Wednesday, January 21, 2009

How to Have Taste

At work I used to sit next to a colleague who dressed in Diesel jeans, Prada trainers and Carhartt T-shirts (this was a few years ago mind). On his desk was a row of suitably moronic magazines (Loaded, Surface, Wallpaper) and a single hardback book: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. This was a (virtually, well – 24) grown man with a Harry Potter book on his desk (for years too – he'd never read it all). He used to (literally) laugh at me dressed in Gap (ill-fitting sale stuff only), River Island and Primark (hey – he did earn more than a third more than me) – clothes he wouldn't be seen dead in. I used to laugh at him with his Harry Potter – a book I wouldn't be seen dead with. Taste is funny – it's so relative. Taste is such a matter of... taste. Or is it? I'd never be seen reading a Harry Potter book on public transport – not because they're badly written or boring (though they are both) – but because, you know, it's just so mainstream. And aren't they, you know, for kids? I'd much rather be caught reading Celine, Bukowski, Gogol, Austen, anyone else really. He likewise (wrongly, foolishly) thought he stood out from the crowd (yawn) with his exclusive, expensive, elitist brands... but everyone thinks that and does that. We all recognise other people with bad taste but we can't see it in ourselves.

It's a funny thing. Ugly people know they're ugly. Poor people know they're poor. Stupid people know they're stupid. But people with bad taste would never think, recognise or believe they have bad taste – but can see bad taste in others. It's like people with bad B.O. Surely they don't know they have it – otherwise they'd do something about it, right? Also, it's not something you can really bring up. In fact, doing so would be construed much the same way as being called ugly or boring, say. There's no subtle way of putting it: you have no taste.

And just what is taste? Like the above example of my colleague, one can't have good taste in everything (my ex-colleague also had bad taste in music and women; I also have it in wine). It can cover just about everything in life: books, films, partners, art, houses, friends, bars, architecture, restaurants, haircuts, travel, music, TV, interior design, food, furniture, fashion, jewellery... the list goes on forever.

Although taste usually manifests itself in physicality (a book or a chair, say), what actually makes good taste is harder to define. It can be about style, feeling, a sensation, elegance, atmosphere – something almost intangible. Good taste transcends trends.

Everyone has their own opinion of what good taste is, which is ridiculous, as everyone can't have good taste. There needs to be rules. But who makes the rules? Well, the mass media do to a certain extent. Magazines, TV programmes, celebrities and shops are arbiters of good taste in such matters as fashion, music, books and interior design. But largely it's people's innate stubborness that presumes they're right – that they've got the best taste and everyone else is wrong.

Like the myth that we live in a meritocratic society, people can change or learn taste. Growing up, moving away, meeting different people, going to different places, reading, listening and watching the right stimulus can all contribute to helping people with bad taste learn good taste (or vice versa). Everyone has a friend who liked the same music you did when you were like twelve years old – but who still likes it. This is stagnated bad taste. Many people do have the same taste all their lives. This is fine if it's Matisse, Dickens and Jacques Tati but not if it's Pizza Hut, Enya and 'Allo 'Allo.

People's homes are usually the best place to gauge their taste. Most homes nowadays have lost all character – largely to blame for this is IKEA, the cheap epitome of acceptable, now somewhat bland and homogeneous, good taste. I remember another work colleague rushing over to tell us all about her newly furnished flat. 'It looks just like an IKEA showroom!', she gushed, as if this was the ultimate in interior design. No one has interesting things any more in their home – it's all mass-produced, new, badly-made, bland, branded crap. The contemporary house is severely lacking good book or record collections, paintings, limited edition prints, ancient artefacts, fine oak furniture, William Morris cushions, curious bric-a-brac... you get the drift. Nowadays, people's living rooms consist of vulgar wide-screen TVs, crappy DVDs and Playstations. Their bedrooms have a bed, bedside table and lamp. Every room looks like a badly lit showroom.

Class has always played an important part in taste. Traditionally, the very rich (upper class) and very poor (working class) have had the worst taste. The middle class, though maybe having the best taste, has also suffered from having the blandest taste too. But in this modern world boundaries and class systems are constantly shifting, evolving and morphing. But not that much. Class should be dictated by taste.

Taste is relative regarding time and place. What was the height of good taste in 18th century Venice wouldn't be in 21st century Tokyo (though you never know). France is famous for good taste in many things: food, clothes, literature, art, cinema, and bad taste in music and advertising. The English have good taste in music and advertising but bad taste in everything else.

The line between good and bad taste inevitably gets blurred even more when terms such as retro, ironic and kitsch are bought into the equation. Painters such as Vladimir Tretchikoff and J H Lynch, whose cheap prints appealed to millions of British working class families in the 50s and 60s – they outsold Picasso and Matisse – are now highly prized by young, middle class professionals (read: ponces) who pay over the odds for them on ebay. Designer cool man Wayne Hemingway has even published a lavish book about kitsch art – which he collects. Apparently it reminds him of his childhood. He's an example of someone who changed from bad taste to good taste to ponce.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Three Short-Sighted Mice

Gordon Brown as The Clown
Geoff Hoon as The Buffoon
Alistair Darling as The Twat

It's great living in a democracy. You can say whatever you like, protest as much as you like, sign petitions along with thousands of others... and nothing will happen. If this was, say, Sri Lanka, where last week newspaper editor Lasantha Wickramatunga was the latest journalist to be murdered for expressing anti-government sentiments, half our newspapers, magazines and satrical TV programmes would be shut down within hours. But isn't there a contradiction here? In 'free', democratic countries, no one cares what you write or say – and nothing changes. In fascist dictatorships, your every word is read or listened to for possible government criticism. At least they're paying attention!

New Labour – ever notice when something's called 'new' it ages really fast? – has ignored the general public, leading experts, journalists, broadcasters, advisors and the opposition about virtually every issue since coming to power. We all know Labour long ago sold their souls (and much of this country) to big business but this past week has been especially pig-headed even for them. Last week, Geoff Hoon gave the go ahead for the Heathrow runway 3, casually brushing aside any environmental issues. A day or so later, Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling rejected French and German plans for a more 'moral' form of capitalism and new curbs on the global marketplace and international trade. Apparently Labour want to forge ahead like the great Empire days.

The Guardian notes that, 'Campaigners for reform of the world economic system expressed alarm that Gordon Brown had failed to learn lessons from the credit crunch.' Expressed alarm that he'd failed to learn lessons? I'd expect nothing less from the man.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Eponymous Heroes 'Largely Dull'

From Dickens to Buffy, eponymous heroes of books, films and TV programmes are by and large boring compared to their friends and associates, new research* has found. Look at Oliver Twist – a do-gooder and dull character all round, as compared to Fagan and the Artful Dodger. Seinfeld's bland demeanour pails in comparison to George's neuroses and Kramer's wackiness. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is your typical high school boring blonde (her only flaw is her perfection) but her friends are cool, quirky and weird. Dawson of Dawson's Creek is dull as ditchwater compared to his 'lively' (read: sexually experienced) friends. Tintin's most interesting aspect is his quiff but his companions Captain Haddock (dipsomaniac) and Cuthbert Calculus (deaf) are over-flowing with character and humour. Even Tintin's dog, Snowy, has more personality. Jane Eyre, Herzog, Harry Potter, Gavin and Stacy, Peter Pan and Forrest Gump is but to name a few whose situation, family, friends, lovers, enemies or pets are infinitely more interesting than they are.

In fact, it seems William Shakespeare was the last writer to make his heroes interesting. In modern times, the blander the hero the better. Apparently it makes it easier for us to empathise with them. But heroes need flaws – maybe it's only in their choice of friends.

*By me

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Sight and Sound Covers

Sight and Sound magazine went even further than Time Out in the 1970s with its covers having no text at all other than masthead, date and price. I think they're great – I love them being two-colour (adverts on the back also had the same colour scheme – inside was all black and white).

The films featured, clockwise from top left, are: A Clockwork Orange; Bob Fosse in The Little Prince; Zardoz; Jeff Bridges in Bad Company

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Time Out Covers

Time Out never used to be just a listings magazine. In the 1970s it was politically engaging, passionate about fringe arts and the cinema, and had great covers. Pierce Marchbank joined Time Out in the early 70s and promptly redesigned the TO logo (which is still being used today), then went on to produce brilliantly imaginative covers (on a weekly basis) for over a decade.

Nowadays magazines suffer from what Marchbank has called the 'Cosmopolitan disease' – the contents page splashed all over the cover. There's no sense of mystery as to what's in a magazine, and with many magazines featuring the same star of the month, covers all look identical.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Ant and Bee

I remember being enchanted by Ant and Bee books as a boy. Bee with his suave moustache, goggle eyes and umbrella and Ant with his bowler hat and walking stick. Nowadays, re-reading a couple of them I picked up at a car boot sale, they strike me as rather bizarre, with their naive drawings and odd text, such as:

'Ant and Bee were very frightened of the knife. Bee and Ant said the knife would cut the girl. The girl told them that she wanted the knife to slice up a lemon.'

They have now become quite collectible – I recently saw one in Oxfam for £30 (!), and they regularly go for that and upwards on eBay. They were created by Angela Banner (b. 1923) and published in the 1960s and 70s.