Thursday, 26 April 2012

Nostalgia isn't what it used to be

All that is formulaic does not have to be bad.  When sports teams hit on a winning formula either of personnel or tactics they would be foolish to move away from it.  And of course there's something to be said for sticking to what you know (incidentally, I notice that Feeder have a new album out).  TV seems to work on a similar principle, namely that you should be inventive only until you stumble across something that people like, then you make sure to give them more of the same until they are sick of it.  For evidence, see Popstars, Popstars (the rivals), Pop Idol, American Idol, Fame Academy, The X factor, Britain's got Talent.  The name changes, but generally the product stays the same.  Of course ITV are most guilty, but the BBC have to hold their hands up in at least two areas.  The first is the now-ubiquitous travel/cookery programme, many of which tend to focus on the British Isles in a sort of upmarket Man v Food manner, including vast quantities of whitecurrants, samphire and cob-nuts, whilst Giles Coren or the Hairy Bikers tell us what we should be eating more of, and isn't it a shame how what used to be orchards is now a ring-road around Stoke.  The second is the nostalgia shows, and keen to live up to their name, the nostalgia shows have been away for a time but are now back with a vengence.

The BBC decided to go large on the nostalgia show around the year 2000 (a sensible time to look back), and spent every Saturday night with a programme entitled 'I love 1970' one week, followed by 'I love 1971' the following week.  The feeling was that they knew it was possible to cobble together an entire night's TV on one of their two channels by simply showing repeats, as long as the repeats all happened to be from the same year.  The glue that held these programmes together took the form of various comedians and social commentators (wherever else would Stuart Maconie and Gina Yashere come together?) whose role was to exclaim 'I can't believe we all used to wear leg-warmers' at the end of a clip where people wore leg-warmers, or 'I can't believe we all used to wear 3-foot high top-hats with mirrors on them' when a clip of Slade was shown.

The popularity of these programmes was such that when the 'I love 1970s' series came to a close in late 2000, they simply wheeled out an 'I love 1980s' series.  This was followed by the 'I love 1990s' series.  It was more difficult to class the 'I love 1999' programme strictly as nostalgia, bearing in mind that the show aired in 2001.  I can't believe I used to wear that?  Not really - clothes from 1999 made up the most fashionable items in my wardrobe at that time.

The Beeb have re-introduced the nostalgia again recently with a series called 'The 70s'.  Apart from the fact that something from 1972 might turn up alongside something from 1976, rather than being separated by four Saturday nights, it doesn't smack of anything original.  But people still seem keen to lap it up.  But who is actually allowed to feel nostalgic whilst watching kids bouncing on space-hoppers or riding Rayleigh Choppers?  Surely only those people that were bouncing on space-hoppers or riding Choppers at the time?  So anyone from the ages of about 5-15 in, say, 1976 can feel nostalgic, which means that only those people aged between 41 and 51 now really be experiencing a feeling of nostalgia, or at least a heightened sense of nostalgia.  These people are experiencing genuine nostalgia; they are whistfully remembering a time gone by, a happy time, a simpler time and a time about which they can say 'I was there'.  I'm not nostalgic for space-hoppers because I never bounced on one, nor did I know anyone that did.  I'm no more nostalgic for those squidgy orange balls than I am for penny farthings or Arkwright's spinning Jennys.

But nostalgia affects us all, and it seems that we're able to feel nostalgic about the past, even if it wasn't our past.  I watched a programme about George Formby last week, which included clips of many of his bawdy songs (most of which seemed to be about his penis, or his desire to spy on women through windows).  Yet by the end of the programme I was convinced that the London riots were pretty much a direct result of the decrease in the number of people playing the ukelele and that what this country needed was a mass-exodus to the Blackpool ballroom to listen to a load of George's old music-hall classics.  I got rather carried away, as you can probably tell.  

We're all keen to look back with rose-tinted spectacles, and tend to remember just how bad today is compared to the halcyon days of yesteryear.  Wattle and daub houses and rampant syphilis, that's when times were truly great.  Mind you, things can be taken too far.  The Happy Mondays are back on tour.

Friday, 20 April 2012

You never see it coming

It's a well-known fact that someday, inevitably, we turn into our parents.  Habits, phrases and behavioural quirks that we swore would never become part of our daily routine end up sneaking in like a weasel through some form of genetic osmosis.  Resistance is futile and it's safest to accept the inevitable and enjoy the ride.  There's a great difference between noticing certain traits that have been handed down from parent to child and that specific point where it's clear that the transformation is complete, but you'll know it when it comes.  I did.

For some time now I have been walking into rooms for something, forgetting what it was, doing something else, then remembering what it was only by walking back to the exact location at which I first realised there was something I needed to get in the first place.  I have on various occasions found my pen in the toothbrush holder, my toothbrush in the fridge and the milk in the cupboard where we keep the teacups, but even this didn't strike me as marking the definitive move over to the parent-side.  I was expecting the change to be rubber-stamped the day I rushed to answer the phone because a phone rang on the TV programme I was watching (which didn't sound at all like the house phone) and I've been watching out for this particular event hawk-like for some time.  Maybe this was the problem and I must have taken my eye off the ball, because a couple of weeks ago I made a conscious decision to not simply complete the transformation, but to smash right through any kind of behavioural barrier than may have existed between myself and the intimate generation above.

The County cricket season started extraordinarily early this year, in the first week of April.  March had been balmy, giving hope that this early start might be justified weather-wise.  But the Gods of cricket have not built up a formidable reputation for nothing, and on Thursday 5th April a Baltic wind swept the Country, heralding the first day of the County Championship.  Undeterred, I headed to perennial strugglers Leicestershire and their pretty Grace Road ground.  A surprisingly large crowd (not quite into triple figures, but this is division 2) had gathered to see if Leicestershire could make a good start against Glamorgan.  Not quite a battle of the Titans admittedly but Glamorgan were the only side that Leicestershire had managed to beat in the last 12 months.  Two balls into the match, Leicestershire were 0 for 2.  When I turned up, they were 7 for 3.  I took my seat next to a woman, at least I think it was a woman; it was difficult to tell because she was wearing an anorak and furry hood tied tightly so as to resemble a periscope; a tartan rug was wrapped around the knees.  It was the sort of day on which Captain Oates might have stayed inside.  Still, as the scene unfolded before me, it still didn't occur to me that I had completed the transformation by merely being here at this Cathedral of cricket on such a polar day.  However, as lunchtime approached and I delved into my bag to collect the goodies I had brought, it became all very apparent.  Crisps - check; Wispa - check; bottle of water - check.  Wait a minute!  3 separate tupperware pots!  How did they get in there?  As if in a dream, I had carefully placed the main ingredients for my picnic into different sized tupperwares.  There was one for the pork pie (it was Leicestershire remember), a smaller one for my slab of cheddar and the smallest was reserved for a smear of Branston pickle.  Yes, really - Branston pickle in a tupperware.  This was the moment I had been expecting for some years and I could imagine my Dad sitting there, next to me on the cold plastic seat, under leaden skies, and as another Welsh medium-pacer of little regard turned at the top of his run-up I could see Dad nodding to me with a mixture of pride and pity: 'you're one of us now, son'.  

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Table for One

I might have entitled this post 'Solo versus Social'.  I've never been particularly clear on the rules regarding activities that should be done only with others as opposed to alone.  I don't mean that I'm entirely oblivious to the fact that sex should ideally involve a partner (though the solo alternative according to Woody Allen is at least sex with someone you like) and that social reading (i.e. over someone's shoulder) is a hugely irritating habit (right up there with the feeling you get in the car when someone fails to acknowledge the fact that you have let them out of a side-street; would a wave of the hand really be so much trouble?).  But I'm less clear on some of the following: cinema, eating out, holidays, going to the pub...these activities are generally regarded as things one does socially, though I think that most of them sit equally comfortably in the solo category.  

The cinema is still seen as being a 'date location' and I do wonder why there should be a stigma attached to watching films in the cinema alone.  The whole experience relies on silence and concentration, assuming one is beyond the age where the 'date' merely involves necking in the back row of Lethal Weapon 3.  Nevertheless, I always feel a pang of shame when I request my single ticket, and tend to put the word 'just' in front of my ticket order each time.  This is odd; the films I watch solo tend to be in the afternoon, and the vast majority of other paying customers have gone solo too - there's solidarity in numbers for you.  You certainly get a varied crowd, with the oddest set of creatures being discovered at the Ritzy for 'Bobby Fischer against the World'; I guess there aren't that many fans of chess in Brixton.  I did rather pity the soul who turned up solo to watch 'Antichrist', though maybe the embarrassment of watching genital mutilation with a friend outweighs the embarrassment of having the rest of the cinema think you're really into that kind of stuff.     

The rules of eating out seem to be that it's an activity best done with friends, family or a partner and never alone.  This is not something I agree with.  Eating out alone, particularly at lunch, feels rather decadent - it's something that Gatsby might do.  You get to order exactly what you want, your wine choice always complements your food (not someone else's) and in between courses you get to read a book (be honest, on some dining occasions it would be great to be able to get out the book even when not going solo).  If you should feel embarrassed when dining alone, all you need to do is take a notepad and pencil along with you.  At various stages you should sniff what's on the end of the fork and take long lingering looks around the dining room.  Maybe order two starters and ask the waiter for a cleaner knife.  If you go to all this trouble, you might convince people that you're a food critic simply doing his or her day job.  

One should not be afraid of holidaying alone, but it is worth bearing in mind two simple rules.  Firstly, go to the US, where your accent will be enough to gather together a whole set of new chums on day one (disclaimer: this will not work in Boston, where you are still regarded as the hated oppressor).  Secondly, you can make the practice sound less weird by simply describing your holiday as 'travelling' (note that though there's no set definition for this term you're unlikely to convince many people that a long weekend in Dublin is a valid use of the word).

Sorry, I can't do anything for you if you have the desire to sit alone in the pub.  That's just weird and you should be ashamed of yourself.  Freak.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

When Noel met Damien

If asked to name several things we like and dislike, I'm certain that most people could answer instantaneously.  I like Indian food, football, America and a whole host of other things besides.  I dislike The Sun, gastropubs and Ryanair and a whole host (probably the list is longer) of other things besides.  It's rare that two things on either list coincide and rarer still that something from one list coincides with something from the other.  It's unlikely that I'm going to find a decent curry in America, and I hope that I'll never find myself reading The Sun on a Ryanair flight to Dublin (that's the airport named DUBLIN (Prestwick) in case you were wondering).  I refuse to watch comedy awards ceremonies just in case the unholy trinity of James Corden, John Bishop and Michael McIntyre appear on screen at the same time.

It was with a certain sense of trepidation therefore that I approached last night's Channel 4 introduction to the Tate's retrospective on the work of Damien Hirst, combining as it did two of my 'dislikes', namely Hirst's work and the presenter of the programme, Noel Fielding.  I don't find Hirst irritating at all, though I believe there's little artistic merit in his back catalogue.  I have always found Fielding's popularity a total mystery.  Nevertheless, it was with an open mind that I watched; maybe this was the show that would open up to me hitherto un-noticed subtleties in Hirst's work and perhaps Fielding was the man required to delve into Hirst's particular brand of artistic genius and have a good stir round. 

In fact, the programme involved Damien talking in quite a bored manner about his output from the last 25 years while Fielding tiptoed around him like a Schoolboy needing the toilet, clearly in raptures just to be near the great man.  Anything that Hirst said was eulogised by Fielding as though seminal words of wisdom dropped from his mouth like pearls every time he opened it.

Fielding started by comparing Hirst to the Devil, and was then amazed to find out that he was 'quite nice'.  Hashtag: insight.  We later found out that he 'wasn't like Dr Death at all' (whoever he might be), but instead was 'charming'.  Good to clear that one up.  We were told on many occasions that he was the first person to do things (put a shark in an art gallery, cut a cow in half) as if this alone was indicative of genius.  Fielding was once an Art student himself (which is why I suppose he was allowed near this programme) but his own interest in Art seemed to go little further than a fascination with the shocking.

It was odd that we kept returning to the originality in Hirst's work, bearing in mind how tired and un-shocking it now looks.  Originality in itself is not enough to justify great Art, and just because no-one has done it before does not mean that it's worthwhile.  Brian Sewell was afforded just a few minutes of the programme, but he was allowed to make the point that just because the shark is in an Art gallery, this is not sufficient to classify it as a work of Art.  Even if this was the point that Hirst was trying to make, he was about 80 years out of date with this idea, first introduced by Marcel Duchamp in 1917.  

We then moved on to a new concept: the shark is dead, but it looks as if it was alive, and therefore it makes us question our own mortality.  Really?  Does the same thing not occur every time we see un-squashed roadkill on the A1?  Hirst suggested that his fascination with death came from School, when he was asked to handle a human skull.  He said that he was not able to reconcile the fact that this had once belonged to a living human being.  This hardly shows great imagination on his part and presents us with the simplistic and eternal question about the nature of soul - the fixed atoms and molecules from which we are made and the extra undefinable something that makes us human and individual.  Hirst is posing no new questions; he is not holding up a mirror to life or death; he is not producing works of Art, unless you consider that there is a certain beauty in the animal itself, either on the outside or inside.

I have been to see Hirst's work on several occasions over the years: his Pharmacy (the only part of his work I do have time for), his Twelve Apostles, his flayed goats with syringes and pills, his cow skulls with embedded scissors and his recent blue skull paintings (the last one did nothing for me save to prove that Hirst isn't very good at painting and in this sense only it's one of the most daring things he's ever done).

Much of Hirst's work boils down to the question: 'Is it Art?'.  For me the answer is yes, just not very good or interesting Art.  It's a bit like an OK-ish piece of GCSE coursework.  You'd have no problem grading it as a B (or maybe a little higher), but it has little to say beyond that.  I usually tend to define modern Art as being all about asking questions and engendering emotions, irrespective of whether those emotions are positive or negative.  Hirst's work leaves me with a feeling of 'meh'.  He's another example of a man who happened to be in the right place at the right time.  Just like many of the exponents of Britpop managed to burgle careers out of the nation's mid-90s obsession with 'Cool Britannia', so Hirst and the other YBAs managed to ride by for many years on the fact that what they were doing became fashionable for a time, despite the limitations of its Artistic merit.

I might go along to the Hirst retrospective, but only to wait outside to ask the paying customer the old Sex Pistols question:

'Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?'