Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Forty-part harmony

"Spem In Alium" sounds like it ought to be on the menu for school dinner. It is in fact a motet by Thomas Tallis and one of the most profoundly haunting pieces of music you will ever hear. Radio Four's "Soul Music" examined how it is constructed and talked to people who've been affected by it. I liked the idea of the human rights lawyer drawing upon it while defending an apparently hopeless case in Alabama. You can listen to the programme here.

Monday, January 28, 2008


McDonalds are going to be allowed to offer training courses which could form part of the standard A level. This is being encouraged by the government in order to bridge something called "the skills gap". We can predict objections from the NUT and others. Presumably somebody in Whitehall is looking at stats that suggest that huge numbers of UK teenagers are unemployable. I don't know quite why this should be except we seem to have slipped into a situation where all jobs demand the prestige, but not the actual training component, of some kind of higher education qualification. When, in the 60s, I stayed on to do A levels, one of my friends left at sixteen and walked into a job with the local estate agent. He did some form of day release but most of his time was spent at the counter answering queries from members of the public. I don't see the teenage estate agent today and the tradesman visiting my home no longer arrives with a 17 year old hammer-holder; a whole stratum of the economy that used to be occupied by "kids" is now occupied by people six years older who've done courses, courses which in many cases can't amount to much that they couldn't pick up in a couple of months on the job. The courses, which are aimed at the increasing number of kids who want to join the glamour professions, are growing in number just as the amount of places offering science or languages is declining dramatically.
I'm doing some work at the moment with somebody who did a degree in Music Management at the University of High Wycombe. A friend of ours is doing a Masters in Physiotherapy. I get called all the time to go and speak to people who are apparently doing a Masters in Magazine Journalism. Meanwhile I read that China already has 40,000 English speaking hackers picking up intelligence from Western web sites. In the light of all that the "skills gap" seems more like history working itself out than a problem in need of the smack of firm government.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

It pays to advertise

I'm reading Nadeem Aslam's absorbing "Maps For Lost Lovers". I love it when there are signs that writers have been carrying round little nuggets from real life, looking for places to set them down. As in this:
He raises a hand in greeting to a plumber from Calcutta whose van bears the legend, You've tried the cowboys, now try the Indian.....

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Grey power in action

My late father-in-law was a small shareholder in various companies, blue chip and otherwise. In retirement one of his regular diversions was to come up to town for their various AGMs. He's gone but the breed lives on, as I saw yesterday when I went to the EMAP General Meeting at which the vote was taken whether or not to sell the magazines and the radio.
Of course the decision had already been made by fund managers in the City wielding millions of votes, but I was pleased to see that this army of white-haired warriors still have one weapon at their waist in these contexts and that's the power to cause the directors on the platform to shift slightly in their seats as they field their questions from the floor.
A man stood up and extolled the virtues of one of the company's railway magazines, musing aloud whether this title and its estimable editor would continue to flourish under the new dispensation. A retired executive wondered how many of the company's employees were working themselves out of a job. An elderly lady whose husband had sold his exhibitions company to EMAP many years earlier and was presumably paid partially in shares asked how she was going to deal with the tax implications of the dividend. Should she sell the shares now?
The chairman blushed and said he wasn't empowered to give financial advice. No doubt, like most of the people on that side of the table, he can afford to pay somebody to sort out any tax issues pursuant to the deal.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

"On The 5.15" by Pete Murray

Funny how the things we actually do spend our lives talking about, like house prices, kids on the buses, smoking in pubs and the purgatory of commuting, never seem to find their way into our pop music. But there was a time, not sure when, when that wasn't the case. Can't get this tune, which comes from a cylinder, out of my head.

Tottenham 5 Arsenal 1

Who was it wrote that song called "Woke Up Smiling"?

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Speed reading

I've been asked to be on A Good Read on Radio 4. This involves first of all picking a book that you can talk about. Not as straightforward as you might think because the chances are that some other guest will have had it within the last few years. Then you have to read the books that the presenter and the other guest have chosen. Yesterday they arrived. I have a week to read two novels. I'm not used to reading against the clock. I have no techniques to deal with it. I could do to take some tips from those people you meet in book publishing who can read a new manuscript in a day.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Walkin' By Myself

I think I'm turning into a walking bore. I have become obsessed by the fact that the easiest way to find your way around London is to walk. Taxis cost a fortune and spend most of their time waiting in traffic. Buses you have to wait for. Tubes take you out of your way. I often go from our office in Pentonville Road to Broadcasting House by just walking through Bloomsbury. I don't know exactly how long it takes. It's probably about forty minutes and the great thing about walking is that if you're late you go quicker and if you're early you dawdle a bit. Tell anybody at the BBC that you've walked and they look at you with new admiration. Recently I had to go to the Albert Hall from Islington via Covent Garden and I walked the whole way. I make that four miles, thanks to my new discovery Walkit, a site that provides you with pedestrian routes through the capital and tells you how far they are. I now calculate that I walk four miles a day getting back and forth to work. My smugness is complete.

You wouldn't do that at home

The striking thing about Ghana vs Guinea, the opening match of the Africa Cup of Nations, was not the grass, which was long enough to obscure the ankles of the players. It was the complete lack of the usual on-pitch hysterics. These were big, strong men playing at maximum intensity and not once did I see anyone complain of a tackle, let along lie down and try to get a free kick. Not that they're saints. Once these guys are back in the Premierhip or Serie A, they'll be back at it. All it shows is that it goes with the territory.

Friday, January 18, 2008


It's nice to be able to say that you can learn something from a near-tragedy such as the Heathrow crash landing.
Apparently the standard operating procedure for BA pilots in a crisis goes in this order:
1. Aviate
2. Navigate
3. Communicate

Fog on the Tyne

In his business dealings Newcastle owner Mike Ashley is no doubt as ruthless as most multi-millionaires. After a few months immersed in the madness that is north-east football he is sufficiently drunk on sentiment to give in to the clamour for the easy option and appoint Kevin Keegan. (This after a week spent unsuccessfully pursuing three other options, which he presumably thought were better bets.)
The appointment may or may not work but it is definitely not a rational act. It's the desperate, desperate desire to be loved. It's the cornered teacher giving in to the difficult class by buying them all an ice cream. It's Pontius Pilate giving the crowd Barrabas. It's pathetic.
And when in due course things don't go according to plan and he has to issue a statement calling on the fans' patience, I hope somebody points out to him that it was one his own employees who headlined the press release "Geordie Messiah to return".
Fans en masse are children. It is the job of owners to tell them what they can and can not have, not give in to their most shrill demand.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Rattle Of A Simple Man

If you're going to try the BBC iPlayer - and you should - try it on "The Secret Life Of Norman Wisdom Aged 92 3/4". This is the story of how his two middle-aged children deal with the fact that his carer is retiring and their dad can no longer look after himself at his home on the Isle Of Man. Not long ago I blogged about a film portrait of the last year in the life of George Melly, in which his relatives confessed that he'd always taken up more than his share of the family's oxygen. This was similar. Wisdom appears to have no inner life to refer to as he drifts in and out of dementia. The only thing he clings to is that he's famous. There's a heartbreaking scene near the end where he buttonholes one of his grandson's young schoolfriends and says "do you know who I am?"
The boy says "Greg's grandad."
"No," he say. "I'm Norman."

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Do they mean us?

The hero of Jay McInerney's first novel Bright Lights Big City was a fact checker at one of America's most prestigious magazines, a thinly disguised version of The New Yorker. The job of these salaried pedants is to take the manuscript that says "it was a sunny day" and then check with the meterologists that on the day in question in the place in question the weather could fairly be described as such. But sometimes the search for what New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik calls "passionate specificness" leads them astray. There was a case last year where they said Alan Bennett came from Bradford when in fact he comes from Leeds. Trifling, I know, but they wouldn't make the same mistake if they were dealing with American cities.
Now in the course of a terrific piece about Kate Nash in the current issue, Sasha Frere-Jones describes her home suburb of Harrow as "posh". I like the fact that American publications try to colour in the social background in a way that British titles don't but they can so easily be led astray. Just because it is home to a fearfully posh public school of the same name (which is actually in Harrow On The Hill) doesn't mean Harrow's anything more than a part of the suburban sprawl on North-West London and will be home to a wide variety of socio-economic groups.

Charlie's good tonight, isn't he?

I don't dine Up West very often. However today I went to the Wolseley, the former car showroom and bank in Piccadilly which is now London's swishest eating place. If you're going to have celebrities it's important you should have real ones, not people you have to set up as "you know, he was in that thing on Channel Four". So I'm pleased to report, at different tables but both surrounded by adoring females, Jeremy Irons and Charlie Watts. That's ten points, surely?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

It's only a word

"....facing challenges from falling CD sales and piracy."
Thus every BBC newscast this morning regarding the big EMI meeting.
"Piracy" is not the word they mean. Piracy is the selling of counterfeit goods. It happens to music but only the same way as it happens to everything. It faces every consumer-facing brand from Gucci to Coca Cola.
What EMI, and every other record company face more immediately, is copying, largely done by amateurs and not for profit.
Different thing.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Guy Hands, EMI, Robbie Williams and Monty Python

The classic record company began as a distribution business. It had a pressing plant, lots of employees in white coats and a fleet of vans to get the product to the point of sale. The charts were devised and perfected because they gave the business a way to decide which record to distribute more of and which not to bother with.

Then it discovered that big talent properly handled could make a lot of money. To increase their chances of attracting that talent they needed money. Hence they became banks. Their main function in the career of a Led Zeppelin or Spice Girls was to pay enough money to sign or re-sign them.

One of the main problems facing Guy Hands, the new owner of EMI, is that he's bought a big record company just as the virtues of bigness are in question. The manufacture is contracted out. The distribution gets less important as tangible product declines in importance. It's no longer about having the promotional muscle to get your act on the TV. Being big is in fact nothing but pain. You have large corporate overheads which mean that you must release a huge number of records you know will never pay back purely in order to give your staff something to do.

I'm sure that there have already been lots of interesting meetings between Hands' people, who know about business, and the inumbents, who know about the record business, meetings at which the underlying business model - to wit, for every hundred Erin Mckeowns you might get one Norah Jones - has been called into question. This must have had something about it of the Monty Python merchant banker sketch during which Hands presumably took the John Cleese role - "I don't want to seem stupid but it looks to me as though I'm a pound down on the whole deal."

Maybe Guy Hands has decided that he no longer needs the structure of a large record company. Maybe he's going to contract out all the record company services - from those things that are mission critical to the "fruit and flowers" - to independents and just put his energies into the one function of the record company that he really knows all about. That's banking.

But the problem for Hands then is who do you lend your money to? Robbie Williams who's sulking in his tent and whose days as a recording artist are probably behind him? Radiohead, who give the impression of slowly turning into the Grateful Dead, and are probably not going to sell any more records than they do at present? Not Paul McCartney. He's got more than you.

You could always invest in untried talent. Now just imagine this for a second. You tear off a cheque totalling a fifth of this year's development money on a kid who is to all intents and purposes off the street in the hope that one of those demos that the a&r man comes and plays so loud in your office could in a year's time turn out to be Robbie Williams's "Angels".

I don't know if I'd have the nerve. Imagine it were your money. It's the longest long shot available in any kind of business anywhere. You get no security. You have nothing you can sell on. You cannot even promise that the product will be ready in time. Or on budget. You cannot even promise that there will be a product of any kind.

The air is thick with artists talking about how clueless the record companies are. Let's see them putting their money where their mouth is and not only financing their own recordings but also taking the next step and signing up the next generation. Of course, they won't. In the history of the music business no artist has ever used their own money to sign up another artist. Why not? Because in ninety-nine cases out of one hundred you may as well go and draw £250,000 out of the bank and set light to it in the street. That's the economics of the record business. And if the traditional record companies are losing their stomach for it, who else has the nerve? I don't see anyone.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Last night's TV

Last night we used to the BBC iPlayer for the first time to catch up with a missed episode of "Sense and Sensibility". They've now got a Beta version up and running for Macs but you can't yet download. It hung up a couple of times at first but basically it worked. It's interesting how when the riches of broadcasting are all laid out for you how many things you couldn't imagine yourself ever wanting to stream on to a computer. "Ready Steady Cook"? "First Minister's Question Time"? "Extreme Pilgrim"? "Arrange Me A Marriage"?

Friday, January 11, 2008

Edmund Hilary (1919-2008)

All the New Zealanders I know know each other and all New Zealanders referred to Edmund Hilary as "Ed".
The story is that he was the first man at the summit of Everest – but, frankly, given the staggering danger of what was then unknown, who cares? – but Tensing Norgay had never used a camera before "and this was no time for a photography lesson".
Hence the picture of Tensing at the top.
Noble, whichever way you look at it.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The idiot box

BBC TV News about five minutes ago on the death of Sir John Harvey-Jones: "He seemed different from the usual pin-stripe brigade. He had long hair and wore colourful ties."
He looked different. Therefore he was.
Is this the British Broadcasting Corporation or is this the world as seen by a small child?

Attack radio

Five Live have got the same problem as Radio Two: they're desperate to hire people who they think are known from TV because, sadly, they find it pays in increased ratings.
Last night, the night Sam Allardyce left Newcastle, they found themselves with Tim Lovejoy fielding the post-match phone calls on 606.
Lovejoy's a brilliant TV presenter because he's completely at ease under the scrutiny of the camera. But on the radio he simply doesn't have the crackle, the energy, the presence.
Just heard the darts commentator Sid Waddell and the racing man John McCririck bantering about Newcastle on the same station. Somebody should sit Lovejoy down to listen to it. The attack that these two pensioners put into it must have left them physically drained.

Gissa a job

My favourite detail of the Newcastle United story regards Alan Shearer. Unnamed sources say he is too "happy with his job on Match Of The Day" to wish to be the manager at this moment.
His job? Let's get this straight. What this means is that rather than working twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week in all weathers, in the pitiless glare of public scrutiny, dealing with spoiled multi-millionaires with less loyalty than attention span, standing still and taking it while thousands of people chant abuse at you, knowing that your kids will come home crying from school because of what some kid said about you in the playground, knowing that unless you're very, very lucky you will lose more than you win and most Sundays will be spent in the pit of black depression, relieved only by strong drink or a gambling addiction, having to make sure than you are accompanied by a bodyguard in public in case some drunk spits abuse at you in the supermarket car park, knowing that your painstakingly acquired professional judgment can be undone by the bounce of a ball, the decision of linesman or the side of the bed that a superstar got out of this morning; rather than doing all that you'd take a high six figure salary for spending Saturday afternoon in a warm dry studio watching highlights of the Premiership, putting on a clean shirt and saying "he'll be disappointed with that" for a full five minutes before going out to dinner.
Really, call punditry on Match of The Day anything you like, but don't ever call it "a job".

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

EMI: who's driving?

It's not really surprising that Tony Wadsworth, the CEO of EMI Music in the UK, has decided that he can't get on with the new owners Terra Firma and has left. When people pay a fortune for companies they tend to quickly come to the conclusion that they're more likely to get their way if they part company with the incumbent management. It's a shame for Tony, who is an excellent bloke and a record man to his fingertips, but it could be that they don't want a record man any more. They can see that the old way of doing things is not going to make back the £2.1bn Terra Firma paid and bring them a profit on top. This is the kind of dynamic that you see again and again when somebody buys an old business and tries to wish a new model into life. It's no use expecting the current engineer to do things in a different way. But the problem is without an engineer they haven't a clue which levers to pull. Everybody knows that the old way of doing the record business is dead. But the new way has not yet been born.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Career Opportunities

I've been re-reading John Colville's "The Fringes Of Power".
It's the diary of Churchill's private secretary during the war. He was at Chartwell on the June night in 1941 when Churchill, Eden, Beaverbrook and Roosevelt's envoy were staying there.
The following morning he was woken by a telegram informing him that Hitler had invaded Russia. What that meant was that Britain was going to get away with it. It was probably the most significant piece of news for this country in the 20th century.
He went from bedroom to bedroom passing on the news.
He was twenty-five years old.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Tea break over. Back on your heads

I can't remember whether I've:
  1. Thought this and not written it down
  2. Written it down and not published it
  3. Submitted it and it hasn't been published yet
  4. Published it and lost track of it
But it's only when I saw this on Fistfulayen this morning that I felt vindicated in my dawning belief that the key currency nowadays is attention. This might seem obvious but most media businesses are still behaving as if they were operating against a background of scarcity. Furthermore this seems to chime with Seth Godin's observation that people talking about you is far more effective than talking about yourself.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Practical Parenting

Interesting debate raging about parenting on the blogs of Andrew Collins and Clair Woodward, both triggered by media depictions of apparent trends in modern parenting.
My offspring are mainly in their twenties now and I know that if I had to start again tomorrow I wouldn't be any the wiser. Most parents try to impose behavioural standards and pass on values but it's really, really hard and there's never any sign that you're getting anywhere. (My Dad taught me to drive and I would pretend to be ignoring everything he said. Forty years later I can remember every word.)
The wisest thing I ever read about parenting was by the late, lamented Martyn Harris in New Society. He said something like "having a child is like possessing something more completely than you can ever possess anything and then losing it more utterly than you can ever lose anything. Nagging is the index of loss."
So parents today nag because there's nothing else they can do. My parents used to nag but there was always the chance that the nagging would reach a climax at which point a sanction would be applied, sometimes physically. (And no, I don't resent it.) The balance of power has changed since then. A friend of mine realised this when at the age of 14 he was having an animated argument with his father, rose from his chair to emphasise a point and noticed his old man was cowering, saying "don't hit me!" The challenge of modern parenting is that when push comes to shove you have no shove. And I don't know many experienced parents who could go on TV and keep a straight face while they passed on to others their advice on how to go about it.
In fact, if we're in the market for a swift, at-a-stroke radical improvement in the behaviour, health, politeness and educational standards of our young people, can I venture to suggest that it starts with doing something with the box in the corner as opposed to watching it?
When mine were younger I used to regularly take the plug off the TV. Friends used to react as if I'd turned into Wackford Squeers. It was the only weapon I had.

Friday, January 04, 2008

"Language, Timothy!"

Just watched episode 35 of The Wire, which contained:
  1. The re-emergence of a character I thought was dead
  2. A major surprise about the sexual orientation of another
  3. The most jaw-dropping profanity I've ever heard on any TV show ever
Good discussion about what it all means here.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

The Look Of Love

I shall be interested to see what happens with "Just A Little Lovin'", the new album from Shelby Lynne. Since she first emerged in 1988, the countryish end of the music business have wondered what exactly they could do with her manifest vocal talent and handsome appearance. She's duetted with George Jones, been put in hot pants by Glenn Ballard, fashioned as an alt.rock diva and even appeared in "I Walk The Line" as Johnny Cash's mother. Nothing has really taken.
And now, at the suggestion of Barry Manilow, she has relaunched herself as a Dusty Springfield for today. Or at least she's recorded a load of songs made famous by Dusty, ditched the big arrangements and the bittersweet flourishes and done them as a bunch of deeply sad torch songs. I particularly like the pause in her version of "Just A Little Lovin'", which you can hear a taste of here.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

What Katy Watched Next

I don't particularly mind because, as my daughters frequently observe, I am a bit of a girl myself. However last night I felt I'd wandered into an area of the TV schedules that was designed exclusively with the female in mind.
For a start there was Andrew Davies's adaptation of "Sense and Sensibility", which began with a whispery unlacing scene which could have wandered in from "Emmanuelle Goes Regency". (It certainly didn't wander in from Jane Austen.) What followed, a succession of indecently handsome men throwing themselves at demure-looking maids on wind-swept cliff tops, had obviously been honed in focus groups to which no man had been admitted.
This was pursued by "Jam and Jerusalem" which seems to feature every actress over the age of forty who has ever worked for the BBC and was moist with self-congratulation. Then there was a trail for the upcoming "Lark Rise To Candleford", which seems to use the same actresses who were recently seen in "Cranford" and "Jam.." in different costumes.
Then there's "Mistresses", "a sexy, sophisticated and bold take on the lives of four women" and "Honest", in which a clutch of brassy blondes attempt to make honest men of the criminals in their life.
I once read a study of TV viewing habits which came to the conclusion that the remote control always resided on the right hand chair arm of the senior male in the family (which, as I know, does not always mean the oldest one). If this schedule is anything to go by, all this must have changed.