Sunday, July 27, 2014

A 21st-century desert island

The format of the radio programme Desert Island Discs has remained pretty much unchanged since it started over 70 years ago. The guest is asked to imagine that s/he will be stranded for an indeterminate period on a desert island and is allowed to take eight records, a book and a luxury item of no practical use. The only real element to have changed is that for most of its duration, it was assumed that the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare would already be there; now one can have an alternative religious text in place of the former.

That’s about it, though. Castaways are no longer told they would be provided with an unlimited supply of needles for the island’s (presumably wind-up) gramophone but the arrival of LPs and then CDs has barely been acknowledged: the selections are usually individual songs rather than whole albums, so one wonders how someone might physically be able to take, say, ‘She’s Leaving Home’ from Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band without bringing the rest of the record. Oddly, this didn’t apply to classical works, so a guest would be able to select Beethoven’s Ninth, not just the hummable bit at the end.

The whole idea now seems even more anachronistic as the very concept of records — as the show’s originator, Roy Plomley might have thought of them — is in danger. Nick Hornby subtly pointed out the daftness of the situation as long ago as 2003, when, in addition to his eight discs, he picked an iPod as his luxury, and Sue Lawley, the presenter at the time, had to explain to listeners what it was. I don’t know whether guests are discouraged from such smartarsery these days, but I can’t remember anyone pulling a similar stunt since.

Until today, that is, when the web scientist Wendy Hall made her choice of book: Wikipedia, loaded onto a (wi-fi disabled, for the sake of propriety) Kindle. In a desperate attempt to maintain the privileged sanctity of the codex, Kirsty Young said that such a thing could only be allowed if it were printed on paper. Hall sensibly pointed out that this would make negotiating the links between articles a chore, but ultimately accepted that DID is bigger than any one castaway. I suspect she’s raised a few uncomfortable questions in the production office, though. Sure, the format is based on a fantasy; but there’s a generation coming up for whom the rules and restrictions of the programme are genuinely unimaginable.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

So, Jeremy, which Tory are you today?

I know it’s late in the day but I only watched The Iron Lady for the first time last night. The delay was down to a number of factors, not least that the film was written by a university contemporary of mine. (She was perfectly nice as far as I recall, but why let that get in the way of a bout of childish, self-pitying jealousy?) It was also one of those films that I sort of assumed I’d already actually seen, partly because of the way the various Thatcher-related productions released over the past decade or so seem to blend into each other. One reason for this is so many actors seem to pop up in more than one film, albeit in different roles. The honours in this regard would seem to go to Michael Cochrane, whose small role in The Iron Lady follows his efforts as Alan Clark in Margaret, Waldron Smithers in Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley and Nicholas Ridley in The Falklands Play. Nicholas Jones takes on Admiral Lewin in the Iron Lady, Tim Renton in Margaret and Peter Morrison in The Alan Clark Diaries); while Jeremy Child is Francis Pym in The Falklands Play, with minor roles in The Iron Lady and The Long Walk; John Sessions plays Edward Heath in The Iron Lady and Geoffrey Howe in Margaret; Roger Allam is the image consultant Gordon Reece in The Iron Lady and John Wakeham in Margaret; and Jeremy Clyde, Julian Firth, James Fox, Robert Hardy, Philip Jackson, Rupert Vansittart and Julian Wadham each crops up in at least two of the five productions. Thatcherism seems to have spawned its own Carry On gang.

Two thoughts on all these Jeremies and Julians. First, that it reminds me of a student production of Ubu Roi that I once saw, when in an effort to give all the actors a chance to show off their versatility, everyone had a crack at playing Ubu himself during the show, with the other roles also being swapped around to accommodate the effort. This is of course an imperfect analogy as the role of the former PM herself is always played by a different performer but the notion of the Blessed Margaret as a bulbous, self-obsessed, foul-mouthed psychopath has a certain piquancy.

The other is that despite all the glory, laud and honour bestowed upon Thatcher for supposedly changing the shape of British society, there do seem to be certain jobs reserved for a very small pool of middle-class, middle-aged white men who look plausible in grey suits; and that doesn’t just apply to politics.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Tracey and Guy and puffballs and me

When I first dipped a digit into social media (as I’m sure we didn’t call it at the time), it was in the form of Friends Reunited, a site designed to help you get in touch with friends and enemies from your past schools, colleges and similar places of incarceration. Each entry had a space to list personal interests and I couldn’t help noticing how many of my contemporaries, asked to identify their favourite music, put “Eighties”.

Well, what the hell does that mean? I can understand someone who wasn’t born at the time investigating the music of the decade as a sort of semiotic archaeologist, just as I bought so-called Sixties compilations as a means of getting my head round the Standells and the Shangri-Las and the Swingle Singers. But these were people who’d lived through the whole 10 years as sentient beings, from post-punk and 2-Tone to acid house and Madchester with all manner of ghastly wrong turns in between. How could they have simply packaged up all the various musics that soundtracked their — damn it, our — growing up into a neat, one-word manifestation of decaditis?

Of course, as Tracey Thorn argues in her recent article in the New Statesman, “Eighties” doesn’t actually mean everything recorded during those 10 years:
Now, personally I wouldn’t mind going to an Eighties disco, all Smiths records and “Coal Not Dole” badges, Go-Betweens B-sides and Red Wedge banners. What’s that you say? You don’t think that’s what it would be like? No, you’re probably right. That was my Eighties, maybe yours, too, but it’s not the official version of the decade, is it? The official version is – yawn – spandex leggings and Duran Duran, puffball skirts and mullets, shoulder pads, Dynasty, yuppies and Tories, Tories, Tories.
Of course, this is all about dominant discourses and cultural hegemonies and, as Thorn says, history getting written by the winners. And it doesn’t really matter whether you lived through a period or not: I’ve written elsewhere about the time I was gently informed that my 1960s were the wrong flavour, or something. And my own 1980s, for example, would involve rather more of Ms Thorn’s work (especially from the early years when she was on Cherry Red records with Everything the Girl and the Marine Girls and as a solo act and probably hovering in the background elsewhere) than would crop up in the puffball version she describes. A 1990s disco programmed by the winners might well include her global smash hit ‘Missing’ but not if I had a say in it; and anyway, as I’ve also argued, the 1990s was the first decade that resisted such a simplistic approach.

It was probably thinking on such lines that brought the House of Love to mind. They’re one of the bands that seems to fall off my personal radar every few years, then leap back with a jolt. I like them for a number of reasons: because they sounded a bit like the Velvets and the Bunnymen and the Jesus and Mary Chain; because the singer, Guy Chadwick, had magnificent cheekbones; because they came up with weird lines like “your face is a foreign food”; because in the face of the Roses and Monday et al they steadfastly denied that there’d ever been a dance element to their music; because the released three separate albums all called The House of Love; and above all because of a gig in the last month of the 1980s, just a few days after they’d fired their guitarist, when they played with the focused intensity of a jilted lover who just has to do this to keep from dissolving into tears. In my memory they only performed for about 25 minutes and left the audience stumbling around as if it had been mugged by plectrums and pain. Someone somewhere can probably disabuse me but I hope they don’t. It was my 1980s and it was my gig.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Fun With Asian Nazis

Probably foolishly, I’ve started a new Tumblr. It’s called Fun With Asian Nazis and it’s about the complex relationship some Asian people have with the trappings and/or ideology of the Third Reich — the sort of thing I covered in this post last year. If you have any relevant nuggets to share (especially from countries other than Thailand and Japan, for which I have a wealth of material) please give me a shout.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

On pubic hair, and/or the absence thereof

I’ve stroked my chin a couple of times (here and here) about the odd reactions provoked by Courbet’s painting The Origin of the World and, yes, we’re back on the vexed question of how we respond to public displays of women’s body hair, with the response to Leena McCall’s painting Portrait of Ms Ruby May, which was removed from a show at the Mall Galleries. The Guardian hedges its bets in its coverage of the story, not wanting to be as prim and silly as the Daily Mail but at the same time not wanting to give offence. (But to whom? Feminists? Puritans? Feminist puritans? Body fascists who think all women should be utterly shorn below the neckline? Tiresome hippies who insist with similar vehemence that all women should be innocent to the attention of waxes and razors whether they want to be or not?) They offer a censored version of the image but allow you to click if you want to see it in all its glory. I don’t have the energy for such things. Here’s the painting, take it or leave it:

Without wishing to delve too deeply into the minutiae of Ms May’s intimate beautification routines, she does appear to have done some tidying down there, although by what means I wouldn’t presume to guess. And of course there’s a whole thesis that could be concocted into our vexed relationship with pubes, encompassing Classical and Renaissance nudes, that urban myth about Ruskin, those pens with pictures of naked ladies who lose and acquire swimsuits depending on the angle at which you hold them and the shifting attitude of magazines such as Playboy, where hair was a proud badge of sexual liberation in the early 1970s, only to retreat over the years to the point at which it’s now as unacceptable as it was when the magazine first launched. And of course, the pubic paradox, that the presence of hair in some ways reveals what it also purports to conceal, which is verging on Baudrillard if you think about it, which I do, probably too much. I think I may go a bit further on this at a later date, although I suspect I’m already attracting some funny looks. Maybe I need to wax my blog.

PS: A photographer’s perspective (and a quirky video, if you speak a bit of French).

PPS: And more censorious silliness, this time about album sleeves. (Do they still exist?)

Monday, July 07, 2014

Irony as a valid lifestyle choice

If there’s really a culture war between clear-eyed sincerity and arch, ironic snark, I know which side I’m on. It’s a pity, then that Worst. Person. Ever., Douglas Coupland’s salvo against this so-called “epidemic of earnestness” is so lame. The central character, Raymond Gunt, is self-centred and monotonously priapic but isn’t even the most ghastly character in the book – that honour belongs to his hideous mother – and ultimately comes over as Coupland’s attempt to concoct a composite Martin Amis monster from the 1980s when these things mattered (and so did Amis).

If we’re going to take on earnestness, let us do it with elegance. Our manifesto could be taken from Christopher Shevlin – a writer who, unlike Coupland or Amis, hasn’t been around long enough to disappoint me – in The Perpetual Astonishment of Jonathon Fairfax:
They seemed to feel that discussing actual things was beneath them. Their conversation was an odd, semi-surreal mixture of deliberate banalities, light ironies and playful banter. Jonathon felt at home with this. In a world that obstinately refused to make any sense at all, Jonathon had always felt it was presumptuous to talk as though it did.
But I haven’t read far enough into the book to work out whether this is meant to be a good thing or not.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Postmodern beer and the ultimate death of everything and nothing

The problem with postmodernism is that nobody can really agree what it means. Except that tangled up in it is something about the absence of a fundamental objective reality to which meaning can apply. As such, the labelling of a bottle of beer as postmodern, thus stripping the word of what few tattered shreds of lace ever protected its modesty, is at once the death of postmodernism and its ultimate triumph.

And it didn’t taste very nice either.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Rolf Harris: can we see what it was yet?

So, following the precedent established by Gary Glitter, Jimmy Savile and others, the disgraced Rolf Harris is being written out of our cultural history, never more to pop up on light-hearted, list-based, celeb-sprinkled retrospectives of specific decades or genres. Fair enough: he’s a bad man and footage of his wobbleboard singalongs, or even of him comforting the owners of deceased parakeets, is now impossible to watch without thinking of his misdeeds.

But performance is inextricably linked with an individual’s personality. Other art forms, such as writing or visual art, can more easily be appreciated at a distance from those who created them. This is why we are still permitted to appreciate the sculptures of Eric Gill (who abused his daughters and even his dog) or the poetry of Philip Larkin (racist devotee of lesbian spanking porn) but might have been less forgiving had they sung about kangaroos and extra legs.

Harris, of course, is a more complicated case, because he was also a painter of some fame — yet it appears that he’s not being cut the same level of slack extended to Gill, nor yet to Paul Gauguin, who frolicked with Tahitian nubiles and probably gave them syphilis. The Harris portrait of the Queen seems to have disappeared from sight and owners of some of his other works are desperate to be rid of them. I was especially touched by the anguish of one Cathy Sims, who used to sing to her picture of Bonnie Tyler but now wants to burn it.

Maybe the difference is that Harris’s paintings can’t be detached from his now-tainted public persona; his TV appearances added to the fame and value of his art and now that we can’t watch them without retching, we can’t look at his paintings either. Essentially, without Rolf the performer, Rolf the painter wouldn’t have got a look in. And maybe one day, once the collective memories of his misdeeds are less raw, we’ll be able to look at those paintings coolly objectively, unaffected by knowledge of the artist either as avuncular entertainer or cynical predator. And with luck we’ll be able to see that, in purely aesthetic terms, they’re pretty bloody awful.

PS: The demands for retrospective airbrushing begin...