Great moments in museum curation

Friday 20 January 2006

Jonathan Miller once observed that it’s hard enough to lose a paper bag full of orange peel even if you’re trying, so some special recognition must be due to the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, which has lost one of its sculptures. If you belong to a Neighbourhood Watch scheme and want to keep an eye out for it, it’s by Richard Serra, it’s steel, and it weighs 38 tonnes.
At least there’s a chance the Museum might get it back. Unlike the Saatchi Gallery.

Maybe the next post will be about Elliott Carter. This one ended up being about darts.

Monday 16 January 2006

The bunker has recently suffered the addition of a television to the drawing room. The most immediate cultural ramification of this development is that on Sunday evening I was extremely reluctant to leave the house to see the BBC Symphony Orchestra play Elliott Carter at the Barbican, because I had become engrossed in the World Darts Championship final on BBC2.

In my defense, I will say that I was watching it wearing my anthropologist’s hat. When you’ve become blasé about walking past St Paul’s each day to get to work – and complaining about the tourists getting in your way, besides – it takes a darts match shown on prime time terrestrial tv to remind you that you are in a foreign country. Once that novelty wore off, another type of fascination took over. The more I watched, the more it dawned on me that I was watching one of the great endangered species of popular culture, a type of television that the next generation of children will never know: the professionally-produced, relatively major television event that is completely unphotogenic.

I cannot imagine that in ten years’ time a large, Western television network will be making any shows where fat, balding men in polo shirts and soveriegn rings are watched by a clubhouse full of attentive smokers. The show commanded respect simply for having survived until now. Between sets, expert commentary was offered by two men who looked and sounded like they had walked off the set for Minder, prison tattoos and all. In fact they hadn’t walked off the set, they were still on it: seated in a corner of the club foyer lined with framed publicity photos of stars of the vintage and calibre of Marty Wilde.

To cap off the experience, I’d been playing with the new telly’s buttons and had switched on the subtitles. To add subtitles to the live broadcast, the BBC had opted for the cheapest possible option and so had either hired an ESL student in a call centre in Chittagong with a hunt-and-peck typing technique to listen in to the commentary over a party line while a typhoon raged outside, or had downloaded a trial version of a particularly unreliable voice recognition program (that would be all of them). A slow, unsteady stream of Engrish sputtered across the top of the screen, usually followed by corrections hastily typed in after the more egregious errors.

The most impressive example came when an announcer remarked upon “how many Dutch fans are here tonight”. MANY DRUG BARONS HERE TONIGHT tentatively ventured Sanjay or ViaVoice, clearly unimpressed by Amsterdam’s coffee houses.

Elliott Carter is a composer. He is very old. More details as they come to hand.

The Blog its INDEX

Monday 16 January 2006

Everyone referred to in this blog from inception until 31 December 2005, with links to the posts they appear in. The list may be updated every month.
Not surprisingly, Jeremy Bentham tops the list with ten mentions, closely followed by Peter Phelps on nine. Johnny Farnham and Nick Hornby tie for third at six namedrops apiece, and then Xenakis, Stockhausen, J.K. Rowling and my Dad on five mentions each.
It should be noted that being named on this blog is not necessarily a good thing. Sorry, Dad!


Saturday 14 January 2006

Good Day,
Let me start by introducing myself, I am MR BEN.H, CREDIT ACCOUNTS OFFICER EQUITABLE PCI BANK. I am writing you this letter based on the latest development at my bank, which I will like to bring to your personal edification. I am writing you this letter with so much joy and excitement even though my heart goes out to the very powerful and distinguished gentleman who I was fortunate to have worked for and extremely privileged to have known for numerous years. I am a top official in charge of client accounts in EQUITABLE PCI BANK inside Zimbabwe.
In 2005, my client was going through a horrendous divorce in the United States Of America and Was on the verge of losing most of his estate to his vicious and diabolical wife. As a result of this alarming predicament, my client came to me with a very brilliant idea. He transferred some funds, five hundred dollars($500) to a pavement by the side of a road in Hackney, East London. Due to his untimely death in early January 2006, the funds have been sitting on the pavement for a matter of hours before I could find them lying in the street on my way home from the pub. My client did not declare any next of kin in his official papers including the paper work of his bank deposit.
Against this backdrop, my suggestion to you is that I would like you as a foreigner to stand as the next of kin to our client so that you will be able to receive his funds. I want you to know that I have had everything planned out so that we can come out successful. I have contacted an attorney that will prepare the necessary document that will back you up as the next of kin to my client.
There is no risk involved at all in the matter as we are going adopt a legalized method and the attorney will prepare all the necessary documents. The allocation of our money will be as follows: 20%($100) to you for your part in this, 75% for me and my partners and 5% for any unforeseeable expenses we may incur. I think this is extremely fair, as you have nothing to lose but just a little time, while on the other hand I am staking my flawless reputation among other things. And besides 100 Zimbabwean dollars is no pocket change. Once you are approved, the entire transaction should take no longer than twelve business days after which we will go about our daily business, but just one hundred dollars richer.

As you can see this is easier than taking candy from a baby, but mind you, trust is something that is developed over time and that is something that we do not have. So I have to let you know that it will highly unfeasible to try to run away with the money because even though only you can transfer money in and out of your account, the transfer can only be authorized by my department of which i happen to be the head. The money will be transferred from my bank to an account you will provide. So please, there should be no room for greed because one hundred dollars can quench even the most insatiable desire for the almighty dollar.
Again, I will be in charge of everything else. I will assume all responsibilities for this endeavor so you don’t have to worry about any legal ramifications, just what you will do with all that money.
Your urgent response is highly anticipated so please email me for more details on this transaction as soon as possible. This should be kept very secret and confidential. I believe you know.
kind Regards,
Mr. Ben.H

Sprung Bad! A Million Pieces of Shit update

Tuesday 10 January 2006

Heh. Just two days ago in my little rant about publishers no longer caring about literary quality, so long as they can lure readers with promises of vicariously indulging in the more exotic aspects of the author’s purportedly exciting life, I mentioned Exile writer John Dolan calling bullshit on James Frey’s drug-addiction “memoir” A Million Pieces when it was published in 2003. Dolan had recently appealed to Exile readers to help dig up the dirt, or rather the lack of it, in Frey’s past.
Not surprisingly, Dolan is not the only reviewer who suspected that Frey was, at least, embellishing his history of drugs and prison time. Nor is it surprising that others have been more successful in finding out the truth about Frey, what with Dolan living in Moscow.
Stupid me, I didn’t search around on the web to find that on the same day I posted that item, The Smoking Gun published a lengthy examination of Frey’s self-claimed history of criminality and mayhem, and found it all to be either highly exaggerated, or completely fabricated.
The New York Times (use Bugmenot to get around registration) is now covering the story of Frey’s fakery, which has so far scored him millions in book sales and movie deals, largely thanks to the golden endorsement of Oprah’s Book Club (“a gut-wrenching memoir that is raw and it’s so real”). The book is the perfect vehicle for Oprah’s club: a melodramatic confection of squalid thrills, the terrible drugs (inevitably addictive), all topped off with a smug little redemption fable. A lucrative redemption fable.
Of particular interest in the Times story are the following quotes:

Mr. Frey said that he had provided extensive documentation of his account of events in “A Million Little Pieces” to lawyers at Random House Inc., the parent of Doubleday and Anchor Books, which published the paperback edition, and to lawyers at Harpo, the production company owned by Ms. Winfrey.

What? You have to have your credentials checked by a roomful of lawyers before Oprah will publicly admit to liking your book?
And, I wish I could have quoted this on Sunday to save me the trouble:
The discrepancies and Mr. Frey’s reported admissions of falsifying details of his life raise questions about the publishing industry’s increasing reliance on nonfiction memoirs as a fast track to the best-seller list.

Filler by Proxy XXVIII: The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall

Tuesday 10 January 2006

My biggest regret over my time in London so far has been blowing two opportunities to see the Fall play live. Apart from being pretty much my favourite band, I’ve missed the chance to watch a gig descend spectacularly into chaos, complete with equipment sabotage, onstage punch-ups and walk-offs by various band members. If you’re lucky, you might see someone get sacked from the group on the spot, or quit in disgust.
This all happens quite a lot, as the 43 former band members can testify. Recently, Dave Simpson attempted to track down every last one of them – from the keyboard player who lasted one day, to the drummer who has been sacked nine times – to see what they’ve been up to since they fell foul of band leader (and only constant member) Mark E. Smith’s desire to “freshen up” the band from time to time.
One is dead, one’s been sent to prison: not bad going for a relatively large sampling of rock musos. Former bandmates have ranged from teenagers who happened to drink at Smith’s local, to the manager of the Chemical Brothers, who was recruited as a last-minute replacement when the Smith threw the drummer off the tour bus at a service station en route to their gig at the Reading Festival.
Dewey was led to a darkened tour bus to meet Smith, “passed out with his shirt off. The guitarist had to punch him in the face to wake him up. Then they began fighting over whether or not they should teach me the songs. Mark said no!”
Since this article was published in The Guardian, Smith has vowed never to speak to anyone at that paper again. You can also look at a PDF scan of the original article, complete with photies and more survivors’ tales of being abandoned in a foreign bar for eating a salad: best of all is the concluding plea “If you have been in the Fall and we failed to contact you, email”.
As one of the current guitarists says, “I have nightmares, but it’s never boring. It’s not Coldplay.”

I guess the curvy scimitar-bayonet thing is meant to imply they’re Islamic or something

Monday 9 January 2006

Long-time readers how my workplace swung into action a mere three months after the London tube bombings to make the building terrorist-proof, by sticking up signs in the lifts. In the same spirit of tireless vigilance, I have finally gotten around to taking a photograph of the sign for your ‘enjoyment.’
Judging from the terrorist’s appearance, London is in imminent threat from the Chicos Liberation Front.

Great pub toilets of Britain: The Museum Tavern

Monday 9 January 2006

As its name suggests, it is close to the British Museum: right opposite the entrance gates, in fact. This is a strange corner of town where mass tourism meets high culture, where hotdog stands and souvenir shitshacks rub shoulders with antiquarian booksellers (and the London Review of Books bookshop, monthly mecca for sesquipedalian swingers). Surprisingly for its location, the Museum Tavern has not been turned into a horrid family-friendly tourist trap, and remains a pleasantly shabby and subdued pub that serves a nice pint of Young’s Bitter.
As you might expect, this is one of those parts of London where most people you see are foreigners – mostly, the place seems to be a refuge for unnervingly quiet and knowledgeable Americans (no, not Canadians!) that you knew must have existed somewhere but could never seem to find abroad.
This is the place where Karl Marx would frequently spell himself between sessions across the street at the Museum’s reading room researching his Grundrisse, but you won’t find any memorabilia lining the walls, nor any slot machines, t-shirts or mugs for sale. More of that sort of thing can be found at a smaller pub further down the block that foists draught pints of XXXX on hapless newcomers.
Typically, the toilets have been dug into the basement. The condom machine has been vandalised in a strangely religious fervour (visiting catholics from across the channel, or do those quiet Americans have a dark side?) Best of all is the strategically-placed sign for slightly confused men weaving their way out of the gents, “Why not impress her with a…. BOTTLE OF CHAMPAGNE.” A canny example of consumer capitalism at work.

How to pick the winners – just don’t spend it all at once

Sunday 8 January 2006

Publishers and agents have rejected two Booker prize-winning novels submitted as works by aspiring authors.
One of the books considered unworthy by the publishing industry was by V S Naipaul, one of Britain’s greatest living writers, who won the Nobel prize for literature.
The exercise by The Sunday Times draws attention to concerns that the industry has become incapable of spotting genuine literary talent.

So they sent off unsolicited manuscripts to publishers. Literary agents and publishers are illiterate blah blah blah. The thing about hoaxes and pranks is whatever lesson they purport to teach us is, at best, unclear, but The Sunday Times misses the point of their own exercise entirely.
It’s not that they can’t recognise quality, but that don’t even look for it. The Times is either naive or dishonest to imply that someone at each of these publishers actually read (or pretended to read) the chapters before rejecting them. More importantly, they leave out the most important piece of information: did they include a cover letter? Imagine a thumbnail bio for the pseudo-Naipaul: “I am a Caribbean immigrant of Indian descent.” I bet the agents would pay closer attention to that sentence than any paragraph in the opening chapter of In a Free State.
(Come to think of it, has anyone at the Times read In a Free State? Even the chapter that was retyped for this prank? That must have been a task for the work-experience kid, surely.)
I’m not saying you have to have an intriguing ethnic background to get published; I’m saying that the majority of today’s book-buyers (a different class from book-readers) are interested not in the book, but in the author. As Iain Sinclair in Lights Out for the Territory described the secret of Jeffrey Archer’s literary [sic] success:
His books… understood what the true fucntion of a book was…. the power of the novels lay in the fact that they didn’t have to be read…. Ownership of one of the novels gave you a direct line to the author: he was incarnated in a way that his ephemeral productions never would be. Take any title from the shelf at WH Smith’s, Liverpool Street Station, and you are shaking hands with Lord Archer.

Success itself can be the reason behind an author’s charismatic allure. Race is merely one of a variety of pegs you can hang your nascent career upon: a bad childhood, a stretch in the pokey, the drugs, the terrible drugs. Agents and publishers might bother to read the books submitted to them if they knew that any of the punters who buy their wares actually read anything themselves.

If your personal life is terminally dull, you can always make something up; although these days it’s probably too risky to fake your ethnic history – that one’s pretty much played out thanks to the likes of Khuri, Menchu, Demidenko et al. Otherwise, you can be pretty free with your invention: people do check, but not very hard.
Regarding this last point: James Dolan at The Exile, author of the most hostile review ever, has turned into Captain Ahab pursuing the great white frat-boy author James Frey, author of A Million Pieces of Shit (after reading his review I can never think of it by its real title.) Dolan is now seeking readers’ help in gathering evidence that Frey lied about having been in prison to bolster his bad-boy credibility. He has become so obsessed with Frey’s lucrative dishonesty that he now suspects his confession of drug addiction to be almost entirely fabricated (“A rich boy like him using glue? That’s just a lie.”) and cribbed from the writings of Eddie Little.
If you completely lack the imagination to invent or plagiarise some skeletons for your closet, you can at least add retrospective lustre to your career by killing yourself. (How much lower would teenagershave to set their literary standards if Sylvia Plath and Hart Crane posessed more self-restraint?)
If, by some chance, you are actually any good at writing and score a publishing deal, you will still be reduced in the public discourse to the level of a performing seal, trotting out predigested sob-stories of how you once watched your best friend die (it made you, it must be said, a stronger person). You can remind yourself of the second act of Coriolanus and decide between integrity and the chance of a second book hitting the shelves. People do not want literature, they want biography, preferably of the most lurid kind; and the publishers give the people what they want.
But maybe we’ve got this tale of overlooked literary worth all wrong. The whole Times exercise begs the question as to whether anything that wins the Booker is in fact any good in the first place. Maybe the agents actually did read the proferred chapters and exercised perfect judgement in dismissing them. How often does compromise, consensus and groupthink debase the standards of each jury member? Not to mention anticipating the reaction of the press, the Booker’s sponsors (or the Pulitzer board, who can and have vetoed jury decisions), and their future employment. Have you looked through the lists of previous prizewinners: the Bookers, the Pulitzers, the Nobels? Think you could stand to read them all? How many of the most compelling and enduring books you can think of are on these lists – does it even crack 50/50?
Who wants to read Joseph Hergesheimer, the most lauded American author of the 1920s? Can you even find one of his books? Who wants to lay bets on anyone even glancing at DBC Pierre a quarter of a century from now? Anyone? Let’s see your money.

“It must be very difficult coming to London from Australia, having grown up so far away from the cultural centre of tradition,” continued

Sunday 8 January 2006

First, thanks to everyone who has written in with prayers and messages of support following my inexplicable vodka crisis. I have taken the scientific approach by attempting to replicate the phenomenon: the offending item has been thawed and drunk, replaced by two bottles of vodka. The frozen bottle was a gift from a friend, so I’ve bought one of my preferred brand, plus one of the same brand as a control.
I have been passing the new year in the genteel and civilised company of the English (see photo), and enjoying the cold weather (yes, it has snowed once on the bunker). Unfortunately, I got too smug about not having to see the annual front-page photo all the Australian papers run at this time of year showing people on the beach because, hey! Stop the Presses! a hot day in summer! Then I found out all the British papers run exactly the same photo at exactly the same time because their readers apparently can’t get their minds around the fact that it’s not winter on the other side of the world.
Right now, I’m off to share the magic of lager.

Good freezer or bad liquor? Inquiries pending

Wednesday 4 January 2006


Be careful what you wish for

Wednesday 4 January 2006

After 37 years of joyous mayhem, Welfare State International, the company I co-founded and of which I am artistic director, is creating its last gig….
All our intentions of 1968 – access, disability awareness, multigenerational and multicultural participation – are established; now, though, they come before the art…. Overintensive risk management, child protection, alarm systems, licensing, family-friendly badges and employment laws invade with a suffocating culture of smug inertia.
Of course, he’s a theatre person so we shouldn’t expect too much self-awareness, but can he really not see the resemblance of the utopian world he worked toward, to the stifling world he inhabits now?

Starting the year as we mean to go on

Monday 2 January 2006

Continuing on from last year, let’s get 2006 rolling with another photo of this website’s patron saint:

This is the Jeremy Bentham pub in Bloomsbury. Just behind him, further down the street, is the building that houses his notorious Auto-Icon. On the street corner is a large plaque set into the pub wall, telling passersby the Bentham story, much of which seems to have been cribbed from for the Wikipedia article about him, particularly the guff about his stuffed corpse being dragged out only for special university occasions. A stroll one block over will verify that the man is on permanent display.
Haven’t drunk in here yet, but the pub reviews I just looked up for the above link says they sometimes stock a cask of Orkney Dark Island, one of the world’s greatest beers. Must investigate.

Sunday 1 January 2006

The new address for this blog is finally operational. Hopefully you were redirected here from the old address without much fuss. You can set your bookmarks to – it will send you to the right place.
Told you there were a few technical upgrades going on. I think some pictures from older articles are still missing, but these will be fixed soon.