Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Please hold, your life is important to us

I’m suffering yet more post-natal regrets about the Noughties book: now I realise that I didn’t give nearly enough space to the works of Douglas Coupland. I’ve already discussed the fact that several of his books have a tendency to degenerate into loosely connected strings of one-liners, but is that necessarily a bad thing? Maybe this simply reflects the direction in which culture and society is developing; as the interminable Big Brother retrospectives have proved, our attention spans today can’t even cope with the Warholian 900 seconds.

In Coupland’s most recent novel, Generation A, one of the main characters is a Sri Lankan call centre worker called Harj, who defines his own professional identity as
...a chunk of disgraced meat at the end of a phone line, forced by the global economy to discuss colour samples and waffle-knit jerseys with people who wish they were dead.
which would have been useful in my deliciously fleeting contribution to the BBC2 show History of Now, in which I discussed the ersatz Englands being constructed right now in the cubicles of Bangalore. And Harj also encapsulates the Noughties interface of capitalism and celebrity culture with his prank commerce site:
For $4.99 you could visit my site and download one hour of household silence from rooms belonging to a range of celebrities, all of whom promised to donate their royalties to charity. There was Mick Jagger (London; metropolitan), Garth Brooks (rural; some jet noise in the background), Cameron Diaz (Miami; sunny, sexy, flirty)) and so forth. For cachet, I threw in household silences from the Tribeca lofts of underworld rock survivor Lou Reed and motherly experimental performance artist Laurie Anderson.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

It’s the same old song

Phil Collins, the grimacing Yoda of 80s git-rock, is to release a new album next month. Roll up your jacket sleeves, people, because if that isn’t exciting enough, it’s full of soul and Motown covers. “I want the songs to sound exactly like the originals,” he declares, and surely an album that sounds exactly like a bunch of old soul and Motown songs is a more enticing prospect than an album that sounds exactly like Phil Collins singing a bunch of old soul and Motown songs. Apart from all those received ideas about authenticity and credibility and the sanctity of ‘the original’, Phil’s statement opens up plenty of exciting philosophical rat-runs: will his new album be a Baudrillardian simulacrum of the originals, concealing and perverting their essence, their reality; or perhaps a Borgesian map, on a 1:1 scale to the musical territory it depicts?

Or will it sound like Phil Collins singing a bunch of old soul and Motown songs?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Books do furnish a Tube carriage

Here’s an interesting piece in The Economist, in response to the suggestion (voiced in the New York Times) that e-readers are less off-putting than books; the argument is that part of the appeal of reading a book in public is that it reduces the chance of any social contact with others: “Books require a certain quiet, a solitude that is all the more valuable for the way it can be achieved in public.” And it’s true; if I’m entirely alone, I can manage without a book. If I’m surrounded by others, I need the comfort, the distraction, the protection that it offers.

But back to the notion of sociability. Surely one’s choice of e-reader gives less of a clue to one’s personality – leaving aside for the moment the question of whether that personality might be attractive to others – that one’s choice of book. Do Kindle readers feel some sort of affinity with each other, to the extent that two otherwise unacquainted readers of Stieg Larsson or Sarah Waters or Andy McNab might feel? I’ve had conversations with strangers prompted by what I or they are reading, and have also steered clear of people on the same basis. And then of course there’s the question of whether people use books as a sort of personal branding: I Am The Sort Of Person Who Reads Schopenhauer, Don’t You Know?

I suppose there might be some kind of geeky camaraderie about reading devices, in the way that people might bond over classic bikes or expensive cameras. But surely once you’ve spent three minutes bonding over your Sony or whatever, what you really want to know is what book the other person is reading. Until you find out that the other person is reading Schopenhauer, and you’re reading Andy McNab.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Kind of blue

I do not know whether Claudia Lawrence Rrose Sélavy exists to any greater extent than the original Rrose Sélavy, the female alter ego of Marcel Duchamp, lived and breathed. But the entity attained some level of digital realness, enough at least to become one of my virtual ‘friends’ (and the same goes for Mytho Geography and Hegemony Or Bust and agirlcalledTom and Fat Roland, so draw your own conclusions, send them in to the Gallery, sorry we can’t return any, but there’s a prize for each one we show).

Anyway, I don’t know where this photo came from – guessing London – but CLRS posted it on Facebook – which still comes up first if you put the word ‘book’ into Google – and it made me smile wryly, despite my current problems with some salt cod, so I leached it off her or him or it or them or whatever, and here it is:

Look back in angular

Once again, David Mitchell (this one, not these two), accidentally encapsulates my life in a few sentences:
My parents were eager for me to engage in after-school activities because they thought it would give me a more rounded personality. But the trouble with rounded personalities is that they don't tessellate. I think I get a lot more purchase on the nooks and crannies of life with my spiky one than those poor, well-adjusted sods who are sent out into a world completely unprepared for their goodwill.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

It’s nothing special

Yet more stuff that I should have included in the Noughties book; from the 2000 edition of The Sense of an Ending, by Frank Kermode, who died on Tuesday:
Since most people, one supposes, understand that the connection between apocalypse and millennium is fortuitous, the mildly apocalyptic stir of anxiety or interest induced by the year 2000 is (except for fundamentalists, who in any case are confident that they will be carried off to safety before Armageddon) only a faint, modern, vestige of an older and greater dread, belonging to a vastly different understanding of the world and of time... What we cannot say is that the millennium is somehow more real, more a part of the nature of things, than the apocalypse we dismiss as a fantasy.
Now, as someone who was shot by both sides in the academic wars over structuralism and postmodernism, Prof Kermode took a risk when he so glibly set up reality as being equivalent to “the nature of things”. And I’m not sure whether “most people” – as distinct from most people that he knew socially – gave the whole calendrical coincidence thing much thought. I wonder whether he ever went to the bloody Dome.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Will the real Simon Amstell please sit down?

One thing that always perplexed me about Moving Wallpaper/Echo Beach, ITV’s flawed-but-at-least-they-tried essay in comedic postmodernism, was the acting of Hannah Lederer-Alton, who played teenage temptress Abi Marrack. By most objective standards, this was a car-crash of a performance, a masterclass in how not to do it. But within the universe of the entwined shows, we weren’t necessarily watching Hannah Lederer-Alton playing the role of Abi Marrack in Echo Beach; we were watching Hannah Lederer-Alton playing the role of a bad actress called ‘Hannah Lederer-Alton’ who played Abi Marrack in Echo Beach. The crises and weaknesses of the Cornish soap were, in part, the engine that drove Moving Wallpaper, so it’s entirely plausible that the fictional producers would have cast a very bad actress in the role. It’s difficult to judge whether the real Lederer-Alton is in fact a bad actress, or a good actress who once played a bad actress, because after leaving Echo Beach she put her acting career on hold to go to university. She’s studying drama, since you ask.

There is no such get-out clause in Grandma’s House, the new BBC vehicle for Simon Amstell; no framing narrative that tells us that this is a play within a play, and that the actors are playing actors. This is, for the most part, an old-fashioned domestic sitcom with some top-class performers (Rebecca Front, Linda Bassett, Geoffrey Hutchings) being very funny indeed.

Into which set-up ambles Amstell, playing himself, or perhaps a simulacrum of himself. As the show starts, ‘Amstell’ announces to his family that he is giving up his role as presenter on Never Mind The Buzzcocks (which he has in fact done), because he has become tired of its inherent cruelty. Immediately we have a problem; Amstell’s entire career is based on being rude to pop stars – his on-screen mother encapsulates his purpose in life as “you’re a presenter who takes the pisss out of people” – and once he’s given that up for ethical reasons, there’s not a lot left. Certainly not acting ability; Amstell seems to be delivering his lines at the level of a first read-through, while the other actors are already up to speed.

It’s as if Amstell has watched other performers playing comic versions of themselves – Tony Hancock; Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm; Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in A Cock And Bull Story; the various guest stars, especially Les Dennis, in Extras – and tried to have a go himself. (I touched on this a few years ago, when discussing Brydon’s Annually Retentive.) But while those creations are exaggerated versions of the original, for the most part funnier and more flawed, the ‘Amstell’ in Grandma’s House is nicer and less funny than the Satanic choirboy who abused lame rappers for our delectation. When he’s rude to or about people (such as Clive, his mother’s boorish fiancé), he offers up half-hearted sneering, as opposed to the vicious deflation he deployed against the likes of Preston out of the Ordinary Boys.

So why is Amstell in the role? The only thing he seems to provide as a performer is a veneer of knowing metafiction that makes the show seem slightly edgier and more sophisticated than it really is; “I am here in real life!” he whines, when his family insists on playing a recording of his latest show. In fact, the most effective nod to the collision of realities is entirely accidental, coming when ‘Amstell’’s grandfather confides that he might be seriously ill; watching it, we know that the actor Geoffrey Hutchings died between filming and transmission. It’s as if broadcasters don’t believe that 21st-century audiences can cope with comedy that doesn’t knowingly tap its nose or put exaggerated air quotes around itself. You know, those staid, unfunny shows like Porridge and Rising Damp and Steptoe and Son.

Moving Wallpaper needed the parallel universe of Echo Beach to give it validity, to make it about something. When, in the second series, the fake soap was removed from the equation, the overall product was fatally wounded. Grandma’s House is potentially strong enough to survive without its intertextual nodding and winking. The premise is fine, the cast is excellent, many of the lines made me laugh. Is it too late for a reboot, with Amstell’s character replaced by an entirely fictitious creation, who’s resigned from a fictitious job on a fictitious comedy quiz show? Amstell (the real one) co-wrote the show, so he can clearly do funny; on the evidence of this, though, he can’t actually be funny.

Maybe in the second series they can give the part to Hannah Lederer-Alton. By that time, she may have learned to act.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

What are you in for?

I’ve only recently become interested in the various high and low roads that might lead readers to this blog. Previously, I just assumed that the sound of chin-stroking and harrumphing would simply echo through the interwebs, encouraging sympathetic pedants, dilettantes and curmudgeons to move a little closer.

But now, thanks to Blogger’s wonderful Stats facility, I can see that people find themselves skiing on the Cultural Snow after searching for:
  • bosoms
  • you break his heart i break your face
  • anita pallenberg today
  • attractive ladies
  • most offensive word
  • gloria hunniford
  • cuckold cartoon
  • bunty tommy the tomboy
  • hindu sex
  • a stupid person’s idea of what a clever person looks like
  • agnetha’s bum

And just to show that reports of blogging’s demise are a tad exaggerated, Anton Vowl offers a hymn of praise to the whole phenomenon.

PS: And I hope that in the last few hours, those who have arrived here seeking what’s the most derogatory term in america and fucking lady one after another have also achieved a modicum of satisfaction.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Too Goody to be true

I’m forever tripping over things that would have been useful nuggets to include in my book about the Noughties. That’s the glory of print media, I suppose; as Zadie Smith put it, “...the perfect state of mind to edit your own novel is two years after it’s published.” Anyway, in the section about reality TV, I argued that Noughties celebrities in general, and Jade Goody in particular, needed to be “at once real, unreal and hyperreal.” Now the excellent Billy Stockbroker directs us to a thread on David Icke’s site, which starts with the contention that the whole Jade story was a conspiracy to persuade us, the sheepy people, to accept cervical cancer jabs and then gets even weirder:
i challenge you to find me any verifiable proof that Jade Goody existed at all. by verifiable proof I mean a copy of a birth certificate, copy of a tax return, or someone who knew her growing up in her poor white trash lifestyle she supposedly had. Jade Goody was a character played by an actor.
Well, as far as the last sentence goes, aren’t we all? But another user appears to have been reading Baudrillard with one eye and Robert Anton Wilson with the other:
That’s perhaps the most amazing thing about that woman when you think about it. He [sic] whole bizarre life, celeb status and surreal demise was real... She could only be something that could be real in an illuminati controlled world.
So that’s answered that then. She was real. But she was only obeying orders.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

The Piper at the Pearly Gates

I’ve been reading Tom Cox’s Educating Peter, described on the front cover as being “a bit like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but with crisps...” It’s the rock journalist’s memoir of a period when he was asked to take under his wing the 14-year-old son of a friend, which mainly involved going on long car journeys, listening to and talking about music, and meeting a few musicians. It’s a slightly contrived scenario, notwithstanding its apparently factual basis (I don’t think we’ve got a James Frey thing going on here), as it seems to have been purpose-built for any Nick Hornby fans who might want the best bits of High Fidelity and About a Boy in one tidy package.

Inevitably, one of the themes of the book is that Cox learns as much from the experience as the black-clad, Slipknot-loving Peter does, forcing himself to interrogate his own likes and dislikes, and the very nature of the relationship between the fan and the music. So they visit the petrol station where the Rolling Stones pissed against a wall in 1965; attend a Brian Wilson concert at the Royal Festival Hall, and find themselves sharing a lift with Brian himself; and go to the tree on Barnes Common that took the life of Marc Bolan. It becomes clear that Tom and Peter differ in their musical tastes not because of anything inherent in the noises that come out of the speakers, but because of their contrasting responses to the mythology that surrounds them, the connotations rather than the denotations. Before they go to the Wilson gig, Peter thinks he might know three songs by the Beach Boys: “‘the one with the weird video that they always show on VH-1’, ‘the one about surfing’ and ‘the one about California’.” Instead of playing him more of the music, Cox
...attempted to fill Peter in on the essential elements of the group’s story: the early good-time hits followed by the descent into madness and darkness, friendship with Charles Manson and strange songs about worms. To me, this was stuff that had been repeated by so many deferential rock critics that even grazing the subject seemed like a monumental cliché. But to Peter it was new and mysterious. Or – as was equally likely – plain boring and fogeyish.
Later, they go to Cambridge, not so much in search of Syd Barrett, who was still alive in 2002 when the story is set, more to look for the myth. After all, as Cox admits, he doesn’t really care much for Barrett’s songs per se, especially not the solo stuff:
I was in Cambridge because I was enchanted by his legend, or at least my own romanticised version of it, and, in a way, I felt even that was losing its appeal, now I’d stopped pretending that I liked his music.
Peter shares his scepticism (“Did they not have proper studios in those days, then?” he asks as they listen to The Madcap Laughs on the way.) but still tags along for the ride. When they arrive, they find little evidence of the lost genius, and little interest in him from the locals:
The place seemed somehow beyond Syd Barrett. And while he was surely still here somehow, painting or being diabetic or hanging out in someone’s local pub or having a picnic or gardening or having a secret party with Brian Eno, his ghost had obviously skipped town aeons ago.
Cox ponders whether his home town might have been more respectful had Syd actually died decades before, like proper rock legends do; then fans would have been free to fill the intervening 30 years with imagined, projected glories, rather than the mundane reality of a tubby, ill man trying to avoid his more besotted fans. But if we do consider the pantheon of died-too-young rockers, in very few cases (Holly? Hendrix? Redding?) is there evidence that they might have gone on to make music even better than what we have available to us now. Far more common are the stars who are still young, but already past their best. As Lennon said, Elvis really died when he joined the army; Lennon himself recorded very little of any real worth after about 1971; Jim Morrison maybe never really had it to start with.

In an ideal world, maybe we should be able to order our idols to die at the optimum time, and in the most appropriate manner: Dylan, in the bike crash in 1966; Wilson, burning to death in his sandpit as he finishes Smile; Barrett, overdosing on Mandrax and Brylcreem; Bowie, shot while trying to scale the Berlin Wall at the end of the 1970s; at the photoshoot for Thriller, Michael Jackson gets rabies from the tiger, rather than his weirdly anticlimactic demise in 2009. I briefly covered the last one in my book about the Noughties, still available, blah blah:
...but in truth Jackson the man had died years before, to be replaced by a grotesque post-human, a parody of celebrity concocted by a cabal of publicists and plastic surgeons.
Of course, we’d then lose some of the unexpected late flowerings of rock gods in their mature years. That said, great as these can be, if you were to play ‘Hurt’ to someone who’d never heard of Johnny Cash, he’d just hear an old man ranting about drugs and self-harm. And I was at the same Brian Wilson concert that Tom and Peter attended, and it was probably the most enjoyable gig that I’ve ever attended; but I know that was probably down to the huge outpouring of goodwill towards the man on stage, and the recognition that he’d at least partly defeated his demons. Watching footage of the same event, you see a slightly befuddled Wilson fronting a well-drilled covers band.

Still, the whole thing gives me an excuse to post this clip of Syd defending his music, rather than his myth. Fortuitously, it also includes a brief glimpse of the magnificent Robert Robinson, whose retirement was announced a few days ago. Maybe, in years to come, there will be diehard fans hanging around his Chelsea flat, swapping bootleg DVDs of Call My Bluff and talking about what might have been.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Titter ye not much

Disquiet has been expressed within the comedic fraternity about the Foster’s Comedy God poll, in which the current sponsors of the Edinburgh Fringe prize ask us to pick the greatest talent from among all those who have ever been nominated for the award (best remembered from the years when it was the Perrier). Most vociferous among the critics has been the excellent Stewart Lee, who pointed out that very few people voting in the poll would have encountered all the nominated acts, which was why, when he first remarked on it, more recent performers such as Michael McIntyre and Russell Howard were in the lead, rather than... well, that’s where things got a bit out of control, as he recounts:
...I chose at random Frank Chickens, the Japanese female performance art duo, as an example of possibly worthy winners who would not get a look in under this illogical and unfair voting system, and the Twitter world has adopted them as a cause. This was never my intention, and I was drunk when I sent the e-mail in a fit of annoyance anyway, but they are now leading the field, and it appears we should embrace them.
The thing is, being roughly the same age as Mr Lee, I do remember Frank Chickens, and while they might not have been my first choice, they are clearly far more amusing than the bland, gittish likes of McIntyre and Howard. So I voted for them. But in doing so, was I actually subverting the poll, or just adding one more page-view’s-worth of credibility to the whole sorry process, and by some weird collision of digital technology and marketing voodoo, making one dull, Australian lager brand appear to be marginally less horrid than another? If Lee hadn’t sent his original drunken diatribe, I probably wouldn’t even have been aware of the poll, and would just have sighed and shrugged when it was announced that McIntyre is the best thing to have come out of Edinburgh since Burke and Hare. Then again, my contempt for the Foster’s effort has been edged aside by another poll, the results of which suggest that the greatest comedy double act of always and forever is Horne and Corden. Although maybe that, in its own vile way, is more subversive than voting for Frank Chickens.

In any case the Foster’s poll only works if you believe the Fringe is defined by the Awards, which is as absurd as the idea that Edinburgh is defined by the Fringe. (Some people believe that it disappears between September and July, like Brigadoon.) Despite the hundreds of thousands of people there, it’s a deliciously solipsistic experience, with each individual creating a remembered Fringe unique and perfect to himself or herself. I had to check on Wikipedia to see who’d won the Perrier in the years when I was there, but I had no trouble in placing the custard doughnuts and chips with salt-an’-sauce, flyers, Bill Hicks in a tent, telling an American tourist that the Scott Monument was named after Terry Scott, flyers, the guy doing a one-man show about King Saul who needed thirty prompts, flyers, Archaos stopping the traffic, sleeping on the floor, gatecrashing the Fringe Parade and hassling Arden and Frost because they were drinking the wrong lager, that Scotsman review (“...unbelievably atrocious”), the rain, putting the review in the flyers, Jerry Sadowitz not getting served in the bar at the Pleasance and that night in 1993 that Margi Clarke got so annoyed with one persistent heckler that after the gig she went out and poured a pint of lager over the wrong woman. Which is the Fringe only as it is through my tired eyes, but is surely more Fringey than Michael McIntyre.

That said, if you’ve never been, and you really want to know what it’s like, listen to this.

PS: Kazuko Hohki of Frank Chickens responds to the brouhaha: “It’s like someone talking about who won the Derby. I don’t care. I am not a comedian.”

Monday, August 02, 2010

Sleepy. Hollow.

When I was about eight, I went through that inevitable phase of ending every story I wrote with “...and then I woke up. It had all been a dream.” With Inception, which I finally got round to seeing yesterday, Christopher Nolan does the same thing, but in the first five minutes, and then again, and then again, and then again, and then again, and then again, and then again, and then again, and then again, and then again, and then again, and then again, and then again, and then again, and then again, and then again, and then again, and then again, and then again, and then again, and then again, and then again, and then again, and then again, and then again, and then again, and then again, and then again, and then again, and then again, and then again, and then again, and then again, and then again, and then it’s a bit ambiguous, THE END. There’s lots of shooting, but no real bodies – because after all, it had all been a dream – which makes it something akin to an unauthorised remake of The A-Team, or perhaps the world’s most expensive paintball game.

That said, the bit where Paris folds up on itself is pretty cool.

PS: Another take on it by Patroclus; and in the comments thereto, an analysis that makes sense, but doesn’t make it any better.

Sunday, August 01, 2010


If you Google the name of the place where I lived between the ages of four and fourteen, the first result is for the Wikipedia page. The second is the entry on www.chavtowns.co.uk.