The Sunday dozen

27th January 2024

John Wyver writes: as usual, I’m pleased to share twelve of the articles and audio contributions that engaged and challenged and intrigued me during the past seven days.

How the government captured the BBC: this is excellent from Alan Rusbridger, late of the Guardian and LMH and now editor of Prospect [£, but limited free access] – here’s the set-up, with the handy cutout-and-keep diagram above also coming from the article:

This is a story of wheels within wheels. It takes us into the clouded intersection between UK politics and media. We meet a cast of characters who have long wished to control, abolish or diminish the BBC and its public service broadcasting cousins. We peep into the shadowy world of how public appointments are fixed. We learn how fragile some of our great institutions are. And we discover that Sir Robbie Gibb, until 2017 a -middle-ranking TV executive, may well now be the most important journalist at the BBC, and therefore in the country.

I smell mink coats: for London Review of Books [£, but limited free access] this is a richly detailed and deeply insightful response by Paul Keegan to Tate Modern’s current glorious Philip Guston retrospective, which is on only until 25 February; if you’ve not yet seen it, go, and with Keegan in hand.

Cindy Sherman – woman of an uncertain age: terrific New York Times essay by Nancy Princenthal about the artist’s most recent work, now on view in New York at Hauser & Wirth, including some really striking artwork images.

W. G. Sebald’s deepfakes – on Shadows of Reality: a very fine LA Review of Books essay by Adam Sobsey reviewing Shadows of Reality: A Catalogue of W. G. Sebald’s Photographic Materials, which has an introduction by Nick Warr:

What Sebald was really about, it seems to me, was the deep and dramatized study of the problems of memory and time, and of the distortions and even destructions of identity that result from the images we make—they turn us all into deepfakes… Shadows of Reality allows us to perceive his world through his eyes. It is a catalogue raisonné of his life.

On the matter of the British Library cyber incident: published 20 January on cyber specialist Ciaran Martin’s newsletter, Ciaran’s Crispy Cogitations, this is an essential read on the BL’s digital disaster and its wider implications.

AI-based disinformation is probably not a major threat to democracy: Dan Williams offers a thoughtful and productive corrective to some of today’s AI alarmism.

Don’t stop: this Future Utopia x Avelino x Tomorrow’s Warriors version of the Fleetwood Mac classic, directed by Samona Olanipekun for Greenpeace, with exec producers Steve McQueen and Bona Orakwue, was selected this week as a Vimeo Best of 2023 branded video (although the link here is via Youtube) – it was released last June, and is simply brilliant.

What the West forgot about democracy: a smart, urgent essay for last weekend’s FT by Erica Benner with a host of tremendous photos of voters.

The company of friends – the miracle of BBC Radio 3: Billy Smart kindly pointed out to me that we lost the brilliant Coventry-based music writer Neil Kulkarni this week; see also this brief Quietus report – and the link here is to a wonderful newsletter piece that he wrote last autumn.

What can the Commonwealth really do? At last I have an answer: from last weekend’s The Times [£ but limited free access], Sathnam Sanghera (whose new book Empireworld: How British Imperialism has Shaped the Globe is out this week) makes an eminently sensible suggestion for the future of the Commonwealth, which is that it should become:

a forum through which Britain and other nations face up to the imperial legacies that continue to generate headlines in the 21st century, whether requests for slavery reparations, or questions about loot that has ended up in British museums, or border disputes in places like Guyana, or geopolitical instability in places such as Israel and the Palestinian territories, and so on.

Tailor Made – Season 5 Official Teaser | MUBI Podcast: a short smart trailer for the new season of the MUBI Podcast which explores ‘landmark films that captured a major fashion look of an era’; episode 1 considers Jean Seberg’s style in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1959).

Bill Aickman is a brillant fiction al character: a friend sent this Nation essay by Kurt Andersen saying that he thought I might enjoy it. I did, and I think you might too. Here’s a tiny sample:

The Ackman character is a dark-comedy hybrid of Kendall Roy from Succession and the narrator/protagonist of Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire, Charles Kinbote, whose punctilious academic analysis of a long poem by someone he knows morphs into a delusionally grandiose conspiracy theory starring himself. 

And finally…: ‘We open in Venice’ from the second greatest Broadway musical of all time, Kiss Me, Kate – and this is from the 1953 film version; included here (not that any excuse is needed) because I’m lucky enough to be spending this weekend in Venice and because a new production at the Barbican has just been announced for this summer.


  1. Billy Smart says:

    David Stubbs’ eulogy for Neil Kulkarni (at Coventry cathedral) is worth reading:

    In late 1993, a letter arrived at Melody Maker, where I worked at the time. It was penned by one Clifford Clavin, the full name of the mailman Cliffy from Cheers. Its contents saw it practically leap out of the envelope into the Letter of the Week spot. It complained about our coverage of Black music.

    “Blacks aren’t allowed to have the same depths of alienation, loneliness and feelings as white. If you could just start talking about black music with the same passionate love and depth of understanding that you afford white music then surely, your writing, the paper and maybe even the music itself could improve.”

    Well – Cliffy from Cheers raised a point. the editorial team looked at each other and agreed with Cathi Unsworth, letters editor that week. We’re in church, so I’ll put it delicately. Better to have this feller inside the tent . . . . rather than outside the tent . . . .

    Cliffy was, of course, Neil Kulkarni. And he sustained that initial burst of intensity throughout his 30 plus years as a writer. That sense that music writing mattered, that, increased to a certain temperature, it could materially affect the pop and rock culture it was addressing, not just mark it out of ten.

    Whenever I read Neil over the years, in The Quietus, The Wire, DJ Mag, Kerrang, Uncut, his own Substack, I felt a mixture of pride and shame. Pride that Neil was one of our Melody Maker own, taking the good fight to the world, rhetorically demolishing the all-dominant Caucasian mediocrities of his day in all their tepid timidity. Shame, because he put me to shame – I could never come close to mustering the passion, the ferocious sense of music as being serious as your life, with which his prose endlessly burned. I think a lot of us felt like that.

    Neil wrote with great feeling from the point of view of the marginalised, the culturally overlooked – as one of the very few people of colour writing for the music press, he understood whereof he spoke. I remember him talking about watching racially dubious sitcoms like Love Thy Neighbour or Till Death Us Do Part as a child. As a schoolboy, I would have laughed along to these sitcoms. When Neil watched them, he said, he did so knowing what names he was going to be called in the playground the next day.

    And so, when he wrote about Public Enemy, for example, he did so with a deeper empathy for their cultural experience, one that enabled them to reconfigure pop music. He was 23 when he wrote this in 1995. “Chuck D brought to pop the authority of his and our experience, spoke to us about our lives in a way verse-chorus pop couldn’t come near. Public Enemy were a whole new way of talking, talking about whole new things.”

    He was coruscating, too, about the worst of the decade into which he emerged, the 1990s. “The ladmags, that NW1 posh-boy joy about having some ‘characterful’ Northerners to goggle at, conducted in an era in which female artists and black artists were being marginalised by the UK music press and UK pop telly. All that laddishness. A horrible horrible time.”

    And so it was that in 1997, while reporting on Glastonbury, refreshed on Maker’s Mark whiskey, he positioned himself at the entrance to the VIP area backstage as a self-appointed bouncer, specifically refusing admission to groups like The Bluetones, for the crime of making his life a cultural misery in the Britpop years. No one was so seriously hilarious, hilariously serious as Neil.

    That said, Neil loved white rock music. He felt no reason to exclude himself from doing so. His favourite band was The Rolling Stones. He loved metal. He liked Thin Lizzy, though I remember him generously telling me, “It’s not really necessary for anyone to own more than six Thin Lizzy albums.” (I didn’t own one!) And when he wrote about Marc Bolan, it was with an unmatched articulacy about the nature of pop infatuation. Check this.

    “Mambo Sun” rubbed in and my whole body and soul suddenly sang like a tuning fork rapped on a pylon, buzzing like a jacked circuit, a two-chord thunkafunk spiral you couldn’t and wouldn’t want to extricate yourself from.”

    Neil also wrote about crisps and biscuits! Unabashedly, and in the great, inclusive sense that no subject should be deemed to be beneath critical consideration. But he was no inverted snob, either – he could wax for hours about Radio 3 and the operas of Leos Janacek. Wearing a cravat.

    When Neil was scathing about music, about post-Oasis grey indie, wasting radio space like so much landfill, that music stayed scathed. And yet, to know and to meet Neil was to love him; you sense this on the Chart Music podcast, in the ebullient modulations of his Coventrian tones, full of wit, enthusiasm, joy and knowledge of pop and its workings. Yes, he was the most critical of critics but that was borne out a deep seated humanity. He was never cynical or sneering – he punched up, never down. He was simply fired up by the belief that things could be so much radically better for everyone.

    We’re in church. In Coventry. The town Neil loved, the town that helped make him, preserve his voice, his truth, his outlook, his character, his scepticism, his unstinting curiosity.

    We’re in church, in the Cathedral Neil loved. It’s quite right that we’re here. Neil is among Coventry’s most illustrious citizens. He’s a great writer, podcaster, musician, a great teacher, a great dad and grandad, a great brother and family man. A great man. An inspiration. He leaves a huge legacy – he’ll be just as hugely missed, far and wide. Rage in peace, Neil.

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