Sunday, February 24, 2013

PG Wodehouse: the bland leading the Blandings

The recent TV adaptation of PG Wodehouse's Blandings stories appears to have provoked not a little discontent among the author's devotees, the gist being that the stories have been dumbed down to appeal to the same audience that is lapping up Downton Abbey; specifically, viewers in the United States. The latter charge does seem a little unfair; the stories were mostly written when Wodehouse was in the US (he became a citizen in 1955) and all were published in the former colonies before they appeared in the UK. In many ways, the new version is taking them home.

As to whether they actually work or not as adaptations of the stories, I've kept my counsel because, for no particular reason I'd never actually read a Blandings story until this week. To be honest, I think I've only ever read a couple of the Jeeves and Wooster yarns and I can't recall being desperately impressed by them. Of course, I've adhered to the orthodoxy that Wodehouse is in the ranks of the comic greats, simply because his best one-liners, his apposite, absurd metaphors and similes are endlessly quoted and requested. And very funny they often are; but are they enough to qualify him as A Good Writer?

I picked up a compendium of Blandings stories so I could find out; for the record, it's Lord Emsworth Acts for the Best, first published by Penguin in 1992 but containing for the most part stories written in the 1930s. The first time we encounter the titular earl (in The Custody of the Pumpkin) he is attempting to look through his new telescope and complaining that it doesn't work. Fortunately, his butler Beach is on hand to advise him that the lens cap is still in place. Ho ho. A dedicated Wodehousian would suggest that this immediately demonstrates the loveable, batty other-worldliness of Lord Emsworth; whereas an objective newcomer might be forgiven for thinking it's an old, tired, lame joke that would just about pass muster in one of the lesser Carry On films.

That said, The Custody of the Pumpkin does contain at least one of those quotations that are always being recited by fans keen to maintain his reputation: "It is never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine." It's quite funny the first five or six times you hear it, although it began to pall when it was wheeled out every few hours in the dying days of Gordon Brown's premiership. And when seen in context, applied as it is to Lord Emsworth's gardener McAllister, it highlights the fact that those characters who don't come from the landed classes are treated as little more than music-hall stereotypes. The gardener is less a character, more a manifestation of grim Presbyterian glowering through a ginger beard. He talks funny too, all stretched vowels and rolled R's. Similarly, we encounter a park keeper and a policeman whose discourse comprises little but comedic officiousness and dropped aitches; and in a subsequent story there is a Cockney called Gladys who offers the following:
"A treat, ain't they?" she agreed eagerly. "I got 'em for 'im up at the big 'ahse. Coo! The old josser the plice belongs to didn't arf chase me. 'E found me picking 'em and sharted somefin at me and come runnin' after me, but I copped 'im on the shin wiv a stone and 'e stopped to rub it and I come away."
Now, to be fair, Wodehouse does not invest his aristocratic characters with immense psychological depth either; but they tend to be rendered in something approaching two dimensions. Just about.

The odd thing - for me at least - is that many other writers, some of whom I admire immensely, are unstinting with their admiration for Wodehouse's craft. The Penguin compilation has an introduction by the late Frank Muir (another writer I find amusing in small, select doses but I couldn't eat a whole one) in which he quotes Evelyn Waugh thus: "One has to regard a man as a Master who can produce on average three uniquely brilliant and quite original similes to every page." Well, it's an admirable skill, certainly, but does it really make him a master? Douglas Adams - also named by Muir as an admirer - was undoubtedly a very funny writer but I still maintain he never wrote an entirely successful novel; even his first and best has a deeply unsatisfying ending, mainly as a result of Adams's own procrastination. Waugh himself might only conjure up such a belter every few pages, but his own jokes are created to serve plot and characterisation and ideas, the stuff that matters in fiction, whether funny or serious. In Wodehouse, the funnies have to be good because, frankly, little else happens. The similarity between the two writers is that they deal with similar characters from similar social backgrounds; the difference is that Waugh often places his in scenarios of serious peril (over half his novels include a war or similar upheaval), the harshness of which accentuates the comedy when it comes. Peril for Lord Emsworth is when his pumpkin or pig seems unlikely to triumph at the local agricultural show. At least in Downton Abbey people occasionally die.

Of course, it's not inherently wrong in depicting a world in which nothing seriously disagreeable ever happens; one delight of books such as those involving Just William, Jennings and Billy Bunter, successful series published at the same time as Wodehouse's stories, is the extent to which the main characters perceive minor inconveniences (a bad school report; some missing cakes) as a crisis fit for a Greek tragedy. But these are stories about children; Wodehouse's world only makes sense if we accept that its inhabitants are suffering from some kind of arrested development, that they are essentially children as well. The critics argue that the new TV version is too crass, too broad, too obvious; too childish. I'm not arguing that its makers have created brilliant art; but in adapting the shows they may have seized upon a truth that the Wodehousians don't dare to confront.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Stainless stealing

I’m intrigued by this article from Germany about the industry in ghosting PhD theses. It seems that the problem is not so much ethics as one of quality control; if someone with no academic grounding in a subject can knock up a thesis worthy of a doctorate in a matter of weeks, how low exactly is the hurdle that needs to be jumped? The guy actually doing the work – I see a potential film script or a novel in here – has an attitude that veers between cynicism and honesty:
The relationship between professors and their doctoral candidates has often been minimized down to a lazy wave-through... A proper doctoral supervisor would be able to tell that the style and intellectual level of the text could never have come from the person sitting across from him during consultation meetings... If the universities functioned properly, my job wouldn’t exist.
Maybe we’ve got to the stage where the battle’s just not worth fighting any more. A student or journalist might put in all the honest grunt work, but what if their properly attributed source material is itself debased? Are you contaminated if you’re protected by six degrees of plagiarism? I was recently editing an article in which a piece of text set off several alarm bells and when I threw a few sentences into Google, it appeared to be pretty much lifted from a website. The journalist claimed innocence, but did admit that the interview had been done by email. It turns out the interviewee had plagiarised his answers. What do we do when that happens?

PS: Duh, there is already a book (at least partly) about a character who ghostwrites academic material: How I Became a Famous Novelist, by Steve Hely. It’s pretty funny.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Photographing food: eating with your mouth closed

I don’t actually have a principled objection to people taking pictures of their food: that said, it can be annoying when they insist on taking pictures of my food as well and won’t let me start eating it until they’ve snapped it from five different angles.

What worries me, however, is what such ad hoc snapping replaces. Instagram and Tumblr are quintessential media for our post-literate age, in that they do away with the need for all that pesky writing and spelling and syntax stuff that seemed so vital in the days when blogging looked like the future (see the second quote here). But they also ensure that people can document their various realities without engaging in any kind of critical thinking. Clearly one’s choice of subject implies a certain level of discrimination, but ultimately the burden of analysis is placed on the person viewing the photo, and that’s often based on something other than the quality of the picture or even the specific content. We respond differently to someone photographing a meal at The Fat Duck than to someone doing the same thing at Nando’s. I’ve seen people photographing their frappucinos; am I entitled to have a critical response towards such a phenomenon? If photographers don’t explicitly review the food, we fill the gap by reviewing the photographers. Ultimately it’s all about them; see the tumblr Pictures of Hipsters Taking Pictures of Food.

I’m in the middle of Steven Poole’s You Aren’t What You Eat: Fed Up With Gastroculture, in which he excoriates the drooling excesses of chefs, critics and foodies. It’s an entertaining read and he makes many good points about the daft ways in which food has been raised to the level of art or sex. But ultimately, if we worry too much about the risk of hyperbole when writing about food – or about anything – we may as well just put down “And then I had gazpacho and then I had lamb chops and then I had baked Alaska and it was all nice.” Or we might as well just take photos and not say or write or think anything at all.

Friday, February 08, 2013

Gustave Courbet and the bits of a woman

A painting found in a Paris junk shop now turns out to be the missing head section of Gustave Courbet’s The Origin of the World. The Daily Mail covers the story but finds itself unable to publish the better known bottom half of the picture, although it does make a passing reference to “female genitalia” and includes a rough, unattributed sketch that could indeed be intended as a depiction a lady’s down-belows but might equally be a head of broccoli, or maybe a map of Austria.

I’m not sure whether the Mail’s reticence is down to squeamishness over the depiction of women’s naughty bits per se, or the fact that Courbet’s subject is rather unkempt by modern standards. I recently had to explain to some younger colleagues what a merkin was and they were baffled that anyone might want to add hair to that particular area; theirs is a world of scrupulous waxing and they can conceive of no other. Ultimately I think it’s just that pervasive cognitive dissonance about the female body; mass media drools over it and is repulsed by it at once. On a similar theme, I did rather like the advice given to those attending this year’s Grammy Awards
Please avoid exposing bare fleshy under curves of the buttocks and buttock crack... Bare sides or under curvature of the breasts is also problematic. Please avoid sheer see-through clothing that could possibly expose female breast nipples.
The other thing I find intriguing is that a picture depicting one part of the human body should necessarily have one or more sibling paintings that can be put together to form a whole. Does this mean that somewhere in the world there’s an image of the Mona Lisa’s front bottom; or perhaps the Laughing Cavalier’s equally chucklesome meat and two veg? I wonder how the Daily Mail might report such a find? 

Thursday, February 07, 2013


You see the thing is, I used to know Tony. Wouldn’t have described him as a friend; but he was this guy who used to come over and get stoned with my flatmate so I must have made him a cup of tea or two. And I suppose, because he was a few years older and had done some exciting stuff with proper musicians and actually seemed to make a living from it, that I was a wee bit in awe of him. He just seemed to know what was going on. He seemed so London.

And then, by some weird chance, I came across this film.

The Musician and his Soul from Eoin Macken on Vimeo.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Know what I’m saying?

When I heard the news that 138,000 people living in England and Wales can’t speak any English, my immediate reaction was “Is that all?” The notion that everybody from Newcastle to Newquay might be expected to understand each other is, in historical terms, relatively new, and a product of mass media and widespread literacy.

In any case, I’d guess that a country where over 99% of the population have some vague grasp of the lingua franca looks like a model of homogeneity compared to some other places. Take Thailand, for example. And I’m not just talking about the various foreigners who order their beers in combinations of sign language and shouting – hey, don’t look at me, I can ask for a plate of som tam as well, and get a taxi home without a phrasebook. There are also illegal Burmese maids and Cambodian construction workers and Russian gangsters, not to mention those stateless, paperless refugees and people from various hill tribes whose links to the modern world, let alone the Thai nation, are tenuous at best.

And I’ve also noticed another group, that on the face of it is by no means on the margins of Thai society. It consists of well-heeled young Thai people, often – but by no means exclusively – luk kreung or mixed-race, whose education has been a mixture of international schools in Thailand and universities in the US and/or UK. They speak Thai when needs be, when communicating with maids or shop assistants, although English is their lingua franca. But it’s a strange, mid-Atlantic English, with idioms all of its own and stresses in all the wrong places; an English that is better used to communicate with other cosmopolitan offspring of jetsetters and diplomats than with anyone who grew up in a conventional English-speaking environment. I suspect this phenomenon exists in other places as well; a highly educated (or, to be more precise, highly qualified) cadre of young people who aren’t actually fluent in any known language.

Which is, I admit, a pretty lame excuse to present this, without comment:

PS: After pressure from the Thai government, it appears that YouTube has agreed to ditch the above clip, although as far as I can see it’s mocking US sex tourists rather than Thai people. But in its brief life it did provoke some delightful invective; my favourite comment was “Your brain is not in the heads. it's in your penis so, that's why it's so tiny and your sketch is just a crap of dogs.” I’ll be using that sometime soon, I know.

PPS: Oh, right – it’s just blocked in Thailand. So people are still mocking Thai culture, but Thai people can’t see it happening. So that’s OK then. I think.

PPPS: And the final word...