Monday, January 30, 2006

publishing blogs and tim parks

This is really interesting; just noted from The Bookseller that Richard Charkin, who is the chief executive at Macmillan - the first publishing company I worked for - has started his own blog; charkin blog. It's quietly interesting without shouting at the moment; I hope Richard opens up more and explores the time he has spent recently with the society of authors and the publisher's association - they've been discussing the future of digital rights, which is fairly crucial stuff right now. With a bit of luck he'll start spilling the beans about Jeffrey Archer's Krug parties, too.

Elsewhere, I'm absurdly excited at the fact that there's only a week between me and the new Tim Parks novel, which publishes on February 6th. Its publication, unusually for Parks, who is not renowned for following fashion, is uniquely timely - not only has Celebrity Big Brother, which has surely ascended from a profoundly un-Orwellian gameshow to the status of masterful post-modern satire, finished, but Parks finds himself, like Rick Moody, writing about TV at a time when television, stardom and celebrity seem to have gripped us all. Even Jeremy Paxman is appearing on Big Brother now. If Parks, more commonly found writing intense, feverish first person novels about middle aged men on the point of nervous collapse, has turned his attention to the "invasive nature of the public voice, the spoken media", perhaps he is due a little attention and a long overdue critical reappraisal. For my money, he's the best writer in the game, but utterly under-appreciated.

Except of course Parks hasn't really revised his approach, by the sound of things. The central character of 'Cleaver' might be a TV celebrity, but it looks like the book will address all of Parks' common themes; displacement, memory, nausea, loss. His website currently displays the first page of the novel and, as always, it's almost unreadable - Parks's authorial voice is so singular and strange that you have to throw yourself in and splash around lost until meanings become clear. It's something to do with his use of tense. One section reads:

"I have no baggage, he declared. Nothing. Nothing, Cleaver finally muttered, as he adjusted a safety belt to his girth, will be brought back from this trip for insertion in the national debate. For so many years a master of the public voice, he would now leave it behind. Such is the extraordinary idea that has somehow thrust itself upon Harold Cleaver during these last few days of remarkable public notoriety and intense private turmoil: I must shut my big mouth."

I won't pass judgement 'til I've read it, but no other writer is as exciting, ordinary and strange, for me.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

the politics test

I'm a sucker for these politics quizzes, and Andrew (via a few others) has found this good one; it's worth a go but the results are not terribly surprising...

You are a

Social Liberal
(78% permissive)

and an...

Economic Liberal
(13% permissive)

You are best described as a:


Link: The Politics Test on OkCupid Free Online Dating
Also: The OkCupid Dating Persona Test

Friday, January 27, 2006

bog off boris, you top-up tory

MPs have been behaving terrifically unpredictably recently; revealing secretive gay pasts, engaging prostitutes, admitting to being alcoholics. Okay. Maybe none of that is really that surprising. But there have been a few more surprising occurances - David 'Dave' Cameron's swing to the left, George Galloway swinging into the Big Brother house...

So it's good to see an MP generating all the usual news stories. No surprises from Boris Johnson, who visited Edinburgh University yesterday and declared that - in line with the new Tory policy of retaining tuition fees - it was "high time" that students just got used to the idea. At which point:

"Chants of "Bog off Boris, you top-up Tory" were heard by members of the Edinburgh University Students' Association ...[and] ... things took a turn for the worse when members of the university's Young Socialist group arrived after a local party meeting and began throwing drinks at the MP and jeering."

Irritatingly - and predictably - Boris took it in good cheer. Still - a wonderful chant, if nothing else.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

blue peter and sexual bimbos

I didn't link to the Guardian article attacking Blue Peter's decision to employ former Miss Northern Ireland 'stunna' Zoe Salmon when it appeared in the paper last week, although I meant to, because it was interesting stuff. I've not seen Blue Peter - which has been the BBC's flagship children's magazine show for decades - in a long time, but the article, by Kate Figes, was an interesting yet oddly partisan attack upon Ms Salmon, who is apparentlty the epitome of the blonde and brassy bombshell, and nothing at all like the lovely Janet Ellis, which won't do at all.

"Since [her appointment], her semi-naked body has adorned the tabloids and men ooh-aah over her tastiness on websites. She has a degree in law but you wouldn't think so from the way she pouts on screen, acts dumb when it comes to anything intelligent, wears skimpy, tight clothing and squeals and giggles in a "girly girl" way when she looks at something as terrifying as a spider. She rarely seems comfortable around children and talks to them in slow, patronising tones. She comes over as insincere and fatuous and my daughters don't like her any more than I do."

The article made several very good points about the problems associated with having a presenter who seems to embody those values - overt sexuality, body-image issues, gender stereotyping - which the "long history of warmth and substance" in Blue Peter has sought to contest, or at least defer 'til a little later. Not being familiar with Zoe Salmon I can't comment directly, but I suspect that her shtick is not markedly different from that employed by fellow kids TV presenters Ferne Cotton and Holly Willoughby, both of whom regularly dress up and play dumb for the audience's amusement. People do, however, get terribly defensive about Blue Peter, which makes the indignation all the greater.

This morning I picked up the paper to find a double page of letters responding to Kate Figes's article; most agreeing that Ms. Salmon is an innapropriate host and, implicitly or explicitly, concurring that her behaviour is 'self limiting' and 'sexist'. Several made the point that the article veered uncomfortably from journalistic comment into personal attack, however.

Interestingly, of ten letters, six were from women (and all damned the presenter in pretty strong terms) and four were from men (all of whom defended her), although one of those was the editor of Blue Peter, so you would expect his support. Generally speaking - although I feel very sorry for Zoe Salmon, who has now had on two consecutive Tuesdays woken to find herself singled out as an airhead and a bimbo - I sympathise with the critical position. It is now almost impossible to turn on a television without another manifestation of the thin and beautiful aesthetic presenting. It hadn't occurred to me that Blue Peter - which incidentally I never liked - followed the same cycle of objectification and stereotyping.

It also seems hilariously narrow-minded, however, to imagine that Blue Peter should be some kind of haven from the rest of the world. Although it's undoubtedly important that it should not submit to the lowest common denominator, it's naive to think that its exclusion in some way counterbalances the vast amount of sexual stereotyping which is endemic on all television from Hollyoaks to Top Of The Pops, which stares out from almost every magazine cover and is lauded directly and indirectly in the media in new and inventive ways on a daily basis.

The Guardian reprinted a small photo of Ms. Salmon clad in a bikini at the bottom of the page today, and while it was - perhaps deliberately? - blurred, that didn't stop me squinting at it for a good thirty seconds. I feel I ought to admit that, having assumed my high moral tone moments earlier.

Nevertheless - two interesting articles, either way. The first, titled 'Hello Boys', is available to read here, and the second, 'Blue Peter - sexed up and dumbed down?', is here. Any opinions welcome.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Coldcut cloned

"Coldcut's a reasonably good vehicle," Jonathan More speculates in today's nice interview with the still-going and probably still-fantastic Coldcut boys. "I might pop out for the odd walk about from time to time, explore the lay-bys, but I don't need to get another vehicle."

The weird thing about the evolutions from vinyl to tape to CD to MP3 is the albums that get lost along the way. So I read the Coldcut interview and suddenly thought "I haven't heard Journeys By DJ" in years. Why, where did it go? Did I scratch the record, lend out the CD? I have to think for a minute, and then can suddenly see it in a scratched plastic box, a cassette that I haven't played for probably five years. Where is it? Back home there are about fifteen cassettes in a shoe box which is still sealed with parcel tape from a flat move several years old. It could be in there. If not it's probably packed in a box in my parent's loft.

I'll have to check when I get home. Read the Coldcut interview here.

Monday, January 16, 2006

doherty drug-driving again

one can't help thinking that Rough Trade should maybe consider getting Peter Doherty a chauffeur?

oh, alright, i like the arctic monkeys

Always one to follow fashion, I've been listening to the new Arctic Monkeys album, 'Whatever You Say I Am, That's What I'm Not' and - although I was prickly and dismissive of the Monkeys when I first heard them - I have to admit to being impressed with the record. I keep reading reviews which hurriedly sum the band up as saying they cherry-pick from The Who, The Kinks, The Jam, The Smiths The Strokes, The Libertines etc, which I find pretty lazy. It's shorthand I suppose for saying that the album is not fantastically original, but that's a curious allegation to level against a band of 19 year olds making their first LP, especially in an area as conservative as indie rock. Like most guitar records you'll hear this year, the Arctic Monkeys sound a bit like a few other people. But they also sound much fresher and more interesting than I'd given them credit for.

The first thing of note is the guitars; nice loud crunchy guitars which are at times more reminiscent of the full throttle Mudhoney than the tinny, ramshackle Libertines - it's nice to hear a production job which doesn't follow the brittle post-punk blueprint and instead goes for volume and effect. Alex Turner's vocals, meanwhile, unlike Doherty's, are more than strong enough to punch through the sound, as he does to such great effect on 'I Bet That You Look Good On The Dancefloor', which is great apart from the horrible backing vocals. Elsewhere, there are a couple of really quite decent tracks ('When The Sun Goes Down' and 'From The Ritz to the Rubble'), a bunch of stompers (if Pete Doherty had the nous to write 'Perhaps Vampires Is A Bit Strong But..' he wouldn't be in this mess) and at least two tracks which are amongst the loveliest I've heard all year (and last year, I guess).

'Mardy Bum' is the most immediate; one of the best examples of Turner's really quite impressive lyric-writing skills. It's all about a relationship pock-marked by arguments - something most of us know about - but carried with a maturity well beyond his years. "Now then Mardy Bum", Turner sings, "Well, I'm in trouble again / Aren't I? / I thought as much / 'cos you turned over there / wearing that silent dissapointment face / the one that I can't bear" - all of which is well observed enough, but he gets it absolutely spot on when he sings

"Yeah I'm sorry I was late.
Well, I missed the train,
And then the traffic was a state.
And I can't be arsed to carry on in this debate
That reoccurs, oh when you say I don't care.
Well of course I do, yeah I CLEARLY DO!".

Even better is Turner's take on youth culture in the marvellous, closing 'A Certain Romance', which is a really lovely, neo-Jarvis Cockerian rumination of adolescent frustration on the streets of Yorkshire. "Well oh they might wear classic Reeboks", the song begins, "Or knackered Converse / Or tracky bottoms tucked in socks / But all of that's what the point is not / The point is that there ain't no romance around there". What's really charming about a band of teenagers singing about teenage life is that they really know what they're talking about, and Turner doesn't bother castigating or celebrating his contemporaries. "They'll never listen", he sings, "cause they're minds are made up". But he brilliantly adds "and of course, it's okay to carry on that way", which is a delightful display of nonchalance and beautifully delivered.

The entire lyric bears reproduction, to be honest, from Turner noting that there's "only music so that there's new ringtones" to observing that "just cause he's had a couple of cans / he thinks it's alright to act like a dickhead". The best lines come at the end, when he sighs

"Well over there there's friends of mine,
What can I say, I've known 'em for a long long time.
And yeah they might overstep the line,
But you just cannot get angry in the same way"

I don't think the Arctic Monkeys are the best new band in Britain or "the band of your generation" as the NME put it last week or anything like that, but on the evidence of 'Whatever You Say I Am, That's What I'm Not' they're uniquely timely and expressive. I'm seeing them on the NME tour in February with Maximo Park, the Mystery Jets and We Are Scientists, and I'm really looking forward to it now.

griffin and collett to stand trial

It's been over a year since the police arrested a bunch of BNP 'politicians' and activists as a result of the BBC's 'The Secret Agent' film - during which time one of the arrested men, John Tyndall, who was to be the first to appear in court, died at his home in the eerily-close-to-me Hove just a couple of days before his trial. Since then all has been very quiet on the case, but the Guardian reports this morning that Nick Griffin and Mark Collett (who earlier appeared in a rather better docu-sting, the excellent Young, Nazi and Proud) will shortly appear at Leeds Crown Court accused of race hate crimes.

"Griffin, 45, of Llanerfyl, Powys, was charged in April last year following a long-running investigation into the documentary The Secret Agent, which secretly filmed party activists.

He is accused of four counts of using words or behaviour intended or likely to stir up racial hatred.

The charges relate to two separate incidents on January 19 and May 5, 2004, which were recorded during the documentary.

Collett, 24, of Rothley, Leicestershire, is charged with eight race-hate offences.

Both men deny all the charges."

It'd be just if they were both sent down.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

respect works both ways

Oh, it turns out that Tony Blair occasionally smacks his children. I didn't know that. That guy just keeps on giving us reasons to love him, doesn't he?

As the Guardian newsblog says,

"Frankly, he just wasn’t prepared to condemn most of the parenting population, since parents who have fully abstained from slapping their little people appear to be few and far between. Unlike violence, respect is not a continuum. Mr Blair would have been better off using yesterday’s airtime to make the point that his respect agenda should apply to everyone of us, not just the “really really difficult” individuals within society. It was a missed opportunity for self-reflection."

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

george on four

So what do we think about Gorgeous George Galloway being on Celebrity Big Brother? He seems to have attracted the usual amount of vitriol for doing so, and, as usual, I find myself torn between damning and praising the man they call the thinking woman's Des Lynam. First off, there's no point pretending that George is not an old-fashioned thug, as his distasteful hounding of Oona King proved at the last election. Nor can he survive allegations that he has knowingly stoked up support by allying himself with disasteful people and causes. It's fashionable, given this, to accuse George of having no interest, no 'respect' for his constituents – the inference being that the old Bolshevik will abandon the residents of Bethnal Green as soon as something more interesting comes along (like Big Brother). The Guardian ran a rather absurd article on him last week, accusing him of neglecting his parliamentary duties to appear on the show. That allegation seems to have built in momentum.

But if people think for one moment that every MP spends all day every day serving the needs of their constitiuents, they need to reassess the situation. MPs invariably have time consuming businesss interests and have been known to go missing for weeks and months on end on holidays, business trips, lecture tours and all sorts of jollies (ask Tony). It must be admitted that Galloway has not been very active in Parliament of late – I'm not trying to defend him – but at the same time I think that what he's doing at the moment, while obviously shot through with the same streak of egoism evident in all his media work, is actually pretty interesting and bold. Politics, to most people, is fucking boring, as was clear when George entered the house and it became apparent that none of the younger housemates (and only one or two of the older ones) had the faintest clue who he was. I was really shocked that Preston and Maggot – two young men making moderately bright left-field music - for example, didn't even recognise the name. But that just shows what a bubble I live in, I suppose.

Galloway doubtless expected to be able to use his time in the house to undermine Tony Blair further by talking about the illegal invasion of Iraq, but won't – by the looks of things – be successful. He is censored pretty much every time he opens his mouth. On the first night when he arrived in the house he declared his opposition to the war and was met by a chorus of people replying "I'm with you" and "me too", but Channel 4 set the tone for their coverage by editing out these responses. Since then we've heard nothing on the matter, from what I gather.

The problem with setting oneself up as a detractor of Galloway is that he's actualy – on a personal level - pretty likeable, and certainly entertaining, as his rip-roaring performance in the US last year showed. I want to hate him for cosying up to Saddam and exploiting racial divisions to garner votes, but then I hate Tony Blair a hell of a lot more for lying to parliament and going to war with Iraq, and more than a few of the American neocons who pushed for war in Iraq were more than happy to cosy up to Saddam when it suited their interests. Either way, you can't help but sympathise with him, if only because the gormless, unprincipled bastards he opposes on the front bench of the Labour Party are so objectionable.

In addition, I don't believe, however much I dislike much of what he says and does, that Galloway cares nothing for his constituents or for the people of Britain. Like lots of politicians, I think he's motivated partly by egotism, delusions of grandeur and hubris. But on the other hand, I suspect that he feels as strongly about poverty or education as most of his generation of Labour party MPs, which is to say, a hell of a lot more than most of the Tory party, or George W. Bush.

So far on BB Galloway has not been allowed to come across as anything other than a likeable, harmless old-fashioned sort of chap. Because of the editing, and because the mostly inconsequential chatter of his housemates takes politics off the agenda, he hasn't revealed himself to be the forceful wideboy his detractors like to paint him as. He'll probably get voted out at the first eviction, but he'll have been more successful in a matter of days than any politician this year - bar Charles Kennedy - when it comes to occupying the attention of people who are not generally interested in the news. Which I think is a good thing, and broadly speaking in the interest of his constituents and all of us, so long as there are people running his constituency in his absence. But that brings me to Channel 4.

Why did they put him in? I can see that most BB viewers aren't going to want to sit and watch political debates day and night, but it became pretty obvious early on that Galloway had not been teamed up with people much inclined to the subject matter. With no fear of talk of Iraq dominating, therefore, Channel 4 really should leave the bleeper alone and show us a bit of actual conservation. Big Brother is very occasionally a brilliant programme, although it's far more often a grim embarrasment. Where it succeeds is in the occasional insights into what people think and say, of themselves and their ideas, of other people. Galloway won't be given the opportunity, but a chance has been passed up to introduce a bit of political and cultural debate into a programme sorely lacking in that spark of intelligence.

Channel 4 have probably made a mistake in electing to ask Galloway to appear. Having someone capable of questioning him, arguing with him, and talking sensibly with him might even have entertained a few of those people who only tune in for a scrap or a row. Alternatively, they should just have put forward ten morons, instead of nine.

bbc chimp week

I'm trying desperately hard to watch BBC1's 'Chimp Week' at the moment, but it's just impossible; it features the most irritating, patronising voice-over I've ever heard. It's not that I mind the attempt to force a narrative onto scenes as fascinating and self-explanatory as those presented, nor even the film-maker's insistence on giving the chimpanzees cutesy names like Frodo. It's the totally infantile tone taken by the narrator, emphasising every fourth word as if the audience is four years old. If they want to attract pre-teens they should screen it once at five o'clock and once again at eight, with an adult voiceover. It's a terrible waste of a lot of really good footage. I tried watching it with the sound off but you need to hear the chimps. Ah well.

Assistant are talented

Now, obviously, Pete, Ali and Andy are all bloody good musicians and only need to practice on their respective instruments once every six years in order to be able to master the Assistant back catalogue - leaving them free to pursue all manner of exciting side-projects and day-outs. But me and Anne-Sophie weave a thread of blind panic, confusion and hamfistedness into our slow-blossoming musical talents, and are frequently handcuffed to our respective instruments by a cackling Ali until we can master the piano/guitar part from 'What It Means'.

All the more incredible, then, that one or the other of us occasionally rises from our malaise and does something useful, arty or creditable. Granted, I've not much to shout about at the moment, but Anne-Sophie is entitled to grin and gloat because she has just taken one of four runners up prizes in the competition to design a new baddie for the ace TV show 'The Mighty Boosh'. Her character, Papagei, is below. Well done Anne-Sophie!

Papagei, if you are interested, having "completed a BTEC in Media Studies and Performing Arts from the Gloucester Institute of Adult Education, took an HND in Creative Geology from Brighton University of Sport. He now works as a technical botanist for the GLA.

He lives in Epsom with his parner Shelly and his cat Kipper. He enjoys reading, swimming, current affairs, evil sadism and world domination."

Friday, January 06, 2006

pop music has gone digital

Wow, only the sixth of January and if I see a more thorough article about the state of music and the role of technology in pop this year I'll be very surprised. Thanks to Pete, who points me in the direction of Dan Hill of the City of Sound Blog, who has written a really fascinating and colourful piece, in which he argues that "For all the advances digital music affords, without some concomitant extensions to the way that digital music articulate music experiences, we could be in danger of hugely diminishing music experience, and music itself".

Dan is especially good on the various methods of 'music discovery' which the online experience offers, describing a system whereby although "'music recommendations from social circles' are as old as the hills; what's new is software's ability to formalise, archive and communicate these recommendations, emanating outwards from tight social circles to wider and wider circles of discourse around music. In some senses, to enable a systemic socialisation of those recommendations themselves", which is one of the things I like best about the web. This kind of thing is very much in fashion, of course, as all the recent journalism about pandora and lastfm - both of which Dan covers - has proved.

Yet the medium by which we transmit these recommendations has lost so much of the charm of mixtapes and even home-burned CDs: Thurston Moore has gone on record as dismissing the playlist as impersonal. Hill writes "Whilst a future digital identity might well be richly evocative, the current implementations are vapid to say the least. And while the personal curation of music will always be valuable when received, what are we losing by removing personality? What disappears when the physical wrappers around music fade away? Are the tracks alone enough?". He provides a dazzling array of beautiful packaging to remind us just what we are missing.

Dan is by no means the first to bemoan the lack of physical experience in digital music. But few have managed to describe this lack so eloquently. "So the physical experience", he observes, "is shifting quite radically. As I noted, the handling of the record sleeve was part of the experience, meaning a short journey, however subconsciously, through context to content. As the context has melted into air - as the music has 'become' digital; with music experiences embodied as mp3 players - some components of meaning in music have been detached from experience."

I won't quote too much more, as it'll ruin the article itself, but Dan goes to on to talk about hardware,websites, social software, metadata and its relation to sleeve design, the semantics of band names, digital rights management, and shuffling music. He also links to a variety of charming pieces of software which aim to bring the pleasure back to digital music listening - highlights are the Retroplayer, which adds that much needed snap and crackle of vinyl playback to MP3s, this marvellous interactive chart which tracks have sampled which tracks and Dan's own idea, which... well, I'll leave you to have a look, but it's the image with the Beyonce reference. I want one.

A truly brilliant article.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

assistant were live

Many thanks to everyone who braved the cold to come out and see Assistant play in Brighton last night - was very nice to see you all. Sorry if we sounded a bit ropey; that was the first time we've all been in the same room for about a month, and it probably showed. But we don't really care about a few fluffed outros and hope you don't either. Either way it was good fun as always.

We played a set of pretty familiar songs for anyone who's seen us recently, and hopefully played a few songs for the last time - we revived 'John Wyndham' for the first time in an age and it sounded very flat next to some of the newer songs. On the plus side, renditions of 'Sixteen Months', 'Criticism' and 'August Song' sounded really good; 'Engines and Anvils' and 'What It Means' were beset by slight hitches and vacillations of tone (courtesy of my sore throat). I felt a bit more self-conscious than usual but that's because I made a couple of early mistakes which put me off my stride a bit. I still think we sounded pretty good all the same. Next gig should be confirmed in the next few days.

A quick word about one of the other bands on the bill: Big Red Buttons and the Bitten Mittens are quite easily the oddest and most original band we've played with; they were really super - a bass player seemingly playing on fast forward and yelling gruff lyrics over some exceptional, loose drumming and the sole other member's cello, coming up with all sorts of splendid and other-wordly squeals, scrapes and melodies. The music was quite unlike anything I've heard, sounding in places like Tom Waits twinned with Bootsy Collins, or - as Sam aptly put it - Captain Beefheart crossed with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. At different times you could hear bits of free jazz, delta blues, avant-rock and p-funk. Completely bonkers and most endearing. Go check 'em out on myspace, but most importantly try to see them live. They were great. Everyone watching was grinning madly. We hate them.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

laura barton on JT LeRoy

Despite the best efforts of the singular Lucy Mangan, Laura Barton has been the best feature writer on the Guardian for some time, and her interview with JT LeRoy in today's Guardian is brilliant even by her standards, especially when you consider the fact that she's dealing with such facetious people as the withdrawn writer and his entourage. I think that LeRoy is a decent bordering on brilliant writer, athough I couldn't be less interested in his subject matter, but I've never understood the excitement roused in people by his strange behaviour and secretive personality. He evokes a uniquely self-absorbed and American take on the cult of celebrity, and something about him depresses me; I'd far rather take the conceptual myth-making of, say, Tracy Emin or Sarah Lucas than I would his or someone like Vincent Gallo or Courtney Love. Predictably, he gives Barton the runaround, but gives her in the process an interesting angle, enabling her to embark, like Nick Broomfield, on a fruitless but entertaining quest for identity. Doubtless exactly what he intended, but the intrigue drives Barton to some really great writing.

"I am confused by their sudden desire to be candid, and baffled by the late-night telephone calls and the accents and the giggling celebrity entourage. I am perplexed by the fact that when I left them, Emily handed me a packet of organic chocolate chip cookie mix. I could not tell you if I liked them or they liked me. The facts remain as clouded and uncertain as when I left London. But in some curious way, I am rather pleased to be left clinging to a solitary yet buoyant fact: somebody has written those books, and really, I don't much think it matters who."

The best feature-writing leaves you with an appetite for the writer's work, and while I read without particular enthusiasm some of LeRoy's work previously, Barton makes me keen to do so again. I fear, however, that I won't enjoy it as much as I did Barton's closing paragraphs.

"It is all a matter of authenticity. Is it because if JT LeRoy is not a drug-addled hobo hooker made good, we feel embarrassed because we've been conned, as if we paid full price for a Louis Vuitton purse only to find it was a fake? But nothing has been taken from us. The books remain: as startling and disturbingly beautiful as they ever were. There is nothing that has sullied the New York Times's assertion that "his language is always fresh, his soul never corrupt". And what strikes me more than anything is that in this age of overblown celebrity, where people such as Paris Hilton can be famous purely for being Paris Hilton, mightn't JT LeRoy represent the precise inversion of this? The work is all. The identity is irrelevant.

The words that surface most frequently in my head are those of the writer Peter Murphy, who contacted LeRoy after the New York Magazine piece to show his support: "It all boils down to this," he wrote: "I can't prove the existence of god, but I sure do love the Bible"."

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

a year of comedy tv

Anyone out there watch 'Catterick' when it was on BBC3 or BBC 2 this year? I faintly remember hearing some qualified criticism of it when it was on the digital channel and then nothing more; completely missing it when it arrived on terrestrial a few months later. Happily, Andrew bought me the DVD for Christmas, which was exceptionally good timing considering I’d just spotted it on Amazon a few weeks ago and thought "Oh, yes, I never saw that", and had considered buying the series for myself. Well, no need now, but it would have been money well-spent if I had.

I've actually been catching up on lots of missed comedy in recent weeks; somehow I seemed to miss every show of note last year, and – over Christmas – have had the opportunity to watch a bunch of highly rated and usually good TV shows; from the last series of the now unfashionable series of "Little Britain" (the consequence of Boxing Day stupor: no-one could get up to change the channel), the second series of 'Nighty Night', which I only saw one episode of when it originally aired, a couple of the new 'Peep Shows', several 'Curb Your Enthusiasms', the best part of 'Extras' and the entirely of 'Nathan Barley'. I'm only behind on 'The Thick Of It', now, I think – which I still haven't seen. So, bearing in mind I missed all this stuff the first time round, some belated thoughts on the state of comedy...

One thing that's noticeable is that, although it's now impossible to talk about comedy without mentioning 'The Office', it isn't actually the show which has most informed the best comedy of the last year or two, although its influence is obvious in things like 'The Smoking Room'. Far more influential has been 'The League Of Gentlemen', which in many respects spawned the approach of 'Little Britain', 'Nighty Night' and 'Catterick', all of which either steal directly from the show (in the case of Matt Lucas's Marjorie Dawes) or use the writing and acting talents of LoG stalwarts. Mark Gattis's turn in 'Nighty Night' is hilariously funny, and 'Catterick' features one of the best comedy performances I've seen in Reece Shearsmith’s portrayal of Tony, the young 'nutter' intent on killing Vic Reeves' absurd Chris – who appears to be modelled on Peter Sutcliffe – and Bob Mortimer's Carl. How about this for a prediction, meanwhile – Bob to emerge as a serious acting talent, rather than just a comic?

'Catterick' itself is in many ways the natural conclusion to much of Vic and Bob's work over the last ten to fifteen years; it reminds me most of their wonderful one off 'The Weekenders', which like 'Catterick' superimposes the quirky frienship of Reeves and Mortimer into a small-town setting. After all the stage shows, panel games and sketch-shows, it's clear that Vic and Bob's humour works best in a naturalistic environment. Not that their Catterick isn't stuffed with odd characters, obviously. Nevertheless, 'Catterick' benefits from having a linear story and moments of genuine (if absurd) drama.

Much like 'Nighty Night', in fact, which does the same thing to a different effect – if Vic and Bob have spent the years refining their comic touch, Julia Davis is obviously spending her time maximising and exaggerating her impact. So the new series of 'Nighty Night' suffers slightly in comparison with the first, but remains acutely agonising viewing. Julia Davis's fellow comedian Catherine Tate turned in a typically up and down set of sketchs in her new show this year. The rude grandma and the teenage girl (so much funnier than Vicky Pollard) were exceptionally observed. Much of the rest of the show was below par, sadly.

The comedy of embarrasment – as practiced to extremes in Nighty Night - is most clearly observed in the work of Ricky Gervais and Larry David, as you're no doubt tired of people telling you. I watched 'Extras' with my brow creased, as I found it utterly underwhelming, quite lacking the skill and empathy of Gervais's work in 'The Office'. But as 'The Office' seems to improve with every viewing, I picked up the 'Extras' DVD before Xmas and gave it another go. No luck, I'm afraid – my interest was only sustained through four and a half episodes, and the rest remains unwatched. The Kate Winslet episode is super, the Les Dennis one – which most people seem to like the best – just uncomfortable viewing, and not actually very funny. All the fun is in Gervais persuading Dennis to read the lines he does. The actual comedy is lack-lustre. I think.

'Curb Your Enthusiasm' is better, but there’s only so much interest I have in Larry David's character – he inhabits an uninteresting world, and while he is funny, it doesn't do much for me. I'd take any of Woody Allen's recent work, even, over 'Curb Your Enthusiasm'. That said, I've only seen a few, so maybe it needs more time.

The two shows I liked best from the year are Chris Morris's hilarious 'Nathan Barley' and 'The Mighty Boosh', and it's no co-incidence that both programmes benefit from featuring Julian Barratt (and to a lesser extent Noel Fielding) in leading roles. 'Nathan Barley' got a fair bit of criticism when it came out, largely based on the fact that the usually on-the-button Chris Morris was lampooning a 'scene' which died out several years ago. I always found that criticism slightly odd, as no-one needs comedy to be grounded in the modern day for it to be funny, do they? Nevertheless, I saw a few episodes when it was first on and found it reasonably funny. Watching it on DVD again recently I thought it was a masterpiece.

The problem is that unless you watch it in a linear manner it's hard to divert attention from Nathan Barley himself, and the not-very-funny pranks and slogans he comes up with. But the real centre of the show is Barratt's exquisitely drawn Dan, who is regularly trumped by the 'hoxton twats' surrounding him. He is renamed 'Preacherman' and worshipped as a guru; but he hates everything about the people around him. The best part of the series comes when he cracks (whispering "the idiots are winning") and makes an exquisite fool of Nathan in a Hoxton cafĂ©, tricking him into buying a latte crammed with scrambled eggs and bacon. "Hah!", he cries, triumphant. Nathan is momentarily crushed, but reacts by declaring the conconction delicious. Dan's face crumples in anger. "Don't you understand?", he demands of Nathan, "I won! I won!". But Nathan comes out of it, as always, on top. Presumably Nathan Barley won’t be commissioned for a second series, but it deserves one.

'The Mighty Boosh', meanwhile, is more fun than anything else on telly. Again, Barratt is hilarious as the put-upon Howard Moon, although this time his colleague Noel Fielding trumps him with his Vince Noir, with his magnificent head of hair and look – best described by Howard as looking like a 'camden leisure pirate'. This year's second series saw the pair leave the confines of Bob Fossil's Zooniverse, where they spent the previous series, but the show retains a childlike enthusiasm for animals large and small, an obsession with Gary Numan and a preoccupation with language which sets it apart from its rivals. When Howard and Vince share quick-fire adlibs they're quite stunning. One name curiously absent from small-screen comedy this year, meanwhile – Steve Coogan – turns up as executive producer on this one. Hopefully he's been thinking of something new for Alan Partridge during his time away.

Other (sometimes guilty) TV pleasures from the year: 'Shameless', the fantastic 'Spooks', amazing new series from Michael Palin and David Attenborough, 'Dickens In America', 'Jamie's School Dinners', Darcus Howe's documentary about his son, 'Bleak House', a much improved year in 'Eastenders', Doctor Who, 'Veronica Mars' and 'Firefly' on DVD and 'Lost', which I got addicted to and disenchanted with several times over the course of the year. Some great programming on More4, meanwhile – although it seems to have lost its way a little bit. That said, 'The Corporation' is on tonight.

I sound like I just watch TV all the time, don't I? I do go out sometimes, too. And I read books. Honest.