In death, Sally Ride did what singer and rapper Frank Ocean did a few weeks ago – ‘came out’ without actually, really, coming out. Which is to say, that neither Ride’s obituary nor Ocean’s oddly poetic statement actually used the word ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, ‘homosexual’ or ‘bisexual.’ Ocean admitted that his first love had been a man; Ride’s family admitted, presumably with her pre-death consent, that she had a female romantic partner.
I have a feeling this is going to become more and more the way ‘coming out’ is done in future, both at a personal level and in public life.
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In truth, the public’s view on the big basic questions of political structure hasn’t shifted all that much in forty years. They don’t believe in nationalised industry. They do believe in nationalised public services, but aren’t opposed to some private sector role if it’s controlled and improves results. They believe in the right of unions to strike, but not to cripple the economy. And so on.
When the electorate supposedly swings from left to right, in truth, they’re changing their mind about which party will push things towards the relatively centrist reality they want. In the 1970s, the country’s structure was further to the left – with a bigger role for the state – than the electorate wanted, so they chose the party that would push towards a smaller state. But of course, Thatcher overreached, and by the 1990s it was clear the state was too small – principally, that public services were desperately under-funded. So the public turned to a left-wing(ish) party to swing the pendulum back. By 2010, things had swung a little too far in the state direction, at least in terms of its sheer spending size (the public is still in favour of a bigger role in terms of things like regulation). So the public swang a little in favour of a state-shrinking party again. And of course, the Tories seem to be overreaching again, which may explain Labour’s lead in the polls.
Politicians almost inevitably overinterpret their mandate. The genius of Tony Blair was that, despite his vast victory, he never fooled himself that the electorate had ‘swung to the left.’ In truth, the electorate had stayed pretty much put – but by 1997 the parties had moved far enough to the right that it was Labour, not the Tories, who were closer to electorate’s ideas of what form the state should take.
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The Advocate has a nice slideshow of paintings by Henry Scott Tuke, a once highly-regarded member of art’s Cornish School (after a few years in my much-loved Newlyn, he did most of his work in Falmouth) now mostly enjoyed by collectors of so-called ‘gay art’. (Elton John has many of his originals.)
Writing about Tuke hedges carefully over the question of his own sexual orientation, merely noting his friendships with the likes of Oscar Wilde (who was, of course, gay) and John Singer Sargent (who many people think was). But while Tuke produced painting after painting of boys bathing nude, there’s very little in his work that you’d call homoerotic in the strict sense – or erotic at all. There’s no playful splashing about and certainly no touching. The boys in Tuke’s paintings are enjoying each other’s company, but they’re not enjoying each other – and neither is the viewer invited to, except in the wholesome sense that we’re invited to enjoy the body of Michaelangelo’s David. Indeed, unlike in the case of David (or, for that matter, Sargent’s most famous male nude), there’s no actual sex organs in sight in Tuke’s sunny world by the sea.
It would be naive to suggest the popularity of Tuke’s work with modern gay men is entirely based on an aesthetic appreciation of Tuke’s pleasant brushwork. But the popularity of images such as this, of innocent, sexless, homosocial nudity, with gay men raises all sorts of interesting questions.
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Since at least the 1980s, the primary focus of nostalgia has always been three decades ago. In the 80s, the 50s were far more a stylistic influence than the 1940s. Think of Levi’s Norman Rockwell-like TV ads with their early Sam Cooke soundtracks. Stonewash denim. The pastel-shaded, wide-lapel styles of the B52s and late Talking Heads. Stand by Me. Back to the Future, for Christ’s sake. Think, in fact, of Converse All-Stars: that revival began well before the Berlin Wall fell.
In the 1990s, pop culture was heartily obsessed with the 1960s. Remember that interminable period when the Anthology series was released and it seemed that, in the words of one magazine I read at the time, “the remainder of this decade has been legally handed over to the Beatles”? At the cinema, there was Austin Powers and the revival of James Bond; in music, the 60s were inescapable. Gopnik cites Arctic Monkeys as evidence of the noughties’ 60s adoration, but what about Blur, Oasis, and other Beatles-obsessed 90s bands literally too numerous to list?
The noughties, I’ll admit, were rather all over the place; it does seem as if the greater cultural complexity allowed by the shift of culture from mass platforms like TV to customisable tools like the internet will undermine this trend somewhat. But even so, a thorough thread of 70s revival ran through the noughties – think of The Strokes, skinny jeans and That 70s Show. (Towards the end of the decade, recession, energy crisis and a pervading sense of general decline also helped conjure up that dreary decade.)
And the current decade, whatever we end up calling it, has been thoroughly 80s-obsessed. Shops are full of neon, leopard-print and tribal patterns; shoulder pads, leg-warmers and even the moustache have seen a revival. Synths are unavoidable across the pop music world, while our cinemas have seen the Transformers series (which began last decade; the 80s revival did arrive ahead of schedule), The A Team, and Super 8, a film openly designed in tribute to Spielberg’s early-80s heyday.
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Endless column inches have been devoted, deservedly, to Facebook and its impact on the world. And as a tool for helping people connect and organise, it’s without parallel – witness its role in helping kick off Egypt’s Tahrir Square protests.
But on a day-to-day basis it’s on Twitter, not Facebook, that serious civic engagement and discussion happens online. Most journalists and public intellectuals are active on Twitter and barely visible, at least publicly, on Facebook.
A vast public conversation, with serious minds and ordinary Joe’s taking part, all with equal status? That sounds remarkably like the online incarnation of Jurgen Habermas’ ideal of the public sphere. The potential for such a vivid, rapid-fire and radically open conversation is immense. My personal Twitter feed is packed with friends, thinkers and people of note from all over the world. I should be frothing with excitement every day at the thought of logging on and seeing what’s being talked about.
But I’m not. Instead, reading through Twitter seems a complete chore, because it means decoding bizarre IRL-speak, looking at ugly visible web links, and generally feeling like you’re in a late-90s bulletin board.
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A funny thing happened to me last week. I heard that Whitney Houston died and I found that I was really quite upset.
I mean, I didn’t cry or anything. But neither was this the standard ‘oh, shame’ response you get when a celebrity dies. I was more upset, for example, than I was when Amy Winehouse died, although Winehouse was younger and her death therefore perhaps more tragic. (I know, I know, but come on: we all agree the death of an 88-year-old is less tragic than that of an 8-year-old; how close do the ages have to be before we stop seeing age as significant?)
Now, a disclaimer: I was drunk. But still, my mood of vague despondency continued for several days. But why? I’m an intelligent adult with a life of my own; I know that hundreds of people die tragic drug-related deaths every day; I know that musically speaking, Whitney is much less significant than Etta James, whose death I barely noticed. And despite writing about it for a living sometimes, I generally see the world of celebrity for the mildly distracting nonsense it is. Why – shoehorned song title alert! – did Whitney’s death make me So Emotional?
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[It seemed a good idea at the time.]
As anyone who has had a drunken argument with me will know, I am something of a contrarian. What you might not know is that I tend to extend this intellectual habit to my cultural life, leaving me a bit of a reluctant member of any group I belong to. I’m a journalist who finds most journalism infuriating, a gay man who finds vast swathes of ‘gay culture’ boring, and – most self-defeatingly of all – a vegetarian who loves fast food.
OK, ‘loves’ is too strong. ‘Is addicted to’ might be more accurate. Whatever you call it, while many of my friends manage to go through life on home-made lunches and Pret salads, I simply have always enjoyed the odd McDonald’s every now and then. I have a multitude of thoughts as to why that is. As a technology enthusiast, I don’t find mass-produced food inherently off-putting; as someone who grew up in a small town, I associate big food chains with urban, cosmopolitan, American glamour; as someone who grew up on the cusp between lower-middle and ‘proper’-middle class, I find the idea of looking down on cheap, plentiful food problematic. I even suspect that my part-Indian heritage makes me in some way predisposed towards big fast food chains, given that about 90% of the people who work for them these days seem to be of South Asian origin.
But anyway, it is what it is and, despite my attempts to convince myself that I should eat at Pret and Pod and Eat and the range of lovely independent sandwich shops my daily routine takes me past, I often find myself turning to Subway or McDonald’s when hunger strikes as it does, with me, about every two hours. And I know I’m not the only vegetarian out there who does the same thing, even though these places are all basically set up for the express purpose of serving up vast quantities of meat at low prices.
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