17 July 2019

In a previous lectureship, I taught Professional Writing Practice, a full-year module including a work placement as well as research and reflection papers. That meant I was a de facto careers counselor. Eventually I wrote up the advice I was giving into an employability guide for English students (pdf) and now I’ve posted it to my page at Academia.edu. One thing I always meant to do was attach a reading list of books about work. Here are just a few of those I’ve recommended over the years:

Barber, Lynne. 2009. An Education.  Never mind the affair that inspired a Carey Mulligan film – the real dirt here is about how Barber learned copy editing from working at Penthouse. Captures the absurdity of first jobs.

Newport, Cal. 2016. Deep Work. Everyone needs to learn to concentrate and there is some good advice here as well as acknowledgement of different working styles. Newport is problematic for his gender assumptions – more so in his other work addressed to students – and it’s useful to learn to recognize those too.

Preis, Michael W., with Frederick, Matthew. 2010. 101 Things I Learned in Business School. Looks like a humor book, but most of what humanities, arts and science majors need to know about business is here in concise form.

Samuelsson, Marcus. 2012. Yes, Chef.  Just about any chef memoir will do, actually, as a document of daily life in a rank-ordered low margin industry. The hazing is similar to that experienced by Michael Lewis in Liar’s Poker, but the salary and perks for an entry level HASS major are more similar to those of a cook.

Wells Lawrence, Mary. 2003. A Big Life in Advertising. War stories from the Mad Men era. David Ogilvy was right about a lot of things, but who remembers his bullet-point lists?

15 July 2019

The Italian Job, now being re-released for its 50th anniversary, seems at first to be an ensemble drama like Ocean’s 11, with a diverse sample of loveable rogues rotating through scenes showcasing their specialisms and speech patterns. In fact, it is hierarchy made mechanism. Most of the talking scenes belong to Michael Caine, as Charlie Croker, a chameleonic working-class project manager, and some to Bridger, a toffish prison kingpin played by Noel Coward (who was called “the Master” on set by director’s orders). All the others – the chinless wonders, the Cockney mechanics, William the Black British getaway bus driver, the boffin played by Benny Hill, Franco, Butch Harry, Camp Freddie – mostly do what they’re told, leaving not much of an echo.

The film has been acclaimed as part of Britain’s swinging ‘60s image, and its soft nationalism is evident from the news clippings of the Queen that paper Bridger’s cell to the red, white and blue getaway Minis. Just a few years before British accession to the EU, continental economies are deliberately othered: in the world of the film, it’s absolutely fine to rob the Italians, and in particular to rob them of gold earmarked for building an Italian car factory (in China). It’s fine to make jokes about spaghetti and to threaten an Italian gangster with violence against Italian immigrants in Britain. When the main part of the heist is completed, the inmates of Croker’s alma mater prison shout “England!” The scenes were actually filmed in Kilmainham Prison, Dublin, where the British shot Irish freedom fighters before independence.

Yet The Italian Job is also an Italian job. It would not be what it is without Gianni Agnelli, who opened Turin and his factories to filming, fixed the authorities, and donated cars to smash up – nor without French stunt driver Rémy Julienne and his team – nor without the graceful ironwork of the Irish prison, chosen as a main location to help Coward dodge tax obligations, and the Irish extras. It is also an American job, backed by Paramount and scored entirely by Quincy Jones, including an ersatz Baroque lead-in to “Rule Britannia” as well as the anthem “Get a Bloomin’ Move On (AKA The Self Preservation Society),” which Jones wrote after a few days hanging out with Michael Caine and being initiated into rhyming slang.

If the nationalism is cringey 50 years on, so are the gender relations. Scenes that would have shown Maggie Blye’s Lorna as more than a disposable Bond girl were cut. Because Michael Caine couldn’t drive, Lorna still drives Croker in their outings, but this is unremarked and easily missed. Benny Hill’s Professor Peach was originally meant to be an enthusiast for trains, rather than “big women” (seen as comedy at the time). With a nerdier, less lecherous Peach and a stronger Lorna, a more inclusive and durable script could have been written. The nationalism would have been tempered in proposed alternative endings in which the Mafia grab back the (unrealistically light) gold bars, either by airlifting the bus at the end, or by turning out to be in charge of the Swiss banks, setting up a bank heist sequel.

But any of these changes would have undercut the fantasy of men flying away to freedom in cars. When the last car has left the scene, things begin to go pear-shaped and it is clearly time to end the film. The cars are more human than some of the characters (a scene of them contradancing to Strauss was shot, and cut), and suffer the worst tortures. Even a hardcore #numtot could fall for those Matchbox-bright Minis and sleek convertibles, behind which the glories of an Italian city appear as a dun-colored backdrop. As a celebration of automobility and its extension to the rest of us, as an allegory of show business life as almost criminal in its license, as an evergreen comedy of confidence, this film has wheels. Brexit, you say? Hang on, lads, I’ve got a great idea.

The Italian Job, 1969, dir. Peter Collinson, at Genesis Cinema tonight and eternally on DVD (two disc version with commentary and making-of recommended). 99 minutes.  There is a remake with Mark Wahlberg which I’ve not seen.

14 July 2019

Toutes choses sont dites déjà; mais comme personne n’écoute, il faut toujours recommencer.
Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens we have to keep going back and beginning all over again.

— André Gide, Le Traité du Narcisse (The Treatise of the Narcissus)
via @culturescast

3 July 2019

The vital difference between sport and theatre … is that sport is unwritten; it happens for real. No authorial brain devises it before it takes places. In the world of sport, if Konstantin shoots himself in the last minute of extra time, no one has told him to, and it gets listed under the heading of unforced error. But for all this absolute spontaneity on the field of play, the relationship between sport and ‘reality’ is obviously a bit tenuous, when you think about it. Wimbledon finals do not simply break out when two terribly well matched young people can’t suppress their competitive yearnings any longer. Sport is staged – at great expense, with great expertise, and at great profit …

– Lynne Truss, Get Her Off the Pitch

films on planes and off

24 June 2019

When you’re in a straitjacket seat, can’t sleep, and the battery on your book device is fading, there is really not much to do but catch up on the contemporary cinema. SPOILERS AND SOCIALISM AHEAD.

Widows – Sad, tragic Ocean’s Four. Slow-paced, except for the scenes where it communicates complex information in a tearing haste.

Hidden Figures – You don’t get anything approaching fairness until unfairness starts costing the patriarchy money, or international standing – that’s the lesson from this story. Also, Sheldon is not your ally. The clothes and hair seem extra glam for a bunch of nerd girls, but Taraji P. Henson gets the parallax gaze of the myopic just right, and the film gets extra credit for accurate science details.

The Favourite – Allegory of unpaid internships and the future of work. Sparkling script. Olivia Coleman earned that Oscar.

A Star Is Born – The first part is exhilarating, and then just as you’re wondering how they are going to tell the real story of partnering an addict through his ups and downs and rehabs and relapses in less than four hours, the story ends. It must have been a trip for Lady Gaga to front a staunchly rockist movie that casts trendy pop as the devil. But then she has always had a traditional acoustic light to hide under her wigs and veils.

Read the rest of this entry »

No draws in war

28 November 2018

Previous post tagged chess

A major element of fun in games, said Goffman (in the essay of that name) is that “the outcome or pay-off has a good chance of remaining unsettled until the end of play.” But what happens if in fact contenders are in fact equally matched in strategic ability and stamina?

In the 2018 World Chess Championships between defender Magnus Carlsen and challenger Fabiano Caruana there were twelve consecutive draws.

Read the rest of this entry »

the changes

18 September 2017

National Express waiting room, Heathrow, August 2017

Over the last several years, I’ve found it harder to read in the evenings. The cause is partly biological (and helped by reading glasses) but partly or even mainly social. The lights are actually going out. In hostels and hotels, in buses and coaches, in waiting rooms and interstitial spaces of all kinds, bright incandescent lights have been replaced by dim LEDs with greyish spectrums. In some places the light is tinted to inhibit intravenous drug shootups, creating the illumination equivalent of the spiked park bench. Pub or subpub lighting is becoming a norm.

Read the rest of this entry »

12 September 2017

“The 19th century was a strange century because the interior empires were beginning to decline, slowly but surely, while the exterior empires, the colonial empires, were still being constructed by the French, the British, the Dutch, the Belgians, throughout Africa and in large parts of Asia, if not all of it. On one hand there were liberation movements and on the other hand, at the same time, other peoples saw themselves brutally subjugated.”


“Years passed. In the summer of 1972 I went to Beirut for what I thought would be a brief visit, and stayed about three years. It was there that I met up with my old friend S and found a job: I became the culture section editor for a French newspaper in Beirut. I talked to S about the valise, but I continued to put off the day when I would come to collect it and bring it home. The Lebanese civil war broke out and S and I left for California … Around 1980 we made a visit to Beirut. When we got there I promised myself that this time I would visit the Xs and retrieve my belongings. I had made the decision. It was, let us say, a Monday, and I said, “This Friday, for sure, I will go. We will go.” Two days later, on Wednesday, we were on Bab El Driss, a street I knew well. We were walking down the sidewalk when all of a sudden the three X sisters appeared …”

– Excerpts from À propos de la fin de l’empire Ottoman, Etel Adnan (Galerie Lelong 2015), back translation mine since the volume is a translation of a leporello written in English and no English text has been published.

museums: Fahrelnissa Zeid

27 August 2017

Tapestry, carpet, stained glass window, mosaic, kaleidoscope are some of the metaphors that come to mind in viewing the work of the Ottoman-born artist Fahrelnissa Zeid. Her dominant tones were modulations of primary colors – tomato red, denim blue, Girl Scout green. A lover of great cities, especially Paris, she preferred a big, crowded canvas, with some geometric and tonal regularity. She varied the way she wrote her name, on her work and off, through her career: Fahrünissa, Fahr-El-Nissa, Fahrelnissa Z, FZ. Most of her work lives in private collections, including those of her family, and in the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art.

Works to spend time with include Third Class Passengers, which seems to layer dancers, subway straphangers, prostrate prayergivers, and families lounging on their rugs; Loch Lomond, where revelers and boats form a net of 45 and 60-degree triangles that melt into abstraction at the top; the rippling, Escheresque panorama of My Hell and the beaded city map of The Octopus of Triton. Abstract Parrot is the culmination of her stained-glass type. The three open page spreads from her sketchbooks tantalized with a bright watercolor-and-ink mountain landscape, writing (“pourquoi la mort m’appelait …”), and a stunning self-portrait. Her portraits of others, displayed in the last room, were deliberately naive, if not actually bad.

There were a few callouts to England. London (“The Firework”) is a blurred futuristic cityscape filtered through yellow-red light and then through a network of orthogonal brushstrokes that recall latticed window screens. Someone from the Past is a self portrait with, Zeid wrote, Persian hand attitudes, Byzantine dress, Cretan face and “Oriental” eyes. What it also resembles is formal portraits of Elizabeth I, if she had posed crownless wearing kohl and earrings.

This Tate Modern retrospective, supported by Deutsche Bank, moves to Berlin after 8 October. Zeid lived there in the mid-1930s while her husband was the Iraqi ambassador, and even took tea with Hitler. Fifty years later she asked Donald Trump if she could paint his portrait, and did so from a photograph, according to the exhibition catalog. The result is not to be seen here.

RIP the village voice

22 August 2017

That one time I took a Sylvia Plachy picture.

I read the Village Voice every week of the seven years I lived in New York. Every single week. If I was out of town, I bought it at the nearest big newsstand, for it was distributed nationally. It cost $1 an issue when I moved there, and it always had a page of free or cheap things to do each day, some of which I did. During the years I lived in a 7 x 11 foot room in a single-room occupancy hotel, ten percent of the usable floor (ca $50 a month in rent) was devoted to stacks of the Voice [1]. It was an excellent use of space.

Because of the Voice, I regularly read long essays by black and Latinx writers on race and ethnicity, as well as reported articles on communities I would otherwise not have seen.

Because of the Voice (and Katha Pollitt of The Nation), I kept up with feminism through the dark years of “I’m not a feminist, but …”

I remember Paul Cowen’s first-person piece on dying of leukemia, which he was thought to have contracted covering Three Mile Island.

I remember a long article on drag balls, even before Paris Is Burning if I’m not mistaken.

I remember another long article on backup singers, decades before Twenty Feet from Stardom. I loved that article so much I probably still have it here in my file boxes.

I remember not understanding a damn word Robert Christgau wrote, or rather I understood all of the words but none of the propositions.

I remember not getting a single reference in Michael Musto’s gossip column (“La Dolce Musto”), even in the non-blind items, and not caring because it was so much fun.

I remember going to see films from Brazil and Iceland and a performance art festival featuring Penny Arcade because the Voice wrote about them.

I remember reading about the AIDS epidemic in some depth, before And the Band Played On was published and certainly before it was available in paperback.

I remember a review of rapper Schoolly D that was written in hiphop, more or less. This must have been about 1988.

I remember Murray Kempton and somebody else, Jack Newfield or Wayne Barrett or LynNell Hancock, alternating an inside-baseball column on city politics. I remember that the Voice covered low income housing and homelessness like the tenants and non-tenants were human, when nobody else seemed to. I remember the very nerdy quarterly book review supplement. I remember being impressed that the Voice writers were organized by the United Auto Workers when hardly any journalists were union members any more. I remember reading the listings in the back every week and feeling like I could become an air courier or move to Brooklyn or actually go on one of those Wildman Steve Brill tours to forage food in Central Park and it would all be all right.

That’s a great newspaper. I can’t believe it’s gone.

[0] Also, the Voice had the best comics. Not just Jules Feiffer and his annual “A Dance to Spring”, which I already knew about because my parents did. It was the golden age of Matt Groening’s pre-Simpsons Life in Hell, Lynda Barry’s Ernie Pook’s Comeek, Mark Alan Stamaty, and Stan Mack’s Real Life Funnies (“All Dialogue Guaranteed Overheard”). (This is a standalone endnote.)

[1] And its shorter-lived uptown sibling, 7 Days. 7 Days was decried as fluff at the time, but compared with today’s promotion press it was the Whole Earth Review of middle-class Manhattan. Laurie Colwin wrote her cooking column there. Peter Schjeldahl covered art (is “Up the Damn Ramp” a great title for a piece about the Guggenheim or what?). It was Joan Acocella’s first big stage for her dance writing. For a while, New York actually had three strong alternapress weeklies, for there was New York Press as well, which was more of a self-conscious hipster editor-publisher production but did have great front-page essays.

[2] Yes, I know, it continues as a website. That’s like a well-served train line continuing as a “rail replacement” bus. (This too is a standalone endnote.)

Worldcon 75

13 August 2017

museums: David Hockney

13 May 2017
Is that … the Ladybird Book of David Hockney?

A few things about David Hockney, based on the exhibition now closing at the Tate:

1. His palette resembles the acrylic paints we used in school – those saturated hues that came in squeeze bottles, like condiments. The blues were especially intense, including the bright turquoise color of the squeeze bottles themselves. Hockney likes that blue spectrum, a bit more to the purple and less to the green side. Most of his works have at least one patch of intense blue, like a ground socket. Some of them work through the blue obsession more subtly; for example, pictures of modern window-walled buildings and tiled bathrooms in which the blue/grey patches vary systematically like Pantone samplers.

2. Hockney loves to vary techniques and treatments event within the same work. A single painting may have faces with their features resting lightly on the skin in the Alex Katz style, wireframe representations of furniture, deep fluffy fur, solid and shaded Platonic shapes of Russian constructivists, the depth of pool water, and the occasional patch of realism just to show he can do it. Sometimes the same object gets a double treatment, as in Rubber Ring Floating in a Swimming Pool where the ring flickers between Rothko style abstract with extra layers, and photorealism.

3. Some favorite paintings:

– A landscape of the Pacific Coast Highway, showing the variegation of terrain with different paint treatment techniques – layering, swirling, scratching – and another of the Colorado River in rich reds.
Breakfast at Malibu Wednesday 89 and Sunday 89, with the background of deep blue and teal ocean, zen-combed like a Japanese print, looming over the willow pattern pieces on the table in the foreground. He uses the broadest of brushstrokes to suggest the willow pattern, blue in one canvas and deep pink in the other.
– And of course Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy. The basic story of the love quadrangle comes through even in reproductions, but what you get extra in the painting is the textures of the objects ringing it: cool copper frame, elegant vase of flowers, supertufty rug, and oddly flat lamp. All these are not enough to fill the void at the center.

4. He experimented with mosaic photographs, which split the field of vision into hundreds of white-edged panes like an old window. The three early portraits and double portraits assembled from SX-70 Polaroids are especially fine. The overlapping and repetition, especially of the central human features in the portraits, gives the cubist effect of multiple perspective. There was also a large oblong assemblage of a pool with a swimmer. The swimmer appears in successive frames like a graphic novel, several chains of them in different parts of the pool. All of the mosaics feel cognitively real in that the field of vision is not even and the glance must dart around.

5. David Hockney can work in any medium including crayons, mostly with exquisite control though some of his portrait sketches are a bit distorted. His video installation The Four Seasons gives a sense of layered, simultaneous time by surrounding visitors with massive, pinpoint sharp slow zooms of the same Yorkshire forest in winter, spring, summer and fall. It is the same forest but not quite the same view, exclusive of the seasons, as if he wanted to make the point that you can’t walk into the same forest twice. His pictures on the iPhone and iPad, in streaky Warhol brights that appear through time lapse video, are astonishing. It’s like watching someone paint a Gauguin on a blackboard using only the eraser. Part of the pitch of Apple devices is that they make everyone a creative. It takes more. David Hockney is still streets ahead.