Archive for April 2007

Absolute Anonymity

April 27, 2007

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You may have noticed (but probably not) that I’d put a new link amongst my blog recommendations. I suggest that you visit it. But not before you’ve read this post. That would just be rude.

I should probably warn you that the things you encounter on the site might not conform to your standards of taste and dignity. On more than one occasion I’ve been confronted with depictions of the unadorned female form. You will see things that are life-affirming, heartbreaking. This is a place where the depravity and dignity of humanity share a common stage.

The blog in question, of course, is Postsecret. It’s only technically a blog, really. It’s more like a regularly-replaced website. But one mustn’t quibble.

The raison d’etre of Postsecret is to provide a forum through which you can reveal your innermost secrets from behind a wall of anonymity. There’s something amusingly paradoxical about it: things that you wouldn’t tell a single person are paraded in front of the entire globe. Or rather, the small subset thereof who frequent the site.

I spend quite a lot of time listening to people’s secrets. It’s a real privilege. For most people, anonymity is very disinhibiting. Within minutes of meeting a person, I can be hearing about things that their nearest and dearest, who have known them all their lives, would never suspect in a million years. They feel they can tell me, because I’m ‘outside the situation’. I have no emotional investment in it.

In practice, though, my conversations with patients are usually pretty tame. Our agreement of confidentiality isn’t total, you see. There are instances in which I might have to break confidentiality, for example if people are in danger. People are probably wary of taking their discussions into Postsecret territory in case I should feel the need to reach for my Special Button Under The Desk.

A quick look at Postsecret will probably yield a mixed bag. Some confessions are mundane, self-indulgent whining. Others are outrageous, and it is difficult to see how someone could ever share them via the normal channels. It seems that the less chance you have of being found out, the more scandalous the revelations you are prepared to make.

Does Postsecret represent a glimpse of What Goes On Behind Closed Doors? Do we all have secrets like this? Or is it simply an outlet for the deviant few? Does it tell us anything about our society? Probably not. I get a strong whiff of the USA off of it, frankly. And how do we know that it isn’t the same handful of people writing in again and again? And, of course, how do we know if any of these statements are actually true?

It makes you wonder, though. Is there something that you have never divulged about yourself to anyone? If you had the guarantee of total, unconditional anonymity, what would you want to say?

All revelations are to be made via the comments facility. No one will mind if you set up a bogus email address for the purpose. Time to come out with it, I say. Spill your guts.

I am realistic enough to anticipate no response.

More Art

April 26, 2007

Sorry about that little break in proceedings. Please consider this a seamless continuation of the last post.

Yesterday, I was pondering exactly what is meant by art. And more specifically, is art a worthwhile pursuit? And when it comes to selling art, who decides what’s good and what isn’t, and how might an art work be assigned a monetary value?

The argument I hoped to convey was that, when considering the value of an art work, there appears to be more to it than just the technical expertise shown in the finished product. That’s why some Johnny-come-lately will never be able to sell a painting for the price of an Old Master, even if it displays all the right technical and aesthetic qualities. But then again, there appears to be more to it than artist pedigree as well. Van Gogh’s Sunflowers might sell for $50 million, but no one is going to pay that much for some scribble he produced as a one-year-old infant.

banksy.jpgConsider the works of the famous graffiti artist Banksy. I don’t know really know what he’s all about, but I enjoy looking at his work. His outdoor works are usually spray-painted in public areas. Of course, some would call this vandalism, and have articulated their views on his website. But then again, houses on which Banksy plies his trade see an enormous upward surge in value.

Consider also his painting of two policemen kissing each other, painted onto a wall in Brighton. The local community loved the iconic image, which became a popular attraction. So much so that, when it was subsequently defaced, the perpetrators were hauled before the courts on charges of criminal damage. But was their act so different from that involved in producing the work in the first place? Why is it a good thing to spray-paint a wall in some instances, but a criminal offence in others?

I recommend a visit to his website. For a flavour of what to expect, the picture shows a Banksy work as witnessed during my (not very) recent trip to Bristol.

Let’s look at another of my favourite artists, David Shrigley. He very much falls into the ‘a three-year-old could do that’ category of modern art. Technically, his works appear crudely and hastily thrown together. They rarely ‘make sense’. Sometimes they are just scribbles. So why is a trawl through his website such a treat? I don’t really know.

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As I write, I am looking forward to watching The Apprentice tonight (obviously). The candidates will be faced with the task of buying and selling artworks in order to garner the approval of one A. Sugar. I’m looking forward to how the best business minds might grapple with these philosophical quandaries…

But is it Art?

April 25, 2007

sunflowers.jpgRemember that book I was talking about a few weeks ago? It was called The Pig That Wants to be Eaten. I wonder whether you’d permit me to draw upon it for inspiration once again, since one of its conundrums is relevant to what I want to talk about today. I don’t remember the detail, but the gist will suffice.

Let’s imagine that I want to make some money. A way of doing so occurs to me: I could forge a painting, and sell it. I do some market research, and discover that an original painting by Vincent Van Gogh could change hands for about 20 million pounds. I therefore decide to paint a picture and pass it off as one of Vincent’s.

Naturally, I am not immediately in a position to do so. I need to spend quite a few years researching his techniques and influences, and perfecting the physical materials necessary for the task. All this turns out to be quite an undertaking, but nonetheless I am eventually ready to create my masterpiece.

Once it’s done, I decide that it looks fairly good. I pop Vincent’s signature at the bottom, and contact an art dealer, who, after inspecting the goods, agrees to buy my painting for a cool 20 million.

Now, there would be those who say that my actions are morally offensive, since I am knowingly deceiving people. I am claiming that the picture was painted by Vincent Van Gogh when I know it was not.

But let’s leave my deception aside for now. If the painting is technically and aesthetically as good as anything Van Gogh ever produced himself (which it would be) why is it unreasonable to expect to receive a price comparable to that obtained for a genuine Van Gogh?

On the other hand, if we accept that the dealer is ‘just paying for the name’, that’s surely his lookout. If he’s willing to pay much more for a picture with a certain name at the bottom, even when a technically similar painting would fetch much less, he’s welcome.

OK. What was intended as a prologue is starting to look like a post in itself. Muse on it awhile, I shall return.

Young Hearts Run Free

April 23, 2007

1.jpgDo you spend much time on YouTube? I don’t. Well, I do sometimes. I find it a pleasant place to pass the time. There are all sorts of interesting things to watch, as well as a lot of dross. They can’t all be winners, kid.

There is, however, one subject area that always grabs my attention, and one keyword search that features in every one of my YouTube sojourns: le parkour.

I’m getting ahead of myself. It all started a couple of years back when I saw a little snippet on Channel 4. It was one of those little ‘shorts’ that tend to get aired just before your intended viewing starts. This one was probably about two minutes long.

It featured a young lad, probably 14 or so, who was telling us all about his hobby. He was ‘really into it’, although he wasn’t sure that his mum shared his enthusiasm. My prejudices kicked in, I’m afraid. Maybe because he wore a white tracksuit, and had one of those mouths that stay open between sentences, I assumed that his new pastime was robbing cars. But then they showed some footage of him engrossed in his hobby, which made me sit up and pay attention.

It turned out that this chap spent quite a long time running around in urban environments, climbing vertical surfaces, leaping between buildings, and basically negotiating a whole gamut of man-made obstacles with a flair and dexterity that boggled the eye. He’d dubbed himself ‘the monkey boy’ or something suitably grandiose, but I’d no idea that this practice enjoyed wider appeal.

Le parkour (the art of displacement) or free-running has an excellent definition on Wikipedia. We’re told that the aim is ‘to move from point A to point B as efficiently and quickly as possible, using principally the possibilities of the human body’. Some have described it as a martial art, but as one concerned with techniques of escape rather than combat.

For an excellent YouTube offering which sets le parkour within an escape narrative, click here.

Now, is it just me, or does all this look rather fun? Take away the machine gun-wielding thugs, and I would wager that le parkour might be a fine way to pass an afternoon. I’ve found myself wondering whether it is the sort of thing one could learn. It’s really just gymnastics with a grittier, urban edge, and without the crash mats. I think there’s something rather noble about the idea of using one’s strength and wits to overcome the detritus of civilisation. And in making videos of one doing it. I would love to make the sort of parkour video of which the YouTube community might think ‘this vid is tiiiiiight’.

It was with some regret that I realised I’ll never be able to do anything like this. At 27, I’m a touch on the old side for starting this sort of thing, so I suspect that the good ship HMS Parkour has well and truly set sail. After all, you’ll never get a gymnast worth their salt starting out at 27.

So. I’m guessing that my gangly limbs will never be put to this interesting and exciting use, which is a little bit sad. But in my hour of desolation, who better than YouTube to keep me in touch with reality and thus provide me with emotional solace? I’ve got two particular keywords in mind:

parkour accident

Knowing Where We Stand

April 21, 2007

As part of my commitment to you, constant reader, I intend to recommend reading material from time to time. May I get straight down to it with my favourite novel of all time?

If you were to end up on a desert island, which five novels would you want to be there with you? I would go with Stephen King’s The Stand, and just use the other four to get a good fire going.

stand.jpgNot everyone likes The Stand. I seem to recall that I first read it after pinching a copy from Jamie (I think that he, in turn, pinched it from his mum). I recall that he thought so little of it that he didn’t want it back. Those who know him will know that this sort of generosity is quite out of character. There is also the tale (recounted by the author in the preface to the Complete and Uncut! edition) that a certain reviewer would pass his days standing in bookshops exhorting customers not to buy it.

Don’t be taken in by such nincompoopery. The Stand is brilliant. How else could it romp to victory as the 53rd most popular book of all time in the BBC Big Read? And to think I didn’t cast a single vote.

Comparisons have been made to Lord of the Rings, and to be sure, there are similarities between the two books. There are also differences: The Stand is interesting, and stuff happens.

The plot’s simple: an accident at a germ warfare facility results in the decimation of human race. A lucky few find themselves immune to plague, and try to rebuild a semblance of community in Colorado, under the watchful eye of devout centenarian Mother Abigail. But over in the West, the enigmatic Randall Flagg is also gathering his forces, probably with a view to ruling the world. So, it falls to the God fearin’ folk in the East to pop over and tell him to pack it in.

No doubt it’s an easy read, and some would dismiss it as ‘pop’. But I would argue that the accessibility of The Stand is one of its strengths. It trips along at a pleasant pace, but is over all too soon. Still, one can always read it again. It’s a shame it was never adapted for the cinema. I am still holding out hopes for a full-scale epic trilogy, rather than the somewhat toothless TV mini-series it eventually became.

I think I’ll read it again. Knowing my luck, the third time will reveal it as a load of old tosh, and these ebullient burblings will return to haunt me.

Oh well.

The Persistence of Memory

April 20, 2007

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I love Salvador Dalí. He is probably in my top five, as artists go. This is probably his most well known painting, though not one of my personal favourites. I thought I’d pop it in anyway. Have a look at his other paintings here.

I was in St Andrews the other day. Mrs H’s father has just retired (read all about it) so it was decided that we all go to St Andrews to get a family photograph. The task was entrusted to Peter Adamson, and a more amiable gentleman you would be hard-pressed to find.

It was interesting to walk around in St Andrews. It’s the sort of place where progress happens slowly, if at all. For the most part, all the familiar shops and haunts are still in their respective places. But now, walking down Market Street, I see no one I recognise. There was a time, of course, when one could walk the same route and be sure to be greeted by friends and acquaintances. But now the faces are blank.

I walked past The Coach House, where I used to live. The landlady’s grandchildren were outside in the garden. They look quite big now. They didn’t look up as I passed.

Towards the end of the morning, we found ourselves down on the West Sands, and we had a few snaps taken by the Elephant Rock. While I was there, I recalled a lazy afternoon on said Rock, a good five or six years back. I sat on the Rock with a couple of friends, just talking. There was nothing that needed to be discussed, but there was no pressure to be elsewhere. It was one of the last days we spent together in St Andrews. Somehow, it was a day that seemed to represent all that was good about being a student there. So much so, we decided to immortalise it, and our existence in it, by adding our signatures to the Rock.

The front door key to my parents’ house in Oxford was pressed into service for the purpose. When I got home to Oxford a few days later, it didn’t work. I never told my parents why.

Anyway, when we were there having photographs taken, I looked for my signature again. It had vanished, scoured away by a few years of gritty wind, and with it the last piece of evidence that I had ever been there at all.

I was just about to leave, when something caught my eye. The handiwork of one of my companions remained:

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As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more (Psalm 103:15-16).

It seems, however, that you can leave a lasting legacy. You just need to press quite hard, and use the right implement.

Baby You Can Drive My Car (If You’re Careful)

April 18, 2007

To begin with, I’d like to offer a little homage to Our Female Friends. They’re smashing, don’t you agree? They look much nicer than men, to my taste. And they also seem to be unfettered by the shackles of traditional logic which bind the rest of us. In fact, so creative is their use of reason that occasionally, in conversation, it is difficult to prevent one’s mouth from hanging open. All this is very exciting, but apparently, Our Female Friends really come into their own when you put them in a car.

This is certainly the view of most car insurance companies. So confident are they in the abilities of the fairer sex to transport themselves from A to B without mishap, that they reward them with lower premiums. Some companies have even decided to close the door altogether on their seemingly more accident-prone male counterparts. The results of such a decision are plain to see.

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Now I have recently been discussing this with anyone who will listen, and a few who won’t. Isn’t this discrimination against men a bit underhand? I know that premiums are calculated on the basis of statistics, and that, yes, men probably have more accidents. But to shut them out completely? Why not just charge them more? Frankly, I wouldn’t mind paying that bit extra to be insured by a company with a theme song containing the following:

If your name was Florence / And you wanted car insurance

Women make the safest drivers / You could save a bunch of fivers

Girls are bored beyond endurance / Paying too much for car insurance

It certainly puts Wordsworth in the shade. And did you notice that the women in the advert are sufficiently blessed with driving prowess that they can barrel along in a pink convertible whilst singing the song, doing the dance, and looking everywhere except the road ahead? And all the while avoiding a grisly accident, to the disappointment of this particular viewer.

Imagine it was found that black people have more car accidents than white people. Would we ever attempt to factor race into our premium calculation in order that black people had to pay more to reflect their greater car-related clumsiness? No. It would be unthinkable. And what if it was found that gay people had more accidents than the heterosexuals? You get the idea.

Oh well. Let’s not get all sour about it, men. Personally, I’m all for giving women every possible advantage. They have all manner of other stuff to cope with that we do not. I’m happy to accept that they have fewer accidents, and if they are able to scoop a little reward as a result, then they have my blessing.

But have you ever seen one reverse?