Sunday, December 31, 2023

About Scottish football

For no particular reason other than that tonight is a time to pretend to be Scottish, a selection of the names of lower league football teams. Poetry of sorts, ya wee radges. Have a bearable one. 

Strathspey Thistle

Civil Service Strollers 

Gala Fairydean Rovers 

Carnoustie Panmure 

Dundee Violet 

Lochee Harp 

Golspie Sutherland 

Banchory St Ternan 

Montrose Roselea 

Nairn St Ninian 

Stoneywood Parkvale 

Crossgates Primrose 

Dundonald Bluebell 

Inverkeithing Hillfield Swifts 

Auchinleck Talbot 

Kirkintilloch Rob Roy

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

About adaptation

By Siân Ejwunmi-Le Berre, whose TV adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder is Easy starts tonight, and will probably annoy a) people who’ve read it and have a particular idea in their heads of how it should be be, which is fair enough, and b) people who haven’t read it but aargh, there’s a black man in it.

I’ve come to think of adaptation as a conversation between two writers, colliding at a specific moment in time like strangers at a dinner party... But the scriptwriter shouldn’t dive too deeply into the author’s opinions and beliefs – it’s a party after all, not an interrogation. Adaptation is not some kind of biography. How rude would that be? Like Googling your fellow guests under the dinner table... As an adaptor, there’s no need to become an expert in the writer behind The Book. I take them at their word, in the moment of writing, as expressed on the page alone. Their past, their future, are none of my concern.

PS: Unfortunately, it wasn’t very good. 

Saturday, December 23, 2023

About Christmas books

When I was in primary school, the first Friday afternoon after the Christmas holidays was a toy day, in which each of us was permitted to bring one thing we’d received from Santa and enjoy it with our friends and/or enemies. (It was a couple of years before I realised that the kids who regularly went down with diplomatic illnesses on these days were also the kids with holes in their shoes; I suspect these festivals of conspicuous consumption wouldn’t be permitted now.)

I wasn’t one of the deprived kids although I was at a slight disadvantage in that most of the things I wanted, and got, at Christmas were books. So while everyone else was mucking around with Buckaroo or Sindy or that wind-up Evel Knievel thing, I just sat and pored over some new tome about dinosaurs or pirates or cowboys or flags or clowns or Greek myths, or maybe the latest Raymond Briggs, or something Doctor Who-related. It wasn’t clear how I could adapt this to a shared activity, unless someone else was prepared to have me read to them. There was no hostility from my classmates as far as I recall; I just did my thing.

Fast-forward. Christmas as an event means even less to me now than it did when I was eight, and if I want a book I’ll usually buy it myself (although whether I read it is another matter; I’m the poster boy for tsundoku) but it still gives an unexpected pleasure to give or receive a book, the transaction being based around that very special feeling (do the Japanese have a word for it?), not of “I needed to buy you something because it’s December” but rather “I saw this and thought of you”. Which, as we ease into an ever more digital future of downloads on demand, gets rather lost. An unfortunate victim of progress or a conscious decision by those who stand to profit from a pervasive intellectual dullness and absence of curiosity? As one user of BlueSky (where we are unless or until Twitter lances its own boils) puts it:

(Pic by Tom Gauld)

Friday, December 15, 2023

About reading

A study at the University of Valencia has cheered up grumpy Luddites everywhere by concluding that reading printed texts improves comprehension more than reading digital matter does. But they’re not entirely sure why. One theory is that the “linguistic quality of digital texts tends to be lower than that traditionally found in printed texts.” In other words, to mangle McLuhan, it may be about the message rather than the medium; if I print out this blog post, it doesn’t miraculously get better. Or, as techies have asserted since the days of Babbage, garbage in, garbage out.

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

About bloody cheek

I found this plea for financial assistance on a website that includes the full text of my book about Radiohead. I wonder how much they’re planning to pay me.

PS: Received an email from one Miles Wihrt (don’t know if he has any connection with Internet Archive), who asked:
Are you actually hurt about internet archive, or just blogging to blog?
To which I responded:
Hi Miles, 
Not hurt, just pointing out what I see as a paradox.
In 2007, I wrote a book. Back then, if people wanted to read it, they bought a copy and, in theory, some of the money made its way back to me. 
Now, I understand how notions of copyright and ownership have been upended since then, and I get that some people feel entitled to read and watch and hear content for free, so they have no qualms about going to Internet Archive and downloading it. Obviously, none of the money makes its way back to me. What does niggle just a little is that, presumably, some other people do feel some kind of obligation to pay money for this privilege; they just won't pay that money to the people who wrote or published the book in the first place.
And in answer to your question, yes, I do blog to blog. But my baby just loves to dance.

Monday, December 11, 2023

About stupidity

Searching for something else that I’ve now forgotten, I found something I wrote in 2007, responding to a very reasonable and polite suggestion that in this blog I was being a bit harsh to people who don’t read much and don’t know a lot about politics and philosophy and the like. And I’d probably tweak the phrasing today, but the sentiment still holds up after – bloody hell – getting on for 17 years:

Yes, it may be tiresome, even impolite to point out that some people are dim, but if we don't do it, we'll eventually lose the ability to discriminate between what is stupid and what isn't. And that matters.

I guess it’s the distinction between the “what” and the “who” that matters here. But maintain that we do need to call out the “what”, even if some of the “who” get caught up in the fracas.

PS: On similar-ish lines, someone put this up on BlueSky, to which I’ve slunk off because Elon Musk’s a colossal arse. From Neil Postman’s Technopoly:
...every teacher must be a history teacher. To teach, for example, what we know about biology today without also teaching what we once knew, or thought we knew, is to reduce knowledge to a mere consumer product. It is to deprive students of the sense of the meaning of what we know, and of how we know.

Sunday, December 03, 2023

About Wrapped

The years when your musical tastes truly mattered to your identity are long gone, we are constantly told. The younglings no longer define as metalheads or b-boys or goths or disco queens or indie shambles; they just leave themselves at the mercies of the blessed algorithm and let the music play, a title that only comes to mind because I heard Radcliffe and Maconie play it yesterday on their 6Music show, which shows how old I am, doesn’t it?

And yet... and yet. The continued success of Spotify’s annual Wrapped, which gives users a handy summary of their listening habits over the past year and – this is the important bit – encourages them to share it with everyone else, suggests that people think the things they listen to do actually matter, do actually express something about the listener, even if they happen accidentally. To this extent:

Thursday, November 30, 2023

About Kissinger

Rolling Stone, for the first time in many decades, nails it.

And we have to return to Anthony Bourdain’s summation of the man:

Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands. You will never again be able to open a newspaper and read about that treacherous, prevaricating, murderous scumbag sitting down for a nice chat with Charlie Rose or attending some black-tie affair for a new glossy magazine without choking. Witness what Henry did in Cambodia – the fruits of his genius for statesmanship – and you will never understand why he’s not sitting in the dock at The Hague next to Milošević.

Sadly, Bourdain didn’t live to dance on Kissinger’s grave and nor did Christopher Hitchens. But we still have Tom Lehrer who may or may not have said that he stopped writing songs because satire died when Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize. So that’s OK.

PS: Also, this:

Thursday, November 23, 2023

About Half Man Half Biscuit

I’m afraid I’ve rather lost track of the career of those fine Birkenhead troubadors Half Man Half Biscuit, so I wasn't aware that while I was working on my dissertation (see posts passim) they released a song that would have fitted in quite nicely: 

Born too late for the First World War
Siege of Troy was long before my time
Naseby, Jutland, Agincourt
Characters perhaps from pantomime...
I don’t watch films in black and white
The trees and flowers and birds have passed me by
I’ll just guess and hope I’m right
The first man into space was Captain Bligh...

Saturday, November 18, 2023

About the House of Lords

I try not to do too much politics (with a capital ‘P’) on this blog, but this piece, by Janice Turner, is just too good to miss. So let’s say I’m including it as an example of good journalism, good writing, good art, so we’ll allow it to circumvent the rules. Which is strangely appropriate...

“It has been quite the journey,” said Baroness Owen of Alderley Edge, beginning her maiden House of Lords speech. But “journey” has many modern usages, so which does she mean? Geographically, the red benches are but a half-mile from Downing Street where the noble lady was an undistinguished special adviser. Temporally, just eight years have elapsed since Charlotte Owen, now 30, graduated from the University of York.
Was it a social mobility journey? Owen spoke of her maternal grandparents who bought their own council house (yet not of her own private school). So her elevation, as the sadly thwarted Baroness Dorries of Anfield might have said, constitutes a one-woman levelling up. Or was it an “emotional journey”, the stuff of Strictly triumphs? Hard to tell, given that Owen declines all scrutiny about the exceptional talents that make her worthy of spending a probable half-century formulating British laws.
I used to compare the House of Lords to my freezer: where you shove all the pushing-its-sell-by-date stuff you can’t bear to bin. But lately it’s more an air fryer, which, with magical speed, turns raw into cooked or can give the stale and flaccid a palatable crunch. David Cameron, fattening in a fleece in his shepherd’s hut, curdled by dodgy lobbying dosh, writing rose garden memoirs about a milder political era he carelessly kiboshed, is now crispy Lord Cameron, foreign secretary: all kingly again in his Savile Row suit.
It’s awkward to say, given that my colleagues on these pages include nobility, but what a national disgrace is the House of Lords. (At a Times leaving do I realised too late I was scoffing about its corrupt appointments to a baroness: “Oh, sorry, I don’t mean you!”) But after decades observing the establishment at close quarters, I’ve seen how, with a few stolid exceptions, political appointees rarely bring a fine mind, specialist expertise or unique perspective to public life. They’re the mates at the Chequers barbecues, the solid backroom blokes, the big donors and brown-nosers, the clubbable, never the cussed.  
Most likely, the “journey” Baroness Owen refers to is through a flaming tunnel of tabloid speculation. Questions about whether she could be Boris Johnson’s daughter or lover would be purest sexism if she’d been appointed by any other politician. But with his unknown number of children, rackety love life and a nepotism so shameless he ennobled his own brother and tried to knight his father, Stanley Johnson, it seems perfectly fair to ask.
Youth in itself is not the issue: few would balk at Baroness Malala, aged 26. But you can look at Owen’s CV from every possible angle and find no clue. The House of Lords Appointments Commission (Holac) never shows its workings, so all we know is that Owen “is in good standing in the community in general” and her “past conduct” will not bring the upper chamber into disrepute. But does the Lords have any repute left to diss?
Johnson finally killed the golden goose, which for generations parped out lovely eggs, rich in attendance allowances, central London parking spaces plus the kudos born of our abiding deference to aristocratic titles, which secures other lucrative sinecures and places on boards. Perhaps we should be grateful he was so flagrant, doling out peerages to his partygate crew, so that the need for reform is so clear, and desired by 71 per cent of the public now.
After Owen’s speech, which kindly older peers indulged like a grandchild’s school play, another Johnson appointee materialised. This was only the second speech by Lord Lebedev, Baron of Hampton and Siberia. A bit ungrateful really, given the urgency and unusual zeal with which Johnson championed his peerage. That he ignored MI6’s explicit advice that Lebedev posed a national security risk is as creepily suspect as Jeremy Corbyn’s pro-Russian response to the Skripal poisonings, and has never been fully explained. It demonstrated too the powerlessness of Holac to constrain a PM’s most egregious patronage. Johnson overrode its ruling, so a KGB officer’s son swaggered into our democracy’s heart.
More even than the feudal obscenity of 92 hereditary peers or the cash for honours practised by every party, which has turned the Lords into a bloated 785-member Mr Creosote, Lebedev and Owen signal urgency for change. Labour has already published Gordon Brown’s constitutional review, which proposes the second chamber become a house of the nations and regions: fully elected but not synced to the Commons cycle to ensure a different political composition. But much small print is missing, such as the type of proportional representation by which peers (or whatever they’ll be called) are elected. If this is the European list system, the appointment and ranking of candidates will be just as driven by political patronage.
Besides, do we want a house of ex-councillors or local grandees, with none of the specialist knowledge that the best of the Lords brings to legislative scrutiny? Every year Holac itself recommends exceptional individuals for peerages. These have included the scientist Susan Greenfield, statistician Claus Moser, spy chief Eliza Manningham-Buller and Big Issue founder John Bird. Brown’s paper does not allow for any non-elected appointments but what nation wouldn’t welcome such diverse talents, or even wish to keep a few bishops, as long as other religions are represented too.
Every government for decades has promised Lords reform, but never got beyond tweaks. Constitutional change is always seen as dry, too time-consuming to be worth the political capital. Now it looks inevitable, thanks to Baroness Owen: a scandal, a mystery and a national joke.

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

About Calvino

Something else I really should have included in my dissertation (a continuing, possibly never-ending series). This is from Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino:

If I read The Odyssey, I read Homer’s text but I cannot forget all the things that Ulysses’ adventures have come to mean in the course of the centuries, and I cannot help wondering whether these meanings were implicit in the original text or if they are later accretions, deformations or expansions of it. If I read Kafka, I fid myself approving or rejecting the legitimacy of the adjective ‘Kafkaesque’ which we hear constantly being used to refer to just about anything.

Good points, but Calvino is reflecting on his own experience and, implicitly, that of his own socio-cultural circle. Who is the “we” that hears the word “Kafkaesque” at all, let alone constantly? What is your experience of The Odyssey if you don’t know what an odyssey is?

Wednesday, November 08, 2023

About Wordsworth


I am grateful to Robert Hutton for live-tweeting his perusal of Nadine Dorries’ new book. To be honest, when I saw the extract above, it rather reinforced my belief that her appointment as Culture Secretary was Boris Johnson’s idea of a Situationist prank – let’s find someone who wouldn’t recognise the most crushingly obvious slice of English verse if it bit off her face and put her in charge of poetry, among other things – but, hey, at least she admits to her ignorance.

What startles me more is that nobody at any point in the editorial process noticed that she’d got the quote wrong.

Monday, November 06, 2023

About Quora

When the Web arrived, and more specifically when it spawned social media, there was general optimism that it might effect a digital enhancement of Habermas’s public sphere, serving as a forum for discussion and debate in which we could all gain knowledge and understanding of our fellow users and their lives.

Then Quora happened.

Friday, November 03, 2023

About the Noughties, again, sorry, not sorry

More pondering on the decade I got wrong, but at least I had a go, this time by Johny Pitts

Lost in Translation appeared in the first half of a decade in which the left had power and lost touch, and gen Xers who’d modelled themselves as countercultural drifters and ravers in the 90s sold out and bought up east London, to let at inflated prices to the generation who missed the boat, us millennials. Multiculturalism wasn’t a dirty word then, and while the year 2000 promised a new dawn of peace in an increasingly globalised planet, it grossly failed to deliver. By the end of the decade it seemed to me, a young man then in his 20s, that the world was in ruins. The failures in those years, while we were averting our eyes and reading Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, listening to Chilled Ibiza and Air’s Talkie Walkie, paved the way for the dystopia that was to follow: the crippling age of austerity, Trump, Brexit, the Windrush scandal, Covid, growing awareness of the climate crisis, the war in Ukraine, the fractures on social media, mumble rap.

Thursday, October 26, 2023

About things

Back in the glory days of blogging, sometimes I be so overstocked with ideas that I’d regularly put up portmanteau posts, of unrelated stuff that I didn’t have time to discuss at length, but I just wanted to nail down before they were gone. I don’t remember doing it for years and I’m not sure whether that’s because I’m just getting more jaded and/or less curious, or simply because there’s less interesting stuff going on.

But everything seems to be happening today (or maybe I’ve just roused myself from a long creative slumber). First, David Shrigley creates a new, very expensive edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four from pulped copies of The Da Vinci Code (which reminds me of the time I tried and failed to do a chapter-by-chapter blog about the bloody thing.) On the Today programme (go to 2:53 or so), Amol Rajan attempted to shoehorn in TS Eliot and the idea of placing an artist within a tradition, to which Shrigley offered the deadpan response, “I wouldn’t know, I went to art school.” 

Then what looks to be a very poorly thought-out survey that claims to reveal that half of Britons can’t name a black British historical figure but neither offers any criteria for a “right” answer (Who is black? Who is historically significant? Does Stormzy count?) nor provides any context as to the respondents’ knowledge of history in general. Awkward.

This is followed by the news that the Beatles are finally releasing ‘Now and Then’ and touting it as their last song, despite the fact that it’s just another Lennon demo that’s been played around with by the others over the past few decades, as distinct from ‘Carnival of Light’, a genuine Beatles work from 1967 that remains under lock and key and will probably get the retrospective nod as their last last song to mark, I don’t know, Ringo’s 100th birthday.

And finally this, an interview with Ken Russell, apparently in an Oxford student magazine in 1966, and now I’m wondering why someone can’t just take this treatment and make the bloody film...

PS: And a response to the news that shadow chancellor (a job title that sounds like something out of Star Wars) Rachel Reeves may or may not have plagiarised chunks of her new book:

Monday, October 23, 2023

Saturday, October 14, 2023

About postcards

(At the Royal Academy shop.)

We’re now so deep into a digital version of reality that consumers need advice on how to use postcards.

Sunday, October 08, 2023

About stolen books

Authors including Michael Chabon and Sarah Silverman are taking action against Meta (which owns Facebook) for using pirated copies of their books to train generative AI. In The Atlantic, Alex Reisner has published a searchable database of the authors who’ve been similarly exploited and many of these have expressed their annoyance.

As well they might. But do spare a thought for those authors whose words weren’t considered worth stealing. Because I’m bloody furious.

Thursday, October 05, 2023

About Les Misérables

I’m really not sure whether Just Stop Oil’s protests ultimately do any good, but when people watch a show celebrating political protest and then complain when it’s interrupted by an act of political protest, a modest irony klaxon ought to be sounding somewhere.

(Long-term readers of this blog, both of you, do not need to be told that the rendering of the June Rebellion as a piece of uplifting theatrical bombast is what Situationism would define as recuperation, the process by which a subversive act is made palatable to mainstream society; and that last night’s protests were its antonym, détournement, subverting a product of the mainstream. Of course what we need now if for someone to make a facile, glossy musical about Just Stop Oil and the whole process can repeat itself ad infinitum until we all burn to death.)

About classics and comics

Two more contributions to the canon discussion, here as placeholders if nothing else. First, Alexandra Wilson upends Bourdieu by arguing that it’s popular, not classical music than holds all the cultural capital:

Since the 1980s, the media has determinedly and relentlessly painted classical music as “elitist”, boring and old-fashioned. Even Arts Council England, hell-bent on a programme of radical “change” to the cultural landscape, can scarcely conceal its contempt for it. None of this is suggestive of a society in which classical music reigns supreme. It isn’t brave to say you hate classical music so much as bog-standard normal. State publicly that you don’t like classical music, and you’re cool, funny and “relatable”. State publicly that you don’t like popular music, and you’re a weirdo or a snob. 

And in the New Yorker, Stephanie Burt defends Penguin’s decision to define Marvel comics and their ilk as classics:

 Stories become classics when generations of readers sort through them, talk about them, imitate them, and recommend them. In this case, baby boomers read them when they débuted, Gen X-ers grew up with their sequels, and millennials encountered them through Marvel movies. Each generation of fans—initially fanboys, increasingly fangirls, and these days nonbinary fans, too—found new ways not just to read the comics but to use them. That’s how canons form. Amateurs and professionals, over decades, come to something like consensus about which books matter and why—or else they love to argue about it, and we get to follow the arguments. Canons rise and fall, gain works and lose others, when one generation of people with the power to publish, teach, and edit diverges from the one before. 

Wednesday, October 04, 2023

About magic

My alma mater has announced what sounds like an intriguing MA in Magic and Occult Science, an interdisciplinary degree combining history, religion, archaeology and more. Inevitably, a number of parties have decided to label it as a so-called Mickey Mouse degree, implying that it’s for people intent on pursuing careers as witches and/or wizards. To be fair, I’m not sure whether this demonstrates intellectual laziness (just reading the website beyond the headline would have told them what the course really offers) or a zombie-like understanding that the true purpose of education is to get a job. In any case, universities have been offering courses in religion for hundreds of years and I’m not really sure what the difference is.

It’s more than a little depressing, though, that among those grabbing the wrong end of the wand is one of the most high-profile head teachers in the country.

PS: And, in further education news:

Friday, September 29, 2023

About French

The Jesuit grammarian Dominic Bohours (1628-1702), quoted in Babel, by Gaston Dorren:

Of all languages, French has the most natural and sleekest pronunciation. The Chinese and well-nigh all Asian peoples sing; the Germans grumble; the Spaniards holler; the Italians sigh; the English whistle. Only the French can properly be said to speak.

Also, at BlueSky (which is where all the Twitterers are putting down roots in case Uncle Elon succeeds in making the whole thing entirely awful):

Monday, September 25, 2023

About the Noughties

In 2009, I wrote a book about the decade that was then stumbling towards its demise. Inevitably it was going to be imperfect; not only did I have little more than 200 pages to tell the story, but I needed to deliver the manuscript about six months before the story ended. And, just as importantly, I was a white, educated-ish, straight male (also cis but I‘m not sure that concept would have even resonated then) in his early 40s, who’d never been south of the equator. The narrative was necessarily partial, in both senses of the word.

That said, I don’t think the story I told about the period was too far off. I argued that we’d been so fixated on the symbolic turning-point of the millennium that we’d never bothered to decide what the decade was going to be called. (“Noughties” was a best guess and plenty of people didn’t get the memo.) And, despite the historian’s desire to package stretches of time into next units that corresponded with the calendar (what Ferdinand Mount called “decaditis”), real life rarely obliges. I suggested that the 1990s, the decade of Fukuyama’s liberal triumphalism when history supposedly ended, spilled over until September 2001; and the truncated decade came to an end when Lehman Brothers did, two collapses, just seven years and a few New York blocks apart. Fear and technology were the two themes that permeated the period and the meeting of the two created a characteristic sense of twitchy unease: should I be more worried about a terrorist attack, or about the CCTV camera that’s meant to prevent it? What was really lacking was a single image that encapsulated our (received) memory of what the decade was like, to compare with the dedicated followers going through the racks in Carnaby Street, punks striding across the King’s Road, a besuited yuppy on a slab-like mobile phone.

I knew my utter wrongness would become clear eventually. What I wasn’t expecting was that it would take so long to happen; and certainly not that the catalyst would be a nest-haired narcissist called Russell Brand. Because of the laws of libel (and possibly a worry about prejudicing any subsequent legal proceedings) all we can say openly about the man himself is that he wasn’t very nice and we never found him funny or, if you’re a devotee of his second career as a hawker of conspiracy theories and associated quackeries, that it’s the New World Order/Rothschilds/Mainstream Media/Giant Lizards trying to gag the gallant speaker of truths blah blah blah.

Instead, the finger pointed at... the Noughties themselves. Endeavouring to contextualise Brand, Sarah Ditum characterises the decade as: 

...a period of viciousness and excess, where cruelty was the norm and misogyny was celebrated... Lad culture, which had once seemed like a corrective to smothering Nineties niceness, flourished into a full backlash. Second-wave feminism had spent decades explaining why porn, objectification and rape jokes should be unacceptable. Now they came surging back, this time with a protective sheen of irony.

Others seem retrospectively baffled, even when they were right at the heart of the shenanigans, and presumably in a position to stamp out misbehavior; here’s Lorraine Heggessey, who was controller of BBC One at the time:

It's not actually that long ago. This was the 2000s, so let's not think it was the dim and distant past. It wasn't. I don't think it would be acceptable to say anything like that. I'm amazed that it was acceptable at that time frankly. 

Obviously I’d completely missed all this in the book but I can console myself that pretty much everyone else did at the time. It’s taken nearly 14 years for that decade-defining image to make itself known; it‘ll be a clip of Russell Brand getting away with it (“it” being, if nothing else, a sort of non-specific nastiness, enabled by his gender and celebrity status), and the rest of us letting him.

PS: And while we’re talking about partial memories of a decade, this morning the Absolute 80s radio station heralded a day celebrating one-hit wonders with a tweet (or whatever we call them this week – Xpectoration?) depicting ‘Come On Eileen’ by Dexys Midnight Runners, a band that enjoyed seven more Top 20 singles in the decade. The usual suspects jumped in to point and laugh at the cock-up, but one brave soul asserted that his own limited awareness of the Dexys oeuvre trumped any silly ideas about empirical reality:

Thursday, September 21, 2023

About In Our Time

This morning saw the 1,000th edition of what’s become my favourite radio programme, In Our Time. The format is simple; a single subject (usually from the arts, science or history) is chosen for each show, and Melvyn discusses it with three experts. Today it was Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.

But Bragg does something that few other presenters these days bother with. He researches. He bones up on the topic, so his questions are rooted in informed curiosity rather than bafflement. He never pretends to know more than the invited boffins, but he can hold his own. (For a more representative example of modern factual broadcasting, see Channel 5’s Lost in Japan, in which Jane McDonald stumbles around with the glazed expression of someone never even heard of Japan, let alone Googled the place. It‘s as if the producers are so terrified of going over the heads of the audience that they imagine the least-informed potential viewer, then pick a presenter who knows even less, or is prepared to feign that ignorance.)

Two things from an interview with Bragg broadcast shortly before the show. One is that when choosing his guests, he tries to get teaching academics, who have real, recent experience of communicating their insights to 18-year-olds, rather than just talking to other professionals. The feel should be that of an undergraduate tutorial, which may sound exclusive but since well over 30% of teenagers now go into higher education, really isn’t. And then, asked to sum up the show, he used the delicious phrase “never knowingly relevant”, an implicit up-yours to the Gradgrindian tendency infesting education and politics. No, it’s not to any practical purpose, it’s not going to get you up another rung of any professional ladder. It’s just about Bergman (or chromosomes, or the Thirty Years War, or Hildegard von Bingen, or...)

Here’s to another 1,000 episodes of irrelevance.

Sunday, September 17, 2023

About high culture

Martin Fautley discusses the fraught issue of cultural capital, with specific reference to music education but what he has to say applies to all aspects of the arts, including the balance between knowing about an art form and actually doing it. At one point he declares: “we need to be on our guard against the creeping causality of high culture as panacea” which is true enough but in practice the tendency seems to be the gradual eradication of “high culture” from state education. The question is whether this is because teachers believe students can’t cope with it (see this, from a few years back) or that some of the teachers themselves might struggle.

Friday, September 15, 2023

About poetry on the telly

In one of the remoter corners of the tributes to the late Michael Parkinson, I discover that WH Auden was an early guest on his talk show. (John Gielgud was on the same programme, and Cleo Laine sang a version of Auden’s own ‘O Tell Me The Truth About Love’.)

I can’t find a recording of this particular show, but there is a transcript. And if you wonder why we rarely see poets on primetime TV these days, it turns out that Wystan and Parky were interrogating that same issue, using a mass medium to ponder the fact of poetry’s minority status. The poet, to be honest, doesn’t seem too worried about the situation; he certainly offers no platitudes about accessibility or inclusivity:
MP: But there’s still a kind of elitist feeling about poetry in particular, I mean, isn’t there? 
WHA: No, I think obviously it appeals to a minority. I know certainly when I have to read there are a lot of students there, that’s all I can say. And they seem to enjoy it. 
MP: But the key word there was ‘minority’. Why should it be a minority? 
WHA: Well, because it’s a rather difficult art. You’ve got to have, both to write it and to read it, you’ve got to have this passionate love of language. 
MP: Yes. 
WHA: And that is probably... a minority who have this. 
Also from the dead poets’ society: participants in next month’s Dublin marathon will receive a medal that attributes the following to WB Yeats: “There are no strangers here: only friends you haven’t met yet.” Not only is there no evidence that Yeats wrote or said it, it seems rather unlikely that the grumpy old fascist sympathiser would even think along those lines. I wonder what he’d have had to say to Parky.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

About the right word

The Culture Secretary, who this week is apparently someone called Lucy Frazer, was on the wireless yesterday and at one point she referred to “the tenants of our democracy” when (I assume) she meant “tenets”. I indulged myself in a performative what-is-the-world-coming-to Twitter moment but, as we know, what starts as a mistake might become the generally accepted “correct” version. Language changes, but as Elizabeth Ribbans points out, “some people might be more vexed about a semantic shift when it arises from a seeming misunderstanding rather than a slow morphing.” Which is me told, I guess, especially since, although I sneered at Frazer’s goof, I wasn’t aware of the mistake that Ribbans identifies in her article, that “coruscating” doesn’t actually mean the same as “excoriating”. Or, if enough people use them interchangeably, perhaps it does.

Does it matter, though, when the majority of English speakers probably wouldn’t use or even recognise either word? Vaguely relevant, someone else tweets a chunk of Nabokov from 1948, combining two of his obsessions, butterflies and words, and sneering at those whose interest in either remains superficial: 

The Germans did their best to ignore the new trends and continued to cherish the philately-like side of entomology. Their solicitude for the “average collector who cannot be made to dissect” is comparable to the way nervous publishers pamper the “average reader”—who cannot be made to think.

Wednesday, September 06, 2023

About Linklater

Richard Linklater, in the course of discussing his new movie in Hollywood Reporter, tries to be optimistic about the state of cinema but I’m not convinced: 

Some really intelligent, passionate, good citizens just don’t have the same need for literature and movies anymore. It doesn’t occupy the same space in the brain. I think that’s just how we’ve given over our lives, largely, to this thing that depletes the need for curating and filling ourselves up with meaning from art and fictional worlds. That need has been filled up with — let’s face it — advanced delivery systems for advertising. It’s sad, but what can you do? I also don’t want to go through life thinking our best days are behind us. That’s just not productive. So, in your own area, you just have to persist and do what you can on behalf of the things that you believe in. You have to believe that everything can change and that things can go back to being a little better. Isn’t that what we all want for everything these days, from democracy on down? Can’t we just go back to being a little better?

PS: Paul Schrader holds forth on the way modern audiences approach, not films, but film criticism and, as one might expect from the movies the two men make, his approach is a little more, uh, forthright than Linklater’s: “Audiences are dumber. Normal people don’t go through reviews like they used to. Rotten Tomatoes is something the studios can game. So they do.”

Monday, September 04, 2023

About the Beatles

I asked ChatGPT to identify the worst Beatles song and this is what happened:
It’s important to remember that opinions on music are highly subjective, and what one person considers the “worst” song by The Beatles, another might enjoy. The Beatles are widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential bands in the history of music, and their catalog includes a vast array of songs spanning different genres and styles. Rather than singling out a specific song as the “worst,” it's more constructive to acknowledge that The Beatles had a few songs that were less popular or less critically acclaimed than their most iconic tracks. However, even these less celebrated songs have their own merits and are appreciated by some fans. Musical taste is personal, so what one person may dislike, another may find enjoyable. Ultimately, The Beatles’ legacy is defined by their many legendary and groundbreaking songs that have had a profound impact on the music industry, and their contributions to music far outweigh any individual song's perceived shortcomings.

There are all sorts of rumours that AI will take over from yer actual meat-and-mucus critics but this takes things in an even more worrying direction – it’s effectively decided that critical faculties are a bit impolite, actually, because you might be casting aspersions on somebody’s favourite. So it’s more “constructive” to acknowledge that some of the songs wowed the critics less than others did, provided you remember to assert the Fabs’ absolute centrality to the canon.

And it’s an easy question anyway. The answer‘s ‘What’s the New Mary Jane’, isn’t it?

PS: Elif Batuman asks ChatGPT a question about Proust and is told to, er, read Proust.

PPS: In American Songwriter, Jacob Uitti uses AI to imagine a Dylan/Cohen collaboration and, guess what, it’s dreadful. That said, much of the content here is as bad, even when it’s nominally written by humans. In a discussion of Paranoid Android we are blessed with this gem: “Despite the hurdle posed by censorship, the video managed to retain its audience’s captivation.” When I am king, bad writers, human or digital, will be first against the wall.

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

About good art

This, by one Jash Dholani, has been provoking much derision on Twitter over the past few days.

The easiest and most obvious response is to find examples that contradict Dholani’s reductive categorisation (the first, for example, would allow any number of Hallmark Christmas romcoms to make a better claim to being “good art” than, say, the oeuvres of David Lynch or Luis Buñuel, which is almost too silly to contemplate) but, inevitably, I’m going to zoom in on Dholani’s view of canonicity, or the “Hall of Fame” as he puts it. The assumption that great art is made with a eye to becoming part of the canon really misses the point of why anyone would want to create anything; and in any case, it’s not the artist who decides. That’s the job of the gatekeepers, the academics, critics and ultimately the consumers of art.

And the same applies to those who might want to “destroy the canon”, although I remain skeptical as to whether that will ever happen. Instead, the canon has always been and will always be in a state of flux. It happened as far back as the first century BC, when Virgil’s work began to acquire more renown than that of Ennius (who he?); and carries on today as the likes of Alexander Pope and Walter Scott are pushed out of the nest by... well, choose your own names, but Toni Morrison springs to mind. Dholani’s own Twitter handle is oldbooksguy, which would suggest he sees the canon as some sort of refuge for the Dead White Males, but its composition never stands still, even if change comes so slowly it’s practically imperceptible. And the new admissions (which Dholani classifies as “good art”) are the ones prompting that incremental change, which he presumably sees as a bad thing.

Ah, hang on. I know what Dholani’s chart reminds me of. It’s J Evans Pritchard all over again.

Sunday, August 27, 2023

About Barbie

I enjoyed the Barbie movie, and was quietly impressed with how it sneaked references to Proust and Kubrick into a big-budget, candy-coloured Hollywood extravaganza. But I think Ian Leslie gets things right:

Rather than advancing intellectual ideas, it uses intellectual-sounding talk as a colour in its tonal palette, a striking and funny contrast to the vacuity of its characters. Barbie tickles the frontal cortex, site of Deep Thoughts, but its purpose is to raid the hypothalamus, source of endorphins.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

About Thaksin

Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister of Thailand, has returned from his long exile after the monarchy/military nexus that really runs things decided he was the lesser of two evils. If you want some understanding of how we got to this point, for crying out loud don’t read this article that I wrote for The Guardian because the coup that toppled him happened when their regular woman in Bangkok was on holiday. Mini-me suggests: 

Provided he [General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, the coup leader] sticks to his word and hands over to a civilian administration within a fortnight, and that administration immediately calls elections where vote-buying can be at least minimised, if not eradicated, a damaging and frustrating period of uncertainty will have ended. 

Well, Sonthi did hand over power – to another general. And Thailand’s fragile democracy is still trying trying to piece itself together. Proof, if ever it were needed, that proper, grown-up journalism was never going to be my forte.

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

About TikTok

Every generation is told that its own crazes and foibles are the equivalent of vogueing while the Titanic goes down, and then 40 years later, they see the apocalypse happening live in the actions of their children and grandchildren. So it’s probably just a sign that I’m very, very old that the end of this article by Barrett Swanson resonates so much: 

TikTok is a sign of the future, which already feels like a thing of the past. It is the clock counting down our fifteen seconds of fame, the sound the world makes as time is running out.

Sunday, August 06, 2023

About the middlebrow

 You know, I could get behind this...

Thursday, August 03, 2023

About University Challenge

Having written a whole bloody dissertation on the subject, I’m all for interrogating the criteria on which questions are chosen for quiz shows. However, James Delingpole’s article about University Challenge in the Spectator jettisons any pretence of objective investigation in favour of snobbery and perhaps worse.

I said when Amol Rajan was announced as the new host that those grumbling about so-called diversity hires should be satisfied that, like his predecessors, Rajan is a Cambridge-educated male. Not good enough for Delingpole, apparently, who sneers that, apart from dropping his “H”s, he went to “insufficiently medieval Downing”; he hints that there were “any number of reasons” that he got the gig but judiciously avoids mentioning them, The Spectator finally having cottoned on that explicit racism is more trouble than it’s worth. Then there’s a bit of knee-jerk transphobia, and a chance for the author to air his preposterous climate change scepticism. So far, so Delingpole.

But then he gets on to the questions themselves and his biggest worry appears to be that there are just too many mentions of people who are, and I can hardly bring myself to say this, female and/or non-white. Again, there’s a valid debate to be had about whether the content of the show should represent what the canon is, or what we might want it to be, but Delingpole has decided already, apparently from a position of blimpish ignorance. Dismissive references to “whatever it was Clara Schumann may have written” say far more about the author than about the question setters or Schumann herself. If Mrs Dalloway is “unreadable”, one has to assume Delingpole hasn’t read it, so the value of his opinion on its worth is negligible at best. And rather than show any curiosity over a book of which he’d never heard (Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man) he simply assumes because he didn’t know it (and, implicitly, because it’s about black people) it isn’t as good as Dostoevsky. Many books have been written defending the glories of the traditional Western canon, but Delingpole’s argument seems to be that he went to Oxford – and a proper medieval college at that – so he knows best.

Ultimately he falls into the same trap as Nick Fisher did when responding to Derek Malcolm’s list of the greatest movies; he’s confusing his own limited intellectual horizons for good taste. But there’s one more thing that grates. Delingpole defines himself as a libertarian conservative, a supporter of market-based solutions to most of our problems. One of the landscapes that such policies have changed beyond recognition in recent decades is academia, where syllabuses now have to reflect what the customers want to study. And yet when the customers decide they’d rather read Woolf or Ellison than Chaucer or Dostoevsky, and the universities accede, the right-wing media suffers a collective aneurysm. You won, James. Get over it.

Monday, July 31, 2023

About “licenses”

Of course I’m angry that one of the death spasms of this preposterous government is to appease the fossil fuel lobby and gammony petrolhead voters by refusing to acknowledge the reality of climate change. Truth be told, I’m even more annoyed by the spelling mistake.

Monday, July 24, 2023

About Dumb Britain

I’ve written before about Private Eye’s Dumb Britain and the issues it raises regarding my pet subject, the question of what we are expected and what we expect others to know. Norma Postin, in the letter above, appears pretty certain that 19th century philosophers and their ilk are among the subjects where we shouldn’t assume knowledge, which may be a fair call. Where I do take exception is the implication that these subjects only enter your canon of knowledge if you’ve attended a certain type of school or university, and if you haven’t you’re condemned to eternal ignorance on the subject. Surely, if all your school taught you was to read, you’d have a chance to find out.

PS: Nothing to do with the above, but I’d normally assume that an article with the subhead “Barbie and Oppenheimer show us how in the heart of the darkest realities we stumble upon fantasies” was a spoof originating in The Onion or McSweeney’s or similar but since Slavoj Žižek is the author, who can tell?

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

About the best films

The critic Derek Malcolm has died, which inevitably draws us back to 2001 and his shamelessly highbrow farewell gift to The Guardian, his 100 best films; any reader of his work would have a pretty good idea of the directors that would appear, although some might query the specific movies. (The Bitter Tea of General Yen for Capra? Really?)

The fun starts when his fellow reviewers are asked to review his list. Most respond with respect, while quibbling with the details; David Thomson despairs of the whole idea. And then there’s Nick Fisher from The Sun (who also died in the past few months), who gives a lovely display of performative philistinism: 

This is a buff's list, not a punter’s list. Where's Erin Brockovich and Men In Black? Where’s American Beauty or American Pie or American Movie, come to that? Long films with dense subtitles are not my cup of rosie. I think Derek and me would be hard pushed to ever pick a Saturday night out at the flicks together. Does he even eat popcorn? I think I read down to Kes before I even recognised any of these names as movies. Kinda smells of pretension to me. But hey, without buffs there would be no poncey foreign film festivals. And we know how important they are. Not. Kes, Apocalypse Now, Raging Bull and Night At The Opera... yep, I go along with all of these as firm candidates for any Top 100. But, as for the other 96 titles, you're on your own Del. 

Two thoughts. First, although Malcolm might seem to be in thrall to the canon emforced by Sight and Sound, Cahiers du Cinéma, Film Comment and so forth, surely Fisher’s reference points are similarly unsurprising, playing the same game, but shorn of the “dense subtitles”. (Too many words, my dear Godard...)

The other is the frame of reference. Malcolm had almost certainly seen most of the films Fisher cited, and decided from a position of knowledge that they didn’t merit inclusion; could Fisher have said the same about the 96 he objected to on Malcolm’s list?

PS: And for what it’s worth, I’d probably agree with about a dozen of Malcolm’s choices. And I don’t like popcorn.

Sunday, July 16, 2023

About images

I’m not going to add to all the partially-informed verbiage prompted by the story apparently involving the BBC, The Sun, £35,000 and some unedifying pictures, except to stroke my chin over one legal oddity the case has highlighted. Someone 16 years old or more has the capacity, the law says, to choose to display his or her or their naked body to someone older, provided said viewer isn’t in a position of responsibility. However, said 16+-year-old is not allowed to distribute an image of said body. The image, one might infer, is more powerful than the original. Baudrillard vindicated again. 

Sunday, July 02, 2023

About assumptions

Following on from the theatre reviewer who wondered why someone might write a play about TS Eliot and/or the Marx Brothers, because only old people have heard of them and might understand the jokes; first, from an article about Evelyn Waugh, which assumes in the reader’s favour. 

It’s the “of course”, of course, that confirms this could only appear in the TLS, or something of that calibre. But then there’s another kind of assumption, from Albion’s Secret History by Guy Mankowski

which (apart from the fact that I know where Bromley is, thanks) I’m calling performative ignorance because even if he doesn’t know where Bromley is, Mankowski could look it up in a matter of seconds.

(And, on vaguely related lines, the people who tore chunks out of a quotation from The Masque of Anarchy because they thought it was by Jeremy Corbyn, rather than Shelley; or “Shelley, whoever that is”, as one Twitter sage put it.)