Saturday, March 28, 2009

Celebrity skin

In fact, we probably shouldn't rule out the theory that Angelina is simply adopting or biologically spawning children as backup for the inevitable moment when she realises she has no available flesh left. Yet it seems she will at least endeavour to fill up Brad Pitt's defaceable torso first. The first Brad unveiled was a forearm tattoo of Otzi the iceman. The second was a mysterious series of parallel lines that were diversely interpreted as a tribute to the great Nintendo platform games of the 80s, and a diagram of the New Orleans levee system. As it turned out, the speculation was way off target: Angelina herself had created the cryptic hieroglyph. "We went to Davos," she said. "One night we didn't have anything to do, so I was drawing on his back. It's meaningful in that it's us making angles and shapes out of each other's body, that kind of a thing." No. That is not why it is meaningful. It is meaningful because the kind of people who get so bored that they doodle on each other and turn the doodles into permanent tattoos are now attending the World Economic Forum.
Marina Hyde on how celebrities have taken over.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Cahiers du cinéma

At the time it erupted, eight major directors were working simultaneously: Truffaut, Godard, Varda, Resnais, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Demy, Jacques Rivette and Claude Chabrol. To their numbers can be added Chris Marker, whose haunting sci-fi film La Jetée, which consists almost entirely of still photography, makes the infantile philosophising of Watchmen seem ... well ... infantile. At the same time, Jean-Pierre Melville, a mentor to the new wave directors, was making superb films such as Le Samouraï, and Louis Malle, who was never really part of the new wave, was turning out intriguing motion pictures like Ascenseur pour l'Echafaud (Lift to the Scaffold). This was an awful lot of talent to have working in one place in one art form at one time. It never happened anywhere else. And it never happened again.
Elsewhere this week, I have been baiting the Geeks, who doubtless will not want to hear from Joe Queenan.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


So, I expect you were wondering what happened to Dolly Mixture. Well, it's funny you should ask, because here is Captain Sensible on French television and look who is doing the backing vocals.

The building code

Here is something I had published Craccum in 2006, a review of Alain de Botton's The Architecture of Happiness. To be fair to M. de Botton, this rather acerbic review should have been paired with an interview. Craccum's Editor, Ryan Sproull, decided that he would take the free lunch and the chat with the author, while I would have the lowly task of reviewing the book. Having lunched, however, Mr Sproull was evidently too weary to share his insights into the author by writing up the interview, so my review was published on its own, save for a note from Mr Sproull saying that he found M. de Botton to be a very nice chap.

Anyway, I am posting the review now because I keep meeting people who have read this book and consequently hold rather odd views about the aesthetics and purposes of architecture.

Sometimes you come across a book which delivers everything that it promises on the cover. This is one such book. The theme of The Architecture of Happiness is that architecture is about happiness. To drive this point home, as it were, the book's publishers have provided the book with a cover picture which tells a story. At an upper window of a modernist home sits a middle-management man, looking out into the night. Below him, his wife stands at the picture window of their lounge, diverted from her knitting and lost in thought. They are clearly unhappy. Implausibly close to their home is a larger and more traditional house in darkness. Perhaps if they had bought the house next door, they would not be suffering this ennui.

Alain de Botton is in the happiness business. His mission is to make the angst-ridden middle class happy, through the medium of best-selling trade paperbacks, each with a tie-in television series. In The Consolations of Philosophy, he mixed together all the cheerful bits of ethics to show how people could live the Good Life. He followed this with Status Anxiety, which told his readers that they were unhappy because they craved status (de Botton's titles are nothing if not self-explanatory) and could make themselves happy by doing something else. Now he has decided that his readers need to know that architecture can make them happy; in fact it should. Of course, Alain de Botton is not an architectural historian, but then he is not a philosopher either and that has not stopped him so far.

For de Botton, architecture is a more encompassing term than it is for professionals. He sees no difference between a Palladian villa and a rustic cottage in the Lake District. It is all architecture to him, whether great public monuments or cosy nooks. The trick of avoiding architectural distinctions is achieved by dismissing all the work of architectural history and aesthetics as irrelevant. The appreciation of architecture is not achieved by looking and thinking, but feeling: "acquaintance with grief turns out to be one of the more unusual prerequisites of architectural appreciation. We might, quite aside from all other requirements, need to be a little sad before buildings can properly touch us." This is a book which will make any architectural historian just a little bit sad.

Admittedly, de Botton does give his readers a rather bumpy ride through the last five hundred years of architectural history, but this is done only to establish his point that it is no longer possible to talk about beauty. His argument is that once we had one dominant style, Classical, but the certainty it gave fell apart when Gothic architecture was revived. Things went even worse when other styles were introduced, until it became impossible to make a claim for the superiority of any one style. Thus we could not talk about any standard of beauty, leading de Botton to conclude that "the creation of beauty, once viewed as the central task of the architect, has quietly evaporated from serious professional discussion and retreated to a confused private imperative."

Exactly what constitutes a confused private imperative remains unexplained, but de Botton's conclusion allows him to ignore aesthetic discussion of architecture. Throughout the book, the word aesthetics is mentioned only in scorn. Just to be on the the safe side, he also uses his interpretation of the early history of the the Modern Movement to bludgeon questions of aesthetics into submission. As far as he is concerned, Modernists wanted to replace beauty with technology, apparently because they were afraid of aesthetic objections to the appearance of their buildings voiced by adherents of Gothic or Tyrolean architecture. After the Modernist triummph, there could be no more talk of beauty. The fact that early theorists of Modernism were deeply concerned about architectural beauty has eluded him; quite where he obtained his opinion about the threat of the Tyrolean style is a mystery. As noted above, de Botton is not an architectural historian.

Nor is he an aesthetician. Arguments about beauty are too difficult and too inconvenient to his theme to be considered. Speaking for us, de Botton decides that "we should acknowledge that the question of what is beautiful is both impossible to elucidate and shameful and even undemocratic to mention;" presumably, he skipped the Philosophy of Art lectures. Instead of bothering with aesthetics, we should look for values in our architecture. Given de Botton's rather shaky understanding of architectural history and theory, this is obviously a wise course to take. It also allows him to talk at length on his favourite theme, the Good Life.

Free from the bounds of any conventional discussion of architecture, de Botton runs wild. He throws together some of the ideas of John Ruskin (who lurks in the background of much of this book's thinking) with a shallow understanding of the psychoanalytic art theory of Adrian Stokes, leading him to make some childlike ruminations about how buildings have personalities which speak to us. He sees representations of human and animal forms everywhere. One building has weary, sceptical eyes; another is like a beetle; a third like a hedgehog. He is similarly affected by furniture, typefaces and even glassware: "stemmed glasses seem generically feminine, though this category encompasses warm-hearted matrons, nymphets and nervy blue-stockings, while the more masculine tumblers count among their number lumberjacks and stern civil servants." If you are buying de Botton a drink, remember to ask him if he wants it in a nymphet or a lumberjack.

Emerging from this enchanted forest of animated houses and drinking vessels, de Botton leaves behind all sense of buildings being the work of architects whose designs were made to meet specific needs. Instead, he proposes that what architecture does is compensate for various deficiencies in the psyches of its users, going so far as to claim that historical changes in architectural taste were due to developments in the psychological yearnings of entire societies. Buildings are moral lessons, reminding us of our failings and comforting us for our frustrated desires.

To ensure that future buildings will do their essential work of producing happiness, de Botton concludes his book with some architectural 'virtues', the greatest of which is self-knowledge. If architects follow his precepts, they will no longer be artists, but they will have the satisfaction of knowing that they are healers. The City of Tomorrow will be a self-help book for its anxiety-ridden citizens. In its architecture they will find comfort, if not joy.

Despite its florid language and its visionary claims, The Architecture of Happiness is at heart a manifesto for mediocrity. The tepid nature of its thinking can be seen just by looking at its illustrations of contemporary buildings, most of which seem to have been chosen for their blandness. It is not just de Botton's woeful ignorance of architecture and his inability to look at buildings that induces him to choose these examples. He wants architecture to be dull. Originality, like beauty, causes too much trouble and diverts architects from their primary duty of making middling people comfortable with their average lives.

If de Botton succeeds, our buildings shall be virtuous and dull. The future is beige.

Monday, March 23, 2009

It's that man again

In this globalised world, we are more than ever interconnected, but we are also more uncertain. What were firm boundaries of race, culture and identity are becoming fluid. In such a world the involvement of religion becomes ever more crucial. It can either play a positive role, helping to deepen understanding and working for the common good, or it can be exploited to become destructive, emphasising difference and reinforcing distrust of the “other”.
More blah from Blair, this time in the Staggers, guest edited by Alistair Campbell - the man who said of his government, "we do not do God." To read all of Blair's blatherings, you will have to buy the magazine; but here you can at least enjoy the comments, and the inevitable fur fight.

Cogent commentary on the state of broken Britain can be found by way of The Curmudgeon.

More Mott the Hoople:

The lunch after tomorrow

It gets worse: not only might we witness the end of the world, but we might have to witness it in Britain. This is particularly distressing, given that the British hate immigrants and the food is so awful. On this latter point, a report in the Observer reveals the shocking truth that Britain remains infested with poisonous food and class prejudice.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Suits you, sir

In the absence of anything new on this blog, you may wish to amuse yourself with a Spot the Dandy contest.

Spot Mick Ronson:

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Send in the bats

What are the risks in the emissions trading scheme? The need for the legislation is driven by a belief that man-made global warming is real and dangerous and that if New Zealand - hopefully followed by others - takes action, the danger will be averted. Is there unequivocal evidence that such global warming is real and dangerous? Well, actually, no. In the opinion of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), there is a roughly 90 per cent "risk" that climate change is man-made and a 10 per cent "risk" that it is natural.
Hey, ho, away we go: it's in the Herald, it's by Brian Leyland, so we must be in bat country. Indeed we are. Mr Leyland, the proud possessor of a MSc in Power System Design and that stylish lay-preacher look (pudding-bowl haircut, beard, no moustache), has some intriguing notions of "risk" (his quotation marks, not mine). To illustrate his point, I am holding a ten-chamber revolver, specially constructed for the purpose of this argument; it makes typing difficult, but don't mind me. Nine of the chambers have bullets in them. Should I use this unfeasibly large gun to play Russian Roulette? If I were the type who talks of "risk," then I would say that there is only a ninety percent chance that I would blow out my beautiful mind on the first attempt; because of the ten percent chance that I might survive, I should go ahead and play. Fortunately for the cleaners, I decide to play Scrabble instead.

Of course, there is more to Mr Leyland's argument than a reckless notion of "risk." Yes, indeed. He also has that first refuge of a scoundrel, Google numbers. Carbon trading fraud is a real risk and you can see why: an internet search of "carbon trading fraud" gets about 300,000 hits. So, there. QED. Well, no, not exactly. The phrase "carbon trading fraud," put into Google with those pesky quotation marks, produced 203 pages for me. The same words thrown in at random revealed 292,000 pages. That's search engines for you: throw in random stuff, get random stuff out; then publish random stuff as if it proves something. Anyone can do it, and here's how: I searched for catholic treacle factory and received 12,500 pages, in English and Italian. Alarmed, I then searched for corset training feature and received 99,000 pages. Unable to restrain myself, I searched for criminal trope fund and received 21,200 results. Clearly, there is cause for concern.

Never mind, we can put on a happy face and remember that "humankind will adapt - as it has done through past ice ages and warmer periods." Yes, that's right: we survived the four great ice ages, three of which occurred before we existed. Damn we're clever, us humans.

Oh well, at least Mr Leyland got himself a rhyming headline: "Climate adoption a safer option." Quite what it has to do with Mr Leyland's argument is anyone's guess, but then quite what Mr Leyland's argument is doing in a newspaper is anyone's guess as well. No, that's not true. We know what it is doing here: it is doing the Fear Uncertainty Doubt thing. That's what the International Climate Science Coalition is all about.

Different for girls

From the Guardian:
The body responsible for safeguarding equality in the UK will tell the government today that the economic climate is too fragile to impose equal pay reviews on business.

With women's pay on average 17% less than men's and the gap increasing, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, formed 18 months ago, will say that the reviews should be excluded from the forthcoming equalities bill when it publishes its recommendations.
Proof, if it were needed, that almost anything can be delayed by invoking the magic word 'recession.' Almost everything, of course: massive payments to failed banks are excluded.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sex, lies and crampons

This blog has been woken from its slumbers by the news, published on the front page of yesterday's Sunday Star Times, that Sir Ed has been insulted.

I am sure you will appreciate the gravity of this matter. If you do not, then cast your eyes upon the subhead to the story. Putting aside its usual impartiality and restraint, The SST says:
He's a failed politician and a convicted liar - and now Jeffrey Archer is making the absurd claim that Kiwi icon Sir Edmund Hillary wasn't the first man to conquer Mt Everest.
Indeed: failed, liar, absurd, icon; the facts could not be more clear.

So what has Jeffrey Archer done? He has written a book, again: "Paths of Glory is a fictionalised account of the life of George Mallory, whose ill-fated attempt to scale the world's highest mountain in 1924 has long been shrouded in mystery. Mallory was last seen a few hundred metres below the summit and died shortly afterwards after falling from a ridge. Many of his admirers believe he made it to the top and deserves Hillary's place in history as Everest's conqueror."

So who is this Jeffrey Archer? In case you were not aware of the character of this man, the SST makes it plain: 'Archer's political career ended in disgrace in Britain in 2001 when he was found guilty of perjury and sentenced to four years in jail. His writing career has suffered little damage however his three volumes of prison diaries were bestsellers, as was his 2007 novel based on the life of Jesus.'

However, Sir Ed's friend Graeme Dingle will not have a word of it: "he's dreaming. There's essentially no chance Mallory got to the top. All the evidence points to them not making it." What's more, he says that Archer's interest in portraying Mallory as the first to summit the mountain was motivated by wounded English pride at having been beaten by a colonial: "the English were desperate to get to the top and they didn't get there, even in 1953. I think the English are pretty sensitive about it. They've got nothing to be ashamed about, they had a lot of glorious failures."

And glorious shirtlifters as well, it seems: 'he said one aspect of the speculation surrounding the doomed climber which was omitted from Archer's book was that Mallory chose climbing partner Andrew Irvine because of a homosexual attraction between the pair. Irvine, too, died during the 1924 attempt, although his body has not been found." Some have said the flaw of Mallory's character was he chose Irvine because of a possible gay relationship, and not based on good, sound mountaineering judgement," said Dingle.'

So, there you have it. The legacy of the greatest New Zealander has been besmirched by a failed politician and liar, who reflects the wounded pride of the English when he claims that an English homosexualist and his lover reached the summit before our national icon. Goodness knows what they would have done had they had reached the top. Fortunately, they did not. And Mallory paid with his life for letting his homosexual desires cloud his mountaineering judgement.

Of course, the liar's claims about the homosexualist are absurd. All honest New Zealanders can sleep soundly and hetrosexually in their beds, knowing that honest, heterosexual Sir Ed was first to reach the summit.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Social networking for dummies

In which the estimable Dr Ben Goldacre demolishes some palpable nonsense being spoken about Facebook, and wears a tanktop on Newsnight.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

The cartoon that taste forgot

Emmerson plumbs new depths. I think I preferred him when he was incoherent.

Understanding the medium

In these days of junk news, junk food, junk money and the junk self, authenticity in the realm of reality TV means adhering to Saul Bellow's dictum of following a character not just into the bedroom but also the bathroom (and into rehab, the penis-enlargement clinic, the assisted-suicide facility, the dungeonous punishment pit). It was at this basement level that reality television stars of Jade Goody's vintage (she was selected for series three of Big Brother in 2002 at the age of 20) first made their appearance in the public arena. And Goody's gift from the beginning - her only talent, as she was the first to acknowledge (the girl who thought "East Angular" was a foreign country and that "pistachio" was a famous painter) - was to appear devoid of self-consciousness: to have an innate ability to appear to be unwatched when being spied on by millions; to seem to be heroically unconcerned about how she came across. In this way she found herself occupying the position of the most visible representative of the white underclass in British popular culture: a true avatar of the time. Motto: to think is to regret. Hobbies: getting and spending.
Gordon Burn

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Light at the end of the tunnel

Some good news in the economic gloom: after twenty-two years, Eurotunnel shareholders finally get a dividend

Your eyebrows may be the best thing in town

In these days, when every Elam gamine wears op shop clothes and plays in a band, it is easy to forget that popular music was different for girls, not so long ago. The function of women was largely decorative. Then along came Dolly Mixture, who posed such questions as How come you're a hit with the boys, Jane? They recorded a Peel session, they made songs like Treasure Hunt. They made an album. And yet, now they are almost forgotten, except by people like Detailed Twang, 200 Troubled Teenagers and by a purple proseur at Mojo. And the women of 80s music who are remembered are the largely decorative ones.

Here is the only footage I could find - Been Teen:

West of Eden

It's not really Wright's fault he's become the architect of doom. It's probably down to the fact that most of these buildings are publicly accessible and conveniently close to Hollywood – unlike some of Wright's finer houses in the midwest, say, most of which are still in private hands. Wright's own involvement with the movies was limited (although his granddaughter was Anne Baxter and he once made a bizarre TV appearance on What's My Line). Warner Brothers once asked him to design sets for the 1949 movie of Ayn Rand's novel, The Fountainhead, in which Gary Cooper plays an uncompromising modern architect not dissimilar to Wright himself. Wright charged an architect's fee, the story goes: 10% of the entire budget. Warners hired someone cheaper.
Frank Lloyd Wright in Hollywood, from the Guardian.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Pinch, Punch and Slim

Young Sulzbergers are inculcated into the spirit of serving from an early age. By 10 they go to their first family meetings, and by 15 they are expected to understand their role as protectors of the brand. The problem is that Pinch, as the chairman Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr is often called, stands accused of having got the Times into this mess. With his father, Punch, he bought the Boston Globe, a now grievously stricken title, at a dangerously inflated price, then spent $600m on the newspaper's new Renzo Piano offices that instantly became a monument to old media hubris. Over the past decade, Pinch has spent nearly $3bn buying back Times stock to bolster the share price - leaving the company undiversified and hence highly vulnerable to the downturn in advertising revenue - as well as artificially boosting the dividend in a move interpreted by many as a bid to keep his relatives happy. The thought that really disturbs staffers is that he could have used all that money to buy Google before it went public: he was said to have been offered the search engine and rejected it.
Life and New York Times, from the Guardian.

In the video which follows, Kirsty MacColl terrifies a roomful of German teenagers.


Though even the oldest among us can see that Facebook represents a marvellous saving on stamps, Twitter emphasises its desirability by being unfathomable to anyone a bit inflexible or busy who is neither a self-promoter nor an exhibitionist. Why would you want to answer the question "What are you doing?" in up to 140 characters? If such questions only betray one's dizzying proximity to the grave, there is also much on Twitter to comfort the mature visitor. The abundance of tweets, even from more dashing contributors, saying things like "about to have breakfast", "too tired", or "Masterchef final was very good" confirms that age has finally surrendered its monopoly on unembarrassed inanity. Indeed, when the first genuinely interesting tweet is posted, as in "looking down at my grey, motionless body", or the simpler "dying", it is likely to come from an older subscriber.
Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist. These are her views, not mine. I link to them because I find them funny. I appreciate that several of you are quite enthusiastic about Twitter. I do not share your fervour but then nor do I watch Battlestar Galactica or take any interest in sport. Each to his/her own. Please do not hit me.

Oh look it's 1988 and we are just in time to see Mr Tony Wilson introduce The Fall:

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Everything you know is wrong

"I'm writing this emergency letter to bring you up to date on what we've accomplished, and to ask for your immediate help— to ensure that we can complete this project, solve this mystery, and perhaps change what every scientist on Earth thinks about basic physics."
Yes, even astronomers get begging letters. This one is from the Planetary Society and it is about the Pioneer Anomaly. It's like this: the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft, launched in 1973 and 1974, are not where they should be. Something is holding them back. We don't know what that something is. The Planetary Society want to find out. They want to look at all the old data. But it is not just a case of getting those clunky old tapes and powering up those dusty old drives in the back of the store. No, sir. They need to convert the data to something that can be read on new-fangled modern 'puters. And they need to do it fast, while there are still geeks around who know how the old ones work. And they need to do it because the Pioneers may be telling us that there is something very wrong with our understanding of Physics. I know; it is worrying. Just keep it to yourselves. If the Fundies find out, there will be no end to their wittering about Cosmology. They will say that God is doing it, to punish us for something.

It get worse still. Apparently there are thirteen things we don't know that are really troublesome. Look on the bright side: problems One and Three might be the same as the Pioneer Anomaly, which comes in at number Two. Of course, the possibility that our Constants are not constant and we that we know stuff all about the Universe are vexing, but at least we would have only ten more worries.

The Damned:

They came from Canvey Island

Kids today, they don't appreciate how bad the mid-70's really were. They think Raleigh Choppers and muttonchop sideburns are neat. But they don't know about Dralon lounge suites and macrame. They never had to talk to someone whose life has been changed by Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. They never had to sing Morning Has Broken in school assembly. It was rough then.

Look, here are some kids in 1975. They can't dance, their hair is too long and they all have really awful v-necks. Fortunately, some visitors from the future have arrived to teach them Cool. Their lives may never be the same again.