Monday, November 29, 2010

What's your superhero skill?

I am currently a "Reader" at work. "What does that mean?" asked my mother. "I thought you write books, not read them!" I don't know why it's called that either, but it means that I have one more promotion to go and then I'll be a professor. One reason why I want to be a professor is that I've become a bit tired of saying "That's Dr Bitch to you!", when people call me a bitch. Saying "That's Professor Bitch to you!" sounds so much more original.

Actually, the real and only reason is the £10,000 pay increase which comes with it. Even with the chunks of tax, pension and NI that'll come out of it. That's an awful lot of big bars of Galaxy.

I work in a very large university department which has loads of professors so they're very commonplace in my life. I could walk out of my office, spit and hit ten of them without trying to. I'm often the only non-professor at dinner-parties. I've always seemed to work and socialise with people who are much more advanced than me, in all sorts of ways. I guess that's one way to keep you grounded and stops you from thinking too highly of yourself.

Even when I was in infants school and so proud to be on the "top table" for the geek children who did best in the weekly test, I was in awe of Kathryn - a seven year old virtuoso pianist with a computerised brain. I think she'd now be called "gifted". All I knew was that during lunchtime she would make enormous lists of all of the past participle verbs that she knew. And once, during art lesson, I was quite pleased at my drawing of Mr Tickle. She on the other hand had drawn "a picture of Kate Bush in an inflatable space suit". None of those words or concepts meant anything to me.

And she used to tease my obsession with the Mr Men by pretending to have read new Mr Man books that didn't actually exist "Oh, have you read Mr Star? It's great!"

When I got a bit older I discovered Helen Cresswell's "Bagthorpe saga" - about a family of three genius children, and one normal child, Ordinary Jack. I identified with Ordinary Jack.

This association with much brainer people than myself has carried over into my adult life. My husband has been a professor for ages. He's 8 years older than me and makes my achievements look pitiful. He's always done everything first and usually better. So I'm very used to playing second fiddle. Gay relationships in particular can become quite competitive, and although it's toxic to keep score, it's sometimes difficult not to. Especially if you're in a job which attracts competitive people and then further incentivises competitiveness. They don't say Publish or Perish for nothing. I think I realised that I was dating a scary genius years ago when I watched him playing that computer game Civilisation. While I struggled to keep about six cities on the go, he had about fifty all running simultaneously and effectively, while conducting ongoing and highly successful wars against the other computer players. He has the brain of Professor Xavier from the X-men. He knows everything, and his other special skill is that he can impersonate anybody, which has always kept me laughing.

At least I can console myself that I'm the pretty one. My special skill is my hair.

So my bete noir is Professor Brian Cox (born 1968, only four years older than me, with his own tv and radio programs and even a pop career in his past). Unlike most other professors, he still has a full head of hair, and doesn't seem to suffer from those levelling personality disorders that Mother Nature has seen fit to award people who are very clever at one academic subject. To my knowledge he doesn't have debiliting shyness, any facial or sexual tics or an inflated ego which manifests itself in pomposity, pontificating and primadonna-ish behaviour. My sister-in-law thinks he is gorgeous, but as a gay man with much higher standards for male beauty, I think that's going a bit too far. I will concede though, that he would be a difficult person to be in a relationship with. Clever people are supposed to be freaks. That's just the way things are. By being so normal, Brian Cox throws up the possibility that real X-Men can actually exist. He's part of a mutant super-race and must be stopped!

Thursday, November 25, 2010


I may have found a rival to my favourite weird 70s Euro group Shocking Blue. Meet The Rattles, a German group whose biggest hit was The Witch. Their pop video is like the Blair Witch Project and the Evil Dead. I especially like the blindfolded people reading German newspapers, although I'm also quite partial to the man pretending to be the Statue of Liberty standing in a pool. What does it all mean?

Monday, November 22, 2010

What would Rolf Harris do

I have been befriended by a group of artists recently. They operate out of an old warehouse in Manchester, and use words like "space", "installation" and "interactive". They are all terribly nice, and I don't want to spoil everything by saying "You know who's a good artist? Rolf Harris!"

Rolf is the anthithesis of contemporary art. I saw some of Rolf's wares in the "art" section of Fenwick's department store in Newcastle recently. A picture of a lion was on sale for £700. And it actually looked like a lion. Afterwards I went to the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art. It is a huge space, formally an old flour mill on the River Tyne, which houses all the best most cutting-edgest contemporary art. There was a big dead palm tree on the floor of one room. I had no idea what it was about, but I wanted to scream "Rolf Harris" and fill that massive empty, silly space with the name of someone I consider to be a good artist.

Last week I went to the National Portrait Gallery and saw the Photographic Portrait Prize 2010. There were a wide range of photographs, and to be honest, I was a little shocked at a couple of them. One in particular was entitled Portrait of My British Wife (google it, go on, just don't do it at work) and showed a picture of a young women, not wearing any trouser bottoms. It won second prize and £3000. Faced with this picture, I suddenly came over all Mary Whitehouse and started thinking "But what about the children!" This article in The Guardian, a couple of weeks ago, sums up how I felt. Actually, forget the children. I didn't like seeing it. I like to be able to choose when I see a vagina. And I didn't fancy seeing one that day thanks. At least a verbal warning would have been nice.

I don't like art that tries to be shocking or challenging. It just makes me bored and turned off. It's so dreary and glum. And I don't like it when artists simply want to get a reaction out of someone, and they say "Oh, everything's a valid response!" So even my boredom is labelled as a valid reaction in itself and therefore a success for the artist who succeeded in getting a rise out of the audience. Even a non-response is a response. How clever and post-modern! I also don't like it when shocking art is used as a way to bring attention and fame to the artist. So someone pushes a boundary, puts a vagina where you weren't expecting to see it, someone else gets a bit flustered and complains, and then before you know it - success! Debate and controvesy occur, the gallery gets a lot more visitors and everyone wins apart from the person who complained, who now looks like a prudish twat. (I used the word twat here to show that I'm not prudish, and also as a "clever" reference to the piece of art itself).

So I don't get a lot of contemporary art. I keep going to the galleries. I read the descriptions of what the artist was trying to do. I try to think about the range of possible responses and all the different things that the art could mean. I can see how I'm supposed to get it. But it just comes across as trying too hard to be clever and challenging.

I think a lot of people don't like to say that because they're afraid they'll come across as thick. I'm quite happy to be called thick. I can quote Foucault, Derrida, Bordieu - all of them until you scream at me to stop. I can do "clever".

Yet I don't buy it. It all comes across as a big fake and I don't think that even the artist has a clue half the time what they're supposed to be doing. It just comes across as lazy and like the artist is taking the piss and then taking the money. Would that Portrait of My Wife have won second prize if the wife had been wearing trouser bottoms? Is the picture technically that good? Or did it get awarded because of that brave, controversial vagina? It looks like blagging, frankly, and you wouldn't be able to get away with it in most other fields.

I guess the artists don't care. What I've said is just another valid response to them. Someone could even make a piece of art by copying all of the words in this blog posting onto a giant canvas - and perhaps writing them in shit - just to make it all the more symbolic. But I wouldn't be impressed with that either.

If I had £700, I would have bought that Rolf Harris picture. It was pretty good.

A Truce, of Sorts, With My Hair

My hairstyle fluctuates. For almost all of my childhood it was a brushed forward look, designed by my mother and modelled on The Beatles "mop-top". Not content with naming me after TWO of the Beatles, my mother was determined that I would also look like them - all at once.

I had tried to cut it myself at 12 - got it tragically wrong and ended up having the whole lot shaved off (you try being the swot with a skinhead at school - thank goodness it grew back in about two weeks). I didn't dare do anything else with it until 15, when I gave myself a daring side-parting. People pointed at me during school assembly and whispered comments, but oddly one by one, all of the boys I hung out with copied my new "do" over the course of the week. For the first (and possibly only) time, I was a Fashion Leader.

By the time I got to university, the side parting had turned into a gigantic, out-of-control quiff, which added an extra 8 inches onto my height. I had been inspired by the boys of Beverly Hills 90210 and the lead singer of REM, who in turn had probably been inspired by James Dean. I cultivated the sideburns and Luke Perry's non-existent top lip. "Why are you doing that weird thing with your mouth" my friend used to say when he saw me looking in the mirror. It was unconscious, and humiliating to have it pointed out.

Around about ten years ago, the quiff got shorter and shorter, and I tried to get my hair to resemble Paul Clarke on Big Brother 2. This otherwise banal contestant spent hours applying bits of styling putty to his hair in order to give it what was known as the "Hoxton fin". This picture of him doesn't really do it justice, but you can see the rather toxic-looking amount of product in it.

It wasn't the sort of look that really let you lean back against soft furnishings without leaving an imprint, and it took ages to create. After about a week of putting stuff in my hair by the name of "Goop" or "Sticky Fish" or whatever, my hair would rebel and then refuse to do anything at all. It would stick up in all the wrong places. I kind of hated it. The only thing it had going for it was that it resolved the cow-lick that I have on the right side of my face, by making it almost non-existent.

Now I'm in my late 30s, it seems futile to even try to follow hair fashion any more. I see much younger males walking around with longer hair, all swept forward, in a kind of emo-Bieber-style. A nice thing about being so old that it no longer matters what you look like, is that there is a kind of freedom in that. So I've gone back to the old side parting. On a good day my hair now resembles the middle-aged lead of Any Human Heart. Or a Tory politician.

It doesn't need any product (hurrah!), and is long enough so that it doesn't stick up by itself at the back until about 4pm, as I found when I've tried shorter styles. And when I go into my recently remodelled art-deco inspired ensuite guest room, I actually feel like I'm a character in a lavish 1930s costume drama.

And sometimes, I've started wearing old man hats. "I am pleased", said my husband. "That other hat you used to wear, the 'cool' one, made you look a bit simple!"

Friday, November 12, 2010

Back to Back to the Future

In 1981 my parents rented a video player from the Rediffusion Store.

Did you have one of these in your house? We did.

However, my Dad (a bus driver) found his pay eroded over the course of that year (that's privitisation for you), and we had to send the video player back to the shop after our 12 month contract on it ran out. I was pretty devastated. Those next few years were like something out of a Dolly Parton song. My mother still reminds me of how during one particularly cash-strapped Christmas, when we couldn't afford presents, I told everyone "Don't worry, we'll just enter into the spirit of Christmas instead." (Are you crying yet?)

It wasn't until my mother got a job 6 years later that we were able to afford another video player. The first film we watched on it was Back to The Future. And none of us noticed the irony in the title.

That film made me obsessed with time travel. I couldn't wait to grow up and get out. I would make lists of things that I wanted my life to be like in the 21st century (with its shiny enormous wallscreens and even shinier people wearing silver clothes). The future couldn't come fast enough.

I did not like the 1980s. Being northern, working-class, poor, gay and an introverted swot, the country declared war on me in numerous ways, some which I wasn't even aware of until much later on. There was very little that was produced culturally during that decade that spoke to me (The Golden Girls being an exception). And I've spent the 20 years after the 1980s trying to ensure that if the 1980s comes back, it can never get me again. I am prepared.

But I've been getting sinister glimpses of the 1980s all year. Have you? Revivals used to come in 20 year cycles, but I think they've been getting faster and faster over the last decade, so now it's like we experience every decade all at once in a wave of multi-fluctuating retrotacity (I just made that word up).

But it's the 1980s that I keep seeing, out of the corner of my eye. It's almost like that hateful decade is a villain that was vanquished at the end of a horror film, I now feel like I'm at the start of the (less ground-breaking) sequel film (The 1980s Part 2), and the 1980s has somehow found a way to come back. 1980s cultists (The Tory Party) have invoked its spirit, and it's found a way back into our dimension. Again, it's the poor and the northerners who are going to be hit the hardest. All those public sector jobs in Newcastle, Liverpool and Manchester are going to be swept away. But don't think you can just sit around on benefits - they'll be taken off you also. And don't even think of going back to university, unless you fancy getting £50,000 in debt. Even yesterday's tuition fees riots felt like a rerun. And my own university has anarchists crawling out of the woodwork - they never really went away, they were just waiting, waiting for their moment.

Come to think of it, horror film sequels were a very 1980s thing anyway - so there it is again, seeping back into my consciousness, no matter how hard I try to make it go away.

Even Back to The Future is back again, celebrating its 25th anniversary. I keep seeing it everywhere.

This morning, as I turned on the car radio on the way to work, this was being played...

OK, so it was first released in 1978. But that saxophone refrain, heard so many times in the following decade, and inspiring of so many other saxophone inserts into 80s pop,
has come to represent a kind of short-hand for everything wrong about that accursed fucking decade - flashy, unironic and just plain naff.

And as it seared into my ears, I screamed, as if a serial killer had crawled into the back of the car.

Am I the only person who has a phobia of an entire decade?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Clever Clogs

Hurrah for BBC4 - Britain's best (and only) channel for intellectuals. Its quiz show "Only Connect" prides itself on being horrifically difficult. It is hosted by Victoria Coren, professional poker player and broadcaster who writes articles about feminism in The Guardian (she doesn't like cheerleading, "They aren't doing sport. They are waggling their arses near boys who are doing sport"). She is like the scary school-teacher that you always want to impress, but generally fail to do so, no matter how hard you try.

In the game, contestants are presented with a wall of sixteen words or phrases and then have to put them into groups of four, based on what their connections to other words are. For example, "blue, red, yellow and green" are colours. But don't expect anything as facile as that to feature in Only Connect. You're more likely to be asked to figure out that four words are the surnames of villains in 19th century French literature (and discount another two words that are also villains in 19th century French literature but also refer to ditransitive verbs), or that all four words are palindromes or something.

My husband and me try to play along. We generally get zero points. Afterwards my husband (who's a professor) hangs his head in shame and shuffles off upstairs saying "That was a humbling experience!" If you want to be humbled too, you can play the online version, and get Victoria commiserating when you get zero.