Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Evolving bucket list, end 2015

[Numbers 1 to 40 written in Spring 2014. Numbers 41 to 96 and strikethroughs and comments on numbers 1 to 40 added 30 December 2015. First publication 30 December 2015.]

1. See Tool live. - They're touring in 2016, I think?
2. Visit Barcelona. - I expect it'll happen sooner or later...
3. Visit Iceland. - Do with someone as a couple?
4. Watch "1984".
5. Read War and Peace. - I read Anna Karenina instead; W&P can wait 20 years...
6. Visit New York City. - AAC?
7. Visit Venice and Rome. - AAC?
8. Visit Japan. - With whose money?! AAC?
9. Write a book. - But what, FFS!!!
10. Write a screenplay. - BWFFS!!!
11. Ride a motorbike. - Leave London and get a licence?
12. See Henry Rollins live. - He's touring in 2016...
13. Read one of Henry Rollins' books. - Let me save a few quid, then I'll do it.
14. Run my own business. - BWFFS!!!
15. Own a rock bar. - Leave London to do it?
16. Get married. - Ha. You kill me.
17. Have kid(s). - Should probably find a woman first. A keeper, I mean. See 16.
18. Watch Easy Rider.
19. Watch Dirty Harry.
20. Read Moby Dick. - Less keen now. I think it'd bore me.
21. Play a venue as a drummer. - Trying to join a band...
22. Shoot a gun. - AAC/Group?
23. Have a go at welly toss. - AAC/G?
24. Go to a football world cup game. - Eh. Whatever.
25. Meet Henry Rollins. - Christ, I need to find additional people to admire...
26. Visit South America. - Quit my job and do it? Wait 6 months? 12?
27. Visit Cuba. - See 26
28. Visit Vietnam. - See 26
29. Try a hallucinogen. - Less keen now. I like my sanity. Sort of.
30. Visit the highlands. - AAC?
31. Visit Ireland. Visit the rest of Ireland - AAC?
32. Visit New Orleans. - See 26
33. Be a radio DJ. - How?
34. Make a short film. - BWFFS!!!
35. Curate or programme a show or exhibition. - BWFFS!!!
36. Throw a throwing knife. - Or an axe? AAG?
37. Get over 1000 views for a single blog post. - Trying!
38. Own a car or motorbike. - Leave London?
39. Sail somewhere. - Haha, with whose money?
40. Visit Vegas. - See 26.
41. Play squash. - Unwrap the racket you've had for 18 months and find a friend who plays, you loser!
42. Get a short story published in print. - BWFFS!!!
43. Get a poem published in print. - Ha, you don't even read poetry!
44. Get a book review published in print. - Up your game, son!
45. Get a film review published in print. - Up your game, son!
46. Record an album. See 21.
47. See a million in my bank account (earned). Pounds, euros or dollars. - Erm... come back to me on this one.
48. Give blood. - Just do it, you useless shitsack!
49. Buy someone a present they really like, instead of your usual crap. - Erm... get to know ... people?
50. Design and build some furniture. - Leave London? No, not to build furniture. Give me a break! Take a woodwork class? Three years of them at school didn't achieve much...
51. Climb a mountain. - Any one will do. What's the nearest of the UK's big 3?
52. Climb Kilimanjaro. - See 26. Try not to be too big a tourist twat while you're about it.
53. Be in a good club for New Year's Eve - AAC/G. Not got long to do this one! Cos I'm 30 I mean, not cos it's Dec 30th.
54. Do a standup routine. - Whoa there! The most terrifying thing on two legs? But you aren't funny! Nick someone else's routine...?
55. Do some amateur dramatics. - Google some societies. Stop being a coward. Read a ... play? Read plays!
56. Get better at chess - Google some clubs. Improve online first? Clubs seem pretty unwelcoming!
57. See the northern lights. - Everyone else seems to want to! See 3.
58. Join a cult, just briefly. - Google "London cults?" Does Scientology count??
59. Live on a commune. - Not really compatible with most of the rest of the list, but sure... Does Scientology have any??
60. Go to another festival that involves camping. - Will never ever remember or be sufficiently alert to get Glasto tickets again. Play Glasto?! See 21.
61. Go to a festival in Barcelona. - See 2.
62. Go to Burning Man. - See 40.
63. Meet the President of the USA. - Build a really complicated clock??
64. Go to space. - May as well aim high... See 47.
65. Do something selfless. - Try thinking about someone other than yourself for two minutes??
66. Get an academic paper published. In print or Open Access online. - Get a PhD? Wait, maybe start with a Master's? BWFFS!!! Leave London?!
67. Walk across the roof of the O2. - Find out how much it costs. (£35. Not horrendous.) AAC/G?
68. Run up the stairs of a massive building, for or not for charity. - Start trying doorhandles?
69. Do an oil painting. - Google painting classes? Buy a pipe and slippers, granddad?
70. See a desert. - See 26.
71. See the pyramids. - See 26.
72. Read Homage to Catalonia. - Visit Bookmongers. Get some Amis too.
73. See Underworld live. - Start saving. AAC/G?
74. Do a driving holiday. - Take refresher lessons? Get a bike license? (No, saddle sore!) AAC/G?
75. Go canoeing or kayaking, whichever is easier on the back - AAC/G?
76. Try surfing! - See 26.
77. Live in a foreign country for at least 6 months. - Leave London? (Duh!) - Now?!
78. Collaborate on something. - Get good at something! BWFFS!!!
79. Get a mentor. - Join the ... circus? No. Approach older men in bars and ask them for life advice?
80. Be a mentor. - BofWFFS!!!
81. Run a marathon. - Keep checking websites for signup dates.
82. Try fell running. - Try not to fall on the fell. Find a fell. What's a fell?!
83. Own a nightclub. - See 47. Alternate with 15?
84. Try falconry. - Google it? AAC?
85. Take piano lessons. - See 47. Drumming would come first, FFS.
86. Visit Moscow and St Petersburg and Lake Baikal. - After Russia pulls out of the Crimea, stops killing journalists and dissidents and lets gay people live... Topple Putin?
87. Conduct an interview you're really, really pleased with. - Decide who you'd really, really like to interview. BWhoFFS!!!
88. Get a GOOD feature published in print. BWFFS!!!
89. Try skiing and/or snowboarding. - See 26.
90. Get fluent at German. - Keep hammering DuoLinguo? So dull! Move to Berlin?
91. Read Madame Bovary. - Bookmongers again.
92. Read at least the first volume of A la Recherche de ... - Bookmongers? The library?
93. Read Dubliners. - In German parallel text?
94. Get a dog. - Leave London?
95. Watch The West Wing and The Wire. - Scope some charity shops?
96. Think of something better than 95...

Christ, I'd better get cracking...

Sunday, 27 December 2015

The freedom of the city

I love living in London, as opposed to the small-town-outskirts-turning-to-fields I grew up in. And even after more than eight years, I'm still discovering new reasons why.

I already knew I love the galleries, talks and other cultural events; the interesting buildings and amazing views; the possibilities and anonymity of massive crowds.

Today I added, while staring out the window of a rail-replacement bus service on the first leg of my journey back to London after Christmas: the physical freedom.

I realised that on some level I'd always thought a person's physical freedom to roam increases in proportion with the rurality of their surroundings. This probably came about because of notions like the freedom of the open road, adverts for offroaders and places like Ireland and the Scottish highlands, and received cultural wisdom like the desirability of Thoreau's great wilderness.

But it's bollocks. If anything, something like the opposite is true.

The fields around where I grew up are all farmland, meaning that they're private property: no trespassing is allowed. The roads around them offer few turnoffs, and what you find down those rare turnoffs is just more of the same, rendering your taking them pointless. Plus you need some kind of vehicle, or at least a bike, to get around them: the drab fields go on forever.

It's slightly better in the suburbs, but even there all roads only lead to houses, commercial property or dead ends. You probably can go down most of them, but chances are someone will want to know why, or you'll find nothing worth seeing anyway.

Compare that with cities. OK, the majority of the land in cities is increasingly owned by corporations or oligarchs, but at least you still have the freedom to wander it, and what you find at the end of one street might be just another street, but it might be a nice church, a soaring glass edifice, a tiny crooked alleyway, a public park, a river, a surprise square, a set of steps or any number of things you'll more than likely be free to explore as much as you like.

I live on the border of zones 2 and 3 in London, and within minutes of leaving my (admittedly shared) flat for a run, I can be passing nightclubs and 20-story buildings, ducking under a railway overpass and then joining a canal for a few kilometers before hitting, if I have the stamina, a massive public park. Or I can take a different route down to the river, or I can head north for views of the whole city...

Or if I'm out for a walk, I know I'm guaranteed to find streets I haven't walked before, and down them surprises I'd never even suspected.

It's not just London: Copenhagen a few weeks ago was the same, and I'm sure Amsterdam, New York, Toronto, Delhi, Mexico City or any city would be likewise.

Probably national parks offer the ultimate in physical freedom, but how many of us can live within easy reach of one? And by easy reach of one, I don't mean a 30-minute drive.

Outside of national parks on one's doorstep, it's cities that offer the freedom to roam. The suburbs stifle.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Merry Christmas!

This guest post is a transcript of a speech given by Flloyd Leesam, Chair of the Global Retail Association Board, to invited guests at the GRAB Christmas party.

We all love gifts, don't we ladies and gentlemen - both giving them and receiving them.

But the best thing about gifts, as we all know, is their inefficiency.

When someone shops for themselves, they might buy some things on impulse that they don't really need - and that's great - but for the most part they're buying what best fits whatever needs they have.

Gifts, on the other hand, are bought for one person by someone else who usually has only a vague idea of what the first person needs. And they might not even have any needs at all: it might just be Christmas, a time for showing how much you love someone by lining our pockets! [Gestures expansively]

[General laughter]

Chances are the recipient would never have bought that gift themselves and doesn't really want it. Or they might even already have it - the Holy Grail!


But today, I'd like to urge you to think differently about what it is that we do.

Let's think outside the box for a moment. What can we do to take that magical inefficiency of gift-giving and replicate it at other times of the year? After all, we all know that Christmas only lasts from August until Boxing Day!

Most obviously, we could think about new occasions for gift-giving, taking inspiration from the greeting cards sector. "Congratulations on passing your driving theory test!" Hello Barry, hello Gill! [Waves to people in room].

For example, what about an "anti-versary": another anniversary at the half-way point between the last and the next - the furthest point from being able to express your love again. Oh, my heart-strings! [Clutches breast]


But let's not limit ourselves to gift-giving. What about playing on people's hopes and dreams like the lottery does - is Andrew in the room? [Scans room] Oh no, that's right, he's spending Christmas in the Azores. Nevermind.

What do I mean? Imagine a day - lucky Friday, say, or super Saturday - where customers are given the chance to swap the thing they want to buy for a mystery alternative that might be worth a lot more or - most likely [winks] - might be some old stock we want to get rid of!


Who could pass that up, eh?

Subscription services, bundling, built-in obsolescence - these are just the tip of the diamond. So let's eat, drink and be merry, but let's not forget this festive season what we're all about: convincing people to leave their brains at the door and their money in our tills!

Merry Christmas everyone!

[Seriously though: Merry Christmas! :)]

Saturday, 12 December 2015

First-world problems and free hugs

[I recently looked back through some old unpublished posts. There's better stuff there than some of the dross I've recently seen fit to publish , so I thought I'd apply some finishing touches and say to hell with it...]

I like the term "first-world problems". You hear it too often [or you did at the time this post was written], but it's a pithy reminder that if you live in the developed world, chances are you don't have that much to complain about. On a recent stag weekend in eastern Europe, a friend complained of having too much foreign currency to fit in his card holder. First-world problems.

It is easy to forget how good you have it, relatively speaking. I've just arrived home from a conference in Prague on palliative care - care for those with a life-threatening or terminal condition and their loved ones. One particularly powerful talk was about the "total pain" of people with HIV/AIDS in Africa [I think it might have been Lucy Selman from KCL talking about people in Kenya and Uganda]. Total pain is all the problems a person faces, physical, psychological, etc. For the speaker's sample this included not just agonising physical pain that had to be borne without analgesia, but also having no family support, inadequate shelter and no food.

The speaker pointed out that this was somewhat worse than it having been raining in Prague for the past 4 days, which was probably the most pressing problem in the lives of many of the people in the audience at that time. First-world problems.

[Although, to be fair, the Czech Republic did declare a state of emergency shortly after the conference ended, it rained that damn much.]

But that doesn't mean we in the first world don't have our own issues to deal with. Sitting in another talk, at the end of a very long day and probably no longer entirely with it, mentally speaking, I found myself dazedly contemplating how odd it is that we - society/the state - only really start to care about people's wellbeing and quality of life once we know they're dying or frail.

Generalists and non-palliative care specialists only treat whatever condition someone presents with, and society doesn't care how you feel unless there's something seriously wrong with you. These are resource issues: health care systems have only so much money, and there's only so much sympathy to go round.

Maybe we need something like palliative care for the general population. Nothing so specialised as knowledge of how to soothe pain, dampen nausea or quell breathlessness, but something along the lines of the friendly ear, massaging hands, warm smile and dedication of time.

Someone might sit down with you, listen to your issues with a sympathetic ear and a cup of tea, and then remind you of your health and socioeconomic status and gently show you the door with a friendly flea in your ear, your concerns soothed and your perspective restored at the same time.

Free hug, anyone?

[It does occur to me now that this might be what the Samaritans do, but aren't they a suicide helpline? I was thinking more something like surrogate grandparenting...]

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Book review - Vade Mecum, Richard Skinner (2015)

A vade mecum, the final few lines of Vade Mecum tell us, is a "guide or handbook, kept close at all times and used for instruction". I wouldn't go as far as keeping VM with me at all times, but I did take it away with me on a long weekend, and I do intend to keep it within handy reach for a while now that I'm back home, even though I've finished it. Why? Well, the main thing it has going for it is that it's a slim but dense source of things that sound interesting and that I want to check out...

This will be easiest for music, in this age of Spotify: there's a 12-page essay on dub as a musical style, for example - the longest entry in the book - and I want to listen to pretty much every musician and track mentioned in it.

Then there's the entry that consists solely of a list of moments / aspects from films, without any explanation of what they have in common. They're obviously bits Skinner likes / attributes something to, but why / what? Some explanation would have been nice actually, but you get the gist: the films are worth seeing.

I love collections of criticism and comment that span different media, and VM is a worthy addition to the likes of Adair's Surfing the Zeitgeist and Hitchen's Arguably. It's not quite on the same level, but it's a denser source of promising trails to follow, and well worth keeping close to hand for that reason alone.

Monday, 30 November 2015

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Book review: The Perpetual Motion Machine, Paul Scheerbart (1910)

I thought this story - account, actually, if its introduction is to be believed - of an obsessive attempt to design a perpetual motion machine, written by a man who apparently starved himself to death, was going to be an insight into a mind's gradual unraveling. But actually the madness here is not so much one of debilitation, more a sort of visionary if deluded genius. There are uncannily accurate musings on the future (the book was first published in 1910), such as of a "dissolution of homelands" and a "United States of Europe" (ok, we're not quite there yet, but almost); fantastic/terrible flights of fancy, such as of rearranging all of Earth's mountains for best aesthetic effect, insightful comments on literature (albeit briefly, don't buy it on that account alone); an amusingly glum view of humanity; and some top-notch aphorisms, like "Only in misery do great hopes and great plans for the future take shape."

It's also a lovely volume; Wakefield Press, based in Massachusetts, and translator Andrew Joron have done the world a service.

We voted for this

Will Hutton writes very powerfully about austerity in today's Guardian:

"To reduce the stock of the public debt to below 80% of GDP and not pay a penny more in income or property tax, let alone higher taxes on pollution, sugar, petrol or alcohol, is now our collective national purpose. Everything – from the courts to local authority swimming pools – is subordinate to that aim. [...] There is no economic or social argument to justify these arbitrary targets ..."
But towards the end of the piece, he asks: "Is this wanted, necessary or appropriate for these profoundly troubled times?"
Necessary or appropriate I'll leave aside, but wanted? Well yes, actually.
This is what we as a nation voted for in May's general election. Unlike the reorganisation of the NHS that David Cameron promised before the 2010 general election wouldn't happen, and unlike the cuts to child tax credits that David Cameron said this time around wouldn't happen, the Tories could not have been more upfront about their intention to cut deep and fast in the name of eliminating the national debt as soon as possible, and the nation duly awarded them a majority.
You or I might want libraries to stay open and a police force for all rather than just those who can afford to top it up, but more people wanted otherwise. So here we are.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Sartre, Bladerunner

The above is from Sartre's Nausea. Inspiration for the Tears in Rain speech in Bladerunner?

"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like Time to die."

A stretch, perhaps. But how's this: Wikipedia says Rutger Hauer changed and shortened his lines in the take that was used without telling Ridley Scott what he was going to do; the original wording of the speech, it says, was supposed to begin with "I have known adventures...."

So? Earlier in Nausea, the narrator spends several pages musing on the nature of adventures and whether his life has or hasn't contained any...

Talkin' 'bout your generation

If Halsey's generation was raised on Biggie and Nirvana, what does that say about music?

Halsey was born in 1994. Kurt Cobain died in '94, and Biggie would be slain three years later. By the time Halsey reached an age at which music starts to matter, both Nirvana and Biggie had long since ceased to be chart toppers.

I consider myself to have been raised on Biggie and Nirvana, and even I was at the trailing edge, having been born in '85.

For how long does an epoch-defining musician usually sustain their period of influence? The people I know who are roughly 10 years older than me were raised on bands like The Cure, The Smiths and New Order, whereas I and the people I grew up with - was raised alongside - listened to Biggie, Tupac and Snoop; Nirvana, Rage and the Red Hot Chili Peppers; Oasis, Blur and Pulp; The Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers and Massive Attack during our formative years.

Maybe Halsey referenced Biggie and Nirvana in New Americana as a grab at retro cool, but the question remains: why? I don't try to claim The Cure, The Smiths or New Order as my own. What happened to music in the mid-noughties to make a whole generation - or at least one singer speaking for that generation - turn away from it or want to disown it?

Saturday, 31 October 2015


"I become very impatient with dreamers. I respect the doers more than the dreamers. So many people, it seems to me, talk about all the things they want to do. They only talk without accomplishing anything. The drifters are worse than the dreamers. Ones who really have no goals, no aspirations at all, just live from day to day..."

That's a quote from a private secretary called Anne Bogan who features in Working, Studs Terkel's groundbreaking sociological study of "people talking about what they do all day and how they feel about it", which I'm gradually working my way through in fits and starts.

I've had aspirations. I aspired to be a journalist, and now I am one. Now what?

In a recent post I quoted from Anna Karenina:

"He soon felt that the fulfillment of his desires had furnished him with only a grain of sand from that mountain of happiness which he had expected. This fulfillment showed him the constant mistake people make when they imagine that happiness lies in the fulfillment of desires."

Logically Tolstoy leaves us with three options: have no desires, have unfulfillable desires, or have many desires on the go, replacing the fulfilled ones with new unfulfilled ones at the same rate. Which of these did Tolstoy advocate?

He has a character who stands for himself explicitly say in Anna Karenina that "one must live for God and not for the satisfaction of one's needs", which is option one, but as an atheist that doesn't really work for me. Plus, we know from Anne, who stands for everyone in society, that this isn't accepted anyway.

And option three is no good: the difficulty of finding desires is the starting point for this post.

That leaves option two: have a small number of unfulfillable desires.

Tolstoy also makes clear in Anna Karenina that he thinks one should seek and find a family life. Human history also indicates this might be a good idea. And one can also live "not for the satisfaction of one's needs" if one instead lives for the satisfaction of other people's needs. We can desire good lives for our family, and this will be an unfulfilled (or at least ongoing) desire as long as you and they remain alive.

But people like people with goals, as we learnt from Anne. How would Anne react if she and I were on a first date and, in response to her asking me what my goal in life is, I were to say "To make you happy"? She would excuse herself and climb out the toilet window.

Besides, it's a circular proposition. If the only desire any of us can muster is the desire to fulfill others, there isn't anything for anyone to do.

Husband to wife: "What can I do for you today, my dear?"
Wife to husband: "Allow me to do something for you, my sweet!"
Husband to wife: "Erm..."

Which is a roundabout way of arriving at: existentialism.

My next read is to be Nausea. But if my understanding is correct, that only offers an acute expression of the problem, and no answers.

Still, at least I want to read it, just about.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

The Everyone Moment

There comes a point in many a movie badguy's runtime at which he must impress upon an underling the scale of response needed to a certain situation, usually a threat posed by the hero. I think of this point as The Everyone Moment.

In John Wick, which I watched this morning, that moment goes as follows:

Boss: "Task a crew."
Underling: "How many?"
Boss: "How many do you have?"

I think of this moment as The Everyone Moment, and I like to think that every movie boss also thinks of it that way when their moment comes.

Why do I think of it so?

Because the definitive example of this moment, the instance every movie must now shrug its shoulders and surrender in the face of, is the instance in Leon / The Professional, as executed by Gary Oldman:

There are two reasons why this example will never be bettered. The most important is that Oldman is superb in this role, with barely a human hair's width between where he pitches it and going overboard. His isn't the scariest or even the craziest movie villain - the former honour is shared by the characters played by Joe Pesci in Goodfellas and Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast, to my mind; the latter I don't know, maybe Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight - but he is the zaniest movie villain who still manages to be scary.

The second is the actual scale of response the film delivers, which within the scope of my experience is matched only by the equivalent scene in Terminator 2 when the cops show up at Cyberdyne Systems. But T2's moment doesn't have Oldman.

Part 2:

A somewhat similar point in many action films is that at which the film establishes the badassery of its hero.

In John Wick this moment precedes the film's Everyone Moment by just a couple of minutes. It's a very successful, if slightly ridiculous scene, which starts with the following dialogue:

"It's not what you did, son, that angers me so. It's who you did it to."
"Who, that fuckin' nobody?"
"That fuckin' nobody ... is John Wick."

The badassery-establishing bit follows, but this is the bit that raises the hairs on the back of your neck.

I haven't yet found the definitive example of this moment, but for the time being I think of it as the Ryback's File Moment, from the scene in Under Siege in which Gary Busey's character finds a personnel file on who we previously thought was a mere cook (well, not really, because he's played by Steven Seagal) and proceeds to read it aloud to his fellow badguys. It's a rather blatant scene, but effective nevertheless, mainly because of the great performances of Busey and Tommy Lee Jones:

If anyone wants to offer a suggestion as to the definitive Ryback's File Moment, have at it in the comments.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

The death of Tolstoy: a short review of Anna Karenina

The idea that Tolstoy is one of the greatest novelists really must be put to bed.

Henry James called the novels of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky "loose, baggy monsters", and in Tolstoy's case that's the verdict that should stick.

It's not that Anna Karenina is all bad, it's that the juice is far from worth the squeeze.

The highlight is that there's a decent amount of complexity and variety in the characters - not shovel-loads, but a decent amount. Characters in AK are frustrating, and you root for them as they bumble around screwing things up. And Tolstoy is also very good at describing scenes of country life, like horse racing and farming, about which he was obviously knowledgeable.

But his sentence construction is fairly pedestrian, he includes too much and, worst of all, he's an excessive and blatant moraliser. In practically every chapter you can feel Tolstoy prodding you in the ribs and going "Now isn't this a foolish / the correct thing for the character to be doing?"

The message of AK can essentially be summarised in the following extract:

"He soon felt that the fulfillment of his desires had furnished him with only a grain of sand from that mountain of happiness which he had expected. This fulfillment showed him the constant mistake people make when they imagine that happiness lies in the fulfillment of desires."

Which is fine, but later on we have this nonsense, written without irony:

"What would I have been and how would I have spent my life if I had not had those beliefs, if I had not known that one must live for God and not for the satisfaction of one's needs? I should have robbed, lied, murdered."

No, Tolstoy, because EMPATHY.

I can only assume that Tolstoy's reputation is propped up by people of faith who like having that reinforced. It wouldn't bother me, but I only soldiered on with AK because of Tolstoy's standing; I felt I had to read at least one of his two tomes. Well, perhaps I'd have fared better with War and Peace, but I'm going to give it at least 20 years before finding out.

Oh, James was wrong about Dostoevsky, btw: Crime and Punishment is great.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Book review: Mythologies, Roland Barthes, 1957

Like any self-mythologising French philosopher, Barthes doesn't make life easy for the reader. He's not as nonsensical as Baudrillard, but then I think he preceded him, giving the latter the chance to up the stakes still further.

Anyway, Mythologies is about myth, which is what Barthes calls second- or further-order semiology - when something that's already been used to signify something is then used in another context to signify something else - and what happens to the original thing and what it originally signified, as well as the properties of what those two together then jointly signify at the new level. Clear? It won't be.

But there are some fun examples, like what beads of sweat mythologise in the film Julius Caesar, and what a photo of a writer on holiday mythologises. It's good stuff in places, I just wish it was less deliberately opaque in others.

Modern dating / Giulia

So modern dating now involves deciding whether you like the look of the person you've just been presented with on Tinder enough to leave their profile open on your phone, preventing any other use of said phone, until your "super like" gets renewed and you can tell them you like them, which might be anything up to 12 hours. "I waited 11 hours for you!" What romance!

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Hungover thinking

There aren’t many upsides to hangovers, but I can think of a couple:

The guilt they induce serves as a kick up the arse: a push to do something productive as soon as you’re able, to make up for having had to mope around doing very little while the hangover lasts.

(Entirely by serendipity, I’ve just discovered that a word for this is metanoia, meaning a life change resulting from spiritual conversion or penitence, from the Greek metanoein, to change one’s mind. I discovered this while looking up the definition of metonymical, which I mistakenly thought was spelled with an “a” (meta-), for the next paragraph but one: I had hoped it might be an adjectival way of describing something as being meta, in the sense of having a recurrent higher order.)

However, it’s a second upside I’m more interested in here. (Although it’s related to the arse-kicking upside, in that it also has implications for productivity.) It’s that I think differently when I’m hungover.

I’m convinced this is true. When I’m hungover I'm more observant; I'm more inclined to think and to think at length; I tend to think about deeper and more complex subjects; a broader range of ideas seems to be available to me; and I'm more productive in my thinking.

I don’t think this is narcissistic: I make no claims to think well in any state, it's that I have thoughts and ideas when hungover that I wouldn’t otherwise have – or at least not as readily. The ideas underlying many of the posts on this blog came to me when I was hungover - including, predictably but pleasingly metanymically (see above: I’m coining the term. I never use the word metonym anyway: that’s why I had to look it up), the idea for this one. 

I’ve recognised this for a while: I’ve long thought it helpful to consider important decisions while sober, drunk and hungover, partly because I spend not-insignificant portions of my life in the latter two of these three states, so it’s only fair for my sober self to take my drunk and hungover selves’ opinions into consideration, but also because I know that being drunk or hungover might facilitate inspiration.

Is this property of hangovers particular to me, or is it true for everyone? I don't know. There must have been reams written about the effects of alcohol, but I haven't read much of it. I know Hemingway said that whiskey put his thoughts on a different plane, but I assume he meant on imbibing, not the day after.

I doubt there’s been much if any research into how substances affect thought patterns beyond matters of addiction and impulse control. There ought to be. If anyone knows of any or has any good references on the subject, please do leave them below.

Meanwhile, I need to get up off my arse and do something with my day.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Book review: Fear of Music, David Stubbs, Zero Books, 2009

Best read with Spotify or similar to hand.

Despite being subtitled "Why people get Rothko but don't get Stockhausen", Fear of Music doesn't actually address the question of "why modern [read: avant garde] art is embraced and understood while modern [as above] music is ignored, derided or regarded with bewilderment as noisy, random nonsense perpetrated and listened to by the inexplicably crazed", as the blurb puts it, until its conclusion - a mere 26 pages out of 137. Rather, the first 111 pages set out the parallel histories of the two beasts.

The answers eventually proffered are: because the megabucks associated with modern art have familiarised the public with it; because modern music can feel like an infliction; because music more powerfully depicts the future, and the future is bleak; because humans are inherently more tolerant of visual than auditory chaos; and, a more general repetition of the first, because people aren't used to modern music.

Of these, I give most credence to the infliction and tolerance suggestions. To take the latter first, modern music much more commonly causes physical pain through sheer extent (in its case, volume) than modern art when experienced live, and auditory chaos also much more readily causes headaches (even at reasonable volume).

The infliction point is related. Although modern art often aims to challenge, it doesn't generally aim to cause as much unpleasantness to its audience as possible, whereas this does seem to be the aim of bands like Throbbing Gristle, Napalm Death and Sunn O))). A more appropriate comparison to these more extreme avant garde bands than the sublime (in an artistic sense) works of Rothko would be images of violence such as those force-fed to Alex in A Clockwork Orange.

The very premise of the book is on shaky ground in this respect. In setting out the history of avant garde music, Stubbs includes such figures as Jimi Hendrix, Kraftwerk, Joy Division, Brian Eno and Radiohead - hardly musicians that lacked a popular following. Furthermore, he states that millions of people already do embrace avant garde music (albeit calling this "a tiny fragment of the overall demographic"). Most damagingly, he even says "it's hard to conceive that Duke Ellington's music was once considered 'dissonant' or to recapture just what a fissure the joyful peal of Louis Armstrong's trumpet represented" - i.e., that in these cases at least the avant garde has been wholly accepted by and subsumed into the mainstream.

Likewise, although Rothko is indeed extremely popular, the same cannot be said of all avant garde art. The Tate Modern may receive millions of visitors per year, but this is due more  to its cannily having been established as a symbol of trendy London and to the monumentalism of the building itself than to its housing works by the likes of Giacometti, which are barely glanced at by the incessantly shuffling crowds, despite a Giacometti having sold for $141m this year. The public much prefers shows of works by old masters like Rembrandt and Leonardo or impressionists like Monet to the Futurists or conceptualists.

Having said all that, I like the premise of the book even if it's a false one, simply because it gives Stubbs the chance to provide his parallel histories of these two fascinating movements. And I like the book itself: Stubbs writes well and with a keen eye for what to cover from what must have been a wealth of material, and includes just enough of himself to add an extra dimension without being intrusive. I read it in one day, fighting to keep going through straining eyes (see the glasses in the photo above).

The book is also a fantastic way of discovering new music, and I recommend having access to Spotify or similar when reading it so that you can appreciate what's being discussed as you go along.

I also like the ethos of Zero Books, which claims to have the lofty aim of fighting the contemporary elimination of the public and the intellectual.

However, while both the publisher and the author seek to stand up for the avant garde, I do wish they hadn't taken such a free-thinking approach to grammar and spelling in the edition of FoM I read: practices such as printing words in a meaningful order, including every word in a sentence but only as many times as is required, subject-verb agreement, apostrophe placement, knowledge of what commas are for and reserving paragraph returns for the ends of paragraphs do help to convey a message more easily, boringly conservative though they may be.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

The Big Ones #1: Wasps

If, as you're meandering along, contemplating the beauty of every living thing and how best you can serve your fellow man today, you happen upon a wasp sitting placidly on some surface, does your position in the social compact mean that you're morally obligated to kill it? Discuss.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Swap meat

Grant Hutchinson, Flickr

Taking the EU's Emissions Trading System and the modern inclination to Instagram all our meals as my inspiration, I have a proposition for you.

Would you like to pay me to not eat meat so that you can eat it instead?

Just as countries that would prefer not to ween themselves off fossil fuels can get off the hook by paying others for their above-and-beyond efforts to do so, I offer you the opportunity to go on scarfing meat like there is a tomorrow in exchange for my refraining from partaking.

For the low, low price of just $12, €11 or £10 per day, I will let you scoff flesh with the guilt-free abandon that can only come from knowing that someone out there (me) is abstaining on your behalf. Each sausage I don't eat will be the anti-matter to the sausage that you do, with the two annihilating across space and time to leave nothing but the innocent lip-smack of blissfully methane- and CO2-less air rushing in to displace a pristine void.

How will it work? I'll be available by the day or by block booking. You'll pay me via PayPal or bank transfer the day before, and on the day itself I'll tweet photos of whatever I eat, thereby proving (or at least strongly indicating) the sacrifice I've made on the altar of your greed. In order to prove I'm not double-booking myself, I'll include a word of your choice in the tweet, and the absence of any tweets without that word will show that I'm all yours.

Obviously this only benefits the planet and thereby absolves you of your guilt if I'm not already a vegetarian, so on my unengaged days I'm prepared to tweet whatever photos of me chowing down on formerly sentient beings you need to feel confident that I am in fact depriving myself on my on days.

Step up, meat-eaters, and do your bit! (Tweet me or leave a comment or whatever).

Juxtapositions #1: Tiepolo and Mondrian

Tiepolo's The Building of the Trojan Horse, about 1760, National Gallery, London

Mondrian's Composition With Red, Yellow and Blue, 1942

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Just the essentials

Like most Londoners, I move flats a lot. I've lived in 9 different places in 8 years, which I think is pretty average for this city. Because I move so often, I try not to acquire too much stuff; nevertheless, the last time I moved - 3 weeks ago - I spent about 4 days packing in fits and spurts, no more than 5 minutes in the removal van, and then about 6 hours unpacking at my new place.

This is roughly the amount of stuff I have (the furniture isn't mine):

My stuff

Conversely, most of the people in Kiki Streitberger's Travelling Light photographic project, one of several such projects being exhibited until 29 August at the University of Westminster's 2015 Documentary Photography and Photojournalism MA course graduation show, took only about half a dozen things with them the last time they moved homes.

That's because Kiki's project focuses on Syrian refugees who have made their way to the UK by boat, for the most part taking not even only what they could carry but only what they could stuff into their pockets, as traffickers want to use all available space on their boats for more people.

For the project Kiki photographed not the refugees themselves, but the clothes and objects that survived their perilous journey. The photos are accompanied by descriptions of the items in the refugees' own words.

One of the people featured in Kiki's project is Alaa (his is the second entry on her own website's link to this project), a 14-year-old student who chose to share the T-shirt he wore on the trip, his asthma inhaler, his glasses, a book on Arab history, a notebook and a report card.

I don't have permission to reproduce the photograph or the full text, but Alaa's thoughts on masculinity, based on his history book, are surprisingly insightful given his age - although perhaps less surprisingly so given his own history.

I'll just quote the final few sentences of his entry, which read as follows:

"The school report is my last one from home. I brought it with me because I want to show people that I'm not stupid. When I come and ask for asylum, this doesn't mean I'm an idiot and I want people to know that."

Sunday, 21 June 2015

FreshFace + WildEyed

Showing at the Photographers' Gallery is the 2015 FreshFace + WildEyed. Included are:

Jocelyn Allen's Covering the Carpet, in which she poses naked in contortions that hide her pubic hair from the lens, in reference to the removal of a painting from a London gallery in 2014. Allen's photographs are comically and perhaps sarcastically playful but also illustrate sculptural qualities of the human body. Seeing them in the flesh I was reminded of architectural plans, but of limbs, joints, head etc. This might be because Allen's face isn't visible in any of the photos either, so there's no immediate focal point for an intimate connection.

Aida Silvestri's Even This Will Pass, which presents highly blurred portraits of people who migrated from Eritrea to London, with the convolutions of their journey superimposed in thread. In the gallery, these are accompanied by the sitters' accounts of their journeys, including beatings, slavery, starvation, birth and miscarriage.

The exhibition is running until 5 July.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Serendipity and creativity

Wandering around Dublin on Friday night, freed from the conference that took me to that city, I stumbled across the graduation party for the National College of Art and Design's Visual Communication degree. There was live jazz, beer and chorizo hotdogs, plus a crowd of joyful arty types and their families - and the chance to see all of the graduates' final-year projects in the College building adjacent. I polished off a 'dog and a pint of Hooker while enjoying the music and general gaity, and then checked out the work...

It was inspired and inspiring stuff. NCAD says its Visual Communication degree teaches students to use "a variety of media to creatively communicate ideas and concepts that can inform, challenge, educate and potentially transform lives", which sounds like it could be PR-esque guff, but actually the show bore it out.

Some of my highlights were:

Ben Hickey's use of illustration to break up and enliven selected pieces of journalism as a way of making them more accessible.

Ellius Grace's photographic and interview-based portraits of people and the things that make them feel alive (not on his website, but his other photos are in a similar vein).

And Laura Dunne's "experimental cutlery", such as knives and forks made of pig skin, to "disrupt the eating process" and encourage people to be more aware of what they are eating.

There were other unconventional ideas too, like Stephen Kerr's alternative design for musical notation, and Manus De Brun's idea for a way of encouraging contemplation through a particularly innovative way of watering a plant - neither of which seem to have been put online, so I'll say no more about them.

The students' inventiveness and implementation were fantastic, and it was amazing to see so much creativity and passion in one room.

There's a video of the graduates' work over on The Irish Times. Be inspired.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Trial by pen and paper

One of Zunar's cartoons, which he makes freely available

Next week, the cartoonist Zunar will begin standing trial on nine counts of poking fun at the Malaysian government. His sentence, if he's found guilty, could be anything up to 43 years.

Zunar doesn't call the Malaysian government "the government": he calls it "the regime" or "the cartoon government". The same party - Parti Perikatan, now called Barisan Nasional - has been in power since 1955.

Hence in Malaysia, , Zunar says, the job of political cartoonists is "to fight, to push for reform". "My philosophy is: why pinch when you can punch?", he says.

Nor, of course, does the government call the charges ranged against Zunar "poking fun". Probably, though, it would take even them a while to remember the official terms: Zunar says that initially there was just one charge against him, then eight more appeared as if from nowhere.

Zunar isn't in Malaysia at the time of writing: he's in London. On 14 May he took part in an event organised by the Index on Censorship, a discussion with the English cartoonist Martin Rowson at the Free Word Centre in Farringdon.

Rowson asked Zunar why he's prepared to return to Malaysia to stand trial; why not just stay in the UK?

"For me, talent is not a gift. It's a responsibility," Zunar said. "It's very important for a political cartoonist like me to fight for my people. The trial will expose just how cartoon this government can be."

Zunar asked Rowson and another English cartoonist who was present, Steve Bell, whether, particularly in light of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, they would draw cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. Both said they had pitched ideas to their respective employers in the immediate aftermath of the massacre, but that the publications had, after much consideration, rejected the ideas. Rowson said that for the 48 hours after the cartoon he did draw was published, one of himself slumped at his desk, he received a torrent of accusations of cowardice from internet users hiding safely behind their anonymity.

For Bell, though, the compulsion to draw the prophet is not strong. "What's really important is that we choose our targets: I won't let some twat who's got a bee in his bonnet about Mohammed chose my targets - I want that job", he says.

Rowson followed by saying that the reason he is a cartoonist is that he is himself offended. "I'm offended by the very idea that people think anyone can place themselves in a position of power over me and the rest of us," he said.

Zunar finished by saying that everybody can do their part to highlight abuses. "If you can write, write; if you can speak, speak; if you can blog, blog", he said. "We are all just like a drop of water in the ocean. But if we combine, we can create a tsunami."

Zunar can be found on Twitter at @zunarkartunis. The hashtag for the event and to follow the proceedings of the Malaysian government's trial is #freezunar.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Book Review: Curationism - David Balzer (2014)

In 40 not-very-densely-typed pages of Curationism (Pluto Press), David Balzer manages to undermine one of my more firmly entrenched ideas of myself, as well as my idealisation of work and one of my burgeoning fantasies. He also drags into the light one unpleasant truth I hadn't fully acknowledged.

These are, in turn:
  • That because I don't buy much, I'm not a mindless consumer (when actually I quite mindlessly consume many things; it's just that they're cheap or free).
  • That doing something you love as a job is exclusively a good thing (I still think it's mostly a good thing, but now I'm mindful of the danger of work, even the best kinds of work, being devalued by people agreeing to do it without being properly recompensed).
  • That curating is glamorous and I'd like to do it.
  • That I "curate" content for others using Twitter etc because I'm yearning to connect with people.
The ideas in Curationism may not all originate with Balzer, but no matter: he has - argh, don't, don't; yes, yes, I'm gonna - curated them (and rewritten and reformulated them, obviously) very well. And, of course, they were new to me.

Curationism describes the rise of curation in the art world and, more recently, in our daily lives, and then deftly considers its prospects in each. The first 90 pages, setting out the history of the subject matter, are not so deft as the final 40, but in keeping the whole short and ending so strongly Balzer gives us a book that feels timely, informative and insightful.

Perhaps most tellingly, he made me want to spend less time reading articles about contemporary culture online and more time reading well written and edited short books about it instead.

I still followed him on Twitter, though.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Stephen King rescued my reading

I've been a big reader for as long as I can remember. I was always reading in the back of my parents' car whenever I was being reluctantly ferried somewhere, my brother beside me feeling travel sick, while if it was night-time I would be waiting for the next street light to sweep by so I could read another eight or nine words before the darkness returned. (My parents used to tell me I'd damage my eyesight; I got my first pair of glasses when I was 10).

For my 8th birthday, which happened to fall when we were holidaying on the island of Menorca or Majorca, I forget which, my parents brought my presents with us so I could open them on the right day. The only one I remember was from my aunt: a hardback book containing the two Michael Crichton novels Jurassic Park and Congo, a doorstop of a thing with about 650 pages that must have been a bugger for my dad to lug around in his suitcase. I was in heaven.

But then when I was 15 something happened. Gradually, without my being aware of it being triggered by anything, I started fixating on pronouncing each word in my head as I read it, making sure each syllable was enunciated sufficiently thoroughly for me to be able to move on. Increasingly, this meant having to go back and re-read the same particular word or sequence of words again and again, sometimes a dozen times or more. It was like what I imagine having a stutter must be like, only I was stuttering not over a vocalisation but over a ... mental acceptance of a word as having been read satisfactorily, is the best way I can think to describe it.

Slowly it became crippling: whereas once I'd read almost the entire 650-odd page Alan Dean Foster novelisations of the first three Alien films in a single day, I spent the first 6 or so months of 2003 getting through less than half of a single book.

I knew it was a mental hangup, something I ought to be able to just not do, but the difference between knowing that and applying it was everything. Sometimes I'd get to the end of a sentence and then one word would be stuck in my head as something I hadn't read right, and back I would go. Again and again.

Months went by, and I wondered whether I would ever read normally again. I took some solace from the fact that I could glance at a road sign or similar short snatch of text and decode the meaning of the words before consciously feeling like I was actively "reading" them, thereby escaping the trap, and the problem was less severe with things like textbooks and less severe generally in the classroom environment, but by the time the summer of that year rolled around I'd gone from reading all the time to barely even daring to pick up a book, or picking one up and then dropping it again minutes later having been unable to get anywhere.

I didn't talk about it to anyone, but my friend even commented on it, noticing that I'd been reading the same book forever. I made excuses.

I was almost resigned to the situation of no longer being a reader when, fully expecting the same outcome as with all the other books I'd attempted to read that year, I picked up Stephen King's The Drawing of the Three, the second book in his Dark Tower series.

I remember starting to read in a state of, at the risk of being overly dramatic, near misery. But then something magical happened: the story locked horns with my fixation, and I realised with growing joy that the story was stronger.

It didn't happen all at once. I started out slowly, tripping up and getting stuck like I'd become used to. But little by little the traps became less sticky, to the point where soon I was starting to fixate but then moving on each time before it could take hold.

It sounds ridiculous, but it was all down to the pace and excitement of the plot. The Drawing of the Three is the point in the Dark Tower series where it all really takes off: badass hero Roland, gunslinger extraordinaire, is thrust into the grungy world of two-bit punk Eddie and the violent thugs he's got himself involved with, through a plot device I won't reveal but which, to my 15-year-old self, but probably to anyone at any age, was just so damn cool.

The sensation was like how I imagine it must feel for people with phantom limb pain who experience relief through VN Ramachandran's mirror box trick, whereby the agony of the sensation that a hand which is no longer a part of your body has been permanently clenched for weeks or months on end suddenly dissipates when, by viewing a reflection of the relaxation of one's remaining good hand, the brain is visually fooled into believing that the missing hand has unclenched.

For me it was more gradual, and the sensation was one of frustration and fixation rather than pain, but the metaphor of an unclenching feels right: it was like my brain, as each sentence and each paragraph and each page went by with less and less obstruction, was learning to release itself from its own grip.

I finished the book in a couple of days. Since then, I've experienced only the occasional blip, easily vanquished.

I don't know whether there's a name for what I experienced or how common it is. (Try Googling it, and see where that gets you.) I've never raised it with anyone, but once, only once, have I heard someone else talk about it or something very similar: a friend, without my prompting, told me she'd experienced something that sounded much like what I went through, although in her case there were contributing circumstances that weren't a factor for me.

Maybe it's something that would have gone away eventually regardless. Maybe it's something there are multiple causes of and multiple routes out of. All I know is, The Drawing of the Three is a book to which I will always remain uniquely attached.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Watching warfare

The 10 April BBC Radio 4 episode of the culture programme Front Row included a feature with the directors of two new films about drone warfare: the feature film Good Kill, directed by Andrew Niccol (Gattaca), and the documentary Drone, directed by Tonje Hessen Schei. (Listen here, from 20.20.)

Here's Niccol from Front Row:

"It was interesting to see what this kind of warfare would do to someone's psyche. Because if you're a jet pilot, a fighter pilot, normally you would just drop your missile on your target and fly away. Now if you're a drone pilot what you do is you drop your missile and you watch, and you do damage assessment, which is counting the dead. And they can sit over that target and watch their destruction for 24 hours. So that must do something to a human being."

And here's Schei:

"The US Air Force actually has their own sort of video site where you can get access to drone footage. They have these media days where they do promotional videos of the drone programme. Most of our footage is actually from the US Air Force. You can actually also find what they call drone porn or pred porn, where you find all this drone footage that drone pilots themselves have been uploading, often set to music."

The Drone trailer opens with the line "We're the ultimate voyeurs, the ultimate Peeping Toms." "There's always been a connection between the world of war and the world of entertainment", it continues.

I don't know whether this is the site Schei was referring to, but this USAF webpage has a simulator that allows the interested visitor to have an ersatz experience of what it's like to fire a drone missile.

And it's not just the US that wants to give its public a taste of drone warfare: the UK's Ministry of Defence has a Youtube channel, to which it has uploaded what it says is RAF footage of a Reaper drone missile strike on an ISIL vehicle on 11 March 2015. Unlike the US webpage, which is accompanied by pumping music, this UK video is silent and matter-of-fact (warning: although you can't make out any people in the video, it does apparently show the moment at which people die):

Whether these websites and videos are intended to be informative, promotional or otherwise is not made explicit. What people actually take away from them, I don't know.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Quotes #1: Levi and Goethe

Primo Levi on writing:

"Paper is too tolerant a material. You can write any old absurdity on it and it never complains."

"One of the writer's great privileges is the possibility of remaining imprecise and vague."

Goethe on criticism, polemic and negativity:

"It is much easier to recognize error than to find truth: the former lies on the surface, this is quite manageable; the latter resides in depth, and this is not everyone's business."

"Error is continually repeated in action, and that is why we must not tire of repeating in words what is true."

"If I'm to listen to someone else's opinion, it must be put in a positive way; I have enough problematic speculations in my own head."

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Book Review: The German Genius, Peter Watson (2010)

Why do we read and write, you and I? Partly it's because we want to better ourselves. This is what people do - or what the kind of people you and I want to know do, anyway - we learn new instruments and languages, we travel, we try new things. (Or we like to think we do.)

But why do we do this? The answer may seem self-evident: who doesn't want to be "better", whatever that means? Who doesn't want to be more like the people they admire, and more liked by them? Or maybe you feel you have an inner drive: if you didn't try all these new things, you'd go crazy.

But have you ever stopped to think about the context for this behaviour? Whether people everywhere do it, and always have?

That is the concern of the first half of Peter Watson's The German Genius - or, as I like to think of it: After God, "Aargh, Modernity!". Or, even more facetiously: Why We Blog.

Watson tells us that the drive for self-improvement originated largely in pre-unified Germany, born out of the speculative philosophy of such titans as Kant and Hegel that arose to fill the growing hole left by declining Christianity and its message of "Do this, because I say so".

Why in Germany? Religion in Germany had been more inward anyway, as a result of Luther's protestantism returning religion to the people from the control of the church (see the novel Q, ostensibly but not really written by a former AC Milan footballer named Luther Blissett). Plus, it was the German Wilhelm von Humboldt who essentially invented the modern university, with the idea that scholars should conduct original research, and, owing to the support of Friedrich Wilhelm III, there were far more universities, and much more literacy, in Germany than places like France or Great Britain.

Kant, Hegel et al posited that in the absence of an afterlife or divinity, the purpose of life must be to better oneself, a concept that came to be known as bildung. Also, by bettering oneself, one also bettered those around oneself in one's community.

Thus, the next 100 years or so gave rise to such cultural colossi as Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert and Wagner, whose music differed from that of Handel and Bach in expressing inner concepts related to the life of man, rather than religious ones, plus Goethe, creator of the Bildungsroman, in which improvement (in the eyes of God or of man) comes only through effort on the part of the individual.

Thanks, Germany!

But then come modernity and alienation, and the second half of Watson's book, which addresses the question of whether German idealism had to lead to authoritarianism.

As Watson makes clear (borrowing on the work of others, as he's quick to point out the whole book heavily does), the idea of evolution did not originate with Darwin. Bildung is itself evolution applied to one's own character, for example. But Darwin accounted for evolution scientifically, realising it comes from overpopulation and struggle to survive and reproduce. Thus (broadly) was born the age of science.

Over the next generation or so, we have the dawn of organic chemistry and the age of cellular and molecular biology, so many of the discoveries coming from German universities and institutes. We mechanise and urbanise. We have mass-production.

Then comes the Franco-Prussian war and German unification.

Scientification continues. Education becomes less humanistic. Alongside this we have Nietzsche, telling us nothing matters anymore.

Then World War I, partly a war of now-struggling German kultur vs British mercantilism and mere civility. We have mechanised, indiscriminate killing on a scale never seen before. Germany and kultur are dealt a terrible blow, although nobody really wins.

Then Weimar and the rise of low-brow culture, followed by Einstein's relativity, Pauli's uncertainty, Godel's revelation that there are things that can never be known, atonalism in music, expressionism in art, cultural pessimism and economic plight.

Then National Socialists, with their incoherent but powerful message that everything had gone wrong and a return to classical culture was needed, and their racism, their belief that others were responsible for the way things were and that these were people who could never be truly cultured, as only true Germans could.

And what came next, which you already know.

And then the aftermath: a slow coming to terms, Heidegger and reassessment, Habermas and what now in the age of ongoing alienation and environmental profligacy.

I haven't done justice to The German Genius there, obviously. It's 365,000 words, and an awful lot of concepts that were entirely new to me. It's a lot to get your head around.

At times it reads like an encyclopaedia, and could perhaps have done with being a bit trimmer. But part of its point is that there is so much more to Germany that the Nazis, despite what British TV schedulers might think, hence there's a lot of chronicling of German achievement even when it's not essential to the narrative.

TGG is monumental in every sense, and probably the most informative and enlightening book I've ever read. I'd read it again, if only it wasn't so big. Bloody overachieving Germans, nicking all the sun-loungers...

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Alien Resurrection swimming scene: fluid motion

Watching the BBC David Attenborough documentary Natural World episode 3 Galapagos Islands: Islands of Change, I thought the swimming of these Marine Iguanas, the world's only sea-going lizards (watch from 1.10)...

Was familiar. And a quick Google search confirmed my thinking. Turns out, their motion was used as the inspiration for that of the aliens in the underwater scene in Alien Resurrection, as confirmed here (watch from 3.00):

Cool eh?

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Pastel highlights

Some highlights from the Mall Galleries' 2015 Pastel Society Annual Exhibition:

Tom Walker's Still Life With Exploding Glass, which manages to take a collection of familiar still-life objects and transform them into both a spectral terrestrial landscape and a drifting celestial goody bag.

Simon Page's The Black Dog, which combines warm yellows and cosiness with unsettling aquamarine and red, strange angles and an unusual perspective to create a scene of ambiguous tension.

And finally Felicity House's Two Rooms, whose playful lines, bright sunlight and grandiose setting call to mind something like Jacques Tati's film The Illusionist, and which I badly wanted to buy.

The exhibition runs until 7 March. Take a spare few grand and a van with you.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Iraqi Art of the Everyday

The Iraqi pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale was housed in a building on the bank of the Grand Canal that is usually a rentable home base for wealthier tourists: the Ca' Dandolo luxury apartment.

The spot was chosen by Tamara Chalabi, chair of the Ruya Foundation for Contemporary Culture in Iraq, who also commissioned the curator for the event. She picked Jonathan Watkins, Director of the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, who had previously curated several large international exhibitions.

On 26 February Watkins gave a talk about his curation of the pavilion for the annual Mallowan Lecture (don't know) for the British Institute for the Study of Iraq at the British Academy in London.

Watkins decided to showcase artists still resident in Iraq, he told BISI, and whose art deals with issues of everyday life, rather than directly with conflict or politics. Everyone would know about that already, he figured.

He chose to leave much of Ca' Dandolo's furniture in place, partly so that people would feel comfortable hanging out there for hours at a time, and partly to show the everyday art in an everyday setting. He even went so far as to have a baker making and serving Iraqi tea and biscuits in the apartment kitchen for the duration of the event.

Two of the artists Watkins mentioned in his talk stood out.

First the cartoonist Abdul Raheem Yassir (whose work, now that I think about it, doesn't seem to fit with Watkins' description of being apolitical)

And second Akeel Khreef, who repurposes found detritus into useful and beautiful objects, like this table made from old bicycle parts (the tabletop is made from weaved old tires, the legs are forks and the feet are gears. I think the arches are mudguards):

The artists all visited the pavilion in Venice during the event... Not all of them returned to Iraq afterwards.

You can hear Watkins talking about his work on the pavilion here, and here you can read interviews with him and Chalabi.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Books: the power of a redesign

I recently bought a copy of David Bellos's Is That a Fish in Your Ear? I didn't set out to buy this book specifically: the Foyles in Charing Cross Road was displaying copies on one of its stair-side shelves, and it caught my eye.

The edition I bought looks like this:

Tasteful, no?

I didn't immediately decide to buy it: I looked at it, put it back down, wandered around the store some more, decided it had lodged a hook in me that wasn't going to be displaced, and then went back and tucked it beneath my arm.

I've since read the book; I thought it was quite good but would have benefited from being more concise. Of more relevance, it was only when I recorded my having read the book in Goodreads that I realised I'd seen it before (it was first published in 2011), looking like this:

Much as I like the use of an ear as a question mark, this design is not my idea of tasteful. To me, the design of the 2014 edition I bought is a like a nice check sweater, whereas the 2011 edition I didn't buy is more like a mid-90s T-shirt.

What's my point, besides that when it comes to reading material I conform sickeningly to my white middle class status and embody a shameless disregard for the old contents-by-covers adage?

Well, I'm sure its not just me who judges books by their covers. I haven't worked in the book trade, but I would think that part of the reason why book covers receive redesigns, other than because they're being put out by a new publisher and simply to keep up with current fashions, is to better target different groups of consumers?

In this age of online buying and loyalty cards, I wonder whether it's yet possible for publishers, retailers or both to keep track of the types of people buying an edition of a book, based on other purchases - Ottolenghi vs Oliver, say - and then redesign the cover for a later edition to target a different group of people? And would strongly targeting different buyers at different times be more effective than targeting all buyers simultaneously through a design that aims to appeal to all?

Furthermore, with the rise of online bookselling, would it be possible to use a browser's browsing history to show them the version of several simultaneously published editions that they would be most likely to buy?

Maybe this already happens? Google, if you're reading this, do point me in the direction of a relevant book design blog, old chap...

Kafka in a nutshell

This passage from a London Review of Books review by Rikva Galchen of Reiner Stach's three-part biography of Franz Kafka gives some insight into the origins of the writer's particular concerns (she's detailing documented occurrences in Kafka's life):

"Here he is reading a letter from the tax office asking about capital contributions to the First Prague Asbestos Works, here he is writing back explaining that the factory had ceased to exist five years earlier, and here he is receiving another letter asking what his reply meant as no record could be found of the referenced original letter, and then here he is a few months later receiving a third letter threatening him with charges and a fine if he persists in not accounting for the capital accumulation on the First Prague Asbestos Works."