Sunday, September 25, 2005

Intellectuals of the world unite, you have nothing to lose other than your superior sense of solitude

There I was, sitting like any sane person in the vegan coffeeshop in hip Williamsburg, when a notice on fluorescent green paper caught my notice.

"Seeking Brainy, Cultured People In Your Area?",the notice opened. "Then hook up to Intellect Connect, the best way to meet intellectuals, and have a good time." Ah, the restraint. I reproduce the link for your convenience:

Wishing not to demean myself by looking too much at the connections that intellects can make, I can only speculate about the activities. So, some speculations:

Intellectuals Go to a Destruction Derby
Intellectuals Go to Prison
Intellectuals Kick a Dog Till its Eyes Bleed

Maybe that's just the bright crowd I hang out with.

Having lived on the East Coast of America for four weeks, I now feel tolerably well-equipped to make the generalisation, that Intellect Connect is missing a trick with the broader American populace. No, what we need is something more like "Dude Connect." Somebody patent the URL, while I follow the thought. Now I see it: Dude Connect, could be, like, a place for dudes together and...hang. Tag-line:

"Dude Connect. For dudes, who wanna, connect, dude. Sorry, dude, I said a word other than dude."

Actually, I lie, when I claim that trawling classefied ads is beneath me, or even something I don't do each and every night. If you look on Craigslist, that bastion of the new age in offering cheap furniture and no-strings homosexual sex, you often find romantic missives from people with interesting definitions. Like "European." Not infrequently, the phrase "looking for a European-style relationship" crops up, normally delivered by lonely women. Once, I found the answer to what was codified in this term: "i.e.", continued one post, "a relationship with integrity, not fantastic sex on the first night."

As a European, I quail at this reading. And not for the reason you think, Sarah-

Friday, September 23, 2005

A Kind of Tempered Utopia

When I was younger, I hit upon a great scheme, which was for a kind of tempered utopia. The real estate market in the South of England, as all you Kent-dwellers will testify, has been stratospherically high for some time. While strivers paid over the odds for small boxes in proximity to London, whole swathes of property was left dormant in the North of the country. In particular, many of the old mining communities emptied out during Thatcher's reign, leaving whole streets to become decrepit, with individual houses on the market for four-figure sums, and never getting sold.

My plan was simple: myself, and say one hundered of my friends, would buy up a whole area of one of these former mining towns. Instead of working ex nihilo, or changing everything we found there, as most utopians want to, we would work with these run-down buildings. Those friends more practical myself would use devices like welding, or whatever practical people use, to transform them into interesting, urban dwelling-places. Instead of imposing our community on the space, we would look to interact with the former miners and unemployed that had chosen to remain in the area. If nothing else, we would rink with them in the pub, and so prevent the pubs from closing. We would record their stories on dictaphones.

The plan was foiled by my general skittishness, and the fact that I do not have one hundred friends, and no more than six who can raise even a four-figure sum. But I still liked, in my skittish way, to imagine the unrealised project as some sort of abstract ideal, possessing an untainted perfection.

Imagine my horror, therefore, when I discovered this week that a New York artist had conceived a much better variant of my plan, back in 1972.

Gordon Matta-Clark, who also has a much better name than me, was already an avant-garde pin-up, before his death in 1978 at the callow age of 35 meant he never had to try hard again. His artistic signature was the purchase of unwanted, near-unvalued scraps of land, sold off by the New York government. He called these scraps "gutterspaces", and they were intended as artworks in their own right, or else small art-galleries for the showing of new work. These spaces were mostly in Queens; some were probably bigger than hip underground galleries in Bethnal Green; some were almost inaccessible, and essentially fenced-off corridoors. The idea was that these pieces could be a calculated escape from the reality of, well, living in Queens; but also that you might accidentally trip over a piece of performance art, on your way to grab a Diet Coke, or beat up your wife.

There are many retorspectives of his work currently showing. They all, to a greater of lesser extent, miss the point of his art somewhat, being housed in static, coventional art galleries themselves. But the much-neglected link between art and the bus surfaces in the most interesting retrospective, where you can travel out to see how these "gutterspaces" have evolved through the years.

Some of the recent pieces designed to fill these spaces were moving, and my anger at seeing my wonderful idea plagiarised by a man who died before I was born subsided. As Matta-Clark languishes in obscurity in England - or perhaps I do not read enough, or rightly - I resolve to disinter my mining village plan, and bask in undeserved originality. All of you with four-figure sums to throw about, take out your maps of Gateshead. Let us build this community.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Komar and Melamid

There is a great theme that will slowly emerge in these posts, and that theme is democracy.

I'm forever on the look-out for it, which is why I was happy to stumble over the work of two Russian scientists, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid. In true Renaissance style, the Russian scientists are also painters. They are also, surprisingly for Russians, democratic and deeply sardonic. These two strands fuse into their project: which is to establish a democratic basis for art.

To do this, they travelled around the major countries, like America and Finland, and simply asked the inhabitants that they encounetered what they liked most and least in a painting. The results were tabulated, and Komar and Melamid set about reproducing the most and least popular paintings. They are all available for viewing at:

There are some wonderful pictures. I recommend particularly Italy's least popular: a lower torso, suggestively that of Christ, dangling phallus, thighs punctured by darts; on the rear wall, a graffiti of the Power Rangers, and a framed painting of Elvis Presley.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Diamond in Rough

I am learning to think of my apartment, which lies in an uncouth area of Brooklyn, as a dimanond in the rough. In the twice-daily sprint between its rickety door and the subway, I've not been mugged once.

But I was shouted at by a man in a car recently. Foolishly, I went in the direction of the shout. This was around 3am, and small animals had dominion of the street. The man at the wheel wound his windows down. He was a Hasidic Jew, dressed in full get-up.

"You from here?" he asked.

God damn isn't New York the place that anyone makes it? "Yes, I am" I said.

"Speak Yiddish?", he asked.

"No I don't."

"Ah-ha. My English not so good. I in Williamsburg?"

"No. Williamsburg is that way" I suggested, with an approximate arm-thrust.

"Ah-ha. Listen to me." I leant closer. He whispered now. "I want somewhere where - where, you know, I have good time."

Good time? On moral or epicurean grounds, I had no idea of what he spoke. "What do you mean by good time?" I imagined to myself, with what imagination endured at this stage of the nights, of what this state could comprise. "Drinking, dancing?"

I prayed to God it wasn't the whore-fucking.

"Ah-ha. I want place, a bar. Understand, I am from very religious family, in Israel, I am not allowed to have good time." He looked downcast. "Which I want", he added reasonably, despondently.

"Well look, Williamsburg's got lots of bars. Like Galapogas" He cut me off. -"Yes, yes, but understand - I am from religious family. Is this place only Jewish?"

"No no, there are people of all kinds there."

"I see," he interjescted. "Women?" Now we were getting to the meat of the matter. "Yes, women have been known."

He looked delighted, then suddenly cut by a sharp implement. "Ah-ha. Then I cannot go. I need men only. If the family would find out..."

My patience was wearing thin. "Okay", I said, and thought of a standard name for a male bar, no easy task. "Go to Clive's. Same direction."

He looked at me. "Is only men?" "Only men."

"Is gay bar?"

I nodded, and he depressed his foot on the accelerator. God speed him-

Thursday, September 15, 2005


Last night I attended an event that somehow lived up to the hilarity it promised. It was George Galloway arguing the toss with Christopher Hitchens, over whether the war on Iraq was just or necessary.

The event was organised by a small independent publisher, The New Press, who happened to have published Galloway's new book, in the wake of his bizarre appearance before the US Senate, or at least around two of them. Like most leftist media organisations, they dealt with the practicalities of the event in a somewhat oblique fashion. There was a scrimmage of people outside, and the turnstiles-style device for letting them in was reminiscent of a Football derby from 1972. I even found myself nodding along to the Daily Telegraph's New York correspondant, who, sweating profusely through his standard-issue Telegraph pink shirt, remarked that this was "quite appallingly arranged."

When we were finally seated, an announcement went out that the evening's proceedings would be further delayed, due to problems with the metal detectors. It was good to see social revolutionaries at least trying to get to grips with security issues.

The atmosphere on the floor was heated, and people were plainly spoiling for a fight. I made sport in the delay trying to work out who would be rooting for Hitchens, and who Galloway. Having the svelte, collar-and-tie brigade down for the former, and those wearing expressions of doom for the latter, I concluded that if the discussion issued in an outbreak of violence, Galloway's gang would win, hands down.

There was indiscriminate cheering and hissing, as antagonists took to the stage, sadly not mediated by Jane Fonda, as the evening's bill had promised. Hitchens, who had been circulating fliers on the street outside the theatre before the event, spoke first, and was conventionally urbane. Galloway, took time to break into his stride, but by the time his face had rouged with pique, was well away. The oratory effect of Galloway is difficult to record in words, but it has something to do with a stuttering, delayed cadence, that at first sounds awkward, and then, by some unfathonable mystery, magesterial. He delivered lines like:

"Ladies and gentlemen. You have witnessed. The first ever natural phenomena of its kind.

A butterfly.

That changes into.

A - slug!"

This was Hitchens. The crowd, roughly 65/35% in favour of George to begin with, were elated. Hitchens could only parry with academic profundities, and re-trotted phrase like "slobbering dauphin" and "sinister piffle." He looked a beaten man by the end, which I never expected to see, though by this stage of the evening the hall was in uproar, with people springing to their feet, waving fists, facing one another down, throwing a shoe onto the stage, hissing at the orbiting security guards, and from all directions, the ubiquitous, perfectly American shout, "Shame on you!"

Hitchen's thin voice carried on, like a crumbling Alexandria being sacked.

And the man from the Telegraph, a lone force, applauded him with sudden vigour.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

A democratic approach to Cindy Sheehan

I'm interviewing Cindy Sheehan later this week. For those of you who don't know, Cindy Sheehan is the grieving war mother, parked (at least, was parked) on George Bush's lawn. I started interviewing her yesterday, but she was in Texas, a small Southern state with rednecks, and poor mobile coverage. In the name of democracy, I've decided to open up the interview to anyone who's curious. So, if there's something you've always wanted to know about Cindy Sheehan, but was afraid to ask, or never thought about phoning her up, let me have it. For those with want of imagination, here are a couple of suggestions (bear in mind I'm interviewing her while she's in a hotel):

What are you wearing?

Four star or five?

What's in the fridge?

Is the American-sponsored War on Terror REALLY a Zionist conspiracy?

Monday, September 05, 2005

God Manifests Himself as a Tannoy in the Outdoors

I'm so keen to trace the pulse of American life, and if their oft-repeated abstract virtues can be embodied in good solid English fare, so much the better. So the other day, I went to see Shakespeare in the Park, which combined classic values like freedom, (nobody was forced into viewing the play, as is the case in the socially determining class structure of British society), freeness, access and the transcendental absolute that is nature (the park being Central Park, very beautiful when floodlit at night.)

The best bit of all this was that as an English subject, and a former literature student at that, I got to be thoroughly offended by the monstrous dismemberment that they enacted upon the Bard's work. The play was "The Two Gentlemen of Verona", which has its blatant limitations even without being a musical, which the directors of Shakespeare in the Park had turned it into. The actors careered breathlessly through the impacted blank verse that had survived the adaptation, with a whole audience sighing with boredom, before the music kicked in, and a collective sigh of relief was breathed. The link was particularly jarring, because the added lines were as bad as:

'I find love alarming,
I'm much happier farming'

, which nobody is going to convince me even early-period Shakespeare wrote.

Thankfully, one of the transcendental American virtues, nature, intervened, by bucketing rain down among us during one of the extravagant dance routines. FOr a moment there was the kind of audience reaction that an avant-garde theatre director can spend his professional life striving for, before the crowd mobilised decisively, and began looking for umbrellas. The actors were skidding around on the liquifying stage, clinging to a desperate professionalism, which most American dancers and performers epitomise. It was all rather exciting, and I hadn't brought an umbrella. At the end of the dance, the performers withdrew, and a tannoy announcement (which, in openair venues, is the closest many secular folk get to experiencing something of God) announced that there would be a pause, in order to dry the stage and bar the actors from mishap. I rather hoped that the pudgy attendents that emerged with cleaning mops would have had some gravedigger-from-Hamlet-style nonesensical banter to spout, but no.

So I exercised that abstract virtue that resides in all of us, the democratic, and left the theatre with my friend.

Central Park was very beautiful at night, though I was told by a knowledgeable American that I was forunate not to have been stabbed. Instead, I ended up in an expensive bar by a manmade lake, drinking whiskey and listening to the babble of drunks. My friend Jenny had gone to the bathroom, when a slurring old crone dressed in a tracksuit top and tennis skirt, sitting across the table, took an eternity to say:

"You're Lance Armstrong. Well done."

After five futile minutes of protestations, I conceded the point in desperation, and confessed that yes, I was Lance Armstrong. Jenny returned from the bathroom, and was unsurprised at the news. Nothing much surprises her. The drunk crone looked at Jenny, and explained she was from Norway. She was an artist. Robert de Niro liked her work. "They" were trying to turn her into the next Andy Warhol, but she wouldn't be whoring her soul to the talkshows. "Look after him", she said. "Make sure he trains seven hours a day, miniumum. And you!" turning to me, "Should not. Be drinking!"

The man accompanying her was ushering her in the direction of the parking lot. His anxious face conveyed an embarrassment in her actions, and the eager desire to get her home and give her a seeing to before she passed out.

Friday, September 02, 2005

American Democracy

The other day, a friend illicitly procured me a VIP ticket for a Joss Stone concert. I hope no serious money or other goods were involved, because it's not as if I'm really a fan; but when someone's truly convinced of their own generosity, it's so difficult to refuse.

Joss Stone was playing on the Today Show. I felt immediately returned to the safe world of British culture, until somebody told me that Today was America's most-watched breakfast TV show, and then one of the presenters emerged to intense whooping, looking tanned and much unlike John Humphreys. We VIPs were herded like thoroughbred cattle into a small pen by the side of the stage. Seperated from us by an iron fence were the unwashed celeb-watchers, who shot looks of icy hate at us, that almost smashed their ersatz Gucci sunglasses. It was 7.30am.

I couldn't spot much difference between the VIPs and the Lumpen, except for the former had fewer placards, and proudly-displayed passes around their necks. From my study, both groups looked similarly malnourished. The placards bore messages: some stated the origin of the wavers with pride, and some made jovial advances towards Joss Stone. Just before the band emerged, the iron fence seperating the two groups was briefly lifted, and the placard-bearers pushed at our backs. Those in the proletariat section could have made their way right to the front, if they had elbowed and gouged enough. It was like a symbol for American democracy. A man with great silver whiskers and a shirt unbouttoned to reveal chest hair that was surely an assortment of velcro patches he had purchased from a utility store, and a huge piece of jewellry that looked as if it it had cost inverse money, turned to me knowledgably, as one VIP to another, and said:

"Andy Warhol, the artist, once said something about people having their fifteen minutes of fame - that's precisly what's going on here."