Blogging Troubles and British Treats

I was all prepared to talk about today’s television and radio offerings in Britain, something I don’t often do. A new cable TV channel is being launched tomorrow: More4. Of chief interest to me, I have to admit, is that it will air Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, albeit yesterdaily. I’ve also been following this, the second season of the X Factor, which is the only British must-see for me this fall. I have commented on this improvement on American Idol (or Pop Idol) before in this journal. The at times tedious auditions are finally over and the contestants are going head to head each Saturday evening in live telecasts. I don’t have a favorite yet, other than judge and promoter Sharon Osborne. Last season, which I only caught midway (after moving here from the US), it was the wonderfully overwrought Rowetta who, it appears, has become somewhat of a queer icon.

What else was on yesterday? Well, there was Margaret Rutherford, again, on BBC 4, in the delightfully wacky high school farce The Happiest Days of Your Life. And then there was that atrocious documentary about Mae West last Friday on BBC 4 radio, part of a new series of talks celebrating Great Lives.

I have never heard a more off-the-mark impression of that glamorous dame, whose comic allure was so effectively evoked by the stage comedy Dirty Blonde.  The discussion about her conducted by the two supposed experts was tiresomely trite. I had hope for some clips from her films, or for a mention at least of Oboler’s “Adam and Eve” sketch, which got West banned from US radio. I mean, if you’re on radio, talk radio already!

I was prepared to expound on any of these viewing and listening experiences until I realized that many of my prior journal entries were littered with symbols and marks that rendered them, if not illegible, so at least highly unprofessional. It seems that my m-dashes—to which I am partial—are metastasizing into something ghastly once they are being left here for a few weeks.

How irksome this is to someone who knows little about html but makes an effort to adhering to the code of the standard English I cannot begin to express (I guess language fails me there, after all). I have made a few corrections, but some of the previous posts are still in shambles, I fear.

The Present Is Shared Pasts

The day recalled in my previous blog entry was of such monumental significance to old-time radio enthusiasts that I thought it appropriate to shroud myself in the silence to which US radio drama was sentenced back in 1962. Actually, I was away for a long weekend up north in Manchester, England—but the timing was fortuitous. Now this past break presents itself as an opportunity to escape the rigidity of my “On This Day” feature, even though I shall continue it before long. In my attempt to avoid waxing nostalgic, I have become too much of an historian by letting past dates dictate my present thoughts. Now it is time for the present to have its day. Well, sort of . . .

Historians seek to make the past present. Those afflicted with nostalgia make their present past. The personal pronoun is significant. Nostalgia is a more self-centered engagement with the long ago. It is openly impressionistic and subjective, which makes it an endeavor at once intellectually dubious and honest. The researcher feels compelled to cover up the subjectivity underlying all our thoughts. As a refugee from the here and now, the nostalgic wanderer is not in need of such subterfuge.

Now, as I wrote when I inaugurated this blog, my approach to the past is neither historic nor nostalgic. Historians make it their business to discourse on the past and its relevance; nostalgic people tend to remove themselves from the everyday, the onslaught of a present they are at a loss to confront. Instead, they surround themselves with like-minded dreamers and reminisce about what they sense to be missing. How can anything we dream or think about be missing? It is there, present in our mind—and, in the act of sharing, it is being represented.

Why such reflections now? Well, having been away for a weekend alone in a big city, I felt detached from those around me. I went out for a few drinks one night and was so tired of standing by myself in the crowd that I went back to the hotel room to catch a late-night TV screening of The Curse of the Cat People. I was not wide-awake enough to follow it, but I had more of a sense of a shared experience watching something broadcast for everyone to see than I had staring at and being stared at in a barroom of unknown anybodies.

I had hoped this journal would make it possible for me find a few somebodies in a vast space of anyones—connected in the spirit of sharing. Thus far, my modest ambitions have not been realized. Anyway, this is the present, and I will get past it.

Collecting Thoughts; or, What I Learned About Blogging from Baroness Thyssen-Bornemisza

Well, I’m back from my weeklong trip to the center of the Iberian peninsula (that is, a stay in Madrid, with an excursion to Toledo) and am pleased to report how invigorating it can be to go away, come face to face with one’s own ignorance, and return in a confusion of humility and inspiration—souvenirs to be put to better use than dust-gathering bric-a-brac. To be sure, I still cannot tell one Spanish monarch from another—except for the baby-faced Fernando VII and the big-nosed Carlos III, on the representation of whose none too prepossessing visages a fair amount of oil and canvas were expended. I still cannot order a Spanish meal without half-guessing what might end up on my plate—except that the tapas-and-cervezas cuisine is so lacking in variety as to render an extensive culinary lexicon unnecessary. And I still cannot relate to bullfights, flamencos, or devotional art—except that I know better than to reduce arcane passions to patent stereotypes. I did learn something about blogging, though—and it was the Baroness Thyssen-Bornemisza who, however unwittingly, conveyed the lesson.

Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza, of course, is the wife of Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza, the steel magnate-collector who displays his artistic riches at the magnificent Thyssen-Bornemisza museum in Madrid, a generous sharing of his increasing wealth for which he gets amply rewarded in contracts throughout the city (you’ll notice the name of Thyssen wherever there’s a construction site—and there were plenty all over town).

Unlike her husband, the Baroness only started collecting in the 1980s. She seems to have a taste for the famous or nominal, but little sense of what is first-rate or exemplary. Her collection is overwhelmingly large and, for the most part, put together without much grace, wit, or discrimination. She bought up third-rate paintings of first-rate artists, apparently at great speed, and caught many a masterful painter on an off day. Her husband had an eye—she’s got the Euros. That, at least, was my impression when I walked through the vast and ultimately stultifying Thyssen-Bornemisza museum. So, what have I learned?

In a sense, a blog is a collection of thoughts. It may be regarded as a museum, a virtual storehouse of words and images that are culled from various sites, commenting, like all art does, on the world of today—be it society, politics or religion.  Many bloggers are savvy name-droppers; quite a few exploit their writing for advertising purposes; some are merely providing the odd caption to the works they borrow. Others, like myself, simply try to share what they care about but disseminate thoughts without quite knowing how to reach either a specific or general audience, without being fully aware of the potentialities of their enterprise.

In other words, not all bloggers are good curators of their thought museums. Their growing collections may lack direction or purpose—rendering all but useless what might be of some small service to the few or many; unless the viewer, aware of the individual pieces in the museum, has the freedom to steer past the profusion to approach directly what matters to her or him. In this respect, a virtual collection, like the online version of the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, is more useful than a traditional one, since visitors can direct their curiosity into the presence of the works they choose to see or care to know about (as some of my readers did, Googling their way to what I wrote about Valentine Vox or The Free Company, for instance).

And yet, a collection falls apart as a result of such selective viewings, becoming as fragmented as the interests of the diverse public to which it is being made available.  How to keep an online journal like this together—and keep it going?

Any smart museum is, to some degree, self-reflexive about the collection it houses. A truly smart museum, like the Museo Lázaro Galdiano, acknowledges its shortcomings rather than trumpeting its ostensible merits. Over the next few weeks, I will try new approaches to collecting my thoughts for subjection to the splintering vision of the public gaze. I am aware, for instance, that broadcastellan is missing a unifying narrative arch, mainly because I do not want to turn this journal into an intimate if public diary.

Some of the connections between what I label “unpopular culture” and our (or my) present everyday seem forced or arbitrary precisely because the personal link between what I experience and choose to discuss has been obscured (why am I watching this or that film; why am I listening to a specific radio play or reading a certain book just now?).

Rather than becoming more personal, I am going to make more of an effort to relate to others by providing a historic connection to the works I choose to discuss without turning my musings into history lessons.

Thoughts can be gathered anywhere; in fact, Madrid’s streets are a veritable gallery of thoughts—to which above lines from Don Quixote, found on the Calle de las Huertas, attest. Words and images are dirt cheap and trivial unless a thoughtful collector tries to render them precious and significant.  Yes, it was the arbitrariness and the flaunting of Baroness Thyssen-Bornemisza’s wealth that made me reconsider the acts of collecting, exhibiting, and sharing my humble thoughts.

“We interrupt this broadcast”; or, How to Be Away

Well, as I’ve been casting it broadly in the previous three posts, I’m off on a weeklong visit to Madrid. Sure, I could have taken my laptop along with me to continue my journal while away; or I might have taken a mobile phone to send messages and images (like the one here, of this morning’s glorious Welsh sunrise) on the go. Instead, I decided to leave both computer and phone at home and to sign off for the duration.

The privilege of being away appears to be one of the disappearing pleasures of privacy. It is a concept no longer readily grasped by those born in the cellular, wireless, and instant-message age. Perhaps that is why the television series Lost has become such a success (surely it is not the writing): to be unavailable to the world is now thought of as a loss tantamount to being shipwrecked. Treat yourself to a retreat some time. Avail yourself of a chance at being unavailable.  Experience the abandon of abandoning your everyday.  To have something to write home about . . . and keep it.

You don’t have to get all Piano Manly about your getaway. Just tell those you care about that you’re out of town or country and enjoy the freedom of being incommunicado. Tell the world to get lost, then shroud yourself in silence.  As long as there is someone or something worth coming back for, eventually . . .

Charlie’s Chance; or, How Not to Blog

Blog like hothouse flower: Must blossom for anyone. That is how the incomparable might have expressed my present dilemma. I am not at all pleased with the previous entry into this journal. Rather than sharing what I love, I exhausted myself, and, no doubt, the good will of others in a tiresome, impersonal rant. I had wanted to make that in which I delight relevant to those unfamiliar or reluctant to catch on to it by availing myself of a prominent, topical hook; but instead of writing about the wit of satirist Fred Allen, my favorite US radio writer-comedian of the 1940s, I ended up going on about the latest foray into UK television by Jerry Springer, whom I despise.

It is quite easy to write a diary (if you have learned how to be honest with yourself and have come to terms with the level of intimacy you can handle when writing about your innermost thoughts); but once they are being made public, those private thoughts are expected to matter to others. They must have a purpose other than self-indulgent expression.

What I am still struggling to reconcile in this journal is the public and the private, being at once intimate and out there. That is, I have not yet assumed a persona I can trust at the microphone as I broadcast these thoughts from home. Those who seek fame or monetary gain are generally quite sure of themselves and their chosen medium. I, who have nothing to lose but face am less self-assured. Only of this I am certain: I want to write what I know best and love most. Do I care whether anyone else shares whatever views I express? Would I like any of those anyones to let me know? Sure I would. Still, the telling must come first.

“Little things tell story,” as Chan reassuringly put it. I am very fond of the man, whom I first encountered on German television when I was in my early teens. Back then, I felt envious of his No. 1 son (and all his numerous offspring). I did not have a close relationship with my father; so, the sleuthing, world-travelled Oriental with the gentle touch and a houseful of kids became a guardian to fantasize about.

Today, in this politically corrected and lawsuit-controlled climate, Chan doesn’t have much of a chance as hero and model. role model or heroic figure (a talked-about Lucy Lui project notwithstanding). In his prime, he was loved even by the Chinese, although no fellow countryman portrayed him on the screen. His wisdom, delivered in what is known as Chanograms, blossomed for anyone. Yes, Chan was once again on my mind this week when I came across and purchased the Chantology DVD set (pictured)—which is what makes my reference to him topical and relevant to me. Whether it matters to anyone else—whether anyone cares to know or share—is another matter, a mystery as yet unsolved.

I think I now know how not to blog. I am just not sure yet how . . .

Castles in the Air; or, No, No, Nostalgia

I am moving in.  At last I am beginning to feel more at home sharing my thoughts in this way. It seems somewhat daunting, at first.  If not altogether arcane, the internet as a communal space, an event in which to partake rather than a means for the taking or the taking in is still unexplored territory to me.  How can I file my claim in a land whose boundaries I do not yet grasp?

I am not calling this journal broadcastellan for nothing.  The past to me is not a dungeon cluttered with artifacts, nor a fortress to be taken.  It is a castle I am building with materials I gather while listening.  Tuning in, belatedly, to live broadcasts of the 1930s or ‘40s, I seem to be living on recycled air; but what I come across can still feel like a fresh current, not an atmosphere that is stagnant or miasmic.  Catching a reverberation of the past, I am breathing it in and breathe in it.  This stronghold is well ventilated.

I have always been suspicious of both history and nostalgia as motivations for looking (or listening) back.  History is the effort to make sense of the past, a figuring out—rather than a figuring forth—of it; nostalgia, by comparison, strikes me as an act of self-absorbed pillaging, a heedless appropriation.  If the former lacks creative freedom, the latter means taking liberties rather too freely.  In a review of a friend’s book I once called “nostalgia” the “fruitful reverie of a past whose text is a history of longing.”  Now, even I don’t quite know anymore what that might mean—but I can still feel it ringing true.

Nostalgia is a longing for an elusive and largely undefined bygone, while history is a longing for knowledge of what has truly been going on all along; but neither approach enables us to achieve a sense of belonging as we behold or hold on to the past.  Listening to historic broadcasts, I dwell on air; I do not linger in a vacuum.  I might be the creator of this castle, but its stuff—the found matter that is its foundation—has to be weighed, handled and shaped with care and understanding.

What is my place in this castle I am constructing? What is the responsibility of a broadcastellan—the present keeper of a home for live records of the past?

Unpopular Culture; or, the Return of the Magnificent Montague

Popular culture is generally understood to be the mass-market consumer culture of the present.  As the culture of the everyday it is especially vulnerable to obliteration.  What happens to the popular of the past, to the dime novels, movies, television programs or radio entertainment no longer of interest to a larger public, no longer deemed marketable or relevant? Does it become fodder for historians? Is it fuel for nostalgia? I am going to investigate this heap of discarded objects, review products of a by now “unpopular culture,” and relate them to my here and now.

This attempt at a blog is an unacademic continuation of my doctoral study Etherized Victorians. It will chiefly concern movies, television and radio programs that may have fallen out of favor or are favored by the few only but are still available to anyone using contemporary media (TV, radio, and the internet; as DVDs, mp3s or in plain old print).

Unlike my academic writing, this journal will allow me to broadcast my findings immediately upon discovery and to share my impressions with others who, like me, are passionate about presumably stale pop, whatever their cultural or educational background.  It also permits a more personal approach than did my dissertation, in which I never referred to myself in the first person singular.

My [initial] signature, “The Magnificent Montague,” [was] appropriated from a US radio sitcom of the same name (1950-51). In it, a hapless and proud thespian (portrayed by Monty Woolley) finds himself stooping to radio work to make ends meet. This obscure reference [was] meant to express the confrontation of cultures high and low, of trends and traditions, of personal predilections and public personae—confrontations broadcastellan will bring about in the months to come.

[As I became more confident writing about myself and saw the need to lay claim to my own words, the “Montague” cloak became cumbersome and worthless.  It was retired on 24 October 2005].