Five things I’m thinking about

July 24, 2010

I’m never really thinking about five things at the same time, that seems very ambitious for a bear of such little brain. Still, for the sake of this meme…

1. 24

I am watching 24 for the first time. It is very much ‘my sort of thing’ and I can’t believe I didn’t get round to this sooner, so apologies if any observations have already been well-made. We have almost finished watching series two, and while it’s still one of the stupidest things I’ve ever seen, it’s also weirdly lovable and quirky, despite its attempts to follow formula. I think the real time thing is very interesting (also what I like about Atmosfear) and I enjoy looking out for the unique challenges the format poses the writers. I like the unintentional hilariousness of Tony Almeida’s brooding face as he hunches about on crutches for half the series because he twisted his ankle at lunchtime. I like that Jack Bauer is basically just a middle-aged dad, and you thank god every episode he’ll only have to hang on for a few more hours before he can go home and have a nice sit down. The women are monsters, the terrorists are unlikely, the challenges are a GCSE English exercise in hyperbole (it’s a NUCLEAR BOMB! Jack is… DEAD!) but it has no pretenses. And because it’s so simple in its construction, the show hits Shakespearean heights at times – an accidental side-effect its narrative purity. The deposition of David Palmer IS Richard II.

2. Ted Chiang.

I read this book of science fiction short stories last year and was quite taken with some of Ted’s weird ideas. I like short stories because I’m very poor at reading and don’t really understand novels, but Ted keeps it to the point and doesn’t mess about with literary flounces or subtle ambiguities that I won’t understand. He’s very accessible though. In this recent interview on Boing Boing, he discusses why sci-fi is actually perfect for philosophy and what the difference between sci-fi and fantasy is. As he puts it, a world in which special individuals exist is a magic world; one where mass-produced specialness is possible (i.e the laws of nature are slightly different for everyone) is scientific. Now, it’s a neat idea, really clear, and we know what he means, but I can think of loads of ways in which it’s not actually that useful. I wonder if he’s reticent to be associated with fantasy. In one story, Ted writes about the chillingly impartial, incomprehensible reality of a world in which there is a (Christian-ish) Heaven and Hell. There just is; everyone knows it, there’s no faith required. The religious realms are part of the natural law of the universe, people are not special. We have the Old Testament as rather manga-like sci-fi. Ted says magic is a force that can identify people as individuals, science is ‘entirely impersonal’, and it’s clear which side he prefers. I like the breadth of sci-fi and its association with religious and philosophical themes, but I don’t think for a moment that we’re anywhere near giving up our magical beliefs – or that they’re necessary any less fun to speculate about. But Ted Chiang won’t get mistaken for a fantasy writer, however fantastic his creations. He’s an atheist sci-fi writer predominantly interested in God, free will, time and making your peace with the world’s evils. In that respect, he’s a bit like Ben Goldacre banging on and on about Gillian McKeith the whole time. You know he knows he’s right, but at the same time, something’s got under his skin there…

3. The Middle Class and comedy.

Look at the family described at the top of this article. They live in a HOUSE in Richmond with a GARDEN. They probably make £200K a year between them. They have a posh car, an au pair and their own businesses. This is what I would call… upper class. When I was a kid people lived on estates in semi-detached houses. If your parents were teachers, you were middle class because it meant ‘in the middle’. If you went on holiday to a foreign country once a year you were doing pretty bloody well and probably needed a class upgrade. Kids who’d been on holiday to America were properly Rich and quite manifestly separate in every sense from kids who went on holiday to UK campsites. The kids with ponies didn’t even go to the same junior school as the kids who only had one telly in the house.

I still haven’t been to America (and I still call it ‘America’ so what does that say). I hadn’t had cous cous or hummus or any of those ‘stand-up routine about the middle class’ things until I moved in with a vegan. But Middle Class doesn’t mean ‘in the middle’ anymore, does it. It means Actually Very Well-Off, and that throws the whole thing. Britpop’s over, and working class stopped being aspirational long ago. But Middle Class is a self-regarding aspirational trick with no value, because the category keeps expanding to include as many people as possible. It’s easy to get in, however rich or poor you are. In fact, you’re probably already there somehow, whether you want to be or not.

We don’t want to be like common people anymore, we don’t want to watch the roaches climb the wall (if you called your dad you could stop it all). Poverty in this country doesn’t have the same dignity of the self-made and authentic it once did. There was a sense in which tropes of the working class were aspirational and worth affecting (and to some extent, there still is – Lily Allen). I think it was something about wanting to be accepted as salt-of-the-earth and street – and of course a reaction to Thatcher. But now that same drive to authenticity has rejected that game and a generation has, instead, consensually decided to call itself middle class without actually enjoying any of the associations. It’s defined by apologetic superiority and the quest to find something real. “We’re glad we’re not poor, but look at the pathetic ways we try to buy that authenticity back – look how we spend our money and the things we decide are worthwhile”. And because it’s an attitude, it’s not just for the wealthy. It’s accessible to all but the incredibly deprived. It’s a hotch-potch, an accident, a Dad’s Army class. And that’s why it’s funny.

There’s a very interesting essay waiting to be written about the crazily defeated-yet-smug comedy about and by the middle classes these days. Is it about being ashamed of being proud? I don’t identify with the Richmond family, and I know they don’t identify with me, because I’ve more or less met them. Just by virtue of being university educated, I’m lumped in with people with whom I have nothing in common. What’s the upper class? The almost non-existent aristocracy? I’m fundamentally unemployable, and I don’t make enough to pay tax. I went to state schools. I don’t go on holidays. But my parents got their degrees, too, eventually… and I half-own a flat because I inherited some money when I was a teenager. So I guess Working Class would be a step too far. What am I? Nouveau poor? Lower middle class?

4. Improv and games.

I was involved in making an interactive radio pilot this month, and have been having exciting meetings since. Also interviewed a magician, and that got me thinking about the relationship between magic, and comedy, and games. I’m very interested in mingling performance and games in an actually exciting way. Wouldn’t it be AMAZING if there was something SO ILLEGITIMATE and SO FUNNY and so UNEXPECTED going on that you couldn’t help but look? Then you felt compelled to join in; not as a drone-like ‘player’, but as a creative artist using your own imagination? One of the most exciting things I’ve seen in a theatre was Simon Munnery reading out audience notes from a hat, opening each piece of paper and trying to think of funny stuff on the spot. Simon vs The Audience. Another one of the most exciting things I’ve seen also involved Munnery. Club Zarathustra was a series of dark comedy cabaret shows at the Pleasance in the 90s. Different every night, semi-improvised (surely), weird, stupid, not always funny. But MY GOD! That they did that at all! What’s the point of playing a game if it’s not insanely exciting/dangerous or amazingly funny? There is no point. I want to see the real-life Running Man or a 12 Monkeys or a dadaist pamphleteer campaign with no brand behind it. I want to see Improv Everywhere handle an actual shooting on the subway. And make it funny.

5. Production.

I jest about this on Twitter, but imagine if I had a company that made things. It could look after the podcast, any magazines or books or websites or radio things, live games and spontaneous comedy projects (see above). Coming up with ideas isn’t going to be a problem is it. It’s the starting a business stuff I don’t have a clue about. Help?

I’m also thinking about ‘can you write at all without having the storytelling instinct’ in the light of Orwell things.


One Response to “Five things I’m thinking about”

  1. […] Leila Johnston/Enemy of Chaos: 24, Ted Chiang, the middle class and comedy, improv and games and production […]

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