Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Escape Artist in the Covent Garden Piazza

Street performers are as much, if not more, part of Covent Garden than Tuttons. I was wandering through the other evening with an ice-cream from Thornton's and a new wallet from Fossil when I chanced across this guy. I stayed to watch, and very entertaining it was as well. Before starting on the escape act, he had done some juggling with the diabolo and three knives. Since I can barely hold one knife to eat without it falling on the floor, juggling three is pretty neat trick. Then he did the escape trick.

The trick is to take a deep breath and expand your body as the assistants are putting on the chain and rope. When it's time to escape, let all the air out and shrink yourself. That's why the chains can be made to fall off. I'm not sure about the straight-jacket, but I think it's an acquired trick with a shoulder-movement. Doesn't make it any the less impressive.

Friday, 25 May 2012

On Finishing In Search of Lost Time

A few weeks ago I finished reading the final volume of In Search of Lost Time. The Penguin edition is in six volumes: The Way By Swann's; In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower; The Guermantes Way; Sodom and Gomorrah; The Prisoner and The Fugitive; Finding Time Again. Full disclosure: I gave up about a third of the way through The Prisoner and The Fugitive because the endless  obsessive details and worryings over Albertine's faithfulness and doings started to feel repetitive after one hundred and fifty pages. Otherwise, I have slogged through the lot, even if reading The Guermantes Way felt like hitting my head with a hammer at times. I'm glad I did.

I have memories of trying to read Scott Moncrieff's translation when at university and suffering badly. I find the Penguin translations effortlessly readable and without the give-away signs that it was written to be "accessible". If you're a reader, you know you have to read Proust. You don't have to do it now, and some knowledge of the history of the time will help, or the younger amongst you will be wondering why he doesn't just track Albertine's smartphone with Footprints.

You don't review Proust, and more than you review Beethoven or Aristotle. Along with Musil's Man Without Qualities, Joyce's Ulysses, James's Late Novels (The Wings of A Dove, The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl), In Search of Lost Time is canonical. I glanced through it about ten years ago one Saturday morning in a Waterstones and bounced right off it: the subject matter seemed to me frivolous and ultra-refined. One day I just bought the Penguin edition volumes and put them on the shelf to read later, and three years ago or so, I was ready to read it.

Everyone starts with The Way by Swann's and very few get any further: it's actually quite a tough read in places. Instead, start with In The Shadow of Young Girls in Bloom, which should remind you of being a teenager and has the most laugh-out-loud moments, as well as some of the most memorable images and episodes. I suspect I will appreciate The Guermantes Way more the second time around, but I'm not at all sure I'm going to rush back to Sodom and Gomorrah, Proust's look at the homosexual and lesbian scene amongst the aristocracy. By today's standards, even in comparison to The Well of Loneliness (one of many books I've read and almost completely forgotten: I remember it as being emotionally but not physically explicit), his treatment seems tame, but he thought it was scandelous at the time.    

You need to know who these people are he's talking about, so you need to read the others before reading Finding Time Again. And if you're under fifty, don't bother reading it at all, because you won't have the life experience to make sense of it. I would not have understood what on earth he was talking about ten years ago, but oh boy do I now. The second half is a prefect description of the sense of change, falling and increasing irrelevance that one feels as one's hair gets greyer: Proust's narrator returns to Parisian society after a long period in a sanatorium and finds it full of people he's never heard of, who would never have been allowed past the door when he climbed his way through the window - the narrator is a social climber. It's a meditation on the exact ways his High Society has now become marginal and a memory of itself: mod out the details and it's about your life, but only if you are the narrator's age. As I get older, I get further from the rest of the world, which is full of strangers I don't want to do with, and what means more to me are the memories. Proust felt the same way. Reading that second half of felt like having some of myself explained to me.

The whole project is about the importance re-living one's life through memory. Important, that is, if you're a reflective, distracted, intellectual who wasn't too engaged with the practicalities of the world. Which is me. The point about his madeleine is that it brought the events back to him with a richness that they didn't have at the time. Only through memory can he understand what happened and see it for what it was. This isn't the "we need to live more in the moment, and pay attention to our lives" cliche: Proust's point is that it's exactly "living in the moment" that prevents us from understanding its significance and depth. That's what memory is for: it's only when we have time to remember an event fully that we can see what it really was.

This is why everyone looks at photographs, and older people write private memoires. This is what we have left of our lives. Proust didn't need a day job and was a great writer, so his memoire will have to stand for all those of us who do and aren't.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

"Just Be Stevie Nicks" - Or Not

Tavi Gevinson, the world's favourite pixie fashion blogger, gave a talk to TEDxTeen called "Still Figuring It Out" about the ways that teens like her were, well, still figuring out life, maturity and the whole schmeer. 

Her closing piece of advice is: "Just Be Stevie Nicks". Why? She says: "My favourite thing about her, other than, like, everything, is that she has always been unapologetically present on stage, and unapologetic about her flaws and about reconciling all of her contradictory feelings and she makes you listen to them and think about them".

You mean, the Stevie Nicks who had four abortions and was consequently sterile? Who took prescription medication and had a severe bloat-out for a decade? Who has never held down a long-term relationship in her life? Who was a coke-head? Who broke up one of the most successful rock bands in history by having an affair with another of the members? (Though I grant it takes two to tango and Mick Fleetwood was tango-ing a lot then.) Who learned so much about the 12-Step program from her stay at Betty Ford that she let a psychiatrist prescribe downers for her because she couldn't do what hundreds of thousands can, which is work the program?

Apparently so.

Ms Gevinson, like all teenage girls, has the feeling that she's going to screw up at various points in her life, and wants to be loved and accepted afterwards. Which is understandable, if in a rather have-your-cake-and-eat-it manner. Stevie Nicks screwed up her personal life royally, did just pretty much whatever she pleased, gave not a fig for convention and, you know, a responsible and mature attitude to life, forced others to take her as she was or leave her, and, here's the punch line, got away with it. That's the attraction.

Freud got it wrong: what women want is easy to understand. They want to shout, scream, threaten, slap faces, break plates, smash windows, sell the new car for $10 in a blaze of revenge, walk out on the kids for a coke-dealing biker, steal money from the guy's wallet while he's asleep, disappoint and upset everyone... and for all of it to be forgotten tomorrow. Women want a clean slate for themselves and a detailed inventory for everyone else except a few close buddies. 

Which seems to have been Stevie Nicks' life. Except it wasn't. The reality is that when it mattered, Stevie Nicks delivered the albums and the concert sales. If she hadn't, the fans would have deserted her and the industry would have stopped taking her agent's calls. She could deliver like that by dint of a strong work ethic and a formidable and consistent talent. At that level of both, people will go some distance to overlook the tantrums, because they know you will deliver when it matters. The emotional incontinence is treated as a cost of doing business with the talent. Absent the talent, absent the tolerance. Most women are absent the talent: they can no more "just be Stevie Nicks" than most boys can "just be Eric Clapton". Because most boys are absent the talent as well.

"Just be Stevie Nicks" sounds cute. It's a nice soundbite, and the future will be full of soundbites from Ms Gevinson. I can't help feeling that her inner hard-working Jewish girl is really identifying with the incredibly talented Stevie Nicks who screwed up, showed up and did the work - but saying that would be nowhere near as audience-friendly as all that stuff about flaws, and she knew it. Unlike the Misses Gevinson and Nicks, we-the-audience don't have the talent, the drive and the sheer damn determination, and we'd rather not be reminded of it.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Third Space vs Third Place

Read the definition of the Third Space carefully. Now read the discussion of Ray Oldenberg's original idea . A gym in the middle of London with monthly membership of over £110 isn't "free or inexpensive" and conversation is not the main activity. But then nowhere in the UK is conversation the main activity - at least the kind of civic conversation that Oldenberg and others would have in mind. The English don't do civic conversation, because the English don't do civic, civil or citizen. Mostly they talk crap about football or polite nothings about anything else. If you ever had a substantive conversation with an English person, they were one of those people who were born in the wrong country.

The ad could only have been written by a single person from a family home they couldn't wait to leave and whose first job was totally boring and pointless. Or am I the only person who gets an implication is that work and home are places that sometimes you have to be when you don't want to, with people you'd rather not know, doing stuff you'd rather not be doing. 

The point is, of course, that those things are true. The point of work is that you get paid, so  you can pay income taxes, sales taxes, local taxes, pension, insurance, train fare, water, gas and electric, medical, dental, work clothes and shoes, gym subscription, food... did I leave anything out? Oh, right. Fun. If you have money left for that. So that's what work is for. Please don't tell me that what you get paid for is your passion, though actually, if you look up what "passion" means, you may find out that it doesn't mean in English what it means in HR-drone speak.

Home is for? I mean, if there are other people there? And sometimes you don't want them to be there and sometimes you have to do things you don't want to do when you're there? So if you live on your own, you're really missing a trick if you don't take the trouble to make your place somewhere you want to be. Or it becomes just the place where you sleep and have breakfast, which for a lot of single people in cities is pretty much what it is.

Maybe the ad writer has a point. The civic Third Place envisaged by Oldenberg is an "aspiration" (management-speak for "unrealistic goal, standard or idea"), not a reality. Maybe in a couple of places in Spain and France, but nowhere in Northern and Eastern Europe, or anywhere in the Anglo-sphere. Maybe the closest we can get is this commoditised Third Space, where we're temporarily free of the compulsory stuff. 

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Paella As Performance Art - Covent Garden

For a couple of days in early March it was Spring in London. Blue skies, temperatures in the 60's and sunshine. Not so much for the rest of the year. Anyway, I was wandering through the Covent Garden Piazza that Sunday and saw this... Paella as performance.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Elles - A Film of Two Versions

So I saw Elles the other Sunday. You may need to check which version your local art-house is playing, because I think there are two. They look the same, but somewhere there's a subtle difference.

Elles is about Juliette Binoche writing an article about two students (Anais Demoustier from the bainlieus and Joanna Kulig from the Polish tower blocks) studying in Paris, who work as prostitutes. They get their dates through an Internet site, so they don't have pimps, and they don't have drug problems, and they seem to be studying as well. They have flats you and I would like to have, and Joanna Kulig has a LOT of shoes as well as an amazing pair of natural breasts. The clients range from a hot young man to an abusive creepy guy to a guy who breaks into tears when faced with Anais Demoustier's lower regions (Even ten years ago I wouldn't have understood that, but I do now.) 

Meanwhile, our Juliette has a husband who keeps answering his mobile in the middle of supposedly important conversations, an older son who's skipping school (because his parents are such great role models) and a much younger son who plays computer games. The younger son is there to indicate that even after a chunk of years, Juliette and her husband were still enjoying a full marriage. Hubby and older son have porn on their "ordi's" (the diminuitive of "ordinateur", so presumably slang for "laptop").  She's a workaholic, deadline-fearing, control freak who feels her actual life is betraying the bourgeois dream she must have had when she got married. Binoche is the go-to actress to play complicated women who you know would be unbearably irritating after an actual whole day, and I suspect we weren't supposed to sympathise with her, but to see her as the problem, not the victim.

The film I saw seemed to have three main positions. First: "the girls come from poverty, can make enough money to get nice flats and things while studying, and you're going to expect them not to? How much do you know about the world in 2012 exactly?"  Second: "so guys go to hookers, and when what they have at home is Juliette, what exactly do you expect them to do?" Third: "sure some of the guys are creeps and some are nice, and some are sad and some are slightly weird but fun. You were expecting what, exactly?"

The film I saw was a stylish (code for "lots of designer clothes, really good photography and set design") but emotionally realistic piece of story-telling - even if it is about a very small niche in Parisian society. I thought it showed the rewards and risks of the lives the girls were leading quite well, and it didn't fall into all the tired old cliches about up-market prostitution.

Other people saw a movie that didn't get with the program and give us those tired old cliches about up-market prostitution. As in "Szumowska provides lurid scenes of perverted sex, but she offers no new insight into the sordid world of prostitution and the dangers sex workers face" or "In case you have forgotten, all women are prostitutes, and all men are johns" or "Szumowska attempts to draw an equivalence between Anne’s line of work and that of her young subjects, but fails to make anything meaningful stick. Elles is the polar opposite of Steve McQueen’s Shame: while that film was a scorching tract on the commodification of desire, this is just smut with a baccalauréat". The last reviewer clearly imbibes the Kool-Aid and is looking for a job in the British Film Industry - Shame was a load of cliched codswallop with zero insight into anything. 

This movie commits the cardinal Anglo left-wing feminist sin of failing to show women as victims, the cardinal Anglo misandrist sin of sympathy to men, and the cardinal Anglo female solidarity sin of being on the side of hot young girls against tired and dishevelled wives. I stress the "Anglo" bit, because anyone who has met Polish women will know that they don't really connect with all those Anglo views. Somewhere in this movie is an understanding for all the hot girls who cashed in their hotness while they could - and if there's one thing Anglo misandrists hate more than men, it's hot girls who cash in.

A recurring device through the movie is the use of classical music to indicate that our Juliette is having a fantasy sequence. This would make the happy-family ending - where everyone is sitting round the breakfast table, in contrast to the harried and un-communal real breakfast at the start - a complete fantasy. In which case we can guess that things are not working out well. I suspect that the film-makers had to compromise at points, and this ambiguous happy ending was one such compromise.

Friday, 4 May 2012

When It's Never Cool To Be Single

There are two occasions when it is very difficult to be cool and an older single guy. The first is Saturday after about 10:30 in the morning, and the second is on any kind of away-from-home holiday.

Saturday is couples day, parading-our-domestic-bliss (or misery) day, groups of people having fun day, football day, let's go running in the park with two hundred other people day. Saturday is the one day when it isn't grown-up and sophisticated to be doing something on your own. An early breakfast on your own is just about okay, but after that the Couples take over, bringing their entitlement and crying babies with them. (I live in London, your Couples may be nicer.) Saturday night is, of course, amateur night out. A sensible older guy gets an early night so he's fresh and ready for the gym Sunday morning.

Away-from-home holidays are weird when you're an older single guy. Especially if you have, as I have, forsworn mood-altering substances. It's one thing to spend the day in a slight alcoholic daze, and another entirely to be awake at 06:30 with sixteen hours to fill before bedtime - on your own. No-one to talk to, no-one to shag, no-one to eat with. £1,000 for airfare, hotel, food, car rental and gas: that's expensive sand between your toes. A thought that will vanish the moment you hook up and actually get laid. Which is why the "older guy" bit matters. Older guys don't hook up on holiday. (Very few people hook up on holiday - except drunk English women with local guys.) A holiday is a strain of its own that only single guys know about ("I'm enjoying this, I really am, this is interesting, it really is, look at that, look at this" is a mantra that goes through your head a lot).    

On Saturday morning, and the morning of any away-from-home holiday I want to wake up in a good hotel in Paris, Amsterdam, New York, London, or a beautiful beach location, with a sexy woman next to me, make love again, have breakfast in bed, watch her shower, and walk round wherever like we own it, which with her beauty and my whatever it is that I must have for her to be there, we will. 

That's not going to happen. I don't have the money. For the airfare and hotel, let alone the woman. However much I know all this stuff, Saturdays and holidays always get me down. ("Rainy days and Mondays" have nothing on "Saturdays and Holidays"). Perhaps "down" is too strong a word. I can't escape the hollow feeling. Which vanishes the moment I wake up Sunday morning. (If you're single and a guy and not in a relationship, yes, there will come a time when waking up alone Sunday morning will not hurt like a mofo. Mind you, not for a couple of decades.) 

Which is why I have years when I don't "go on holiday" and years when I do. And why Saturday never feels right, no matter what I do. The reason I know this about being single and the timing, is that none of this happens when I stay with friends at weekends, and none of it happens during a work-week. Saturday Bloody Saturday.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Spitalfields Oxfam "Shwopping" PR Event

So one rainy Monday lunchtime, I head off to a nearby record store with a cafe to do some writing and pretend I don't work in a crappy open-plan office with more flu germs in the aircon than Porton Down. And I see a couple of cranes hanging clothes out to dry. Or get wet.

Tuesday there's even more, and I asked a guy who was taking pictures of people taking pictures of the clothes who the artists was. It's Oxfam, he said. There's going to be a Press Event Thursday. With Joanna Lumley.

I missed the event on Thursday (I was having a very bad week) and went back Friday. 

The article says "Brick Lane", "Old Truman Brewey" and "London College of Fashion" so I'm guessing there were artist / designers involved in laying it out and making it. The clothes are fastened to a chicken-wire type frame.

If only as much though had gone into the name. "Shwopping"? Huh? What? How stoned do you have to be to think that up, and what exact units of measurement do we need to estimate the tastelessness that decided to use it?