Friday, September 19, 2014

Post to ensure that I don’t feel obliged to say anything about the Scottish referendum result

Apologies to people who follow me on various social media thingies, as you may have seen these already. I don’t know whether this is original but I do rather like it:

And, on the same lines, these may or may not be the authentic musings of a teenage girl, but they still made me smile anyway:

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

That Kent State shirt and the ultimate triumph of consumer capitalism

Back when I was young and halfway pretty, I got myself involved in a bit of studenty politicsy shenanigans that ended up with a bunch of us barricaded inside the offices of the university vice-chancellor. (He’d attempted to carry on working for half an hour or so while various middle-class Trots and greboes glowered at him, but in the end gave up and vacated his space, presumably deciding that he’d get more done somewhere that didn’t smell of an army surplus store.) 

After a brief period during which we luxuriated in our triumph over The Man, the realisation began to sink in that: a) we weren’t quite sure what to do next; and b) we were breaking all sorts of laws and were running the risk of getting arrested and/or chucked out of university. Damn, we were political agitators, a threat to global capitalism itself — they’d probably send in the SAS to get us out. That was when I, working on the principle that the best way to get to know someone is to check out his/her bookshelf, noticed that our unwilling host owned a copy of the official report into the Kent State University shootings that resulted in the deaths of four students after the Ohio National Guard opened fire in 1970. Shit, as I don’t think we said back then, suddenly got real.

Which is a roundabout and slightly self-indulgent way of acknowledging the brouhaha created by Urban Outfitters’ decision to market a sweatshirt that seems to nod to the Kent State tragedy. And yes, they’ve been forced to apologise, but that’s not the point: we’re talking about Urban Outfitters without them paying us to. That’s the point. It’s a perfect example of recuperation, the process in which radical images and concepts are co-opted to reinforce the status quo. They won, comrades. We lost. And they didn’t even need to send in the SAS.

But while we’re here, do people really still wear sweatshirts?

Monday, September 15, 2014

Her, by Harriet Lane

The late Joan Rivers was known for a comedic style apparently uninhibited by moral qualms or social taboos but when asked if there might be any subject unsuitable for a joke, she responded: “the death of a child”. I’ve often wondered how far she might have stretched this self-imposed restriction: do adolescents count, for example? And now, unless she’s left us a few surprises in her posthumous archive, we’ll never know.

Rivers died while I was reading Her, the second novel by Harriet Lane. If we place it alongside her debut, Alys, Always, it would appear that Lane has a certain fascination for women doing damage. Not in the Hollywood model of psychopathic nannies and bunny-boiling spurned lovers, but more subtle, slow-acting, psychological poison that tears individuals and families apart without them realising what’s going on until it’s too late.

The newer book tells the story, in alternating first-person chapters, of two middle-class women in the early 40s. The apparently happier and more confident Nina bears some long-standing grudge against Emma, the true nature of which is not revealed to the reader until the closing pages; and Emma herself remains unaware that she might have done anything wrong, even at the end of the story. Indeed, she has no memory of her fleeting acquaintance with the other woman when both were teenagers, so when Nina chances to see her and engineers a meeting, she just thinks she’s made a new friend among the London yummy-mummy set in which she finds herself an uncomfortable inhabitant.

Nina ingratiates herself with Emma’s family and begins to exact a slow, subtle revenge. Some of this is simply deliciously banal — ensuring that Emma’s husband Ben sees the receipt for an expensive pair of shoes that his wife bought without telling him — and some subtly monstrous: she lures away the couple’s elder child Christopher while they are walking in the park and takes him home with her for a few hours, then claims to have found him, lost. The key point here is that there doesn’t appear to be any intention on Nina’s part to inflict any mental or physical harm to the boy, at first at least — she just wants to make Emma suffer the agony of imagining the danger he may be in.

Lane’s brilliant stroke here is that she doesn’t make Christopher an adorable moppet whose welfare we feel obliged to hold sacrosanct. Instead, he’s whiny, needy, apparently slightly dim three-year-old, whose presence, alongside that of his infant sister Cecily, is clearly grinding his parents down. They love him, but... As Nina finds increasingly ingenious ways to ratchet up the pressure on the oblivious Emma and her family we are never placed under the illusion that Christopher himself is anything other than a snot-encrusted pain in the arse. As such, even though Nina’s motivation for tormenting Emma turns out to be remarkably specious, we don’t see her as an entirely cold-blooded monster; let’s be honest, who hasn’t wanted to slap the hell out of someone else’s obnoxious brat at some point, if only to get back at the parents whose fault the child is? As the tension becomes all but unbearable in the final chapter, we don’t necessarily actively want the boy to come to any physical harm, but we can enjoy a certain detached ambivalence as Nina’s plotting comes to fruition. Although Joan Rivers might not have approved.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

A cock and ball story

As far as I can deduce from my infidel’s grasp of Christian theology, Satan is the source and summation of all that is evil, the sine qua non of moral wrongness, the do-badder to outdo them all. You think Voldemort’s a rotter? By comparison, he’s still nicking sweets from the pick-and-mix. So I was interested to see that when a statue of Beelzebub appeared recently in Vancouver, what troubled the locals was not the artistic representation of all that offends God’s will but the fact that the erection was sporting an erection. Moreover, when it was reported in the mainstream media, although the statue’s priapic appendage was the main point of the story, it was demurely blacked out in the photos. 

There seems to be a similar level of prudishness elsewhere in Her Maj’s Commonwealth, as a confectionery company in New Zealand has withdrawn gummy sweets in the shape of, well, what do you think?

Outside the Anglosphere, however, it seems that they’re rather more relaxed about such matters.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The royal baby, the Society of the Spectacle and some adorable old lesbians

OK, so Kate and William are doing another baby. My immediate reaction is... well, not much, really, but apparently that’s not an option. I blame The Archers.

Allow me to explain. There I was, on a Facebook page devoted to discussing the resilient radio soap opera about sexually incontinent country folk when I raised the question of how the scriptwriters might deal with the news of the forthcoming junior royal. I also wondered aloud whether any character on the soap had ever expressed an opinion relating to the monarchy that was anything other than deliriously obsequious. For example, when the Duchess of Cornwall visited Ambridge (it being that sort of show) not a single soul made any half-jokey remark about how she’d probably murdered Diana, thus rather denting the programme’s claims to verisimilitude. Meanwhile, Linda Snell practically wet herself with delight when she came into vague proximity with the royal consort.

Someone asked whether this meant that I wanted a character to say that it was a terrible thing that a new baby is on the way. Of course not, I explained; any healthy, wanted new child should be a cause for happiness. What I might expect from one or more residents of Ambridge (I’m thinking Jim or Jazza, Pat or Matt) is at least a raised eyebrow at the torrent of media coverage, at once demented and banal, that this pregnancy will undoubtedly attract. I did try to float the idea that the people we know as “the royal family” are in fact characters in a hugely complex soap opera with more than a hint of reality TV, a Truman Show with tiaras. This may have been pushing things too far (and yes, I did drop Baudrillard and Debord into the conversation) but was it not telling that a speech by the general secretary of the TUC about the return of a Downton Abbey-era Britain was interrupted by a newsflash announcing the new tenant in the Duchess’s uterus? And that’s before we get to the timing of the announcement vis-à-vis the Scottish referendum.

“Oh, why do you have to make it so political?” they ask, implying that to question the monarchy is a political stance, whereas to support it isn’t. “You’re just being divisive. Why can’t you just let people be happy for a change?” But the thing is, if we really want something to bring us all together, to make us happy, we don’t need to seize on the fact that two rich people have created another rich person. On the same day the news came through of Kate’s pregnancy, I came across this story, from the Quad-City Times, about two women in Davenport, Iowa, who are finally able to marry each other after a relationship of – so far – 72 years. And that’s what makes me happy (albeit in a slightly choked-up, salty-eyed, I’ll-be-all-right-in-a-moment way). I wonder if they’ll mention it on The Archers.

PS: Then there’s this, via Jon Russell:

Thursday, September 04, 2014

The music press: waiting for Wednesday

Reading Simon Reynolds’ glorious piece in Pitchfork about the golden era of the UK music weeklies fills me with melancholy nostalgia. His focus isn’t so much on the writing itself, even less on the music that was being written about, but about his and others’ experience as consumers, of waiting for Wednesday, when a whole week’s worth of cultural snow would drop on your head in one analogue chunk. I empathise entirely, although our specific circumstances differed a little: he’s a few years older than me, so for his Burchill/Parsons and the Delta 5, I’d substitute the likes of Biba Kopf, Steven Wells and Nick Cave; and when he remembers WH Smith in Berkhamsted, I’m thinking John Menzies in Petersfield.

Yeah, yeah, I know, Rentaghost and deely boppers, free school milk and white dog poo, let’s ask Kate Thornton what she can pretend to remember. I get Reynolds’s gist, though. Because there was so little information available back then, you had to ration yourself, attempting to eke out your precious NME (other publications were available, but I’d borrow a read of someone else’s) until Friday or Saturday, like an oversized capon; whereas now, you’re constantly bombarded by bulletins and teasers and nuggets and listicles and there’s no build-up, no anticipation, no clock-watching. I also feel a frisson of recognition when he describes passages from the papers that still remain in his memory 30 years on, because he cut them out and saved them and went back to them time and time again. But, as he asks, “Who has time to reread anything these days?”

So, yeah, we’re both of us getting a bit dewy-eyed about the times when the ink stuck to your fingers (literally) and to your head (metaphorically, although I already had the habit of reading with my forehead resting on my hand, so the smears often ended up there as well). On the other hand, Reynolds’ article was apparently published first in The Pitchfork Review, a print publication, which I didn’t even know existed. So if it weren’t for the modern, evil, shiny, short-attention-span, no-time-to-reread, tiresomely clean-fingered online version, I wouldn’t have read the piece at all. And if it weren’t for the phenomenon that killed the Waiting For Wednesday thing stone dead, I wouldn’t be able to tell you about it anyway. Take that, John Menzies in Petersfield.

Now, please wash your hands.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Check out this picture of a famous actress not naked

I was a bit behind the curve when it came to the news that photographs of an underclothed Jennifer Lawrence, along with several other actresses in a similar condition, had suddenly appeared in the digital ether without said actresses’ bidding. The first I heard of it was when I was directed to an article by Clementine Ford that said that this was a bad thing (yup), that it was a gross violation of said women’s privacy (agreed) and that people who went out of that way to look at the pictures were complicit in the said violation (on board with that as well). I then remarked, under the social media post that had pointed me to the article, that, while I couldn’t fault the author’s logic, this was indeed the first time I’d been aware of said pics of Ms Lawrence, and that in a tiny way, the article was helping to fan the flames, by letting people know that they were out there to be gawped at, if one so wished. I was immediately shot down, apparently because I was attempting to shut down women’s voices in the argument. So presumably had the article been written by a man making the self-same points — with which, as I said, I agree — I’d have been in the clear. Whatever. In the event, I suddenly became so jaded with the direction in which certain strands of modern feminism seem to be progressing that I was almost tempted to search for said pics of J-Law in the rudey nude, just to be obnoxious, until I remembered that she’s apparently going out with Chris Martin out of lame, bedwetting beat combo Coldplay so I don’t fancy her any more.

But still, I agree with what Ms Ford was saying, regardless of her chromosomes. It’s all about having control over your own body, innit? If Jennifer Lawrence wishes to flash her various inny and/or outy bits to the world, she should be permitted and if she doesn’t, it must not happen without her permission. And if she wants to show a lot of her body in a bikini, or not very much of it in a burqa, that’s up to her, and the same goes for men, so there. And then I read another article about another actress.

It’s Keira Knightley this time, who is lauded in the Telegraph for striking a blow for small-breasted women by, well showing off her small breasts in a magazine article. And there may well be a debate about whether this is a wise thing to do, or a moral thing, or even whether the pictures are any good. But I hope nobody would disagree that they’re Ms Knightley’s own small breasts and it’s bloody well up to her to cover them or uncover them as she sees fit. Except, apparently, whoever makes these decisions at the Telegraph; since, alongside the article (by a woman, incidentally, not that it should matter, although apparently it does) saying what a good thing it is she bared her small breasts, the only pictures have said small breasts obscured by a strip of the dullest grey.

Now, I’m not suggesting that this is an outrage against Ms Knightley’s dignity on a par with what Ms Lawrence and her colleagues have suffered. Just because KK elects to get them out, the Telegraph isn’t obliged to show them. It just seems that once again, a woman’s decision to do what she wants with her body is being overruled.

Except that now I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say that.

PS: Further perspectives on the Lawrence thing from Fleet Street Fox and Anne Helen Petersen.

PPS: And this from the Daily Mash.

PPPS: Stuart Jeffries brings Slavoj Žižek to the party, as you do. (Žižek isn’t naked.)

PPPPS: And now it’s art.