Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A year in 40 seconds

One more cup of coffee

I took part in a conference a couple of months ago. It was one of those events where you don't expect to get paid and it's not exactly of any promotional value either but you do it nonetheless. This was the kind of job that used to be recognised by a case of wine. Times seem to have changed. What I got was a thank-you and this card, which entitles me to lots of free coffee at Caffe Nero during December. I've been out and about more than usual during December but not once have I been in the vicinity of a branch of Caffe Nero while I had this card with me. I lent it to my wife. She was too busy to use it. I lent it to the kids. They forgot. And tomorrow is the last day of December and I still haven't used the damned thing. It's starting to get to me. The heart bridles at the thought of an unused discount in a way I find strangely unsettling. I may very well take a special trip to the West End tomorrow just to make sure it gets used at least once.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Don't judge your father by the standards of today

I've been reading Chocolate and Cuckoo Clocks, an anthology of the work of Alan Coren. It's been put together by his children Giles and Victoria. In the foreword they worry about whether to include anything from their father's most successful work, "The Collected Bulletins Of Idi Amin". These "letters" ran in Punch in the early 70s when Amin, the first Third World bogeyman to present himself as a rich subject for comedy, was all over the papers. Coren portrayed Amin as a ludicrous monster, part Sanders of The River and part crooked businessman. In retrospect that was about the size of it. However, the time has long passed when you can have a white man putting the words "dis", "dat", "dose" and "upsetting de popperlace" in the mouth of a black man, not even one we all agree was A Bad Lot. Giles and Victoria spend a lot of time discussing the rights and wrongs of this. They know what a major part of their father's work it was. The collected edition of the Amin letters sold a million copies and probably paid for the Coren children's education. It was very funny then. It goes without saying that the broadness of its humour would not pass through today's narrow gate.

Edwardian thriller writer John Buchan rarely cracked jokes but because he had some of his characters say unflattering things about Jews, last night's BBC documentary John Buchan: Master Of Suspense had to spend five minutes deciding whether it was still OK to like his books. This is the kind of agonising that increasingly besets the business of looking back even a couple of generations. It's as if contemporary chroniclers are gazing at the recent past from the shores of a Utopia on which they've recently arrived, finding it impossible to believe that recent generations had laboured in such darkness. Can it be that our own kith and kin used to think like that? Well, people did think that like that. My own mother once described the colour of a coat as "nigger brown". She would have been horrified if you had told her this could be construed as a racial epithet. I noted this at the time but wasn't shocked for thirty years. I'm not shocked now but I do raise an eyebrow and it makes me wonder what elements of contemporary speech and manners will be equally incendiary in the future.

But for now I wish people would just relax. The kind of attitudes exemplified by Coren's 1973 humour or Buchan's 1918 thrillers don't speak of bad people any more than today's desperate avoidance of anything that could be construed as racism or any other ism is the sign of good ones. I wouldn't find the unchallenged liberalism of today's conventional wisdom quite so irritating if it weren't so ready to draw attention to the apparent shortcomings of earlier generations, people who lived in a less comfy world than ours has been. Up till now.

And people still wonder why we're obsessed with the Sixties

Patti Boyd models Mary Quant.

The Rolling Stones provide background.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

And suddenly, you're dancing

Talking to Paul Morley on Christmas Eve, Bruce Forsyth said he could tell a good dancer from the way they walked. Fred Astaire had a remarkable walk. It was like a pre-war version of the pimp roll but executed by a body that couldn't be made to do anything inelegant. It's interesting how many of Astaire's routines begin with him ambling into shot and then slowly turning a walk into a dance. It's this transition from business to pleasure in a few paces that most people find most difficult when taking to the dance floor.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The most demanding performance of the musical year

The annual Christmas Eve carol service from King's College Chapel begins with a boy soprano singing the first verse of "Once In Royal David's City". I learn from an interview with a couple of former choristers that all the boys actually practise this number. The actual singer is only chosen when the red light goes on to begin the broadcast. The choirmaster points at one boy and off he goes. No time for nerves, presumably.

Happy Christmas.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Could you turn it down a bit? It's not big and it's not clever.

Loud music is a bit like free speech. Take it just that tiny bit too far and you want to kill someone.

Mark Ellen and I were talking to Katherine Whitehorn about loud music. As a member of the pre-rock and roll generation, she was keen to know what people of the rock and roll generation thought about the fact that everywhere we go nowadays we are exposed to music at a level that would have considered intolerable to the people who'd got their idea of noise from hearing actual munitions being dropped on their heads.

It was very difficult to get over how we felt. Obviously we have spent the last thirty years with headphones clamped to our ears and thereby we are by any measure clinically deaf. Nevertheless in the last few years even I have been forced to beat a retreat from both live gigs and clubs where the level of the music was actually making me feel ill. I cannot imagine what it would do to somebody of Katherine's generation. I have left branches of Abercrombie & Fitch with teenage shopping list unfulfilled thanks to the hammering my ribcage was taking from the sound waves coming from the speakers.

The world must be getting louder and people must be getting deafer. There is no other explanation.Loudness is a form of inflation that has been raging for years. It is driven not just by technology but also by humanity's incorrect belief that there is a notch on the volume knob which, once achieved, will bring about a massive explosion of human delight. They are all seeking this plateau of delirium. It never happens. It doesn't exist. Delight comes from within, not without.

In shops the rising tide of volume is driven by the staff. They are bored out of their minds and play music loud in order to persuade themselves that they work in a club and not a haberdashery. At office parties it's driven by people who have drunk slightly more than everyone else and believe that cranking the "sounds" up sufficiently will make everyone else do the thing they don't actually dare do themselves - dance. Party goers try to make themselves heard by talking louder. DJs respond by turning it up even louder. Far from increasing the sum of human happiness in the room they clearly reduce it and inevitably shorten the party.

I have talked to a number of people about the recent Leonard Cohen shows. The praise they universally volunteer is this. "It wasn't *loud*." Is it possible that this marks the moment the worm turns?

Friday, December 19, 2008

How they deal with difficult neighbours in Kenya in the year 2008

This shot, taken from The Year 2008 In Photographs, shows Masai warriors dressed in modern sportswear deploying with their bows and arrows on a hillside in Kenya.

They are not doing this for historical re-enactment purposes. This is a live dispute over territory. Twenty people have been killed in the last few months.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

In defence of football chairmen

I've just heard John Williams, the Blackburn Rovers chairman, being given a hard time by Mark Saggers on Radio Five for sacking Paul Ince and replacing him with Sam Allardyce. The "they didn't give him enough time" lobby, headed up by people who have no investment in the eventual outcome of the crisis that triggered the sacking, strikes me as plain naive.

If you're chairman of a Premiership football club you are responsible for one thing and one thing only - keeping the club in the Premiership. You have but one lever at your disposal that might, just might, have some effect on this. That's the replacement of the manager. Thanks to the strange, folksy ways of this industry, it's the only course of action that might make a difference. And even if it doesn't, the tribe are unlikely to blame you for it.

Therefore the chairman has to do it. Woe betide he does it too early, woe betide he does it too late. He has one window and that's the pre-Christmas period. I believe John Williams when he said that it has been a horrible week for him and he really wanted Ince to work out. Which he probably would have done, but by then they would have dropped down a division. And nobody forgives that.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The umpteeenth Crusade is enacted on the Victoria Line

I've always believed that the most dangerous time to be on the London Underground is between two and three in the afternoon. If you're going to encounter loons, this is the time of day. First thing in the morning the loons are prettily aslumber. By going home time they have gone home. But between two and three they are inevitably abroad and the absence of crowds affords them the elbow room in which to operate.

Yesterday afternoon at this hour I noticed an older chap making his way down the carriage. He was pausing at each passenger and making the sign of the cross over their head. The smile on his face made it impossible to work out whether he was a drunk, a nutcase or an over-zealous priest putting his commuting time to productive use. As he reached the middle of the carriage a passenger, who may have been a Muslim, waved him away in an agitated manner and then, when he persisted, moved right down the carriage as if he had been bothered by a swarm of bees.

For a few seconds I wondered whether there might be An Incident, the kind of thing that might have culminated in a discussion on Newsnight with the Archbishop of Canterbury on one hand and Iqbal Sacranie on the other and eventually lead to the introduction of a law forbidding any shows of religious faith on public transport.

But then we arrived at Warren Street and I got off.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Uma Thurman's fiance might want to make some changes to the wedding list

Arpad Busson, the financier who is engaged to Uma Thurman, has just lost hundreds of millions of dollars in the Madoff swindle.

When's the happy day then?

Magazines, the recession and the decline and fall of "expense it" culture

There are already a lot of media redundancies and next year there are going to be a lot more. Clearly, this is not easy for anyone. For those who have reached a certain level of seniority in a large company it involves adjustment as well as hardship. They miss not only the salary and the sense of purpose but also the perks and fringe benefits that have come to shape their "lifestyle". These can range from the trivial to the hugely expensive. Given the present march to austerity it seems that in the future both kinds will seem equally exotic.

When I first began working for a large publisher in the late 70s there was something called a "reading allowance". This had been arrived at in an agreement with the unions during a government pay freeze. It resulted in everyone in the company filling in an expenses sheet every month and claiming around five quid to pay for the newspapers that they allegedly needed to pursue their job.

Advertising sales people were originally given company cars to enable them to visit clients in distant towns. Then the editors were given them to cover stories. In time everyone above a certain level had them. They were usually treated with the disrespect of found money. Staff living in inner-city areas didn't much mind getting them stolen because it was always somebody else's problem. People used to complain when the revenue starting treating them as a "benefit in kind" and taxing them. Such people have, of course, never known what it is to pay a garage service bill from their own pocket.

I used to work with a boss who said he would discuss anything at staff meetings - the share price, the company's equal opportunities policy, even his own salary - but he wouldn't stand there and try to referee discussions about either company cars or staff toilets. Experience had taught him that people were incapable of being rational when talking about either.

Once a publishing company starts dealing in premium-priced advertising it is a fact of life that its staff begin to travel shorter distances more expensively. Advertising directors (or "publishers", as they quickly insist on being known) can no longer get from Mayfair to the Ivy without being conveyed in a black car. Fashion people adopt the Fashionista Salute whereby their right arm shoots up to hail a cab as soon as a revolving door has propelled them into the outside world.

The appeal of working in the luxury businesses, and the magazines that maintain their illusions, is that even the foot soldiers are temporarily licensed to behave as if they are Donatella Versace. Afraid of appearing insufficiently prestigious, their employers allow them to get away with running up expenses that wouldn't be acceptable in the widget industry. I knew of one senior woman working in this area who used to have her hair titivated by a professional every single morning. At the company's expense.

A magazine's expenditure becomes a function of its success rather than its requirements. The tiny handful of titles that make enormous amounts of money begin to balk at anything that looks like penny-pinching. "You mean to tell me that with all this money we're making you're arguing about a few cab bills?" is generally how the conversation starts. After that it gets ugly and sometimes culminates in someone leaving the company.

By then you have a large executive class who are competing to spend the company's money. They are motivated less by the legitimate requirements of their job and more by the desire to gain the same prestige that somebody else has got. This is at its worst when it comes to air travel. There once was a time when the most senior executive of one organisation travelled in coach. Then more and more people started to fly on business and some began to noisily announce that they had not turned right in a plane for years. This has the effect of making the most senior staff determined to enjoy the same prestige as their juniors.

The same inflationary spiral results in everyone joining private members clubs at the company's expense where they all entertain each other on the company credit cards that they have all been given before taking the company's car service home. Meanwhile their company car, which by now is some kind of SUV that never actually goes anywhere near the place of work, is being used by their partner to ferry their kids back and forth to school.

Once you have been used to doing things in a certain way it's very difficult to claw any of it back. One in ten cars in the UK are company vehicles, a much higher proportion than anywhere else. Try taking those back from people on the grounds that they're not used for company business and anyway they're polluting the planet. Then see what rancour ensues. The same applies to most perks. People in this country are unlikely to take the "easy-come, easy-go" attitude. They are more likely to react as if you're stripping them of their civil rights.

I was thinking of all this while reading a piece called "A short history of perks at Time Inc", which details all the staff benefits, official and unofficial, that the staff of America's biggest publisher used to enjoy when the living was easy and the cotton was high. These, believe it or not, included a drinks trolley that used to be pushed round the editorial floor on press days, which makes you wonder whether "Mad Men" might have been underselling things.

At this time of year I also remember when companies used to send cases of booze to key decision makers in the hope that they could count on repeat business. The main beneficiary of this in the company I used to work for was, back in the 80s, the person who handed out the print contracts. I once met the boss on the way back from a visit to his office. "Don't go in there," he said. "It looks like a bonded warehouse."

Lloyd George Knew My Father

Unlike feudal, class-bound Great Britain, the United States of America is still a country where people can rise to the highest offices in the land by dint of their own efforts and regardless of their humble background. In which spirit I'm glad to see that the person fancied to take over the Senate seat of the previously unknown Hillary Clinton is JFK's daughter Caroline Kennedy.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

What fresh hell is this?

I'll tell you one odd aspect of being a bloke. Every now and then you see some product or service being advertised and you ask yourself, what the deuce is that when it's at home? I snapped this while out walking this morning.

What you have to do to get noticed in today's highly competitive busking business

I took this on Upper Street the other day.

He's on a tightrope and he's playing the violin.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Fear of flying: a new twist

This is the picture accompanying a piece in the new Vanity Fair about a mid-air collision that took place over Brazil in 2006. It's actually an illustration, which is obvious when you think about it. When you read the piece, which is good but three times as long as it needs to be, you realise the accident happened so fast that in its wake the occupants of the private plane weren't even sure that they'd struck a commercial airliner. The element of the story that has been occupying my thoughts since reading it is this: the two planes collided because they were directed to the same part of the sky at the same height but in opposite directions. If this had happened twenty years ago then there would have been room for error and they would most probably have missed each other. Modern navigation equipment means they wouldn't.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Does Robert Peston think he's FDR?

I fear that the BBC's Robert Peston is succumbing to that peculiar form of self-importance affecting BBC reporters who suddenly find themselves at the centre of a huge story. Commenting on the effect of Congress's decision not to bail out the auto industry just now, he said "it's going to be a tough day but we'll get through it".

"We"? Whatever happens to GM workers or shareholders, Robert, I think it's reasonable to assume that your position and salary will not be affected.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

All I want for Christmas is a tree - and I've got one

We have one of those Christmas trees that spends the year out in the garden and is brought inside for a couple of weeks at this time of year. We don't have to pay for a new one. We just have to summon the energy to bring the one we've got indoors. Therefore it's no use the five guys selling Christmas trees in Chapel Market trying their patter on me.

They looked a little tense to me, as if they're concerned that their stock isn't showing much sign of moving. A tree has always been the last element of Christmas I could do without. Maybe I'm unusual and it's actually one of the first things that people looking to cut back would decide they don't need.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

"How much pain can you be in?"

Today Josh Lewsey announced his retirement from international rugby. This is a good enough excuse to show this clip of his tackle on Matt Rogers, my favourite moment in the entire history of England/Australia sport. I particularly love the way the Australian commentator laughs.

And today's solution to economic meltdown is...

One of the bracing features of the current economic problems is there is more discussion of genuinely radical courses of action than usual. In today's Guardian Simon Jenkins reckons that more good would be done giving everybody a thousand pounds and forcing them to spend it than in spending the same amount of money trying to unfreeze credit.
Get people to spend by giving them money, and just stop them saving it. Give them non-cashable vouchers for domestic goods and services that expire in three months. Drive them to the high streets, supermarkets, restaurants, entertainments, garages, anything that is not saving and has an employment multiplier effect. Only firms should be able to bank the vouchers. Demand must feed straight into business revenue, because revenue is collateral for credit. Without revenue, boosting credit is pointless.

I'll buy that.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Because we may not be the young ones very long

Today I was having my hair cut at an establishment in Kingly Street. I looked out of the window and saw a cheerful figure coming down the road. He was in his sixties but very well-preserved with a thick mop of silver hair and he was carrying a guitar in a case. To my surprise, he came in to the barbers shop and spoke to the woman cutting my hair.
"Are we still OK for Thursday?"
"Yes. Four o'clock."
"OK, I'm just off to rehearse. See if I can still remember the chords."
And he set off into the sunshine, swinging his guitar case as he skipped along.
Bruce Welch of the Shads, off to do the Royal Variety Performance.

Blabber 'n' smoke

An anti-smoking campaigner on the radio this morning, commenting on the display ban, said, and I think I'm quoting him correctly, "smoking exacerbates social division." I think he meant "poor people smoke more". This is really, really not the same thing at all.

Monday, December 08, 2008

The Me Generation

A year or so ago, thanks to Speechification, I caught an episode of Alan Dein's superb "Don't Hang Up". The idea of this series was to ring phone boxes late at night and interview anyone who answered. One of the voices on this programme belonged to Hannah, a 14-year-old girl living the feral life on Margate sea front. Understandably concerned and fascinated, Dein has subsequently tracked her down and done a programme about her. It contains the elements you might have predicted: a violent stepfather, a teenage mother, drugs, drink and a series of failed interventions by police and social workers. He interviews Hannah at length. She betrays the classic symptoms of a contemporary malaise that teachers talk about all the time: noisy assertiveness masking a desperate lack of genuine self-esteem.

The same theme is echoed in Tim Adams's excellent piece on the Karen Matthews case in The Guardian. Having observed the trial he concluded that Matthews seemed incapable of putting anyone's needs, not even her children's, above her own for even a moment. It's a rare case of a Guardian writer suggesting that the liberal establishment has done people like Karen Matthews no favours by excusing the way they go about their lives. He mentions Bea Campbell's contrasting of the media's differing attitudes to the Matthews case with that of Madeleine McCann.
Campbell's argument may not have been true - can any couple ever have been subjected to more media scrutiny about their lifestyle than the McCanns? - but it appealed to the class warriors on the blogs. The McCanns were traitors to their working-class roots, with their medical careers and their aspirations for their children and their Mark Warner holidays. Karen Matthews, who had never worked a day in her life, became an unlikely role model for working-class solidarity.
Right now there's a discussion about the case on Woman's Hour. Actually, it's not so much about the case as about what Woman's Hour listeners are supposed to think about it. It features someone called Anastasia. Bet she's never been to Dewsbury Moor. I have.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Tale Of The Unexpected

Next Saturday our son is due to return after six months in Brazil. We haven't seen him in that time. Unsurprisingly we were planning the coming week with his return in mind. Something to look forward to in the midst of the usual pre-Christmas melancholy. Big reunion at Heathrow on Saturday.

Yesterday morning the entirely unexpected happened. I was in my workroom at home. I heard a noise behind me and there he was, big grin all over his face.

He had decided to come a week early. His sister was in on the secret, as were most of the under-30s in London, and she had gone to pick him up from the airport. His mother and I were, it goes without saying, knocked sideways in a way that we rarely are. Ever since it happened we've been trying to recreate that moment of open-mouthed astonishment in our heads. Twenty four hours later we're still shaking our heads as if dazed.

Meanwhile the young ones have been walking round with the proud look that young ones wear when they manage to put one over on you comprehensively. Wouldn't have it any other way. Today we are killing a fatted calf.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Does it really take talent to be "The Talent"?

The discussion on the Today programme about the implications of Selina Scott's successful action against Channel Five over age discrimination was a collectors item for those who study the difference between what TV says and what it does. Both Joan Bakewell and Clive Jones of GMTV were piously pressing the case of older women and making tsk noises about the fashion for the team of silvery-haired male plus nubile female. I think the man from GMTV said that they made their hiring decisions based on "talent and creativity". Any job that required less of either quality than reading the news off an autocue would be hard to imagine.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

If you build it, they won't come

My previous post refers to the difference between what people say and what they do, particularly when it comes to media. I should expand.
  • In research women's magazine readers will always say that they wish the models on the fashion pages were older and rounder. When they are provided with pages of older, rounder models, they immediately stop buying the magazine.
  • Similarly people always say they would like the magazine to feature clothes that are more within their price range. Once that is provided they point out that if they wanted clothes like that they would simply go and buy them.
  • Everybody thinks they've got broad taste in music. Actually, they haven't. "Broad" just means "what I like".
  • Both sexes say they would like to have a magazine that is for older people. But they never regard themselves as older, even when they are.
  • People say they want practical, cookable recipes and not beautiful arty pictures of food shot in foreign countries. They lie.
  • People say they're not interested in celebrities. From The New York Times to The Sun, the evidence is clear. They are more interested in celebrities than anything else in the world.
  • Nobody really wants "Top Of The Pops" back.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The theory and practice of magazines

At City University yesterday I listened to a series of magazine proposals put together by students on their post-graduate journalism programme. This morning I sat through a two-hour meeting dealing with a real life magazine.

The contrast was marked. Yesterday afternoon all of the proposals were distinguished by the not unreasonable belief that you could believe what people told you in research. This morning's discussion was conducted by the light of experience which tells you that while people's opinions are one thing, their behaviour is another altogether.

This cognitive dissonance, which no doubt applies equally to the marketing of margarine or Mercedes, seems particularly pertinent in magazines. As soon as you ask people to tell you why they buy a magazine they will always point to the rational benefits (the listings, the in-depth features) while glossing over the sensory aspects (the naked woman on the front, the encounter with the celebrity inside, the stupid cartoon).

The entry-level professional will tend to work on the principle that if you build it they will come. The more experienced the professional the more likely they are to suspect that, actually, they won't. And of course you can't prove it. But you can show them your scars.

Monday, December 01, 2008

New media

Tomorrow I've got to help judge some students' work at City University.

To get in the mood I've just been looking at the pictures from the Guardian Student Media Awards which took place last week. I was expecting lots of serious coves looking as if they've been dragged away from their inky toil to accept a bauble to which they attached no particular importance. Instead I got lots of young chaps wearing ties and girls frocked up to here.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Turning Mumbai into myth

Terrific Clive James column on Radio Four this morning about "The Baader Meinhof Complex" and how the movies can't help glamorising terrorism, reducing complex, terrible events to a set of easy-to-read symbols and ignoring facts and people that don't fit within that narrative.

This chimes with today's news coverage about Mumbai which is already all about Indian cabinet ministers resigning, the possibility that some of the murderers may have come from the UK and the question whether the murders at the Chabad house were aimed at Jews or Israelis. "The first would be an anti-Semitic attack, the second a political one." says one poster. Is that how the victims saw it?

Friday, November 28, 2008


I've got the events in Mumbai on in the background. The caption says "Warzone Mumbai" so the newsmen are evidently having a ball. The Indian SAS seem to enjoy swaggering about in their Robocop uniforms as much as the young men with the machine guns relished wandering around in their best Versace tee shirts slaughtering indiscriminately. The pundits are out in force speculating excitedly about why the "terrorists" or "militants" or "Islamists" did it.

Strikes me that the quicker you try to look for their motives the quicker you forget that this is murder of the most depraved sort. They didn't much care who they killed. They just wanted an impressive number.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

"And dad would thrash us to sleep with his belt...."

Snapped this in a remaindered book shop in the Charing Cross Road this afternoon.

The "horrible childhoods" category is what I believe is referred to in some quarters of the book retail trade as "the boo-fucking-hoo section".

The "jolly childhoods" category is probably some member of staff's effort to cheer themselves up.

I feel they should be supported.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Is speech the future of live performance?

To the Lyceum last night to hear Malcolm Gladwell perform extracts from his new book "Outliers". I know this doubled as a press reception but nonetheless they seated two houses of 2,100 apiece to hear a bloke explaining the ethnic theory of plane crashes and the English roots of male aggression in the Deep South of the United States. With no PowerPoint.

Gladwell makes very good money out of speaking. He's not the only one. When I spoke to Clive James recently he told me that he now makes his living out of the live circuit. In New York City the trendy club to go to is The Moth where prominent people entertain a roomful of drinkers for fifteen minutes by speaking without notes.

You can see why this would appeal, particularly to middle-aged couples. Any band, other than one you are related to, is a terrible gamble for all but the professionally involved. The cinema seems exclusively aimed at teenagers. The theatre costs a fortune. You don't want to be shouted at by comics. Therefore why not go along to hear someone's interesting opinions or experiences elegantly expressed with the promise of a few jokes on the way? It seems like perfect recession entertainment.

On which subject I see that whereas six months ago we were being told that we didn't save enough, we are now being encouraged to spend like drunken sailors. An economist on the radio this morning described this as the Paradox Of Thrift. i.e. If we all save the economy will seize up. If we all spend the economy will overheat. So, after you.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The irresistible offer

In the last ten years I feel something profound has happened to alter the equation between people on one hand and stuff on the other. This ad (left) was on Facebook just now. It offers you the chance to win an iPod. Not one of hundreds of iPods. Just one iPod. But hold hard. There's more to it than that. This iPod comes pre-loaded with forty (that's right - 4-0) of Michael Parkinson's favourite tracks. Go to his website for details.

Oh darn. They've all gone.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The BBC doing what it does worst

The BBC Trust report on Editorial Standards and the Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand affair would make a good little drama. Something for BBC Four, maybe.

The BBC has always been run by well-intentioned, clever, admirable people. They would probably have difficulty prospering in a commercial organisation; however they are ideally suited to the demands of a bureaucracy. At school you can imagine them organising societies while the cool kids were busy having ill-advised sex behind the cricket pavillion. Dashing they are not. Dash is not called for.

Ever since I've had anything to do with the BBC, its executives have seemed to have a kind of crush on the cool kids. Their role as custodians of the biggest train set in media and entertainment has provided them with the chance to play with those same cool kids. This would never have happened otherwise.

The problem with the cool kids is that they soon want you to prove your cool by letting them drink your dad's Scotch or borrow his car. If you balk, you're not cool. This is particularly difficult to take because you know they're right. You're not cool. You used to run the Film Soc.

The blow-by-blow of the Brand/Ross affair tells the tale of a sequence of events in which nobody wanted to grasp the fizzing cartoon bomb of responsibility and tell the cool kids that what they did was half-baked, tasteless and only funny for those who were in the studio at the time. Instead responsibility was passed up the line in the hope that somebody would be prepared to be the wet blanket. And nobody wanted to do that where the cool kids were concerned.

Consequently somebody has to go in and bat for them. They can't build a defence on the grounds that these people are courageous, unconventional, ahead of their time, highly principled or even particularly funny. Of all the dumb reasons to lose your job, defending the cool kids is about the dumbest.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The BBC doing what it does best

Today's the day the BBC Trust report back on the Brand/Ross debacle. It's widely expected they'll announce their retreat from their proposed network of local video sites at the same time. This morning's Today programme contained an excellent feature about the dilemma that Manuelgate has thrust the Corporation into.

Old generation licence fee payers, like Charles Moore, resent being asked to subsidise material that offends them. New generation licence fee payers, like Emily Bell, wonder how long people will be happy to pay the money for a TV licence when the TV is no longer the machine through which they access most of the BBC's output. Other media organisations wonder whether there are any areas that the BBC doesn't see itself getting into. Members of Parliament question why senior BBC management seems to get paid more than its counterparts in the private sector.

Chief Operating Officer Caroline Thomson was given the John Humphreys treatment over these and other questions. I'm not sure that she put any of them to bed but the fact that a BBC programme did this item, and did it so well, is a very strong argument for the licence fee. You can listen to it here.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

"Homeless with two cats"

There's a young homeless woman outside a supermarket in Holborn with a sign that says "Homeless with two cats". I can't get it out of my mind.

There was no sign of the cats in the shop doorway but then there wouldn't be, would they? Having observed that cats tend to regard a single home as not entirely adequate and usually make sure they are fed somewhere else as well, I am surprised at the loyalty of creatures who are "kept" by somebody who has nowhere to keep them.

But then I thought, is this one of those marketing messages that has been proven to get round human defences? Can it be the case that people will pass by a fellow human in need but will turn and reconsider once they find out that there are a couple of cats involved? And does it only work when you refer to multiple cats? It doesn't bear thinking about. Nonetheless, I have been.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

You can always tell a Yorkshireman - but not much

Last night's Richard Macer documentary on BBC Four was about Milner's, a tiny department store in the Yorkshire Dales town of Leyburn. Milner's specialises in garments with elastic waists for farmer's wives in their sixties and fitted curtains and blinds for their houses. The film, which is one of a short series, was also about the always poignant business of generations changing hands. Here boss David Milner had to be driven towards retirement to allow his daughter and son-in-law to take over.

But what kept me glued was its unflinching depiction of that readiness to squabble that seems so much part of the disposition of a lot of people in Yorkshire. David and his family were capable of arguing about the most trivial matters. The angle of a light, the precise wording on an invoice, the number of chairs they needed for their fashion show. All families can do that. But only in Yorkshire are people so determined to pursue their point no matter how much embarrassment is caused that they are prepared to let a man with a camera stand right between them as they have a raging fight about a matter so trifling that it's clear it's merely a cipher for a struggle that goes much deeper.

I'd recommend "The Department Store", particularly for anyone who's enjoyed the films of Molly Dineen.

Monday, November 17, 2008

They've all gone to look for America

I caught fifteen minutes of Stephen Fry In America last night. I feel I've seen no end of prominent British broadcasters wander around America with a film crew in tow: Clive James, Michael Palin, Alistair Cooke, even Jonathan King. There must be plenty of others that have slipped my mind. Memory may be playing me false but it seems that now they spend less time finding out anything about the places they're visiting than they ever did. Last night Stephen was in Alaska. I gathered the following:
1. It's cold;
2. It's beautiful;
3. The Inuits hunt whales;
4. Some of the fish are very ugly;
5. Stephen Fry has been there.
Then he went to Hawaii. I learned the following:
1. It's warm;
2. It's beautiful;
3. The Hawaiians resent the tourism;
4. The sunsets are very beautiful;
5. Stephen Fry has been there.

Then I got a bit anxious watching Fry interview people. In real life he is probably a very good listener but that's not his TV persona. He looks like a hyper active kid who's been told to fold his arms and sit still. We expect him to be spouting forth while other people listen to him in wonder and admiration. And he's very self-conscious about his size and shape. He lacks the streak of fearlessness that made Palin so good at this kind of thing. When he was lowered in the cage to be filmed swimming with some apparently docile sharks he really couldn't wait for it to be over.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The future of dogs

I have nothing against dogs but I do not wish to own one. I think now may be the time to rationalise the numbers of such pets. This could be organised in a way that would be beneficial to both mutts and mutt-lovers. All public parks should have dogs tethered at their gates. Anyone taking a turn around the lake for a constitutional would be free to unhitch said dogs and take them for a stroll. At the end of this perambulation they would be returned to their place, refreshed by the exercise and having widened their social circle. It's an arrangement I can see myself taking advantage of.

For those who don't want to actually interact with the dogs but simply wish to look at them for a short while when they're at their most appealing I can only hope that Puppycam is but the first of a series of similar services. I've visited it about twenty times today.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

We love you

To the 02 Arena for the first time to see an immaculate show by Leonard Cohen.

The audience didn't behave like crowds of 20,000 tend to do. When the house lights were extinguished there wasn't the usual delighted cheer. As far as I could tell there was only one person in that whole crowd who felt the need to announce their location with a war whoop. People applauded instrumental solos when they were distinguished enough to demand it. What conversation there was was kept to manageable levels, suggesting these people had all been to libraries or funerals and were therefore familiar with the principle of shutting the fuck up on occasion.

Inevitably they took pictures on their mobile phones but that's a form of madness too far advanced to turn back. And, inevitably also, some person felt moved to wait until there was a silence and then shout "We love you, Leonard!" What possesses such people? Do they imagine that this makes the artist feel secure? Or does it increase their worry that out there in the dark lurks the odd person who might turn up in their kitchen in the middle of the night with a knife or dedicate their lives to drawing full-sized portraits of them?

I've been at James Taylor shows where women shout this. To be fair, women have the decency to say "I love you, James", thereby at least claiming personal responsibility for the sentiment. Taylor has an elegant way of deflecting such compliments. "That's very nice of you but I think it's best we don't know each other."

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Madame Tussauds and the inexplicable nature of tourism

Back in the 50s, when there was only one channel of TV and we were easily impressed, I was taken to Madame Tussauds near Baker Street. I was a bit frightened by the Chamber of Horrors. Actually, I was frightened by the idea of the Chamber of Horrors. I'm not sure I even went in. Even to my eight-year-old eyes Madame Tussauds was a tacky proposition. The notion of a good waxworks had limited appeal. The idea that in the heart of one of the greatest cities in the world there was a particularly poor one was inexplicable even then. If ever there was a tourist attraction that should have shrivelled and died, that should have been rendered risible by the march of time and the advance of technology, it's Madame Tussauds. And yet, every time I go past there I am amazed that it continues to draw huge numbers. People from all over the world, where they presumably have their own museum of bad likenesses of their own celebrities, continue to flock to its door.

This is even more amazing when you consider that a ticket for an adult is £25. The blow of this is presumably softened slightly when you learn that a child is a mere £21. If it still seems a bit steep to you, then you can take a family for a bargain £85. Couple of cokes and the tube fares and you've spent £100.

Wandering around London you often run into tourists wearing that over-tired, faintly disappointed expression of visitors all over the world. It's the look that says "where am I again?" and "when can I go and buy something that I could have bought in my own high street but for slightly more money?" These people are already at the end of their tethers. How a visit to this mausoleum on the Marleybone Road does not push them over the edge is a puzzle. How Madame Tussauds was not burned down long ago by mobs of angry visitors who have paid out thousands of pounds per tour party to gawp at a few rotten wax figures I am at a loss to know. How it continues to get the traffic in 2008 is genuinely amazing. Could it be that quite a few of those twenty-five pounds go to the tour companies who deliver the people to its doors? Are people enjoying themselves in an ironic way, like visitors to Graceland? If it didn't cost so much I might go in and find out.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Our friends in the North

"It's been tried in Canada and it works very well," said David Cameron on the Today programme just now. I don't know what he was talking about. It doesn't matter. What interests me is the reference to Canada. Whenever anyone in public life in the UK is proposing a radical solution to anything they always point to the fact that it's been tried in somewhere in the North: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and now Canada. They never say it's been tried in Spain or Brazil or Sri Lanka. It's always somewhere snowy. Is that because they have detected that we associate cold places with wisdom and rectitude?

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Suicide not painless

People usually regret letting television into their personal lives. Michael Portillo's Death Of A School Friend (which is on the iPlayer for the next five days) may be a rare exception. This is the story of Gary, a classmate of Portillo's, Clive Anderson's and Jeffrey Perkins's at Harrow County Grammar School in the late 60s, a bright boy who suffered from undiagnosed depression and committed suicide two days before his sixteenth birthday.

Gary's parents and younger brother, having endured the forty years since without talking about their agony, agreed to participate in a film about him, in the hope that it might persuade any young person contemplating suicide to reconsider and also to help them in their own ceaseless grieving. It's a powerful, humbling piece of television that should be shown in schools. Seeing how Gary's absence crushed the life out of his parents and even afflicted their relationships with their unborn grandchildren, you can only conclude that the dead get off lightly.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Still life

People say the web is increasingly about video. Maybe it is. Nevertheless, the most eloquent media coverage of the sub-prime crisis I've seen is this sound and pictures presentation from Magnum's Bruce Gilden. It's called "Foreclosures" and it's made up of pictures of boarded-up boxes in Florida together with the life stories of the people who used to live in them. You should watch it. It takes eight minutes.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Their name liveth for evermore

I see the Commonwealth War Graves Commission have announced they are going to undertake the maintenance required to make sure that the names of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers remembered in their cemeteries and memorials are re-inscribed so that they are not washed away by time and the weather. It's the Forth Bridge of the stonemason's art.

The last time I went to the memorial at Thiepval, which bears the names of 73,357 British and South African men who died on the Somme and have no known grave, a mason was busy adding new names in a corner. He told me that they had to do this kind of thing regularly. This is not because they've found a previously undiscovered body (although that does happen) but because they find that there's been a tiny slip in the usually faultless bureaucracy. A name has been double-counted or the spelling isn't right. This is a different Arthur Smith from the other twenty Arthur Smiths on this panel or maybe they've got his regiment wrong. The dedication to correcting this kind of thing is moving in itself.

The cemeteries of the Somme and Flanders are unique, not just for their vastness. If you haven't gone, you should. An entire generation of young men from Britain (and from what was then the Empire) left home for the first time in their lives, set up camp in one particular part of the countryside and subsequently died. So there they remain. Most of them didn't fight in the traditional sense. They were just there to be shelled, as were the Germans. The books in the entrance to the cemeteries record the names of their parents and their addresses: Railway Cuttings, Primrose Cottage, Sea View, Alma Street, the Meadway, the Vicarage and so on.

Before the First World War there had been no call for memorials on this scale. In 1920 it was agreed, following a public debate, that bodies should not be repatriated and that the so-called Silent Cities be created and maintained at public expense. And they are. How long for is an interesting question.

Meanwhile the dead from Afghanistan and Iraq are flown home. Here's a remarkable piece from the New Yorker in 2004 explaining what happens today when the dead come home.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

What Obama should know about power

Presumably Barack Obama hasn't had time to watch all of "The Wire". If he can only manage one it should be the episode from Season Four called "Unto Others". It begins with the scene (left) where Tommy Carcetti, who's running for mayor, has a talk with former officeholder Tony.

Tony explains to him what it was like on his first day in the job. There he was, installed behind the big desk, when his aides came in one at a time bearing bowls of shit. This one's from the unions. This one's from the blacks. This one's from the Polacks. It becomes clear that his role as mayor is to eat up each bowl.

That's what office must be like.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

What British TV won't face about the American election

It's American election night. BBC reporters are in position from sea to shining sea. Channel Four and ITN are there as well. Why?

What are they going to bring us that we won't get via the CNN site or Huffington Post or the New York Times? What early intelligence on the winners and losers are they going to bring us ahead of ABC or NBC? Which of the movers and shakers are going to speak to the BBC before they talk to CBS or MSNBC? Which noteworthy events are going to take place in front of the BBC's cameras? Anything that happens will be on YouTube within seconds. That's how it's been throughout the campaign. We've watched most of it via Flash video.

Of course any BBC political reporter worth their salt will not pass up the chance to be where the action is but they can't justify their expenses like they used to. They won't be first with the news. Their presenters will be telling us what they've just read on the very same websites that we're looking at.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Why you can't make sport *more* exciting

When I turned in last Saturday night Juande Ramos was the manager of Spurs and they had two points. I woke up Sunday morning to a text from my son saying we had a new manager. Since then they have played three games. They've won two of them and, in incredible circumstances, drawn the other. Of course all these were down to the most extraordinary combination of luck and renewed belief but they do underline, if it were needed, why football has such as grip on the national psyche, eloquently expressed this week by Danny Kelly's microphone-shattering screech of "I *love* football, Stan!" on Talk Sport.

Contrast this with the hollow farce of the England cricket team's participation in the million dollars-to-the-winners Stanford match in Antigua. The local team won and got the cash. Good luck to them. But if Stanford or anyone think they will seed interest in the game this way, they're mistaken. Stanford is the man who thinks Test cricket is boring. This alone should disqualify him from having any part in the game's future. It'll be a long time before anyone shouts "I *love* Twenty20, Aggers!"

Friday, October 31, 2008

I know you've been wondering what I think about Manuelgate

I like Paul Gambaccini but he does reach for the extra colour before it's called for, likening Lesley Douglas to Achilles on Five Live this morning. What he has to say is broadly very true: that only presenters who "drive the desk" have the radio professional's approach to their work or awareness of their responsibilities to their audience.

Somewhere in Brand and Ross's minds must have been the thought that somebody else would save them from themselves by cutting the controversial bits out, as they would undoutedly have done in a pre-recorded TV programme. Nobody did.

I've talked to a bunch of people in radio this week, in the BBC and elsewhere. Their view boils down to this: if you hire people like Brand you must at least try to produce them. If you can't control them because you're 25 and this is your first job, you pass it up the line to somebody who can. If you're going to use the word "fuck" in a pre-recorded item on any BBC service it has to be signed off by a senior executive. That's literally "signed off".

All the stuff about the Daily Mail, Mosley, how much Ross is paid, how many people complained, the effect on the licence fee, the eventual fate of "edgy comedy" and all the rest is just a distraction., no matter which side of the argument you're coming from.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

In praise of the seaside photographer

I don't think we had a camera in the family until the sixties. Prior to that photographs were entrusted to professionals: men from the local paper, specialists in "scholastic" photography who came to school every couple of years and then, once a year, the chaps who appeared in front of you on the prom at Filey or Scarborough and fired off one exposure. They would give you a ticket to produce at their HQ, which was usually a hut. Your picture would be up there with hundreds of others. If you liked it, you bought a print, took it home and put it in a frame.

My sister turned a few of these up the other day. The one here shows her with Mum and Dad, probably in about 1947. We were amazed at the quality of all of them. They're nothing flashy. What's amazing is how with minimum cooperation - they never even asked people to stop - they nonetheless managed to get their quarries properly framed and in focus. Did they even have focus on the cameras they used? These shots, which were the least ambitious pictures imaginable, are leagues better, somehow easier to read, more satisfying to the eye and more full of information, than anything done by even good High Street photographers after colour came along.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Peaches, Kerry and the Olsen Twins: what hath fame wrought?

I urge you to see Peaches: Disappear Here. It's a show on MTV. The producers are Ten Alps, a company in which her father is a principal. The idea here is that Peaches gets to produce her own ideal magazine. She is provided with an editorial team whose interesting haircuts and total absence of relevant experience interacts with Peaches combination of cluelessness and idleness to produce the least convincing depiction of the actual magazine experience I have seen since "Absolutely Fabulous". Peaches issues manifestos to her staff and then buggers off to the United States.

I imagine many of us can recall doing or saying stupid things while working on a sixth form or student magazines. That's fine. Nobody was filming us and holding us up to public mockery. Every now and again in this film a reaction shot captures the uncertainty and fear in what are after all some very young faces. James Brown, who is supposed to be mentoring Peaches, doesn't need to say much. His eyebrows do most of the heavy lifting. The producers can't be bothered to follow through on the central conceit of the magazine. We don't actually see much of it and the climactic moment at which they supposedly pitch the idea to proper publishers has been re-cut so that we don't hear a single word that is actually said. Nobody comes out of it looking very good. At TX time they are still waiting to hear back from the potential publishers. Get away.

This was in same week that Kerry Katona spilled on This Morning. I could only watch this one through my fingers. As ever the backstage story was illuminating. Here was this damaged sample of humanity mounting the auction block to have her teeth inspected by a posse of comfortable media professionals. Furthermore, the minute details of her humiliation were being documented by MTV and so she was being tailed by one of their crews who laid down the interview ground rules. This interview had been arranged by the PR of the publishers of Zoo Magazine who had paid a sum of money for first look at her new bosom. When the interview went out Richard Desmond (the original daily beast) was furious, having already paid for a Katona column in his own "OK" magazine and consequently feeling he had some prior claim to those mammaries. (Media Guardian reckons he pays £500,000 for this privilege. I find it hard to believe he can keep his empire afloat if he's paying this kind of money.) Then Philip Schofield, in my experience a very decent individual, went on Chris Moyles to explain how it all went down. Everybody gets a piece.

I blame real stars for creating the vacuum into which these microbes of the fame game have rushed. The big stars of TV and music and film have either retreated behind their castle walls or imposed such inhibiting conditions on their encounters with the press or made themselves so boring that it's no surprise that the media prefer to play with plasticine people like Katona and Geldof. They're cheaper and there is no humiliation to which they will not submit. If you want to know what you have escaped thanks to this celebrity reticence please have a look at the Olsen Twins appearance on Oprah where they recount in some detail what they have for breakfast with a soul-weariness previously unglimpsed in people so young.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Nation shall speak old news to nation

Now that we finally have every means short of teleporting to bridge the oceans we discover that we no longer have anything to say that the people on the other end don't already know. We've just been in video-enhanced communication with the son and heir in Brazil via the miracle that is Skype. I remember the days when we communicated with relatives in Australia via a Christmas Day phone call that had to be booked weeks in advance. Once connection was established, each party would unload a news bulletin, often from a prepared list. Each item was like water to the thirsty man at the other end.

He was Skyping us while simultaneously instant messaging four separate groups of friends all over the world and watching the (British) football, more widely available overseas than it is at home. Most things we said were met with the words "I know". There wasn't an awful lot you could describe as news anymore. Maybe I should start inventing some.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Break a leg

A few weeks ago Radio Four's Front Row sent me to see a play called "Riflemind". This is not my usual beat. However, many years ago in another life I studied drama and directed plays. Hence I've probably got more insight into how theatrical productions work than I do rock bands.

The reason they sent me is that the play, written by Andrew Upton, was about a rock band getting back together. The reason they were bothering to cover it is that Upton is married to Cate Blanchett, the play was the opening production of a deal intended to bring plays from Sydney to London, it was directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman and starred John Hannah.

Not being a regular patron of the legitimate theatre - I gen'lly go to things long after they've been pronounced hits - I wasn't sure whether "Riflemind" was par for the course. To my eyes and ears it seemed very bad. "Mortifyingly bad," is how one critic described it the following day. At the interval I found myself sitting next to the mother of one of the actors. She worked out that I was there to review it. She looked at me with some sympathy. "But what are you going to say?"

Anyway, I did my bit on "Front Row" the following night and, thanks to Google alerts, I was able to track everything that was written about the show. Shows like this live or die by the reviews and "Riflemind"'s were so bad that the "reviews" section of their website still said "coming soon" a full week after the opening. Then there were the special offers with £50 seats going for £20, which still seemed quite a lot for such a trial of an evening. Today it posted closing notices. It's coming off two months before it was supposed to. The credit crunch gets the blame.

I don't exactly know how such a terrible play was given a West End production though I suspect it's something to do with the fact that nobody likes to lay down in the path of a few stars with a shared purpose. The people I feel for in this situation are the actors, the poor cannon fodder on whom such an enterprise depends. Every night for a month they've had to go on in front of an auditorium empty enough to hunt buffalo and give this wretched play their best shot. They will have known it was terrible long before I did. That's bloody hard work, in the words of Nicholas Craig, actor.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

For God's sake, stop asking Randy Newman about "Short People"

Randy Newman is on Desert Island Discs this weekend. Radio Four have been hammering the trailer the last few days. I keep hearing Kirsty Young asking him about "Short People".

I've loved Randy Newman's songs for forty years now. I've interviewed him a few times. He's the funniest person In Rock. I've never once felt the need to ask him about "Short People". If ever there was a record that didn't beg a question it's "Short People". The only people who would find that song in any way worrying would be the people who had never heard "Simon Smith & His Amazing Dancing Bear" or "Davey The Fat Boy" or "Rednecks".

The "Short People" question is always directed at getting him to distance himself as an individual from the person singing "they got little hands, little eyes, they walk around telling great big lies". Then Randy has to perform some act of atonement. He might even have to say that he's just satirising prejudice, a sentiment so trite it exhausts me to type it.

Anyone who thinks Randy Newman songs can be panned for nuggets of folksy wisdom or moral teaching has missed what makes them unique in popular music. When I asked Neil Young what songs were he said they were "just thoughts", still the best definition I've heard apart from Bob Dylan's "a song is anything that can walk by itself". I've talked to hundreds of songwriters and they all say the same thing. A song is something which just occurs to them. It alights on a writer's shoulder. It comes to them as they're waking. It is not something they quarry towards. I hate nothing more than hacks trying to use some less than pleasant sentiment in one of a writer's songs as a stick to beat them with and subsequently cast them out of the presumed shining city where the good people live. If there were such a place Randy Newman wouldn't want to live there. I wouldn't either.

I always picture Randy Newman lying on his sofa, flicking through the TV channels, waiting for incoming ideas, hyper-sensitive to the exact sentence and the precise nuance that betrays our real, often unworthy selves. If you need to have "Short People" explained to you or, worse, somehow apologised for, you've missed the overarching truth that all his songs have been inching towards - that we're all complicated, ambivalent, insecure, sneaky, self-justifying, lazy, half-baked, very rarely noble and, in the final analysis, alone.

Friday, October 17, 2008

More signings for The Wire FC

This one could run and run.

Excuse me, could you fix my camera for me?

We'd just finished recording the Word podcast, in which Mark Ellen and I agreed that Ringo Starr was right to stop complying with the wishes of everyone who expected him to sign anything they sent him, and I set off for a meeting in town.

While walking through Bloomsbury I saw three blokes ahead of me. One of them was attempting to work out how a mobile phone camera worked. The camera belonged to one of the blokes. The chap doing the fixing was Simon Pegg. I went past them. Twenty yards on I looked back. Pegg was now dutifully posing with each of them in turn while the third snapped away.

Witnessing this scene, it's little wonder that Pegg was trying to hide his face beneath a flat cap with a prominent brim. It obviously hadn't worked on this occasion but without it his progress through the West End would take far longer.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

It's not quite standing up in a hammock but it can't be an awful lot easier

All news stories leave me wanting one further, usually trivial, piece of information.

The one about the British couple sent to jail for having sex in public in Dubai leads me to wonder: What kind of sun lounger were they allegedly having sexual congress upon?

All the loungers and recliners I've ever had the pleasure of using would not permit any activity more strenuous than lounging or reclining. I can't help but feel that the manufacturer of any chair commodious enough and sufficiently stable to permit the amount of thrusting and undulating traditionally involved in sex should be shouting their product's qualities from the tallest minaret in the locality.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The truth is out

Real events lapped by out of control news cycle

I get the feeling that the media is now moving so quickly that it finds that the actual events it's covering a little bit slow. Even the madness of the last couple of weeks, where people like Robert Peston have been putting out stories on the hour and governments have been changing their policies daily, don't seem quite pacy enough for them. The broadcast media love this kind of thing, where they feel at the centre of events and so much takes place in their studios they don't even have to cross their own thresholds in search of stories. If an hour goes by without a new storyline you can almost hear them drumming their fingers and looking at their watches.

This morning, following the partial recovery of shares in the Far East, they seem to be saying we should all bask in a feeling of relief. I even heard an interviewer just put the question "Is the worst of it over?" My grandmother was no economist but she would have known that was a stupid question.

And at the same time the very people who said a few weeks ago that Gordon Brown was fatally wounded have now decided that he bestrides the world of affairs like a Colossus. Across the Atlantic the media seem to have already banked Barack Obama's poll leads and decided that he should start picking out curtains. The blogs about him have that feeling of a new crush that accompanied Blair into Downing Street. It's the depth of the unrealistic infatuation that makes the subsequent disillusionment so bitter.

Plus there's the satire cycle. If you go on to Huffington Post it's impossible to tell whether people are responding to the events or the satirical spin on those events. They say Sarah Palin is about to appear on "Saturday Night Live" to check on Tina Fey's impression of her. A week ago John McCain cancelled on David Letterman. Letterman made such a fuss on the air that he's forced to change his plans and appear. Letterman made a joke about the road to the White House leading right through his studio. He was joking, I think.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Kids do the darndest things

When your children are small you spend all your time making sure they don't wander into the road or bash their head on the corner of that table. Eventually they leave home and actively seek out danger. When our son was on his gap year he sent me a text message from Brazil. It read:
"This afternoon I'm going hang gliding over Rio. It looks dangerous but it's cheap. P.S. Don't tell Mum until I'm down."
Now he's at university in Sao Paulo. We spoke on Friday. "This weekend I think I'm going sky diving," he said. There's no point saying "don't do that." There's not even much point saying "please do that safely". You just say "let me know the minute you're down" and spend the next 24 hours knotted up with anxiety. Eventually we got a picture.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Weather forecasting and the limitations of graphics

This morning we were in Central London. This afternoon we've been at home. I haven't seen a single cloud all day. Where do the BBC get the weather from?

Saturday, October 11, 2008

One man, one vote

There's an elegant but rather long-winded editorial in the New Yorker explaining why "the editors" will be voting for Barack Obama. I don't think we would have expected them to do anything else.

But democracy being what it is, their vote counts for the same as these people's, filmed at a recent McCain rally in Ohio.

Both sides vote from the gut and then invent the reasons afterwards.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Invading your own privacy

I genuinely sympathise with celebrities pursued by photographers. But for every one who has their privacy invaded there is another energetically invading their own privacy to advance their career. Two cases in point from this week.

Up and coming rugby player Danny Cipriani (20) and model girlfriend Kelly Brook (28) are allegedly snapped by a passing paparazzo while enjoying a quiet cup of coffee outside a cafe in Notting Hill. Whoever matched up this pair must really think we're all stupid. The flawless focus on that picture indicates that the photographer had been given enough time to take Polaroids. And the kiss! I've seen more convincing oscular contact between an eight-year-old boy and a moustachioed aunt. Revenge is already being wreaked by Cipriani's team-mates. God knows how much worse he's going to find it when he comes up against a gang of vengeful Celts in the Home Internationals.

Then there's Brad Pitt taking pictures of his wife breast-feeding for the cover of that well-known organ for the nursing mother, W. Exactly where do they get the conceit from? Look! Look! We can do things just the same as you proles do them, only more beautifully. We were so taken with ourselves we couldn't bear for our private pictures to be private for one minute longer.

These are the people who have been the victim and beneficiary of so much publicity that they literally don't believe anything about their own lives until they read about it in the paper.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Why football going bust could be good news

There's a piece in today's Guardian by Richard Williams about the chances of the credit crunch hitting the over-borrowed football sector just as it has hit the over-borrowed banks. I don't doubt this could happen. It's hard to see why we should care.

Apart from the improvements in the grounds that took place in the wake of the Taylor Report, it's difficult to see in what ways the billions of pounds that have poured into the game in the last eighteen years have benefited the fans or the game. We can see how Sky has prospered. We can see how agents have done very nicely. We can see how the players have become so routinely rich that the only people who can afford to meet their wage bills are billionaires. An old colleague of mine used to say he wouldn't mind his club putting their season ticket price up every year as long as he could deliver the difference in person to the wife of the highest-paid foreigner on the team. Either that or just arrange a money order in favour of Harvey Nichols or Porsche. Since that was where the money was going to end up, why didn't he just cut out the middleman and save on admin?

The last eighteen years has seen Britain turned from a football nation into a football market. This decline might bother the average fan but doesn't trouble most of the people with their noses in its overflowing trough. So what if there were less swill in that trough? Are we bovvered? If the downturn means less money coming into the game, how does a football fan suffer? There's not a lot of headroom on ticket prices. Down my street they've taken to selling Sky door-to-door which indicates that take-up is at saturation point. Everyone I know who took up a Setanta subscription is finding it's an organisation harder to leave than the Moonies. The pips have been squeaking throughout the game for a good while now.

If the tap were turned off then the most expensive players would obviously go where they can make the most money. Who knows where? Spain? Italy? China? Kazakhstan? The top British players, being timid home bodies by nature, will probably stay, thanks to the premium they are paid for being home-grown. More British players would get a shot at a career, which ought to benefit the national team. Of course the perfectly-manicured lawns of Highbury and Old Trafford would no longer be graced by the world's most expensive players but wouldn't that allow the clubs to lower their prices sufficiently to admit the occasional member of the working class, along the lines of the assisted places schemes at the major public schools? The rise in fuel prices might even encourage some of their long-distance supporters to adopt somebody nearer to home. Surrey might sprout some football clubs.

A lot of the glamour would go, of course. The thud and blunder of honest toilers (or maybe Joey Barton) would probably replace the stiletto passing of a Deco. The spectacle would look less like a computer game and more like a muddy tiff. Nigella Lawson would no longer be a big fan and politicians would stop pretending that they have always supported a club – but would that really affect the number of people going through the gates? I don't think so. The tsunami of hype that has washed through the game in the last eighteen years has increased its popularity but also pushed up its price. The fans have paid more for their subscriptions and season tickets in order that their club can pay yet more money to people who already have more than they know what to do with; this has been done in the largely vain hope that by hiring them they're going to be able to elbow their way to a position of solvency. It's like a gambler rushing out of the casino mid-session in order to shake down passers-by for the money to fund one more bet.

It can't go on. One day the oligarchs and carpetbaggers will move on. They'll probably leave in the middle of the night like the holders of sub-prime mortgages, slipping the stadium keys through the bank's letterbox before setting off for pastures new. Once they've gone the game will still go on, albeit at a less sophisticated level, driven by the ancient tribal hatred that has animated the game for the last century. That and the enduring desire of tens of thousands of young men to play the game for a living, even a relatively modest one. Because that's what they did once and may do again.

A Day At The Races

Went racing in Paris with friends who know about this kind of thing. They buy all the papers, cruise the bars in search of further tips and then ring home to see if the odds are any better. I don't. I just look for any horse whose name has anything that could be construed as a pop music connection. Hence:
First race: Styx - still running
Second race: Green Manalishi (false start, race to be re-run later)
Third race: Pill - allegedly ran but couldn't personally confirm
Fourth race: Intense Focus - invisible
Fifth race: Lady Gloria - pulling a milk float near you right now
Prix De L'Arc De Triomphe: no pop music connection on the card so I backed Youmzain each way and it had the decency to come second.
We had to leave before the last race. I was on the way to the Gare de Nord when I was informed there was a horse called Ledzep in that one. It won, of course.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

The sound of silence

Did an interview with Clive James and Pete Atkin yesterday for Word's Backstage series of podcasts. Clive's got a new book out and therefore he was going straight home to have a look at how it was doing on Amazon. He's not the first author to succumb to the irresistible lure of looking at his Amazon ranking. It must be the least scientific way of keeping track of sales success since the last one.

For years magazine people have been fishing for good news by going into WH Smith and trying to work out if the stack of their latest issue was diminishing at the required speed. I don't know why they do it but they do, everyone from editorial assistants to CEOs. It's a professional disease and professionals should know just how unreliable it is. You don't know how many they've got in the back. You don't know how long they've been out there. You don't know how representative that particular outlet is.

If you want to know how well anything's doing - a record, a book, a magazine - my advice is just stay indoors and see if anyone gets in touch. The most reliable indicator of success in any endeavour is that people can't wait to tell each other anything that could ever be interpreted as good news. Silence usually means they haven't got any.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Autocue and the credit crunch

We know that politicians have their speeches written for them. We know that they're reading from transparent prompting systems. A few have the knack of making it appear as if they're just plucking their thoughts from the air. Some people, like Tony Blair, became so good at it that they eventually overdid the pauses and the general "look, no hands" approach.

George Bush, on the other hand, not only looks as if he's reading it but actually looks as if he's reading it for the first time. This is particularly distressing at a time like this when concern should be balanced by an impression of confidence.

Working with prompting technology is an odd experience. Because it relieves the speaker of the need to remember his words it leads to the temptation to stop thinking and let the mouth do the work. Because it keeps scrolling it tends to make people talk more quickly than is natural and results in sentences that carry too much freight for the listener to take it in. Most serious of all, because it only shows the paragraph, or even the sentence, that he is speaking it can result in the speaker being struck by the terrifying thought - what am I about to say next? That's what the look on George Bush's face says to me.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Bad Samaritan

A stranger knocked on the door just now. He was full of apologies for intruding. Everything seemed to take him a long time to say. I kept asking him what he wanted. He pointed in the direction of his car which was apparently parked down the road. He would leave me I.D. and he would pay it back tomorrow but - and he realised that there was no reason for me to trust him - he needed "four or five pounds". Because I have a massive suspicion of anyone who turns up at my door, I said no.

I then started to wonder whether I'd turned my back on some deserving citizen. You never know. Alyson recalled the woman in Marks & Spencer who'd once paid her shopping bill when she found herself without a purse. And I remembered lots of other acts of kindness from complete strangers. What kind of monster had London turned me into?

Putting the bins out later on I bumped into a neighbour. There's a bloke working the street, he said. Trying to cadge money from people. Another neighbour had turned him away, then thought better of it, got a spare can of petrol out of his shed and gone looking for the bloke. He found him. Funnily enough bloke didn't want petrol.

So I was right. Restores your lack of faith in human nature.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Pictures of war

In the current issue of "The New Yorker" there's a portfolio of pictures of Iraq War service personnel taken by the British photographer Platon. They're remarkable pictures. However none of them seem to be actually taken in Iraq. I don't blame him. I wouldn't go there either, not for all the professional kudos in the world. In a podcast he explains how he took these pictures, how cooperative the subjects were and how much time he worked on them afterwards.

Although Iraq provides the peg to make comfortable "New Yorker" readers like me suddenly interested in the tribulations of young people I am unlikely to meet, the fact is that at any stage in the last fifty years they could have sent somebody to photograph people who had sustained terrible losses in the armed services. They're photographs of warriors rather than photographs of war. We don't see many photographs of the actual war but we suspect if we did we would find them very disturbing rather than somehow uplifting, as Platon's are.

Robert Capa reckoned if your picture wasn't good enough it was because you weren't close enough. He demonstrated that on D-Day when he landed on Omaha Beach with the 1st Infantry Division. He was kicked into the sea by a bosun who thought he was hesitating. He had a camera in either hand. The pictures are all the more extraordinary because only a few survived. A mistake in the lab meant that 100 were ruined. Only ten remained. They're no masterpieces. They're just the kind of thing you and I would take if we were up to our chests in freezing water and terrified out of our minds.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Roxy Music's not-so-secret ingredient

I caught "The Roxy Music Story" via the iPlayer. It was OK. All the members past and present appear reassuringly sane. I could hug the drummer Paul Thompson if my arms were only long enough. They rowed everyone out to talk about them. Richard Williams, who discovered them. Michael Bracewell, who talked about their artistic credentials. Steve Jones was there to give them a free pass on behalf of punk rock. Siouxsie did the same thing on behalf of wimmin. Simon Reynolds explained where they fitted in critic-wise, which is funny because, if Wikipedia is to be believed, he was only nine when their first record came out.

But these documentaries are always so busy trying to underscore the seriousness of the subject that they invariably miss the elephant in the room. Roxy Music were, for about four years, the hottest ticket in the UK, because Bryan Ferry was a bigger sex symbol than Robbie Williams and Kylie Minogue combined. Plus they made records that perfectly framed that sexuality. It wasn't just chin-stroking Velvet Underground fans and customers of Zandra Rhodes who loved Roxy Music. It was girls in Leeds. It was brickies in Cardiff. People screamed. People swooned. People dressed up. When Bryan Ferry appeared on stage dressed as a G.I. out of "South Pacific" everyone I knew talked about the way he had his tie tucked into his shirt. In the mid-70s there was a glamour and swagger about Roxy Music that has not been equalled by anyone in British music since. Of course the Americans didn't buy it and so it was inevitable that they would implode as nearly every British group has done ever since. But at their height they were more dazzling than they're given credit for.