Tuesday, December 24, 2019

About adaptations

That madhouse we call Twitter is full of people complaining about unfaithful adaptations of books they haven’t actually read; or if they did, they’ve clearly missed the bloody point. The most egregious was the collective whining about the “excessively woke” reworking of the anti-imperialist satire The War of the Worlds, written by the Fabian Socialist HG Wells; but either side of it came dismay about Les Misérables without singing and A Christmas Carol without Muppets.

And on that note, generous portions of humbug to one and all, and I’ll see you on the other side.

PS: And now Worzel Gummidge as well...

Saturday, December 21, 2019

About 2019

(Have neglected bloggery of late, for various reasons, so this is just something I lifted from a Facebook post, slightly tweaked. Hope to have a gloriously up-its-own-arse rumination on Brexit here some time before the year dies.)

Books: Most reading, at least for the first 2/3 of the year, was devoted to the endgame of my MA, but beyond that I enjoyed The Twittering Machine by Richard Seymour and Noah Charney’s The Museum of Lost Art. I also had my first work of fiction published, when my short story Nectarines found favour with The Mechanics’ Institute Review, and a very brief squib of mine prompted a couple of giggles when it popped up on Radio 4’s Front Row. Possibly not coincidentally, this is the first year I can recall when I didn’t read a complete work of fiction by anyone else. Or if I did, I can’t remember.

Films: Following the furore over Joker, I now don't know whether A Good Film is one that’s artistically satisfying, or one that ticks a certain number of boxes designed to determine some kind of moral purity. So all I’ll say is that the films I *enjoyed* the most were The Favourite and Knives Out, and the Cohen documentary Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love made me sniffle by the end. Will certainly see the new Star Wars before year end, but that transcends critical analysis; it’s more about remembering what it felt like to be nine years old.

Theatre: The only play I saw this year was When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other, a reworking of Richardson’s Pamela, with Cate Blanchett. So it’ll have to be that.

Art: The Lucien Freud show at the Royal Academy was very good, in that it gave me a coherent explanation of why I don’t really think Freud is all that, actually.

Music: Again, distractions, as a lot of my listening was taken up by preparing for a brief, chaotic appearance on the radio quiz Counterpoint. Aside from that, I really wanted to enjoy Nick Cave’s Ghosteen, but I’ve come to the conclusion that I really don't like what he does with synthesizers, and he should really rebuild bridges with Mick Harvey and go back to analogue and pianos and all that bad stuff in the 80s. Instead, I liked Peter Donohoe’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and the sinus-clearing exhilaration of the Japanese punk combo Otoboke Beaver. And Grandmaster Flash at the Fairfield was huge fun for the old folks.

TV: Three shows that got a bit lost amidst the hype: After Life, the best thing Gervais has done since The Office; Don’t Forget the Driver, proving that Toby Jones is one of our greatest living performers; and Giri-Haji, which may have been a triumph of style over substance, but it was good style, so that's OK. And the ongoing Pullman adaptation is really good Sunday evening viewing.

And talking of telly, you can still watch this until January 6:

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

About footnotes

At the beginning of Richard Seymour’s The Twittering Machine, about the ills of social media:
In writing this book, I set out to avoid burdening it with references and scholarship. I want it to be read as an essay, rather than as a polemic or an academic work. But for anyone who wants to know more, or simply finds themselves asking, ‘How does he know that?’ there are bibliographical notes at the end. If you find yourself itching to research a quote, statistic, or fact, simply skip to the end and search under the page number for the relevant phrase.
You see, I’ve never understood this hostility to footnotes, but every time I’ve written a book, I’ve been encouraged by editors to rein in my enthusiasm, because they put people off, apparently. When did references and scholarship become a burden? (There are notes in the Seymour book, but they're tucked away at the back, so as not to scare the more fragile reader.)

Thursday, November 28, 2019

About Miller and James

News came in yesterday of the deaths of two polymaths, Jonathan Miller and Clive James. I found this chat between the two, astonished that such freewheeling, unscripted, funny cleverness once popped up in a primetime slot on a mainstream channel; note that Miller isn’t plugging his latest product – he’s just there because he can talk well. When people talk about how wonderful podcasts are, I tell them they’re just what TV used to be.

It was a little depressing though that the deaths of two people blessed with such intelligence and knowledge should be accompanied by such outright wrongness. No, Evan Davis on Broadcasting House (Radio 4), Michael Grade did not give Clive James his television break on LWT in the late 70s; he’d had a regular berth on So It Goes for Granada in 1976 and was doing telly for several years before that. On the same frequency, a Front Row presenter claimed that Miller was a Cambridge contemporary of Eric Idle, when there was a decade or so between them. And, most glorious of all was Sarah-Jane Mee on Sky News, happily remembering a contretemps with the Bee Gees, oblivious of the fact she was thinking of the wrong Clive...

And the most poignant thing is the fun they would have had with such gaffes.

PS: Good article in the FT about the way each of them straddled the high/low divide:
Miller and his colleagues said: we refuse to take some things seriously just because respectable opinion says we should. James, you could say by contrast, said: I am determined to take some things seriously even though respectable opinion says I shouldn’t. The two positions are complementary.

Friday, November 22, 2019

About Beat Happening

Back in 2002, K Records released Crashing Through, a seven-disc box set devoted to the recorded output of the indie rock band Beat Happening. I asked Stephen McRobbie of the Pastels to review it for Careless Talk Costs Lives magazine, which remains the most quintessentially indie thing I’ve ever done (having chickened out from dancing on stage with Belle and Sebastian at a gig in Bangkok).

Now, there’s a new box set, We Are Beat Happening. It’s on vinyl this time, which I thought at first would make it more indie (analogue rather than digital), although it’s been remastered (at Abbey Road, no less), which I reckon seriously misses the point of BH’s lo-fi charm, and it actually contains less music than Crashing Through, losing the bonus tracks and the live mini-album.

And then of course I remembered that vinyl (or, ugh, “vinyls”), doesn’t mean what it used to mean. It’s a style thing, a hipster thing, it’s an acquisition. Really, they should have released the whole thing on cassettes. No, even better, they should have got someone to play it on the radio, and recorded that broadcast on cassettes, and decorated the inlay card with poems about someone who doesn’t fancy you, and CND stickers, and maybe burned off the corner of the case with a cigarette lighter.

Then I discovered that another band, the Oh Sees, are releasing a box set on eight-track cartridges. Now, who could I get to review that?

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

About Fat Roland

If it’s meta to write a blog post about blogging, how meta is it to post something about another blogger's blog post about blogging? Oh, I don’t know. Go and ask the excellent Fat Roland, who’s been doing this even longer than I have, the silly bugger.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

About #OKBoomer

I first noticed the phrase “OK Boomer” a few months ago, but didn’t really get it. I’m neither a boomer nor a millennial; I believe I fall into the sociological sweetie jar called Generation X (named after the Douglas Coupland novel, not Billy Idol’s band or the Deverson/Hamblett book about 60s kids) so I believed that I had no particular skin in this game.

But I’m being pedantic, aren’t I, and referring back to books and music from the seriously olden days, which is exactly the sort of behaviour that prompts the phrase in the first place. It’s a non-specific “you wouldn’t understand” whine, just the sort of thing I probably wielded towards my own parents when I was about 15 and had been listening to Joy Division and writing some bloody awful poetry when I should have been doing maths revision.

What is interesting though, is that, by undergoing the intense analysis its suffered in the past few days, the #OKBoomer meme has immediately lost its special power, its ability to act as a secret code between the young, something that the old farts won’t get or even notice. It’s like a long-lost film or album that held us all in special thrall because nobody had ever seen it – A Clockwork Orange, for example, which couldn’t officially be shown in Britain for decades – that reveals itself to be pretty ordinary in daylight. But that was before your time, wasn’t it?

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

About the Tollemache-Tollemaches

Some people think I’m in possession of a good memory but in reality it’s always been pretty flawed, and is getting worse. I was never good at useful stuff like revising for exams, or learning lines for plays, or recalling birthdays. But other stuff, pointless stuff, adheres when I don’t even ask it to.

An example: at a very early age, I read in an old copy of the Guinness Book of Records that the longest surname was borne by one Leone Sextus Denys Oswolf Fraudatifilius Tollemache-Tollemache de Orellana Plantagenet Tollemache-Tollemache and without any conscious effort I’ve remembered that name for more than four decades. When I went to a secondary school with delusions of grandeur, I discovered that there was a Major-General Sir Humphry Tollemache, Bt, on the board of governors, a name that would have sounded gloriously over-the-top in any other context, but I always assumed he was one of the provincial also-rans of the family. (“No, he’s one of the single-barrelled ones. We send him a Christmas card, but that’s all.”)

Sadly, I recently became aware that Leone’s record was something of a dud; in fact, Leone Sextus Denys Oswolf Fraudatifilius Tollemache-Tollemache de Orellana Plantagenet Tollemache-Tollemache’s surname was merely the relatively succinct Tollemache-Tollemache and not, as the McWhirters asserted, Tollemache-Tollemache de Orellana Plantagenet Tollemache-Tollemache. (Tollemache-Tollemache de Orellana Plantagenet were just extra forenames.) However, to make up for that, I discovered that he had a brother with an even better name: Lyulph Ydwallo Odin Nestor Egbert Lyonel Toedmag Hugh Erchenwyne Saxon Esa Cromwell Orma Nevill Dysart Plantagenet Tollemache-Tollemache. Which is lovely, but for some reason, it’s not sticking.

PS: And as I wrote the above, I remembered the case of Adolph Blaine Charles David Earl Frederick Gerald Hubert Irvin John Kenneth Lloyd Martin Nero Oliver Paul Quincy Randolph Sherman Thomas Uncas Victor William Xerxes Yancy Zeus Wolfe­schlegel­stein­hausen­berger­dorff­welche­vor­altern­waren­gewissen­haft­schafers­wessen­schafe­waren­wohl­gepflege­und­sorg­faltig­keit­be­schutzen­vor­an­greifen­durch­ihr­raub­gierig­feinde­welche­vor­altern­zwolf­hundert­tausend­jah­res­voran­die­er­scheinen­von­der­erste­erde­mensch­der­raum­schiff­genacht­mit­tung­stein­und­sieben­iridium­elek­trisch­motors­ge­brauch­licht­als­sein­ur­sprung­von­kraft­ge­start­sein­lange­fahrt­hin­zwischen­stern­artig­raum­auf­der­suchen­nach­bar­schaft­der­stern­welche­ge­habt­be­wohn­bar­planeten­kreise­drehen­sich­und­wo­hin­der­neue­rasse­von­ver­stand­ig­mensch­lich­keit­konnte­fort­pflanzen­und­sicher­freuen­an­lebens­lang­lich­freude­und­ru­he­mit­nicht­ein­furcht­vor­an­greifen­vor­anderer­intelligent­ge­schopfs­von­hin­zwischen­stern­art­ig­raum Sr, who made the poor old Tollemache-Tollemaches look rather amateurish. And I remembered that I did actually try to memorise his name, but never managed it.

Saturday, November 02, 2019

About Le monde selon Radiohead

Enough of the teasers. Watch lots of clever people explain five awkward, pale posh boys with guitars, while I wave my hands around and try to remember bits of Chomsky. (He’s in it, as is Steve Reich.)

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

About #jokerstairs

I still haven’t seen Joker but it’s had so much coverage and analysis that I almost feel I don’t need to. It seems to have transcended its identity as a mere film and become a commentary on fragile masculinity, urban decay, Trumpism and, thanks to its explicit nods to Martin Scorsese (who has helpfully dissed the superhero movies that provide the mulch in which Joker grew), film itself.

In The Guardian, Arwa Mahdawi describes the tensions created by people (or, as she describes them, “influencers and imbeciles”) visiting a particular flight of stairs in the Bronx that features in the film, just to take selfies as part of a phenomenon that’s now known as “meme tourism”. I have no doubt that she’s right, if only because pretty much the same article has appeared in USA Today and Esquire and Vice and the Daily Mail and Wired and any number of other outlets, all falling over each other in a manner that’s no more dignified than the gawping phone-wielders currently attracting the derision (and eggs) of the locals.

Meme journalism, anyone?

PS: I’ve seen it now. It’s pretty good.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

About Eluard and Bayard

Two accidental encounters yesterday. First, a fascinating radio documentary about surrealism in Ireland (isn’t this exactly what Radio 4 should be for?) reminded me of Paul Eluard’s map of the world, displaying the sizes of countries in proportion to how strange they are. (I love the Canada/Mexico border.)

And then my virtual friend Steph (who used to be Chaucer’s Bitch round these parts) posted a nugget from Susie Dent about the 17th-century word “bayard”, which apparently means an unshakeable self-confidence that’s rooted in ignorance. Which is all kinds of relevant to the modern world, but specifically reminds me of one of my favourite books of recent years:

Saturday, October 19, 2019

About Boris in the Forest

My old friend Robert Hackett has been creative again, and I urge you all to slurp from the puddle of his talent.

Friday, October 18, 2019

About Counterpoint

If anyone out there can be bothered to pretend to care, I’m on the BBC Radio 4 music quiz Counterpoint at 3pm UK time this coming Monday (available thereafter for a month or so on the BBC site).

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

About blogs (birthday edition)

Apparently blogging is 25 years old but the current landscape looks very different from what the pioneers came up with, or even what I encountered when Cultural Snow took its first baby steps in 2005. In The Guardian (the only British newspaper that really got its head round the idea, integrating blogging into its news/views mix at a very early stage), John Naughton looks at the early years through the idealised prism of Habermas’s public sphere and obviously there are still people keeping that faith.

But social media and, more significantly, money have combined to piss on old Jürgen’s chips. Blogs aren’t dead but the phenomenon got so mixed up with other digital platforms that you can’t really see the join. There’s now a magazine (Yes! Dead tree media! The very thing we were supposedly endangering!) called Blogosphere but it’s not about the sort of blogging I remember, where we’d collectively ponder the meaning existence, but also have time for complete gibberish like this. No, it’s “all about influencers and the influencer industry” which is essentially people with very white teeth and no perceptible body hair being paid to pretend to like things. I think if one of them had popped up 10 years ago we (Patroclus and Slaminsky and Billy and LC and RoMo and Spinny and many more) would have stomped them to death with the sheer force of our self-righteousness. And, y’know, I think we would have been right.

PS: A lesson in how to deal with influencers.

PPS: By Kathy Macleod:

Sunday, October 13, 2019

About Stephen Moore

The actor Stephen Moore has died. He enjoyed a varied and successful career but for me (and, I suppose, many others of my vintage) his greatest achievement was providing the voice of Marvin the Paranoid Android in the radio and TV versions of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. As a teenager, I usually claimed that Morrissey was my spirit guide, but in reality it was Marvin, with that terrible pain in all the diodes down his left-hand side. And of course, it was Marvin who provided a title to the first single for a certain Radiohead album about which I wrote a book, blah, blah, blah...

Confession time, now. When I wrote the book, I blithely asserted that the OK Computer title itself was also a direct quotation from the Hitchhiker’s canon, but didn’t check at the time. Many times since I’ve seen this connection regurgitated, and often I’m quoted as the source. I suppose I could have gone back to the scripts or the novels or the towels or whatever, but I rather liked it being a sort of Schrödinger’s fact, neither true nor false, only ultimately verifiable if anyone could be arsed.

For some reason, Mr Moore’s demise encouraged me to finally open the box, and I found this line in an interview with Thom Yorke marking the 20th anniversary of the album (or indeed the 10th anniversary of my book):
At one point in 1996, the band was killing time in the bus by listening to an audio version of Douglas Adams’ classic 1979 sci-fi-comedy novel, A [sic] Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Midway through the book, a spaceship computer says it’s incapable of fending off incoming missiles. “OK, computer,” responds galactic president Zaphod Beeblebrox, “I want full manual control now.” Yorke scribbled down the phrase – which marked the point in the narrative when humans saved themselves by reclaiming control from machines – in his bulging notebook of lyrics.
So I was right after all. Unless of course Yorke has retrospectively constructed his initial inspiration based on the meme that I coughed up a dozen years ago and we’re all implicated in some kind of paradoxical time loop between Douglas Adams and Radiohead and me.

What I don’t know is whether Stephen Moore ever expressed an opinion on ‘Paranoid Android’ the song. I think I’ll write another book, claiming he bloody hated it.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

About indie music

I’ve pondered the whole idea of the commodification of the alternative many times; is it a debasement of ethical principles, or the natural outcome of the individualism at the heart of the indie ethic? Is this poster by Dorothy, depicting indie classics in the form of commercial print adverts, a recuperation of rebellious instincts or a weary admission that pop music, however fragile and/or angry it has to be, is ultimately a cash-grabbing exercise?

Monday, October 07, 2019

About elites

Andrew Anthony on the elites who are allegedly to blame for the whole bloody mess we’re in:
It’s easy to mock metropolitan liberals for hypocrisy. After all, they’re often opposed to gentrification, while being the vanguard of gentrifiers. They’re the loudest proponents of multiculturalism while frequently maintaining a distinctly unicultural lifestyle. But even in this age of bovine anti-elitism, it would be the height of stupidity if people who like to visit bookshops come to be seen as the problem.

Saturday, October 05, 2019

About Greil Marcus and Camille Paglia

Last weekend, I retrieved several bundles of dead-tree matter from the parental loft, including a whole load of back issues of The Modern Review. Having a letter published earned one a free subscription, which is how I got to supply the punchline to a simmering feud between Greil Marcus and Camille Paglia:

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

About META

A very brief appearance on Radio 4’s Front Row tonight (at about the 11-minute mark), as part of the BBC National Short Story Awards. No, of course I didn’t win, but my Twitter story was offered up as a sort of amuse-bouche.

“Don’t be too meta,” he says. 
“You what?” she mutters, irritated. 
“Don’t make it a story about the process of writing a story.” 
“But people like that sort of thing,” she says. “It makes them feel clever.” 
“Only people who listen to Radio 4,” he sneers.

Well, John Wilson seemed to like it, even if it drew only polite sniggers from the punters.

Monday, September 30, 2019

About music criticism

Two people writing about music, one brilliantly perceptive, the other magnificently wrong. First, Dave Marsh in 1989 discussing the influence of the Delta blues, as expressed by Bo Diddley’s ‘I’m a Man’:
...functioned like an art virus, inhabiting as ghosts the music of men and women who worshipped them (the Yardbirds) or never heard of them (the Sex Pistols) or preferred to imagine they were doing something else (Steely Dan). As an influence, this makes Bo the Typhoid Mary of the genre. Or maybe the Faust.
And, in November 1962 (the date is significant), the promoter Bunny Lewis:
I don’t believe that the Americans could give a hoot for any of our singing artists... they just don’t want to know about any of our talent, and if our singers make more determined efforts to get in, the Americans will do all they can to keep them out.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

About Greta Thunberg

Two thoughts. First (prompted by a Facebook exchange), what would Roland Barthes have made of this photograph? And then, Paul Morley’s analysis of a famously ill-tempered edition of Juke Box Jury: “How Johnny Rotten looks at Noel Edmonds is eventually how an entire nation would look at Noel Edmonds.”

About self-Googling (again)

I wrote a few months ago about the perils of looking for yourself on the magical interwebnets. And now I find a site which has not only replicated the previous “fact” (that I died in 2007) but also wants to retitle my books for me.

Friday, September 20, 2019

About Mad

I never really got swept up in the general enthusiasm about Mad magazine, which has suffered the fate of so many print titles. But I was impressed with this 1978 edition; apparently they pre-empted the whole Adbusters/culture jamming thing by several years, even if the main objection was aesthetic rather than political.

Monday, September 16, 2019

About Trump

Re-reading Mystery Train, in which Marcus dared to reframe the mythology of American popular music – and wider culture – in explicitly literary terms, the careers of musicians and politicians alike compared to Huckleberry Finn and Captain Ahab and Jay Gatsby. He’s particularly cutting about a man who was, at that time, the personification of political venality and vulgarity, Lyndon Baines Johnson.

But even LBJ might have had a vague idea who Huck and Ahab and Jay were, what they meant. What, asks New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik, of a man who hasn’t even read the books he pretended to write, a veritable President for a post-literate age?
Mr. Trump has been playing himself instinctually as a character since the 1980s; it’s allowed him to maintain a profile even through bankruptcies and humiliations. But it’s also why, on the rare occasions he’s had to publicly attempt a role contrary to his nature — calling for healing from a script after a mass shooting, for instance — he sounds as stagey and inauthentic as an unrehearsed amateur doing a sitcom cameo.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

About books, again

Following on from the Thatcher Wine horrorshow, I was in Waterstones in Gower Street yesterday and saw, on a tabletop laden with books as slim and pretty as a posse of wannabe fashion models, this sign:

Which annoyed me a bit. Of course, it could be justified as a bit of stealth marketing, selling books to non-bookish people on an aesthetic basis, and, hey, maybe a few of them may absent-mindedly pick them up and read them. But would such people be in a bookshop – specifically a bookshop in the heart of the University of London – in the first place?

I calmed down a little when I turned 90 degrees to face the delectable wall of orange and cream below, all the Evelyn Waughs and Angus Wilsons you can eat at a fiver a pop. (The pale blue Pelicans were round the corner.) But then I noticed that these are being marketed not as second-hand books, but as “Vintage” Penguins and I’ve got a horrible feeling they’re also being shifted as design accessories first, books second. And yes, I accept that anything that helps to keep proper walk-in bookshops viable has to be a good thing. And yes, I’ve lost count of the books I own that I’ll probably never get round to reading. (The Japanese word for this is “tsundoku”) And yes, by taking a photo of the old Penguins like a bloody tourist, I’m further enabling the fetishisation of design and appearance over content.

But it’s my blog and I’ll whine if I want to. And now my degree’s over I can get back to reading what I bloody well want, so I bought a remaindered copy of the most recent edition of Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train, the book proper of which is just 168 pages long, but has enough notes and discographies and indexes and similar geeky stuff to take the whole package well past the 400 mark. Will it make my bookshelf look good though?

Monday, September 09, 2019

About mobility

An excellent radio documentary by Byron Vincent about how social mobility isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be. Two snippets:
So off you pop to uni and you do your degree but it’s not just accountancy you learn, you learn to eat quinoa and feign an interest in Murakami; you learn about passive aggression and that you’re not allowed to punch middle-class people, even if they’re being proper knobheads...
These strange hybrids, no longer proper working-class but not middle-class either, anomalies, sat around mashing Frazzles into our avocados and apportioning Jungian archetypes to the contestants on Love Island.
And on the same lines, look at this lovely interview with a very young Dennis Potter.

Sunday, September 08, 2019

About the dissertation

For the past couple of years I have been studying for an MA in Cultural and Critical Studies, which is essentially a slightly more coherent version of this blog. And now, having completed my dissertation, I am not. What have I learned? That Foucault is far funnier than I ever gave him credit for, that Adorno definitely isn’t, that nobody except me loves Baudrillard any more and that ultimately the human race as we know it is doomed and we’ll all be reduced to a small pile of ones and zeros by the year 2100.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

About Radiohead, yet again

“What did you do in the culture wars, Timmy?”

“I sat around with a bunch of other middle-aged men and failed to say anything useful about Radiohead.”

PS: And hey, look, there’s even a poster...

Thursday, August 29, 2019

About prorogation

Jamie Reid’s 1977 image of the Queen has gone from iconoclastic to iconic and back again; inevitably for the work of an old Situationist, it’s been détourned and/or recuperated more times than I’ve had hot safety pins. Here’s this morning’s edition of Spanish paper ABC:

To be honest, I don’t know what the classic punk and/or Situationist position on Brexit would have been; probably squatting in the middle, lobbing paving slabs at both sides. John(ny) Rotten/Lydon has reinvented himself as a Faragiste but apparently hasn’t always been that way inclined. And this article by Padraig Reidy (which also hijacks the essence of that 1977 image) points out how the “potential H-bomb” has been reclaimed as an emblem of hope against Brexit by her mortal foes, the liberal chattering classes. It’s another flavour of détournement, I suppose, but a polite one.

Also, not big, not clever from Mark Thomas, but funny:

PS: Coincidentally, someone has catalogued a letter I wrote to Select magazine (gulp) a quarter of a century ago.

Monday, August 26, 2019

About the NME

The NME is still a thing, apparently, and it still has an editor, one Charlotte Gunn. Discussing the decision of the title to expand its live offering, whatever that means, she says, “Really, I just want NME to help get people together to have a nice time listening to great music, because isn’t that what it's all about?”

Actually, I always thought what NME was supposed to be all about was tearing people apart.

PS: And if you really want a good old wallow in the nostalgia mines, check out this lovely little film about punk and Letraset.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

About social media 1.0

When did social media really begin? If we can rise above the pedantry that suggests all media is essentially social (tall tales of mammoth hunting round the camp fire, anyone?) and assume that it has to involve the web in some shape or form, I’d place my own first involvement back in the very late 90s, with Guardian Talk. As far as I can recall, it began as a way to control comments on online articles; but after a while users were allowed to begin threads of their own, and a strange little virtual community developed, mainly concerned with arguing the toss over whatever was happening in the news, but also allowing little bits of life to bleed through. I discussed one of the more memorable episodes here. I drifted away as I became more committed to this blog and the weirdos and wastrels who happened upon it (you know who you are), and then as other, glossier, more successful products (you know who they are) arrived, I became even further distracted. I wrote for The Guardian’s Comment is Free (is that still a thing?) for a few years, but that was more on the standard journalism model, with a distinct separation of those above and below the dreaded line, although a few of us did our best to blur that distinction.

Guardian Talk died, suddenly and strangely, in 2011, but I was long gone by then. And I’d pretty much forgotten about it, until last week, something happened that prompted all sorts of memories. The Guardian (by which I mean in this instance the website, although any distinction between the various manifestations of the brand now seems unnecessarily pedantic) ran a piece by Adrian Chiles about catching up with some of his old teachers. It’s an odd article that doesn’t really seem to go anywhere, feeling like a half-formed idea rather than something ready for publication. But – possibly because of its sketchy, unfinished nature – it prompted a number of readers to pitch in with their own memories of teachers, good and bad. And, rather than doing what I should have been doing, I did the same:
I was lucky with my teachers (a few grisly exceptions, obviously) but the finest I had was a lugubrious, chain-smoking Glaswegian who got me into Joyce and Beckett and Burgess and all that good stuff, not through earnest, Dead-Poets-style breast-beating but by reading a bit and quietly asking, “What do we make of that, then?” I sent him an email when he retired, to thank him and let him know what I'd done with my life. He replied, “I‘m glad you stuck with words.” He died the following year. Thanks again, Campbell.
Now, most of these contributions stand alone, perhaps enhanced by a *like* or five. But mine, for whatever reason, drew a response from Ian Jack, former editor of the Independent on Sunday and Granta, who I know of but don’t know:
I think you must have been taught by my old friend Campbell Mackay, whose flat I shared in Glasgow long before he took the trail south and then west. I'm glad to hear he was a fine teacher, though I'm not at all surprised. He took it seriously.
And he was right. I found it both moving and a little unnerving that with so few specific details (there must have been dozens, maybe hundreds of Scottish teachers called Campbell over the years), Mr Mackay’s essence, a doleful Estragon through a nicotine haze, was so immediately identifiable to someone else who’d had the pleasure of knowing him. And I thought for a moment about how lovely social media can be if we let it, how it can build bridges, make friends, join up disconnected memories, maybe even for a moment bring the dead back among us; as well as spreading strife and hate and fake news and all that cal.

Then somebody else accused me of misunderstanding bloody Dead Poets Society and we were back to normal.

(Campbell would have got the reference in the photo up there: I hope a few others do as well.)

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

About Thatcher Wine

I was directed by Clair, who used to be The Urban Woo in the days when people spoke of a blogosphere without sniggering, to an article about one Thatcher Wine, who is responsible for Gwyneth Paltrow’s books. No, he doesn’t write them; he curates them. A brief snippet to give a flavour of what he does:
My invention for the book jacket means that someone can have the complete works of Jane Austen, but in a certain Pantone chip color that matches the rest of the room or with a custom image. People have invested in how their home looks: They chose the cabinets, the carpets, the paint, and the window coverings. Why settle for books that a publisher designed? Books can have as much style as anything else in the room.
Which does make me yearn just a tiny bit for the glory days of actresses who actually read stuff.

PS: And in a similar vein, this is doing the rounds...

Sunday, August 18, 2019

About cartoons

A couple of reminders that, even when words can be defanged – often these days by the tiresome canard of “fake news” – the image can still bite. First the great Art Spiegelman’s overview of the comic genre’s ability to speak grainy truth to power, given added resonance by the revelation that the current chairman of Marvel Comics found the whole piece just a little bit too truthful for comfort:
In today’s all too real world, Captain America’s most nefarious villain, the Red Skull, is alive on screen and an Orange Skull haunts America. International fascism again looms large (how quickly we humans forget – study these golden age comics hard, boys and girls!) and the dislocations that have followed the global economic meltdown of 2008 helped bring us to a point where the planet itself seems likely to melt down. Armageddon seems somehow plausible and we’re all turned into helpless children scared of forces grander than we can imagine, looking for respite and answers in superheroes flying across screens in our chapel of dreams.
And then this, from an old friend in Hong Kong:

Friday, August 16, 2019

About Dickens

A group of disaffected teens with terrible lives do not want to be studying Dickens and Shakespeare last thing on a Friday... We should be encouraging these pupils, not boring them half to death – why not study literature that is relevant to their lives?
(From an article today about the decline in popularity of English Literature A-level)
“She was brought here last night,” replied the old woman, “by the overseer’s order. She was found lying in the street. She had walked some distance, for her shoes were worn to pieces; but where she came from, or where she was going to, nobody knows.”
(Oliver Twist, Chapter One)
“You are to be in all things regulated and governed,” said the gentleman, “by fact. We hope to have, before long, a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who will force the people to be a people of fact, and of nothing but fact. You must discard the word Fancy altogether. You have nothing to do with it. You are not to have, in any object of use or ornament, what would be a contradiction in fact. You don’t walk upon flowers in fact; you cannot be allowed to walk upon flowers in carpets. You don’t find that foreign birds and butterflies come and perch upon your crockery; you cannot be permitted to paint foreign birds and butterflies upon your crockery. You never meet with quadrupeds going up and down walls; you must not have quadrupeds represented upon walls. You must use,” said the gentleman, “for all these purposes, combinations and modifications (in primary colours) of mathematical figures which are susceptible of proof and demonstration. This is the new discovery. This is fact. This is taste.”
(Hard Times, Chapter Two)

Monday, August 12, 2019

About content

Benjamin Schwartz, The New Yorker.

PS: And in a slightly less refined mood, by Scribbly G:

Sunday, August 11, 2019

About Schoenberg

Justification for the continued existence of the BBC, and the licence fee, notwithstanding all its idiocies, in a single, silly sentence:

(Darren Henley and Sam Jackson, Classic FM: Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Classical Music But Were Too Afraid To Ask, p. 149. And they say pretty much the same about John Cage.)

Friday, August 09, 2019

About memes

An interesting piece by Kathryn Watson about how memes actually happen; and, bouncing off Iain Macmillan’s Abbey Road cover, a reminder that they’ve been doing it for years. (Although how many of them have actually listened to the album, I wonder?)

Thursday, August 08, 2019

About the stubborn persistence of the analogue

Further to my baffled musings about stickers, I’ve been aware of a resurgence of communication that doesn’t quite challenge the digital hegemony, but wants to operate alongside it. I guess graffiti is one example; still obstinately analogue, but wanting to be photographed and shared as much as possible. And the serious creators always include their own Instagram tags. And then there’s something like this: whoever stuck it up hasn’t even bothered to use a laser printer or photocopier, and the jagged frills where the page has been torn from its spiral binding shout its wood pulp reality. But there’s no physical location given, or even a phone number; for any useful details, the analogue isn’t quite enough.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

About Scarlatti

I’ve mentioned before the work of Rutherford Chang, who recorded 100 different copies of the Beatles’s White Album on top of each other. And now someone’s done something similar with all 555 of Scarlatti’s harpsichord sonatas. The funny thing is, the massed Scarlatti sounds more like something the studio-era Beatles might have done than the massed Beatles does.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

About stickers

Gilbert Adair, along with Greil Marcus, Morley/Penman and, strangely enough, James Burke, was one of the people who really got me thinking about stuff that would lead me towards this whole cultural theory malarkey; I picked up Adair’s book Myths and Memories in a remainder shop some time in the late 80s, then followed the skein of influence back to Roland Barthes and I was hooked.

However, although he owes a methodological debt to Barthes, his style is rather different; for a start, in contrast to than Barthes’s own droll, sometimes quasi-Martian view of the physical manifestations of modern life, Adair often let his own prejudices burst through and they’re not always pretty. For one thing, he hated pop music and everything associated with it with a passion. In a later collection, The Postmodernist Always Rings Twice, he describes staring at a wall plastered with posters advertising record releases, almost revelling in the fact that he has no idea which bits of text are the bands, which are the titles. And while that flash of ignorance led him to some interesting ponderings on Eco and Malevich, I felt sure that I’d never find myself so baffled by the modern world.

Analogue posters still adorn the walls of London and other cities, even in this digital world and although these days I probably wouldn’t recognise most of the music they advertise, I’ve got at least a vague idea what’s going on. However one thing, on a smaller scale, does now put me in a state of Adairian bafflement - and that’s the invasion of stickers on walls and lamp-posts and bins and the few remaining phone boxes. Obviously there are still stickers advertising political opinions and commercial sex but these are something different, closer to adhesive street art, suggesting some sort of coded meaning that’s permanently closed off to me. But I don’t exult in not knowing, not getting the joke. I just gaze, feeling a bit disconnected, and old. Although, like Adair, I could let it all lead to Eco:
Today in Pompeii tourists are visiting murals depicting Romans with huge penises; originally meant as adverts for brothels, they are now considered great art. In the eighteenth century Telemann was thought a greater composer than Bach; in the nineteenth Eugene Sue a greater writer than Balzac. In 200 years we may consider Picasso inferior to the man currently responsible for the Coca-Cola commercials... So we should never be afraid to analyse marginal or inferior manifestations of our culture.
So, analyse away.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

About tattoos

News comes of a gentleman from Seattle who, his former enthusiasm for Mr Morrissey rather tainted by the singer’s recent toxic outbursts, resolves to do something about his own celebratory tattoo. But instead of having it removed entirely, he has a line put through it and another performer’s – Sheryl Crow in this case but it could be anyone – above. The good memories of what Morrissey offered aren’t wiped out, but his sins are acknowledged. And, of course, if in the coming years Ms Crow should turn into a bumptious old bigot, the same fate could befall her.

I do wonder if this if this might be the answer to all our mithering about representations of people who were once lauded but later turn out to be arses; and also to the existing cultural products of the same. We don’t actually need to tear down the statues of colonialist exploiters or Confederate generals; nor do we remove the works of artists whose behaviours or attitudes transgressed what we now deem to be right and proper, and yes, I’m thinking of the Eric Gill carvings on Broadcasting House. We simply, literally or metaphorically, put a line through them. A small plaque would do, a sticker, an announcement before a performance, a bit of text before a film. If nothing else, it’s a gentle reminder that our own activities (eating meat, using plastic bottles, driving cars, maybe something that today seems so utterly unexceptional that it would seem seriously daft to pick it as an example) will make us look like complete and utter shitbuckets to our descendants. But perhaps, rather than burning our effigies, they’ll be just a little kinder, and add the equivalent of a rueful “tut tut” to what – if anything – we leave behind.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

About German magazines

In the past few days, two German magazines have put out covers depicting two right-wing foreign leaders in highly unflattering guises. That said, the difference in tone suggests that one of the countries in question, as awful as its current boss might be, still needs to be taken seriously. The other, perhaps not so much.

PS: More stuff:

PPS: “...how the others must see the faker...”

PPPS: And, by David Foldvari:

Sunday, July 21, 2019

About Cats

Much bandwidth has been devoted over the past few days to discussion of the trailer for the movie version of Cats, which has been described variously as creepy, demented, drug-addled and uh-why-would-a-cat-need-a-fur-coat? To be honest, I don’t get the horrified reaction; surely the whole point of CGI is to create things that cannot be in an analogue world, rather than just to form a simulacrum of our meat-and-bones existence, but to do it quicker and faster. But then my favourite Marvel movie is the utterly barmy Doctor Strange, so what would I know?

If I were making a movie version of Cats (and I would remind you that when I put on a stage show in Edinburgh, I plastered the Scotsman reviewer’s reaction of “unbelievably atrocious” across the posters and audiences doubled in the second week, so I know how to weaponise visceral loathing), this is what I’d do:

1. Ditch most of the songs and most of the fluffy Americans and James bloody Corden, leaving just Dame Judi, Sir Ian and soon-to-Sir Idris on an otherwise empty stage. Bulk out the running time with bits of The Waste Land (including the notes), The Four Quartets, maybe even Notes Towards The Definition of Culture. (This version of The Waste Land set to the music of Anthony Burgess may give a few hints.) The greatest of Lloyd Webber’s many sins has been to encourage to notion that T.S. Eliot Should Be Fun. He’s got to hurt, people.

2. Don’t worry, there will be cats, but they won’t be actors with CGI fur and tails up their bums. Instead, I’d have inserts of old fashioned analogue frame-by-frame animation, based on the beautiful, often heartbreaking work of Louis Wain, whose art progressed from cute, anthropomorphic moggies to semi-abstract cat deities, mirroring the increasing fragility and ultimate collapse of his mental state. And if you think the current trailer is a bit creepy, you’ll be coughing up furballs of pure terror when this one happens.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

About Brexit (sorry)

In his review of Rod Liddle’s new book, Fintan O'Toole sums up the gaping vacuum at the heart of arguments for Brexit:
Tellingly, Liddle specifies the moment of perfidy. The conspiracy, as he sees it, began as soon as “the establishment” started talking about a “hard Brexit” and a “soft Brexit”, “whereas hitherto we had simply been talking about Brexit”. In other words, the betrayal started as soon as “Brexit” acquired any actual content. Once “Brexit means Brexit” became “Brexit means this or that”, it was being sold out. There is here a kind of truth – the pure, unbetrayed Brexit could exist only in the abstract. To give it concrete meaning was to sully it. Nowhere does Liddle ever tell us what he himself actually thinks Brexit means in the real world. How could he, since by his own definition that would be an act of betrayal?
A concept so achingly pure, it becomes irredeemably tainted the moment it comes into contact with sunlight, fresh air, empirical reality. Schrödinger’s Brexit anyone?