Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The virtues of shelf-reliance

I’ve been doing some research that involves skimming a representative selection of American pop polemicists from the past 10 years, and it seemed pretty zeitgeisty (straitened global circumstances and all) to start in the second-hand bookshops. Oddly, there were loads of lefty tomes (Michael Moore, Al Franken, Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky) but very little from the rightists (Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Bernard Goldberg and so on).

However, I did pick up a slightly foxed copy of Freakonomics and, since I’ve been accused of plagiarising said tome, I thought I'd better get round to reading it. So, applying the analytical techniques of Messrs Levitt and Dubner, I can tell you that the political imbalance in two second-hand bookshops proves that: there are no right-wingers in Bangkok; there are lots of right-wingers, but they keep hold of their books (maybe they’re slow readers); there are lots of right-wingers, but they’re quite poor, so every time a second-hand right-wing book appears, they snap it up; there are lots of right-wingers, but they’re functionally illiterate; there are lots of right-wingers but they never go to second-hand shops because they smell funny (the shops, that is, not the right-wingers); there are lots of right-wingers but they never go to second-hand shops because they smell funny (the right-wingers); there are lots of left-wingers, but they have very small apartments, so they’re forever thinning their book collections; there are lots of left-wingers, and they’ve burned all the right-wing books; any or all of the above.

Next week, Chris Anderson on why Middlesbrough will be relegated, and why they won’t and why they might. And Malcolm Gladwell does a funny little dance in his vest and pants.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

High wire

Something that could have turned into a meandering meditation on plagiarism and originality at RBP, but it’s the weekend, so I’ll spare you that; and in the Graun, David Simon articulates a philosophy that should be tattooed on the soul of anyone who has ever claimed to be an artist of any kind: “Fuck the average viewer.”

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Triple booked

Just to prove I’m a proper writer, like, and don’t just waffle about Jade Goody all day, three books in which I've had a hand have just appeared or are just about to. Radiohead and Philosophy: Fitter Happier More Deductive includes my chapter ‘Hyperreally Saying Something: Radiohead, Baudrillard and the Importance of Being Authentic’, alongside the thoughts of far more erudite chin-strokers. It’s published by Open Court on April 1st, and is available from Amazon in the US, or direct from the publishers. UK publication is scheduled for August, so you can pack a copy when you go grouse shooting.

Then there’s the 2009 edition of Thailand Tatler’s Best Restaurants Guide, including my thoughts on conceptual tuna sandwiches and much else. It’s available from a good bookshop near you, provided that good bookshop is in Thailand. But if you’re not in Thailand, you probably won’t need to read it anyway. It’s jolly good though, and I’ve got the cholesterol to prove it.

And if those two aren’t exciting enough, there’s always Vital HR Insights: Best Practices and Case Studies in Asia, published by CCH in Singapore. I’m especially proud of the robot sex scene on page 307.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Goody awful poetry

There has been much gnashing of garments and renting of teeth among the literati about who the next Poet Laureate should be. Gnash not, for I have discovered the perfect candidate. His name is Dermot Byrne, and his application for the post came in the form of a post on the BBC’s Have Your Say forum; specifically, in a thread asking “What is Jade Goody’s legacy?”* Here it is, in full:
Goodnight sweet Jade
Your time has passed
May heaven or hell be filled with your laugh
You may not have been beautiful
You may not have been smart
But like Diana you'll always be in our hearts
What Byrne has done so brilliantly is to create something that has sufficient form that we recognise it as poetry; yet the work contains within it such a dazzling array of technical badness that we start to doubt our frames of reference. “Is this a poem?” becomes “Is anything else a poem?”; in the same way as, when we are confronted with someone of monumental stupidity, we are forced to question how we define humanity. Also, it is possibly unique in the tradition of elegiac verse in that it raises the distinct possibility that the subject might be roasting in eternal, unimaginable torment, thus expressing the mixed responses that the mention of Jade’s name provokes, and doubtless providing great comfort to her family at this difficult time.

In its heartfelt crapness, the poem brilliantly embodies its subject; its seamless blending of form, function and content verges on genius. This makes Dermot Byrne my candidate for the Laureateship.

However, I would also like to draw attention the the contribution from one Maria of New York City, who vouchsafes to us the fact that “I personally think death sucks btw”. How so very true.

* Near enough eight digits, I would have guessed, when you add the book deals, the perfume and the wodge from OK!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

La Chanson de Roland II (the cover version)

Legend!ary journalist/musician/raconteur Everett True is reinventing himself yet again, this time as an academic, a process we can all follow in his thought-provoking new blog. Like Socrates with access to the complete K Records back catalogue, he poses questions that bounce between alt-rock, lit-crit, cult-studs and back again.

Here’s a frinstance, with specific reference to Roland Barthes: “Have there been any famous examples of post-structuralists being reprimanded for plagiarism?”

Funny you should ask, ET. One of the key books in my intellectual development (could that sound any more poncy?) was Myths and Memories, by Gilbert Adair. It was essentially a reworking of Barthes’s Mythologies, but from the point of view of a Scot born in 1944, rather than a Frenchman born in 1915. That said, Adair does explicitly acknowledge his debt; and after I'd read it, I went on to read Barthes, and then Baudrillard and Debord, and even tried to get into Deleuze, so nobody missed out, especially when the royalty cheques came round.

Essentially, Adair can’t be accused of plagiarism because he tells us that he’s plagiarising; he offers a knowing, known pastiche, not a forgery. Matt Barton, in his essay A Critique of Plagiarism, suggests that context is all:
My purpose here is not to praise dishonesty or dismiss it as harmless. What I am arguing is that a student who downloads a paper and submits it as her own is not so much guilty of “literary theft” as she is of lying about the type of work she performed.
So, provided she subtitles her essay ‘A Post-structuralist Tribute to Wikipedia’, she’s OK. If she doesn’t, she gets an ‘F’.

The thing is, if we follow the logic of Barthes’s Death of the Author (essentially, that as soon as a text is read, it ceases to be the sole intellectual property of the poor sap who typed it), we are all – including the reader – writers; and we are all – including the writer – readers. If credit for authorship is shared, so is any culpability for plagiarism.

One of Small Boo’s least favourite business maxims is that one about not pointing your finger at someone else, because three will point back at you. As she so eloquently notes, this is not true, provided you point like Alvin Stardust does, with all your other fingers splayed out in different directions. And in a culture where authorship is dead, it is not to Barthes that we must turn for the final verdict, but to Stardust: we are all plagiarists; we are all plagiarised; his leatherette fingers are pointed at you and me alike. Alvin ripped off 1968-era Elvis, and was in turn ripped off by Travis in Blake’s 7. We are victims, we are villains; we are stardust, we are golden, we are billion-year-old carbon; in the great continuum of creative thought, Everett True is Roland Barthes is Gilbert Adair is one of the drummers from the Glitter Band.

And I bet Socrates never got an answer like that.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Dunce in a lifetime

Two more good examples of wordsmithery (albeit neither of them a patch on Roland’s moment of dizzy brilliance from yesterday).

In the Guardian's obituary of the diplomat Nicholas Henderson, his group of schoolfriends is said to have shared “the horror of the dim”, a phrase that veers perilously close to snobbery but you do rather see where they were coming from. And for the benefit of the aforementioned dim, Rod Liddle in the Times succinctly explains why those ghastly protesters in Luton should not have been banned: “Proper western liberal democracy is about accommodating all forms of fabulous stupidity”. Nice.

And on a less exalted level, I discuss the in-concert crapness of one of my favourite bands, and encourage others to do the same, here.

PS: But far more significantly, lock up your slightly disreputable-looking boychildren, the Spinster's back!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Le La Chanson de Roland

Today I’ve been doing some research into buzzwords and phrases of the Noughties, with an interesting off-piste into the world of protologisms: words that are specifically created and promoted in the hope that they will become widely adopted, and the person responsible will be able to carve out a small personal fiefdom in the Republic of Words. There's something a little tacky about the process; it's like manufacturing and promoting a faux indie band, and inventing a back story about how they met in the toilets at a My Bloody Valentine gig.

A real, effective, resonant neologism, I reckon, appears in the heat of the linguistic moment, in an environment that fosters and favours spontaneity and succinct wit — Twitter for example.

I can’t claim to have spawned a good new word; few of us can. But I can report that today, at 10:58 GMT, the magnificent Fat Roland came up with “net-loafing twazmuppet” And although I had no part in its creation, when Roland steps up to accept the award for the OED Interwebnet Phrase Of 2009, I’ll allow myself a titchy frisson of pride in the fact that I was the first person to whom it was applied.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Duchy original

More shavings from the cultural Parmesan:

1. A vignette from Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, which would appear, annoyingly enough, to be as good as everyone says it is:
Often I was joined by a very kind widow in a baseball cap who conducted an endless and apparently fruitless search and murmured to herself, for some reason, about Luxembourg.
It’s the subject of the murmuring that’s so perfectly chosen: Belgium or Cleveland would be too obvious; Mongolia or Ouagadougou too self-consciously wacky. But Luxembourg is just right.

2. In the BBC3 documentary Deborah 13: Servant of God, the eponymous pubescent creationist goes to stay with her equally devout but slightly less intense brother Matthew at university. He introduces her to the joys of clubbing, but leaves the floor when Katy Perry’s lesbian-till-graduation hit ‘I Kissed A Girl’ comes on: “I’m not going to dance to this song because I don’t agree with it,” he announces as he flounces. (Incidentally, did anybody else think Matthew was the campest fundamentalist Christian they’d ever encountered?)

As Matthew and Deborah stand outside assessing the experience, a slightly déshabillé young lady stumbles over and asks if anyone might be good enough to write on her prominently proffered ladybumps.

Matthew demurs, having previously recounted how he’d fended off the amorous attentions of a mud-spattered wench with the horrified retort, “you’re dirty!”; he's clearly a very picky young man. He then determines that she’s a fresher, and asks: “Why are you letting people write on your boobs on your first night?”

“I’m not,”
she responds, “this is, like, my third night.”

3. And following on from the earlier reminscences about Uncle Tom Dolby and all, at Rock’sBackPages, I attempt to concoct a retrospective pop genre: Postmodern Futurism.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Crystal balls

I recently picked up a copy of Our Future: Dr Magnus Pyke Predicts, a paperback from 1980 in which the wildly gesticulating boffin has a guess at what life might be like 50 years hence:
News is what journalists put into newspapers and news bulletins. Because we get news from a number of different channels, it does not follow that we are any better informed.
Which should remind us that transmission of facts was hardly perfect even before the Babel of the blogosphere got in on the act. But then the good doctor goes and spoils it with his guess at how the news might be physically delivered:
...newspapers could be printed on washable nylon sheets, to avoid the necessity of cutting down so many trees.
Oh well. At least old Magnus had a few more strings to his bow:

Sad to note from Dr Pyke’s Wikipedia page that his later years were dogged by people yelling “SCIENCE!” at him in the street.

(For some reason, people used to say I looked like Thomas Dolby. Or the saxophonist from Haircut 100. Or even John Denver. When really, I knew I was Andy Partridge.)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Just one fucking thing after another

Forgive the fragmented nature of this post, which rather reflects real life at the moment. (Occupying my in tray right now: wine labels; upholstery; Leonard Cohen; 9/11; lost cheques; ants.)

1. I am now also blogging at Rock’sBackPages: this is my first effort.

2. Someone called Stephen Jones (see comments) appears to have got it into his pretty little head that I’m something to do with a cabal of swivel-eyed free-market fundamentalists called the Adam Smith Institute. Well I’m blimmin’ well not, OK?

3. Please go and check out my friend Stuart’s site, Your 10 Movies. It’s not quite buzzing yet, but the more people who show up to argue about whether The Seventh Seal is better than High School Musical 3, the better.

4. Did you know that in the first 11 years of the Academy Awards, the Best Director Oscar was on seven occasions won by a man named Frank?

Friday, March 06, 2009

Duck off

A few years ago, I had a run of bad luck. Well, *I* didn’t, personally, but the people I interviewed did; in the space of a few months, there were two deaths and an emergency heart bypass.

Then, towards the end of last year, I wrote a feature about the Thai tourist industry, quoting a respected hotel manager thus: “So long as they don’t blockade the airport, we’ll be all right.” The day after it went to press... well, you probably saw it on the telly.

In the past fortnight, I’ve submitted two separate food-related stories, each suggesting that forward-thinking restaurateurs should seek to emulate, er, Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck.

Who or what should I write about next, do you reckon?

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Ceci n'est pas une langue

Sorry, but I’m still on about words.

Small Boo has given me a rather splendid book about my favourite painter, René Magritte. Not only does it include all the images that have become stale through repetition on postcards and tea-towels, it also devotes a lot of space to some of the less familiar pieces, including paintings from the 1940s, when Magritte experimented with a looser style, some of them strongly influenced by Renoir and Matisse; as well as photographs and bronzes.

Throughout the shifts in style and medium, however, Magritte’s big idea persists: superficially ordinary, even banal subject matter, rendered bizarre and even threatening by juxtaposition and tweaking. A man with an apple for a face; boots becoming feet; a flaming euphonium; a pipe that isn’t.

The only downside is that the accompanying text seems to follow a similar trajectory. It’s comprehensible as English, but not comfortably so; the reader just about understands what’s meant, but every few lines, there’s an eye in your slice of ham. This may be the fault of author Jacques Meuris, but I’m inclined to point the finger at translator Michael Scuffil (the sort of blame game I discussed earlier). Here are a few choice morsels:

“The brush technique with its contrasts and glissandi calls forth immaterial, impalpable impressions.”

“It is moreover an example of his attempts on the moral plane to harmonize the meaning he gave to his work as a painter with that of his life.”

“Magritte was never a friend of symbols in painting, though in poetry perhaps.”

“The total rejection of the gratuitous was one of the constant features of Magritte’s attitude.”

“All that was left for this oeuvre was to topple over into its destiny in 1967.”

Monday, March 02, 2009

I pronounce thee

Haven’t had a good CiF rant for what seems like ages:

Maybe I shouldn't have been listening to Woman's Hour in the first place, and then it wouldn't have happened. But that's what I did, and that's how I came to hear presenter Sheila McClennon describe something or someone as "mis-CHIEV-yous"...

More holding-back-the-barbarian-hordes stuff here.

PS: And while we’re being pedantic, this is funny. (Thanks to HH.)

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Rah! Rah! Rah!

I can’t think of a single competitive endeavour that hasn’t been shaken by scandal in recent years, be it drugs, match-fixing or Stade Français’s shirts [pictured].

But only University Challenge could be rocked to its foundations by the revelation that a contestant who claimed to be a chemistry student was actually a trainee management consultant.