Saturday, August 06, 2016

About a blog meet

So there was a blog meet. Remember them? It was when people we only knew as authors of blogs, often under whimsical pseudonyms (noms de blogue?), would gather awkwardly in a bar (the location of which would have taken days to agree on) and start to develop real-life relationships, slightly hampered by the fact that we didn’t know whether we should be addressing each other by our blog names or those that our mums had sewn onto our school jumpers. Not for nothing was it called meatspace; it was bloody and indigestible and made you sweat if you consumed too much and could wreak havoc with your bowels. The real fun came in subsequent days when we all tried to translate the analogue experience into blog form, remembering different jokes, different drinks, different disagreements and flirtations and awkward silences.

That was seven years ago or so, back when sharing Clement Freud jokes felt like a good idea. The changes that technology has wrought were obvious from the start, as The Rockmother floated the idea of a meet not on a blog, but on Instagram, which wasn’t even a thing back then. I’m not even sure that saying that something is or isn’t a thing was even a thing back then. And in the event, only three of us from the old crowd could make it at the allotted time and place, the roof garden on top of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, which is also not a thing these days, for the moment at least. (I had managed to connect earlier in the day with The Urban Woo; we drank gin in the Coach and Horses and bitched about how it’s not what it was.)  

So there we are, The Rockmother and Annie Slaminsky and me, plus Slaminsky’s chum Mette, who isn’t/wasn’t a blogger, possibly because she’s been too busy having a life, but more of that later. And we talk about what’s been happening in the intervening years, divorces and bereavements, house moves and career changes, extra lines and grey hairs, broken hearts and bones and promises. And yes, Brexit and Donald Trump. And we talk about the things that unite us, about how blogging isn’t a thing and London is still a thing, but a different thing. And Mette (who doesn’t blog and doesn’t live in London) talks about how, after she left school, she ended up working on a fishing boat off the Faroe Islands for a year. Which would have made for some fabulous blog posts, surely, but maybe she wouldn’t have had the time. And I remember that the usual reason people give for stopping blogging is that “real life got in the way”.

And then the rain clouds start to gather and the passive-aggressive body language of the people stacking chairs suggests that our time at the roof garden is running out and I wonder why nobody quotes TS Eliot any more. HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME and all that. And then we look around and the skyline has become one enormous Eliot quote. And some things are still a thing, at once different and the same.


And I take a photo and put it on Instagram.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

About Donald Trump and fleeting fame and cocksplats

(WARNING: CONTAINS SWEARS)

I’ve neglected this blog terribly over the past year or two, for a number of pathetic and avoidable reasons, including work pressures, general lack of inspiration and the rival lure from other forms of social media. It’s not that I haven’t had anything to say — it’s just that it seemed quicker and easier to  let rip with a succinct gobbet on Twitter or even some deadpan picture caption on Instagram. Blogging — at least the way I do/did it — requires some sort of considered structure, the right word in the right place, spelled correctly if you’re lucky.

So it seems appropriate that my belated return to Cultural Snow is prompted by Twitter. What happened is this. Donald Trump, a man who might stop being funny in November, appeared in Scotland on Friday, shortly after the result of the European Union referendum was announced. He, or one of the social media gnomes who live in the yellow depths of his hair, tweeted thus:


A number of people responded that, although the UK as a whole had chosen to cut ties with the EU, Scotland as a whole was very much in favor of hanging around. One or two of them probably expressed this sentiment in sober, cogent, reasoned form. I wouldn’t know, because their tweets were lost in a maelstrom of abuse, some of it colourful and imaginative, some of it puerile and profane, plenty of it occupying both spheres. And, yes, I joined in. And, no, I wasn’t in the cogent camp.


No, it wasn’t big and it wasn’t clever but, hey, Twitter, who cares, right? Well, some people do, apparently. I went off to do something vaguely useful, somewhere with lousy phone connections and forgot about my little vent. I only checked my phone a few hours later (I normally do this far more regularly, a habit that has led my 13-year-old niece to describe me as anti-social, but yeah, whatevs) and discovered that I’d gone properly viral. The tweet was liked and retweeted around the world: the current stats, if you’re interested are 2,301 likes and 1,219 RTs, which is modest by Taylor Swift standards but not bad for a balding, middle-aged curmudgeon the focus of whose career has drifted from writing about Pet Shop Boys compilations to writing about fish soup. But it was the messages that made it such fun, especially the awe-struck Americans thanking me for encapsulating their own inchoate thoughts about Mr Trump in such elegant prose and vowing to incorporate “cocksplat” into their vocabularies; a couple of them even proposed marriage. Many of them seemed to think I’m Scottish, which is odd, but not a problem. Of course, there were some naysayers as well. Apparently I’m a “low life liberal dirtbag” which can be the title of my autobiography, if @17762point0 hasn’t copyrighted it already, and, according to one Keith Bishop, “the worst kind of ignorant moron” which makes me wonder what the best kind might be.

But these things don’t just stick to Twitter either, do they? The online barrage that The Donald had suffered was picked up my other media, most prominently on Buzzfeed but also here and here and here and here. And my little cocksplat got its time in the sun, alongside other delicious epithets, from old reliables such as “gobshite” and “tit” to relative newcomers like “cockwomble”, “jizztrumpet” and “tiny fingered, Cheeto faced, ferret wearing shitgibbon”. It was like being at a convention of Malcolm Tucker impressionists. No, change that. It was like being at a convention of Malcolm Tucker impressionists and I was one of the best Malcolm Tucker impressionists there, and lots of people were queuing up to tell me how much they enjoyed my Malcolm Tucker impression and could I sign... but sign what? What would I sign? My own Twitter account?

It wasn’t only strangers. Some of my friends who aren’t on Twitter saw these articles and posted them on Facebook, a few of them very sweetly and generously declaring that they are proud to know someone who said “cocksplat” to a man who may end up as the next President of the United States. One friend came across my contribution during her grandmother’s funeral and she said that sharing it with her family brought some welcome relief to a sad day. Which is lovely.

And people are still saying nice things as I type this, but the compliments are coming at a far less  ferocious pace and pretty soon they’ll fade away. I realised that digital, viral fame is very nice, but it rarely lasts. I suspect the people we’ll remember in all this are the man who handed out swastika golfballs and this lady, who clearly decided that good, old-fashioned analogue communications would do the trick better than anything:


And while all this was going on, the pound was slumping to a 30-year low and the Prime Minister resigned. But, y'know, hee hee. Cocksplat.

PS: And then this happened.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

About Bowie


Talking heads from David Cameron upwards have had their say on David Bowie and why he was important and what he really meant. The guy’s barely been (secretly) cremated and already a backlash has started, the main criticism being that this is an orgy of irrational grief unprecedented since the whole Diana thing; maybe even more over the top since this mourning is amplified by social media. (I learned of Diana's death from the TV news; I learned of Bowie’s from the Fantasy Death League Facebook group.)

So, leaving aside the comprehensible grief of his family and close friends, are we permitted to mourn? And if so, why are we doing so with such intensity?

First, I think, because it was a shock. This may seem a little strange, because Bowie was 69; not exactly a ripe old age these days, but a point in life where banal infirmities such as cancer are liable to become part of the background music at least. It’s not as if he was a member of the 27 club, although few would have been surprised had he joined that unhappy institution; when Bowie actually was 27, the period when he appeared in the documentary Cracked Actor, he claimed to exist on a diet of red peppers, milk and cocaine. 

But it wasn’t so much the shock that he had died; it was the realisation that he even *could* die. More than any other performer — maybe only Michael Jackson came close — he had become inextricably linked with his evolving, reincarnating personas, so we rather lost sight of the flesh and blood underneath. Yes, in theory, we knew that he’d spent the past 20 or so years in domestic bliss with his gorgeous wife and beloved daughter, the sort of thing to which mere mortals aspire — but at the same time he was still Ziggy and the Duke and Screaming Lord Byron and they can never die. How can you kill something that was never conventionally alive?

That collective delusion apart, why was he important, why was he mourned? Well, there’s the music of course and, in purely artistic terms, he wrote and performed some great pop. I could never claim to have been a devote Bowiephile in the way that some of my friends were; I owned maybe half a dozen albums in various forms; saw him in concert just the once. But his own music is just the start of it; it’s his influence on huge swathes of what came after — glam, punk, indie, new romantic, synth pop, industrial, event elements of soul, funk and dance — is incalculable. For the past few days I’ve been surrounded by people who were perhaps too young to have fully understood what Bowie meant, some even who’d never heard of him. I’ve been trying to construct for them a musical universe in which Bowie never existed, a sort of It’s A Wonderful Life in which Jimmy Stewart has screwed-up eyes and screwed-down hairdo — and it’s a horribly bland place, I can tell you.

But it’s not just the music, is it? What Bowie really offered was a sense of identity and belonging for those of us who didn’t really belong. The square pegs, the left-handers, the kids who got picked last for the football team. Inevitably there have been countless references to a specific TV performance of Starman in July 1972, a moment that appears to have transformed the lives of pretty much everyone who saw it, each believing that when he sang “I had to phone someone so I picked on you” it was a personal invitation to attend some kind of Bacchanalian tea party. I missed that moment but there were plenty more through the years, a series of glorious happenings that never seemed contrived, second-guessing the zeitgeist while selling records almost as an afterthought. The sounds and the costumes and the characters changed but what remained consistent was his otherness, out of time, out of place, at once cool and awkward, Hamlet and Meursault and Josef K, how we wanted to be and how we were in one package. As we put on our red shoes and immediately fell wanking to the floor, he was a sort of Platonic ideal of how to be. And now that he’s dead — and even though his death was enigmatic and surprising and delivered with extraordinary timing, he’s dead — we realise that he was mere meat and bones and earwax like the rest of us.

But he did it so well. And those of us 40- and 50-somethings who stumbled through our dreary existences for the past week, sharing memories and tears and fuzzy YouTube clips of strange TV appearances in 1976, maybe what we’re really grieving for is the fact that however often we paint on that Aladdin Sane flash, we are not and never will be Bowie. 

Sunday, November 08, 2015

A birthday, of sorts

This blog shuffled into life 10 years ago today. The first post was inevitably a tad meta, but it also had room for Murakami, pencils and vodka. In fact, I wonder whether I should have called it Pencils and Vodka. 

I had the vague notion that the blog would be a record of what I was reading and watching and listening to, but it quickly took a detour. Still, just for old time’s sake...
I’ve just worked out how old I’ll be if this lasts another 10 years and I want to hide under the table...

Anyway, to mark the occasion in traditional style, here’s a tastefully saucy picture of Helen Mirren:


Tuesday, November 03, 2015

About Kenny G


The saxophonist Kenny G is simply horrid, from his banal, sugary smooooth jazz noodling to his nasty hair (and for a more cogent analysis of his musical, aesthetic and moral sins, do read this coruscating attack by Pat Metheny). But when I was alerted to the fact that he’s going to make an attempt on the world record for holding a single note (on a plane, for charity) I couldn’t help thinking that if some more credible musician were doing exactly the same thing, we’d be hailing it as a magnificent piece of performance art and it would probably end up being entered for the Turner Prize.

That said, his hair’s still ghastly.

Does this mean I’m blogging again?

Monday, September 28, 2015

About cover versions


There’s been lots of chin-stroking happening about Ryan Adams covering Taylor Swift’s album 1989 — see this article for a quick taster. Boiled down, the mood is that while Adams intended his versions to be a salute to Swift’s songwriting ability, some critics don’t take it that way. Why does a cheery female pop artist need the validation of a glum bloke with a guitar before she’s taken seriously? (At a tangent, this is similar to the argument that Jeremy Corbyn’s defenders offered when he gave all the top Shadow Cabinet jobs to men — the assumption that the Foreign Office is somehow more prestigious than Education is in itself gendered. Well, hmmm. 

The arguments do rather support my thesis that pop music is (maybe I mean should be) always less about music than it is about something else (gender, race, sexuality, teenage rebellion, whatever) because what’s at stake here is credibility. Earlier this month I was in Singapore (which is in itself a glossy cover version of a real city) and saw a performance by Postmodern Jukebox, an American ensemble that reworks modern pop tunes in a dizzying array of earlier styles. As the name suggests, there’s a mood of droll irony going on here, but the performers also appear to take a genuine joy in what they can do with the material — they’re working with it, not against it. 


So is that OK? I’m kind of guessing that Ms Swift, who appears to be a pretty level-headed woman, doesn’t really give a toss as long as she gets paid. Although some people seem to believe I think too much about these things...


Saturday, August 22, 2015

Banksy and Warney


I’m afraid I haven’t yet made the pilgrimage to Weston-super-Mare, the site of Banksy’s theme-park-with-a-difference, Dismaland. It sounds like an interesting and different experience but from the coverage so far it looks as if he’s borrowed rather a lot of ideas from conceptual provocateurs such as Jeff Koons (zzzzzz) and the Chapman Brothers (love them). To be fair, when I raised this yesterday, several of his defenders pointed out that Banksy has never pretended to be original.

What he does offer is the ability to grab attention in mainstream media where other contemporary artists can’t get a look-in (Hirst and Emin excepted, possibly). And of course the best way to do this is with bourgeois-bating outrage, with which Dismaland is liberally endowed, whether it’s a kitschy re-staging of the Diana crash or Punch and Judy with the male lead recast as Jimmy Savile.

Bad taste? Possibly. But Banksy wasn’t the only deployer of bad taste this week. There was also Project Harpoon, the self-defined “collaborative art project” that refashions images of larger women (without their consent) into proportions that are more acceptable to its creators. And then of course there’s the painting that spin-bowling legend Shane Warne has commissioned for his Melbourne home; featuring a barely clad Angelina Jolie among the throng. It’s horrific, obviously — but if it showed up in Dismaland, might we see it differently?

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Films I recently watched on a plane

When I started this blog, at a time when most of you were still in nappies, the idea was that I’d use it to write about what I was reading and watching and listening to. After a while, though, I got to the stage when I didn’t have time to write so much; but later still, I realised I wasn’t even making the time to read or watch or listen, so there’d be bugger all to write about anyway.

The only exception comes when I fly, which is the time I set aside to catch up on the films I really ought to have seen over the past few months; and since I’ve been flying more than normal lately, I’ve managed to catch a few films. But I still don’t have much time to write, so please regard these as rough notes rather than full-on reviews. You know, as if you care.

Pride (Matthew Warchus). Similar to Bend it Like Beckham (but with gay people and the miner’s strike instead of feminism, Asian parents and football), this is a movie with its heart in the right place and a script that’s so grindingly banal and obvious it could almost make you vote Tory. It’s not a spoiler alert to reveal that Bill Nighy’s character turns out at the end to be gay, because if you don’t guess that within 30 seconds you’re probably a bit dim.


Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg) Mulholland Dr meets Magnolia, with passing references to The Shining and The Sixth Sense. Cronenberg takes the adage that you shouldn’t work with children and animals to the logical conclusion by trying to kill off all the children and animals. And Julianne Moore farts. I liked it. (By the way, KLM doesn’t censor its on-board entertainment, which in this case means there was a penis. I’m not sure the bloke in the seat next to me was ready for that.) 


Kingsman: The Secret Service (Matthew Vaughn). Somebody you don’t expect to die, dies. And somebody you don’t expect to be a baddy turns out to be a baddy. The suits are nice, though, and the extreme violence is quite amusing, especially the exploding heads at the end.

The Theory of Everything (James Marsh). All competently and sensitively done, but Eddie Redmayne’s turn as Stephen Hawking is the sort of barefaced, cynical, hey-look-at-my-disabled-face Oscar bait I thought we’d thrown out 20 years ago. And I still don’t really understand what a black hole is.



Birdman (Alexander González Iñárritu). Maybe I shouldn’t have been so sneery about Oscar bait, because this actually won the Best Picture gong and it’s utterly brilliant, with Michael Keaton  – as an actor famous for playing a superhero, attempting to resurrect his career – hovering on the crowded intersection between fantasy, madness, performance and the supernatural. But he doesn’t do a disabled face so he didn’t get a prize for himself. The ending actually left me gasping, which can be kind of embarrassing on a plane. Fortunately, this was a different flight, so the bloke who didn’t like the penis in Maps to the Stars wasn’t around to object.

PS: Oh, and in case you missed it, I wrote another thing about food in Bangkok.