My Dinner With Roland Rivron etc

Books This week, amid some Christmas shopping during trips to Chester, Cheshire Oaks and Manchester I’ve been in the grip of what I suppose you could describe as an existential crisis, not enough to stop me from functioning, but I’ve certainly been knocked a bit sideways and is so often the case with these things, it hasn’t been triggered by anything in real life, specifically, at least not this time, but a film and a book the contents of which have made me reconsider just how much of an individual a might think that I am.

My Dinner With Andre is director Louis Malle’s 1981 record of a fictionalisation of a conversation between then theatre directors Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory over (spoiler alert) soup and puissant. With the exception of some framing sequences in which Shawn walks moodily through the streets and subways of New York, the action takes place around the table in an expensive restaurant and offers two hours of plotless philosophical mastication as the two figures set the world to rights like a beige version of that old BBC Choice reality tv series Diners (or My Dinner With Roland Rivron etc).

The subject matter meanders about Andre’s adventures in conceptual theatre, in hippy communes and why he’s recently decided to return to directing. But in the malaise required to get through watching someone else’s conversation, one point struck me particularly. Gregory heads off into a deviation where he describes how society, he’s talking about New York but this could be applied elsewhere, has built a concentration camp for itself and can’t seem to find a way out as its individualism slowly ebbs away and how ultimately people, from intellectuals downwards are simply going to become uncultured functions of a system.

I’ve extrapolated slightly but I suddenly felt like Julius Caesar having refused to heed the words of the soothsayer. Don’t we all feel that’s happened now? I momentarily wondered if we are living through a culturally baron time when everyone is listening to the same music, reading the same books, watching the same films, eating the same food and sedentarily going through life absorbing whatever is being shovelled at us so that we can do our work properly. But then I thought, no, not me, I’m not like that. I’m sitting feasting on My Dinner With Andre on a Wednesday night when a proportion of the rest of the country is watching Katie Price eat insects in a jungle.

True, my musical tastes border on the mainstream, and I’ve been keeping up with a lot of the drama serials lately, but I read The Guardian, not a tabloid. I like Doctor Who. I love Shakespeare. I might not read many books, but I listen to the Today programme and Radio 4 and try to keep up with international affairs. I go to art exhibitions and try to keep learning even when sometimes it doesn’t mean much. I disdain Simon Cowell, the Daily Mail, most right wingers (apart from the Conservatives I do like) and I write a weblog about all of this.

My moral superiority reasserted, I went to bed happy.

Then the following morning I received a preview copy of Stuff White People Like by Christian Lander in the post and the floor fell out my world. Based on a blog with the same name, Lander seeks with humour to offer a corrective to the racist culture delivered in the past few centuries by capturing some white cultural stereotyping. And as you randomly open up the pages to entries titles 80s Night and Not Having a TV, it’s possible to laugh at just how accurate Lander’s observations are, oh yes, we do like being the only white person around sometimes, in fact that was my final year at school.

Except Lander isn’t all too accurately describing “white people” but a certain type of “lower middle class white people” and even “lower middle class [of any racial heritage] people” , in other words, people like me. And slowly as I turn the pages of a book that is subtitled “the unique taste of millions” I realise that all of the things I thought made me an individual don’t make me an individual at all and that I’ve simply been absorbing a kind of alternative mass culture in the way that Andre suggested would happen. If I’d been generationally in sync with another period I would have been part of Generation X which was notoriously difficult to advertise to; until brands diversified as they realised that Xers could be sold to so long as you make them think it’s their decision.

Lander’s book is a two hundred page expression of job done. Mission accomplished. Game over. From the opening entry about coffee onwards. While I’m disappointed about Starbucks’s multinational status I am comforted when I see the little green sign somewhere because I know I’ll get a decent and if safe fair trade cup of coffee. I’m not as religious as my parents. I love film festivals and the chance to see work that doesn’t get proper distribution and think that Lovefilm is also genius for that same reason. Farmer’s Markets are a good thing. I do watch documentaries because they’re a simpler way of receiving a working knowledge on a subject than reading a book. Wes Anderson films. Tea. David Sedaris. The Daily Show. Public radio.

I’m abbreviating somewhat because I dare not venture back into the text but this is what it’s akin to: the other week during her BBC Two documentary about mass print reproductions, The Art on Your Wall, Sue Perkins visited a woman in the Lake District on the edge of Ullswater who thought that she was the only person in the land who owned a copy the the photograph Ullswater and looked psychologically broken when Perkins asked the question: “So why do you think this has sold millions of copies?” “Millions?” She whispered tragically. Reading through entries in Stuff White People Like, is that moment for me, over and over and over again. There’s a list on page forty-seven of dvds “white people” own. I have three quarters of them, always planning to buy the rest and I’ve probably said all of the accompanying comments at one point or other.

I stopped laughing and began to wonder about what political persuasion Chris Lander has and then realised that righteous indignation and conspiracy theories are probably something else white people like, or the people that Lander seems to be referring to. I checked the blog. He’s fucking still at it with his sea salt, moleskin notebooks and Mad Men and each new entry (between the posts hawking merchandise) is greeted with hundreds of comments where if you’re not in on the joke, don’t get the satire of what he’s doing, you’ve had a sense of humour bypass of some description. As I meandered about Manchester Christmas shopping yesterday I pondered all of this, repeatedly second guessing my actions (Why do I want to drink this Dark Cherry Mocha? Should I go to see the new Coen Brothers film? What do these things say about me?).

Then, yesterday evening, in an email exchange about something else entirely, I mentioned my crisis of confidence with my friend Kat and she said, and I hope she doesn’t mind me quoting her here: “I hate that "Stuff White People Like" thing because it makes me uncomfortable. It's just not really funny -- it's like its sole purpose is to make people feel bad for liking what they like.” And she’s a genius and she’s right. I shouldn’t feel bad about liking these things, about not being quite so esoteric in my passions. In fact, I should be proud of them. As I sit writing this, I’ve decided, to reparaphrase an old Woody Allen quote with a different emphasis, I want to be a member of this club if it’ll have me as a member. Stuff White People Like could be a kind of life manual.

The person that Lander is describing, taking into account that some of the cultural elements he describes are indeed mass culture of another sort (and non-British), is socially aware, rationally stimulated, aspirational and to an extent forward thinking. Why should I not want to be that? I should be pleased that enough people, enough of us, like Michel Gondry, Sarah Silverman or Arrested Development that Lander feels that he can make a joke about it. Andre would probably shrink away from that but Lander notes that we like plays and theatre too so we kept Gregory in a job. My Dinner With Andre wouldn’t be out on dvd if there weren’t enough people interested in watching it.

So ultimately the experience has left me slightly sad but generally comforted because for once, this person who can so often feel lonely or misunderstood, doesn’t feel quite so. Especially since there’s plenty of stuff in Landy’s book I don’t like or don’t understand for cultural reasons. Assists. Making you feel bad for not going outside. Gifted children. Wrigley Field. Marijiuana. Toyota Prius. Knowing what’s best for poor people (what if you are one?). Mos Def (rubbish Ford Prefect). Pretending to be Canadian when travelling abroad. The Simpsons. Well alright, admittedly, not much, but probably just enough. Now, I'm off to watch some more of the John Adams mini-series from HBO, home of The Wire (page 108).


  1. I guess how I've gotten through this kind of crisis is to accept that it is not what I like, what I read, what kind of work I do that makes me unique. It is the person I am, what I contribute to others and the love legacy that I will leave in this world. Otherwise, I'm going to like what I like, read what I read and no shame for it! (And my tastes are probably more generic than yours ;)

  2. Very interesting - now want to see the list of DVDs so I can sell any on the list! It's not on Lander's site; hmm, hate his writing style.

    Seriously though, thanks for thinking it through. I hope I would have reached a similar conclusion.