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Thursday, 19 March 2015

Groom Service, please

During a recent visit to a Turkish barber, I made a startling discovery which I hope may lead to me being recognised as having made a significant contribution to the science of grooming. Like most folk, I believed that the science had been more or less settled since the mid-seventies, when Jorge Silva’s ground-breaking ‘The hermeneutics of grooming’ was published. Silva’s research established that there were six recognisable stages on the ‘male haircut’ continuum:

Passive → Larval → Peacock → Business → Utilitarian → Topiary 

The ‘passive’ phase encompasses the childhood years, when the male has no awareness of his hair and all responsibilities for grooming fall upon his mother. The second (or ‘larval’) phase begins when the young male becomes self-conscious and is, as Silva puts it, ‘quite fussy’ about his appearance.  
Stage three (the peacock phase) has been the subject of most academic attention. Gilligan and Porter’s influential paper on 'The Hair Delusion' (Oxford Tonsorial Review, 1991) observed that, during the peacock phase, a young man “may spend as much as one third of his income on hair products and spend as much as one hour getting his hair just ‘right’ for a night out.” During my own peacock phase, I was known to experiment with colours, lengths and -sadly- accoutrements. I do not exaggerate when I say that my ‘Mick Hucknall’ period is itself worthy of a psychological case study.

Stage four, the 'business phase', evolves over a much longer period (some males can take as long as 15-20 years to make the transition) and, because of where it sits on the continuum, there can be a certain amount of ‘crossover’ between the stage it follows (the peacock) and the stage it precedes (the utilitarian). 
According to Waldorf, Sanchez and McPhail, professors of Hair, Nails and Beauty at the University of Wisconsin, the average male, “having lingered in the hinterland of his peacock days, will make the inexorable graduation, first to the business stage (in which he seeks best value for a good haircut) and then to the utilitarian, in which he will pay the minimal price at any venue (within the parameters of established norms) for a haircut.” Note the absence of an adjectival descriptor for the haircut in that second definition. 

The Wisconsin team devised a simple equation to express the concept of customer satisfaction, which they believed delineated precisely the boundaries of this crossover period between the business and utilitarian phases:  

P = T x A ÷S/N 


P = acceptable price
A = aesthetic considerations
N = likelihood of negative reaction to haircut
T = willingness to invest time
S = sundry considerations (e.g. location, weather, chattiness of staff etc. ) 

Not all experts agree about the existence of an extended crossover period; you may recall the huge twitter row last year when Stephen Fry controversially stated that the difference between the business and the utilitarian period was so minuscule as to be ‘hardly worth the bother’, leading the international stylist John Frieda to describe him as a “preening jackanapes with all the insight of stale suet pudding.”   

Until my recent startling discovery, I believed (like most of us, I’d imagine) that the fifth, or utilitarian, stage had but one offshoot, namely that sixth (topiary) phase, the first to include trimming activities beyond the mere head of hair. I call this the “shall I do those eyebrows for you, sir?” phase, as those were the exact words put to me during a quick visit to a handy boutique in the summer of 2008. In existential terms, entering the topiary phase can be a defining moment, the point at which the mature gentleman is faced with the realisation that he has reached an age characterised by what Camus called “the ineffable desolation of eyebrow unruliness.” After the initial feelings of shock, desolation, shame and existential despair, I had more or less settled into the “shall I do those eyebrows for you, sir?” stage. I was reasonably content that my journey along the tonsorial continuum had reached its comfortable terminus.  

Until, that is, my recent visit to the Turkish barber.

After I had given my usual simple instructions (a ‘two’ at the back and sides and chop a bit off the top please), I sat back and relaxed, expecting nothing other than a pleasantly brief grooming hiatus in an otherwise uneventful Saturday morning.   

Suddenly, and with no prior announcement, the barber took a small set of clippers and applied them to my eyebrows and my ears. Further, he did this without even asking. After the initial shock, the realisation dawned that I was in uncharted territory: a new point on the haircut continuum. The barber had decided that my need for eyebrow and ear trimming was so pronounced, so obvious, that he had no need to consult me. There was, for him, no question to be asked, no debate to be had. ‘This guy’s eyebrows and ears are getting it,’ he must have thought. In Turkish.   

As I sat there considering the enormity of what had just transpired, it occurred to me that this is what Archimedes must have felt like as he sat in his bath and invented the Isosceles triangle. This was a game-changer.  

Accordingly, I have written to the Royal Tonsorial Society to suggest that some further research be carried out in order to establish the exact conditions and boundaries of this seventh point on the grooming continuum. I’d like to think that, in recognition of my contribution to the advancement of science, they may even allow me to name it.

Upon consideration, I believe that the ‘acknowledged overgrowth’ stage has quite a nice ring to it. 

I am aware that this subject has the potential to cause follicle offence and would not wish my admittedly hair-centric approach to upset any friends and colleagues in the bald community. There are many fine works available on baldness, among which I would thoroughly recommend Brandon Linklater’s excellent six-volume work ‘Depilation Row: male baldness and the 60s counter-cultural narrative.’  

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Eminent Hipster, horrible paragraph

I’ve just finished reading ‘Eminent Hipsters’, Donald Fagen’s erudite and witty homage to his favourite musicians of the 1950s and '60s. I’m not going to review the book, but something in it really caught my eye and I’m compelled to pass comment.

Some of my friends (particularly those who have, over the years, been bored rigid by my missionary zeal), are aware of my admiration and love for Donald's work, both as a solo artist and as part of Steely Dan. I was too young to appreciate The Dan when they were in their prime; my love affair with their music only started after a friend made me a compilation tape back in 1989. He knew that I was a big fan of the Scottish pop outfit Danny Wilson and, as he handed me the tape, said: “If you like Danny Wilson, just wait until you hear this”. It was the start of a love affair which endures to this day. Indeed, so great is my fan-boy love for this band that when, after a twenty year hiatus, they released their comeback album ‘Two against nature’, I took the day off work just to listen to it. Tragic, I know, but I relate this information in order to establish my Danorak credentials. Believe me, I’ve got lots of good stuff in the bank with Donald Fagen.

It gives me no great pleasure, therefore, to state that ‘Eminent Hipsters’ contains one of the most dismal paragraphs I’ve ever read (and, believe me, I’ve read plenty dismal). 

Just to set the scene: the second half of the book takes the form of a tour diary, wherein Donald writes (amusingly and with no little degree of acerbic insight) about life on the road with the Boys of September, an occasional combo he fronts along with Boz Scaggs and Michael MacDonald. Their act consists of standards, personal favourites and, of course, some of their hit singles (between them, they’ve had a few over the years). Although he loves the music they’re playing on the tour, there is a sense in which Fagen is slumming it a little, because he has to play smaller venues and stay in cheaper hotels than he would ever be required to do on a Steely Dan tour. He bitches amusingly about the travelling, the hotels and the crowds, many of whom he classifies as ‘TV babies’; by this he means folk who are not particularly fans of his music (nor that of Scaggs and MacDonald), but who expect to hear a shedload of hit singles at every gig. Having selected a really tasteful set of songs, Fagen makes it clear that, at certain gigs, his believes his under-appreciated band to be placing pearls before swine. I can live with his snooty disdain for the audience, particularly as he writes so honestly about the fact that his mental health and well-being is not always entirely robust when he is living the nomadic life. He gives an honest account of the psychic damage he endures through endless bus journeys, faceless hotels and interminable sound-checks; at one point, he even fantasises about a venue catching fire during one of their gigs.    

I’m fine with all of that stuff, but I’m not so good with this paragraph, written after a gig in Texas:  

I'm back from the show. The house was a legion of TV Babies, maybe tourists from Arizona. I don’t know. Probably right-wingers too, the victims of an epidemic illness that a British study has proven to be the result of having an inordinately large amygdala, a part of the primitive brain that causes them to be fearful way past the point of delusion, which explains why their philosophy, their syntax and their manner of thought don’t seem to be reality based.  That’s why, when you hear a Republican speak, it’s like listening to somebody recount a particularly boring dream.
In the sixties, during the war between the generations, I always figured that all we had to do was wait until the old, paranoid, myth-bound sexually twisted Hobbesian geezers died out. But I was wrong. They just keep coming back, these mouldering, bloodless vampires, no matter how many times you hammer in the stake. It’s got to be the amygdala thing. Period, end of story.  


Polite society frowns upon prejudices like sexism, racism and homophobia, yet here’s an outrageous example presented by an intelligent, sensitive, artistic man, that glibly dismisses around half of the population of the United States for their ‘primitive brains’. How, I wondered, could a cultured person succumb to such wretched complacency?

As if this tribal prejudice dressed up as intellectual rigour wasn’t ridiculous enough, Donald’s inability to comprehend the implications of what he said is mind-blowing. Because, at the heart of that statement about those ‘right-wing’ brains is something even more depressing than weapons-grade arrogance; there is a literal failure to understand and respect the ‘otherness’ of folk whose ideas don’t correspond to his own. That might save him the bother of having to negotiate the pesky minefield of intellectual argument, but if you ever find yourself resorting to the old Stalinist tactic of pathologising your opposition, you should perhaps give some thought to the intellectual company you’re keeping. It’s not, after all, like the 20th century didn’t provide us with plenty of examples of where this kind of thinking leads.   

I’m using broad brush strokes here, but I feel obliged to point out that I encounter this kind of thinking more among friends and acquaintances on the political left than among friends and acquaintances on the right. And, still using those broad brush strokes, I’d hazard the guess that this might be because folk on the left are more likely to believe in the perfectibility of humankind, a belief that is invariably underpinned by a self-regarding moral vanity which tends to overlook or ignore any inconvenient truths. Moreover, my experience has been that anyone who believes in that perfectibility is likely to fancy that it has already been achieved by … guess who? Why, by them, of course; by people like Donald Fagen. All of which leads me to conclude that Donald, in that one horrible paragraph, has inadvertently provided a perfect illustration of the complacent authoritarianism that seems to have infested a great deal of left-liberal thinking.

As I’ve already stated, I have enough in the bank for me not to fall out with Donald over this (and I’m sure he’ll be relieved to hear that). I love the guy’s music and will continue to love it. If I were to decide that, from tomorrow, I was only going to listen to music made by people who broadly share my political views, I’d have to throw out about 95% of my record collection. 

Listening to music because you agree with the politics of the folk who made it seems a bit silly to me. But it's nowhere near as silly as pretending that there is a neuro-scientific explanation for folk disagreeing with your interpretation of the world.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

'Kraftwerk: Publikation' by David Buckley

Back in the days before Twitter allowed us to find out what they were having for breakfast, pop stars could be quite mysterious and there was no act quite as mysterious as Kraftwerk. After they released their albums, they would invariably carry out a perfunctory bit of promotional work (usually, if memory serves, on the TV science show 'Tomorrow’s World') and maybe do the odd concert, after which they would retreat to their studios in Dusseldorf (the splendidly named Kling Klang) to start work on their next project, or maybe that should be projekt. When I say they ‘started work’, that would have been a guess. In those days, we had no idea what those mysterious Germans got up to. Years would pass; pop fashions and prime-ministers would come and go, but Kratfwerk wouldn’t even answer the phone. What were they working on? New music? Testing new synthesisers? Building robots? Constructing a time machine? Or perhaps a combination of all of the above? It turns out, according to David Buckley’s biography, that they were quite often goofing around with gizmos, enjoying coffee and pastries or indulging in that most rock and roll of pastimes, cycling.

Their imperial phase came in the mid-to-late seventies, with the albums ‘Radio-Activity’, ‘Trans-Europe Express’ and ‘The Man Machine’, with the latter -for my money- representing their finest work; the composition, structure and pacing on that album is flawless, a perfect realisation of their artistic vision. I love Kraftwerk’s warm analogue sounds and insistent rhythms, but my affection for their music is also informed by memories of a time when they didn’t just 'represent' something new; they were something new. In the 21st century, electronica has become the lingua franca of pop, but in the seventies, Kraftwerk were revolutionary, not in the sense of having anticipated or embraced the latest fashion or sounds, but in the sense of having invented a new way of making music, of having forged a new language for pop. That might be something that only a middle-aged person would say and, to be honest, I am not unsympathetic to Buckley’s ‘dad watching Top of the Pops’ view that pop and rock appears to have evolved into a self-referential ‘curator’ culture, wherein pretty much everything we hear now is ‘a bit 60s’ or ‘a bit folky’ or maybe ‘a bit RnB’ or ‘a bit 80s’.   

The author points out (correctly, in my view) that, by the time they had released ‘Computer World’ in 1981, the world had caught up with Kraftwerk. For the first time, they sounded contemporary, part of the pop landscape, where –just a few years earlier- they had sounded like they had arrived from the future. In the 1980s, their output declined to the point where to have described it as ‘sluggish’ would have been a generous exaggeration. The two main creative forces, Ralf Hutter and Florian Scheider, were happy living off the royalty cheques from the likes of 'Autobahn' and 'The Model' and were so into their cycling that the other two members, Karl Bartos and Wolgang Flur, had to find other ways to pay the bills.  

Buckley offers some good background material on the German cultural milieu of the late 60s and early 70s, but the book leans rather too heavily on interviews with musicians who have been influenced by the band. The author also reveals a bit too much about his own political views, which I’d wager are of no real interest to most readers. As one might expect, Ralf and Florian only appear in snippets from old interviews. Even in the age of social media, there exists an information black hole out of which very little emerges about these men; we know as little about them as we did thirty five years ago. Karl Bartos makes a modest contribution, but I suspect that he is keeping his powder dry for a book of his own.   

This might not be the definitive tome on Kraftwerk, but if you’re a fan of the band it’s a pretty good read. If you’re waiting for a comprehensive warts-and-all guide to the life and work of this fascinating combo, I’d advise you not to hold your breath.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Demis Roussos - Class Warrior

I was saddened to hear of the passing of the Greek singer, Demis Roussos. This is partly because my mum liked him and partly because I regard his music as a defiant symbol of the kind of lowbrow popular art that is usually disdained by critics. A few years ago, I wrote about watching Demis on a re-run of an old ‘Top of the Pops’ episode from 1976, observing that: 

"He dressed like a character from an episode of Star Trek, in which Kirk and crew had beamed down to a planet where the dominant species had evolved from a race of fortune tellers and new-age therapists. He sometimes appeared through the miracle of specially-filmed clips shot in Greece (or at least shot somewhere that was hot, with rocks and sand and electricity that was magically supplied to the various unplugged instruments). He was a handsome big fellow and he did his fair share of smouldering, but that ‘mean and slightly moody’ look was rather at odds with his high-pitched vocal delivery, which often attracted scorn from his critics." 

Demis may have sold millions of records, but many folk will remember him for having been rather brutally disparaged by Mike Leigh in the play ‘Abigail’s Party’, wherein his music was deemed to be a risible signifier of the suburbanite affectations of the main character, Beverly. Underpinning the dreadful snobbery of that play was a fear and loathing of the aspirant lower middle-class with their common tastes and their vulgar desire to improve their lot. Goodness, these people wore the wrong clothes, drank the wrong wine, ate the wrong food, watched the wrong films, listened to the wrong music and, when ‘Abigail’s Party’ was first performed in 1977, they would probably have been gearing up to vote for the wrong political party. I’d imagine that in la belle beau monde inhabited by Mike Leigh and chums, where the right kind of people ate in the right restaurants and ordered the right wine, there would have been no little degree of disdain for anyone who had the audacity to get above their station by doing something as vulgar as, say, buying their own council house. 

Sadly, that kind of class snobbery is no longer the preserve of educated theatre-types. It now infests our social discourse like a plague, manifested in the censorious and hectoring desire of the political class to micro-manage every aspect of the lives of those they deem too stupid, crass and vulgar to make decisions for themselves about what to watch, what to eat, what to drink, what to smoke or how to raise their kids. 

I can't claim to be much of a fan of the music of Demis Roussos but, because of that play and because of what the playwright so clearly believed his music to represent, any time I hear one of his songs I get the mental image of a fat man in a kaftan giving the middle finger to anyone who would fancy themselves an arbiter of 'good taste'. 

And somehow, that seems enormously satisfying.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

The age of self-censorship

I’ve nothing against the various displays of 'solidarity' with the victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. I’m sure the folk at the demonstrations mean well, but all of that #jesuischarlie and candlelit vigil stuff won’t amount to a hill of beans. If the demonstrators think they are protecting freedom of speech, I’m afraid they’re a bit late. We gave that up when we embarked upon the age of self-censorship. 

Historians might quibble about the date, but I reckon the age of self-censorship started in 1989 when the fatwa was issued against Salman Rushdie. Some of us jumped up and down at the time and demanded a vigorous response from the authorities. Instead of lying low and apologising for Rushdie’s ‘offence’, I thought we should have printed hundreds of thousands of copies of ‘Midnight’s Children’ and distributed them free in schools, libraries and health centre waiting rooms. I thought we should have filled huge skips full of these books and left them in every town centre, just to make a point. We should have done something like that because the point was worth making. The bedrock of our civilisation is intellectual freedom and we should have been confident enough to send a clear message to the medievalists: Feel free to practice whichever religion you want, believe whichever ancient fairy stories you like, but do it in peace. Do not seek to impose your views and your rules on people who do not follow your beliefs. It’s really as simple as that. If we’d made our position clear at the time, we might have saved ourselves a whole heap of trouble. Instead, we’ve seen our political and cultural leaders retreat from their responsibilities to protect the ideals they’re supposed to hold dear. 

I don’t blame the fundamentalist nut-jobs for this state of affairs, because fundamentalist nut-jobs have being doing fundamentalist nut-job things for centuries and will no doubt continue to do those things. There will, alas, always be a tiny but violent minority of fundamentalist nut-jobs and one of the things about that tiny but violent minority is that they tend to notice when people cave in to pressure. And we have, since 1989, been doing a lot of caving in. In the years since the Rushdie fatwa, who knows how many authors and journalists have excised characters, themes or lines from their stories and articles because they feared reprisals from fundamentalists? 

Of course, it’s impossible to quantify things that only might have existed, but it is possible to judge things that have happened. Only a couple of years ago, the Obama administration asked YouTube to remove a video that had (allegedly) set off attacks on the American embassy in Benghazi. Then, to compound this craven stupidity, the de facto leader of the western world made a speech to the UN in which he said that “the future must not belong to the slanderers of the Prophet Mohammed”. Really? Imagine, if you will, how folk would have reacted had George W. Bush said “the future must not belong to the slanderers of the Lord Jesus Christ.”   

As long as we keep re-drawing our line in the sand, we’re heading for our date with destiny: the point at which there will be no-one willing or able to stand up to the fundamentalist nut-jobs. And, as we re-draw that line, we become acclimatised to the idea that a British author might have to go into hiding because of the ‘actions’ of one of his fictional characters; we become acclimatised to the idea that a Dutch film maker can be murdered because he makes a film critical of a certain religion; we become acclimatised to the idea that the headquarters of a Danish magazine can be fire bombed because it prints some cartoons; we become acclimatised to the idea of not publishing ‘offensive’ cartoons; we become acclimatised to the idea that police officers, civil servants and journalists will suppress factual accounts of grooming and gang rape for fear of ‘causing offence’.  

When the ‘blasphemous’ publication of cartoons led to the attack on that obscure little Danish magazine in 2005, not a single British newspaper or magazine acted in solidarity with their fellow journalists. Not one editor had the guts to publish the cartoons and say: ’This is what all the fuss is about’. Of course, they all composed editorials declaring their abhorrence of intimidation and violence and their unshakeable belief in our rights to freedom of speech, but -for the sake of not offending sensibilities- they decided against publishing the cartoons. Not one of them would do it.
And here we are again, pretending to show solidarity in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo outrage. Except, when The Telegraph published an article on the massacre, the cartoon image of Mohammed was pixelated in order to obscure the view and avoid causing offence. The BBC website invited historian Tom Holland to write an article on Islam, but refused his request to publish the cartoon. As David Dimbleby revealed the other night on ‘Question Time’, it is official BBC policy that: “the prophet Mohammed should not be represented in any shape or form”.  
Amol Ragan, editor of The Independent stated that his “every instinct” was to publish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, but he decided that it was “too much of a risk”. He admitted that he was “very uncomfortable” with this. One is tempted to point out that so he should be, because he’s supposed to be a journalist. 

As the blogger David Budge put it:
'I get why journalists are scared of offending Muslims. I just don’t get why they’re journalists'.

So, good people, go to your demonstrations and your candlelit vigils. Tweet your hashtags and put your Je suis Charlie badges up on facebook. Feel free to live in the hope that it will make some difference. But if any of those murderous thugs are watching, the stupid folk who think it’s their duty to slaughter the infidel, how much notice do you think they’re going to take?    

What we need to do is to re-draw our line in the sand, but let’s move it a little bit in the other direction. Let’s do something that makes a positive, celebratory statement about how much we value freedom of speech. Something that will tell the medievalists that, instead of picking on little magazines, they will have to take on every publication in the land. Let’s do something that really does say: "We are all Charlie Hendo."
I make this appeal to all newspaper and magazine editors: Please, print an image of the prophet Mohammed. Do it on your front page and explain why you are doing it. Do it to make a point about freedom of speech. Do it to express the right of those with no religious affiliations not to be bound by the rules that believers are bound by. Do it, not to offend anyone’s sensibilities, but to celebrate a sensibility that has evolved over several hundred years of conflict and socio-political development throughout a continent. It’s the sensibility that embraces the most important diversity of all: intellectual diversity. Do it, if you think that value is worth sticking up for.   

But if you can’t do that, please stop insulting our intelligence by pretending that your actions are informed by ‘respect’. At least be brave enough to call your reluctance to publish exactly what it is: fear. There’s nothing wrong with being frightened; being frightened in the face of intimidation is part of our survival mechanism. But if we don’t republish those cartoons, all we’re doing is letting those poor French journalists take the bullets on our behalf. So if you can’t at least honour their bravery by republishing the work that got them killed, please don’t write about showing 'solidarity' with the massacre victims. Please don’t come out with any more fatuous pieties about how we’re all going to live together in perfect harmony. Please don’t patronise us with more rubbish about your staunch support for freedom of speech, because all you’re doing is redrawing that line in the sand, that line we’ve been moving since 1989.   

So please … print a cartoon. 

Or just shut up and admit that we are now in the age of self-censorship and that the bad men with the guns have already won.