Saturday, 26 February 2011

Mundane millions

This piece by me was in the Guardian earlier this week:

It is not hard to see why The Million Pound Drop, the latest series of which ends on Channel 4 on Saturday, has been a ratings success. The format, in which contestants get to hold a million pounds in tight wads of notes, place the money on trapdoors and watch it fall if they get the wrong answer to a multiple choice question, generates some dramatic moments of elation and despair. But it is odd that this exact sum, a million pounds, should retain its symbolic and emotive power. Of course a million pounds is still an awful lot of money, but the word “millionaire”, as both a literal description and as shorthand for a very rich person, was first used in the early nineteenth century, and that was when a million pounds was really worth something. On television, though, a million pounds is always a miraculous, transformative sum that exists in a changeless world where inflation does not exist.

The TV quiz show has long had an unreal relationship with money. The first cash prize to be offered on British television was the jackpot of £1000 on Double Your Money, which began with ITV in 1955. But after the 1962 Pilkington Committee on Broadcasting condemned such extortionate cash prizes as appealing to “suspense and greed and fear”, we had more than thirty years of regulation and restraint. Quiz show prizes were only ever money substitutes suggestive of a genteel consumerism: canteen and cutlery sets, dining suites, music centres and small family cars. The BBC even made a fetish of its rubbish prizes, like the famous weekend in Reykjavik on Blankety Blank. Ironically, a drunken weekend in the Icelandic capital would later become a favourite jaunt for rich bankers.

With the broadcasting deregulation of the 1990s came a relaxation of the rules on quiz show prizes, paving the way for Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Here, though, the million pounds served another useful function: it formed part of ITV’s search for a more middle-class, advertiser-friendly audience, because money can be spent on anything, whereas mobile cocktail bars, mini metros and holidays in Lanzarote have awkward connotations of class and taste.

The problem with these million pound shows, though, is that money is not remotely televisual. Speedboats can be revealed from behind curtains with drum rolls and flashing lights, but money is less substantial, which is why National Lottery winners have to pose awkwardly with outsized comedy cheques. When set against the dramatic amphitheatre, tension music and dimmed lights on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, Chris Tarrant handing over a tiny cheque to the winner was always an anticlimax. In The Million Pound Drop, they have come up with the solution of using the iconography of a heist movie, with burly security guards handling the banknotes and locking them away in steel suitcases.

Another problem with these shows is more intractable: since the late 1990s, as governments have become intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich, the number of millionaires has risen to the point where being one is fairly mundane. As the gap between the super rich and even the prosperous middle classes has widened, the word “millionaire” has also become freighted with negative associations. The first New Labour scandal, in November 1997, was over that emblematic sum of a million pounds: the amount that had to be returned to Bernie Ecclestone after the government was accused of unfairly exempting motor racing from the ban on tobacco advertising. And when Who Wants to be a Millionaire began in autumn 1998, it was in the middle of a press campaign against millionaire “fat cats”, although back then it was the chief executives of the privatised utilities, not bankers, who were condemned for their excessive salaries.

Like Who Wants to be a Millionaire, The Million Pound Drop manages to ward off any resentment towards its potential millionaires by existing in an empathetic, non-competitive world of its own. The contestants are mostly young, and need the money to put a deposit on a house, to get married or to pay off student loans. They compete only with themselves and everyone wants them to win this magical amount of a million pounds, although by the time the trapdoor has done its worst they end up with fairly modest sums if they are lucky.

On television, winning a million remains the fulfilment of one’s wildest dreams, the narrative denouement, the end of the quest. In the real world it is nothing of the sort. All the recent evidence, from bankers’ bonuses to the endlessly creative efforts at tax avoidance by an international business elite, suggests that there is one thing the modern millionaire wants more than anything in the world: another million pounds, and then another on top of that.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Somewhere else is here

The artist David Rayson has done a whole series of paintings based primarily on his memories of the Ashmore Park housing estate in Wolverhampton on which he grew up in the 1970s and 1980s.

Rayson focuses on the bland exteriors and serial logic of houses as a way of revealing their collective life. His paintings convey the silence and emptiness of commuter estates in the daytime, with the lives of their residents implied only by surface appearances. The title of the exhibition that brought Rayson to wider public attention is ‘Somewhere else is here’. It is reminiscent of a line from Philip Larkin’s poem, ‘I remember, remember’, about his nondescript childhood in the featureless suburban streets of pre-war Coventry: ‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere’. As this title suggests, Rayson’s work often explores the tension between the generic features of housing estates, and the unspoken ways in which they reveal the small traces of individual lives.

In his study of still-life painting, Looking at the Overlooked, Norman Bryson argues that historical art criticism has tended to divide painting into two spheres: a highly valued megalography (concerned with grand narratives, historical events and great figures) and a less esteemed rhopography (concerned with the unremarkable routines and objects of everyday life). Bryson suggests that rhopography [from the Latin rhopos, meaning trivial objects] has a tendency to turn into megalography. Rhopographic paintings often aim at a ‘re-education of vision’, a looking again at overlooked objects so as to make them seem unfamiliar and unique, which is actually a ‘re-assertion of painting’s own powers and ambitions’. But certain artists avoid this tendency by undermining the rules of visual composition, refusing to direct the viewer’s gaze towards particular elements in the picture at the expense of less ‘significant’ elements. The works of the eighteenth-century still-life painter, Jean-Siméon Chardin, for example, ‘cultivate a studied informality of attention, which looks at nothing in particular’. Chardin produces an overall, uncentred image which suggests that nothing needs to be ‘vigilantly watched’.

Rayson’s paintings work in a similarly inclusive way. The viewer is not sure which area of the painting to focus her gaze on, or how to divide the frame into accented foreground and unaccented background. In the exhibition catalogue, the preparatory drawings for these paintings have grid squares underlying them, suggesting a non-judgmental methodicalness which gives each element in the picture equal weight.

Rayson’s paintings are composites, drawn from his own childhood memories of Ashmore Park and speculations about what it might look like today. Ashmore Park is a former council estate which now reveals the unmistakable signs of owner-occupation: uPVC windows, a conservatory built on to a kitchen, a new car on a gravel drive, a satellite dish. Even smaller details suggest the lack of ownership of the public spaces that connect these private environments: stubbed-out cigarettes, crushed lager cans, crisp packets, cracked paving stones and graffiti tags. The studied ‘boredom’ of Rayson’s paintings allows them to hint at the human stories behind the blank surfaces of these newish houses.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Dinner with Georges Perec

I’ve just got back from doing a ‘Conservation Dinner’ for the School of Life in London, themed around the work of the French author Georges Perec.

Perec’s stories and essays often engage in encyclopaedic listings of mundane places, objects and activities. In Espèces d’espaces [Species of Spaces, 1974], he makes a series of inventories of his neighbourhood in Paris, and urges his readers to think critically about how streets are named, houses are numbered and cars are parked: ‘You must set about it more slowly, almost stupidly. Force yourself to write down what is of no interest, what is most obvious, most common, most colourless.’ Perec’s method is a bit similar to the I-Spy Books, those monuments to trivia which have sent many a postwar British schoolchild on the pointless quest for a ‘no loading’ sign or a mini-roundabout. But in Perec the aim of this pained, excessive attention to apparently unpromising material is to access what he calls ‘the infra-ordinary,’ the sphere of daily existence that lies beneath notice or comment, and within which ‘we sleep through our lives in a dreamless sleep’.

The point of making lists is that it forces you to observe the world as neutrally and contemplatively as possible, without pretensions or prejudgements. ‘Make oneself into the court stenographer of reality, let reality impose itself without intervening,’ writes Perec, ‘… and thereby found our anthropology.’

Some of the things Perec wrote:

‘The Rue Vilin’. Over a five year period from February 1969 to November 1974, he periodically chronicled the life of the street in north-east Paris where he spent the first five years of his life, from 1936 to 1941.

‘An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris’. One weekend in October 1974, Perec set out to record ‘what happens when nothing happens’. He sat in a café window on the Place Saint-Sulpice and spent three days recording everything that passed before his eyes: people walking by, buses, cars, pigeons, advertising hoardings. This short book is certainly exhaustive and, to be honest, a bit exhausting as well.

‘Attempt at an Inventory of the Liquid and Solid Foodstuffs Ingurgitated by Me in the Course of the Year Nineteen Hundred and Seventy Four’. Self-explanatory.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Notes from Overground

As a student of the everyday, I’m ashamed to say it’s taken me this long to read – partly on the recommendation of Philip Wilkinson ( – Roger Green’s wonderful, out-of-print book, Notes from Overground, published under the pseudonym Tiresias in 1984. A former civil servant, Green tells the story of his 20-year, two-hours-a-day train commute from Oxford to London and back again in the form of a ‘Premeditated Notebook’ modelled on Thomas Traherne’s Centuries of Meditations and Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave. I thought it would be about the hidden enchantment of the everyday but in fact it is a very bleak but funny book about the lives wasted by commuting, this ‘small unspectacular tragedy’. Here are some quotes which will give you some idea of the book’s voice:

‘In the winter dusk, at successive stations, we peer out to see the wives waiting behind steering wheels, children scuffling in back seats. Daddies descend and are met. Each set of participants knows only of its own little scene … Each welcomed father ought not to learn of the existence of dozens of others along the line, any more than a prisoner should hear of the execution of his fellows.’

‘Orwell foresaw it all: loudspeakers blaring a humourless mixture of musak and disinformation. Twenty-four-hour digital clocks. Trainspeak coinages like Inter-City, Travellers-Fare, Awayday, Railair, Sealink …’

‘How often does someone point to an unoccupied seat and inquire: “Is anyone sitting there?” Usually the question receives a civil answer, yet it could only really be justified coming from Macbeth in the presence of Banquo’s ghost.’

‘When the train passes any kind of sporting activity … invariably nothing is happening. The bowler is always about to bowl, the referee about to restart play, the archer poised to shoot. Nothing takes place before our profane gaze. At our uncouth advent, the initiates freeze into a tableau vivant, waiting for us to pass before they resume celebration of the mysteries. This inexplicable phenomenon underlines the lack of rapport between our unnatural train-existence and normal life outside. The Grecian Urn syndrome.’

After reading this neglected classic, I’ve now ordered Green’s latest book, the intriguingly titled Hydra and the Bananas of Leonard Cohen.

Friday, 4 February 2011

On junk

There used to be a place in the centre of Liverpool called Quiggins, a converted warehouse accommodating several ‘antique’ shops which would buy and sell ‘large or small items: anything considered’. The floorspace was sizeable enough to contain huge piles of junk, and the shops were something of a dumping ground for house-clearers who would rather not hire a skip or go to the tip. I remember coming across objects there that were surely unsellable: a naked doll with one eye and no arms, a deflated spacehopper caked in dirt, a single roller skate, a typewriter with no carriage return and several keys missing, an unstrung wooden tennis racket, some wrought-iron steps leading up into thin air. These random collections of stuff seemed like a testament to the levelling effect of junk: outmoded fads and celebrity merchandise suffer the same fate as more mundane household goods, as they are all shoved in a bargain bucket and stamped with a handwritten sticker for 15p. The term bric-à-brac, which comes from the French phrase, à bric et à brac [at random], captures this emphasis on casual abandonment and fortuitous survival. These objects are disconcerting because they are located at the end of a temporal process which, caught up in the cyclical rhythms of daily habit, we were not even aware was occurring. Amidst the leftover material of daily life, we encounter the unsettling evidence that routines have histories.

Christine Finn, a British archaeologist, investigated the durability of everyday ephemera by undertaking a year’s fieldwork in the unlikely site of Silicon Valley, California. Finn’s research examines the climate of easy disposability created by this boom-and-bust, high-turnover environment. The tech workers who populate the area are constantly exchanging jobs, houses and lifestyles, filling their living spaces with geek playthings and other transient objects, and even demolishing perfectly presentable homes in smart areas to make way for swanky rebuilds. Finn practises a kind of anticipatory archaeology, imagining how she would sift the evidence of the Siliconites’ lives after some hypothetical ‘e-Pompeii’. She suggests that the material remains would be confusing to archaeologists, who tend to look for singular explanations about the lives of dwellers in the surviving debris - the smudge of black on pottery providing evidence of a hearth, for example. They would be puzzled by the apparently wanton destruction of objects with no evidence of fire, war or earthquake, and would find it hard to disentangle the evidence of individual lives from that of an accelerated marketplace in designer lifestyles which ‘creates a bewildering array of cross-temporal and cross-cultural objects’.

As the ultimate expression of Silicon Valley’s throwaway culture, Finn shows how the state-of-the-art computer can become a mundane object and then a technological dinosaur within a scarily short period. For Finn, old computers are interesting because, apart from the few self-confessed geeks who run the chaotic computer museums that she visits, people do not generally value them as nostalgia objects. Last year’s model is passed down the market chain to a less fussy user, before being ransacked for its few valuable spare parts or ending up abandoned in a garage or landfill site. The obsolete PC becomes detached from its original context, ‘intriguingly anonymous’ apart from the personal histories encrypted in its indestructible hard drive.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Let me begin with the invisibility and blindness of the suburbs … The suburbs present us with a negation of the present; a landscape consumed by its past and its future. Hence the two foci of the suburbs: the nostalgic and the technological. A butterchurn fashioned into an electric light, a refrigerator covered by children’s drawings, the industrial “park,” the insurance company’s “campus.”’ - Susan Stewart, On Longing