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Friday, May 01, 2015

The Riddle of the Sands Adventure Club is a beautiful, pointless thing

I've never read Erskine Childers' Edwardian spy thriller The Riddle Of The Sands but I'm delighted that two blokes have developed such an obsession with it that they've started a website all about it and are now doing a podcast describing their plan to re-enact the events of the story in their original location.

When Jude Rogers and Keith Drummond and I were all working in the same office and reading the novels of Patrick Hamilton, which are set in a similarly alluring vanished world, we spent a fair bit of spare time investigating old Fitzrovia pubs which were supposed to be the inspiration for the Midnight Bell, trying to work out the location of the last Lyons Corner House in London or looking at pictures of the spivs hanging about outside motor dealers in Warren Street in the 50s. Sometimes there's nothing like losing yourself in the background world of a book.

That's what these guys have done. They start by visiting the last ship's chandler in London, then try to source some Raven Mixture pipe tobacco, look into a prismatic compass, unravel the Schleswig Holstein question, drink grog and just do the kind of harmless, nourishing things that middle-aged men prefer to do when they probably should be reading to children or insulating the loft.

What they find at every turn is this strange remedy or that arcane perquisite which once formed part of a clubman's daily life in the later days of the reign of Queen Victoria is actually still available in some form if you know where to look. Furthermore, if you find it you'll also find people only too happy to talk about it. It would take a very hard heart not to share some of the their innocent delight in each tiny discovery.

Bill Bryson said the thing he loved most about England was the way its people could get so thrilled about something as tiny as a biscuit. This project, I like to feel, could only have happened in England.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

When did school mottos become 'mission statements'?

"We class schools, you see, into four grades: Leading School, First-rate School, Good School, and School. Frankly," said Mr Levy, "School is pretty bad...” 
There's a good adaptation of that book, Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall, on Radio Four at the moment.  Waugh was a cynic about most things, but schools in particular. It doesn't matter what the masters at Llanabba Castle do, in Waugh's world it's all about the boys and the boys will put any amount of energy into avoiding work.

That's obviously one extreme. Yesterday, on passing a school minibus, I got a glimpse of the other extreme. Beneath the name of the school was this motto:

"Igniting the spark of genius in every child."

I know no organisation every outperforms their aspirations and all that but, as Waugh would have said, WTF? The above sentence is not a coherent thought. It's a bunch of words put in a line and nudged in the direction of a sentiment. And because it's a pious sentiment, one of the kind we all theoretically buy into, everybody sits back and applauds when really they should pelt it with fruit.

Honestly, why is everyone from school governors to the people who provide dry cleaning services trying to tug our heart-strings by using emotive words like "genius" and "passion" when any rational being knows they have no part in what these organisations do?

Think back to your school days. However good, bad or indifferent your school was, there probably wasn't a lot of genius ignition going on. Where's the school whose motto is "teaching kids things"?

If there's one thing I thank my school for teaching me it was how to take a sentence apart and examine how it works or doesn't. I use that every day. In fact my old school should change its motto to "calling people on their shit since 1591." In Latin.





Saturday, April 25, 2015

In praise of the Health app and Instapaper

It was Matthew Parris in the Times who alerted me to the fact that the iPhone in my pocket has an app which is measuring how far I walk every day. As soon as I discovered this I became, like him, obsessed with trying to maintain my average. At the moment this is 9,257 steps a day, in case you're interested. On the days when I don't have any reason to leave the house I go on long circuitous walks round the neighbourhood to try to keep up.

I've been using another gismo a lot recently. Instapaper is a site and app where you can store long reads from magazines and newspapers to read at your leisure. Since I never read anything longer than 300 words on a screen that's a fair bit of stuff. I've just added Kate Mossman's piece about Bruce Hornsby where it sits alongside an Esquire story about the early days of Silicon Valley, another about the ownership of the copyright of "Happy Birthday" and David Simon's interview with Richard Price.

I read these stories on my phone on the tube. Most of them will last as long as it takes to travel from Oxford Circus to my home. If it weren't for Instapaper I wouldn't read them at all.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Leaving a record collection in your will is like bequeathing a minor stately home

When I made my first will, thirty years ago, I asked an old friend to be an executor. I had a lot of records. He had a lot of records. I figured that if it came to it he'd either take them or know what to do. A lot's changed since then. CD made vinyl seem passé. Then CD turned out to be even more passé. The world turned digital, fewer people had space for lots of stuff and my friend moved to Australia.

The other day my son asked me what I was planning to do with it all and I didn't have an answer.
He's far-sighted enough to know that it's going to be a problem. None of the kids are going to want more than the odd souvenir. They're all moving house at the moment and it's clear they don't have the same attachment to stuff we had at that age. No reason why they should. On the other hand they're sensitive enough to know that several thousand vinyl LPs and as many CDs can't just be chucked on to the council tip.

In the light of all the vinyl fetishism around Record Store Day I asked on Twitter whether anyone had made arrangements for their record collection in their wills. A few said they'd said that friends could have their pick. Some had specified that particular records should be left to particular people. That's probably OK if you don't have a massive quantity. The problem with a large collection is it's simultaneously precious and a pain in the arse. Bequeathing it is like leaving somebody a dog or a minor stately home. Not everyone wants the responsibility.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Whenever I buy fast food I feel like Peter Mandelson in that chip shop

On the way back from Laugharne on Sunday I was seized by one of those hungers only a hamburger could answer. We found one in a spookily quiet service area in South Wales.

I was glad it was quiet because the queue in a fast food outlet is one of those everyday situations in which I'm never quite sure how to behave.

I find myself in a queue at Macdonald's or Burger King or Nando's about once every eighteen months and every time I suffer the same anxieties.

How will I ask for the right thing? These brands offer such a bewildering range of exotically-named options that I can never find the simple, unplugged version, which is usually the thing I actually want.

How will I make sure I don't get too much? If I stagger back to the car carrying a bucket of coffee and a free child's toy my wife will tick me off.

Are the other customers sniggering at how strange I clearly find it all? Do I look like Peter Mandelson in that Hartlepool fish and chip shop, pointing at the mushy peas and asking for "some of that delicious guacamole"?

Of course the fast food outlet is full of traps for the electioneering politician. The menu is made up of stuff you spend your time telling people not to eat. It's staffed by people who get paid next to nothing and probably don't vote. It's usually foreign-owned. As Ed Miliband found, it's difficult to eat cheap food in an elegant manner. And finally and most crucially, your behaviour in a fast food outlet marks you out as slightly posh. Which, being a career politician, you most definitely are.

I see Hillary Clinton (above) dropped in on a fast food place this week. There's a funny piece here speculating how she might have tried to bridge the great divide.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Farewell to Percy Sledge, singer of the most inappropriate wedding song of all

Soul songs used to be just like country songs. They were about something. They had plots, moments of jeopardy, shattering climaxes as a result of which the singer learned important lessons. Usually too late to do anything but write a song about it.

Percy Sledge, who has just died at the age of seventy-three, played the part of the cuckold. His signature hit, "When A Man Loves A Woman", is about a man who is so blinded by love that he can't see what a bad lot he's just married. Given that, it beggars belief that people still regularly ask for this record as the first dance of a newly-married couple.

Percy repeated the trick with "Take Time To Know Her". In this song he takes his new love to see his mama. She tells him not to rush into things. To take time to know her, in fact. Does he listen? What do you think?

Monday, April 13, 2015

The romance in a sitcom like "Veep" proves we're not as cynical as we like to pretend

Great New York Times thing about the highly-charged but platonic love affair at the centre of the brilliant "Veep". Short clip here.

Julia-Louis Dreyfus plays vice-President Selina Mayer. Tony Hale is Gary Walsh, her "body man", whose job is to be no more than a pace behind her at all times, carrying her professional and personal necessities and steering her round the thousand hazards littering the path of her every day. He's the only person in the world she can trust. It's no exaggeration to say he worships the ground she walks upon, and paces out every bit of it to make sure she doesn't come to any harm.

Funny that romance only seems to get on the TV under the guise of comedy. It was the affair between Jim and Pam that kept "The Office" going so long. The love between Homer and Marge is what gives "The Simpsons" its heart.

The more cynical the world in which the comedy is set - and the characters in "Veep" make the people in Armando Iannucci's "The Thick Of It" look like the folk in "The Vicar Of Dibley" - the more our need to believe they're capable of something better.