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The story of the viral meme – not just grinning cats and dancing babies…. #richardclay @BBCFOUR @clearstoryuk @richarddawkins

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c. ClearStory/BBC

Following the screening of Richard Clay’s latest documentary “How to Go Viral” last night, I wanted to share my thoughts on the film. We touched briefly on the programme in my recent interview with him and although the subject matter might initially seem different to his earlier works, there are similar threads running through all of them. Broadcast as part of the BBC’s ‘Anniversary of the Internet’ strand, the programme sets out to explore how memes are created, how they succeed or fail, their history and what deeper meanings there might be. The documentary comes complete with a Very Long Title – “How To Go Viral: The Art of the Meme with Richard Clay”; but I think for convenience we’ll just call it Viral!

Unlike Richard’s earlier documentaries and in line with its subject matter, Viral’s appearance is much snappier, with rapid fire presentation, snazzy graphics and animations, memes and subliminal blips dropped in all over the place, and plenty of silliness – well, the subject *is* memes. However, lest all this sound trivial, be assured that it really isn’t; Viral is vastly entertaining but underneath the shiny surface there are some really serious issues at play.

The Two Richards – Professors Dawkins and Clay! (image c. BBC/ClearStory)

The word ‘meme’ was coined by the marvellous Richard Dawkins (who makes a rather wonderful appearance in Viral, and as Clay says is obviously a national treasure). Definitions of our modern terminology are given; however, the whole concept behind the idea of something that spreads like wildfire is actually nothing new, as the Prof goes on to demonstrate. So he ranges far and wide in his exploration of his subject, from a pivotal interview with the aforementioned Dawkins, through the ubiquitous LOLcats, with their own distinctive vocabulary to memes in advertising. From earworms to emojis, nothing is missed; and what soon becomes clear is that memes have been around for far longer than you might imagine, involved in the shaping of our lives and thoughts for centuries. For example, who knew that there was a craze for captioned cat postcards in the early part of the 20th century?? Or that Wittgenstein invented the emoji?? It seems that signs and symbols and their use have always helped form our world; what’s changed is the speed and method of their dissemination. It’s the same as the way a craze would take off in the playground or socially in the past, but simply spread in a different way and infinitely more rapidly – well, instantaneously, really. Let’s be honest: memes may have only been named in 1976, but they’re certainly not a modern phenomenon – just think of all those advertising jingles that passed into everyday life and are still there (I bet you have plenty of them stuck in your head!)

The Claymoji! 😀 (image c. Clearstory/BBC)

The Prof goes on to discuss what makes some memes “sticky” while others just disappear into the ether; he has a go at creating his own with the help of online experts; and even has own emoji created (how cool!), as well as soliciting some useful advice as to how to get rid of those pesky earworms! 😀 However, the programme goes on to draw in the political aspect, revealing how in our polarised world both sides are using the language of memes to try to influence our minds and views. The dizzying and sometimes alarming array of statistics demonstrates just how important an aspect of propaganda internet memes have become; and this also left me wondering – with the amount of stuff we do online, however do we manage to exist in the real world? Intriguingly, some of the scientific experts consulted make claims for memes having a strong role in shaping our evolutionary progress, an idea which left me wanting to explore more and go out and buy any number of scientific books…

A little bit of arty iconoclasm… (image c. ClearStory/BBC)

Laudably, Viral doesn’t shy away from tackling the darker side of the Internet, from trolls to death threats, and the interview with investigative journalist Jessikka Aro is particularly sobering; the internet, like the world, is not just grinning cats and dancing babies… Discussions of online fake news lead inevitably to the Orwellian conclusion that *all* news is fake owing to its selective nature. As Richard reminds us early on in the programme, the Internet is unregulated which inevitably leads to conflict, as one person’s humour is another person’s offence; and ever more controversial memes can be guaranteed to get their makers millions of views. Mainstream media is very filtered (and biased…) nowadays, and so the democratic and unrestricted nature of the Internet has led to a surge in dank humour which can often be offensive and divisive. However, in the Trump era, memes can be an effective way of transmitting an uncomfortable truth and become a means of protest; and as I saw with Mark Steel’s “Vive la Revolution“, you can get a very fine political point across using humour.

Yet, memes can be useful; as well as communicating ideas rapidly round the globe, they can act as a release, an anti-stress and survival tool – certainly when my kids are having a bad day, they’re all over WhatsApp demanding more memes from each other! The sharing can have a positive effect, giving us a sense of belonging which may have been lost nowadays. We live in an increasingly fragmented world, one in which we’re constantly bombarded by signs and symbols competing for our attention, and it *can* become exhausting (although probably less so for younger people who are most used to this world and are no doubt evolving as we speak to live within it). Indeed, Richard takes a short but necessary time out with his art historian hat on to consider that the continuing popularity of art galleries may reflect a very human need for some quiet, one-to-one time with a single picture or sculpture, away from the constant visual chaos around us. I’d definitely concur with that view!

Richard bravely has a go at planking… (image c. ClearStory/BBC)

One aspect I found particularly fascinating in a programme that fizzes with ideas was the exploration of the different elements of culture and how they affect us; drawing in the addictive element of music was perhaps unexpected, but very rewarding. Viral had several little nods to Richard’s previous documentaries and most notably (when looking at the flexibility of symbols and memes) squeezed in consideration of one of his pet subjects, sign transformation (i.e. how the meaning of objects around us changes according to context and our particular viewpoint at any given time). In fact, the Prof has become increasingly adept at sneaking semiotics and signs on to our screens (although as well as bringing some much-needed erudition to mainstream TV, he’s happy to balance it with plenty of that humour and even gamely has a go at planking – although sensibly avoids the ice bucket challenge…) And there are plenty of little asides to catch the eye and amuse, from the ‘404 not found’ result for a certain missing image to a sneakily winking cat, both of which made me smirk. However, to prove memes have a serious purpose, our somewhat subversive semiotician ropes in the work of no less than Roland Barthes to prove how crucial text is to those memes, and how an image on its own is not so effective; it’s heady and stimulating stuff.

Needless to say, Viral was a massive hit at the Ramblings; the amount of mental stimulation it’s caused my brain is pretty huge and I’m trying to restrain myself from rushing off to explore all sorts of different ideas, as well as reading everything Dawkins has written. TV is more often than not a dead medium for me nowadays, starved of interesting ideas and discussions; which makes something like Viral even more of a breath of fresh air, a beacon of intellectual provocation in a desert of soaps and reality stars. This is the kind of exemplary programme that leaves you with dozens of ideas buzzing around in your head; its multi-faceted and multi-layered approach cleverly sneaking in its ideas under a playful exterior. Like it or not, we live in this modern world of instantaneous signs and symbols; so Clay’s efforts to help us decode that world, as well as to understand and negotiate it, are timely, celebrating just how creative humans can be in their methods of communication. If you’re in the UK Viral is here on the iPlayer and I strongly recommend checking it out while you can. If you’re in the rest of the world, I hope it makes it to your TV screens sometime soon. Viral is a hugely entertaining yet deeply thought-provoking piece of television and is most definitely going to be my Documentary of the Year!

“…all culture is a form of sign transformation…” – An interview with Professor Richard Clay – Part 2 #viral @BBCFOUR @clearstoryuk

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Following on from part 1 of my interview with Professor Richard Clay (which you can read here), here’s part two in which Richard reveals whether he prefers lecturing or seminars, thoughts on graffiti and nuclear deterrence, future book ideas, and much, much more! 😀

KBR: You went on to write and present the “Brief History of Graffiti” programme hot on the heels of “Tearing”. This could be perceived as a shift of focus, although there was of course content relating to the French revolution(s). Was this a concept for a programme that came from you, or was it suggested, and how did you feel about the final results?

RC: Yep it was my idea and I like most of the film, although I think it gets better as it goes on. I’ve been interested in graff since I was a boy. Growing up in rural Lancashire, East Coast hip hop seemed to make perfect sense to me and my mates and Graffiti was part of that scene. I was an undergrad at York, but many of the most important lessons I learned there resulted from my mates and I doing pirate radio in Leeds, organising parties (some of them legal), running a fanzine (‘Pure Sheng’), and DJing (we were good!).

As a postgrad in London, I was music editor for the UK’s first full colour, national, student magazine (‘Raise’). I used to write pieces on other topics that chimed with my work on the French Revolution. One of those articles was about contemporary graffiti and one of my interviewees, a train painter called Morn (because he could only see his work when the sun came up), reshaped my thinking about meaning making in public space. So, yes, I see graff and iconoclasm as closely related; for me culture is all that which is learned and all culture is a form of sign transformation…

The success of the Graffiti programme has kind of led to you being the go-to person for soundbites whenever there’s a news story relating to the subject. Is that kind of stereotyping a double-edged sword for an academic?

It is a bit odd to be the go-to graff person and I sometimes recommend that journalists talk to other people and I share their names. But I don’t feel stereotyped. I know how busy journalists are and the kinds of deadlines that working in news involves. My occasional comments in the news media have little impact on me as an academic; academics and students who know me and like my thinking know it’s wide ranging (like theirs).

Your most recent TV project was the three-part “Utopia: In Search of the Dream” series for BBC4, broadcast in 2017, which was very well received. You obviously drew on a number of contacts and sources to produce a fascinating and wide-ranging series of programmes. Were you happy with the results and was there anything you would have liked to include that didn’t make the cut?

Aye, I rate the Utopia films and I was surprised and delighted by the warmth of the critical response across the political spectrum. Like all my documentaries, the films are a real team effort with brilliant ideas and impressive skills being brought to bear by the whole crew and the post-production team. Much as I’d like to take all the credit, I simply can’t!

Schedules and budgets are so tight on a shoot, and the amount of travel so intense for the crew, that we can’t really afford to leave stuff on the cutting room floor. But there were things I’d have liked to have included. For example, Robert Owen’s New Lanark, the Cadbury family’s ‘factory in the garden’ in Bournville, and the contemporary permaculture movement. But if they’d been included, something else would have had to be left out…

Your scholarly book “Iconoclasm in Revolutionary Paris: the Transformation of Signs” (which has featured on the blog a number of times) came out in 2012 and represented a considerable body of work on the subject. You’ve also written a number of pieces over the years on the French Revolution, or related to other strands of iconoclasm. Have you ever considered a more mainstream book on the subject?

I periodically consider writing such a book. But a book is such a time commitment that imagine my next one will feature iconoclasm as one form of meaning making in public space and will explore how such processes have been shaped by new technologies since the 1790s. I’m toying with writing a shorter mainstream book that might be called something like ‘Three Ideas To Help You Survive the Twenty First Century’ (snappy title, huh?): semiotics, dialogics, and critical thinking.

Your recent interests, as you’ve commented yourself, are very broad. Do you think you’ve moved on from French Revolutionary iconoclasm or is it something you’ll revisit?

I think I’m done with iconoclasm of the French Revolution for now, but I’m hoping that a new generation of scholars will continue to explore that field. I remain part of an international iconoclasms network that has published a couple of books that I co-edited and that also advised Tate Britain on its ‘Art Under Attack’ exhibition. The network is about to start a new phase of work, but my contributions are likely to look beyond Paris and the 1790s; probably using far more recent examples to outline more concisely the theoretical underpinnings of my work on the French Revolution.

You have a new documentary coming up on BBC4 this week on meme culture, entitled “How to go Viral: The Art of the Meme”. Are you able to give us any information about this?

Viral’s basic pitch is ‘Why are the Cross and that Crescent internationally recognised symbols, but the sandal from “A Life of Brian” isn’t? Why do some symbols stick and others don’t?” The film goes from antiquity to the internet in 60-minutes, engaging with notions of memes and internet memes en route. It’s very fast paced in comparison to my other films; I’ll be interested to hear what you think of it!

You appeared on BBC Radio 4 last September with a highly successful programme on the nuclear threat. Can you talk a little bit about that?

‘Two Minutes To Midnight’ was my first foray into radio documentaries. Given that the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ ‘Doomsday Clock’, is closer to midnight than it has been since 1953, the programme asks whether we all ought to be somewhat more worried about nuclear Armageddon than we appear to be. Personally, (to paraphrase Frank Herbert) I think that ‘fear is the mind killer’. But there are good reasons for all citizens to reflect on the risks of nations’ holding on to their nuclear weapons, not least those associated with accidents or hacking. After all, radiation doesn’t respect borders. I’ve long been a supporter of deterrence, but making ‘Two Minutes…’ rekindled some of my youthful idealism. Even if we accept deterrence, we need to be aiming for a global ban on these awful weapons.

You’ve attended conferences, delivered keynotes and papers, and spoken at numerous locations all around the world over the years, including Mexico, the USA, Taiwan, Riga and more recently Lisbon, to name just a few. Do you enjoy the travel that comes with your role, and where would you say you’ve found your best audience?

I can’t say that I like travel, but I love arriving! My favourite audiences are always students. They look at problems with fresh eyes and offer some amazing insights as a result. The best groups have the courage to say the obvious thing and they understand that just because it’s obvious to them that doesn’t mean it’s obvious to everyone else. As a result, they learn from one another and knowledge multiplies. My father told me that ‘Lecturing is a means of communication whereby one person speaks without thinking very much to a room full of people who listen without thinking very much. Don’t lecture’, he said, ‘run seminars. You’ll know you’re succeeding when you shut up (for once) and learn from the group.’ My favourite audience is one which is also performing and of which I’m a member too.

You’ve also published widely on a range of topics; most notably, of course, French Revolutionary Iconoclasm, but also on subjects as diverse as industrial revolution numismatics, the role of graffiti in society, art and war, and even contemporary jewellery. Do you believe this variety is essential to avoid having too narrow an academic focus?

There’s nothing wrong with having a narrow academic focus! Without such work the rich weave of intellectual life would be weakened. Good educational institutions foster and celebrate work that is conducted at a range of different ‘resolutions’ and encourages debate between all involved. I just happen to be synthesist and to enjoy ranging across disciplines and periods (but that might just turn out to be phase!).

Do you find it difficult to juggle the commitments of academia with those of a television career; could you ever see a situation arising where one would have to take priority over the other, and if so which one would it be? And where do you see your career going in the future?

I don’t think that I’m likely to have to make the choice between the academy and the media – not least because the media stuff that I do is fairly niche. But if I did have to choose, it would undoubtedly be the academy. As for where my career is going, I like the balance I’ve got at the moment. I’m fortunate in having a Chair that spans my whole faculty and I’m very excited about cross-disciplinary and cross-sector developments that are taking place at Newcastle University. I’m inclined to wait and see which opportunities arise. But I’m always mindful of my father’s career advice, ‘Never take a job you can do’. Oh, and ‘cast slowly’ (like him, I fly fish rivers).

******

I’d like to thank Richard so much for taking time out of his busy schedule to be interviewed. I’ve found his documentaries and writings to be fascinating, so it was a real privilege to hear directly from him about his career and the genesis of some of those projects. “How to go viral: the art of the meme with Richard Clay” will be broadcast on BBC4 on 20th March and I can’t recommend strongly enough that you watch it! I’ll be sharing my thoughts about the programme shortly after broadcast…. 😀

Interview c. Richard Clay/Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings – no unauthorised reproduction, please.

“…human stories of conflict and contestation…” – An interview with Professor Richard Clay – part 1 #viral @BBCFOUR @clearstoryuk

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A slightly different kind of post here on the Ramblings today, but one I’m very happy to present! Anyone with only half an eye on the blog will have noticed me developing a serious fondness for documentaries over the last year or so, and also for Iconoclasm and books thereon… I’ve been particularly interested in the work of Richard Clay, who of course presented the wonderful “Tearing Up History” documentary back in 2014. He was also responsible for a fascinating documentary on Graffiti and the excellent three-part series “Utopia: In Search of the Dream” in 2017, which I have of course gone on about regularly…

Richard is also, of course, the author of “Iconoclasm in Revolutionary Paris” (a monograph which caused me much stress and strain tracking down) and in fact has contributed to a number of scholarly books on the often controversial subject of iconoclasm, as you can see from the little selection below:

Currently a Professor of Digital Cultures at Newcastle University, Richard has had a distinguished academic career: after studying at York and UCL, he joined the University of Birmingham in 2002, where he was based for a many years, being responsible for a range of innovative projects, most notably the Digital Humanities Hub. Appointed AHRC Research Fellow in 2014, he moved to Newcastle University in 2015 where he’s continued to foster cross-disciplinary working, as well as developing his television career.

Richard presented a fascinating programme on BBC Radio 4 last autumn, “Two Minutes to Midnight”, which I have of course covered extensively on the blog.  I was curious to find out how his interesting ideas came to be formed, and as he has a limited online presence and no Wikipedia page as yet, I ended up with a *lot* of questions. When I found out that he also had a new documentary in the pipeline I contacted him to see if he would be prepared to be interviewed for the blog, and I’m delighted to say that he agreed. So ahead of his new programme “Viral”, I’m very pleased to welcome Richard Clay to the Ramblings!

KBR: Richard, thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed! I’d like to start by first asking you about your training. I understand that you originally intended to study History but switched to History of Art. I wondered what drove that particular change?

RC: Yep, I went to University of York to read History. I’d been hoping to learn about theories and methods, but felt in my first year that that focus was missing. Plus, I was a little overwhelmed by the vastness of history. Where do you start and where do you stop with your research? I took an art history module and realised that the discipline was really theoretically engaged and that essays could start with an object (or objects), explore historical contexts, and return to the object. Somehow, that helped bring focus to my thinking. To be honest, as a nineteen year old, I also liked the idea of only having to write one essay a term for History of Art and getting a free trip to Paris; it sounded like decadent efficiency!

Having made the switch to History of Art, your specialism developed with the study of iconoclasm during a specific period of revolution in France. Was there a particular trigger for this focus – perhaps an interest in the revolution itself? Or was there another motivation in choosing this aspect?

As an undergrad, I was interested in how audiences responded to works of art and how those responses shaped art works’ production. But it was often the case that lower class reception wasn’t recorded in the past and we were left reading about the views of the wealthy and educated (even if the works of art were on public display, say, in churches). However, I was very impressed with Thomas E. Crow’s ‘Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Paris’ – a book that triggered interests that I pursued as a postgrad and beyond. Crow helped me realise that, despite the Ancien Régime’s censorship, there was a vibrant, often illegal, and cheap pamphlet culture of criticism. These cheap publications focused on the biennial art exhibitions, the Salons, held by members of the Royal Academy of Painting, Sculpture, and Engraving in France.

From the 1730s onwards, the Salons were held in the Louvre royal palace. As entry was free of charge, audiences were large and diverse; people attended as much to observe one another as to see the art. Salon pamphlets’ discussions of the art works and audiences often used carefully coded language to articulate arguments about society, politics, and culture (in the broadest sense) in ways that avoided arrest. The Salon gave me a route into exploring the interactions of emergent ‘enlightenment’ ideas and more established modes of thought and to do so in ways that weren’t focused solely on elites.

When I went on to do my MA, PhD, and then to be a Henry Moore Fellow at UCL, my focus shifted to revolutionary France. I wanted to write ‘art history from below’, to examine how less privileged members of society thought about, and made use of, art in their day-to-day lives (especially during times of struggle) and how educated elites responded. By asking why people chose to attack art in public spaces during the Revolution, and why authorities often responded by passing iconoclastic laws, I could also critique some of the more reductive art histories that I find so patronising to people of the past.

Why the first French Revolution? Partly because of the Salon culture, partly because of the rich archival holdings, but perhaps mainly because I felt that the very worst and the very best of human nature can be found in periods of conflict. Since childhood, I’ve been fascinated by military history – especially the ‘worm’s eye view’… Despite being the son of pedagogues, I didn’t read until I was seven. I just wasn’t interested in Peter and Jane. My mother noticed that in family photos I was often pointing at the sky because I loved aeroplanes. So, she bought me a doorstep book about military aircraft and I devoured it; it led to a fascination with the human stories of conflict and contestation.

I believe you spent time in Eastern Europe following the Velvet Revolution of 1989. I wondered whether this informed your study of French iconoclasm, with the constant toppling of monuments which was taking place, or whether you had a specific interest in the changes which were happening there?

Yep, I went Inter Railing on my own as an undergrad in 1992 and spent most of my time in Prague and Budapest. My sister is a couple of years older than me and had read Russian and French at Cambridge. As an undergrad, she had spent 6 months in Leningrad and she was there when half the city’s lights were turned off by the population as a declaration of support for Gorbachev’s reforms. She is built like me (skin and bones and then vital organs) and she returned home looking grey, having lost a stone, and she wept when we took her to Sainsbury’s on the way back from the airport because she had left her Russian friends who were hungry. I was deeply struck by her stories of Russian generosity, of stoic defiance, and by getting to meet some of her Russian friends as Perestroika took hold and they could visit the West (my father paid because we owed them so much).

I realised that the Russians really do love their children too and that Cold War rhetoric had often dehumanised the potential victims of Nation State struggles. Reflecting on this now, it reminds me of what my mother had said when I was in trouble at High School for proudly wearing a Soviet badge on my braces. ‘Why do you want a Revolution?’ she asked, ‘The best way to change the world is to change the mind of the person in front and the person behind and to ask them to do the same.’ Watching the Wall fall and the statues being toppled on TV stuck with me as real world evidence that she was right (again). I could sense the hope of those involved, but I also knew just about enough about history at that point to feel anxious about the potential consequences of such conflict down the line.

By MD [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Hence, I headed to Eastern Europe. Prague was amazing in 1992, it felt buzzing, optimistic, open, and it was staggeringly cheap (5p for a beer!). The graffiti still covered the Wenceslas statue in the centre of town and the Lennon wall. The children’s art of the Jewish cemetery, dating from the World War II Prague ghetto, also left its mark on me. In short, I was fascinated both by the changes taking place in Eastern Europe and by the roles that art had played in those and earlier struggles. But, I lacked my sister’s aptitude for foreign languages and I’d already learned French. Hence, my French revolutionary turn…

Your later career has involved a considerable number of digital aspects, from your role at Birmingham in the Heritage and Cultural Learning Hub to your current post of Professor of Digital Cultures at Newcastle. Yet I’ve heard you state that people are even more keen to embrace the real in the form of authentic artefacts as the digital develops. Is that a statement you still stand by and do you believe that there will always be a human need for the analogue or physical to sit alongside the digital?

Well, it might just be a coincidence but, museum and gallery attendance has continued to go up as the digital has become ever more embedded in our lives. And my students are buying record players and vinyl. I think that my old friend, Richard Davidson Houston (Head of All 4, C4), nailed it when he said that ‘the “digital” isn’t through a door somewhere, it’s part of our day-to-day lives.’

At its best, the digital enhances ‘real world’ experiences rather than replacing them. It also offers us new ways of thinking and, in some cases, of being. But this isn’t the first communication revolution that we’ve lived through (and worried about), it’s just the largest scale and fastest (hence, perhaps, increased anxiety). For the first time in human history it is possible to imagine that all humans might have access to the means of production and reception that allow them to share information. My parents’ generation invented the internet technologies that made that possible, my generation got it up and running, and my students’ generation are working out how to put it to the best use. But hey, I’m told that I’m an optimist.

Your step into documentary presentation began with “Tearing Up History”, first broadcast in 2014. I sense that the programme may have been some time in the making. Was the concept of making the transition to TV presenter one that was particularly appealing and did you encounter any difficulties with this?

I liked the idea of presenting because I care about the issues that I explore and I wanted to engage with larger audiences than I can reach in lecture theatres or seminar rooms. In part that is just selfishness, I love the questions that audiences raise and the ways they provoke me to rethink and question my own assumptions. But yep, there were difficulties with making the transition.

I think we filmed ‘Tearing’ in 6 days, but I’d been thinking hard about the subject for almost 20 years. Condensing it all down to 59 minutes was the main challenge. Plus, I needed to start to think visually about where to shoot and why, and to avoid certain terms (I’m still having a long running argument with broadcast execs about discussing semiotics on camera). Fortunately, I’m not in the least bit fazed by the camera and I love the buzz of working with such talented crews, although I very occasionally find some of the broader TV bullshit frustrating.

In my first meeting with a commissioning editor I ended up with my head on the table and, when they finally asked if I was okay, I said ‘No, I’m not okay. It’s taken me 3 hours to get here, I’ve got tons of actual work to do, and you don’t want me to do eighteenth century art, you want me to do contemporary art in ways that are youthful, edgy, and contemporary. How the hell can I explain the Chapman Brothers without explaining Goya? You need to understand that if I wanted to be a TV star, I’d have been a TV star in my twenties. I want to lecture to lots of people and I only want to lecture about things I care about. If you don’t want that then I’m more than happy to focus on the job I love.’

They ended up commissioning a short taster film about French revolutionary iconoclasm, bits of which we used in Tearing, but the full film was commissioned by a different broadcaster – the BBC. The Beeb was a breath of fresh air. I remember thinking ‘this is right’ when I got into an argument about Hegel with a commissioning editor, asking him ‘but how can an age have a “spirit”? I’m not even sure that humans have got spirits?’ But on balance, despite the early frustrations with making the transition into broadcasting, it’s been enormously worthwhile.

“Tearing” was well received, although perhaps slightly controversial – iconoclasm is an emotive subject and also you do tend to wear your left-wing heart on your sleeve. Did you ever feel any compromise whilst making the programme?

Not really. I’m never been asked to compromise for TV (apart from avoiding semiotics!) and I wouldn’t be making documentaries if that wasn’t the case. Yep, some ideas and some positions are controversial, but a film is just one contribution to a public debate – and debate is good. As for my left-wing heart, you should meet some of my colleagues! You’d realise that I’m a pretty moderate social democrat who’d just like to see a somewhat fairer form of capitalism.

*****

In part two of the interview, which will follow on the blog soon, Richard goes on to talk (amongst other things) about his other film projects, his foray into radio, lecturing vs. seminars, and future plans. Stay tuned, as they say, for more fascinating insights!

Richard is also due to make an appearance on BBC4’s Front Row programme tonight at 7.15 p.m. ahead of “Viral” – so do check it out!

Interview c. Richard Clay/Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings – no unauthorised reproduction, please.

Following Owen Hatherley’s adventures over at Shiny New Books! @shinynewbooks @owenhatherley @RepeaterBooks

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Owen Hatherley is an author who’s popped up on the Ramblings before; I reviewed his stimulating book “The Chaplin Machine” back in 2016, and I read a number of his works pre-blog, so I was delighted to be able to review his most recent book for Shiny New Books. “The Adventures of Owen Hatherley in the Post Soviet Space”, with its cheeky cover homage to Herge’s “The Adventures of Tintin in the Land of the Soviets”, is a fascinating, entertaining and surprisingly deep read. If you have any interest in Soviet architecture, the state of the disassembled nations of the USSR, aesthetics and politics and how they intersect, or indeed the history of the various ex-Soviet states, this is definitely the book for you.

To go off at a slight tangent, I was (perhaps rather foolishly) surprised by the amount of discussion of iconoclasm in the book. As is fairly obvious to anyone following the Ramblings, it’s a subject that has become of increasing interest to me over the last year or two. I guess in the past, due to my reading of all things Russian, I’d thought of it as a fairly simplistic equation: Angry Mob + Statues of Hated Leaders = (Concrete) Heads Will Roll – what you might just think of as a visceral response to detested rulers. However, when I began watching the programmes of, and reading the books, by Professor Richard Clay on the subject, in particular with regard to the French revolution (though he *has* moved his study of the subject onto a wider platform more recently), I started to realise that iconoclasm was anything but straightforward.

In France, in particular, the state sponsored iconoclasm was a structured and planned approach to the removal of particular symbols thereby changing the meaning of objects in public space. This actually made me think anew about what is actually *meant* by iconoclasm; it’s not just a religious term any more, but one applied to the alteration of any symbol of control which is out of keeping with the public space in which it sits. Context is all – the objects concerned stay the same, but a statue of Lenin in a Soviet controlled country has a very different meaning and effect than one in a post-Soviet location. As I mentioned, this kind of thinking addled my brain a little when I was taking my mum round Edinburgh on our trip in 2017 – so many statues of dead white men in the city! What where they meant to be saying? What relevance did they have to today?

The topic of state-sponsored iconoclasm comes up in the Hatherley book, of course, where it’s given the heady title of decommunisation; though as Hatherley points out wryly at one point, a number of places could only be decommunised by razing them to the ground, so ingrained is the Soviet iconography. The Lenins, Stalins and Marxes have often been removed, as have the hammer and sickle emblems; but in many places they haven’t, and you wonder whether the imagery has been there so long that people just don’t see it any more, or whether they actually have a hankering for simpler times. Bearing in mind the extreme poverty which now exists in many of the cities, and the massive divide between rich and poor, I’m afraid you can see the appeal of Soviet times where the state provided everything…

Anyway – as you can tell, the Owen Hatherley book is one which provokes any number of thoughts, and I found it fascinating. You can read my thoughts about it here.

2018 – so what were my standout reading experiences? :)

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When it comes to doing an annual best of list, I tend to leave it to as close to the wire as possible; I’ve been known to read some corkers that end up at the top of the tree in the dying embers of the year. I also like to stretch the format a little, going for themes or concepts as well as just titles or authors. Anyway, without further ado, here’s what rocked my reading boat in 2018!

Books in translation

I don’t keep detailed statistics about the kinds of book I read, but I *do* now keep a list! And I can see from a quick glance down it that I’ve most definitely read a lot of works in translation. This has always been the case with my reading, and I’ve probably tended to focus on French, Italian and of course Russian originals. However, I’ve branched out a little more this year, with Spanish-language works, a stand-out Polish book (the incredible Flights!) and of course continued very strongly with the Russians…

They pretty much deserve a section on their own, but suffice to say I’ve encountered a number of authors new to me, from a shiny new book in the form of the marvellous The Aviator, to a poetic gem from Lev Ozerov and a very unusual piece of fiction (if it was fiction…) in the form of The Kremlin Ball. The wonderful humorous and yet surprisingly profound Sentimental Tales by Zoshchenko was a joy. Marina Tsvetaeva has been an inspirational force, and in fact Russian poetry has been something of a touchstone all year. I don’t think I will *ever* tire of reading Russian authors.

I spent quite a lot of time musing about poetry in 2018, actually, including the intricacies and issues of translating the stuff… Part of this related to the Baudelaire-Benjamin rabbit hole into which I fell, and I’ve actually been gifted a very fat book of French poetry in verse translation which I’m really looking forward to. The Baudelaire prose translations I’ve been reading are just wonderful and so I’m hoping this approach will work for French poetry generally.

To pick out one particular book in translation would be hard, but I do want to say that Saramago’s Death at Intervals has remained with me since I read it, particularly the delicate portrayal of the relationship between Death and the Cellist. In fact, whilst browsing in Foyles at the start of December, I found myself picking the book up and becoming completely transfixed by the ending again. Obviously I need a re-read – if I can only work out where I’ve put my copy…. :((

And a book of the year must be the poetic wonder that is Portraits without Frames by Lev Ozerov. Books like this remind me of how much I’m in debt to all the wonderful translators in the world!

Club Reads

The club reading weeks which I co-host with Simon have been a great success this year, and such fun! We focused on 1977 and 1944 during 2018, a pair of disparate years which nevertheless threw up some fascinating books. I was particularly pleased to revisit Colette, Richard Brautigan, Sylvia Plath and Edmund Crispin, as well as exploring Borges‘ work. The clubs will continue into 2019 so join in – it’s always fascinating seeing and hearing what other people are reading!

The British Library

I think BL Publishing need a special mention for the continuing wonderfulness of their books; I’ve read a number of their Crime Classics this year, which are always a joy, and I’ve also been exploring the new range of Science Fiction Classics which they’ve been putting out. I credit them, together with a chance Virago find in a Leicester Charity Shop, with my discovery of the books of the amazing Ellen Wilkinson – definitely one of my highlights in 2018!

They publish other books than these, of course, and as well as the excellent Shelf Life, I was gifted some fascinating-looking volumes about areas of London for my December birthday – I feel a possible project coming on…. 😉

Non-fiction

I’ve always been fond of reading non-fiction, and this year I’ve read quite a few titles. Inevitably there have been Russians (with How Shostakovich Changed My Mind being a real standout) as well as Beverley Nichols on the 1920s and numerous books about books. However, there’s been quite a focus on women’s stories with Ada Lovelace and Mary Shelley both featuring strongly, as well as Flaneuse, a book that intrigued and frustrated in equal measure. The French Revolution made a strong entry, with Olympe de Gouges’ Declaration of the Rights of Women proving to be stirring stuff. Looking down the list of books I read, there’s a lot of Paris and Russia in there!

Bookish arrivals

There have been *so* many bookish arrivals this year, that at times Mr. Kaggsy was getting quite fretful about the fact that we would soon be unable to move around the house… However, I *have* been clearing out books I think I won’t return to, and intend to continue having a bit of a (careful) purge in 2019. I have been very fortunate on the bookish front, though, and having not been able to afford much in the way of books when I was growing up, I’m always grateful to have them and thankful to the lovely publishers who provide review copies.

There *have*, inevitably, been some particularly special arrivals this year. My three Offspring gifted me the Penguin Moderns Box Set for Mothers’ Day, and although my reading of them has tailed off a little of late, I do intend to continue making my way through them in 2019, as so far they’ve been quite wonderful.

And a year ago (really? where has that year gone!) I was ruing the fact I couldn’t get a copy of Prof. Richard Clay‘s fascinating monograph Iconoclasm in Revolutionary Paris: the Transformation of Signs, and forcing one of my offspring to borrow a copy from their university library to bring home for me to read over the break. Through diligent searching and bookseller alerts, I managed to secure a copy, which I was inordinately excited about. On the subject of the Prof’s documentaries, I’m very much looking forward to seeing his forthcoming one on the subject of memes and going viral – watch this space for special posts! 🙂

New discoveries, rediscoveries and revisits

One of the delights of our Club reading weeks is that I always seem to manage to revisit some favourite authors, as I mentioned above. However, this year I also reconnected with an author I was very fond of back in the day, Julian Barnes. The Noise of Time was a hit last year, and I finally read and adored The Sense of an Ending this year. I now have a lot of catching up to do.

Returning to George Orwell is always a reliable delight, and I made peace with Angela Carter after a rocky start. Robert Louis Stevenson has brought much joy (and most of his work has been new to me), and Tomas Espedal’s Bergeners was my first Seagull book. I keep being drawn back to Jose Saramago, though; Death at Intervals really got under my skin and I *must* find my copy…

Challenges

I’ve been keeping my commitment to challenges light over the last few years, and this is actually working quite well for me. I don’t like my reading to be restricted, preferring to follow my whim, and I think what I’ve read has been fairly eclectic… I dipped into HeavenAli’s Reading Muriel celebration of Spark’s 100th birthday; dropped in on the LT Virago Group’s author of the month when it suited; joined in with the reading clubs (of course!); and for the rest of the time mostly did my own thing. It’s been fun… Will I take part in any next year, or set myself any projects? Well, that remains to be seen…. 😉

So that’s a kind of round up of the year. Looking down the list of books I’ve read, I’m more than ever aware of the grasshopper state of my mind – I don’t seem to read with any rhyme or reason. Nevertheless, I mostly love what I read, which is the main thing – life is too short to spend on a book you’re really not enjoying…

Three things… #4 – Revolutions, plus difficulties with older books…

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Time for another go at the “Three Things” meme created by Paula at Book Jotter; this is where we post things we are reading, looking (at) and thinking. The book I’m currently reading has influenced what I’m currently watching (as there is still a dearth of documentaries, alas…), and this ties in also with my thoughts on some bookish and not so bookish things at the moment. So here goes!

Reading

I’m currently deeply immersed in “The Race to Save the Romanovs” by Helen Rappaport, which I’m going to be reviewing for Shiny New Books. Give my interest (alright, obsession) with all things Russia, it’s inevitable that I’ve read a *lot* of books over the decades about the last Tsar of Russia and the fate of his family. This particular volume promises new insights, specifically into the failure of any of the other Royal houses in Europe to intercede and come to the aid of their relations, and it’s intriguing reading so far. This is actually the first of Rappaport’s books I will actually have finished; I bailed out of her book on Lenin fairly early as I sensed an underlying inability to really accept the concept of someone devoting their whole life to a cause which undermined the narrative for me. However, we’ll see what this book brings! Although Rappaport is acknowledging the huge and fatal flaws of the regime, I *am* sensing a slight bias, and so I turned to some vintage viewing:

Looking

Mr. Kaggsy is something of an enabler when it comes to DVDs, and one box set he gifted me a while ago was the complete BBC series “Fall of Eagles” from 1974, which I’m gradually making my way through. A classic drama from what I tend to think of as the golden age of TV (!), it tell in 13 parts of the collapse of the three main royal dynasties in Europe at the time of the First World War and Russian Revolution. It’s stuffed to the gills with marvellous actors (Patrick Stewart perfect as Lenin; Barry Foster actually *is* Kaiser Wilhelm) and I remember being enthralled when I was just a wee thing, freshly captivated by the Russian Revolution. Revisiting it has been a wonderful experience; so after reading a bit of the Rappaport, I watched the episode “Dear Nicky” which deals with the pre-war correspondence between the Tsar and the Kaiser against a backdrop of suffering and unrest in St. Petersburg, and was reminded of a number of things:

1. Just how good the series was – the acting!
2. How it was also even-handed in that the royals were shown as flawed and the people were shown as suffering.

Which led onto…

Thinking

… well, thinking about revolutions generally. I have to say up front that I deplore violence (well, as a vegan, I would.) However, we live in a world which is unequal and unfair, and frankly it’s hardly surprising that the people often have to take up an aggressive stance against those in charge when the latter are exploiting and enslaving them. Russia was a case in point, and I’m finding my reading of the Rappaport book a little problematic because although I can’t condone the violence meted out to the Tsar’s family, neither can I countenance the violence done to the Russian people. It will be interesting to see what I finally conclude.

And as I’ve blogged recently, I’ve been incubating a possible reading project of French Revolutionary fiction. Well, it started as fiction, but might not end up being limited to that, as a few internet searches have thrown up a very tempting list of possible books. Some of which may have slipped quietly through the letterbox when Mr. Kaggsy wasn’t paying attention….

The revolutionary French are obviously breeding…

One in particular really caught my eye because of its focus on women’s involvement; when I posted about “The Declaration of the Rights of Women” by Olympe de Gouges earlier in the year, I commented on the fact that I’d been looking for the female voice int he French Revolution. I also alluded to the figure of Théroigne de Méricourt, who I’d heard mention of in Richard Clay’s excellent “Tearing Up History” documentary, where he credited her with urging on the men who were hesitating to storm the Tuileries Palace. I found very little about her in the books I have relating to the Revolution, so the fact that she features in this recent arrival is rather nice…

I must admit I feel inclined to pick it up and start reading straight away, but the problem is, it’s only one of a number of Big Books about Inspirational Woman that I have lurking…

All of these are crying out to be read instantly, but there isn’t enough time. Plus the French Revolution books are massing offstage… And as I hinted in the heading to this post, some of the older titles are really giving me issues. If you go off to search for a more obscure old book, like a Victor Hugo or a Joseph Conrad which *isn’t* one of the well know titles, you end up being offered weird, expensive reprints on the online sites. (I found this when I was looking for Robert Louis Stevenson’s book on Edinburgh, and ended up buying a very old copy instead – but that’s by the by…) I would like to have actual *physical* copies, as I really hate reading on a screen, but as you might have guessed by the glowing screen in the picture further up this post, I have had to resort to Project Gutenberg. Really not my preferred way of reading, but beggars etc etc as they say… Anyway, onward and upward with the Romanovs – hopefully by the time I’ve finished that, I’ll have more idea of what I want to read after it! 😀

#1944Club: we made it to the end – but where next….?

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Well, what a week of reading that was!  I don’t know about everyone else, but I read some absolutely fantastic books from different genres, as well as revisited some old friends, and it’s been marvellous fun! Thanks to everyone who posted, commented, shared bookish thoughts and got involved (and thanks to Mr. Kaggsy for his guest post, which did take the pressure off a bit during a particularly hectic week at work while I was trying to juggle the blog and real life…) Only six months to the next Club…

On the subject of which, Simon and I were having a chat about the picking of the next reading year, and he came up with the idea of throwing things open to our readers/commenters/participants! So – what year do *you* think would be a good one to feature for our next Club? We’re not even restricting this to decades, though to be honest Simon and I both seem comfortable with the period between 1920 and 1979  so if your year is in that bracket we would probably be more favourable…. 😀

So leave a comment and make a suggestion, either here or on Simon’s blog. We’d like you to make a case for your chosen year, rather than just giving us a date, as we’d love to know why you want everyone to read books from a particular year. How will we choose the ‘winner’? That remains to be seen, but we look forward  to hearing your nominations!

In the meantime, after all last week’s intense reading and reviewing and posting, I ought to have a lie down really – but there are plenty of books vying for my attention and I’m not quite sure what I’ll pick up next. I shared this image on Instagram recently, and certainly any of these would be particularly appealing:

There are also a reasonable number of review books lurking, and then there’s a little idea I have in the back of my head…. As has been obvious on the Ramblings over the last year or so, I’ve developed quite an interest in iconoclasm and the French Revolution (ahem!) A chance glance at a newsletter from Oxford World Classics recently brought “The Scarlet Pimpernel” to my notice, and an idea sort of began to germinate… What if I curated my own French Revolutionary *fiction* reading list? Could it be a project? Are there enough interesting titles? Do I *dare* set myself another challenge and then just fail? Of course, I read “A Tale of Two Cities” back in the day – but since this idea first popped into my head, the pile of possibles in the house has grown a little… (gulp)

It’s only a little pile at the moment, and I’m sure there are plenty more titles that could be added to the list…. (no! no! I do *not* need to buy any more books!!!) We shall see – I may or I may not. Watch this space to see what turns up next! 😀

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