Illustration by Jackson Rees.
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Will Self: Halfway across Westminster Bridge, I witness two men duelling – with selfie sticks

Will Self's "Madness of Crowds" column.

Earth hath not anything to show more fair;/Dull would he be of soul who could pass by/A sight so touching in its majesty:/A crowd of highly self-conscious beings behaving like a flock of sheep . . .”

Yes, yes! The year 2015 begins – as have previous years for readers of this column – with your fearless reporter standing on Westminster Bridge and contemplating the reckless conformity of our fellows. Recall: it was here, in the very omphalos of our noble nation, that I noted the lemming-like glee with which tourists chuck away their euros “playing” the shell game. It was also from this vantage that I contemplated the gaining of “peak photo”, that numinous – but, for all that, profoundly real – summit at which the amount of photographic imagery we produce exceeds our capacity to experience it meaningfully.

They’re still there, the peak photographers, striding up and down the bridge, striking attitudes by the parapet, with the mother of parliaments looming over their shoulders. They’re still holding up iPhones and iPads and all sorts of other digital-camera-enabled devices; and they’re still utterly secure in their delusion that this – and this alone – is the finest image ever captured of a man/woman/child with Big Ben in the background.

But what is this? Something new is to hand in the febrile world of instantaneous simulation. These Iberian proctologists and Swabian veterinary surgeons are armed with fresh kit, to wit: what look like those aluminium grabbers meant for chair- or bed-bound folk which never work quite as well as they should. And what are these Montenegrin web designers and Luxembourgeois dieticians doing with their grabbers? Why, they’re using them to take photographs of themselves, of course, because these are what we must, perforce, call “selfie sticks”.

I’m often asked if I find it odd being called Self – and although this has happened pretty much my entire life I’m still flummoxed. Where to begin? Is it really necessary to explain to anyone capable of cerebration that, having always had this appellation, I’d find it far more peculiar to be called Smith? (Apropos of which, people who recognise me in the street and feel they have to say hello frequently address me as “Will Smith”. Given the obvious disparities in looks and income between me and the actor, I can only assume that human beings must have a misfiring brain centre dedicated to notoriety.)

When the “selfie” appeared in the cultural firmament, it was a matter of weeks before Private Eye published a cartoon showing me holding an outstretched cameraphone while gurning into its lens. The caption read: “Will Selfie.” Fair play – although, in common with most of my age group (the exceptions being “world leaders” such as Obama, B; Cameron, D; and Thorning-Schmidt, H), I’d already done all the self-depiction I’d wanted to long before. Digital cameras with timers have been available for well over a decade and though the first time you pose for yourself may have a certain frisson the novelty soon palls. So, how to explain this latest ratcheting up of – to paraphrase the title of Schopenhauer’s most celebrated philosophic work – the world’s will to misrepresentation?

One way of looking at the selfie stick is that it’s simply a handy little gadget for those friends and families who all want to be in the shot – and why not? Another perspective is, in my case, to take it personally: why else would teeming hordes of Tran­sylvanian dental technicians go equipped with selfie sticks, if not to beat up on poor old Selfie?

From when I stepped on to the bridge by St Thomas’s Hospital until I debouched at Westminster Pier, I must have been smitten at least five times by Cantonese software engineers cack-handedly wielding the bloody things. As I gained the middle of the bridge, I came upon an actual duel being conducted between two tourists armed with selfie sticks; a ring of Viennese patisserie chefs were gathered, chanting: “Töten! Töten! Töten!” From them I learned the fracas had begun when one of the software engineers’ selfie sticks accidentally appeared in the other’s carefully framed shot. As I observed the two men deftly feinting and parrying, it occurred to me that although the selfie stick is, functionally speaking, a prop with which to hold up the great imagistic canopy of the web, it nonetheless has a physical actuality that belies its virtual role.

I have a dream – no, really, I do. I have a dream that all the selfie sticks that were given as Christmas presents this year will be recognised by their recipients as dual-use technology. I have a dream that instead of sticking their cameras on the end of these aluminium poles and wandering around crowded public spaces accidentally poking other people with them, they will adjourn to an open space; dividing into two groups, or “teams”, the quondam photographers will then bowl their smartphones at one another and bat them away with their selfie sticks. I dream of a brave new future in which computers of all sorts will be repurposed as sporting equipment . . . Yes, yes, I know it’s not cricket, or even iHockey, but you don’t need to be Will Smith in order to appreciate that arranging to have yourself constantly filmed represents the very zenith of narcissism. 

Next week: On Location

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Jihadis Among Us

Photo: National Theatre
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I hate musicals. Apart from Guys and Dolls, South Pacific, Follies – oh, wait

Every second is designed to be pleasing, so that by the end my face aches from all the smiling.

I always thought I hated musicals. Showy, flamboyant, and minutely choreographed, they seemed to be the antithesis of the minimalist indie scene I grew up in, where a ramshackle DIY ethos prevailed, where it wasn’t cool to be too professional, too slick, too stagey. My immersion in that world coincided with the heady days of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s triumphs in the West End – Evita in 1978, Cats in 1981 – neither of which I saw, being full of scorn for such shows.

From then on I convinced myself that musicals were not for me, conveniently forgetting my childhood love of West Side Story (for which I’d bought the piano music, bashing out “I Feel Pretty” over and over again in the privacy of the dining room, on the small upright that was wedged in behind the door).

I was also conveniently forgetting Meet Me In St Louis and A Star is Born, as well as An American in Paris, which I’d been to see with a boy I was actually in a band with – he somehow finding it possible to combine a love of The Clash with a love of Gene Kelly. And I was pretending that Saturday Night Fever wasn’t really a musical, and neither was Cabaret – because that would mean my two favourite films of all time were musicals, and I didn’t like musicals.

Maybe what I meant was stage musicals? Yes, that was probably it. They were awful. I mean, not Funny Girl obviously. When people ask “If you could go back in time, what gig would you most like to have attended?” two of my answers are: “Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall, and Barbra Streisand in the original 1964 Broadway production of Funny Girl.” I would, of course, also make an exception for Guys and Dolls, and South Pacific, and My Fair Lady, and… oh God, what was I talking about? I’d always loved musicals, I just stopped remembering.

Then one of our teens took me to see Les Misérables. She’d become obsessed with it, loving the show so much she then went and read the Victor Hugo book – and loving that so much, she then re-read it in the original French. I know! Never tell me today’s young people are lazy and lacking in commitment. So I went with her to see the long-running stage version with my sceptical face on, one eyebrow fully arched, and by the time of Éponine’s death and “A Little Fall of Rain” I had practically wept both raised eyebrows off my face. Call me converted. Call me reminded.

I was late to Sondheim because of those years of prejudice, and I’ve been trying to catch up ever since, keeping my eyes open for London productions. Assassins at the Menier Chocolate Factory was stunning, and Imelda Staunton in Gypsy (yes, I know he only wrote the lyrics) was a revelation. Here she is again tonight in Follies at the National Theatre, the show that is in part a homage to the era of the Ziegfeld Follies, that period between the wars that some think of as the Golden Age of Musicals.

Although, as Sondheim writes in his extraordinary book, Finishing The Hat, (which contains his lyrics plus his comments on them and on everything else): “There are others who think of the Golden Age of Musicals as the 1950s, but then every generation thinks the Golden Age was the previous one.” How I would have loved to have seen those shows in the 1970s, when they were new and startling.

They still are, of course, and this production of Follies is a delight from start to finish. A masterclass in lyrics – Sondheim’s skill in writing for older women is unmatched – it is also sumptuously beautiful, full of emotion and sardonic wit, switching between the two in the blink of an eye, in a way that appears effortless.

And I realise that what I love about musicals is their utter commitment to the audience’s pleasure. Every second is designed to be pleasing, so that by the end my face aches from all the smiling, and my mascara has somehow become smudged from having something in my eye, and I have already booked tickets to go again. So sue me.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left