Thursday, April 10, 2008

Paperbacks and Pictures as Portals

My charity shop compatriot recently brought over to my flat a video he had uncovered from the local Save the Children. With a photocopied cover of a louche figure standing amidst trees and a hand-scrawled label, this was a home-made Smiths compilation, with all the slightly embarassing obsessiveness that portends. The cover implied that what he had here was a mere mix of live performances and videos, but this would prove to be rather stranger than that. The aforementioned are present and correct, but interspersed - upon an abrupt freeze frame - with scenes from films, offering an index of Morrissey's references and fixations. 'Asleep' plays over footage of West Side Story, dragging melodrama into this most intimate of Smiths songs; Lawrence Olivier yells at Michael Caine that he is nothing but 'a jumped up pantry boy who never knew his place!', Albert Finney glowers in the mirror, and of course, the sundry excerpts from A Taste of Honey and Billy Liar. You also notice that one of Morrissey's live dances/mimes/whatever they are is lifted from Billy's imaginary machine gunning of his family and boss.

What does it signify, all this uncovering and revealing of someone else's obsessions? Is this someone acknowledging that their hero is just the sum of his preferred cultural ephemera by splicing all that ephemera together? In fact, it seems to resonate with a lovely aside in Mark Sinker's review of the new JD doc in Sight and Sound: 'Curtis' own writing was a teen scrapbook of anti-pop titles and sensibilities ('Interzone', 'Atrocity Exhibition', 'Colony', 'Dead Souls', invoke Burroughs, Ballard, Kafka and Gogol respectively, the effect dismissable only if you decide not to see such namings as portals'. Portals - that's perfect, the book and the reference as a transport into other dimensions. Interesting that it's so often people from less than salubrious backgrounds (there's at least one other group I could mention but I'm resisting the temptation) who wear their reading (not their listening, which everyone signposts) on their sleeves. Precisely by being the sum of books (or films)-as-portals, you find a way out, and a way into the kind of vengeful self-construction that made these people so prone to others' fascination. An element of list-making and reference taking perhaps, but always subordinate to the use of these texts, objects and ideas. Isn't a possible way of out of a cultural trough an interest in what is extraneous to a particular form, as opposed to incessant art about art? Rather than that being insular and cultish, it can be a projection outwards.


Blogger Dominic said...

There's more to life than books, you know.

Although the nameless "other group" here is presumably the Manics, I could mention Belle and Sebastian, who mention books quite a bit but somehow never get round to saying which books - they become a floating signifier of dorky self-absorption (although absorption in a book is precisely not absorption in oneself, and that's the point).

The Sundays were guilty of the same: "I never should have said / the books that you read / were all I loved you for". Why not? I wouldn't mind being loved for the books I'd read. Rather that than being loved for having a nice bottom, I should have thought.

Ultravox I think can and should be added to the list of bands for whom books are portals.

10:30 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

A comment! I could marry you, for the bottom or the large collection of Derrida texts, as you wish. You also win gold star re: 'other band'.

You're also spot on about B&S being anti-book as portal. There's a particularly insufferable example on the occasion when they actually do mention specific books, in 'Just a Modern Rock Song', which features a little list of books that they're not as good as. You wouldn't get Morrissey doing that - in fact the entire song is a catalogue of typical ostentatiously underachieving (because unnecessary) middle class indie underambition.

12:33 am  
Blogger emmy hennings said...

"Vengeful self-construction", lovely. That was the thing with the Manics, wasn't it? They were always accused by the press of being "nothing more" than the sum total of the books they'd read, as if their learning was a wobbly scaffold they'd erected to disguise a more fundamental lack of "self". But that was rather the point, was it not? There was no intact, whole, "authentic" self to fall back upon. Which is, I suggest again, another reason why their appeal to teenage girls (like myself) was so direct and powerful: young women are trained more rigorously than young men in the capitalist notion of being what you consume. The ideal woman is indeed a (self-)construct of brands, photographically self-aware gestures, magazine talk, advertising-led aspiration, etc etc... To turn that dynamic on its head and instead to make consumption (of books, records, ideas) a way out of capital's training is a deeply appealing, satisfyingly aggressive option, particularly if you can't or won't take your aggression out elsewhere.

The Cure are another band who always come to mind for me as a group who used books-as-portals to notable effect. The 'Killing An Arab'-Camus connection, for instance. I know the British press liked to slag them off in the 80s for being nancy Grammar school boys (and Catholic, to boot) as compared to The Smiths, but reading back, the characterisation strikes me as a mite inaccurate and unfair. Wasn't Robert Smith's dad a nurse in a senior's home or something? That's hardly English Country Living. Plus, I like the fact that The Cure were from Croydon, and now so much dubstep has come out of Croydon, as if there's something in the water there which turns people to gothic ends... Oops, I'm way off-topic now. Mmmm, perhaps with The Cure it was a case of the book-as-portal being turned inwards, a bedroom-bound, suburban contemplation and interiority, whereas with the The Smiths/Manics the impulse was more explicitly turned towards escape and moving away... But it pivots, really, the autodidact absorption, between private revelation and public display.

2:22 am  
Blogger Dominic said...

I did a Belle and Sebastian "tribute" once...

10:31 am  
Blogger Dan said...

1) I'm reading Paul Morley's 'Nothing' at the moment, and this 'book-as-portal' notion seems to crop up quite often as part of the founding of his vocation as a writer: it was precisely other writers (Burroughs, Camus, Kafka, Rimbaud initially; Derrida, etc. later) that showed him into another territory that he explored in his writing. Even those bands about which he wrote and valourised (JD, Cabaret Voltaire, ACR, Eno, The Associates, to name a few off the top of the head) were autodidacts.
2) Which issue of S&S is that Sinker essay in?

10:54 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

...and all your favourite authors/who wrote all your favourite books/which had all your favourite words/they do nothing for you now....

11:35 am  
Blogger Dominic said...

...He fills his head with culture / he gives himself an ulcer...

12:02 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

I've got ulcers all over the bloody place, presumably this is why (and I thought it was due to constantly worrying about money and an unpleasant condition, hmmm). Thanks all for some excellent comments.

Which issue

It's in the current issue of S&S, which isn't up online and is quoted from memory, will buy a copy and quote it properly soonish. It's a beautifully written review.

And re-Morley and postpunk: I suppose it was a bit of an age of the autodidact, and the MSP were greatly indebted to this side of it, if not alas to the musical imagination. I suppose their lack of interest in form is what scuppered them - a quite justified disdain for music about music that chimed nicely with the lumpy blokeish puritanism of mid-late 90s rock. Pulp certainly had a similar autodidact ferocity to them, although less explicitly - less through specific naming and quoting a la Roxy/Smiths/Manics though, more from their general refusal to pretend to be stupid.

Also, I never thought I'd have someone quote Hefner on this blog...

To turn that dynamic on its head and instead to make consumption (of books, records, ideas) a way out of capital's training is a deeply appealing, satisfyingly aggressive option, particularly if you can't or won't take your aggression out elsewhere.

Yes, that's exactly what I was getting at here, and I think they were very conscious that this was what they were doing. Consumption as a weapon.

Oddly though (not that this negates your point, and I'd love some counter-examples) this seems to be a very male continuum. I can only think off the top of my head of Siouxsie and Kate Bush (whose reading is all over her records: Reich, Angela Carter, etc, as well as the more obvious Bronte fixation) as female examples.

(incidentally, the Cure were from Crawley, a post-war new town, rather than Croydon - this is anatomised in a rather Nancy Mitford manner in Michael Bracewell's England is Mine.)

2:10 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Answering my own question: Julie B, of course, but then she never made any records. (She should have done! Like 'Violence Grows' with more Graham Greene, sung in a broad high Bristolian accent. Would have been fantastic.)

4:01 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Also that B&S parody is marvelous. The mention of (ooh!) S&M is especially apposite.

4:09 pm  
Blogger Kári said...

That video sounds fascinating. Any chance of digitizing it and putting up on the web?

7:31 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

I imagine that'd be enormously tricky, but not impossible. If I ever do I will loudly flag it up here...

7:33 pm  
Anonymous Kári Tulinius said...

Oops, that was not meant to be signed by my somewhat anonymous blogger username. If you need any context for who I am, I'm the MetaFilter user who linked to your blogs some months ago.

7:35 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

ah, a belated thanks for that!

8:26 pm  
Anonymous Kári Tulinius said...

Thanks for your writings, if I didn't enjoy it I wouldn't have linked to them on MetaFilter.

8:41 pm  
Blogger emmy hennings said...

Crawley, Croydon... Oh dear, I did make an error. Geographical connections aside then, still one day I'd like to write about the different-yet-related shades of gothic that colour (hah!) both The Cure and dubstep.

Hefner? As in Hugh? I didn't mean it!

10:02 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

(no, someone anonymous quoted the band Hefner, a markedly indie-schmindie reference...)

Crawley and Croydon have a similar post-war suburbia feel to them - the sort of place that people affect to find soulless - and are the sort of places where dubstep and its ilk come from in both cases.

12:17 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i might have more to say on this after i get back from visiting bonsai silverback and seeing's a funny thing that video, innit?..touching...


source this quote!

"some say you can learn a lot from books/thrill-ride to second-hand living/life is just as deadly as it looks/ but fiction is more forgiving."

18 comments and counting eh....a good indication of what we were talking about t'other day


10:33 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

it wasn't meant as an wilfully indie schmindie comment - more as something that was relevant to the question of reading lists in pop. hefner come from that same tradition of regional (here, essex not london), 'clever' indie music - but did not often wear their reading on their sleeve in the same way as, say, the manics. i myself made reference to those lyrics because they seem to work as a riposte to the tendency. the third line 'which had all your favourite words' strains things just far enough for the contradiction (of constructing identity through another's use of a language that is also 'yours') to become apparent. Mr. Hayman's songs often emphasise the common ownership of source language, as they are most often made up of run of the mill phrases that have been slighty reworked or disrupted by their proximity to another such phrase (not unique to hefner, this, but certainly very noticeable). that said, he's hardly a card carrying schlovskyite...

as for new town/goth heritage points – i once saw a book of photographs of bauhaus (the band) striking their anxious poses in the greyfriars (decaying new town car park you referenced recently)

teenage grrls understand most things better than teenage boys – not least the fact that bald referencing of half – understood books does not make one appear particularly clever ...

portals- esape, public display or introspection - yes -

or straight up praxis -

# i read the art of sun tzu in a coupla fucking days/ i used to practise kung fu...

as for richard thomson - 20jfg posted some whacked out motorik fairport convention thing a few months back - called 'a sailor's life'- if dinger beats are more your thing than the often dubious musical choices made by hefner....

2:06 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

there are also two darren hayman solo concept albums about formica cafes, a hymn for thomas courtney warner (apparently an architect of pre WW1 social housing in east london) and a song canada water induced suicide...

2:12 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

(well, as you might have guessed by the fact that I recognised the lyric, I'm not entirely averse to mr hayman's work...)

2:41 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

I will say though, apropos:

just far enough for the contradiction (of constructing identity through another's use of a language that is also 'yours') to become apparent.

most of the people mentioned in this comments box were fully aware of this contradiction, and displayed it.

2:49 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

yup. i think it might have bewen better to re read all that before posting it as a rather confused string of obseession and thinking- sorry. i still think the hefner lyric is distinct from the others (the posturing/ display is less - closer to mr cocker perhaps...).

and i certainly didn't mean any kind of schmindie oneupmanship (surely the worst thing going). i genuinely thought it to be both an identification and condemnation (absent elsewhere) of the phenomena in question

anyhow - i enjoy reading your blog ever so much and i'm sorry to have irked you (and gone rather off topic
-was carl's reference to lengthy comment boxes somethinng to do with people using music articles as an excuse to jump off into personal obsessions?) i also feel rather bad to have directed things away from e hemming's more interesting line of interrogation...

4:28 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

not irked! your comments were most welcome.

(incidentally, carl's reference was to the inability of the blogger ever to guess why some posts get 0 comments and others get 20 plus...)

4:32 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i see - without wishing to artificially bump up the there not something about 80s/90s indie music that seems a little less forbidding than architectural theory (it being easier under present conditions to casually engage in discussion of pop music than make an ideologically secure statement about that which gets built/ demolished)


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