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.