Saturday, May 25, 2019

About Bradley Wiggins

The Times runs a regular Q&A column called My Culture Fix, in which people are asked to offer up their favourite books, films, music and so on. And this week we are welcomed into the soul of Bradley Wiggins, the celebrated cyclist.

Things get interesting at the very start when he declares – not “admits” or “confesses” because he doesn’t appear to be embarrassed about it – that he doesn’t really read books. But it’s his response to the next question, when he’s asked to identify his favourite play or playwright, that really sets the agenda: “No”. In its own way, it’s magnificent, a brutal shutting down of an entire art form, a refusal to let the merest whiff of greasepaint come anywhere near his nostrils.

But he does like Only Fools and Horses.

PS: That said, if you want to hear someone talking about his own cultural favourites intelligently and sensitively, but without getting too technical or highfalutin’, you could do much worse than listen to Derren Brown on yesterday’s Desert Island Discs.

Monday, May 20, 2019

About poetry

This weekend, I took custody of my late grandfather’s collection of Ariel Poems, limited edition volumes published by Faber in the 1920s and 30s by Siegfried Sassoon, Edith Sitwell and, most significantly (to me, at least), TS Eliot; illustrations are by the likes of McKnight Kauffer and Eric Gill. They’re pretty special.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

About The Handmaid’s Tale

The use of imagery from The Handmaid’s Tale by those defending women’s hard-won rights over their bodies is a clever piece of visual shorthand, instantly reminding us of the theocratic dystopia heralded by policies such as Alabama’s effective ban on abortion. However, I can’t help but think it also reinforces a further message: essentially, “We read literary fiction (or at least watch TV adaptations thereof) and you dumb hicks don’t.” Which may well be accurate, but in the current sociopolitical climate, is hardly helpful.

PS: I’ve been looking at the list of the state senators who voted for the Alabama ban; such names! Jabo Waggoner. Garland Gudger. Shay Shelnutt. Less a political process, more a Pynchon novel. Although that remark presumably makes the same mistake as the red-caped protestors...

Sunday, May 12, 2019

About William James

William James, brother of the more cinegenic Henry, in 1900, reflecting on his time spent in an idyllic middle-class settlement in western New York state:
Now for something primordial and savage, even though it were as bad as an Armenian massacre, to set the balance straight again. This order is too tame, this culture too second-rate, this goodness too uninspiring. This human drama without a villain or a pang; this community so refined that ice-cream soda-water is the utmost offering it can make to the brute animal in man; this city simmering in the tepid lakeside sun; this atrocious harmlessness of all things, I cannot abide with them.
I think I may deploy “this atrocious harmlessness” with unseemly abandon from now on.

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

About Camp

From this week’s Met Gala.

When something is bad (rather than Camp), it’s often because it is too mediocre in its ambition. —Susan Sontag, Notes on Camp, 1964
PS: The reliably tiresome Piers Morgan characteristically misses the whole big thing point by calling one of the red carpet sillies “preposterous”

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

About political correctness

The core idea of PC, I guess, isn’t too objectionable. All societies have codes of discourse, defining what is and isn’t acceptable, and all that has happened since some time in the 1980s is that these codes have been recalibrated so that people are more aware of the sensitivities of previously marginalised groups. Ideally, it makes it easier, smoother to converse with a wider range of people. At least if you offend someone, you’re probably doing it deliberately.

The problem with all such codes, both those stemming from PC and also the ones that preceded them, is that they become rigid and oppressive, ultimately making such discourse harder rather than easier. Even if one’s intentions are pure, fear of being misconstrued, deliberately or not (and the barracking that will inevitably ensue), inevitably shuts things down. And those who do have malign intent realise that it’s bloody easy to get publicity, simply by deploying the occasional outrage bomb. The rise of Trump, Farage, Bolsonaro, et al, can be seen less as riding the populist surge, more like a particularly ambitious burst of trolling. And while they achieved it on the back of the gammon tendency, the disgruntled,  the suspicious, the believers in a fake collective nostalgia, it’s clear that the pearl-clutching snowflakes have also eased their way to success.

A few examples from the past week:

  • In a discussion regarding my last post, about the question of whether the rules of cultural appropriation apply to the interaction between two non-white cultures, I was taken to task for not considering whether the black man wearing the Vietnamese hat may actually have been Vietnamese. When I asked whether such consideration might be extended to white people wearing Native American head dresses... ah, let’s not go there.
  • In another discussion, about the unproven sexual shenanigans of yet another bloody actor, I made the passing comment that the films for which he is most famous are pretty bad, and was sternly entreated to “read the room”. I wasn’t familiar with the phrase, but I understand it to mean “work out what everyone else is thinking, and don’t say anything that challenges it, because it might upset them.” Incidentally, it seems that many of the misdemeanours of which people are accused are down to this inability to read the room, episodes of social gaucheness rather than anything more serious. (Which does make me wonder, how much consideration is given to people on the autistic spectrum; or are some oppressed minorities more minor than others?)
  • The construction “people of colour” (i.e., anyone who is isn’t white) has already been appropriated and tweaked into “people of gender” (which surely means anyone who isn’t non-binary, unless non-binary is a gender in and of itself); and this morning I heard someone on the radio referring to “people of class”. Which means... everyone, surely?
  • Apparently the Oxford Union has invited the usual cadre of tiresome right-wingers to argue against the policy of No Platform and the equally tiresome cadre of student leftists want to no-platform at least one of them.
  • [edit] And now, the whole ridiculous Danny Baker monkey story.

As I said, the core idea of political correctness has much to commend it. In execution, however, it has precisely the opposite effect to that intended, breeding resentment and suspicion and hostility where it claims to prompt support and respect.

Friday, May 03, 2019

About cultural appropriation

This afternoon, in South London, I saw a black man (I’m guessing African-Caribbean, but can’t be sure), wearing an Asian conical hat, the sort that in less enlightened times we used to call a “coolie hat”. Genuine question: is this cultural appropriation?