Sunday, April 28, 2013

In which I turn into The Great Gatsby

For some time now, the first site to come up when you Google “The Great Gatsby” has been the one heralding the much-delayed movie version rather than anything directly related to Fitzgerald’s novel per se. It’s easy enough to be sniffy about this, but at the same time it’s almost certain that Baz Luhrmann’s version of the book will prompt many people to read it for the first time; and the experience may well nudge some previously reluctant readers into a better appreciation of the written word overall. As such, there’s a new paperback edition available, featuring Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan and the other stars on the cover; but at the same time, a version with the original cover art is also selling very well. As the New York Times reports, there’s a neat socio-economic divide when it comes to which version is stocked where: indie stores in SoHo only stock the old style; WalMart restricts itself to the Leonardo variant; Barnes & Noble has both. Reaction to the new cover has been a little vociferous; as one bookseller squawks:
It’s just God-awful... ‘The Great Gatsby’ is a pillar of American literature, and people don’t want it messed with. We’re selling the classic cover and have no intention of selling the new one.
Well, that told us, although I think his definition of “people” could do with a little examination. And remember that the original cover (the disembodied face of which, I’ve long maintained, is a nod to Aubrey Beardsley’s hovering Oscar Wilde caricature in The Platonic Lament, but maybe I overthink this stuff) divided opinion when it appeared in 1925; Hemingway hated it, for one. But the tension does remind us that, Kindles notwithstanding, buying a book is often about far more than a simple desire to peruse the text within. Some people will be nervous about even purchasing The Great Gatsby and the appearance of DiCaprio et al reassures them that, yes, this is the book of the film you saw and enjoyed at the weekend. Others of course want to make it quite clear that their choice of reading matter has absolutely nothing to do with Hollywood and they were aware of Gatsby’s centrality to the American literary canon well before the movie was even contemplated; although if they know this, shouldn’t they be sporting the battered, scribbled-upon copy they’ve been reading and re-reading for the past 15 years, rather than some spanking new simulacrum of the first edition? Nevertheless, both purchasers may want to use their respective covers to communicate their choices and feelings to others; and to demonstrate the fact that, whatever their differences, they both feel superior to desperate journalists who think that one of the most melancholy tomes of the past 100 years is just an excuse for a party or a way to sell hair care products. Hey, whatever the cover looks like, at least the words inside are the same. Unless you pick up this version by mistake.

I don’t have a dog in the fight, if there needs to be a fight. I’ve said for some time that I came to Gatsby relatively late in the day, as its literary significance wasn’t so crucial in the rather Eurocentric environment in which I was educated. But is that really the case? A browse of this blog’s archive reveals that at the end of 2007 I was shouting about having read it for the first time that year, although I was aware how tardy I’d been. And yet, a mere six months before that I’d written:
For some reason, I’d convinced myself that I’d never actually read The Great Gatsby. So I picked up a second-hand copy and, of course, the point at which I realised that I had actually read it was the sentence that made me think “wow” the first time round.
Apparently I did read it at some point (the earlier post makes a couple of references to the age of 19, so maybe that’s it) but forgot the fact, then remembered, then forgot again within a matter of months. Or maybe one of those states – the having-read or the not-having-read, I genuinely don’t know any more – began as a lie, an affectation, that I somehow came to believe in. Maybe, like Gatsby, I’ve invented a whole identity for myself, although I’ve gone one further and started to think it was all true, getting lost in my own creation. Remind me never to pretend to be driving; talking of believing your own stories, do you think the Huhnes ever read Gatsby? That may not make any sense to you, of course; you’ll just have to read the book. One of them, at least.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Sofyen Belamouadden and the perils of pixels

I was interested to read in the Telegraph the remarks of DCI John McFarlane about the events that led to the horrific murder of Sofyen Belamouadden at Victoria Station in 2010:
People are playing games on computers in which people are getting stabbed and shot... Where is the real world? For them there is a blurring between the real world and those in the computer world. There was a blurring of the reality. 
I appreciate that McFarlane’s words are probably being used selectively and out of context (more reality blurring at work, then) but there are a few things that need unpicking here. First, it has to be pointed out that scare stories about violent entertainments predate computer games by a century or more. 19th-century penny dreadfuls, 1930s gangster movies, horror comics in the 1950s and so-called video nasties in the 1980s all prompted moral panics about the degeneracy of contemporary youth and were tied, with varying degrees of accuracy, to specific crimes of violence. Computer games are just the latest bad guys.

But McFarlane then appears to move seamlessly from the violence depicted in the games to the uncertain border between the real and virtual worlds; kids believe, it is implied, that if they can dismember 20 ones-and-zeroes bad guys in an afternoon with no comeback, they should be able to pull off a similar stunt amidst the bricks and mortar of a London rail terminus. So what’s the real problem; the Baudrillardian detachment from reality or the virtual violence they experience in that space? I ask because it’s later revealed that the investigation into the murder required sifting evidence from 80 mobile phones, 30 computers and over 1,000 hours of CCTV footage. If anyone’s in danger of getting lost in a hyperreal screen dream it’s the poor saps sitting through that lot.

And I can’t help thinking that conservative scaremongering about stylised violence and/or blurred realities is a wee bit rich since they’re both manifestations of globalised capitalism; which, since the arrival of the Blessed Margaret – now, there’s a simulacrum to think about – has been the only game in town.

Oh, one more telling sentence from the Telegraph report:
The attackers were all A-level students from St Charles Catholic VI Form College in West London, with many coming from respectable middle class homes. 
I don’t get it. Is that supposed to make things better or worse?

Monday, April 15, 2013

Is Justin Bieber a wonky robot?

Ridicule and worse has greeted Justin Bieber’s apparent conviction that the highest compliment he might pay to Anne Frank is the hope that had she lived today she would have been one of his fans. Of course this is just the latest in a succession of PR pratfalls that have befallen the Canadian popster in recent weeks; there have been altercations with photographers, odd Twitter outbursts, fainting fits, that notorious two-hour delay in his O2 show and the ongoing legal spat over his monkey.

The simian-related brouhaha has of course prompted comparisons with another child star who had a troubled road to adulthood; indeed, some would argue that Bubbles’s owner never really completed the transition, even though he reached the chronological age of 50. There is a difference though; when Michael Jackson first strutted on the global stage, he appeared to be a normal – albeit preposterously talented – child. It was only later that he began to morph into what I described in my Noughties book as “a grotesque post-human, a parody of celebrity concocted by a cabal of publicists and plastic surgeons”.

But when Bieber appeared, he was already hyperreal. That absurd, androgynous smoothness to which Jackson began to aspire in his mid-20s was already Bieber’s default setting as a teenager, as if he yearned to be the ‘after’ shot in an acne cream commercial. It may be something to do with the new demands made by technological advances in visual media; not only are cameras everywhere but they can pick out and magnify flaws with infinitely greater cruelty than could have been managed when young Michael was first busting his moves. We don’t spot Bieber’s transformation into the other; he’s always been other, always been something beyond mere homo sapiens.

Yesterday, I jokingly raised the question of whether Bieber may be an android on Facebook and Twitter. I wasn’t thinking of any particular sci-fi reference; maybe Blade Runner (specifically the long-running controversy over whether Deckard is a replicant and whether he knows it) with a bit of the Doctor Who story The Robots of Death thrown in (because the metal beasts in that are smoothly beautiful and go mad and start strangling people). It was @curiousiguana on Twitter who identified the specific fictional creation that Bieber resembles; it’s David (Haley Joel Osment), the child-robot in Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, who has had the capacity for love – or the ones and zeroes that allow him to emulate love – programmed into him. It’s as if Bieber has been created to rehearse a specific range of pop star behaviours and he’s been doing OK up to this point, but as he gets into darker territory various bugs and glitches start to reveal themselves. Someone keyed in the code for going off the rails, expecting the 19-year-old maybe to throw a TV out of a hotel window, but something went wrong somewhere and he made a git of himself in a museum’s visitors’ book instead. If he’d been caught smoking a joint or biting the head off a bat, we would have just accepted it as phew, rock ‘n’ roll, but the Anne Frank thing doesn’t quite fit our parameters of misbehaviour. There’s something not quite right about this boy. Has he been found out?

My memories of A.I. are sketchy, but as I recall it, David’s two best friends are also robots, one a teddy bear, the other Jude Law as a gigolo. And he’s nearly torn to pieces by a wild anti-robot mob, but survives even as humanity itself perishes in an ecological meltdown and he carries on in his wide-eyed, pre-pubescent form for millions of years and Meryl Streep shows up as God or something.

So I guess Bieber’s got at least a couple of albums in him yet.

Friday, April 12, 2013

How cello can you go?

A Chinese lingerie company called Jealousy International is running an advertising campaign featuring a scantily clad Princess Diana lookalike. Let’s hand over to journalist Sam Chambers, as quoted in the Daily Mail:
I was just going to collect my baggage from the carousel when I saw it flash up on a rolling advertising screen and couldn't quite believe what I was seeing... I thought, surely not, because it was rolling quite quickly. So I waited to check when it came up again and, sure enough, there was an image of Diana. It’s all the more striking because today is the anniversary of her death.
Mr Chambers, we are told, has been working in China for the past decade. Surely it can’t have escaped his attention that the parameters of taste and decency vary from one part of the world to another. There are some things that can be discussed openly in Britain – the Tiananmen Square massacre say, or the Dalai Lama, or the sex life of Mao Zedong – about which you’d probably be a bit more circumspect in China. Similarly, some subjects are pretty much fair game in the People’s Republic, although they might upset people from Mr Chambers’ home county of Kent. He may well have done a double-take when he saw the Di doppelganger in her pants, but I’m sure he must then have remembered that for most people around the world, she’s just another necroceleb that can sell pants or posters or watches or dreams, on a par with Marilyn or Che or Elvis or even Hitler. When he describes the fact that he saw the ad on the anniversary of Diana’s death as “striking”, does he mean that the coincidence magnified the outrage he felt swelling in his proud, Kentish chest, provoking him to wait until the image came round again, like an anti-porn campaigner deploying the research purposes defence? Or that he thought it might be a useful hook when punting the tale to a British tabloid? He is, after all, a journalist.

It’s a bit like the Ross-Brand saga, when the Mail persuaded its readers that they were outraged about something, despite the fact that if they hadn’t read it in the Mail, the vast majority of them wouldn’t have had anything to be outraged about. That said, despite the efforts of the Mail and Express to stir the hotpot thus time, the grief-crazed Dianaphiles storming the Chinese embassy are conspicuous by their absence. The collective derangement that surrounded the deaths of Jade Goody and Michael Jackson felt faintly embarrassing after a few months, so heaven knows what a space of 16 years has done. Practically everyone I’ve known who admits to having gone to Kensington Palace during that weird week claims they went not to mourn, but to watch the mourners. Even before she was buried, Diana had become a commodity, a subject, a meme.

And what exactly is the basis for the purported outrage anyway? Maybe she didn’t play the cello, but did she not wear underwear either?

Margaret Thatcher: witches and wankers

The refusal of BBC director-general Tony Hall to ban the song ‘Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead’ from the airwaves has provoked the inevitable harrumphing from those who still believe that the whole nation ought to be united in grief for Margaret Thatcher’s death and gratitude for her deeds whether they bloody well want to be or not. It’s an odd situation, because unlike some of the other songs that saw an uptick in popularity after Thatcher died (Elvis Costello’s ‘Tramp the Dirt Down’ being the most obvious example), ‘Ding Dong’ was only co-opted to the cause many years after it was written. If its appropriation by anti-Thatch revellers puts it beyond the bounds of taste, does this mean that it must be pulled from all productions of The Wizard of Oz, including the one currently running at the London Palladium, under the baggy eye of arch-Thatcherite Andrew Lloyd Webber? And for how long? Once her ashes are scattered, does the tune suddenly revert to being a harmless, jubilant camp anthem; or must it be forever verboten, like an episode of Top of the Pops featuring Gary Glitter and Jimmy Savile?

The whole concocted outrage is, of course, nothing more than a further opportunity for the Thatcherite faithful to kick the BBC; a campaign that’s inevitably being led by the increasingly unhinged Daily Mail, which accuses the Corporation of bias while at the same time slamming newsreaders for not wearing black ties. Surely unbiased providers of news should not be wearing black ties for anyone; they should report a significant death, soberly but without sobs, describe the response to it (including the mourning) but not take any active part in said mourning (nor kick the coffin). The alternative, if the Mail really wants balanced coverage, is for approximately half the newsreaders to wear black ties and the other half to boogie on their desks sporting ruby slippers and waving SWP placards.

The not-a-paedophile-but-still-preposterous Alistair McAlpine says that the BBC is “letting the charts be hijacked for political purposes”. A more intelligent Thatcherite would have realised that the charts are in fact a perfect manifestation of the market forces that they’re supposed to revere. If more people spend money on a piece of music, it goes higher up the charts. That’s capitalism, guys. If Tony Hall allows ‘Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead’ to be played on Radio One, he’s just acknowledging the inevitability of the philosophies that Thatcher espoused. Which is a statement (albeit a fairly passive one) of political bias in itself, but presumably the sort of political bias of which Margaret Thatcher and her dimwitted disciples would have approved.

And while we’re on matters of taste and the BBC, several years ago Jonathan Ross interviewed David Cameron, who wasn’t long into his stint as leader of the Conservative Party. Ross provoked synthetic outrage (from many of the same people now pretending to give a shit about a Judy Garland song) for asking Cameron whether he’d ever had sexual fantasies about Thatcher. Now, I was at Exeter University in the late 80s, at around the same time as a fairly vociferous Tory cabal, several of whom subsequently on to be MPs. Quite a few of them, let’s be frank, seemed a tad socially awkward in the presence of women. There was one story about a right-wing hack (not one of the future members) who opened the wrong door at a party, found himself confronted by a young lady wearing nothing but stockings and suspenders and promptly fainted. Moreover, the adulation that many of the circle bestowed upon Margaret Thatcher was, if not explicitly sexual, then undoubtedly fetishistic – something, in fact, rather akin to the veneration that many gay men feel for Judy Garland. Ross’s question to Cameron is certainly one that has crossed my mind over the years, even if I wish it hadn’t.

Today, the Thatcher acolytes aren’t really upset because songs and jokes and street parties are disturbing what they want to be an all-pervading mood of mourning; they know that their idol was a divisive leader and she herself knew it and accepted the fact, sometimes even revelled in it. Those partying in Brixton and Glasgow were as much testaments to her success as all the obituaries and black ties. No, the truth is far more banal; Maggie’s brats are just irritated because this background noise is distracting them from one final, massive, celebratory circle jerk.

PS: Interesting piece in Vice about the Thatcher government vs acid house; and the family context to Glenda Jackson’s Commons broadside.

PPS: Further perspectives from Mark Steel and Sturdy Alex.

PPPS: Dorothy never surrendered. But the BBC just did.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Margaret Thatcher: dressed up like a million-dollar trouper

In news terms, there are two varieties of clear-all-the-decks death: those that come out of a blue sky, the most memorable in my lifetime being those of John Lennon and Princess Diana (9/11 was a whole different kettle of mortality and the death of Osama bin Laden was as much a footnote to an unpublished Baudrillard essay as a real demise), and those where all the preparations have been made and all the hacks need to do is to cut the second date into the gravestone and check that none of those making pre-recorded tributes have themselves died in the intervening months or years. These would include the Queen Mother, Jade Goody and, yesterday, Margaret Thatcher.

It’s not only the coverage and tributes that had been well rehearsed for Thatcher’s farewell, of course. Those of us who weren’t, in her phrase, “one of us” (were we “one of them”, like derided homosexuals in a 1970s sitcom?) have been thrashing over our feelings about her for more than 30 years. Her defenestration by her colleagues in 1990 provided a dress rehearsal and as her health declined in the past few years there’s been much debate on the left about how to respond to her death. I’ve always believed that since she thrived on the animosity of her opponents, whether they were Tory wets or hardline trades unionists, Irish terrorists or Argentine sabre-rattlers, any overt celebration over her passing would only serve to feed her legacy. I appreciate the sincerity of those who met to tramp the dirt down in Brixton and Glasgow but I wouldn’t have joined them even if I’d been in the vicinity. In the event, I felt pretty neutral over the bare fact that an 87-year-old woman had suffered a fatal stroke; what did seize me was a feeling of nostalgia, coloured by the fact that her time as prime minister coincided with almost the entirety of my secondary and higher education. I wasn’t mourning her, I was mourning my own past, my own youth. Well, she turned British society onto the virtues of selfishness, so it was only appropriate that her death should make me think about myself.

There was one odd aspect to her death, though, that only trickled out from between the eulogies and the grief-stricken Cher fans. Apparently, she had moved into a suite at the Ritz in December and that’s where she died. Apart from offering a weird sort of equivalence with Diana, whose last night among the living was spent at the Paris Ritz, it does suggest that her spin doctors had taken a day off. She was never a soundbite politician in the mould of Blair or Cameron, but advisors such as Tim Bell (who made the announcement of her death) had instructed her in the art of image management. To be spending her sad final months in such opulent, five-star surroundings, the property of the publicity-shy, tax-averse Barclay twins – who also own the fervently Thatcherite Telegraph newspapers – while so many of her compatriots are struggling to stay afloat, rather reinforces the notion that hers was a government by and for the rich; that she was, in Denis Healey’s phrase,La Pasionara of middle-class privilege”. I don’t, incidentally, buy the notion that hers was a tale of a meritocratic rise through the ranks of society. Her background was that of the provincial petit-bourgeoisie, undoubtedly low-rent by the standards of the Tory grandees of the 1950s but probably a notch up from that enjoyed by her predecessor as party leader, Edward Heath; and her smartest business move was to marry a millionaire. Death comes to us all, sure; but the specific location of her death reminds us that, whatever her grisly catamites may bleat, we’re not in this together, not even close.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Hate crime: when did you last punch a punk?

I’m in two minds about the news that the Greater Manchester Police is to record attacks on goths and punks as hate crimes. I can see the argument that some groups and individuals might feel themselves to be particularly at risk from harassment and assault but I’ve never bought into the notion that believers in a particular religion should have their sensibilities ringfenced unless such protection is also extended to people who are deeply committed to other cultural entities, such as the back catalogue of Fields of the Nephilim. And if we’re going to put members of certain youth cults in the same safe cocoon as lesbians and Muslims (Hey, there’s a party I want to crash!) then why not make some room for those whose lives revolve around Star Trek, let’s say, or Plymouth Argyle FC, or vintage lawnmowers, or UKIP?

We also have the problem of definition. Is it a hate crime if you bash someone because you think he’s a Muslim or a punk or a Trekkie but he turns out not to be? Never underestimate the sheer, all-consuming thickness of the committed bigot; remember that the first fatality of the post-9/11 anti-Muslim backlash was a Sikh. And if you do identify with the group on the list, how deep does your identification have to be? Are you a punk if you pogo at a wedding when the DJ plays ‘I Fought the Law’? I went through a purple nail varnish phase when I was about 19; is that gothic enough for the GMP? I’ve got a horrible feeling that the first time an assault is recorded under the new guidelines, the news will be greeted in some quarters with the sniffy response that the victim wasn’t the real thing.