On the day the ancient Mayans predicted the world would end, a porky South Korean entertainer has become the hottest pop star in the world, singing a hilarious catchy song none of us can understand, but everyone wants to copy and share with friends. "Gangnam Style" – once heard, impossible to get out of your head – has passed Justin Bieber's "Baby" as the most watched video in the history of YouTube, with over a billion hits. It is also the most-liked song on the internet, with over two million giving it the thumbs up. Worldwide, the video has been viewed between seven and 10 million times a day and will earn Park Jae-sang, aka PSY, up to £6m in commercial spin-offs, downloads and TV commercials. He's launched the New Year celebrations in Times Square, and is endorsing everything from refrigerators to noodles, topping the charts in 40 countries.
As we start a new year, perhaps PSY's unlikely success marks a new development – the demise of the global influence of American pop culture. After the Second World War, the US was determined to topple the dominance of European culture and artists like Picasso. Its government heavily promoted home-grown abstract expressionism overseas through artists like Pollock, Rothko and De Kooning. Critics lauded their work and their influence was profound. In pop music, Elvis reigned until the Beatles came along with a far more sophisticated sound. In recent years, Madonna, Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga dominated pop globally, as well as anodyne pre-teen heart-throbs like Justin Bieber.
PSY marks a completely new phenomenon – upbeat, relentlessly cheerful, cheesy and ironic. Gangnam style crosses frontiers, from Royalty to the WI and the Tory heartlands: Boris Johnson proudly told the Conservative party conference that he and Dave did the dance at Chequers. Ban Ki-moon invited PSY to the UN and declared his act "a force for world peace".
He's right: humour knows no frontiers. It makes people feel better. It's January and it's been raining a lot. Forget the misery of New Year's resolutions, and any intentions of crafting a new, slimmer, healthier version of yourself involving abstinence and a sensible regime. Instead, focus on what makes you smile and feel relaxed. We can learn a lot from PSY. He's proved, along with Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei that the beating heart of contemporary culture has – for the moment – moved East.
For the past two years, I have read nothing but Baltic fiction for relaxation: Johan Theorin, Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbo. I've been seduced by grimness – bleak landscapes, short days, austere cityscapes and monosyllabic, introspective men. I'd resisted the lure of Hilary Mantel, but curiosity finally got the better of me this Christmas and I went to Australia with Wolf Hall.
Now I understand why Mantel has won so many prizes. She is the favourite to win the overall Costa prize at the end of the month. Wolf Hall is a slow burner, but you persevere, and then you are hooked and can't put it down. From the moment Thomas Cromwell arrives at court, it really sings. Reading historical fiction is a bit like learning a new sport; you have to use a new set of muscles. I'm gripped.
I spent my holiday fishing almost every day. Normally, Christmas means cooking, washing up, lighting fires, walking off huge meals in the dark and watching rubbish television.
This year, I swam on an unfashionable quiet beach in northern New South Wales where your physical shape was unimportant. I fished, wading up to my waist where rivers with strong currents met the sea, with sting rays measuring four feet across flapping around my feet and little hermit crabs running up and down the wet sand. I spent up to four hours at a time trying to catch an ugly fish called a flathead, chucking back small ones and occasionally landing a winner.
Is there anything more rewarding than doing one very simple thing for hour after hour? For bait, I used raw shrimp, bits of squid, and cooked prawns from the supermarket. To be honest, it didn't seem to matter much. This was hardly in the same league as the horribly cocky Robson Green's macho telly series Extreme Fishing, but a lot of quiet pleasure. They tasted good, too.
Back home, our established churches continue their dogged refusal to countenance values accepted by most of the public. Anglican leaders have decided they can't marry gay couples in church (in spite of Jesus preaching that everyone should be welcome in the house of God), but a new ruling decrees gay men can become bishops, providing they are celibate. As for female bishops, that's another matter.
Meanwhile, Archbishop Nichols, leader of Catholics in England and Wales, has banned gays from celebrating mass in a church in central London. The Soho Masses, which attract gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender celebrants, started six years ago, run by a group of gay Catholics who chose to ignore traditional doctrines. The Pope denounced gay marriage at Christmas, and Archibishop Nichols has condemned the government's plans to legalise same sex marriage in the UK. How can our religious leaders be so narrow-minded? They haven't moved on much since the Tudors.
How to turn around a failing school? Not by offering incentives like iPods, but by extending the hours, it seems. Most schools open for just 35 hours a week, but Greenacre school in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, once listed among the 200 worst-performing primaries in the country, has taken drastic action, opening from 7.45am to 6pm and offering free after-school activities for 7- to 11-year-olds, from cookery to music lessons, dance and first aid, as well as supervised homework and reading practice. Parents can drop off their kids on their way to work and collect them at 6pm, meaning they no longer spend hours loafing about on the street.
Initially, 100 parents signed a petition protesting at the extended day. After one term, most are now enthusiastic, and pupils are already benefitting. Could this be a model for inner-city primaries? If teachers can be persuaded – and paid – to work a longer day, it must be better for parents and kids.
Convicted murderer Myra Hindley was a great self-improver, according to recently released prison papers describing her daily routine. She became a practising Catholic, studied for an Open University degree in Humanities, regularly listened to serious programmes on the radio and read The Guardian to keep abreast of the news. I wonder if the newspaper would have printed any articles she might have written? Does free speech extend that far?Reuse content