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.