Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The customer is always irrelevant

Among the many writers (of varying degrees of up-their-own-arse-ness) discussing their craft in The Guardian a few days back, it’s the late, glorious Beryl Bainbridge who says the most by analysing the least:
I don’t write for readers; I don’t think many writers do – I don’t think any. They say they do, don't they? But... well, I only write for myself, and when somebody says: “Oh, your book has given me so much pleasure,” I just think, “How peculiar”. I don't know what to say. Of course I don't say that; I smile and say “How nice” – but I think I’d have written books whether they were published or not. I just liked writing.

So presumably the whole concept of vanity publishing left her entirely befuddled.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Art is dead, don’t print its corpse

On the evidence of this selection, the output of Camden’s Poster Workshop in the 60s and 70s rather lacked the insouciant humour that distinguished the images that Parisian designers were coming up with at the same time. This Anglo-Saxon dourness could perhaps be forgiven if they’d actually managed to foment a successful revolution, but their efforts were as doomed as those of their French contemporaries. If you’re going to fail, people, fail with style.

Saturday, March 26, 2011


Two recent responses to the increasing levels of rudery in our public discourse: the Daily Telegraph’s Neil Midgely informs us of the contextually justified “fuck”s that will pepper a forthcoming Radio 3 adaptation of Wuthering Heights, inevitably prompting (profanity-free) outrage across the breakfast tables of middle England; and in the New York Times, Jon Pareles notes that three songs in the Billboard Top 10 (by Cee-Lo Green, Enrique Iglesias and Pink) are similarly blessed, although the precise volume of soy latte being spat out in Manhattan is not recorded.

The problem in both cases is that the journalists in question find themselves unable to spell out the word that provoked the articles in the first place: presumably this is down to the policies of the papers that employ them. Midgely opts for the tedious “f-word”, and then resorts to “[blank]” when discussing Emily Brontë’s own self-censorship, although it’s not clear which words these blanks are replacing. Pareles is more eloquent, referring to “variations on a familiar, emphatic, percussive four-letter word.”

Of course, in writing around such unmentionables, both writers are faced with a paradox: readers who aren’t familiar with the word in question will be utterly baffled by the article; those who know it and aren’t bothered by it would have been relaxed if the veil of good taste had been lifted; and those who do know the word but don’t like it being used will have been reminded of its existence even if they haven’t read it. Pareles for one is aware of the ridiculousness of the situation:
Even if the original lyrics are off-limits to old media, it’s clear to everyone that the profane versions of the songs are going to be heard. The enforced innocence of broadcasting is no longer a cultural firewall; it’s barely an inconvenience. 
There’s a debate to be had about whether old media should give in to the barbarians, or instead maintain their decorum and thus demonstrate why in a multi-channel universe, the Times and the Telegraph and Top 40 radio are still special. As Pareles suggests, this is part of a wider question, of what newspapers and other mainstream providers are really for these days; does it still matter that they’re maintaining standards if nobody else gives a fuck? Not to address this is just f–––ing while Rome burns.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Reflections in a golden handshake

Not only did Elizabeth Taylor outlive her own obituarist, she was also – at her own insistence – late for her own funeral. Slightly less classy is the owner of a Warhol portrait of the late Mrs Fortensky, who has decided that now might be a good time to sell it. He’s a hedge fund manager, you know.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Haunted all my dreams

If I enjoy a book or a film or a piece of music, I often find that I want to sample more product by the same creator. I’m sure this is quite normal behaviour, but more often than not, it results in crushing disappointment. This has been happening quite a lot lately. The most recent works by Jonathan Coe and David Mitchell fell flat, the former because of the clumsy addition of a bit of metafictional self-reference in the closing stages; the latter, conversely, because the book was entirely lacking in the structural cleverness which made Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas so compelling, and ended up like a cross between a textbook on economic history and Shogun. I also finally got round to watching ‘What Did You Do In the War, Daddy?’, the final, un-broadcast episode of Secret Army, and soon realised that the reason it was never broadcast was not because of its virulent anti-Communism, but because it was crap. And then there was The Illusionist, which wasn’t crap, but because it was directed by Sylvain Chomet (director of  The Triplets of Belleville), and based on a script by Jacques Tati, whose Les vacances de M Hulot is still one of my top 10 movies of all time, it should have been astounding, a combination of deadpan surrealism and existential melancholy and a bit of slapstick, Gilliam meets Bergman meets Keaton. And it was quite good, which really isn’t good enough.

OK, let’s throw this out to the people formerly known as the audience. Is there an author or film-maker or musician or tennis player or pastry chef or masseur who has never, ever disappointed you? Or is there someone you keep going back to, despite the fact that his or her mojo clearly stopped working years ago, and you know it’ll never come back, and you’ve no idea why you still bother but, hey, it’s Woody Allen or Jeanette Winterson or The Wurzels and for the sake of the old times you just can’t let go?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Big big honey blues

Something I wrote for CNNGo, that might upset members of the ghastly misogynist failure community.

To shake the tattered arras

The charms of a Somerset village may be extinguished by the proposed building of a vast housing development, we are told. This would really only be a story of local interest – albeit one that exemplifies all sorts of deliciously English conundra about the competing claims of class and aspiration and ‘heritage’ and cold, hard cash – except that the village under threat is East Coker, which shares its name with a poem by TS Eliot. He first visited the place in 1937, when he discovered his ancestors had lived there in the 17th century, before emigrating to New England; his ashes are interred in the village church.

This connection is strong enough to have provoked the concern of the TS Eliot Society of America, which has added its voice to the usual hubbub of opponents to such change, from devotees of architectural history to people worried about the value of their own houses. (Only in Britain is the phrase ‘affordable housing’ a pejorative.) Now, I could understand the Elioteers’ concern if their man had actually lived and worked in East Coker, if its skies and fields and stone and timber had seeped into his poetic soul. But it was only really the idea of East Coker that prompted him to write the poem, its small role in his own heritage and identity, its place in the continuum of life. Had his family come from Nempnett Thrubwell or Huish Champflower or Wellington Without, who can say that the piece would have been radically different?

It’s interesting to consider what Eliot’s own reaction might have been. No doubt he was a frightful snob: apparently, when the first edition of ‘East Coker’ sold 12,000 copies, he declared that this proved what a bad poem it was. And I’m sure he would have been baffled by the success of Cats, and found the notion of Andrew Lloyd Webber getting a peerage as utterly wrong. But despite his High Tory, High Anglican instincts, he was also deeply impressed by the Vedic notion of impermanence: as he says in the poem, “Houses live and die.” Although, as if to admonish anyone who wants to read too much into his own lines, later on he also says “The poetry does not matter.”

And here he is in Notes Towards the Definition of Culture:
Neither a classless society, nor a society of strict and impenetrable social barriers is good; each class should have constant additions and defections; the classes, while remaining distinct, should be able to mix freely; and they should have a community of culture with each other which will give them something in common, more fundamental than the community which each class has with its counterpart in another society.
Eliot may have liked East Coker as it was in 1937, but he would have been aware that it had changed enormously since his forebears left it in the 1660’s; and that it would inevitably change again and keep changing. Also from the poem:
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur and faeces...
Or, since I stopped writing poetry years ago: Shit Happens.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Original sin

In an effort to make a story about interior design a little less like a story about interior design, I visit a gently funky art gallery on Silom Road. They’re showing paintings and sculptures by Preyawit Nilachulaka, and the collision of childlike cartoon imagery, sexual transgression and violent humiliation immediately makes me think of Jeff Koons and/or the Chapman Brothers. Now, you could argue that this another example of Asia appropriating an aspect of Western culture and working out how to remake it just that little bit cheaper; and sell it back to the dumb farang; except that Jeff and Jake and Dinos already did that to Popeye and Goya and any number of other flakes from the scalp of occidental art. And then I thought that a Thai wandering through a gallery in London or New York might come across a Koons or a Chapman and think, bloody hell, some cheeky bugger’s ripping off Preyawit. Or whatever that might be in Thai.

And then I pop into the Sri Maha Mariamman temple, which I’ve passed dozens of times over the years, and watch the devotions to the goddess Uma (as in Thurman) and hear a four-note mantra, repeated over and over, a female voice, and I think, bloody hell, some cheeky bugger’s ripping off this:

Monday, March 14, 2011


That was odd. I don’t know how it happened, but for a few minutes today, the BBC’s online coverage of the post-quake scenario in Japan was running backwards. Not out of sequence: properly backwards, waves receding, boats reassembling, flames shooting back inside a nuclear power station and being capped by the intact roof, emergency teams yanking loaded stretchers out of ambulances, death and disaster unhappening itself before our eyes. All accompanied, of course, by a suitably Lynchian narration. And because, for most of us, the image and the reality have become inextricably confused, I almost – almost – half-believe that it really is unhappening, that it really all was a bad dream. And then some anonymous Beeb techie realised what was happening and pressed the right button – or unpressed the wrong button – and it all went horribly real again. Except that it was as if you’d seen the Wizard of Oz on the toilet, and for a while, the vile reality still felt a bit dreamy.

In cyberspace no one can hear you yawn

Jay Rosen at SXSW on Saturday, trying to heal the rift between bloggers and legit hacks, announced: “It’s one internet. The news system now incorporates the people formerly known as the audience.”

Which is all well and lovely, but if the audience isn’t the audience any more, who are we talking to?

Saturday, March 12, 2011


Anyway, as I was saying before everything went insane, I was in Singapore the other day – not nearly as thrilling a scenario as it might sound, by the way – and came across a delectable figure of speech that somehow manages to combine mixed metaphor and malapropism in one handy package. Favourites include “Running faster than hot cakes”, “The best thing since sliced cheese” and “They’ve blunted their fatted calf”. The latter was uttered by Small Boo on the way back to the airport, which suggests it’s contagious...

Friday, March 11, 2011

John Martin, The Great Day of His Wrath, 1853.

The humanity

I don’t believe in self-censorship, but in retrospect the rather flippant post I put up about figures of speech a few minutes ago feels slightly hollow as I watch the footage from Japan. Another day, perhaps.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

...things that people don’t need to have

It seems pretty much that the only people who visit my blog these days do so on the offchance they might get to see Charlotte Rampling, possibly naked, or at least in some degree of under-dressed rudeness. This state of affairs was starting to distress me, but now I’ve found the ultimate justification: it’s Art!

(Courtesy of the National Galleries of Scotland website; via One Fine Weasel)

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Sous les pavés, le plagiat

British universities are riddled with plagiarism and cheating, it seems, although the poor, anonymous grunts using iPods as crib sheets could argue that they’re only taking tips from German aristocrats and the spawn of Arab tyrants.

At least in academia there are clear rules as to what constitutes plagiarism – the only problem is catching the buggers doing it. In what purports to be the real world, definitions are rather more blurred. Michel Houellebecq admitted to lifting big chunks of his most recent novel from Wikipedia, but invoked Perec and Borges as precedents, so that’s OK; the young German author Helene Hegemann said that her book Axolotl Roadkill did contain substantial elements from another text, but in any case, “there’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.” It wasn’t plagiarism, it was mixing, it was sampling; rather than calling on Borges, she was just taking tips from Berlin DJ culture. And everyone decided to let her off as well, because they wanted to be down wiv ver kids, like.

Journalism is stuck somewhere in the middle. Hacks aren’t expected to annotate every reference – indeed, they’re specifically permitted to remain tight-lipped about the identity of their sources – but at the same time they’re not really supposed to lift whole paragraphs from elsewhere and pass the action off as some sort of postmodern affectation. What is depressing is that it’s often done so badly, so artlessly, with no attempt to disguise the crime. Plagiarising journalists are often bad writers, so the stuff they’ve nicked is usually better written than their own work; and because they can’t write, they’re completely unaware of how easy it is to spot the lurch between styles.

But the real forehead/keyboard interface happens when they scoop something up from an online source – few are quite dumb enough to choose Wikipedia, but it does happen – and can’t be bothered to change the formatting, or remove the hyperlinks. I think we’ve reached a point where we can’t expect writers to have written the stuff they pass off as their work; but is it too much to ask that they might have read it?

PS: The title is a crap pun that’s been done several times before, but it’s in French, so that’s OK.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

But it doesn’t move me

Musician John Roderick, in Seattle Weekly, is bored with bored music hacks and their boring boredom:
But the median level of music writing has declined, much of it hovering consistently at the level of bratty piss-taking. The number of reviews I’ve read in the last year that contain the word “meh” just boggles my mind, as though we’re expected to consider the writers’ own boredom more fascinating than the music they’re charged with critiquing.
Roderick unwittingly disparages the music that he’s ostensibly defending; very often it really is less interesting than the response, and it takes an almighty effort to write anything more helpful than “Here is another record by Coldplay and it sounds like a Coldplay record and Coldplay fans will like it” or variations thereon. “Go on,” says the real critic, “impress me.” And all too often there is no reply. Only when music (or any other product) is magnificent, or ghastly, or teetering somewhere between the two, is it worthwhile making any comment. A critic is not obliged not to be bored, any more than an artist is obliged not to be boring.

Moreover, what’s wrong with boredom as an attitude, as a stance, as a provocative statement of intent? Ennui, disaffection, meh-ness has been a key component of youth culture and popular music for decades: the Situationists saw it as an inevitable response to the banality of modern life, and it reached its zenith in the glory days of punk. I think it was Schopenhauer – although it may have been Rat Scabies – who said “Life swings like a pendulum backwards and forwards between pain and boredom.” And a reviewer musing on his or her own pain is, perversely, even more tedious than one who goes on about boredom.

PS: On vaguely parallel lines, listen to this interesting Radio 4 documentary about on French punk, available till next Thursday.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

XY Certificate

In The Guardian a few days ago, Hadley Freeman asked why, following Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar triumph last year, no women were nominated in the directing category this time round. The relevance of the question depends on a number of assumptions, not least the auteur theory that holds a film’s director to be the most significant creative force; and also the extent to which the gender of said director informs the finished product. After all, directors such as George Cukor and Douglas Sirk were hugely successful making what were known as “women’s pictures”, while possibly the most famous female director of all time was Leni Riefenstahl, and I’m not sure that I can ascertain the feminist subtext in Triumph of the Will. Freeman does acknowledge that Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker was hardly soft and fluffy in its subject matter, “raising the question whether a woman might be able to win a film award, but she has to make a very masculine film to do so.”

Which in turn raises another question, namely whether subject matter – The Hurt Locker is nominally about war, but I’d argue that it’s really about men – determines the nature of a film any more than the content of the director’s underwear does. Does a film about male soldiers have to be masculine any more than a film about female dancers has to be feminine? Four of the five main roles in Black Swan go to women, but since three of them are in various states of derangement, I’m not sure that Darren Aronofsky’s gift to the sisterhood deserves a thank-you note. Because Black Swan (which I only got round to watching at the weekend, so please excuse any observations that have already been made 700 times elsewhere) isn’t really about women or dancing or madness; it’s ultimately about other films, with a few books thrown in. I counted The Red Shoes, All About Eve, Showgirls, Vertigo, lots of Polanskian paranoia (specifically Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby and The Tenant), Cronenberg’s horrified fascination with the simultaneous potential and frailty of human flesh (Videodrome, The Fly), a glorious old potboiler called A Double Life, in which an actor pretty much invents Method acting while playing Othello, plus Jekyll and Hyde, American Psycho and Roald Dahl’s short story The Swan. And would it be stretching things too much to see in  Vincent Cassel’s encouragement to Natalie Portman to loosen up an echo of the professor’s suggestions to Daphne Zuniga in The Sure Thing (“Have conversations with people whose clothes are not colour-coordinated.”)? OK, maybe it would. Aronofsky even has the chutzpah to wink at his previous movie, The Wrestler (performance, physical injury, ambition, death, the morning after, tights). The Hurt Locker may not have been about what you thought it was meant to be about, but it wasn’t about Kathryn Bigelow’s DVD collection, surely a more prevalent trait of modern male directors even than blowing stuff up.

Of course, if there really is an empirical difference between male- and female-helmed movies, the Academy should consider separate categories for male and female directors. Which sounds like the cheesiest kind of affirmative action, until you remember that they’ve been doing something similar for actors since the beginning.