A Week in Culture: Gemma Sieff, Editor


The Culture Diaries


12:30 P.M. I get a belated birthday present from a friend: Kith, Kin & Khaya: South African Photographs by David Goldblatt. Khaya, in Zulu, means “home.” Goldblatt is Jewish South African (his grandparents emigrated from Lithuania in the late nineteenth century; most South African Jews are Lithuanian, my family included). These black-and-white pictures are very still-seeming: the landscapes of Gauteng and the Transkei; bleak twin bathtubs in Benoni, a suburb of Johannesburg where my father’s mother grew up. In the section “Afrikaners,” in a place called Hartebeespoort, a white child is splayed out in the foreground, sleeping in bunched underwear, while behind him a bigger child holds a contented-looking baby. The baby holds a bottle and the older boy holds a toy gun to the baby’s eye. In the book’s second section (a series he collaborated on with Nadine Gordimer), there is a photograph of a black man’s torso: tool belt with pocketknife and pocket watch, shirt pocket full of rulers and drafting pencils, and a silver armband stamped with three stars and the title “Boss Boy.”

7:45 P.M. A day of photographic gifts: a friend gives me the Fall (“library”) issue of Bidoun. Each copy has a found photograph—mine a plump Cairene matriarch and her two pretty daughters at the beach—pasted onto the white-and-gold embossed cover. Creative director Babak Radboy(!) writes,

The issue of Bidoun you hold in your hands has a photograph affixed to its cover. The photo is unique to this copy of the magazine. It was procured for one Egyptian pound (eighteen cents U.S.) and shipped, along with thousands of other photos, directly to our printer in Las Vegas … From the perspective of the archivist, the photograph affixed to the cover does not exist. By gathering these discards and binding them to a (purportedly) legitimate publication, replete with ISBN number, that resides in the collections of a number of public and private libraries, we are, in a sense, rescuing them from their status as detritus. But then, by distributing these issues to bookstores, art fairs, and thousands of unknown individuals—not to mention the accursed share of unsold copies bound for store basements, secondhand book stores, and landfills—these photos are destined to return to the obscurity from whence they came.

11:00 P.M. At home I read Dan Chiasson’s New York Review of Books piece on The Anthology of Rap. It’s called “‘Rude Ludicrous Lucrative’ Rap,” which seems an even better title in the NYRB’s typewritery typeface. “Only in hip-hop is the age-old comedy of grown-ups trying to understand young people yoked so uncomfortably to the American tragedy of whites trying and failing to understand blacks. Age incomprehension is comic, since everyone young eventually grows old; race incomprehension is tragic, since nobody knows what it is like to change races.”


2:10 P.M. On the train to Boston, I sit next to a nice freckled fellow bound for Portsmouth, NH. We bond in the manner of Amtrak. He slags off his little brother, a Kantian PhD candidate who has refused to pick him up from South Station, obliging him to take a bus. I am craving comfort food: an Amtrak hot dog and a viewing of “Horse Outside,” a song/music video by Limerick-based hip-hop spoof duo the Rubberbandits. Its three minutes and fifty seconds would not have consumed hours of my life were it not for a diabolical enlightenment by an Irish friend. I tell my seatmate a bit about the video—its creators’ hope of ousting X Factor’s ineluctably schmaltzy Christmas number one (recall Bill Nighy in Love Actually: “I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes! / Christmas is all around me, and so the feeling grows…”). The video’s premise: a man wearing a grocery-bag ski mask gets the girl by pointing out, correctly, that his ride, the horse outside, bests any of his rivals’ rice rockets. Foully, I offer one of my earbuds to an utter stranger. We try to decipher the chavvy brogue banter at the beginning:

CAMERAMAN: Any message for, for Niall and Amanda on their big day?

BRUTISH BELFASTIAN: Don’t be going fucking doing stuff on their own like one of those couples, like you know. Don’t be afraid to have a few house parties even if there is children involved. Sure, I was reared in a house like that, drinking and drugging going on. It didn’t do me any harm you know.

The deranging tune begins.

I’m at Amanda’s wedding, in a church on Thomas Street.

I’m lookin’ at a bridesmaid, and she lookin’ back at me.

And when the service ends, I’ll ask her if she wants a lift

Back to the hotel, anything goes, well, finger and a shift.

She says, “Fitzy drives a Mitzy, and he offered me a spin,

Enda have a Honda, so I might just go with him.

And Darren Gibney said he bring me in his Subaru,

So what the fuck would make you think I’d wanna go with you?”

I said, “Fuck your Honda Civic, I’ve a horse outside,

Fuck your Subaru, I have a horse outside,

And fuck your Mitsubishi, I’ve a horse outside,

If you’re lookin’ for a ride, I’ve a horse outside!”

Some references are challenging—“He runs a bit like Shergar, and he jumps like Tír na nÓg”?—but the language is sublime. The “I’ve” contraction (no deadwood “got”) makes me swoon. The subject-verb oddities are less disagreement than dizzying elision, and then there is the shift in address toward the end: “And the boys are lookin’ jealous, as I lead yer one away.” Yer one! Like “fuck you,” the sentiment can exist only in the second person.

2:15 P.M. My seatmate tells me he will be visiting Ireland in January.

2:20 P.M. My seatmate describes a species of person called “pikers.” “They’re like the gypsies of Ireland. Brad Pitt plays one in Snatch. The girls are all spray-tanned and pregnant wearing tube tops. They live in caravans that they park outside these mansions—they have mansions. And they have a king who lives in the mansion. But the weird thing is that when the king dies, no one else gets to live there. They bury him in a caravan in the basement, and everyone else just keeps living in their caravans on the lawn.”

I have a few fact-checking questions—for instance, how do they put the caravan in the basement?

4:30 P.M. My seatmate and I finally introduce ourselves—his name is Brendan—and we shake hands.

4:40 P.M. When I was twenty I studied for a year in the UK. The flutters I got for beautiful fops went unreciprocated, even at a “bop” or when collectively sloshed in the college bar, where they were always playing darts. One problem was that the place was lousy with American girls, which diluted my artless availability; also I was chubby and seemed lonely. One night I went down the Cowley Road to an indifferent venue where I met a boy who, in the kind of coincidence that can seem fortuitous only in a nightclub, worked at my gym, Esporta. His business was the chain’s expansion into such cities as Cheltenham and Milton Keynes. He was a sort of English person I had never encountered: expensively educated at a mediocre boarding school, handsome with stiffly quiffy hair, lots of cologne, a nose like a knife. His grandfather had been an overseer on a tea plantation in Kenya. He (the grandson) believed that thieves should have their hands cut off and “kiddy-diddlers” should be castrated, the medieval way.

My bloke drove a car he was very proud of, a tricked-out Renault Mégane—a sinfully ugly vehicle, with its diamond-shaped hood ornament and buttock-like “boot.” He explained to me about waxing. His name was Brendan.

4:50 P.M. I look out the train window. We are sitting on the wrong side—the left when we should be on the right—to see the sea.

7:00 P.M. My family is among the 12 percent of U.S. Jews who dabble in Christmas trees. Ours has lights and ornaments (realistic stuffed finches) but no presents.


8:00 A.M. I’ve rediscovered The Age of Innocence, which I left at my parents’ house last summer. I had reached the part where Beaufort follows Madame Olenska to Skuytercliff and startles her and Archer at the snowy little house of the old patroon. Beaufort’s bearing is interesting for its heavy, kinetic masculinity. He’s almost gone to seed but instead seems bursting at the seams in a propulsive way. When he goes under, he shatters a shibboleth: “Archer’s New York tolerated hypocrisy in private relations; but in business matters it exacted a limpid and impeccable honesty.” His name is beautiful and strong. Madoff on the other hand … made off with it.

Wharton writes many perfect sentences. “Mrs. Lovell Mingott had the high color and glassy stare induced in ladies of her age and habit by the effort of getting into a new dress.” “She held out one of the little hands that nestled in a hollow of her huge lap like pet animals.” “She turned the wick down, lifted off the globe, and breathed on the sulky flame.”

Gemma Sieff edits Reviews & Criticism at Harper’s Magazine. Check back tomorrow for the second installment of her culture diary.