The biggest political phenomenon in recent years has been a surge in populist resentment towards a very vaguely defined other that is usually called “the elite”. Now, though, many of those leading the charge against “the elite” appear to be wealthy, well-connected, straight, white males, which always used to be a pretty good indicator of elitism. Now, though, the divide is as much cultural as anything. It’s not just attitudes to Europe, or immigration, or gay marriage that set the elite apart; it’s the books they read, or the fact that they read books at all.
For example, a recent ONS report finds that 31% of graduates are “overeducated” for the job they’re doing. Overeducation is a very anti-elite concept; phrases like “too clever by half” characterise a particular aversion to the idea that knowing stuff for its own sake is a good and beautiful thing. The Gradgrindian implication that the core purpose of education is ultimately economic also plays well to the base.
But if you want a single, succinct encapsulation of this attitude though, here’s this morning’s tweet from Adam Boulton (Sky TV, Sunday Times... a pattern seems to form) in response to Andy Miller’s end-of-the-month reading report:
My only deep sorrow is the unrelenting insistence of recording and motion picture companies upon purveying the most brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious form of expression it has been my displeasure to hear—naturally I refer to the bulk of rock ‘n’ roll. It fosters almost totally negative and destructive reactions in young people. It smells phony and false. It is sung, played and written for the most part by cretinous goons and by means of its almost imbecilic reiterations and sly, lewd—in plain fact dirty—lyrics, and as I said before, it manages to be the martial music of every sideburned delinquent on the face of the earth. (Frank Sinatra, 1957.)
Sinatra was right, of course. But what the great man failed to understand was that that’s the whole bloody point.
I’ve written before about the subtle, unannounced move to make the word “stupid” verboten in schools (and then, inevitably, in wider society); and how the process never really addresses whether this is because stupidity doesn’t exist; or just because it’s nasty to draw attention to it; or that, by not mentioning it, it will gradually cease to exist. The political developments of the past three years or so suggest that if the last were indeed the intended consequence, it hasn’t worked yet.
Indeed, a speech by the journalist Carole Cadwalladr about her investigation into the mendacity of the pro-Brexit campaign suggests this is little more than an episode of rebranding. People who believe in dog-whistle lies about Turkey joining the EU aren’t actually stupid, it seems; they’re just “persuadable”.
Everything that needs to be said about Notre Dame, and plenty that needn’t, has been said. But it does tie in, however loosely, with what I wrote here last week about whether the morals of the artist should have impact on our response to that art; more specifically, the addendum from Nick Cave, who argued that “art must be wrestled from the hands of the pious”.
Except that pious people do make good art, always have. Think of Michelangelo, Bach, Evelyn Waugh. Although the flames ripping through the cathedral prompted grief and despair in the hearts of many non-believers, Notre Dame is almost wholly the work of the pious. Pious people who were doubtless, by the standards of our own time, fervent sexists and homophobes; pious people who were vociferous in their support for Crusades against the infidels and Inquisitions against the heretics; pious people who killed women accused of witchcraft; pious people who sought to silence anyone daring to suggest that the Earth revolves around the Sun, or that life on said Earth took a bit more than seven days to pull together. Ultimately, the combined sins of the people who funded and designed and built Notre Dame easily dwarf anything of which Michael Jackson or Woody Allen might be accused.
And yet, quite rightly, we all cried when the spire fell.
PS: And sticking with piety, a really good piece by Adiyta Chakrabortty about the billionaires noisily chipping in to rebuild the cathedral:
Not least among this litany of ironies is that it takes a Catholic cathedral to remind us that we have barely advanced an inch from the medieval buying of indulgences, when the rich could amass their fortunes in as filthy a fashion as they liked – and then donate to the Church to launder their reputations and ensure their salvation.
You’d have thought someone might have got the message that plebiscites are more trouble than it’s worth, but an unholy alliance of the Radio Times, the BFI and Classic FM recently asked people to vote for their favourite TV theme.
Now, I quite liked Sherlock, a show that took a set of characters and plots that had been adapted and re-adapted to the point of tedium (and with little or no real point since the definitive Granada shows with Jeremy Brett) and punted them into the 21st century; but did so with a self-evident love and passion for the original stories. The music, though? I had to Google it, and as I listened, I realised I’d watched every episode of the show without even registering that it had any music whatsoever, which could just be a tribute to the scripts or the acting, but probably isn’t. Could you hum it? Really? Did you vote for it? Why? Seriously, why?
Online mumblings suggest that the result was down to fervent fans of the show stacking the votes, which is a touching demonstration of loyalty but a bit annoying to people who might actually have read the fine print and gone for My Favourite TV Theme, rather than The Theme For My Favourite TV Show. Many suggested that the winner should have been Doctor Who (which came second), a show that carries with it an equally fervent fan base, but also a theme tune that is immediately recognisable across generations, even to people who seldom watch the show.
However, despite having been an earnest Whovian from the age of four, my vote would have gone elsewhere, to a tune that in the end placed ninth, because it has transcended its source; a theme that has become an earworm across the decades, long, long after we realised the show it graced was frankly rather dull. Those horns. Damn, those horns.
I’ve blathered on before (here and here) about all the complex issues that the casting of Othello throws up in the modern world, and to what extent the role should be ring-fenced, and for whom? And now I find a further consideration of the whole colourblind issue which asks whether Ben Kingsley (who is half-Indian) was black enough, but doesn’t really tackle the question of whether Adrian Lester’s black Hamlet makes Patrick Stewart’s white Othello OK. And there’s a contemporary response to the first black Othello of the 20th century, Paul Robeson in 1930: “There is no more reason to choose a negro to play Othello than to requisition a fat man to play Falstaff.”
Which sounds daft, until you think — when was the last time you saw a thin man play Falstaff? And that brings to mind James Corden’s recent bleat about how he’s never cast as the romantic lead. I wonder, what’s the next step — bodyblind casting?
Every time I try to gather my thoughts on whether we have lost the ability and/or right to enjoy good art that’s been made by bad people, the goalposts shift once again. Obviously the Michael Jackson saga hangs heavy over the whole subject, disinterring old, half-forgotten scandals involving figures such as Bill Wyman; a documentary about him has been pulled from a film festival, because of his relationship with Mandy Smith in the 1980s. And if we’re not supposed to listen to Jackson any more, does this mean Wyman’s contributions should be excised from old Stones tracks before we can hear them? Or are singers held to higher standards than mere bass players?
But it’s not just about criminal activity. A cartoonist called Nathan Pyle apparently holds some robustly traditional views about abortion, so some people are suggesting we shouldn’t share his designs. Not that he uses his art to express his thoughts on reproductive rights, you understand; it’s just that he thinks these things, so he’s bad, so his art is bad. Hmmm...
However, in the world of ideas the sanctimonious have little or no place. Art must be wrestled from the hands of the pious, in whatever form they may come – and they are always coming, knives out, intent on murdering creativity. At this depressing time in rock ‘n’ roll though, perhaps they can serve a purpose, perhaps rock music needs to die for a while, so that something powerful and subversive and truly monumental can rise out of it.
I was sad to learn that Drowned in Sound is to close down, and not just because the music site was kind enough to publish a slice of my own self-indulgence a while back. But even as DiS and other titles breathe their last, old products that started in the pre-www days are enjoying something of a Lazarus moment. The hip young things are getting terribly excited over the return of style bible The Face; and now their grubbier siblings will be ecstatic to know that Sounds is back as well. Even in its heyday, the music weekly was generally seen as third best to mighty NME and Melody Maker, flying the flag for such unfashionable genres as heavy metal and goth rock; but, contrary to the generally accepted narrative it was in the smudgy pages of Sounds that the first hints of British punk were disseminated for the wider world.
I’ll be interested to see how both publications thrive in a fresh, new, multi-platform world; but I’m not going to properly lose my cool until the greatest magazine of my lifetime comes back to annoy us once again...
The first seems straightforward enough: leave them* be; what’s most important is that someone is enjoying a great library and you don’t want to spoil that experience; it may just be an excitable slip of the thumb, and Twitter doesn’t have an edit facility. The second is interesting because it’s about awareness of one’s own fallibility, rather than a desire to flag it up in others. And it prompts a line from Mark Twain: “I never make fun of a man for mispronouncing a word; it means he learned it by reading.”
The problem is, of course, that language needs *some* rules, or it’s no longer a language. By electing to let the misspelling of “Bodleian” (I assume, and Blogger autocorrects that to “Boolean”, which is interesting in itself) slide, we’re acknowledging that another orthographic car crash, further down the line, may be worthy of intervention, before we’re in a Tower of Babel** scenario. And who decides where that point is?
*And yes, I know I’m using a plural pronoun to denote a non-gender-specific singular and five years ago I would have flinched at that, so change is possible... **And there’s a further dilemma, about assuming a hypothetical reader’s knowledge of the Bible, of whether I need to explain that reference, but maybe that’s enough chin-stroking before The Archers omnibus has started. PS: Jezz, the originator of the first tweet, wishes to say that he wasn’t being pedantic; he was simply seeking to save someone from potential embarrassment. Happy to clarify.
Looking ahead to next year’s presidential elections, pundits in the US are earnestly talking up the chances of one Pete Buttigieg, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and mayor of South Bend, Indiana. He’s also gay, a graduate of Harvard and Oxford, speaks eight languages and his 10 favourite books include Ulysses and The Little Prince. While it would be interesting to see him run against a man who has probably not read 10 books in his life (not even those with his name on the cover), the tragedy is that such an admission of literacy will do him more harm than good. Imagine how such information can be weaponised among the Trump base.
PS: On similar lines, earlier today I was listening to a radio programme reuniting some of the last surviving veterans of the French Resistance in World War II, a meeting that, given the current state of frenzied unpleasantness over the whole Europe thing, was even more poignant than one might have expected. Someone mentioned that one of the code phrases broadcast to announce the imminent Normandy landings was “Wound my heart in a monotonous languor”, a line from Verlaine’s Chanson d’Autumne; a nugget that will simply serve to reinforce every available prejudice going, confirming to Remainers that the French are romantics and poets even in the most trying circumstances, and to Leavers exactly the same, but that it’s a bad thing.
She’s called Sarah Hanbury in real life, apparently, but in the weird neverwhere where this sort of thing matters, she’s known as the Marchioness of Cholmondeley (pronounced “Chumley”, obviously), which is less a title, more a disreputable pub in Soho that puts on bad drag acts on Thursdays.
Of rather more interest is her husband, who’s called David (so far, so dull), an Old Etonian (fancy!) and the Marquess of Cholmondeley (see pronunciation note above), but also the Lord Great Chamberlain of England, which I assume means that one of his ancestors was tasked with wiping George II’s bottom or suchlike. Even better, before his accession to that title, he was called the Earl of Rocksavage, which just has to be one of David Bowie’s more fleeting alter egos, probably less cool than the Thin White Duke but far, far better than Screaming Lord Byron. Just imagine swaggering around with that title in your teens and twenties, only to be informed, not only that your dad’s dead, but you’ve got a new, very silly name that you’ll have to spell out for people for the rest of your life. And that your 15 minutes of fame come when your wife has, or hasn’t had a row with someone that racist royalists prefer to the other one.