Country Branding

Constant hot and sunny weather in London. Gordon Square today is packed with young people in the time honoured student poses: lone figures reading paperbacks on the grass, groups of friends chatting, happy. I walk through the square in my cream linen suit & tie and feel out of place, even though I too am a student. I even have my own locker in the Birkbeck building on the square (in Virginia Woolf’s old house).

I used to get upset about constantly feeling out of place. But then I realised that for some people, their place is to feel out of place.

* * *

I visit the superb ‘Propaganda’ exhibition at the British Library. It is difficult to emerge from it without wanting to become an anarchist, frankly. The exhibition’s history of state manipulation takes in everything from Trajan’s Column to coins and stamps (asking who gets to appear on coins, and why are there people on coins in the first place), before bringing things up to date with last year’s Olympics. A video features Alistair Campbell, Tessa Jowell and Iain Dale talking about how the 2012 Games were an example of ‘country branding’. The political interpretation seems to fit both sides – there’s the Twitter comment on the Opening Ceremony by Tory MP Aidan Burley: ‘leftie multicultural crap’. Whereas the equally right wing Iain Dale thought it in fact represented ‘the best of Britain’.

Also in the video Campbell says ‘the public mood drove public opinion’, which rather recalls his ‘People’s Princess’ speech for Blair at the time of Diana’s death. That kind of language is propaganda in itself: producing phrases which seem to provide a voice for the public as a whole, while in reality they purely represent the voice of the man who wrote them.

I was reminded how this year, Andy Murray’s triumph at Wimbledon (Sunday 7th) has also been used for nationalist propaganda. His achievements as an individual are being discussed by politicians and columnists as if they were secondary to something he had no choice over – his nationality, whether as a Scot or as a Briton. Still, as an outlet for ‘country branding’, which seems to be always with us, sport is at least preferable to war.

At the exhibition, there’s an example of propaganda applied to the late Diana which was new to me. It is in a video featuring Zoe Fairbairns, feminist writer and author of the dystopian novel Benefits. I am not familiar with the book, which is from 1979, but the blurb doesn’t seem to be out of place in 2013:

‘It is summer… a heat wave… tense, uneasy days in the city. There are ominous signs of political turbulence… Welfare benefits are under attack…’

Ms Fairbairns was involved in a campaign against the 1981 Royal Wedding, which she saw as promoting the ‘distasteful symbolism’ of the marriage ceremony. The campaign had its own badges. They bore the slogan ‘DON’T DO IT, DI.’

Tags: , , , ,

Thoughts On Female Role Models Via The Sales of Postcards At The National Portrait Gallery, With A Nod To The Olympics

While reading Brenda Silver’s Virginia Woolf Icon a few months ago, one particular piece of information leapt out at me. At the time of the book’s writing – 1997 – Ms Woolf was the Number One selling postcard in the National Portrait Gallery shop. In 2012 this is no longer the case. The Woolf postcard is still holding its own in the postcards chart, but she has since been usurped from the top spot by a certain other British icon. You’ll have to wait a few paragraphs before I reveal who this is.

In the Silver book, the author theorises that images of Virginia Woolf are often used as a kind of instant shorthand for women as intellectuals, though not always positively. For example, she can be seen as a pin-up on the bedroom wall of the hapless Saffy in the TV sitcom Absolutely Fabulous. Saffy begins the series as a long-suffering, bookish student, appalled at the decadent brashness of her mother Edina. The set designer would have had to think about what sort of images Saffy might have on her wall, ones which a mainstream audience would have ‘got’ at once. Virginia Woolf it would have to be.

Significantly, the bestselling image in question is of Woolf aged 20, photographed in 1902 by George Beresford. This is the image that sells so well at the NPG shop, not just as a postcard, but as a print and a fridge magnet too.

And yet the girl in the image is not yet Virginia Woolf: both in a literal sense – she is the unmarried Adeline Virginia Stephen – and in the sense of Woolf the writer, the reason for why she’s in the Gallery. The girl in the photo has yet to write the books that would make her name. A more representative image of Woolf the writer, therefore, would be one when she was older, like the photograph that made the cover of Time Magazine in 1937, while she was alive:

So why do people prefer the Beresford photograph so, particularly when the NPG has older versions of Ms W available? Replying to my enquiry, the NPG’s Robert Carr-Archer wonders if some people buy the postcard because ‘it is a beautiful and romantic image of a young woman, whose identity is almost unimportant’. It’s certainly a beautiful image in its own right, but I think another reason might be that it represents potential and hope, and thus inspiration. Another reason might be that the pose itself is rather regal, as if she’s deliberately posing for a coin or a stamp, or indeed a fridge magnet.

I also like the way her striking sundial nose is accentuated by the profile pose, and by her softer and still-growing face. It’s surely refreshing to think that in this era of nose jobs, the most popular female face in the National Portrait Gallery for years was one with a large nose.

The changing types of female role models was also an abiding theme during the London Olympics. Many of the British team’s women triumphed in sports with something of a traditionally masculine image, such as cycling, rowing and boxing. Physical fitness was celebrated as something for women to properly aspire to, over and above facial perfection. When it came to the Closing Ceremony, some commentators therefore bemoaned that there was a section devoted to British fashion, where models like Kate Moss and Lily Cole paraded in gold dresses. This, the critics said, was something of a depressing step back for women, what with all the athletic successes. But this seemed unfair, I felt, particularly when Ms Cole has a Double First from Cambridge, and when the same ceremony featured the Spice Girls, Jessie J, Annie Lennox and Kate Bush (though not in person) – all female role models of very different musical styles.

So, anyway, on to the top selling postcards in the NPG today. Perhaps they say something about what people regard as an important portrait today.

Well, Virginia Woolf is now down to Number 4.

In at Number 3 is a 2009 painting of Princes William and Harry in uniform:

At Number Two is Twiggy by Ronald Traeger, from 1967.

And Number One is…

‘Mike’s Brother’ by Sam Walsh, from 1964. Better known as Paul McCartney:

According to the NPG, historical figures don’t get much of a look in these days. People tend to go for either the Tudors or post-1950s faces, with not much in between. Here, Virginia Woolf is an exception once again.

Mr Carr-Archer adds that the original 1902 print of Woolf is often not on display in the gallery, to help perserve it. This makes its popularity in the shop all the more interesting, I think.

Finally, despite being bumped down the list by a woman famous for her looks (Twiggy), it’s notable that Ms Woolf still beats postcards of Kate Moss and Lily Cole. By a nose.


  1. Paul McCartney
  2. Twiggy
  3. William & Harry (painting by N Philipps)
  4. Virginia Woolf
  5. Lily Cole
  6. William & Harry (photo by F. Greer)
  7. Kate Moss
  8. Queen Elizabeth II (Warhol – Pink)
  9. The Rolling Stones
  10. Audrey Hepburn

(Thanks to Robert Carr-Archer at the NPG)

Tags: , , ,

The Everyman Taste

Today: I watch a little bit of the Olympics – the dressage final – but as curious as the sport is (horses trotting very precisely to music), I’m still uninterested in it all. Not even at a time when people who don’t usually watch sport are now in fact watching sport. And lots of it.  But my taste seems immutable: I do not like sport. Pity, really. I take no pleasure in not sharing a common taste – no tiresome contrarian I.

On the subject of common tastes, I’ve just been watching a three part TV documentary, All In The Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry. Mr Perry is shown visiting people in Britain from across the class divide, in order to portray them in a series of colourful tapestries. With the tapestries, he manages to pay homage to Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress as well as classic religious paintings, while commenting on 21st century social behaviour, sometimes affectionately, sometimes scathingly.

The programmes themselves rather offend my own taste in documentary making, however. They do that irritating magazine-like thing of having a montage of clips at the start as a kind of framing device, so nothing is ever a surprise. It’s a reminder that when an artist or expert becomes a TV presenter, unless they have a hand in the whole process and treat it like an equal artform (like, say, Jonathan Meades), they’re at the mercy of a formulaic director, one who thinks they know what people like in a documentary. Which is rather ironic when it’s meant to be discussing the nature of taste. Still, at least the series justified itself with the tapestries, by acting as a conventional advert for unconventional art.

Mr Perry has some interesting interpretations on what makes taste, and where taste comes from. He sees it as part of peer group aspiration, of wanting to belong yet also define oneself as an individual. In my case, my taste in Not Liking Sport isn’t any kind of deliberate choice at all. It’s entirely innate; I don’t like sport in the same way as I am left-handed. Some people might point to my schooldays for reasons – I was a classic swot who was good in the classroom but useless in the gym, and one whose parents also were not big followers of sport. But neither was I forced to not like it. There’s certainly no escaping being exposed to sport, particularly football.

And right now, liking sport is the best way to feel Not Alone. But while I’m pleased for the people who take pleasure from the Olympics, I still can’t join in.

Something I am following, however, is another well-publicised discussion on taste. Obligingly, the BFI’s Sight & Sound magazine has released its Best Films Ever According To Proper Critics list, which it only does every ten years. The big news is that Vertigo has toppled Citizen Kane from the #1 spot for the first time in 50 years. I enjoy reading all the ensuing articles, until I come across one particular piece in The Guardian that makes a couple of rather sweeping assumptions about the masses:

‘We’ve all used the clapping Orson Welles gif to punctuate Tumblr posts, but have you ever watched all of Citizen Kane?’

No to ever using the clapping gif, yes to watching all of the film. I suppose that makes me officially too uncommon for The Guardian.

Tags: , , ,

Danny Boyle: A Dizzying Rascal

Last Friday evening: I watch the live stream of the Olympics Opening Ceremony, while following people’s comments on Twitter – a particularly modern pastime.

I’m not a big fan of Danny Boyle’s films at all. I find them too externally-minded, rock-video-like and glossy, even garish; I think of the petrol station exploding early on in 28 Days Later for no other reason than it made the film look more attractive to the US youth market (by Mr Boyle’s admission on the DVD commentary). This is just my own taste, mind.  Mr Boyle still impresses me, the way he can take a low budget, Lottery-funded British film like Sunshine and make it look as if it cost as much as the likes of Avatar. Well, almost. He has an undeniable and unique talent for delivering visual thrills that are also value for money, and this made him the perfect choice for directing the Opening Ceremony.

Spectacle over reason is a lot less problematic for such an event. Because spectacle IS the reason. A lot of people did try to find reason in much of the proceedings, but this, I feel, was a mistake. Boyle’s own programme notes centred on the theme of building ‘Jerusalem’, after the Blake poem and song, and this is in itself a piece of culture that has often been interpreted in conflicting ways.

Using Mr Branagh to play Mr Brunel, reciting Caliban’s speech from The Tempest about ‘crying to dream again’ was also highly ambiguous. Boyle’s notes stressed the speech was used as a celebration of dreaming and of wonders per se, away from the more problematic context of their source, Caliban the deformed, vengeful slave of Prospero, who attempted to rape Miranda. But Mr Boyle took the words and the surface value of the speech and gave it his own meaning, just as he took samples from all across British culture and stitched them together into a smorgasbord of giddying, sometimes silly, yet frequently dazzling entertainment.

Some commentators judged the ceremony as subversively Left Wing (the NHS bit). Others said it was in fact a Right Wing, misty-eyed delusion for the old days (the NHS bit again). A lot of people on Twitter found a Tory MP’s negative reaction, and reacted en masse against him – to the point where his name became inextricably linked to the event, as if Mr Boyle had hired him as a performer. I think it’s very wrong to let outrage eclipse achievement, and his name has been mentioned too often already. I’d rather name people like the choreographer Akram Khan and the singer Emeli Sande, whose ‘Abide With Me’ section was my personal highlight of the show: stripped down, heartfelt, sensitive, tasteful and arty.

But that said, I still enjoyed the unabashed crowd-pleasing aspects: the Industrial Revolution’s smokestacks magically springing up from the countryside, the five glowing Olympic Rings forged, then floating, then raining down fireworks. I loved the tribute to Tim Berners-Lee, though I admit I needed the caption onscreen. Unlike a lot of USA TV stations, I know who Berners-Lee is, although I’d find it hard to place his face.

And of course, I hooted with delight at the appearance of HMQ, doing a spot of acting with a fictional character (Daniel Craig’s James Bond) before outrageously appearing to parachute into the arena. Was this fawning pro-Royal propaganda? Was it cheekily anti-Royal? Or was it just a shameless advert for this year’s new Bond film, Skyfall?

The great thing was, if you wanted to crowbar your own reading into it all, you could. And many did. But Boyle’s main intention, as far I as I could tell, was just to lay on a packed and entertaining spectacle that worked at the surface level. And what surfaces they were.

Tags: , , , ,

Someone Else’s Bunting

July 2012. A big month for London. Festivals and events and publicity for the Olympic Games everywhere you look. ‘2012’ logos and Union Jacks plastered on even the most tenuous of products. Posters for the West End musical Billy Elliot have been adjusted to describe it as ‘The Great British Musical’. Similarly, a revival of Joe Orton’s What The Butler Saw has a huge Union Jack as its background, playing up the Swinging Sixties feel but clearly nodding to the general pushing of Britishness this summer.

It seems that Jubilee Union Jack flags also double as Olympic flags, even though the latter event is rather more international. I find the implied message vague and wonder: if the Jubilee hadn’t coincided with the Olympics, would such bunting still be out for the Games?

The bunting found nearest to my door was for the Jubilee street party in Highgate Avenue, stretched all along the road between the street lamps. After the Jubilee weekend it was mostly taken down, which made sense. Which baffles me now, however, is that some traces of the bunting are still there now, a few sorry strings left hanging from the road signs at either end, bedraggled and drenched in the rain. Perhaps this is a sign, too: a tribute to a very British lack of wanting to let something go. Or of hoping someone else will finish a job for you.

There’s a stepladder in my hall. I might do it myself. Put the dying bunting out of its misery.


My sole summer booking is this Friday 6th: I’m DJ-ing for the Last Tuesday Society’s ‘Orphanage Masked Ball’, in Adam Street. More details here.

Later this month I’m visiting my parents on their holiday in Southwold for three days. I’ve also been invited to a wedding in South London at the end of August. Oh, and I have an outpatient appointment to test for food allergies before that. That’s pretty much my Olympic Summer 2012.

Which suits me fine, really. I have a long reading list of books to take notes on for the Autumn term, and I’m not the fastest of readers as it is.

I have two university announcements still to wait for, though. On Monday 9th I find out which of the optional modules I’ve been allocated for the 2nd year. It’ll probably be either ‘Fin De Siecle’ (Wilde, HG Wells, Dracula), or ‘Narratives Of The Body’ (connecting Virginia Woolf’s Orlando to the film Blade Runner). Either would suit me. As soon as I know, I can get on with the reading.

Most importantly, though, this month I’ll receive my mark for the exam, and have my final marks confirmed for the whole of the first year. The date of this result is officially known as ‘before the end of July’. I’m taking this to mean late July in general. Only then will I feel able to properly mark the end of my first year as a born-again student.

Tags: , ,