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.