Culture at the Commentator

Posted on January 24, 2013

This is just a swift post to let you all know about a new branch of my writing that I intend to expand this year . While CrashBangWallace will continue to be the outlet for my political writing, the team over at the Commentator have kindly agreed to feature my work on the culture front. So keep an eye out there for pieces on the arts, film and wider cultural commentary.

Here are a couple of recent pieces to whet your appetite:

Kate and the Curse of the Royal Portraits

Wanted: Adventurous female to give birth to Neanderthal

I hope this new content will be as well received as the political blogging I do here – your feedback, comments and support are very welcome, as ever.

Exclusive: that new Kate portrait put right

Posted on January 11, 2013

The National Portrait Gallery have just unveiled the first official Royal portrait of Kate, Duchess of Cambridge. As a portrayal of  famously beautiful woman, it’s received what could politely be called a mixed reaction:

Kate portrait

Personally, I think the most amazing thing is that way that only one of her eyes follows you round the room. How on earth have the NPG managed to commission a painting so iffy that it has already been nicknamed #CrosseyedKate?

As a public service, courtesy of @MrAndyBoy, can present an exclusive reworking of the portrait, putting it right with a tender combination of sensitivity and expertise.

At last we have the image in the full glory that it deserves:

Kate Portrait corrected

That’s better.

Why I love the Shard

Posted on July 06, 2012

I love the Shard.

Yes, the opening ceremony last night was more than a bit underwhelming – resembling nothing more than an 8-year-old Sauron playing with a laser pen – but the building itself is magnificent.

Just look at it. This is arguably the most ambitious and radical building London has put up since Parliament was rebuilt in the 19th century. It is bold, sleek and a remarkable technical achievement all in one building.

As well as its external appearance, there is the mind-boggling scale of the experience it offers those inside. It is so tall that it will provide London’s first ever sea view. That’s remarkable, an achievement which reconnects us with the unlimited engineering dreams of the Victorians.

The Shard is also a confirmation of our welcome return to sane modernity. The 1960s and 1970s saw architecture kidnapped, locked in an abandoned warehouse and ritually tortured by a clique who were convinced that being modern meant knocking down beautiful historic buildings and replacing them with ugly, brooding concrete boxes. The Shard is a stake through the heart of architectural nosferatu like Euston station.

There will always be criticism – happily, we live in a populous and opinionated society, where all have access to digital loudhailers, so that is inevitable. Tastes differ, but there is genuine absurdity in the cult which seems to have developed around the design of St Paul’s cathedral.

For some, it seems, no large building is acceptable in London unless it is St Paul’s, or a carbon copy thereof.

The Guardian glowered that it can be seen “towering over St Paul’s” in a picture that implied they are next door to each other, rather on different sides of the Thames.

The Telegraph’s normally excellent Ed West similarly objected that from Parliament Hill, the Shard can be seen “dwarfing St Paul’s”.

It is as though some imagine St Paul’s as a great, stone censor, Mary Whitehouse carved in Portland stone, tut-tutting about anything that might offend her stately sensibilities.

This is wrong-headed: St Paul’s itself was, in its day, a radical departure from the norm. Nothing of its sort had ever been built in England before, and it shocked and repulsed many contemporary observers. In that sense, the Shard is a descendant of St Paul’s, not its usurper.

Wren himself had to battle for years to be able to go ahead with his revolutionary new building, fighting against those who said the new cathedral should be exactly the same as the buildings that had gone before. Thank goodness that he stuck with it and prevailed – and thank goodness those building the Shard did the same 300 years later.

A response to Will Self: Twitter’s glorious anarchy is to be admired

Posted on March 29, 2012

Last week, I found myself forced to buy something from a newsagents in order to get change to access a station toilet. Browsing the shelves, I happened across the New Statesman – Britain’s most absorbent weekly political publication, and chose that.

I confess, and I hope Mehdi Hasan and Laurie Penny will forgive me, that I had never bought the NS before. It’s never really fallen into the “interesting enough even if I disagree” or the “so effective an enemy I can’t miss it” categories.

Leafing through, I found a piece by Will Self, gaunt king of the art of using obscure words just to show off, critiquing Twitter. In pursuit of payment and his disdain for free media – sorry, new media – the article is not on the NS site, though it can be found here.

There have been numerous attempts to bemoan Twitter, some (such as attacks on the mobbish nature of some debate) with good reason. As Self is a clever man, if not often a correct one, I thought I would explore his case.

The article resided in the “Critics” section of the magazine, alongside reviews of books, theatre and other arts. I was surprised, therefore, to find Self declaring that he had never, ever actually looked at Twitter.

How odd. Have the NS film reviewers watched the films in question? Or do they simply guess, informed only by second hand rants and uninformed assumptions?

For that matter, can their book reviewers read? Do they need to, if not having experienced the subject of your review is apparently a qualification for penning it?

Perhaps the New Statesman’s Editorial team would accept my tourist review of the surface of the Moon. It would be gripping, vivid and heartily opinionated. It would also be lacking foundation and essentially made up – on which counts, judging by Self’s piece, it fits their criteria perfectly.

There is of course a reason why reviewers tend to prefer to experience a thing before writing its review. Without doing so, they cannot start to assess or understand it.

All of which explains why Self’s “review” is wrong on the detail, mashing up Twitter terms with irrelevant references to Farmville and Facebook pictures.

But it also explains why his assessment of Twitter’s social impact is mistaken.

Twitter, he posits, is the same as a 1970s dinner party, full of people who want to show you holiday slides and drone on incessantly. No advance, no improvement, just a “new home for old bores”.

I won’t pretend Twitter has revolutionised the quality of human conversation. There are undeniably boring accounts – Katie Price and Polly Toynbee, to name two.

However, unlike being stuck at a dinner party, users are not forced to listen to anyone. Indeed, as well as tuning out the undesirable, they can listen to whomsoever in the world that they might wish.

Had he ever used Twitter, Will Self would know that it’s not a dinner party at all. It’s a supermarket, where you can put whatever you like in your basket and leave what you don’t like on the shelves.

And this is where Twitter brings its real value. As well as instant access to any famous person of their choice, anyone can become famous on the merit of their thoughts and content.

In so doing, the platform is a leveller – indeed, it’s a Leveller with a capital L. Now anyone can rise, if their content is good enough, and anyone can fall, regardless of their fame.

There are many other aspects of Twitter which one can find beautifully new.

The productivity and even genius that springs out of its utter chaos is inspiring.

The speed with which a great mass of people can learn, influence each other and act is terrifying.

Forcing oneself to be concise but clear is a refreshing mental exercise, and a great way to rediscover the reach of the English language. This whole article, for example, is written only in tweet-length sentences of 140 characters or less, an enjoyable test in itself.

Most important is its impact on the way our media works and what it produces. Twitter gives equality of opportunity to those outside the old commentariat elite. It allows people to tailor their media intake for themselves, and for free. It prizes real value over the conjuring of a pompous façade. Bit by bit it is pulling down old, sputtering stars and raising up new ones. For all those reasons I not only love it – I realise why Will Self loathes it.

Libertarians and the Apocalypse

Posted on January 10, 2011

I’ve always loved apocalypse fiction, ever since I was a kid. Nuclear war, plague, natural disaster, zombies, the medium doesn’t matter – Day of the Triffids, I Am Legend, Alas Babylon!, A Canticle for Leibowitz, 28 Days Later, The Road, Survivors, The Death of Grass, The Walking Dead, I’ve enjoyed them all. (Before anyone gets scared, I should probably add that I do read and watch other things as well…)

I’ve come across plenty of other fans of end-of-the-world fiction over the years, from all walks of life and points of view (Tom Harris MP, for example). However, a pattern has definitely established itself bit by bit – libertarians are more likely to enjoy apocalypse fiction than any other political group I’ve come across.

Why should this be the case?

There’s a lazy answer, which we should deal with straight away. The usual political smear-merchants would trot out that it’s because libertarians hate human beings and wish secretly that everyone was dead. Obviously this is nonsense – for a philosophy founded on admiring people enough to trust them to live their own lives, it would be absurd to want everyone killed.

In fact, far from being a macabre interest in the apocalypse – stories about everyone dying – I think this is actually an interest in post-apocalypse fiction – stories about how people survive without the State.

There’s obviously the basic appeal of a world where there’s no-one bossing you around, telling you off for smoking or drinking or trying to gather your personal data. That’s something any libertarian merrily daydreams about. But most intriguing and fascinating of all is speculating about human innovation and interaction without an overriding authority either doing it all for you or forcing you to do as it wishes.

In our world as it is today, there are myriad restraints on living by a libertarian code. Indeed, most activity by libertarian campaigners is taken up opposing proposals that would further impinge on our individual freedom, so it seems that the general shift is even further away from our ideal position.

We are so far from a libertarian world that the best way to explore how our ideas might work in practice is through what scientists and philosophers would call a thought-experiment – testing out political ideas in a theoretical, simplified world.

For example, a physicist wanting to test a theory of how radiation operates under particular circumstances might well imagine a thought-experiment world where there was no background radiation, no sun and no stars to interfere. Similarly, someone wanting to explore how people might live in a libertarian way inevitably finds it interesting to imagine life in a world without authority, state, nosey neighbours or hectoring puritans – a thought-experiment provided most commonly in the world of apocalypse fiction.

How Harriet Harman gave birth to Frankie Boyle

Posted on November 04, 2010

Last night I went to see Frankie Boyle at the Hammersmith Apollo. Depending on your tastes it was everything you might hope for, or everything you’d never want to hear – offensive, contrarian, shock-a-minute stuff. In short, hilarious.

It got me thinking about exactly what has spawned the recent boom in stand-up megastars. Most of those who have become hugely successful – Boyle, Jimmy Carr, Russell Howard, Al Murray – are distinguished by being as offensive as they are clever.

They plumb every controversial issue you could imagine, giving audiences a double hit of clever humour combined with an “I can’t believe he said that” shock factor.

Why has this happened? So far as I can see, it’s a classic case of supply and demand.

I don’t mean there’s a demand for actual racism or sexism – happily that has largely died out in the last couple of decades. However, there is a demand for freedom of speech and thought, and there will always be demand for comedy.

The prurience of politically correct tyranny, first in cultural discourse and now even in our criminal law, restricted the supply of free speech by threatening disgrace and conviction on anyone who dared say something un-PC. At the same time as they restricted supply, they managed to encourage demand by bringing out the natural British urge to give bossy authority a poke in the eye at any opportunity.

Those PC crusaders who forced through changes in the law and drummed people out of jobs have shot themselves in the foot by going too far. They have become so puritanical that they have provoked a popular backlash, like Cromwell’s attempt to ban Christmas celebrations. Neither comedians like Frankie Boyle nor their audiences are racist or sexist, but there is now a cachet, a frisson about someone saying what is supposedly unsayable.

I’m sure that – had she been there – Harriet Harman would have walked out of last night’s gig within about 17 seconds. How it must gall her that as a result of her work, someone like Frankie Boyle makes millions from saying to eager audiences all of things that she wants banned.

I’ll be buying tickets again, and I hope you will too – when you’re rolling in the aisles, revel in the feeling that Harriet is out there, somewhere, supping on the bitter broth of failure.