Monday, December 31, 2007

The holy trinity

When I was 17, I was selected to take part in the Canadian National Student Debating Seminar, taking place that year in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Earnest young gobshites from the length and breadth of Canada were billeted on kindly and respectable residents of the town; I was taken in by the mayor of Halifax himself.

As one might expect from a gentleman in such an exalted position, the mayor had met the great and good of all nations, a fact of which he was quietly proud. Above his mantelpiece were three framed photographs, depicting the most prestigious of these encounters: the mayor meeting Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II; the mayor meeting His Holiness Pope John Paul II; and the mayor meeting...

Kenny New Year, everyone.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

This year's model

I've discussed before the fact that those retrospective reviews that pepper the media throughout December bear little or no relation to how we actually consume cultural product. The vast majority of them deal only with things that have been released in the past year: this benefits the culture industry (which packs its marketing resources behind the most recent releases) and the reviewers themselves, who get to prove how terribly Zeitgeisty they are.

Of course ordinary consumers are interested in new stuff. But they mix up recent releases with old favourites, as well as books and films and music that have only just come into view, or have been tottering on a to-do pile for several months. Add to this the fact that most general punters are by definition at a disadvantage when it comes to keeping up with the latest developments (little access to review copies, advance screenings, the chance to read something in proof or even manuscript) and it's easy to work out that for many of us, "the best thing I've read/seen/heard all year" will come from a much broader pool than you might infer by scanning the Sunday broadsheets.

So, the best new book I've read this year was After Dark by Haruki Murakami, although it's only the English translation that was "new", the Japanese original having appeared three years ago. With music I'm on surer ground: The Reminder by Feist, which was definitely released this year, and will doubtless be cropping up in those damned lists, even if Betty hates it. Films? To be honest, nothing with a release date of 2007 has made me sit up and clap my hands. Of course if I'd had the job of identifying the year's best films for and end-of-'07 round-up, I wouldn't be able to write that; at best, I'd have to write a bitter, backward-looking sidebar about how modern film is rubbish. Or, if I'd had that job, I would have got my arse into gear and seen Lust, Caution and No Country for Old Men in time for the end of the year.

But recent releases make up only a small part of what I've consumed. Some of my happiest experiences have come from things I thought I knew, or things I've meant to watch: The Great Gatsby left me gasping with melancholy joy, a quarter-century after I should have read it; and Les Triplettes de Belleville is as weird and funny as everyone said it was when it first came out (in 2003), so I don't know why I left it that long. As for music, the album I've listened to most assiduously this year is a sampler of old Chicago blues and soul stuff that came attached to the front of Mojo magazine a couple of years back. Were I writing a "proper" review, that would be discounted on two counts: too late; and cobbled-together freebie samplers aren't "real" product (in the sense that you can't use them as leverage for selling ad space).

And in any case, by the time you get to my age, categorical "favourites" tend to become fossilised. The best things I've read or heard or seen were my best things last year, and for the decade before that. So that's why the best book of 2007, as far as I'm concerned, is Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies; the best album is White Light/White Heat by the Velvet Underground; and the best film is Casablanca. And, unless something very peculiar happens in the coming months, these will be the best things of 2008 as well, and of 2009, and on and on until I can't read or hear or watch or blog anything.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Wot no Leonardo?

A few disconnected thoughts about the putative highlight of this year's sprout-coma TV. Most of these probably replicate musings on various Whoey talkboards but, hey, great spods think alike.

New, quasi-banging-techno arrangement of theme music. I'd rather not, thanks.

The pitch: The Robots of Death meets The Poseidon Adventure.

Um, Starship Titanic, maybe? And wasn't one of the protocol numbers that the Doctor threw at the Hosts 42? Intertextual metafictional geekoid references ahoy! What next? Captain Jack masters the Vulcan death grip?

Yeah, yeah, fanboys, ASTRID = TARDIS (anag). But it also = STAR ID, which is pretty much what happened to her. And, in a less literal sense, what happened to Kylie. And 'Astrid' may even be an oblique reference to a character in long-lost Troughton story The Enemy of the World? Or is that just showing off?

Talking of Astrid, from some angles, Kylie looks like Janet Leigh. And from others, a young Gloria Hunniford.

In any case, is it appropriate to call a 39-year-old woman a "pretty girl"? Even if you're a dying dwarf Cyborg?

Ethnic Minority Actor In An Ethnically Non-Specific Role? Check.

Ditto crowbarred-in gay lib reference. Yes, they can get married now. We get it.

Bit of a waste of Geoffrey Palmer, I thought. But he was good while he lasted.

But didn't Marjorie marry the Brigadier at the end of the last series? Oh hang on, sorry, that was the other putative Christmas TV highlight. Bit rubbish, wasn't it? But maybe it was always thus, and we just didn't know it at the time.

Queen-and-Corgi cameo: very naff. Ditto the shooting star bit at the end. Eewww.

If 50 million credits is about a million quid, 5,000 credits is 100 quid. Why would it take the Van Hoffs 20 years to pay that off? What sort of economy have they got on Sto?

Hasn't the disabled megalomaniac thing been done to death? We've had John Lumic, now this. Why can't they just bring back Davros and be done with it?

The best (new series) Christmas episode yet, and the best thing RTD has done this year. Neither of which really constitutes effusive praise, but it was fun.

(Small Boo's observation.) The awkward erotic frisson thing between the Doctor and his revolving cast of fit totty (Rose, Martha, now Astrid) is getting a bit tiresome. Is that why they're bringing Donna back, seeing as how there's no way the Doctor would want to shag her without a general anaesthetic?

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Everything I know about psychology, I learned from a trombone solo by Big Jim Paterson

Want to know yourself a little better? Forget EQ tests, Scientology, all that time-consuming hassle. Just decide what your favourite Dexys Midnight Runners song is.

If your favourite Dexys Midnight Runners song is 'Geno', you are a 40-something male, essentially content, but with a distinct feeling that things haven't quite worked out as you hoped they would. You never actually saw The Clash in concert, but you drop hints that you might have done to younger female colleagues, who have no idea what you're talking about, and laugh about you in the toilets. In the film of your life you will be played by Neil Pearson.

If your favourite Dexys Midnight Runners song is 'Come On Eileen', you enjoy nightclubs where the dress code is 'Grange Hill uniform' and your main source of solid factual information about the wider world is those list programmes on Channel 4. In the film of your life you will be played by Jennifer Ellison.

If your favourite Dexys Midnight Runners song is 'This Is What She's Like' (the 12-minute rant from their dressing-like-accountants period), you are a music critic on a broadsheet newspaper, and you hope there is no record of the fact you thought the album was incomprehensible bollocks when it first came out. In the film of your life you will be played by Richard E. Grant.

If your favourite Dexy's Midnight Runners song is in fact from that Kevin Rowland solo effort where he wore women's underwear, you took rather too many drugs at the height of the mid-90s easy listening revival, and you are now physically incapable of distinguishing 'ironic' from 'please summon medical attention immediately'. In fact you are Alan McGee, although when the time comes for the movie you will be played by Steve Coogan, who will just play it as Steve Coogan with a faint Scottish accent, but Alan McGee himself will make a brief cameo, as will Kevin Rowland, probably as a park keeper or bin man.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Modified humbug

I'm not religious but I really like a lot of religious music. Plenty of proper, old-fashioned Anglican hymns (none of your hands-aloft nonsense) seem to be tattooed on my DNA; and I really love classic black gospel, the Soul Stirrers and the Swan Silvertones and Sister Rosetta Tharpe and all that.

Similarly, Christmas I can give or take, but I always used to get a little tingle when the Sally Army band showed up at Victoria station, especially when they got to 'In The Bleak Midwinter'. And I'll probably listen to the carols from King's College tomorrow. Call me predictable.

I did a YouTube search for a little Yuletide titbit to offer my long-suffering readers, and came across Peter, Paul and Mary singing 'Go Tell It On The Mountain', a tune I associate with the year I spent in Canada. It was great, but not quite what I wanted, and foolishly, I then followed a link to 'Puff the Magic Dragon' which is not only non-Christmassy, but also one of the saddest songs ever written: in fact, I'm tempted to say that the single line "A dragon lives forever but not so little boys" packs into nine words more pathos that Blake's entire Songs of Innocence and Experience and the final chapter of The House at Pooh Corner combined. Yeah, OK, I'm not afraid to say that it made me cry.

Which is even more unseasonal, I suppose, if you're worried about that sort of thing. So here's Mahalia Jackson. The footage is a bit primitive, but the old girl's got a decent set of pipes in her.

I won't presume to impose a Happy Christmas on you, but non-specific good wishes are coming your way, and a mince pie may be raised in your general direction. See you on the other side.

Friday, December 21, 2007


The first time I saw a plain-paper fax, I thought we'd finally reached Thee Future.

So, what item of run-of-the-mill technology once gave you a sci-fi-flavoured thrill that now seems faintly embarrassing?

Thursday, December 20, 2007

A whiter shade of... er...

In which I welcome the new, inclusive, ethnically diverse face of boneheaded bigotry.

Also, this reader response from the BBC's online coverage of the England collapse in Galle: "Do other nations think it unfair that England get to bowl more overs and have more turns at batting than anyone else?"

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The worst word in the world

My memory's definitely getting worse. Not only do I regularly forget where I've put my keys, by the time I find them, I've forgotten why I wanted them in the first place. Well, to open something, sure: but to open what?

One interesting side-effect of this encroaching senility is that it's left room for bizarre recollections from decades back to reassert themselves in my befuddled mind. This morning, for example, I remembered a very peculiar conversation I had when I was about 11 years old.

Slightly perturbed at the borderline sociopath they'd bred, my parents went through a phase of sending me on "adventure" holidays, in which I would be forced to engage in healthy outdoor pursuits such as rock climbing and horse riding and other things that didn't involve reading Dr Who books in semi-darkness. The holidays were usually based in boarding schools (which would otherwise lie empty during the summer) and I'd be thrown into a dorm with about a dozen other kids, many of them as socially dysfunctional as myself, which probably defeated the object.

Anyway, here's the memory. As we tottered back to the dorm after the nightly disco, conversation turned to the single 'Jilted John', which had got us all pogoing in our Clark's Commandos. One boy announced that it was "the best punk rock song ever". I demurred, suggesting that the Sex Pistols might have a stronger claim to the title.

But one kid, whose name I really can't dredge up, try as I might, announced confidently that we were both wrong. The best, nastiest, most evil punk song ever was the work of one Johnny Apple, who had been thrown out of the Sex Pistols because he was such an utter delinquent. The song was called 'The Queen is a Niker'. We went a bit quiet.

"Do you know what a niker is?" he asked, with a faint hint of menace. We shrugged. "It's the worst swear word ever," he continued. "It's like calling someone a fucking bloody fucking shitty wanker. But worse."

It was several weeks, by which time I'd returned to the bosom of my family, before I realised he was making the whole thing up. But I like to think that one day someone from the Oxford English Dictionary will drop me a line, asking if I have any documentary evidence of the provenance of this peculiar word, (late 1970's), (vulg.).

I've tried to find footage of the legendary Johnny Apple, but not surprisingly the well is dry: no sign even of the clean version. You'll have to make do with this:

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Basket case

The label attached to a wicker basket, made in China, for a Japanese company, bought in the Bangkok equivalent of a pound shop:

"Your day is filled with happiness and love. It is made of natural material so it may have fungus or insects."

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Radio times

I'm scheduled to make a modest contribution to a debate on Richard Bacon's late night show on Radio Five Live on Thursday night (actually more like 0030 GMT on Friday morning). It'll be available on Listen Again thereafter.

That is all.

PS: Sorry about that. My appearance had to be aborted for technical reasons. And I had all my spontaneous quips ready, in my best handwriting.

Ho ho whatever...

In which I send a Christmas card, or as close as anyone's going to get from me this year.

Also: from the Observer, Mary Riddell on general crapness within the BBC, and an uncharacteristically interesting sprawl of comments to follow; and in the Telegraph, of all places, Rupert Everett further stakes his claim to be a stately homo of England with his comments on cosmetic surgery:

"I'm thinking of having a pubic lift, and maybe a face lift, too, with some rather visible, neatly tailored scars, like the seams on a suit."

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Who burned my disco?

Simon Reynolds reviews a US compilation of UK indie from the 80s and 90s for Salon. He makes some good points, and neatly characterises what Brit fans wanted from their guitar-toting heroes at the time, in terms of lyrics at least: "a slightly heroicized version of the fan base's dreams and fears".

But Reynolds then goes on to argue that what a) unifies most of the music in the box and b) prevented its acceptance in the US, is its rejection of dance culture, rhythm, blackness. Inevitably, Morrissey's recent contretemps with the NME gets a mention.

I've never really understood this analysis of classic indie-pop. Sure, it prioritises texture and introspection over beats and feet. And Reynolds is bang on the money when he argues that the British tradition of world-class, black-influenced drummers seems to have come to an end, although he could have given a nod to Reni.

But why does a desire for melodic introspection automatically become a rejection of or even a reaction against dance music? Why does the fact that Morrissey doesn't want to sound like 50 Cent imply a separatist rejection of black culture, which in turn implies, however faintly, racist tendencies, while nobody questions the fact that 50 Cent doesn't want to sound like Morrissey? And isn't a mixture of jangly guitars and lyrics about loneliness permitted to exist as a positive statement in and of itself, to be lauded or denigrated on its own terms, on the basis of what it is, rather than what it isn't?

PS: And now Billy Bragg's weighing in. It's like a student disco from about 1986.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Ooh la la

Didier Jacob in Le Nouvel Observateur (translated and quoted by Hugh Schofield on BBC News):

"...the American view of France could be reduced to a simple formula: De Gaulle + Sartre + the baguette + Sophie Marceau's breasts = French culture. Whereas - as we all know - it is infinitely more rich."

It's a simple formula, but a bloody persuasive one. I like baguettes.


One good thing about Bangkok is that the hotel bars are littered with pretty decent American jazz musicians offering some elegant tooting and tinkling as you sup your early-evening maragaritas. They're rarely household names, but a lot of them have impressive pedigrees, including stints with some of the big hitters as far back as the 1960s.

So the Bangkok Jazz Festival ought to offer a chance for these guys to get away from being background music to finger food, and actually play a few proper gigs. Sadly not. I'm not quite sure what jazz actually is any more, when I see that the headliners include Blood, Sweat and Tears, Shakatak and Matt Bianco:

To be fair, I was quite fond of MB when I was a nipper. Think it was the houndstooth check jackets that did it. But I rather doubt they'll be performing their most memorable hit in BKK.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Our day out

A day off, it being the 80th birthday of the world's hippest monarch. Small Boo and I decided to take a trip to Pattaya: I've skirted the edges of the resort a few times, but never actually been there. It's actually a fairly grim, tacky place, somewhere in the psychic space between Blackpool and Benidorm, but with rather more tattooed, chain-smoking Eastern Europeans in evidence. Still, one more to tick off the list.

The fun came on the way home. First, we stopped at Mini-Siam, a model village in the grand tradition, with representations not just of Thailand's finest architecture, but many of the world's finest tourist attractions. It's actually pretty good, although the right-most head on Mount Rushmore is more Leonard Nimoy than Abraham Lincoln.

It's a fun detour if you're passing, and there were plenty of local family groups enjoying the holiday. What surprised me was the presence of three vast coaches full of Korean tourists, who were lapping the place up with as much relish as the Thai kids. It did make me wonder whether we've got this tourism business right: maybe its enough to stick models of the Parthenon, Sydney Opera House, Angkor Wat and so on in one venue, and let the punters run free with their cameras. I mean, when they photographed each other in front of an impressive copy of Abu Simbel, they could have been imagining themselves in Egypt, or the Las Vegas version of Egypt? And which would more impress the folks back in Seoul? (Which reminds me, I really want to go to Macao, to see their version of the Vegas version of Venice.)

Obligatory obeisance to Baudrillard duly performed, we proceeded to The Bottle Art Museum, the life's work of the late Pieter Bij De Leij.

The oeuvre of Dutch-born De Leij falls squarely into what art critics with interesting haircuts now call "outsider art". He made rather rough and ready representations of buildings and vehicles, then dismantled them, and put them back together inside bottles. It's what people have been doing with model ships for centuries, but rather more fiddly. The slightly melancholy atmosphere in the little museum tipped over into David Lynch territory when we reached the back wall, only to see pictorial representations of De Leij's six weddings, revealing that he was a dwarf.

The final stop was an orchid farm, but we were stopped in our tracks by a gesticulating man who warned that a randy, rather violent elephant was blocking the road, and if we carried on we'd probably be making a very interesting claim on the car insurance. We took an alternative route, and from the farm we had a good view of the beast being tranquilised, which made me feel a bit Orwellian, albeit in a terribly safe, sterile way.

"It's nearly four," said the orchid man. "The Russians will be here soon." On cue, seven or eight all-terrain vehicles, most of them ridden by burly men in shorts, crash helmets, vicious sunburns and nothing else, rolled up, had a quick drink, and departed. "Tour party," explained our host.

Small Boo selected an orchid cluster, and stowed it in the boot. On the freeway back to Bangkok she glanced at the car ceiling and gasped. It was swarming with large, black ants, which had presumably hitched a ride along with the flowers, and spent the rest of the journey wandering harmlessly over our heads and arms.

"How shall I end this?" I asked her, as she lounged on the bed, tapping into her laptop. She shrugged.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Entirely academic

In which I go back to blathering about education policy.

And serious respect is due to that man Muralitharan, of course. As he said himself: "I like to be a bowler because I can't bat properly."

Saturday, December 01, 2007

The power of three

Thailand is in the middle of yet another election campaign, with polling scheduled for 23 December, coups permitting. Because of the convoluted preferential voting system, candidates tout themselves in slates of three. To a Western eye, many of the posters rather resemble those lager commercials that have blokes going to pubs in groups of three, lest you think they might be homosexualists; or even reminders that you can't fit quicker than a KwikFit fitter. (Pic courtesy of

PS: BiB snags the award for the best opening sentence of a blog post in living memory: "The only reason I’m not a mass murderer is that I don’t have a driving licence."