Wednesday, December 30, 2020

About self-Googling (one more time)

I’ve written before (here and here) about the strange back alleys into which self-Googling can take you. The problem seems to be that whole sites are based on data parsed from other sites, without a flesh-and-blood bullshit detector in the middle. I have no idea whether anyone but me has seen the page claiming that I was born in Chicago, and died in 2007, but it is there. (If a lie appears in the the digital forest and nobody reads it except its subject, might it just as well be true?)

Anyway, here’s a new one. Nobody knows what I weigh, which is a relief; but they have managed to calculate how rich I am, which comes as a pleasant surprise. It’s just a pity that I’m too dead to enjoy it.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

About Scrabble

Via The Urban Woo (retd). How to make your seasonal pastimes truly Zen, even if they have to be conducted virtually. Have as happy a time as the present hateful circumstances allow, with triple word scores aplenty for 2021.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

About the Daily Mail


It feels as if a pattern is forming. Following on from recent posts (here and here) about Radio 4 programmes in which a state of not-knowing appears to be a desirable quality in presenters and/or guests, here’s yesterday’s Daily Mail. Rather than seeking to elucidate or evaluate complex restrictions for the benefit of its readers, the newspaper’s role now seems to be to share in their confusion, their ignorance, and even to make a virtue of it. And in this case, it’s about something rather more important than knowing a particular bit of violin music.

PS: Earlier thoughts about agnotology etc here and here.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

About Foucault

I’m a little surprised that a member of this most performatively anti-intellectual government of my lifetime might namecheck Foucault in a speech; less so that the hapless Liz Truss got him so egregiously, so spectacularly wrong.

Knowledge is not for knowing: knowledge is for cutting.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

About The Lark Ascending

Tonight’s edition of BBC Radio 4’s arts/culture show Front Row was presented by Liv Little, who is black, female and 20-something and whose presence, one assumes, is intended at least partially to address the Corporation’s concerns about its own lack of diversity and increasing irrelevance to young people. Little managed the first segment, on the new Wonder Woman movie, perfectly well, and seemed equally confident moving on to discuss the 100th anniversary of Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending with violinist Jennifer Pike. 

But then she did something rather unusual; she admitted that until she’d started to prepare for the show, she’d never listened to The Lark Ascending. Let’s be clear, this is not some obscure nugget by Hildegard of Bingen or Iannis Xenakis, unrecognisable and incomprehensible to anyone not steeped in the theory and lore of classical music. It’s the piece that’s regularly voted the nation’s favourite by listeners to the avowedly populist Classic FM. It’s a Favourite, a Standard, a Classical Greatest Hit.

In many ways, Little’s admission was refreshingly honest. I remember when Ned Sherrin presented Loose Ends on the same station, regularly flubbing his lines as he gave scripted introductions to bands of whom he’d clearly never heard, mispronouncing the names of genres of which he was equally ignorant, and giving the impression that he didn’t really care. I’m sure Little does care but, as she acknowledged, this lacuna in her own personal canon probably puts her in a minority among Radio 4 listeners. (That’s the ones who do currently listen, rather than the ones the BBC wants to listen.) And inevitably, if she didn’t know The Lark Ascending until a few days ago, those listeners might wonder what other gaps there could be in her portfolio of cultural capital.

I argued recently that presenters on Radio 4 shows such as In Our Time and You’re Dead To Me operate as spokespeople for the moderately informed listener, knowing enough about the subject to ask sensible questions, but happily deferring to the experts when things get serious. Little’s honesty raises a question, though; what’s the rationale for a presenter who knows less than the audience?

PS: Also from the BBC: Neil Brand’s delightful programme about TV music shows what can be done when presenter and interviewees alike actually know what they’re talking about; and then there’s Idris Elba interviewing Paul McCartney and the less said about that...

Sunday, December 13, 2020

About beginnings

Wednesday, December 09, 2020

About writing about music

The first proper book about music I read was Philip Norman’s Shout! And because it was the first, and because I was 13 years old, I accepted its analysis, that the recently deceased Lennon was the towering, tortured genius of the band, while McCartney was a thin-skinned prima donna writing plinky-plonky singalongs about sheepdogs and cross-dressing market traders for your mum and auntie. After a while, I began to realise that life and art were probably more complicated than that, especially when I read other books that didn’t necessarily followed Norman’s conventional “and then this happened” model of history. Among the most significant on my thinking and my own writing were Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, which redefines punk rock in the context of Dada, Situationism and even the medieval Cathars; and then Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music, about the triumphs and tragedies of black musicians in the Southern states, against the backdrop of the political turbulence of the 60s and 70s. These books, and other, reinforced the idea that I hope informs my own writing: great art is always about more than itself. (Also, mainly thanks to Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head, I came to realise that there was more depth to McCartney’s work than I’d realised, and that some of Lennon’s was a bit crap, really.)

So, with no slight intended to Norman’s work, I rather grew out of it, just as I’d grown out of Roald Dahl or CS Lewis (but retained a nostalgic fondness for them). And apparently Norman hasn’t taken such rejections lying down

In Britain, writing about rock music still isn’t really taken seriously – and, by and large, doesn’t deserve to be. In the US, by contrast, it’s taken far too seriously, with the earnest, plodding pair Greil Marcus and Peter Guralnick vying for supremacy in the field. To me, their combined surnames suggests a new verb, “to greilnick” – ie churn out leaden paragraphs overstuffed with show-offy facts, yet be unable to create a compelling narrative or convey character or atmosphere.

Poor Philip. Maybe the problem is that some of us are shallow enough to fall for the charm of those “show-offy facts”.

Monday, December 07, 2020

About statues

In the Telegraph, of all places, Cal Reveley-Calder deftly sidesteps the controversy over the imminent statue of Margaret Thatcher in Grantham by seizing on its most important aspect; as a piece of art, the statue itself is the worst possible thing, boring. As are most public statues, including that of Edward Colston

But statues like Jennings’s, so blandly figurative, shove their subjects onto the stage – look, she’s so important that we’ve carved her in stone! – and only permit you a binary view: you are in favour, or you aren’t... That binary, for statues, means “standing” or “coming down”. They last until they don’t, which is fair: “yes or no” is the only art criticism they deign to receive.

And in case you missed it, Colston’s statue has been replaced by something far more appropriate, and more enjoyable and, yes, better. 

Thursday, December 03, 2020

About Pessoa and Twitter

This morning, I was listening to BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time, about the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa, of whom I had only the sketchiest knowledge, and within a few minutes I immediately wanted to read everything he’d ever read, all at once, and borrow one of his hats as well. Then I made a fatal mistake – in my enthusiasm, I took to Twitter to alert everyone to the show, a shining example of why the BBC needs to be defended against all comers.

But it didn’t end there of course. While I was in Dorsey’s maw, I noticed that Gavin Williamson had done another very stupid thing, and had my say on that; and then went down another rabbit-hole about Julie Christie’s lipstick in Far From The Madding Crowd. And when I resurfaced, the Pessoa show was still on, but I’d rather lost the thread. So I went back to Twitter to whine about that.

To which one Danny Garlick responded:

And to be fair, before I started listening, I wouldn’t have got the joke. 

Tuesday, December 01, 2020

About Trump (please God for the last time)

A splendid essay by Matthew Walther on the appeal of Trump – it’s camp, daahling:
Trumpian aesthetics is a catch-all of the great artificial modes in Western art: rococo, Art Deco, vaporwave. It is above all anti-pastoral. (Like the denizens of Versailles, Trump can only encounter the natural world third or fourth-hand, in a tweet about the imminent signing of the 2018 farm bill embedded with a clip of him singing the Green Acres theme song at the Emmys.)
Also this, my favourite ever clip of the man, in which he pretends to have read a book:


Sunday, November 29, 2020

About The Crown

The Crown has been one of the most successful TV products of recent years, and it’s not difficult to see why. It’s the story of the most famous family in the world, whose loves, losses and fashion choices are hung upon with a devotion that must have even the Kardashians seething with envy.

But, according to some – including Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary – fans of the show need to be reminded that The Crown is not a scrupulously accurate documentary and some of the stuff has been, you know, made up. Aside from the fact that this could apply to pretty much any nominally historical drama, it rather misses the point of how the British monarchy works its spell.

In his 1867 text The English Constitution, Walter Bagehot identifies the success of the political system as a seamless meshing between the mundane efficiencies of good governance and a more ethereal, ornate institution, the presence of which is to entrance those who are to be governed, and a good many onlookers as well:
In fact, the mass of the English people yield a deference rather to something else than to their rulers. They defer to what we may call the theatrical show of society. A certain state passes before them; a certain pomp of great men; a certain spectacle of beautiful women; a wonderful scene of wealth and enjoyment is displayed, and they are coerced by it. Their imagination is bowed down; they feel they are not equal to the life which is revealed to them.
Bagehot argued that for this part of the system to work, an air of mystery must be maintained: “We must not let daylight in upon magic.” Obviously the modern Royals have had to tolerate a level of intrusion that Victoria would never have countenanced, but there is still a sense that they are somehow beyond the mundane realities that afflict our tiny lives. Of course, only a minority, the sort of diehard monarchists who camp out for three days to catch a glimpse of a passing coach, accept this as an empirical fact; and another minority reject the whole institution altogether. There’s a third section, though – larger than the other two combined, I reckon — that knows what’s on offer is a “theatrical show” — but is prepared to go along for the ride, just as they go along with soap operas and structured reality TV. They know what they are being presented with isn’t the full-blown meat-and-mucus reality, that these are people performing a role, acting out a script, but they’ll suspend disbelief because, well, life feels a bit nicer if they do. Few adults believe in Father Christmas either, as a literal entity, but they believe in the power of the story and woe betide if you ruin that magic with nasty, Grinchy, Scroogey daylight.

Dowden’s complaint, surely, is not that The Crown is fiction; it is that it’s the wrong, unofficial, unsanctioned fiction, a type of theatrical show to which we are less likely to defer. One that succeeds as art but fails as politics. Or at least the type of politics that he wants to prevail.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

About Whose Line Is It Anyway?

If anyone asks what my degree is in, I suppose I can say, “Wondering what assumptions we can make about what other people should know”. On that note, based on a recent Twitter discussion, I think we can plot the death of Western civilisation as occurring at some point between the first series of the comedy improvisation TV show Whose Line Is It Anyway? in 1988, which involved John Sessions describing a day at the beach in the style of James Joyce and the later shows up to 1999 which, if memory serves right mostly involved Josie Lawrence rapping about parking meters.

And on similar lines, should I find it distressing that, on a recent edition of Richard Osman’s House of Games, Denise van Outen thought that Isaac Newton died in 1952; or that someone at the Telegraph thinks Thelonious Monk a) didn’t die in 1982 and b) played the trumpet?

PS: In a similar vein from the past few days, I think it was probably a reasonable call (whether by Sarah Churchwell or the Guardian subs), in this excellent article about the legacy of Trump, to explain what “epistemological crisis” means, even if some might infer that that in itself is evidence of an epistemological crisis.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

About Fairytale of New York

Warning: This post contains language that may offend, but since it’s entirely about language that may offend, that can’t really be helped.

In 1987, when ‘Fairytale of New York’ began its trip to the number two spot (and, let’s be honest, its melancholy appeal would have been rather compromised had it actually succeeded in topping the Christmas charts), I was working in a pub where the clientele leaned towards white, middle-aged, working-class men. It was an immediate hit in the (45 rpm vinyl, 20p a play) jukebox, although I suspect few of the punters knew who the Pogues were or what the rest of their oeuvre sounded like. I did know the band, but I assumed this latest effort was a cover version of something from the ’60s or earlier, not least because of the speed with which the drinkers picked up the lyrics and started to sing along, especially as last orders drew near. The most popular artist in the machine, with six different records, was Jim Reeves, and ‘Fairytale’ felt closer to his world than to that of more recent additions (which included T’Pau, the Bee Gees, George Harrison and the act that would hit the top Yuletide spot, the Pet Shop Boys). The term “instant classic” smacks a little of careerist cynicism, as if MacGowan and crew deliberately had created something they knew would still be played (and, yes, overplayed) 33 years later, but this was clearly something that resonated with people who didn’t read the NME or watch Top of the Pops.

I may be doing my former customers a disservice but I can’t imagine that many of them had particularly enlightened opinions regarding what we would now call LGBTQ+ rights; yet at the same time I don’t recall any of them bellowing the word “faggot” with particular gusto. Had an openly gay person stumbled into the pub they may well have done that, but I’m guessing not. However, that is the essence of the controversy that’s surrounded the song in recent years. Within the Donleavy/Bukowski-influenced context of MacGowan’s lyrics, Kirsty MacColl spits out the taboo word in character, as a performance, inhabiting the role of someone who’s actively seeking to hurt; but others hear it and seize on it and deploy it without distance, without irony against anyone who is or appears to be different in terms of sexuality or gender. An obvious comparison is TV viewers in the 1960s and ’70s who took the imbecilic bigotry of Alf Garnett at face value and threw his words at any black or Asian people they encountered.

So, just as ‘Fairytale’ has become a Yuletide tradition, so has the annual argument about whether it should be removed from playlists or somehow have its language ameliorated for a more sensitive, inclusive age. It does feel a little bit redundant now when most of us are able to control the sounds we want or don’t want around us. If we want to hear the song, with or without “faggot” (and, let’s not forget, “slut” and “arse” too) we can summon it up in a manner that would have seemed to my pub customers in 1987 something akin to witchcraft. And if we don’t, we don’t.

But this is the BBC though, which isn’t meant just to entertain us; it nominally represents what we aspire to as a nation. If it does an offensive thing, even though we don’t hear it (if Kirsty sings a homophobic slur on the BBC but we’re all watching The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix at the time, does it make a sound?), it’s somehow doing it in our name, on our behalf, even the tedious twerps who decorate their Twitter profiles with “#DefundTheBBC”. Do we want to see ourselves reflected in the BBC that seeks to protect the non-gender-conforming teen who has to run a gauntlet of vicious sneers and jibes every day, even if this means policing the art of yesterday – not just pop music, but literature, film, painting and more – via the semantic sensibilities of 2020? Or do we want it to chuck all the rules in the bin, tie itself to the mast of free speech fundamentalism and have effing and jeffing gangsta rappers on CBeebies and Nazi Satanists on Thought For The Day?

The fact is, whether the BBC plays the uncensored version, or a censored version, or doesn’t play it at all, they’re going to annoy somebody somewhere, which is why the usual response is a fudge of banning and un-banning. I think – and this may be premature – that this year they’ve got things about right, by the simple process of giving their various audiences what they want. On Radio 1, whose younger listeners are more sensitive to language around gender and sexuality (or virtue-signalling woke snowflakes, if you prefer), the bad word will be excised. On Radio 2, whose older listeners are apparently more amenable to a dose of earthy invective over the mince pies (gammons, karens and Trump-loving homophobes to you, squire) will get the version I first heard in the Duke of York in 1987. And on Radio 6, which hovers somewhere between the two extremes, it’s up to the conscience and taste (if they possess either) of the individual DJs.

As I was writing this, I discovered something that had never occurred to me in the third of a century I’ve shared a planet with ‘Fairytale of New York’; the fact that in its original, non-redacted form, it runs for four minutes and 33 seconds, a nod, subconscious or otherwise to John Cage’s mash-up of minimalism and conceptualism. So in a grim year when the loneliness and melancholy that oozes from Fairytale will, for many people be the reality of Christmas rather than a drunken karaoke session, maybe the BBC should just play silence instead, and we can fill the gap with our own thoughts, offending nobody but ourselves.

PS: Some people are inevitably weaponising this against the BBC; but those who stand to gain from a performative let’s-all-buy-Fairytale campaign aren’t playing ball.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

About Self and Orr

The death of journalist Deborah Orr last year, and the posthumous publication of her memoir Motherwell, were accompanied by an undertow of negative comment about the behaviour of her former husband Will Self. Some of her friends suggested that his career was (or should be) irreparably damaged and critical response to his own sort-of autobiography was tetchy, to say the least. 

The algorithm gods of Amazon suggest, however, that readers are prepared to listen to both sides; either that, or they just enjoy a good soap opera.

PS: An old article by Orr arguing that the sins of the artist – far greater in this case than any her ex committed – should not make us reject the art.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

About The Great American Novel

 From All My Colors, by David Quantick:

I was going to write The Great American Novel. It was a simple plan, and it didn’t work out. First of all I wrote The Worst American Novel, then The Shortest American Novel, and finally I wrote The Okay American Novel, and someone printed it.

Thursday, November 05, 2020

About the Daily Mail

Sneering at “Daily Mail readers” is a regarded as a pretty facile tactic by which third-rate comedians ingratiate themselves with the liberal soi-disant intelligentsia, but it does seem that the Mail’s online subs, at least, have a similarly low opinion of their customer base.

Saturday, October 31, 2020

About poppies

In the Telegraph, the man who invented virtue signalling complains that BBC employees are still doing it even though they’re not allowed to. Although I assume that for the next couple of weeks, a different flavour of virtue will be loudly and proudly signalled throughout the Corporation, and there will be complaints if it’s not done; something I remarked upon nearly 14 years ago, long before Mr Bartholomew ever came up with the phrase.

I just noticed that the article refers to going to work in your pyjamas, which brings it right up to date.

PPS: In The Spectator, of all places, Sam Leith nails it:
When you say somebody is ‘virtue signalling’, you’re not bothering to commit yourself to an argument about whether the position they are taking is right or wrong. (Perhaps, indeed, you feel on sticky ground entering that argument.) Rather, you are making a groundless and unfalsifiable presumption about their motive for doing so and using that as the supposed basis to dismiss the whole shebang.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

About book curation

Facebook has once again demonstrated the abject wrongness of its advertising algorithms by suggesting that I might like to avail myself of the services of a book curator, someone who I am expected to pay to acquire and arrange reading material on my behalf. (Unless of course the placing of the ad on my feed was purchased by someone who just wanted to irritate me, in which case, nice work, Facebook, job done.)

This outrage did however prompt me into a half-arsed renovation of my shelves, rearranging a few into some semblance of logic and even filling a couple of boxes for the charity shop run. Inevitably this process was derailed by a desire to read every other book that passed through my hands, but that’s perfectly OK because it gives me something to blog about. Ha, take that, Marie bloody Kondo.

First, yet another cracking one-liner that would have fitted nicely into my dissertation: this time it’s EM Forster, from a speech he made at Harvard in 1947, about people whose aesthetic preferences remain just that, unassailed by critical faculties:

‘Oh I do like Bach,’ cries one appreciator, and the other cries, ‘Do you? I don’t. I like Chopin.’ Exit in opposing directions chanting Bach and Chopin respectively, and hearing less the composers than their own voices.

And then an old favourite, Roald Dahl’s The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. One image that’s stuck with me since I first read it at the age of 10 or so is the redeemed Sugar hurling all his casino winnings from his Mayfair balcony to the people on the pavement below; and I wake up to the news that a man in Chongqing has done the same thing (although he was off his face on methamphetamine at the time).

Sunday, October 25, 2020

About Trump’s music

Apparently Donald Trump’s favourite song is Peggy Lee’s ‘Is That All There Is?’, because “I’ve had these tremendous successes and then I’m off to the next one. Because, it’s like, ‘Oh, is that all there is?’” Which is, shall we say, an idiosyncratic analysis of Jerry Leiber’s lyric about existentialist ennui and puts Trump in the questionable company of people who choose ‘I Will Always Love You’ as wedding music and once again raises questions about the President’s cognitive abilities and language skills. It’s perhaps not the most pressing reason to vote for Biden, but it’s certainly a reason.

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

About Jerusalem

Boris Johnson ruffled a few feathers today by laying claim to the concept of “a new Jerusalem” beloved of English radicals from Blake to the Attlee government and beyond. I was similarly annoyed with him until I saw this tweet by Dr Jennifer Cassidy, apparently a politics lecturer at Oxford University – Johnson’s alma mater of course – and now I just want to hide under the covers and whimper.

Sunday, October 04, 2020

About Toms

In a rare outbreak of common sense, the social media hive mind agrees that today’s instalment of the Sunday Times’s venerable A Life in the Day feature (by the talented and funny actor Tom Hollander), is very good indeed.

And, yes, yes it is. However - there always has to be a however, doesn’t there? - some silly digital sausages are suggesting that it’s as good as, or even better than, this one, by Tom Baker, back from the old days. And it isn’t. Because nothing is. Or ever will be.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

About Des

I thought the crime drama Des, which finished last night (although, in these streaming days, when does anything truly finish?) was excellent and not just, I hope, because it stirred in me memories of when the horrible details of the real Muswell Hill murders were trickling through in the 1980s.

The media response has been pretty much unanimously positive, although obviously that’s not enough these days. I’m intrigued by the modern model of writing about TV, which seems to consist of watching a show, describing what happens, then transcribing what people are saying about it on Twitter. Clive James it ain’t.

For example, here’s the Daily Mail, reporting that viewers were shocked by Dennis Nilsen’s decision to plead not guilty at the end of episode two. This wasn’t, of course, a piece of dramatic wrong-footing that the writers plucked out of the air, like the death of the Keeley Hawes character in the overrated Bodyguard; it was a historical event. It happened. Back in 1983, it made the news. Now, apparently the fact that some genius took the time to tap out “Excuse me what? My heart dropped in my chest when he said ‘not guilty’. God give these families peace.” is also news.

As is the fact that the main takeaway for some viewers from a drama about a serial killer is that there was too much smoking.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

About Jane Austen

This could only be more depressing if she’d been studying, analysing etc Hard Times.

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

About the Oscars

The new guidelines to ensure diversity in Oscar-nominated films seem to be laudable, in intent at least. For a film to get a nod, it will need to ensure that more women, ethnic minorities, LGBT people and those with disabilities will be involved on screen or as part of the production process.

But the fact that this comes a few months after Parasite won the Best Picture award suggests the application of these requirements may be trickier than it seems at first. Certainly, Bong Joon Ho’s social satire/thriller would have ticked at least some of the right boxes as far as the Academy is concerned; except that in South Korea, one of the most racially homogeneous countries in the world (96% of the population is ethnic Korean), it doesn’t really look that way. It’s a great film, it’s clearly not the sort of movie that would prompt the #OscarsSoWhite complaint, but, in terms of race, diverse it ain’t.

Parasite was the first film not in the English language to win the big prize, which can be seen as small green shoot of linguistic and cultural diversity poking through the concrete of Anglophone hegemony. But presumably, the only way in which such a film would qualify for next year’s awards would be to indulge in a gentle, well-intentioned moment of cultural colonialism, and apply strictly Western standards of what constitutes diversity.

PS: In the Telegraph, Robbie Collin calculates how some other past winners would have fared:
Since Jews and Italians don’t count as under-represented these days, there’s bad news for The Godfather (and its sequel), Annie Hall and Schindler’s List, while the conspicuously un-woke Gone with the Wind and Driving Miss Daisy both pass with flying colours.

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

About Tenet

If people can’t stop themselves from talking and eating in cinemas, I don’t see how we can impose any kind of social distancing in the darkness, so I won’t be seeing Tenet on the big screen in the near future. Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s succinct review suggests that I’m not missing much, but at the same time, I’m intrigued...

Friday, September 04, 2020

About Blackwatertown

(Disclaimer: I’ve known Paul Waters for many years and I’m one of the many supporters who helped fund the publication of this book.) 

Blackwatertown, by Paul Waters (Unbound)

Sinister goings-on in rural Northern Ireland aren’t exactly brand new territory for fiction writers (Colin Bateman comes to mind) but Paul Waters offer a sardonic yet sensitive take on the genre. His protagonist, Macken, is a Catholic cop in the predominantly Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary, at a time when systemic bigotry against the religious minority was commonplace. Relocated to a village on the border with the Irish Republic, he follows his own private quest for truth while always being alert to his outsider status; a resurgence of IRA violence gives his colleagues plenty of excuses to query his loyalties. Love and a potential escape route arrive in the form of the enchanting Aoife, but will happiness ultimately be dashed from his grasp?

The location is crucial to the story. The nature of the border as an indistinct, liminal space – it defines the boundaries of the policemen’s authority, yet seems impossible to define itself – adds a sort of metaphysical oddness to what is essentially a period thriller, with the slightest whispers of Flann O’Brien. And I don’t think it’s too fanciful to see Thomas Hardy as an influence too, with the landscape as much an active, brooding participant in the narrative as the human characters. It’s grounded in the reality of time and place but, as the author reminds us in an afterword, it’s also a fiction, and the reader has to negotiate that fuzzy border too.

It’s not perfect. Sometimes Macken’s internal monologues can drag a little, and I suspect a more ruthless editor would have ordered Waters to slaughter his innocents and trim the length by 10 or 15 per cent. But the pace picks up smartly in the last 100 or so pages with a succession of genuinely shocking (but ultimately plausible) plot twists and a rather beautiful, if melancholy, coda. If you want a thoughtful thriller peopled with believable, flawed characters rather than monochrome, two-fisted ciphers – and maybe a gentle history lesson on the side – read Blackwatertown.

PS: There’s another key plot point that plays around with the idea of fiction becoming a reality, that reminded me, of all things, of the last episode of The Wire, which is clearly a good thing but, y’know, spoilers.

Wednesday, September 02, 2020

About landfill indie

I’ll be honest, by the time the likes of Razorlight, Kasabian and the Pigeon Detectives were being touted as musical Next Big Things, I was already of an age where it would have felt undignified to care. So the Vice story about The Top 50 Greatest Landfill Indie Songs Of All Time was only of interest as an academic curiosity; I’m fascinated by the formation of cultural canons and this seemed to be a tongue-in-cheek exercise in imposing a hierarchy of significance on a genre that, the authors asserted was never particularly significant in the first place. The subhead refers to “the best most average songs in British music history”, which feels right. The fact that this came hot on the heels of the 25th anniversary of the Battle of Britpop – which really was significant, even if you didn’t want it to be – is another kick in the tender parts to The View, The Enemy and The Wombats. No useful book about Britain in the 1990s can fail to mention Blur and Oasis at length. I wrote a book about The Noughties and guitar bands of the era (I namechecked the Libertines and Franz Ferdinand) earned a single paragraph, which also feels about right.

But Maximo Park and Larrikin Love still have their doughty defenders. Step forward one Mark Beaumont, who was writing for NME at the time those bands arrived and is still somehow plying his trade within the cavernous husk that remains of that title. Beaumont asserts that even the use of the term “landfill indie” is “pure snobbery... sneeringly reductive”. To which the only sensible response is, Mark, you say that like it’s a bad thing. Snobbery and reductiveness are what ensured the NME mattered in its glory days in the 1970s/80s. It might not have been kind, it might not have made sense (aesthetic, cultural, historical, even financial), but it was critical statement, a line in the sand, a declaration that some things are good and some things are bad. Beaumont’s defence of Hard-Fi and The Holloways rests pretty much on the fact that people enjoyed them and it’s a bit horrid to say they shouldn’t have:
Don’t let all these jaded old gits tell you that your youth wasn’t as brilliant as theirs – I was watching you losing your shit to ‘Killamangiro’ from the Club NME DJ booth and it absolutely was. The ‘00s UK rock scene was as exciting, energised and unpredictable as Britpop or punk, and far more varied than both.
There’s a distinct sense here that Beaumont is not only asserting that the music mattered and still matters, but that he, Beaumont, also still matters, because he was there and the Club NME DJ booth was really the Lesser Free Trade Hall and The Good Mixer combined and you’re a jaded old git if you disagree. If only such a desperately quixotic, gloriously muddle-headed rage against the dying of the light had informed the music at the time, it might have been more interesting.

PS: In similar territory, Joe Muggs responds to Mic Wright’s interview with Conor McNicholas, which I mentioned last week:
The NME could and should have become a British Pitchfork, but the diminishing of it to a wilfully illiterate fan letter to sub-Libertines, sub-Strokes haircut bands in the 00s - a total cultural reductionism at a time when alternative music was defined specifically by diversity - ensured that would never happen. The NME should still be relevant to the musical offspring of the exciting scenes back then - Trash, Green Man, FWD>>, the birth of grime, etc etc - instead it only speaks to a tiny cluster of wankers in Doherty trilbies pissing on their own shoes and repeating Chris Moyles jokes at some “sheeeeeyine” festival somewhere. Ugh.
PPS: I’ve just remembered, two decades ago I also indulged in a bit of narcissistic scene revisionism.   But at least I was aware of my own ridiculousness. At least I hope I was.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

About You're Dead To Me

On the face of it, the Radio 4 show/podcast You’re Dead To Me meets all those cosy Reithian criteria about informing, educating and entertaining. It’s essentially a history lesson for people who think they don’t like history, fronted by Greg Jenner, who has acted as a consultant for the Horrible Histories TV series. The format, however, is closer to the long-running In Our Time; a historical subject (the Mughal Empire, Eleanor of Aquitaine, the Victorian Christmas, etc) is on the agenda, with Jenner taking the Melvyn Bragg role of an informed host, asking questions of an expert. (IOT usually offers more than one expert, which sometimes provokes a bit of friction, but the dynamic is similar.)

All good so far, but YDTM introduces a new worm into the apple, in the form of a comic voice. And this, as far as I can work out, illustrates the key difference between the two shows; its assumptions about the listener. With IOT, Bragg is the representative of the audience, someone who may know a bit about the subject matter, or has at least taken the time to glance at the relevant Wikipedia page to acquire a rudimentary foundation upon which the experts can build. In YDTM, although Jenner is fine as a host and the academics are all well-chosen, the voice of the listener is the comic, who may just as well have been pulled in from the street at random.

One egregious example of this is the show about the American emigrĂ© performer Josephine Baker; a wise don, Michell Chresfield from the University of Birmingham, is regularly interrupted by the comedian Desiree Burch, whose contribution is essentially half an hour of not knowing, and letting us know it. And she’s not even terribly funny while she’s doing it.

The closest analogy is those unaccountably popular YouTube clips of people listening to a classic song for the first time; we are encouraged to be consumers of their performative ignorance, pretty much the antithesis of Reith. And I’m increasingly worried that You’re Dead To Me is being set up not simply as a variation on In Our Time, but as its replacement.

Oh well, we’ll always have Josephine.

Friday, August 28, 2020

About music journalism

Conor McNicholas, who edited the NME way back in the Noughties, interviewed by Mic Wright:
The moment paper music journalism ceased to matter was in 2006 when Pitchfork reviewed the second Jet album. They just put up a gif of a monkey pissing in its own mouth. It wasn’t about the nature of the criticism - it really was an utterly forgettable album - it was the manner in which it was delivered. It wasn’t the product of a subs desk trying to shape something into the NME-style or the Q-style, it wasn’t crafting words to communicate a devastating putdown. It was a uniquely contemporary digital response to a band that felt like it was from another age. It was a new age sticking two fingers up to a previous generation in a way that they couldn’t respond. It was something that could be shared on mobile phones. Print was fucked from that point.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

About Gen Z

I once came across an English Language school textbook from the mid-1960s. The author clearly wanted to make a connection with the new breed of teens who formed his audience and one of the tasks he set was to create some publicity material for a fictional new “Pop” (because I’m sure it was within quotes) Group formed by their school friends. He was even good enough to think up a name for the combo – “THE GAY SWINGERS”.

And, more than half a century later, it continues....

Monday, August 24, 2020

About age

One Jay Hulme, an “award winning performance poet” posted this earlier today. Poetic licence?

Thursday, August 20, 2020

About the canon

Apparently Blogger is enforcing its new interface from tomorrow and I can’t get it to work on my venerable laptop so there may be a bit of a hiatus. To keep you nourished in the meantime, here’s a first attempt at a 21st-century canon of literary fiction. Will such a concept (in fact, either concept, lit fic and/or the canon) survive to the 22nd?

(Incidentally, Murakami’s in there, which ties things up quite neatly.)

Saturday, August 15, 2020

About punctuation and masks

As is the way of such things, the above tweet prompted first healthy respectful discussion and disagreement and then within hours things got nasty and Ms Cosslett deleted the whole thing. My response was that yes, I’d become aware of this a few years ago when a younger colleague asked if she’d done something to annoy me. It turned out that my use of (what I thought was) correct punctuation had expressed grumpiness too her; as if I need a full stop to be grumpy.

Cosslett’s real point was that online communication is developing as a distinct linguistic ecosystem and rules that apply elsewhere don’t necessarily need to be used. But why, I wonder, do “younger people” get to call the shots? They didn’t invent the medium. I first sent a tweet in 2006, a text message in 2000, an e-mail in about 1992 and nobody back then told me I overpunctuated. I’ve learned not to call people out for their spelling/grammar infelicities (unless they’re criticising educational standards or the supposed poor English of immigrants, in which case they deserve both barrels) so I’m rather hostile to the idea that I might be called out for actually getting things right.

Is the problem, I wonder, that younger users perceive orthodox punctuation, sentence structure, capitalisation, etc as a passive-aggressive rebuke to their own, apparently more free-form language? Deep down they know they’re in the wrong, but they project their self-loathing outwards because it feels better that way. A bit like – in the context of the current pandemic – non-mask-wearers yelling abuse at those who cover up. As also happened to me yesterday, by a charming gentleman who wished to inform me that covid is a myth created by the Illuminati and something vaccine something Stonehenge blah blah sorry I can’t hear you with my mask on. And no full stops.

PS: More here, from proper academics and that.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

About Britpop

I’m back on Times Radio tomorrow morning (around 6.50, if you’re vaguely alive at that hour), discussing the 25th anniversary of the Battle of Britpop and trying not to sound or feel too ancient.

Saturday, August 08, 2020

About Brain of Britain

BBC Radio 4’s Brain of Britain returns from lockdown this coming Monday, August 10 at 3pm. I’m not taking part this time round but you may indulge in a knowing chuckle at about the half-way point. Listen again and all that jazz available here.

Sunday, August 02, 2020

About bad people

Adam Rutherford, regarding the murky legacy of eugenicists such as Francis Galton and their ghostly presence in modern academia, expresses an attitude that could equally be applied in the arts and elsewhere:
I think Galton’s a shit, but he’s also a shit who’s a genius, whose legacy we absolutely rely on... We’ve got to be mature enough at a university to recognise that people can be both brilliant and awful at the same time.

Friday, July 31, 2020

About the 1990s

Intriguing research here about the extent to which the teenagers of today recognise, or don’t, the music of the 1990s. “Song decay” is the term Matt Daniels has coined to describe how a track that’s hugely successful at the time of its release fades away – or, more accurately, never gains traction – in the consciousness of successive generations. That said, looking at the list (Phil Collins, Celine Dion, Ace of Base, et al), I’m a tad envious of Generation Z in their blissful ignorance...

Sunday, July 26, 2020

About columnists

A pretty sound analysis of the significance of opinionated columnists to the ecosystem of a newspaper. It was written in 1968, so some of the practical details have changed, but the essential truth still holds, I reckon.
The columnist’s fenced-in but independent thinking gives the whole paper the aura of independent thinking. The columnist’s outrageousness gives the paper the aura of outrageousness. The columnist’s occasional and courageous expression of unpopular ideas gives the paper the aura of courage to express unpopular ideas. By investing in the columnist’s originality, non-conformism, and independent thinking, the publisher pays for appearances – in order to publish his paper not only for profit, in the sense of the classic definition that the press is a business “that produces empty space for advertising which can be financially offset by an editorial section.” If, on occasion, an advertising contract is cancelled because of the views expressed in a column, this is viewed as proof that the paper is nonconformist.
The only awkwardness derives from the identity of the author: the notorious Ulrike Meinhof, who two years later became a founder member of the Rote Armee Fraktion terrorist group.

Friday, July 24, 2020

About Taylor Swift

On spanking new Times Radio, I opine briefly about Taylor Swift’s even newer, knitwear-obsessed offering and the whole surprise album phenomenon just before the 30-minute mark here. It’s quite good, btw. The album, I mean.

PS: Had I been given a few more minutes, I would have suggested that these surprise launches are, to some extent, operating in the same tradition as Banksy and Marc Quinn; the guerrilla tactics become the art and The Thing (mural, statue, album, etc) is a MacGuffin that runs the risk of fading into the background. As I said, I think Folklore is too good to do that. A more considered view from Carl Wilson at Slate.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

About Madonnas (various)

#BlackLivesMatter has prompted an number of entertainers and groups, including Joey Negro, Lady Antebellum and the Dixie Chicks to reconsider the propriety of their adopted names. The latest is the Black Madonna, who now prefers to be known as the Blessed Madonna. The DJ (real name Marea Stamper) takes her name from Catholic and Orthodox icons that present the Virgin and Child with dark skin; no word yet as to whether they’ll be changing their names too.

Nor, indeed, whether Stamper will be Blessed much longer, seeing as how one David Adams has set up a petition complaining that her new name is also offensive, but to Christians this time; indeed, he co-opts the language of the BLM protesters, accusing her of cultural appropriation, although since Stamper chose the name in the first place because of her own Catholic upbringing, I’m not sure how that works.

Still, to give Adams his credit, he’s dogged in his pursuit of musical miscreants:
I have contacted Black Sabbath, Madonna, and the Jesus Lizard, but as of yet have had no response.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Thursday, July 16, 2020

About Banksy and Quinn

Two recent events, independent of each other but thematically linked, have prompted mass chin-stroking with regard to the definition and legitimacy of art.

First, Banksy’s mask-related modification of a Tube carriage came and then went, removed by a cleaning crew unaware of its provenance (or, indeed, of its potential monetary value to cash-strapped Transport For London). It’s a sharp reminder that, despite the mystery graffitist’s claim to be the most famous living artist in the country, a huge swathe of the population has no clue who he is or what he does, and presumably cares even less.

And then Marc Quinn, of blood head fame (although, bearing in mind what happened to Banksy, perhaps “fame” should be enveloped in multiple ironic air quotes) replaced the fallen statue of a long-dead slaver with one of the campaigner Jen Reid.

And then, no sooner was the Reid statue up, it was removed again, albeit by direct order of the local council. One could of course argue that the permanence of Banksy’s and Quinn’s pieces is not the point; their surreptitious installations are the real works of art in both cases. And because they are both working in these guerrilla traditions, the worst thing that could happen would be for the graffiti and the statue to be permitted, condoned, recuperated by the authorities. The twin erasures, accidental and then deliberate, represent not the destruction of the art, but its culmination and validation, proving that the graffiti and the statue are both too dangerous to exist.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

About Parler

The new-ish social media site Parler is, according to who you ask, a) an oasis of free speech and a refuge from the woke cancel culture of Twitter or b) a previously uncharted circle of Hell where people compete to demonstrate how much they love Donald Trump. I hate to rely on hearsay, so I actually went and had a look and let’s just say that this is pretty much the most representative post:

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

About cancel

An open letter warning that a culture of public shaming is stifling debate has attracted more attention for the names attached to it than for its content.

Chief among them is, almost inevitably, JK Rowling, whose descent from hero to zero has been more precipitous than that time John Lennon said something apparently disobliging about Jesus and saw his records being burned in the deep South. But other names – Chomsky, Steinem, Rushdie, Amis – will probably prompt blank looks among the millennials and Gen-Z-ers who are propelling the so-called cancel culture that the letter addresses. They know Margaret Atwood for that TV show.

Some of the responses have matched the spirit of the original letter. Emily VanDerWerff, a trans writer at Vox, expressed her regret that one of the founders of the site had signed the letter, but accepted that he was entitled to his own opinion – a liberal attitude that feels quietly heretical amidst all the shrieking.

By contrast, one of the other signatories, Jennifer Finney Boylan, swiftly recanted her own involvement, not because of the content of the letter, which she describes as “well meaning, if vague”, but because of some of the other people on the list. Which raises two points: first, why add your name in the first place to a “vague” letter on such a contentious issue?;  and then, if it’s the other names only the list, doesn’t that rather reduces the whole argument to the level of a high school popularity contest? That said, a question of who sits next to whom in the cafeteria may resonate more with the target audience than the musings of Noam Chomsky do.

PS: And now Jodie Comer gets it in the neck for, uh, what her boyfriend’s politics may or may not be.

PPS: I actually got round to reading the full list of signatories and notice that it includes two of my cultural favourites, Greil Marcus and John McWhorter. But should that in and of itself encourage me to agree with the letter? Or, conversely, if I don’t like what the letter says, should I burn my copy of Lipstick Traces? It’s so confusing...

PPPS: Another view from Billy Bragg.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

About Dampier and Casablanca

Stuff I learned today when truffling around the interwebs in search of something else.

1. The explorer, naturalist and privateer William Dampier (who I first encountered around the age of seven in L du Garde Peach’s masterpiece A Ladybird Book About Pirates) is cited in the OED for the earliest recorded uses of 80 words, including “barbecue”, “sub-species” and “chopsticks”; he also gave us the first recorded recipes in English for guacamole and mango chutney; and crew members on his voyages were the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

2. Casablanca was banned in Ireland until the end of World War II because its negative depiction of Nazis and Vichy collaborators contravened the country’s policy of neutrality; as late as 1974 it could only be shown on Irish television if Ilse’s lines about loving Rick (despite being married to Victor) were removed. Meanwhile, when it was released in Germany in 1952, all the scenes containing Nazis were removed, and the uncut version was not shown until 1975.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

About male/female

I’m wary of getting pulled into the scrap over trans issues that’s damaged the credentials of even the sainted JK Rowling, beyond making the bland assertion that on a purely social level, if someone is happier identifying with a particular gender identity, I’m equally happy to let [insert correct pronoun] get on with it.

Two observations, though. One is that, even as a dreaded cis het white male, I’ve often felt frustrated by the dead hand of traditional gender expectations, the idea that men talk about cars and drink pints and women talk about shoes and drink Prosecco and anyone who doesn’t fit into these boxes is a bit weird. One might have thought that increased relaxation of the binary divide between His and Hers might have pushed us closer to a world when such distinctions mattered far less, if at all; in fact, it feels as if one’s gender identity, whether the one assigned at birth or the one adopted later, matters even more than it used to. It’s certainly making a lot of people very cross.

The other is that so much of the disagreement and tension in this area is less about things, more about words about things; ultimately, semantics. The use or non-use of a particular pronoun in regard to an individual takes on a massive significance, far more than any real actions or behaviours. Obviously, words matter; but not to the exclusion of all else, including what they represent.

So I was heartened to read this article in the New York Times, which appears to offer a way out:
“Sex” is a biological framework, a panoply of possibility on its own. “Sex” needs precise words like “male” and “female” and “intersex” to describe the origins, components and functions of bodies. But we can’t maintain this precision if we use words about sex to describe gender — the social and political roles and possibilities we take on as women, as men, as something else or none of the above... That is to say: Stop using “male” and “female” to refer to men and women. In fact, stop using sex-based words to refer to people at all. They’re words for bodies, not for people with hearts and souls and minds.
So, as I understand it, a penis is “male” and menstruation is “female”; but the individuals to which they apply may be either or (preferably) neither. As technology pushes us on to a more transhuman state of being – a process that can only have been accelerated by the enforced separateness that we’ve seen in the past few months – we should be closer to a situation where nobody, not even JK Rowling, argues about gender because nobody cares.