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.


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...

Sunday, February 21, 2021

About tongues

Journalists and other writers are encouraged to avoid tiresome repetition of words by employing what’s known as elegant variation, the use of synonyms to make prose less of a trudge. This can sometimes be taken to preposterous extremes of course, as in the Guardian’s fondly remembered popular orange vegetable.

And still it goes on. One would have thought that a recent court case in Edinburgh, in which an unfortunate gentleman had part of his tongue bitten off by a woman, and then saw the morsel snatched away by a seagull, might have been exciting enough as it stood. But no, the writer and/or the sub-editor (if the Edinburgh Evening News can still afford such fripperies) decided that on a second mention the body part had to become the fleshy muscle.

Friday, February 19, 2021

About young people

 88.8% of young people in the UK define themselves as creative, we are informed

Two thoughts. First, anybody can define themselves as anything they bloody well want. It doesn’t make it so.

But, rather more intriguingly, what do the remaining 11.2% call themselves? Destructive?

Tuesday, February 02, 2021

About Dumb Britain

For a while I’ve been pondering the meaning of the long-running Private Eye feature Dumb Britain, which exists to point and laugh at the less clever responses contestants give to questions on TV and radio quiz shows. It’s all about extent and limits of cultural literacy, essentially the assumptions we make about what people should be expected to know. I referred to Dumb Britain in my dissertation, if you can be bothered to pretend to be interested; the issue was whether anyone under 50 could be expected to know the name of the Long Ranger’s horse.

I would appear that the editors have become sensitive to accusations of elitism, because they’ve started to include the correct answers. Although, if the readers need to be told what the answers are, doesn’t that suggest the hapless contestants may not be that dumb after all?

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

About poetry

It is late and I am tired so regard this as a place holder; simply to note the news that Amanda Gorman, who became world famous a week ago for the poem she declaimed at Joe Biden’s inauguration has been signed not by a publishing house or record company or a university but by a modelling agency.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

About Chaucer


If the bloody Culture Wars do exist, it’s one of those conflicts where I wish both sides could lose.

Anyway, Leicester University, we are informed by, uh, the Daily Mail, has removed Chaucer from the English curriculum as part of a process of decolonising the curriculum. The Mail’s argument that this is a heinous outrage against Western civilisation might carry more weight if old Geoffrey’s works made regular appearances in its pages; if coverage of scholarly works about the Canterbury Tales or Troilus and Criseyde occasionally replaced the antics of Kim Kardashian or Cardi B or Amanda Holden. Funnily enough they don’t – except when they’re prompted to do so by the spectre of wokeness. (If they weren’t desperate to squeeze every ounce of ideological outrage of the Leicester story, would this piece by Ian Mortimer ever have been commissioned? Incidentally, I once got rather drunk with Dr Mortimer in a pub in – I think – Topsham, but that’s a tale for another day.)

In any case, this is nothing new. I studied English at undergraduate level in the late 1980s and even then, poor old Chaucer had been shoved out into the “optional extras” pile – alongside what the Mail still calls (in 2021) “such modish topics as race relations and feminism”

And inevitably it turns out that, when the Mail can actually be bothered to talk to someone from Leicester, Chaucer’s removal from the syllabus is less a case of ideological cancellation, more about offering “courses that match our students’ own interests and enthusiasms, as reflected in their own choices and feedback that we have been hearing”. In other words, responding to the same market forces to which the Mail slavishly adheres and to which it demands fealty from everyone else. Unless there’s another reason for the Kardashian stories.

Friday, January 22, 2021

About Bernie memes

So much of the tension that’s sprung up around both Trump and Brexit is cultural rather than explicitly political, revolving around assumptions (some of them justified) about what people think and do and know, and the extent to which those things place them on a binary divide. So I’m risking accusations of being a snooty, metropolitan elitist remoaner if I post my favourite of all the memes dealing with Bernie Sanders’s grouchy, bemittened appearance at Wednesday’s inauguration ceremony – simply because the most delicious thing about it is that Trump Won’t Get The Joke.

(If he’s reading this – maybe it’s raining on the golf course – full explanation here.)

Monday, January 18, 2021

About Phil Spector and Lana Clarkson

I’m seeing lots of simmering rage across social media that journalists are getting the balance wrong in their coverage of the death of Phil Spector, or maybe just put things in the wrong order; he was a convicted murderer, they argue, who also produced some records.

Clearly, he was a profoundly damaged monster, even before he killed Lana Clarkson; the evidence of his wife Ronnie, and numerous others who crossed his path over the years, would back that up. But the fact is that the reason we are even acknowledging his death is not for his crimes, but because of his music, because he was at the desk for ‘Da Doo Ron Ron‘ and ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ and ‘Imagine’. If he were a moderately successful double glazing salesman who killed someone, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. And I entirely sympathise with those who want to commemorate Clarkson’s life rather than Spector’s; but – in pure news terms, to those who didn’t know her – the most notable thing about that life is that it was ended by Spector. 

PS: Thoughtful contribution from Sarah Ditum.

Friday, January 15, 2021

About sea shanties

Sea shanties are suddenly in the news, apparently because somebody started performing them on TikTok. But it’s telling that many of those detailing the phenomenon in the news media feel the most pressing need is not to explain what TikTok is, but what sea shanties are...

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

About The Album

I argued in my book about Radiohead that OK Computer, for all its manifold innovations, represents the last entry in the canon of rock albums. This isn’t because people aren’t making good music any more, but because in the post-Napster universe the notion of a fixed, finite selection of tunes in a predetermined (by someone other than the listener) order now feels unnecessarily restrictive – and I was writing this in the mid-Noughties, way before Spotify. I might have been a little premature in my analysis but in the New York Times Jon Caramanica seems belatedly to have come over to my way of thinking. (He also suggests the future might be TikTok, which has infuriated a whole load of rock purists on Twitter and elsewhere but that’s what music journalists are for these days, right?) Anyway, he says:

As awful as it sounds, an album is simply a data dump now. That doesn’t mean that some artists won’t continue to aim to be auteurs of the form — say, Taylor Swift or Adele — but the minute albums hit streaming services, they are sliced and diced and the songs are relegated to playlist slots, and everything after that is a crap shoot. The truth is that albums worked as a medium only because everyone was a captive. When you look back at your favorite older albums now, I’m sure you see the weak spots that you’d happily have programmed out if you had the technology then. Now you do. I wouldn’t be surprised if the next generation of pop stars finds ways to never release an “album” again — they’ll just drip music out, one automated-brain-chip-download at a time.

I’ll put a fiver on One Automated-Brain-Chip-Download At A Time (Sweet Jesus) being the title of the next Radiohead album. Not that anyone will care, obviously. 

Saturday, January 02, 2021

About Brexit

An image to encapsulate our glorious future free from the nasty, pungent shackles of the EU: from the Buy British For Brexit Facebook group. Happy New Year, everyone.