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Monday, January 31, 2011

Matt Leblanc and the "I'm here why?" manoeuvre

Episodes is worth watching for the occasions when it throws light on the highly cultivated one-upmanship that passes for etiquette in the higher reaches of media and show business. My favourite bit so far is when the British sitcom writers Tamsin Greig and Stephen Mangan are persuaded against their better judgement to meet TV star Matt Leblanc because he's apparently such a big fan of their show that he wants to star in an American remake.

The meeting takes place in a restaurant. They're there before he is. He makes his entrance wearing sunglasses and talking on a mobile in order to make it clear that he has far better things to do. He finishes the conversation, sits down, takes off his shades and says "I'm here why?"

This puzzled display of disinterest is a classic move, whether it's authentic or feigned. The first rule of Self-Importance is you must never be seen to have instigated any interaction. The meeting is always somebody else's idea. You're the one whose time is being wasted. I've been summoned by intermediaries to meetings with V.S.I.P.s which floundered as soon as the small talk was over and the V.S.I.P. said "and what can I do for you?" At this point it seems brusque to blurt "but your people set up this meeting apparently because you wanted it". By that point the damage is done. They've got the upper hand, which is the only hand they're interested in having.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

In praise of a 39-year old masterpiece

This weekend I restored my record deck to pride of place in my work room at home and played a lot of vinyl. I enjoyed There Goes Rhymin' Simon more than anything. Paul Simon's got a new album coming out soon. I expect it will be good but it's unlikely to be as good as "Rhymin' Simon". I doubt it will have songs quite as vivid and spare as these. That would be asking too much.

This is my thirty-ninth year of listening to this record. For most of that time I've absorbed it sub-consciously, with the result that the lyrics occasionally pop into my mind in response to different situations that life presents you with. The line from "Kodachrome" about the old girlfriends never matching his sweet imagination. The line from "Tenderness" saying you don't have to lie to me as long as you give me some tenderness beneath your honesty. The observation in "Learn How To Fall" about life being "an occupation where the wind prevails". It's not just beautiful and uniquely memorable. It's as if "Rhymin' Simon" has gone before.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

So what's this about "new men" then?

I've started reading Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, which traces the careers of four ambitious young legislators who all ended up in Lincoln's cabinet during the American Civil War. I'm already struck by the fact that if we're to believe this book close friendships between educated, straight males in the 19th century were much tenderer and more intimate than even the newest of today's new men would be happy to allow. This seems at odds with our image of the Victorian era as a time when people kept their emotions as firmly buttoned as their shirt fronts.

One writes to another: "It shames my manhood that I am so attached to you. It is a foolish fondness from which no good can come. I have suffered a womanish longing to see you."

When the young Lincoln arrived in Springfield intent on starting to practice law he had nowhere to stay and no money. He went into the general store and asked the young owner if he could be given "the furniture for a single bed" on account. He planned to pay the store back if he made a success of his legal career. The man behind the counter took pity on him and said: "I have a large room upstairs with a double bed and you are very welcome to share with me." Lincoln shared that bed for four years.

At this point the contemporary eyebrow can't help but lift and speculate about the pair's sexuality. Which just shows how far we've come.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Kindle and giving up on books

I hate giving up on a book, particularly when I've got more than halfway. It seems such a weak thing to do. That's why I don't do it often.

I gave up on Vikram Seth's 1349-page "A Suitable Boy" because I wanted to be able to look forward to a time when I wasn't reading it. I abandoned Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" a chapter before the end because it was the only way I could express my contempt for its total lack of the basic suspense it was supposed to be providing. I have occasionally set a book aside with the intention of returning to it. Sometimes I have done so.

In truth the thing I really hate about stopping reading something is the conversation with the GLW.

"Oh, I thought you were reading Book A."

"Just thought I'd have a change."

"Oh." (Heavily loaded, hinting at disappointment at spouse's lack of stickability.)

Anyway, the Kindle changes all this. I used to think its weakness was that nobody knew what you were reading. I now realise that can be a strength. Since I bought it I've read eight books: Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom", Jay Z's "Decoded", Keith Richards' "Life", Max Hastings' "Finest Years", David Nicholls' "One Day", Ben Macintyre's "Operation Mincemeat", Rory Stewart's "The Places In Between"and Peter Doggett's "You Never Give Me Your Money". (I know this because my Kindle tells me.)

More interestingly, I've given up on a further two. Both "The Hare With Amber Eyes" by Edmund de Waal and "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy were books that were recommended to me by friends. If I'd been reading either of them in actual paperback - laying them on the bedside table at night, putting them in my pocket in the morning - I would probably have stuck with them. But they weren't so I didn't and I have no regrets about it at all.

They're not sitting there curling up with a look of mild reproof. They're still inside my machine. I might return to them at some point in the future, much as I have done with records that didn't make an impression at the time I got them but did many years later. We shall see.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Seriously, who wants to be a billionaire?

I just caught a fragment of a discussion on Today about wealth distribution. One of the experts was saying that people at the bottom of the heap fantasised about having the lifestyle of Wayne and Coleen Rooney. Really? Every time I look at a pictorial showing the inside of "the lovely home" of this or that wealthy celebrity a shudder passes through me. There's something about the single coffee mug placed carefully alongside the fresh flowers on the expensive kitchen table which suggests that such people have no aptitude for the simple cosiness of the domestic life most of us lead.

Giles Coren touches on the same subject in today's Times in which he wonders why any sane person would want to live in those new flats built for billionaires overlooking Hyde Park:

These people do not get to go to the shops, to ride the top deck of a bus in the rain, they don’t get to fork over the compost in their tiny urban garden, chance delightedly upon a fiver in the back pocket of their painting jeans or find an old pine table discarded on a skip that will burn in the grate for weeks. They do not get to laugh loudly in the face of possible death while unblocking the gutter on their roof, as Matthew Parris did here on Thursday. They do not get to do anything. Except sit on an expensive chair in a bookless apartment, staring out at a park they are frightened to venture into alone.

I watched Tantrums and Tiaras recently. This is the film about the home life of Elton John. The home life of Elton John appears to be all chrome, glass, expensive table settings and nervous domestics, hovering in the background laughing at one's jokes. I saw enough to know that the only person who would want that kind of home is the kind of person whose wealth and profession cuts them off from the very idea of home. It's as if they've had to get the sheet music to the tune that the rest of us can just whistle. Everybody would like to have more money, of course. If we've got any sense we don't want that money to transform our lives - we just want enough to remove the difficulties from the one we've already got.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

People who invade their own privacy

In the same day that Jonathan Ross goes on the radio to publicise his new show and announces that one of his children is gay, Orlando Bloom takes a picture of his wife Miranda Kerr breastfeeding their new-born baby. The picture's copyright is assigned to Kora Organics, "an exciting new range of organic skincare, body and hair care products by Australian model Miranda Kerr." In the same week Justin Webb gives an interview to the Radio Times about how his father was the newsreader Peter Woods. These are the kind of confidences that used to be winkled out by investigative reporters. It seems they're now volunteered in exchange for publicity. Takes all the fun out of it somehow.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

How to deal with stroppy correspondence

My colleague Mark Ellen has a talent which I particularly envy. He can write conciliatory replies to indignant correspondents. Most correspondents aren’t particularly indignant but the odd one seems incapable of a measured response, reaching for a tone of withering scorn when what would work best is honest puzzlement. Mark replies in the moderate tone such as a negotiator would use to talk down an armed hijacker. It’s so successful that they often end up apologising to him for the tone they adopted and offering to come round and do his ironing.

I can’t do it. My first instinct is to shoot back, particularly when, as is so often the case, people are not reacting to the words I wrote as much as the words they prefer to think I wrote. This seems to happen increasingly. People appear to want you to have said the thing for which they have a put-down standing by and they can’t pass up the opportunity. The temptation to shoot back and bury them in sarcasm is very powerful. I frequently compose emails which I don't send.

Maybe the solution is to do what Steve Martin did back in the 80s, which was to send a form reply to everyone who wrote in, whether favourable or not, asking them to “keep an extra bunk made up in case I get to YOUR TOWN HERE.” It's the kind of thing that people would treasure without knowing whether they had made their point or not. You can read it along with lots of other fascinating correspondence at Letters Of Note.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Ageism is the media's open secret

I hope all the newspapers lining up to point the finger now that the BBC has been caught putting older presenters out to grass have first made sure that the age profile of their own workforce matches the national average. That's without counting in security staff and support services in order to make your company look more like an extended family and less like a university.

Obviously as you get older the workforce seems younger. But it could be that it's more than a feeling. In my working life I've watched the average age of the media workforce get steadily younger. It certainly appears to be the case in big companies where employees over the age of 50 have become scarcer and scarcer. Whatever the reasons - the lure of early retirement, high earners being squeezed out in the latest round of mergers and acquisitions, health, personal inclination, the requirements of child rearing, people having benefited from a property boom and retired, changes in technology - I know very few contemporaries who are working their way through to retirement age in the way they may have envisaged when they were thirty.

We hear a lot about NEETS, the hundreds of thousands of young people who are not in work, education or training. I feel there ought to be a similar acronym for the many fifty-plus people I know who are in a similar position.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

I thought TV was show business

I'm intrigued by the implications of this Miriam O'Reilly case. Does this mean that TV companies can no longer do what they've done since time immemorial, which is to shuffle off ageing presenters to "do a few specials, spread your wings, darling" and then gradually forget about them when they start looking a bit tired?

This seems to me the way of the world or at least the television version of the world. I can't understand how television can possibly function if it compromises its single-minded obsession with what things look like. Every TV presenter knows that they occupy a very tenuous position in the hierarchy, a bit more important than the sofa upon which they sit but nothing like as important as the theme tune.

It's not as if it's like real life where competence aces everything else. This is television. If you made it as on-screen talent it's likely that your looks played a huge part in getting you there in the first place and therefore it seems likely that their inevitable decline will play a similar role in your downfall. It's the same if you're in the chorus line at the theatre.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Is this the kind of TV you *meant* to make?

Earlier this week, while waiting for the Ashes highlights to come on ITV, I found myself flipping between two of the most touted new TV programmes of recent months. The first, "Come Fly With Me", was David Walliams's and Matt Lucas's attempt to take their "Little Britain" franchise into a new era, with a show based on those fly on the wall series set in busy international airports. The other, "Famous & Fearless", was Chris Evans's attempt to marry "The Late Late Breakfast Show" with "Sporting Superstars".

Both programmes were very big productions which must have cost a lot of money. All TV programmes are very big risks. These must have been bigger risks than most. I assume they can't have realised what disasters they both were until it was too late. It can't have been until they'd devoted months to writing, shooting and stitching together all those tiny character vignettes featuring Walliams and Lucas as stewards, immigration officers and pilots that somebody at the BBC realised that what they'd commissioned was, like lots of TV comedy, sharp, well-observed, edgy and NOT REMOTELY FUNNY. I didn't take particular exception to the stereotyping. Comedy's built on stereotyping. What I do take exception to is things not being funny. Funny's easy to recognise. It makes you laugh.

The obvious response to "Famous and Fearless" was that it featured people who didn't clearly belong under the first adjective doing things that didn't automatically entitle them to be described as the second. I saw Dame Kelly Holmes competing with three women I didn't recognise - and I'm not the least clued-up member of the audience. I bet the commissioners had to be introduced to them. I guarantee that if the people commissioning it had been told that the most famous people they were going to get were Richard Branson's son and a member of Atomic Kitten they would have snapped their cheque book shut, the programme would have gone in the Monkey Tennis file and everybody's reputation would have remained unstained.

Instead they presumably had to see it through. By then they'd spent so much money and executive credibility that there was simply no going back.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Whose soap is it anyway?

I don't watch EastEnders but I sympathise with the actress Samantha Womack, who was so upset by having to play a character who lost a baby to cot death that she's leaving the show. The producers explain it all away by saying they're trying to produce dramatic television and point to the fact that they give an action line number at the end of the show for the benefit of anyone affected by the issues.

Samantha Womack obviously feels a bit closer to her work than the people who write the scripts and says: "What Ronnie has been through is such a crushingly awful thing to even pretend might happen to you. I actually felt ill having to portray it."

Funny that this should happen the same week that the producers of The Archers, which I do follow, decided to throw Nigel Pargeter, arguably the show's most loved character, off a roof. He didn't want to leave but when the fickle finger of ratings was looking for a victim he was the one it was pointing at.

There's a lot of detached talk about story arcs and how difficult this kind of thing is to play but out here in the audience we don't want to know. You've taken away our friend and cast a pall over what is already the most depressing week of the year. We know it's not real. It's a lot more important than that.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Jonathan Franzen and Test Match Cricket

I liked Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. In a flu-ridden Christmas it was one of the few things I managed to enjoy. Lines keep coming back to me. Sitting up last night listening to Alastair Cook and Ian Bell putting the Australian bowling to the sword I thought of Patty the top college basketball player in the book and the line "Success at sports is the province of the almost empty head".

That's the same as being "in the zone", isn't it? When your body is just doing the things it's supposed to do without needing you to instruct it, when the bat has arrived at the right place before you've consciously worked out where the right place is. As Louis Menand said of any golden age (and a Test Match hundred is a golden age), it's "the time when things work in such a way as to make you think they will work this way forever".

I suspect any form of performance must be pretty much the same. You can't act or sing or juggle if you're worrying about how to do it or trying to do it in a different way. Of all the adjectives that critics employ to show how much they approve of a particular performance the most inappropriate one must be "intelligent". The best performances are the work of an almost empty head. The intelligence was all used up in rehearsals.

That's why interviews with athletes are traditionally so unsatisfactory. They say "I put the ball in the right areas" or "it just came over and I hit it" because that's the truth. Thinking any more about it isn't going to make it any easier to do and they above all know how hard it is to do.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

How they subbed the King James Bible

Listening to James Naughtie's "King James Bible" on Radio Four I learned that the committee overseeing the translators' work sat in Stationers' Hall in 1608 and listened to the proposed text being read aloud. They didn't read it, they listened to it. This must explain why the King James Bible is the richest source of idioms in the English Language. The number of people who've read expressions like "a voice crying in the wilderness", "out of the mouths of babes", "let there be light" or "my brother's keeper" must be tiny compared to the number who've heard them spoken out loud. That's what they were built for.

Reading something aloud is the best form of sub editing. It's still the best way of making sure the stress falls on the readers' inner ear the way the writer would like it to. It can be testing. When you ask children to read aloud something they've written they will often read what they meant to write, not the words they actually put down. I've known adults who are just the same.

I'm very envious of those writers who can speak whole sentences into the air and then commit them to the page. All too often in these digital days the temptation is to just put a few words down on the screen and then slowly build them into a passable shape. A lot of music is made in just the same way, which could explain a thing or two.

Monday, January 03, 2011

You can't put your arms around a memory

The debate over whether or not they should knock down the childhood home of Ringo Starr has got me thinking about our urge to preserve.

Near where I live in north London is a medium-sized park. In the middle of the park is what was once quite a grand house. Parts of it are sixteenth century but it was extensively remodelled over the years as successive generations of rich merchants tried to make it more grand or more practical. It has a staircase and some murals that are regarded as being of some note. Once the ownership passed to the local council after the war it became, as I dimly remember, a mother and baby clinic, a cafe and the kind of museum where stuffed birds greeted you with puzzled stares. The exterior of the building was half-timbered but it was about as authentically Elizabethan as the front of Liberty's. It was never a thing of beauty.

In 1984 the building was struck by fire. The council wanted to demolish the building because it was no longer safe and their responsibility. Preservation organisations sprang into action to resist. English Heritage gave it Grade Two Listing. Scaffolding was erected to keep the building up and a fence erected all around to make sure that no over-adventurous kids could get near.

The scaffolding is still there. The council proposed changing the building's Covenants, which were laid down in 1903, to allow some commercial use of a restored house. Whitbread were interested in it being a family restaurant. The local residents objected, claiming that the amount of traffic such a place would attract would make a busy area even busier. In 2003 the building was entered for the BBC programme "Restoration"in which Griff Rhys Jones invited the public to choose which of a number of proposed projects was most deserving. It lost.

In the twenty-six years since the fire all manner of proposals have been examined and discarded. Grants have been secured and very often passed on to professional consultancies. (Nowadays if you want to make a bid for lottery funding you have to hire a professional to do it.) Many of the people who led the original campaign to preserve the building have retired. Some must have died.

The latest initiative comes from the Mayor Of London's Office and involves £500,000 being granted to pay for preparatory and public consultation work about the new proposals which are a combination of restoration of the house with some form of sheltered accommodation in the stable block. If this gets the go-ahead they can apparently find a further £5,000,000 to pay for it. God knows how much further cost has already been incurred holding this building up since 1984.

There's nobody fonder of history than I am. I'm no fan of the wrecking ball. I'm a member in good standing of the National Trust. But if a small attraction like this, which is only ever likely to be appreciated by the small number of people who live locally, can only be maintained by calling upon a fund from a form of central government (either national or local) then it may be time to either do it the way the Victorians did it when they first built our parks - by raising a public subscription among the people who really care - or just letting it slip away.

The Housing Minister today said that in some people's eyes Ringo's house is "a culturally important building". English Heritage have described the house near me as "historically important" and "architecturally unique". These are the kind of baggy phrases that could be extended to justify the preservation of just about anything. In this country nothing is so guaranteed to get the public tear ducts going as the threat of something being removed. Stopping the wrecking ball is the work of a day. Deciding what to do instead can go on forever.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

More thoughts on iPad magazine apps

Recently released audit figures from the United States suggest that the iPad magazine apps which launched in a blaze of glory last year have not built on their success. While the owner base has expanded at a staggering rate, downloads of iPad magazine apps have gone in the opposite direction. Geeks blame this on file size; publishers on the absence of an appropriate subscription model. I think it's a lot more fundamental than that.

The new figures don't merely suggest that the early adopters have not been convinced. They suggest that a lot of people aren't particularly curious to know what a magazine on an iPad might look like. If they were curious the figures would at the very least have sustained their previous levels. Why should they be bothered? If you like reading Vogue or Vanity Fair then one of the things you like most about it is the feel of it under your fingers. An iPad version can only be an expensive second-best. On the other hand if you're a reader of a high frequency, information-heavy title like The Economist, who offer a very good iPad version to their subscribers for free, then you appreciate being able to have it with you at all times.

I just read Jonathan Franzen's Freedom on the Kindle, on my iPhone and on the iPad. Since it syncs across all the different platforms you can set it down on one machine and resume reading at exactly the same point on another machine. Hence I read it far more quickly, and probably with more understanding, than I would have done on paper. Electronic readers are perfectly suited to the efficient absorption of information. They're no good at replicating the idle serendipity of the standard magazine experience.

It's interesting that the iPad application which styles itself "your personalised, social magazine" should call itself "Flipboard" in honour of that very inadvertent leafing.