Monday, April 30, 2012

Unborn chicken voices

To mark (roughly) the fifth anniversary of my book about OK Computer, here are some small children talking about one of the songs on the album. The funny thing is, I bet the various members of Radiohead were just like these middle-class wannabe rock hacks when they were smaller. Not such good dancers, though, obviously.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Jim Thompson and the slap-up cream tea of stories

And we find ourselves in the Cameron Highlands, a weird but not unpleasant chunk of English countryside plonked down in the hills of northern Malaysia. The roadsides are dotted with hoardings promising cream teas and pick-your-own strawberries, and we enjoyed lunch in the mock-Tudor Smokehouse Hotel: mulligatawny, fish and chips, horse brasses and hunting scenes, to a soundtrack of ‘Kiss Me Goodnight, Sergeant-Major’. If we’d spotted Celia Johnson enjoying a chaste tryst with Trevor Howard it wouldn’t have felt out of place.

In the morning, we worked up an appetite with a walk to the Moonlight bungalow. It was from this remote house that the Bangkok-based silk tycoon Jim Thompson set out for his fateful stroll on Easter Sunday, 1967, never to be seen again. In the intervening years there have been dozens of theories to explain what happened to him, going from the banal (he had a heart attack and fell into a ravine) to the deliciously conspiratorial, involving the CIA, MI6, Communist insurgents, Taiwan, Indonesia, Nepal, drug smugglers, Freemasons, Opus Dei, Martians, take your pick. Our guide, who was 13 years old in 1967, firmly believes that Thompson staged his own disappearance because his own smuggling operations had created too many enemies.

Thompson has become a sort of Schrödinger’s cat figure, only persisting in the public imagination because nobody can agree what happened, suspended undead in the midst of multiple possible fates. And if any one of those possibilities were to be proved conclusively, everyone would lose interest and Thompson himself would fade from view.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Art news: burning the cakes

Swedish culture minister Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth has come under fire for cutting a cake designed to resemble a stereotyped African woman, although surely a smidgeon of opprobrium should fall on artist-cum-pâtissier Makode Linde, who also makes himself part of the installation, taking the role of the woman’s head, and screaming as the knife goes in. But things become even more confusing when one learns that Mr Linde is himself black and intended the piece to highlight the issue of female genital mutilation. It’s political correctness gone spongey, that’s what it is.

And then there’s the news of Neapolitan museum director Antonio Manfredi, who has protested against cuts in state funding by setting fire to some of his paintings. He’s doing this with the full support of the artists concerned, although surely they must have realised that Manfredi is making a bigger aesthetic statement than their own daubs could ever have managed; and the charred wisps will probably be worth more than the original canvases. If only the Momart people had thought to put such a spin on their unfortunate conflagration in 2004.

Apparently Manfredi also has form on the race front, having in 2009 impaled a life-size model of a black woman on the museum gates; but this was a dig at the mafiosi who control the African prostitutes in Naples. So that’s OK then.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

It took me years to write, will you take a look?

Ever since the dawn of the Railway Age there’s been someone telling us we’re all going too fast. The notion of Slow Food made some kind of sense; it’s healthier and more pleasurable to invest time and attention in preparing and eating food. But I’m a little bit uneasy about the notion of Slow Books that’s currently enjoying its moment in the sun, and not just because I remember when I was at school the term “slow reader” being used as a euphemism for a general state of intellectual inadequacy. The core idea – that people should aim to devote 30 minutes of the day to reading – is perfectly sound. The problem is that to the Slow Bookers, just reading is not good enough. No, you have to read “works that took some time to write and will take some time to read, but will also stay with us longer than anything else”. I’m all for a certain level of literary discrimination, but I’m not sure that a work’s aesthetic value should be measured in terms of the hours that went into its creation. And certainly not the hours it takes to read them, which would mean that some brick-like fantasy effort involving sword-wielding übermenschen and bosomy elf queens is more worthwhile than a relatively slim volume such as Of Mice and Men or The Great Gatsby.

I’ve no doubt that the whole thing has been provoked by the advent of e-readers; summoning up a text on a dinky screen seems somehow less serious than turning over a mildewy page that’s been hiding between cracked leather for decades. But the same arguments were used against paperbacks; what matters is that the words are the same.

That said, the default screensavers on my Kindle all refer back to the good old days, with monochrome images of hot metal type, hard copy newspapers and fountain pens. Then there’s this little beauty, which turns an antique typewriter into a keyboard for your iPad, perfect for writing your next steampunk masterpiece. It seems that we need to hang on to the style of analogue, without jettisoning the functionality of digital.

And apropos of not much, apart from the fact that it’s about books and I read it on a Kindle, here’s Steve Hely, in the persona of his narrator Pete Tarslaw, from How I Became A Famous Novelist:
Ask yourself: of all the books available to literate people, what monster chooses the job of ‘telling people how bad different books are’? What twisted fetishist chooses such a life?... Nor do I cut book reviewers any slack for ‘advancing the arts’ or ‘calling good work to our attention’ or ‘keeping the culture of letters alive’. If a guy drove around your neighborhood with a bullhorn, pointing out which people were too fat, he would be advancing wellness, and calling fitness to our attention, and keeping public health alive. But you would hate him. You would throw rocks at him, as well you should.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Titanic: my heart will go on, but only when the stars are in the correct alignment

Today, as you may have noticed, is the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. I was just about to type “so what?” but I don’t entirely mean that; so many people these days have such a sketchy grasp of the past, as anyone who watches Pointless could tell you. (My favourite example of this was a contestant who, when asked what she hoped might come up in the forthcoming show, said “anything from the last 10 years or so,” which would have been pretty much par for the course, had she not previously revealed herself to be a history graduate.) Obviously it’s a good thing that the mass mainstream media is giving at least passably serious coverage to something – other than the bloody Nazis of course – that happened way in the olden days. And yes, it really did happen, as one or two Twitter users have belatedly discovered. Although I’m sure there were a few foil-hatters around in 1912 who reckoned it was a hoax or an inside job or some sort of Jewish/Masonic conspiracy.

What I don’t get is why this hoo-hah, including commemorative cruises, a new requiem, a 3D re-release of Cameron’s idiotic movie, even recreations of the final meal (but only the first-class menu, oddly enough) all has to take place right now, purely because it’s a specific number of days after the original boat/ice interface. If we need an anniversary to focus our collective attention on the events, it suggests that the story wasn’t compelling enough; should we forget about it for another century? But then I’ve never really been bothered about birthdays either, and don’t get me started on the bloody Jubilee.

Which is why I have every sympathy for the comedian Alan Davies, who has been pilloried for asking why today should be held sacred simply because it’s 23 years since the Hillsborough disaster. Yes, it was a horrific incident, 96 innocent people died, and the suffering of their families has been made far worse by the apparent collusion of police and politicians to cover up the incompetence and negligence that allowed it to happen. But that was the case yesterday (when Liverpool played and won) and will also be the case tomorrow. The families don’t need a calendar to remind them.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Blogged down (return of the twazmuppet)

I didn’t really know what to expect when I started this blogging malarkey. I’d just heard that there was this thing that people were doing on the interwebs, and every article I read struggled to explain its appeal coherently and concluded with a vague exhortation to just, y’know, carry on and do it, then you’ll understand. A bit like planking, really. But this was the middle of the last decade, so nobody knew what planking was. Before planking, eh? That long ago. Fancy. So, anyway, I went to Blogger, for no particular reason other than it had the word blog in its name and I just carried on and did it, writing about vodka and pencils and Noel Coward’s boyfriends and similar good stuff. And for a couple of months I still didn’t get it, but then a few other people started commenting and I started commenting on their blogs and well, that was pretty much it, really. I tried to write about all the books I’d read and all the music I’d heard and all the movies I’d seen but pretty soon that slipped and I just wrote about any old nonsense, some of it not even revolving around Haruki Murakami or French postmodern cultural theory or Radiohead. I had fun, and got to know some interesting people, some of them in real life. Even got a few bits of work out of it, which was nice.

All good things don’t necessarily come to an end, but they do turn a few strange corners. Some blog chums (Patroclus, Spinsterella, Billy, Molly Bloom) seemed to fade out of view. Others (such as Kaz and, just a few days ago, the wonderful wizard called Oz) actually went and left us properly. And I kept on blogging but it all started to feel different. Sometimes I just couldn’t think of anything to say. And other times I knew what I wanted to say, but simply couldn’t summon up the energy and/or imagination to make it coherent or worthwhile. And while I’d never really worried about such vulgar gewgaws as traffic and eyeballs, I did notice that, while occasional posts drew a flurry of interest, people were far more interested in pictures of Helen Mirren and Charlotte Rampling in various states of undress. My blogging mojo seemed to be gearing itself up for a big “it’s not you, it’s me” moment.

And then I came upon the wise words of one Soc Med Sean, who suggests the questions one might wish to ask to give one’s abject self-loathing a little more intellectual rigour. I’ll just run through a few of them.

1. Who is your audience? Do you know who you want to attract to your blog? Have you written content that they would find interesting? If not... stop doing what you’re doing and formulate a plan to find new, interesting content.

I write what I find interesting. If that attracts an audience, that’s lovely. If I can’t find anything that interests me, I don’t post.

2. Is your content really interesting? Can it be scanned quickly?

You seem to imply that one necessarily follows the other; that interesting content by definition does not require long and detailed consideration. In short, that interesting content should be accessible to the lazy, incurious and dim. And what’s the point of that?

3. What are you writing about? Does your blog have a theme or is it just a collection of ramblings on various topics? If you don’t have a theme, why would anyone want to return? The goal of a good blog should be return visitors, these are the folks that are going to share your stories with their social networks. Give them something to come back to.

It is just a collection of rambling on various topics, but it also has a theme, namely stuff that interests me. Do try to keep up. And no, the goal of a good blog is not necessarily return vistors who are going to share on social networks. Now you’re just talking bollocks. I’ll just skip to the end, thanks.

9. Are you REALLY doing search engine optimization? If you’re not spending a couple hours each week just reading, analyzing, and reviewing the keywords you use in your posts, the cross-linking strategy between your internal posts, and your external linking strategy then you’re not doing enough. Do more!

Oh fuck off. REALLY fuck off. Do more fucking off! You twazmuppet.

Fortunately I then found a post on the rather splendid Include Me Out, which offers a far more cogent and helpful list of suggestions, and still leaves time for a couple of pints afterwards. But I don’t think he spends all that much time in reviewing the cross-linking strategy between his internal posts. Naughty blogger.

Never mind, here’s a nice picture of Charlotte Rampling. That usually does the trick, doesn’t it?

PS: Sam Burnett also discusses bloggers who drop and/or burn out. And haircuts.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Julian Spalding: exactly what it says on the tin

Damien Hirst’s Tate retrospective has opened and the reviews have been far from adulatory, which will no doubt please the curator-turned-critic Julian Spalding. To coincide with the momentous event, he’s released Con Art: Why You Should Sell Your Damien Hirsts While You Can, a bitter screed that targets not just Hirst or his YBA chums, but the whole notion of conceptual art, going back as far as Duchamp. In Spalding’s eyes, the problem with Damien and Marcel (along with Emin and the Chapmans, Andy Warhol and Piero Manzoni) is not simply that they make bad art: they don’t make art at all.

And this is where Spalding falls down. It’s easy to say why an artist is bad, but to do this you have to show why another artist is good. And here Spalding gets terribly bogged down. “Real art is always positive,” he bleats, which would disqualify plenty of the darker moments of Goya or Caravaggio. “Real art always has a face.” Eh? Maybe Spalding could have done with an editor. Con(ceptual) art is dismissed with reference to the Emperor’s New Clothes, an analogy that was tired the first time he made it, positively moribund when it comes round a fourth time. Con art is also allowed “to romp its rainbow rump across the public stage.” Henri Cartier-Bresson is described as waiting for a perfect shot “like an agitated Buddhist”. Maybe Spalding has a point that the YBA’s have sacrificed technique for meaning, but as a writer, he shows evidence of neither.

So furious is he with the whole notion of conceptualism that he fails to acknowledge those moments when it succeeds on its own terms, like a football fan denying the brilliance of a goal because it was scored by a team he loathes. Spalding caws over the fact that the Fountain urinal was almost certainly the brainchild of Baroness Elsa Von Freytag-Loringhoven, rather than of Duchamp; and that nobody really knows whether Manzoni’s tin cans actually contain his (or anyone’s) Scheisse. But such toying with notions of attribution and description is part and parcel of Dada and the scepticism it passed on to its successors. Spalding may not share the attitude, but he can’t accuse Duchamp and Manzoni of bad faith.

But still it comes back to that key question: if Hirst and Warhol are bad, what’s good? Michelangelo and Van Gogh get a nod, as do more recent artists, such as Lowry and Hockney. Beryl Cook is described as “genuinely original”. But since one of Spalding’s main charges against the Hirst & Co is their contempt for the ordinary art lover, he has very little to say about popular/populist painters working today. What of Jack Vettriano or Thomas Kinkade (RIP)? How about Rolf Harris? They’re pretty positive, aren’t they? Should Saatchi dump his Hirsts and instead invest in something that might appeal to Sun readers? Or is that just too much positivity?

A more focused analysis of the post-Sensation art market, perhaps with some historical context about artistic crazes of the past that later proved to be bubbles, would have been valuable, and Spalding clearly has the knowledge and experience to come up with something like that. Instead, in a very short e-book, he lashes out at everything he dislikes, seeming bitter, petulant and – for someone who lauds positivity so much – utterly, despondently negative.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Simon Cowell and what he’s good at

Simon Cowell gets plenty of hostile coverage, but that’s usually tempered with something along the lines of “Yes, but you must admit he’s terribly good at what he does.” And then there’s that line about how, if you criticise him too harshly, you’re implicitly criticising the millions of people who watch his shows, you elitist bastard.

OK, Simon Cowell is terribly good at what he does. Simon Cowell is terribly good at what he is. And what he is is a pimp. No, not a pimp – he’s a madame, a mama-san. He builds up a stable of willing whores, desperately craving their tiny fix of fame. The whores must possess a modicum of talent but – far more importantly – they must be saleable to the punters, the blank-eyed cruisers who don’t know much about art and don’t know what they like either, until Mama Simon hurls it to them, naked, oiled, bent over and quivering. And then they think, oh yes, we like this, don’t we, and they enjoy it. But the experience leaves them feeling a wee bit empty and, moreover, it’s all over embarrassingly soon. And ultimately, only one person is satisfied.

That’s what Simon Cowell is good at.