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).

death defying stunts

Music A corrective to Dorian Lynskey's rather good piece about how the Roy Kerr's mash-up of The Strokes' Hard to Explain with the vocal from Christina Aguilera's Genie in a Bottle defined the music of this decade. Lynskey says it was never released, but a cover version (cash in) was turned out by Glaswegian group Speedway, reaching #10 in the hit parade. Here's the rather good video which has nothing to do with the lyrics but offers death defying stunts:

... and for comparison the bootleg itself with a video concocted for use on music channels ...

going to the wall

Technology The History of the Internet in a Nutshell is very, very useful. Turns out I was using UNIX at university to access the internet. I did not know this. Also:
"1995 is often considered the first year the web became commercialized. While there were commercial enterprises online prior to ‘95, there were a few key developments that happened that year. First, SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) encryption was developed by Netscape, making it safer to conduct financial transactions (like credit card payments) online.

In addition, two major online businesses got their start the same year. The first sale on "Echo Bay" was made that year. Echo Bay later became eBay. also started in 1995, though it didn’t turn a profit for six years, until 2001.
I remember watching the business and online sections of the paper, hoping that Amazon would head into profit so that it could open up in the UK with a secure future. Little did I realise that it would lead to high street retailers going to the wall. Borders UK closing down sale apparently begins tomorrow.


Life Each year at about this time I visit the Christmas Markets in Manchester and today was the day. One of the pleasures is to see the giant santa on the roof of the town hall, his jolly face waving down at the visitors becoming slowly sozzled on mulled wine. This year, I was greeted by this:

It's Zippy from Rainbow. Here's a shot of it lit up at night (the lights apparently only using up a third of the power the air pump used on the old inflatable model) and remarkably, no one from the council or it appears the people who constructed in France have fessed up to the similarity, which makes the whole thing even more delicious.

From space?

the Sisyphean task

Media The Rumpus offers a thoughtful and honest critique of the media's reaction to Dr Brooke Magnanti's reveal:
"The abolitionist agenda seems to be to propagate the myth that all sex work is 100% awful, all of the time; rather than lobbying to address actual abuses within the industry, they’ve prioritized the Sisyphean task of getting rid of the whole damn thing. This is especially convenient when the laws that they have campaigned for put sex workers in greater danger: any rise in violence, or, god forbid, murders, can be blamed on the inherent risks of the job and be recycled as further evidence that the sex industry as a whole needs to be eradicated."


Film Neil from interviews Robert Englund on the occasion of his autobiography:
"The internet is so full of misinformation – I’m waiting for them to declare Germany won World War Two. I was actually auditioning for the role of the surfer in Apocalypse Now but they said I was too old for that, but I was dressed kind of military so they suggested I might be right for a film across the hall. [...] I went across and it was auditions for Star Wars where they actually saw me for Han Solo, although they said I was too young!"

the several hundred copies of Peter Andre’s "Flava" album

Art When I was working at the old HMV store in Liverpool, I always seemed to greet lunchtimes like a spiritual experience. Stuck as I was in that stock room, often on the floor, head down labelling cds, to step into the sunlight of Church Street was a revelation, and because my neck was usually hurting one way I would always look up. It would be a lie to say that this was the first time I’d appreciated the architecture of Liverpool, but it was certainly the first time that it’s mere existence was a reminder that there would be a life beyond that concrete floor, beyond the several hundred copies of Peter Andre’s "Flava" album.

In Liverpool, we enjoy an unusual architectural variety, a physical history of buildings stretching from the Tudor-style of Speke Hall up to the modernist edifice of One Park West. To be a student of architecture in Liverpool must be to spend half of your time studying books and the other half simply walking around, your eyes forever fixed on roofs and doorways and finials collectively pointing at archways and spires. This heritage is so much a part of our environment that we often forget how lucky we are.

That’s the theme of Building Merseyside: A Contemporary Interpretation of the Architecture of Liverpool and the Surrounding Area, the new exhibition at The Artists Studio in St. George’s Hall whose private view was tonight. I tend to miss these gatherings, either because they’re on a Thursday night and I work on a Thursday night or I’m rarely invited to them. The show was the other event happening in the hall tonight. I almost blundered into some kind of sports awards, where I would have looked even more out place.

Photography makes up the majority of the work on show. Peter “Pete” Carr is there (that's him at the top right, I'm on the left), the best of his selection “Hope Street” a stunning evening shot taken from the top of the Anglican Cathedral on a long exposure leading to the streets being eerily empty at one of the busiest times of the evening. Alan McKernan’s group offers Soviet-like monochrome prints of iconic buldings that highlight the angles and corners of the likes of the Liver Buildings. Bev Evans’s intriguing Q Park Shadows reduces one of Liverpool’s new features to abstraction, people walking across the ceiling of the multi-story car park (viewed from below) reduced to a jumple of shapes and images.

Evans highlights the changing face of Liverpool and Ryan Jones’s “Lime Street Station” catches the rail gateway at moment of transition as the ugly 60s shops which once sat huddled in front of the industrial moment sits demolished instead, hoarding on the front of the station signalling Liverpool’s cultural renaissance. Stephanie de Leng takes a more impressionistic approach, only allowing splinters of the subject a piece the fog of her out of focus backgrounds, the tip of a railing, a sea gull, the Liver Buildings as seen from Birkenhead. She's trying to capture the soul of the city, I think, and like the soul of people, only ever managing to glimpse at one small section at a time.

Of the painting and sculpture, the most eye-catching is Susan Finch’s “River City” an explosion of impressions of the buildings we’ve already seen in the exhibition montaged together and merging in places to form the kind of memory a homesick Liverpudlian might have of their home town, and the more we look, the more we notice with some elements not quite fully formed. Tony Evans’s courageous “Liverpool Waterfront” recreates those elements haphazardly in bronze apparently creating a view from across the Mersey, a pattener in the bronze base providing a blue sky.

Well worth seeing, the exhibition even has room to explain to us that fabulous scenes do exist further affield, Simon Birtall’s pointillistic paintings of Birkenhead Priory and park and of Ashton Park in West Kirby bursting with colour. But all of this work is a fine reminder of the beauty that surrounds us city dwellers should we care to look.

The Exhibition runs from 27th November 2009 to 3rd January 2010 and is open 10am-5pm daily (except Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Years Day). Admission is free and all work is for sale.

at risk

Commerce Borders UK has entered administration. I was in the Cheshire Oaks branch yesterday and asked the assistants behind the counter if the shop was at risk. They said they didn't know anything, but that since they were Christmas temps all they hoped was that they would get paid at the end of the week. I suggested the fact that the company was even taking on temps was a good sign, which shows that I didn't know anything either. I wished them luck. It seems they really needed it.

a Doctor's demise

TV Just when I thought I'd read everything there was to say about Doctor Who's The Waters of Mars, I find a brilliant paragraph like this one:
"You know what would have made that even better for me? If just before Lindsay Duncan went into her house to kill herself, she had casually turned around on her doorstep and shot the Doctor first, so that he had died a banal death all alone in the snow, instead of whatever OTT whistles-and-bells everything-but-the-kitchen-sink guest-starring-EVERYONE-who-has-ever-been-in-Who-EVER Messianic exit is lined up for the Christmas Special. Man, that would have been BLEAK. But that's just my preference."
Which is brilliantly bleak, I'm sure you'll agree and would have really been a surprise. Thing is, we've already seen that ending, at least we've seen a Doctor's demise which is very similar. After crashing through time and space bending it to his will for three years on tv and six years in the Virgin New Adventures, the Seventh Doctor pitched up in San Francisco (or Vancouver doubling for San Francisco) and this happened:

Even he deserved a better send off than that ...

look again

Music Steve Lawson notices that airplay on Spotify is more profitable for a music artist that Radio One if you take advertising benefits out of the equation. I do wish Spotify would release some of the figures for how much money an artist can hope to received from having their music on the network. It would stop idiot controversies like the Lady Gaga thing from clouding the good work it's undoubtedly doing. And labels and companies wavering about having their music in the database would look again at its potential [via].

selfish bastards

Theatre I can only sympathise with Ian Hart who took it upon himself to give an audience member a going over at the end of a performance in which he'd had to deal with the lousy behaviour of the collective dark. Firstly because it seems he picked on the wrong bloke, something I've been guilty of in cinemas when I've asked someone to be quiet when in truth I could only tell the noise was coming from a general area and secondly because the issue came up at all.

I talked in the summer about the horrendous audiences I had to endure at the RSC; I had to get permission to move during the interval for The Winter's Tale because I was stuck next to a riddler/fidgeter/chunerer and during Julius Caeser had to put up with wisecracks from the coach party I was stuck in the middle of, ruining the tension of both Caesar's death and battles at the close of the show. In fact, I can't think of time in the past decade (other than for this) when I've been to the theatre and someone in the audience hasn't disrupted the people around them.

But to paraphrase Beckett, there's nothing to be done. If the theatre starts policing the audience, the experience is disrupted still further by their mere presence. The selfish bastards doing it don't think they're doing anything wrong because no one has bothered to give them an eticate class, but when exactly is that going to happen? Before the theatre even agrees to sell them a ticket? Should the theatre pass on a flyer with their ticket outlining suitable behaviour? Before the play starts an announcement asking people to shut the fuck up?

Geoff or Jeff

Life I discovered at the weekend that some of the colleagues I work with, not directly but within the building went around for nearly a year and a half thinking that my name was Geoff or Jeff (the spelling probably isn't important). I have previously been called Ian in the past because it's my middle name and I'm pretty vigorous about using my middle name and people have been confused by that but this is the more interesting development.

It means that whenever people were about to ask me something, or perhaps talked about me if I was running late or wasn't available, they'd be saying "Ask Geoff, he might know..." "I wonder what's happened to Jeff today..." "Is Jeff there?" "I can't see him..." Apparently they realised after they saw my name badge and I know when that was because it was about the time they curiously started saying Stuart a lot when they talked to me. "Hello Stuart." rather than "Hello." and whatnot.

Inevitably I begin to ask myself, "Do I look like a Geoff?" I've only met three Geoff's in my span and I wasn't a big fan of two of them (and didn't know the other one well enough to form an opinion) which does bias my against the name somewhat. There are plenty of famous Jeffs of course, though in truth they tend to be labelled with the full Jeffrey or Geoffrey, at least professionally. In truth, I think I do look more like a Stuart. But not Stewart. That's just wrong.

Any way the wind blows ...

Borders was my favourite book shop

Commerce Borders UK stores prepare for their final chapter. They've stopped taking orders for books online and in stores, which as we know from the Zavvi experience this kind of thing is very bad news indeed for a chain. For a period, Borders was my favourite book shop. I even had a rule that I couldn't leave the store without having bought something and it was always the place to find unusual items, be it music I wouldn't otherwise listen to, books I wouldn't necessarily read to or otherwise some very good world cinema.

But over time, the elements which made Borders different eroded; first it was the listening posts which allowed you to sample most of the music in the shop, then the breadth of the stock began to noticeably erode. Other shops, like Game and Paperchase began to take up residence within their walls taking away the space for Borders's own stock and the overall feel of the shop, that of an old fashioned library where you could buy the stock, was broken up. Now they just feel like any other shop. And I have Spotify, no time to read books, and Lovefilm.

gravitating to the green

Architecture While I was in Stratford on holiday, each evening I'd somehow end up gravitating to the green outside the Swan theatre at Stratford-Upon-Avon, sitting against the hoardings that hid the work being carried out on its redevelopment inside. I'm fascinated to finally be able to read about that work, and the sensitivity of the architects to the theatre's aims:
Elsewhere the job, although complex, has gone relatively smoothly. The viewing tower presented its own challenges and the RSC’s desire to leave the old bits of the building, including graffiti, exactly as they were caused some raised eyebrows.

“It’s quite a shock to us to leave stuff unfinished,” says Court. “The guys want to do things perfectly and can’t understand it has to be left as it is. But once they got used to the idea they were quite proud of it.”

He adds that they also enjoyed the job, and that Wilson has made a big effort to make workers feel valued, even hosting barbecues and pig roasts. And as this is the RSC, treats have included performances in the temporary theatre nearby and drinks with the cast.

intimate, graphic and primal

Elsewhere A short review of a short novelistic version of Hamlet "... something far more intimate, graphic and primal."

'Hamlet' by John Marsden.

There’s something a tradition of turning out prose adaptations of Hamlet and it’s only right to investigate these singular interpretations along with the productions of Shakespeare’s text. The author’s analysis of the characters can take full advantage of the novel’s form, removing perhaps the artifice of the soliloquy by spelling out the internal dialogue which Shakespeare hints at when an actor would other stand up-stage and address the audience (or not depending upon the director). There’s also even more room for experimentation, since a reader will more than likely already be familiar with the story even as they turn to the first page leaving room for the writer to offer a different approach to the story.

John Marsden’s novel retells the story as a kind of Elsinore 90210, injecting some of the adolescent longings and leanings which Shakespeare only hints at. Following the same evidence that Steve Roth points to that Hamlet, Horatio and their peers are all of post-pubescent age, he reinforces within them the beating heart of young passion, to the extent that because they’re still becoming used to the changes in their own bodies, they’re emotionally ill equipped to deal with the encroaching requirements of being part of the royal family, and Hamlet in particular with the responsibilities of avenging his fathers death. We visit them during some eye-wideningly sensual moments, in which we become voyeurs, not of the wider psychological motivations of the characters as literary criticism might have it, but something far more intimate, graphic and primal.

Marsden also shifts about Shakespeare’s narrative, placing the discovery of Hamlet Snr’s Ghost up front before the throne room scene, for example, giving the impression of memories, of Horatio perhaps trying remember the order of events and getting it slightly wrong. As the novel progresses, these details seem to snap back into focus and as such the novel becomes less interesting, more like a straight prose retelling of the story. But the book continues to be worth reading (even with a skipping eye), for Marsden’s keen ability to express the details of the Elsinore court, particular the usually forgotten staff from the servants to the cooks who he renders with the kind of Dickensian minutiae that even filmed productions rarely achieve.

Hamlet by John Marsden is published by Candlewick Press. £10.31. ISBN: 076364451X.

old factory films

Commerce This rather nifty video shows's warehouse in Swansea and look like one of those old factory films from Play School. Don't watch if you want some dream or expectation shattered. It's about what I expected; that Amazon are able to process so many orders with such accuracy is a marvel, even if you have to wonder about the sanity of the staff.

a church

Elsewhere I've posted one of my favourite Liverpool blogger profiles to date: it's from a church.

her breakfast choices

Food Anna on her breakfast choices in the big country (for the record this is my morning munchy of choice):
"There are boxes that seem to be entirely composed of things you shouldn’t eat for breakfast: miniature chocolate chip cookies that you pour milk on and eat with a spoon. Little brown and orange balls that taste of chocolate covered peanut butter cups and contain more sugar than if you simply cast a bowl made out of chocolate and peanut butter and munched down on it. And that’s probably available: I just haven’t found it yet. There are things with marshmallows and with nougat. Real chunks of fruit, real chunks of muffin, god knows there’s probably one out there with real chunks of the Berlin Wall in it, I just haven’t found it yet."

in-between age

Commerce I love M&S (or Marks & Spencers in old money). It's one of the few shops I still feel a slight tingle about as I walk through the front door, especially if it's at the food department. In fact if there is something right about the chain these days it's that you can always find something tasty to eat or drink.

The problem, as Elizabeth Day identifies, is that there's so much in store that it can be a little bit overwhelming. The Mens clothing department in particular can be difficult to navigate because it's on a label by label basis which means that you have to go to five different parts of the shop to look at coats. Then another five for trousers and so on.

I appreciate that different labels are trying to cater for different markets, but with our mix and match post-modern approach to culture, all I really want is a comfy coat, comfy shoes, and half decent pair of shoes. Wouldn't it make more sense to have them all split up and displayed together? Or is that too old-fashioned? Or is it just that I'm at that in-between age when everything looks like a viable option?

less than simple navigation

Commerce The website for posh chandlers/gift shop Astier de Villatte is a visual feast. Some might grumble about the less than simple navigation, but setting the process up as a kind of artistic game forces you to explore their wares in a far more enjoyable manner and leaves you with a greater impression of what the shop is about than a simple text on screen format. The lady reminds me of a young Laura Linney [via].