Visiting Oxford

With my Masters Degree course drawing to a close, I have begun wondering which city I’d most like to live in and consequently work [as a librarian]. New York, Tokyo, Glasgow and Birmingham all have things going for them (though I have wimpy apprehensions about moving abroad) and I’ve recently begun to think about Oxford too. Currently visiting with my parents in Dudley, we took a trip to the not-far-away city of Oxford for a bit of a look around.

My parents are somwhat Apollonian individuals so today began at the improbably early hour of 7.00am. After a hurried breakfast, we piled into a pre-packed car and set off for Oxford, arriving there before anything of note had had chance to open. I took this opportunity to stroll around the high street area. Remembering ‘s analysis of New York magazine kiosks (“[to] see what kind of glimpse they provide into the American soul”) I idly and in a somewhat unsystematic fashion tried a similar thing with Oxford’s store fronts.

A Starbucks; a Woolworths; a McDonnalds; a Pret a Manger; a WHSmith; an Edinburgh Woolen Mill. What was the point? It has just the same brand name stores as any other city in the country. There was no insight into the Oxford soul here. If I was looking for a city with difference – for something exotic or less blase – I’d probably have to uproot entirely and live abroad. My first superficial glance at things resulted in false impressions of course: an Oxford shopping street does have a few differences to those of London or Glasgow or Birmingham: everything has become kinda “integrated” into Oxford culture. Everything has adopted a slightly-less-vulgar-than-usual tone. The McDonalds for example is wooden-fronted rather than smacky plastic yellow. While the same evil exists here as anywhere else, it has had to adopt a slightly different aesthetic tactic to the other cities I’m familiar with. The semiotics of brandname outlets and tastefully appropriate aesthetics oppose each other somewhat but speak volumes.

We found a Cafe Nero that had opened early and I ordered a round of coffee. When I handed over my Switch card, the Barrista apologised and told me that they took no plastic. I was surprised as much as embarrassed about my having to run out for cash: every Cafe Nero I’ve been to in Glasgow readily accepts payments by Switch. How strangely unprogressive of Oxford. Perhaps another window into its soul had been discovered.

After delivering the coffee safely to the table at which Mum and Dad were patiently seated, I looked for a copy of The Observer at the news rack. The only piece of it that remained was the “Review” (art/culture) section so I took that as well as a News of the World. I realised that the only copy of The Observer had been dispersed between the patrons of the cafe: one guy had the sports supplement, another fellow had the news, I had the review, a grey-haired lady had something else and the Barristas were arguing over the free fold-out poster (depicting various types of freshwater fish – I have the butterfly version they did a couple of weeks ago) that had come with it. The tabloids were piled up in the stand without being touched aside from my News of the World. It’s as though trash culture is trying its best to infiltrate Oxford but the studious population are just not having it.

After our coffee, we looked at the city from above. I can’t remember what it was called (I was too sleepy and suffer mildly from a fear of heights) but money was paid to climb up to what was allegedly Oxford’s highest point – some sort of bell tower (pictured). It was something of a crappy tourist trap and I exclaimed that my work at the University library in Glasgow has me working and studying (for free) at higher altitudes than this but the view of the city’s spires was nonetheless quite pleasant.

There was much walking around the university and its museums to be had and much photographing of Gargoyles and sculptures on behalf of my snap-happy mother (the photos in this entry are all hers). I thought about how universities are intrinsically connected to research and consequently to the military and the government and I wondered about how Oxford’s tidiness and tastefully put together buildings might be funded.

The clash of the ancient and the modern is something that occurs in many cities (Edinburgh and Glasgow spring to mind, as do Prague and Amsterdam and Paris) but often in separate ‘quarters’. In Oxford, however, the ancient and the modern clash throughout like something from an episode of Sliders in which a modern San Francisco is occupied by Wizards. In spite of Oxford’s central institutes being at the cutting edge (The Bodders for instance is one of the best libraries in the country and the world), bicycles assuredly outnumber cars and the classical aestheic is everywhere.

It’s nice. Are there any Occasional Papers readers who live or work in Oxford? Perhaps you can give me an insider’s perspective or at least tell me that my observations are as ill-conceived as they most certainly are.

Phantom Noises

Whenever I return to the old birthing grounds of Dudley in the West Midlands, things usually feel familiar yet oddly different around my mum and dad’s house. Sometimes this is because things really are a little different to how I last saw the place in that new ornaments or fixtures have been bought while old ones have been put away or thrown out. Other times things just seem unfamiliar in a completely untangible way due to my not living here any more, returning only once every few months for the sake of familial adherence.

Late this evening, while reading my late Great Uncle George’s copy of Under the Greenwood Tree in my old bedroom with the window open, I heard a noise from outside which sounded exactly like the noise a child’s bicycle might make when coming to a halt down in the street. It was the sort of dull squeak of breaks unique to those making contact rubber tubes of a junior Raleigh. I don’t know if I’ve ever actually heard the sound of a child’s bike coming to a stop from this room before but that was the answer brought forward after a superfast consultation with my brain’s acoustic database.

The sound, of course, could not have been a child’s bike. The time, after all, was drawing up to 2am. No one would be out cycling at this hour let alone a kidiwink. No. When the sound occurred a second time, I realised that it had in fact originated from the weather vane.

The weather vane has been mounted in that same place – on the kitchen chimney outside my bedroom window – since I was about eight years old. It is in the shape of a witch riding upon a broomstick and was made by my grandfather. For the last ten years or so the vane has squeaked. So why now did I not recognise what was once a strikingly everyday occurence, confusing it insead for something I’d probably never heard of in my life?

My Honours Degree in Psychology invests me with the authority to declare: “The human brain is weird”.

Somewhat Quixotic

On occasion, I travel by car (rather than by rail) in order to visit my parents. Whenever I do this, I pass a massive and beautiful wind farm just off the M6. I always try to take a photograph of it only to have my plans thwarted every time. It is never visible for very long and so whenever I get the camera out, the pesky thing sinks out of existence behind the hills.

Today I was confounded once again but managed nonetheless to get the best picture I have of it so far, partly due to having a better camera this time with a better optical zoom and what I suspect might be described as a faster shutter. But alas even this picture is rubbish; only the heads of these graceful giants were captured.

One of these days I will make a special trip to the wind farm to get some decent photographs. Either that or I’ll plan to have my camera poised and ready so as not to miss the tiny window of opportunity.

A quick Google search for “M6 wind farm” brings up several similar images, blurred and framed with bits of dashboard and fluffy dice. One day I shall put them all to shame.

Harmful Cogitations

Each thing I do I rush through so I can do
something else. In such a way do the days pass–
a blend of stock car racing and the never
ending building of a gothic cathedral.
Through the windows of my speeding car, I see
all that I love falling away: books unread,
jokes untold, landscapes unvisited . . .
– From “Pursuit” by Stephen Dobyns (published in the compilation, Cemetery Nights).

I find that I sometimes think in two rather dangerous or at least undesirable ways. I don’t think in these fashions too often, nor are they are representative of my usual mindset but I’d like to train myself out of them if possible. I wonder if any readers of my Occasional Papers can empathise?

I don’t like to ‘shape’ the way I think usually, favouring instead to engage with peculiar, perverse, impractical or deviant ideas rather than block them out. I think that’s healthy. But in these cases I’d make an exception.

The first concerns the constant feeling that there is something better to be working towards – a new stepping stone in life – and that once this thing has happened, the “real living” can begin. Fun can be put off for another day until this project has been completed. Does anyone else suffer from this? It’s a total fallacy of course. Nothing will change or be much more comfortable if one’s bank account is out of the red. Similarly, nothing will happen once you’ve moved into a better flat or secured a more desirable job. You’ll still be the same dimwitted person wondering about the next selfish existential target might be met and never really reaching the proverbial carrot of “the real living”. There will always be a more desirable job/attractive partner/fashionable flat to move on to and presumably no satisfaction for this desire.

The second dangerous way of thinking, is never 100% enjoying the thing presently happening to me due to the everpresent distraction of anticipating the next. While reading a novel, I’m wondering about what the next novel might involve. It’s true to say that this may seem like a reiteration of the first problem, but I’d argue that, while similar, it’s a definably different problem but may or may not have its origins in the same place.

Both problems are stupid and make me feel a total prick when coming out with them in this fashion. They are the very antithesis of Stoicism and an enemy to anyone who has them.

Regarding the Stephen Dobyns poem, I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve not actually read Cemetery Nights or anything else by Mr. Dobyns and that I came across the quote in a horrible Stephen King novel a year or so back. Nonetheless, it resonated with me and helped to articulate those weird thoughts. It sounds like a really good compilation though. Wikipedia’s entry on Dobyns describes another poem from Cemetery Nights (‘Missed chances’) in which “the nameless speaker wanders through a metaphorical city in which those who missed their big opportunities futilely rehearse for when that moment will next arrive”.

Artistic Cravings

I find myself going through cycles of wanting to consume different sorts of art in a similar way to how other people get culinary cravings. Sometimes I could want to read so much that I feel I could literally eat pages from my books: just tear the softer pages from their bindings, scrunch them up and shove them into my foaming gob. It’s as though the conventional way of sucking symbols up through the eyes isn’t quite efficient enough a process to satisfy the desire: only primitive devouring and digestion will do the trick.

I’ve never actually tried to eat a book though, you understand. Just imagine the paper cuts.

It sounds weird, I know. But in my defense, William Wordsworth said something similar about nature; that he sometimes loved the Lake District so much that he had the desire to eat vast fistfulls of grass and soil so that nature could exist inside as well as out. I wonder if Wordsworth had been a creature of the suburbs instead of the countryside, he would have felt as passionately about concrete, space raiders and dog muck.

At the moment I’m acoustically fixated: I’m in the mood for music and I know exactly what I want to listen to at given moments. Mostly working from home right now, I have the freedom to do this but I find some of my choices of what to listen to as peculiar as the foods chosen by pregnant women: Tom Waits followed by Art Tatum / Liquorice Allsorts followed by raw onions.

Today I put on a ‘best of’ CD of The Animals. In particular I was interested in listening to ‘House of the Rising Sun’ and ‘Roadrunners’. Why? Beats me. I’m not a fan of the animals. I like Rock n’ Roll just fine but at the end of the day, I’m a jazz fan. But whatever the personal preference, today I wanted to hear The Animals. It’s playing right now as I type this (which is in itself, somewhat uncharacteristic).

So I wonder why artistic cravings take place at all. With food, cravings occur when your body is lacking in whatever vitamin or mineral you crave. But your body doesn’t require art does it? Perhaps it’s some kind of psychological/socially constructed imitation of food cravings: the constructed and natural words getting their wavelengths crossed (like how urban birds are reported to immitate popular mobile phone ring tones).

Does anyone else in my immediate blogosphere have similar cycles and unpredictable intrusions from bands or authors or directors with whom you wouldn’t normally concern yourself?

Strange Larks

Listening to Dave Brubeck’s supremely cool Time Out always makes me think of Otto Lilenthal/Leonardo Da Vinci style flying machines. The second track on the record is called ‘Strange Meadow Lark’ so a flock of flying machines might not be such a terribly disconnected image.

As a result of this, I found a great website called FlyingMachines.org which I heartily recommend checking out if you’re into Victoriana or science or eccentricity or just weird stuff.

I’m sure it’s quite unnatural for humans to fly: whenever I come off an airplane I find that my lips are unimaginably chapped and every muscle tired as though my body, when evolving, simply didn’t take into account that it might infrequently find itself being projected through the sky at a squillion miles per second in a metal tube.

But then, what does ‘natural’ mean? Everything ultimately is a product of nature. From shrinkwrapped lettuces to complex MP3 players, everything began in the Earth and was converted into a usable object via whatever form of alchemy neccessary. I suppose when people are looking for ‘natural’ products, they’re looking for goods with as little of this alchemical process invested in them as possible.

Why do we suppose Lilenthal et al and the Wright Brothers became so obsessed with flying machines? Why is it so important that humans compete with birds? Assuming that there is a psychological, evolutionary or cultural truth to be found buried within any one piece of technology (a plug socket, a pair of shoes, an alar[u]m clock, an iPod), what does the human fixation upon flight tell us?

I’d argue that it’s down to the innate/gradually cultivated desire to escape. Escape! Escape! Escape the humdrum and the benal, the dangerous and the ill-suited in favour of the green grass of some other side.

I think I could get an article out of this for The Escapologist perhaps also with a nod toward the Bird Men of Easter Island. Trouble is, I already have two items plus an editorial in this magazine and I don’t want it to be too Wringham-heavy so if anyone else is interested enough in this area of speculation, I’d be very willing to let them/you take a crack at it.

Pustule Cafe

There is a little cafe in the arse end of Hyndland that I pass on occasion, usually when making a trip to the supermarket. It looks nice enough with its indoor plants and comfortable-looking patio area but the name of the cafe and the typeface in which the name is spelled out above the door reveals that it is being run by and frequented by morons.

For ages I could only imagine that the place was called the “Pustule Cafe”. The ‘brush script’ typeface makes the name of the cafe very difficult to read.

Today I realised that it is actually called “Pasta le Cafe”. To be honest, I think I preferred the pustule variation. The proprietors have clearly tried to convey a continental flavour through the name of their cafe but not done a very good job of it.

Whenever something like this happens, I wonder how it actually gets from the idea stage to being actualised. Everyone they run the idea by – including the sign maker who must surely have some basic knowledge of typefaces, language and grammar and the executives of some kind of professional funding body – must say “Oh, that’s super. There’s no way that’s a bad idea.”

On Superficiality

My first exposure to this year’s Big Brother televisual extravaganza occurred tonight: entirely by accident on the nineteenth day of the run. Is it just me or has there been far less media chatter about BB events this summer compared to those of previous years? Admittedly, I’ve not been in the vicinity of much tabloid press of late so it’s entirely possible that my egocentric world has missed out on it due to simple circumstance. (I did, however, stumble across a massive and notably intrusive ‘eye’ poster after staggering out of a Merchant City bar a couple of weeks back. Deciding that a semiotics-based blog entry might be inspired by its peculiar wordlessness, I took the photo you can see on the right).

An odd-looking blonde girl looked vacantly through me from her bubble world. She was sitting in a radically blinged-up incarnation of the perennially regenerating diary room chair, which made me feel as though I was Captain Kirk on the bridge of the Enterprise and I was looking through the viewscreen at some allegorical alien princess, third daughter of Emperor Boobjob of the Planet Peroxide IX.

The alien princess was dishing the dirt on one of her housemates. She doesn’t like some guy or other because of his being overly “superficial”.

Putting aside the fact that this was probably a textbook reification of a parable involving a noir-tinted coffee pot and a similarly afflicted kettle, what is wrong precisely with being superficial?

Superficiality is used increasingly often as a derogatory adjective isn’t it? A put-down. A garden variety criticism. “He’s just so superficial,” they say, “so 2D”. To be honest, I’d like to spend a little more time with some interestingly superficial people: people without too many secrets or complicated desires. Everybody’s gotta be someone, say something interesting, market themselves as having “layers”, as having so many hidden sides that elevate themselves above the simple skill of ‘being’ that everyone else has. What’s wrong with just being an aesthetic?

Everysoften, I am taken off guard by someone I have known for a long time. My mother, my father, old friends. They decide to do things entirely out of keeping with what I had always perceived to be their character yet they don’t seem to make a big deal out of it. In these situations, one realises that one can live with an individual for such a long degree of time and never really know them. I mean, how easy is it to know everything about a person? How can one ever believe that one has found one’s “soulmate”? Surely it’s easier to achieve this in the case of Mr. or Ms. Superficial. Why can’t we just ‘be’ together instead of spending years figuring each other’s guts out only to realise too late in the game that we don’t like what we find in there.

I like superficial people. I do. Their personalities are not filled with labyrinthine tracts so difficult to navigate and impossible to ever really understand. Instead, they are humble aesthetics who can provide comfortable familiarity and honest company without the conceited fictions that we attribute to “personalities”. Whatever one of those might be.

Charity Muggers

Everyone hates charity muggers it seems. Richard Herring told one to “fuck off” this week and The Guardian reports that the entire enterprise may soon be illegalised.

I have trouble deciding where I stand on this. I don’t want to jump on the bandwagon of hating them like everyone else seems to. Yes, they’re a pain in the ass with their intrusive tactics but they’re probably doing good in the long run and the chuggers themselves are probably in it for morally commendable reasons. Moreover, perhaps we deserve to be antagonised and deserve to feel guilty about our lack of charity. A Freudian might argue that these guys are are probably even doing us a service: by catharticly making us aware of our guilt, it no longer festers cancerously in the back of our minds or comes out in other more destructive ways.

The ethics of it all is quite confusing. There are so many urban legends about how much commission the chuggers themselves receive and concerning how long it takes for any of your donated money to filter through to the people you’re actually supposed to be helping. et cetera. But I suspect these ‘facts’ are just ways of people tangling with their liberal rich person’s guilt.

There’s also the argument that it’s ineffective and that TV campaigns and the likes are better strategies. But (a) TV campaigns are expensive and exclude smaller charities, (b) TV campaigns are also quite morally dubious with their images of fly-covered, skeletal children in the most extreme of third-world environments and (c) if chuggery was so ineffcetive, they wouldn’t do it. I guess the TV campaign alternative, when done right, is able to stimulate a culture of positioning charity as ‘the done thing’, which is undeniably good.

I must admit, however, to finding them extremely pushy and on occasion unpleasant. I am already a member of Amnesty International and Friends of the Earth and I consider myself a morally healthy individual. I recycle. I vote Green. I buy Fair Trade and frequent small shops above large supermarkets despite being on a minuscule income. I’m vegetarian! So why should I be made to feel guilty by the chuggers? It quite often gets to the point where I have to say “I’m not signing up, so fuck off”, which seems crazy considering we’re both on the same side.

So what do people think of chuggers? Do people have a right to get militant and confrontational when it comes to saving the world?

Eating Irons

When exactly did fork manufacturers decide to stop producing sharp forks? Forgive me if I sound like a rubbish observational comedian, but everywhere I go I encounter forks with squared-off prongs.

And I don’t even eat meat. I’ll be trying to spike soft olives out of their briney jar only to have them scoot out from beneath the dull prongs of these inferior eating irons and onto the dusty, hairy, toenail-clippingsy floor.

It’s not good enough and will surely result in Kilroy popping off about the EU legislation that presumably caused this.

Film Remakes

To Glasgow’s UGC hellaplex last night to see ginger Ron Howard’s reification of The Da Vinci Code. It has become a horrible cliche to moan about how lacking in substance this film/novel may or may not be. It’s a crime bestseller, no? A trifle. A yellowback. It should make an OK movie in terms of moving wallpaper. So on entertaining my first exposure to the Dan Brown franchise last night, I was determined to enjoy Da Vinci so that I might not join the ranks of morons slagging off the same harmless thing.

Unfortunately the movie was fairly bad. I must side with the miserable grumpholes who dislike it. The way in which Ian McKellen’s character interprets Da Vinci’s The Last Supper painting is moronic to a Face On Mars extreme and the guy who plays the monk-assassin should be shot at dawn.

But enough of this tot. It is the trailers preceding last night’s movie that I would prefer to discuss.

Now, while everyone knows that Hollywood is now an industry specialising in remaking old films, I must admit to finding it an unlikely possibility that every single mainstream film put out this summer is going to be a remake. Out of the seven or eight trailers I saw last night there was only one film which didn’t seem to be a remake – the new Adam Sandler vehicle: Click. And even that seems to be derivative of Pleasentville and Bruce Almighty and (according to the fora at IMDB) episodes of The Jetsons and Goosebumps.

(On the topic of Click, doesn’t the title suggest a film about a computer mouse rather than a TV remote? Shouldn’t it really be called “The Switcher” or “Knobs” or something? How about “Press the Red Button Now”? I also hate how Christopher Walken has allowed himself to be transformed into a grotesque parody of Christopher Lloyd.)

Casino Royale. Poseidon. Superman Returns. X Men 3. Mission Impossible 3. Omen 666. et cetera.

The fact that so many movies now are remakes, sequels or rip-offs of something else is interesting. It’s as though the film industry has become (or rather has always been) an “advancing parallel”. Where it once made stories inspired by real world events (even science fiction has some real world basis), movies now ARE the real world (or rather a sizable chunk of it in the ‘real’ world of those working in the industry) and so the natural thing for movies to do now is to turn to self reference in one way or another.

Movies refer to the world and in a world of movies all it can refer to are movies. In the case of an integral, interesting film in this reality, a film-about-films would be produced: some kind of metacommentary upon other films. But most of the time Hollywood will just opt for the remake, sequel or ripoff.

I also dislike how a film based upon a novel, comic book or TV Series is considered more original than a remake and in fact exists at all. Shouldn’t a movie be a movie for a reason? Shouldn’t a movie result from a movie script rather than a novel? It implies that (a) the movie is the highest form of art and that novels or comics are just raw material that the movie industry might take to mining and (b) an idea can exist an any form and not be specifically tailored for a given menium.

For example, Pleasentville is necesarily a movie and not a book. As is The Matrix. Jeff Noon’s Falling Out of Cars is a necessarily a novel and not an ice cream sundae. Boo to movie adaptations. Paul Auster, for example, is an author: not a franchise waiting to graduate to movie status.


The best two movie adaptations I can think of are Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation and Michael Winterbottom’s A Cock and Bull Story. The former is about the adaptation process and how it fails. The latter is a a filmed counterpart to a book rather than an adaptation, translating ideas to the screen and working with the book rather than mapping haphazardly selected episode of plot onto a screenplay format.

The Liar

If one conducts a Google search for “The Liar”, the first link in the results list is to Tony Blair’s official biography at number10.gov.uk.

How does that happen? Has someone monkeyed around with the site’s metadata? Or is someone at Google being a naughty anarchist?

In case you’re wondering what prompted this discovery, I was looking for mentions of the Stephen Fry novel.

Fortune Tellers

Heraclitus would have loved Glasgow’s Merchant City. It is in a constant state of flux – seldom can one be in this district during daylight hours without having to listen to a road drill or see a doll’s-house cross section of a building such as this one. I’m not sure why I took this photograph but I must have wanted it quite badly as I had to wait for about six construction vehicles to pass before I could get a decent shot.

On my way home, I was stopped by a young Sikh-looking man. He didn’t seem to speak much English and instead presented a laminated card. My racist brain told me to keep on walking as he was probably after a portion my precious dosh but he wore an impeccably sharp suit and so I discounted this idea and stopped to read his card.

A beggar he was not, but rather – his card announced – some sort of ‘swami’ capable of reading fortunes. This didn’t really make sense to me as ‘swami’, as far as I know, is a Hindu title and this guy seemed to be a Sikh.

If I had money I’d have probably humoured the guy, mainly to see how he could tell me my fortune without the gift of English language. But alas, I was coinless so I told him no thank you and continued on my way. “You are a very lucky man”, he said as I left.

This struck me as a rather nice thing to say considering I’d declined his offer. But then I couldn’t help wondering if “You are a very lucky man” might be some kind of curse or insult akin to the quasi-Chinese “May you live in Interesting Times.”

Following closely behind the young guy was an elderly Sikh man wearing a similarly amazing suit and with the biggest and most handsome turban I think I have ever seen.

The old guy produces a laminated card in the exact same fashion as his colleague had done, despite the fact that he must surely have seen me decline the offer already. “No thank you,” I said smiling and again I was told that I am “a very lucky man”. When he said this, the old Sikh rubbed the bridge of his nose from top to bottom. I am aware that I have a rather ‘defined’ nose: consequently I cannot help wondering whether my ‘luck’ has something to do with my being gifted in the conk department.

A quick google search for the phrase “You are a very lucky man” results in similar anecdotes but in these, the ‘Swami’ starts off with the phrase as a way of getting the traveller’s attention (and not, conversely, as a parting note). Perhaps the guys I spoke to just got their patter muddled up, much as they may have done with the term ‘Swami’.

If anyone actully knows what the phrase “You are a very lucky man” might mean coming from such people, please do not leave me curious.

In other news, points out that my recent Idler article has drummed up some stimulating conversation on the magazine’s accompanying discussion forum. It all looks remarkably critical, which of course I find rather thrilling.

Suitably Grotesque

My copy of the latest Idler arrived yesterday. I’m chuffed to see how suitably and marvelously grotesque is the artwork accompanying my article.

To be honest, I was surprised that they went to the effort of having so much art done for it. There are three full-page illustrations involved; each one depicting a person shedding their professional veneers in the forms of rubbery, besuited and soulless skins.

I don’t know the artist (B. P. Berry) but he or she has done a super job. Three cheers for B. P.!

In other news, I watched Jim Jarmusch’s fairly super Ghost Dog this morning. The soundtrack by RZA is superb and there is some wonderfully moving and funny stuff in it. I hate it when webloggers pretend to be film critics and I vow not to do it too often, but sometimes you enjoy a film so much, you just want to talk about it and Ghost Dog for me was one of those.

Perhaps my favourite motif is Ghost Dog’s relationship with a Haitian ice cream salesman. The ice cream man speaks French while Ghost Dog speaks only American English so neither of them understand a word the other is saying. It makes you wonder how they became friends in the first plce and why they both persist in this relationship. It’s not even as though they are just casual acquaintances either: both describes the other as his best friend.

Perhaps the film is telling us that conversation isn’t all it cracked up to be and the really important element in friendship is being together and keeping good company. Ghost Dog and Ice Cream guy just play chess and hang out together and show each other amazing things (including a neighbour who is slowly building a large wooden boat on the roof of his New Jersey apartment building despite being miles away from the water or even the ground – he’s clearly a modern day Noah).

Another excellent motif is the constant presence of cartoons. The smalltime mobsters Ghost Dog is involved with are forever watching Felix the Cat and Bettie Boop with expressions of quite serious concentration on their faces. Strangely, one of the cartoons they watch is The Itchy and Scratchy Show: a fact which has some serious ramifications in terms of intertextuality. Ghost Dog also wears white gloves, which kinda make him resemble and old-style Warner Bros or Disney cartoon a la Micky Mouse and he can be repeatedly shot and theoretically dismembered (much like a cartoon) due to his spiritual Samurai abilities.

The one thing that annoyed me slightly about Ghost Dog was the use of the Noble Savage stock character. I mean Ghost Dog is much more than that of course, but the fact that he’s an educated and gentle guy, encouraging kids to read books while simultaneously being a wild and casual murderer is a little annoying and reminds one of the horribly racist P. T. Barnum sideshow character, What is it?. I never had Jim Jarmusch pegged as a guilty liberal but I guess 9/11 has a lot to answer for in terms of New York film making.

Blah Blah Blah. Half-baked critique over and out.

Oh, Metatelly

Having watched every video I own to a grim and fuzzy death, I’ve begun scraping the barrel and watching what can only be described as meta-telly: the telly about the telly that you love so much, mainly in the forms of DVD extra features.

Most of it is rubbish, isn’t it? Pure bosh. Uninspiring and resulting only in downtime and the bursting of so many bubbles.

“Never meet your heroes, they only let you down”, sing The Bluetones, “I can see the cracks in yourmakeup the closer you are.” I’ve never put too much stock in that idea: I’ve met several of my “heroes” professionally, casually and as a stalking fanatic, and they’ve usually been nice and worldly dudes. But in metatelly world, it’s easy to discover that many of the people involved in the creative processes of making your favourite shows or movies are clueless boobs.

Watching the documentaries attached to American Dad! this morning, one of the voice artists tells me that “American Dad is just on another level. It can go anywhere. Just anywhere!”

No it can’t. And doesn’t. Family Guy might be able to ‘go anywhere’ with its use of non-sequitur but American Dad! doesn’t do any of that stuff and exists in a highly rigid format which can’t change very much. The characters occupy a unique Post-9/11 world of paranoia and racism and overtly conservative values. It can’t and doesn’t go ‘anywhere’ and that’s precisely why it’s great. It does what it does very well and doesn’t worry about ‘going anywhere’ like some homogenised general ‘TV show’*. Ya gink.

(*There’s a thought: what if, mass conformity and fear of trying new stuff eventually results in one single TV show called “Tv Show” or “The Broadcast”? Hands off it, Mr. Jeff Noon, that’s mine!”)

On a similar note, I remember reading a Guardian interview with Richard Kelly about his creating Donnie Darko. He said that the ‘philosophy of time travel’ story didn’t come about until the last minute and that his writing the book of the same name (or rather the manuscript since it was never actually published and Wikipedia actually describes it as fictional) was what made the film what it was. But without the time travel dimension, what the hell is Donnie Darko? Probably just some rubbish film about a kid with schizophrenia.

It makes you wonder whether the things that are great and the things that you love are only great and lovable by pure accident. Did Seth McFarlane actually set out to write a brilliant satire of American life or did he just want to do a cartoon with a talking fish in it?

Does it even matter? I once met Dr. Alan Rauch who told me that he was fascinated with bobbleheads. Now why the fresh dogturd would a published, respected academic have an interest in these ephemeral trend-inspired pieces of tat? Well, because they present a cultural archaeology. Why don’t they sell many ‘Jetsons’ bobbleheads today but they did in the 1970s? Et Cetera. Each bobblehead is semiotic and intrinsically connected to the culture it was born in.

So even if a show is brainless or only great due to accidental circumstances, it is irrevocably relevant to the ‘now’ in which it came from.

But that’s a digression. The moral of this diary entry is to GO OUTSIDE instead of watching meta-telly. Or at least invite your friends over and tell them to bring as many videos as humanly possible.

Blogging Adventure

After my entry and our discussion the other day on what makes a good blog, I’ve decided that the key is to take a Sartrian approach to things. This’ll allow for personal anecdote, gonzo journalism and funny stuff.

Sartre On Adventure:

“‘What sort of adventures?” I asked him, astonished. ‘All sorts, Monsieur. Getting on the wrong train. Stopping in an unknown city. Losing your briefcase, being arrested by mistake, spending the night in prison. Monsieur, I believe the word adventure could be defined: an events out of ordinary without being necessarily extraordinary.'”
–Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea (1964)

Productive Procrastination

I’ve hardly moved from my position at the computer all day in the hope that I might finish my last ever university assignment due in on Friday. Once it is handed in, I will be Robert G. Wringham BSc MSc and (most importantly) a free man. Forever and ever. Well, actually there is still a dissertation left to write but the subject matter actually interests me and I don’t think writing it will be any shape of chore.

Despite my sitting here for something like five hours now, I’ve written little more than two paragraphs on the project. I keep procrastinating from writing it on the grounds that it’s just such a boring load of jiff. Forcing myself to think any more than I have to about WebDewey is like a sort-of self inflicted intellectual rape.

But in this quagmire of procrastination, I’ve found myself being quite productive in other areas. I fired off an email to Tom Hodgkinson, the editor of The Idler about my writing a regular feature for him. Astoundingly enough, he seemed quite sold on the idea and also remembered to send me a free copy of the new issue and a big pile of money for my last piece. Which was nice.

Incidentally, my last piece made the new cover – it’s the “Death to Professionalism” bit at the bottom, see? The cover on Amazon is slightly different though and doesn’t include me, so we’ll see what it really looks like when it gets here. The article is published in under my real birth name, I think, so if anyone wants to know what it might have been before I changed it in favour of a pseudonym a whapping five months ago, you might want to buy this issue. It has Michael Palin and Adam Buxton and some other people writing for it too, but you should buy it mainly for me.

I also managed to do a pile of admin, which was literally this high, emailed a bunch of people I’ve not spoken to in about two years, played six games of Pacman and killed literally two wasps.

Good Blogs

What, in your opinion, dear reader, makes a good blog? Bloggery is such a freewheeling medium, it’s difficult to say, isn’t it? This blog, The Occasional Papers hasn’t really come into its own yet, mainly because I’ve been chimping around with the sorts of entry I write in it. I think I used to want to be Richard Herring and used my old blog to report comically upon the stacks of daily ennui and neurotic detritus that so plague the urban layabout. These days, however, I think the hight of blog perfection has been reached by Momus who uses his blog as a mixing tray for ideas and as a sort of well-informed online gonzo journalism.

Assuming that the number of comments a LiveJournal entry receives is a fair indicator of an entry’s ‘goodness’, I find that the best sorts of entry are the ones that relate to an issue that the majority of the blog’s readers know a bit about already. Trouble is: I hate writing about the news. I’m not in politics and anything I have to say about the news is bound to be a half-baked load of claptrap. If only some other bloggers realised that then the blogosophere could be a better, less littered cyberplace.

I try to write these days about art (visual, televisual, literary, musical, comedic) and the train of thoughts I experience as a result of it. To me, this is what an integral, considered blog should be like. But are other people interested in this? I met Stewart Lee recently who advised me not to go into standup comedy with an agenda (such as to be subversive) but just to talk about what interests me and let the ‘agenda’ be a byproduct. I’m not sure how I feel about this: if a comedian just wanted to talk about things of interest to him, why would he do it on a stage in front of thirty to three thousand people? If I wanted to write a diary of personal memoranda or things that interest me exclusively, then I wouldn’t publish it online but instead write it in one of my many notebooks. If it’s not going to entertain or interest other people then it shouldn’t be on the web.

I recall Dickon Edwards writing on a few occasions about what he thinks makes a good blog (or ‘diary’ in his case). He said that entries are best received when short and frequent. I think he’s probably right. The problem is though, that the reason they are so successful is that people (I strongly suspect) often treat their friends’ blogs like pieces of online daily admin: little chores that they have to get though, akin to checking email or their ebay stock. I know that I’m guilty of this. But there are blogs that I really enjoy (namely the aforementioned journals of Momus, Dickon and Herring and perhaps those of and ) that I actually like to savour and read properly. I’d like my to be like that for other people. Why shouldn’t a blog be an entity in its own right rather than just a piece of metacritical detritus floating around the web, akin to all those bits of debris in orbit around the planet.

Lots of people use their blogs to critique or respond to what a proper critic (in a newspaper/magazine/popular blog) has said about a TV show/film/album/gig. I don’t realy understand the motivation for doing this. The person being written about will never read the opinions recorded here (unless they play the google-my-own-name game and the blog is popular enough or covered with enough metadata to be picked up by Google). So why not write to the critic in question (they are usually quite accessible) or else take part in a discussion on Comment is Free? I realise as I write these words that I have bitched about a columnist in these electronic pages in the past. I guess there is a certain ‘psychological escape valve’ aspect to blogging: our blogs can serve as safe and soudproofed padded cells despite their being on a huge electronic stage for all to see. I wonder what we did to satisfy our desires for a soapbox before we had our webblogs? And what do the vast numbers of the blogless do?

Perhaps a good blog simply depends upon who’s writing it and what they do. Herring and Momus are constantly travelling and attend interesting events frequently enough to always have something interesting to report upon.

So, what makes a good blog? Why do you genuinely enjoy reading some of the blogs in your livejournal friends list and skip past others? What makes you leave a comment?

Loft Living

My friend, Stuart and I used to live in a remarkably average flat in Glasgow’s remarkably average Waverley Gate complex. I think we were initially attracted to it because it had a greater number of modern conveniences than many of the other flats we had seen around that time and because of the large number of friendly Indian families living in the same block, filling the halls daily with culinary smells both homeley and exotic.

After a while, however, we began to find this white-walled, electrically enhanced and overly functional modernist enclave a little too sterile and impersonal for our tastes. Plus, our upstairs neighbour turned out to be annoying twat, earning himself the Nabokovian pseudonym of ‘Mr. Honourable Upstairs’ due to his being a besuited office boy by day and noisy party fiend by night who would keep us awake by playing his 90s nightclub ‘classics’ and playing on his XBox with a hundred yobbish friends in the microscopic hours. When we discovered on top of all this that every single flat in the complex had the exact same interior, we decided to look for somewhere else. This was battery living.

We began to look for a place to live with a little more character, somewhere a little eccentric and more interesting. When we found that an attic had become available in an old Hyndland townhouse and that it was actually a slightly lower rent than we’d been paying in Waverley Gate, we snapped it up. Our neighbours now would be bearded academics and the sterile walls would be replaced by creaking pine panels and friendly single-pane skylights.

I had half-fancied living in a loft ever since reading Jerome K. Jerome’s On furnished apartments in which he writes:

“A good many great men have lived in attics and some have died there. Attics, says the dictionary, are “places where lumber is stored,” and the world has used them to store a good deal of its lumber in at one time or another. Its preachers and painters and poets, its deep-browed men who will find out things, its fire-eyed men who will tell truths that no one wants to hear–these are the lumber that the world hides away in its attics. Haydn grew up in an attic and Chatterton starved in one. Addison and Goldsmith wrote in garrets. Faraday and De Quincey knew them well. Dr. Johnson camped cheerfully in them, sleeping soundly–too soundly sometimes–upon their trundle-beds, like the sturdy old soldier of fortune that he was, inured to hardship and all careless of himself. Dickens spent his youth among them, Morland his old age–alas! a drunken, premature old age. Hans Andersen, the fairy king, dreamed his sweet fancies beneath their sloping roofs. Poor, wayward-hearted Collins leaned his head upon their crazy tables; priggish Benjamin Franklin; Savage, the wrong-headed, much troubled when he could afford any softer bed than a doorstep; young Bloomfield, “Bobby” Burns, Hogarth, Watts the engineer–the roll is endless. Ever since the habitations of men were reared two stories high has the garret been the nursery of genius. […] Huddle them up in your lumber-rooms, oh, world! Shut them fast in and turn the key of poverty upon them. Weld close the bars, and let them fret their hero lives away within the narrow cage. Leave them there to starve, and rot, and die. Laugh at the frenzied beatings of their hands against the door. Roll onward in your dust and noise and pass them by, forgotten.”

At last we could live the Bohemian dream! Living in an attic, we would clunk away on old typewriters while listening to my old jazz records on a crackly gramaphone and taking sweet tokes from a hookah. The Glasgow tour bus could stop here to demonstrate what a cliched West End ne’er dowell looks like.

But now I have discovered the problems with living in such a place. Jerome admits that he would not like to live in a loft due to there being too many steps and “too many facilities for bumping your head”. Both of these things I have found to be true and more.

Most every time I turn on a tap (a cold tap, mind you, for the hot water does not rise this high and must be manufactured using an expensive water heater) the flow explodes out in a combination of water and air, previously trapped in the pipes. The force of this escaping air is so stong that it turns much of the water into a fine and floating spray. It’s one way of getting washed first thing in the morning, I suppose. I’m assured that there’s nothing to be done about this problem: rather than being a fault in the pipework, it is a result of living at such a high altitude and with a system of plumbing not designed to bring water all the way up to the house’s lumber room.

And then there’s the wasps. There must be a nest in one of the rafters our beneath one of the roof tiles outside of the bathroom window. There have been three intrusions so far of gigantic, navally turgid wasps: big enough to have been written into reality by Jonathan Swift. I don’t like killing things (this being the driving force of my vegetarianism) but the thought of getting close enough to these monstrous things in order to trap and release them leaves me far too squeemish for words.

Because our wacky new home occupies what is possibly the highest point in Hyndland it does not have the same protection from the wind as the lower flats do from their neighbours on the same plane. So by night we listen to the wind howling around us and turning the walls into polar twins of the hotplate. It doesn’t matter how stoked the fire is (yes, we have a coal fire rather than any such thing as central heating), the place – through its sticking out into the windy sky and its woeful lack of insulation – will remain in one helluva chill.

But contentment is the enemy of invention, as Lucifer Davies says, so it is my hope that living in this cold, wasp-infested deathtrap will give rise to that first novel.

I should probably mention that I’m grumbling for the sake of it. There are many wonderful things to be said about our lofty dwelling, but those will have to wait for another Occasional Paper.

Beltane Festival

To Edinburgh’s Calton Hill last night to enjoy the Beltane Fire Festival. It was fucking great.

I remember thinking that the music at last year’s Glastonbury Festival was only a secondary reinforcer for our having such an awesome time (after all, I was dancing and singing along to the satan’s-cock-sucking likes of Coldplay and Athlete and Basement Jaxx) and that the coolest thing about it was that so many thousands of people from a kajillion walks of life were all getting along and pulsing as one squillion-headed entity. The same was undoubtedly true of the Beltane event last night. For this reason, I can see myself wanting to get an annual festival fix.

Not just for that reason you understand. There are a whole bunch of wonderful sensations associated with this sort of thing: the feeling of moist grass on bare feet; the turgid, excitable feeling of too much expensive coffee, booze and fatty food; the unique strangeness of holding hands with people you’ve never met before; the smell of smoke from a hundred burning torches; and the don’t-touch-the-fucking-seat-don’t-touch-the-fucking-seat internal mantra of using the chemical shitters.

I think I’d like to get a bit more involved if I’m around for this next year. The fact that my buddies and I weren’t painted blue, didn’t have a flaming torch between us and kept our penises and vaginas inside our pants left us as something of an out-group.

After being thrown out of the fest (this time by a light drizzle rather than confusing men with megaphones), we headed out in the car to watch the sun rise in true pagan fashion before repairing to our place to watch apparently inaccurate The Wicker Man.

I’m quite tired.


(‘Blue Man’ and ‘May Queen’ pics poached from Knoxman).

Interview Technique

I once had a rather odd dream in which there was a reforming of Cluub Zarathustra: a comedy cabaret set up by Simon Munnery and Stewart Lee circa 1993. In the dream I was allowed into the launch event as a journo and given the job of capturing a few interviews for some zine or other.

For some reason, the version of Simon Munnery I’d dreamed up seemed to develop a genuine disliking of me: whether it was specifically me to whom he objected or to my status as a journalist, I’m not sure but he didn’t seem to have much time for me at all.

This was probably inspired by an occasion in which I threw him a friendly heckle at one of his slower gigs in The Stand at Edinburgh, but it seemed to catch him off-guard and throw him off his rhythm entirely. I remember feeling terrible about this. So this must have been his revenge: he was prowling my dreams like a Freddy Krueger, but instead of murderising me with his knife fingers, he just forced me to endure some uncomfortable social faux-pas.

I remembered this dream yesterday as made my way to London’s Crystal Palace district to interview Stewart Lee before his spot at Josie Long’s Sunday Night Adventure Club. What if the same thing happened? I love Stewart Lee. He’s my favourite comedian who isn’t dead. Bizarrely, I’d just bought the DVD of his Jerry Springer – The Opera as research and the booklet that accompanied the DVD included an article written by Stew called “Never Meet Your Heroes”. I was anxious to say the least.

Actually, the interview went OK and I was happy to discover that Stew is a friendly and charming bloke with enough time for idiots like me. You should be able to read the interview in an upcoming issue of The Mind’s Construction.

But throughout the interview, I was regretting my status as a journo. I had to be the press guy, scribbling away on a pad and he had to be the talent, giving as many interesting and publishable answers as possible. In reality, I wanted to say “Stew! I’m a comedian too! I’ve loved your standup since I was twelve. You’re my hero. Show me how to be like you!”

I’m also not 100% happy with my interview technique. The thing about interviews is that you have to learn to be uber-reflexive. I’d planned a list of questions in advance, which I hoped was quite well constructed and not just a rubbish stream of consciousness. But when the answer given to you for Question 1 isn’t quite what you had in mind, Question 2 – in spite of all its relevance originally – now seems like a boring non-sequitor, void of any real significance. It’s difficult to be so reflexive when it’s not a proper two-way conversation and one of the parties is writing everything down. I don’t think my interview had the proper ecological validity I was hoping for due to this. With an email interview, it’s all asynchronous so you can go away and construct a clever next question with all the time in the world.

So I’m not sure I want to be a journo anymore. I’ll stick to theory-writing and librarianship and saying funny things with my mouth. I’m good at those things. Sort of.

Incidentally, the gig itself was pretty good. Cafe ABC is really rather cool and Josie Long has created an excellent little enclave for non-confrontational and interesting stand-up comedy.

Dalek House

Down in London this weekend, I am staying in a house filled with Daleks. Depending on one’s fondness for kitch, this Walthamstow terrace is a fine example of the strangely naff meeting the strangely cool. There is even a lifesized Dalek standing in the corner of the living room. Whatever one’s opinion of foaming-at-the-mouth fandom, one cannot deny that this was the perfect environment in which to enjoy the new episode of Dr. Who airing this evening.

While travelling down on the train, I was sat next to a very interesting South African guy. We mostly talked about alternative energy resources (he being employed in said industry and I having a hippy interest in that sort of thing).

He asked me what I’d got planned in London. “Interviewing some people for a magazine,” I said, “but mostly I’ll end up just watching my friend’s Doctor Who DVDs”.

“What’s Doctor Who?” he asked. He seemed baffled by the titular syntax.

I never really stopped to consider how bizarre an entity this television show actually is. It proved tricky to convey Dr. Who in a casual manner to a stranger who’d never experienced it. I explained the fuzzy nostalgia that the nation may or may not have for the show and the basic premise that its about a guy who travels through time and space in a telephone box, solving mysteries, exploring the universe and defeating alien foes.

The man on the train just about accepted this notion, but then I tacked onto the end “Oh, and he always dies after a few years and sort of… um… regenerates and everyone gets all excited about what the new Doctor will be like. It’s kinda like when you get a new Pope”. Perhaps understandably, the man on the train went back to reading his book.

Sensory Overloads

People on TV like to relax by reading books and listening to music simultaneously. I saw Columbo doing it the other day as well as one of the characters on Arrested Development. Captain Picard is a sucker for it too. He likes nothing more than to chill out with a cup of the old chai while listening to Beethoven and reading a spot of Melville (which is actually a three-way consumption session!).

How the hell do they do that? Isn’t reading and listening to music at the same time something of a sensory overload? On the occasions I’ve tried to consume words and sounds simultaneously, it has felt oddly gluttonous like drinking two types of booze from the same double-beer hat.

Perhaps this is acceptable behaviour for a real culture vulture, but to me (to mix our metaphors now) is is like a cultural spitroast with every major orifice stuffed to bursting point with the throbbing, spunking cocks of music and literature (and maybe film and food as well, if you’re so inclined, you filthy whores). But for me it’s just too much and leaves me rather sore.

I do try. I have this idea that reading Thomas Pynchon while Art Tatum provides the phonics would be the very hithe of sophistication. All of the boring stuff – the self-consciousness and the drag of what my new chums Taylor and Cohen used to call paramount reality – would trickle away. I’d become a piece of still life: “Man on Couch”. But alas I simply cannot adopt this role. I find that the music interferes with my following of the book. Even if I’m just reading a plot-driven ‘yellowback’, I can’t concentrate with the acoustic winds rushing around me. Moreover, how is one supposed to appreciate any piece of music if you’re simultaneously engaged in a printed plot?

Perhaps people who do this are following an observed social script: taking cues from Captain Picard and his phosphorescent fellows. But it’s a script I cannot follow.

Are there really people who can deal with this? Are there any ‘spitroasters’ among this weblog’s readership? There probably are if the “currently listening to…” fields of my friends’ blog entries are truthful.

If so, do you enjoy both the music and the literature as separate things simultaneously (Michael Jackson + Stephen King) or do the two things sort of merge into a third entity or one synchronous experience (JacksonKing)?

I walked around the city centre this morning trying to find a cafe that didn’t play music, or at least one where the music was not so intrusive that I wouldn’t be able to read (currently reading the strangely plotless but wonderfully written Swing Hammer Swing! by Jeff Torrington). I ended up in a Weatherspoons pub: loath as I was to give custom to an invasive chain outlet, the combination of 68p cups of good coffee and only the quiet rumble of lunchtime pub chat as a soundtrack worked very well for me.

On a similar line of thinking, I’ve dramatically gone off using my MP3 player. At first, the novelty of walking around the streets and listening to music at the same time (making a sort of personal music video by looking at the sad faces on the tube one-by-one while listening to something with ‘zipedy doo-dah’ irony) but after a while I just got sick of the sensory overload of trying to listen to the music while looking at interesting things (advertising posters, people, shop window arrangements, rooftop architecture) in the city. Perhaps other people just don’t look at these things or don’t find them as interesting as I do. What of the naturally occurring music of the tube or the bus or the street?

I think sensory deprivation will be a cultural paradigm shift: instead of greedilly shoveling every aspect of culture down their various maws, people will instead pay to sit in darkened boxes with occasional lights or sounds or snatches of music or film clips projected into it. It’ll be called a ‘dark tank’. What the hell, just call it a ‘Wringham tank’ after me. But it’ll happen. You’ll see.

Pamela So

To the Collins Gallery to see Pamela So’s multimedia installation, ‘The Collector’s Landscape’. It’s a combination of new and found pieces, the found pieces being photographs taken by her mother and father and personal affects of each.

Sepia-tinted figures from the Chinese garden scenes of her father’s photographs have been relocated digitally into scenes of the Botanic Gardens and the gardens of stately homes around Glasgow. Other parts of the installation were created using traditional Chinese paper crafts while others were made using new video techniques. The result is intended to be a clash-of-cultures affair and a portrait of the artist’s mixed heritage. As one kid wrote in the guest book: “It is good”.

While there, I asked whether or not I could take a photograph or two for my blog. “Your blog?” asked the chick on the desk. “Yeah, is that okay?” “Sure. I’m just doing mine now,” said she.

Everyone in the art world is a blogger it seems. Perhaps this is due to a neurotic or at least self-fascinated streak shared by arty people (Robert Wringham no doubt included) or at least the idea that all art is in one way or another autobiography. I mused over this idea, as we both stood in what was essentially one massive self portrait.

Tony Hancock

Sidestepping the fact that the above picture of Tony Hancock looks a little bit like my friend Paul Jonhston (not so much in that Hancock physically resembles Johnston but rather that it captures some essential secret about him like a picture of his soul taken with a psychic instamatic), I’d like to talk for a second or two about Hancock’s Half Hour and how the format of it was so freakin’ genius that it almost hurts that there’s nothing along these lines on TV at the moment.

My TV critic friend, Alex, gave me a book of Hancock radio and TV scripts for a birthday present. I’ve been putting off reading it because (a) reading scripts when you’re not a TV executive is sad and shit and (b) I vowed to stop taking Alex’s recommendations after he gave a thumbs up in his column for the Spielberg’s dispicable mincing of War of the Worlds.

But reading them yesterday (and watching a HHH DVD I subsequently went out and bought) made me realise how incredible a series this was for myriad reasons:

Firstly, the format can only be described as an anthology sitcom: one in which there is no continuity whatsoever between episodes and one in which the situation is a roving one. I’m not entirely sure there are any other anthology sitcoms out there at all and it is a format I’ve been thinking about for a while after someone suggested I write a sitcom pilot myself (I’ll write more about that project here when I actually get around to penning more than one piece of dialogue for it). The ramifications of a sitcom with a roving situation are tremendous: the show becomes an experiment in situation comedy, playing with the actual situation of the comedy rather than dialogue or wackiness or reincorporation (a process used by sitcom writers and stand-up comedians which involves the ‘bringing back’ of previously mentioned ideas to “hilarious” effect – Harry Hill is very good at it but in Friends and Frasier it proves sentimental and embarrassing). It takes sitcom to its bare bones and meddles with the most basic elements of it. It also speaks volumes for the respect held by the BBC for Tony Hancock and Sid James et al to let them get away with something so unstructured.

Secondly, the fact that Hancock plays ‘himself’ is bizarre and wonderful. Hancock is a celebrity. Sometimes his celebrity status comes into play such as in an episode in which he’s trying to get a room in a packed out hotel, but most of the time he is presented on the show an unemployed idler or as an untalented nincompoop on his first day in a new job. Yet he is still ‘Hancock’. The fact that ‘Hancock’ and Hancock are slightly different entities is discovered when Hancock fluffs a line: as the shows were broadcast live, mistakes were often made, but when they were made, the studio audience would go nuts as though that was what they had been waiting for all along and Hancock would say something like “now now, let the artist speak”. Wonderful. And strangely reminiscent of certain modern sitcoms (sorry to mention Curb Your Enthusiasm again but it’s a prime example), which are apparently self-indulgent and a uniquely postmodern phenomenon. But it ain’t. Because Hancock was doing it back in the 1950s.

Incidentally, Hancock’s Half Hour was a massive break in tradition when it first appeared on the radio (I’m getting this from the intro of the script book I’m reading) in that it was essentially a sitcom and not a sketch show. Hancock rocked.

It was also awseome that he topped himself. I know this sounds weird, but comedy is all about neurosis and self-status and ‘tears of a clown’ and so the hallmark of a truly good comedian is the taking of his own life either in a roundabout way (as with Peter Cook and his amazing exploding anus) or directly. Larry David will have to do the same thing if he wants to get a statue erected in LA.

I’m not usually a fan of comedy from ‘them days’. I usually find it all a bit laboured and of-it’s-time and comics/writers/shows that are supposed to be the shiz-niz are seldom actually funny or inventive at all and that people who like them now are caught up in some sort of anti-critical web of other people’s nostalgia. But Tony Hancock was the tits. I’m a fan. And he was right to sack Kenneth Williams: in this show he was shit.

Are there any other Hancock fans in my immediate blogosphere?