I have been trying and trying to write this essay about the dumbing down of Britain’s middle- and high-brow cultural spaces and establishments.
It’s not a long piece – a couple thousand words – and it’s theoretically quite important to me (beyond a simple desire to get across a message) because it was originally a piece of work that my literary agent requested, in order to top-out a book proposal. The proposal was otherwise done, which was quite a lot of unpaid effort, so theoretically the sketch was this: if I could just nail a striking, powerful 2,400 words ranting about this particular aspect of current UK arts, I’d maybe get a sexy, lucrative book deal, sell a load of words oversees, make my name as a prose writer, get on the Waterstones three-for-two tables as one of next year’s sought-after ‘thought’ books and ultimately escape the penurious life of a not-very-famous, ageing beyond viability pop singer. Slick plan.
And you’re thinking: that’s totes up your alley Chris, a rant about shitty culture, right? You’ll kill it in an hour or two. Well, dear friend, I’ve worked at it for A YEAR and it’s not done. It’s not begun.
A year. By which I mean, I’ve written more than 55,000 words, half an entire book, with none of them of any value whatsoever. I find myself deadlocked in a seemingly infinite loop of never improving write-and-delete, write-and-delete, write-and-delete. It’s familiar (boring) territory for anyone who types while claiming it as ‘writing’. It’s like that Next Gen episode where the Enterprise got trapped in a time glitch and they replayed the same card game over and over until Data injected some kind of weird fix into the ship’s computer… er, I was going to mention Groundhog Day but each time Bill Murray relives his day, he knows a little more about his surroundings and circumstances, until he owns it. In my case, each time I go round and round again, I know less. I’m möebius stripped.
For example. One day I bashed into the bruised laptop a furious scree attacking the reader directly in second-person, ‘you’, if you happened to fall into certain categories; specifically an assault on (‘you’) middle-class and smart people who regard ‘your’ selves as creative, of ‘good taste’, yet watch (and live-tweet and talk about) shows like X Factor and The Voice and Celebrity Bake Off each week. If you state a preference for Stewart Lee over Michael Macintyre but switch on Jeremy Kyle when you’re home on a weekday morning (and especially if you tell me about it online). The piece was inspired by wonderful (once Mercury-nommed) singer Tom McRae tweeting about The Voice, which made me weep for McRae’s own songwriting – so vastly more important, so necessarily at the heart of our mainstream cultural establishment, yet not: rather out on a periphery snarking on social media. Not even snarking at the infrastructure of talent show reality TV but (like everyone else) about which contestants or judges are doing well that week, which I’d say was “from within the mythology”. I hope he’s not drowning in it. Anyway, McRae’s tweets inspired this insane diatribe Fuck You, A Creative Establishment Props Up The Cowellian Distopia and the reason I mention it is, it ran to 14,000 shitted words before I realised its pointlessness.
The Cowellian Distopia is a phrase I love and over-use. An apocalypse we’re already deep into, it’s no ‘coming collapse’ with me and my aloof snob friends as noble Cassandras speaking future truths unheard. No, this motherfucker is right here and we bury our heads in liquid shit to avoid facing it down. I believe, if people survive to climb out of the hole, alongside everything else our generation will get smeared with, history will view the first 20 years of this millennium as a unique time of human cultural cowardice – guilty as charged.
If whatever culture we consume is relegated to the position of backdrop for online conversational self-expression and community-building (and in such a broadstrokes non-judgemental context that it simply doesn’t matter whether that cultural backdrop is ‘good’, ‘bad’ or ‘fucking horrendous’) then we are completely, irreversibly screwed. Nobody anymore says: “you’re listening to that !?” Anything could be a hate-watch, or irony, or a guilty pleasure, or a knowing blogged recap, which of course is perfectly fine. Gasp for air that doesn’t stink.
I don’t know about others but I always write my best first drafts at night-time, in a haze of anger after a day spent procrastinating and being a nobhead in my actual life. Then, I always sub-edit and proof-read best in the cold light of day. If you’ve ever read something of mine and gone “oh, that’s jolly good,” it was written late at night in a blur of fury, then tidied up and snipped into shape the next morning (or two mornings later) in a damped-down sober coffee-fuelled fug of shame and pragmatism. But now I write at night, delete in the day. Worse, this self-muzzling starts to filter into the rest of my creativity: I tape a demo in the afternoon and instead of saving it for the band to decide if it’s good, or whether I’ll like it more later, it’s wiped off the hard-drive before dinner. Earlier than that even; I get a verse of lyrics down onto a notepad, briefly think they’re brilliant but, before giving them any space to sit amongst other half-songs in case they jigsaw into something worthwhile, they’re crumbled up and in the pedal bin…
And as you’ve now read, I’ve gotten so desperate I’ve ended up finishing off a piece about not being able to finish a piece, which is the fattest, empty-headed-est cliché in every wannabe typist’s cannon that I thought I’d avoided.
So it goes, that’s my fate. Mind you, it’s not as bad as yours if you let the Cowellian Distopia drickle and drench through your soulfood til it infects all you taste and starts to control you; a zombie version of what you ought to have been enveloped in.
Then you’re more fucked than me.
The morning after, my manager phones me. “What the fuck did you say to Ed Harcourt?”
“Nothing? I don’t think we spoke, maybe he said hello? Why?”
“Chris, you’re an idiot, he was sat in the hotel lounge explaining to everyone what a rude cunt you are. You’ve done yourself no favours. For God’s sake.”
Hotel lounge. I’m remembering the last train home heaving with Croydon drunks and someone kicking my guitar.
“Sarge, I honestly don’t remember a conversation. You had me there from midday til midnight to play two songs with no food or money while everyone else swanned in and out, I was pretty fucking tired and pissed off at the end, maybe I was a dick but not in a proper personal dick sort of way, just in a me-being-a-dick sort of way and you know it was a fucking rubbish night, for that lineup it should’ve been rammed, Hitchcock and Stewart Lee and a half full room and some Plum Promotions arse and no atmosphere and you pretending to spin discs on your laptop, not even a real CD player and we turned down supporting fucking Decemberists at the Water Rats for that? Fucking Decemberists, they’re going to be huge!”
(Calmly) “No they’re not, Chris. You did the right gig. And you’ve got to be nicer next time.”
Last weekend we went to Collider at the Science Museum, the exhibition about CERN, the LHC and the discovery of the Higgs Boson. It is £10 for an adult, gets drastically undermined by its introductory film – and I don’t think I’ve ever been so disappointed coming out of a major exhibition.
Is this what mainstream science-based curation is like?
Collider opens with a video introduction given by scientists inside a mocked up lecture theatre. It’s not clear if these are real staff members, or actors playing caricature. The lead is a Yaffle-ish cliché, over-enunciating like a first time local newsreader, giving us a kind of smug, self-absorbed monologue about peripheral, mostly meaningless stuff. Of course, if he’s a real CERN scientist I feel bad for dissing his delivery – but this whole section is desperate distraction rather than rich content. It feels like a hundred idiots tweaked the brief. It feels like a multi-agency fluff – where directors and editors entirely fail to establish target audience, or decide what needs saying, or oversee their presenters to be simple and economic. Actually, it feels as if the sole aim is not to explain the Higgs Boson or LHC at all, rather to ram home the point that scientists are interesting people with human lives. This is Cowellian distopic nightmare writ large and shoved worryingly deep into our science and innovation establishment. Emotive (and silly) personal life nonsense and generic “Whoa! how excited we are!” replaces any sense of authority or faith in the richness of what these experiments may mean. One scientist tells us she’s doing it all for the memory of her humble schoolteacher father – and her script reads exactly like one of those moments on X Factor when they force-grow audience empathy. My gears grind. We’re in a presentation to relentlessly tell us how important it all is, rather than showing us.
Also, they use the phrase ‘money shot’. How on earth did that get past an editorial team? “Mum, what does ‘money shot’ mean?”
There’s one teasing footage moment of Peter Higgs and some actual findings – less than three seconds – before we skim away again, uneducated and unmoved. Far more time is spent on an inane, irritating joke involving Brian Cox, who appears faced away from us, while a scientist calls him ‘new boy’ and demands a cup of tea from “what was your name again?” “Brian”. Meaningful look to camera.
And then one scientist makes this joke, with the clear implication that we’re meant to laugh with him, not at him: “My wife says I spend more time with the LHC than her. But I can get another wife.”
Gobsmacking. The scriptwriting is criminal. Imagine how much more powerful this film could’ve been if someone (yeah perhaps Cox, since they’ve paid him to show up anyway!) did the following simple steps: (1) explained the problems they wanted to solve, questions they wanted to answer in the first place (which don’t get a mention). (2) showed us clips of CERN at work and play, (3) then clips of the announcement of the discovery of the Higgs and maybe some Peter Higgs himself (that can be our emotional kicker). Finally (4) summing up (as simply as possible) what it all means. It’s, er, not rocket science. By god, an actual history lesson.
Collider’s opening salvo is sexist, badly put together and dumb, its compromised cheapness rendered obvious by the huge screen size. It fatally injures the rest of the exhibition, which without it (and without the entry fee) might’ve been perhaps mostly harmless. We need to suspend skeptism and, fundamentally, maintain interest in these scientists’ achievement in order to enjoy being briefly and vaguely immersed in their world. Instead we walk through the rest of Collider filled with the exact wrong responses. Sarcastic and flaw-spotting. Disengaged. There’s a high quality surround CG film that takes us ‘inside’ the LHC itself, whooshing around us on a huge screen, yet with no components or processes adequately explained. There are further scientist narratives which are much better; talking about individual aspects of CERN’s work. There’s the evocative recreation of an office space and corridor, which – again – aims to entirely prioritise the humanising of the staff, ahead of any explanation of what they do.
If Collider is this weak, it has a further problem: how vastly rich the experience is to simply walk through the rest of the Science Museum to get there. If you’re remotely engaged with, or interested in science, or if you have children who are interested in science, please visit the Science Museum, it’s a wonderful, overwhelming place. I found more of Prof. Cox’s trademark “Wonder!” in a single projected display showing vividly how many satellites there really are orbiting Earth (answer: a shitload, looking at it makes Gravity a ton more plausible) than the entire Collider walk-through. So please don’t spend the extra money to visit Collider. If they’re contributing to the Cowellising of culture like this, we’ll only encourage them if it’s successful. Instead, we can find other ways to discover and share the joys of the LHC and the stories of the scientists who built and used it. An hour on Youtube will probably do the job vastly better.
Right so ‘Bury Me With A Scarab’ is the second single taken from The Bear and it’s out now. Here are the lyrics and at the bottom I’ve written about them, in some fashion…