Monday, February 22, 2010

The lists, the lists are driving me bleedin' insane!

We'll get to the lists in a while. By way of intro, Malcolm was considering Mick Fealty, Lord of the Manor at Slugger O'Toole, trying to extrapolate from the Willie O'Dea resignation to a metaphysical consideration of how the media mediate (or, in the O'Dea case, how the establishment manage to ignore an imminent train-crash).

Those a whit distant from recent happenings in Caitlín Uallacháin's right little, tight little Three Green Fields might need a quick update.

O'Dea! Oh, dear!

O'Dea (above, right) has been one of the cuter characters in recent Fianna Fáil history. He is, among that mixed bag of intellects, quite a bright guy: a lawyer and accountant. He has lectured at tertiary level, and remains a columnist for several Irish prints. He has been a TD for some three decades, was distinguished as one of Charlie Haughey's intra-party opponents, and has the throat of Limerick politics in a vampire bite.

For the last six years he was Minister of Defence in two Fianna Fáil governments: not in itself a great mark of distinction. O'Dea had done some good work at Education; and might reasonably have expected a better post. After all, Ministry of Defence is hardly the grandest office of state in the Twenty-Six Counties. Still, a FF Cabinet has to be a balance of many regional and ideological conflicting interests: O’Dea happened to tick many boxes. Moreover, the man evidently relished and cavorted in the job.

Then, in a local election campaign, O'Dea confided to a journalist that a prominent Sinn Féin candidate (subsequently re-elected) was involved in the running of a brothel. Ahem!

O'Dea at first denied he had made such an allegation, and swore to the same in an affidavit, only to be confronted with a recording of him doing just that. Oops!

Last December, the matter came to Court. The affidavit stood. Then O'Dea had to make a crawling apology, a specious excuse, and cough up a six-figure sum (according to the Sunday Times). Ouch!

Finally, the Opposition made an issue of the matter. Part of the delay is that Dáil Éireann has become a part-time legislature: part because nobody in the small world of Irish politics likes to stir noxious turds, lest they come back to haunt.

Last week, under pressure from Fine Gael (getting under the bar five seconds before Labour), the Cowen Government went for a vote-of-confidence. The government scraped home on the Ceann Comhairle's casting vote. Half a dozen TD's managed to absent themselves: Trevor Sargent of the Greens managed to be pre-booked for an unmissable engagement ... at an organic food fair. Indeed. Sargent's inability to attend could be typical of the Green point-of-view: they felt they had been "bounced" into the vote-of-confidence by Cowen.

O'Dea then resigned. There remains considerable contention about whether he walked, was pushed, or if indeed the Greens gave an ultimatum. If so, for once, the Greens were less of their usual “more of a dirty yellow colour” (© The Goon Show).

Listing to lunacy

None of that is directly relevant to Malcolm's other thought. This emerged from Fealty's philosophising about how the media, by inclusion, omission or emphasis, mediate the public agenda.

There is little new, or particularly profound in this. The mediaeval illiterate peasant was constrained to a horizon bounded by local gossip, the local parish priest's semi-literate theology, and the occasional passing pedlar. As information sources have grown exponentially, we increasingly and necessarily impose filters for ourselves. So we choose our sources by interest, by prejudice and by habit: Fox News or Russia Today, the Irish Times or the Miami Herald, Gay News or L'Osservatore Romano. Only one of which will have addressed the O'Dea business.

Malcolm, inevitably, found himself further trivialising the argument by considering the media's mania for lists. This is the particular unique-selling-point of the arts and entertainment pages, ultimately reduced to that inevitable five-star ranking.

At the eggheaded end, the likes of the Times Literary Supplement each Thursday not only reviews but fails to do so. This prescribes the scope of what literature is "acceptable" to that particular periodical and its adherents. That matters little, since there are other competing outlets, though it is clear that certain writers are "established" by being featured in those pages, while others are excluded. Reviews are inevitably nuanced: very few say"must read" and equally few are stinkers — though, last week, Heather O'Donoghue's magisterial belittling of Robert Ferguson was a gem.

At the popular="pop" end, the need to encapsulate creates more serious problems.

At its best, such an approach can be a classic: Walter Kerr's 1951 put down, for the New York Herald Tribune, of John Van Druten's I Am a Camera ("Me no Leica") being the gold standard, as acerbic as anything from Dorothy Parker. The effect of Kerr's cryptic comment depends considerably on the reader recognising that I am a Camera is adapted from Christopher Isherwood's Berlin experiences. And, in turn, went on to be the basis for the phenomenon that was the musical and film Cabaret): thus producing the curious sequence of a decent pair of books provoking a mediocre stage adaptation and a great movie:

But those lists!

Yeah, well take the nadir achieved by Rachel Campbell-Johnson doing the "New Shows" for the Playlist supplement of last Saturday's Times. This is a page headlined by Henry Moore at Tate Britain, with Ron Arad featured further down page. We are also invited to consider posters from the wartime Ministry of Food, at the Imperial War Museum, and the Design Awards at the Design Museum. To this mish-mash, Campbell-Johnson appends a side bar of her "Critic's Choice". To achieve the full depth of the bizarre, these are worth taking in the reverse order established by Miss World competitions:
5. Dexter Dalwood's pai
ntings and collages ... exploring the concept of "history painting" at Tate St Ives;
4. "Rembrandt in Focus", which sounds like making a commercial for a brand of make-up, but is a single portrait of Catrina Hooghsaet [left] on loan from Penrhyn Castle, together with etchings at the National Museum of Wales;
3. A major show of more than 120 images spanning the 70-year career of Irving Penn , at the National Portrait Gallery;
2. We are invited to Gaze into the giddily decorative surfaces of some of the best-known works of Chris Ofill (yes: the elephant turd man) at Tate Modern; and ...
1. Work by the
the Armenian immigrant whose paintings were as powerful and important as he was mysterious. That's the typographic-disaster-waiting-to-happen, Arshile Gorky ("crazy guy! crazy name!" © Glenda Slagg), also at Tate Modern. Why is Malcolm unimpressed by this one, when opposite is a full page advertisement for a Times+ "exclusive private view" at £10 a ticket?

Any way one addresses it, there's a fair bit of mediation being done there.

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