Donuts, is there anything they can’t do?

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If we needed more proof that some pagans are humorless, we now have it. The temporary chalk Homer on the hilside next to the Cerne Abbas giant has some pagans claiming they will do a rain ritual to erase this bit of advertising for the upcoming Simpsons movie.

As someone who spends most of her free time hiking to neolithic sites and researching them with a great deal of reverence, why does this not bug me? I’m not really a big Simpsons fan. I usually hate advertising’s pirating of public space. So what is it?

Maybe it’s so funny to me it actually transcends its function as an ad. It becomes almost Banksy-esque in its irreverence (think of the port-o-let Stonehenge at Glastonbury this year). Maybe it’s because to me the Cerne Abbas giant is not a sacred site. There are no records of this site before the 17th century, and it is more akin to some public toilet graffiti than a symbol of the divine. When I visited it, I found it muddy, macho and underwhelming. Unlike the chalk figure of the prehistoric Uffington horse which rises up, ghost-like and fragmented from the dramatic landscape, constantly obscured, increasingly fragmented as one draws closer, adding to its mystery. It’s set for the eyes of a God, not some human chest beating exercise. Had homer raised his yonic donut to the white horse, well, it wouldn’t be funny, just odd.

That Homer has appeared overnight in his y-fronts like a crop circle– if we pagans can’t laugh at that, we don’t really deserve our cakes and ale.

To quote Homer, “God bless those pagans.”

Them Be the Bells of Bow, Yo.

There’s this song that’s still at number two here in the charts and it sums up everything I hate about British pop music right now. They play it all the time on BBC 6 and now it’s stuck in my head. Kate Nash’s Foundations— OK, so she’s cute– much cuter than Lily Allen whose tough-girl pose is really tedious. Even the guy in the video is cute. The sock fight– nauseatingly cute.

If you want to see the video, go here as none of the YouTube links work. (To watch the video on her oh-so-quirky-cute site you have to give up an email, name and phone number and even an address I think. INSANE. but let’s move on.)

Nash’s song is better than any I have heard from Allen but she’s basically an Allen clone. She’s taken Allen’s game and bettered it for the 20-something-new-mortgage-from-daddy demographic, whereas Lily Allen was aimed at teenage girls who don’t remember white reggae from the first time around in the 80’s. Nash’s demographic actually has some money to spend, so, even though she’s a MySpace success story, maybe the A&R people are honing their game.

On the web many sites claim Allen and Nash are Cockney and that’s just rubbish. Neither were born within the sound of Bows Bells, if we’re going to get purist about it. Nash is from Rickmansworth, a north west suburb of London. And Allen was born in West London to a film producer an actor. I would like to say that accent is put on for the American market, but their songs are hits here.

It can only mean that Brits want to see themselves in a certain way– a juxtaposition of worldly wit and (pastoral throwback?) innocence with a sprinkling of East End grit (More akin to Dick Van Dyke tap dancing than any pearly king). The fashion for faux Cockney accents is a sure sign that it no longer refers to a specific people and culture, but a fiction. Kind of like in the current popular imagination, pirates are no longer sailors who raped and robbed people but ragamuffin swashbucklers with sexy eye makeup.

But it does seem the best way to be a pop star in Britain these days is to pretend you are Cockney. (though this can work even if you are a duo from Detroit) white stripes

It’s ironic. The East End, now totally gentrified, has become the bastion of the trendy, edgy and wealthy few who have pushed out the poor there so what remains is a mythology.

Something’s dead, gone, changed in London, even if there’s no real pointing to the Cockney mask per se, which Peter Watts refers to as “Mockey”. Hence the weird theme of nostalgia that crops up in so much white British hip hop. There are many examples but I’m thinking of Lady Sovereign’s “Those Were the Days.” where she’s wistful about her days growing up on the Chalkhill estate. Unlike the others I mention above, she actually did grow up on an estate, even if it was also in the west.

It becomes even more poignant when you realize she she’d be priced out of London if she weren’t a pop star.

And here Jamie T’s “Sheila” featuring the actor Bob Hoskins who is famous for playing Cockneys among other things. Here he is lipsynching the song with his scary white teeth. This is actually one of the worst videos I’ve seen in a really long time and it pretty much ruined the song for me.

And, though it’s not hip hop, I love Pulp’s nostalgic “Mile End” It’s old at this point, and recontexualized in Danny Boyle’s brilliant Trainspotting. I have no idea if what the song refers to was closer to reality than the faux-grit on the charts now. I have heard that it is about Jarvis Cocker’s first “home” in London, but I’m sure it too is creating a myth of a gritty London up for grabs, a London for anyone. (Not just a city of estate agents and property-ladder climbers, but anyone who could find a vacant corner, anyone who could live low rent — make art or music or write. Anyone who could tend to the city’s soul, but I digress.) In a lot of ways the city of this song, or the vision of London in Kureshi’s London Kills Me or even the parallel vision of Edinburgh in Trainspotting is more hopeful than this London I live in now that is doing so “well” if you believe the hype, a London that’s polished and primed, the richest city in the world, full of high street chains.

Now there are headlines about interest rates closing out first time buyers from the “property ladder.” But all this talk of building new homes on brown sites is too little too late. We didn’t have no where to live, / we didn’t have nowhere to go / til someone said /I know this place off Burditt road…

This new hegemony of the estate agent has made me wistful for squats. Maybe I should work on my Cockney accent and write a pop song about it.

Ye Shall Know Them By Their Hucksters

Recently I’ve become fascinated by the Shoreditch ad agency responsible for the Orange ads that feature before films, the ITV sock monkey ad, and the Supernoodle “noodle mine” ad. The agency goes by the Orwellian name of “Mother”.

Speaking of Orwell– In his Defense of British Cooking he argues that there are wonderful British dishes, but they must be home made. Wither British cuisine in the brave new world of the ready meal? It’s frustrating to admit the truth of stereotypes but since moving here I have been struck by many Brits’ complacency with really mediocre grub. This ad seems to capitalize on the “proud shite” food attitude– the love of kebabs and chips over anything green and leafy.

Granted, this ad is funny. One of the creative partners of Mother discusses the ad in an Independent article:

“Take Supernoodles. For years it was good mums, twirly forks, fun in the kitchen, and all that crap. Our strategic insight was that the brand truth lay not in mums giving it to kids but with guys who were too drunk, too stoned, too lazy or too stupid to eat anything else.” He goes on to say, “We couldn’t have done it without the strategic insight that the product was actually a 49p sack of crap…”

The sad thing is this ad echoes some British ideas about food. “Salad” is the sad piece of lettuce you peel off a boxed sandwich. Brown rice is hard to find in the grocery store, impossible in restaurants. I could go on… I was vegan when I moved to the UK, but after a year I realized that unless I cooked everything myself or decided I hated food, it would be near impossible.

The Mother agency is also responsible for the Egg credit card ads, of which Theft is Good reminded me. The Egg ads feature guinea pig consumers who are being observed by lab coated technicians. At the end of a recent ad, the animals visit a gallery where a miniature Barbara Kruger canvas extolls the virtues of the credit card. You can see the ad if you visit the Theft is Good blog. Barbara Kruger was once famous for her propaganda-like billboards subverting rampant consumerism with ironic slogans like “I shop therefore I am”

Theft is Good also called my attention to the Barbara Kruger installation for the Selfridges Department Store. In art school I attended a seminar with Barbara Kruger and was amazed by her contrary and cynical pose. It’s really no surprise that she would undermine the very content of her superficial work, with the help of Mother, by doing an installation for the equally cynical Selfridges department store. I need not bring up the Selfridges’ “Future Punk” installation last year at the Oxford Street store, where they had a bouncer and a velvet rope at the door. The suited Aryan’s shtick was to first deny you entrance to the space and then tell you if you came in you could look but not shop. I remember wondering at the time if I was indeed expected to shop as the ultimate FU punk-rock gesture. Rock and Roll Swindle indeed.

It’s also no surprise that Kruger would be cozy with the cynics at Mother, who often depict the consumers of their featured product as idiots. For instance:


Pimms “Holiday Camp”– where a toffee-nosed twit is too clueless to figure out he’s actually in a prison. But perhaps the “real” humor here is the idea of the unwashed prisoners drinking Pimms, which is considered in Britain to be a “posh” summer cocktail. When I was in a Hammersmith Hospital 20 bed ward, the guy in the bed across from mine was a prisoner from Wormwood Scrubs, the neighboring prison. He was in chains, shackled to two guards who kept alternate watch over him. When they brought us tea and a small cellophane wrapped muffin he looked over at me in my backless hospital gown , winked at his minders and said, “I am a lucky boy, hain’t I?”

Yeah, it would have been more amusing had they brought us all Pimms.

The funniest and most troubling of the Mother ads I have seen is the Pot Noodle “Fuel of Britain, Isn’t It?” campaign. The recent history of mining in the UK is full of strife and woe. Thatcher brutally broke the unions, calling them “The Enemy Within.” She closed mines across the country and there were battles between miners and the police. Miners families were starving and grass-roots food schemes fed them. No surprise the boys at Mother would then co-opt this history to sell nutrient-free grub. The men in the ad are workers at the Pot Noodle plant in Crumlin, Whales. The Crumlin mine was closed in 1967. The miners in the ad say things like : “You learn a lot about yourself in a noodle mine. Deep below the ground the noodle miners must carve through sheer Welsh rock to extract the delicate noodle.” and “For the noodles, golden noodles, in the land of my fathers…” This is funny only until you realize that many mining communities were quite proud and the history of mining in the UK is one of radical resistance.

When I taught writing in America, the critical thinking unit was most difficult. I would bring in fake ads from Adbusters and usually the students would not get them. They could not decipher the real ads from the satires. They had no distance from the ads at all, and could not separate themselves from the products represented. Often their identities were intimately tied to them. I may be a cassandra but I find this deeply disturbing. These product-mongers have marked our age, and without artists and writers countering them, they will define it.

Some people have commented that I take ads too seriously, that they are merely entertaining jokes intending to sell us something. But are ads not crowding out public space? Are they not infringing on cultural production, buying integrity, stealing authenticity from others who have labored to earn the right to their own dreams, free of commodification?

When ad agencies and transnational corporations are buying off artists, thinkers and those of us who should know better, Billy Bragg’s union anthem “Which Side Are you On” carries with it a new kind of meaning.

And now I leave you with something completely different– Martin Shakeshaft’s documentation of the Miner’s strike of 1984.