Magic money

I was paying for something in US dollars today, and vaguely thought one dollar was still worth about 70p. In fact it’s only 53p, so everything is hugely cheaper than I thought. Hooray!

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Princess Mononoke

Princess Mononoke was on TV the other day. Like the other Miyazaki movies I’ve seen, it’s very concerned with the idea of nature spirits. The idea that every tree or rock has spirits associated with it is drawn from Shinto, of course, but it seems to have a particular resonance for Miyazaki.

I find the magical world of these movies much more attractive than, for example, Harry Potter. In the Potter books, the wizards are superhuman beings living secretly in a mundane world, holding themselves aloof from the lives of mortals except when they feel the need to play God.

Miyazaki’s characters are ordinary humans living in a magical world. They don’t get to do magic; magic happens around them and to them. They don’t get to bend the world to their will; the world is mysterious and rather inhuman. Sometimes it’s friendly and charming, and sometimes it’s hostile and scary, but it’s always other, and demanding of respect.

I think that the ordinary person in a magical world is a much more attractive dynamic. The clear environmental message intended appeals as well. But I think mostly it’s the idea of investing the world, and nature, with a sense of wonder.

I’ve commented on this strand of Japanese culture before, though from a rather different angle.

The titling of poetry journals

Why is it that almost every poetry journal in existence is titled according to one of two models?

The [placename] [publication]


[catchy, non-poetry-related noun]

Surely the language allows other possibilities?

Grayson Perry on contemporary art

This is from the Perry autobiography, when he’s been accepted at Portsmouth Poly to do an Art foundation course:

I thought I was OK as an artist. I knew I was able but I had no sense that I was especially gifted. I don’t think a gift is apparent at nineteen in a contemporary artist. Contemporary art demands a voice, though few artists have found their voice at nineteen. What is apparent in young work is the technical skill – Raphael drew like an angel at fifteen – as well as an aptitude for the more physical aspects of the work, but the voice and the emotional intelligence come later. I didn’t have that and my work was very derivative. I don’t think it was peculiar that nobody thought that I would do well in the art world and it was probably better for me than if I had been pumped up as a good artist. I was an average artist bumbling on.

I’d like to think that would be an interesting paragraph even to someone who disliked contemporary art. Perhaps that’s too optimistic.

Not that there necessarily has to be a choice between ‘technical skill’ and ‘voice’ and ’emotional intelligence’. There’s no doubt that artists like Velasquez, Rembrandt or [insert name here] had all three. But I think if people who were unsympathetic to contemporary art thought of it as art which favoured voice and emotional intelligence over displays of technical virtuosity, they might understand it better. They might still decide they didn’t like it, but at least they’d have tried to approach it on its own terms.

‘Rebels and Martyrs’ at the National Gallery

I went to Rebels and Martyrs at the National today. Note to curators: white writing on mid-grey walls is just fucking annoying. I started wishing I’d picked up one of the folders with large-print writing for the poorly sighted because I was having to squint to read the info next to the paintings.

Having vented that particular annoyance: I’m afraid I can’t get very excited about the exhibition itself, either. To quote the NG:

The artist as a rebel battling against society, a tortured and misunderstood genius, has a powerful hold on our collective imagination.

This exhibition traces the development of this idea, from the birth of Romanticism through to the early 20th century and the avant-garde.

Bringing together works by many of the great artists of the period, including Delacroix, Courbet, Manet, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Rodin, Picasso and Schiele, it explores how they responded to Romantic ideas about creativity and deliberately cast themselves as outsiders and visionaries.

So it was basically a parade of artists portraying themselves and their friends as visionaries, tortured souls, bohemians, dandies, flâneurs, martyrs and prophets. The trouble with grouping together paintings whose common theme is the vanity and posturing of the artists is that all the pictures seem lessened by the context. There were some very fine pieces in the show, but somehow the theming discouraged you from seeing them as individual paintings; instead they all seemed like symptoms.

The portrayal of artists in C19th art should be an interesting and worthy subject for an exhibition, but it just felt like a focussing-in on an unattractive aspect of the artistic culture. Even though it was theoretically putting the individual works in a broader cultural context, somehow it just felt reductive.

On a more positive note, their next exhibition is Velasquez, which I’m really looking forward to. And since I’ve been on a Rembrandt kick lately, after looking at all those C19th poseurs, I popped round to see the NG’s Rembrandts again. Fuck me, they’re good.


It’s not that I think the artists were less admirable because they occasionally produced rather self-serving work. These [self]portraits are only a small part of their output, and not generally the most important part. That’s the problem with the exhibition; not that the observations it makes are untrue, but that the selectiveness is unfair on the artists as individuals. It demonstrates the ways in which the caricature is true without touching on all the ways that it is partial.


The caricature is at the expense of everything that makes the artists interesting. Perhaps it’s the antithesis of what makes them interesting.

Grayson Perry: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl

I’ve just read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl, which is the autobiography of Grayson Perry, the artist who won the Turner Prize in 2003. I quite like his art, but the main reason I bought the book was that I enjoy his columns for the Times (if that link doesn’t work, you’ll just have to go to their main site and search for yourself).

Perry is one of the more memorable Turner Prize winners, though not really for his work. I mentioned that I was reading the book to my mother, and she looked blank at ‘Grayson Perry’ but immediately knew who I meant by ‘the transvestite potter’. It’s a brilliant bit of branding. I’m quite certain he didn’t become either a transvestite or a potter to make himself more memorable, but it has certainly worked.

So the obvious reason to read the book, which covers his life up to the point where he sold his first work, is to learn either about the transvestism or the art, and he writes well about both. Actually, though, it’s an enjoyable book in its own right. It was written by a friend of his, Wendy Jones, based on taped interviews, and it has the intimate immediacy of the spoken voice. It would be an good read just as a memoir of growing up in Essex in the 60s and 70s, although the second half of the book, which deals with the time from when he left home to study art, is probably more immediately anecdote-worthy.

Here’s a semi-random extract, describing a summer-job:

Being a sugar factory where zillions of tonnes of sugar were stored, there was a constant problem with wasps. Wasps made their nests in the gounds, then zoomed in on the sugar: there were swarms of them hovering in the factory. There were jumbo insecticutors at the doors of the factory that went VCHKUFF-VCHKUFF-KUFF-KUFF the whole time. Employees were paid a pound if they found a wasp nest so the workers would spend their lunchtimes careering around the grounds after a wasp to find its nest in the hope of earning a few quid.


Toadstools that appeared where the neighbours had to remove an old tree. I think they’re probably Coprinus cinereus, which apparently tend to turn up in manure, so I’m guessing they dug some manure into the soil. There’s a couple more shots on Flickr.


Crappy journalism in action

I nearly posted a link to this story on the BBC website about cows having regional accents because I thought it was mildly interesting. But the internet linguistics police quickly debunked it.

The BBC story starts by saying “Cows have regional accents like humans, language specialists have suggested.” What actually happened was that a PR firm working for a cheese manufacturer had called a couple of linguists and asked them whether there was any possibility that cows’ moos varied geographically. The answer was something like “well, it seems very unlikely, but it’s not completely impossible, because regional ‘accents’ have been observed in birds”.

Now I don’t particularly blame the cheese people’s people. They’re a PR firm. Spinning the truth is what they do. Trading on other people’s professional authority while misrepresenting what they actually said isn’t exactly attractive behaviour, but they’re salespeople and they are open about the fact that they’re selling you something. And to be fair, the original press release clearly bases its claims only on what the farmers have said. It’s not claiming to be any more than anecdotal.

But I do blame the BBC. They are the ones who reported this as a news story on their science pages, and who failed to call the linguists in question for a bit of fact-checking. They’ve actually made it worse by cutting out all the references to the West Country Farmhouse Cheesemakers. That’s presumably because they aren’t supposed to be providing advertising for anyone, but the result is that they’ve cut out any indication that the story is based on a press release put out by the PR firm for a dairy company, rather than, oh I don’t know, a paper in a scientific journal.

You’re probably thinking “chill out, Harry, it’s only a silly story about cows having accents”. And that’s probably what the BBC would say in their defence. Well, fuck that. I know that the fate of nations doesn’t hang on it, but if something is reported as news, I want them to have made the basic minimum of effort to report it correctly. Otherwise, why bother?

It’s typical of the media’s approach to reporting science. Or indeed just about any subject outside politics. They get all up their own arses about the importance of their role as protectors of democracy and speakers of truth to power, and the seriousness and integrity of their political journalism. And on their better days, all that stuff is true. But the moment they report on science, there’s a feeling that well, no-one can be expected to understand the technical details, so it’s alright to provide a watered-down and simplistic version; and anyway, it’s not very important like the political stuff (as though most political journalism was any more than gossip), so as long as it’s mildly entertaining, who cares if it’s really accurate? And then because that’s their attitude, they get all surprised when people like me get annoyed by it, because it’s ‘just’ a silly season story about cows, and surely people are media-savvy enough to know that it may not be held to the same standards as their political reporting?

Well, no. I actually care about the truth of these stories. Even the cow story; if it’s true, it’s interesting. If it’s not true, it’s just a waste of my time. I really feel quite strongly that if they’re going to do science and health reporting, they should do it properly. At the most basic level: if they get a press release about a piece of scientific research, they should call the scientists involved and make sure they don’t misrepresent them. And if it appears to be making an outlandish or controversial claim, call someone who can be expected to know about the subject and check with them. Otherwise just stop it. Stop reporting about science altogether if you can’t be bothered to get it right.

And if you think they’re more reliable when the subject, instead of cow accents, is something vitally important like vaccinations causing autism: *hollow laugh*


Shelley update

I’m still reading the Shelley biography. Remarkably, his personal life seems to have stabilised somewhat, I suspect mainly because his grandfather died and so, while the exact terms of the legacy are still with the lawyers, he’s not actually having to hide from the bailiffs any more.

The chances of his life running smooth are reduced by the fact that, as well as being atheist, vegetarian, republican and probably revolutionary, he’s a believer in free love of a rather high-minded sort. So the second wife in succession has had to deal with him being keen to share her with his friends. And what she seemed to find even more difficult, it rather looks like she was having to share him with her sister. The exact details are a bit conjectural because apparently there are lots of diary entries torn out from the relevant period.

It’s like Hello! for people who can’t bring themselves to read the real thing. Though I don’t suppose Jude Law’s love notes to Sienna Miller are couched in terms of high-flown philosophy.

Ezine thoughts

Julie and Rik have both posted on the subject of what makes a good poetry ezine. Since I’ve spent rather more time recently thinking about web design than poetry, here’s some thoughts about that side of it.

Don’t try to be a print journal. The real print journals do that already, and you’re never going to look like anything other than a low budget knock-off. That means questioning your assumptions about how a poetry magazine should work. For example: why have periodic ‘issues’? Speaking for myself, my tolerance of reading lots of stuff onscreen at once is lower than reading it in print, so if a large issue of your ezine appears, I’m probably going to read a couple of poems then move on to something else. That happens with print as well, but at least if I have a physical copy of the journal lying around my house I’m more likely to pick it up again and read some more. On the web, it’s that much less likely.

After all, an electronic publication isn’t bound by the physical constraints of print, so make that a virtue. Instead of the thing coming out in a big gobbet every few months, have frequent new content. Give people a reason to drop in regularly to see what’s new. I very much like the idea of using print-on-demand technology to produce occasional anthologies, though. That way you can have the best of both worlds; a continual supply of new material that builds up indefinitely into an archive of work, and periodic physical issues for people who like something they can read in bed and put on their bookshelves. At this point ‘journal’ and ‘ezine’ start looking like they might be the wrong words, although I don’t have a better one.

You can always provide an RSS feed so that people know when you’ve added something. Just because a site has RSS, it doesn’t have to look or feel like a blog. But why not also have a blog associated with the ezine? Have the editorial staff jointly contribute to it, with input from interesting guest bloggers. You could invite everyone whose work appears on site to also provide a guest post for the blog. It would help keep the ezine in people’s minds, hopefully create some goodwill, and act as a venue to make announcements. It would also provide a way people could engage with the site by posting comments.

Another technological advantage the net has over print is the ability to incorporate other kinds of content. Most obviously, that means audio and even video. But it’s also true of photographs. For a print journal, the decision to include glossy colour photography would dramatically increase the cost of production. On the web, it’s no harder than text.

And on the technical front: No tables. Definitely no frames. And use a proper CMS, so that adding new material is no more complicated than posting a new entry on a blog.

Aesthetically speaking: again, don’t try to look like a print journal. Particularly a rather dated looking print journal. Nor on the other hand should you get all web-happy and produce an intrusive animated Flash interface. Especially one that insists on pop-up windows.* The main thing is to present the content as sympathetically as possible, and to look current without being a fashion victim. And get the design basics right: make it easy to navigate around the site, without letting all the menus and buttons distract the attention from the poems. Make sure it at least looks professional.

I also think it would be no bad thing to widen the focus beyond just poetry. Get poets to write articles on other subjects. Have fiction reviews, or whatever. Something to introduce a little variety. I’m not suggesting turning it into a general arts journal, just making it poetry plus. But if you are going to engage with the broader culture, take it seriously. Don’t include artwork and photography unless it’s at least as good as you think the poetry is. In fact, since you probably know more about poetry than art, err on the safe side and hold it to an even higher standard.

Most of what I’ve said isn’t actually poetry-specific, of course. It would apply if you were running an internet ‘magazine’ on any subject. The scare-quotes being, of course, because I don’t think a magazine is really the right model. I’m really imagining something more like a poetry repository. A cairn. A midden.

*I was originally going to post links to specific sites that I thought served as examples of these problems, but I think I can live without that particular pissing match today.

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Just not cricket

What a complete farce. I just hope the England players and management have the sense to keep their heads down and stay out of the argument as much as possible. Let Pakistan and the ICC sort it out between themselves.

EDIT: Simon Barnes is good on this.

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