The Rotten Core of The Rom Com



Write something about Love they said. Ok I’ll write something wry and amusing about what I learnt about love through watching teen movies and rom coms I said.

It started harmlessly enough, by thinking about what I had seen as a young impressionable idiot that had left a lasting impression on my view of sex and love. As always when thinking of my teens my thoughts turned to John Hughes and the bratpack. It was all teen angst and unrequited love for Molly Ringwald round my way – the crazy dash across campus to tell the girl I loved her or standing on my car outside her house with ghetto blaster held high above my head. Her dad wouldn’t like me but her mum would see the diamond in the rough I really was. She might not know it to begin with but through my relentless pursuit she’d learn she loved me really. She might say no but she really means yes.

Hang on, I’ve heard that phrase somewhere before and I don’t remember thinking it was a particularly good one. With the recent #metoo revelations I’ve already found myself looking at my own romantic history and checking my behaviour to make sure it matched up to my perceived standards of gentlemanliness. Now I’m looking through a newly cleaned lens at these cinematic examples of romantic ‘shenanigans’ I’m not so sure the lessons I learned are quite as benign as I thought they were. Teen movies like Pretty in Pink or Say Anything actually imply that some low-grade stalking is a good way to go; and, if I cast my net further afield than ‘80s teen flicks, things only get worse.

Take the oft repeated movie scenario in which the female protagonist tries to leave her man, usually during some kind of argument, only to be forcibly stopped by the bigger, stronger male. Typically after an initial struggle the woman melts into the mans arms – the implication being: she said no, but she meant yes. The John Wayne pulling a fleeing Maureen O’Hara back and kissing her in the Quiet Man (as watched by ET then re-enacted by Elliot), Richard Gere stopping Debra Winger leaving the motel room in Officer and a Gentleman. Even in the cosily sentimental, It’s a Wonderful Life, James Stewart, as the heroic George Bailey, gets weirdly forceful and aggressive with Mary, played by Donna Reed,  resulting in their first kiss. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to romantic cine-depictions of what is, essentially, assault.

Take another look at Richard Curtis’s pirate radio set The Boat that Rocked. In one scene, we find Nick Frost’s character, under the cover of a darkened room, amusingly allowing the naive wannabe DJ to take his place in a prearranged love tryst, so the younger virginal man can “get his end away” This is, effectively, a depiction of rape as a ‘hilarious’ right of passage. Over and over again this kind of tableau is played out in mainstream films and I’ve never really questioned it before. Now, just talking about it can be pretty difficult.

A wry look at rom-com tropes is probably not what anyone wants or needs right now, and I’m definitely not trying to make a case for excusing male behaviour with a treatise on the influence of popular culture; but having started the process I thought I should finish it. That is more involved though than knocking out a quick essay, paying lip service to a movement with a discreet pin badge, or deciding that you can no longer watch such-and-such’s films. I think all I’ve got right now is the ability to call out inappropriate male behaviour when I see it. 

Looking again at the melting in his arms cliché, what I see now is a decision to yield rather than fight, because fighting could be so much worse than the result of the yielding. And there is nothing romantic about that.

(originally published in The Saatchi Gallery Magazine Art & Music issue 40 – Spring 2018)

The Emperors New Burger



I’ve never had a bad McDonalds. I know some people who think all McDonalds are bad so let me clarify my point. I’ve never had a McDonalds that disappointed me or failed to deliver to on what was promised. I’ve had Big Macs in Manchester, quarter pounders in London and double cheeseburgers in New York, and all of them have been exactly what I expected and exactly what I wanted. They’ve never let me down.

I have, however had some terrible burgers, like the one that barely made it past a mouthful at the first and only football match I ever (accidentally) attended. Back in the bad old days of the 1990s, before the ‘The Five Gourmet Byron Burger Guys’ had arrived, I went to a burger based restaurant that shall remain nameless. I’ll just say that it was festooned with music memorabilia to look at whilst you awaited your food and leave it at that. It felt like such a let down, and if anything the Hendrix guitars and Beatle posters threw the seeming mediocrity of the overpriced food into stark relief. Expectation is what matters here. I’d never expected that a burger from a greasy looking clapped-out van at a friendly between Tottenham and Welwyn Garden (don’t ask) would be any good, so I wasn’t disappointed. But having to pay massively over the odds at a themed restaurant for the ‘experience’ made me genuinely angry about the food. I felt like I’d paid far more for it than it was worth.

I love a fine dining experience as much as the next metropolitan elite art world hanger-on, but by God, as the price goes up so does my expectation.

Take for example the YBAs’ favourite nose to tail dining emporium – St John, in Smithfield. Famous for serving everything but the oink, including perennial menu classic roast bone marrow, St John is a perfect example of expectation management. You may look at the menu and think that fried ox heart is somewhat basic for nearly twenty quid, but when the then head chef Chris Gillard served it to me I had to call him over just to let him know that I’d never put anything in my mouth that tasted so good. Up until that point I’d always thought that when overly flowery restaurant critics spouted off about being moved to tears by a morsel of this or a daub of that were exaggerating for the sake of drama, but, eating at St. John, I did feel genuinely emotional.

The skill of the cooking did the talking and for that silver-tongued devil of a dish I’d have happily handed over my pin number and given them free reign over my overdraft. 

Since then I’ve tried following the recipes from the St. John cook book but I’ve never come close to recreating the textures and flavours handed to me on plates with the minimum of fuss in that fantastically minimalist dining room. 

All I want when buying food is for the agreement between me and who ever is serving me to be honoured. McDonalds and St John both fulfil their side of the bargain and leave me satisfied. The worst thing a restaurant or a burger joint can do is over promise and under deliver – see also psuedo-gastro pubs filling their menu’s with talk of local, organic, artisanal provenance then plating up sub-Harvester fare. I know a frozen chip when I see one and no amount of handwritten blackboards, slate serving platters or jam jar cocktails is going to pull the wool over my eyes. The food just has to be authentic to itself and then I’ll be happy. High-end cuisine or cheap fast food, I don’t mind, as long as it is what it says it is. It is possible for a scotch egg to be worth five pounds but woe betide the pub that serves up one hard-boiled and wrapped in indeterminate grey meat. I can visit a petrol station if I want one of those.

(Originally published in The Saatchi Gallery Magazine Art & Music issue 39 – Autumn / Winter 2017)

Warning: may contain spoilers



For me the joy of watching a films or T.V  has always been the talking and the dissecting afterwards. My earliest memory of going to the pictures is seeing Raiders of The Lost Ark with my brother and then spending the whole journey home choosing what our ‘best bit’ was (incidentally the best bit is when Bomber from ‘Auf Wiedersehen Pet’ gets his head chopped off by the propeller of a biplane).
At school we would greedily dismember Ghostbusters or Teenwolf or The A-Team and then put them back together in the playground, playing out the action and reliving the experience. Sometimes we would have done this before we’d even seen the film, when one lone lucky prophet having been taken on the opening weekend to see The Goonies, memory clouded by a lethal cocktail of poppets and kia ora, would recount the action like some kind of fever dream, mis-remembering whole swathes of the story for us to reenact. The less said about the bizarre game involving a man who could turn into an owl whilst wielding a massive hatchet that came from just hearing the title of Bergerac, the better.
Slowly though this kind of enthusiastic need to know everything about a story, to own it, even before we’d been to see it was overtaken by a desire to be surprised instead. Trailers spilling the beans on every plot point, that would turn the need to even go to the cinema into a box ticking exercise, would be avoided at all cost. At least with a TV series you could be sure that everyone had seen the latest episode of ‘The Tripods’ and were able to discuss the impunity. That is until the arrival of VHS into seemingly every home of every kid in my school ,changed the way we watched telly overnight. The opening conversational gambit of “did you see ‘V’ last night?” shut down immediately with the reply of “No, taped it – Don’t tell me what happens.”
Even then though, you usually only had a couple of days to wait until your friend had caught up and you could discuss the thrilling face ripping-off rabbit-eating lizard-aliens of that particular seminal work in-depth.
Recently though there came a whole new hurdle to this kind of cultural excavation with the development of streaming and the rise of time shifted viewing. Seemingly no-one is watching anything when it actually goes out. The idea of a simultaneous collective viewing experience seems to have gone completely out the window, except for live reality competitions.
Around the fabled water cooler you can no longer be sure if the person you were talking to has seen up to which episode of ‘Mad Men’ until they clasp their hands over their ears with a shout of “don’t tell me I’m only on episode six”, so instead you preface every conversation with a vague abstract discussion of where you might both at in the action. Has that thing, you know, with the mower – has that happened yet?
So you retreat to the virtual water cooler of the online message board to discuss your latest viewing views only to find that the definition of a spoiler is even more prosaic than you thought possible. Take a trip down the rabbit hole of a discussion on Den of Geek or Bleeding cool and risk the disapprobation of legions of film fans for whom literally anything can be viewed as a spoiler. Knowing the cast list for an upcoming film can reveal everything about the story. A single still can leave them bereft in the knowledge of some finer plot point. It is almost impossible to read or say anything without prefixing it with ‘Warning may contain spoilers’.
The only certainty you are left with is that no-one, but no-one will reveal ‘The Twist’.
M Night Shamalayan has based an entire career around ‘The Twist’, to the point it is almost the entire purpose of the films. Quite often the twist ending seems to actually take the place of storytelling. It doesn’t matter how preposterous or nonsensical the outcome is as long as you didn’t see it coming or know about it before you entered the cinema. But it does matter if that outcome doesn’t follow the films own internal logic. For instance why in The Village (it’s the modern-day) does one of the elders, who knows the secret not just volunteer to be the one who travels through the forest to get the help they need rather than having to reveal all to poor blind Bryce Dallas Howard who is then terrified and confused by the whole damn affair. Rather than making us, the viewer, complicit in the deception along with the elders, we’re just played like some gullible mark by a po-faced con artist because for Shamalayan all that seems to matter is that he gets to spin round in his big high-backed chair with a smug look on his face and says “gotcha – I bet you didn’t see that coming!”.
Some films have great twists that make you want to re-watch the film to see if you can spot it earlier like Momento (the story runs backwards) or The Usual Suspects (he’s Keyser Soze) (even Sixth sense (he’s a ghost), to give M.Night his due, manages to do this pretty well) but if this was all they were I doubt we would continue to return to them. They offer more than just ‘The Twist.’
A brilliant example of this is The Crying Game (she’s a he) for which the keeping secret the ending became a cause celeb in itself but actually the film is far more than it’s twist. In fact the Twist itself left me confused when I first saw it as it seemed so obvious to me, I was certain that the twist was going to be that Forest Whittaker was an American pretending to be English soldier hence his appalling accent. Once the surprise was out-of-the-way the film becomes a much more nuanced study of love, loneliness, betrayal and redemption rather than a one note reveal. The problem with relying on the twist is that once it has been unwound there is nothing left to hold on to. Still at least Shamalayan has never actually used the “but it was all just a dream” clause – I’m looking at you Martin Scorcese! Just because ‘The Dream’ was a psychotic delusion doesn’t make Shutter Island (he’s a patient) acceptable.
I can understand not wanting to know a twist ahead of time but I can’t understand the obsession with spoilers in general. If a story is good enough it will sweep you up no matter how much you know about it before. How else is that we can watch films over and over again and keep getting more and more from them. After all I’ve known how Romeo and Juliet ends (they both die) since before I read it as a play, saw it as a film or watched ‘West Side Story’ and it’s devastating every time.

(originally published in The Saatchi Gallery Magazine Art & Music issue 38 – Spring 2017)

There’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure.



A long time ago when I worked as an artists assistant, I was taken out to lunch with a film producer who was working on possible projects that I would be, tangentially, involved with. Over sushi, the producer asked me what kind of films I liked. Distracted at the time by the conundrum of how to eat edamame beans I blurted out “Romantic Comedies”. This, along with my struggles to masticate the inedible pod, pretty much brought an end to this particular line of enquiry.

At the time, I felt a creeping sense of embarrassment at my seemingly gauche reply and wished that I had somehow managed to give a more highbrow or considered answer. If not for my lack of familiarity with Japanese legumes I would possibly have extemporised a pretty convincing treatise on the works of Woody Allen and how actually I preferred his later unfunny stuff. That way i would have felt that i had managed to shroud the nervous, unconfident me in the intellectual cloak i so desperately wanted to be seen wearing. Looking back on it now, I am slightly proud of the fact that I told the truth – I love a romantic comedy. whether it’s Annie Hall or Definitely maybe, I will happily give pretty much any of them a go for at least half an hour. They ate without a doubt my favourite kind of film, thanks to the escapism and idealised version of love they offer up like a balm for the troubled mind. I’m not crazy though, I can tell the difference between good and bad, I’m not going to sit through the whole of Failure to Launch when I could be watching When Harry Met Sally but I have thoroughly enjoyed my fair share of not particularly good Jennifer Aniston vehicles all the way to the end.

The fact that I felt that embarrassment though is a shame. It’s all too easy to belittle culture that we think is somehow unworthy of serious appreciation by dismissing it as someones ‘guilty pleasure’ or, even worse, ironically holding it at arm’s length ourselves. Frankly, I’m not too happy being told I should feel guilty over loving any of the things I love. As if enjoying an Agatha Christie novel rather than the latest Will Self is slumming it or dancing round your living room to Abba rather than quietly appreciating Phillip Glass does less to enrich the soul. I don’t mean soul in the religious sense either; I just mean that part of us that defines and enriches who we are. it’s the things we love nourish it, whatever they are.

Culturally bullying yourself because you find joy in certain kinds of films, music, books or art seems an enormous waste of the limited time we all have to interact with the world around us. worse, these ’guilty pleasures’ are not merely blatantly dismissed, we also allow them to be codified with condescending terms such as ‘Chick Flick’, ‘Genre Fiction’ or ‘Pop Music’ and anything that can’t be easily put down in this way is then somehow seen as having transcended it’s origins and is allowed out of the populist ghetto to take it’s place in the exalted arena of ‘Real Art’, that we can all be rightly proud to extol the virtues of, as if it’s somehow worth giving the time of day to despite itself. Well I’m not that interested in other people’s ideas of what constitutes great art anymore so I’m just going to embrace the things I love and be ready to defend them if someone else thinks they are not worth it. I might be able to change their mind with my insightful passion and then I will have someone else to discuss the finer points of ‘Notting Hill’ with, over sushi.

(originally published in The Saatchi Gallery Magazine Art & Music issue 37 – Spring 2017)

Speculate to Accumulate


Art & Music magazine No. 36 – Winter 2016

The desire to collect runs deep in my family as the sideboards filled with thimbles, Russian dolls, cat figurines and little pottery teddy bears in the memories of my childhood home would attest and somewhere in a long forgotten cupboard languishes a treasure trove of tupperware containers filled to the brim with a cornucopia of slowly decomposing erasers and mouldering rusted badges. Having been previously displayed proudly on window ledges, shelf edges and door frames, in an already stuffed shared bedroom they are now banished to this dark recess along with a broken ironing board and a jigsaw only attempted once, never to be finished.

Everyone collected erasers at my school – or rubbers as we knew them then, leading to much knowing hilarity even if we weren’t even quite sure what we were knowing about – and badges just seem to fall into my lap from all directions, jumble sales, charity shops and gifts from aunties and uncles, some of whom I was actually related to. Collecting them was more of a default position rather than an active choice. Both these collections were quickly abandoned, however, with the arrival of Garbage Pail Kids into the playground arena of swaps, needs and gots. Having never had even a passing interest in football the yearly adrenalin rush of the panini football stickers had passed me by but these grotesque perversions of cabbage patch kids spread like a particularly virulent disease through my class and for a short time in the 80’s seemed to be the most important things in the world to squander my meagre spends on. The golden prize was ahead of us all, the peak we climbed towards – a complete set. Then, just as the possibility twinkled tantalisingly ahead of us, Garbage Pail Kids series two was released and we were deposited back to the base of the mountain like some kind of pre-teen Sisyphus. A lesson learned – there is not necessarily an end game to collecting.

After trading cards I paddled in a few other shallower pools of collectibles such as money boxes and comics but, frankly, I was just treading water until something bigger and more all consuming would come along. When it arrived I felt I’d hit the motherlode. I quickly learnt the arcane ways of record collecting from one of the very best – my older brother. Not for him the simple amassing of a collection of records he liked the sound of, neatly filing them all away in additional archival sleeves with perhaps a fully annotated inventory system on record cards backed up on computer. Frankly, that would have been pedestrian; after all that kind of record collecting is just the same impulse as train spotting, just with a better haircut and a more interesting taste in all-weather outerwear. Completism and specificism were the name of the game here and his sights were set on one band and one band only.

Pet Shop Boys have and still do release a lot of records. To the casual observer an album every three or four years, with a few singles released to promote it, may not seem that many. But it’s what appears in the cracks between the standard releases that leads my brother down this particular rabbit hole to a collectors wonderland. A promo of the lead single on 12” vinyl; a promo of the house remix on 12” vinyl; the official single on 12” vinyl; CD1 of the official single and CD2 of the official single… all these released and hunted out before the album has even been released in its standard and limited edition vinyl and CD formats, along with the Japanese import CD and then followed up by two more singles in all their multi-formatted remixed glory.

The only way to stop with this kind of collection is for The Pets themselves to stop. Even if they release something that my brother isn’t keen on it still has to be diligently procured, because the power of the collection is in its very completeness, and a gap in the library negates everything that has gone before or comes after. Even a copy of the 1977 edition of The Dairy Book Of Home Management, edited by PSB’s singer and one time journalist Neil Tennant, is slotted onto the already heaving shelves and brings a whole new meaning to having everything they have ever released.

My badge of allegiance to the club of record collecting is something I’ve worn with pride on numerous occasions, as the frankly bewildering number of Manic Street Preacher and Mo’Wax records in my house will attest to (although I think I have managed to scrape those particular monkeys off my back). Yes, I own every song ever released by Belle and Sebastien, but I draw the line at buying a compilation of all the singles I already have, perfectly arranged in chronological order, just for the sake of completeness. I have convinced myself that this is an improvement on my own previous  blind compulsion to acquire it all and on every format. Baby steps, maybe, but it has definitely been made harder to avoid the alcohol impaired necessity to just get that one final item to complete the collection, since Ebay has granted us all access to ‘things’ 24/7 rather than just being able to sweat it out and think more clearly the following hungover day.

The only way to avoid waking up surrounded by an incriminating digital trail of self loathing is to take a stand against this modern day ‘convenience collecting’ and say it loud: “buying things on eBay doesn’t really count as collecting”- it’s just acquisition, the thrill of the chase replaced by the ease of the internet. Whispered rumours of a record shop in Highgate with a mint original pressing of Dennis Wilson’s “Pacific Ocean Blue” and the possible wild goose chase of a pilgrimage north on a Saturday morning cannot be eclipsed by a moment spent tapping a search into your laptop. A single slightly dog eared copy of “Penguin Modern Poets no.10: The Mersey Sound” from a charity shop in eastbourne will forever be worth more to me than a pristine set of no.s 1 to 9 arriving in the post after a quick Paypal transaction on Abe books (although, just to confound my own argument, I am ridiculously proud to own that particular set…)

Collecting is also not just about having all these items in your possession, there is a sense of care and attention to the holy artefact that can’t be underestimated. In his novel The Liar, Steven Fry depicts a teenage scholar horrified by his lecturers disregard for the books he has piled up around his dimly lit rooms being used as coasters, or to level a chair with a missing leg, and is reprimanded for caring more for the medium rather than the massage. It took me a long time to get past that idea though and I’m not sure I ever really have or will. I love the vessel of delivery for any kind of culture. I even hold a little sliver of affection for the oft-maligned CD and their visual little brother the DVD, whilst books have a hold over me that I can barely explain. The heady ageing paper aroma of the second hand bookshop or the pristine unblemished spine of a virgin paperback are as alluring to as any golden sunset. Yet even in a tattered woe-begotten state, broken backed with pages barely held together, dog-eared and stained, missing half a cover and filled with the notes for some long forgotten dissertation, a book still fulfil its destiny and deliver its message to the reader. But a record, as I have learnt from bitter experience is oh so fragile, look at it the wrong way and you will forever be reminded of your careless gaze by a hop and skip across the grooves. The meaning of whole songs  changed with the loss of just one crucial lyric or transforming the most innocuous pop tune in to an avant-garde abstract masterpiece that The Beatles ‘Revolution no.9’ can only dream of being.

If you are going to collect records – and by that I mean the actual physical objects, not just music itself – and you don’t show this level of cherishing care, then to me you are in to hoarding territory, but, where is the tipping point? For many years, every time I moved house I was forced to haul an increasing volume of music magazines with me. A tower of Selects, Voxs, Qs, Faces, Words, Mojos, Uncuts and other random publications teetered vertiginously in the corner of every bedroom I have ever had. Convinced of their worth as some kind of pop culture Tower of Babel, I even arranged them into cover artist piles. This testament to the musical 1990s lost its allure after the very real possibility of crushing a meandering toddler reared its ugly head and was swiftly rehoused in the recycling bin. The purging of this particular collection was like the lancing of a boil – painful in the moment but a blessed relief after; a burden was lifted both metaphorically and physically. The collection had stopped making me happy so it was time for it go.

I’m not a fool though, I kept all the issues of Grand Royal and the Cool Britannia copy of Vanity Fair – some things do need to be retained for the sake of future generations after all. Now I only have a few cherry picked magazines they actually feel more like a collection than they ever did piled up en masse because the application of a little discernment legitimises the collection, giving it an air of curation.

“No matter how many records I buy / I can’t fill this void” sings Wesley Patrick Gonzales of Let’s Wrestle’s on the song ‘I won’t Lie to You’. ludicrously prescient, these words dismiss collecting as way cocooning yourself against the world. It’s not that the void can’t be filled but that objects just aren’t the right thing to plug the gap. Still I’m not sure the message is getting through. Even though I’ve stopped obsessively collecting records and got rid of that life threatening pile of magazines little collections continuously pop up around me. I have a selection of vintage pin-up girl playing cards, a loft slowly filling with art and a burgeoning interest in cigarette packets from the 1960’s.

Looking for salvation and a definition of self through surrounding myself with stuff is probably not going work, but I don’t think I will ever be able to stop myself taking up the chase once more. In fact, someone did mention to me that there is a second hand bookshop hidden in the Brunswick Centre , in Bloomsbury, that has a stash of Penguin crime novels from the early ‘60s that needs checking out at the weekend.

(originally published in The Saatchi Gallery Magazine Art & Music issue 36 – Winter 2016)