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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Was Charles Dickens the first rock star to go on a never ending tour because he needed to be loved?

Just finished Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin. Maybe all biographies should be written by women. Men like Peter Ackroyd, the author of Dickens, tend too much towards hero worship. Tomalin on the other hand describes how he could be callous as well as compassionate, how he condemned his wife to a life of uninterrupted child-bearing and then dismissed her from his life so that he could set up an alternative home with a young actress and how he sent many of his children overseas so that he wouldn't be tainted by their failures.

Her depiction of the novelist in later life, spending much of his time "on the road" in order to maintain his increasingly lavish and complicated lifestyle, recalls nothing so much as a legendary rock star on a never-ending tour, playing the arenas in order to enjoy the uncomplicated affection you can only get from a bunch of strangers.
The applause and praise received at readings became increasingly important as balm to his wounds, allowing him to believe in his own goodness. Having specialized in being a good man for so long and been known as such to the public, he was intent on keeping his good reputation: hence the public statements putting others in the wrong.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

I've decided not to enter Parliament

On Monday night I was in a committee room in the Houses Of Parliament, taking part in a debate around the motion “This House Agrees With Dr Johnson that no man but a blockhead ever wrote, but for money”. This was sponsored by the PPA. We won but it was, in the words of the Iron Duke, “a close run thing”, not least because it’s easy to pick holes in anything that came out of the mouth of a controversialist like Johnson.

This was the first time I’d taken part in a formal debate since the age of fourteen. Actually, I took part in one a few years ago at the Oxford Union but that was to a hall full of students. They wanted rabble rousing so rabble rousing they got.

 The atmosphere at this debate was very different. The room was full of the great and good of publishing plus a load of people whose idea of a Monday night’s entertainment is popping out to take part in a debate. Any one of them could easily have taken apart my logic.

The usual speakers trick - make eye contact with anyone who looks sympathetic - doesn’t work. You don’t know where to pitch your tone of voice. The atmosphere leaves you unsure whether to declaim or converse.

You can prepare your opening remarks but at the end you have to summarise what’s been said by your opponent and the speakers from the floor, take some of it on board, kick most of it into touch and then somehow restate your argument. It’s very hard. I emerged from the experience with new respect for parliamentarians and a fresh understanding of why so many of them are former barristers.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Why the tappety-tappety office of today is a bad place to learn things


One afternoon in 1975 I spent a few hours in the sales office of an independent record company. I'd done various jobs but I'd never been in a working environment like it before. There were six people in an overcrowded basement office and the thing that immediately struck me was they were all on the phone all the time, not simply cold calling big accounts but also fielding enquiries, sharing news, bollocking reps, making arrangements, taking messages for each other and through it all just talking, talking, talking.

I sat in a corner, intimidated and dazzled by it all. I was only there for an afternoon but I learned more in those few hours than I would have done in an ordinary month. If I'd been there a month I would have learned a year's worth - just from watching and listening to how people handled themselves.

In complete contrast I was in an office today where ten people sat round a table. There was very little noise. They were all working very hard but it was impossible to know what they were doing because they were communicating by email rather than phone. Tappety-tappety where it had once been ring-ring. They were presumably doing the same jobs as the people in 1975 but you wouldn't know it. You could presumably spend months in that office and never overhear anything. And if you're not witnessing people working you can't be learning anything from them. If nobody's answering a colleague's phone, nobody's extending their circle of contacts. You're not picking up hints, borrowing elements of style, building up your schtick. 

You learn to work like you learn most other things, at first by copying and then by gradually building your own style. The modern office environment makes it more difficult to copy. Therefore it must be making it more difficult to learn. Or maybe there's nothing to copy anymore. Which is even more worrying.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Steve Hewlett, the Media Show and the question nobody in the media can answer

Radio Four's Media Show is currently one of the best things on the network. That's probably because its presenter, Steve Hewlett, is the best broadcast interviewer working anywhere. He's done enough homework to be able to get an interviewee to explain the key points of what are increasingly complex stories and yet when he slips the stiletto between the ribs he doesn't seem to be doing it maliciously.

I just caught up with a recent edition where he interviewed The Guardian's Director of Digital Engagement about the practicalities and ethics of their new Facebook alliance and the new editor of The Independent, Chris Blackhurst, about press regulation, Johann Hari and the future of the paper.

When he asked "Do you think the Independent will still be here on paper in five years?", the editor said that this was difficult to predict, which is a pretty remarkable answer if you think about it.

A John Humphreys would not have been able to let that answer go by without mocking the inability of the newspaper to be able to see its own immediate future. He would have repeated the question in a number of different ways while the editor shifted from foot to foot and eventually muttered something about having to speak to his superiors.

Hewlett didn't bother. He knows that the media is the land of vanished certainty. To pursue the question would only have tempted Blackhurst to make something up. I'm very glad he didn't.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

How to get some more young people into The Archers

I know The Archers isn't real. If it was Ambridge would be a victim of the same drift which is seeing an estimated 200,000 young people a year desert rural areas for the cities. But instead I am happy to report that Ambridge is bursting at the seams with bright, personable, highly motivated, web-savvy people under the age of 30, all starting up businesses selling sausages, organic cheese, cocktails, horse shoes and the other staples of life in the year 2011.

There's something else that makes this notional village near Birmingham exceptional. 21% of the UK population work in the public sector in some shape or form and yet Ambridge doesn't boast a single teacher, nurse, road sweeper or retired civil servant. Not one. The only person who is reliant on the public purse is Clive Horobin, who's just been released from prison. This sylvan hive of industry must be the motor that is keeping the British economy going now that the North Sea oil has run out. I'm surprised it hasn't been on the news.

A friend of mine lives in a small hamlet in the (real) East Midlands. The residents recently noticed that somebody had moved into the large house on the edge of the settlement. It seemed to be occupied by a number of willowy young women who tottered down the shop on very high heels to buy the cigarettes which seemed to be their only form of nourishment. A number of burly gentlemen looked out from the front of the property.

It turned out, of course, to be an east European-run knocking shop. The locals reported it to the police and it was shut down quite promptly. Now wouldn't this make an Archers plotline? It would be both stranger and truer than what's going on in Ambridge at the moment.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Politics is a dialogue of the deaf

Had the plumbers round this morning.

Having established my wife is a teacher, the younger of the two, in his thirties but probably not a parent, said "I see Michael Gove is going to make it OK for them to hit pupils".

I think he expected to enlist my automatic disapproval. I widened my eyes in the "you don't say" expression I use when I don't want to pursue a line of conversation.

The older of the two, definitely a parent, said "some of them want a good hiding" and carried on with his work without looking up.

This is why I don't watch "Question Time".

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Happy birthday to Paul Simon, the man who's made more great pop records than anyone


"Baby Driver", a track from Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water", popped up on my iPod last night. It struck me, as it does from time to time, that Paul Simon's musical reputation suffers because he doesn't represent anyone but himself. I tweeted to the effect that no individual writer has more great pop records to his name than Paul Simon. @MaggieA, among others, contested this view, suggesting that Joni Mitchell had more.

Today is Paul Simon's 70th birthday so it seemed as good a time as any to offer this Spotify playlist as evidence. Life's too short to get bogged down in defining what is and what isn't pop. It stands for popular. Pop records, to my mind, exist independently of the artist. They are familiar to people who aren't very aware of who made them and don't much care. If I was putting music on the computer of a radio station these are the Paul Simon-authored records I'd put on there in the confident expectation that when they came up on the airwaves people would say "I know this one".

I've cheated in including his first hit "Hey Schoolgirl", which was in the fifties, but I haven't put in anything from his recent "So Beautiful Or So What" or any of his much-admired but relatively uncommercial records of the last few years. Even without those his achievement is exceptional. Big hits as a member of a duo, for whom he wrote all the songs and did most of the singing. Big hits on his own in the 70s. Even more big hits on his own in the 80s. Songs like "50 Ways To Leave Your Lover" and "Still Crazy After All These Years" which are still a boon to headline writers all these years later. Only Paul McCartney can boast a comparable span.

Oh, and I didn't include "Baby Driver".

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Women drinking pints and other things that give the lie to costume drama

I caught a clip of Pan Am, the new American drama about the early 60s when air travel was glamorous. In one scene the stewardesses were on a layover in London. They were in a pub and  they were drinking pints.

I don't remember exactly when women started drinking pints but it wasn't in the sixties and the last people you would have seen with a brimming beaker in hand were these would-be Jackie Kennedys.

I've adapted to many things but women and pints is something I've never quite got used to. It just never looks right to me. It's obviously one of those things that betrays one's age.

Back in the early 70s the only woman I knew who drank pints was a roadsweeper I worked with during a student vacation. She used to have two pints at lunchtime and a lot more in the evening. She was probably in her fifties and wore bright red lipstick framing her solitary front tooth. I want to call her Lil.

I can't expect the makers of today's period dramas to recognise their own bum notes. The world of Pan Am is about as distant from today as the Edwardian world was from the makers of The Forsyte Saga in the mid-60s. Back then there were probably Edwardian etiquette books they could consult to establish how polite society had been ordered. There's nothing you can refer to which rules with similar authority on what went on in more recent times. When women started drinking pints it was as much a watershed moment as the first appearance of a mini skirt. Nobody, however, seems to have marked it.

Friday, October 07, 2011

There's a difference between changing the world and selling it toys

Saw a Tweet yesterday which read:
"They're leaving flowers outside the Apple Store. What has happened to us?"
Couldn't help but sympathise. Steven Spielberg described Steve Jobs as "the greatest inventor since Edison", which can't be right. What about the airplane? The rocket to the moon? The technology which enables keyhole surgery? Antibiotics?

More to the point in Steve Jobs' case, he probably wouldn't have claimed to have invented the personal computer or MP3 player, the products with which he's most associated. He was a man who had a genius for perfecting such products and then marketing them. However nobody mourns a brilliant marketeer.

Did he "change the world", as all and sundry were claiming yesterday? You could say that he was a brilliant maker of toys. That's not to diminish him or the sense of loss of those around him. I've got all his toys and I love them.  But I do worry what our possession of these toys may be doing to our sense of proportion.

Another Tweet I saw yesterday came from Richard Coles.
"William Tyndale, translator of the Bible into English that ploughboys might be as learned as bishops - burned for his trouble on this day."
Now William Tyndale. There's a man who did change the world. Got no thanks for it either.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Anyone who says they can't work their mobile or their Mac is just trying to draw attention to themselves


The presenter of the football programme on Five Live last night was making the usual announcements about how you could get the programme as a podcast. Guests John Motson and Steve Claridge were making the harrumphy "this is all too space-age for me" noises that men of a certain age and background seem to feel is their only appropriate response to a sentence that contains the word "podcast" or "tweet". 

How long can they - or anyone - keep this kind of thing up? They already sound like Victorian butlers whinging about the telephone. It's not the space age any more, boys. That was ages ago.

Obviously not everyone listens to podcasts. Not everyone uses Twitter. Personally, I don't like Facebook. Every time I go on there I feel as if I've stepped into a bar full of people whose names I've forgotten and immediately want to turn on my heel and leave.

I don't however pretend that I don't understand it or that it's operating on some level beyond my competence because I haven't passed the right exams or I began my education too late. Anything that's been taken up by millions of people all over the world can not be difficult to understand. 

If I don't embrace it that's my choice. I don't say "I'm a bit of a Luddite", not least because Luddites were weavers whose jobs were threatened by the advent of machines and in extreme cases they destroyed said machinery. 

I don't say "it's all too technical for me" because one of the most interesting things about the digital revolution is that it's been achieved without anyone other than a coder having to consult a technical manual at all. 

Our adoption of this technology has been so seamless that we've been taught how to use the technology by the technology itself. The only people who have trouble are people who have decided to have trouble.

Nobody has had to pore over an instruction manual to use Google or eBay or an iPhone. We may have relied on friends to show us the odd short-cut but we haven't needed anyone to tell us how to begin. It wasn't always thus. It's not that long since you had to take a day off to set-up even the most elementary item of kit.

The introduction of the Amstrad PCW 8256 back in the 80s. Now that *was* too technical for everybody. It came with two huge spiral bound books and had no hard drive. That meant you couldn't save even the smallest memo on it. You had to save it on to a removable disc. If, like me, you were a very early adopter, you only found this out after you'd lost a whole day's work.

In those days technology allowed you to get things wrong. Today you almost have to want to.