Saturday, December 31, 2016

About this year: Farage sings Bowie

As part of the all-encompassing need to package up time into arbitrary chunks and assign specific characteristics to them (and yes, do read my book about the Noughties, you know you want to), 2016 has been identified in most of the valedictory reviews as a year of a) seismic political shocks; and b) dead celebrities. Of course, this is partly a matter of perspective; if you spent most of the 12 months cowering from barrel bombs in Aleppo, it’s possible that the demise of David Gest may have left you less than moved.

But even in more peaceful parts of the world, I wonder whether this neat labelling of the year is that accurate. For many people, of course, the results of the Brexit referendum and the US election weren’t at all shocking; they came either as a pleasant surprise or simply as a natural fulfillment of all that is right and good in the world; and I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that the people who were happy enough with those developments were also those who weren’t too upset when the news came in that David Bowie or Prince or Carrie Fisher wouldn’t be seeing 2017. I did get into a minor online skirmish with one gentlemen who couldn’t understand why so much more attention was being paid to the death of a “poofter” such as George Michael than to a salt-of-the-earth denim-clad rocker like Rick Parfitt of Status Quo, who had left us the day before.

Now, no disrespect to the late Mr Parfitt, who plied his trade with commitment, energy and self-deprecating humour for nearly 50 years, but I think the common thread that unites many of the big-name, blue-chip deaths of the year (Bowie, Prince, Fisher, Michael, Muhammad Ali, Leonard Cohen, even poor old Pete Burns) is that in their lives and their work they interrogated and challenged fundamental, preconceived notions about gender, race, sexuality and more. Parfitt, bless him, didn’t. And – I’m just running on instinct here, with no empirical data to hand, but bear with me – the people who supported Trump and Farage tended to be the same people who wished those notions had gone happily unchallenged, who yearn for a time and a place when America is great again and the Black and White Minstrels are still on the telly (it’s just a bit of harmless fun) and there’s honey still for tea. For them, 2016 was about political triumph and vindication, with maybe a bit of sadness that Rick Parfitt died.

It’s a small matter in the greater scheme of things, but I’ve got a morbid yearning for both Trump and Farage to show up on Desert Island Discs, so we can find out what really pushes their cultural and emotional buttons. I’m guessing neither of them would pick a Bowie track – unless Farage is prepared to admit that his go-to karaoke piece is ‘The Laughing Gnome’.

PS: While we’re on the subject – who’s going to play at the inauguration?

PPS: Ah, question answered. Thanks to David Jacobson.

Monday, December 12, 2016

About The Electrical Storm

The Electrical Storm is less an autobiography, more a series of fragments, episodes in apparently random order that together attempt (and probably fail but that’s part of the joke, I guess) to illuminate the life and work of Jerry Thackray (alias The Legend! and/or Everett True). The key problem (and the reason we need the book) is that, as the multiple pseudonyms suggest, Mr True is not easy to place in a box. He’s a journalist, an editor, an academic and also a musician, creator of the first and worst-selling single ever released on Creation Records. But he prefers more grandiloquent, quixotic labels:
I am not one of those Rolling Stone guys who rate their own importance. I am not an NME head. I am not a hack with delusions of literary grandeur. I am not a fucking music journalist. I am Everett True. Read my CV, it tells you right here – “Insurrectionary, tastemaker, loser”.
The narrative bounces back and forth in time and space between Brisbane and Brighton, Seattle and London, Chicago and his Essex birthplace. He drinks a lot, dances a lot, fights a bit and seems to spend a great deal of time not quite having sex. He invents grunge, but he’s talking about the Happy Mondays at the time. He watches the Rolling Stones with Sheryl Crow and wets himself. Tales that would have been extended to a whole book by a more earnest hack (eg getting teargassed in Siberia) are dismissed in a few lines. It probably helps to know at least a little about the contexts in which he works, the identities of Calvin and Karen and the woman whose husband plays the guitar left-handed, but it’s not essential. You just get pulled along for the ride.
Ultimately, it’s all about identity. Sometimes True appears to get bored and hands over control to one of his friends, to tell a tale of how they met. Sometimes he just seems baffled, a new Brian hailed as a pop Messiah:
Within 20 seconds, there are thousands upon thousands of people chanting my name. “Everett True. Everett True.” What do they want from me? “Everett True. Everett True.” Why do they call my name? I cannot mend anything.
And occasionally you have to wonder how much is a drunken dream, as he mentions a detail then immediately tells you it’s a false memory. But throughout he’s at least trying to be honest, as counterintuitive as that may seem in a post-truth society. His vulnerability is real and raw. Dislike me or find me obnoxious, please don’t forget me,” he begs during an interview — one in which he’s meant to be the journalist, not the subject. And later (or is it earlier?):
I’m on the plane and Seattle is twinkling and I want to stay circling the city forever… I’m wondering if anyone’s ever going to want to listen to my stories again.
What really makes The Electrical Storm work is not the stories themselves; it’s the tension between True’s professional selves. Ultimately he’s a fan — the two most telling tales are about how he got into a fight with another journalist over who loved Dexys Midnight Runners more; and time he danced so energetically at a Nick Cave gig that the great man hit him with his mic stand and True, not Cave, ended up occupying half the subsequent review.
Like the man, like his work, it’s not an entirely smooth ride. But The Electrical Storm is well worth the blackouts and bruises.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Sunday, October 30, 2016

About being from

Listening — because I’m middle aged and middle class and a bit of a ponce — to Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Reith Lecture about Country, which discusses the validity of the nation state as a measure of identity in a modern, interconnected world, and he keeps returning the question, “where are you from?” It’s a complex and occasionally painful query for many people, whatever colour passport they wield. I usually say “London”. It feels right for me (Appiah also discusses how national and civic identity is often as much about emotion as reason) and usually leaves the other person satisfied. 

What do you say?

Friday, September 30, 2016

About #tube_chat

For the first time in Blake knows when, I wrote a poem. A bit rough round the edges. Full story here.

The people are ghastly and so is the heat
As my tired bum slumps down on a chewing-gummed seat.
No I don't want to chat, you preposterous twat.
Get lost and piss off and begone.
Let me be with my pain on this hideous train.
But do wake me up if a dog gets on.
A couple start snogging and a man sniffs his feet.
I need to survive this till Liverpool Street.
I know shutting my eyes will not minimise
The arseholey-armpitty pong.
I'm securing my space with my sleeping bitch face.
But, yeah, wake me up if a dog gets on.
My colleagues are morons, my job is a bore
And the thick prat in Pret served me decaf once more.
So why should I talk to a simpering dork?
Fuck you and the horse you're upon.
My earbuds are in to create my own din.
But please wake me up if a dog gets on.
--Tim Footman, Sept 2016

Saturday, August 06, 2016

About a blog meet

So there was a blog meet. Remember them? It was when people we only knew as authors of blogs, often under whimsical pseudonyms (noms de blogue?), would gather awkwardly in a bar (the location of which would have taken days to agree on) and start to develop real-life relationships, slightly hampered by the fact that we didn’t know whether we should be addressing each other by our blog names or those that our mums had sewn onto our school jumpers. Not for nothing was it called meatspace; it was bloody and indigestible and made you sweat if you consumed too much and could wreak havoc with your bowels. The real fun came in subsequent days when we all tried to translate the analogue experience into blog form, remembering different jokes, different drinks, different disagreements and flirtations and awkward silences.

That was seven years ago or so, back when sharing Clement Freud jokes felt like a good idea. The changes that technology has wrought were obvious from the start, as The Rockmother floated the idea of a meet not on a blog, but on Instagram, which wasn’t even a thing back then. I’m not even sure that saying that something is or isn’t a thing was even a thing back then. And in the event, only three of us from the old crowd could make it at the allotted time and place, the roof garden on top of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, which is also not a thing these days, for the moment at least. (I had managed to connect earlier in the day with The Urban Woo; we drank gin in the Coach and Horses and bitched about how it’s not what it was.)  

So there we are, The Rockmother and Annie Slaminsky and me, plus Slaminsky’s chum Mette, who isn’t/wasn’t a blogger, possibly because she’s been too busy having a life, but more of that later. And we talk about what’s been happening in the intervening years, divorces and bereavements, house moves and career changes, extra lines and grey hairs, broken hearts and bones and promises. And yes, Brexit and Donald Trump. And we talk about the things that unite us, about how blogging isn’t a thing and London is still a thing, but a different thing. And Mette (who doesn’t blog and doesn’t live in London) talks about how, after she left school, she ended up working on a fishing boat off the Faroe Islands for a year. Which would have made for some fabulous blog posts, surely, but maybe she wouldn’t have had the time. And I remember that the usual reason people give for stopping blogging is that “real life got in the way”.

And then the rain clouds start to gather and the passive-aggressive body language of the people stacking chairs suggests that our time at the roof garden is running out and I wonder why nobody quotes TS Eliot any more. HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME and all that. And then we look around and the skyline has become one enormous Eliot quote. And some things are still a thing, at once different and the same.

And I take a photo and put it on Instagram.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

About Donald Trump and fleeting fame and cocksplats


I’ve neglected this blog terribly over the past year or two, for a number of pathetic and avoidable reasons, including work pressures, general lack of inspiration and the rival lure from other forms of social media. It’s not that I haven’t had anything to say — it’s just that it seemed quicker and easier to  let rip with a succinct gobbet on Twitter or even some deadpan picture caption on Instagram. Blogging — at least the way I do/did it — requires some sort of considered structure, the right word in the right place, spelled correctly if you’re lucky.

So it seems appropriate that my belated return to Cultural Snow is prompted by Twitter. What happened is this. Donald Trump, a man who might stop being funny in November, appeared in Scotland on Friday, shortly after the result of the European Union referendum was announced. He, or one of the social media gnomes who live in the yellow depths of his hair, tweeted thus:

A number of people responded that, although the UK as a whole had chosen to cut ties with the EU, Scotland as a whole was very much in favor of hanging around. One or two of them probably expressed this sentiment in sober, cogent, reasoned form. I wouldn’t know, because their tweets were lost in a maelstrom of abuse, some of it colourful and imaginative, some of it puerile and profane, plenty of it occupying both spheres. And, yes, I joined in. And, no, I wasn’t in the cogent camp.

No, it wasn’t big and it wasn’t clever but, hey, Twitter, who cares, right? Well, some people do, apparently. I went off to do something vaguely useful, somewhere with lousy phone connections and forgot about my little vent. I only checked my phone a few hours later (I normally do this far more regularly, a habit that has led my 13-year-old niece to describe me as anti-social, but yeah, whatevs) and discovered that I’d gone properly viral. The tweet was liked and retweeted around the world: the current stats, if you’re interested are 2,301 likes and 1,219 RTs, which is modest by Taylor Swift standards but not bad for a balding, middle-aged curmudgeon the focus of whose career has drifted from writing about Pet Shop Boys compilations to writing about fish soup. But it was the messages that made it such fun, especially the awe-struck Americans thanking me for encapsulating their own inchoate thoughts about Mr Trump in such elegant prose and vowing to incorporate “cocksplat” into their vocabularies; a couple of them even proposed marriage. Many of them seemed to think I’m Scottish, which is odd, but not a problem. Of course, there were some naysayers as well. Apparently I’m a “low life liberal dirtbag” which can be the title of my autobiography, if @17762point0 hasn’t copyrighted it already, and, according to one Keith Bishop, “the worst kind of ignorant moron” which makes me wonder what the best kind might be.

But these things don’t just stick to Twitter either, do they? The online barrage that The Donald had suffered was picked up my other media, most prominently on Buzzfeed but also here and here and here and here. And my little cocksplat got its time in the sun, alongside other delicious epithets, from old reliables such as “gobshite” and “tit” to relative newcomers like “cockwomble”, “jizztrumpet” and “tiny fingered, Cheeto faced, ferret wearing shitgibbon”. It was like being at a convention of Malcolm Tucker impressionists. No, change that. It was like being at a convention of Malcolm Tucker impressionists and I was one of the best Malcolm Tucker impressionists there, and lots of people were queuing up to tell me how much they enjoyed my Malcolm Tucker impression and could I sign... but sign what? What would I sign? My own Twitter account?

It wasn’t only strangers. Some of my friends who aren’t on Twitter saw these articles and posted them on Facebook, a few of them very sweetly and generously declaring that they are proud to know someone who said “cocksplat” to a man who may end up as the next President of the United States. One friend came across my contribution during her grandmother’s funeral and she said that sharing it with her family brought some welcome relief to a sad day. Which is lovely.

And people are still saying nice things as I type this, but the compliments are coming at a far less  ferocious pace and pretty soon they’ll fade away. I realised that digital, viral fame is very nice, but it rarely lasts. I suspect the people we’ll remember in all this are the man who handed out swastika golfballs and this lady, who clearly decided that good, old-fashioned analogue communications would do the trick better than anything:

And while all this was going on, the pound was slumping to a 30-year low and the Prime Minister resigned. But, y'know, hee hee. Cocksplat.

PS: And then this happened.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

About Bowie

Talking heads from David Cameron upwards have had their say on David Bowie and why he was important and what he really meant. The guy’s barely been (secretly) cremated and already a backlash has started, the main criticism being that this is an orgy of irrational grief unprecedented since the whole Diana thing; maybe even more over the top since this mourning is amplified by social media. (I learned of Diana's death from the TV news; I learned of Bowie’s from the Fantasy Death League Facebook group.)

So, leaving aside the comprehensible grief of his family and close friends, are we permitted to mourn? And if so, why are we doing so with such intensity?

First, I think, because it was a shock. This may seem a little strange, because Bowie was 69; not exactly a ripe old age these days, but a point in life where banal infirmities such as cancer are liable to become part of the background music at least. It’s not as if he was a member of the 27 club, although few would have been surprised had he joined that unhappy institution; when Bowie actually was 27, the period when he appeared in the documentary Cracked Actor, he claimed to exist on a diet of red peppers, milk and cocaine. 

But it wasn’t so much the shock that he had died; it was the realisation that he even *could* die. More than any other performer — maybe only Michael Jackson came close — he had become inextricably linked with his evolving, reincarnating personas, so we rather lost sight of the flesh and blood underneath. Yes, in theory, we knew that he’d spent the past 20 or so years in domestic bliss with his gorgeous wife and beloved daughter, the sort of thing to which mere mortals aspire — but at the same time he was still Ziggy and the Duke and Screaming Lord Byron and they can never die. How can you kill something that was never conventionally alive?

That collective delusion apart, why was he important, why was he mourned? Well, there’s the music of course and, in purely artistic terms, he wrote and performed some great pop. I could never claim to have been a devote Bowiephile in the way that some of my friends were; I owned maybe half a dozen albums in various forms; saw him in concert just the once. But his own music is just the start of it; it’s his influence on huge swathes of what came after — glam, punk, indie, new romantic, synth pop, industrial, event elements of soul, funk and dance — is incalculable. For the past few days I’ve been surrounded by people who were perhaps too young to have fully understood what Bowie meant, some even who’d never heard of him. I’ve been trying to construct for them a musical universe in which Bowie never existed, a sort of It’s A Wonderful Life in which Jimmy Stewart has screwed-up eyes and screwed-down hairdo — and it’s a horribly bland place, I can tell you.

But it’s not just the music, is it? What Bowie really offered was a sense of identity and belonging for those of us who didn’t really belong. The square pegs, the left-handers, the kids who got picked last for the football team. Inevitably there have been countless references to a specific TV performance of Starman in July 1972, a moment that appears to have transformed the lives of pretty much everyone who saw it, each believing that when he sang “I had to phone someone so I picked on you” it was a personal invitation to attend some kind of Bacchanalian tea party. I missed that moment but there were plenty more through the years, a series of glorious happenings that never seemed contrived, second-guessing the zeitgeist while selling records almost as an afterthought. The sounds and the costumes and the characters changed but what remained consistent was his otherness, out of time, out of place, at once cool and awkward, Hamlet and Meursault and Josef K, how we wanted to be and how we were in one package. As we put on our red shoes and immediately fell wanking to the floor, he was a sort of Platonic ideal of how to be. And now that he’s dead — and even though his death was enigmatic and surprising and delivered with extraordinary timing, he’s dead — we realise that he was mere meat and bones and earwax like the rest of us.

But he did it so well. And those of us 40- and 50-somethings who stumbled through our dreary existences for the past week, sharing memories and tears and fuzzy YouTube clips of strange TV appearances in 1976, maybe what we’re really grieving for is the fact that however often we paint on that Aladdin Sane flash, we are not and never will be Bowie.