Friday, March 29, 2019

About silence

Two interesting and related snippets in the current Mojo magazine. First, the news that Mute records will be releasing a compilation album consisting of 59 different artists’ interpretations of John Cage’s 4’33” (aka the quiet bit). New Order, Depeche Mode, Cabaret Voltaire, Einstürzende Neubaten, Wire and Goldfrapp are all on the bill for what is already my record of 2019 before I (haven’t) heard it.

And a highly Cage-y story about the late Mark Hollis who, in the sessions for Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden, went to great expense hiring and recording a large choir, and then erased their contribution entirely, explaining that he liked that he could hear where they had been.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

About Radio 4

I’m not sure how seriously to take the article below; for a start, it has to be taken into account that it appears in The Times, the sober, respectable manifestation of the virulently anti-BBC Murdoch empire. And in any case, I’m not sure if the phenomenon it reports is really that new; when I was touting my Noughties book a decade ago, I encountered interviewers (on both BBC outlets and Sky TV, part of the same stable as The Times) who had clearly only read the press release, and ultimately, in the course of a five-minute chat, it didn’t really matter. The only thing that strikes me as odd is the assertion that producers have explicitly been advised (“no direct order”) by their superiors to follow this tactic, which would be a bit like teachers specifically telling their students that it’s perfectly OK only to read the CliffsNotes and not bother with the text itself. The teachers know it happens; they’re actually quite glad it happens, because the alternative is that the kids have no chance whatsoever in the all-important exams, which are the be-all and end-all of modern education; but if they were to say it out loud, it would be akin to Toto pulling back the curtain.

It is interesting, though, that what is essentially a “dumbing-down” narrative is presented in the context of a shift in priorities towards younger listeners. Whether this is either fair or accurate is another matter, but the perception seems to be there. I wonder how many people from that all-important under-24 demographic read The Times?

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

About high/low

I was startled today to see a copy of the Modern Review Mark 2 – the glossy, vapid Burchill/Raven relaunch from 1997, rather than the scrappy, wonderful collaboration between Burchill and Landesman and Young and York – selling for over £100 on Amazon, and the psychic shock propelled me back to the days when seeing Roland Barthes and Bart Simpson on the same bill was still something subversive and beautiful.

Now everyone’s doing it, the latest example being modern celebrity culture with moody 19th-century proto-existentialism. But under the egalitarian veneer, there’s a hint at what we’re expected to know or not know. In the Twitter profile, Kim Kardashian is just Kim Kardashian, while we need to have it explained to us that Søren Kierkegaard is a philosopher.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

About Fleabag and After Life

Comedy that brands itself as dark and edgy requires a certain amount of resistance from its consumers to justify its existence, so I’m sure Phoebe Waller-Bridge, creator and star of Fleabag (the second series of which is happening on BBC1) was delighted when several people popped up to declare that miscarriage was not something that should be joked about.

In fact, the miscarriage in the first episode was – apart from its initial shock value, because, no, it’s not something you do expect to happen in a sitcom – more of a McGuffin, setting the stage for a climactic, post-prandial punch-up and developing the awkward relationship between the chaotic Fleabag and her superficially in-control sister. It’s a brave, dangerous show, not least because the central character is a gloriously bloody difficult woman; but it still fits into a classic genre, the British comedy of embarrassment. And now (we’re currently half-way through the series) we’re getting properly self-referential and post-modern, as Fleabag’s droll arch glances and one-liners to camera have been noticed by the sweet, sweary, probably alcoholic Catholic priest (Andrew Scott) she’s determined to shag. If the asides were already Brechtian, the explicit reference to them adds so may layers to the artifice it’s hard to see how she can escape. Verfremdungseffekteffekt, maybe?

Of course, the whole idea of acknowledging the camera’s existence was a key element in the success of The Office, the show that brought Ricky Gervais to most people’s attention. This, however, was in the context of realism, as the cameras were there within the fiction (for the fly-on-the-wall documentary that many of us thought we were watching for the first few minutes of episode one) as well as in reality.

In his new Netflix show, After Life, there are no furtive glances at the camera. The closest we come are the video messages that the terminally-ill Lisa has recorded for her journalist husband Tony (Gervais) and the clips he’s shot of the daft pranks he played on her in happier times. After his death, he declares that the only thing holding his back from suicide is responsibility to look after his dog; the dénouement is [SPOILER ALERT] that, despite his best efforts to become a walking, talking delivery mechanism for toxic abuse, there are plenty more people who love and need him: a new young writer on the local paper he is assigned to mentor; his sad, adoring godson; the amiable sex worker who cleans his house. If the narrative leans towards gloomy neorealism, the setting is defiantly artificial, a pleasant English rural location somewhere between large village and small town, constantly bathed in improbable sunlight, where everything seems to be within walking distance, including the beach. This of course only serves to set Tony’s seething agony in stark relief.

After Life has also prompted complaints, from those who think the nihilistic despair of the recently bereaved shouldn’t be a matter for comedy and, to an extent, I think they’re on steadier ground here, because that is actually what the show is about; where they’re wrong, though is that After Life isn’t in fact a comedy. Sure, calling a 10-year-old schoolyard bully “a tubby little ginger cunt” offers the same sort of transgressive giggle as Fleabag’s gynaecological mishap, but ultimately Gervais’s offering is a tragedy in which funny things are allowed to happen; Waller-Bridge is orchestrating a farce that occasionally throws up tragic moments. (Incidentally, with regard to the language, Netflix seems to be more forgiving than the Beeb; Scott’s priest character was originally meant to refer to his brother as “a cunt” but this had to be changed to something less offensive. So the absent sibling became “a paedophile”. Which is better, apparently.)

I still don’t buy into this notion that we’re in some golden age of TV; it’s simply that more TV is being made, so inevitably there’s more good stuff to be found. Sturgeon’s Law still applies. But Fleabag and After Life are both clearly in the top 10% of that top 10%. As to which is better, I’d just say that while Fleabag dazzles with its wit and sheer devilish attitude, After Life is more like getting a punch in the gut when you least expect it. Fleabag I watch behind barely parted fingers, gasping at its sheer bloody-mindedness; After Life I can barely watch at all, for all the right reasons. Fleabag is a superb piece of Art, while After Life is Life itself.

PS: This just in, via Henry Hitchings on Twitter: Nabokov reference (unreliable narrator?) at the bus stop

Thursday, March 21, 2019

About Google+

And so it comes, the e-mail telling me that Google+ will breathe its last at the beginning of April, and that I ought to archive my content before it’s too late. I joined G+ but never quite saw the point of it; what exactly did it do that wasn’t covered by another social media product? In the end, I mostly used it to post things that I’d already put on Facebook, or Twitter, or here on my blog. I linked to things, rather than writing anything original; and inevitably, over the years, many of those links are as dead as G+ will soon be. Not that anyone knew or cared; it usually felt like yelling into a void, with no echo. And it appears that plenty of others had the same reaction, which explains the mournful e-mail.

But it did force me to look back on what I had posted, and has allowed me to curate (ugh) a sort of retrospective of the few years I spent with this ungainly add-on to my digital life, an acquaintance rather than a friend. And of course, when I get the e-mail advising me that Blogger is about to be taken away to the glue factory, I’ll have to do it all over again. (But at least I got the warning, unlike poor old Dennis Cooper, whose story I’d completely forgotten until I looked back at my account, so there’s that. And I also found this wry squib about the invisibility of G+ itself, which I posted on G+ and nobody noticed so it was clearly the truth; this also applied to more serious analyses, also here.)

Anyway, here are the choicest morsels:

And some nice pictures. Because you’re worth it, even if G+ wasn’t.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

About university

The whole sorry Brexit saga is at once tragedy, farce, soap opera and an interminable lecture about Parliamentary procedure, so sometimes it’s worthwhile to get an outsider’s view on the whole bloody mess. Here’s sometime Dubya aide David Frum’s version of articulate, informed sighing. He points out what I’ve said all along, that very few of the votes on either side were really about the EU per se; the leavers on both right and left were touting their own flavours of nostalgia, and those who wanted to remain pushed against that. He also trots out the statistic that a very important indicator of voting intentions was whether or not you’d been to university, with graduates voting two to one to remain and high-school dropouts (do we have “high-school dropouts” in the UK, David?) offering a similar statistical profile in reverse.

Which suits both sides nicely, since remainers think leavers are thick and leavers are sick and tired of hoity-toity experts. Except, of course, the idea that being a university graduate, even from a so-called elite establishment, imbues you with any particular level of cleverness is utter bollocks. I’ve known many people – a disproportionate number of them privately, expensively educated — who learned nothing at school or university bar a misplaced confidence in their own talents that, paradoxically, became a marketable skill in itself.

And on that note, we read about the lengths (and depths) to which rich Americans will go to get their moronic spawn into the best schools. Donald Trump has been unusually Trappist on this story, for some reason; and I don’t know whether this is any reflection on his own college days, because he got Michael Cohen to force the institutions to keep his grades secret. The only inference I can draw is that his marks were astonishingly high and he doesn’t want the fact to leak out in case it damages his credibility with his base. I mean, clever people are the problem, aren’t they?

PS: In related news, the Ivy League-educated son and grandson of millionaires, whose entire career has been in his dad's companies, tells us how bad the elites are.

PPS: More on the university entry scandal, by Amanda Hess in the New York Times:
You sense, in some of the stories to emerge from these fraud charges, an odd form of intergenerational class conflict, in which wealthy people who did not grow up pampered... are now trying to impose middle-class values (a good education is important) on superrich kids who see little use for them... Many kids compete for elite college slots in an attempt to gain access to a higher social class, but some of these parents are surely seeking the opposite effect — a degree that suggests their kids are not simply coasting on their inheritance while cultivating vanity careers. They are heaping money on their progeny in an attempt to correct for how rich they are.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

About pop lyrics

DJ Taylor muses about the fact that Shaun Ryder of Happy Mondays fame has had his lyrics published in book form by Faber, which leads to all sorts of chin-strokery:
But what are we — the critical, interrogative we, that is — to make of Wrote for Luck, in whose elegant presentation and chaste Faber typeface there lies the hint of something deliberately provocative?
I thought we’d done this to death decades ago, when Christopher Ricks pondered the relative merits of Keats and Dylan, and possibly the more interesting question is how “the critical, interrogative we” is constituted; who’s in, who’s out and who decides? In any case, isn’t Faber renowned for pulling such stunts? As far back as 1983, they gave an editorial job to Pete Townshend, which prompted exactly the same scale of pearl-clutching. And never forget TS Eliot’s heartfelt threnody to the music hall legend Marie Lloyd.

Maybe by “provocative”, Taylor just means that, amidst the white noise of Brexit, Faber knows exactly what it takes to grab a few shreds of publicity from the ether. And it seems to have worked.

Monday, March 11, 2019

About Theresa May

Monday, March 04, 2019

About getting it right/wrong

I’ve just come across an article I wrote for the BBC website in 2009, as part of a retrospective of the decade that was drawing to a close. Pretty uncontroversially, I picked the 9/11 attacks and the collapse of Lehman Brothers as the two events that would be emblematic of the Noughties, but also pointed out that they took place within a few minutes’ walk of each other, and people who live thousands of miles from Manhattan might have a different perspective on what’s important.

And then I took a bit of a punt and wondered if, in years to come, the most important development of that decade might turn out to be the launch of Wikipedia, because of its potential to disrupt the hierarchy and control of knowledge itself:
Along with Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, blogs and the other manifestation [sic] of Web 2.0, it meant that the final judgement as to what was significant would never again be left to a self-appointed elite of media professionals.
Yay! One in the eye for the so-called experts, the big media tycoons, the smug commentators in their ivory towers! The only difference is, in 2009 I thought that might turn out to be a good thing...

PS: The book I wrote about the Noughties is still available, packed with observations I got horribly but justifiably wrong.