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Monday, October 26, 2009

The dirty work Obama had to do in his third day at the office

In the days following Obama's inauguration the papers and airwaves were choked with sentimental nonsense about how this untried lawyer from Illinois who had never had to make a decision that might effect anything beyond his own career, was going to deliver us all from evil. I won't embarrass any of the people who went into print at the time with their Pollyanna predictions. I hope they've thought better of it since. This childish optimism is still working its way through the system, as the recent Nobel embarrassment proves. I'm sure Obama wasn't stupid enough to believe any of it. I'm sure he realised, just as Tommy Carcetti in "The Wire" did, that there is no such things as a fresh start in government.

I was thinking of how he must have felt when I read Jane Mayer's piece in The New Yorker about Predator strikes in Afghanistan where prominent Taliban commanders are lined up in the sights of camera mounted on drones flying two miles up in the sky and the President is called into the situation room to give the order to strike. There's a likelihood that they might have the wrong man in the sights. There's a near-certainty that some civilians will be killed at the same time. They may well be children. On his third day in The White House the new President had to OK just such a strike. On his third day.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Why you can't talk to a TLA

The headline in The Times says "Shock as figures show Britain still in recession". Those expressing the shock are the usual non-specific commentators "City and Downing Street". It doesn't come as a shock to anyone down in the fray rather than surveying it from the battlements. The Today Programme spoke to a couple of people in business and asked them if there was anything government could do to make things easier for them. One said the nation could do with an industrial strategy. The other, who ran a three-employee office furniture business, modestly pleaded that since government is now the only organisation spending money, it might be nice if his company could sell some of its goods to them. He explained why this was no longer possible: "We used to deal with the NHS, specifically the PCTs, but now there's an OGC which will only deal with companies turning over £20m and you have to have all the ISOs."

That sentence sends a shiver down my spine.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

In praise of Jane Bown

I've been looking at the Guardian's splendid gallery of the work of photographer Jane Bown from the 1940s to the present day. It features a cavalcade of statesman, artists, pop stars, actors, poets and sportsmen that's unlikely to be matched by any collection in the future. It recalls a time when you could photograph celebrities in the wild, as they were being interviewed, rehearsing or killing time, when their hirelings didn't demand photo approval or that the pictures be taken by a close personal friends or someone unfeasibly expensive. Ironically, most of the pictures that project their charisma come from this period rather than from the era of total control.

Her astounding picture of Samuel Beckett (above) was one of five snapped in the alley outside the Royal Court, the Beatles appear unaware of her as they pass the afternoon in a dressing room in East Ham while Richard Harris sits in his hotel suite with his robe perilously loosely-arranged. It's interesting to see these arranged chronologically. In the mid-90s you can see the arrival of a generation who are more bothered about how they look than how they come over. From Morrissey onwards all her subjects seem to see her coming and compose their features in readiness. She reflects in the commentary about how easy she found Bjork. "Possibly too easy," she says.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Why a remake of "Brief Encounter" would be even briefer

I watched "Brief Encounter" again this morning and can report it's lost none of its power. They've remade just about every other classic film from the golden age but not this one. It must have passed through some agent's mind. With Kate Winslet, maybe, and possibly Hugh Laurie. But then they will have screened it and realised immediately it would be impossible. The film turns on the question of whether happily-married but bored Home Counties lady Laura will cheat on her husband with the equally-married Alec. Here's a key exchange.
Alec: We know we really love each other. That's true. That's all that really matters.
Laura: It isn't all that really matters. Other things matter too. Self-respect matters and decency.
A contemporary audience wouldn't have any patience with Laura. It would demand that she surrendered immediately. It would probably regard her insistence on decency as another word for hypocrisy. To expedite proceedings the scriptwriters would probably give her an alibi in the shape of an abusive husband. The dilemma would be dissolved in no time. The film would last fifteen minutes, tops.

Friday, October 16, 2009

One git doesn't mark the collapse of civilisation

An extraordinary story has passed through the Twitterverse (London section) this morning. It concerns a London Underground member of staff who has been caught on a passenger's video camera behaving appallingly to a member of the public. Jonathan Macdonald has posted a sober account of this incident on his blog together with video. That seems reasonable and responsible behaviour to me and will no doubt result in some kind of disciplinary hearing.

What disturbs me is the tenor of the comments beneath his post. If you set up any kind of digital pillory nowadays, the people who are first on the scene seem to have difficulty identifying where a genuine grievance finishes and non-specific rage about the world begins. Too many people seem to treat this incident as an excuse to vent on everything from pony tails to political correctness, from Boris Johnson to fare rises, from the economic climate to London Transport training budgets, rather than accepting it for what it is, an isolated example of very bad behaviour. I've been travelling on the tubes for 40 years. Most of the tube employees I deal with are polite and helpful, albeit sometimes lacking in polish.

Sometimes a git is just a git and not a symptom of anything.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

This is what happens when the Today Programme send the radio car

For a start it's not so much a car as a van. The driver, who's also the engineer, turns up at your house about forty minutes before the appointed time and looks for a place to park. He then cranks up an enormous transmitter mast which is as high as the houses. Looking out of their windows the neighbours assume that it's a TV detector van and nervously check that their TV licence is up to date. About ten minutes before your item is due the chap comes and knocks on your door and conducts you into the tiny studio in the back of the van. The two of you sit there with headphones on and eventually your item starts. They say that cunning old foxes like Michael Heseltine always chose to be interviewed via the radio car. Not only did he get more time in bed but he also took advantage of the absence of presenter eye-contact to keep talking far longer than he would ordinarily be allowed.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Where the Kindle really falls down

I wish somebody would give me a Kindle or an Ereader or whatever they're called. I'd love to have a go. That's not to say that I believe they're going to take over like iPods have done. I can see why companies would want to see them adopted. I can see why some early adopters might want them. But I can't get my head round their one major shortcoming. Most books and magazines are read in public. In the act of reading something in public with the cover facing outwards we are advertising ourselves and our attitudes. We do it so much we don't even think of it anymore. It's the most complex and powerful sign language we know. It explains why I wouldn't wish to be seen reading a book that was repackaged to reflect the TV adaptation of some classic. It explains why there is nothing on earth more powerful than an attractive woman on the tube with her nose in a serious book, or at least a book that isn't obvious. It explains why that middle-aged lady sitting across from me is reading a dog-eared leather-bound edition of the Psalms or that young black man is wielding a copy of a book about being a young black man. A couple of years ago I read Ian Fleming's "Casino Royale" in a handsome retro edition. I felt like dangling a sign on its spine saying "Of course I read James Bond long before most of you were born and I'm catching up with this because I've never read it and I'm told it is the essence of the original character. Do I look like the sort of person who's reading it because I've seen the film?"

Reading a book in public is an advertisement for ourselves or the millions of other selves we would like to adopt. How can a brushed metal blank or a piece of nice smooth plastic begin to compete with that?

Friday, October 09, 2009

The dark secrets of the side of the road

The discovery of what Melanie Hall's father distressingly described as "a bag of bones" beside the M5 made me turn back to something I'd just been reading in Joe Moran's book "On Roads".
"If you're ever on the run from the law, I would strongly recommend that you hide in the motorway verges of our oldest motorways, like the M1 or M6. There is just enough room for a tent in the half-century of undergrowth and you could surely live like Stig of the Dump, undisturbed for months or years, in this uninhabited wilderness just a cone's throw from the road."
Stuck in a traffic jam on the M1 last week I was looking at what he calls "this liminal land" and wondering what kind of strange world might have taken root there over the years. The only sign of life visible from the road is the occasional hovering bird of prey. I never see them dive. It's as if they're trying to pretend they're doing something useful.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Bringing them all back home

We've got family friends whose son is a young army officer. Six months ago he was posted to Helmand province. I've only met him once as an adult although I remember him as a lad. It's pathetic that I should feel that this gives me some personal contact with what's going on in Afghanistan. Now that we know which battle group he's with, we pay attention every time one of those radio news items starts with the words "the army has confirmed...." One of our daughters wears a wrist band with 2 Rifles on it. None of us has the remotest clue what they're going through but I have a fraction of an idea what agony it must be for his parents and even that thought keeps me awake sometimes.

He's just finished his tour and returned and, as you can imagine, they're beside themselves with happiness. But it won't be long before they start to think about the chances of his being sent back. And if you've done any reading about this conflict - if you haven't, I'd recommend Anthony Loyd's piece in The Times or Patrick Hennessey's "The Junior Officers Reading Club", both of which are written by former soldiers who know whereof they speak - you'll realise that the men are often worryingly keen to get back, either because of ambition or solidarity with their comrades.

I'm not concerned about the rights and wrongs of how we got into this fight but I do feel increasingly soul weary about the idea of kids from leafy Surrey and not so leafy Govan being sent to be used as target practice by a foe that has only one simple objective, to kill a British soldier. And I know I'm not the only one. For once there doesn't even seem to be a newspaper beating the drum and there's a perceptible feeling in the country that these kids have been sent on mission impossible. Unless there's a radical, painful and no doubt embarrassing change of policy this will be still going on in five years time and some of the 20-year-olds losing their legs will be the same schoolkids you might see in the bus station tonight. Come the election I wonder if it will be a bigger issue than the economy.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Words muttered over the grave of Gourmet

Conde Nast in the US just announced the closure of four magazines. One of them is Gourmet, which was launched in 1941. The worldwide tribe of foodies is up in arms, blaming the loss on the insensitivity of Conde Nast management with the connivance of consultants from McKinsey. They only interrupt their thundering against these Philistines to say that of course they hadn't read it for some while since it was taken over by some vulgarian. Closures of magazines are invariably greeted by tear-stained tributes from people who stopped reading them some while before, bitter anonymous postings by people who have just lost their jobs and think-pieces from people who haven't a clue about the economics underpinning such businesses, particularly when they're based in the United States.

Jay Rayner in the Guardian refers to the lavish multiple-dollars-per-word way Gourmet was put together but doesn't seem to feel that this was part of what rendered it unsustainable. American magazines, particularly the ones that they habitually refer to as "upscale", are massively risky bets where an annual subscription is effectively given away in order to achieve the "rate-base" that advertisers have been persuaded to pay for. This is a wager that might work out as long as advertising is going up but will be quickly found out in hard times. In really hard times such as we're going through at the moment anything even slightly marginal plunges into the red overnight. Gourmet is said to have seen a 41% decline in advertising in the last year. That's not just a bad year. That's structural.

Friday, October 02, 2009

"Very courageous, Mr Lebedev"

I remember the days when there were two evening newspapers in London. I think I'm right in saying that the Evening News, unlike the Evening Standard, published on a Saturday which meant that if you were leaving the West End after six on that day you would get the football results printed in a stop-press column on the front. The News disappeared years ago and now, in a move that nobody appears to have seen coming, Alexander Lebedev has announced that the Evening Standard is going to be free. Of all the times to make this move, this is by far the oddest. Not even the most cockeyed optimist thinks the advertising recession is going to stop any time soon and there are those who think that we may have seen the end of the kind of advertising that traditionally financed newspapers and magazines. It appears that Lebedev is saying goodbye to circulation revenue of £15m a year in the hope that by doubling his circulation he can make it up in advertising. That's as good a working definition of an optimist as I've seen in a long while.