My Least Favourite Thing About Twitter

It's revealed just how petty I am.

I love Twitter. I'm not one of those who dismisses it as a place where idiots waste countless precious hours – though I am an idiot and I do waste countless precious hours there. But I'm not deluded enough to think that all those celebrities I follow actually care about my existence – though I was shamefully proud when the great Robert Florence replied to one of my tweets (even though his reply was essentially dismissive and consisted of just five words).

But though I'm quick to latch onto the tweets of anyone I vaguely admire like some kind of demanding, entitled limpet, I'm equally quick to unfollow even my most beloved of individuals the second they say anything with which I disagree.

I unfollowed childhood hero Michael Rosen when he said something mean about HMV. He laughed at all the “crocodile tears” being shed over its closure. No, I thought. That's a lot of people out of work and it's now utterly impossible to buy new music anywhere on the high streets of so many UK cities. Goodbye, Michael.

I unfollowed Pete Fowler – responsible for some of the best album covers of the past 20 years – after he made a few unsavoury comments about Alt-J. Alt-J made one of my favourite albums of last year, and I really don't care that Pete Fowler didn't care for it. But he was actively wishing death upon them and doing so apropos of nothing. Goodbye, Pete.

I unfollowed Luke Haines – songwriting genius – after I realised that all he ever did was sneer that music's not as good as it used to be. I know he's a celebrated misanthrope, but what sort of moron openly revels in the notion that rock music might be dead or dying? Goodbye, Luke.

Unforgivable on my part, though, is that I unfollowed Tom Cox after he said something nasty about Blur during their 2012 Brit Awards performance. Tom Cox wears tweed, is bearded, lives in Norfolk and writes witty and captivating articles and books about cats, folk customs and nature. He and I would undoubtedly be the best of friends if we met in real life. But all it took was a subtle suggestion that Pulp are better than Blur, and that was it. Goodbye, Tom.

I would much rather have not learned that about myself – that I'm so unwilling to expose myself to opinions that are even slightly different to mine. I like to think that I'm reasonable, open-minded and mature. But the second someone says something at all disagreeable? Whoosh – it's playground politics.

Still. It's one thing to simply unfollow those I admire before thinking ever so slightly less of them. At least I'm not painstakingly and obsessively documenting everything I hate about the world whilst ostensibly compiling a list of the 100 Worst People On Twitter.

The 100 Worst People On Twitter must be one of the worst websites to ever have existed. And in making that assessment, I include any right-wing atrocity or bad-porn ring you could care to mention. The world is a sad, horrible and merciless place as is. It's almost unbearably depressing that there are some people out there who seem to think: “Hey, you know what this world needs? More negativity!”

This is cynicism for the sake of cynicism. They claim to be looking out for those that “represent something bad beyond their Twitter account. The insularity of the British media classes. The sinister creep of threatened masculinity. The banality of modern alternative culture.” But I know this not to be the case.

How do I know this? Well, there are two people on the list who I really quite admire. Let's look at Charlie Brooker first. His writing is fresh, imaginative and energising – especially when he tries his hand at fiction. I can, however, fully understand a lot of the criticism he gets.

The 100 Worst People On Twitter, though, attack him on the grounds that he had Shoreditch hipster Nathan Barley listen to Supergrass.

Meanwhile, their no-holds-barred denouement of David Mitchell opens with this curious sentiment:

“The obvious point to make with David Mitchell is that he, Webb, and commisioning editors made the mistake of thinking that being able to memorise some words on a piece of paper and repeat them, sometimes while pretending to do things, meant that was enough to make you destined for greatness in the field of writing, because the words they read happened to be funny.”

Sorry, every actor that ever lived. But your ancient craft is nothing more than “being able to memorise some words on a piece of paper and repeat them, sometimes while pretending to do things”. That's all you're doing. So stop pretending you're talented. Because according to the good people of the 100 Worst People On Twitter – who, as you know, are the sole arbiters of acceptable behaviour – you're essentially worthless.

OK, these are two people I admire, so perhaps I'm naturally defensive. That I'm familiar with their work, though, means that I'm able to identify where these guys have just cherry-picked irrelevant and unrepresentative nuggets from extensive careers to support the thesis that Mitchell and Brooker don't really deserve to live.

It stands to reason that if they've taken this cherry-picking approach with these two, then they must have done with everyone. Which means that the roastings of those celebrities who I actively unhealthily dislike must be equally as ill-informed and vindictive.

But the worst thing about The 100 Worst People On Twitter is the sheer hypocrisy of those who compile it.

The introduction to their piece on David Mitchell suggests that they have no time or respect for actors or acting. Similarly, their piece on Charlie Brooker makes explicit their contempt for video games, for people who like video games and for people who write about video games.

But oh, heaven help those who have anything bad to say about hip hop!

According to these guys, if you don't like hip hop, you're definitely racist. Oh yes.

If you disagree with me, you're essentially evil. Now that's petty.

The amount of energy, research, redrafting and resentment that must have gone into writing much of what's on The 100 Worst People On Twitter genuinely makes me despair. Why would such conscientious individuals – such obviously talented writers – put so much effort into something that will only ever be used by people to justify their vindictive hatred?

One of the worst effects the internet's had upon creative types is that it seems to have kickstarted a tendency to sneer at the worst of everything (as opposed to seeking out and celebrating the best).

If you're looking for the worst humanity has to offer, you'll doubtlessly find it on Twitter.

But even if you're not seeking outrage, Twitter can disappoint you. How horrible it is to learn that those who you admire don't agree with you 100% of the time!

And that's my least favourite thing about Twitter. It's like a terrible funhouse mirror that makes humanity look much uglier than it really is.

The revelation that I'm so petty is just the start of it.


Making A Cup Of Tea For Everyone In Belgium & Other Heartwarming Scrapes

In the first decade of the noughties writers everywhere were apparently struck by a desire to have a wacky adventure that just so happened to involve a lot of tax-deductible travel. It resulted in a strange sub-genre of personal quest/travelogue books that to this day dominate charity shops and the humour section of Waterstones.

The adventure was often passed-off as a silly bet, and it invariably transformed into a journey of self discovery. The results were mixed. In some cases you got a genuinely engaging and often hilarious travelogue of intrigue. Mostly, though, you got the literary equivalent of JP from Fresh Meat – droning on about his gap year whilst describing everything as “literally well-random”.

Dave Gorman is the first name that comes to mind. With his Googlewhack Adventure, America Unchained and Are You Dave Gorman? books, he certainly struck upon some truly original ideas. His work is let down, though, by a tendency to take himself – and his self-imposed projects – far too seriously. Each of his books at some point spirals into a really quite terrifying meltdown. You want to reach through the page and say, “Dave, maybe you should calm down a little?”

If Dave Gorman took things too seriously, Tony Hawks had exactly the opposite problem. He travelled Round Ireland With A Fridge, played The Moldovians at Tennis and tried to have a number one single in any country, anywhere. Tony Hawks is a mild-mannered and mildly-spoken man who you might remember best as the “host” of Better Than Life on Red Dwarf, or as the uptight rapper behind The Stutter Rap. His books, though, were painfully obvious attempts to highlight just how quirky he believes himself to be. I gave up after A Piano In The Pyrenees, in which he struggled to wrest anything approaching humour from his relocation to the French mountains.

Then there's Tim Moore, who is funny. Really funny. What sets Tim Moore apart is that, like Bill Bryson (whose travel writing arguably inspired this curious sub-genre), his books are less self-consciously “wacky” projects that happen to involve a lot of travel and more straight-laced travel writing that just so happens to be utterly hilarious. Tim Moore drew comedy not from an absurd situation or idea, but from wry observations about the perfectly normal world around him. He's not a man that places himself in strange situations and begs you to laugh. He's a skilled comedian with a subtle delivery, excellent timing and an impeccable eye for detail. Moments from Frost On My Moustache, French Revolutions, Spanish Steps and Continental Drift are amongst the funniest scenes I've ever encountered in any medium.

So what would you call this sub-genre? The Humorous Travelogue? The Personal Project (With Hilarious Consequences)? The Comedic Wanderer? I don't know, but I was quite sure that the genre had exhausted its potential, and I was convinced that I'd exhausted all the enjoyment that could possibly be drawn from the writings of grown men with too much time on their hands who really should know better.

But then I read The Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs.

An American journalist and editor of Esquire, A.J. Jacobs endeavoured to read the entire 2002 Encyclopaedia Britannia back-to-back. The Know-It-All is a document of his efforts, and it really is a lot funnier than a literary marathon has any right to be. More than that, it's frequently fascinating, often touching, sometimes sad and shocking and, ultimately, it could even be described as life-affirming.

In reading The Know-It-All, not only did I learn a lot of lethal facts for future deployment, I believe I also stumbled across exactly the reason why so many efforts by Dave Gorman and Tony Hawks failed in their efforts to amuse and engage. Their ideas might have been variously wacky and fascinating, but all too often they approached their projects with a sneer and a smirk. The books can therefore come across as so cynical as to be alienating. It's like they're saying “I know it's stupid, but you're the one who bought this book, aren't you? Have you any idea how rich this made me? And I got to go to China, too. Joke's on you, moron.”

Jacobs, though, seems perfectly aware of his limitations, and doesn't ever shy from sharing his shortcomings or anxieties. At no point does he present himself as the noble or begrudging hero caught up in something beyond or below him. And when his self-imposed task starts to dominate his life, you really do get a sense of how unhealthy his obsession is becoming, and how difficult he himself is becoming for all of those around him.

When Dave Gorman or Tony Hawks complain about their projects, I can't help but roll my eyes. The “problems” about which they complain are even more trivial than first world problems. Jacobs's quest, though, is framed in a narrative concerning father-son rivalry, hypochondria, new parent anxiety and a fear of death, decay and dementia. It's real, it's human and it's affecting to no end. Every time I put the book down, I found myself thinking of Jacobs – hunched over his well-thumbed EB, eyes straining in the darkness, whilst his brooding wife lay neglected, asleep and alone next door.

The sheer scope of his task and the none-more-human element raises this book so far beyond the cynical adventures of Dave Gorman and Tony Hawks that you may as well compare Anna Karenina to Twilight. If you put a thousand Hawks in a room with a thousand typewriters, you'd have to wait years before any of them cranked out anything even half as insightful and touching as this:

“I know that everything is connected like a worldwide version of the six-degrees-of-separation game. I know that history is simultaneously a bloody mess and a collection of feats so inspiring and amazing they make you proud to share the same DNA structure with the rest of humanity. I know you better focus on the good stuff or your screwed. I know that the race does not go to the swift, nor the bread to the wise, so you should soak up what enjoyment you can. I know not to take cinnamon for granted. I know that mortality lies in even the smallest decisions, like whether to pick up and throw away a napkin...I know that you should always say yes to adventures or you'll lead a very dull life. I know that knowledge or intelligence are not the same thing – but they do live in the same neighbourhood. I know once again, firsthand, the joy of learning. And I know that I've got my life back and that in just a few moments, I'm going to have a lovely dinner with my wife.”

The Know-It-All is a celebration of life, of humanity, of knowledge, or learning, of reading, of family, of friends, of food and of brilliance. But in celebrating the brilliance, it can also makes those who can only dream of such lofty heights feel proud of their life and achievements. It champions eccentricity, yes – but never for the sake of eccentricity. It made me laugh, but it also made me feel gifted – lucky to be breathing and genuinely happy to be alive.

Piano In The Pyrenees, though? That just made me want to read something – anything – else.

David Bowie - The Next Day

Today I was finally in position to do something I thought I'd never do. Something that music lovers have been doing for four decades. I was able to buy a new David Bowie album on its day of release!

I'm quite wary of listening to it. I hate listening to things for the first time. I never trust my first impressions. They're far too tempered by prejudice, precedence and expectation. I much prefer the curve of gradual appreciation and the ultimate feeling of warm familiarity to the shock of the new. This doesn't mean that I'm adverse to trying new things. It's just that I cannot think of a single album that means anything to me that clicked immediately on the first listen. It takes time to absorb and inhabit music. The first listen isn't something to be treasured. It's something to get over with as soon as possible.

I'm sort of the same with films. There are many films – like Wreck-It-Ralph – that are instantly appealing. But those that we deem to be “classics” are often so-called because they bear repeat viewings. And the main reason they bear repeat viewings is because they're layered – you can't take-in everything in at once. “Classics” are often subtle slow-burners, so I'm always wary when it comes to watching any film that has anything approaching a reputation for the first time.

So I don't want to comment on David Bowie's new album just yet. Nothing I say now can be at all trusted. But if you're really interested in what I think, come back to me in a month or two.

I do believe, though, that there aren't enough hours of existence remaining for me to ever learn to love the album cover.

The Next Day has one of the worst album covers I've ever seen. A crude white box placed over the iconic “Heroes” imagery. Whilst the image underneath has a lovely silvery sheen to it, this still looks like the sort of thing that could easily have been produced on MS Paint in less than a minute.

Things improve a little on the inside. There's a black-on-black square that reminds me of the sort of designs that adorn Autechre albums. It contrasts nicely with the white square on the CD itself, creating a sort of triptych with Bowie's moody disembodied head in the middle.

The lyrics are printed on a colourful fold-out that somewhat resembles one of those posters you used to get in those brown bags dotted around Manchester. In fact, on the inside The Next Day is really quite beautifully designed. Which makes me wonder – what was he thinking with that cover?

It may be awful to look at, but I don't think it's devoid of meaning. The cover is horrible, but the inside is striking. Is this a “comment” on the album itself? A sort of “don't judge a book by its cover” message?

Or is it a sad statement concerning the phasing-out of physical formats in favour of digital? As a collection of MP3s, The Next Day's cover will only ever appear as a small inscrutable square on a media player. Does Bowie think that people have stopped pouring over album covers? Did he see no point in putting any effort into album covers if they're ostensibly going to be ignored?

Most likely, the cover of The Next Day is probably supposed to represent some kind of interplay between the past and the present, or between perception and reality. I wonder if these themes are covered in the lyrics?

This is why I don't like initial listens and why I don't trust first-impressions. There's always too much to take-in.

In any case, the cover of The Next Day is not exactly unprecedented. For one thing, it can be listed alongside Earthling and certain editions of Lodger as an album on which Bowie's face doesn't appear on the cover. Similarly, the artwork of 2002's Heathen featured swathes of paint thrown against canvasses and pages torn from books. The only difference, really, is that here Bowie's sabotaging his own work rather than that of another artist.

So whilst the cover of The Next Day is hideous, it's by no means without meaning. I therefore don't think it can necessarily be described as “lazy” or “throwaway”. Just "ugly" and "unappealing".

As for the relative merits of the music? I can't wait to find out!


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