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 is and always has been in a state of flux, 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 unedifying 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 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.)

Monday, June 26, 2023

About Elton John

I’ve long been a fan of Brian Wilson and I’ve been fortunate to see him in concert three times. The first was at one of his triumphant Pet Sounds concerts in London in 2002 and it was probably the greatest musical event I’ve ever attended. The second was in Singapore, when he temporarily reunited with the Beach Boys for their 50th anniversary tour and although it was more of a case study in the dynamics of a dysfunctional family than a gig per se, it was still fun. The most recent was back in London a few years ago; he could no longer hit the high notes, and was having trouble with some of the medium range ones, and barely played the piano that seemed to serve more as a barrier to protect him from the audience than any kind of musical instrument. But the accompanying musicians filled in the gaps very well and the fans seemed to come to a consensus that what were really doing was to say thank you to this damaged genius, for the times when he could do it, and did. I probably won’t see him again if another opportunity arises, but I’m glad I did.

I was reminded of that most recent concert when I watched TV coverage of Elton John’s performance at Glastonbury last night, supposedly his last ever gig in the UK. Elton’s career trajectory has been similar to Brian’s in some respects, with mental troubles and substance abuse threatening to derail things at several junctures. But he too pulled through, and seems to be in better shape than his American counterpart, at all times aware of where he is and what he’s doing, acknowledging and appreciating the love of the crowd. And Elton's hands are definitely hammering away at those keys, unlike Brian’s, which hover a few inches above, never daring to connect.

There’s one problem, though. Elton can’t sing any more. It’s not a matter of not being able to sing in key any more, as with Brian; it’s that his diction is shot to pieces. He mumbles, he slurs, and we hadn’t heard Bernie Taupin’s lyrics a hundred, a thousand times before, we wouldn’t know what the hell he was on about. This is something that was identified during lockdown when he gave us his now-notorious Pub Singer rendition of ‘I’m Still Standing’ and many brushed off his inadequacy with the explanation that he was out of practice, that once the pandemic was over and he started to tour again, all would be well. Apparently not. It’s not clear what’s gone wrong (Something neurological? Cosmetic surgery? New teeth?) but it sounded bloody horrible.

And does that matter? Not really, certainly not to the devotees who bade him farewell at Glastonbury and from their living rooms. Just like Brian’s fans in Hammersmith, they were gathered to remember the good old days, and above all to say thank you.

But I’m baffled by the professional, paid critics (here’s one; here’s another; and there’s more) who’ve been telling us, quite rightly, that this was  an emotionally charged, joyous gathering of faithful, a celebration of a long and glorious career, without acknowledging that, as a musical performance, it was all a bit rubbish, frankly.

PS: Vaguely related, an argument that criticism doesn’t require any particular knowledge or contextual understanding. Which makes it just reaction, surely?

Thursday, June 22, 2023

About Tár

Zadie Smith in the New York Review of Books on the generational divide exposed by Todd Fields’s film Tár (which I really ought to have watched by now):

We of Tár’s generation can be quick to lambaste those we call (behind their backs) “the youngs,” but speaking for myself, I’m the one severely triggered by statements like “Chaucer is misogynistic” or “Virginia Woolf was a racist.” Not because I can’t see that both statements are partially true, but because I am of that generation whose only real shibboleth was: “Is it interesting?” Into which broad category both evils and flaws could easily be fit, not because you agreed with them personally but because they had the potential to be analyzed, just like anything else. Whereas if you grew up online, the negative attributes of individual humans are immediately disqualifying. The very phrase ad hominem has been rendered obsolete, almost incomprehensible. An argument that is directed against a person, rather than the position they are maintaining? Online a person is the position they’re maintaining and vice versa. Opinions are identities and identities are opinions. Unfollow!

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

About English

You’re wading into murky waters these days if you call someone out for misusing the English language but I think it’s fair enough to hold the self-appointed gatekeepers, the teachers and the editors, to a higher standard.

On the other hand... I just heard a radio play in which a teacher referred twice to Derek Bentley being hung (rather than hanged) and I thought, “wouldn’t a teacher get that right?” and then I thought, no probably not. And while the play was still running I saw this tweet
and realised that, in more than 30 years as an editor, the only time I’ve ever discussed the subjunctive voice was with people who didn’t have English as a native language.

And the only question remaining is, if the gatekeepers have stopped keeping the gate, what exactly are they for?

Friday, June 09, 2023

About Soft Cell

A couple of nights ago, I went to see 80s synth-pop pioneers Soft Cell in the slightly incongruous  surroundings of Hampton Court Palace. As the show was about to start, a hunched, elderly-looking gentleman was pushed in his wheelchair into place behind a keyboard; the realisation that this was Dave Ball, the quieter half of the duo but always present in the posters and Smash Hits interviews, cast a melancholy tone across the crowd, most of whom appeared to be of a similar age.

It turns out that Ball’s health has not permitted him to take place in many of the band’s shows in recent weeks and some have argued that they’d paid to see the band, all two of them, not just Marc Almond plus session musicians. At first I queried whether these complaints held water. Ball’s contribution to the act has always been as a tunesmith and studio tinkerer; live, he just tended to stand there, stabbing one-or-two-fingered at the synth, staring impassively ahead. And all the music is programmed anyway so his presence or absence really didn’t matter much, compared to the fizzing, flesh-and-blood impishness of Almond. (Incidentally, Marc is an unusual example of someone whose voice has actually improved in technical terms since his heyday.)

But this isn’t really about what the music sounds like, is it? It’s about nostalgia, homage, touching base with your own teenage self, about seeing the posters and interviews and videos come to life. I had a similar epiphany the last time I saw Brian Wilson; he spent most of the time sitting behind his piano, not playing, occasionally singing but letting his bandmates hit the high notes he can these days only dream of. We were there to be there with him, and that’s all.

What the disgruntled Soft Cell fans are after is the same sense of belonging, once expressed by writing the band’s name on your geography exercise book and as such the band, Soft Cell, not just Marc, just needs to turn up, to be present. And maybe sign one of those posters.

Monday, June 05, 2023

Not about Warhol

“In the future, everyone will be Nadine Dorries for 15 minutes.”

Saturday, June 03, 2023

About dead people

Nobody reads this blog any more, so there’s little point in writing this. That said, there would seem to be little point in Blogger telling me that several of my posts have been put behind a warning (akin to those apocryphal ruffles that Victorians supposedly used to cover the shame of piano legs) but this is indeed what they’ve done. 

The problem is, beyond a bland ticking-off that they “contain sensitive content” and may not “adhere to Blogger’s community guidelines” there’s no indication as to what may have given the Blog Gods a fit of the moral vapours. Unless, of course, I realise that a post asking why Lisa Jardine privileges the reading tastes of women over men, and one pondering the extent to which Jade Goody’s stupidity is real are linked by one crucial element: since the posts were written, both Professor Jardine and Ms Goody have died. All that I can infer is that we are no longer permitted to speak ill of the dead* and I’m just waiting for Blogger’s AI to stumble over my Jimmy Savile post.

Incidentally, they also found fault in a third post, in which the only potential offence I can deduce is the contention that Haruki Murakami’s first book isn’t terribly good. And since pretty much the only person who gets offended by that sort of thing any more is, uh, me, I’m not sure what the problem is.

*Of course, I have to bring up Bette Davis’s line: “You should never say bad things about the dead, only good. Joan Crawford is dead? Good.”

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

About Martin Amis

I was never a diehard Amis fanboy (and it was almost always boys) at the level of some of my contemporaries. But when I first moved to London in the early 90s I embarked on a major catch-up session, reading everything from The Rachel Papers to London Fields in the course of a few weeks. 

What dampened my ardour a little was not just the declining quality of the books themselves through the coming decades (although that is evident) but the fact that Amis had become a bit of a punchline, with the strange story of the new agent and the sweary letter from his ex-friend Julian Barnes (also wife of his old agent) and, yes, his dental bill. These days I’m scrupulous about distinguishing the Art from the Artist and as such I really can’t be doing with numpties chopping bits of Eric Gill statues, his crimes notwithstanding. Back then there was an element of self-branding going on, ostentatiously retrieving my copy of Dead Babies from my ICA carrier bag as I strap-hung from Brixton to Victoria. And then the name on the front became just a tad embarrassing, and I transferred my affections to McEwan and Ishiguro and Winterson and more...

So, even though I sneered when the BBC kept the Phil/Holly saga at the top of the bulletin, even on Radio 4, even as the news of Amis’s demise was trickling in, I’d have to admit that we’re all susceptible to a bit of celebrity gossip once in a while.

Saturday, May 20, 2023

About actors’ names

I chanced upon an enjoyable play this afternoon, about an (invented) encounter between Syd Barrett, leader of Pink Floyd before they got boring, and EM Forster, a novelist now better known for the spate of movie adaptations of his works that erupted in the 1980s/90s than for the books themselves. It wasn’t an entirely implausible meeting, since they both lived in Cambridge at the same time, but the connection was more how they responded the end of their period of creative genius. Forster settled into an amiable semi-retirement in King’s College; Barrett slipped into mental ill health from which he never fully recovered.

But the aspect of the play that really tickled me was the casting, or more specifically the names of the actors, which felt deliciously appropriate to the characters. “Simon Russell Beale” might well have been a character in one of Forster’s books, perhaps a first draft for the Reverend Arthur Beebe in A Room With a View. And “Tyger Drew-Honey” is surely a Blakean rant, chorus to an outtake from The Madcap Laughs. And if not, it should be.

PS: If you haven’t seen it, another encounter between Syd and the old guard, and one that actually happened:

Friday, May 19, 2023

About SATS

There was a commotion a few weeks ago after 10-year-olds in England sat a SATS reading paper that drove many of them to tears. Now the paper itself has been released, it appears that the problem wasn’t so much the level of literacy required as the children’s experience of the things being discussed; they haven’t been camping, they’ve never seen a bat and they certainly haven’t visited Austin, Texas. Fair enough, but that doesn’t stop them from knowing about these things, possibly from books. And as for the teacher who didn’t know what sheep rustling was...

PS: On reflection, I wonder whether my response to my story might be a reflect of my own state of privilege, especially when it comes to cultural capital. And, to be fair, by the age of 10 I would have experienced more than a few nights under canvas, although this was partly down to the fact that my parents couldn’t afford hotels. That said, I’d never seen a bat at that age, and I hadn’t (still haven’t) been to Texas. But I knew what the last two were, if only thanks to the opening sequence of Scooby Doo and any number of elderly Westerns on TV, specifically John Wayne’s take on The Alamo.

Maybe that’s the problem with kids today. They don’t watch enough telly.

Monday, May 01, 2023

About Lyly and Dickens and Fielding

I’m not that familiar with the work of the Elizabethan writer John Lyly so I’m not going to judge whether those behind a new production of his play Galatea are justified in calling it “explicitly queer, explicitly feminist, explicitly trans.” I’m rather more interested in their thinking once they’d incorporated British Sign Language into the mix: 

Once they had made translations for deaf actors, they extended the idea. “Why not translate the text to fit better in the mouth of someone using spoken English, too?” Frankland asks. And so Lyly’s text stretched to fit the new hosts of its words.

Which sounds good, until you realise that what they’re really doing is erasing Lyly’s own text because it’s too old and difficult and they don’t expect the audience or even the actors to understand it. 

See also the just-concluded BBC adaptation of Great Expectations, with its utterly baffling amendments to the plot (no Dolge Orlick; no trip to Cairo; Miss Havisham doesn’t die in the fire, but does shoot Compeyson; Estella doesn’t marry Drummle; Pip ends up marrying Biddy). And while we’re at it, pray for the soul of ITV’s incoming Tom Jones, the star of which thought  at first it was a biography of the Welsh singer and only managed to read the first 10 pages of the novel, complaining, “It’s so beautiful but so dense.”

Sunday, April 16, 2023

About Forster

Matthew Goodwin has put in so much work reiterating the thesis contained in his new book, and his enemies have devoted so much space to attacking it, that there seems little point in actually reading the bloody thing. I’ll wait for the movie. Essentially, Goodwin suggests that Britain is controlled by an “elite” of academics, media folk and the like whose left-leaning attitudes are way out of sync with the rest of the population. You thought it was property speculators and energy oligarchs who caused the current perfect storm of misery? No, it was Gary Lineker and Carol Vorderman, because they’re woke, an adjective so heinous that nobody can actually define it.

And then someone posts this on Twitter and it describes pretty much everything Goodwin describes and loathes and that says far more about Goodwin than it does about Lineker or Vorderman or even Forster:

Friday, April 14, 2023

About ChatGPT, again

Self-Googling is dangerous enough, but throwing oneself into the maw of AI is... well...

Tim Footman is a British author, editor, and journalist who has written on a variety of topics, including technology, culture, and history. Some of his notable works include:
"The World According to the Simpsons: What Our Favorite TV Family Says About Life, Love, and the Pursuit of the Perfect Donut" (2006) - a book that explores the cultural impact of the popular TV show "The Simpsons."
"International Guy: Paris, New York, Copenhagen" (2017) - a series of novels co-authored with Audrey Carlan that follows the adventures of a globetrotting male escort.
"The Mindfulness Workout: A Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World" (2021) - a self-help book that provides practical tips and exercises to help readers reduce stress and live more mindfully.

PS: Also, from several months later, this: 

Sunday, April 09, 2023

About Morrissey

I’ve long come to terms with adolescent infatuation with Morrissey and am quite happy to build a metaphorical wall between his early work and the blimpish buffoon he’s become in recent years. (And in similar terms, I feel no need to boycott Gauguin’s art or Ezra Pound’s poems or the Gill Sans font, just because of their creators’ various misbehaviours.)

Steven Patrick himself, however, seems determined to punish his fans from 40 years ago if they haven’t kept the faith all these years:

They also strongly allude to an imaginary time when I was somehow their actual flesh-and-blood friend, and this claim allows them full rights to enlightened bitterness.

PS: Remembering that time I asked Mozz to shatter my youthful delusions once and for all.

Friday, April 07, 2023

About age

Wailing and gnashing over a public broadcaster making the classic mistake of trying to lure younger listeners now, rather than just waiting until they get old:

But then, searching for something else, I come across a theatre review from last year (of a show that sounds disturbingly as if I might have written it, but also pretty bad, which tells its own tale), where the writer appears to accept this logic, even if he’s old enough to know better, and to get the joke: 

I detest clever-dick plays that make the audience struggle hard to find meaning but allows them the warm glow of self-congratulation for getting an obscure reference. I studied Eliot in A-level English and devoured the Marx Brothers films at what was then the National Film Theatre in the 1980s. Is The Waste Land on the curriculum now, in its centenary year? And who under 50 knows about Groucho and his siblings and will therefore get McGuinness’s oblique references to old routines and one-liners? Writers can write what they want, of course, but it’s odd to pitch a play exclusively to an ageing demographic.

Any odder than pitching it exclusively to the young, who apparently don’t want to watch a play, or listen to a radio station, that would have them as an audience?

Monday, March 27, 2023

About Great Expectations

Watching the latest TV iteration of Great Expectations and suddenly I'm 18 again and in a tutorial and Dr Chris Brooks of blessed memory pretty much devotes all 90 minutes to the first paragraph, including his contention that “Pip” represents potential, but also something apparently insignificant that might be spat out.

“Great Expectorations,” I say and immediately wish I hadn’t.

And Chris looks at me with an expression not unlike the one that Miss Havisham bestows on Pip when she first sees him, but with less warmth.

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

About World Poetry Day

It is, apparently, so I did one. 

‘On Watching A Noah Baumbach Movie’ 

The dialectical sparring created 
an intellectual conflagration so intense 
it burned their minds beyond recognition 
and they could only be identified 
by reference to their high school transcripts.

Friday, March 17, 2023

About Nadine Dorries

For no particular reason, I asked ChatGPT to write a sonnet about Nadine Dorries and, intriguingly, it’s just about bad enough to be a sonnet written by Nadine Dorries (if the former Culture Secretary knew what a sonnet was). 

Fair Nadine, who in politics finds her place,
Her voice is heard with vigor and with grace,
She stands for values, for freedom and for right, 
And battles those who seek to dim the light. 
With passion, she defends the common folk, 
And fights for justice, always without cloak, 
Her heart is true, her mind is clear and bright, 
And with her words, she challenges the might. 
Her spirit soars, unbound by fear or doubt, 
And with her strength, she leads the righteous rout, 
For she believes in truth and in what's just, 
And in her cause, she puts her sacred trust. 
So let us hail fair Nadine's noble heart, 
For in her work, she plays a vital part.

Saturday, March 04, 2023

About bad writing

Alan Moore
Read terrible books, because they can be more inspiring than good books. If you’re inspired by a good book, there is always the danger of plagiarism, of writing something too close to it. Whereas a genuinely helpful reaction to a piece of work that you’re reading is: ‘Jesus Christ, I could write this shit.’ It’s immensely liberating. Analyse what they’re doing badly and you’ll discover all the mistakes not to make.

And, in the course of a pretty depressing article about the death of English Literature as an academic discipline, Nathan Heller attempts to clarify Lionel Trilling’s notions about why it might still matter:
... one of those pursuits, like acupuncture or psychoanalysis, which seem to produce salutary effects through mechanisms that we have tried but basically failed to explain.

Wednesday, March 01, 2023

About not reading and not knowing

Yet again, life throws up a nugget that could have found a home in my dissertation. From Mark Bauerlein:
In my limited experience as a teacher, I’ve noticed in the last 10 years that students are no less intelligent and no less ambitious but there are two big differences: reading habits have slipped, along with general knowledge. You can quote me on this: you guys don't know anything.

PS: From a deliriously depressing series about the decline of civility in modern Britain, a view from the further education sector: “Anything unfamiliar prompts either deep anxiety or aggression.”

Sunday, February 26, 2023

About facts

I vaguely remember a sachet of this stuff coming through the door but not this promotion. Gazing with wonder at a time (early 70s) when facts were collectable assets, the NFTs of the moment, Panini football stickers for the nerd community.

Friday, February 24, 2023

About Ingres

I’ve been yelling at Radio 4 more than ever in recent days. First, because the tautology “[N]-year anniversary” seems to have been deemed acceptable by continuity announcers; and this week, when the presenter of the network’s flagship arts show pronounced the name of the painter Ingres... well, you listen (around 32.30). There are two levels to this, I guess. First, should the presenter of such a prestigious show be expected to know how to pronounce the name of a fairly important 19th-century artist? And then, if he does drop the ball (and even the best of us makes the occasional fumble), should there not be people around who know how to catch it?

Or does it not really matter any more?

PS: Previous musings on what Front Row presenters should or shouldn’t be expected to know.

PPS: (June 28) And today the same presenter (Nick Ahad) repeatedly said “asterix” when he meant “asterisk”. And that was only because he didn’t want to say “fuck”.

Friday, February 17, 2023

About American English

Even as the American Empire follows its British equivalent towards irrelevance, it refuses to go down without a fight, on the linguistic front. I’ve noticed an increasing tendency on London menus to describe a key component of eggs Benedict as an English muffin; of course, a generation ago we would have called it a muffin.

And this, found in a recent crime novel. It reads at first like a bold assertion of cultural independence but really it’s just a desperate plea to have one’s strange Limey peccadillos indulged, and not to get punched in the process.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

About Delilah

Nick Cave on the condemnation being visited on a 50-plus-year-old song, ‘Delilah’: 
I understand there is a principle here, but on some level I like the fact that some songs are controversial enough to be outlawed. It fills me with a kind of professional pride to be a part of the sometimes contentious business of songwriting. It’s cool. I like it. I just wish it was a more worthy song to be awarded that greatest of honours, indeed that supreme privilege, of being banned.

A reminder that “cancel culture” is nothing new, that it was visited on ‘Je T’Aime’ and ‘God Save The Queen’ and ‘Relax’ and merely added to the outlaw cachet of those songs and their writers and performers. Ultimately the Welsh Rugby Union won’t kill Delilah, it will make her stronger. 

Thursday, February 09, 2023

About Burt Bacharach (RIP)

I refuse to choose. But if I do have to pick one, it’s this, and it’s because of the lyrics and yes, I know Burt didn’t write the lyrics, don’t @ me (is “don’t @ me” still a thing?) but even the lyrics, just a sliver of them:

...and all the stars that never were/Are parking cars and pumping gas...

Which, had it arisen in The Last Tycoon or All About Eve or Sunset Boulevard or Barton Fink would still say everything that ever needed to be said about the vagaries of fame and showbiz and all that cal.


PS: And in other news, I learned that Burt’s dad was called Bert Bacharach, and I’m convinced that if Junior had copied that spelling, the history of postwar American music might have been ever so slightly different...

Monday, January 23, 2023

About ChatGPT

Music critic Simon Reynolds is sanguine regarding the threat that an AI program such as ChatGPT might present to his trade:

...A.I. has no need to write, either — no deep-seated motivation to put words on paper or on screen. The kind of texts it generates resemble what I think of as “motiveless” writing, like school homework, or advertorial. Proper music criticism, even if done to earn a living, is closer to the sort of willed writing that fills diaries, journals and poems — where the compulsion to write is internal rather than externally imposed.

Except that what he (and, if you were to put a gun to my head, I) would define as “proper music criticism” has been in retreat for years, squeezed out by the twin monsters of economics and technology in favour of, well, advertorial. Mr Reynolds may well survive the onslaught, but any number of lesser names may not be so lucky.

In other news, I had a go with the program, and this happened:

PS: Also this, from The Times. “Artistic types” indeed.