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Sunday, 30 October 2011

London Streets

A man stopped us in Shaftsbury Avenue. To be more exact, he stopped my daughter. “I must tell you,” he said, “that you are most cute. I want to shake your hand. Where are you going?” He shook my hand too, not because I am cute but presumably due to my proximity to cuteness.

I wondered on his motives. My daughter is beautiful though she would deny it with some vehemence. Suffice it to say she is more beautiful than Cleopatra, which is perhaps not saying very much since Cleo had a very big nose. (Stop digging this hole and throw away the spade. Climb out now!)

So, beautiful then. The point is that this has happened several times to her, complete strangers accosting her in the street to tell her she’s beautiful, and using much the same words like a formula learnt.

My mind went into overdrive…which means it stumbled along at four and a half miles an hour. Who were these people? White Slavers? Smooth talking pimps? And why did they insist on shaking hands - bacterial infection? I rubbed mine vigorously down the side of my trousers and scraped it for good luck on a wall. Were they angels made flesh acknowledging another beautiful spirit, or demons with motives much darker, or missionaries for some obscure cult? A troupe of Hari Krishna snaked passed us, chanting what ever it is they chant, and I shuddered, imagining my daughter in orange robe and bald head.

Who are these people? Are they active in other cities across the world? And why don’t more of them accost me, telling me how beautiful I am? One of life’s many mysteries.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

A Chain of Souls

Me and Sheri Lamour were talking, shooting the breeze. Work was slow that week and there was little else to do. The office needed cleaning but one look at Sheri tells you everything you need to know about her. She don't do cleaning, her skills lie elsewhere, and mine mostly involve drinking and solving crime.

We don't do cleaning.

“Anything interesting?” I was talking about the book in her hand, not the small television permanently on mute. It’s a box for stumblebums grazing on fried chicken or breeding the new feral horde. Give me a book I can open or close, occasionally burn. In my experience screens are only good for regurgitating lies, else salacious tattle from broads with more silicon than brain. Jeez. I like a broad with something to hold. I just don't want to be knocked of my seat when they turn.

Sheri ignored me, her eyes on the book. I noticed she had only four pages to go and I was down to my last four fingers of bourbon. For the moment it was quiet, the way I liked it. But the fly was about to land in the ointment. When she closed that book Sheri would be wanting to talk about it, and the bourbon wouldn’t last that long.

She closed the book, a small smile on her face. “That was one damn hot book,” she said.

Did I tell you that Sheri has a voice like honey and a figure to match?

“Who’s it by?”

“A dame called Zannini. Maria Zannini.”

A shiver ran up my spine. It was that kind of name. Sheri noticed. She pouted, her lips like dark cherries holding a worm.

“What’s it called?”

"A Chain of Souls"

“Any good?” I looked at the cover. “And what’s with the pointy hat?”

Sheri shrugged helplessly as if to say what the hell do I know? You’re the detective, big guy. “I think it’s good,” she said at last. “A lot of people do. They say it’s her best yet.”

I gave her my shark's smile, the one with teeth. "What else do they say?" I've always found 'they' useful. Rumour's cheap. Informers you pay.

She took out her lipstick. When she brought that thing to her mouth the world stopped, and she stopped talking; only I wasn't finished with her. Not yet. She must have seen it in my eye; anyway she stopped, gave that secretive smile of hers that makes me go whoozy.

“The FBI rates it. Bob Mueller's bought a copy for every agent.”

“Bob Mueller, eh?” Never trust a man who sounds like a yoghurt pot, they're either Gestapo or Red, and all three amount to much the same thing. Even so I don't prejudge; it's not the American way. "It must be good – so what’s it about?”

“Two hot angels – one working for the other side – but brooding over the same broad who can’t quite make up her mind.”

Tell me a woman who can. “Hot, you say?”

“Not in your league, Clay, but hot, yes. I’d say so.”

She said it quickly, too quickly perhaps. “You think I’d like it?” Hell, I wanted to see who my competitors were.

“You like breaking hearts?” She sounded like she was going to burst into song. She sounded like Hank Williams. The thought was distressing and I closed my eyes, even as she said the killer line. “I guess you do, Clay. I guess you do.”

“Okay, pass me the goddamn book. Anyone dressed like that can’t be all bad. And what’s with the rosary beads. . . and the gloves?”

Friday, 21 October 2011

Open yum

I was sitting in the King’s Head sipping a pint of Spit-fire, a lovely beer, and a great name. Can we look forward in the future to beers named Trident or Kalashnikov? In front of me was a large TV and a beautiful lady was forecasting the weather. For the hard of hearing, which included everyone in the pub since the TV was on mute, subtitles showed us what we were missing.

So, for example, I was told that: ‘Rain followed by some scattered Samba will reach the Midlands by late Steven’. Other forecasts have been equally surreal, such as for example: ‘Snow falling on the Staffordshire Mormons’ or ‘a cluster of Sharons are moving across the Midlands.’

Welcome to the wonderful world of auto-generated subtitles.

For those not wishing to risk LSD but who enjoy the surreal, or those who simply wish to maximize the disorientating effects of strong beer, subtitles are both essential and addictive.

You sip, you muse: So ‘Howard Carter discovered Tooting Common in Egypt.’ A contemplative sip: ‘The Nazi dictator, Adult Pickler held rallies at gnomeburg’. It begins to make sense, as does the ‘hospital patient in a korma’, the ‘Toon Army that hit Japan’ I shouldered past similarly bemused viewers to the bar. Time for a refill. The world is going mad but the beer is good.

I’m back just in time.

Ah, the beautiful TV historian. I don’t need an introduction. I know who she is. But no, subtitles have their own relentless momentum. So instead of: ‘And with us now…’ We had ‘And with a snout Bethany Hughes.’ Subtitles are no respecter of persons. Barack Obama greatly excites them: ‘Back the bomber flew back from Europe’ or sometimes ‘Back the barman met with the Queen’.

Subtitles can make forceful police tactics sound like fun. In the real world the police moved in on an illegal traveler’s camp at Dale Farm using Tasers. But in the wonderful world of auto generated subtitles, I read that ‘police deployed teasers’, which is much nicer. I pondered on the gentle mockery used against those gypsies who refused to move.

Subtitles can also be subtly feminist. The extremely rich entrepreneur Theo Paphitis has no fear of women with quotes like:

"are we seriously saying that 50% of all jobs should go to women… (women) get themselves bloody pregnant and ... they always argue that they'll be working until the day before, have the baby, go down to the river, wash it off, give it to the nanny and be back at work the following day, but sure enough, their brains turn to mush, and then after the birth the maternal instincts kick in, they take three months off, get it out of their system and are back to normal". The subtitles got their revenge by referring to him as ‘The Foetus’.

There are residential homes where the TV is always on and where auto generated subtitles have become the new reality. What are elderly residents to make of Vadim Muntagirov talking of his dancing partner, Daria Kilmentova: ‘I really love dancing with Diarrhoea,’ cars called ‘Toy hauteur’ or ball room dancers attempting the ‘Pasta dough blade’?

Opium might make sense of it all, or in subtitle-speak ‘Open Yum’

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Cherry picking the dead

The eulogies given in memory of Steve Jobs have been complex and interesting, most of all those coming from the left or liberal side of life. Patrick Neilson Hayden is aware of the complexities:

‘Late capitalism sucks…Our futures are controlled by people who don’t give a crap for anything we care about…Steven Jobs cared about something. Without him our lives would have been different and probably worse.’

I imagine this is the same late capitalism that exploits cheap Asian labour in the manufacture of designer trainers and err…Apple products. So the issue is whose lives are we talking about?

Steven Fry, a man who has given pleasure to millions, and to my knowledge exploits no one trills like a song bird in heat when discussing the Apple product in hand:

“I would be dishonest if I did not confess to the childlike excitement, the pounding thrill, the absurd pride and the rippling pleasure I always feel on such occasions…”- an iphone, not something more intimate.

Steven Fry mocks his own reactions, showing to everyone his awareness of the irrational, but, and with total justification, refers to Jobs as ‘a great personality’, a ‘remarkable man’ and a ‘visionary’.

The ‘dark side’, from the view point of the liberal left, is acknowledged but glossed over:

"It would be vulgar to say that the proof of the correctness of Job’s vision is reflected in the gigantic capitalisation value of the Apple Corporation, the almost fantastically unbelievable margins and the eye-popping cash richness which has transformed a company that was on the brink of collapse when Jobs arrived back in 1997 into the greatest of them all.”

Vulgar or not Fry says it, but offers a further qualification.

“… abject worship is (not ) the only allowable viewpoint when it comes to the life and career of this magnificently complicated man. I am very glad that I did not work for him. I cannot claim he was a friend but over thirty year or so years I bumped into him from time to time and he was always warm, charming, funny and easy to talk to, yet I know, and the world has already been told enough times over the past few days and weeks, that he was a fearsome boss, often a tempestuous mixture of martinet, tyrant, bully and sulky child.”

But against that we have:

“His perfectionism, the absolute conviction and certainty in the rightness of his opinions… the charisma, passion, delight in detail, excitement and belief in the creation of a new future – the sheer magnetic force of the man made his many faults a forgivable and almost loveable part of his mystique and greatness...I will not be so presumptuous as to mourn the loss of Steve as a personal friend, but I will mourn his loss as a man who changed my world completely."

All well and good and generously said, but where’s the consistency? Much the same words might well be used in Margaret Thatcher’s eventual obituary, but not presumably by Stephen Fry:

And here is where the irrationality of the heart is laid bare because Stephen Jobs was Thatcherite in spirit. Job’s realistic, hard-headed approach to customers:

“You can’t just ask customers what they want then try to give that to them,” he once said. “By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.”

To me this reveals the same autocratic spirit as Thatcher.

His attitude to Teaching Unions:

“What is wrong with our schools in this nation is that they have become unionized in the worst possible way. This unionization and lifetime employment of K-12 teachers is off-the-charts crazy."

Is similarly straight from the Margaret Thatcher song-book.

Steve Jobs had no interest in the rainforests or the environment. He did nothing for charity, scrapping Apple’s corporate philanthropy programmes on his return to the company in 1997.

He simply wanted everyone in the world to buy his products.

Like Margaret Thatcher and, I think, Reagan, Jobs was an early admirer of Ayn Rand, his later more ‘progressive’ persona a design feature as much as anything else. As Steve Wozniak put it:

(Steve Jobs wanted) to have a successful company and he had a lot of ideas. He must’ve read some books that really were his guide in life, you know, and I think… Well, 'Atlas Shrugged' might’ve been one of them that he mentioned back then. But they were his guides in life as to how you make a difference in the world. And it starts with a company. You build products and you gotta make your profit, and that allows you to invest the profit and then make better products that make more profit. I would say, how good a company is, it’s fair to measure it by its profitability."

Changing Stephen Fry’s world was incidental to Jobs’ primary aim: all-encompassing global market domination.

And this is not an attack on Stephen Jobs, Stephen Fry, or Patrick Neilson Hayden. What Stephen Jobs achieved was brilliant and consistent with his principles. But like all great men and women, cherry-picking their virtues and vices lead to problems of consistency.

(And, in the unlikely event that Patrick Neilson Hayden ever reads this. I hope he doesn’t see it as ‘the wag of a reproving finger’ and tell me to ‘plobz the frap off’ :)

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Painting Time In Oils

At the Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille I saw close up, one of my favourite paintings – The Concert in the Egg by Hieronymus Bosch. Yes, there are wonderful minor details such as for instance the lute player pinching the monk’s purse, another hand stealing a fish, the man at the back wearing an inspired item of millinery And I wish I knew what the birds signified.

But what held me for so long were the faces. Strip away period costume and you have peculiarly modern faces. There are no two ways about it. They’re as modern as smart phones.

I can see E.E.C. bureaucrats, former Labour cabinet ministers – I’m sure that’s Alun Michael in the pointy cap, and John Prescott reluctantly playing the harp. I’m sure any American studying the canvas would recognize Democrats, Republicans or minor executives

It’s quite similar to his, perhaps better known Ship of Fools where there’s more drinking and less singing, though the message is equally critical. In the second painting though, the faces are less finely drawn.

In the basement of Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille they have a wonderful late medieval section. The carvings are immensely powerful but one painting rang some very loud bells. Where had I seen this picture before?
Portraits of Louis de Quarre and Barbe de Cruysinck

But I was wrong. I hadn’t seen it before. Not this particular painting. I had however seen this.

The artist Grant Wood claimed his inspiration was sparked by the gothic style window in the building behind and he decided to paint it with "the kind of people I fancied should live in that house." A nice story, but splendid that the building is known as ‘The Dibble House’. So that's where Officer Dibble was born.*

From what I know, Louis de Quarre and Barbe de Cruysinck were reasonably happy with their portraits. The artist, Grant Wood, had problems with American Gothic. For a time at least. Iowans apparently objected to their portrayal as ‘pinched, grim-faced, puritanical Bible thumpers.’ One farmer’s wife threatened to bite Wood’s ear off. Way to go Van Gogh.

Grant Wood was supposedly influenced by Northern Renaissance art - ‘the highly detailed style and rigid frontal arrangement of (its)figures,’ I just wonder whether there was a more specific influence, conscious or otherwise.

* From Top Cat