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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

In praise of working standing up

I'm in the middle of writing a very long article. In an effort to galvanise myself and guard against the usual web-based procrastination - check the Test score, check the email, check Twitter, etc - I worked standing up for three hours this afternoon. That meant composing a sentence, then advancing toward the laptop and tapping it in before walking round the room to compose the next sentence. I don't know whether it's any good but I do know I got more done than I would have done in the same period if I'd been sitting down.

Ideally I'd like a work surface around about chest height. Then I could work either perching on a stool or standing up. I'm convinced I would get more done. I've recently concluded that I can't really think without being on my feet. When I have to really think I have to be walking. When I have to think and compose I have to be walking quite a long way. I'm sure there's some simple physiological explanation for this involving blood and the brain.

Lots of radio DJs like to broadcast standing up. Since radio is all about attack that makes a great deal of sense; so much sense that you wonder why for years studio design made this impossible. If you wanted to stand up and broadcast it was difficult to reach down and work the faders. Similarly we tell anyone who wants to take part in True Stories Told Live that they have to talk standing up. It's impossible to command a room of seated people unless you're standing up and you can't project the amount of energy you need from a sitting position. Unless, of course, you're Ronnie Corbett.

Monday, December 28, 2009

His eyes so dimmed with joy and pride.

I took this picture this morning while mooching around the City. It's an alley off Fleet Street, the kind of narrow entrance in what was then the publishing district where Charles Dickens dropped off his first unsolicited piece of writing, "A Dinner At Poplar Walk", in 1833. He later recalled:
"...my first copy of the Magazine in which my first effusion - dropped stealthily one evening at twilight, with fear and trembling, into a dark letter-box, in a dark office, up a dark court in Fleet Street - appeared in all the glory of print; on which memorable occasion - how well I recollect it! - I walked down to Westminster Hall, and turned into it for half-an-hour, because my eyes were so dimmed with joy and pride, that they could not bear the street, and were not fit to been seen there."
I don't know any other writers, from the highest to the lowest, who haven't experienced just the same combination of elation and embarrassment on first seeing their name in print.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

At last, a rock novel you can believe

At some point during the last week - it may have been at a party - somebody said I had to read a novel called The Last Mad Surge of Youth. A couple of days later, while clearing out the office pre-Christmas, I found a copy. I began reading it on Christmas Eve and finished it before lunch on Christmas Day. It's the best fictional account of young men forming rock bands I've ever read. It's not perfect. Nobody seems to be able to write endings any more but that's a small quibble. Nobody has done a better job than Mark Hodkinson of describing the grubby milieu of bands struggling to make it in indie rock, the vainglorious posturing of those who find themselves at the top and the inevitably tragic effect their success has on the people around them. There is nothing in it that doesn't ring true, which is probably a first for novels set in the world of the music business.

It's set in an unspecified northern town in the early 80s and in the comfortable Home Counties at the present time. Punk rock has made it possible for teenage boys with a modicum of talent and an excess of self-belief to stage their own mad, heroic assault on everyday life simply by getting a Peel session and getting on the cover of the NME. It hinges on the relationship between the leader of the band - who turns into a drunk and megalomaniac - and the mild-mannered old school friend who left the band because he didn't have the level of demented certainty the trade demands. It understands that what drives people to make it is the urge for recognition that nothing else in their often drab backgrounds could provide.

The author has a great ear for the ridiculous claims routinely made for new performers in the febrile world of indie: in one passage he "quotes" from the feature that accompanies the star's first appearance on the cover of the NME:
"The sun shines into the eyes of John Barrett. They narrow to filter the light. A smile forms at his lips. He is handsome and scruffy-dangerous like the kid at the fairground spinning the Waltzers, born hip and burning red-hot. The T-shirt he wears has been pulled at the neck and falls twisted on his shoulders. He doesn't care. I ask whether he can believe it: the US of A, the world - all his."
I've read that kind of thing thousands of times. I may even written that kind of thing from time to time. This book makes you consider the consequences.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Good answer. What was the question again?

Mag+ from Bonnier on Vimeo.


This clip of some work being done for the Swedish publisher Bonnier is doing the rounds at the moment and causing considerable excitement. It's certainly a very polished presentation. While I'm glad that somebody is doing innovative work in the magazine industry, I can't shake the feeling that it's being done from the wrong end, so to speak, and often by people who have a tenuous grip on the magazine experience.

It's not that the work doesn't have a value. It proves it's possible to replicate all the various elements of a magazine. In many cases you can enhance the basic magazine formula of words, pictures and a crossword with moving pictures, hyperlinks, searches and lots of other bells and whistles. But is anybody asking for that? Is anybody looking at the basic magazine proposition and thinking, 'if only it did *this* as well'?

The experience of the last twenty years teaches that the version of the future proposed by the research and development wing of companies rarely coincides with what the market turns out to want. I've yet to see any evidence that you can persuade the person who currently reads Vogue or Heat that the experience of consuming the same thing via an electronic device is preferable. They may be talking about how they could use such a device to receive daily, even hourly, updates but I haven't heard anything about genuine advantages like that. Instead I hear a lot about taking the basic magazine experience and translating it to a screen. It's as if the magazine business believes it can move from one to the other without essentially changing the thing it provides.

The Guardian iPhone app, on the other hand, seems like a good idea to me because it fits neatly into an interval in our lives. Just as the podcast flourished because there are so many men out dog walking, jogging or driving cars and the web boomed because everybody is sitting in front of a computer doing anything to avoid working, this little app provides the ideal amount of content for the person stuck on a bus wanting to pass the time with a couple of stories. It doesn't need to do any more than that.

The next generation of magazines would be better off working out when and where they're going to be read than designing clever interfaces that may end up attracting the universal admiration of people who aren't magazine readers and never will be.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Does live music have to be seen to be made?

To the O2 to see Pet Shop Boys and marvel at the staggering number of great records they have made. Most of the music is actually coming off an invisible hard disk. Neil stands still and sings. Chris stands behind a podium which could be a Hostess trolley for all we can see of what he's doing with his hands back there. Terrific as the show is, it's difficult for an audience to demonstrate its enthusiasm as it normally would when the show continues as if on castors. The audience likes to feel it can influence what's going on on stage by applauding bits of the performance it particularly likes. Clearly, such observations are the maunderings of a survivor from an earlier age. However it's clear that other people feel the same atavistic impulse, judging by the way the applause swells when the dancers do something spectacular. They are clearly doing something that we know we could never do ourselves. Our traditional expectations of a concert involve music not merely being done, but being seen to be done.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Can you ever wear a sheepskin coat?

On cold days like today you realise that even your most Gore-Tex-lined Mulberry parka isn't quite enough to keep out the cold. It's on days like today that the GLW points out that we still have her father's old sheepskin coat in the wardrobe. I put it on and go out for a walk. I return with my idea of warmth redefined. A sheepskin coat provides a different kind of insulation. It makes you realise how cold you are in every part of your body not covered by the coat. Plus it has the built-in feature that all men have been looking for, pockets made to thrust your hands into. It makes me look at John Motson with a new respect. The problem of wearing a sheepskin coat, of course, is you become one of those men who wear sheepskin coats.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Courtney Love is nobody's fool, apparently

In the same week that Courtney Love is denied custody of her daughter by a California judge, the new issue of Dazed & Confused drops. On the cover is said mother in very few clothes. Inside is an exclusive interview which is headlined "Nobody's Fool". Since this is the woman who seems to have managed to alienate, either permanently or temporarily, everyone from her former fashionista friends (she recently had to shut down her Twitter feed after calling some designer "a nasty lying hosebag thief") to her only daughter, I think we may fairly say that she is quite a big fool, albeit a rather pathetic one. But in the world of glossy magazines there is no fawning testimonial that journalists will not trade for the prospect of a one-on-one with a big name. Chuck in the naked pictures as well and you could damn near write your own copy. I remember Paula Yates giving a cover exclusive to "Red" magazine at the time she had been, let's say, out of the public eye for some time. She gave them an interview and pictures. They said she had got her life in shape. She was dead not long after. If she was showing signs of being on the edge they weren't reported in the feature. In this world where appearances are all you're either faaaabulous or dead. If Humber Wolfe were living at this hour he might want to take his famous poem and append something specifically about the style press:

You cannot hope
to bribe or twist,
thank God! the
British journalist.
But, seeing what
the man will do
unbribed, there's
no occasion to.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The list

This is a Bruce Springsteen set list from a show in Vancouver in 2003. After the soundcheck he writes a list for that night's show. This is photocopied and distributed to everyone from the musicians to the lighting men. I must have picked this up backstage.

Of course, if it were a classical concert the evening's programme would be prominently displayed outside the venue and written in the programme. Only in rock and roll is there such a huge drama made of what people choose to play.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

George "Porky" Peckham and the maker's mark

I walked by this place in the West End today. It's still a lovely building despite that vile white and blue sign somebody has jammed into the facade in order to declare their tenancy. I knew it as the workshop of George "Porky" Peckham, who was the mastering engineer trusted by the music business to get as much of the signal of their recordings from the tapes to the grooves of the stamper from which the records - particularly the singles - were manufactured. When I was working for Beserkley in 1976 I went there a few times to get singles mastered. When he was finished he would ask you if you wanted a message in the area between the run-out grooves and the label. I can't remember what the records were or what I asked for. If he was particularly proud of his work he'd sign off as "a Porky prime cut" or something similar. I've been told that the map artists of the Ordnance Survey do something similar, concealing their signatures in the contour lines in order to declare their authorship and to guard against forgery.

Noisy adolescents at the theatre

The marshmellow test was first devised at Stanford University for testing the patience of four-year-olds. A marshmellow was put in front of them. They were told they could either eat it immediately or wait until the interviewer returned when they would get two. It turned out to be a strong indicator of their ability to become self-disciplined as they got older.

I was thinking about this last night when I went to the theatre and found myself sitting next to a party of ten adolescent boys on some sort of school or "youth group" (if we still have such things) outing. They had two supervisors but that didn't seem to make a lot of difference. I would guess they weren't delinquents or school refusers. They were just kids who had never once in their lives been called upon to sit still and shut up and so they didn't. They ate, drank and muttered throughout the first act. Ten minutes before the interval one went to the lavatory, then another and then a third. This in spite of the pleadings of one of the supervisors. At the interval the supervisor apologised to me. What am I supposed to say? "Oh, that's alright"? "You know you are bloody incompetent"? The usher had a word with him. He had a word with the boys. A couple of them refused to sit where he put them and left the auditorium. The play restarted. After ten minutes the supervisor, clearly rattled by the non-appearance of the lads, went after them. He returned ten minutes later on his own. Given what I know about teachers' responsibilities on school trips nowadays this was a big surprise. The two major fidgeters being removed, the rest of the party were quiet for the rest of the play.

I know all the arguments for taking kids to the theatre or art galleries and I know they particularly apply to those kids who are not likely to be taken there by their parents. However I don't believe that civilised behaviour suddenly blossoms when children can see the reason why they should act in a civilised fashion. Children are not naturally well mannered and considerate. Nor can they always be reasoned with, as these well-meaning adults were attempting to do. If you have to be told that you are being an annoyance to other people - many of whom have been looking forward to their evening out for months - then it's probably too late. If these kids are used to interjecting throughout lessons and other apparently formal occasions, then it's no use believing that they're going to stop once they're in a theatre. If you let a child take a Subway sandwich and a bottle of Malibu into a theatrical performance he will ingest it, probably noisily.

Later in the evening I was talking to a friend who's an experienced head teacher. She said that at her school children were lined up prior to going on a visit and told that if any of them stepped out of line the head would be called, she would come and find them wherever they were and take the miscreant straight to their parents. It seemed to work. On the other hand a younger friend who had a contemporary working as a young teacher in Wallsend said it had become customary to append a "thank you" to any request made of a child because doing the same with "please" risked a refusal. I think the former approach does the child a lot more favours than the latter.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Was it having to look so good that made Tiger go so bad?

A couple of weeks ago Tiger Woods was the ultimate straight arrow in the eyes of the world . He didn't often go looking for personal publicity but when he did it was to project an image of a devoted family man that would have brought a blush to the cheek of Ned Flanders. How that's all changed. In just two weeks we've travelled from brief fling through string of cocktail waitresses to group sex with prostitutes at breathtaking velocity. In the infidelity stakes this equates to 0-60 in about three seconds. However he emerges from this - and the signs are that he'll soon go "on the sofa" to throw himself on the sponsor's mercy - it won't be as a straight arrow. The public doesn't like being trifled with in this manner much more than his wife does.

I'm reminded of River Phoenix, who projected an image of a clean-living, saint-like figure who probably thought vegetables were screaming when they were pulled out of the ground and then died on the pavement of Hollywood Babylon's main drag after taking a lethal cocktail of drugs at a seedy rock club. Obviously only small children think public personalities are the same as private ones but they're usually *based* on the private one. They're not a complete contradiction of everything the image supposedly stand for. Maybe they were both trying to respond to the market's need for perfect role models, which is something that men in particular have trouble with. They are expected to evince attitudes that weren't expected of earlier generations of men. Men of my father's generation simply had to appear strong and silent. Sporting heroes of the past weren't called upon to cry in public and to dedicate goals to newly-born babies. I think a lot of this is a hollow pantomime. Maybe it's the pressure of trying to appear so very, very good that makes them go so spectacularly bad.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The great thing about being a cynic is you're never disappointed

A year ago this week I suggested that Uma Thurman's engagement to New York financier Arpad Busson might be under review since he lost a fortune thanks to Bernie Madoff. It's just been announced that it's all off.

Friday, December 11, 2009

How the music business is swapping places with the TV business

ITV have announced that they're going to make the hit show The Vampire Diaries available to buy on iTunes before they broadcast it. And if David Simon decided to make a bumper special episode of The Wire, having learned what he's learned about the DVD market, what do you think he'd do with it? Licence it to a TV company or sell it for £12 in HMV? And actually, if DVD was the primary way of people seeing it rather than the secondary or tertiary viewing, who's to say that he wouldn't get £20? I know he's motivated by things other than money but the market is saying something very interesting at the moment. Some people will pay for genuine high quality unique content. And I'd even suggest they would rather pay for the privilege of seeing it upfront than wait to watch it on broadcast TV like everyone else. Before The Wire was shown on mainstream TV in this country people talked about it in just the same way they used to talk about a cult rock album. Speaking of which...

While the TV business could be looking towards the model that used to do so well for the record companies, the music business seems to be moving in the other direction, away from ownership towards streaming, which is sort of what the TV business used to do, albeit not on demand. I recently cancelled my Emusic subscription and transferred it to Spotify, which means that I can hear pretty much what I want when I want. I know there are holes in the catalogue but those will be filled and the irritating streaming dropouts will be a thing of the past. With Spotify an interesting new divide opens up in your listening, between the things that you are happy to hear and the things you feel the need to own as well.

In both cases it's no longer about the stuff. It's about when and how you get the stuff.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

They're investing in "digital magazines" and ignoring the elephant in the room

All the world's big magazine publishers are hurriedly spending a lot of money looking at ways they can deliver their magazines in some kind of digital format. Note that is not the same as delivering magazine content in digital format. Any clown can do that. That's where the newspapers have really gone wrong. By making their material available for free they have enabled Google and everybody else to unbundle it from its context and lost a fortune in the process.

That's not an academic argument. It pertains to business. When you were selling a page of advertising in a glossy magazine you were selling two things: access to the readers and access to the environment of that particular title. Once you take the content out from between the covers you are no longer getting the benefit of that environment. There's a legendary piece of research done years ago which showed people the same outfit in Vogue and the Daily Express. Respondents thought that the first dress was worth far more because it was in Vogue. They used to call this The Presenter Effect.

The reason that magazine publishers are looking at so-called "page-turning" technology is they are trying to keep their advertising in a controlled environment. The big publishers are spending fortunes to avoid the fate of the record industry. We've started making each issue of The Word available in a digital format to people who subscribe to the paper magazine. It's very early days but it seems to be appreciated. The idea is it's an enhancement of the magazine experience rather than a replacement. We've done a very Heath Robinson demo of how it works.

At the same time Apple are said to be working on something called the Tablet which will do for magazines what the Kindle is doing for books. Time Inc have got so excited about this that they have already demoed a version of Sports Illustrated in this format. As you'd expect theirs is better than ours because it wasn't done on the computer in the owner's loft.

They're still avoiding - either because they haven't thought about it or they prefer not to - the key issue, which is "how can you deliver the core magazine experience, which is essentially sitting back and reading, on a screen?" They show you plenty of neat ways you can manipulate the content and lots of ways they can make the swimsuit issue more like a TV programme, but they avoid that central issue. What if you want to read it?

If this technology ever really took off the first thing you'd be wanting to do is reformat the magazine to suit the technology. One of the first page-turning magazines, the lads mag Monkey, discovered this very quickly. It has hardly any reading in it because there's no room for it. Instead it's videos and interactive games. Digital tends to quick reads, small pictures and interaction. Paper tends to long reads, big pictures and contemplation. If you take that on board you can devise complementary experiences. What you can't do is hammer one into the shape of the other.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

You don't have to be mad to father a world-class tennis player, but it helps

Simon Mayo is a very good interviewer but he didn't have to work too hard with Andre Agassi, who was his guest today. When you're used to the evasions and clich├ęs sports stars all too often offer instead of answers, it was startling to hear a subject who was candid and didn't once hesitate or say "you know" or "kinda". He told the story that lots of athletes hint at - of a parent, in his case a waiter from Iran, who was desperate for his son to escape his own lot, even at the cost of his sanity. Agassi said his father hadn't read the book. I'm not surprised. People as driven as that don't want to know the truth. They just want to know what they need to do to succeed. A successful tennis agent says he doesn't look for talent. He looks for crazy parents.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Alan Bennett, Harrogate and the ladies who ran the world

"Dinner At Noon" is a documentary Alan Bennett made for the BBC's Byline series in 1988. I was enchanted by it at the time and until last night I'd not seen it since. It's about the guests in the Crown Hotel in Harrogate. None of them are named, we don't get to know their back story, there is no jeopardy. As Bennett says, it's about "types". We eavesdrop on the people with the magic markers in the meeting rooms, sipping champagne at a wedding reception in the Bronte Room, addressing a meeting of the Environmental Health Officers in the Elgar room and ultimately doing the thing that elderly Yorkshire people like doing most of all, sitting in the lobby and having tea while eavesdropping on the other guests and speculating about what might have brought them there. Bennett's parents did it, so did mine. Actually, I do it as well. As he says in the beginning it's not a film about people behaving, it's a film about people trying to behave.

It lingers on one particular "type" that has always fascinated Bennett - the over-fifty ladies who seemed to drive everything in that part of the world in years gone by. In their working lives these ladies were head teachers, queens of typing pools and office managers. They put no less effort into their spare time where they acted as church secretaries, principals of light operatic societies, fund raisers, tin-rattlers, hospital visitors and holders of tapes for egg-and-spoon races. Some of the older ones had probably delivered babies and laid out the dead. Although they didn't own a pair of trousers between them there was nothing they couldn't do.

At social gatherings they would turn up armoured in their best hat, have two glasses of Spumante and then go looking for a chair in the corner where they would swap highly detailed gossip with their fellows. They had that factory girls' trick of suddenly dropping their voice in the middle of a particularly choice item so that the meaning could be carried by the sound of their tongue against their lips. They knew *everything* and could be trusted with most of it. People think Bennett's satirising these people, who were represented in drama by Thora Hird. He's not. He has immense admiration for them. I do as well. One of the less appealing characteristics of the feminist movement of the last thirty years is its claim to have recently invented The Strong Woman. They never met my Auntie Lily.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The idle fops of the past

To St Paul's Cathedral tonight for a performance of Handel's "Messiah". Plenty of time to contemplate three things:
1. Christopher Wren was one of the few - if not the only - architects to design a cathedral and then live to see it finished.
2. Handel wrote his masterpiece in three weeks.
3. What did people like that do in their spare time?

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

They really don't need no education, OK?

"50,000 failed by schools," says the headline in the Evening Standard announcing another story about standards in schools. I don't doubt that the standards are broadly as they describe but I think the children should be given at least a bit of credit. I like to feel that the failing I did was largely my own lack of work and I wouldn't seek to share the credit/blame with the school I went to. Children are capable of a lack of interest in education, no matter how it is packaged and delivered, that is quite breathtaking. Respect.

Men About Town

It's at this time of year you see rich, famous men out shopping on their own in Mayfair. I've just spotted Andrew Marr, Alan Davies and Sir Stuart Rose in and around Bond Street. They've all got that haunted look of men who've been sent on a dangerous mission without proper instructions. You can spot them from a distance by their clothes, which are distinctly this season. The seasonal chill was warded off in each case with a thoughtfully-knotted scarf, which probably ran three figures.