Thursday, November 29, 2018

About writing

By CS Lewis, of all people. Stolen from Twitter. I heartily endorse, etc.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

About Harry Leslie Smith

Harry Leslie Smith has died. Well, the real, meat-and-mucus Harry Leslie Smith, the war veteran and political campaigner, has died in a Canadian hospital at the age of 95, but the Harry Leslie Smith known from the @Harryslaststand Twitter account transcends such banal considerations.

Most of us are aware that lots of celebrities’ social media accounts are in fact run by PR acolytes who churn out the sort of things we expect said celebrities to say, just as “their” autobiographies and other books are ghosted by people who can actually write. We only point and laugh when it becomes obvious that the celeb in question hasn't even bothered to read the bloody thing.

The problem comes when a celebrity’s USP is his or her “authenticity”. @Harryslaststand rather blurred the distinction, as most people were aware that Harry’s son John was doing the heavy lifting on the account, although it generally represented Harry’s views. There were rumours that certain political entities – dear old Momentum was the main suspect – had more influence than might have been clear from “Harry”’s impassioned jeremiads against austerity and the like. But we bumbled along, not willing to interrogate any apparent anomalies, because the guy was 95 and still quite feisty, a sort of lefty David Attenborough, and it would have seemed mean.

Of course, in his last few days, when the whole point of him was that he was dying in hospital and really not up to explaining why Trump was such a bastard, the pretence was unsustainable. Smith Jr came into his own, taking advantage of the sad circumstances to cue up some jibes against the effect of austerity policies on health services in the UK and Ontario. It was a bit like the reveal in a late Ian McEwan novel, when the real author lifts off the mask and mutters that s/he would have got away with it if it weren’t for you pesky Booker judges. 

Unfortunately, the other thing that came to mind as Harry slid to his inevitable end in full view of us all, was the protracted demise of another figure whose relationship to reality was fuzzy at best (and whose socio-political views were similarly forthright), the lamented Jade Goody.

What a pity Harry never launched his own perfume range.

Friday, November 23, 2018

About Maxwell Perkins

I keep coming back to the little dance that all writers and other purveyors of fact must dance, between going over the heads of their intended audience and insulting their intelligence. As I suggested in relation to Barthes, it’s ultimately subjective: OK, maybe I know who Isaac Newton is, but not Bachelard or Hjemslev, but that doesn’t apply universally. Except... seriously? I mean, I’m sure there are plenty of Pointless contestants who don’t know who wrote the Principia, but what proportion of those are on top of French epistemology and/or Danish linguistics in the mid-20th century? (And, yes, I had to Google those.)

And here’s another example. In the New Yorker, Jordan Orlando offers yet another bloody article about The White Album in which he introduces George Martin as “the Beatles’ Maxwell Perkins”. To be honest, I think Orlando’s choice is a little less preposterous than that of Barthes; there will be very few people who know the editor of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, but not the Beatles’ producer, but I suspect there are more than those who know Hjemslev but not Newton. And, because this is all about knowing your audience, I reckon all of them read the New Yorker.

And that just gives me the perfect opportunity to remind you of the work of Rutherford Chang.

PS: And this is interesting too: she even has a stab at Revolution #9.

Friday, November 16, 2018

About Brexit (Hey, is that still a thing?)

(I posted this on Facebook last night and a few people liked it. Here’s a slightly amended version.)

“It’s not the Brexit my constituents voted for” seems to be a mini-meme running through the current batch of resignations. OK, let’s look at this. 

Some people voted Leave from a long-standing, principled objection to the EU itself, whether from a right-wing perspective (it puts too many restrictions on free enterprise) or from the left (it’s in hock to corporate capitalism). 

Some voted Leave because the balance of power in the 21st century is leaning away from Europe and the US, and towards Asia, so we're better off getting cosy with China and India. 

Some voted Leave because, whatever the originating principles of the EU, it’s become moribund and corrupt. 

Some voted Leave because they object to a supranational body having any kind of control over a sovereign nation (although why these people don't extend this concern to the fact that Parliament in London still has ultimate control over the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, I’m not sure). 

Some voted Leave because they were worried about immigration/freedom of movement, on a continuum between mild worries over jobs/housing/health services on one hand, and good old-fashioned swivel-eyed, gammon-cheeked racism on the other. 

Some voted Leave because they want to return to some weird prelapsarian amalgam of 1945, 1955 and 1970, where Kenneth More won the war, the Suez debacle never happened and TV on all three channels consists of frilly-shirted comics telling jokes about blackies and poofters in your face forever. 

Some voted Leave because they believed all that bollocks about straight bananas — these people are idiots, but they're still entitled to their say. Ditto the stuff on the bus about £350 million. Oh, and blue passports. Gotta have those blue passports.

And some people voted Leave as an atavistic reaction to what they perceive as political elites, simply doing something they knew would annoy the likes of David Cameron and Tony Blair, or people who work at the BBC, or live in London, just because. 

Now, all these people voted to leave, they voted against something, and all together they added up to a (bare) majority. But beyond that, is there really one coherent end-point that they all, every single one of them, voted *for*? Is there any single state of being that would satisfy all of them, from the grumpy Little Englanders to the post-Eurocentric global liberals and all points in between? So how the hell can anybody say that this or that document doesn't deliver something that never existed in the first place?

Oh yeah, and the Irish border. Doh.

You know what, I’m starting to think that maybe this Brexit thing wasn’t such a great idea after all.

PS: This, by Stewart Lee.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

About Threatin

I was going to write something covering the bizarre tale of the band Threatin, which appears in reality to be a figment of its own imagination, with a fanbase to match. In short, an LA-based musician called Jered Threatin booked several venues in the UK, claiming to have sold hundreds of tickets to each gig, but he hadn’t really and as a result the venues and support bands were the losers. I’m torn by this; I dislike dishonesty, but I’m also wary of people who put too much emphasis on the chimera of “authenticity”. In a battle between a bad-haired twit living out his rock ‘n’ roll delusions in public and local metal bands who make a virtue of their “realness” (above and beyond being any good) I’d probably side with old Jered. And yeah, I’d probably have said something about Baudrillard, and how the illusion of Threaten conceals a reality that never existed and all that sort of good stuff.

But I won’t bother because the excellent Everett True wrote a review of their recent London gig which is utterly true, and utterly inauthentic. Which is pretty much what you want, isn’t it?

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

About the midterms

Two years ago I was in a restaurant in Bangkok, surrounded by people from all ends of the planet, even Wales, all working happily together, when Donald Trump (metaphorically) walked in and did a big shit in the kitchen. I'm going to bed now, hoping against hope that by the time I wake up, good people will finally have got their act together and rubbed his orange nose in it.

Friday, November 02, 2018

About Pig

The new Iranian film Pig (directed, incidentally, by my old school chum Mani Haghighi) raises a number of questions, but not enough to stop it from being very funny, in a dark, bleak, strange way.


The premise is ingenious: a serial killer is going around decapitating the great Iranian movie-makers, leaving one director distraught, not because he’s worried about getting killed, but because the murderer hasn’t yet bothered to kill him. He’s already despondent because he’s been blacklisted and has to direct high-camp bug spray commercials to keep the wolf from the door.

Because it’s a film about a director, there’s an obvious temptation to assume it’s in some way autobiographical, but Haghighi avoids that by appearing as himself, albeit it in a very oblique manner. It’s a bit like Martin Amis explicitly writing himself into Money, just to confirm he’s not any of the dreadful fictional characters. This is distinct from the character Marcus Appleby/Mark Asprey in his next novel, London Fields, who may or may not be Amis, but is just as bad as everyone else. Which is a roundabout way to remind everyone that the long-awaited London Fields movie has finally seen the light of day, and appears to be just as dire as we all dreaded/hoped. And then I remember that it was originally meant to have been directed by David Cronenberg, who would at least have included a bug spray commercial or two, one hopes. I’ll probably try to see it, if only out of morbid fascination; but I bet it’s not as much fun as Pig.

Thursday, November 01, 2018

About unconditional offers

St Mary’s University in Twickenham is to end the practice of making unconditional offers (awards of places that aren’t dependent on future A-level results) “to ensure it maintains its entry standards”. Th e problem appears to be, amazingly enough, that if students are studying for exams, the core purpose of which is to get them into university, and they’re told they don’t need to pass them to get into university, they’re not especially bothered whether or not they pass them.

This doesn’t mean that they haven’t been studying, of course – these offers tend to come about half-way through the second of final year of A-level studies, so the student will already have been through the bulk of the syllabus. What they’re missing out is the last-minute cramming of facts (and maybe a little judicious cheating) that will enable them to jump through the hoops held out by the examining boards – facts that, if they didn’t know them before, will probably have evaporated within days of the exams themselves. It’s only a problem for the universities because those A-level results are the objective measure by which they identify how adept their new students are; although all they really measure is how good they are at passing exams, not their actual aptitude for or understanding of applied mathematics, Spanish literature, existential phenomenology or whatever. The standards of the new students aren’t affected by unconditional offers, but the publishable statistics are, and they’re what matters (to politicians as well as universities). And to admit this would be to suggest that the whole exam system as we know it at the moment is pretty much pointless. And then we’d really have to start asking what education is really for. And nobody wants that, do they?