Thursday, March 29, 2012

Sister Wendy Beckett and the lost golden age of Latin subjunctives

Sister Wendy Beckett has bemoaned the fact that people don’t know the Bible or classical mythology and as such can’t appreciate much Western art. “In the past everybody knew these stories, although they didn’t necessarily live the spirit of them,” she says. “Everybody used to know the Greek myths and most people had a smattering of Latin, now they don’t.” Now, far be it from me to contradict the Mother Teresa of the art world, but I’m not sure she’s entirely correct. Before mainstream Christianity began to decline as the default philosophical position of most Brits (in the years following World War II), people would have had a better grasp of the most obvious bits of the Bible (the Nativity; the Crucifixion; Adam and Eve; Noah) and would know the Lord’s Prayer and a good few hymns (more ancient than modern) but I’m not sure a bog-standard Anglican would necessarily have been able to do much better than that. Catholics would probably score higher, but there haven’t been quite so many of them in the UK since that unpleasant business with Henry VIII a few years back. Which is, I guess, what Sister Wendy is really bemoaning. Everything was all going so nicely until that pesky Reformation.

As for the smattering of Latin she describes, I’m not sure that was ever the case either. Until the 1870 Education Act, the provision of schooling in Britain was patchy in the extreme; even after that date, most kids could hope at best to get a grasp of the three R’s before being pushed into the factories or fields that were tdeemed to be their right and proper place. And once state-funded grammar schools had been introduced, they still only catered for the most able minority; there wasn’t much room for amo amas amat in secondary moderns. (Of course it had always been available to the private educated; Radleian Peter Cook presumably had the Latin that his creation EL Wisty lacked.) Maybe everybody knew the Greek myths, but only if you believe that “everybody” means “everybody with whom Sister Wendy Beckett came into regular social or professional contact” which is a rather different thing. Beckett’s cloistered existence, it seems, has always excluded such ungodly distractions as the inadequately educated. Until now, maybe. What’s changed is not so much the number of people who don’t know who Medusa was, or can’t fully appreciate Rubens, but the fact that such people now have a public voice, which permeates even to Sister Wendy’s little caravan.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Daily Mail: Hurrah for the Berserkers!

In the New Yorker, Lauren Collins offers an outsider’s view of the Daily Mail that may not startle those intimately associated with its lucrative blend of sanctimony, prurience and dementia, but still offers a few choice nuggets. “The Mail is less a parody of itself than a parody of the parody, its rectitudinousness cancelling out others’ ridicule to render a middlebrow juggernaut that can slay knights and sway Prime Ministers,” she argues. And, lest hacks on rival rags start to feel too smug: “In Britain, unlike in the United States, television tends to be a dignified affair, while print is berserk and shouty.”

Friday, March 23, 2012

Only puppets, you know... for children...

It’s all Nick Hornby’s fault, I suppose. Fever Pitch kicked off that whole genre of Blokes Remembering Stuff That Was Important To Them When They Were Younger, Preferably in The Seventies, which at its best could offer a potent blend of pop psychology and social history; at its, well, not-best, it involved the likes of Jamie Theakston sitting in front of a camera mumbling “Buck Rogers... space dust... Torvill and Dean... clackers... ” until someone turned off the lights.

The problem with these memoirs is that the reader responds to them not because of their intrinsic merits, but on the basis of empathy with the experiences described. So if you like football, you’ll like Fever Pitch; if you like Arsenal you’ll really like Fever Pitch; and if you’re also a bald 50-something novelist who likes Springsteen  and Anne Tyler as well as Arsenal, well why don’t you and Hornby just book a hotel room together?

I didn’t mind football when I was a kid, but I preferred Doctor Who. So I guess I’m a closer fit with Nick Griffiths, the author of Dalek I Loved You, which is basically Fever Pitch with Liam Brady replaced by Jon Pertwee. Ah, but then one starts getting picky. Griffiths is three years older than me, and his first DW memory is Spearhead from Space, also the first Pertwee story. I’m not quite sure what mine is – I do have distinct memories of The Sea Devils, but I would only have been three years old when that was first broadcast. Maybe I only remember the net-clad reptiles because one of their number appeared on the back cover of the 10th anniversary special; Griffiths still has his copy, carefully wrapped in plastic, but I’ve no idea what became of mine.* So my first story was probably The Three Doctors (and I do definitely remember that show, not just the Radio Times cover).

Anyway, it’s a gently amusing memoir as far as the Doctor-related stuff goes, taking you from collecting the Weetabix cards to actually meeting Elisabeth Sladen, but for some reason Griffiths insists on running through the various other things he got up to while he was growing up (his model seems to be Andrew Collins rather than Hornby) and this plays havoc with his structure as we leap from Who-related stuff to his other crazes, such as Action Man. Moreover, his grasp of fact and detail is less strong on the non-Who bits: he thinks the TV show On The Move was aimed at deaf people (it was made to tackle adult illiteracy) and Fanny Cradock’s name is misspelled. C’mon, if you’re going to be a geek, get it right.

But all this can be forgiven because at one point Griffiths lets slip his childhood address and it turns out that he lived not just in the same village, but on the same road as me. OK, he’d moved out about a decade before I arrived, and by that time Peter Davison had taken over and DW had become rather less essential. But for a moment, that weird bond of shared geography (yes, Nick, I know the Co-op of which you speak) dragged me in just a little closer to his world. And then of course, I realised I’d fallen into the tiresome trap set by the whole genre: these books are more about the reader than they are about the writer.

*The cover of the 10 anniversary special is also the only instance of Pertwee encountering a Cyberman during his stint as the Doctor, unless one counts his return in The Five Doctors (1983). But you knew that, of course.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Bret Easton Ellis, Tyler Brûlé and the 21st century dandy psychopath

Bret Easton Ellis, we are informed, is contemplating writing a sequel to American Psycho, his most (in)famous novel. The Patrick Bateman de nos jours, he tells us, is now a hedge fund manager in LA who likes Celebrity Apprentice and Kim Kardashian. The modern-day heirs to Whitney, Phil and Huey are Coldplay, about whom he pontificates at length, before killing the singer over waffles. There is always a distinct possibility that Ellis’s declaration of intent is – like the original novel itself – a glorious wind-up, but since his whole literary career has become one big metanarrative, the author and his characters looping in and out of his tales, we may never know. The Twitter conversation that spawned all the fanboy drooling may turn out to be as fiction – or as factual – as, say, Lunar Park.

In any case, aren’t we just a tiny bit tired of bad bankers? If Ellis really wants to present us with a 21st-century psychopath, why not latch onto the likes of Tyler Brûlé, the man behind the magazines Wallpaper* and Monocle. Brûlé is not someone who’d fire you for putting your jacket on the back of a chair; he’s someone who – it’s implied in this interview – wants to be thought of as the sort of person who might fire you for putting your jacket on the back of a chair, without actually having the guts to do it. Which, in a strange way, is rather more Bateman-esque.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

What Marilyn Hagerty means for the future of criticism, the internet and pretty much everything else

Marilyn Hagerty is an 85-year-old columnist for the Grand Forks Herald, the main daily newspaper in the third largest city in North Dakota. Last week she wrote a glowing review of the new Olive Garden outlet that opened there, lauding the breadsticks, the chicken alfredo, the identification of gluten-free food, the flowers, even the fireplace. She wasn’t tempted by the raspberry lemonade, though. “All in all, it is the largest and most beautiful restaurant now operating in Grand Forks,” she declared.

Well, Mrs Hagerty’s starry-eyed enthusiasm was picked up by a food blogger in Denver, and quickly moved up the online hierarchy until Gawker mentioned it and the interwebs went bonkers in a sardonic sort of way. “I’ve been a lot of things,” mused Marilyn, “but never viral.” As her son put it, in the Wall Street Journal of all places, “some people pursue celebrity. Others stumble into it as they are rushing off to bridge club.”

The initial tone of the hipster adopters was one of gentle, amused condescension; because she chose to review Olive Garden at all (it’s a vast corporate chain of pseudo-Italian restaurants, with a critical reputation little better than that of Harvester or Nando’s in the UK) and because she enjoyed it so much. But there were plenty willing to take up Marilyn’s cause against these snooty, sneering elitists and pretty soon the whole thing had the makings of a good, old-fashioned American culture war, with the Grand Forks Olive Garden representing all that’s honest, decent and uncomplicated about the flyover states, no matter what the coastal snarkers may think. You just know that Rick Santorum is right now trying to arrange a photo-op at his local Olive Garden; while Mitt Romney will just say he knows the guy who runs the company.

But there’s something else going on. Let’s go back to Andrew Keen and the preposterous arguments he made about free, online culture allowing self-important amateurs (bloggers) to push aside seasoned, experienced professionals with all the right credentials and qualifications (journalists). But hang on a moment. Here we have knowledgeable foodies sniping from their online vantage points at the cheerful granny who makes no great claims to any profound understanding of the culinary arts, but she just knows what she likes, and she says it. Hagerty is something akin to Keen’s caricatures of the solipstic blogger. But she does it in a print newspaper. And she gets paid for it, or so we must assume. Like the fans of Céline Dion and blue landscapes, she doesn’t know much about food but knows what she likes and the good people of North Dakota like her in turn. And we realise that not only do most people not know either, they don’t care that they don’t know – in fact, they probably prefer it that way.

Oh, we’re all doomed. Go on, have a breadstick.

PS: And the original review gets re-reviewed. By, um, Ernest Hemingway.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Andy Warhol in a skimpy bikini

Strangely, I don’t write very much about fashion. Not, I hasten to add, because I find the subject trite and banal and 97% of the people connected with it utterly vacuous and revolting. Far from it – the problem is that I’m simply not clever enough to understand it.

Let me give you an example. I am informed that La Perla’s spring/summer 2012 swimwear collection “embodies the attitude and audacity of pop artist greats Andy Warhol and Piet Mondrian through its incorporation of bright hues and bold prints.” Which is nice. Except that Mondrian died in 1944, several years before the phrase “pop art” was ever coined. They’re on rather steadier ground with Warhol, you’d think; although the specific works the costumes are attempting to emulate are AW’s flower prints, which represented his conscious response to fine art, to Monet’s lilies and Van Gogh’s daffodils, rather than to the popular culture and mass production that characterise the subject matter of pop art. And the Mondrian reference, it turns out, is not to anything that the artist ever painted, but to Yves St Laurent’s Mondrian dress, from 1965. If pop art was about turning mass culture into something that could hang in galleries and command multi-million-dollar sums at auction, then YSL’s dress and La Perla (and Warhol’s flower designs themselves, having straddled the divide between post-impressionism and fridge magnets) do the precise opposite, and my ability to coin a witty neologism is only stifled by the fact that “pop” is a palindrome. Warhol made art about pop; these bikinis are pop about art.

Or maybe they’re not even that. When you finally get to look at said cossies, their resemblance to the works of Warhol and Mondrian is that they’ve got flowers and checks on them, pretty much. So by doing the complete opposite of pop art (which now encompasses non-pop artists, to the extent that Andy and Piet presumably share their studio with Schrödinger’s cat or something) and creating something that looks nothing whatsoever like pop art, La Perla “embodies the attitude and audacity” of said pop (?) artists.

See what I mean? Far too clever for me.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Céline Dion playing the bagpipes while riding a hippo

In his rather wonderful Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, essentially a book that asks why cool people loathe Céline Dion and what that says about them, Carl Wilson discusses the work of the Russian-born conceptual artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid. For their People’s Choice project they commissioned polls in 11 countries to determine what exactly people wanted from visual art. Preferences varied in small details according to location, but in every country there was a distinct fondness for large, predominantly blue pictures featuring historical figures and animals. So for the Americans they created a big landscape with a lake, George Washington and (you can just about make it out to George’s left as we look at him) a hippopotamus.

But, you may ask, what the ruddy flip does this collision of conceptualism and chocolate box have to do with the angular, honking, forever-entwined-in-our-collective-consciousness-with-interminable-maritime-calamity Québécois songstress? Well, for their next trick, Komar and Melamid asked what people liked and disliked in music. And what they liked was a song about love, played in a modern rock/R&B style, at a moderate tempo, featuring guitars and saxophones and drums. And it had to last about five minutes. Essentially, they liked the sort of songs that Céline sings. What they didn’t like included accordions, bagpipes, banjos and tubas, rapid transitions between extreme tempos and pitches, atonality, rap, jingles and lyrics about cowboys. And they didn’t much care for songs that went on too long. Inevitably, after the artists asked their musician friend Dave Soldier to create songs that matched these specifications, it was the 25-minute cowboy song that people preferred. Which really means that the next time someone says that they don’t know much about art/music/poetry but they know what they like, they’re only half right.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Engelbert Humperdinck and how journalism works today

As you may have heard, septuagenarian crooner Engelbert Humperdinck has been chosen to represent le Royaume Uni in the forthcoming Eurovision Song Contest in Azerbaijan. Apparently some users of the BBC’s website were less than enthusiastic about the choice. Journalist Sara Nathan read their comments and turned them into an article in the Daily Mail. Then an anonymous hack read the story in the Mail and turned it into a story in the Telegraph. Next time someone like Andrew Marr or Andrew Keen characterises bloggers as half-arsed amateurs who never get out of their pyjamas, they should be forced to listen to non-stop Eng until they recant.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Ian Penman reclaims pretension for/from the masses

Ian Penman, interviewed by Pat Long in his new book The History of the NME; extract published at Rock’s Back Pages:
I didn’t really like punk. It promised all of this change but soon we were just going back to the same old rock‘n’roll thing, which I had no emotional investment in. I knew next to nothing about rock music history. If you’d quizzed me about the Byrds or Iggy or the Velvet Underground, I’d be lost. I knew nothing. I’d never read Lester Bangs... Compendium Books in Camden had a great section of French philosophy and I just started getting into all of these great writers. I didn't understand half of it at the time, but I remember opening a book of Jacques Derrida and it just looked amazing: all this playfulness with the layout and white space. Roland Barthes was the same. It was wonderful writing but it was laid out and played games with the reader. It was immensely pleasurable and refreshing when everyone else was trying to write like Martin Amis, which was just stale and airless and like something from 1964... The cliché that grew up at the time around me and Paul [Morley] was that we were pretentious, which I’m not ashamed of. Pretentious is just another word for aspiring to something, for trying something out. There was this idea that we were these grey long-coated Echo and the Bunnymen fans sitting in darkened rooms reading French philosophy. It wasn’t like that at all. We were having fun. Because I didn’t know about rock‘n’roll history and rock‘n’roll writing I didn’t realise that you had to write in a certain way about things. In the middle of a singles column once I started writing about Marks and Spencer’s mayonnaise, recommending this mayo instead of some single. It was supposed to be funny...

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Gilbert and Georges

Th Frnch writr Gorgs Prc did 30 yars ago today. H wrot a whol book without using th lttr “”. I hav not rad it, not vn th translation by Gilbrt Adair, who did last yar. But I lik his bard.

And talking of George, but a different one, and missing an “s” this time, and a different Gilbert as well, here is Gilbert Proesch, from an interview with the still-glorious duo in The Guardian: 
Every English artist who has a show in Tate Britain is finished two weeks later. It’s the kiss of death. If you have Tate Modern, then the other one must be Tate Old-Fashioned. 
Following such impeccable logic, perhaps the imperilled Battersea Power Station should be saved for the nation and reinvented as Tate Postmodern. Or, just for today, Tat Postmodrn.

PS: And in The Economist, George explains the sort of landscape he likes: “If a policeman is on the horizon and a tramp is masturbating in the foreground, then it could be an interesting picture.”