Friday, April 29, 2011

Moon on a stick (the statutory vaguely Royal-Wedding-themed post)

Stewart Lee was, I suppose, a bit of a spear-carrier when I first became aware of him; in the period when comedy was supposedly the new rock and roll, if Newman and Baddiel were the Sex Pistols, Lee and Herring were somewhere between the Damned and the Lurkers. Their TV show, Fist of Fun, was amusing, but the most memorable bits were mostly supplied by Kevin Eldon in the guise of Simon Quinlank, King of Hobbies. And subsequently Lee became one of the lost souls in the self-devouring cycle of Moderately Cerebral Blokish Radio DJ Double Acts Consisting Of Ex-Comedians, Journalists And/Or Musicians. (Essentially, first there was Lee and Herring, and [Andrew] Collins and [Stuart] Maconie – ex-NME, Select, etc – and [Mark] Radcliffe and [Marc] ‘Lard’ [Riley] – ex-The Fall and various other post-punk entities – and then suddenly there was Radcliffe and Maconie, and Collins and Herring, leaving Lee and Lard on a metaphorical shelf somewhere, which is like a real shelf, but in less immediate need of dusting.)

But then suddenly he was back, fatter and balder and pinker and apparently having read more books. In the past week or so he’s written two pieces for British broadsheets that deserve wider attention. First, in the Financial Times of all places, he lays out his principled opposition to the notion that he ought to be creating comedy that can be tweeted or txted, as part of a wider attack on the whole notion of the creative person as a mere content provider. His work is quotable sure, but in passages and paragraphs, and even then you lose some of the context. For example, from the FT article itself:
But today content is king and form is mutable. Can the comic become a film? Can the film become a game? Can the book become an e-book? Can the song become a ringtone? Imagine if the Japanese super-robots the Transformers were suddenly put in charge of all human culture. Here’s a Jacobean tragedy you can also use to mix trifle! Content is being dictated by its possible application to a variety of forms.
And from his most recent TV show:

And just to prove that Lee’s content extends beyond his own metaphorical navel fluff (which strangely finds its way from his metaphorical midriff to the metaphorical shelf mentioned above, where comedians and musicians and journalists who don’t make the grade are sent to die, possibly metaphorically), here he is in The Guardian on the subject of some wedding or another that’s happening today. There’s been some pretty extraordinary content created about this event, and I thought it had simultaneously reached its zenith of weirdness with the Kate and Wills roast dinner, but Lee goes one better by explaining the nuptials in terms of the Grail myth, with reference to the Fisher King and TS Eliot:
The prince has taken his lowly bride from within this charged landscape, where our ancestors celebrated the union of man and woman in stone and earth, and began the communal processes that forged a nation from their descendents, the broken nation that William the Fisher King must now heal. Our shaman-prince could not have chosen a better receptacle for his magical purposes than Kate Middleton, a peasant-spawned serf-girl, sodden with the primordial mire of the Swindon-shadowed swamplands.
Try txting that, you bastards...

PS: More cogent analysis of this utterly speshull day, from Marco Evers in Der Spiegel and Will Self in the New Statesman. Have fun, everyone, and don’t eat all the bunting!

Shame about the boat race

Several years after everybody else, and at a stage when proper old-fashioned amateur blogging appears to be pretty damn moribund, I’ve finally got round to tweaking the look of Cultural Snow. Words such as “Titanic” and “deckchairs” come to mind; it’s as if Stockport County had chosen this point in the season to design a new away strip. Further tweaks are necessary and inevitable, such as resuscitating the blog roll. But do let me know what you think.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Society of the Spextacle

The way the media works these days, facts often spend some time in a Schrödingeresque limbo, true but not quite true, in a box made of Twitter and Facebook, digital winks and innuendo, before they’re finally confirmed by the official channels. So I woke up to the line “R.I.P. Poly Styrene” and hoped for hours that the X-Ray Spex frontwoman, the Patroclus of punk rock, hadn’t squawked her last, although it was well known she’d been very ill in recent months. Sadly, it’s true. The sadness is amplified by the fact that she’d only just released a new album, her first in several years. But who would have thought, back in her heyday, that she’d outlive Woolworths...

PS: Further rememberings from Everett and bat020.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Art about tarts

At CNNGo, I discuss Chris Coles and his paintings of the Bangkok demi-monde.

Which in turn got me thinking again about Jonathan Jones and what he said about the distinction between great art and great food; that what distinguishes art is its ethereality, its essential separateness from the banal necessities of being nourished or clothed or sheltered. But Coles’s work succeeds precisely because it engages with those banal necessities, and the things that people have to do to ensure them.

I’m not saying, of course, that a good picture can’t just be a very pretty painting. But think of the impact that the persecution and arrest of Ai Weiwei is having on Hong Kong artists, or the creative inspiration that’s been unleashed by the Arab Spring; the recent attack on Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ photograph (read David Mitchell on the competing artistic visions of Serrano and his detractors) or the anti-BP stunt at Tate Britain. This is art that refuses to be ethereal or transcendent, and is in fact most effective at the point where imagination and reality meet. Not sure what it tastes like, though.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

In the beginning was the word count

In what feels like a 21st-century update of Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, a six-year-old child in Scotland was tasked by her teacher with writing a letter to God, asking how he was invented. The girl’s father – who happens to be the journalist Alex Renton – forwarded the letter to a number of religious leaders, including Rowan Williams, the prophetically beardy, Incredible-String-Band-digging Archbishop of Canterbury. Dr Williams’s reply imagined the Almighty’s response, which in his version ended thus:
Rather like somebody who writes a story in a book, I started making up the story of the world and eventually invented human beings like you who could ask me awkward questions!
Now, I’m not sure how this chimes with orthodox Anglican theology, but it sounds to me like a textbook example of metafiction, the literary device by which the author persistently draws attention to the fictional nature of the text itself. Examples range from the works of Laurence Sterne, Luigi Pirandello and Italo Calvino to that bit in Trading Places where Eddie Murphy looks straight into the camera. So there’s a respectable precedent; but it does rather suggest that while he was busy inspiring the Bible, God would occasionally break off to say “You do know this is just a story, right?”

Happy Easter, everyone!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

This is not a pie

Jonathan Jones argues in The Guardian that – Heston Blumenthal and Alexander McQueen notwithstanding – neither food nor fashion can ever be art. The distinction he makes is that eating and wearing are too grounded in banal reality. “Art is of the mind; it is ethereal,” he says. “Everything it gives us it gives to our brains. Fashion and food fail to be serious art because they are trapped in the physical world.” Essentially, he’s taking Wilde’s assertion that all art is quite useless, and drawing from that the conclusion that anything that is useful cannot be art.

But this ignores the fact that purpose and frivolity can exist in one and the same object. A few months ago, I had a meal in a Bangkok restaurant that was delicious and nutritious and filling. But what I’ll remember is the gold-painted spots on the mushrooms; the rosemary-scented smoke that miraculously wafted out when you tapped a crust of bread; the intricate designs, like Victorian wallpaper, that the waiter etched into the sauce before he presented my pudding. It was molecular Lewis Carroll and postmodern Roald Dahl, nursery food with 21st-century technology, Escoffier gone steampunk. The whole experience was captivating and moving and by the end I was near tears. I don’t claim to know much about clothes, but I suspect that frocks and flip-flops have had a similar effect on some of you. And if that’s not art, I’m not sure what is, and I don’t think Jonathan Jones does either.

(And yes, I reused the crap joke I made when I commented on the article. So suet me.)

Monday, April 18, 2011

Well, they wouldn’t, would they?

People complain about how sordid and salacious the British tabloids are, but in reality they’re incredibly prim. Take, for example, The Sun’s coverage of someone out of Girls Aloud getting married. She’s doing the deed at what the paper’s tuggin’-me-forelock-squire stylesheet requires us to describe as “posh Cliveden House”; we are then informed by our helpful hack that the place has also hosted the nuptials of a Liverpool footballer, and the one out of Ant and Dec who isn’t Dec. Oh yeah, and every British monarch since 1714.

What s/he doesn’t bother to mention is Cliveden’s real claim to fame; as the place where Jack Profumo met Christine Keeler, setting in motion a series of events that exposed the decadence and hypocrisy of the British establishment, paving the way for the Wilson government and the social upheavals and reforms of the 1960s. Maybe they didn’t like to mention this, since a sex scandal that really mattered, really changed history and society, makes the recent exploits of the Murdoch camp seem even more desperate and tawdry. Or maybe they were just cutting and pasting from a press release sent to them by Cliveden’s current management, who probably don’t like to draw attention to such unpleasant details (although, if they’re reading this, a Profumo weekender/pool party would almost certainly pack the place out).

Or maybe the hack had just never heard of Profumo, marshalling the “before my time, guv” excuse. Which is a pity: to be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child, as Cicero put it. For the benefit of Sun journalists, that’s either the Cicero who plays in midfield for West Brom, or the one who got kicked off Big Brother 7. Or perhaps the one who isn’t Ant.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Wretched refuse

The US Postal Service has inadvertently issued a stamp depicting the fibre-glass simulacrum of the Statue of Liberty in Las Vegas, rather than the original. But this hasn’t provoked the outrage one might have expected, according to the New York Times.

“Wouldn’t anything be a replica anyway?” asks firefighter Doug Jessup, demonstrating a pretty good grasp of the Baudrillardian fundamentals. “It’s still only a picture, a representation in any case.” But it’s the response of 21-year-old Alex Henes that will most depress anyone who has pored through a Stanley Gibbons catalogue. “It’s a stamp to me,” he says. “We’re not the snail-mail generation; we’re the ‘e-mail, get it out as quick as you can’ generation. If it was 50 years ago, I would take issue with it.”

PS: Mrs Peel directs to some incisive comments from Times readers.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


In The Guardian, Sam Leith unpicks the nature and meaning of a long-running spat between avuncular lakeside raconteur (and Kevin Eldon’s attic picture) Garrison Keillor and sometime lumberjack, teacher and poet August Kleinzahler, who several years ago kicked several shades of sarcasm out of one of Keillor’s poetry anthologies. Now, I have no domestic animal in this particular scrap. My usual response to to Keillor’s work is that for some reason I always used to get him mixed up with Spalding Gray; and as for Mr Kleinzahler, I only discovered his existence when I first read Leith’s article. (I assume he’s not one of Keillor’s own creations – GK doesn’t strike me as someone who’d go all postmodern on his readers’ bottoms.)

But I did follow the link to Kleinzahler’s article, and he makes some sound points, not least that poetry is a minority pursuit and probably always will be. As he puts it:
Ninety percent of adult Americans can pass through this life tolerably well, if not content, eating, defecating, copulating, shopping, working, catching the latest Disney blockbuster, without having a poem read to them by Garrison Keillor or anyone else. 
And he’s very funny as well, characterising Keillor’s tastes thus:
The typical Keillor selection tends to be anecdotal, wistful: more often than not a middle-aged creative writing instructor catching a whiff of mortality in the countryside – watching the geese head south, getting lost in the woods, this sort of thing.
But Leith is right that Kleinzahler overstates his case, retreating into a state of “Olympian scorn” at the notion that poetry might even aspire to be popular. His reaction to the poet’s notion “that bad art is worse than no art at all” is simply “Nobody sensible can think so.”

Leith is too restrained. Kleinzahler is more than not sensible in speaking up against bad art: he’s actively sabotaging his own identity as a poet. Good art needs bad art as a benchmark, to quantify its quality, to reassure its practioners and its fans of their superiority. In his extended diss of Keillor he throws up references to the poets Roy Fisher and William Carlos Williams, and spreads his net wider, to the music of Bach and Albert Ayler, and the theatre of Artaud; he even says “fuck”, the wee scamp. It’s as if he’s putting up a series of signposts of artistic integrity, but these people don’t exist in a vacuum. We don’t really understand the goodness of Ayler and Artaud unless we have the badness of Kenny G and We Will Rock You with which to compare them. Ultimately, August Kleinzahler needs Garrison Keillor, but Garrison Keillor doesn’t need August Kleinzahler.

It’s really just an aesthetic variant on the Cleese/Ronnies class sketch, but with brows standing in for socio-economic groups. And yes, the picture above is of your author, half as old as he is now, reading some of his poetry that would probably be classed as upper-middlebrow, not clever enough for Kleinzahler/Cleese, but at the same time too unpleasant for Keillor/Barker. No geese ever went south in my verses. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the piece I was offering at that very moment was called ‘I’d Never Join The Young Conservatives For You’. Happy days.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The return of Stanley Pidd

Way back in the midsts of last year, I cast upon these waters one of my rare excursions into fiction. Several people were kind enough to make positive and/or constructive comments about it, and so enthused was I by this feedback that I completely forgot about the project for about nine months. But yesterday, I was making a smoothie for Small Boo, and the ingredients reminded me of the vaguely fruit-related emotional journey upon which I’d set the unsuspecting ukulele strummer Stanley Pidd, at which point I just had to dash off a few hundred more words. Newcomers may wish to pick up on Stanley’s back story at the above link. Old hands, read on:

...Stanley noticed that Ms Heggie had been staring at him intently, but still hadn’t said a word. While Mr Bland was asking about what exams he’d taken at school, Ms Heggie slowly stood up and came around the desk to where Stanley was sitting. Slowly, deliberately, she ran her right thumb down his cheek. Mr Bland stopped talking, and looked up at her expectantly. Stanley kept his eyes fixed on Mr Bland. This hadn’t happened when he gone for that job as a dog walker.

Miss Heggie nodded a little nod, and Mr Bland smiled a smile that was only slightly larger. “Raspberries are all very well,” he said. “But I wonder if you have any opinions on nectarines.”

Miss Heggie had returned to her seat, but she continued to gaze at Stanley’s face.

“Er… nectarines,” he said. He’d have preferred lychees. He’d done lychees. “They’re like peaches, right? But a bit like plums as well. A sort of plummy peach.” Ms Heggie and Mr Bland said nothing. “Peachy plum?”

Suddenly Mr Bland stood up, and proffered his hand. “Stanley,” he said, “I’d like to offer you a job here, starting tomorrow at twelve minutes past nine. I hope this is acceptable?”

Stanley was so startled by the offer that he accepted, without asking about pay or hours or gym membership or what the job actually involved. He just knew that it was something to do with fruit, and that Ms Heggie approved of his face.


That night, Stanley sat on his bed, strumming his ukulele. When he was in a band, Cuthbert the tuba player had written most of the songs. Now, for the first time, Stanley felt the urge to compose one of his own. He strummed a chord.

“Doreen,” he sang, and almost blushed as he did so, even though there was nobody else around. “Doreen… I’d give you my last nectarine…”

Quietly satisfied, he turned out the light.


Still keen to make an impression, Stanley arrived considerably ahead of time, at four minutes past nine. Mr Bland met him at reception, and guided him down a corridor, in the opposite direction from his office. At the end was a heavy steel door, which he opened by tapping a combination into a keypad. Stanley was impressed, and more than a little nervous.

On the other side of the door was a long table, with several sealed crates on it. Mr Bland took a knife from his suit pocket, and Stanley became even more nervous.

“Don’t worry, Stanley,” smiled Mr Bland. “I just want to show you something.” He sliced through the seals on one of the crates. “We were talking about nectarines, remember.”

Stanley nodded. He noticed that Mr Bland’s knife was a Stanley knife. Stanley. Knife. Was this a big joke? Stanley wasn’t very good with jokes.

Mr Bland began to open the lid of the crate, but seemed to change his mind. “You said that nectarines are a sort of plummy peach,” he said. “And that’s about right. It’s a peach with a smooth skin. But do you know how they get that way?”

Stanley thought back to his biology lessons at school. He hadn’t paid much attention in biology; he’d spent much of the time drawing spaceships and thinking about the ukuleles he’d seen in the music shop window. But he did remember something about genes and evolution, although for some reason he thought that had more to do with peas than peaches.

“Is it in their genes?” he asked, trying to sound like a contestant on a TV quiz show who is absolutely sure of the answer, but wants to sound a little bit unsure so he doesn’t seem too arrogant.

“Well, that’s the story we tell people,” said Mr Bland. “That’s what we’d like them to think. As you said, Stanley, it’s in their genes. Without going into too much detail, nectarines get their smooth skins as the result of a recessive gene. Or at least they did.

“Unfortunately, about 30 years ago, things started going wrong. There were a number of unexplained accidents, deaths even, that seemed to have no connection whatsoever, except for one thing. All the victims had recently bought or eaten nectarines.”

“What sort of accidents were they?” asked Stanley. Mr Bland waved his hand theatrically, and a photograph appeared, projected on the far wall. Stanley was aghast. His mother was a doctor, remember, and even as a child he’d become quite used to images of injury and deformity in various books and magazines that she’d leave around the house. But this was something rather worse.

The photograph was of a young man, his head and limbs intact, but his torso replaced by a pulpy orange mass. The transformation appeared to have occurred suddenly: his face had a look of mild annoyance about it, as if the doorbell had rung just as he’d got into a hot bath.

Mr Bland waved his hand again, and another picture appeared. This was of a middle-aged woman, with a small, brown, ridged, oval stone lodged between her eyes. She seemed to have a similarly disgruntled expression to the exploded man, although it was hard to tell as the force of the stone’s impact had apparently dragged the rest of her face in on itself.

“The nectarines had mutated,” said Mr Bland, solemnly. “They had started exploding at inopportune moments.” Several more images flickered across the wall, each depicting a scene of violent mutilation and death. The last picture was of a man in a white coat, a look of glum resignation on what was left of his face.

We tried to isolate the problem,” continued Mr Bland, “but if any of our people got close to working it out, the fruit would react. That picture is of my own father.”

Stanley wasn’t very good at moments like this. When he was in the band, Wilbur the melodica player had an aunt who had died, and Stanley had gone to the funeral and not spoken to anyone, even at the bit back at the house where they ate ham sandwiches. He knew he was supposed to express his condolences, but “I’m sorry” always sounded like an apology. He hadn’t killed Mr Bland’s father; this thing had happened before he was even born. So he just looked a bit sad and waited for Mr Bland to continue.

But Mr Bland was still gazing at the image of his father. “I was the one that found him, Stanley,” he said, softly. “I was about the same age you are now. I knew there was only one way we could stop this.” He tossed the knife into the air, so it turned a full circle before he caught it. “I ordered that every nectarine in the world had to be destroyed...”

Friday, April 08, 2011

Oil on water

Forgive my lazy ignorance, but I’d always assumed that “Canaletto” was a nickname, based on the fact that he painted lots of pictures of Venice. I’ve only just discovered that it’s simply a diminutive of his real surname, which was Canal. It’s the only case of nominative determinism that I can think of among major painters; unless, of course, someone has evidence that Van Gogh was christened Vincent Sunflower, or that Lucian Freud’s birth certificate identifies his father as Mr Gloomynakedlady.


For CNN, I explain to Bangkokians the joys of tough duck and rough Côtes de Rhône.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011


Taken out of context, with no knowledge of the artist or his/her intentions, is this cartoon an attack on Islam? Or on terrorism – implying that terrorism is a betrayal of Islamic principles? Or on art? And if we do interpret it as anti-Islamic, where do we place it on a theoretical continuum of offensiveness, with Koran-burning at one end and maybe this

at the other?

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Silly point

Joseph O’Neill’s novel Netherland (2008) tells the story of a New York-based Dutchman whose marriage unravels in the aftermath of 9/11, and who attempts to pull himself together by joining a cricket club in Staten Island. Barack Obama  apparently thought it was very good, and so do I. It would be more than a little trite to describe Netherland as a novel about cricket; but at the same time, without cricket there wouldn’t really be much of a novel. So I was a bit surprised when I saw a US paperback edition of Netherland in a Bangkok bookshop the other day, and noticed that there was no reference to cricket anywhere on the cover. Not even an opportunistic World Cup tie-in...

OK, so most Americans don’t get cricket, despite the fact that the first ever international match was played on US soil, so it was probably a hard-headed decision on the part of the publishers, who reckoned that nobody would buy a book that involved a sport they barely know exists. But would a British publisher bring out an edition of The Natural by Bernard Malamud with no indication that it might contain stuff about baseball? Or Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries with the title erased...

(The image is of the mighty Bart King, the greatest American cricketer of all time, who in his last tour of England, in 1911, took 87 wickets at an average of 11.01. Which, for the benefit of my lovely American readers, is rather good.)

Friday, April 01, 2011

White suit man

I was offered some work the other day; it would have involved covering a forthcoming election in Asia, which sounds terribly exciting, all very Graham Greene, sipping a whisky and soda while waiting for a sweaty man who smokes cheroots and is found stabbed to death on the bidet of my hotel room at the end of Chapter 7. Proper foreign correspondent stuff; and bear it mind I spend much of time in an eco-system where foreign correspondents are at the top of the pyramid, and everybody wants a little of their raffish glamour to rub off on them (which is why most outlets of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club are packed with people who write press releases for exhaust pipe manufacturers, while the foreign correspondents themselves are out corresponding).

Except that rather than the chance of being a proper fo-co and reporting coolly and objectively (with just a dash of the aforementioned raffishness) about the election, the task proffered to me was to write a blog that would be favourable to the incumbent who – according to his Wikipedia page at least – is something of a dodgy geezer. The offer, I should stress, came not from a conventional news organisation, but a ‘strategic communication’ company, which should have alerted me. Rather than spend several days weighing up the ethical ins and outs of the thing, I just said no thanks within minutes.

But why exactly did I turn it down? Well, the fact that the guy for whom I would have been shilling is of dubious probity certainly entered into it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean my motives were entirely pure and selfless. I’ve been watching all the people who’ve done business with Gaddafi over years furiously trying to rewrite history, and none of them comes out of the mess looking good. So maybe it’s not that I didn’t want to help a crook; just that I didn’t want it widely known that I was helping a crook. My biggest fear was getting found out. Complicity is bad; embarrassment is worse.

I could, of course, have gone in on the pretext of doing the job, and then blown the whistle on the whole story, thus provoking anguished think pieces on the dangerous grey area between journalism and political PR and perhaps a sarky footnote in Private Eye. But the person who asked me to do it is an old friend, so he’d have suffered for my high-minded subterfuge. Moreover, whereas my moral courage ebbs and flows, my physical bravery is a tiny, stagnant puddle. While the guns and grenades and catapults were tearing big holes in Bangkok last year, I was at home in the suburbs, drinking tea and following the whole thing on Twitter. If I’d taken the job, I might have been duffed up, or worse. I’ve read The Last King of Scotland, you know; these things never end well.

But really, at the heart of it is the fact that I’m very bad at lying, at pretending, especially at feigning enthusiasm. (On the other hand, today of all days, maybe I’m making up all of the above, even the bit about the bidet, like Annie Rhiannon does when she pretends to go to Tibet and America and Wales.)