Monday, October 30, 2006

Oh, Mr Portal!

Just getting ready to go off to south-west Wales for ten days of intense R&D work and (I hope) equally intense unwinding. This is, of course, to a Londoner, psychologically equivalent to going to Greenland for five months, and getting everything ready to go is becoming increasingly laborious as I fret about whether they'll have things like biscuits and paper there and whether I ought to take galoshes (despite having no coherent visual sense of what galoshes actually are).

I appreciate that those readers who have banked with Thompson's for some time will have endured longer hiatuses in what we at HQ like to call our 'service delivery patterns'. In fact I guess it's probably at least a fortnight since my last post anyway. But given that we're talking not about ten days of radio silence but five months on -- to all intense sand porpoises -- the dark side of the moon, I thought that I should leave behind me some pointers to current instances of interesting and notable cultural activity that might help you while away the long autumn hours till my return. (You may scoff, but despite it having been 19 degrees today, the nights, my dears, are drawing in; summer is no longer here, and the time is, by any reasonable measure, incontrovertibly wrong for dancing in the street.)

So let me be your cyberpilot, won't you? See how this snazzy outfit of wraparound mirrorshades, electric blue snood, Eurobeat unitard and Starlight Express rollerboots helps me to look the part. Whoosh! Whoosh!

First stop on our itinerary is the spanking new and extremely toothsome Archive of the Now, an online library of readings by a dizzying number of the most formidable and exciting poets currently at work in the UK, painstakingly assembled and curated by Andrea Brady and hosted at the Brunel [University] Centre for Contemporary Writing. No doubt it's going to continue to grow and develop in wondrous ways, but it's already, right from the get-go, an awesome resource for anyone interested in this busy and chronically underattended area of work. I was lucky to be exposed to this broad tradition of innovative and exploratory modernist poetry as a student, but many people aren't, and inevitably find themselves concluding, faced with the inert and supercilious work of Britain's "mainstream" versifiers and the cheap fatuities of supposedly "alternative" performance poets, that they just don't like, or don't get, poetry. One of the pleasures of running the reading series at CPT a few years back was exposing people in just that position to the thrilling and provocative work of folks like Sean Bonney, Peter Manson and Geraldine Monk (all represented in the archive), and watching their mouths fall agape -- in some cases, never to close properly again.

There's a huge amount of material already in place at the Archive, waiting to be discovered again and again. Particular favourites of mine at the moment are the sets by Tim Atkins, Elizabeth James and the branstorming Jow Lindsay -- but I should think you could put a blindfold on and click on the dropdown at random with a pretty good chance of having your ears invigorated out of their sockets and your brain reconnected to your [beat] hip bone.

(I can't remember now if I meant 'barnstorming' or 'brainstorming'. Or 'branstorming', in fact.)

A quick blog-plug. Ben Yeoh. Terrific young playwright. Not just going places, but already getting places, good places. Keep an eye peeled, 24/7.

Meanwhile, in a galaxy far, far away, Mark Ravenhill, who is apparently now under contract to write fifteen per cent of the Guardian every day [check out the new improved byline pic], has chosen to pay some of this month's rent by reworking his signature piece on the Sarah Kane he knew. I'm a bit puzzled as to why he would consent to do so, and presumably thereby visit upon himself the opprobrium of those many spectators to whom this subroutine might now be starting to appear to be crass, self-promoting and, in a dozen ways, as cheap as chips. I suppose he has a largeish phalanx of admirers to point to his unassailable sincerity: which is, after all, how the neoconservative West was won. I, of course, wouldn't presume to comment..., except to say that, whatever Ravenhill might have to gain from it, this constant reiteration of some order of common tendency between himself and Kane has the effect of obscuring and distorting her work, which belongs in another tradition entirely, stronger and more perseverant and necessary than the 'In Yer Face' group that Ravenhill so eloquently and satisfactorily represented.

Anyway, all this arises because the Barbican next week has a Schaubuhne production of Kane's Blasted (yup, in German, art-fans). I hope I might make it to one of the last performances; it's not her best play, but it's important nonetheless, and to see a production from Germany, where Kane is even more revered than is increasingly (and properly) the case here, could, I think, be revelatory.

Meanwhile, if even Sarah Kane is a bit four-to-the-floor for your tastes, there's an intriguing all-day event on Saturday 11th November at Chisenhale Dance Space. The name -- Perspectives 2006: Shifting Ground -- is a bit blah but the line-up is anything but: as you'd expect from a bill curated by live artists including the always-interesting Rachel Gomme, Rainer Knupp and Rajni Shah. The afternoon session looks particularly tantalising: Doran George, Matt Davis (who curates the terrific Field series at the same venue) and an intriguing young artist Tim Jeeves, as well as my sometime collaborator Theron Schmidt, among others. Chisenhale seems to be going from strength to strength, and while the 'is it dance or is it live art?' remit of Perspectives might be -- at least from a theatre perspective -- so much tailchasing, it should clearly be possible to take a view around that question and let the work, whatever it is in itself, speak.

And the following week, Tate Modern has -- if you can hear bongos, by the way, it's just my heart, impersonating Sophia Loren in the proximity of Peter Sellers -- a Charles Atlas season. It's impossible to overstate the importance of Atlas in (or near) practically every notable underground culture in the UK and US over the past two decades: from artists' film and video art to club performance and avant garde dance. A hugely important moment for me as a chrysalitic teenager was happening, quite by chance, on Atlas's video of Michael Clark's seminal Because We Must, late one night on tv -- this would have been, I guess, around 1990, when Channel 4 were still incorrigibly alternative (and not yet aiming, as they now do, lower than a mole's ankles); I guess I saw Jubilee at around the same time and the same spot on the dial, and a glimpse of Philippe Decoufle (and Bruce Weber's Broken Noses, come to think of it) on the genially chaotic Club X.

Anyhoo... I'm booked in to all but the last of the screenings, and I know you'll want to be too. So I'll see you there, I guess.

And finally. (Though it's a big 'finally'...)

Once Rhymes... was open at the Oval House, I suddenly had daytimes back, for the first time in (what at any rate felt like) ages. Which meant a lot of afternoon quality-time in cinemas -- especially the increasingly sorry and depleted Curzon Soho, and the consistently (and rather reassuringly) sorry and depleted Odeon Covent Garden.

I made a few notes on what I saw, with Thompson's in mind -- I wouldn't call these reviews, exactly, they're too scribbly and inchoate to qualify for that, but I thought they might be fun to post and start a conversation or two. (That reminds me, Williams, we're still due a fight about Bertolucci's Dreamers...)

Most of these films have probably moved on from your local arthouse by now, except the last, so I apologise for not posting these as I went along, which would have made more sense.

I was intending also to drop in a few words on some art shows -- Fischli/Weiss at Tate Modern, Richard Wilson at Barbican Curve, Cerith Wyn Evans at the ICA -- but I haven't got time now. I guess they'll keep till I'm back. For the little my two-penn'orth is worth (hint: somewhat less than 2 new p.), all three exhibitions are worth seeing, though only one and a half are actually worth seeing.

Anyway, here are the not-quite-reviews. I await your responses with cheerful trepidation.

Till my return, my dears: Inuulluaritsi!
An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore's show and tell on global warming, is in the best sense an impressive film, both as an urgent and incontrovertibly suasive polemic (though it never comes close to breaking a sweat) and, less expectedly, as a cinematic achievement. I wondered beforehand whether I might prefer to be seeing him do this as a live show, as he apparently has approximately one terawillion times to date; or, equally, whether I might as well wait for the DVD release of what seemed likely to be a tv documentary with a bigger foofery budget. But in fact, both as an argument and as a personal narrative, it's all about scale: the relative scale of images, events, people; the conceptual (as much as perceptual) travel between what is large and in the distance and what is small and held in the hand. So it's important to see the big pictures at bigger-than-human scale, and to look upwards at them. Under these conditions, a sequence of images self-evidently indicating the change in snow and ice levels at various places over the last few years becomes unanswerably powerful; everything anomalous about the current behaviour of our climate is graphically conveyed with exacted simplicity.

Gore and the filmmakers also make smart use of that politician's trick of repeatedly tying the global and the apparently abstract to the local and personal -- returning again and again not just to the person-sized but to specific and exemplary occasions in his own life. Even when the back-and-forth movement becomes obvious, it's irresistible. I'm not sure that Gore's vaunted personal charisma comes strongly through, and the self-depreciating cracks that he sows through the presentation have clearly, with boggling repetition, hardened into what seem more like nuts than acorns; he's at his best when he's neither the ex-next-president nor the regular joe helping you fix your car, but rather the sort of amenable and highly-skilled geography teacher who knows that maybe a couple of people in every class will be turned on by what he's saying.

For my own part, I was certainly inspired to take note of one of the injunctions that pops up during the closing credits, and investigate tree-planting as a way of offsetting my own (actually not too gross) carbon-related naughtiness. But of the first few hits on the topic thrown up by Google, about half were articles criticising the middle-class guilt-propelled rush to such solutions (or absolutions) and questioning their effectiveness. Al Gore may want me to plant trees, but George Monbiot doesn't. (Dude, George Monbiot doesn't want me to do anything.) So, this, ultimately, is the real -- and perhaps the only -- problem with the film: it's hard for it to promote cogent action in such a turbulent field, with no formative consensus supporting it. This is the same news that the Green Cross Code man used to have to break to us at the end of every advert: Al Gore -- pastel (but not Lincoln) green, and not too cross -- won't be there when we cross the road. It's easy to understand why he doesn't want to commit himself to seeking the Deomcratic nomination, but it's hard to see how else this message is going to achieve the necessary order of airtime or leverage in the US -- let alone China.

It's a good job there's not so much at stake in Little Miss Sunshine. In a lot of ways it's rather a cynically imagined and ineptly executed movie: a van-full of indie-by-numbers characters (deluded self-help guru, foul-mouthed grandad, ugly duckling Sundance-friendly kid...) setting off on an excruciatingly implausible road trip. The sharp acting and mostly smart dialogue never quite offset these problems, though there are some gloriously funny moments and on the whole it's easy enough to switch off the critical response and enjoy the journey. Only the increasing tonal vacillation (between tender and pointed character comedy, and outright farce) is fundamentally unmanageable.

In the end, though -- curiously, but not without precedent -- it's precisely the combination of the cool and the clunky that ultimately causes this movie to snag in the mind. At the emotional heart of the film is the relationship between a suicidal gay English professor (Steve Carrell) and his miserable teenage nephew, Duayne, (Paul Dano), who has taken a vow of silence (don't ask why, I could tell you but then I'd have to apologise for wasting your time); these are the two most rigorously controlled performances on the screen and -- by some way -- the two most attractive characters. So when Duayne, in a state of profound emotional distress, finally speaks, it's even more of a moving moment than the filmmakers want it to be; the pacing and placing of that pivotal scene is stupidly botched, but that misfire only serves to magnify the sense of raggedness and suspension, which in turn makes the scene sadder and more troubling than it can ever have seemed on paper. Long after the confectioner's custard of the queasy feelgood climax has passed, the unanswered questions around these characters' predicaments continue to reverberate, a bit like the discarded story of increasingly out-of-hand civil unrest that continues to write itself in the wastepaper basket in Brautigan's Sombrero Fallout. And, in particular, Dano, who I hadn't seen since his extraordinary debut in L.I.E., is incredibly compelling; Duayne has haunted me.

I'd seen the first instalment of Slavoj Zizek's three-part The Pervert's Guide to Cinema on More4 earlier in the year, but missed the other two, and therefore booked early to catch the whole lot, sewn into a single two-and-a-half hour documentary and showing at the ICA. Having only ever heard Zizek on the radio before, I was happily surprised by his screen presence: bright-eyed, bearded, bear-like, and Simply Having A Wonderful Christmastime in his head. (I can't begin to say how much he reminded me of Tassos at moments -- so if you don't know Tassos, you should go see Zizek just for that, really.) I thought his odd, slightly impeded, speech and mannerisms might begin to pall after a couple of hours, but he has that great gift of making you feel that he's merely telling entertaining stories over dinner, while he's actually tying your brain into an irrecuperable sheepshank.

The departure point for the documentary is Zizek's contention that cinema does not show us, or give us, what we desire, so much as actually teach us how to desire. His pursuit of this idea is sometimes fanciful, sometimes confusing, occasionally a bit loopy, but trying to stay with him is immense fun. Amazingly, his rudimentary psychoanalytical reading of the Marx Brothers (Groucho as superego, Chico as ego, Harpo as id) only serves to make them funnier -- which of course is practically unheard of in the history of comedy analysis from Freud through to John Cleese and Jonathan Miller; he also makes Chaplin more beautiful, which will perhaps unsettle a generation for whom the loathing of Chaplin and worshipful hallooing of Keaton is formidably de rigeur. There's brilliant stuff on The Birds and The Matrix, and a thread of less acrobatic but nonetheless useful commentary on David Lynch. There are also some cheerfully excursive passages, such as a rant about tulips (which are, since you ask, "disgusting"). What it all adds up to in the end, I'm not sure, but the real and indubitable pleasure of the experience is simply watching a magnificently agile, provocative, hell-for-leather mind creating new routes through familiar images, to disorienting and exhilarating effect. The Pervert's Guide to Cinema is itself a really good, important, kind, enthralling, oddly enchanting film, directed with immense wit by Sophie Fiennes; the best movie (though admittedly, perhaps, the only one) of its kind since Derrida.

Some films are hard to assess simply because they seem to have been conceived especially for you, like the bespoke radio stations you can grow at Pandora. For me, it's (needless to say) My Own Private Idaho, and (perhaps less obviously, or convincingly) Empire Records or Party Monster. I'm saying, it wouldn't have surprised me if the opening titles of Brothers of the Head had started with the words "Dear Chris...". Conjoined twin teenage boys growing up in a remote part of East Anglia and becoming moulded into a proto-punk glam rock outfit called The Bang Bang? And all this styled as a fake documentary with various talking heads including Ken Russell and an actor playing Brian Aldiss? In other words, as near as dammit to the (sorely needed) Ballard / Cronenberg remake of Velvet Goldmine? Yeah, don't worry about a bag, thanks, I think I'll be wearing it home.

I was therefore rooting for Brothers... long after it became apparent that it was, sadly but perhaps inevitably, kind of a mess as a film. From a few minutes in, the documentary frame is half mishandled and half neglected, too often constraining the film's movements and only sporadically harnessing any of the benefits of tension and alienation that could have been derived. The story is muddled, some interesting things get invoked but never explored, things feel both cramped and diffuse. But I'm still glad to have seen the film, and to know it's there; and I'd be interested to see it again -- in fact I might have done, had it not been and gone within a fortnight. What isn't in doubt is the extraordinary commitment of the twin actors, Luke and Harry Treadaway, of whom a lot is asked: they throw themselves into the whole thing fearlessly and rather magnificently. And unusually for a cod rock-doc, The Bang Bang really do kind of rock. The film may not, in the end, deliver on its sensational promise, but its heart is in the right place (i.e. worn bleeding copiously all down the skin where the sleeve ought to be) and beating pretty ardently. Ultimately what it recalls, for me, is another super-brave and under-appreciated British film from a few years ago, Dom Rotheroe's My Brother Tom: a coming-of-age melodrama that was not just out on a limb but just about to fall out of its tree, both held together and (ravishingly) ripped apart by the stunning off-central performance of the then-unknown Ben Whishaw. High time it got a DVD release, that one.

Equal but opposite frustrations abounded with Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, a brilliant idea that quickly foundered from not having the necessary Bang Bang – the courage, in other words, of its apparent convictions. The reviews made it sound like this was a classic example of what I was talking about a couple of months ago, the simple idea effectively executed: in this case, following one player, the Frencher-than-thou Zinedine Zidane, throughout the whole ninety minutes of a match, the camera never leaving him for a moment.

What I’ve just described is almost certainly a brilliant film, but it’s not – by some way – what Zidane actually is. In fact there are endless unnecessary cutaways, often making some facile point about mediatization (so we see extreme close-up shots of the game being carried on tv, or seen through other cameras). The early minutes of the film are particularly fidgety and alienating (to little effect), while other passages are spoiled by deeply unsuggestive quotes from Zidane himself, rendered as subtitles in the most ludicrous retro-futuristic font. It’s only in the stretches when the footage most doggedly and nakedly marks its man that the insights start to flow.

There are some huge pleasures here: not least the dauntingly impressive wall of sound generated by the spectators. (In fact the sound design is the smartest and most daring aspect of the film throughout: though it’s somewhat disappointing to take account of the levels of artifice involved, including the team of four foley artists whose names roll up in the credits.) The music, by Mogwai, is typically preposterous, but by no means jarring. It’s interesting too to watch what’s happening behind Zidane: reading the otherwise illegible dynamics of the match through the reactions of the crowd; catching fast glimpses of team-mates such as Ronaldo and David Beckham, reduced for once to cameos. And above all you get a real sense of the physicality of the game, from which – it’s true – media representations tend to insulate the home viewer. This is not a computer simulation, it’s a punishingly hard job of creative work that these men undertake, and the blood-sweat-and-tears extremity of the confrontations out of which a game of football arises has never been made more palpably clear. (The tagline should have read: "You’ll believe a French dude can spit." Though of course this is not exactly news to Cadinot fans. Insert emoticon here.)

Some reviews have complained that this film belongs in the gallery. It doesn’t – it makes too many concessions to the grammar and tropes of Hollywood and MTV for that. But they’re correct in a sense: behind, and slightly to the left of, the film as it is, is the braver and subtler film that it should have been -- and that film probably would work better in a gallery context. Ultimately what disappoints about this approach is that it will date very quickly. It doesn’t achieve what I imagine was one of its goals: to illuminate the hero-icon status of a player like Zidane. Cinema is better placed than any other form to do this, but will most likely succeed when all it does is hold its subject in the sights of our own critical attention, as Warhol and Paul Morrissey and Bruce Weber (and, yes, actually, Cadinot) all have in different ways in their own documentary-art movies, and as Sam Taylor Wood so brilliantly did in her video portrait of Beckham. Zidane never trusts its medium, or its audience, or the pre-linguistic articulacy of its subject, and so it attempts to illuminate by deconstructing as it goes along. This is what, finally, makes it a fashionable rather than a classic movie. It might want to be, as it says, "a 21st Century portrait", but in its own strenuous gamesmanship, it yokes itself irretrievably and quite exactly to 2006. In ten years’ time it will need updating in a way that Chelsea Girls or Flesh or Chop Suey never have and never will.

[...Yeah, you're right, I'm only bitching because it turns out I'm (according to Google) only the twenty-second person to think of the "Zidane you're rocking the boat" gag that I have now had to excise from the above remarks.]

Finally, let us, as men do, speak frankly about The History Boys.

I grew up loving Alan Bennett’s work and only as I started to think seriously about theatre and about politics did I start to wonder exactly what he was up to and why. To be fair, this movie (I never saw the stage play, though I read the script -- not the same thing at all, of course, but Alan Bennett, who seems to not really like theatre, probably wouldn't thoil to split that hair) is not Bennett’s misfire but Nicholas Hytner’s. But it is a misfire, or rather, a misshape – fake, ugly, crass and pandering – and pretty much everything that’s wrong with it is everything that Bennett now seems to promote.

It was notable, reading the original playtext, that some of it is set out as – not verse, exactly, but the sort of verse-resembling mise en page from time to time employed by some of our better playwrights, Martin Crimp and David Greig and their ilk. This, like the characteristically ornate dialogue given not least to the schoolboys, is a signal that Bennett is aiming high here: not so much to produce art (modesty forbids) as to be properly accounted an artist, or at least a robust and serious writer, rather than the quaint and diffident raconteur into whose corner he’s magnolia-painted himself, the thinking curate’s Victoria Wood or Roy Clarke. Of course he’s never been anywhere near the cosiness of his popular image – though I wonder if in that respect he’s perhaps as frustrated as I am by the tonal rut of his many and various autobiographical writings. At any rate, the purple artifice that runs through The History Boys (in both its formats) is nothing if not achieved. Mindful perhaps of never having come up with a really killer line to secure his place in the dictionaries of quotations, not only does he supply a very adequate submission here, he makes the character say it twice, just to ram it home like the big number in a musical that gets a late reprise so you'll whistle it on the way out. Which is to say that Bennett’s contrivance of unarguable intellectual nicety is so keenly intended here that it sometimes comes awfully close to being ham-fisted. In effort, if not quite in effect, he is as full-on a stylist as Wilde; but where Wilde insists on saying "beautiful untrue things", Bennett too often expresses sentiments which are only briefly or locally attractive and finally reveal themselves to be, at best, not untrue. (A Larkinesque construction of which Bennett might perhaps approve.)

There are many cracking lines here – even when I was feeling most annoyed by the movie, it could still raise a laugh – and some beautifully judged passages. Bennett also has some important points to make, about the role of education in the faithful containing of cultural memory, and about the erotics of pedagogy, both of which are politically radical and, he evidently surmises, best handled lightly. The reason that these potentially driving ideas don’t become genuinely gripping, or admit their own significance, is perhaps partly that diffidence again -- alan-retentiveness, you might say; but it’s also the unbelievably drab and cackhanded visual life of the film. I suppose a secondary school in Sheffield in 1983 is never going to look exactly sumptuous on screen, but that's not quite the point. The problem is the piece hardly ever occupies the capacity of its medium, as it presumably can't have done on stage either. With (offhand) perhaps three significant exceptions -- Forty Years On, The Madness of George III and the adaption of Wind in the Willows: respectively a perfect radio play, a bona fide film (in its stage incarnation too) and a real theatre piece -- Bennett writes plays for television. Brilliantly. Television, of course, doesn't know quite what to do with the one-off play any more, and Bennett doesn't know quite what to do with himself in this respect since the death of his longterm collaborator Innes Lloyd. But check the opening credits again: The History Boys, of course, is a tv play, made for BBC Films. Let me hasten to add that there's nothing wrong with making film-length dramas for tv, with something close to film-sized budgets. The problem is what happens when this is pretty much all that a nation's film culture adds up to. In a week when the Guardian carries an immensely frustrating and poignant interview with Terence Davies -- one of the greatest film directors working in Europe, let alone England -- who can barely get arrested, let alone supported, in the current climate, it is utterly depressing to see such a non-film as The History Boys playing so widely to such an accepting and unexcited audience.

When it eventually turns up on telly, though, it'll be worth another view. There's some really good small-screen stuff: above all a quite exceptionally beautiful and resoundingly truthful one-minute cameo by Penelope Wilton as an art mistress whose interior life is betrayed by the smallest of gestures and expressions. There's a lovely, extended, perfectly pitched scene between florid schoolmaster Hector (Richard Griffiths) and lovestruck pupil Posner (Samuel Barnett) discussing a Hardy poem: the restraint of both Bennett and Griffiths (who elsewhere in the film is, perhaps necessarily, so expansive in his role that you begin to imagine Hector paired, like a set of commemorative bookends, with Monty in Withnail and I, that other old-school fruit -- two characters both stridently celebrated by those vast audiences who prefer their queers absurd and tragic) lets the revelatory undercurrent of the scene carry its own moving pressure. Bennett also deserves thanks for giving Hector a distrust of those who "talk in middle age of the lure of language and their love of words": probably the most subversive message of all to the core audience for this film. (Excepting possibly the unblinking acceptance of almost everyone's homosexuality by everyone else. Which is a nice bit of wishful thinking but not fully consonant with 1983 as I remember it.)

Oddly, though, it's only in the last, fascinatingly sentimental, ten minutes that The History Boys becomes a fully-functional film. This is in part because it's the only bit of the movie that doesn't feel like an Alan Bennett essay cut up and distributed carelessly among actors (just as the published play text looks awfully like it was contrived simply as an excuse to write an introduction to it). But more significantly, there is a sort of gross excess to these last few scenes that is wonderfully candid and attractive, and all the more impressive for not being earned (as compared with, say, Dead Poets Society, which pursues its terminal blub-factor with an atrociously appealing single-mindedness right from the start). The frame is filled, for the first time: not with image, not with ideas, but at least with intent. Nor is the excess remotely camp, which it might easily have been. It's just soft: and its softness is what we, eventually, for all our cynicism, deserve, and can use.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

In which the very hairs of my head are all numbered

My friend, the lovely and talented David Chapman (maybe you saw him in Edinburgh a few years ago, or subsequently at CPT, where - in both cases - he was performing his terrific piece The Bisexual Alphabet), writes from Ho Chi Minh City, where he's spending a year on a teaching placement. His email characteristically veers between topics and tones with the high-velocity daring and rantipole cheerfulness of a Vietnamese mototaxi driver, and as ever he's full of questions, most of which would be the height of impertinence coming from anyone else... (He casually drops the word 'interrobang' into his message -- which is a new one on me, though I see it goes back to the early '60s -- and it strikes me that, if it weren't already taken, this would be an awfully good, practically onomatopoeic, description of the sensation of being on the receiving end of a conversation with David.)

I'm only relating all this because among the questions in this most recent email, he says: "I need a brief history of your hairstyles." To which my inner King Lear kind of says, "O reason not the need... but in your case I'll make an exception." Nonetheless, it seems that this might be a request that, peculiar though it is, might be entertainingly dealt with here at the customer service counter of Thompson's. It still won't quite make me the Dennis Cooper of Stoke Newington, but these things don't happen overnight...

I had a history teacher, once, in sixth form, who would sing to me, after the fashion of Betty Boo, thus: "Chrissy Goo, Chrissy Goo just doin' the doo". (...It's honestly only just struck me how extremely curious that is.) Anyway, here, for your delectation, David, and to tickle your xiphoid process while you chow down on tonight's pork variant, is a brief survey of some of the do's that I have, in my time, done. Those of a sensitive disposition should look away now, the following contains scenes of mild peril.

Our story starts in (I think) 1989. So I'm just, or just about to be, sixteen. Already beavering away at the bleeding edge of any number of creative vanguards, you will note that I have here invented proto-retro geek chic. At this time, the persons responsible for my hair were Anthony and Anne-Marie, who had (and possibly still have) a nominally unisex salon in Clifton. I never worked out whether they were brother and sister or husband and wife. I would be prepared to believe either, and, indeed, both. I say 'nominally' unisex because I'm certain I was the only male customer they ever had. Every so often a chill goes through me even now when I find myself wondering whether I've completely misunderstood the word 'unisex' all along. (Like the story I adore, supposedly true but perhaps a suburban myth, about a very elderly man who commits suicide after someone finally plucks up the courage to tell him that 'hirsute' is not, in fact, a synonym for 'nevertheless'.)

It took me ages to figure out who I remind myself of in that photo, and I'm not quite sure I'm right even now, but look at those glasses, the slightly lopsided smile... Do I not, perhaps, put one a little in mind of the young Stephen Hawking?

Here I am again, the following year, on the cusp of turning 17. This is at band rehearsal. By the looks of it, we have just finished demolishing the Gerry Mulligan chestnut 'Festive Minor' and are probably about to give the Chet Baker tune 'Jumpin' off a Cliff' a pretty thorough kneecapping. ...Actually, if I'm not mistaken, we weren't too shabby; our cover of the Pointer Sisters' 'Pinball Number Count' from Sesame Street was particularly fly.

Damn, I had real piano chops in those days. I can still find my way around, but technically I'm nowhere near match fit -- which is a horrible loop to get into, of course: my fingers can't keep up with my head, or with themselves even, and this is immensely frustrating and upsetting, and the discipline to put the requisite work in therefore becomes harder and harder to marshal.

Nonetheless, while my chord voicings may have been saying McCoy Tyner, from the scalp up I am clearly saying David Mellor, and this is therefore officially not "close enough for jazz".

Incidentally, it would have been at around this time that I strayed from Anthony and Anne-Marie, presenting myself at a trendier salon on Queens Road. Lord, it was terrifying. They wanted to know if I'd "like gel" -- which, at the time, was patently a bit like asking a terminally ill man if he'd like to buy a raffle ticket.

Ah, the break-through! This takes us forward three years to 1993. This is my twentieth birthday party -- or, more accurately, the party to celebrate my twentieth birthday; probably, if you do the maths, it's only my sixth or seventh birthday party. (I'm not so much the party animal, I'm afraid. Something of a party vegetable, in fact, or -- pace Gerry Mulligan -- festive mineral.) That's my friend Morwenna on the right there. It's her birthday party too. I think her facial hardware is overloading with happiness, despite the fact that I'm the one with custody of the two-colour lollipop.

More significantly, though: look, mom! No hair! It's the end of my first year at university and I've just finished performing as the eponymous not-quite-hero in my own adaptation of Gogol's Diary of a Madman: the first devised piece I ever directed, and probably in some ways still one of the best. The character is admitted to an asylum towards the end of the story and his head is shaved. First attempts at creating this effect using a novelty bald wig were, unsurprisingly, deemed unlikely to convince, and so I decided I would shave my head instead and wear a wig throughout the first hour of the show, which was then plucked off at the vital moment using a litter-picker's grabbystick. (Your jargon may vary.)

I well remember the occasion of having my head shaved. Rather than buying the appropriate clippers, we borrowed a regular electric shaver from -- if I remember correctly -- someone called Nick. And we killed it. (Sorry, Nick.) Touching my nude head for the first time was like caressing a Roswell alien. It was noisy in the shower, too. (I bought a range of hats for daywear, including a monstrously inappropriate woolly number from Oxfam, the significance of whose green, gold and red colour scheme was utterly lost on me.) It was, nonetheless, a momentous thing to do: partly because I've never been to a barber or hairdresser since, and thereby eliminated from my life one of the most penetrating sources of anxiety I've ever known; and partly because the control I thus took over my hair gave rise to what was pretty much the only outward indication there would ever be of the (entirely amicable) discontinuity between my upbringing and my adult life.

That was a good show, that one. The female lead was a radiantly lovely girl called Alice Dewey, who, last I heard, is now a senior curator at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art; there were wonderful voice-overs by J.H. Prynne and Terry Waite (the Mark B and Blade of Cambridge letters), and video stuff shot by Tom Guard; and, best of all, I got my face licked every night by the eerily beautiful Dorian Lynskey, who has gone on to become one of the two or three best music writers in the country, but for some reason doesn't seem to lick my face any more.

So, short, self-clipped hair became the standard for the next year or so; here I am, almost exactly twelve months later, in a promotional shot taken in a children's playground for my May Week show that year, a preposterous farrago called How To Cut Your Family's Hair -- the title taken, aptly enough, from the video that came with the Remington clippers I bought. There was going to be a sequence in the show built around sound samples from the video, but the sequence I had in mind was, in the end, too complex and never got made. So there we were with a show whose title had absolutely no connection with its content. Nobody seemed to mind. Anyway. What a poseur. Jeez.

The superfluous word in the above paragraph is, of course, "children's".

And here I am a few weeks later, with Morwenna again. As you can see, Evan Dando has dropped round for tea, and is so impressed by my smalltalk and insouciance (and the number of people who keep coming up to me and rubbing the back of my head) that in my honour he records a cover of the Big Star song 'The Ballad of El Goodo', which later winds up on the soundtrack of probably the greatest movie ever.

I was 21 and in love. Every day I thought my heart would burst.

Later that same year, in my new college rooms, I'm sporting what can only be described as a frontal tuft. Actually it can't only be described as that. I'm sure you can come up with something better.

Quite a lot of alt-minded persons at around that time seemed to want to look a bit like Tintin. Actually my role model here was (the post-makeover) Ely from Go Fish. (V.S. Brodie where are you now? You rocked my world!) I couldn't quite get it together, but this is not a bad attempt, with the check overshirt and all -- I think I could pass for a generic lesbian c.1994. Which is, after all, the year it was.

I can't begin to tell you how much I was listening to Pearl Jam's Vitalogy at this time.

The apotheosis, innit. The following summer.

Note also the first appearance of lobe decor. In fact I didn't get my ear pierced till the following year, and anyway, it wasn't that ear that got done. What I'm wearing in this picture, and had been sporting from time to time over the past few months, was a little stick-on plastic jewel thing. You could buy them in packs in Tammy Girl. (Perhaps you still can. Though I suppose most kids nowadays are comprehensively pierced by 36 months and the need for self-adhesive ear-studs is completely exhausted.)

I cropped and cropped this picture to try and rid it of its odd Readers' Wives redolence, but to no avail; I think actually it probably resides in the curtains behind me.
Another year on, with Morwenna again, and a rather fuller head of hair. I'm not so much an out-and-proud lesbian by this stage as a somewhat ambivalent female tennis coach.

Contrary to appearances, my facial features in this photograph have not been composed using leftovers from a jumble-sale Mr Potato Head kit. If I remember correctly.

Shorn again, in a promo photo for Limb Theatre's appearances at the 1997 Edinburgh Fringe. This makes the album for one reason only. Those with forensic detection skills may just be able to make out traces of a stupendously ill-advised moustache and beard combo, somewhere in the general region of my face. This was begun, I think, towards the end of 1996, and survived until the early summer of '97, when Morwenna's then-boyfriend told me my beard looked like a little frightened rodent clinging to my throat.

And here's my first post-beard pic of '97. This is the first travelcard I had when I moved to London that year, and the same photo graces my passport even now, where it stretches someone's credulity every so often. You can't quite tell, but I'm wearing one of those stud/cuff/chain combis on my right ear -- I'd bought it about a year before (not, in fact, from Tammy Girl), when I was getting my look together for a tv documentary about River Phoenix that I took part in. But that's another story, and indeed -- as Pinter says so beautifully of Hutton (Len, not Lord): "Another time, another time."

Right, so this is where we go from one extreme to the other. I can't remember now why it was that I thought I would grow my hair longer, though I'm sure it was an aesthetic decision (rather than, say, laziness, or having broken my clippers). I think I wanted to have something to flick and/or hide behind: so it was either this, or get a big panda.

I'm not absolutely sure, but this looks like spring '99. There's a relatively cute photo from autumn '98 where I'm halfway through the transition, but I can't find that right now.

Still with the big hair, back stage at The Consolations at The Place in October 1999.

It was seeing the video of that production that made me think proper floppy long hair wasn't going to work out for me. As somebody wise once said, you can't be everything you admire. Also, Sarah Records had been defunct for about three years, and my favourite cardigan was falling apart; in other words, it wasn't the 90s any more, not really, and with every week that went by, it became less likely that I was ever going to be 21 again.

So, whatever the difference is between the sadness of being 21 and thinking your heart will burst and the sadness of not being 21 any more and worrying that your cholesterol levels are too high, this is a picture of me just beginning to feel it. As was that whole show, I suppose.

Back to basics, rehearsing Napoleon in Exile in the basement of Camden People's Theatre in the early spring of 2002. And this now is not liberated short hair, this is the short hair of not wanting to spend any time thinking about hair.

Which is the slippery slope that leads to...
...what I'd like to say was (deeply ironic) retro-proto-retro geek chic but is actually just me in a Photo-Me booth on Waterloo station in December 2005 trying to remember what the point was in the first place.

In my own defence, those aren't great big clumps of dandruff you can see there, that's lint on my scanner. (Also that's light bouncing off the lenses of my spectacles, and not, as it might appear, a pool of tears collecting at the base of each goggle.) Nonetheless... Can't you just see this face staring out at you from page 5 of a red-top tabloid with the word VILE somewhere near it?

I knew this whole thing was a bad idea.

Whatever. I still have clippers and no coherent sense of self-actualization so if you have any requests regarding the future life of my hair, do please let me know. But, lest we forget:
"That'll fix it," thought Ron — but he was wrong. The following Wednesday his neighbour had his bushy waist-length hair cut and permed into a model of the Queen Elizabeth and went sailing. Everywhere he went, people said "Hooray!" Sometimes you just can't win.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Trembling Before P*d

There was a cute thing in the paper the other day about the 'intelligence' of the iPod -- the way that, when it's set to shuffle, the randomization doesn't feel all that random, there seems to be weighting towards certain artists and away from others, and sometimes it comes up with really great segues or with random selections that appear to match your mood or songs you've already got in your head... those sorts of things, sensations which I'm sure are pretty familiar to most users. (Of Pod, not crystal meth.)

It was an interesting article and it reminded me that one of the things I thought I might use this blog for, before I set it up, was to commemorate those really neat iPod shuffle-play moments that occur every so often. Why such events should need commemorating, I've no idea, cripes, I'm a white single guy in his early-mid 30s, I have a job in the creative industries, I don't relate very well to other people, of course I'm going to write about my iPod as if it were my firstborn child. (Actually, don't get me started on anthroPodmorphism -- the week when my last iPod died, after I dropped it on its head outside Tesco on Bethnal Green Road and it took a few days of wheezing and feeble intermittent glowing to expire, was so unbelievably sad it made the hospital scene near the end of ET look like a YouTube video of a chimp drinking its own wee.)

Anyway so my journey to work this afternoon, from Stokey to the Oval, was wildly, gaily, transcendentally ameliorated by a superb random mix that my Pod indulgently dealt me, and which I record here so that, were you so moved, you could assemble this as a mix for yourself and recreate my journey. Your pleasure is guaranteed. How am I judging the brilliance of this mix? Why, it's the same criteria that I've always imposed on my own mixtapes for other people -- and let's be clear, this practice has been a central, almost devotional, part of my life for twenty years -- though of course way back then it really was a twin tape deck and a stopwatch. (Yes of course I pre-timed stuff. You get extra points for the tape run-out starting within five seconds of the last song on the side ending. And let me tell you, those extra points are better than love.) So the criteria are simple: each transition from one song to the next should feel satisfying and logical, no matter how big the jump in style -- & of course here too there are bonus marks, for consecutive songs being in the same key, say, or there being some instrumental motif or lyrical pattern that seems to get carried across; so there should be no ugly or clunky shifts, but every song should feel at least six degrees of separation from the track two or three before it.

This dude is a grandmaster of the art; but in his absence, here's today's masterclass from the mysteriously acute quasi-randomization algorithm (not to be confused, please, with tippergorithm) that constitutes The Unknowable Mind Of P*d:

Shizuo, 'Sexual High' (from Shizuo vs Shizor)
Television Personalities, 'Salvador Dali's Garden Party'
Christof Migone, 'Excavation 3' (from Hole in the Head)
Philip Glass, 'Are Years What? (for Marianne Moore)' (from North Star)
Girls Aloud, 'Love Machine'
Rothko, 'Bloodtied' (from A Continual Search for Origins)
The Jam, 'A Town Called Malice'
The Streets, 'Blinded By The Lights' (from A Grand Don't Come For Free)
Wagon Christ, 'Musical Box' (from Tally Ho!)
Tape-Beatles, 'Pens Pencils Stationery' (from Music With Sound)
Chuck Mangione, 'As Long As We're Together'
Lullatone, 'Wooden Toy Trumpet' (from the Staubgold compilation Childish Music)
The Real Tuesday Weld, 'Bathtime in Clerkenwell' (from I, Lucifer)
Skeleton Crew, 'Foot in Hole' (from The Country of Blinds)

At every stage a certified doozy! And just in case you're concluding that myBlud is so crammed with goodies that it couldn't fail to serve up such a tasty meal, let me get this straight. The return journey kicked off badly with a below-par Seventy Sevens song, veered bafflingly into (the excellent but, in the circumstances, jarring) Leon Rosselson, and then took me on -- to quote Wesley Willis -- a fear-throwing hellride that took in Sting, Cast, Madonna and an album track by Nizlopi (yes they made an album and no you don't urgently need to hear it), before culminating in possibly the most bizarre three-way segue of all time: from The Shins to Mark Stewart via -- who else? -- Dorothy Parker.

& if that makes you happy, kid...

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Symphonie blogtastique

Just a quick mention of three blogs I've come across in the last month or so that I'm liking a lot and that are within easy daytrip reach of Planet Thompson's.

Slinkachu's Little People 'tiny street art project' is just an immense beam-educing delight (and will particularly appeal to anyone who enjoyed the closing moments of Will Adamsdale's The Receipt). Neat links too.

Music for Maniacs: lousy name for a great mp3otheque covering the whole wibbling gamut of obscure and outsider music: inc. some fab mashups -- yes dear, I'm sure it's all terribly 2005 but I'm still enjoying hearing what folks like the goshdarned genius Lenlow are up to.

And the one I'm getting kind of hooked on is Dennis Cooper's blog. I'm quite a fan of Cooper, perhaps to an extent residually since I loved all of his novels up until Try and haven't so much liked or enjoyed anything since then. His poetry is not of much interest, though he places himself in a lineage that causes me think maybe there's more going on than I can make out. His music and art criticism and occasional pieces of the kind collected in All Ears can be really touching and insightful, perhaps a little bleached-out in places.

All that said, I think his blog is actually in a way the best work he's done, in that in it he seems to be able to pull together a lot of strands, where much of his offline writing can seem only partially realized. (Collaborations such as the brilliant graphic novel version of Horror Hospital Unplugged have been useful hints.) Here he's as much curator as author, with his voluble and spookily committed readers and fans supplying much of the material, by way of themed 'days' (an admirably cogent and level-headed introduction to free jazz has just gone up, for example) and submissions of favourite writings. Cooper himself posts a characteristic mix of the personal and the theoretical, much of it playing with the same strategies and obsessions that readers of the novels will recognize. (See how scrupulously I'm avoiding the word 'postmodern', folks?) Long, diligent lists of replies to comment-leavers, too, which excite admiration and deeper interest. There's also a fair bit of (mildly dodgy) Russian porn in the mix, re-captioned to carry unintended and uproarious narratives. If it doesn't sound like your cup of chai, don't click. But for my money, it's one of the most fully realized attempts I've yet seen at making a blog function not just as a journal or portal (though it's both of those things) but as a soft, friendly, organic artwork in itself, the kind that gathers together marginal interests (and people) and quietly, subversively, recenters them.

I appreciate that Mr Thompson and I are barely scratching the surface by comparison. But stick with us. We'll get with the programme, I promise. Someday.

In the meantime, here are some things I have, at 23:47 on Monday 9th October, that I didn't have this time last week:
1. A sore gum. (Check my name on the contents page of The Big Book Of British Smiles. I have my own chapter.)
2. A mouse in my room. (I'm trying to keep him at bay by causing Sound Forge to play very loud warbling sounds at around 22050 Hz. Anyone know if this will work? I'm not supposed to be able to hear it but I think it's giving me a headache... or possibly, come to think of it, a sore gum.)
3. Lords of Dogtown on DVD. (I was a bit suspicious but Harold says it's cool. Will let you know.)
4. A totally amazing Action Replay Projector with three tiny cassettes containing film loops of Take That in their heyday. (Thanks again Lucy, that's made my life almost entirely complete.)
5. A title for my show next year in Plymouth. And an idea for a live art piece, for March maybe.

I only really wanted to whine about the first two. Everything else is just showing off, innit.

Monday, October 09, 2006

"From my dais in the mud I shall reorganise everything."

The most purely interesting thing in How to Improve the World, the exhibition drawn from the Arts Council Collection and currently showing at the Hayward Gallery, is the moment when you enter. This being the Hayward, you can see straight away not only all of the first gallery but much of the second beyond, and quite a bit of the third to your right. Presumably much to the annoyance of other visitors, I stood there in the doorway for longer than I spent with any of the works themselves, trying to work out how I felt. Was I excited by this spread laid out in front of me like a wedding buffet? Or was I already, right from the start, a bit grossed out by the lurid melange of vol-au-vents and trifle?

What a hiding to nothing it must have been, having this show to put together. The Arts Council Collection has, of necessity, been accumulated piecemeal across sixty years, not on the basis of a particular artistic agenda but out of a need to buy (and protect) certain pieces representatively; everything that's here is here because it represents something that isn't (quite) here, something to do with capital or reputation or the summary encapsulation of 'creative' movement. Choosing its highlights can be no more than a further distillation of the representative, like picking a fantasy football team from the last sixty years, and being superficially excited by some of the impossible partnerships that might then be fielded, but knowing deep-down that the differences between players in style and language and expectation would make any such team profoundly dysfunctional.

So what do you do? How do you organise these displays? To present the work chronologically would be invidious at almost every stage; to opt for a modal or thematic schema would be undynamic and distracting. And so (to quote the leaflet): "works from different periods are shown together, to suggest connections and affinities while as far as possible allowing each to stand alone." Which is plainly the best solution. Except that the thing about suggesting connections and affinities seems to have got lost somewhere along the line. Maybe the dog ate it.

What we have here has been curated with a knife and fork, quite possibly in the dark or while Lost was on the telly. To call it haphazard would be to credit it with too much dynamism. The whole show looks like it fell out of a plane, some time ago, in a deserted city where there was no one to hear it land. Still, this does indeed "allow each [work] to stand alone". You loiter in the entrance for a couple of minutes thinking, what is this I've walked in on? And then you realize, it's a really bad party. A really really bad party where the music's too loud to talk to anyone but too boring to dance to; where the host has brought together all these friends from different parts of his life, and the only thing they have in common is him, and they're all jealous and mistrustful of each other, and the bathroom's full of long-weekend glossolaliacs laughing hysterically at each other's nosebleeds. You know, that party. Mama told me not to come.

So the best you can do -- and this tells us nothing about the Arts Council Collection, and also of course everything we need to know -- is wander around hoping that individual items will seem appealing, and not immediately be shouted down by some braying piece with which they've been placed in dazed-and-confused juxtaposition.

There's almost nothing in the first gallery that manages it (due to boorish pieces by Anish Kapoor and the ubiquitous Patrick Caulfield sucking all of the oxygen out of the room), save for a quietly sexy mid-60s sculpture by Barbara Hepworth, a sort of gourd-like thing called Spring which looks somewhat as if it might have a less buttoned-up secret life elsewhere, as a musical instrument say. The second gallery breathes more easily and has more quality works in it than any other region of the show: Ian Hamilton Finlay's Strawberry Camouflage is an unexpected treat (though not terrifically well-placed); Chris Ofili's Popcorn Shells from 1995 is a sumptuously detailed map of Cab Calloway's wildest imaginings, wearing its elephant-dung heart on its sequinned sleeve; and perhaps the most modestly beautiful works on paper in the exhibition, three Masks by Victor Willing (who appears to be receding from public and critical memory, sadly, not that long after his death): these pastel and charcoal drawings could almost be the work of a serene or ghostly Basquiat, though their coolness seems not at all dispassionate. Nothing in the show has a longer half-life.

Here, too, Cerith Wyn Evans's Diary: How to improve the world (you will only make matters worse) continued 1968 (revised), in which a chandelier-light and a computer screen in rather tense synchronization laboriously spell out a John Cage text in Morse. This is interesting enough to spend some extended time with, though you might want to spend some of that wondering whether the mordant joke of Evans/Cage's full title is intended to persist in the truncated name of the show itself.

One of Keith Tyson's Applied Artmachine drawings is also here, and, like all his work, repays attention both while you're with it and while you're on the bus afterwards. Other pieces, particularly in Gallery 3, can be more quickly assimilated but make a powerful impression: not least an earlyish Bacon pope-Head, which manages to retain a stark authority in this most conditional of environments; also 1=66,666, a sculpture by the peerless Stuart Brisley, more striking for its originating anger than its perhaps slightly prim visual presentation; a gorgeous Bob Law canvas, Bordeaux Black Blue Black, which seems to have excited a certain amount of humbugging comment, judging by the inevitable feedback display screen in the foyer; and the comparatively well-known New Stones, Newton's Tones, a quick but pleasing junk piece by Tony Cragg. All of these works struggle unnecessarily, though, due to the presence of two too-loud video works: Mona Hatoum's Memories of Distance - a fine and significant piece deserving of a room of its own, but made to seem boorish by the way it occupies the whole room (as does an irritating Martin Creed metronome piece in the previous space); and Susan Hiller's walled-off but bleeding installation Wild Talents, which lavishes a lot of sturm und drang on not much insight and never really achieves even as much as the sum of its parts.

More welcome video work can be found upstairs. It's rather lovely to see - of all things - Gilbert and George's Gordon's Makes Us Drunk -- I really hope the big Tate retrospective next year gives proper weight to the first few phases of their activity, there's something so charming and yet so unheimlich about their early video and film stuff and some of the graphic and postal work that preceded it. And Steve McQueen's Bear seems incredibly moving and beautiful this time round -- I can't remember where I saw it before, I suppose it must have been the Turner Prize exhibition whatever year he won it, but the stylishness of this film, the lightness and gravity, the playfulness and deep seriousness of it, has become truly persuasive and emotionally as well as cuturally resonant.

Also upstairs, some quietly rewarding work by Mary Kelly and (of course) Art & Language; a devastating John Latham assemblage; and a chance to see live, for the first time (for me), Hockney's iconic We Two Boys Together Clinging, which I like more than pretty much anything he's done since, except perhaps for his participation in the Bigger Splash film -- though it's unnerving to recall that one of the figures in We Two Boys... is a sort of representation not of Hockney himself (as the guide curiously asserts) but of Cliff Richard. (...Or am I wrong about this?).

The fifth room seems mostly to be Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas. I didn't hang around.

In fact, honestly, I couldn't wait to get out. Although I've picked out some genuine highlights, and although on that basis -- in fact for the Willing and McQueen alone -- I'd recommend a visit (it's only a fiver: I think maybe they've dropped their prices) before it closes next month, it's nonetheless an energy-sapping show, discordant, muddled, and in itself drearily uncreative. It achieves the extraordinary feat of making the Hayward seem poky, and the very ordinary feat of making the Arts Council look self-regarding and disengaged.

By the way, yes, there is a piece by Mark Wallinger -- who, for my money, has turned out to be one of the most vital British artists of the last twenty years, along with Tyson and Ofili; but if you blink you'll miss it by a mile.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Nostalgia isn't what it used to be thought it was going to be in the future

"They ought to make it a binding clause that if you find God you get to keep him."
-- Philip K. Dick, in Valis

There's been a curiously nostalgic tone to the last few days.

...I should say straight away that I'm not someone who despises nostalgia; in fact, on the whole, rather the reverse. The nostalgia industry as a pernicious and self-nourishing driver of addictive right-wing behaviours, that old scam in all its gross and demeaning shallowness, yes, I despise that a bit. But nostalgia as an emotional (and not wholly subrational) propellor into a programme of work towards a more equable future is neither an ignoble nor a reactionary impulse. The word, after all, means 'homesickness' -- in fact meant only that until as recently as 1920 -- and the will to be somehow at home in the world is about as deep-and-meaningful as you'll get. The sense of an unreachable home, whether in the past or the future, underwrites much that is useful and imaginative -- possibly, in fact, everything that is useful and imaginative and not already covered by (a) the identification of a particular home as home, and (b) the topical rejection of a given 'home' in favour of an intuited 'away'. Everything from Boethius to Dvorak to Gus Van Sant. (And of course the current -- and potentially politically actionable -- nostalgia for a telegraphed future that failed to arrive, most fully and gung-hoically modelled in Radiohead's OK Computer.) Nostalgia is not just a philosophical hue, it's what makes philosophy and scientific inquiry tick. Hence the prolifically suggestive second epigraph to The Age of Wire and String: "Mathematics is the supreme nostalgia of our time."

Anyhoo. Hearing Mr Tony doing his Labour Party conference farewell greatest hits package last week was like chowing down on a whole tray of New Madeleines (ready-smothered in own-brand royal jelly and Auntie Mandy's Special Guacamole). I was very abruptly transported back the best part of a decade to the early afternoon of 1st May 1997: ambling back home from the polling station through the docile side streets of Cambridge with my then flatmate, enjoying the beautiful late spring sunshine and pretty much aglow with the knowledge that we'd just been part of (what we were pretty confident would turn out to be) a landslide victory for Labour. Those first few days were so giddy. I used to wake up every morning and think, suddenly I live in a country where Tony Banks is a government minister. And Ann Widdecombe isn't. It could make a stout man giggle.

So as Mr Tony enumerated the achievements of the last decade, yaddaing away in that agonisingly familiar Scylla-and-Charybdis blend of pious looping Anglo-Catholic cadences and shonky Estuary bonhomie, it was hard not to feel some pragmatic concessions leaking through the overlooked hairline cracks in one's resentment and disgust. The minimum wage was an achievement. There were advances on hunting and on the equal rights agenda. In other words, the targets that New Labour has done best in hitting are all ones that are both symbolic and stand-alone, and while it's wrong to diminish those gains by describing them as gesture politics and nothing more, those questions that require a stronger application of programmatic analytical thought to more intricate systematic relations have flummoxed them again and again. (Great ad men they may have been, but lousy cyberneticists.) Ten years on, we're nowhere on education, nowhere on integrated public transport, we've failed to take the lead that we were so well-placed to take on carbon dependency...

And of course what would also have helped in coming to a more level assessment of Mr Tony's last huzzah would have been to have a caption flash up every minute or so that said THIS MAN IS A WAR CRIMINAL. That can really take the edge off a seduction, I bet. (Though I admit that's speculation, I've no first-hand experience.)

Incidentally, I haven't at all liked finding the vacuity of Mr Dave more tolerable this week, and indeed more recognizable, than Mr Tony's was last week, and that Mr Gordon's was and will be. I feel like a very committed socialist, but the commitment really is to a ragbag of borrowed thoughts and unfashionable influences, all of which taken together add up to little more than politeness. I am a socialist because it seems to me to be polite to expect to treat people in accordance with the courtesies that socialism describes. Well, it's clear to anyone that Mr Dave is very much outflanking Mr Gordon in the politeness stakes. The Conservative party in the era of the 'pissing elephant' (thank you Steve Bell, as always) has absolutely nothing to say for itself except "Be nice to each other", the proto-Springerish codicil that Derek Batey used to append to each soul-blatting episode of Mr & Mrs. But better that than not, I can't help thinking. -- I shouldn't make light of it really, I think Blair / Mandelson / Campbell's neoconfiscation of the Labour movement is if anything more scandalous than the loose and wilful capitulation to imperialist warmongery that's inevitably followed on. The Anglo-American fundamentalist assault on the conditions of sincerity. Tut, I say. Tsk, even.

Well so there was that; and then there were a couple of interesting programmes, one radio and one tv, that were kind of interesting coming more-or-less together. One was the second part (I missed the first, though I've seen some clips online -- gone now, unfortunately) of Stephen Fry's remarkably candid documentary on manic depression -- woven around his own experiences, which until now have been vivdly exposed up to a point (the colourful biography, particularly around his teens; the Bruges misadventure) and, below that point, utterly submerged. The other was a really exceptionally good Radio 4 programme on the writer Philip K. Dick: about whom I know little beyond the movies that his work's inspired and the fascination he's held for some writers and artists I admire, first and foremost (for me) Ken Campbell.

The Dick programme suggested, tantalisingly, that a quasi-religious experience he reportedly had towards the end of his life may well have been no more or less than the epiphenomenal perceptual effects of a stroke. I find this fascinating as someone who had -- or, at any rate, I believe that I had -- my hardwiring permanently changed by taking prescribed lithium and paroxetine for a short while in the late nineties. As Stephen Fry noted, the average time-to-diagnosis for people with bipolar disorder is ten years; for me it was slightly longer than that, in that I believe my bipolar cycle started when I was fourteen and by the time I was properly diagnosed I was 26. I think I will remember forever the point at which the drugs kicked in, and the severe depression I was in lifted very steeply over the course of a couple of days. One night I was walking home when I happened to look up at the sky and I really had the strongest and most peculiar and compelling sensation that I could perceive -- not see, exactly, but sense -- connections, just simple linear connections, between the stars.

That experience has had kind of bifurcated consequences in my life ever since. It's given me a close interest (reflected in much of the poetry in No Son House, for example) in what you might call the hermeneutics of drug-induced experience and chemical imbalance -- in other words, how people describe and understand and sometimes harness the symptomatic insights and sensations that biochemical changes bring about, and how very often a characteristic belief system is overlaid on, and reinforced by, that interpretive process. So, most proximally, I wonder, as a result of my own experience, how much genuine religious belief and 'spiritual' or transcendent experience is actually located in the movement of neurotransmitters. In other words, is G-d a primitive name for serotonin? (This is an incredibly reductive gloss on something I'd prefer to think about -- and write about -- a bit more carefully, but this doesn't feel like quite the time and place.)

But the other, um, furc is, I guess, the same thought from the other end. I can't dismiss that weird Seroxat high, I can't disexperience it, and for all that I might try to rationalise it or locate it within my body, I can't altogether let go of the idea that is was revelatory in terms of my relationship with the external world; that those star-connections are not altogether unreliable.
Perhaps the best way to describe it is in terms of another experience, a few weeks earlier, around (I guess) July 1999, when I had my first and -- to date, d.v. -- only experience of psychosis during a severe depressive phase. Among a number of incidents, I had one especially strong paranoid episode when I went to see my GP one day and found that it became gently but forcefully clear to me while I sat in the waiting room that the scrolling message display screen in reception was broadcasting messages about me to everyone else in the room; that the man sitting behind me had a knife which he was trained to use on me if I started making a fuss; and, finally (this all within the space of a few minutes), that the whole surgery was an elaborate fake, designed solely for the purpose of surveillance of my actions and behaviour and gathering data about me. All this felt incredibly lucid, as if all along I'd been a dolt for not spotting these things before; I felt a bit frightened but also very calm, more powerful for having cracked this code. And then a very odd thing: as I left the surgery, having seen my GP (and not dared mention any of this to him, knowing that he was working for the enemy), it all cleared for a moment, and I thought: wow, how strange, to have suddenly drawn all these conclusions that clearly can't possibly have been true; and as soon as that thought was complete, I began to slide again: ...ah, except of course, the thing about the message board could be true... and that guy obviously did have a knife... and so on.

So I suppose the way I feel about the join-the-dots star patterns I apprehended is a bit like that. I'm constantly on the edge of a conscious, rationally figured, almost willed, relapse: because to have made out those patterns, though they may not be objectively or dependably 'real', is in itself sufficiently ineffable to have a permanent transformative effect on one's understanding of life-activity at the horizons of perception. Finding a language adequate to those events is a struggle, though, and I'm sure that feeds back into the agonies of isolation and fear of self (and of the sometimes brutal violence of the self's disregard for itself) that so many depressive and bipolar people experience.

Which, I now see, is perhaps why I found it so excruciatingly hard to watch some parts of the first series of A Bit Of Fry And Laurie when I found it cheap on DVD a few weeks back. The series was first broadcast in 1989; I'd been a hugely avid fan of his earlier Radio 4 series Saturday Night Fry. That, I think, holds up when you listen back (all six episodes can be downloaded here); but perhaps radio has a reassuring fluidity that that TV series necessarily lacked. At any rate, there is in most -- perhaps all -- of the episodes of A Bit Of..., a Fry monologue to-camera, normally built on the slightest of premises and drawing all of its laughs from the absurdly overelaborate language that he employs: the sort of talk that any impressionist 'doing' Fry would have to try to emulate, and that has led to at least one unauthorised gewgaw. I thought as I watched these monologues recently that my discomfort was simply overfamiliarity with what has become something of a worn-out mode (and, to be fair, one he hardly indulges now, though the bullying polyhistorrhea of QI merely supplants it); but actually, in the light of his excellent documentary, it's hard not to detect a profoundly anxious tussle with language and with the hollow superabundance of his own exertions. And the more one sees the work in A Bit Of... through that prism, the more startling it is. The desperate, tolling absurdism; the supercilious umbrage that keeps clouding these sketches over; the contemptuousness of the vox pop interludes... The ferocious unspoolings of hatred -- almost always directed at perfectly valid targets, but now appearing to show the influence not so much of the Footlights inheritance of diamantine verbal attack (vide Cleese, of course, and Peter Cook, and perhaps above all Eric Idle, one of the most incorrigibly hateful comedians you could possibly imagine), but, more radically, the characteristic rage of the bipolar artist stuck in a traumatic and irresolvable lockdown with language. Surely this must go some way also to explaining Fry's appalling The Ode Less Travelled, his guide to writing poetry, apparently pitched directly at people who, like Fry, secretly hate language for the betrayals it visits on them; though the awfulness of that book is also an index of his tin ear for music.

(I think I had better say here that, contrary to the impression that might be formed, actually I mostly like and approve of Stephen Fry. I think the real problem is his media role as Cleverest Living Englishman. He is clearly exceptionally well-, or at least widely, read, and has a remarkable memory; he's an appealing stylist, and he has been extremely shrewd in his career. None of these things has very much to do with cleverness, even in its most popular sense. I don't suppose he ever said they did.)

So much struck a chord in the documentary, especially the question that became a kind of refrain: if you could push a button and be cured of your bipolar disorder, would you? To which I don't think anybody replied 'yes', not even Fry himself who looked pretty worn out by what has evidently been a long and frequently disorienting struggle. And I've always felt I wouldn't push the button either (though as somebody said -- I can't remember who -- I'd like to be offered the opportunity to push it when I'm at my most depressed). That sense of the connectedness of things, that I got from my first full-on SSRI high, has underscored every piece of work I've done since, from the most experimental text stuff to the most user-friendly theatre shows and storytelling pieces. And, needless to say, it is itself a brilliant metaphor for the experience of manic depression, which I wrote about (not terribly well) in the scripts I did for Unlimited Theatre's Neutrino: the sublime sensation of intuited connectivity, at every level from the personal to the cosmic: which in mania is sort of erotically tantalising and enthralling, and in depression becomes so onerous and unmanageable as to be totally immobilizing.

I took myself off medication altogether within a year -- I disliked so much the reduced bitrate of a world travestied by lithium -- and have never gone back on. After I was high on Seroxat for those initial couple of weeks in 1999, the amplitude of my bipolar cycle has flattened somewhat, and I'm far more stable than I was. But it was good to be reminded of those comparatively recent extremes; and it was good, too, to want for the first time in a dog's age to give Stephen Fry a hug. Apart from anything else, I sympathise very fully with his apparent (though not, I think, mentioned) discovery, over the years -- which I too have found out to my infinite regret -- that there's almost no part of the cycle, and of its treatment, that doesn't have weight gain as one of its side effects. I was thinking a few nights ago, having accidentally come across an old school photo: it is, horribly, approximately true that when I was slightly more than half the age I am now, I was also slightly more than half the weight. At this rate, if I live to be sixty, I'll have died of a heart attack at 48...

Anyway, enough of this egregious candour. I promise I'll get back to bitching about theatre stuff asap.

Oh, bum, I really wish I could link to the Dick documentary but it's gone offline at the BBC web site now. If anyone recorded it, could they make themselves known to the Bank Manager please?

Tomorrow, if there's time: art. Of a sort. And a couple of neat blogs.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

A less than glowing review

I've been drafting a post for what feels like days now, and it's still not ready to go. Sorry. But in the meantime, I was just checking to see how well Thompson's was showing up at Google Blogsearch and came across this, which -- as the lovely and vivacious Lydz points out in her comments -- is "kinda harsh", though possibly not unreasonable.

(Before you click, please note that the linked page contains very strong language, and what's worse, extraordinarily weak punctuation. I thought children's literacy hour was supposed to take care of this. Never mind.)

As a point of information, I don't, to the best of my knowledge, have a ginger "girlfriend" in Timbuctoo: though there is a direct debit on my credit card that I don't remember setting up and don't seem to be able to cancel, so maybe something untoward happened while I was having those blackouts in January.

I'm also not directly descended from cows and whales. It may be true that I... ah, it's complicated. -- But everything else is pretty much on the money.

Anyway, thanks to Marcus for the shout-out. He has a lot of MySpace friends. I'm a bit envious.

I also turned up on a Swedish blog in connection with my slightly mischievous Nypoesi piece, and was delighted to find, on running the blog page through a Swedish-to-English translation engine, that my name came out as Christine Goodwill. Which is the best accidental alter ego I've had since I checked in at the Mandarin Oriental in Kuala Lumpur a few years ago to find that I was booked in as Goode Christ -- and that there was personalised stationery in my room.