Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Spod corner

Blogger seems to be suggesting, with all the elegant subtlety of a big wet snog from an oiled, naked and up-for-it John McCririck, that it might be in my best interests to shift my ass to the new version. Should I? Pros and cons, please, from anybody who's done it, or has made a conscious decision not to.

Sorry about the McCririck bit.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Birds, Bernini and the blues

Small Boo's been getting well into semi-illicit TV downloads, unearthing old favourites (anyone remember The Changes?) and more current stuff (Torchwood, a show for anyone who quivers with delight at the notion of gay, Welsh Buffy).

But two things have got me stroking my chin in particular in recent days. One is The River Cottage Treatment, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's latest attempt to acquaint us with the gruesome reality of food production.

Ah, that word, "reality". Because yes, much as I like HFW, the vegetarian's favourite carnivore, this is reality TV. Sure, it's the OK end of reality TV, in the guise of Faking It (which James Blue Cat lauded recently), rather than such grotesque efforts as Myleene Klass's new vehicle, I'm A Celebrity, Have I Got Fantastic Tits Or What? But under the perfectly sound idea (Hugh tries to persuade people not to eat shite food), there's the same undercurrent of class-based bullying that taints Jamie Oliver (who, Cockernee mannerisms aside, is as resolutely middle-class as I am, if a few rungs down the ladder from Old Etonian Hugh) and his otherwise noble school meals campaign.

This dirty little secret of British society (we all know class differences are hugely important, but nobody wants to talk about it) threatened to bubble up, like the juice of home-grown damsons through a crumble topping, when Hugh was attempting to get his guests to vow never to buy factory-farmed chickens again. One of his guinea pigs held out, explaining that she had to feed several kids on a tight budget, and free-range chicken was just a luxury too far. "The real world, where I live," she said,"We haven't got chickens running around the farm that we can just kill when we want." She also admitted that she was unswayed by welfare arguments, because she thought chickens were horrible, as opposed to ducks, which are "really, really cute".

Which was the fulcrum for her choice to begrudge an extra quid for a free-range chicken, but to splurge over 15 quid on an organic duck.

And then I realised that this wasn't just a nasty, voyeuristic attempt by Eton 'n' Oxford Fearnley-Whittingstall to give the Essex pleb a holier-than thou thrashing, which he plainly didn't want to do. It was just showing us that the woman was an idiot.

Also on the list was another one of my pet hates, the documentary with dramatised reconstructions. These are OK when the reconstruction actually tells you something (say, how the pyramids were built), but when it just reinforces the script for the slowies at the back, it quickly becomes tiresome. So in Simon Schama's The Power Of Art, it's not enough for the quasi-beatnik don to tell us that Bernini had a cute mistress - we had to see her in the flesh (or at least an actress playing her). The effect was especially pointless, because we then saw the bust that Bernini made of her, which looked nothing like the actress. Most of the show seemed devoted to the soap opera aspect of the sculptor's life, with SS as one point describing him - partly condemning, partly in wistful admiration - as "a complete bastard".

But Schama redeemed himself when he got to the meat of the show, Bernini's Ecstasy of St Theresa. His main point was that Bernini was the first sculptor who was able to render life, in all its fleshly wonder, in marble - even with religious subjects. The Carmelite's face seems to synthesise religious and sexual ecstasy, and Schama was pretty convinced that she was enjoying a shuddering orgasm. And I suddenly realised that Bernini was one of the first artists to depict the creative tension between God and sex, between divine and erotic love, the dialectic that informs the work of Marvin Gaye and Al Green and Aretha Franklin and the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi and so much more. Gian Lorenzo Bernini and St Theresa of Avila as Soul Brother and Sister Number One? As James Brown so elegantly put it, "I feel good!"

Friday, November 24, 2006

You terrible Clint

I tried to write a review of Flags Of Our Fathers, but it went a bit strange and turned into this.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

It's a dirty job, but...

I do like Sight and Sound, but sometimes, just sometimes... This is from Henry K Miller's review of Dirty Sanchez The Movie, which includes a scene where frozen excrement is rubbed on the camera lens and then licked off:

"Writing about the shit-eating scene in Pasolini's Salò o le centoventi giornate di sodoma, the critic Gary Indiana said: 'There is something absurdly winning about Pasolini's explanation of [it] as a commentary on processed foods, and the fact that [he] was being sincere when he said it.' The creators of Dirty Sanchez The Movie, which matches Pasolini's film grotesquerie for grotesequerie, give no such explanation for their antics. Nor does the film's title sequence include, in the manner of Salò, bibliographical references to Barthes and de Beauvoir. Whereas the Italian director framed his descent through his various hellish circles (of manias, shit, and blood - all staples of Dirty Sanchez) within a rigorously 'distanced' aesthetic, eschewing close-ups, Team Sanchez's adventures in depravity are captured without deliberate artifice, with the camera in the thick of it and the crew occasionally on-screen."

That's 140 words to tell us that Pasolini didn't direct Dirty Sanchez The Movie. Cheers.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Jack the wobbler

Investigators believe that this
is the face of Jack the Ripper. Anyone with a passing interest in match-fixing allegations and wobbly knees will know that it's actually the face of
former Liverpool, Southampton and Zimbabwe goalie Bruce Grobbelaar, but with his moustache made a bit more impressive with a felt-tip. And anyway, those of us with even the most cursory knowledge of strange 70s sci-fi films that crop up late at night when you least expect them know that Jack the Ripper looked like David Warner, and that's the end of the matter.

Oh, and I was on Thai telly today. I thought they wanted me to talk about political cartoons, but they asked me what I thought could be done to solve the inter-communal violence in Thailand's deep south. I glanced at the monitor, and saw a small cloud appearing over my head, with a big question mark in it...

Sunday, November 19, 2006

I think therefore I Ambrosia

From the quietly perceptive Book World blog, the parable of the rice pudding - a get-out clause for non-fiction writers everywhere. Also, the tale of Kristian Von Hornsleth, who offered a pig to any Ugandan villager who'd take his name; another case of truth being stranger than the alternative. On the other hand, Mr Von Hornsleth is an artist, so maybe it's a case of truth and beauty being the same thing.

And I'm sure they'd rather have had a Wii.

Friday, November 17, 2006

To ubiquity and beyond!

Well, the truth is out. We now know what the all-time best-selling albums in the UK are. It's a depressing trawl through the mediocrity and safeness of British taste, but that's what we've come to expect, isn't it? More to the fact, it's what we really yearn for, luxuriating in our sense of aesthetic superiority over the drooling tossers who prefer Robbie Williams (six albums!!??) or Robson & Jerome to, plucking a few names, Bowie, Prince and the Smiths.

But there is something interesting about the Top 10. Despite having been smitten by popular music since I was about 13, I've only ever owned three of those albums in any format. And yet each of them provokes a specific reaction, a Proustian babble of memories. They've become so tangled up in our popular culture that we develop responses to them without really ever knowing them.

The chart-topper, Queen's Greatest Hits, is all about summers; specifically lounging by the pool of my friend D's house when I was 15 or 16, flirting ineptly with the cute French and Italian students who brought a sorely-needed air of the cosmopolitan to semi-rural Hampshire in the mid-1980s. "Of course Freddie's gay," I said, a declaration that was met with a snort of derision from D, who now apparently lives with a gentleman friend in Switzerland. I'd always wondered why he never availed himself of the wiggly Eurobabes on offer. The Queen album was little more than background noise, but it's earwormed its way into my DNA, without ever persuading me to buy a copy.

Brothers In Arms, meanwhile, sums up my first term at university. Having endured so many years of philistine conformity, I was eager to plunge into a pool of creative insanity - a collision of Brideshead and Paris 1968 was what I had in mind, or something like it. I found myself in a house with 11 other wide-eyed newbies, every single one of whom owned a copy of Brothers In Arms, and thought it was dead good, especially the guitar solos. Most of them liked Phil Collins as well. This was going to be tougher than I thought...

Anyway, this spawns your task for the weekend. I crave your responses to a creative artefact that you only really know by reputation. Something you've never owned, never properly read, heard or seen, but provokes a specific memory or reaction whenever it pops up on the radar. Conceptual prizes await for the best ones.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Floats your boat

Returned last night from a boat jaunt up the majestic Chao Phrya river. The idea was that we would go north-ish from Bangkok on Monday and make a triumpant entrance into the canals of Ayuthaya, the ancient capital of Siam, on Tuesday morning. However, recent flooding in central Thailand (caused by a typhoon in Vietnam, apparently - Thais are always happy to blame the Vietnamese, it's a safe bet) meant that the river level was too high, and we couldn't get under the Rama VIII bridge until about 10.30 on Monday night. For a Londoncentric analogy, that's like spending 12 hours to get from Tower Bridge to Hammersmith.

Still, the converted rice barge itself was very luxurious, and the crew were wonderful, filling us with chow (possibly to keep the boat as low in the water as possible). And it's not as if we were paying. Will link to the article when it comes out, early December.

While I was away, it appears that the UK Music Hall of Fame has had another bout of inductions: George Martin (well overdue); Led Zeppelin; James Brown; Brian Wilson; Bon Jovi; Prince; Rod Stewart; Dusty Springfield. It does raise the question of what these virtual institutions are actually... hang on... Bon Jovi??? I would have thought there were some British cheese-rock bands with ever-smiling singers who could just as well taken BJ's place. Like the Rubettes, maybe. Or Racey.

Still, if you want rock stardom of a more erudite stripe, the mighty Everett True (blah blah, Kurt 'n' Courtney, rhubarb, first Creation single, blah blah Melody Maker, etc etc) is touring the bookshops of Britain from next Monday, talking about his Nirvana tome, and probably other stuff as well. Pungent and fruity, with an undertone of simmering resentment at the corporate lameness of the modern music press, Mr True comes highly recommended. Schedule: Mon 20, 6 pm, Borders, Bristol; Wed 22, 6 pm, Borders, London Charing X Road; Thu 23, 6pm, Borders, Brighton Churchill Sq; Fri 24, 6.30pm, Manchester Library (with John Robb); Sat 25, 5pm, Forest Café, Edinburgh; Sun 26, 11 am (not a very rock 'n' roll hour - Ed.), Hitherto/Tinderbox, Glasgow. More details on the Plan B site.

PS: My CiF spiel on the Dandy reprint non-controversy; and from the always entertaining London Review of Breakfasts, a cogently argued, if ultimately wrong-headed defence of Starbucks. (Go here for my thoughts on the matter.)

Sunday, November 12, 2006

All eyez on me

Private Eye reports that Colin Randall, Paris correspondent for the Daily Telegraph until he was sacked in September, has started a blog of his own. In the early part of October, he picked up over 200 comments: the eight surviving foreign correspondents blogging on the Torygraph site amassed 29 in the same period. Between them. It's further evidence, I suppose, that (Comment is Free apart, but he would say that, wouldn't he?), Brit newspapers have yet to achieve a useful synergy with the blogosphere. At the same time, it does raise the question of what blogs are really for. Are eyeballs a measure of virtual virility? Should Randall hop on the EuroStar back to London and wiggle his Profile Views in the claret-enhanced faces of his former employers? Or would that be to miss the point?

Lord Gnome also provides us with a wicked précis of that One Day In History mass blog thing that has had such a resonant effect on the cultural landscape. Or not:

My Personal Blog

I got up this morning and had breakfast. Then I went to work and talked to some people. Really busy day. Got home in the evening, had supper, watched some telly and went to bed.
Repeat 2 million times and publish on website which no one will ever read again."

While I was picking up my Eye, an expat staple to rank with Marmite and DVDs of Inspector Morse, I noticed a book on the shelf. It was called Covergirl, by Maura Moynihan, and flashed across the cover, in its own little red circle, was the phrase "REALITY FICTION".

Now, we've been here before, with the likes of In Cold Blood, a so-called non-fiction novel. But Capote was taking a news story, and writing it up in a style that we associate more closely with fiction. Moynihan, daughter of a respected American politician and diplomat, and a former Warhol girl (apparently the sort that didn't even get 15 minutes) appears to be offering a thinly-disguised version of her own life - in fact, the raw material for about 90 per cent of first novels. But flagging it up like this strikes me as a little bizarre. Are people more likely to buy or read a book because it's loosely based on the life of someone they've never heard of? Has the deadly duo of postmodernism and Big Brother finally destroyed any consensus as to what reality actually is (and how it's different from fiction)? I look forward to "REALITY FICTION" stickers being plastered over David Copperfield, On The Road, The Bell Jar, Jane Eyre and Decline And Fall. I'm not entirely sure what goes on in the heads of publishers any more, something that's reinforced by the list of suggested changes to my manuscript that I received a few days ago. Oh well, time to negotiate yet another creative compromise. Story of my life. Hey, maybe I should write a novel about it.

Pausing only to note the suggestion that global conflicts can be resolved by a quick bout of scissors-paper-stone, I'm off on another leisurely jaunt, this time a travel story for the Bangkok Post. Will return with edited highlights mid-week.

Thursday, November 09, 2006


The newly-beardy Ian Hocking tagged me a few weeks back, asking for 'Five Things About Me'. Since I've responded to similar memes in the past, I hope I'm forgiven for offering Five Things About Manila, which is sort of the same thing, since I've been here for a couple of days.

1. Jose Rizal, the hero of Philippine independence, who was executed by the dastardly Spaniards (a more dastardly word than 'Spanish', somehow) in 1896, was only 4 feet 11 inches tall.

2. The locals love calamansi, which sounds like seafood, but is actually a kind of citrus fruit. It looks like a small lime, smells like a tart orange, and tastes like a mild lemon. Which covers all citrus-themed eventualities, really. Except for grapefruit.

3. They're very big on security here. Bag searches and metal detectors are standard when entering hotels, malls and public transport. At the train station, I saw a security guard with an AK-47. But he appeared to be in a cheery mood.

4. At this time of year, you can't go anywhere without hearing 'Last Christmas'.

5. The Pilipino word for 'one thousand' is 'sanlibong'.

Take this tag to the heathens: Anthony; RealDoc; the redesigned Treespotter.


'Remember that it isn't always the sensational stuff that writers are looking for, it can just as easily be something that you take for granted like having raised twins or knowing how to grow beetroot. Mind you, if you know how to fly a helicopter or have worked as a film extra, do feel free to let the rest of us know about it.'

Monday, November 06, 2006

Just cause or impediment

Japanese couples are so keen to have Western-style weddings, local gaijin can make ready cash by pretending to be Christian priests. Which either follows the God-is-dead drift of this excellent article about The New Atheism in, of all publications, Wired, the Bible of all things geekoid; or offers an oblique commentary on the tragic, but at the same time terribly amusing tale of Pastor Ted Haggard and his drugs and massage (unconsumed and unconsummated, respectively); or suggests that Tokyo-based expats are so impoverished and/or shameless, they'll do half-arsed impressions of Derek Nimmo for a bowl of ramen.

Elsewhere: I offer a bit of PR advice to Al Quaeda; supposedly conservative pundit Andrew Sullivan calls Donald Rumsfeld an "incompetent maniac" and hopes that the Republicans are crucified in the midterms; and I also noticed the following quotation from William Burroughs on Treespotter's excellent blog:

"I am not one of those weak-spirited, sappy Americans who want to be liked by all the people around them. I don’t care if people hate my guts; I assume most of them do. The important question is whether they are in a position to do anything about it. My affections, being concentrated over a few people, are not spread all over Hell in a vile attempt to placate sulky, worthless shits."

Which I hadn't heard before, despite having spent many happy hours comparing Radiohead's 'Fitter Happier' to the cut-up texts of Burroughs and Bryon Gysin. It's somewhere between Swift's dictum on "the animal called Man", and Sturgeon's Revelation ("90% of everything is crud").

Tomorrow I'm off to Manila, to cover the annual envelope harvest, and I may be out of contact on Wednesday, which is the first anniversary of Cultural Snow. So, a couple of days early, here's that first post again.

"Welcome to Cultural Snow
In analogue times, people who were slightly drunk and at a loose end might begin writing bad poetry, or stand on a soapbox at Hyde Park Corner, or just phone the speaking clock and scream obscenities at it. In a similar, but defiantly digital mode, I've started a blog. What's it for? Where's it going? Will it change the world, or will it degenerate, like 97% of all known blogs, into tired harrumphing over the rights and/or wrongs of the Iraq War. I really have no idea, but maybe that Polish vodka does.

It's a bit like taking a pencil for a walk, that pastime beloved of well-meaning art teachers confronted by incompetent six-year-olds, but it's a long time since I wielded a pencil in anger. I took a dog for a walk this evening, however. Will that do?

A hint, though, to where this might all be going; the title, 'Cultural Snow' is a reference to the work of the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. I'm too lazy to track down the exact quotation in full, but I'm pretty sure it's from the novel Dance Dance Dance. So maybe you can expect occasional references to Murakami to crop up in future postings. Or maybe not.

I'm going to get a bit more of that Polish vodka from the fridge. Will be in touch. Soon. Unless the vodka beats me to it."

Note that I had yet to work out how to insert pictures or create links. And wot, no poncy invocations of Baudrillard?

Sunday, November 05, 2006

If you remember, you weren't there

Interesting article in the Sunday Telegraph today. Actually, it's not a particularly interesting article. It says kids are running wild, ASBOs are useless and policemen are hampered by excessive form-filling, the human rights industry and political correctness. There's even a lousy poem, the sort of thing Peter Lilley used to perform at Tory Party conferences, to the delight of delegates and the bowel-churning embarrassment of everybody else. Pretty much the sort of thing that's been running in the Telegraph for decades.

What is interesting is the byline. It's by Felix Dennis (above, right), who was one of the troika behind OZ magazine. In the article, Dennis describes how, at the age of 16, he received a no-holds-barred bollocking from a beat copper who apprehended him about to steal a microphone from a pawn shop: "Thus ended my life of crime."

Well, strictly speaking, that's true. After Dennis, Richard Neville and Jim Anderson were prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act over the Schoolkids' edition of OZ, found guilty and given jail terms, their sentences were quashed on appeal, so he doesn't actually have a criminal record. However, the case, for all its focus on a raunchy image of Rupert Bear, was as much to do with official nervousness at the widespread subversion of law and order, and the growing tendency of young people to express their contempt for the bastions of authority, including the police. The case was dramatised in 1991, with Kevin (brother of Keith) Allen as Dennis, and a preposterously pretty Hugh Grant as Neville; it was later satirised in an episode of the sitcom Hippies.

The judge gave Dennis a lighter sentence than his co-accused, because he was "very much less intelligent" than the others. He made no mention of his faulty memory.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Going nowhere

Sacha Baron Cohen's alter ego, Borat, has quickly transcended his role as a comic character, and become a significant prompt for bien pensant chin-stroking in the salons of Hampstead and the columns of the Sunday broadsheets. Who are we really laughing at when we watch Baron Cohen, in his cheap suits and neo-Scouse moustache? Is it racism? What about the donkey? Is it all an Uzbek plot? Is it significant that Baron Cohen is Jewish? Do you know all the words to 'Throw The Jew Down The Well'? Will he be launching his own line of swimwear?

Whatever Baron Cohen's motives, it's clear that the crucial decision was to invent a character that came from somewhere about which we had no firm ideas; even better, many people had never heard of it. We all know the stereotypes, even if we find them repulsive: Indians move their heads from side to side; Nigerians are fraudsters; Poles can install a power shower in minutes. But Kazakhs? Um... weren't they sworn enemies of Flash Gordon? If there's any -ism at the heart of Borat's humour, it's at the expense of the witless rednecks that he lures into expressing their ignorance; Billybobism, maybe.

Borat's ubiquity has prompted the government of Kazakhstan to stage a counter-offensive, and travel journalists to hike to the Central Asian republic in an effort to discover what it's really like. But this misses the point; Kazakhstan is somewhere between a red herring and a MacGuffin. Borat as we know him evolved from earlier Baron Cohen characters who were Moldovan and Albanian. Borat-speak is actually Hebrew with a smattering of Polish. He could have come from anywhere in the world, provided it was obscure.

The same thinking lies behind Daniel Kalder's travel book, Lost Cosmonaut. Kalder's preface is an abstract of the Shymkent Declarations, which resolve that, among other things: "The anti-tourist does not visit places that are in any way desirable... The anti-tourist travels at the wrong time of year... The anti-tourist is interested only in hidden histories, in delightful obscurities, in bad art..."

There's a tenuous link with Borat, in that the Shymkent Declarations are named after a town in Kazakhstan. But Kazakhstan is high-profile, in Kalder's terms; it does, after all, have a seat at the United Nations. We acknowledge its existence, however fleetingly, every four years, when its plucky athletes strut past in the Olympic opning ceremony, and the TV commentator gives us a snippet of trivia about the place.

But Kalder goes where the UN and the Olympics don't. His speciality is seeking those republics that are almost totally autonomous, but are still nominally part of Russia, so aren't quite nations. Tatarstan, historical centre of the Golden Horde; Kalmykia, home of Chess City and the only Buddhist country in Europe; Mari El, hotspot for pagans and internet brides; Udmurtia, where Kalder is pressed to say why he came to such a place, and the best he can come up with is that he likes the name because of its "suggestion of nothingness".

Inevitably, some of Kalder's narrative nudges dangerously close to cheap laughs at the expense of the locals. The "seriously shitty" food in the Sputnik Cafe, where dirt-poor Kalymks take their kids for a treat of gristly meatballs; All Mice Love Cheese, a show for three-year-olds that provides the cultural highlight of the Udmurt State Theater's output; police fail to spot a link when five people within a single square kilometre are decapitated and have their VCRs stolen. A taxi-driver asks Kalder's Japanese companion if he's Yugoslavian. These locals, eh, so dumb and insular, they might as well be... us...

But, like the best travel writers, Kalder's not really writing about these places. He's not even writing about himself, although there's an occasional bout of self-pity and an acknowledgement that he likes films with tits in. He's dealing with something at once bigger and more elusive.

Like Borat, he confronts us with our own ignorance. Those of us brought up during the Cold War still have a tendency to blur the distinction between "Russian" and "Soviet". We can't quite get our heads around the fact that cultural phenomena such as Tofik Bakhramov (the so-called Russian linesman at the 1966 World Cup Final), Olga Korbut and the Chernobyl power station were no more Russian than I'm a Norwegian. (Azerbaijan, Belarus and Ukraine, if you're interested.)

But Kalder goes even deeper than geopolitics. He's at his most profound, and unnerving, when he hovers somewhere over the cusp of national identity and existentialism. "But it is unknown," he muses, "a whole other Europe that might as well not exist for all we Westerners care. In fact, it does not exist for us. They do not exist."

This is Bishop Berkeley territory. If a country suffers, and CNN is not present, does its pain exist? Kalder feels for them. He is, after all, a Scot, another country-but-not-quite. But he knows the best thing he can do is to describe, simply to bring these places into some kind of existence. We might laugh at these hicks, these hillbillies of the Steppes, but isn't that better than being ignored?

Purely accidentally, the publishers manage to express this sense of nowhere, of not-quite-locality, with their North American edition. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, they changed the book's subtitle when it crossed the Atlantic. They also Americanised the spelling and punctuation. But it remains impenetrably British: the experience of consuming Kalmyk tea is described as "like drinking a cup of Bernard Manning's sweat"; Kalder has a Proustian flashback to Littlewood's in Dunfermline. Why will a reader in St Louis be thrown by the diphthong in "faeces" but understand when the author describes something as "shite"? Scribner have founded their own republic, somewhere in the middle of the Pond. But it could never be as bleak and empty and ignored as the places Kalder describes.