Reviews

A cure for boredom: The everything else of eBay

A cure for boredom: The everything else of eBay

eBay everything else - other - Midnight Soul Collection

eBay everything else - other - Midnight Soul Collection. Why not in the 'music' category, you ask

Bored by the endless monotony of waiting for the British summer to appear (ignore this if reading in another country)? No longer thrilled by reading the latest antics at MyLifeis Average? Facebook not doing it for you? Rather than surfing the web in the hope of finding something interesting, have you ever wandered through the bizarre, misspelled, or simply badly categorised world of eBay>Everything Else>Other?

I rather remember a Joan Aiken story — I think it was Dragon Monday, but could be mistaken — when someone brings home a copy of Exchange and Mart and peruses the bizarre items. Magical trouble results. eBay’s ‘Everything Else’ category, is something of the same kind, only bigger. A good start for someone trying to use one of Edward de Bono’s lateral thinking exercises, or an author looking for ideas, or just to pass a half hour.

Today’s selection includes such marvels as a Richard Branson press release, 50 printed paper wristbands (they will actually print the text for you — disappointingly it isn’t actually someone’s treasured collection of festival stuff), a Static Caravan, available for pick up only, a 3 day potty training method, a bestman speech, self defence spray, 100% UK legal, but check with your lawyer before using, 25 headphone earbud earpads, doubtless for people with serious CDO (that’s obsessive compulsive disorder, but with the letters in alphabetical order, like they should be), 17th edition full course and exam papers on CD, though we are not told for what subject, a Brass Pin, suitable for bushcraft or hunting (do you chase the animals with a pin — we want to know!), VW Camper Van transport voucher, S. Wales only, 3-6 months boys clothes, job lot, and also 0-3 months boys clothes, job lot, large red plastic heart, photoframe – leopard print furry, casino roulette winning system (predicts casino results — that additional information in case you hadn’t grasped it from the main title). Someone is also selling Jesus, starting price £0.99, but £5 delivery. Thus far no bids. Also ‘secrets of starting a professional cake decorating biz’

Of course, in among the miscellaneous is a large number of simply tedious items — quasi-legal services such as unlocking phones, and a variety of tacky bits and pieces.

Actually, I think it either isn’t as good as it used to be, or I just looked today on a bad day. There used to be oodles of circus equipment (that is the correct plural noun — an oodle). On today’s look I did find a Magic Sword Through Neck Illusion (Missing Sword). With the sword missing one would imagine that most magicians would give it a miss. There’s also a gold-mining claim, and a FAKE USB flash drive. I admire the honesty of someone admitting that their device is fake, and even going to the point of putting it in capital letters, but I wonder how many people would really want to part with the £0.15 + £1.92 postage. Oops — I take it back. There is now 1 Bid for this item.

A friend of a friend who collected badges once bought ‘collection of fifty badges’ on eBay. When they arrived, it turned out it was fifty of the same badge, which slightly stretches the word ‘collection’.

Perhaps you don’t find the miscellany of eBay Everything Else as amusing as I do. To me, this is like getting an archaeologist’s glimpse of our civilisation from, say, a thousand years in the future. Imagine if all that was left of our culture was the collection of items advertised on today’s eBay Everything Else. What would the future think of us? What would they make of our fascination with, say, ball-bearings, phone unlocking and Hello Kity (sic) mascara?

Philip K Dick had a word for this: Kipple, the collection of useless bits of trash we wallow in. Philip Larkin questioned whether that which survives of us is love 1. Archaeologists would probably argue that Dick rather than Larkin had it better. That which will outlast us all is Kipple.

Show 1 footnote

  1. An Arundel Tomb
Holiday Reading: The Big Sleep

Holiday Reading: The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep, Penguin edition Considering what to take away this summer holiday? Instead of the latest John Grisham or newest chicklit, have you thought about a noir classic, The Big Sleep, for example?

Raymond Chandler had written a large number of short stories before The Big Sleep, and, in some editions, the name of his characters ‘Carmady’ and ‘John Dalmas’ were changed to ‘Philip Marlowe’, the iconic detective who first appeared under that name in this book. In all of literature — in my opinion — there is no anti-hero more enduringly appealing for all the wrong reasons than Chandler’s Marlowe. Building on the hardboiled detective type pioneered, among others, by Dashiel Hammett with Sam Spade, largely known today from the film The Maltese Falcon, Chandler created a wry, tough-ish, kind-ish, honourable-ish protagonist who has been imitated and parodied in everything from Calvin and Hobbes (Calvin’s alter-ego Tracer Bullets) to a 1980s air-conditioning advert and from Who Framed Roger Rabbit to Star Trek: First Contact. He is the inspiration for Dire Straits: Private Investigations, and an instantly recognisable stereotype for vast swathes of people who have never read any of the books.

The thing is, though, that all of the stereotypes and imitations fail to capture the essential un-heroicness of Chandler’s Marlowe. In Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Private Investigations, the detective is a whisky-sodden drunk. Chandler’s Marlowe isn’t. He drinks, he likes whisky, he uses it to loosen tongues. But he rarely gets drunk, and never approaches alcoholism. Jean-Luc Picard’s holodeck alter-ego is a real ladies’ man. Chandler’s Marlowe is diffident, although he’s unashamed. When one of the sisters attempts to seduce him, he deftly ejects her from his apartment, and then tears the bedding off the bed, feeling that she has violated his home by her presence.

Chandler’s Marlowe is exactly not the combination of extreme characteristics that we have come to expect from pulp writing and its cinema interpretation. He is tough, but only to a point: in most (I think all?) the novels he gets beaten up. He’s shrewd, but — by his own admission — no Sherlock Holmes. He’s often described as ‘wisecracking’, but, by today’s standards, he is really given to no more than the occasional wry comment.

Despite all this, or perhaps because of it, you feel you get to know Marlowe almost better than any other literary detective. Everything is narrated in his laconic, ironic, but instantly recognisable voice. It brings us close to the narrator, close to the action, but keeps us distant from the heroism: many of Marlowe’s actions are genuinely heroic, but you would never imagine it from his narration.This is perhaps one reason why, unlike Sam Spade, Marlowe has never made it successfully onto celluloid. Others may disagree, but I’ve sat through half a dozen allegedly-Marlowe films. Even when I recognise the plot and other characters, I’ve never been able to recognise the character of Marlowe. In films we may see him, in the books we are right with him.

This is a highly immersive novel, beautifully described without ever breaking out of the laconic narration, with a turn of metaphor and simile which lifts this far above pulp and slots it straight into literature. The immersiveness is also a result of the endlessly convoluted plot, which Marlowe himself only figures out in the very last pages. This is not to say the plot is disorganised, but its organisation is always subtly hidden, and unfolds as an increasingly baffling set of experiences which we meet with Marlowe and from which we never acquire sufficient distance to figure them out.

This is the absolute antithesis of an English country-house mystery. You will never guess that the butler did it (he didn’t, in case you think I’m giving the ending away). More to the point, you will never guess which are the main characters, and which ones are simply incidental or temporary. In fact, right to the end, you won’t even guess what the crime is, and the end comes as a shock and surprise, although one which has been fully prepared for beforehand.

This is a book which can be savoured for its art, or enjoyed as a page-turning thriller, or both at once, depending on how you are feeling. Ideal holiday material, therefore. And when you get back, you can explore the six sequels — Farewell, My Lovely, The High Window, The Lady in the lake, The Little Sister, The Long Goodbye, and Playback.

PR coup of the week: cartoonist outwits Southampton FC

PR coup of the week: cartoonist outwits Southampton FC

Pencil A local cartoonist outwitted Southampton FC, supplying cartoons to the Plymouth Herald after the host club banned non-official photographers from the ground for the season’s opening Southampton vs Plymouth Argyle match. Plymouth Argyle won the match 1-0, and also stepped in to provide their own images for the Herald’s coverage. But cartoonist Chris Robinson’s images made national news, and inspired one fan to comment: “Cracking cartoons, much better than the ‘real thing'”, while another wrote “Brilliant idea, just what the game needs a bit of old fashioned charm.”

You can see the images here and here. I’ve linked rather than copied them because the copyright properly belongs to Chris Robinson. Take a moment to look at them, though, and you’ll see (if you didn’t see this story elsewhere) why these have captured the imagination far from Plymouth and from Southampton.

There are two important things here, one negative, one positive. The negative relates to Southampton’s decision to ban all but the official photographer. From a commercial point of view, you can understand why a club wants to maximise its earnings. Outside the top flight, football clubs have to work hard to make ends meet, and everything that helps even a little must seem awfully tempting. But attempting to limit photojournalistic coverage is essentially an attempt to gag the press, and to enforce some kind of de facto copyright on something which cannot possibly by copyrighted. If this was a spectacle organised exclusively by Southampton FC with no outside involvement, this might be considered tolerable. But a football match by definition requires two teams, and Plymouth Argyle were quite clearly not in agreement with the ban. This kind of silliness is ultimately doomed to failure. But at a time when more and more newspapers are being forced to lay off or sack their photographers, this kind of decision even in the short term may deprive working photojournalists of their livelihoods.

The other is positive. Massively so. Chris Robinson’s cartoons have clearly triggered an enormous resonance with football fans up and down the country. I have to confess I was never a Roy of the Rovers — Robinson’s inspiration for the cartoons — fan, and never really took that much interest in football until I became involved with Walsall FC in 2005. But even for me, I realise that you only have to see these pictures once in order to think “that’s what we’ve been missing”. There’s a triumphant irony in the fact that Southampton FC’s desire to limit one kind of artistic expression has resulted in the rediscovery of another. For a long time cartoons have been used exclusively for satire or for entertainment. But illustration had a long history in news media before Punch, in 1843, invented the modern sense of ‘cartoon’ with a satirical piece.

Graphic novels have undergone a new lease of life as serious media in the English speaking world over the last fifteen years 1, but this is the first recent example I’ve encountered of action reporting outside of court illustration.

If the Herald continues to publish Robinson’s reportage on a week by week basis, it may well gain an international following. I truly believe we are at the start of something big here.

Kudos to the artist.

Show 1 footnote

  1. Bande Dessinée or Stripverhalen have a longer history as serious art in mainland Europe, especially Belgium
The Geek shall inherit the earth: is Big Bang Theory the really big thing?

The Geek shall inherit the earth: is Big Bang Theory the really big thing?

Big Bang Theory

Big Bang Theory

They didn’t show a new episode of Big Bang Theory tonight 1, prompting one shocked fan to blog that 4OD, Channel 4’s catch-up website, had somehow failed to stream it.
With three series broadcast, and a fourth to premiere in the USA in September, Big Bang Theory has already survived beyond The Class 2, which won an award but never made it into series 2, and Firefly, which lasted for one season and a film.
Americans, of course, joke about the shortness of British TV series. The Office had fourteen episodes, while Fawlty Towers had a mere twelve. But British series are usually made (and aired) complete. There have been a substantial collection of American series which end on cliffhangers that are not merely ‘did they survive or didn’t they’, but are actually the middle of an incomplete bit of narrative. The Class is one of those, as was the final series of Veronica Mars.
So Big Bang Theory has sailed past the choppy waters, but is it sailing towards the Caribbean Cruise territory of Friends, the X-Files, Seinfeld and Frasier? For those with short memories, this quartet of series dominated both American and British viewing through the 90’s and early 2000s, each airing for nine or ten seasons. By contrast, Buffy the Vampire Slayer only made it to seven seasons, outlasted by both Friends and Frasier which finished afterwards, and its own spin-off, Angel, only made it to five.
For comedy series, longevity is the key, as they tend to gather more US viewers as time passes, and reach a steadily widening world syndication. Quite simply, more episodes equals more profit, if the networks will keep them on.
So, what do we really think about The Big Bang Theory? If you’re reading this but have never seen it, it’s a situation comedy about the lives of four geeky-nerds 3, of whom two share a flat next door to a beautiful but moderately ditzy would-be film actress who works in a cheesecake café. The four nerds have varying degrees of social issues. Sheldon, the theoretical physics genius, is fairly far down the Aspergers spectrum and has essentially no social skills whatsoever. Howard, the engineer, and only one of the group not to have a doctorate, believes he has enormous romantic allure, whereas his crass sexual references repel almost all women. Raj, Indian astrophysicist, can only talk when women are in the room if he is drunk, or believes he is. When drunk, he turns into a confident lothario. Leonard, experimental physicist, is merely immature. Shortly after meeting Penny, the girl next door, he falls in love with her, and remains more or less successfully pining for her or actually going out with her throughout all broadcast series.
The genius of Friends was that it had a range of characters covering almost all personality types so that really every viewer of a similar age could identify with at least one of them. This was almost certainly also the principle behind the ill-fated The Class — a group of former classmates from elementary school who covered all the bases. Writing a series about four people with whom almost no-one can identify, plus the girl next door who is, by comparison, so unintelligent that we laugh at her rather than with her most of the time (in real life her character would probably register as ‘brighter than most’, but she’s in the mix, among other things, for the purpose of contrast), must, therefore, have seemed quite a risk.
Someone has clearly done their research rather well. Apparently a real physicist is on-hand to ensure that the physics is right. But they’ve also managed to capture the peculiar mix of sci-fi TV and films, role playing and video games, comic book obsessions and sarcastic banter that makes this a hit show with people who really are just like the main characters. The genius bit, though, is that they’ve made this funny and accessible for all the other people watching, whether they get the incessant Star Trek/Firefly/Babylon 5/Halo/Dungeons and Dragons references or not.
Evidently, by the fact that I’m writing this, I really do think this is the hit show which probably will be the longest liver of the current crop of US sit-coms. How I Met Your Mother and Glee, for example, are dull and tedious (respectively) by comparison. Friends was written on the basis of about a joke every minute or 90 seconds. How I Met Your Mother is written to a similar, though probably slightly slower comic pace. Big Bang Theory may go through ten or more intellectual jokes in sixty seconds, though it also allows a slower pace for the more visual humour. As such, it repays much more watching than its competitors — crucial for its syndication and video success.
There is, of course, one other US show which is even longer lasting and works to a similarly endless supply of cultural reference and clever humour, mixed with enough character writing and pure slapstick to keep everyone amused: The Simpsons. The range of reference is absolutely breathtaking, and most viewers will need a guide book to gather even a small proportion of the references to news, film, art, music and American history.
I suppose, taken together, this is really rather something to be pleased with. The chattering classes frequently remark that TV is dumbing down, and when we (the chattering classes) talk in this way we are very often referring in a disparaging and rather condescending way to American imports. The Simpsons and Big Bang Theory, if anything, are dumbing up.
And that’s surely a good thing.

Show 3 footnotes

  1. Mainly because last week’s episode, 23, was the final episode of series 3
  2. Big Bang Theory was the replacement series for The Class
  3. The difference between geeks and nerds was recently explained as nerds being intellectuals with limited social skills, while geeks are people obsessed with some particular aspect of sub-culture, such as Star Trek, comic books or Dungeons and Dragons. The four physicists in Big Bang Theory qualify as both

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