These are a few of my favourite things – a cultural review of 2011

I won’t do anymore throat-clearing before starting the list other than to say that this list might equally (and more accurately) be called ‘stuff which I listened to / read / watched, etc but that didn’t come out in 2011’. Although many of them did appear for the first time in 2011, many didn’t – this list just means I encountered them in 2011. Since I have an almost preternatural way of seeking out and sharing what you’ve already seen / done /read, this comes as hardly a surprise.

So, that said, here they are, in no particular order…

Favourite song – ‘Video Games’ by Lana Del Rey

I read on Twitter from Caitlin Moran that she had more or less repeatedly listening to Lana Del Rey’s song, ‘Video Games’, all summer long. Clicking the link, I could hear why. It’s amazing. Best seen as well as heard – the video and song work seamlessly together – it has topped the polls for many others, so I’m hardly being original – a theme that perhaps is true of all my list. This piece nicely sums up why we like it. I like it because it will forever remind me of my little bike tour, where I sang it, if not word perfect then with gusto (and aloud), for most of the way.

Favourite album – The Courage of Others by Midlake

I started listening to The Courage of Others in 2010 and I haven’t stopped playing this regularly since. It was the same with Vanoccupanther in 2009. The Courage of Others might 2012’s favourite album, too – I wouldn’t bet against it. I know it will always remind of being here in France and the mountains in particular. It’s so tied up with memories it’s hard to think of anything else which has touched me like it.

Favourite book(s), article

Remainder by Tom McCarthy

Netherland by Joseph O’Neill

‘Two Paths for the Novel’ by Zadie Smith

I’m opening up the idea of a ‘favourite’ book by including two books, both published outside of 2011 and one of which I read in 2009; and by including an article. It’s a bit sneaky, I know. Bear with me and I’ll explain.

Remainder is one of those books that helps you rethink the boundaries of fiction and offer a glimpse of where it might be heading. There are problems with it: the forensics of assembling some of the scenes can drag and some of the red herrings seems a little contrived, by even both of those approaches illustrate how this book is different. That said, it is brilliantly conceived and is packed full of ideas – what time means; how we construct reality; the difficult of being authentic; public and private lives. There’s so much there to think about. Its style is deceptively light: it’s a complicated book with an unforgettable ending that seems to capture what it means to be living now.

I wouldn’t say that either book is ‘about’ cricket but both contain an element of the fine game, so that’s my ill-conceived ‘hook’ to bring them together. Netherland is a novel about being lost in a new country; about expatriation and changing identities; about new worlds and the old. As such, it spoke to me a little following my move to Switzerland, then France. The character of Ramkissoon is brilliantly drawn, the narrator convincing. Alas, it dies a little by the end; but what comes before is enough.

As good as these books are, I would suggest they are best read in conjunction with Zadie Smith’s perceptive work of comparative analysis which considers both books and their contribution to the identity of the contemporary novel. I think Smith (who also wrote a brilliant analysis of the effect that computers have on us, ostensibly as a discussion of Jaron Lanier’s book You are not a Gadget and David Fincher’s film, Social Network) offers two paths that fiction might take, illustrated by these two novels. Remainder and Netherland diverge in many ways, not least in realism and technique – one more conventional, the other ‘experimental’ (that dread word). It’s ok, though – we can read both.

Favourite internet meme – Ultimate dog tease (hungry dog)

In our house, something that is especially good is now referred to as ‘the maple kind’. If a video is good enough to get you starting you own, minor meme then it has my vote. Honourable mention goes to Fenton. Unusually, it’s dogs, not cats, that rule the roost.

Favourite restaurant – Bistrot des Halles de Rives

This unprepossessing place appears to offer very little if judging by appearances. Sandwiched between the stalls in the indoor (admittedly, gourmet) food market in Geneva,  there really is (for me) only one dish – the steak frites equivalent, served with buerre Parisien and garnish (a rather lonely half tomato). It is uniformly superb. I have to keep returning to make sure they retain their standards.

Favourite computer game – Dead Space 2 (Playstation 3)

I played Dead Space 2 before the first version and nearly didn’t play either. I played the first Dead Space in demo and thought to difficult and unexciting. I was wrong – the difficulty is just right in both games and it could hardly be said to be boring. Rather, the often samey scenes – both games are set onboard spaceships – are deliberately crafted to appear claustrophobic; their uniform design appears authentic and contrasts well with the horrors you find within. A superb game, superior in all departments to any other I’ve played this year.

Favourite Tweet / Status Update

This tweet made me laugh when I first read it – always a good sign:

tashapotamus
#midnight #snack

It introduced a whole new way of thinking about Twitter for me – no content, only metadata. Wow. Perhaps this is how we will communicate in the future – perhaps the modern aside (or soliloquy) will make the hashtag its vehicle? Who knows. This just made me laugh.

Favourite gadget – Apple iPad

I’ve used this more than any other single gadget, mostly for ebook reading, but also for travel – it’s 3G is useful for maps and for learning more about the place your in. I can’t imagine life without it now – and the new iBooks night reader has made it even more useful.

Favourite blog – ‘Heathen’s Progress’, Julian Baggini, The Guardian (Comment is Free)

The latter half of the year saw the start of philosopher Julian Baggini’s excellent blog on philosophy and belief, Heathen’s Progress. This series has sought to further understand the nature of belief as it is experienced. It suggests that rather than a single set fixed dogma, believers often have individual ideas about how to characterise their faith. It has sought to understand, if not to reconcile, without fundamental compromise. The comments are also unexpectedly good; like so many blogs, the author’s by line should be supplemented with a thanks to those who comment.

Favourite photo that I took – Tate Modern (version 5)

Tate modern (Version 5)

Tate modern (Version 5)

I had some trouble with this photo. I asked my Twitter contacts if they could help and they made some good suggestions. But still I couldn’t get the crop right. Even now, when I look carefully, it doesn’t fully work. Still, it’s an interesting image and one that I like because it happened completely spontaneously. They are sitting where I had just sat, to have a beer and a sandwich and watch people flow over the bridge across the Thames.

Favourite photo that someone else took – Black Macaque Self Portrait (David Slater)

You may have heard the story of a photographer – David Slater – who had his camera stolen by a black macaque, who then went on to take photographs of itself, like the one below. A great story – and some accomplished photos. Honourable mention to all those excellent photos I’ve seen on Flickr, too

Copyright David J Slater / Caters

Favourite television programme – The Hour

I think Mad Men was excellent again, now at Season 4. But the show that sticks in my mind was The Hour. It approached Mad Men’s mix of private and public politics – the grand and the great, the intimate and the secret – and I loved (again, like Mad Men) the period feel, only this time it British. Well worth seeing, I hope they make another series.

Favourite film – Rabbit Hole

I was completely surprised by Rabbit Hole (2010). I think Nicole Kidman plays some interesting parts and acts well but I was suspicious it might have suffered from the Hollywood gloss. It hasn’t. It’s very moving, horribly so around half way in – but it captures the horror that few of us will hopefully never know so beautiful and with such dignity. It was also superb at the dynamics of relationships and the sudden escalation of marital arguments.

Favourite artwork – Isenheim altarpiece

I saw the Isenheim altarpiece for the first time this year. I’ve written about it elsewhere (with photos) so I won’t repeat that, suffice to say it was incredible to see in the flesh.

Favourite memory – pitching a tent by the lakeside on my bike tour

Camping by the lake, Provence

Camping by the lake, Provence

Aside from all those wonderful times I have shared with Jennie (and which remain private), my bike tour provided me with the most pungent memories. But which one? Starting off, thinking I had forgotten to pack something – then relaxing and starting to enjoy it the ride? Arriving on a sweltering hot day in The Camargue, the journey over, and sitting in a bar to order a beer – when the waiter took my dry bidons and filled them with ice and water? All of these – but this one, moreso – making camp on the banks of a lake in Provence; cooking dinner on my portable stove; and looking over the lake, listening to the cricket on BBC TestMatch Special. Oh happy day.

England won, too.

 

That’s it. That was my 2011. Here comes 2012…

 

Jeremy Clarkson’s outrageous politically incorrect opinions, which he has for money

There is currently a controversy in the UK surrounding comments made by Jeremy Clarkson, presenter of the tv show Top Gear. I won’t repeat them here – I think they were in bad taste and it depends upon how far you think the person behind a poorly-considered joke should be punished when gauging the outcome – suffice to say they have attracted over 21,000 complaints to the BBC, who broadcast them.

I’m not the first to post the follow video in response and I won’t be the last. But Stewart Lee’s brilliant, edgy response to Clarkson and his approach captures what this kind of comedy means and the distinction between fiction and reality (it’s potentially offensive and not suitable for work).

It reminds me a little of using ‘LOL’ or a smiley face in online posts. You can more or less say what you want, as long as you suffix it with  🙂

 

Above and beyond irony: Madonna and David Foster Wallace

Madonna on stage

Years ago, around about the time that sub-culture was dominated by an ironic distance, evidenced by grunge and Nirvana and Linklater’s ‘Slacker‘ and Coupland’s ‘Generation X‘, pop-culture’s Madonna said the most remarkable thing. At a concert she called out to the audience of actual and wannabe teens and said something like this: “Don’t let irony get in your way. Irony can mean not trying. You’ve got to try.” As equally as Cobain’s ‘When I was an alien / Cultures weren’t opinion’ from ‘Nevermind’ impressed me, so to has Madonna’s call to action moved me. She’s on to something. I’ve always been saddened by those who adopted the ironic distance that implies: ‘I could, but I’m not going to’; made suspicious by that that coolness which suggests: ‘Now that you and the rest of the world like it, it’s so over’; felt uncomfortable by those who would mock rather than make. It was easier to stand back, shake the head slowly at the naivety and sentimentality, grin that sad, knowing grin – and walk away.

David Foster Wallace speaks so eloquently on the withering effects of irony that it’s a wonder I didn’t just stand back and leave it to him (although without the mocking and knowing grin). In the BBC Radio 4 documentary on Wallace, it’s suggested that his time in self-help centres for depression and addiction contributed to his hostility towards irony as a cultural and especially literary approach that undermines truth and authenticity.

This entire documentary on Wallace is informative and inspiring, but at 18.00 minutes there begins a short discussion of irony, starting with a reading of his in which he describes the ironist as ‘a witch in church’ in the group of recovering alcoholics:

His fiction, and especially ‘Infinite Jest’, is a way of exploring that tension created by the desire to move beyond irony and yet retain a protective layer that shields us from our fears. Wallace says of irony in this clip:

“Irony is this marvellous carapace that I can use to shield myself from seeming to you to be naive or sentimental or to buy the lush banalities that television gives. If I show you that we’re both bastards and there’s no point to anything and I was last naive at about age 6, then I protect myself from your judgement of the worst possible flaws[s] of sentimentality and naivety.” (19:45)

It’s ironic, listening to Wallace who attributes the desire to shield ourself from judgement to popular culture (and television in particular, which he is critical of in ‘A Supposedly Fun Thing I’d Never do Again’) that Madonna should say what she did in the face of irony as the dominant mode of discourse. But she did. And she was right.

Fear and the media: How to stop worrying and learn to love the calm

Watched the news lately, picked up a newspaper? Then it’s likely you’ll be at least tempted into being afraid, if not downright hide-behind-the-sofa, peek-from-under-the-cushion terrified.

Here’s what you do to overcome the fear in the media. The first is listen to Doug Stanhope. He seems to know something about fear (the audio is not suitable for work so put your headphones on).

When you’re done with Doug read this analysis of how fear works by Tom Engelhardt, along with some statistical analysis (especially if you’re American – I’m not – but the principle applies elsewhere, too).

And if you’re still a little unconvinced, then watch Adam Curtis’ superb dissection of the ways that governments and organisations use fear to try to control me and you, in his documentary The Power of Nightmares.

And by then – well, you may have stopped worrying and learn to love the calm.

The rise of Don Draper and the fall of advertising: ‘Mad Men’ and PR

Don Draper: a new kind of ad man (image ©HBO)

Don Draper: a new kind of ad man (image ©AMC)

When Don Draper, head of ‘Creative’ in the advertising firm at the centre of the hit TV series ‘Mad Men, rolls his eyes when someone tells him that ‘sex sells’ we know advertising is failing. When he suggests to a client that ‘If you don’t like the conversation, change the topic’ we know that PR is replacing it.

The reason why Draper is so successful and highly esteemed is that he recognises the importance of public relations. What he sells is the brand, the entire set of practices and beliefs that underpins the product, whether it be toothpaste, a bra, or an airline. Advertising is visual; public relations is verbal. The image of the woman draped across a car won’t sell anything; but the conversation, and the aspiration that is carried upon it, just might.

It’s no coincidence that Don Draper used to be a car salesman. That racket was the embodiment of an early, ‘hard’ approach to advertising: drown the client in details; appeal to base impulses; pressurise through conformity, and so on. There’s an example in the show where Draper’s creative team want to sell a Kodak carousel on its technical innovations; for Draper, it’s more about the memories that the projector helps relive. In ‘The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR’, Al and Laura Ries tell us: “The harder the sell the harder the prospect resists the sales message.” Hard selling didn’t work anymore for Draper in the car dealership; and now it won’t work for him at Sterling Cooper.

Advertising was then, PR is now. Only the ‘now’ of Mad Men is the early 1960s. As a result, Don Draper’s trajectory from car salesman to head of Creative at an advertising firm represents the beginnings of the movement from advertising to PR as the preferred approach to persuading the client.