Sunday, October 24, 2021

About offence

Yesterday afternoon, two things occurred that got me thinking back to my Religious Studies O-level. On Radio 4’s Any Answers programme, the subject under discussion was the Assisted Dying bill currently in the House of Lords, and a woman called in to describe the last, horrible, cancer-ridden days of her mother. It was a grim but entirely necessary lesson, even as she relived the end-stage faecal vomiting; but it was her utterance of the dread word “shit” that prompted Anita Anand to apologise to listeners for any offence caused.

No blame lies with Anand, who was just following Corporation guidelines. My issue is with the people who make those guidelines necessary, who are more agitated by a slang term for bodily wastes than hearing about an old woman’s pain and humiliation, something that might have been relieved had more enlightened legislation been in place.

Minutes later, at the Crystal Palace-Newcastle match, fans of the south London club wielded a banner detailing the moral failings of the Saudi Arabian government, the effective owners of the visiting team. And inevitably the police response was to deal with the “offensive” material.

Motes and beams, anyone?

Thursday, October 21, 2021

About The Modern Review


I bloody loved The Modern Review. Its glory days coincided with my first few years living in London and as such it defines the early 90s for me more than fax machines, shoegaze or Amanda de Cadenet. Having gone through three years of the English literary canon, the idea of applying chin-stroking critical techniques to the guttersnipes of pop culture felt deliciously transgressive. And, yes, I miss it (although maybe there’s a distinct element of still being the right side of 30 that I miss) and on more than one occasion, I’ve yearned for its return, despite the subsequent political missteps of its co-creators, Julie Burchill and Toby Young.

Be so, so careful what you wish for. Burchill crashed and burned in 1997 with a glossy reboot that lasted a mere five issues; and now Young, who has in the intervening decades recast himself as a champion of free schools and lockdown scepticism, is having a crack at it, promising something rather more serious. Ms Burchill, always skilled at repurposing sour grapes as a conscious career move, claims to be pretty happy with that state of affairs. 

Will I buy a copy? Oh, probably. Will I be disappointed? Certainly. But just as the original version reflected my own faith in words and art and subversion back at me, the new one will do the same with my middle-aged dyspepsia. It will be just the magazine we deserve.

Monday, October 18, 2021

About Squid Game

 

I’m only three episodes into the current Netflix sensation Squid Game and so far I’m not exactly underwhelmed, but the whelm levels are definitely less than I might have expected from the hype. It has elements of things I have enjoyed (the Japanese book and film Battle Royale; the Korean film Parasite; the British TV show The Prisoner) without quite reaching those heights. But I’ll stick it out.

And, while it’s all pretty visceral, I don’t think I’ll be throwing my weight behind Central Bedfordshire Council, which is warning parents not to let their school-age children watch it, because they (the kids, not the parents) are re-enacting the games at the heart of the narrative, replacing the sanction of shooting for the losers which a good old-fashioned beating-up. For a start, it operates on the basis that parents are even capable of preventing their kids from watching telly; moreover, very few of them are watching the show itself, being more likely to watch reenactments of the juicy bits on Tik Tok and similar platforms.

Moreover, in a strange way, what the kids are doing (or are rumoured to be doing) is rather admirable. The producers of the show have appropriated playground games like Grandmother’s Footsteps and imbued them with a glossy, hyperviolent sheen; the kids are just recuperating a chunk of their own culture, and taken it back to its tarmac roots.

That said, I really want the tracksuit.

PS: I’ve now stuck it out to the end. Without prompting too many spoiler klaxons, it’s the marbles episode that takes the show into the realms of greatness; and I’d add Kubrick and maybe Buñuel to the influence list.

PPS: 

Monday, October 11, 2021

About Brain of Britain, yet again

Another fleeting appearance on the best quiz show on the wireless. 3pm today, repeated on Saturday night (both on Radio 4), Sounds for a month or so thereafter.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

About the BBC

I’m quietly impressed by the way that modern conservatives manage to reconcile the sort of contradictory realities that would send wiser, more reflective individuals into an intellectual death spiral. For example, they’re quite capable of trumpeting their support for what they define as traditional family values, while at same time aligning themselves with insatiable shaggers like Trump and Johnson.

Their attitudes to culture are similarly, shamelessly incoherent. A conservative, one would assume, appreciates the canon, all that tradition holds to be best in literature, music, art and so on; not least because such works provide us with a link to the past, to the history of our own civilisation. At the same time, though, most conservatives are in thrall to market forces; logic dictates that what sells is by definition right. The recent appointment to the role of Culture Secretary of the preposterous Nadine Dorries, with her visceral suspicion of anything “elitist”, embodies this trend. And, of course, modern conservatives really, really hate the BBC.

In the Telegraph, Ben Lawrence dares to tackle the cognitive dissonance head-on, arguing that what is popular (Strictly Come Dancing, for example) is not necessarily good and that the Beeb must justify its special status by daring to be on the side of the elites. 

You could argue that, in its old-fashioned Reithian approach, the BBC did always patronise its viewers. However, I think there is a crucial difference in the way we used to be talked down to. Indeed, doesn’t a bit of pedagogic paternalism now seem rather refreshing? ... It sort of goes like this: fearing that it may lack working-class cred, the Corporation is now giving the public what they think the people want, and perhaps in the case of Vigil they have got it right. But otherwise, it feels like the equivalent of Sir John Gielgud donning a flat cap and trying to speak with a Cockney accent (actually, I am sure Gielgud’s accent would have been flawless, but you know what I mean). In other words, it is shrinking people’s horizons … And who is to say that a binman might not want to watch a profile of Stockhausen?

At least it’s a coherent, considered view. But then the bloody readers – few of whom, I suspect, would watch a Stockhausen doc either – go and spoil it with the usual gammony whines about lefties and the licence fee. And Nadine Dorries breathes a sigh of relief.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

About Jens Haaning

I’m quietly impressed by the Danish artist Jens Haaning, who was commissioned to reproduce one of his old works, but delivered a pair of empty frames, claiming that his failure to deliver on the contract was the art. Were I in charge of the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art in Aalborg, which spent half a million kroner on said work, I might not be so enamoured.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

About iconoclasts

“Iconic” is on my list of words to avoid, because it’s been abused to the point of meaninglessness, but it might still be usefully applied in a few select cases. And in that spirit, following on from a chat elsewhere about Julie Burchill (although it might equally apply to John Lydon, Guy Debord, Oscar Wilde, or anyone else who appears in the index to Lipstick Traces), what happens to iconic iconoclasts? Do they inevitably self-destruct?

Thursday, September 16, 2021

About Nadine Dorries

There’s so much to unpack regarding the new Culture Secretary and I know it’s very lazy just to post endless tweets but I’m quite busy at the moment and this sums up the neo-liberal attitude to everything that matters better than anything I could write. Something more considered at the weekend, maybe.

Wednesday, September 08, 2021

About The Exorcist

Wednesday, September 01, 2021

About good books


I’m intrigued by the story of the judge who spared a young man from jail on terrorism offences, provided he committed himself to reading a prescribed list of works by Jane Austen, Dickens and the like. What’s not clear is whether he intended the mere effort of reading – and submitting to the judge’s test of said reading after Christmas – to be a sufficient distraction from plotting neo-Nazi unpleasantness; or whether those books in particular might reset his befuddled brain, because of some inherent moral qualities. Pride and Prejudice, most would agree, is a good book in an aesthetic, literary sense, which is what fixes its place in the canon; but does that make it good in the same way we’d describe a good person, someone who is essentially righteous? And even if it were, might something more overtly didactic (To Kill A Mockingbird, say) do a better job in changing hearts and minds?

Of course, if Judge Timothy Spencer QC had just told the accused to go away and read a few books, he might have curled up with a copy of Mein Kampf. Or even The Picture of Dorian Gray, wherein he would have found this snippet of subversion:

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

About NFTs and Geronimo


I’ve remarked before about the way BBC journalists – presumably in the spirit of accessibility and inclusivity – have taken to explaining references that 10 years ago would have needed no gloss; thus, a mention of Hamlet becomes “Shakespeare’s play Hamlet” and so on.

But some other aspects of our culture have become embedded in the stuff-you’re-assumed-to-know box, and remarkably quickly at that. A year ago, I’m pretty sure I’d never heard of Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs), but today a BBC website story not only refrained from explaining what they are (there’s a link to a separate article that does that) but didn’t even say what the abbreviation stands for. Or whether “a professional NFT collector” is a real job.

And just as I’m about to hit send, another BBC-related thought. Geronimo the alpaca met his fate today; it was a bit of a silly season story, and some questioned why a culture that happily slaughters thousands of animals a day should fixate on this one beast. Evan Davis, on the PM show, mused on similar lines, as an explanation of why he wasn’t covering the story. But surely by doing so, he’s covering the story. The only thing worse than being talked about, as Wilde nearly said, is having one’s purported newsworthiness dismissed live on Radio 4. Well, that and being shot in the head by a vet.

Thursday, August 26, 2021

About Aaliyah


Many years ago I wrote a cheap and cheerful tome about the late R&B (and movie) star Aaliyah and since very few people have followed my example since, I’ve become a sort of default expert. At least I think that’s why a nice Swiss lady asked me some questions about her, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of her death, and two of her albums finally appearing on Spotify. (And no, I didn’t do it in French.)

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

About snooker

I remember the extraordinary final of the 1985 World Snooker Championship, and the screams of delight echoing around the neighbourhood when Dennis Taylor finally potted that last black ball. It wasn’t that people disliked Steve Davis per se, simply that anyone who challenged his hegemony at the time acquired automatic plucky underdog status.

Plenty of other folk remember it as well, it seems, to the extent that the whole final frame is being restaged as a live event, a simulacrum of a match, a bit like one of those re-enactments of Civil War battles, but with cues replacing pikestaffs. It’ll be a lot of nostalgic fun, but what made the original event really exciting – as with any sporting event – was the tension, the jeopardy, the fact that nobody, including those pacing round the table, knew what was going to happen next, how the whole thing was going to end, who was going to lift the silverware and who was going to look rueful on the periphery. Short of tweaking reality so that Davis wins, I’m not quite sure how they can bring that back.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

About Shakespeare

The Globe Theatre’s decision to include a content warning with publicity about its production of Romeo and Juliet has prompted the usual feeding frenzy from a right-wing press the sole purpose of which appears to be a ceaseless campaign against what it deems to be wokery. 

In normal circumstances I’m sceptical about attempts to cover an audience in cotton wool, but I don’t really have a problem with this. It’s a bit like those contextual labels that some National Trust properties want to put up, explaining historical links to slavery; visitors are perfectly able to ignore them, and just look at the pretty gardens and suits of armour if that’s what they want, and I don’t see how warnings about violence and trauma in R&J will spoil anyone’s enjoyment. Many years ago I saw Deborah Warner’s notoriously brutal production of Titus Andronicus, which had many audience members fainting or running for the exits. I suspect they may have appreciated a hint of what was to come.

Shakespeare has long been the victim of censorious intervention, from the fiddling of Nahum Tate and Thomas Bowdler, to the edition of Macbeth I used when I was doing my O-levels in the 1980s, from which the funniest bits of the Porter’s speech were excised. As far as I know, the Globe production doesn’t mess with the words – you know, the important stuff. And in any case, I’d take The Sun’s proprietorial attitude to the Bard far more seriously if they actually gave proper critical coverage to modern productions of his work, rather than just exploiting him now and again as one more weapon in an increasingly tedious and silly culture war. 

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

About Pinter and Yeats

PS:

Monday, August 16, 2021

About Swift

The Facebook algorithms have finally come good, damn them, directing me to a company called Humbuggery, offering gift ideas for people who hate Christmas and pretty much everything else. This babygro in particular caught my imagination. Now I just need to find a small child, willing or otherwise, to put in it.

Friday, August 13, 2021

About Fergie


Today I was (very briefly) on Radio 4’s Feedback programme, among several grumbling about their imbecilic interview with Sarah Ferguson, who was briefly famous in the 80s.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

About Larkin


When an ad for this poster (the work of the Bristol company Standard Designs) popped up, I laughed at first, because it’s funny; then my inner pedant grumbled because Larkin was wary of any jazz that happened after about 1940 so the Blue Note designs being pastiched here wouldn’t have figured that much in his collection. (I once complained to the BBC because a Radio 4 play about the poet suggested that he was a fan of Cannonball Adderley.) But then I wondered whether that was the whole point – anything to annoy the King of Curmudgeons. If only he were around to write a mordant poem about it.

She kept her songs, they kept so little space,
The covers pleased her...

Wednesday, August 04, 2021

About a mask

I’ve always been fairly relaxed about the notion that scary advertising bots know far more about my needs and wants than I’d like; if only because the ads that pop up when I use social media seem to involve only the things I actively wouldn’t want. As an example, this, in an advertisement for Boots, was the first image to assail my eyes when I went onto Facebook this morning. 

Pretty disturbing before the first coffee and not at all the sort of thing I’d consider purchasing... unless of course I aspired to create a low-budget remake of one of my favourite films in the back garden...


Come to think of it, maybe these bots do a better job than I gave them credit for.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

About dictators

For the second time in as many weeks, Facebook has decreed that something I posted goes against its community standards. The odd thing is that this time it's taken them the best part of three years to get all Mary Whitehouse on me. And whereas before I could see the potential for offence being taken in the depiction of Mr Firework-Up-The-Bum, I’m not entirely sure what the problem is now. The fact that I was displaying pictures of dictators; or the fact that I was implicitly mocking the wonky orthography of funny foreigners? We shall never know.

Monday, July 26, 2021

About the Olympics

Something I wrote in 2012

In 20 years’ time, will athletes be fencing and diving and underclad-volleyballing in near-empty stadia, accompanied only by the tap-tap-tap of a few accredited live tweeters?

(And that was only nine years ago.)

Saturday, July 24, 2021

About Robert Hughes

It’s the academic equivalent of l’esprit d’escalier, I suppose. I delivered my MA dissertation nearly two years ago, and still I keep coming across bits and bobs that could have gone in there. The latest is from the Australian critic Robert Hughes, who in his 1993 book The Culture of Complaint attempted to carve out some middle ground between the relativists who said that the canon was as dead as the white males who (over)populated it, and the conservatives who insisted on its perfect immutability. What’s even more annoying is that I read Hughes’s book when it came out, and then entirely forgot about it, which probably says something about my own personal canon.

Anyway, the passage that would have fitted, and will undoubtedly be resurrected for the 20th anniversary box set, including previously unheard demos, live tracks and astonishingly banal studio chatter, is as follows:

The quarrel over the Canon reflects the sturdy assumption that works of art are or ought to be therapeutic. Imbibe the Republic or Phaedo at nineteen, and you will be one kind of person; study Jane Eyre or Mrs Dalloway or the poetry of Aphra Behn, and you will be another; read Amiri Baraka or The Color Purple or the writings of Wole Soyinka, and you will be a third... For in the literary zero-sum game of Canon talk, if you read X it means that you don’t read Y.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

About the weather

This weekend, I visited a Hindu temple. I don’t think I’m likely to be persuaded as to the divine attributes of Shiva and Ganesh but the cool marble interiors did provide a welcome respite from the brutal heat, not to mention the Ballardian grimness of the nearby North Circular.

And if shelter from the swelter is a way to lead us to God, why not to art as well?

Monday, July 19, 2021

About Amazon reviews

I wonder if there’d be mileage in an analysis of the content and meaning of Amazon reviews. Many of them are indeed, reviews in the conventional sense, telling you what the purchaser thought of the book or shoes or artisan gin or garden hose under discussion. Did it live up to expectations? Was it good value for money? Five stars, or only three?

But many others are reviews not of the product, but of the transaction, of the vendor. Variants on “arrived on time, as described” abound, often garnished with the full five stars, as if this basic fulfilment of the contract is somehow something to be celebrated with fireworks and hosannas. 

But my favourite reviews are the ones that offer a flicker of insight into the purchaser’s life, like a fragment of overheard conversation, something that, deprived of context, becomes so banal it achieves a kind of Zen profundity; the sort of comment that makes you wonder why they went to all the effort of posting it, but you’re delighted they did. This, for example:

And only the three stars as well.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

About staycation

An example, if any were needed, of how fast language changes, and with it our attitudes. When I first heard the word “staycation”, meaning spending one’s holiday in and around one’s own home, I probably grimaced more than a little. But now I find myself wanting to protect the clunky, ugly neologism from a new meaning being applied by tabloid sub-editors, which is simply a holiday in one’s own country. Although I suppose I’m old enough to remember when the word for this was simply “holiday”.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

About the football

It’s the big match tonight and yet again, it’s not the idiot being an idiot that intrigues; it’s the idiots filming the idiot. 

(And when I take to Google to determine whether Baudrillard or McLuhan or Berger might best explain the conundrum, I discover that the latter provided the voices for twin villains in an iteration of the Grand Theft Auto game. And call me an effete elitist, but I find that more intriguing than the fireworks or even the football.)

PS: When I posted the above picture on Facebook, the Zuckergods deemed it indecent. But in The Guardian, the brilliant David Squires makes it cleaner, and at the same time more brutal. 

Sunday, July 04, 2021

About bad art

I assumed at first that the One Britain One Nation project was meant to form part of this weird culture war we’re currently embroiled in; a bear trap for bien-pensant liberals who instinctively giggle at any ostentatious expression of patriotism and are then immediately tarred as sneering quinoa-munching metropolitans, out of touch with the stout yeomen of Albion, yada yada yada...

If that’s the case, though, the whole thing seems to have backfired. Not (just) because of a general revulsion against drilling young minds into ostentatious demonstrations of sentimental patriotism – a practice with which even arch-Imperialists such as Kipling were uneasy – but because ultimately, it was a bad song, a banal dirge with vapid lyrics. Those who might stand by the sentiments will flinch at singing along with something so cruddy. “Tear him for his bad verses,” as the luckless Cinna’s assassins yelled.

And similarly, we can side-step another cultural skirmish, about whether or not a hereditary monarchy is more trouble than it’s worth in the 21st century, when we consider the merits of otherwise of the new statue of Diana, Princess of Wales. As Jonathan Jones puts it, “Perhaps not even for Diana’s sincerest believers, for the statue group’s emotive symbolism is undermined by its aesthetic awfulness.” It’s dreadful. That is all.


That said, of course, since we have a governing class that seems intent on sidelining what we’re supposed to call the creative industries (less a war between cultures, more like a war on culture in general), maybe simply expressing any kind of critical/aesthetic evaluation is just as subversive and dangerous as mocking patriotism or the monarchy...

Friday, July 02, 2021

About Alexa

You don’t choose your name but it can shape you, not necessarily in a good way. When I was at school, and for years after, people thought it was hilarious that I shared a forename with the central character (played by Ronnie Corbett) in the inexplicably popular sitcom Sorry! and the phrase “Language, Timothy!” would follow me down many a corridor. Now parents of children called Alexa are calling on Amazon to replace the brand identity of its digital assistant with “a non-human name”, because their kids are being teased. Which sounds sensible – until you ask what, in an interconnected, multi-lingual, multi-cultural world, a non-human name really is. Pretty much any combination of syllables can be used to name a human somewhere in the world (although not so much in New Zealand), so protecting little Alexa will necessitate dumping on some other poor kid. I bet they call it Timothy...

Thursday, July 01, 2021

About nothing

Tom Miller, an American artist who created a sculpture called ‘Nothing’, consisting of nothing, is suing an Italian who’s done something – or, indeed, nothing – similar. “If you Google ‘Tom Miller Nothing’,” he claims, “you can easily see I had this whole paradigm sorted out before before Salvatore Garau ever even thought of doing a sculpture of nothing.”

In fact, if you Google ‘Tom Miller Nothing’, the first thing that comes up is a news story about his law suit.

Monday, June 14, 2021

About The Observer

I spent the weekend with my parents, who still insist on reading the analogue papers of a Sunday morning. I don’t know whether the medium affects the message all that much, but two verbal nuggets caught my eye, both of them related to food.

One is Jay Rayner’s appropriation of a phrase – via his late mother Claire, and ultimately from Bernard Levin – to describe someone who has no faith, but accepts his cultural inheritance through the medium of food: “Pantry Jew”. And from the Reverend Richard Coles, pointing out how every diner’s background and memory is subtly different, making any notion of culinary authenticity fuzzy to say the least: “Nostalgia is bespoke”.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

About Neil Patel

Because what the world needs now is not just mediocrity, but mediocrity that thinks it’s bloody brilliant.


Tuesday, June 08, 2021

About Jack Kerouac


From Dear Reader, by Paul Fournel. A young intern explains to a wizened editorial hack how to use an e-reader.

“How do I go to the next page?”

“You turn pages by sliding the corner on the bottom.”

“Like a book?”

“Yep, that’s the prehistoric side of it. A sop for seniors. When people have forgotten about books they’ll wonder why it works that way. Vertical makes more sense. Scrolling down would be more logical.”

“Jack Kerouac will be pleased.”

She doesn’t get it.

The implication being, of course, that you, the dear reader of Dear Reader, will get it. Incidentally, Dear Reader is available on Kindle.

PS: And of course, I’m assuming that you, dear plougher through the Cultural Snow, will also get it.

PPS: On similar lines, I overheard this earlier today in a charity shop. A mature lady spotted a set of wireless headphones and asked the friendly, helpful 20-something on the till to explain.

“So I can put them on my head... and there are no wires?”

“Yes, you just put them on, and they connect to your phone.”

"My phone? Why would I connect them to my phone?”

Saturday, June 05, 2021

About Jeanette Winterson

The very idea of burning books, or any creative product, inevitably disturbs, because of the context in which it usually happens but surely burning your own books (more specifically, new editions of your own books to which you take exception) is a rather different thing? Winterson isn’t destroying the essence of the art, stopping anyone from reading, say, Sexing the Cherry ever again; she’s just turning her own anger at the perceived idiocies of the publishing business into a new work of art, transforming herself into some sort of literary KLF. And grabbing the new editions a whole load of publicity into the bargain.

Wednesday, June 02, 2021

About a website, the name of which escapes me

Many years ago. if I saw an online article I particularly liked, I’d enter it into my account on a website specifically designed for the purpose; I could give each piece multiple tags, so if I selected, say “US politics” or “post-structuralist jollity” it would bring forth a ready-made list of relevant texts. It came in particularly useful when I was writing my book about the Noughties, as the bulk of the articles were about that decade; I even namechecked it during one interview when I was asked how I did my research.

And now, for crying out loud, I can’t remember the name of the bloody thing, can’t find any trace of it in my browsing history (forgetting the name doesn’t help here) and realise I’ve probably lost an intriguing trove of about six years’ worth of writing about well, stuff, really. And if I do find it, I’ve almost certainly forgotten the password, haven’t I?

So, unless or until I remember where I left them, I’ll just stick these down here, as examples of the sort of thing I would have entered into the site, whatever the hell it was called; Gary Younge on why all statues, not just the nasty colonial ones, should be torn down; and Will Vigar on why psychogeography has had its day, thanks.

And if anyone does know what I was talking about, please advise.

PS: One more: Princeton students can now major in classics without studying Latin or Greek.

PPS: And if you look past the clickbaity headline, there’s some merit in the notion that yes, the lives of the Mitford sisters were structured reality avant la lettre, with Nancy running the show.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

About the Downing Street whiteboard

    


Thou shalt not kill; but needst not strive 
Officiously to keep alive...

Arthur Hugh Clough, ‘The Latest Decalogue’, 1862

(Background here.)

PS: Marina Hyde neatly skewers Dominic Cummings and all the other purveyors of blokeish populism: “If we must have machismo, must it be so very poorly essayed?”

Sunday, May 23, 2021

About Tracey Emin


Throughly masked up and to the Royal Academy for the resurrected Emin/Munch show. Verdict: Munch was a better painter, but Tracey has better titles. (Because You Kept Touching Me vs Seated Female Nude, no contest.)

In the accompanying free sheet, there’s an interview with the Queen of Margate in which she opines:

The thing with painting is that you’d never go to a fortune teller and be happy if they told you something you already knew. That’s the same with painting. When you’re painting, you don’t want to do a painting, you don’t want to do a painting you’ve already done, you want to do a painting you’ve never seen before.

Which is fair enough from the point of view of the artist, the creator. Unfortunately, most of the consumers just want more of the same.

Monday, May 17, 2021

About Fred Dellar

The journalist Fred Dellar has died. He was famous for compiling the NME’s weekly crossword, and also for the Fred Fact column, which answered readers’ queries. I never met him but I did write in – remember that in the days before Google, Wikipedia, Spotify or Shazam this was often the only way to clear up abstruse matters of musicological ontology (not to mention sumptuous nuggets of myth and gossip). 

But even in the 1990s, before most of us even had e-mail, I’m pretty sure Fred was aware of the limitations of the snail-mail/print media process. I once asked him to identify the music used for a then-current beer commercial and in the 10 days or so between post box and publication the piece was released as a single. His response began, with an implicit sigh: “As you probably know by now...”

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

About Hockney

 

David Hockney, as if he needs the gig, has been commissioned to liven up Piccadilly tube station. I don’t particularly like what he’s done with the brief, to be honest – it all looks a bit lazy and afterthoughty – but I also don’t want to throw in my lot with the tiresome a-child-of-five-could-have-done-that-and-it-would-have-been-a-whole-lot-cheaper merchants on Twitter. Am I just being tribal? Or is it possible to attack bad criticism without at the same time defending bad art?

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

About Nick Kamen

Beyond his cute looks, the model and singer Nick Kamen – whose death was announced today – didn’t seem to have all that much going for him. Yet, as the star of a single TV commercial, he gave a significant boost to sales and visibility not just of Levi’s jeans (the purported product of the ad) but also himself (five chart singles including one in the Top 10 and a dalliance with Madonna), the Marvin Gaye song on the soundtrack (another Top 10 placing, one of the many soul and R&B reissues that cropped up throughout the mid-80s) and, of course, boxer shorts. A true influencer avant la lettre. RIP, Nick.


Tuesday, May 04, 2021

About Shakespeare

A letter to the Telegraph, from one Alan Mordey of Leamington Spa, that is so many flavours of wrong it becomes rather impressive: 

I find that Shakespeare can be difficult to follow at the best of times, and often, halfway through one of his plays, I find myself wishing I were somewhere else. Imagine my confusion some years ago when I went to see a production of Macbeth at my daughter’s school, where the various characters were played randomly by either sex, which meant it was way beyond my comprehension. I was always under the impression that stage performances were for the entertainment of the audience, which I’m sure was what William Shakespeare intended, but the modern idea of challenging conventions and asking the audience to suspend their preconceptions of reality falls far short of this ideal.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

About Detta O’Cathain

Susannah Herbert, quoted in the Telegraph obituary of Detta O’Cathain, the former Barbican boss:

The tragedy of Baroness O’Cathain stems from her passionate self-belief and her inability to persuade others to share it.

Friday, April 23, 2021

About description

Very belatedly I’m becoming aware of the importance of image description in social media, a courtesy that allows people with sight loss to engage better, especially with image-centric platforms such as Instagram. Either one can rely on the platform’s inbuilt object recognition technology, or write a brief description of the image, which sight-impaired users will be able to access with text-to-speech software. Of course, the principle has long been used in audio-description for films, and in audio guides in art galleries and it’s certainly a good way to make such art forms more accessible, although inevitably it has its limitations; it can tell you what’s depicted but the wobbly heft of a Rubens thigh, or the wild, mad intensity of a Van Gogh yellow may be harder to put across. 

There is art, of course, where such subtleties aren’t really the point; where the whole reason for the work being there is something that can be wholly encapsulated in a paragraph. Indeed, the object itself is secondary to the idea. In fact, maybe this could be a useful rule of thumb, a sort of Turing test for art. If an image description can entirely and satisfactorily communicate a work of art to someone who can’t see said work, then that work can be categorised as a piece of conceptual art.


[image description: black-and-white photograph of a white porcelain urinal at a three-quarters angle, signed along the bottom left rim “R. MUTT 1917”, against a black background]

Monday, April 19, 2021

About Helen McCrory


Given that it is a bit irrational to mourn the death of someone you never knew, I was still sadder to hear of the passing of the actor Helen McCrory than of the Duke of Edinburgh a week before. Mainly because McCrory was little more than half the Duke’s age and left two children under 16, but also because she was a fabulous, compelling performer. And on the occasions when she wasn’t inhabiting another character, she appeared to be a wise, perceptive woman; here she is talking to The Chap in 2019.
I don’t think I’ve ever been interested in any play about the happy, successful, lighter moments of life. I think that’s a very modern, pervasive idea in our entertainment, whether it’s on Instagram or in fiction, to show only the good and the perfect side of yourself. It’s just a lie and it’s very dull, and it’s nothing that anyone should even strive for. Obviously when you’re younger, all the dark side of life holds a lot of interest. Every teenager listens to the Doors and reads Sartre.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

About April 18

91 years ago today, on April 18, 1930, the BBC evening news bulletin consisted of the words “there is no news”, with piano music filling the rest of the 15 minutes. Cursory Googling suggests that this wasn’t a bad call, and that very little of historical importance occurred on that day; beyond, of course, the announcement that there was news, which became the only thing that anyone knows about that day, certainly raising its significance above that of the 17th or 19th. Once again, absence becomes a presence.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

About Prince Philip again


There is much generic media mulch sustaining a collective derangement over the death of an old, old man, but one or two useful responses – very few of them originating in Britain, sadly – have appeared. Anthony Lane in the New Yorker, for example, who analyses Philip’s strange social status, half macho action man and half placid househusband (and to some in Vanuatu, of course, a god), wittily but not without sympathy. And while others compile jolly listicles about the Duke’s various sub-Bernard-Manning one-liners (“slitty eyes”, ho ho ho), Lane pulls out one quote that is at once genuinely funny and rather poignant. Called upon to cut the ribbon at a new college building, he declared:
A lot of time and energy has been spent on arranging for you to listen to me to take a long time to declare open a building which everyone knows is open already.
It’s as if he was entirely clear-eyed, fully aware of the daftness of his role, but even if he drew attention to it, nobody listened; like Brian declaring he’s not the Messiah, or a first draft for a particularly bleak sitcom, one in which Tom Good never dares to try self-sufficiency, Reggie Perrin never goes for that naked swim, and they just carry on and on in an unpleasant dream from which they can’t be roused. I almost feel sorry for the old boy.

PS: Patrick Freyne in the Irish Times a few weeks ago:
Having a monarchy next door is a little like having a neighbour who’s really into clowns and has daubed their house with clown murals, displays clown dolls in each window and has an insatiable desire to hear about and discuss clown-related news stories. More specifically, for the Irish, it’s like having a neighbour who’s really into clowns and, also, your grandfather was murdered by a clown.
PPS: Stewart Lee on a collective delusion from years past: 


PPPS: Michael Rosen, whose nib appears to have been sharpened by his recent brush with death, on the monarchy: 

I gather 
they give us continuity 
I gather that 
if we didn't have them 
we wouldn't feel continuous. 
If I want continuity 
I read an old book 

I gather 
they give us permanence. 
I gather that 
if we didn't have them 
we wouldn't feel permanent. 
If I want permanence 
I look at a rock.

PPPPS: And I’m not sure who did this, or how sincerely it was intended but, um...


PPPPPS: Clearly someone didn’t think the above was quite mad enough. This is what passes these days for proper journalism by a proper journalist in a proper newspaper:

Friday, April 09, 2021

About Prince Philip

I will not be pointing and laughing at an old man who has just died, nor at a woman who has lost her husband of over 70 years. However, I hope I’ll be permitted to raise an eyebrow at the various media organisations that have seen fit to pad out what’s at best a 20-minute story (he’s dead; here’s some archive of when he was alive; here are some people saying nice things about him) into a rolling news juggernaut that’s swept all other programming before it. The BBC in particular is tugging its forelock across all channels, which is pretty impressive for an organisation that’s supposedly a quivering nest of Trotskyite wokeness.

Special mention though to Reuters which ran a live feed of an aerial view of Buckingham Palace, which would have been an odd thing to do even if Prince Philip had died there (he was at Windsor Castle) and then it turned out the footage was of the Tower of London anyway.

PS: A reminder of the wonderful Kastom people of Vanuatu, who worshipped the late Prince as a god.

PPS: And this.


PPPS:

PPPPS: The BBC. Eight hours. Across all channels. Now try to imagine what it’ll be like when *she* goes...

Thursday, April 08, 2021

About Monster Fun


Pulling together a further tranche of Perec-lite memories, I seize upon thoughts of Monster Fun comic, and in particular the Badtime Bedtime Book supplements that were stapled inside. While I was never a comic fan in the classic sense (the Marvel Comic Universe mostly leaves me cold), I was besotted by the anarchic, gently spooky humour of Monster Fun for what felt like most of my childhood. Yet when I check the cold hard facts, I find that it ran as a standalone weekly for little more than a year, June 1975 to October 1976. Proof again that when you're seven or eight years old, time stretches way out beyond the horizon (in all directions) and usually in a good way. 

Thursday, April 01, 2021

I remember (part one)

 (An explanation.) 

I remember watching the Marx Brothers’ movie A Day At The Races for the first time, on TV, when somebody repeated a reel by mistake; and I was so wrapped up in the lunacy, I just assumed it was part of the film. 

I remember Richard Nixon’s blood clot.

I remember Stanley Green the protein man and Lord Mustard the tap-dancing busker. 

I remember answering the phone with a number. 

I remember the London Planetarium. 

I remember when everybody had a poster of Béatrice Dalle.

I remember Hercules the Bear and Victor the Giraffe. 

I remember the death of General Franco. I didn't know who Franco was or why it was important; but my mother said it meant her friend Carmen could go home now. 

I remember polo necks under shirts. 

I remember “Nicholas Parsons is the Neo-Opiate of the People”.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

About Shelley


As a proud geek and devotee of quizzing, who was inevitably the last to be picked for any sporting team, one might have thought that I’d have approved of the Hackney New School, which claims to have all but eliminated bullying by replacing playground football games with poetry, chess and quizzes.

Pupils have memorised poems Ozymandias and Charge of Light Brigade [sic] off by heart and recite them as they line up for lessons or when they are eating lunch, [headteacher] Ms Whelan said... “Just yesterday a group of year 9 students beat me in a name the capital cities quiz, this would have been unthinkable two years ago.”

Well, um, yes, but. Knowing about poetry is, as Sellar and Yeatman had it, A Good Thing. But there’s something about learning it by rote and chanting it over lunch that feels almost cult-like. I do wonder what the radical Shelley, who was booted out of Oxford for his heterodox views on religion and much else, might have made of this; and ultimately what it means for education. 

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay 

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away... 

(I’ve got an uncomfortable feeling that Tennyson might have approved, though.)

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

About remembering

I’ve been supping again from the well of Georges Perec, specifically his Je me souviens/I Remember. Inspired by the work of the American Joe Brainard (and in turn an inspiration for the Scot Gilbert Adair), it’s a list of memories, each prefaced with the words “I remember...” The point to the project is that although each memory is essentially banal (“I remember candy-floss at fairgrounds”), when read together they create something approaching a life, a personality. That said, if Perec didn’t have the imprimatur of literary quality bestowed by his role in the Oulipo group, would his book be any more profound than one of those interminable talking head shows in which fading celebrities pretend to recall Alvin Stardust or 9/11 or ra-ra skirts or the music for The A-Team?

I’m tempted to have a go, though. Watch this space...

Monday, March 15, 2021

About symbolism and the like

I’ve long admired Samuel Beckett’s exasperated response to overreaching critics, that if he’d really meant his play to be about God he would have called it Waiting for God. Haruki Murakami (who, as I usually point out at moments like this, bequeathed the title of this blog) is inevitably more polite, but he comes from pretty much the same place:

I’ve had a number of opportunities to discuss my work with college students in their classes, and the students always seem to end up confused, because they can’t find the theme or the point of my stories. But that doesn’t bother me at all.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

About Norton Juster

Norton Juster, who died a few days ago, is obviously best known for having written The Phantom Tollbooth, but was also an architect and, for many years, a university teacher. Not that he appears to have had much enthusiasm for education as it’s practised.

“Everyone’s worried about education, but it's really the appearance of education and the credentials of education they're worried about. I think at birth we should give every child a Ph.D.”

I picked up a few credentials along the way, but I’m pretty sure I learned more from The Phantom Tollbooth.

Friday, March 12, 2021

About rice shot from guns is gay as a picnic

This popped up on Twitter a few days ago. I think it’s real (Betty Hutton certainly was, and led a strange, rather sad life) but the words seem to come from another planet, or a David Bowie b-side at least. There has to be a creative use for them, but what? And how gay is your picnic?

Sunday, February 28, 2021

About hyperbowl

I remember the first time I said it. My English teacher, Mr Martin, asked what a particular rhetorical effect was being employed by some dead white male or another and, having seen the word used in a book, 13-year-old me volunteered, “Is it hyperbowl?” and he said something along the lines of, “It’s a Greek word and it’s actually pronounced ‘hyperbole’ but yes, that’s right.” He didn’t poke fun at my wonky pronunciation, he didn’t crush my creative soul, he just put me right.

That was that for a long while. I barely heard the word for years (in most cases, “exaggeration” serves just as well) but when I did it was usually pronounced in the proper, Mr Martin-approved manner. In the past few years, however, I’ve heard “hyperbowl” creeping into the most unlikely places, not least that repository of educated English speech, BBC Radio 4. Things came to a head a couple of days ago when the government minister Nadhim Zahawi used it. I hesitated in responding, especially because Mr Zahawi presumably doesn’t have English as a first language, having come to Britain at the age of nine. But then I checked his Wikipedia page, calculated how much his parents must have spent on his private education once they got here, and did what Mr Martin would never have done. I pointed and I laughed. On Twitter.

 It did make me wonder, though. When such solecisms occur these days, do people – those who taught young Nadhim at Ibstock Place and King’s College School, for example – not intervene because doing so would be seen as rude or snobbish or discriminatory? Or do most people think “hyperbowl” is right? In which case, in the normal order of the development of language, it actually is right, and Nadim Zahawi is right, and I’m wrong and so is Mr Martin. Which is an earth-shattering catastrophe.

Monday, February 22, 2021

About Nemo

Once again, we confront the thorny question of what, in 2021, one can reasonably be expected to know or understand. And, according to viewers of last night’s Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, it’s not Shakespeare’s tragedies or flags of the world or the periodic table...