Tuesday, December 27, 2022

About Billy Wilder

Only now have I got round to reading Jonathan Coe’s Mr Wilder & Me, about Calista, an awkward 20-something who finds herself working with Billy Wilder on his not-great 70s movie Fedora. Much is made of the protagonist’s ignorance (when she first meets Wilder she has no idea who he is) and how difficult it was in those analogue days to remedy such ignorance.

Except that she remedies it:

...and I went to Foyle’s on the Charing Cross Road hunting for film books. I bought two, one called Halliwell’s Film Guide and one called Halliwell’s Filmgoer’s Companion, and for the next few months, back in Greece, I pored over them night and day, memorising not just the facts they contained but also the opinions... by the summer of 1977, my knowledge of film had gone from being non-existent to being literally encyclopaedic.

The point being that in those pre-VHS days, her encyclopaedic knowledge doesn’t extend to watching any films that she hasn’t encountered by chance on TV, so she’s reduced to regurgitating Leslie Halliwell’s (rather reactionary) opinions, even when she’s talking to the people who made the films in the first place. I got into films a few years later, also with Halliwell as my grumpy gatekeeper, and although video was slowly making things easier, I can identify with Calista’s situation, of knowing about the films, years before ever really knowing them.

Which feels like a pretty reductive kind of knowledge (knowledge without experience, without true understanding). Except that, in today’s world, where the films themselves, and all the facts about them, and Halliwell’s and everybody else’s thoughts on them, are all available at the touch of a button, people apparently feel less of a need to know (in whatever sense you like) than Calista or I did.

Thursday, December 22, 2022

About snowmen

Each year kills off a few more of my heroes and in 2022 it was probably the death of Raymond Briggs that stung the most. This month, for the first time in decades, I sat and watched the film of The Snowman. Briggs himself wasn't all that fond of it, believing it missed the point, asserting that his original book isn’t about Christmas, but about death: “I create what seems natural and inevitable. The snowman melts, my parents died, animals die, flowers die. Everything dies. There’s nothing particularly gloomy about it. It’s a fact of life.” And I’d clean forgotten until I saw a documentary that preceded this year’s showing that Briggs himself appeared as his curmudgeonly, welly-booted self when the film first went out in 1982. He was swiftly replaced by David Bowie at the behest of the American networks, and this is the version that became the definitive one. So just to redress the balance, here’s a Christmas card more in keeping with Briggs’ original intentions. Have a Christmas, everyone, as happy as you like.

(Georges Mouton, ‘Bonjour’, c 1903, from the V&A collection.)

Wednesday, December 07, 2022

About Amazon

I don’t use Amazon all that much these days, but I do find its wish list function a useful tool with which to jot down books and other products I might wish to buy (from someone else) in the near future. Except that of course I forget about my list for months at a time, and the items on it become incrementally less desirable additions to the tsundoku pile.

For some reason, today I found myself rummaging in the depths in the deepest recesses of my list, going back as far as 2006. Many of these titles ring not the faintest bell. And I muse on what version of myself thought I might want to read the following:

  • Shyness and Dignity, by Dag Solstad
  • The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World, by Lewis Hyde
  • Living Life Without Loving the Beatles: A Survivor’s Guide, by Gary Hall
  • The Giro Playboy, by Michael Smith
  • Dork Whore: My Travels Through Asia as a Twenty-Year-Old Pseudo Virgin, by Iris Bahr
  • Beware the Lobster People, by JJ Flitwick
  • Thirteen, by Sebastian Beaumont
  • Yiddish with Dick and Jane, by Ellis Weiner
  • Gents, by Warwick Collins
  • Transparent Imprint, by Michael Barnard
  • What The Actual: Exasperated Incredulity Will Save America, by Muriel Chong
  • The Edgier Waters, by A Stevens
  • The Amnesiac, by Sam Taylor
  • Three Trapped Tigers, by Guillermo Infante
  • What Was Lost, by Catherine O'Flynn
  • TM: Corporate Brand - Dream #69, by Nenko Joretsu
  • I Am Not Sidney Poitier, by Percival Everett
  • Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living, by Declan Kiberd
  • Cyburbia: The Dangerous Idea That’s Changing How We Live and Who We Are, by James Harkin
  • The Great Dog Bottom Swap, by Peter Bently
  • Gribley’s Last Conundrum, by Horatia Mannix
  • Mobius Dick, by Andrew Crummy
  • Callisto, by Torsten Krol
  • The Last Mad Surge of Youth, by Mark Hodkinson
  • How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu
Except that three of these, inevitably, are titles I’ve just made up. But which one? Without looking back at the list, even I can’t remember.

Sunday, December 04, 2022

About the BBC

The BBC, we are informed, will attempt to attract viewers from less affluent socio-economic groups by producing more sports documentaries, crime dramas and other “lighter” products. Except that nobody asks why such groups (allegedly) prefer such material. Furthermore, does an individual’s socio-economic status determine the media he or she consumes, or is it the other way round? Does the choice of media put them on the path to a specific rung on the socio-economic ladder? By giving the punters what they want (which is supposedly restricted to variations on what they already know), the BBC would be fulfilling its remit to reach out to all social groups, but at the same time reinforcing the inequalities that keep those groups apart – and pissing the Reithian mission to educate all over the walls of Broadcasting House. And then what’s the point of the BBC?

Saturday, November 26, 2022

About Wednesday

Wednesday is the latest in a noble tradition (Inspector Clouseau, Frasier Crane, PC George Dixon, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, et al...) of secondary or marginal fictional characters being spun off to become stars of a new venture; in this case, it’s Wednesday Addams, scion of the proto-Goth family that began in cartoon form in the New Yorker as far back as 1938. In Tim Burton’s new Netflix product, the character (most famously played by Lisa Loring on TV and Christina Ricci on film) is wrenched from her kinfolk and deposited in a New England boarding school.

It has a lot going for it, including an excellent overall look, and some nice one-liners. (Presented with a black dahlia as a welcome gift to the school, Wednesday deadpans, “It’s named after my favourite unsolved murder.”)

But there’s a fundamental problem. In their move to the status of protagonist, previously sidelined characters are inevitably fleshed out, given enhanced back stories, friends, families, jobs that we don’t know about. But the whole point of Wednesday is that she’s a blank-faced vacuum, a vehicle for existential bleakness, with nothing behind the stare. The new version, played by Jenna Ortega, is on screen almost the whole time and a vacant glower isn’t enough to keep a big-budget show running on its own. So, although she’s still dressed in black and expresses bristling contempt for conventional pieties of niceness, Ortega’s Wednesday is humanised. Even before the opening credits, when she dumps piranhas in a swimming pool to punish the jocks who are bullying her little brother Pugsley, she allows herself a small smile of triumph. Old Wednesday, real Wednesday, would never allow her cool to crack so much.

Overall, she’s closer to the high-functioning autistics inhabiting The Big Bang Theory than the (literal and metaphorical) monsters that Charles Addams created. Ultimately, she’s good. And, in this case, that’s bad.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

About Freedom

The content of Freedom, the exhibition that Ai Weiwei has curated for Koestler Arts from works by British prisoners, has all the hallmarks of outsider art, with its naîveté, sometimes shaky technical skills and general lack of awareness of what Saatchi’s buying these days. Except that outsiders is very much what they aren’t, of course.

Sunday, November 20, 2022

About the World Cup

No, I probably won’t be watching, although it’s as much time pressures and a general sense of ennui rather than any objection to Qatar’s record on human rights or even the venality that got them the gig in the first place. But I am intrigued by the Fan Leader Network, supporters whose tickets, travel and accommodation have been comped in exchange for “enthusiasm and positive social media comment”. I mean, how can enthusiasm be measured? How do you value performative ra-ra-ra? What sort of comment by one of these Potemkin fans would prompt the Qataris to ask for their money back? (They’ve already cancelled the per diems.) Ah, I know what it reminds me of...

Sunday, November 13, 2022

About Houellebecq

The academic study of literature leads basically nowhere, as we all know, unless you happen to be an especially gifted student, in which case it prepares you for a career teaching the academic study of literature – it is, in other words, a rather farcical system that exists solely to replicate itself and yet manages to fail more than 95 per cent of the time. Still, it’s harmless, and can even have a certain marginal value. A young woman applying for a sales job at Céline or Hermès should naturally attend to her appearance above all; but a degree in literature can constitute a secondary asset, since it guarantees the employer, in the absence of any useful skills, a certain intellectual agility that could lead to professional development – besides which, literature has always carried positive connotations in the world of luxury goods.

I suspect that if I were starting a blog today rather than 17 years ago, I’d take inspiration not from Murakami’s deadpan insouciance, but from Michel Houellebecq’s dead-eyed resignation. And you’d be reading (or, more probably, not reading), something called Basically Nowhere.

Saturday, November 05, 2022

About what I missed

Have been a bit distracted lately, so here are two things upon which I’ve alighted only recently. First, OK Computer all at once — all the tracks played simultaneously.


Somewhat inevitably, it sounds not unlike the orchestral freeform bits in A Day in the Life, but I suspect that would happen if you objected most albums to similar indignities. Oh, did I mention that I once wrote a book about OK Computer? (And yes, if you go to that site the first review is from someone who called it “a phenomenally dumb book” although I still get a perfect score for a book that neither I nor anybody else wrote, so there’s that.)

And then, a magazine that has got to issue 13 without me noticing it and I’m now tempted to hunt down back issues of The Fence, or maybe even to send in a contribution on spec, something I don’t think I’ve done for more than a decade. It clearly owes something to Private Eye in terms of aesthetic and attitude (two-colour, non-glossy, print-first, London-y without necessarily being about London) but its subject matter is wider-ranging (in this issue, TS Eliot, clip joints, five-a-side football results, Zimbabwean goblins). There are no ads, so I couldn’t work out how it’s survived so long, although this article suggests a wealthy, aristocratic benefactor has been handy. Which should annoy me, but for some reason adds to its ramshackle, flâneuristic charm. (If it were a hedge-fund manager behind it, I’d be annoyed.)

And now, I go back to being distracted.

Thursday, October 27, 2022

About best films

I just discovered David Thomson’s biting-the-hand-that-feeds-him takedown of the Sight and Sound poll that tells us which films we should be seeking to unseat from their canonical position for the next decade. He sagely points out the distinction between “best” films and those one would actually choose to watch and rewatch if the mythical desert island became a repository for celluloid rather than vinyl:

...you’re all alone with perfect projection, so what are the ten pictures you want there simply in the name of pleasure? Don’t be shy of that hedonism, but think about your viewing habits day by day, year by year, especially during Covid. Under that shadow, what did you want to see again, and then again? 

I know what he means. There are some films (off the top of my head, Requiem for a Dream, Festen, Come and See) that I admire greatly but have only ever watched once, and I’d be fine if it stayed that way. They might make their way to my to my S&S list but not to my island.

Thomson also admitss that, once one gives up the Quixotic search for some kind of universal “best” (Most accomplished? Most innovative? Most influential? Most important? To whom?) film or book or record or painting or building, then all criticism ultimately become autobiography, even when it’s not explicitly acknowledged:

I hope voters will attest to their allegiances more than make a list of pictures for their résumé. But that leads to one more modest proposal. Thinking about my life with movies, and talking to others who have trod the same path, I find this common feeling: that the films we saw between the ages of four and about 16 are vital and embedded. We grow up to understand that some of those films are mediocre, fantasies that caught us at the right immature moment. But I’m not sure the screen ever meant more or gave us the secret about what a sensational and impermanent medium it is that we now try to make Ozymandian.

Monday, October 17, 2022

About Camilla

I was hoping not to have to say anything about the royal family here for a long while; fortunately, the excellent Bonnie Greer has pretty much said it for me.

Friday, October 14, 2022

About Van Gogh

Meanwhile, as the clown car of government disintegrates, anti-oil protestors have doused Van Gogh’s Sunflowers with tomato soup. That’s something you can’t do with NFTs. (And yes, it should have been a Warhol.)


Thursday, October 13, 2022

About 1922

Searching for something else, I find this:

In the context of the other papers it's bundles with, I'd say it's from about 2004. I think it's a plan for one of several interations of a book that I'd started writing in about 1991, with the rather presumptuous idea of updating Ulysses and moving it to London. The “one-eyed man” is presumably the equivalent of Joyce's bigoted Cyclops and I guess the fictional pubs and cafés (if that's what they are) are meant to be analogous to the places where Bloom and Dedalus hang out. 

The middle column is packed with references to what I was probably reading around that time. I'd hope that Coupland, Zadie and M Amis are self-explanatory; The Mezzanine is by Nicholson Baker, Mystery Train by Greil Marcus (unless it’s the Jim Jarmusch movie or the Elvis song) and Mammon Inc, which I confess I'd entirely forgotten, by Hwee Hwee Tan. But why are they there? Is Dorian about Oscar Wilde or Will Self or the next-door neighbour from Birds of a Feather? Habbakuk? Jaspberry Ram? And as for the third column, what the hell might “crap food typing qvc” mean? 

The most coherent (or least incoherent) references (“hollow men”; “weialala”; “coffeespoons”) are to TS Eliot and I think I had the idea of weaving these into the cod-Joyce framework on the basis that, well, Ulysses and The Waste Land were both published in 1922, so, er, there's that. Which means that if I hadn't mislaid this scrap amidst a bundle of letters from my bank and cuttings about Morrissey, I might have come up with something that was worth publication this year.

And then I remember that I had the bright idea of inserting myself in the narrative, rather as Martin Amis does in Money. The gag was that I’d be working in a cloakroom (maybe in club “”, almost certainly a nod to the Modern Review’s love-hate relationship with ironic quotation marks) and would filch a peanut-packed chocolate bar from the protagonist’s jacket, enabling me to deploy a riff on the line, “and I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker”. Which, apart from being a truly lame joke, is from Prufrock rather than The Waste Land. That said, there does seem to be a reference (“brekkek”) to Finnegans Wake in there, which I haven’t even read (who has?), so maybe I was just chucking around several fistfuls of supposedly cool quotations and hoping that some of them would stick.

Anyway, what pet projects did you think were a good idea at the time, but now you’re deeply thankful they never saw the light of day?

PS: Rather good documentary about The Waste Land, on BBC2 of all places.

Sunday, October 09, 2022

About Glastonbury

Laura Kuenssberg recycles an anonymous party hack’s definition of political conferences as “Glastonbury for weirdos” but I’ve just been watching Nicolas Roeg’s documentary about the 1971 festival and remember that for much of its existence, Glastonbury itself was Glastonbury for weirdos.

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...

...it 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?