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Monday, September 27, 2010

Dear woman with two-year-old in smart Islington coffee shop

It’s obviously up to you how you raise your kids. You’re relaxed enough to let your tiny daughter wander towards the open door leading on to Upper Street. You’re obviously confident that if she does decide to totter outside towards the traffic you could bolt across the crowded cafĂ© and intercept her in time. I don’t expect you to bother about people like me who look on anxiously.

If anything terrible happened you would be legally responsible. I can’t help thinking that I would be to some extent morally responsible for not making a scene and insisting that you keep her at your side.

But what’s more likely is that nothing terrible will happen. But at some stage it will nearly happen. If that puts the fear of God into you then it can only mean that you have never contemplated the possibility. And if you’ve never contemplated the possibility, what kind of parent are you?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

When did the kids stop being alright?


Saw An Education.

While watching the early scenes where teenage Carey Mulligan and her father Alfred Molina have tense exchanges over where she wants to go, what she wants to wear and how she wishes to behave, it struck me that an awful lot of films used to hinge on similar confrontations. From Billy Liar to Back To The Future, the same drama would be played out over the dinner table. Just as good always conquered evil in these films the fears of parents would always prove groundless. The parents were always out of touch and over-protective; the kids were always alright.

I don't see that anymore. If the kid gets her own way nowadays I feel she's likely to end up sobbing on her parents' shoulder. When did that change? Or is it just that I changed and started seeing things from the parents' point of view?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

My solution to anti-social behaviour

A couple of mornings ago I was on my way up Pentonville Road when I saw a cyclist coming down the hill on the pavement towards me at some speed. This in itself isn't surprising. The local yobs believe it's their right to cycle down the pavement. As he got closer I could see he was going very fast, looking unusually wild-eyed. As he flew past me I heard the three separate sirens of three separate police motorbikes tearing down the hill after him. Since they were understandably traveling by road rather than pavement they were a bit slow in following him as he took the inevitable right alongside Grimaldi Park (recently restored at some expense) into a warren of housing developments.

The sight of this pursuit seemed like the classic illustration of modern law enforcement: disproportionate effort being expended to no great effect. I can't imagine they caught him. It seems particularly timely this week. Everybody who depends on public money is making their pre-emptive strike to protect themselves against spending cuts. Today it's the police saying that if they get cut back then anti social behaviour will get worse.

Not sure if it's entirely a good idea to say this because people might point out that over the last twenty years, when we've been mainly governed by lawyers and policy wonks, we've been making new things illegal at a staggering rate and increasing police numbers along with them but our streets don't feel significantly safer. The other night I took a short cut through Somers Town, the area round the back of Euston station where some of Dickens's most deprived characters lodged. Clearly I don't expect it to be like St John's Wood but I was staggered by how threatening it felt, largely because of the number of attack dogs that were tugging their owners (male, female, old, young) around the area on the end of chains. Some of these creatures had clearly been in fights. They had all been picked for their terrorising qualities. I can't imagine how terrifying it must be to raise children around such animals.

In 1991 we had the Dangerous Dogs act, which no doubt cost a fortune from some budget somewhere. Since then we seem to have, if anything, more dangerous dogs. Is that right? I've long been a believer that governments generally manage to achieve the opposite of what they set out to do. If there was a reliable relationship between money spent and result achieved, then the amount spent on "combating anti-social behaviour" would have ensured that the local delinquents would all be lacing daisies in each other's hair by now.

Surely riding bikes down pavements belongs alongside keeping dangerous dogs in confined spaces and using your phone while driving a car in the category of behaviour that might be best addressed by some massive public awareness campaign on the scale of the AIDS campaign of the past to put over one simple, resounding message - stop behaving like a tit.

Slogan could do with some work, obviously.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The agony of Not Reading A Book


Some people need a Personal Trainer. I think I need a Reading Manager.

Having just finished Mayflower: A Voyage to War and Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, then read a couple of chapters of Why England Lose and some of At Home: A Short History of Private Life while waiting for the kettle to boil, I'm passing through that brief interregnum when I'm not officially Reading A Book.

Looking at the teetering stack of books I've either bought, been sent, been loaned or plucked from the pile of review copies in the office recently I can't decide whether this is a delight or torture. Maybe it's a combination of the two. And by the way, what about those people who read the new Jonathan Franzen novel or Tony Blair's memoirs the minute they come out? Haven't they got a prior commitment to something else? You can't just break off one book and start another, can you?

As far as this pile is concerned it's not a question of working out what's any good. I don't doubt they're all very good. It's more a question of what do I feel like? Or should that be what *will*I feel like? If I've just come off some non-fiction, would I be best continuing in the same vein or is it time for a change? I've never been able to read fiction in the same way since Danny Baker pointed out "it's all made up".

And how do you get started without making a big deal of it? How can you just slip into reading something without being haunted by those same inner voices that used to haunt first dates (a long time ago), the ones that clearly say "this isn't going to work out." I always have to handle the changeover from one book to another carefully for fear I lose the knack for reading. I can remember periods of my life when I hardly read books at all and I worry about them returning.

A Reading Manager might be a good idea. A cross between a friend and a teacher. Somebody who is always a few steps ahead and is in a position to provide reassurance when things aren't going well and a clip round the ear when I'm starting to drift. I may advertise. Watch the press.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Magazines on the iPad. Maybe pictures aren't the point.

After a few weeks the iPad feels like a neat domestic device. It's ideal for keeping at the end of the dining table to settle arguments or check train times. It's perfect for sitting on your lap when you're not that bothered about what you're supposed to be watching on the TV. It slots into all sorts of intervals in daily life. We listen to the Archers podcast last thing at night on it. I'm sure it will have lots of similar uses.

However I've justified my purchase on the basis of it being touted as The Future Of Magazines. For the last year crystal ball gazers have promised that the iPad's large screen and fabulous display would mean it can finally equal the visual impact that magazine editors hold so dear.

I've downloaded a few, ranging from customised edition apps like Wired and Popular Science to "page-turning" facsimiles such as you can get for Wallpaper or Esquire. Only time will tell whether these will outlive the novelty stage.

However I'm already wondering whether pictures on the iPad will ever have the same impact as they have in a glossy magazine. This is partly because if you get the pictures big enough then you have to cheat on the grammar of the traditional magazine by drastically reducing the number of words on the spread. It's also because the pictures are behind glass rather than under your fingers. Once we're looking at a screen we expect to be able to choose what we want to see big, not have it dictated to us by an editor.

It could be that what the iPad does best is provide another means of navigating material on the web through traditional news readers and very clever things like Flipboard. Which would be no help to anyone.

Still. Early days.

Friday, September 10, 2010

At what point does tooling about on the web turn into a media project?

I started this blog in January 2007. Why? Because I was curious about blogging as a means of communication which offered such immediacy. That and the fact that I've got a restless nature. And the additional fact that in most mainstream media work you have to devote so much effort into persuading other people to let you do something that by the time you get permission you're exhausted.

Starting a blog is an odd thing. There's a curious early period when there clearly isn't anyone reading it and you feel as if you're miming a pop song in front of the bedroom mirror and you're terrified your mother will burst in. Then a few people drop in, presumably drawn there by the fact that they know you. Either that or the desultory nature of the contents.

Because I spend my working life doing things which have to fit into certain slots, it's the very amateurishness (in its literal sense) of blogging that appeals to me. In the real world nobody is going to ask me to write about sport or the way people behave on public transport so in the blog it goes. Like I say at the top the blog is for "stuff that won't go anywhere else".

But then you start to notice that some things are more popular than others. They attract more traffic and more comments. Then the temptation is to do more of those posts and less of the other kind, to try to anticipate what people might like. You get the same thing with Twitter. Somebody with a lot of followers re-tweets something you've written and the next thing you know you've woken up to fifty new followers. This is nice but then you wonder, what are these new people expecting? I've got a terrible feeling that I'm not going to provide whatever it is that they want.

It's at this point you have to say you don't care what people want – not that they know what they want anyway - and write a completely self-indulgent post like this one. Feels better somehow.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Why we care about Wayne Rooney's problems

On the way home I listened to The Guardian's Football Weekly. They touched on the Rooney business. The consensus seemed to be that it's none of our business what goes on between Rooney, his wife and one of the hordes of young women who make a career out of sleeping with Premiership footballers.

True enough. It is none of our business. But then somebody said that he had no interest in what Rooney did when he wasn't playing football. That's not true. We are very interested. That interest may be unworthy and impossible to justify but it's there just the same.

Part of this may be a desire to see the rich and famous brought low. I wonder if it's also fuelled by the fact that in our atomised way of life we spend less of our time gossiping about neighbours, family members and work colleagues, as earlier generations might have done, and more time cackling over the misfortunes of those we will never meet and somehow assume are beyond hurt. We're not going to stop, of course, because gossip is in our bones. As the old movie line goes, "if you can't think of anything nice to say about someone, come sit by me."

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Can you still embarrass the K.O.T.?

Yesterday I watched Shaun Attwood giving a talk to a sixth form in south-west London. He's written Hard Time: A Brit in America's Toughest Jail about his experiences of incarceration in the Arizona prison system and so his story majored on buggery with broom handles, white supremacist gangs, the challenges of defecating in front of witnesses and casual brutality of every sort.

If anyone had been allowed to give this kind of talk in the schools of my day they would have been met with blushes, sniggers and probably interjections of the "sir, that man just said 'foreskin' variety." I can remember spending a lot of my teenage years nervously patrolling the frontier between the formal language of the adult world and the Rabelaisian badinage of the sixth form common room, worried that I might unknowingly give myself away.

It's not like that today. These 16 and 17 year-olds sat there and lapped it all up with barely a blush. This chimes with my experience of the Kids Of Today. They're a lot more difficult to embarrass than my generation were. Or maybe they're just embarrassed by different things.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Why Morrissey says these things

All discussions about whether Morrissey is a "racist" (whatever that means) are a waste of ink, breath and, in some cases, money. What's more interesting about his latest blurt in The Guardian is that the choice of words - "you can't help but feel that the Chinese are a subspecies" - suggests that he started to say one thing and then said another.

Unless Morrissey is more familiar with zoological taxonomy than I'm giving him credit for he may have started that sentence gaily accelerating towards saying that the Chinese were "sub-human" before a self-censoring synapse intervened and persuaded him to say "sub species" instead. As he said it there must have been a Homer Simpson thought bubble above his head admitting "I don't have a clue what this term means - why didn't I just say they were horrible to animals?".

Why does he do it? Most of us have never known the erotic thrill of being invited to say anything we like into a tape recorder. Just imagine that feeling. It's powerful medicine. For an egomaniac like Morrissey it's a reason for living. And for a personality like him, who only knows what he thinks when he hears himself saying it, it's a permanent invitation to get himself into trouble.

The Guardian prints the whole interview and then editorialises about how shocking it is, so they get to have it both ways. The twitterati will huff and they will puff. Funny how "Disgusted Of Tunbridge Wells" seems to have so quickly given way to "Appalled of Stoke Newington".

World turns. Chinese wonder who this Morrissey is.

Friday, September 03, 2010

And did those feet cling to this windowsill?

Walking down Carnaby Street yesterday evening I spotted this above a shop. Since Don Arden was an impresario whose reputation was mainly founded on the legend that he dangled a business associate out of a window by his ankles and the "Small Faces" (inverted commas in that context look like the mark of a local paper) always said that they never got paid at any stage of their careers, it seems odd that his place of business should be marked in this way.

Better maybe that the building be recognised for its other legendary tenant - "Smash Hits" magazine during the 1980s.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

I am a bit of a girl

The other night I sat down with daughter two to watch Mean Girls. I've been meaning to do this since I discovered Tina Fey. I was barracked in some quarters for watching "a girls film". I'm impervious to such criticism because I am happily reconciled to the fact that I am a bit, if not a lot of a girl. I can't work out if I've always been a bit of a girl or whether it was something that happened to me during the time I worked for a large publisher.

Magazines tend to be a female dominated medium. Working on or near women's magazines provides you with ample opportunity to talk airily about things that are a closed book to most men and the experience leaves you with views where most men don't have views. It also makes you more comfortable with nuances and to appreciate the wide disparity between what people say and what they mean.

I don't say this to get on the right side of women. There's quite enough inter-gender toadying going on. But I do it to have more fun. I have discovered that I prefer the company of women, if that doesn't sound like Jonathan Ross.

I get on fine with male friends but I tend to regard them as being above and beyond their category. About twenty years ago I was discussing middle-aged men as a taste group with a colleague who was also a middle-aged man. They're hopeless, he said, because unless you're talking about the subject in which they're the world's foremost expert they're not interested.

I said this was a bit harsh. Experience has taught me that he was only a bit harsh.