Friday, December 31, 2010

Just for a riband to stick in his coat...

As time passes, which is what it usually does, my instinct grows stronger and surer that I will never be offered a royally sanctioned honour. I trust that, in the event of a catastrophic administrative error (“...for services to writing about fey Swedish indie bands and vaguely competent Japanese restaurants”) I would have the presence of mind to refuse such a bauble; although, every New Year’s Eve I find news of one or two people whose acknowledgment by the shadowy decision processes seems entirely right and just, and I can’t begrudge them their fleeting date with Her  Maj, or whoever happens to be doing the pinning. This time round it’s the thoroughly splendid Burt Kwouk, OBE. Bloody well done, sir.

What I can’t be doing with is the sort of response that Dame Harriet Walter gave: “I have reservations about some parts of the honours system. I fear it’s not very fair and I think there are lots of people not recognised who should be,” she said, before claiming that she accepted her promotion because it would allow her to speak up in defence of theatre. It’s beyond me why she feels a daft title gives her this right more than, say, the fact that she once simulated acrobatic rudeness with Bill Nighy. If you turn an honour down, it’s up to you whether you make the fact public; if you accept the gong, you implicitly accept the whole idiocy that goes with it. The only exception is people who accept peerages, who really do have the opportunity to boot down the edifices from the inside. Not that many take it, mind you.

Anyway, I’ve just received a text message from some poncy sunglasses shop, advising me of an “Aggressive new year sale”, so I’m rather concerned that 2011 will arrive wielding a sock full of snooker balls. I trust that all my lovely readers have a less traumatic transition to the new twelvemonth, even those of you who haven’t been awarded anything. And to play you out, here’s something from someone else who’ll be ambling to the palace in the next few months:

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Still we get the same old gruel

Last night I enjoyed a delicious, genre-defying meal in the charming company of the Michelin-starred chef who had devised it, so it is instructive to remember that hacks and chefs don’t always get on so well.  Consider the example of the Beverly Hills restaurateur who has barred the LA Times critic from his establishment, as well as putting her photograph, pseudonym and even mobile number on his website. Noah Ellis of Red Medicine said of the critic, Irene Virbila:
We don’t care for her or her reviews. Our purpose for posting this is so that all restaurants can have a picture of her and make a decision as to whether or not they would like to serve her. We find that some of her reviews can be unnecessarily cruel and irrational, and that they have caused hardworking people in this industry to lose their jobs.
Of course, it’s up to Mr Ellis whether or not he allows Ms Virbila into his restaurant, although it’s possible to argue that his own cruel, irrational behaviour, if replicated by others, might cause hardworking people in the restaurant review industry to lose their jobs. And it’s also interesting and maybe a little cheering that, amidst the clamour of food bloggers and the like, he believes a single dead-tree critic still wields so much power.

But ultimately to pick on one critic for being a bit nasty (“cruel and irrational” rather than “wrong”) is to miss the point. Critics don’t exist to close restaurants or musicals or careers. They should provoke and cajole, encourage and query, nudging others to think about food or drama or words or music in new ways. A healthy critical dialogue – which is just as likely to be kind and rational as anything else – is proof that people care deeply about the subject matter, and ultimately encourages them to consume it. In the long run, if that doesn’t happen, a hell of a lot of people stand to lose their jobs, no matter how hard they work.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Finger food

One of the odder things that’s happened to me since I became a part-time ethnic minority is that I have turned into a food writer of sorts. Not, it must immediately be said, a food critic – a combination of cultural sensitivities and media economics mean that I’m rarely able to unleash the full-strength AA Gill-style vitriol that some establishments deserve. If the pasta’s overcooked, I find that biting my tongue offers the full al dente experience.

I have thought of setting up a food blog to vent my frustrations, but that would eventually put me in the potentially awkward position of slagging off an eatery with which I’ve previously had to play nice. And I’d have to take photos of all the dishes and, as Small Boo can attest, I’m the world’s worst photographer. Many people meeting her in person for the first time have expressed surprise that she possesses feet, or a whole head.

So any honest attempt at food writing has to be a bit of a guerrilla operation, ideally dealing with food from somewhere I’ve never worked. On this basis, and inspired by the magnificent Jen Ken’s Kit Kat Blog, Small Boo and I carried out a taste test on five Japanese Kit Kat varieties.

The first thing to be said about these particular bars is that they’re sweet. I mean, ordinary Kit Kats are sweet, but these are ostentatiously, painfully, pancreas-assaultingly sweet. It soon becomes clear that the success of each variety depends on the extent to which the additional flavouring is able to stand up to the sugar overdose. So, clockwise from top left:

Tamarayua-honten Wasabi: Well, it looks right, or at least appropriate. The chocolate has the pale green hue of the legendary Japanese horseradish that perks up sushi across the planet. But then, as you taste, there’s a disconnect; your tongue is assailed by an intense white chocolate flavour, as if you’re being snogged against your will by the Milky Bar Kid. Only after the shock of the assault clears do you get the pleasing hotness of the wasabi, but even then it’s just a passing hint, like the vermouth in a super-dry Martini. Frustrating. 6

Uji Maccha (green tea): I love Japanese green tea itself, but I’ve never been fond of green-tea flavoured things. Again, this gets the colour right, but again the milk/sugar overload leaves the bitterness of the tea fighting a losing battle. Imagine dropping a tablespoon of double cream into a cup of weak, sweet Typhoo. Not great. 3

Satsumaimo-Aji (sweet potato): A yellowish bar this time, and a pretty accurate aroma of baked sweet potato; it makes you think of Violet Beauregarde chowing down on a three-course meal in chewing-gum form. Unfortunately, the deception isn’t maintained once it passes the lips, as an oddly floral note begins to dominate; it’s as if someone’s dosed your spuds with Febreze. Disconcerting. 4

Sakura Maccha (cherry blossom and green tea): Cherry blossom has deep and resonant cultural implications for the Japanese people, so one wonders how they feel about the weird, cough-medicine taste on offer here. It stages a mini-sumo bout with the bitterness of the tea and the vaguely coconut tones of the biscuit, and nobody really wins. Icky. 1

Syoyu-tumi (soy sauce): The only variety that I’d actually choose to eat for pleasure. For once, the novelty flavouring is powerful enough to withstand the sweetness, creating something not a million miles from a salty caramel. Not bad at all. 8

Overall: I’m sure all chocolate manufacturers come up with wacky ideas like this on a regular basis, but Nestlé Japan seems to be the only one that takes them all to market. As it stands, they’re like the purest form of conceptual art, with the ideas far more successful than the execution. Still, at least I’m allowed to slag them off...

Monday, December 20, 2010

Every day I close the book

A few recent articles kicking around some similar ideas to those contained in my post last week about the value of arts and humanities courses. In The Guardian, Terry Eagleton goes all serious on us (“What we have witnessed in our own time is the death of universities as centres of critique.”) while Charlie Brooker is brilliantly, witheringly sarcastic: “instead of studying the whole of human history, why not focus on a concentrated period, such as the most exciting five minutes of the second world war?” And in a similar spirit, blogger Robin Tomens vows to join the philistines: “Perhaps I could reinvent myself as the type who doesn’t watch foreign films or listen to ‘weird’ music. This could be my New Year’s resolution. After all, who would care or notice?”

Read them all. Because you can.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

I’m a celebrity, get me a bowl of nutritious, tasty breakfast cereal, mmmm...

From next year, product placement will be allowed on some British TV shows. The reason this is necessary, we are informed, is that technological changes have made it easier for viewers to avoid advertising placed between programming. But I suspect it’s just as much because viewers have developed a more sophisticated understanding about how advertising works, and are thus more cynical about it. Introducing product placement to the likes of Coronation Street may work, but only on those viewers who remain a bit naïve and trusting about the essential benevolence of consumer capitalism and the way it manipulates human desires; the unaware; the incurious; the dim. And inevitably, as product placement becomes a more popular revenue model for TV companies, programming targeting the dim and incurious – indeed, actively excluding the curious – will become even more prevalent.

And we will look back on the current glut of celebreality shows as a golden age of British TV.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


Jeffrey R Di Leo argues, in the US Chronicle of Higher Education, that The Book As We Know It is not necessarily dead, but at the same time is certainly no longer integral to the educational process. Indeed, his point is much the same as the one made by that disgruntled Simpsons fan on Amazon, although Dr Di Leo quotes Barthes rather than Bart (a joke that was a tad creaky when first made in the Modern Review in the early 90s, and rigor mortis was setting in by the time Stephen Bayley got hold of it, but I still like it).

Di Leo types:
Many concerns about the intellectual quality of digital publications are valid, and digital content can be easier to plagiarize. But those concerns are historical, not permanent. There is nothing intrinsically inferior about spreading knowledge on a screen rather than on a printed page, and plagiarism is an ethical issue, not a material one. Words may look better in print, and a book may feel better in your hands than a Kindle or an iPad, but the words are the same.
Most of which is true, but I’m not sure it’s wise to dismiss so brusquely the *feel* of a book. Even in academia, where books are often read to a purpose other than pleasure, they still provoke an emotional response – a relationship, even – that transcends the mere process of getting facts into the reader’s brain. The words may be the same, but that’s not always the point.

Moreover, while the potential for digital books to enhance the reading experience is obvious, I’m not that sure the punters will actually go for it. There have been many innovative experiments in digital publishing, such as Geoff Ryman’s 253, a hypertext novel about a Tube journey, and Train Man (Densha Otoko), which began life on a chat forum, but neither of them achieved anything more than a niche reputation until they were remastered in more conventional formats (Train Man became not only a book, but also a TV show and a movie). Di Leo would argue that this was the fault of critics and consumers, who failed to seize the opportunities that the digital versions offered. And this hesitancy persists.

I’ve always been a big fan of footnotes in dead-tree books, and when, over a decade ago, I first encountered the hypertext version of The Waste Land – which offered annotations to Eliot’s own annotations – I squealed with delight. This, surely, was the way forward for writers and publishers: not a reference was too obscure, not a word too difficult, because anything could be explained, elucidated, glossed, translated, without breaking the flow of the text. I think I’ve discussed before some of the other books that might benefit from such treatment (Nabokov’s Pale Fire; Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius; BS Johnson’s The Unfortunates; Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual; Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman) but there seems to have been very little action on this front. The received wisdom is that today’s multi-tasking youth, who can simultaneously play Grand Theft Auto, message their friends, watch The Inbetweeners and roll aggressively towards policemen will have no problem flitting between text and notes. But few, it seems, want a book that’s anything other than linear in structure. I’ve been informed in no uncertain terms by several publishers that readers (of print books) find too many notes distracting, and that they should be a) reduced in number and b) sent to the back of the text. I can’t see that they’ll be any more keen to have their leisure reading interrupted by hyperlinks.

Although I adore conventional books, I don’t object to their being challenged by digital versions: as Di Leo says, the words are the same. But it would be something of a pity if the only reason e-books succeed is because they’re cheaper to distribute, and easier to take on holiday, and nobody wants to take advantage of their other possibilities.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Cultural no

Punk neo-Stalinist Eduard Limonov, interviewed in The Observer:
Europeans are so timid they remind me of sick and elderly people. And Europe is like one big old people’s home. There is so much political correctness and conformity there that you can’t open your mouth. It's worse than prison. That’s why there is no culture in the west anymore. Just dying screams. In Russia, fortunately, the people still have some barbarian spirit. But Europeans and Americans are just dying, sick invalids.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

White write

Something I penned for The National, the English-language daily in Abu Dhabi, where I have never been, unless you count the inside of the airport. Still not happy with the ending. But I rarely am.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Monday, December 06, 2010

...but nice

Somehow I don’t think this classic of live radio will acquire as much repeat airplay as Brian Johnston’s leg-over of blessed memory. So it’s up to the rest of us to disseminate it. Oo-er, etc.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Gentlemen and prayers

I was going to liven up your Sunday with a fairly long and convoluted post about how recent events have proved Marshall McLuhan right – how the process of transmitting information becomes the story – people focus on Wikileaks itself more than on the US spying on Ban Ki-Moon or Prince Andrew sanctioning corruption – tabloids blaming the BBC’s coverage of FIFA skulduggery for the failed World Cup bid, ignoring the skulduggery itself – and even as I type, I see someone complaining about a supposedly offensive Twitter hashtag, demanding that the complaint is RT’d, thereby managing to turn said unremarkable tag into a global trending topic. (Thinks: what’s the Thai for “D’OH!”?)

But I won’t, because all I want to do today is to share this picture with you:

Friday, December 03, 2010

Plunk rock

I’m sorry to say that I’ve never been able to play a musical instrument, but deep down I know I should really have been a bass player. It’s all about temperament; it’s the Eeyore-ish, resentful glumness about them, based on the fact that, excepting the case of those who operate in the realms of funk and reggae, only about 10% of the audience will be able to identify the noise they’re making, above those ghastly egomaniacs, the guitarists and drummers and saxophonists. One way that bassists do assert their individuality, though, is through the medium of deliciously preposterous names. Don’t believe me? All the following are American jazz bass players; bar one, who’s a fictional character in a book by Thomas Pynchon
Ronnie Boykins
Wellman Braud
Monty Budwig
Jimmy Butts
Spanky DeBrest
Malachi Favors
Squire Gersh
Chris Lightcap
Cecil McBee
Grachan Moncur II
Kurt Mondaugen
Buell Neidlinger
Lonnie Plaxico
Esperanza Spalding
Victor Sproles
Hank Van Sickle
Ike Sturm
Leroy Vinnegar
Virtue Hampton Whitted
Chester Zardis
The fact that you almost certainly can’t spot the ringer suggests to me that the majority of bassists are in fact minor characters from the works of Pynchon (or Kurt Vonnegut, or possibly Philip K Dick) who have temporarily invaded what mere mortals (and trombonists) foolishly know as ‘the real world’.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The ballad of Samuel K Amphong

Some time in the late 1970s, when the letters page of NME occupied an equivalent level of cultural significance to, say, Stephen Fry’s Twitter feed today, the following epistle appeared:
Where is Beatles band? This band who have not been as of late clear of circumstance. Beatles Band! Can we no longer hear there medolious throng? John! Paul! All in Beatles Band come forth! What question have we to put? Now? Arguments neccessary can begin with whole results expected for any return. Ringo! Here in Thailand Beatles band experience is long loved and can be hurt away from John, Paul etc. Please give any news to Samuel K. Amphong of address similar to above. yours as in rock!
Samuel K Amphong, Thailand
It is lost in the mists of time and sulphate as to whether this was a genuine enquiry or a bit of space-filling devilment on the part of Danny Baker, but more than three decades later, I set off to find out. The answer is here. Sort of.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The new seekers

It’s only in the past few months that I’ve taken an interest in the numbers of people who read this blog (300-400 a day, since you ask), where they come from (weird surges from Latvia and Djibouti, what’s that all about?), and what they’re looking for. The latter data is a little disappointing: rather that seeking out my profound insights into culture and philosophy, they want to know about:
toby young wanker
drummer tattoo ideas
morrissey a sausage jockey
derivative art photography
religious boobs
viagra break glass
can my car float on snow?
dave lee travis picture
musical pedantry in pictures
That said, all these are dwarfed by the desire to know more about three particular women: Charlotte Rampling; Anita Pallenberg; and Princess Margaret. In the past week, they have respectively been responsible for 71, 97 and 120 visits to Cultural Snow. What this means about my blog, or my writing, or my readers, I don’t really know. But this particular selection of variously damaged lovelies does suggest that the casting director of Charlie’s Angels was missing a trick.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Verbal diarrhoea

I know, I know, Engrish just isn’t a funny concept, and it can sometimes veer towards racism. I mean, doubtless there’s a language somewhere in which “Cultural Snow” means “flabby-buttocked necrophile” and if you speak it and you have visited this page, I hope I have given you a moment of amusement, and you will post it on a website that pokes fun at  me and my kind. We should not be surprised that there are English words or sounds that in other languages have perfectly banal, innocent meanings, or maybe no meaning at all, such as this clothing brand from Singapore (via I-Am-Bored):

But sometimes it’s simply impossible to work out a cogent explanation (from Hong Kong, via Missokistic @ Twitpic):

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Theatre of war

I haven’t yet seen last night’s episode of Jimmy McGovern’s The Accused, which dealt with bullying in the British army in Afghanistan. As such, I’m in no position to judge whether it was good or bad as a piece of drama, which is surely the primary consideration. On the other hand, a number people who have seen it didn’t seem particularly bothered about whether it was any good or not, preferring to focus instead on whether it was factually accurate and/or offensive.

Chief among these are General Sir Peter Wall, current head of the British Army, and Colonel Tim Collins and General Lord Dannatt, both retired senior officers; the latter called the drama “a nasty programme inappropriately aired while the Army is conducting difficult operations in Afghanistan.” He was also very exercised by the fact that the programme depicted the drinking of alcohol on the front line, which he claims never happens. The interview with Dannatt on this morning’s Today programme is currently here.

It’s easy to counter complaints such as these with the argument that McGovern is making a fiction, about characters and events that he’s invented, but it’s not quite that straightforward. Any fiction writer, except those working in genres such as SF or fantasy, has a duty to ensure that the events depicted might possibly happen in the real world; even genre writers need to make their texts internally plausible. However, the correlation with fact that writers claim for their fictions vary greatly, and viewers or readers need to keep this in mind. The Tudors purported to be an account of historical figures whose real lives are well documented, and because the writers mucked around with  this reality, anybody with a passing knowledge of 16th-century England might feel entitled to criticise. Similarly, the movie U-571 took a very specific episode of World War II (the capture of the Enigma machine by the British in August, 1941) and rewrote as a triumph of derring-do by the Americans, who hadn’t even entered the war when the real events took place.

McGovern’s drama takes place during a real conflict – the Afghanistan campaign – but doesn’t claim to be depicting real people or real events. To complain that X or Y didn’t happen would be as daft as saying that Spooks is inaccurate because the real Home Secretary doesn’t look anything like Simon Russell Beale. Dannatt may be right that The Accused contains innacuracies, and that no alcohol has ever been consumed on the front line, but I’m not sure how he can claim to be certain. It sounds more as if he doesn’t want it to be true.

Which leads to the second point, about whether such a drama is in some way offensive; presumably to those serving in Afghanistan, and their families. Governments would usually prefer that any dramatic depictions of conflict should be uncompromisingly patriotic, at least while the conflict is still going on. The only major film about the Vietnam War before it ended in 1975 was John Wayne’s jingoistic The Green Berets, although works such as M*A*S*H and Catch-22, which depicted earlier wars, were clearly ‘about’ the contemporary conflict to some extent. (The question remains as to which of the ‘real’ Vietnam films were really about Vietnam: I still maintain that The Deer Hunter is about masculinity and the decline of working-class communities, while Apocalypse Now is about madness and megalomania and film-making and Francis Coppola. But anyway.)

Presumably Dannatt et al would prefer that film-makers and novelists and other artists maintained this unspoken embargo, and waited until the war is over. They rely on the respect that “decent people” – a phrase that Dannatt used several times, sounding increasingly like a Daily Express editorial – have for the services at a time of war. But I think he’s got it wrong. Certainly there’s a huge level of support and respect for the soldiers themselves; the days of Kipling’s ‘Tommy’ are long gone. But if Dannatt and Collins and Wall think this translates into uncritical respect for the Army as an institution, or for the conduct of the war in Afghanistan – to the extent that artists, and consumers of art, are prepared to suspend their critical faculties for the duration – then they’re the ones who seem to have a problem with reality.

Serif, don’t like it

Jonathan Lethem, from his latest novel Chronic City:
Did I read The New Yorker? This question had a dangerous urgency. It wasn’t one writer or article he was worried about, it was the font. The meaning embedded, at a preconscious level, by the look of the magazine; the seal, as he described it, that the typography and layout put on dialectical thought. According to Perkus, to read The New Yorker was to find that you always already agreed, not with The New Yorker, but with yourself. I tried hard to understand. Apparently here was the paranoia Susan Eldred had warned me of: The New Yorker’s font was controlling, perhaps assailing, Perkus Tooth’s mind. To defend himself he frequently retyped the articles and printed them out in simple Courier, and attempt to dissolve the magazine’s oppressive context. Once I’d enter his apartment to find him on his carpet with a pair of scissors, furiously slicing up and rearranging an issue of the magazine, trying to shatter its spell on his brain. “So, how,” he once asked me, apropos of nothing, “does a New Yorker writer become a New Yorker writer?” The falsely casual “so” masking a pure anxiety. It wasn’t a question with an answer.

Monday, November 22, 2010


Usually when I tell people I’m in Thailand, their immediate response is “Oh, the Thai people are all so lovely and gentle,” to which the only sensible response is that some of them are. And some are abject arseholes, and most of them are a mixture of the two, just like Swedes and Peruvians and Moroccans and, well, any nationality really. And then they tell me how utterly bloody wonderful the food is in Thailand and I say pretty much the same thing. The difference is, every now and then I’m allowed to help out with a bit of qualitative analysis of the food, as I did recently for CNNGo’s Best Eats survey. Take a look, and feel free to disagree violently, ideally from a position of ignorant prejudice.

Maybe I should do the same thing on the people.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Bad influence

Edward Skidelsky on how praise from critics may turn out to be no such thing:
More worrying is the popularity with art and other critics of terms such as “important,” “seminal,” “major,” and “influential.” These originally purely descriptive words are now commonly used as expressions of praise. This is bizarre, because there is nothing ipso facto praiseworthy about influence or importance. The Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer was undoubtedly influential; Stalin was very important. Moreover, all these words have the odd power of bringing into being the very state of affairs they describe. If enough critics call Anish Kapoor major or seminal, he really is major or seminal. By contrast, if they all call him good, he might still be bad. Collective infallibility is assured, at the cost of a debasement of critical vocabulary.
Skidelsky raises a good point, although his totalitarian references seem to confuse moral and aesthetic value – you can be a good artist and a bad person, or vice versa. But in any case, how would an artist (for which read writer, musician, film-maker, fashion designer, potter, conceptual taxidermist) react to being described as good, and yet insignificant?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

I love the sound of breaking china

Apologies for the incoherence of this post, and the fact that it’s cobbled together from thoughts I’ve expressed on various other media over the past 24 hours. It’s just that I’m rather surprised at the visceral rage provoked within me by the news that Prince William and Kate Middleton are now engaged. No, scrub that. I’m not angry that they’re engaged. I hope they have a pleasant wedding and enjoy their life together; they’ve never, so far as I know, done anything bad to me or mine. And if people want to have a day off and wave a few flags because two people they don’t know are getting hitched, well, it’s no dafter an excuse than the FA Cup final or Eurovision.

No, what’s really been pumping up my blood pressure has been the media coverage of the announcement, from the mid-market tabs’ attempting to shoehorn St Diana into everything, via the Waikato Times’s interview with someone who happens to be called K Middleton to  Lady Antonia Fraser’s remark on Radio 4’s Today programme that Ms Middleton (Marlborough, St Andrews, offspring of millionaires) is “not privileged”. If, as the conspiracy nuts might suggest, the whole thing is a ploy to distract us from the utter shitbucket into which the world economy is falling, it’s a dismal failure. If we’re seriously looking at SIX MORE MONTHS of this twee banality, this crazed desperation to pump every spare crevice of our consciousness with vacuous, inane, royal-scented non-news, then for every fire extinguisher chucked off Millbank Tower there’ll be a newspaper editor and a couple of TV executives following it down to the pavement.

An awkward young man once said: “I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused.” Sorry, but I’m still at disgusted.

PS: Love and Garbage says much the same, albeit with less screaming.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

My aim is...

Belatedly, I find that my defence of negative criticism has an unlikely, posthumous supporter, in the form of the late Spurs legend Danny Blanchflower. Apparently, in 1967 he found work as a commentator for CBS, which was televising the short-lived National Professional Soccer League, and soon caused consternation with his bosses for insisting on telling it how it was (which usually wasn’t much good). Matters came to a head when he criticised a goalkeeper who let in a shot from 35 yards:
“We think you could have said it was a good shot,” they insisted.
“It would not be the truth,” I said.
“We don't want you to tell lies,” they argued. “We think there are two truths: a positive truth and a negative truth. We want you to be positive—to say it was a good play rather than bad.”
I had never met men before who worshiped two truths. Why had such inventive souls stopped at only two, I wondered? Why not four truths? Or 10? The philosophical winds of it swept through my mind. If they had two truths they must have two gods. Honor thy father and thy mother and thy two gods.... Positive and Negative. If their life was a conflict between two gods, had Satan, that fallen angel, been banished from CBS as well as heaven? Or did it imply that CBS was heaven? (It was easy money, and it sure felt like heaven there at times on the 26th floor.) But if there was no bad, how could there be good?


I know I really shouldn’t get wound up by anything Janet Street-Porter says any more, especially if it’s published in the Daily Mail, but her latest diatribe about social media is just too idiotic to ignore. “Tweeting lets you think you’re important — it confuses activity with content,” she opines. Neglecting to consider, of course, how this distinguishes a Twitter account from, say, a column in the Daily Mail.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

If those evil robots win

Thesis: Singapore. The no-spitting, no-chewing, no-jaywalking, no-blowjobbing, always-flushing, politely authoritarian economic powerhouse of South-East Asia, where an ounce of cannabis can bring an appointment with the hangman.

Antithesis: The Flaming Lips. A popular beat combo from Oklahoma. I suspect they may have jaywalked occasionally.

So the Lips play the Lion City, in the congruously incongruous setting of a vast complex that incorporates a shopping mall and casino. The band is consigned to the basement, because the best rooms are occupied by a BMW sales conference. But there’s a good turnout, representing the ethnic diversity of this strange island-city-state-concept: scowling Chinese goths with cleaver-sharp cheekbones; Indian indie kids who all look to a greater or lesser extent like Graham Coxon; sweaty ang moh, straight from the office, still in their stripy shirts. But for all their countercultural trappings, they’re good kids really. The tidy, doubled-back queue that forms for the mandatory bag check is entirely spontaneous, as is the one inside at the bar. Between the two is a small sign warning of “some profanity”. How considerate.

In support, we have the Raveonettes, all the way from Denmark. Now, I have no idea whether any of them have so much as looked at a controlled substance, but they are a drug band in the sense that they look how you might expect a band to look if it took certain drugs (see Randy Newman’s analysis of ‘A Horse With No Name’ as being about a kid who thinks he’s taken acid). They sometimes sound like the Shangri-Las stuck in a Chilean mineshaft with Ron Asheton’s guitar collection, but not often enough to make it all worthwhile. They’re a Velvets tribute band who’ve been reduced to Nico and three Doug Yules.

But then the Lips appear, and it’s like Dorothy opening the door to Oz, not least because the Danes’ black-and-peroxide look is bodyslammed aside by riotous colour, from the freakish back projections to the orange-clad dancers, go-go-ing Oompa Loompas on day release from Guantánamo. Not to mention, of course, the streamers and the confetti and the balloons and the balloons filled with confetti, just yearning to be popped. This sort of thing is startling enough in the context of Glastonbury or Lollapalooza: this time, you’re constantly reminding yourself that the Yves St Laurent shop is holding a polite champagne-and-nibbles do three or four storeys above.

And at the heart of it all is Mr Wayne Coyne, whether he’s rolling over the heads of the audience in a giant plastic ball or channelling Kenny Everett with his giant, laser-shooting hands. He plays percussion and bugle and loud-hailer and a succession of increasingly damaged guitars, but his real instrument is the audience, which he plays like a clitoral theremin. Yes, the songs are strong, ‘She Don’t Use Jelly’ and ‘Yoshimi’ and ‘Yeah Yeah Yeah’ morphing into glorious, gleeful football chants, but that’s not really the point, is it? This isn’t so much a gig, it’s more like one of those energetic, content-free musical theatre shows – Stomp, Blue Man, that sort of thing – sprinkled with the influence of crushed-up, naughty sweeties. To enter Coyneworld is to occupy a parallel time stream, one in which Syd Barrett got a bit – but not completely – better, and ended up as the drummer for Earth, Wind and Fire.

Coyne and his Lips offer something that Singapore lacks. Not drugs. Not really happiness; the locals are to a great extent happy, queuing, flushing, eating fish-head curry, making money. But something bigger, more ambitious, more challenging, more scary, wilder. They offer JOY, dancing-on-the-ceiling, knickers-on-the-head joy.

I’m not really sure whether Singapore yet knows what hit it.

(All pics by Small Boo.)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Future imperfect

And following on from the anniversary post, here’s Andrew Sullivan on how blogging has changed (some) writing:
I do think that what it’s done with non-fiction is really destroy a particular process, which is a future-oriented process of writing, which is that you, the writer, sits down, thinks about something, has something to write, researches, polishes, edits; if he’s lucky he has someone who can read it and edit it, and then publishes it and it’s done... as you write your opinions on a blog, you are forced to acknowledge that you misunderstood something or made a mistake or have grown up a little bit.
So what it’s really done is to make writing more like speaking, where you don’t usually get a chance to edit, to polish. The above is a transcript from an interview with Sullivan, which explains the  unusual (for him) grammatical sloppiness. Is that where we’re heading?

Monday, November 08, 2010

All the somebody people

I used to write letters to newspapers and magazines. People did, way back then. Possibly inspired by Morrissey, I began with the weekly music press (something about an album of Velvet Underground out-takes, I seem to recall) before moving on to the broadsheets, and also the likes of Time Out, Esquire and the Modern Review (which used to offer free subscriptions for every letter published – I got a free subscription for writing a letter asking how many free subscriptions Germaine Greer had earned). Here, from 2004, is an epistle to The Spectator:
Roger Scruton’s invocation of Manet in his attempt to demonstrate the existence of the soul is flawed (‘What it means to be human’, 20 March). ‘Bar at the Folies Bergère’ ‘is’ a young woman only in the sense that the viewer, familiar with the conventions of Western representational art of the 19th century, puts that interpretation on it. As Magritte pointed out, ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe.’ It is, rather, we who translate the artist’s efforts into a woman, a pipe, sunflowers, etc... Similarly, ‘the soul’ exists within human existence only to the extent that believers interpret existence thus. The idea that a work of art is ‘real’ and the idea that God is ‘real’ rely on the same intellectual and emotional characteristic — suspension of disbelief. 
But five years ago today, I started blogging, an idea that seized several other people around the same time. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, the letters ceased. But as you can see from the above example, the content has remained pretty much the same. In this case, the message transcends the medium.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Of facts and calculations

Not surprisingly, the spending cuts affecting higher education in the UK look likely to have a disproportionate impact upon institutions that only or chiefly offer arts-based courses. Just as happened in the Thatcherite 80s, the balance has been tipped in favour of notionally “useful” subjects, that can guarantee the fastest possible return on investment; the difference now being that a far higher proportion of that investment is provided by the student rather than the state. The spirit of Thomas Gradgrind, Dickens’s utilitarian schoolmaster with his pathological loathing for anything other than facts, hangs over the coalition like a chemistry experiment gone wrong. Leaving aside for a moment the heretical notion that a university education might be allowed to transcend the banalities of the balance sheet, and that having lots of educated, knowledgable people is good in and of itself for society as a whole, there are two reasons why this imbalance is stupid and self-defeating.

The first is that people who study arts subjects make money, for themselves and for the wider community. The whole Cool Britannia phenomenon was slightly embarrassing at the time, and now feels utterly cringe-making, but it did draw attention to the fact that there are some things – art, music, fashion, literature, even the odd movie – that the British can still make pretty bloody well, and other people will want to buy them. The Young British Artists – many of them spawned by Goldsmiths College, one of the institutions that seem likely to have their government support reduced to zero – were successful not just because of their creative skill, but also because of their entrepreneurial instincts. Moreover, because people like Damien Hirst and Jarvis Cocker were associated with British education, lots of foreign students thought it might be a good idea to come to Britain to study, bringing their dollars and euros and yen with them, much of it to the universities themselves.

Of course, just because Goldsmiths and the Royal College of Music and the Central School of Speech and Drama will suffer massive cuts in public subsidy, it doesn’t mean that Britain will stop producing good artists and musicians and actors. It just means that those artists and musicians and actors will come disproportionately – even more so than at present – from social groups where students can rely on the financial support of their parents. There’s nothing wrong with posh people; I’m hardly a horny-handed proletarian myself. But if the creative community is almost entirely drawn from the offspring of the professional classes, this will inevitably be reflected in the art and music and drama that is produced. Less Mike Leigh, more neo-Merchant-Ivories along the lines of Downton Abbey, which might produce a welcome fillip to the tourism figures for stately homes in the coming decades, but hardly presents an image of the United Kingdom as a nation ready to make a big noise against the clamour of the 21st century. I mean, why on earth would David Cameron (Eton and Oxford), Nick Clegg (Westminster and Cambridge) or George Osborne (St Paul’s and Oxford), not to mention the man tasked with the review into tuition fees (King’s, Ely and Cambridge) want to do such a thing?

The second point addresses the whole question of what a university education – indeed, any education – might be for. Yes, the Gradgrinds are right that we need more scientists and engineers to compete with the technological challenge offered by the growing Asian economies, not to mention plenty of lawyers and accountants to keep the wheels oiled and a doctor or two to stop them all dying on the job. But a modern society, a modern economy, also needs salespeople and marketers and copywriters, HR and PR staff, all sorts of people who are clever, but not in ways that can be neatly encapsulated by an academic or professional qualification; otherwise the glorious innovations of the scientists and engineers would just be garden-shed self-indulgences. Oh yeah, a few teachers might be handy as well. And what they learn at university is just as useful to them in their jobs as the science is to the scientists. Not necessarily the specific details of the literature or history or philosophy in their text books, although they’re always handy in a pub quiz; but the skills involved in dealing with something – texts, data, an ethical conundrum – coming up with a response to it, and communicating that response to an audience, coherently and accurately and persuasively.

That might sound like an easy call compared to isolating a genome or building a bridge, but evidence would suggest that people who can really do that aren’t all that thick on the ground, and they’re rather useful to businesses and other organisations. Not all employers need bridges to be built for them, and very few need an understanding of the geopolitical effects of the Congress of Vienna. But most employers need to draw on the sort of intellects that can analyse and explain the geopolitical effects of the Congress of Vienna, even if those intellects are engaged in planning a PR campaign a new bridge that your client’s just built. And while there are people who didn’t go to university who can do that, a degree course that challenges and provokes and teases such aptitudes from a student must surely be seen as a good thing, for the economy, for society and for its own sake.

Or maybe it’s just that if nobody studies arts subjects any more, eventually nobody will know who Thomas Gradgrind is?

Friday, November 05, 2010

Yes, yes, yes, oh yes we can

So the 8th Sex Culture festival in Guangzhou includes an Obama sex doll. What I think is rather wonderful is the way some thoughtful person has used virtual pasties to shield our vulnerable eyes from the horror of plastic nipples. Just in case we might be, y’know, offended or something.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Morrissey marred

So the Times paywall, we are told, is a great success, or at least less of a disaster than some might have predicted. The problem is that, until one of its broadsheet competitors does something similar, there’s no sensible way to make a comparison. What most people agree on is that as newspapers become online entities with optional dead-tree add-ons, they can’t survive on income from advertising sales alone.

Part of the problem for media producers is that the move online has coincided with an increased sophistication and cynicism on the part of users towards advertising in all its forms. If we’re to be sold to, we want our intelligence flattered a little; and yet the form of online ad that’s most likely to grab our attention is the most irritating and patronising. Would you buy a car or a coat or an ice-cream if you associated it with the digital equivalent of an annoying insect that buzzes around as you try to read or watch or listen or shoot zombies or masturbate? Buy an Audi, because when your cursor goes too far to the right-hand side of your screen, the word “AUDI” jumps out at you! OK, maybe not.

Of course, if the Times’s subscription model really works out, they’ll be able to ditch those annoying ads, won’t they? Won’t they? Well, not if Thorne, on Sky 1 (another News Corp entity of course) is anything to go by. Punters may pay the Murdoch shilling for this pretty effective thriller; but they also have to suffer clunkingly intrusive product placement for Illy coffee and Apple computers. And it’s the same problem as with the online ads: if you don’t notice them, they’ve failed; if you do notice them, you start to associate the coffee and the laptops with having your quality time with David Morrissey ruined, and you buy Kenco or Dell instead. It’s a form of metafiction, except that it doesn’t just draw the viewer’s attention to the fact that Thorne is a drama, and the people throwing tantrums on screen are in reality actors; it also reminds you that the whole process is also a commercial entity. First of all, your suspension of disbelief is punctured, and then you’re expected to pay for the pin.

Even weirder is the moment when Jack Shepherd, as Thorne’s widowed dad, suddenly declares for no particular reason, “I’ve got Sky now, thank God.” Which is a bit like preaching to the converted, and at the same time telling them that God doesn’t exist.

PS: More on the paywall thing, from Emily Bell.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

It isn’t, it really isn’t

Heaven knows, in these postmodern, cross-cultural times, the borders between plagiarism, tribute, pastiche and coincidence are so blurred that they might as well not be there. That said, it might have been nice if Selfridges had chosen to set up their Christmas window display while Frank Sidebottom was still around to enjoy it.

PS: Seems as if Selfridges has been nudged into doing the right thing.

Friday, October 29, 2010

In your satin tights

Michael Chabon on comic-book fanboys and the impossibility of getting the costumes just right:
This sad outcome even in the wake of thousands of dollars spent and months of hard work given to sewing and to packing foam rubber into helmets has an obvious, an unavoidable, explanation: a superhero’s costume is constructed not of fabric, foam rubber, or adamantium but of halftone dots, Pantone color values, inked containment lines, and all the cartoonist’s sleight of hand. The superhero costume as drawn disdains the customary relationship in the fashion world between sketch and garment. It makes no suggestions. It has no agenda. Above all, it is not waiting to find fulfillment as cloth draped on a body. A constructed superhero costume is a replica with no original, a model built on a scale of x:1.
I reckon The Simulacrum would be a fabulous name for a comic-strip villain.

Monday, October 25, 2010

People like us

One of the more difficult by-products of the UK Government’s recent spending review has been that everybody’s been forced to talk about social class again. As a public conversation it’s embarrassing enough, but it’s further complicated by the fact that no two people can agree on the precise vocabulary, or what it means. So the Guardian and Mirror argue that “the poor” will suffer the most; while the Mail and Telegraph chronicle the indignities to be endured by “the middle classes”. Clearly there is some sort of connection between income and socio-economic status, but it’s pretty hit and miss; think of anomalies such as poor, middle-class vicars and wealthy, working-class builders. The slightly ghastly sounding Middle Class Handbook classifies the tribe as those earning between £30,000 and £200,000, whereas the average income in the country is closer to £25,000, which suggests that in financial terms at least, the middles are somewhere near the top. Maybe we should just call them the bourgeoisie and shoot them all and be done with it.

One almost yearns for the years when everyone had a defined station in life, and stuck to it, as depicted in that epitome of guilty pleasure, Downton Abbey. Julian Fellowes, the creator of the show, has something to say regarding those who have found fault in its historical verisimilitude:
The real problem is with people who are insecure socially, and they think to show how smart they are by picking holes in the programme to promote their own poshness and to show that their knowledge is greater than your knowledge... The fact of the matter is that the really posh people are pleased to see something on television that isn't about a dead prostitute in a dustbin, and they seem to just be enjoying the programme.
Thanks, Julian, that’s explained everything. Although, as some have cruelly pointed out, Fellowes is married to a lady-in-waiting to Princess Michael of Kent, which makes him about as classy as a Big Brother contestant puking WKD over her Burberry tracksuit.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Truth and beauty

A couple of newsfarts that feel as if they might have some sort of thematic connection to the previous post. The first is the revelation by egregious Tory MP Nadine Dorries that her blog is “70% fiction and 30% fact”, although she subsequently explained that “I think I probably meant to say it was 30% fiction.” Of course, the perfect get-out clause would be to explain that the blog is 100% opinion, but I rather get the feeling that Ms Dorries is too stupid to cope with such nuances.

And then there’s the revelation that Jane Austen’s stylistic elegance might have owed rather more to her editors than we previously believed. Although the canon must be defended at all costs; so Kathryn Sutherland suggests that revelations of dodgy punctuation and idiosyncratic grammar
...reveal Austen to be an experimental and innovative writer, constantly trying new things... even better at writing dialogue and conversation than the edited style of her published novels suggest.
So she’s still a great author – just a completely different great author from the one we’ve always believed her to be.

PS: Of course, the most cogent response to either of these is as follows:
The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is an indispensable companion to all those who are keen to make sense of life in an infinitely complex and confusing universe. For though it cannot hope to be useful or informative on all matters, it does make the reassuring claim that where it is inaccurate, it is at least definitively inaccurate. In cases of major discrepancy it is always reality that’s got it wrong. So, for instance, when the Guide was sued by the families of those who had died as a result of taking the entry on the planet Traal literally – it said “Ravenous Bugblatter Beasts often make a very good meal for visiting tourists” instead of “Ravenous Bugblatter Beasts often make a very good meal of visiting tourists” – the editors claimed that the first version of the sentence was the more aesthetically pleasing; summoned a qualified poet to testify under oath that beauty was truth, truth beauty, and hoped thereby to prove that the guilty party in this case was life itself for failing to be either beautiful or true.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Say it ain’t so

I’ve never had much time for the prim adage that insists if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything. I can understand a principled objection to verbal bullying or witless abuse; but let’s face it, some things are crap and it doesn’t do anybody any good to deny the fact.

Not everyone agrees. In many Asian cultures, explicit criticism is taboo, especially when it’s expressed to the subject’s face. Several years ago, when I was working for a Thai magazine, I wrote a rather dismissive review of a business book, describing its content as parochial and accusing the author of a lack of intellectual curiosity. The editor was not pleased, demanding of me, “If this book is no good, why are we telling our readers about it?”

Of course, this isn’t an exclusively Asian phenomenon. In the mainstream media, it’s inevitable that the sincerely held opinion of an individual contributor will at some point come into conflict with the corporate party line, which may upset advertisers or disturb cosy relationships with political or business contacts. But there used to be ways around this. Several lifetimes ago, when I used to pen reviews for Mojo magazine, I was less than enthusiastic about an album by A Certain American Singer-Songwriter. When I filed the review, I was informed in no uncertain terms that the editor profoundly disagreed with my analysis; they subsequently ran a long interview with the artist in question, in which the album was drizzled with praise; in fact, it ended up as Mojo’s album of the year. But, to give them credit, they didn’t spike my original review, or even tone down its essential meh-ness. I was asked my opinion of the album, and I didn’t like it much, and I said so, and that was OK.

Things seem to have changed, even in the virtual world. Check out this review of the latest waxing by San Fran garage band The Fresh And Onlys, then scroll down to the response the journalist received when she submitted it to another music website: “ was a little harsh, I can’t really post stuff that opinionated as we just won’t get anymore from the label.” (As I asked, how opinionated is stuff allowed to be these days?) And with the memory of Andrew Marr’s blogrant still fresh, we learn that the Washington Post has issued guidelines on how its journalists  should and shouldn’t make use of Twitter:
Even as we encourage everyone in the newsroom to embrace social media and relevant tools, it is absolutely vital to remember that the purpose of these Post-branded accounts is to use them as a platform to promote news, bring in user generated content and increase audience engagement with Post content. 
Rather than using them to, you know, actually say stuff. I just wish I’d been able at the time to come up with a coherent reply to the editor who asked why we were reviewing bad books. Because if we don’t explain why the bad books are bad, we lose touch with any sense of critical dialogue or debate. If we don’t explain why the bad books or films or blogs or albums by Certain American Singer-Songwriters are bad, there is no context in which to decide why the good ones are good.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Cooking the books

Graham Greene, in the foreword to The Comedians, argues against the notion that all fiction is essentially autobiographical:
‘I’ is not the only imaginary character: none of the others, from such minor players as the British chargé to the principals, has ever existed. A physical trait taken here, a habit of speech, an anecdote – they are boiled up in the kitchen of the unconscious and emerge unrecognizable even to the cook in most cases.
It’s the “unrecognizable even to the cook” bit I like, although whether Greene was tacitly acknowledging the postmodern concept that the author should not be privileged over the reader, or just affecting a sort of gentleman amateurism about the whole process of writing, I’m not sure.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

In order to save the mainstream media it became necessary to destroy it

Annie Bookcrosminsky worries that the blogosphere is shrinking. And yes, she’s got a point. Many of the old names who were around when I started Cultural Snow nearly five years ago, when memes were pretty cutting edge and you sent a thank-you note if someone added you to their blogroll, have gone on to other things, like death or babies; or they only pop in when they’ve got something really profound to say. And yet blogging, the idea of blogging, the feel of blogging is bloody everywhere.

I’ve just watched Claudia Winkleman’s first outing at the helm of Film 2010. Now, I’m old enough to  remember Barry Norman in the same chair in the late 70s. He’d tell you what he thought of a film, then there’d be an insert from Hollywood with that bloke with a moustache, then Barry would tell you what he thought of another film, then he might interview some up-and-coming whippersnapper like Alan Parker, then Barry would tell you what he thought of one more film, and that it wasn’t as good as a Howard Hawks film that I probably hadn’t seen at the time, but I made a mental note to look out for it if it showed up in the Radio Times. Because Barry Norman said I should, and he was presenting the film programme on the BBC, so he should know. It was classic, old-school, implicitly de haut en bas media.

But Barry sells pickled onions now – that’s not a euphemism for death, he really does sell pickled onions – and Winkleword is something rather different. It’s not just that they’ve got a self-confessed blogger on the team, in the person of Charlie Lyne from Ultra Culture. The show is live, and we’re encouraged to tweet our thoughts, and Claudia’s got an in-house sounding board in the person of some bloke from the Guardian who acts a bit like Mark Kermode’s little brother. (The real dweebs wanted Dr Kermode to take over from Jonathan Ross, but he knew his quiff wouldn’t fit.) It’s no longer the baggy-eyed lecture that Bazza made it, or the stand-up routine that Wossy offered. It’s a conversation, people, just like blogs were when there were enough of around to converse with.

I’m not the only one to have laboured the obvious analogy, but blogging is a bit like punk rock. Punk as a vital, revolutionary force burned itself out after about 18 months, with the greatest talents re-focusing their energies into the sort of musics that Simon Reynolds has chronicled; the others either died, or have played their two-and-a-half chords on the fundamentalist nostalgia circuit ever since. But at the same time, those who were cast as the villains in the McLarenite morality play, the Rolling Stones and Rod Stewart, Genesis and Pink Floyd and Yes, were all changed by the experience. Their songs and trousers became tighter; their guitar solos and haircuts shorter. Punk didn’t destroy them, but it did make them change their tune, figuratively and literally.

So it is with blogging. Some of the pioneers have been absorbed by the mainstream media, still a bit spikier than the norm, but now with advertisers and libel lawyers to trim their nails if they get too sharp. Charlie Lyne appearing on Film 2010 is like Plastic Bertrand appearing on the cover of the Smash Hits dummy. And even the anti-bloggers, the Street-Porters and Dejevskys and Marrs, have realised that some of the core aspects of blogging – the immediacy, the interactivity, the links – will have to be taken up if mainstream media is to survive.

Annie’s probably right that the blogosphere is shrinking, if she means that sites with ‘blogspot’ and ‘wordpress’ in their names are less likely to provoke excitable debate at fashionable dinner parties by the time Film 2020 rolls around (by which time it will probably be introduced by Justin Bieber, or the woman from the Shake ‘n’ Vac ad, or maybe an artichoke). But that’s not because nobody’s blogging any more; it’s because everybody is.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Chin music

I remember the excited register of the sleevenotes on one of Stanley Jordan’s early albums: something along the lines of “your ears do not deceive you – there is only one guitarist on this album!” This was a reference to his startling tapping technique, which enables him to play two separate melodies at the same time. If you didn’t know better, you’d think there were indeed two guitarists on the record, or maybe one guitarist, double-tracked. The question was whether one’s listening pleasure was at all enhanced by the knowledge that the sound came from one man, playing one guitar, once. On this, I was something of a sceptic, never really buying the notion that there’s a direct correlation between technical aptitude and good music. Jordan is clearly good, but is the noise he makes really better than that made by someone only playing one tune at a time?

So I wasn’t exactly beating down the doors of the ticket office when he played in Bangkok last week. But I went. And he was good. He was good when he was playing one tune, and good when he was playing two at once. He was good when he was playing the guitar with his left hand, and the piano with his right, and good when he swapped hands. He was even good when he played three tunes  at once: left hand; right hand; chin. He was even good when he played Mozart’s 21st piano concerto, although it wasn’t entirely clear why he might want to do such a thing.

But the best moments – the stuff that actually transcended pure admiration for his agility and had me revelling in the noise he was making – were the most straightforward: a hard-bop rendition of ‘Autumn Leaves’; and a coda to ‘Eleanor Rigby’ that became a blur of Townshend riffing.

“It’s because you don’t play the guitar,” said Small Boo. “You don’t understand.” And it’s true, I don’t play – although I understand the basics, what the right and left hands usually do – and she does. But should that really matter? The gig was sponsored by a guitar magazine, which was also pimping a concert in a few weeks’ time by some godawful US thrash outfit. I’m sure lots of people would have tickets for both. The attraction, it seems, is not jazz or rock, but what someone can do with a guitar; the playing, not the music.

Two thoughts. First, Nick Hornby’s comment on the disproportionate number of novels about writers, urging readers to “resent the repeated implication, by publishers and books pages, that my profession is more interesting than yours.” If someone like Paul Auster is writing about writing, is Stanley Jordan playing the guitar about playing the guitar?

And then, about Les Paul, the first man who worked out (through his innovations in multi-tracking) how to make one guitarist sound like several. Here’s the two of them together. Jordan’s playing is clearly more complex, more unorthodox, more technically challenging, and I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that Paul’s stuff is better; but I’m damned if I can see that it’s worse.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Except that my mother doesn’t have a basement

I have a certain amount of time for Andrew Marr, but he really shouldn’t go around casting aspersions on other people’s physical appearances. Apparently he told an audience at the Cheltenham Literary Festival that:
...most citizen journalism strikes me as nothing to do with journalism at all. A lot of bloggers seem to be socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed young men sitting in their mother's basements and ranting. They are very angry people... OK – the country is full of very angry people. Many of us are angry people at times. Some of us are angry and drunk. But the so-called citizen journalism is the spewings and rantings of very drunk people late at night. It is fantastic at times but it is not going to replace journalism. Most of the blogging is too angry and too abusive. Terrible things are said online because they are anonymous. People say things online that they wouldn't dream of saying in person.
Perhaps Mr Marr ought to look in the mirror before popping anybody else’s pimples. Or, as I suggested at The Wall:
Clearly Sturgeon’s Law – “90% of everything is crud” – applies to blogging, but it applies to most other things, including mainstream journalism. Marr might like to kid himself that his profession is characterised by plucky foreign correspondents and dogged investigative reporters, but to be honest, that’s just a thin layer of cream atop a mountain of recycled press releases, parochial banality, celebrity tittle-tattle (much of it entirely invented; “a friend said…”), dog-whistle political shit-stirring, and the sort of un-researched off-the-top-of-the-head lifestyle columns (Liz Jones, Jan Moir, etc) that uphold all the worst qualities that Marr and friends ascribe to bloggers. Clear out your own back yard, first, Andrew.
PS: Shane Richmond weighs in @ the Telegraph; also Robin Bogg, Roy Greenslade @ the Standard.

Paper Rroses

You know how Tom Lehrer supposedly claimed to have stopped writing songs when Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, because reality had finally triumphed over satire? And how he subsequently denied he’d said that, probably because subsequent events (George W Bush as President, Ann Widdecombe on Strictly Come Dancing) made the Kissinger thing seem almost sensible?

Well, anyway, here’s Marie Osmond reciting Dada poetry. Hat-tip to my beardy college chum Nick Abrahams.

PS: And on the subject of transgressive art, how about the phantom coat thief?

Friday, October 08, 2010

When I am an old woman...

I am grateful to the lovely Great She Elephant for nudging Urlai through the back door of my perception. It is a site that claims to be able to analyse the text of a blog and extrapolate the gender, age and general mood of the author.

Close study of the previous 12 posts tells us that Cultural Snow “is probably written by a male [OK, fair enough] somewhere between 26-35 years old. [Thank you!] The writing style is personal and upset most of the time.”


PS: And still on blog-related matters, anyone who happens to be in Bristol on October 22 might find this interesting.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Society of the spectacles

When Jonathan Franzen’s publishers announced that thousands of copies of his novel Freedom would be pulped after the wrong version was printed, the dials on my cultural bullshit detector immediately flipped into the red. It’s just the sort of story that liberates an author from the high walls of the review sections, and into the news pages, where normal people might go. It’s an amusing cock-up story, but not one that reflects badly on the writer himself; a bit like that time when Jeanette Winterson’s manuscript was left at Balham Tube station.

But the next événement to spice up the drudgery of Franzen’s UK promotional tour was at the same time too banal and too weird to have been dreamed up by some fresh-faced catamite in the Fourth Estate PR department. At Monday’s launch party, someone swiped the poor man’s glasses from his nose, dropping off a ransom note at the same time. The location of the attack (the Serpentine Gallery) and the preposterous demand (£100,000 to you, guv) immediately suggest some sort of neo-Situationist prank, probably carried out by art students.

But no. The spec-snatcher, James Fletcher, is indeed a student, but a student of computational aerospace design. Any aesthetic motivation appears to have been subconscious, as he wrote afterwards in an article for GQ:
Some articles have suggested that the theft was perhaps a display of some kind of art... I’d just like to comment that if art is defined as something which provokes an emotional response, then I suppose it was art.
Instead, the attack seems to have been motivated by far more mundane factors:
We sat drinking excessive champagne for a while and talking to some of the guests there until I realised just how dull it all was... I’d mentioned several times to my accomplice how much I admired Franzen’s frames... I remember shouting as I snatched the glasses off the bewildered man's face that I was with Channel 4 doing a comedy stunt. Looking back, I’m not exactly sure what that meant or why I said it.
All in all, then, a terribly 2010 manifestation of artistic outrage: a combination of drunkenness, boredom, material avarice and the incoherent, atavistic desire for some kind of fleeting celebrity, however ill-defined. It’s the sort of thing someone should write a big fat novel about. What’s Jonathan Franzen doing these days?

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Death of Venice

Venice, in common with many beautiful places, is subject to a terrible paradox: it needs a stream of visitors to fund its upkeep, but those visitors, their feet and fingers, their breath and sweat, are partly to blame for making the upkeep necessary. So it’s little wonder that the city’s inhabitants and elected officials have a somewhat ambivalent attitude to the camera-toting grockles who come to gawp at the loveliness. The mayor, Giorgio Orsini, seems to have decided that, all things considered, the bloody tourists are more trouble than they’re worth, hitting back at those who complain that many of the best bits are hidden by giant billboards. “What difference does it make if the scaffolding shows a picture of the building underneath or an advert,” he asks. “If people want to see the building they should go home and look at a picture of it in a book.”

Maybe he’d rather they went to the Venetian in Las Vegas, that Simulacrum of Sighs, the Likeness of Lagoons in the middle of a bloody desert. Or, better still, the version in Macao, which copies the Vegas Venice rather than the Venice Venice. And doubtless, in the coming years, a succession of Venetians in Rio and Riyadh and Reykjavik, anti-Xeroxes, each one brighter and sharper and more hyperreal than the last. While the real Venice, the first Venice, sinks beneath the water, forsaken and forgotten, the last sound to come from it being a bubbly entreaty from Mayor Orsini, trying to sell you one last overpriced postcard.