Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Crikey, is that the time?

I’ve been blogging here for more than four years, and I think the flame’s spluttering a little. Part of this is for the best of reasons; in work terms, things have been going exceedingly well for me in recent months, to the extent that 2009 was the first year in a long time that I haven’t been forced to do any work I didn’t find at least vaguely interesting or fulfilling. In 2005, the blog served as an outlet for the ideas I was having; now, it seems more like a place where I can tell you about the other places where those ideas are being expressed, which isn’t nearly so interesting. (Talking of which, do check out History of Now: the Story of the Noughties on BBC2, starting next Tuesday.)

Moreover, the best bit about blogging has always been the community, the conversation, and that’s become decidedly quieter lately. Fewer comments are appearing here, about which I can’t complain, as I’ve been leaving fewer smartarseries in the boxes of others. Also, the past year has seen many splendid bloggers – Patroclus, both Annies, Valerie, LC, among others – either cut back their activity, or move away from proper old diary-type blogging, or hang up their bloots entirely. I don’t know if I’m quite ready to join them, but I’m getting to the stage where I feel more of an obligation to blog, rather than a pleasure in blogging, and that’s the wrong way round: “We run tings, dem nuh run we,” as someone, possibly Peter Tosh, or maybe Brian Sewell, once said. And the smell of leaving is heavy in the air. David Tennant, Terry Wogan, Oprah and, most importantly, Malcolm from Spooks have decided to hop off their respective conveyor belts, so I’d be in good company if I ambled into the digital sunset.

That said, I’m not pressing the delete button just yet. Maybe I’ll have a change of heart, and everything will be back to the way it was in about 2006, when I could knock out vast screeds about Baudrillard and Rob Bryden without even breaking into a sweat. I’ll probably pop up here occasionally with a one-liner, even if nobody’s around to read it. A bit like Teletext. Oh no, that’s gone as well.
GUILDENSTERN: Our names shouted in a certain dawn... a message... a summons... There must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said – no. But somehow we missed it.

(He looks around and sees that he’s alone.)

Rosen–? Guil–?

(He gathers himself.)

Well, we’ll know better next time. Now you see me, now you –

(And disappears.)

Sunday, December 27, 2009


If you happen to be in Scotland or thereabouts today, do pick up a copy of the Sunday Post, which appears to have betrayed its self-description as “a thoroughly decent read” by finding space for yet more of my chinstrokes about the soon-to-be-gone decade.

However, my quest for absolute domination of the day’s media has been derailed by the last-minute decision not to include my contributions in this evening’s The Greatest TV Shows of the Noughties on Channel 4. The best I can offer is to use this space as a sort of DVD Extras section for the show, to give you a flavour of what you won’t be enjoying tonight. First I suggested, quite reasonably I thought, that the snivelling BGT moppet Hollie Steel simply proved my contention that the true hero of the Nativity story was Herod. At that point, producer Sean (a very nice man, by the way) stopped me in my tracks; not because I’d casually advocated the murder of a 10-year-old girl, but because some of the viewers might not know who Herod was.

Then, while discussing the success of QI, I made some mild jibe at Stephen Fry (I think I repeated the line about his being a stupid person’s idea of what a clever person looks like) at which point Sean again brought proceedings to a halt and explained that they were trying to get St Stephen to do the voiceover, so it might make things a bit sticky if I said that.

In the event, they had neither Fry nor me. I’m not sure who the talking heads will be, but the tweeting polymath’s replacement is ubiquitous fat lad James Corden. Not that I’m bitter or anything, I’ll just quote the closing lines from Brian Logan’s review of Horne and Corden’s stage appearance in March:
There’s no spark, no dynamic relationship between the two to generate tension or comedy. Nor is there sensitivity, warmth – or the sense of one's own ridiculousness from which comedy springs. Their final sketch, in which two frilly magicians flounce around, performing crap tricks to a bombastic soundtrack, suggests they can’t even make basic silliness funny. “Everybody is going down on you,” sing their Young People’s Church alter egos, with forced innuendo. But it’s Horne and Corden who are going down – and fast. Surely they can’t sink further.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Top of the tree

So this is Christmas, as the third or fourth best drummer in a Rutles tribute band once droned. I’ve been looking for something appropriately festive as an accompaniment to your semifreddo turkey twizzlers, but everything out there is either vile or a bit obvious. (Oooh, Rage Against The Machine, how utterly daring, etc, etc.)

Anyway, here’s something that’s a bit obvious, but not vile, but not terribly festive either. But I like it, and Small Boo likes it, and if you don’t, well, you can just go and stick brandy butter up your bum. Happy holidays, and all that cal.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Blowing a Gaskell

Those lightly soused reprobates The Shark Guys have turned a few passing remarks in my Leonard Cohen tome into yet another list, as if we need such a thing at the end of the decade. Only difference is, theirs is quite amusing, even if I say so myself, and I bloody well do. Go and take a look.

Also, I may or may not be appearing on The Greatest TV Shows of the Noughties, which Channel 4 is parping into your post-festive parlours at 9pm this coming Sunday. I certainly filmed some bits and pieces for them a while back, but they still can’t confirm whether or not I’ve been, ahem, saved for the DVD Extras. In any case, my parents have already informed me that they’ll wait for the repeat, as the first transmission has the temerity to clash with Cranford. Well, we wouldn’t want to upset Dame Judi, would we?

PS: Turns out I’m not in it. That nice Julia Mackenzie breathes a sigh of relief...

Monday, December 21, 2009

Eat it

And now I’m back in Bangkok, with a different hat on. In London, I hold my stuff up to criticism; here, I’m the one doing the critting. Or am I, really?

Many people have mused in the past decade over the extent to which Web 2.0 has made professional critics all but redundant. Never mind the perceptive analysis, seems to be the message; just tot up those stars. Well, yes and no. Obviously there are perceptive critics on blogs and other sites; but to sift successfully through the sludgestorm of opinion on any specific cultural product, the consumer needs to have critical faculties of his/her own; who crits the crits? I’m delighted with the level of response that my books have attracted on Amazon and similar sites, even the negative stuff; it really is better than not being talked about. But I’m always reminded that many ordinary readers have priorities that differ a little from those who review for broadsheets and learned journals. One person complained that my Leonard Cohen biography contained language not known to his Microsoft Word dictionary; several said they’d have liked the Noughties book better if it had had pictures.

And already we’re in dangerous territory. As RATM’s shouty rudeness began to threaten the Yuletide niche that had apparently been granted in perpetuity to his witless catamite of the moment, Simon Cowell accused those behind the campaign not just of attacking The X Factor, but of having a dig at the viewers and voters: “I also think it's incredibly dismissive of the people who watch and enjoy the show,” he said from through his big, fake teeth, “to treat our audiences as if they're stupid and I don't like that.” Of course Cowell can’t call his audiences stupid to their stupid, bovine, let’s-give-our-money-to-Simon faces; any more than I can do a Ratner and call my readers stupid if they want more pictures.

The thing is, people who post reviews on Amazon, or buy copies of the ‘The Climb’, don’t have to answer to anyone. Those of us who are lucky enough to be able to sneer for a living find very quickly that we don’t have an entirely free hand. As I pick morosely over one more high-end soufflé of mediocrity, I’m always aware of the chain that connects the dish to the restaurant to the owner who may or may not deign to advertise in the publication that sent me here in the first place. AA Gill might have the licence to tear a new alimentary canal for every restaurant he visits; most of us mere hacks operate in a fuzzy neverwhere between free speech and advertorial. So I often find myself turning in copy as insipid as the so-called bouillabaisse I endured at [NAME OF OVERPRICED BANGKOK EATERY RESCINDED]

Would restaurants (and publishers and film studios and car manufacturers) really be just as happy with feedback from Amazon reviewers who don’t know much about music but quite liked that one by Coldplay, or maybe Napalm Death, provided said punters were only permitted to offer four- or five-star reviews? Only up to a point. A multi-starred chef would be a tad conflicted by unstinting praise from a diner whose best point of reference is KFC. Those who offer product want public criticism that is to an extent informed, but not in the slightest bit incisive. From the point of view of the producers, the ideal food critic – or the ideal person to decide what is or isn’t an appropriate Christmas number one – is one who knows a lot about food or music, but doesn’t hold any strong opinions; in fact, one who doesn't really like food or music very much.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Friday, December 18, 2009

Definitely maybe not

With the editorial injunction “no French postmodernists please” ringing in my ears, I ruminate on the subject of fakes, hoaxes and why we knowingly fall for them in the latest edition of Prospect. (You need to be a subscriber to read the whole thing online, or you can buy the mag, which may not have the typo in the headline.)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

All the news that's fit to remember

Further book pluggery in the guise of cultural chinnery-strokery: the dénouement of the BBC’s sort-of-interactive review of the decade.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


I’ll be on Radio 5Live tomorrow morning, talking about death in the Noughties. I may get out of bed to do it, but probably not.

By the licking of my thumbs

If you Google the word ‘book’, the first result that comes up is Facebook. Which got me thinking...

Unless they’re related to work, my reading habits seldom follow a particular plan. The selection of a book from the teetering piles of unread matter is down to chance, mood, sleep patterns, energy levels, travel plans, even the weather (or more specifically the shape and size of the pockets of the outer garments I might be wearing at the time).

Sometimes there’s a happy congruence between two successive books: if you pick out a Martin Amis, does this raise the chances of your next selection being an Ian McEwan? But it’s rarer that coincidence brings together two books that appear to contradict each other directly. Even if, after deeper analysis, they turn out not to.

On the face of it at least, Pierre Bayard’s How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read does what it says on the cover. Bayard not only acknowledges the guilty secret that many who inhabit academic and literary circles haven’t actually read Ulysses/A Brief History of Time/anything; he even identifies such a state not as an omission, but as a commission, and a positive one at that:
If many cultivated individuals are non-readers, and if, conversely, many non-readers are cultivated individuals, it is because non-reading is not just the absence of reading. It is a genuine activity, one that consists of adopting a stance in relation to the immense tide of books that protects you from drowning. On that basis, it deserves to be protected and even taught.
Bayard’s thesis is based on the fact that any text is inextricably linked to the cultural context in which it exists; in this sense, his notion of non-reading can be seen as the logical end of Barthes’s Death of the Author (apologies to long-standing readers who’ve been subjected to this several times before). Just as the writer gives up any special authority over a text the moment it is read, so the reader gives up any claim to authority once the text becomes part of a broader culture. We need neither to write nor to read a book in order to own it; which must allow Katie Price to sleep more easily.

There does remain the question of whether Bayard is entirely serious. An air of mischievous irony hangs over the slim volume; and the breadth of references (Balzac; Proust; Musil; Wilde; Soseki; David Lodge; The Third Man; Groundhog Day) suggests that the author’s been reading a little more deeply than he affects to let on. Which in turn discourages the casual (non-?) reader, by framing a whimsical jape in the forbidding context of proper literary criticism.

Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader, by contrast, couches a serious point in the context of whimsy. It’s a brief story about the Queen, who becomes an avid reader late in life; this change disturbs her advisors at Court and in government, who find the monarch becoming less malleable and reliable as a result of her literary explorations, and also begin to feel insecure about their own cultural aridity. Almost in passing, she expresses the point of reading a book, as distinct from being aware of its contents:
“Of course,” said the Queen, “but briefing is not reading. Briefing is terse, factual and to the point. Reading is untidy, discursive and perpetually inviting. Briefing closes down a subject, reading opens it up.”
Which in turn makes me think of Cliffs Notes and similar products that claim to offer us the benefit of reading without actually, y’know reading. I’m not sure whether there’s an equivalent of Cliffs in Bayard’s native France, but I was half expecting a passing reference to them in his book. That said, raising the existence of such non-reading guides might have alerted us to the fact that he’s taking the piss, by implicitly acknowledging the point made by Bennett’s Queen: that it’s not the content of a book that’s important, but the process by which the reader engages with that content.

Not that you need to read this post to know that, of course.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

New York state of mind

Tied in with the Noughties tome, I ponder the news stories of the past decade for the BBC. The temptation to ignore 9/11 entirely, and plump for the return of Davros was immense.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Too much too young

I am becoming increasingly fond of The Word magazine, and not just because they’ve mentioned my Noughties book for the third time in two issues. I suppose it’s because their prejudices gel with mine, not least in their overview of the bests and worsts of the past decade: The Wire, Twitter, winning the Ashes, BBC4, Heston Blumenthal, Brian Blessed on HIGNFY in the first camp; reality TV, The Da Vinci Code and Ugg boots in the latter.

But then we reach their Top 10 books of the last 10 years (I like to console myself with the notion that my tome was hovering somewhere around 11 or 12), and Christopher Bray’s take on Austerity Britain: 1945-1951, by David Kynaston, which is lauded as a “gloriously open-armed account of the era in which Word readers’ parents were setting up home.”

Except that my parents got married in 1966. Does this mean I’m 15 years too young to read The Word?

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Package deal

I’ve never really liked Christmas. Even its few redeeming features are dying out; the Salvation Army band that used to play at Victoria seems to be have replaced by an ad hoc, plain-clothes combo that barely gets through a single verse of ‘David’s City’ before grinding to an embarrassed halt.

So I was delighted to read the thoughts of Joel Waldfogel, who has offered sound economic analysis to support my instinctive distaste for that cornerstone of the modern Yuletide, the giving and receiving of gifts. The transaction, he argues, represents a deadweight loss; the value placed on a present by the giver inevitably exceeds that which the receiver calculates. In any case, in a developed economy, if people want something, they’ll probably buy it for themselves. ‘Gift shops’, almost by definition, sell things that nobody really wants to own.

But then you read down the article, and discover that Waldfogel has a book out, with the Zeitgeisty title Scroogenomics. I can’t help but think that, for all the author’s protestations, more than a few copies will be purchased as Christmas presents; probably for grumpy gits who profess to loathe Christmas. And of course I have a book or two out at the moment, and despite my anti-festive feelings, I’m not going to forbid anyone from buying copies as gifts.

Maybe Waldfogel and I should enjoy Christmas together, scowling across a bowl of lukewarm sprouts, pulling crackers with royalty statements inside and then spending the rest of the day feeling guilty.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The spirit of Hornby

I think the first time I ever posted a comment online came about 10 years ago, when The Guardian tried to compile a list of the 100 ‘greatest’ albums that never showed up in lists of 100 ‘greatest’ albums. What they eventually produced, as I pointed out, was the bottom half of a list of the 200 ‘greatest’ albums. In the same admirable if slightly quixotic spirit, that obsessive cinematic taxonomist Iain Stott has come up with another list, this time of the ‘greatest’ films that have somehow evaded the consensual canon of ‘greatestness’. Here’s Iain’s roll-call of second-bestness; here’s, I dunno, the Conference North; and here’s my own humble contribution to the project. Great.

(And there’s more on lists at my Noughties blog.)

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

This is pop

A quick piece I wrote about the pop/celeb culture of the past decade for the Australian women’s magazine Madison. You need to scroll down before you get to my bit. Incidentally, they removed my stuff about The Truman Show and replaced it with 2001: A Space Odyssey. Their gaff, their rules, I suppose.

And talking of films, when I think of Madison, this is what comes to mind: