Monday, January 30, 2012

Someone’s got to do it

On a recent episode of the weirdly compelling quiz show Pointless, a competing pair delighted the hosts, Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman, by announcing that they were catastrophe modellers; only to be outdone by the next couple, who make a living by dressing up as zombies. I rather suspect that the next series will feature Professor Kam Wing Chan of the University of Washington, who has apparently “made a career out of correcting people's exaggerated claims about Chinese population statistics”. What’s the oddest job description you’ve had; or that you’ve seen applied to others?

Friday, January 27, 2012

In dreams

Developers in Switzerland are planning a project that will house people with dementia in a mock-1950s village. Most of us who have spent time with someone suffering from Alzheimer’s or a similar condition will have noticed that long-term memories often remain clear long after the banal minutiae of today has become irreversibly fuzzy; the idea here, presumably, is that if someone thinks it’s 1952, why not create an environment that supports that illusion, free from any disturbing references to the recent. The present is a foreign country; we do things differently here.

One does wonder, though, whether the 1950s that will be created outside Berne will be an accurate replica, or one mediated through multiple subsequent representations of community life, whether it’s the wholesome innocence of Happy Days or the dark-underbelly school of David Lynch, The Truman Show or The Prisoner: carers dressed as gardeners and hairdressers will ensure that nobody leaves the village. Once again, we have a perfect simulacrum, a replica of something that never existed. I can see a small, silver-haired army shuffling across the trimmed lawns and past the hat shop, muttering “That is not what I meant at all; that is not it, at all.”

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


Long overcoats have gloomed their disapproval at news of Disney bringing out a t-shirt that squeezes the cover image of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures album into the shape of Mickey Mouse’s head. True, it’s a bit tacky, but I’m not sure that we should make the patronising assumption that those responsible don’t appreciate the bleak resonance of Peter Saville’s original design. It’s simply an act of recuperation, the absorption and appropriation of something that was once radical and challenging into the big, comforting womb of consumer capitalism. As such, it’s a) been going on for decades and b) a belated act of revenge for all the indignities that have been inflicted on the blameless rodent in the past in the name of d├ętournement, recuperation’s persistent mirror – a process that increasingly feels like scrabbling for the crumbs that fall from capitalism’s table then waiting until capitalism has gone to the toilet and putting the crumbs back on the table in an amusing pattern.

PS: And now... Public Image Limited in Primark!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sixteen sexual positions on the sand

Annie mentioned Philip Larkin’s poem Breadfruit, which got me thinking about some of the white, male inhabitants of Bangkok, negotiating the narrow line between depravity and pathos, as I’ve discussed in the past on CNN (see here and here). But then I thought a little deeper, and although Larkin’s specifically discussing the hopeless erotic fantasies of adolescent and/or senescent males, there’s more going on. The “dream of naked native girls” is any fond delusion in the head of anyone, whether a youthful yearning or a consolation in old age.

But while we’re on the subject of preposterous old predators surrounded by nubile flesh, a YouTube trawl provoked by the sad loss of Etta James somehow ended up here:

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Citation not required

So, where were you when Wikipedia went off on its 24-hour strop? The inevitable one-liners about journalists and students suffering emotional meltdown in the absence of their fountain of facts did raise a few questions. I mean, is it OK to use Wikipedia as a source provided you attribute and cite appropriately? Or has the haranguing pedantry of the Wiki editors forced us into a state of neurotic overcitation?

I’ve succumbed to this foible in the past, desperately ploughing through some arcane text that I haven’t really read so as to give a vaguely credible sheen to my inane ramblings. A little Adorno or McLuhan goes a long way. But Simon Reynolds has a better tactic, acknowledging that something is moderately interesting, but not important enough for a full-blown footnote. As he says in Retromania: “‘Plus/and’, a philosophical term of uncertain origins (I’m told Deleuze and Guattari used it), is the buzz concept.” The vague “I’m told...” is the clever bit. The Wikipedants would insist that he identify the person who told him.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


There is a Facebook campaign afoot to encourage Mattel to bring out a bald Barbie, to offer encouragement to girls who have lost their hair because of cancer treatment. While I can’t argue with the core motivation at work here – making sick children feel a bit happier – I do have a few qualms about what appears to be the endgame. Rather than toe-poking the whole ghastly Barbie aesthetic into the prehistoric swamp where it properly belongs, these well-meaning agitators just seek to shift the parameters a little: it is as important as ever to be a beewootiful puhwincess, it seems, but you can still achieve that goal even if you’re as hairless as a porn star’s undercarriage and throwing up every few hours.

Moreover, the campaigners have apparently missed the chance to offer a sense of empowerment to the children on whose behalf they claim to act. Want a bald Barbie? Get a normal Barbie; cut its hair off. And the same goes for those who prefer their anatomically unfeasible homunculi to be black or amputees or multiply pierced; do it yourself. Many was the happy hour I spent inflicting ghastly tortures on my Doctor Who doll, including a doomed attempt to create a functioning iron maiden from Lego. Are kids today really so incapable of such acts of creative destruction? Answers, if there are any, to be carved into the severed head of Action Man and sent to the usual address.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt (and kept it in pristine condition in a vacuum-sealed bag for four decades)

Simon Reynolds, in his excellent tome Retromania, discusses the historicity of rock ephemera, and the fact that psychedelic posters for concerts in San Francisco had become collectors’ items as early as 1968, only a few months after they first appeared. Which is interesting, but surely there’s a difference between trying to keep hold of souvenirs of a scene that’s still vital and happening on your own doorstep; and combing eBay for fragments of mojo from a phenomenon that was dead before your parents met? Or, for that matter, getting your stylist to find an original t-shirt featuring a glam-metal band whose music you’ve never heard? I think I still have a small cache of posters and flyers somewhere from the Exeter club scene of the late 80s; I didn’t think even back then that they were going to set the auction houses alight 25 years hence, but I hoped these two-tone scraps of Xerox and Letraset might remind me of a few good times (alongside the bad and mediocre ones). What the denizens of Haight-Ashbury were doing would become nostalgic/necrophiliac/retromaniac once they’d all sliced off their hair and become brokers; but in 1968 it was no more backward-looking than wearing that Nirvana t-shirt in 1992.

While we’re there, Retromania is the first book I purchased for my newly acquired Kindle; which says something, but I’m not sure what. Will I feel any nostalgic pangs about the grey-on-grey ones and zeroes, the way I might do about my copy of Reynolds’ previous book, the front cover of which was chewed off by a dog? And which will be more valuable on eBay?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Jocks trap

Slightly camp gammon robot (© Caitlin Moran) David Cameron has got it all worked out. The party he leads has at its very core the notion of Unionism, the political and emotional shackling together of England and Scotland. But at the same time he knows that it is that very Union that has kept his party away from uncompromised power for many years; even when it can command a majority of English MPs, those pesky Scots just keep saying no, the noo. But I think he’s seized on a brilliant idea; declaring his attachment to the Union in such a bumptious, arrogant, toffee-nosed, stereotypically English manner that he will delight his own party’s Anglo diehards, while ensuring that at any referendum, the vast majority of Scots will be united against him, thus ensuring both his own position, and also Tory hegemony  in the (geographically reduced) United Kingdom forever.

PS: In other news, Cameron wants Britain to make more formulaic, safe, mediocre films, because that’s what people like, isn’t it?

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Horse sense

I’ll admit to hypochondriac tendencies; not usually with regard to physical ailments, but sometimes when it comes to mental and/or behavioural quirks. For example, this moving but often funny article from the New York Times about the relationship between two teenagers with Asperger syndrome had me flinching with recognition:
A passage about the difficulty that people with autism have reading facial expressions reminded her of being mocked by a friend at age 5 with whom she had agreed to draw “angry ghosts.” The friend’s ghost had zigzag lines for scowling lips and a knitted brow. Kirsten, unsure how to depict anger, had drawn a blank-faced ghost with a dialogue box above its head that read “Grrr.”
But the glorious punchline came after the article was published, with a correction that seems by its very existence to celebrate Asperger’s not as a disorder or an encumbrance but as a lifestyle that contentedly beats its own, slightly divergent path:

Friday, January 06, 2012

Harry Potter and the postcolonial intertextual metanarrative

Hu Jintao, the president of China, has accused Harry Potter (among other manifestations of Western decadence) of being part of a cultural war against his country’s best interests. Which may be the case, but it’s one that the four-eyed wizardling is bound to lose, as for every upstanding Maoist corrupted by the insidious forces of Rowlingite decadence, there are 20 who will have tempered their Potter fix with a hefty slug of chinoiserie. Check out this list of fake Chinese Potter books, including Harry Potter and the Leopard Walk-Up-To Dragon and Harry Potter and the Filler of Big; not content with  boring old death-eaters, the authors bulk out their narratives with dinosaurs, hobbits, belly dancers, acrobats and someone called Big Spinach. A significant theme that pervades many of these insurgent reimaginings is that Harry’s own feeble, round-eye powers often need help from a passing Chinese wizard or two, whose skills make the witless gweilo look like the tired, imperialist running dog he really is. We even encounter Voldemort’s Asian twin, Yandomort, who’s probably twice as evil, and cheaper too. This is not so much piracy as an act of postmodern genetic splicing that leaves poor old JK spluttering in the meagre dust that is all that’s left of Western civilisation. President Hu is not the one who should be worried.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Don’t believe in Beatles

Popular crooner Cee Lo Green has, we are informed, caused something of a commotion by changing a key line in John Lennon’s popular ditty ‘Imagine’ from “no religion too” to “all religion’s true”.

Now, I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that the original song is beyond improvement: it’s probably one of the ghastliest things its author ever wrote, and in any case the line should really be “no religion either”. My complaint is that Mr Green’s new contribution is even more nonsensical than Lennon’s own pappy, feelgood platitudes. If all religion were really true, why would so many people with comedy beards be inflicting pain or mayhem on other people with comedy beards – or, more egregiously, people who don’t have comedy beards because, for reasons of age or gender, they can’t grow them – simply because of what someone did or didn’t say in a very old book? I was particularly taken by the news of ultra-orthodox Jews yelling “whore” and “Nazi” at six-year-old girls who have the effrontery to wear short-sleeved dresses.

Sometimes I do wonder whether some of life’s more immediate problems could be solved by putting equal numbers of the most hardline, fundamentalist Jews, Muslims and Christians in a locked room together, and playing one of Cee Lo’s less contentious numbers on repeat for 40 days and 40 nights until they all break down, or die or start having sex with each other. If nothing, it would make for a most diverting reality TV show. I must suggest it to the newly honoured Peter Bazalgette.