Jorge Luis Borges In The Night Garden

“I had a dream,” he said. “A single, terrible dream.”

A battered side street in the old part of Buenos Aires. The tarmac seems pockmarked. Parts of the curb are missing, and the serrated edge of the paving slabs are exposed, like the diseased gums of an old Gaucho.

A modest cafe. It seems rooted to the sidewalk, like the weeds. Other shops have long since shuttered, and their proprietors have escaped to the suburbs. But this establishment persists.

I scrape back one of the metal chairs.

“Un cafe, por favor?” The young waiter rolls his eyes. Is he annoyed that I have not ordered more, or is he casting judgement on my formal, European Spanish? Whatever: He clearly understands, and he slopes inside.

To my left, a croak. “English?”

I turn my head. A man sits alone, his mouth drawn down on one side. A stroke, perhaps?

“Yes,” I reply. “London.”

“Where else!” he replies. And now a smile. So no, not a stroke, just a crooked face. But he does not look straight at me. He cannot see very well. Continue reading “Jorge Luis Borges In The Night Garden”

Slaves to the Screen

I thought this image posted by Anthony Painter was emblematic of… something.

@anthonypainter: #hackneyweekend

As an aside, it is amusing that Twitter thinks is a URL, but that’s not what set my mental cogs in motion.

Instead, I was struck by the fact that Antony was at the Hackney concert over the weekend, but was still reduced to watching the events on a screen. I am sure that anyone who has ever been to one of the big summer festivals (Glastonbury, &ct) will have experienced the same phenomenon, that of watching an ostensibly ‘live’ event on screen, because the actual performers are too far away.

I was reminded of a scene in The Simpsons (Season 7, Episode 9, Sideshow Bob’s Last Gleaming, thanks Google, thanks Wikipedia) where Homer refuses to crane his neck to watch the jets at an air show, preferring to let the TV decide what he watches.

One might say that there is no conceptual difference between the a festival-goer watching the concert from the back of the crowd, and a viewer tuning in to coverage of the same festival on a TV set. In both cases, the cameras and the broadcast technology magnify the performer. However, this discounts the value of the atmosphere, the sense of communal experience, one gets from being at the event. This explains why people will stand for hours in order to see the Queen’s white coat in the far distance for a few seconds, rather than simply allow the BBC to give us constant, glorious close-ups of the wDuke of Edinburgh developing a bladder problem.

On a lesser scale, it explains why people choose to watch Euro 2012 (and all the other tournaments) in pubs. Communality counts. It also explains why others will actually travel to the tournament host country, merely to sit in a park and watch the match on a Jumbotron outside the stadium. Proximity counts too.

Nevertheless, I do think that it’s an odd sort of culture that prizes the live and the immediate over the transmitted, and yet those attending live, immediate events still find their experience of the show mediated through a square electronic screen. And we haven’t even discussed the second-order oddness of the TV stations broadcasting the sight of other people standing in a field (or on the Mall) watching a screen, as a form of entertainment in itself.

Related: That thing that happens during a lull in a live sporting broadcast, when the director cuts to a shot of the crowd, and the person spots themselves on the screen in the stadium, and waves at it, then realises that the camera is shooting them from another angle, and so they look around for the camera, and the director cuts back to the action…

How the Depiction of Technology in #Sherlock Captures the Zeitgeist

In a paywalled Times article this time last week, Hugo Rifkind highlighted our loss of the communal Christmas TV moment. EastEnders can never achieve the dizzy ratings heights of the 1980s, Eric and Ernie are dead, and even the numbers for Her Majesty The Queen’s Christmas message are in decline. Rifkind blames the spread of new viewing technologies as the cause of this: A plethora of channels; asynchronous viewing options like Sky+, TiVo, and iPlayer; and the alternatives presented by DVDs and YouTube.

It is interesting that despite this decline, new technology can provide a facsimile of the old, communal TV viewing experience. Instead of discussing an episode over the water-cooler or at the school gates the following morning, we all have a ‘second screen’ and discuss it in real time over Twitter. This is not a particularly original observation, but I mention it because it is Twitter that tells me just how universally popular is Sherlock, the second series of which began last weekend, with Episode 2 to be aired later this evening.

Hilariously, given the above paragraph, I did not actually watch the first episode ‘live’ – instead I caught up later in the week via iPlayer. That doesn’t detract from how popular the show seems to be, at least among the connected Twitterati.

There are plenty of explanations for the success. The writing is excellent and funny. Actor Benedict Cumberbatch exudes an autistic confidence that is true to Conan Doyle’s original character. Mysteries and puzzles are always the most popular stories (c.f. the perennial dominance of detective stories over Lit Fic) and the Sherlock series adheres to the rules of a good detective story, presenting all the clues to the audience as they are presented to the sleuth himself.

However, I think it is the representation of technology, and the visual choices inspired by technology, which make the thing feel so contemporary. Holmes receives text messages and interacts with Lestrade on a mobile phone. Dr Watson has a blog, and the villainess of Series 2, Ep. 1 had her own Twitter account (both of which, as is obligatory these days, also exist in the real world and keep up the conceit). However, it is not just that the characters use technology that makes the show interesting, but how the director integrates that into the visual style. Sherlock employs the popular technique of overlaying motion graphics onto the action. It is method made easy by new digital editing tools (see the opening scene of Stranger Than Fiction with Will Ferrell for an ostentatious example of the genre, as is Fifty Nine Productions’ work in Two Boys at the ENO). In Sherlock, the subtle use of this style makes the technology seem fully integrated into the way the characters view the world. The text messages flow past and through Sherlock, he barely has to look at his handset. I think it mirrors the way most of us live, with our eyes flitting between the screen and reality so quickly that it is sometimes difficult to remember how exactly a particular piece of information came to us. It certainly represents the way a large audience segment are experiencing the show. Are they watching Sherlock, or are they watching #Sherlock? Both.

Power Politics and Revolution in Albert Square

Phil Mitchell (Steve MacFadden)

Last week, a fascinating storyline emerged in Eastenders. It’s all about the weak standing up to the strong.

Bald bully Phil Mitchell (Steve MacFadden) is pursuing a vindictive vendetta against cheery Minute Mart Manager, Patrick Trueman (Rudolph Walker). Patrick saw Phil’s son Ben (Joshua Pascoe) kissing another boy (Monday) which led Ben to try to intimidate Patrick into silence (Tuesday) This led to an argument which Phil interrupted. He asked Patrick to apologise but this was refused. Phil has therefore ostracised Patrick from Shirley’s cafe, and had him sacked from his glass collecting job at the Queen Vic (Thursday).

Phil is not the only nutter on Albert Square. Two other characters, Michael Moon (Steve John Shepherd) and Dr Yousef Khan (Ace Bhati), are currently behaving in a much more dangerous manner, but their agendas are purely personal. Phil’s behaviour, on the other hand, seems to be more about the exercise of power in general, rather than a personality clash. Patrick is being punished only because he challenged the primacy of the Mitchell clan. Phil needs to be seen to prevail, whereas Michael and Yousef prefer subterfuge.

What is interesting about this new storyline is how this power corrupts other characters. The two most amiable characters in the show, Alfie Moon (Shane Ritchie) and Heather Trott (Cheryl Fergison), are both financially dependent on Phil Mitchell, and both are forced to act unfairly towards Patrick. The young Mitchell generation, Ben and Jay (Jamie Borthwick), certainly realise that their father is in the wrong, but have no interest in challenging him, because their own standing in the community is derived from Phil. Perpetual doormat Billy Mitchell (Perry Fenwick) is likewise an enabler.

Phil has been allowed to get away with such appalling behaviour for so long because of his money. He owns four businesses around Albert Square (the pub, the nightclub, the Arches garage, and the cafe) and therefore has economic power over the less financially secure characters (i.e., most people). Therefore he shows little remorse for psychologically damaging his entire family and almost incinerating everyone in the Vic during a drug-induced rage last year.

However, what is so delicious about the emerging storyline is that this power is now being challenged, and may even be shown to be built on thin foundations. Patrick has made a martyr of himself by standing by his principles and refusing to apologise. This dignity in the face of abuse has inspired an unlikely revolutionary in Heather, who has moved out of Phil’s house in a symbolic gesture of solidarity. The next step will be dissent from within the Mitchell regime that undermines Phil’s aura of impunity. Ben has yet to build up the courage to confess his sexuality to Phil, but when he does that will shatter the unity of the family. Power broker Shirley (Linda Henry) may even take sides against Phil when she returns to Walford.

Now Heather and Patrick have shown dissent, let us hope that other citizens of Walford follow suit. Although Phil is well off, his money is geographically tied to Albert Square. A community boycott would therefore be easy to organise and could have quick and far reaching implications for Phil.

The worry is this: If Phil Mitchell falls, who or what will fill his place. Albert Square is an odd sort of community? On the one hand, it is very tightly woven, and one hopes that this would allow a fairer hierarchy to emerge. On the other hand, the residents have an unlikely appetite for conflict. They are quick to make vocal judgements about other people, are happy to engage in public rudeness and humiliation, and rarely choose reconciliation when it is offered. This lack of a culture co-operation could allow another rich tyrant to step into Phil Mitchell’s shoes. Janine (Charlie Brooks) is my best bet to fill this role – she has just come into a large inheritance and is busy building a property empire on Albert Square. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

The Execution of Gary Glitter

The Execution of Gary Glitter was morbidly fascinating TV, but in choosing such a sensational protagonist, I fear it might have missed the chance to examine how such a sinister and inhumane practice could worm its way into law, and retain the popular support of the people


I watched The Execution of Gary Glitter tonight.  Just as executions have a morbid fascination, dramas about executions, like Dead Man Walking or The Green Mile seem to have that same fascination (although perhaps one degree removed).

I think the death penalty is a valid subject for Channel 4, a public service broadcaster.  Though it is not a live debate here, it is a real and divisive issue for our cultural cousins in the USA.  The hanging of paedophiles is an oft repeated thought experiment, whenever a Huntley or a Vanessa George is arrested, and it is sufficiently discussed in the UK for pollsters to regularly ask the public’s opinion on the issue.  According to the programme, 54% of British adults support its reintroduction.

The device of using Gary Glitter felt like exactly that, & hopelessly crass. If we executed people in the UK they’d be poor & unknown. (@leylandrichard on Twitter)

There’s no doubt that the choice of Glitter as the anti-hero was was a fantastic marketing ploy.  He is, shall we say, the most culturally significant bogeyman we have.  However, this also gave the narrative extra depth, because his rock-star past allowed the programme makers to pass commentary on popular culture. The Daily Mirror headlines for a Glitter trial felt real, and the MP3 remix sending Gary Glitter back to No.1 (on downloads) on the day of his execution was an obvious slam dunk. It is an uncomfortable thought, but I think he is the protagonist many writers would have chosen.  The device cannot simply be marked down as the product of pure cynicism.

Continue reading “The Execution of Gary Glitter”

Two Americas – Infinite Jest and The Wire

The two pieces are obviously very different in style. The Wire is brutal realism (if not totally real), whereas Infinite Jest is satire, fable, comedy, with a little magical realism thrown in. Nevertheless, the two have a fair few similarities.

(This post contains mild spoilers).

A double loss – It has been a couple of weeks since I finished reading the brick-like Infinite Jest, which I was reading as part of the Infinite Summer project.  And now I’ve just finished watching the last ever episode of The Wire, the Great American Novel of TV shows.  I am now feeling the loss of two sets of characters.  I have been removed from Boston and Baltimore simultaneously.

The two pieces are obviously very different in style.  The Wire is brutal realism (if not totally real), whereas Infinite Jest is satire, fable, comedy, with a little magical realism thrown in.  At least, I think it is.

Nevertheless, the two have a fair few similarities.  The first is the theme of interconnectedness, which any piece of fin du millénaire art must include. Infinite Jest painstakingly introduces us to the back-stories of a dozen or more  minor characters, justifying the route that each addict takes to the door of the Ennet half-way house (the first, when Ken Erdeddy awaits the delivery of his dope, is one of my favourite sequences in the novel).  Meanwhile, The Wire presents hundreds of co-incidences and minor tragedies that culminate in all the best-laid plans going awry.  Many of these involve the bald and simple Herc, one of the low level officers in the Serious Crimes Unit, who is too stupid to realise the negative effect his indiscreetness has on the investigations of those around him.  Instead, he feels under-appreciated and hard-done-by, which makes him one of the most dislikable characters in the series.

A strong parallel is of course in the theme of drugs and addiction, which both Infinite Jest and The Wire have by the kilo.  At the end of series 4, street-junkie Bubbles (who tried and failed to get clean in earlier episodes) inadvertently causes the death of his young charge Sherrod, and tries in vain to hang himself.  When we meet him again in series 5 he is at NA meetings and on the road to redemption.  Sherrod’s death is clearly the “cliff” that David Foster Wallace describes so eloquently in Infinite Jest, the point-of-no return.  Bubbles fails to eliminate his own map for good.  He has hit the very rock bottom, which provides his motivation to get clean, however demeaning that might be.  Bubbles’ NA ‘sponsor’, the biker Walon, is a giant of a man, who doesn’t know big fancy words, but has the wisdom of one who has transcended his addiction.  He could be Infinite Jest’s Don Gately (if Don let his hair grow out).

Bubbles at an NA meeting (Series 5, The Wire)
Bubbles at an NA meeting (Series 5, The Wire)

I never had faith that Bubbles would survive.  Of all the characters we met in series 1, he was the least likely to make it through to the final credits intact.  I expected the writers to find a way for him to die senselessly and tragically (at the whim of some low-level dealer, perhaps?) that would shock the audience.  But Bubbles is a good character, with a sense of justice, and he deserves to beat his addiction, and the tribute of the newspaper article, late in series 5.

Bubbles success is a triumph of sincerity over cynicism, which is, as Matthew Baldwin has been arguing this week, a major theme in Infinite Jest.  In the book, the sincerity is for the most part internalised:  Hal Incandenza and Don Gately talking to themselves.  But Don’s AA meetings teach the value of openness with others (most hilariously, in Ken Erdeddy’s meeting with Big Tony on page 505).  Hal’s brother Mario, slightly warped both physically and mentally, is the embodiment of sincerity, while their Mother – “The Moms” – is ruined by her inability to communicate honestly with anyone else in her family.

Back in Baltimore, “high-functioning alcoholic” Jimmy McNulty is at his happiest when he is true to himself: twirling a baton out on the streets at the end of series 3, and celebrating with his ex-colleagues after finally, spectacularly crashing out of Baltimore PD.  And the little montage which closes The Wire, beginning and ending with Jimmy looking out over the city, shows us that those who have made a stand for something other than themselves, seem most happiest:  Gus Haynes, the Baltimore Sun‘s City Editor, is content at his desk; Bubbles finally gets to eat dinner with his sister; and Cedric Daniels is smiling in a cheap lawyer’s suit, having dumped his police career on a point of principle.  Meanwhile, poor Duquan, who waits until the final episode to tell his first lie, is seen shooting-up by the junk-yard fire; and ex-Kingpin Marlo, in a suit and trying to be something he is not, looks disorientated and confused on a street corner.  Tommy Carcetti wins the State House, but he seem troubled, his idealism in tatters, after a series of compromises made in the pursuit of power.

There are plenty of cynical characters in The Wire, and the power-bureaucracy it describes is depressing.  Nevertheless, the message that emerges is positive and noble.  None of the dramatic moments, in any of the five series, would be possible, if it wasn’t for the abundance of good characters – on both sides of the law – trying to do good things.  It is an uplifting, optimistic TV series, despite all the blood.

Sadly, I think the reverse is true of the country David Foster Wallace has created in Infinite Jest.  This is odd, because of the two, the book is a much funnier creation.  I don’t think that the America of The Wire and the America of Infinite Jest can be the same place (and this is not just because, in the book, the USA has annexed Canada and Mexico!)  While Foster Wallace is clearly a sincere and honest writer, the darkness in his America seems more malevolent.  The corruption is psychic, psychological.  It erodes the minds of the citizens like a cancer, and “The Entertainment” – a mysterious film that kills viewers – is just an manifestation of this.

The decline of Foster Wallce’s America is terminal.  This is not so in The Wire, where we have had a stolen glimpse of a better way.  Baltimore could be saved, perhaps.  Boston, I fear, is already lost.

MIT, Boston, 31 May '07. Photo by vincent-b
MIT, Boston, 31 May ’07. Photo by vincent-b