the first time that week. That said, perhaps it might be a good idea if media were to focus on what people need more than what they can be persuaded to desire. [Thinks: Damn, does that mean nobody will want to send me free books any more?]

The other potential glitch is that the hacks might feel obliged to say only nice things about the products they’re being offered, since the alternative is starvation. But this has always been a problem under the old system, as publishers try to keep advertisers sweet, while also maintaining their hacks’ delusions that they’re morally pure seekers after truth, rather than enslaved rearrangers of the cultural slush. So it’s fortunate for me that the meal was most enjoyable (especially the whipped salt cod with avocado), and I have no hesitation in suggesting that Giorgio’s at the Royal Orchid Sheraton is very good and you should all go there, provided you tell them I sent you.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Don’t vote, it only encourages them

An election looms in Thailand, and the roadsides are festooned with images of awkwardly gurning candidates, most of which survive a matter of days before being stolen or defaced. The most interesting are those put up by a spin-off of the People’s Alliance for Democracy which, notwithstanding its name, argues that popular democracy isn’t entirely suitable for Thailand. Although PAD activity was to a great extent responsible for the accession of current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva in 2008, the organisation holds all the mainstream parties in fairly low esteem, albeit reserving its fiercest condemnation for former Premier Thaksin Shinawatra and his cronies; as such they are depicted in unflattering animal guises.

As such, the Electoral Commission has banned the posters, on the basis that they don’t advocate any particular candidate, and because they’re the wrong size. The notion of “a plague a’ both your houses” seems just a little too nihilistic for Thailand’s image as the Land of Smiles. A pity; I liked the monkey. (More on posters here.)

Meanwhile, the big talking point is the success of the Bangkok-set ├╝ber-sequel The Hangover II, and whether it presents Thai culture in a positive and/or accurate light. My friend Cod deals with the conundrum at CNNGo. And if you don’t understand the minutiae of local politics, you’ll just have to trust me: the following, from Thai White Papers via Punk Planning, is rather amusing.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Shot by both sides

I haven’t seen the movie The Human Centipede, which is about a scientist who grafts people together, mouth to anus. Nor have I scene the sequel, brilliantly titled The Human Centipede II, which is about a man who watches the first film (postmodern, self-referential horror porn ahoy!) and is persuaded to repeat the experiment. The latter gem has joined the select band of films that have been banned outright in the UK.

While I’m instinctively opposed to censorship in general, it does strike me that the director, Tom Six, was rather setting himself up for this. Banning something on grounds of taste alone is impossibly subjective; but the likelihood that a work might provoke violent or destructive behaviour in its viewers should at least be considered. Mr Six has apparently made such a provocation the central feature of the sequel, which suggests that the first film should be banned retrospectively as well. Although the bigger issue, as poor Ryan Giggs has discovered, is that it’s all but impossible these days to ban anything that exists only as a string of one and zeroes; and trying to do so only brings further notoriety to it.

On a less tawdry note, Channel 4 is defending its decision to broadcast uncensored footage of extra-judicial executions carried out by the Sri Lankan military against Tamil militants. There’s a compelling argument here to override viewers’ squeamishness, as the whole point of the programme is to demonstrate that such atrocities did occur. But according to Channel 4’s head of news, Dorothy Byrne, while we should be allowed to see people being shot in the back of the head, any images of genitalia will be blurred out. I mean, we wouldn’t want to offend anyone, would we?

Seller of currents

Oh dear. All of a sudden, I’d rather like an iPad.

But could it really be any better than this?

Monday, June 06, 2011


Sir Jonathan Miller personifies a delicious paradox: he is an exceedingly clever man, and also a bit of an idiot. A few years ago he criticised the RSC for casting “that man from Doctor Who” as Hamlet, conveniently forgetting that David Tennant had taken substantial roles for both the RSC and the National several years before he first set foot in the Tardis.

And now we hear that the tenor Alfie Boe doesn’t much care for going to the opera; indeed, he didn’t select anything from the genre when he was on Desert Island Discs yesterday, favouring instead a rather Q/Mojo-friendly selection of classic raawwk (Dylan, Zep, Floyd, etc). Sir Jonathan is not impressed, remarking: “I’ve only worked with him once and he sings rather well but I know he comes from something other than opera. He was a car mechanic, I believe.”

Now what the hell is that supposed to mean? OK, there’s the straightforward snobbery of the remark, which conveniently forgets that Kathleen Ferrier worked in a telephone exchange, and Enrico Caruso installed drinking fountains. I suspect that when Miller directed his first opera, there were antediluvian ponces who objected to his own shady past as a comedian, film-maker and medical student. But “Something other than opera”? Does he mean that opera singers should be clones, pod people, spawned in glorious, sterile isolation from any cultural influence that might contaminate what the Good Doctor (Miller, not Who) thinks is right and proper?

You know, I reckon he probably does. And who are we to argue? He is, after all, an exceedingly clever man.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Worse than being talked about

I love the interweb, I really do. Not only does it allow activists to connect and coordinate, and facilitate their rebellion against repressive regimes, it also offers the opportunity for the rest of us to make predictable jokes about Ryan Giggs, and feel that we’re as brave and transgressive as the Arab Spring protesters for doing so. Even more importantly, it now provides a dedicated space in which everybody can talk about me.

Even if nobody wants to...

But hey, I shouldn’t feel bad about that. Nobody wants to talk about Baudrillard either. Or the Arab Spring, or even Ryan Giggs.

What if they staged a digital revolution and nobody showed up?

Friday, June 03, 2011

A self-made man

I’ve only recently discovered that the writer Fergus Gwynplaine MacIntyre died last year, in circumstances that were spectacular and at the same time deeply sad. I met him once, and very briefly at that. It was 2003, and we were both finalists in an essay competition run by The Spectator. He shuffled in, stout, bewhiskered and perspiring, his garb including a long, leather coat, heavy biker boots and huge gauntlets. He refused the abundant bubbly in favour of a glass of milk. This was the period when Boris Johnson was in charge of the magazine, and the nominal host of the soiree, but poor Bozza suddenly seemed terribly normal and pedestrian. One of the marketing people leaned over to me. “I know you’re a finalist,” he muttered, “so I hope you’ll understand that I hope this chap wins.”

I spoke to MacIntyre for a while, but unfortunately I can recall very little of the conversation, beyond the fact that he claimed to spend his time moving between New York, mid-Wales and Docklands. It matters little because, as much of the post mortem coverage asserts, his life was a tissue of inconsistent self-invention, involving a traumatic Glaswegian childhood, a stint on an Australian sheep station, torture at the hands of Idi Amin’s goons, work as a ghost writer for Jerzy Kosinski and, best of all, webbed fingers (the reason for the gloves). The name was fake, but he admitted as such; nobody, however,  was agreed on what it had replaced.

The results of the competition were announced: neither of us had won. MacIntyre farted loudly, claimed to be suffering from a headache, and made his exit.

A dark-haired woman moved towards me. “Who was that extraordinary man?” she asked, before introducing herself as the magazine’s publisher. It was much later that I realised this was the legendary Kimberly Fortier Quinn, subsequently revealed to be the lover of Cabinet minister David Blunkett (around the same time that the extra-curricular activities of Johnson and columnist Rod Liddle came to light).

If I ever get invited to such a shindig again, I must remember to concoct a life or two for myself.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Thou shalt knit kill

An attractive young woman is murdered: the investigation into her death exposes deep corruption among the local power elites, and pushes those tasked with finding her killer into emotional meltdown. I’m talking, of course, about Forbrydelsen, aka The Killing, the Danish TV noir that’s made Fair Isle jumpers almost cool.

But it’s also the basic plot of Twin Peaks: for Nanna Birk Larsen in the boot of a car, read Laura Palmer in a plastic sheet; for Sarah Lund’s obsession for justice, there’s Dale Cooper’s descent into doughnut-fuelled madness. The two shows also share a structure in which each episode represents one day in the investigation. And the inevitable US remake of The Killing transfers the action from Copenhagen to Washington state, the setting for Lynch’s deranged masterpiece.

Talking of remakes, remember State of Play? A journalist played by John Simm (or, if you prefer, Russell Crowe) finds his loyalties torn when Sonia, the researcher/lover of his politician friend David Morrissey (or Ben Affleck), dies in mysterious circumstances, with all fingers pointing to a ruthless conspiracy of government and business interests.

State of Play in turn was clearly influenced by the 80s drama Edge of Darkness, in which a policeman, Craven, played by Bob Peck (Mel Gibson in the unnecessary remake) seeks the killer of his activist daughter; the money/power nexus in this case having modish nuclear overtones, which combine with Craven’s own grief and obsession, and ultimately destroy him. The writer’s original intention, to have Craven demonstrate his eco-credentials by turning into a tree, was thwarted in the broadcast version, but is it too fanciful to see this as a precursor to Lynch’s Log Lady?

And, for the real geeks, how about the first season of Steven Bochco’s Murder One, in which the death of 15-year-old party girl Jessica Costello draws unwelcome attention to the activities of too-smooth plutocrat Richard Cross (Stanley Tucci) and ultimately wrecks the marriage of attorney Ted Hoffman (Daniel Benzali)? Like Twin Peaks, Murder One was ultimately stymied by the network’s convinction that viewers didn’t have the intelligence and/or attention span to follow such a complex plot; in common with The Killing, later episodes begin with a plot recap that actually confuses more than it explains.

Several other things unite the five shows. One is the definite sense of place in each one: the rainy, dark glumness of Copenhagen; the lonely claustrophobia of Twin Peaks; London’s grimy bustle; the Yorkshire Moors and their brutal beauty; the nasty gloss of Los Angeles. Partly because of this, the identity of the killer isn’t ultimately the most important thing in any of the stories. Like the inhabitants of David Simon’s Baltimore, or Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, the victims and killers and investigators and avengers are essentially the playthings of their environment.

And in each of the five narratives, the victim is barely a character in her own right: each woman exists simply to be killed, like a virgin bred for sacrifice. Only Emma Craven (Joanne Whalley), in Edge of Darkness, has a chance to register her own identity before she is gunned down. And yet each one reaches out beyond the grave: Nanna, Sonia and Jessica have each been captured on video, offering significant evidence to those seeking to solve their murders; Emma reappears in ghostly form, like an incestuous Cathy to her father’s brooding Heathcliff; and Laura Palmer reappears in the guise of her doppelganger cousin, Maddy Ferguson. (Apparently, Lynch cast Sheryl Lee as Laura simply because she made a good-looking corpse, but then created the character of Maddy when it turned out she could act as well.)

So, if it’s all been done before, what’s so groundbreaking about The Killing? Must be that jumper after all.