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.