I am now a marketing demographic

No doubt many a Londoner has seen these billboards around town. Knitting has hit the mainstream. The other day I was in a pub wearing a scarf I’d made and this beefy punter actually turned his attention away from the footie long enough to admire it and say, “Why, that’s a lovely scarf.” and then with a knowing, conspiratorial wink, “I wonder who made that.” When big rugby-player looking guys knit-flirt with you, you know knitting has reached some kind of pop-culture pinnacle.

I am an avid knitter– I knit while on the tube and while watching telly or having tea. If I don’t have a project going to keep my hands busy I often feel bereft. I am one of these “new knitters” who picked up needles again as a social activity. Even though my mother taught me how to do it thirty years ago, I didn’t actually start knitting until I saw it as a community building endeavor.

In five short years knitting has taken off– if you blog your knitting you might get a book deal– you might become famous just for casting on. I’ll be glad when all this knitting-related ambition passes and we can just make cozy things in peace without wondering who is the next big knitting star to rise from our rows.

The trade off is that more people are learning about the craft from this resurgence, and in turn they are appreciating labor of this kind. If it can get more football fans to turn away from the game for a moment to admire something handmade– why, that’s a very good reason to wink back at the punters.

A wrecking ball to the heart of Camden

Alienate Design, Camden Stables Market. (photo from the store’s website).

Herein continues the quixotic endeavor where I rail against the inevitable encroachment of the inane monoculture and property-development-land-grab into all that I hold dear.

The Camden Stables Market is slated for the wrecking ball. What will be built in its place? A modern shopping mall with more high street chains– H&M, Boots and Topshop.

Friday I ventured from the little converted church where I live in the sleepy village of Hanwell, to the vibrant streets of Camden to meet Cecile. She lives in Camden, and I heard about the development from her. We talked about the absurdity and the sadness of it. Sometimes I feel like I don’t live in London at all– and what I love of London is just being taken away from my friends and I and there is nothing we can do to stop it.

When I first came to London in 1999 it was Camden that really caught my imagination, while everything else– Carnaby, the King’s Road– had already been turned into an outdoor mall, but Camden survived. It was the last days of raver culture, and Cyberdog was going strong. That synthetic aesthetic that is now a cliche was exciting to me– it was done with such exacting verve and daring.

Camden has changed– most notable is the horrid modern development by the canal that is supposed to be stores and flats. Little by little the stores look more like high street clones selling sweat shop club clothing that’s more Coyote Ugly stripper stuff than trad goth or 80’s mix-n-match vintage style. (For Angelinos who remember, it’s like the transformation of Melrose from a fascinating subcultural landmark in the 80’s to a cheezy shopping venue in the 90’s).

The Stables Market’s catacombs, the dank stone labyrinth with its random stalls, was one of the only places I’ve found decent vintage in this town. A place where you could feel like you were discovering something. It is the place where I would eat on the cheap from one of the steam table stalls and people watch. Now what will be there? Another Starbucks and McDonalds?

I imagine the corporate culturemakers with their patronizing vision, taking this place and selling it back to us as trusted brands, now with a mohawk. Not unlike the ironically named Lab/Anti-Mall in Orange County California– a few years after its development it fell into a perpetual identity crisis, with an Urban Outfitters as the anchor store, and everything else an experiment in economic failure. The only difference is the anti-mall, even though it was designed for the “indie” target market, didn’t destroy something that worked, and that was historic and loved by many.

Eviction notices have already been served to the vendors in the Stables, and in a week come the bulldozers.

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.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

It hurts me to post this, but here you go:

Eugene Hutz and and Sergey Ryabtsev backing up Madonna doing the traditional Romany song Lela Pala Tute to the tune of La Isla Bonita at the bogus Live Earth performance at Wembley Arena:

Hell has frozen over.

I am a fan of Gogol Bordello, and I admit to adoring Eugene Hutz more than a grown woman should. I saw them live before they got big, and it was the best live show I’d ever seen. The band created a rare and transcendent temporary autonomous zone that I will never forget. Hey, I guess Hakim Bey says they’re temporary for a reason.

But Eugene, why’d you have to go out like that, as Madonna’s organ-grinder monkey? Madonna is infamous for her parasitic relationship with authentic others, using them for her own mediocre ends– don’t you know this? If you start believing your own hype, you’re going to be the next lame Borat punchline.

On the Gogol Bordello fan sites major fights are erupting, and the whole band was not behind this decision to play with Madonna. There’s a camp of fans that’s saying it’s stupid to be upset about the Live Earth performance– more fame and exposure is good for the band, and there’s either good music or bad– the performance with Madonna changes nothing. I can only think that people voicing this argument grew up without understanding music as a subversive political force. Music isn’t just “good” or “bad.” In a time when voices of dissent are marginalized in the press and news media, often the most subversive information can be coded in a song or live performance. And music, poetry and fiction are the only mediums that can really capture the emotional ambiguity of struggle. I was radicalized by the Clash, way before I picked up a copy of Maximum Rock and Roll and learned that the Clash were sellouts. Gogol Bordello’s music was political– subversive. I thought Gogol Bordello’s “Underdog World Strike,” and “Gypsy Punk” were more than just poses, but maybe I was mistaken.

As the band became more popular over the last six years, the shows were packed with new people– many of them hostile, “world music mosh pit” idiots. This was the case at the oversold Astoria show where at certain points it was so crowded there, thanks to a write up in Time Out, that I was so crushed between people that my feet were not even touching the ground, and I was bruised for days afterward, and I was nowhere near the front. So my jealousy of the band, which I’d listened to since their first album in 1999, began. Why couldn’t I just love them in peace with this tribe of people who “got it”? Why did I have to share them with boneheads?

Why did Gogol Bordello cancel shows in Prague to do this favor for Madonna? Why did I have to hear Lela Pala Tute mungled with a Madonna song I hated as a teenager, a song that represented every empty thing about pop music I had come to loathe?

Eugene’s erotic power and magnetism is significant, and that he now has hoards of pissed off fans only testifies to the passion he and his band have inspired in so many. I leave you with this– Eugene singing Lela Pala Tute to Pavla Fleischer, director of The Pied Piper of Hutzovina. (The film is, according to Fleisher, a kind of lovesick ode to Eugene.) There’s intimacy in the way he sings to her. We are voyeurs. I know the look in his eyes– that singular boyish attention, and it’s the kind of thing that can make the heart into some fluttering creature that will betray itself. He surely knows this. Fleischer posts a long diatribe along with this youtube video, with the vehemence of a jilted lover. “But to think that [Madonna] also wants Eugene to sing Pala Tute to HER – that’s a bit too much of a territory invasion :)! Madonna, with all the respect I have for you, I was there first!! :)” And this has gone beyond gossip for me. Pavla’s impulse to make a film based on a romantic obsession is creepy, and her possessiveness of Eugene’s iconic presence is a bit pathetic, but I see myself in her.

Eugene, come back. I’m wearing purple.

Tiger! Tiger! Burning Bright

Anger fuels the city, the smouldering coals of Blake’s satanic mills are alive and well. Since the attempted carbomb attack on the Tiger Tiger nightclub on Haymarket, I’ve had Blake’s quatrain drumming in my head,

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright,
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Though this coincidence with Blake may have been lost on the bombers, it was not lost on me. Some days, London is full of fearful symmetries and awful dichotomies. Yesterday was such a day.

Two blanched-blonde chavs in pink track suits sit behind me on the bus. Their OG mannerisms borrowed from MTV, they listen to tinny hip hop mp3s on their mobiles and call me ginjah (or ginger) pointing to my red dreads with disgust. (It wasn’t until I moved here that I realized many Brits find red hair and freckles ugly and are unashamedly vocal about it– no doubt this is some leftover anti-Irish sentiment. For my American friends who don’t know what I’m talking about, see Catherine Tate’s hilariously illustrative “Ginger Oppression” skit.) The girls hissed at me as I left the bus, white girl respect your race. How is it they don’t realize their entire pose is a borrowed perversion of African American performative resistance?

Alighting in Picadilly, I find vandals got to Madame Pompadour— a dripping pink grimace sprayed over her.

Camilla and Kate convince me to go with them to check out the Damien Hirst show at the White Cube. Outside, people queue in the rain to see the skull, and across the street the gift shop sells tee shirts and posters sprinkled with (ethically sourced?) fairy dust. The guards wear what look like band tee shirts: a screen printed diamond with “hirst” in gothic letters across it. They don’t stop a child climbing on the bisected shark, and I like to think this is not out of laziness but instead knowing that this is ultimately what the thing was for– a morbid, toothy jungle gym. After all, isn’t Hirst the boy who pulled the wings off butterflies and showed you his dissections in the school yard? Now he’s just grown up and has a load of cash.

Walking between the shark sections did make me shudder with a zero at the bone feeling, and the black sheep impeccably stilled in its case terrified me, but all this emotional impact was lessened by the exceedingly bad paintings hung about the place: paint-by-numbers photorealism of his wife’s cesarean, and the garish pathology panels– hair and razor blades affixed to ink jet washes in inchoate art school fashion.

In one alcove a woman stands before the butterfly paintings— wings from tropical butterflies plastered to canvas. She wonders aloud, “where does he get them from?” Isn’t it obvious the whole show is snickering in the face of lifestyle politics and ethical sources— (White Cube’s press releases be damned)? In the other room, the climbing boy stands in front of the black sheep and asks, “Mummy, does he kill the animals himself?” And the mother, so confident in “culturing” her child by letting him climb on the vitrines, is stumped. After a pause she replies, “They are dead, darling.” In other words, don’t worry how they got that way.

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb, make thee?

Later we went to see a screening of Sadie Bennings brilliant German Song and I got homesick. At least in America one is allowed a fertile innocence. But in London, that seems impossible. It was Gay Pride in Soho yesterday, and even with a bomb scare and torrential rain, people came out in carnival beads and metallic latex to drink in the streets with a joyless determination. Blitz spirit, innit? The special bomb units ran through the crowd, and one bumped into me, turned and apologized before running on. I thought– this would never happen in America– a massive street party right after a bomb scare? A policeman under duress saying sorry? For a moment, I was happy to be in such a proud, wildly civil place. I had no idea of the flaming SUV crashed in the airport in Glasgow.

What the hammer? What the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

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.