Archive for the ‘Blog’ Category

On England: Home Thoughts from Abroad

Friday, June 30th, 2017

Having spent a few days observing England from a distance of about 1000 miles, I realise I am a patriot. I arrive at this conclusion in defiance of all the present evidence – the wreckage of Westminster politics, the viciousness and stupidity of debate, the abandonment of mutual concern, the callousness in pursuit of trivial advantage, the appalling inequality between north and south, the crass point-scoring, the retreat into cold, dark ideological havens, the bewildering acceptance of lying demagogues, the chaotic and lethal rejection of all the best of what we are, the savagery of the rich and the gullibility of the poor, the cowering yet pompous diplomatic posturing, the strategic incompetence, the exaltation of intellectual mediocrity, the bureaucratic blindness, the acceptance of the mendacious mouthings of SPADs, pollsters, marketeers, PRs and technocrats, the propagation of historical and cultural ignorance, the terror of upsetting the proven criminals of the financial system… I could go on.

These things make me a patriot because, being English, I notice them. For many nations some or all of these things would be business as usual but, for England, they are exceptional. (I say England only because I have only ever seen myself as English. I like Scotland and the Scots but I know they are different; I like but hardly know the Welsh; I cannot fathom the Northern Irish and I wish they would go away. Nevertheless, I accept that we are all in this together. For the moment, however, I am discussing the quandary of Englishness.)

All the above shortcomings are exceptional because, for the almost three centuries before 1997, the English seemed to be a very good job of sorting things out. We devised a way of making people wealthier and healthier. This happened in 1712 when Thomas Newcomen installed a steam-powered pump in Dudley and launched the industrial revolution. Via the Church of England we invented an ingenious way of soothing murderous religious passions. Through an ever-more inclusive parliamentary democracy we managed to convince the people that we had too much in common to let us, for all our differences, be violently divided. I know some will point to the British Empire as a disastrous and wicked enterprise and perhaps it was. But I do not share the view that it was primarily driven by brutality and greed. Many imperialists thought, stupidly, that others would understand and and, indeed, embrace what our civilisation had achieved. We should have stayed at home and cultivated our own excellent garden.

Now the empire has long gone – though, laughably, some still poison debate and preen their consciences by claiming that we still must assuage imperial guilt – and, since 1997, a succession of cynical and/or deluded politicians have sought to destroy the rest. Which is why we are here, ruled by hollowed-out clowns and lacking any viable national narrative other than our own desperately virtue-signalled priggery.

To these clowns the most valuable people in society are the manipulators of the system, the pre-eminent holders of what David Graeber would call bullshit jobs. This was made brazenly clear by the knighthoods David Cameron gave to Craig Oliver, a spinner, and Lynton Crosby, a ‘strategist’, neither of whom were successful but both of whom, presumably, provided the PM with the illusion of power or, at least, with some sense of access to and control of the very people from whom he had previously been protected by his upbringing and sensibility. The failure to reform or, preferably, break-up the still risk-laden banking system is another case in point – as one financier put it to me, every time George Osborne wandered down to the City, the bankers at once ‘blinded him with science’ and then were left in peace to plan their next catastrophe. A failing system makes suckers of us all.

And so we now found ourselves in some crazed EU-in, EU-out death spiral led by a paralysed and plotting Tory party opposed by a Labour Party with a vaguely seventies, vaguely Venezuelan, aspirant rock ’n’roll leadership supported, in this post-election shock moment, by staggeringly cowardly back benchers who should know better but seem hell-bent on writing themselves into history as, well, staggeringly cowardly. Like I said, hollowed out.

Of course, we all know it’s not really happening there – ‘it’ being national resilience and ‘there’ being the fly-blown and increasingly abandoned Westminster playground. And when I say “abandoned’ I mean by the most imaginative and intelligent among us. Years ago Auberon Waugh observed to me that the brightest and best (the B & Bs) were no longer going into politics. He was right then and he would be even more right now. These fine people survive in their own little niches far from the chattering crowd.

I have been, privileged to meet and, occasionally, befriend them. One was Auberon Waugh but I won’t name any others since they are, mostly, alive. The few, the very few, I befriend, I now realise, are the most English. They are self-deprecating, worldly-wise, tolerant, funny and brilliant in the most unexpected ways. They can do stuff and they can freely think stuff. Best of all, they remember stuff which insulates them from the more pernicious contemporary delusions – Corbyn being new and cool is the obvious one. They are most definitely not party faithful as they know that repeatedly to vote for the same party whatever the prevailing conditions is a sure sign of madness.

There is also Middle England, not middle class England (too many of then have proved immune to 800 years of English literary satire) but the England which consists of people just doing what Churchill advised – they keep buggering on. It was one of these MEs who, when stopped in the street by a TV crew and asked what he thought of Corbyn, replied with exact and piercing insight “Clown” and strode off, determined to keep buggering on. Like John Ashbery he was not prepared to line phrases with the costly stuff of explanation – not that any was needed. It was a moment of TV magic comparable to the Newsnight interview given by, Sir Geoffrey Hill, the greatest English poet of our time, before the 2015 election. Asked what he thought of the election he said basically, that it was crap and why on earth would any conscious being need to ask such a question? Hill was what an ME becomes when possessed of genius, moral grandeur and granitic seriousness. Needless to say, his death was scarcely marked by the media.

The MEs are our new aristocracy, the old lot having decayed into ludicrous insignificance. Combined with the niche-dwelling B & Bs, they represent either the last of England or the core of England that will save us from this present predicament. To achieve the latter some of them will have to become politicians. This may be impossible as they will be unable to be pushed around by the assorted hucksters who now pull the strings of our ‘leaders’ – the debacle called Theresa May being the most obvious current example. But these are uncertain times and perhaps one or two hucksterless MEs will break through.

Otherwise England is over and my patriotism will become mere nostalgia. We shall sink, whining, beneath the waves, leaving only the refractory Yookay as a clown among nations. A pity, but at least the niche dwellers have robust buoyancy devices.

Trump, O’Hara and the Wreck of the Medusa

Tuesday, October 4th, 2016

Writing about the arts, ideas and sciences, as it seems I mainly do, I am used to dealing with clarity of thought and high intellectual and aesthetic ambition. Not that I often find them – and almost never in myself – but I do at least know they are there to be found. Not one of these things, I concluded some time ago, was to be found in politics. Here, instead, is a sort of Wreck of the Medusa, a storm-tossed sea with people clinging desperately to a botched-up raft, delusions intact but hope fading.
The raft is, of course, ideology. I have previously written about Corbyn, but ideology isn’t his problem, mere stupidity is. He’s all at sea but there is no raft other than the one in his imagination. A friend suggests the nearest thing to an ideology in his party is anti-semitism and, gloomily, I see the point. There is, I suspect, a concealed ideology which is belief in a popular overthrow of Parliament and its replacement with a sort of commissariat led, I presume, by the comically (and I hope it is no more than that) sinister John McDonnell.
But the left is an easy target, drawn as it is to rafts, the more battered and unserviceable the better. In recent decades it is the right that has been the worse offender. The raft here is generally called neo-liberalism – though neo-conservatism with its impetuous love of foreign wars was almost as water-logged – which means many things but, essentially, it always involves the superstition that the free market will solve all our problems whereas the state will solve very few or none.
I thought about this while considering the matter of Donald Trump’s declared loss, in 1995, of $915 million which seems to have relieved him of taxes for the next two decades. The Democrats seized on this. He’s a rotten businessman, they said, and the poor pay taxes but this rich guy just gets away with it, cheating the system. True and deplorable enough, but that is a charge that actually strengthens Trump’s position vis-a-vis his base. He believes, as he let slip during the debate, that paying no tax makes him smart and he then flipped this to say he would be smart on behalf of all Americans. I think we can call that a draw.
The Democrats missed the big point that would diminish Trump and, at the same time, expose the absurdity of the neo-liberal superstition. What happened in 1995 was not only that Trump lost $915 million but also that he never had to pay a penny of it back. This was because of a law that gives companies limited liability, the most effective means of controlling greed and encouraging risk-taking so that they benefit us all. Then what happened was that Trump was relieved of his tax burden for years to come – again because of the law underpinning the tax code. In short Trump was bailed out by the government on behalf of the taxpayers. He was bailed out as surely as the banks and the motor industry – in fact, more blatantly because there were no conditions attached.
This is undeniable, it is the supertanker next to the battered raft, but nobody seems to see it because the rhetoric of both left and right is so bogged down by ideological superstition.
And so I sail away on the rowing boat of ideas, art and science and buoyed up by a chirpy New York gay, a greater soul than anything on offer in politics. This is the ending – a lesson in how to sail sanely – of Frank O’Hara’s wonderful poem To the Harbormaster.

I trust the sanity of my vessel; and
if it sinks, it may well be in answer
to the reasoning of the eternal voices,
the waves which have kept me from reaching you.’

Of all the Corbyns I have known…

Monday, September 26th, 2016

I have been getting quite a few YDUB (‘you don’t understand, Bryan’) responses when I tweet my less than enthusiastic feelings about Jeremy Corbyn. YDUBs cause a red mist to descend more effectively than outright abuse – it’s the lugubrious condescension – and especially so in the case of Corbyn because, you see, I do understand.
I have known Corbyn for most of my conscious life. I knew him at school, at university and at work, notably when certain gangsters – soi-disant trade unionists – tried to destroy the British press. The Corbyn is always the one sitting to one side staring with cold judgmentalism at the events and people around him. He knows, he thinks, everything in spite of the fact that he reads nothing unless it is by people who agree with or admire him. He is absolutely certain that he is right.
This is a psychological point I am making, not a political one. The Corbyns I have known have been equally distributed between right and left. In fact, it hardly matters what they say they are since, as we all know, at the extreme ends of the spectrum, right and left merge into one lurid nightmare of deluded certainty. The only difference worth noting is that left-wing Corbyns of the past have been markedly more successful when it comes to mass murder.
I knew from the first moment I became fully aware of him that Corbyn was a Corbyn. I remember a shot of him sitting on the back benches giving that cold judgmental stare at, I think, George Osborne. Fair’s fair, we’ve all done that but I knew at once that this was a habitual cold starer. Okay, so that was this Corbyn put neatly into the box with all the preceding Corbyns. I have systematically excluded them all from my life and there was no reason I should not do the same with this one.
Later I realised I had been misled by my habitual exclusions. This was not a Corbyn, this was THE Corbyn, the final distillation of the species.
The first hint of this came in a typically piercing analysis by John Gray. Surveying the tolerance of Corbyn’s Labour Party for terrorism, brutality, bullying, sexism and anti-semitism, he observed, “For the first time in its history, a serious question must be asked as to whether Labour can be trusted to promote civilised values.”
This stunned me because I realised at once it was true and that something that looked suspiciously like evil lurked in British politics. The overwhelming emphasis on the welfare and workings of “The Party” is the clearest possible warning sign for, when The Party starts to come first, democracy comes second and, as we should all know, in the worst cases fields of corpses tend to follow. Reading Gray or Nick Cohen will provide you with plenty of further evidence.
I started watching Corbyn more closely and noted my findings in a tweet – “moral impassivity, coldness, sarcasm and self-regard”. He is the judgmental starer, ignorant but certain.
I despise judgmentalism and I cannot even understand certainty, but both are now in the ascendant in the Labour Party. Like most people, I have assumed that inevitable electoral disaster will be the cure for these inhuman afflictions. But I’m not so sure now. Speakers for Momentum sound more plausible, lucid and clever than Corbyn – probably he is their useful idiot – and, in fact, it is not their policies that I find alarming. Having drifted to the left myself, I would probably agree with many of them. They could, conceivably, persuade the electorate if Theresa May loses her grip.
But, as I say, this is not about politics, it is about psychology. It doesn’t matter what policies the Corbynistas now embrace and how much niceness they exude, everything would change if they got into power. There are plenty of precedents. Corbyn is the supreme Corbyn and my little box is not big enough to contain him. But he must be contained.

Schrodinger’s Mob Boss

Tuesday, September 16th, 2014

Schrodinger’s cat, you may recall, was neither alive nor dead. It only became one or the other when the box in which it was imprisoned was opened and the experimenter could feel its pulse or whatever. This was an explanation of one interpretation of quantum theory, but it’s an equally good comment on some of the more awkward aspects of art.

Having finally finished all six series of The Sopranos – seven years too late, I know – I came upon the awkward issue of whether Tony is now dead or not. The final scene is tantalisingly inexplicit, though I, either out of sentimental feelings for the evil slob or because I find it more aesthetically satisfying, incline towards the view that Tony is fit and well and as fat and evil as ever in New Jersey. I won’t go into this matter at length because it is all covered in excessive and neurotic detail elsewhere – and, anyway, it is irrelevant.

What the various Tony Alive/Tony Dead theorists omit to mention is that he is, like that cat, neither. He is, you see, a fictional character, not a real, mortal person and, unlike that cat, the box in which Tony is locked cannot be opened. Unresolvable ambiguity is one of the supreme privileges of art. I am not saying David Chase, the show’s creator, doesn’t have his own view on the subject but, once the last episode was broadcast, it was out of his hands. Tony Soprano became his admirers, as Auden said of Yeats. In any case, it is obvious that Chase was playing games by editing the last few minutes of the show in the way he did – ie by neither showing Tony bleeding on the floor nor happily eating his dinner, his favourite hobby. It was a triumphant denouement  – not in the banal form of an Agatha Christie thriller where everything is neatly wrapped up, but, rather, in the wild-eyed, wondering, speculative form of a Shakespearean tragedy. We can talk about the ending but we can’t, as it were, end it.

The desire to Agatha-ise the show is a sign of literal mindedness, a phenomenon I noticed while reading some of the commentaries. There was, for example, a discussion of the ‘symbolism’ of the cat in the last episode. This suggested poor education. Writers do use symbols, of course, but only sparingly because a fixed connection between an object and a meaning  is an awkward and rather ugly concept. (During my interview the Coen Brothers were very firm on the a-symbolic and non-metaphorical nature of the objects and incidents on their movies, they just wanted to make something ‘pretty’.) There is much that can be said about how that cat works in the concluding episode, none of it involves symbolism.

I suppose people are taught to look too eagerly for ‘meaning’ in the most banal sense. No great work of art has this kind of meaning, rather it has the kind that expands in the mind to include many, if not all, meanings. Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature should be required reading from the age of, say, ten, simply to enforce this view and eliminate the curse of literal-mindedness

Such is ending of The Sopranos, a delicious, witty, unliteral and ambiguous theatrical coup, an unopenable box containing all possible states of Tony. That’s how art works and why, most of the time, it’s better than life.

Neuroscience and Nigel Farage

Saturday, May 24th, 2014

Here is a statement of the obvious: problems with mass immigration may be caused by racists (closet or otherwise) but they will, nonetheless, be problems. Also obvious is the fact that racism intrudes in the imaginations of most – perhaps all – people. The left, for example, can say things about Israel which, if said about Palestine would attract charges of racism, if not violence. Racism is a very bad thing indeed and, like all really bad things, we won’t understand it unless we recognise it in ourselves. Original sin is still a very powerful explanatory tool.

Having drifted to the leftward in the past decade – what conscious person would not when confronted by the intellectual inanition of transatlantic conservatism? – I tend to be more acutely aware of the confusions and obsessions of the left, also of some of its more mean-minded strategies. Using racism as an multi-purpose condemnation is one of the meanest.

To be clear, it is not racist to criticise, condemn or satirise a nation because nations are not races, they are political entities (I’ve been down this road before). Secondly, a fear of the destruction of your neighbourhood by a sudden influx of strangers is not racist, it is a reasonable anxiety that may or may not be unfounded. Thirdly, concern about the pressure put on our economy – health, housing, jobs etc – by massive immigration is perfectly rational. Personally, I like immigration because I like variety but I’m privileged and I live in London. To turn my comfortable situation into a blind ideology is foolish and politically absurd. Yet that is what the left has done and why it now finds it so hard to deal with UKIP – see John Harris’s wise words of warning in the Guardian.

Now, bear with me, the secular, materialist imagination is suffused with a rather perverse mysticism, most obviously manifested in the claims made by scientists. I have always know this and tried to explain it, but I never seem to get it quite right. Take, for example, the ideas that neurosciences ‘proves’ we have no free will, that the self is an illusion and that we are but an assemblage of matter which was inevitable from the moment of the Big Bang. (All of these claims are pretty much mainstream.) The striking things about these claims is they can only be made intelligible if we assume there is another non-human consciousness that sees the world in a way we cannot. I, for example, act and live as if I have free will, my self is not an illusion and on the basis that I was not inevitable at the time of the Big Bang. I cannot imagine living in any other way and, indeed, the only way to do so would be to turn myself into zombie. Yet my sense of these things, according to the ‘scientists’, is not as true as their view, indeed, it is a complete illusion. These scientists, however, are not zombies so, in making these claims, they seem to be positing the existence of another form of consciousness that can see my awareness – and theirs – as less true than these other explanations for, of course, they would have to be zombies to genuinely see them as true. This other consciousness, apparently, can see a world in which human consciousness is, at best, irrelevant or, at worst, does not exist. Pure mysticism or, in fact, superstition.

What does this have to do with racism and the left? I think – actually I am sure but I am trying to be humble – that this mystical scientism has infected thinking on the left much more than on the right. The structure of much left thinking is that there is a greater truth visible only to the initiated. This truth may be Marxist or it may simply be some cocktail of social justice, technological progress, historical inevitability, whatever. The exact content is not the point, the anti-democratic conviction that the people must be led to see what is good for them is.

(Conservatism betrayed its own pragmatic roots when it embraced a similar structure world view in the forms of neo-conservatism and neo-liberalism. The very prefix ‘neo.’ was an affront to the tradition.)

What I am saying is there is a fatally scientistic aspect to the idea that racism (or sexism, or any ism) can be detected in all the things one dislikes most. There is a link between the reflex charge of racism and  and the pitying gaze of the scientists when one points out that they haven’t even begun to disprove free will or establish determinism.  Such scientism makes it impossible to understand human affairs, other minds or, to bring this back to the topical, Nigel Farage.


God the Teapot

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

Bertrand Russell’s celestial teapot is an object orbiting the sun somewhere between Earth and Mars. It is too small to be detectable so any insistence that the teapot exists cannot be refuted. Russell made the point to show that such unfalsifiable claims demand proof from the believer rather than disproof from the sceptic. In other words, the belief is itself carries no special authority.

The teapot  – rather than, say, an oddly shaped asteroid – is chosen to make the assertion seem as absurd as possible. Russell concludes by implying it is no more absurd than the dogma preached in churches every Sunday, a dogma which has, down the centuries, carried special authority.

The teapot argument was tweeted in my direction by Adrian Perry (@Tregeare) who is amazed that I could believe in God (I am an agnostic but I won’t, for the moment, quibble). That, in turn, arose from my tweet expressing my dislike of the Richard Dawkins-Lawrence Krauss anti-religion ‘tour’, specifically my horror that an artist as great as Werner Herzog should support such nonsense. These neo-atheist preaching to the converted love-ins must be dismal, smug affairs. They also shock me in the same way Dawkins shocked me when he told me, years ago, he was writing a book on God. Why? Arguments against the existence of God are obvious, numerous and, in their own terms, irrefutable; they hardly need repetition.

Of course, 9/11 and American fundamentalism were the real targets – in other words, certain forms of very extreme behaviour and belief. Fair enough, I suppose, but the argument did not stop there, it expanded to become an assault on religion in general, the abolition of which, it was claimed, would make a better world. This is nonsense, of course – as, to my astonishment, Christopher Hitchens admitted on a US radio show. Religion is just an occasion for human evil, as were communism and fascism. The argument then further expanded to assert science as the one true way.

This last assertion is based on the belief – and it is a belief, a total teapot in fact – that science is capable of a final and full account of the the world. This leads to scientism in which every problem is approached with the presupposition that there is a scientific solution – read Roger Scruton on this particular abuse of reason.

All of which has tended to polarise people’s responses to religion. Neo-atheism has made non-believers and believers more strident. On one side, some people now seem scared of even referring to religion; a recent interviewee stammered an apology to me when he happened to use a religious reference. On the other side, faith in its most destructive forms is ever more entrenched.

But about that teapot. The first point to make is that Russell’s thought experiment is rigged. Nobody, as far as I know, believes in that teapot, billions believe in God. In other words, God is not a teapot because there is, indeed, evidence for his existence – primarily his persistence in the human mind. Here’s a teapot-centric account of this type of argument. That God is in the human mind and imagination is irrefutable on the grounds of history and, in my case at least, introspection. This may be a mass delusion or an expression of some psychological disorder in me, but I don’t think so, not least because, by other names and with other attributes, something like God appears in so much human discourse – the omni-competence of science being one obvious example.

The real issue in all this is the intensity of belief. Wisdom should teach us that we are wrong about almost everything almost all the time and that we pass through the world in a cloud of unsubstantiated beliefs. We can’t abandon them – we would cease to function – but we should all cling to them weakly. (This is, in fact, what scientists used to claim to do.) We shouldn’t go on ‘tour’ to prove ourselves right and we shouldn’t kill unbelievers. I don’t expect anybody to be impressed by or even to react to my own teapottish tendencies, but I will say that, in return, you shouldn’t deny the existence of yours.

Learning to Love the Luvvie

Thursday, December 19th, 2013

I have been interviewing an unconscionable number of very famous actors lately. You know of Dench and de Niro and there are more to come in the New Year. In the course of doing one phoner with a very big actor indeed, I was stopped in my tracks when she apologised for talking about the film in question because she knew actors sounded so boring when they did that.

Well, I’m afraid she was right, they often do. Indeed, years ago I used to liven up drab dinner parties with tales of the most boring actors I had ever met. How we used to laugh at the luvvies! The exceptions were actors I understood as I did Monica Bellucci, the chemistry of which encounter Clive James was kind enough – and surgical enough – to dissect. But, on the whole, actors were a gruelling task.

Yet, as Clive pointed out, the actor interview is a journalistic staple. Meeting big stars is something that can happen surprisingly early in your career. Getting good at it is another matter. I watch videos of actor interviews conducted by journalists and I am often amazed they can stay awake. Also when mainstream news shows on TV or radio wander, all innocent, into ‘the arts’, they invariably end up producing an uninformative, soupy promo for the film or play. But, in fairness, I admit I still come out of actor interviews feeling a miserable failure. Why is this?

Well, as the anonymous lady who apologised made clear, there is something a bit odd about actors talking about the works in which they appear. Why should they know anything except the necessities of their own part? Indeed, I am always noticing that even the most actor-friendly directors tend to conceal the big themes of the work from their stars. The themes would get in the way. They can talk about other things of course but these tend to be much more boring than art – my cocaine hell, my battle with fat/drink/the law, my love rat husband etc.

These thoughts have, in recent years, made me much more understanding of actors. Asking them how they did it is rather like asking them to explain how they ride a bike. Also, in spite of the rabid, contractually necessary self-promotion, unless they are in the very highest reaches of fame and sometimes even then, they are vulnerable creatures. I have seen them stare in almost pathetic wonder and gratitude as I rambled on about some aspect of their performances. They also tend to have become accustomed to deliberately constructing what they take to be an interesting persona, sometimes involving bad politics. This has to be got out of the way asap. Some act their way through the entire thing and, when that works, it is pure fun – Helen Mirren being my best example. But I find it easier these days to make them interesting – basically you start with the amazingly banal, thereby putting the being interesting ball in their court. Acting, after all, is just another art, once mastered it becomes all but impossible to explain how you do it. This is why I find indirection is often the best approach.

After years of laughing at them, I have mellowed into acceptance. No, I would go further, I find, to my surprise, that I love the luvvies.

Buy the Most Expensive Camera You Can Afford

Saturday, December 14th, 2013

This may sound a bit specialised and I know I’m a photo bore, but, bear with me, it’s might be worth it.

’The death of photography: are camera phones destroying an art form?’ runs the headline. Standing up this line is Antonio Olmos who says, ‘Photography has never been so popular, but it’s getting destroyed. There have never been so many photographs taken, but photography is dying.’

I think this is daft. It’s good lots more people are taking pictures because the more thoughtful among them will come to realise the greatness of Don McCullin – the democratisation of literacy has the same effect with Shakespeare and Keats.

But Olmos is not being half as daft as Nick Knight, a professional photographer who has taken to using an iPhone on his assignments.

‘What I’m into,’ he says, ‘is visual connection to what I’m taking, not pin-sharp clarity. It’s absurd for people to think all photos need to be high-resolution – what matters, artistically, is not how many pixels it has, but if the image works. People fetishise the technology in photography more than any other medium. You don’t get anybody but paintbrush nerds fixating on what brush the Chapman brothers use. The machinery you create your art on is irrelevant.’

To say you can produce great images with your iPhone is to say nothing. You can produce great images with a hammer and a slice of Battenberg or, as Robert Rauschenberg did, with a goat and a tyre. And no, of course, we, the audience, don’t have to worry about paintbrushes, but artists do. I’m pretty sure from Titian to Hockney they’ve gone for the best, not because they’re gadget neurotics but because they don’t want anything to get in the way. You can do more with good brushes. Equally, you can do more with good cameras. I can do everything – I think – the iPhone can do with my Leica ME  and later, I hope, with a Nikon D800, plus a million other things. Of course, you don’t pursue resolution and sharpness for their own sake, it is just that, if you have them, you are freer.

The non-specialised point is the philistinism implicit in these arguments. I am not sure it is meaningful to talk of destroying an art form, though people do all the time. If the novel ‘died’ tomorrow would people stop telling stories? One may mourn, as I sometimes do, the passing of a technology – vinyl records or film – but music and photography haven’t died and, anyway, you can still get film and vinyl. And, note, despite dark forebodings in the 1840s, photography did not stop people painting. On the other hand it is certainly true that digital photography has engendered a manic pursuit of some kind of perfection that is, in itself, aesthetically meaningless and that this should be rejected. But McCullin and his peers can deal with that and show the way.

So, if you’re getting a camera for Christmas, make sure it the most expensive one the giver can afford, but don’t unbox it until you have had a go with a hammer and a slice of Battenberg.

Bounded in a Nutshell

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013

The core of Stefan Zweig’s magnificent story Chess is summarised in the observation,  ‘the more a man restricts himself the closer he is, conversely, to infinity’. This is said of Mirko Czentovic, a grandmaster who knows nothing but chess; he can barely communicate and has no social skills, he inhabits the game and the world is, to him, just the place where it is played. Nothing can lie beyond chess, it is, therefore, infinity.

Published in 1942, the year of Zweig’s death, it seems to echo Vladimir Nabokov’s Zashchita Luzhina (The Defence) published in 1930.  The hero, Grandmaster Luzhin, also inhabits the game but has a more lively awareness of the outside world, until, that is, he becomes convinced, with tragic consequences, that the world is, in fact, a chess game.

The last work in this Eastern Europe triad is Franz Kafka’s The Burrow (published posthumously in 1931), which is not about chess. It is an unfinished story told in the first person by a mole or, possibly, a badger. This creature is desperately maintaining its systems of tunnels as a defence against the possibility of attack by some beast or other.

All three are about being locked in a world which, to outside observers, is plainly narrow and limited, but which, to the protagonist, is the whole of existence. The point is, of course, that we all live in such constricted worlds, we delude ourselves when we think otherwise. Travel may convince us we know a wider world, but we take out little minds with us wherever we go and return always to our burrows/games.

Shakespeare, as ever, got there first. He has Hamlet say, ‘O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams.’ Hamlet, the supremely conscious man, cannot delude himself about the scope of his world; he has ‘bad dreams’ that tell him there is more. The modernist heroes are less conscious than Hamlet (isn’t everybody?): Czentovic who does not dream, Luzhin whose dreams are nightmares of chess and Kafka’s creature, preserving its world against the possibility of an outside.

(In taking photographs, incidentally, I always regard myself as being inside a sphere, capturing the shapes that move on its surface. This is a modernist posture, not the renaissance one of Shakespeare. It is hard to imagine a renaissance photographer.)

Twitter, Facebook and the like want to make barely conscious, modernist heroes of us all, locking us in bubbles, translucent spheres, walled gardens that only look like the world. It is a more comfortable place than the mind of Hamlet, though it leads to psyhopathic callousness (Czentovic), to madness (Luzhin) and to neurosis and paranoia (The Burrow). Which, I suppose, means that blogging is a slightly less risky activity than tweeting, but only slightly.

A Trivial Post About Ryan Giggs

Saturday, November 30th, 2013


BaOLYYSIcAAwJHRI am a Manchester City fan so you can aim off for a degree of prejudice in what follows. I also think more about photography than anything else at the moment so you can also aim off for obsession.

‘For his 40th birthday @ManUtd have published a pic of Ryan Giggs in a fascist pose with a violent caption. Classy’

This tweet produced some odd responses: bafflement, derision and one responder who said it was ‘just’ a head shot. This last would be remarkable at any time – all images carry a distinct set of meanings  – but in the age of Photoshop it was simply naive. I know photographs have always been manipulated but the advent of Photoshop made manipulation so powerful and so easy that it now takes precedence over the shooting of the original picture. This means we no longer see pictures ‘of’ anything. The magazine picture of Jennifer Aniston is not an image of THE Jen, but, rather of A Jen, a version that exists only in the imagination of the star and her retoucher.

The Giggs image is heavily manipulated. It is also very ugly, not because he is ugly but because it excites revulsion. My initial explanation for this revulsion was that the lighting, the pose and the composition reminded me of fascist ‘hero’ imagery, as in the films and photography of Leni Riefenstahl. Matters were made worse by the violence of the words, which, I now know, are Joy Division lyrics often sung by fans in honour of Giggs. This, of course, does not alter the fact that they evoke violence.

Without abandoning this reading, I have since come up with two further interpretations which take into account the colouring. Giggs’s skin is silvery grey, suggesting a corpse. But, lower down, it is suffused with the red that rises up from his collar. I take it this is intended to be United red, but it is not, it is the deep red of arterial blood. In this reading he becomes a zombie rather than a Nazi. The expresson in the eyes is no longer that of an SS officer moved by the singing of the Horst Wessel, but of a dead man puzzled by his continued existence. This reading provides an even better explanation for the words – or it would if ‘and eat you’ followed ‘apart’.

The final reading is that this image has been doctored to make him look like a figure in a violent computer game – Call of Duty perhaps. This arises from the hyper-realism of what I suspect is a heavily sharpened image. Photoshopped hyper-realism looks anything but realistic because that is not how our eyes see things, but I suppose people think it is how they should see things.

This is all, I suppose, frivolity. Or it would be if it weren’t for the fact that there now seems to be a cult of Photoshopped ugliness. I am looking at a full page Louis Vuitton ad in the FT which shows a model in the Doge’s Palace looking back over her should at the viewer. Her expression is very nasty, she seems to be saying, ‘Sod off, you can’t afford me’, which is almost certainly true but does not raise my spirits to the point where I might feel inspired to dash out and spend what little money I have saved to cover the next ruinous energy bill at LV, though I can see it might appeal to some masochists.

There are many other examples. The shift of photographic power from the taker to the processor has produced this new ugliness. It is as if in abandoning the real world occasion of the photograph, some retouchers have also abandoned the culturally acquired meanings of imagery – or perhaps they are exploiting them deliberately to upset us. Or, like certain PR firms, they are avenging themselves on clients they dislike. Whatever the explanation, the world is becoming a more dangerous place for the tutored eye. Oh and City rule