Wednesday, October 05, 2022

About the Beatles


Today is the 60th anniversary of the release of ‘Love Me Do’ and this is my album of the year, despite its being a giveaway with Mojo magazine. These are the influences not on the Beatles of 1962, but on the entity they became four years later: the thousand Tibetan monks who never appeared on ‘Tomorrow Never Knows‘ the play-out groove on Sgt Pepper, King Lear on ‘I Am the Walrus’, the liminal status (song/not song?) of ‘Can You Take Me Back?’ and, obviously, ‘Revolution #9’. Delia Derbyshire and Ornette Coleman, Brion Gysin and AMM, John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, music that refuses to be loved. 

Meanwhile, Constant Lambert’s Music Ho!, originally written in 1937 and found yesterday in a charity shop, offers this:

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

About listening to music

An article by Liz Pelly about how that quintessentially middle-class problem, how one might discover and listen to new music after quitting Spotify, offers six options – none of which involve listening to the opinions of music critics. (One of the suggestions is interviews with musicians, but in that case, the interviewer is merely a conduit to the opinion – whether s/he agrees or not is irrelevant.)

Saturday, September 24, 2022

About symbolic gestures

The new Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, has told police they’ve been spending too much time on symbolic gestures and, oddly enough, I agree with her. I was pretty sceptical about the whole taking the knee business, not so much because of what it represents, but because any such action or display that becomes an expected behaviour – to the extent that you draw more attention to yourself by not doing it than by taking part – loses any kind of moral authority. On the other hand, I extend my scepticism to Remembrance poppies, standing for the national anthem and the recently concluded near-fortnight of choreographed deference to mark the death of the Queen. I wonder whether the police will be encouraged to spurn that sort of symbolism.

PS: Good Lord, I was blathering on about this 15 years ago. The slightly awkward example I used was that if a German wore a swastika in the 1920s, he was definitely a Nazi. If he wore one after 1933, all you could be certain of was that he was keen to be seen as a Nazi.

Monday, September 19, 2022

About the queue

The queue to view the Queen’s coffin will live on, in sociology theses if not in blessed memory, mainly because the end point was a bit of a disappointment. A few people, especially those with some kind of military background, had prepared some sort of ritual (a salute, a curtsey, just a brisk nod) but many, even after all those hours living off sandwiches and some warped folk memory of the Blitz spirit, spent their 10 seconds of communion with the late monarch frozen in the headlights, so afraid of committing some arcane faux pas that they just stared, then waddled off.

An analogy with Brexit seems apt. People definitely wanted Brexit, but many of them weren’t sure why, and even more had no idea what to do after it had happened. Endless iterations of “we’ve got our country back” aren’t really a basis for operating a major, if declining, 21st-century economy. And gawping mutely at a wooden box under a flag for a fraction of a minute is no substitute for a functioning constitution.

I’ve consumed the events of the past week and a half with a sort of baffled scepticism. As I’ve said before, I wish no ill on the Queen, and I hope her family and friends have had a chance to grieve properly. And I don’t really have anything against the people in the queue; they simply have a hobby that doesn’t ring my particular bell, like golf or potholing or light opera. But this morning I discovered that two people I vaguely know through social media have had medical appointments cancelled at the last moment, because it was thought to be more important that NHS staff get a chance to watch the funeral. My scepticism is hardening into anger; to mangle Elvis Costello, I used to be amused, now I fully intend to be disgusted.

PS: Will the sentimental Stalinism never end? Corgi owners throughout the land claim their dogs are in mourning too...

PPS: From Mic Wright, a trilogy of invective that goes into more detail. (This is part 3, links to 1 & 2 beneath the pic.)

PPPS: From the new Private Eye:

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Sunday, September 11, 2022

About the Queen

And so the Queen finally enters Valhalla, not lasting quite long enough to tell us what she thought of Cobra Kai season five. Now is not the time or place to cast aspersions on the late monarch. Whatever you think of the institution itself, she clearly discharged her role with commitment and aplomb; and, in any case, she's someone’s mother, someone’s grandmother and so on. That said, we seem to have entered a moment – with uncomfortable similarities to the period following the death of her daughter-in-law – when those who aren’t swept up in the mood of collective melancholy feel uncomfortable about conducting business as usual. We don’t mock the Queen herself, but surely some of the bloody awful poetry and awkward corporate tweets are fair game? And as for faded celebrities trying to get in the act...

As far as big public events go, it seems that the effective shutdown of normal service at the BBC and other broadcasters when Prince Philip died last year is now rightly seen as overkill; but the laissez-faire attitude from the Palace has led to some anomalies and inconsistencies. So there was cricket, but no football. And we were allowed a few daft game shows on Saturday night, even if they were shunted to BBC2, but not the Last Night of Proms. This last cancellation seems particularly odd; wouldn’t a bit of sentimental flag-waving be just the ticket? And there are precedents. In 2001, the Last Night took place four days after the 9/11 attacks, surely a more brutal shock to the collective system than the passing of a 96-year-old? The mood was a bit more sombre than usual, exemplified by Leonard Slatkin conducting Barber’s Adagio for Strings. And it was beautiful and respectful and wholly right.   

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

About classical music

An article in the Telegraph marking the 30th anniversary of Classic FM (inadvertently?) exposes an ideological divergence in the way modern conservatives deal with culture.

Ivan Hewitt takes what one might describe as the market-based approach, arguing that Classic FM gives the punters what they want – “delicious treats of an aural kind” – and by doing so attracts twice as many listeners as Radio 3. So that’s good, then. And there’s a passing dig at the BBC licence fee, always a dog whistle to Telegraph readers, even if radio listeners aren’t obliged to pay it. This is the Thatcherite model of culture, free of both state subsidy and a self-appointed elite telling you what’s good. And it has achieved its apotheosis in recent years with the appointment of the ludicrous Nadine Dorries as Secretary of State.

Simon Heffer, meanwhile, takes what to me is a more authentically conservative (as distinct from classical liberal) attitude, in the tradition of Arnold and Eliot: some things are just better than others, even if not many people like them. He grudgingly acknowledges the popularity of Classic FM but... cheapens classical music by treating it as a commodity; worse, it patronises its audience, lulling them into a sort of cultural Stockholm syndrome where they mistake mediocrity for excellence, and where boundaries are seldom pushed out. 

The example he gives is the poll of listeners' favourite music, which places the Star Wars theme 250 places above Elgar’s First Symphony. But to define this preference as being objectively wrong, as Heffer does, takes him to dangerous ground. “As a measure of the taste of the most gullible element of the British public, it is invaluable,” he argues. But couldn’t that in turn be applied to the antics of the modern Conservative Party, including the way Liz Truss panders to the prejudices of the party members who are probably going to elect her in the next few days, and indeed to Brexit – which Heffer supported?

(Incidentally, the weight of opinion in the comments section seems to favour Hewitt and Classic FM — which, paradoxically, tends to prove Heffer’s point.)

PS: On a vaguely related theme, quiz show contestant turned researcher Lillian Crawford on what knowledge is for (and which knowledge needs to be known). “Competing on University Challenge made me realise that I quiz not to perform knowledge, but to acquire it.”

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

About pretending to read

Karen Joy Fowler
I made a New Year’s resolution to stop pretending I had read books I hadn’t. This necessitated a crash course in all those I had already pretended to have read.
Except that often the pretence is so deep and wide that I forget whether or not I really have read the book, so I wouldn’t know which ones I need to catch up on, surreptitiously or otherwise. (See my Gatsby confusion; and, as always, wonder whether or not Pierre Bayard was joking.)

Sunday, August 21, 2022

About corrections

Apologies for literary errors often sound defensive, but I think we’ll let him off this time. (Hugues Panissié, from the 1960 edition of The Real Jazz.)

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

About Philip Purser

Two gems from the Telegraph obituary of the writer Philip Purser. First, that the first choice for the job of TV critic at the newly-launched Sunday Telegraph in 1961, was the blind journalist TE Utley, because he wouldn’t be distracted by the pictures.

And the conclusion to the obituary he wrote for a colleague: “He is the author, I believe, of my obituary held on file at The Telegraph. I wonder what it says.”

Sunday, August 14, 2022

About Jerry Sadowitz

I still don’t know for certain what Jerry Sadowitz did or said that was so distressing to (some) members of his audience that his subsequent show was cancelled by the venue, and that makes the whole episode even more annoying. The director of the Pleasance, who announced the ban, said only that his material “is not acceptable and does not align with our values”. It’s probably a stretch to equate Sadowitz’s treatment with what’s happened to Salman Rushdie. Nobody’s tried to kill the comedian, although it must be remembered that a furious Canadian (they exist, apparently), once punched him out on stage for beginning a Montreal gig with a cheery “Hello, moose-fuckers!” That said, the statement does bear some comparison with the Ayatollah’s fatwa, in that the precise nature of the crime was kept vague, thus enabling those disposed to take offence to create ever-increasing levels of imagined ideological transgression in their own heads, without ever feeling obliged to see Sadowitz’s show, or read The Satanic Verses.

More importantly though, as many have already said — what did people expect from a Sadowitz show? He’s been cavorting merrily on the wrong side of taste for four decades. And if they hadn’t noticed after all this time that some of his schtick is a bit unpleasant, 30 seconds on Google could have put them right. Modern cultural discourse is certainly sanctimonious and censorious, but far worse, I’d suggest, is the abject absence of curiosity.

Saturday, August 13, 2022

About Salman Rushdie

 Can’t think of much to add to the conversation, but this says it all.

Thursday, August 04, 2022

About male authors

An interesting selection of audiobooks here, recommended by the BBC for holiday listening. Of the 24 books on the list, just seven are by male authors; and three of those men are dead. What’s more, every book by a living man is a work of non-fiction – or, to put it another way, no living male novelist is worth a hearing.

Or are we supposed to stockpile the male writers for winter?

Wednesday, August 03, 2022

About Larkin (again)

There is much buzz, as the centenary of Philip Larkin’s birth approaches, about the notion that his privately expressed opinions should render him a candidate for cancellation. He’s clearly one of the dead white males most at risk of being squeezed out of the curriculum and the canon, as a more diverse slate of poets move in.

That said, I’m white and male, and I didn’t properly get the point of Larkin until I was well into my 30s; the voice of resignation and disappointment that underpins his work never really rang true until I’d experienced it myself. The barrier to understanding him may be as much chronological as ideological.

Which isn’t a reason not to teach Larkin to teenagers of all races, genders and political persuasions, of course. In a complex, multicultural society, empathy is at a premium. It’s important to instruct white boys in the finer points of Maya Angelou; and, equally, to explain to black girls why Larkin thought and wrote as he did.

PS: An enjoyable selection of Larkin-related musings at the New Statesman.

PPS: From the above, Emily Berry quotes some lines from Larkin’s ‘Vers de Société’ that say more than one might have expected about modern, digital modes of interaction: 

...the big wish

Is to have people nice to you, which means 

Doing it back somehow. 

Virtue is social. Are, then, these routines 

Playing at goodness, like going to church?

PPPS: James O'Brien covers the subject: I pop up at about 18.30. 

Friday, July 29, 2022

About job applications

Dr Dickon Edwards, chanteur with 90s Romo outfit Orlando turned bohemian academic, identifies the problem with pretty much everything everywhere:

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

About pronouns

I must admit, I do have issues with the current vogue for preferred pronouns, not least because the singular “they” has always grated (give me a neopronoun any day), even before it was adopted by non-binary people. But if it makes people happy with themselves, and makes everyday discourse easier, that trumps my instinctive pedantry. I’ve never gone so far as wanting to eradicate a whole part of speech, which would appear to be the crusade of one Lavern Spicer, Congressional Candidate for the 24th District of Florida. Here are some of her recent pronouncements. 

(Although the very first word is a pronoun.) 

(John 14:6)

(Exodus 3:4

The really amusing bit is that these comments sit alongside Lavern’s tirades about the failings of the American public education system. The less amusing bit is that, as the clown juggernaut of the Tory leadership contest proceeds up its own fundament, we Brits can’t really point and laugh at the silly colonials, can we?

Sunday, July 24, 2022

About Radio 4

Two more nuggets that would have fitted neatly into my dissertation but will have to hover here for the time being. Both popped up as I did my usual Sunday morning potter to the strains of Radio 4. First, on Broadcasting House (from about 37.40) both interviewer and interviewee explicitly assume that listeners to the station will be familiar with a particular poem by Philip Larkin, not to mention an Oscar-winning movie from more than four decades ago. Are such assumptions justified? Should they be? Or is such cosy familiarity with the canon off-putting to too many people, specifically the people who aren’t listening to Radio 4, however much the BBC wants them to?

And then on Kate Moss’s Desert Island Discs (1.15) Lauren Laverne mentions cultural capital but I’m not entirely sure it means what she thinks it does. Which is another cultural reference that you, the imaginary average reader, may or may not get, and so it goes on...

PS: And on the Today programme on Monday morning, Hadley Freeman compares Ms Moss to Thomas Pynchon...

PPS: Discussing the broadening of the canon, with particular reference to Brain of Britain.

Monday, July 18, 2022

About Penny Mordaunt

Of course I haven’t read Greater, the book by the woman who might be Prime Minister in a matter of weeks, so I’ve had to rely on artful filleting by lefty journalists (in this case John Harris of the Guardian) to acquire this gem: “The British prefer a future that looks very much like the past, only a lot better.” Which seems to hint at both a Baudrillardian simulacrum and a Radiohead lyric, while meaning precisely nothing. Which is a pretty good fit for this blog, and for 2022 as a whole.

And if Mordaunt does bellyflop into Number 10, she’ll have to decide whether to carry on her party’s deranged feud with the BBC. If she does, she should ask herself how a commercially-driven broadcaster might have made this rather wonderful production of The Waste Land. Except that that might expose a fatal cognitive dissonance in modern Conservatism, which seeks to exalt the best culture of the past, while simultaneously deriding intelligent examination or experience of that culture as elitist.

Sunday, July 03, 2022

About deeping

It comes to something when I have to rely on the Telegraph, of all organs, to keep me up to speed on fashion and language trends, but there we are. In this article, for example I learn of the Y2K phenomenon, in which today’s younglings adopt the vest tops and cargo pants that were prevalent two decades ago, and muse (not for the first time) that you really feel your age when something for which you were too old the first time round becomes the object of nostalgia.

Then further down the page and even more relevant to what I tend to do on this blog, I find:

Their mothers might seek to politicise their lingerie choices, but Gen Z views this as yet another example of “deeping” – a word they use to describe their parents’ proclivity for attributing hidden meaning and subtext to behaviours that, in their eyes, have none.

Which may well signal the death of criticism, although I suppose we can’t discuss that without being accused of deeping even harder and, er, deeper.

Monday, June 27, 2022

About literature

Two responses to the decision of Sheffield Hallam University to suspend its English literature course, apparently attempting, if not to define literature, to explain what it’s for. The first, from a senior lecturer in that department.
“When was it ever more important in our history for young people to be able to manipulate language and to understand how they are manipulated by language and stories?”
And the second, from the government minister responsible for Hallam and all the other universities, and someone who’s probably a bit nervous about scenario implied by the above:
“Courses that do not lead students on to work or further study fail both the students who pour their time and effort in, and the taxpayer who picks up a substantial portion of the cost.”
(Image: the author and some of his university chums manipulating language in a manner with which the minister might have taken issue, circa 1989.)

Friday, June 24, 2022

About Taylor Swift, etc

Idly Googling with a vague idea for a blog post or a Tweet or a seven-volume novel sequence (that ends in a tantalising manner when I die halfway through writing book five), I came upon this eight-year-old article by Darren Franich, which surprises less by encompassing both Taylor Swift and Jean Baudrillard (meh, that’s the sort of thing The Modern Review used to do in its sleep) than by appearing in, of all places, Entertainment Weekly. An excerpt: 

Eight years before Taylor Swift was born, playboy French philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote an essay called “Simulacra and Simulation,” which is filled with important ideas that barely anyone understands. The most explicable and most important idea: Reality as we understand it is actually an elaborate construct, a pale imitation of reality. This was a heavy concept back in 1981; now it’s something that everyone kind of vaguely understands, partially because there are enough people who are young enough to live part-time on the internet who are also old enough to recognize how weird that is, and also partially because “Simulacra and Simulation” inspired all the boring parts of The Matrix.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

About woke

The government and its ideological bedfellows in the media are unanimous in the assertion that “woke” is a bad thing, while cleverly sidestepping any obligation to explain what woke actually means. Until now, when one of the leading witchfinders of woke accidentally reveals that it means you eat cornflakes and may even read books. So, now we know.

Wednesday, June 08, 2022

About Missed Connection

I suddenly half-remembered this story a few months ago (What was the time frame? Was it in the New Yorker?) and started to wonder whether I’d imagined it. So this isn’t really a post, more a placeholder, something that in a few years’ time may assure me that it was real. 

I saw you on the Manhattan-bound Brooklyn Q train. I was wearing a blue-striped t-shirt and a pair of maroon pants. 

You were wearing a vintage red skirt and a smart white blouse. We both wore glasses. I guess we still do...

Tuesday, June 07, 2022

About the singularity

(Note: Small Boo had these thoughts, not me. But she hasn’t got a blog, at least not that I know of.)

There’s an idea knocking about in the tech world called the singularity. Essentially, it’s the point at which artificial intelligence transcends human cognition, where machines become cleverer than brains. It’s long been assumed that the singularity, if it happens, will be a case of machines playing catch-up, of AI’s thinking power developing faster than that of homo sapiens. 

But then a news story broke a few days ago, about the budget airline RyanAir seeking to identify people travelling with fake South African passports by setting them a general knowledge test in Afrikaans. This has inevitably caused great offence as Afrikaans is still seen by many South Africans as the hated language of apartheid; but aside from the PR blooper, it’s a pretty pointless exercise, since only 13% of citizens speak the language – Zulu and Xhosa are more widespread. Add the fact that the questions on the test are littered with grammatical errors and it really looks as if some junior RyanAir apparatchik ran them through Google translate, operating on a vague memory that it’s one of the languages that they speak down there.

And the thought presents itself – could the singularity arrive as a result of AI standing still, while humanity’s intelligence declines to meet it?

Thursday, June 02, 2022

Not about the Jubilee

No, I will not be indulging in bunting-related shenanigans over this inordinately extended weekend, and not just because even Radio 4 has taken to calling the whole thing “PLATTY JUBES”. Instead, here are two things that have amused me recently. First, Jacques Derrida playing cricket.

And then this, which may or may not be sincere: 

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

About vandalism

In the spirit of Georges Le Gloupier, a man dressed as an old lady yesterday leapt from his wheelchair and entarted the Mona Lisa, apparently with an environmental agenda. No harm done (the world's most overrated painting is protected by glass) but publicity was achieved, which was presumably the point.

Meanwhile, the good folk in charge of Stonehenge have projected images of the Queen onto the sarsens, annoying a few pagans and prompting derision from much of Twitter.

Question: which act was the more worthwhile (aesthetically or otherwise)?

Thursday, May 26, 2022

About books

On the day it was revealed BBC4 is to be shifted into the online-only nowhere land, as BBC3 is welcomed back to the family of proper telly, this seemed horribly apposite.

Saturday, May 07, 2022

About OK Computer

I’m really not that miffed about Radio 4 doing an hour-long documentary about the definitive Everything Turned Into Tuesday album OK Computer and not asking me to contribute, despite the fact I’m one of just two people to have written a book about the LP (and mine was longer). Looking at the roster, there are plenty of other qualified voices they left out. That’s fine.

But did they have to broadcast it on my birthday?

PS: If anyone’s interested, the French Radiohead documentary I appeared in a few years back has resurfaced, and is available on YouTube for a limited period. 

Thursday, May 05, 2022

About bits of films

I'm a little baffled by the prospect of the entertainment Pulp Friction, which apparently offers all your favourite bits of Quentin Tarantino films, with cocktails to wash them down. Typical of modern culture, all bite-sized chunks, YouTube, TikTok, tiny attention spans, I grumble before staggering to the library to read a random 18th-century novel.

But what’s this? Sight and Sound lobs from its archives an article by the revered avant-garde film-maker Chris Marker, in which he just lists his favourite bits of films. The only difference is, no cocktails. And of course, the apparently-random-gobbets-of-stuff-I-like approach is pretty much what Georges Perec was about, so it must be OK, mustn't it?

Saturday, April 30, 2022

About GB News

In the New Statesman,  Stuart McGurk describes the first shambolic months of the TV channel GB News and the most startling moments come not when stuff goes wrong, but when the company tries to explain away the wrongness. When asked why it tried to go on air without most of the equipment that TV professionals would regard as necessary – indeed, without most of the professionals – the official line is:

GB News is an entirely different broadcasting model. We never set out to replicate the legacy infrastructure or roles of establishment broadcasters.

Yet again, the libertarian battle-cry of “disruption” is a less-than-convincing euphemism for amateurish incompetence. (Not coincidentally, my recent reading has been dominated by meditations on why modern society increasingly tolerates such abject mediocrity, for fear of being thought elitist, and how a surprising amount of this anti-elitist thought originates with the political right. See Frank Furedi, Where Have All The Intellectuals Gone?; Eliane Glaser, Elitism: A Progressive Defence; Ronan McDonald, The Death of the Critic.)

But how do we respond to this? Do we really have to bite our lips when confronted with crap, for fear of hurting the feelings of those who produce crap and/or those who buy it? Who’s a snowflake now?

PS: And a reminder that, yes, it comes from the left too. From a couple of years back, John Halle defends Kenny G, and implicitly all else that is “fundamentally unserious and beneath discussion.”

PPS: On similar lines, an old friend, Caroline Langston, ponders what you really need to get into college:

The admissions system today, I read somewhere, rewards not the “bright well-rounded kid” (abbreviated BWRK by admissions reviewers), but the “pointy” kid instead, by which is meant an outsize and distinctive feature—like innovating a patentable medical device, launching a business, or testifying before Congress. Three sports and extracurriculars are nowhere near enough.Conversely, in the absence of such achievements, one way to mitigate it is by being able to foreground an experience of personal disenfranchisement or suffering, and demonstrate how one has overcome it... This is a problem not just for college admissions but also for the nation’s intellectual culture—and literature—in general. Books, online culture, radio interviews, novels, podcasts, all of them swept up into one... Basically, it’s a darkling plain where ignorant armies of the nation’s Pointy Kids-in-Chief clash by night.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

About punk

I’m intrigued by the premise of Punk Alley, an event taking place at the Southbank in June; it’s specifically for children aged 6+ and aims to “channel your inner anarchist”. Which either taps into the noble savage aesthetic of the original movement or completely misses the point - or, since this is part of the celebrations to mark the Queen's latest jubilee, is just a colossal piss-take.

From the archive: the Met Gala debacle; How to be Indie (for girls); and of course this...

Sunday, April 24, 2022

About reviews

Many years ago, I offered a (possibly tongue-in-cheek) defence of the journalist who wrote a review of a Black Crowes album, having listened only to the first track. The shocked response from the readers suggested they thought this might be an isolated incident.

Ah, the innocence. Dylan Jones, until last year the editor of GQ magazine, has revealed that his motoring correspondent had a similarly relaxed attitude to the process of reviewing a product:

When the cars were delivered to his house in Islington, the car company always made a note of the mileage, something that is standard practice. The mileage would also be noted when they came to pick them up again. And on more than one occasion — OK, on many, many, many occasions — the mileage was precisely the same. So I leave you to draw your own conclusions.

Who on earth was this conniving, fraudulent hack? You may well ask.

Monday, April 18, 2022

About Harrison Birtwistle

I can’t claim to have been a devotee of the late composer Harrison Birtwistle but I do recall the brouhaha that arose when his defiantly dissonant Panic was premiered in 1995 during the Last Night of the Proms, an occasion more usually graced by flag-waving singalongs. What I had forgotten is that the TV broadcast was fronted by the twinkly, urbane Richard Baker. Not even Stravinsky managed a stunt like that.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

About being in the know

In the wake of a properly exciting Mastermind final, a thought-provoking article by a former contestant suggests that, when dealing with nature, facts should trump feelings; although...

There are fair reasons to mistrust knowledge and those who have it. It can be (and is) used to gatekeep, to exclude those who lack it – that is, those who lack the background, education or life circumstances necessary to have acquired it. More fundamentally, there are problems with competitive hierarchies of knowledge in which certain knowledge forms or learning traditions are privileged or elbowed out, with concomitant impacts on justice and representation across a host of sociopolitical variables (class, ethnicity, sex and culture among them). It can also be hard not to track the obvious connections – historical, cultural, though perhaps not inevitable – between identification, collection, colonialism and plunder.

...which is yet another nugget that might have slotted neatly into my dissertation. That said, is the fact that some people don’t know stuff a valid reason for nobody to know it? Or to know it, but keep quiet about the fact?

Monday, April 11, 2022

About Britpop (and after)

In my 2007 book about Radiohead (as seen in the finest charity shops) I identified a handful of albums that encapsulated their creators’ bleary-eyed response to the end of Britpop’s frenetic hedonism (and none of them were by Oasis, because Oasis didn’t have the wit to realise the party was over). And finally, in yet another documentary about the last gasp of Union-Jack-splattered guitars (and one that also relegated Oasis to a supporting role), Miranda Sawyer found les mot justes to define those records: “everything turned into Tuesday”.

Thursday, April 07, 2022

About food writing

Given my past career, this speaks volumes:

Wednesday, April 06, 2022

About reading

David Peace:
I was fortunate to be brought up in a house with a lot of books. My dad read David Storey and Stan Barstow, who came from where I came from, but also Chandler, Maigret, Camus, and more sports books than you’ve ever seen. There was Dewsbury market for comic books and secondhand books, and I can’t overstate the education you got from reading the NME between 1979 and 1985. A review of the Birthday Party would be talking about Dostoevsky; Mark E Smith, Nick Cave, Coil and Morrissey all talked about books, painting, other forms of music, and I just absorbed it all. You could be reading Beckett and Philip K Dick, watching the football and The Singing Detective, going to see a band and a Francis Bacon exhibition; almost every week you were hearing or reading something you’d never seen the like of before. I’m not sure that’s the case these days.
Maybe the cut-off came in the mid-1990s, when the likes of Oasis proclaimed themselves heirs to the mantle of indie greatness, but coupled it with a strand of (performative?) bibliophobia. And 20 years later, Noel Gallagher still seemed deeply suspicious of the whole idea of reading and writing books:
“…people who write and read and review books are f***ing putting themselves a tiny little bit above the rest of us who f***ing make records and write pathetic little songs for a living.”
It’s not an either-or scenario, and I wouldn’t presume that by not offering their fans a bespoke to-read list packed with dystopia and existential angst modern musicians are implicitly endorsing Gallagher’s philistinism. But it could be that they’re advised not to talk about it, at least not in the opinionated, evangelical tones of their 80s forebears.

Monday, April 04, 2022

About Jordan

I’ve always felt an uncomfortable empathy with the Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns of this world, those whose greatest claim to fame is their (often accidental) proximity to a bigger, brighter star. And as such, I mourn the magnificent Pamela Rooke, aka Jordan, whose snarling presence in press coverage of the Sex Pistols made the whole three-chords-now-start-a-band formula feel too much like hard work. You didn’t even need to pick up a guitar. You just needed to be.

Monday, March 28, 2022

About the ploughperson's lunch

A pub on Dartmoor has provoked what people are still intent on describing as “a Twitter storm” by labelling a plate of bread and cheese as a “ploughperson’s lunch”. It’s a reference to the people of any gender who till and tend the land in that lovely chunk of Devon but it has inevitably attracted the ire of the gammon massive. “Sorry guys, won’t be visiting a ‘woke’ pub for my lunch. Yes, there are lots of women farmers today and I salute them, but stop changing the past.” 

But what past? What we used to call a ploughman’s may have had its roots in the distant, bucolic past but The Ploughman’s Lunch as a pub staple only goes back as far as the 1950s when the Cheese Bureau sought a way to encourage consumption of their just-off-ration product. That said, since Brexit seems to have been a project of prosthetic nostalgia, luring us back to a decade that nobody remembers because it never happened, maybe that’s entirely appropriate.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Saturday, March 12, 2022

About cultural capital

An academic study has determined that school visits to museums or theatres have no beneficial effect on GCSE results. They may of course “contribute to educational enjoyment” but, hey, who cares about that?

Sunday, March 06, 2022

About The Shark Is Broken

(I started writing this a month ago, when the show was still running, so it seemed relevant-ish. And then life intervened.)

Approaching the Ambassadors Theatre, where The Shark Is Broken is nearing the end of its run, you encounter the usual array of glowing accolades, artfully extracted from the critical slurry. One in particular stands out: “You don’t need to have seen the film.”

Which is, I guess, technically true. The play, about imagined interchanges between the three main actors during the filming of Jaws in 1974, operates a bit like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead; the exciting stuff is happening somewhere else, so our focus is on the dreams and frustrations of people who aren’t really in control of their lives. And surely that’s something with which we can all identify, even if we haven’t seen Jaws, or for that matter Hamlet.

That said, it’s fairly clear that to fully appreciate the play, one needs at least a passing knowledge of the film and its context; not least to appreciate the piquancy of having the actor and co-writer, Ian Shaw, portraying his father, who played the shark hunter Quint, and died just four years after events depicted on stage. And the audience, it would seem, has far more than a passing knowledge. Not only do they chuckle sagely at in-jokes that hint towards the film’s sequel, and Spielberg’s next project, Close Encounters of the Third Kind; they actually sing along when the actors-as-actors replicate music from the film (‘Spanish Ladies’ and ‘Show Me The Way To Go Home’) and recite, word-for-word, Shaw-as-Shaw-as-Quint’s USS Indianapolis speech, which ends the play.

It’s a well-made, enjoyable show but ultimately, like so much happening in the West End, it relies immensely on the punters’ fondness for and familiarity with the source material. Effectively, it’s just another jukebox musical.

Saturday, February 19, 2022

About James Malone-Lee

I never knew the urologist Professor James Malone-Lee. But someone I knew many years ago did know him, which is why, by the wonders of Twitter algorithms, I saw this, an object lesson in level-headed understatement in the face of the inevitable. “...a little inconvenient” indeed. He died peacefully this morning.

Thursday, February 17, 2022

About the Bayeux Tapestry

I am intrigued by the tale of Mia Hansson, who has since 2016 occupied herself with creating a life-size replica of the Bayeux Tapestry, but can’t help but think of Borges’s Pierre Menard, who became the author of Don Quixote by writing it out. (And I wonder what sort of journalist could cover this story without once asking: “Why?”)

Saturday, February 12, 2022

About NFTs

I loathe and fear non-fungible tokens because I don’t really understand them, but that doesn’t mean I’m not right. (I have the same response to bitcoin, and I infer fuzzily that the two are somehow connected, but my ignorance ensures I don’t know how or why.) Anyway, I think this is probably a good joke, but maybe someone can explain why it isn’t.

PS: A friend on Twitter just linked NFTs with alcohol-free gin and I think she may be on to something...

Sunday, January 30, 2022

About Harry Potter

Another day, another scare story about that poorly-defined phantom of “wokeness” invading the dreaming spires. This time it’s the University of Chester, where, we are informed by the Mail, Telegraph and other doughty defenders of high culture, a trigger warning about “gender, race, sexuality, class and identity” was appended to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Not so, counters the university; it was a general warning, which also applies to the works of Philip Pullman and Suzanne Collins.

So that’s all right then. Unless you think it odd that undergraduates on an Eng Lit course should spend quite so long reading what are, essentially, books for kids. That said, I’m reading Frank Furedi’s Where Have All The Intellectuals Gone?, which points out that many undergraduates can go a year without reading a whole book. So maybe the Chester students’ workload is unusually rigorous.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

About best films

Leafing, as yer do, through 1952’s inaugural Sight and Sound Best Films List, the fun appears to be more in the chatter around the whole project than the list itself. 

One refrain, which I yell every time such a vote is taken, is that “the films one thought best (in the history of the cinema, etc.), were not necessarily the films one liked best.” Which I think is what distinguishes the two schools of list. People who vote for The Empire Strikes Back or The Shawshank Redemption in, say, an Empire  poll, do not acknowledge such a distinction; those who pick Vertigo or Tokyo Story in the Sight and Sound are painfully aware of it, although not all will own up to the dichotomy in their own aesthetic. And the complaints about 10 being an arbitrary number: “Why not 50? asked one contributor (sending in 15 choices). Why not 2½? suggested another.”

Which was presumably meant to be facetious, but it suggests another question: what’s the best half of a film, even if the other half disappoints?

Saturday, January 15, 2022

About Turner

Friday, January 14, 2022

About Phonogram

Late to the (Death Of A) Party as always, I read Phonogram: Rue Britannia, Kieron Gillen’s graphic novel that gives a dark fantasy to the glory days of Britpop, and a line leaps up that would have prompted a paragraph or several in my Radiohead book. First:

In those vacuum post-Britpop days that marked the end of the great British indie experiment (Birth: “Spiral Scratch EP”, the Buzzcocks, Death: “K”, Kula Shaker), there was space for all manner of leftist ideas to flourish.”

Gillen’s starting point is pretty much inarguable but in the book I suggested the patient survived the cod-psychedelia of K and staggered on until 1997/8, its terminal hangover depicted in the grooves of (take your pic), Blur by Blur, Ladies and Gentlemen... We Are Floating In Space by Spiritualized, Urban Hymns by The Verve, This Is Hardcore by Pulp (referenced on the cover of Phonogram) or, of course, OK Computer itself. And then Gillen reminds us:

The thing with Kenickie is that they, by the very nature of their existence, draw a line between all the enforced dichotomies modern pop. Seriousness is not the same as intelligence, no matter how many times virginal Radiohead fans reiterate it....

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

About ellipses...

 Zoe Williams:

If you trail off a text with “…”, this situates you right in the middle of generation X, but if you ask a younger acquaintance what is so wrong with ellipsis, you doubly age yourself, first by using ellipsis and second by knowing what it is called.

Wednesday, January 05, 2022

About farts

I am intrigued by the tale of TikTok star Stephanie Matto, who sold her farts in jars then claims to have ended up in hospital from over-indulgence in high-fibre foods. Not because of the product itself – that’s just a half-arsed (sorry) take on Piero Manzoni’s Künstlerscheisse – but because of her decision to sell non-fungible tokens of her bottom burps instead, proving once again that NFTs attain a level of conceptualist purity that would leave Duchamp gasping in admiration.

And while we’re on the subject of artists not averse to making a quick buck, this picture just popped up on Twitter, depicting a little soirée Warhol threw at the Factory for (among others) Quentin Crisp, Keith Haring and, uh, Marilyn. A dream dinner party for many – so why do they all look so bloody glum?

Saturday, January 01, 2022

About honours

I’ve long had a morbid obsession with the honours system, as manifested by the various baubles doled out twice a year or so in the name of the monarch. In one sense it’s entirely pointless and silly, but it gives so many hints as to how power and privilege operate in modern society, it can’t sensibly be ignored. This shows especially when we dig down into the particular gongs that particular individuals get. The actors Vanessa Redgrave and Joanna Lumley become dames; William Roache and June Brown, whose fame comes mainly from roles in long-running soap operas, get OBEs, several rungs down the ladder.

One award in particular fascinates; the CMG (Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George) bestowed upon Daniel Craig as he vacates the role of James Bond. No disrespect intended to Craig himself, who deserves a nod as much as Lumley or Roache. But why this one in particular? It’s an honour generally given to diplomats and other senior government servants rather than actors and most significantly, it was given to Bond himself for his various homicidal and amatory exploits in the service of Queen and Country. Except that Bond is a fictional character and the award was given by his creator, Ian Fleming, rather than by a shadowy committee operating under the nominal authority of the Queen. Essentially, an award more usually given to people for doing a thing is here being given to someone for pretending to do a thing. 

And as I look down the rest of the list, I ask myself how many of the recipients – and not just the actors – fall into the latter category.