Sunday, April 26, 2009

The cost of everything and the value of nothing

Blue Boy by Pants

This week I join the chorus of concerned citizens who believe that something vital is being lost from humanity. Unlike the battalions of pundits who can’t decide whether we’re at the beginning, middle or end of the greatest financial crisis in history or even whether this moveable feast will bring out the best or worst in all of us, I think I am at least able to put my finger on the malaise that is compromising my own well-being.

For me, the loss is all those wonderful grey shades of normalcy that used to sit between the opposite poles of a grand day and a shitty one. Those were the solid ground on which we all used to stake our sanity. A good day for me is one in which nothing out of the ordinary happens. These are the bread and butter of existence and the more of them we chalk up, the happier we are. But now it seems that verifiable human experience can only be measured in quotients of either brilliance or horribleness and all the lovely non-reportable things that happen to us ordinary folk which make us smile but don’t warrant a segment on the evening news or even a twitter post, don’t register.

To extend this thought to almost untenable elasticity, I don’t believe the levels of our collective morality can be accurately measured by our response to Susan Boyle. I realise this runs contrary to global public opinion but I actually think that the hysterical championing of this poor woman is the equally dangerous flipside to chucking half-devoured Big Macs at her in the street. Somewhere in this orgy of self-congratulation, critical process has been suspended. Susan Boyle has had false attributes and monstrous expectations assigned to her simply because of her appearance. This is grossly unfair as she quite categorically only asked for a chance at fulfilling the modest and reasonable dream of becoming a professional singer. And why for fuck’s sake are we so desperately seeking authenticity in Susan’s eyebrows?

Like Barack Obama before her Susan Boyle has gone from being an impossibility to a messiah just by opening her mouth. I know I’ve said this before but it’s worth reiterating in this context. The cheesy deification of Barack Obama is not only a shameless and obvious masking of prejudice but a form of racism. Wouldn’t it be grand if a black man saved the world? That would pretty much make up for slavery and the continuing oppression of black people now wouldn’t it? Self-evidently there are no shortcuts through this mountain of debt but somehow this man is expected to unearth one just by 'being'.

Obama's political opponents and disgruntled colleagues alike have found themselves gleefully clutching a win-win. They won’t challenge him too rigorously for fear of being accused of racism and no one will expect them to for the same reason, but if he falls on his face for lack of honest and timely critique, they can say ‘look, we gave him all this great support and he still flopped.’ When humanity joins forces to set some poor putz up to fail instead of applying itself to solving the real and complex problems of the world, then yeah, I do think something has been lost.

Back in the little world of me, I find the lack of nuance in all areas of fact and opinion afflicts daily business so badly I now conscientiously restrict contact with my fellow travellers to only such transactions as I deem unavoidable. At some point in a day spent in one room with fifteen others, I will inevitably have to communicate with someone. ‘Would you please pass the impasto medium,’ is occasionally necessary to successfully complete an assessable task. I stay well clear of open-ended questions such as ‘how was your weekend?’ which are likely to lead to real-time enactments of Jerry Springer episodes.

Many of you might find this difficult to believe but I can be a bit of a target for need-to-shares. If I had a quid for every time some stranger plonked him/herself right down on the bus seat next to me and uttered the words, ‘I was abused as a child you know,’ before even disturbing the velour, I too would have a Caribbean island all to myself. The windows on the top deck of a bus don’t open more than a few inches (presumably so that kids can’t throw their half-eaten Big Macs at Susan Boyle), so instant escape is impossible. Many’s the time I've had to alight prematurely and nip into the Slug and Lettuce for a reviving G&T before I regained the will to live.

This week in The Australian (25-26 April), resident psychobabbler Ruth Ostrow identifies an increased national tendency towards indiscreet public confession which she calls Recession Honesty (her caps),

All of a sudden, if you ask someone how they are, you get information on anything ranging from their financial affairs or their parents’ superannuation predicament, to what medication they are taking for economic-downturn stress and/or depression.

What could possibly cause people to think the quality of your life would be infinitely enhanced by their sharing of hopelessly undisciplined emotions with you? Sure as dependency follows Prozac, if you indulge someone’s excruciating outpourings even once, they’ll ferociously stalk you for the rest of your life. I’d like to be able to extend a sympathetic ear to fellow suffering every now and again without becoming a perpetual human diary, but such a gesture seems unthinkable. If it’s a case of all or nothing, I have no choice but to opt for nothing. Better to come across as a bit standoffish than find yourself obsessively following Dr Phil in order to contribute to a conversation. In the immortal words of Alain de Botton - let them read Proust or even Mills and Boon.

The nuance drought has also completely devastated educational standards as far as I can see. How difficult can it be to adopt an exacting and scholarly approach to advanced macramé? More often than not, I absent myself from class discourse as I find it entirely lacking in a critical framework. There are only so many tea cosies you can decide whether you like or dislike before you imagine you’re psychoanalysing yourself with less than pleasant results. The danger of expressing a view is that you will inevitably be called upon to qualify your subjective view by applying the question ‘why?’ to it. Aristotle, it ain’t. No matter what the object, I find after twenty minutes in this environment, my only answer to any question is endocrine emblazoned pavlova pyjamas.

The key to reversing the fortunes of the human condition is no easier to pinpoint. However, I do think it would be a whole lot more possible if the sub-concept of ‘degree’ was reintroduced into the broad concept of ‘value’. There’s a vast spectrum of legitimate states of being between rich and poor, sick and well, good and evil. Why is it now so difficult to hang a prolonged conversation on the state of being middling? In order to engage anyone’s attention these days you have to either have won the lottery or been beaten ragged by your mad biker boyfriend.

I’ve spent most of the last three days staying warm in bed, reading, writing, watching DVDs and looking at the ever-changing shape of the sea, mostly feeling fine and very occasionally feeling either exhilarated or a bit melancholy. Life doesn’t get any better than this in my view but how does it compete with the woman who ran over her poodle or the one whose ex-husband attacked her current boyfriend with an axe? (Yes both of these things happened to people in my class last week). When someone asks me what I did on the weekend, the easiest response is ‘nothing much’, and it serves all concerned very well.

Australia is indeed a place of great contrasts, and one in which the perils of a value system based on isolated absolutes with no connecting qualifiers couldn’t be more apparent.This is a country where a ten-year-old girl can be snapped naked by a famous photographer provided her parents give their consent but is not legally entitled to cross a street without holding on tightly to an adult’s hand. Bill Henson as a lollipop man – now there’s an interesting thought…

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Boyling Point

Susan Boyle's BGT audition from

This is going to end badly for Susan Boyle, I just know it. With over a million hits on YouTube already for the jaw-flooring Britain’s Got Talent audition that turned initially derisory guffaws into whooping great roars of approval, Susan is well on the way to certain notoriety. Lasting fame and her longed-for career in music could be something else entirely.

Both judges and audience were visibly confronted and humbled by their open prejudice towards her distinctly non-televisual appearance and bold determination. Many who watch the repeat will self-reprimand for judging the book by its cover. Just because a woman doesn’t resemble Gwen Stefani, they might reason, doesn’t mean she can’t carry a tune. I'm not convinced the studio judges and audience entirely succeeded in facing down their inner gargoyles. What they seemed to be saying is it's still okay to taunt the ungorgeous until they redeem themselves with a dazzling display of mitigating talent. Susan may have conquered the moment by virtue of surprise but does she have the personal resilience and professional repetoire to win, or even survive this contest?

TV people aren’t daft. They know they need to keep upping the psychological ante on these talent shows to continually engage a mass audience. The obvious banana-skin moment would have been that this lumbering oddity brimming with self-confidence mounted the stage and sang like an orang-utan with a hangover. Cue yawn for talent show cliché. Most of the time the air-punching blancmanges in tutus who vow to make entertainment history in their big moment turn out to be the kind of flotsam that should rightfully have gone down with the Good Ship Lollipop. But 2007 winner Paul Potts proved that this expectation could be turned on its head with the opening of a larynx. In this currency, Susan Boyle is talent-time gold.

But here’s the worrying thing. No question she’s Princess Fiona on steroids but where is the matching Shrek for happy-ever-aftering my dear? The world now knows two things about Susan Boyle from her BGT appearance – she’s never been kissed and she's more than a little keen to remedy that situation. In the service of that ambition, she’s developed quite an attachment to the late Jade Goody’s best girl-pal, general tease and nuisance-at-large Piers Morgan. Just because she really can sing, doesn’t mean Susan is not delusional in other star-struck ways.

Leaving aside the wanting of taste, I strongly suspect that this sexual naïf may not have fully explored the detailed contents of the dream she dreams. Scottish paper The Herald reports that Susan is already purring the praises of Piers when she’s not otherwise engaged crooning about castles on clouds.

‘It's Piers this, Piers that. She absolutely loves him,’ one of Susan’s neighbours gleefully informed The Herald.

My crystal ball tells me there’s no Morganite marriage in this pulp princess’s future. The question is how is brother Piers planning to manage the potential conflict of interest here? What if Susan isn’t just having a bit of a laugh and has genuinely fixated on the unlikely dreamboat? Having been guaranteed a huge audience for the season, producers are going to have to spend no small amount of time handling and grooming their new star. How far are they prepared to go? Piers by candlelight – now there’s a hideous thought.

A third piece of important information about Susan Boyle hasn’t been as widely reported. She has unspecified ‘learning difficulties’. Susan says it’s for this and her odd looks that she was ridiculed and bullied as a child and is still vilified. The youngest of nine siblings, she was encouraged to stay at home as a carer for her aged mother, who died recently. Perhaps she’s not as vulnerable as this might suggest. She did spend some time in theatre school before being called home. Hopefully, in the coming weeks, her many siblings will demonstrate their caring allegiance, as some of her local supporters have.

Susan Boyle sings I Dreamed a Dream from Les Misérables creditably and with a great deal of passion. But it isn’t a technically difficult song to sing, i.e. it ain’t no Nessun Dorma. Paul Potts, who memorably ‘nailed’, (in talent show speak), the famous aria from Turandot on BGT is about to kick off a tour of Australia. The superficially odd-looking tenor has done admirably in the two years since he won the inaugural show but he was quite a few centimetres further from the eight ball than Susan Boyle to begin with. His much publicised mangled front tooth was easily fixed. It’s a mystery to me why he hadn’t sorted that sooner. I had a Bond Street dentist in London whose patients included a Prime Minister and even he charged less than a week’s pay for a cap. Paul Potts had also had plenty of amateur operatic experience and no one expects opera singers to look like Hugh Jackman.

There’s ample career scope for tenors in tuxes dispensing opera-lite to busy culture vultures, but the on-audience for the Susan Boyle experience is much tougher to imagine. And here’s where the people manipulating her trajectory need to take stock now. Not even Susan’s heroine Elaine Paige sells albums like Paul Potts does. There’s no future for Susan in musicals unless there’s another revival of Sondheim’s Into the Woods. Her best hope is in panto – and I mean that in a kind and helpful way. I hope someone’s got the sense to guide her in that direction. What I fear is that the abashment everyone felt for initially maligning Susan on the basis of her appearance will morph into a misguided collective championing of a patently impossible dream. For Susan’s sake I hope I’m wrong.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Madness is the Message

The Light Pours Out Of Me by Pants

Hardly a day goes by at present when I don’t have to talk myself down from the trees before I can actually do anything constructive. I am not depressed, at least I don’t think I am. Definitions of depression are now so amorphous that you can think you’re suffering from depression if the latest series of Spooks isn't as good as the previous one. If that’s the case, I’ve been in the grip of melancholia for five years.

The quality of light entertainment can influence my mood. I'm overjoyed to have finally cracked the code to the BBC’s elusive online content. Most of it is unavailable outside the UK. I’m miffed about this since I’ve given that organisation several thousand of my best English pounds over the years in TV licence fees and I can’t even access The Parliament Channel.

I have, however, found a small cache of segments from my favourite show Newsnight Review and have wasted most of the morning in delightful displacement activity.

As I’ve said before, I am not enamoured of the Australian media in the slightest. The TV doesn’t cost anything but there’s only about two decent things per month to watch. I listen to the radio a lot but it’s excruciating to witness the self-conscious wrestling with vowels that goes on, particularly if there’s an English or American guest involved. Standard pronunciation in Australia is still very much a work in progress. I hear so much about the Tarl-ee-barn in Park-ee-starn and Arf-gharn-ee-starn, I think my ears might be parm-ee-narntly darmarged.

Next week, however, Mad Men starts here on Free-to-air TV. I’ve just watched the Newsnight Review panel discussion on the pilot which has only recently been shown in Britain. It makes a nice change not to be two years behind. Kirsty’s guests were very excited about it. I found myself falling in love with Paul Morley all over again. Something to do with the ability to wear a sweatshirt with elan and whole sentences spoken in rich Mancunian I suspect.

We know from the Life on Mars experience that blokes like to make shows about the sixties and seventies so that they can be unreservedly and bestially sexist. I think back to something Germaine Greer said before she went barmy, something along the lines of ‘women don’t realise how much men hate them.’ At least we now know for sure it’s genuine hate and not just ignorance.

They don't ask Germaine to be on Newsnight Review any more.

Last night the multi-ethnic broadcaster SBS showed a bio-pic of David Ogilvy, often cited as the original Mad Man. It’s of no comfort at all to realise that the whole grotesque American marketing revolution was actually a British invention. Ogilvy famously said, ‘the consumer isn’t a moron, she’s your wife.’ He also left his own wife of seventeen years by simply taking her to a dinner party and departing with someone else. Not so much a moron as a doormat.

I don’t like ads. All they do is put me off something I might actually want to buy because I become immediately suspicious of the claims made on its behalf, even when they’re attributes I might require.

The New York Review of Books (Jan-Feb 09) contains an interesting article on the influence of advertising on medical diagnoses, particularly for psychological functions. Reviewer Marcia Angell concludes that marketing has so successfully colonised medicine, it’s induced a role-reversal – new diseases are being invented to maximise the productivity of existing drugs. Reviewing three books dealing with the subject, she remarks,

It seems that the strategy of the drug marketers – and it has been remarkably successful – is to convince Americans that there are only two kinds of people: those with medical conditions that require drug treatment and those who don’t know it yet.

Of the three books Angell considers, one sounds particularly interesting. Of Shyness: How normal behaviour became a sickness, she says,

Lane uses shyness as his case study of disease-mongering in psychiatry. Shyness as a psychiatric illness made its debut as ‘social phobia’ in *DSM-III in 1980, but was said to be rare. By 1994, when DSM-IV was published, it had become ‘social anxiety disorder,’ now said to be extremely common. According to Lane, GlaxoSmithKline, hoping to boost sales for its antidepressant, Paxil, decided to promote social anxiety disorder as a ‘severe medical condition.’ In 1999, the company received FDA approval to market the drug for social anxiety disorder. It launched an extensive media campaign to do it, including posters in bus shelters across the country showing forlorn individuals and the words ‘Imagine being allergic to people…,’ and sales soared.

(*DSM – Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

As I’ve always suspected, this sickening trend towards compulsory bonding is conjured by insidious multinational snake oil vendors. I'm not so much shy as misanthropic. I can talk to people, I just don't want to. I find it increasingly easy to ignore the rest of the world because of this kind of thinking but it’s precisely this attitude that makes it more difficult for the rest of the world to ignore me. It really is okay not to want to be with other people. It gives me enormous pleasure and I’m fairly certain social cohesion is not dependent on my willingness to absorb the autobiographically ramblings of ten people a day. I think of what Jack Kerouac said,

I realised either I was crazy or the world was crazy: and I picked the world. And of course I was right. (Vanity of Duluoz).

Australians love Alain de Botton – another reason to suspect the national psyche is in need of maintenance. He was described as a ‘French philosopher’ on ABC radio the other day. He is neither a Frenchman nor a philosopher in the French tradition as far as I can see, (although he’s rather prone to overuse of the word bourgeois, and he invariably ends up steaming his train of thought down the wrong track.

In an article in The Australian last weekend, the ubiquitous Englishman graced us with his musings on the relationship between work, love and happiness, the research for which extended no further than a few weeks of eavesdropping on the sobbing clients of a London psychotherapist. His enquiries left him,

newly aware of the unthinking cruelty discreetly coiled within the magnanimous bourgeois assurance that everyone can discover happiness through work and love. It isn’t that these two entities are invariably incapable of delivering fulfilment, only that they almost never do so.

De Botton asserts that personal fulfilment is some kind of bourgeois invention. Wrong. The inclination to organise and produce is present in all societies as is the ambition of some to take charge of this activity. That humans enjoy what they have achieved is evidenced by the universal habit of celebrating success in feasting, dancing and other pleasurable rituals. Our natural industriousness is being short-circuited by a psychotherapeutic revolution that deludes us into believing that no matter what we achieve it is not enough. This end is easily secured by pushing the big button most of us wear openly labelled self-doubt. Extra confusion is added by the debasing of our traditional rewards. One can’t even enjoy self-congratulatory feasting without residual guilt any more. The result is a shrink’s bonanza.

It’s not the quality of ‘work’ that is to blame for career disappointment any more than the quality of ‘people’ is to blame for the failure of relationships. Most would agree that it’s human nature to want to do something with your life. It’s awfully long and could be quite tedious without activity of some sort. Even I want to do something (as long as it involves total silence and lots of reclining). The real letdown is not the work so much as the workplace. This is where quality falls on its arse. Why doesn’t someone set themselves against the problem of discovering why toilets pong, staplers walk and your boss’s brain has been injected with formaldehyde?

Well, that feels a lot better. Now for some industry of my own. The Larrikin’s End School of Fine Art and Advanced Macramé is an exacting taskmaster. I expect to finish a painting today, be jolly pleased with it and reward myself with as fine a feast as my limited income will allow. Cheers...