Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The "deeply offended"

The Advertising Standards Authority has published its annual report into the most complained-about ads. A new language seems to have grown up around public apology. According to the BBC this morning the ASA apologised for the fact that ads for Trident gum that used voices speaking in a Caribbean accent could be "deeply offensive" and were guilty of perpetuating stereotypes. I tend to reserve my use of "deeply offensive" for people driving across the speed bumps down my road at a child-endangering 50 mph or the failure of the South African government to openly condemn the catastrophe in Zimbabwe. Even the guy who walked towards me urinating in the N1 centre the other week was pathetic more than offensive. "Deeply offensive" is grown-up code for "I'll get my Dad on you."

The worst I feel about a TV advert is "that's a bit irritating", particularly since I know from experience that every TV ad has to be signed off at every stage of its production by people whose job it is to avoid our hurt feelings. Advertising agencies are selling their gum to Afro-Caribbean people just as hard as they're selling it to me and my Greek, Asian and Russian neighbours. I believe them when they say that they consulted widely before making this ad. All TV adverts perpetuate stereotypes. They're thirty seconds long. If they didn't perpetuate stereotypes they wouldn't make much sense.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Vanity, vanity, all is vanity

The air is thick with the cloying smell of exploding humbug around the pictures of Miley Cyrus in "Vanity Fair". A bunch of powerful adults put weeks of work into taking suggestive pictures of a pretty 15-year old girl and putting them into the most prestigious magazine on the planet and then feign puzzlement and injured innocence over the fact that pressure from the public to gawp at them crashed the Conde Nast server. Everybody retreats mouthing apologies and protesting that they never dreamed they would be interpreted that way.

But really. Is there anybody involved who isn't thrilled with the outcome?
Not Miley Cyrus who has just raised the price she can ask for her first grown-up film.
Not her dad Billy Ray, a washed-up one hit wonder who suddenly finds his calls are getting answered again.
Certainly not Vanity Fair, its editors or Annie Leibowitz, who took the pictures.
And definitely not the Disney Corporation who have handled enough child stars to know that they are all corrupted sooner or later.
Move over, Lindsay Lohan. Here's some new skin for the old ceremony.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Girls talk

In 1978 Elvis Costello wrote that song about loving to hear girls talk. On a station platform yesterday morning it struck me that, thanks to the mobile phone, we're all getting to hear girls talk.

Men have generally used the phone as a means of obtaining information, whereas women have seen it as a machine that enables them to devote time to talking. The mobile's like that only more so. The young woman on the station platform was phoning her friend ostensibly to tell her that she'd been to the sale and the shop didn't have anything in her size whereas Rachel bought loads of things. In reality I guess she was just killing time until the train came by doing what girls do from about the age of six, making contact with their circle of friends and taking the temperature of their friendship. Having brought up two girls I have learned that young females have a capacity to wound each other that their male counterparts rarely bother with. They always socialise in threes which tends to mean that one is always uncertain of her position. Their mobile bills are higher than their brothers because they don't wait to be rung. They check in.

I worry that the mobile and the text and Facebook and the rest of it have provided them with new weapons to make each other feel excluded. This could be why I have noticed that the overt expressions of friendship during those phone conversations become more showy. They call each other "hon". They finish phone conversations with "love you". Even their texts manage to be high-pitched. They invent pet names for each other. I saw a colleague's leaving card recently which bore a good luck message addressed to "ladyface". The girls at the bus stop squeal when they see each other. I have a friend who is a head of a large secondary school and she now tells me they have considered building more time into the timetable to allow for all the kissing goodbye that takes place between lessons. I don't think she was entirely joking.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Many happy returns, Robert

There was a lot of coverage this week of the fact that Robert Dee, the young British tennis professional, won a match on the tour. This meant he was no longer "the worst tennis player in the world". Ho ho.

This is the kind of reflexive abuse that Tim Henman used to come in for because he never won a Grand Slam. Characterising professional athletes as "useless" is never a good idea but it seems particularly inappropriate with tennis players and doubly inappropriate coming from anyone in this country where tennis barely exists as a competitive sport.

If the average smart-arsed comic who fancied himself as a sportsman ended up on a pitch in a professional game of football he just might get to make contact with the ball on a few occasions. Put him on a professional cricket pitch he might make a catch or even score a run or two. But put him on the other side of the net from a professional tennis player and he would instantly realise that the game he was in bore absolutely no resemblance to any of his previous experiences on a tennis court.

I've played tennis against good amateur players and here's what I learned. I learned there was no point at all in my being there. The combination of skill, physical stature and racket technology in the game has now advanced to the point that the serve, like Shock and Awe, is a weapon used to make sure that your opponent never gets to actually oppose you. Do it right and he just trudges from side to side, going through the motions of assuming the position and then, just as the ball is clanging into the netting at the back of the court, lunging in the direction of where it previously went.

This is brought home once again by this ESPN piece in which their writer tries to face the serve of young American player John Isner. Isner has a serve that travels at 140 mph. That wouldn't be so bad if he weren't 6ft 9in tall. Therefore the ball is also coming down from God knows what height. The hapless hack is standing miles behind the base line and yet on the rare occasions he gets even the frame of the racket to the ball his arm is way above his own head height and therefore the chances of playing what you might call a shot are slim. Most of his "returns" end up on a neighbouring court.

And this doesn't mean that John Isner is obviously going to be the next Federer. I once took some lessons from a good young English pro and, just for a laugh, he would play a few points against me. I rarely got anywhere near the ball and he wasn't even trying. He explained to me that the British number one was better than him by the same factor that he was better than me. We really have no idea. We should shut our traps and wish Robert Dee the best of luck.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Keep up

Given the scale of the downsizing that has gone on in the music business in the last few years one would have thought that the left hand was in a better position to know what the right hand was doing. I put together the CDs that come with every issue of Word and in this capacity I get lots of approaches from PRs. Today I was contacted by one who suggested I might be interested in listening to a certain artist with a view to inclusion on one of our CDs in the near future. I was able to point that this act had in fact been included on the CD with the March edition. The reaction from the PR was faint embarrassment masked by indignation that nobody had told them. The notion that a PR is someone who has a right to be informed rather than a duty to inform themselves must be a recent innovation.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Simple minds

Clive James was talking on "A Point of View" on Radio Four this morning about V.S. Naipaul and the shortcomings of the view that you only appreciate the work of people you admire as human beings and disregard all others. And I quote:
"Poetry like Larkin's, and prose like Sir Vidia's, is still the best safeguard we've got against the rage for simplicity, the total view that wants to achieve a false peace by silencing everyone who might contradict us."
"The rage for simplicity". There's a book for our times.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Bet you can't do this

I miss twelve inch album covers. I miss the old plastic bags from Dobells in the Charing Cross Road. They had a photograph of a rack full of records. On the way home on the tube you could read the details on the spines and just wonder what it would be like to hold them. If somebody got on your carriage and they had a bag from Virgin or One Stop or even Boots you used to go and sit near them knowing that at some point in the journey they'd get their new purchase out and read the cover. (People do the same with CDs but it's nothing like as thrilling. They end up picking away at the security tag with their finger nails. They don't look like people seized with joy.) If they didn't actually get the LP out then people like me could sometimes look through the bag and work out what it was.

Anway, Fraser and I like to think we've come up with the Rock Quiz where you can't Google your way to the solution. Here are thirty fragments from the covers of pretty well-known - in some cases multi-platinum - albums montaged together. There's a larger version of it here on the Word site where you can also find your way to the solution.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Names are dropping like flies

Last night I went to a dinner party "for" David Simon, the man who invented "The Wire". It was thrown by his publishers Canongate, who have picked up his 1991 book "Homicide" for publication later this year. Simon's in London editing his new HBO mini series "Generation Kill", based on the book by Evan Wright. The party's in Notting Hill, one part of London that I'm never entirely comfortable in. It's the kind of do where Zadie Smith drops in for coffee and sits there rolling tiny cigs which she can't smoke. Nick Cave is expected later but by then I'm on the Piccadilly line.

Simon told me a story about seeking Tom Waits's permission to use "Down In The Hole" as "The Wire"'s theme tune that confirms my suspicion that when confronted by the need to make a decision, musicians will happily don the mantle of hopelessness. Simon had made a personal application and supplied tapes of the show for Waits to look at but still had no word back and it was getting close to deadline. He somehow got Waits's home number and called him. Sorry to bother you, Mr Waits, but we were wondering if you'd got the tapes.

Oh yes, said Waits. Sorry for the delay but my wife is away at the moment and I can't work the VCR on my own. Tell you what. Go ahead.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Chinese way

If you haven't done it already you should try to see the first episode of the BBC's "Chinese School" (the iPlayer link is here). The main character is a teenage high-flier who's expected to do well in the national examination and go to the top university. You get the impression that the whole nation holds its breath when these tests come around. If you do well you can join the elite. Underperform and you are destined to be factory fodder. When the exams take place planes are diverted and traffic is calmed to ensure that nothing interrupts the concentration of the candidates.
The day after the exams they're not down the pub or off to Ibiza. They're sitting studying the answer sheet and trying to estimate how well they did. I can't imagine anything more purgatorial. Anyway, our student looks at the answers and bursts into tears. She thinks she's messed it up. She's inconsolable.
Not surprising really. When the results came out she'd got 98%.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

As the crow walks

I thought it was just me who had developed this desperate need to walk everywhere. Then I heard Will Self talking about walking from airports to the centre of cities and how it was a need to reconnect yourself with your surroundings.

But there's more. When I leave the office I can either take a short, unpleasant walk to King's Cross to take the tube or a long, pleasant walk to Highbury & Islington and then catch the overground home. I've lately come to the conclusion that the reason I don't take the former is because it's in the wrong direction. Does something happen to you when you reach a certain age that means you can no longer tolerate not heading where you're going? If I'm forced out of my way because of some kink in the transport system I get crosser and crosser and crosser. If I can take the right heading I'm happy, no matter how long the journey is.

I think Paul K. Lyons realised this before me. He's written about what it's like to walk across London in a more or less straight line south to north (which takes him past the end of my road) and east to west. Good to know I'm not alone.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A small step for man

Last night Stephen Fry devoted an hour of television to explaining how Gutenberg made the first printing press. Quite interesting, but not as good as this which Chris Bourke has just sent me from New Zealand. It's bound to be Easter somewhere.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Just a thought

China. Most powerful, richest, most populous and - for the moment at least - most controversial country in the world.
Can anyone name a Chinese person?
Go on. Statesman, sports star, inventor, author, inndustralist, benefactor or reality TV star, anyone you like.
Maybe you can. Good for you. I can't, not without looking them up. I know more Belgians.
At some stage over the next few months somebody in the Chinese hierarchy is going to persuade somebody else in the Chinese hierarchy that they maybe ought to appoint a spokesperson who can present their policies to the West in English. Whoever gets the job becomes one of the most famous people in the world overnight.

Natty tread

The most powerful indicator of actual poverty is still footwear or the lack of it. My grandparents used to talk about the kids who went to school barefoot. I have a friend who wore nothing but wellingtons throughout his early childhood. Southside Johnny called one of his albums "At Least We Got Shoes" after something that his grandfather used to say. I was struck by this when watching the London Marathon yesterday. The six Tanzanians who did the race in full Masai fig had shoes made out of car tyres. This is nothing unusual, as I discovered when I visited Ethiopia. Market traders will run you up a pair of Reef-like sandals (above) out of a lorry tire that has run out of tread.

I'm sure there's a thesis to be written about the contrast between this and the boxfresh trainers sported by hip hop stars - and even some people I see on the Tube long after rush hour. There is no flaunting of wealth quite so calculated as the regular sporting of new shoes. This is particularly the case, as a casual viewing of MTV's "Cribs" will attest, when the shoes themselves are trainers, an item ostensibly designed as an unremarkable workhorse. Missy Elliott does her own line for Adidas, known as "Respect Me". According to the manufacturer these are ideal for the start of the academic year, presumably the key time for getting people to admire you because of your gym pumps.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

We were robbed

Last night we had the unaccustomed pleasure of a visit to the cinema. We went to see "The Bank Job", a very enjoyable picture embroidered by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais on the basis of an actual robbery that took place in Baker Street in 1971. What makes it sing is their plausible inclusion of threads relating to real life figures from that time like Princess Margaret, Michael X and Lord Mountbatten. These were the people that you would read about in the Sunday papers in the days when scandal was hinted at but never quite spelled out.

It can't have done all that well at the box office because the Odeon Leicester Square had banished it to Screen Five, a former box-room at the top of the building which has space for just about forty seats. Leg room is further reduced by the thoughtful installation in the back of each seat of a cup-holder, as if to remind you that your main job as a customer is to consume their confectionery. Having paid £19 for the two of us, eating was out of the question.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

A beautiful song

Before they're swallowed whole by the all-consuming tsunami of parody let us pay tribute to Michael Flanders and Donald Swann in general and "The Slow Train" in particular. They recorded it in the early '60s just as Doctor Beeching's report into the railways was sweeping away much of the network of local stations that used to take people to work or the shops in the days before car ownership.
I'm no steam fan but the litany of names, the hymn-like tug of the tune and the trueness of the recording can moisten even my dry eye. And I'm not remotely surprised that somebody has bothered to tell the true story of every station mentioned in the song.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Liquorice goes upmarket

When I wor a lad liquorice grew on trees. Or at least it came out of the ground in nearby Pontefract where it's said they brought it back from the Crusades. We bought it in sticks, in all-sorts, in round medallions called Pomfret Cakes and, when the budget was under pressure, in root sticks which used to sit like stick insects in jars in the sweet shops. It was not a prestige sweet. Even then it was old-fashioned.

And now it's re-appeared as premium priced low-sugar confectionery. It's very often called Australian Soft Eating Liquorice, you can get it at health food shops where it comes in huge soft logs and costs about three quid a bag. You may well love it. Yesterday my wife went to Fortnum and Mason and appeared home with one of those bijou carrier bags that usually contains something expensive and inconsequential. And so it proved. She'd bought about a dozen Pomfret Cakes. For just under three pounds. I'm rationing them out.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Get on with the bloody game

It looks like this week's debacle will be the last time that the Olympic torch will be toured around the world's capital cities. Good. And while we're at it can we get rid of all the attendant hoo-hah that has grown up around all major sporting occasions in order to satisfy the cravings of sponsors, TV producers, politicians and anyone else who seeks to use such events to "harness the power of sport" to sell gym pumps, energy drinks or a country's political system.

Let's also see an end of: choreographed dancing displays, huge flags passed down from the back of the stand to the front, any form of singing that could be said to be organised, ticker tape that some poor bugger has to pick up, pre-match firework displays in broad daylight that leave the action invisible for the first ten minutes, the cup "delivered" by abseiling parachutists, prize presentations that involve the hurried building of stages in the middle of the pitch, minutes' silences for any tragedy that didn't directly involve the people involved, pop singers doing melismatic versions of national anthems and, yes, even small children holding the hands of hung-over millionaires.

Anyone who thinks that major sporting occasions can be rendered more gripping by the addition of such nonsense should be disqualified from ever having anything to do with a sporting occasion. We don't need it. It gets in the way. It's nothing but trouble.

Monday, April 07, 2008

The most dangerous path in the world

I can't stop looking at this and thinking how lucky I am not to have to walk on the real thing. I'm bound to dream about it soon.

Sunday, April 06, 2008


This is the view from the kitchen this morning. The snow was forecast to arrive but nonetheless we still react to it with the same delighted surprise as we did as a child.

Tradition dictates that whoever gets up first will always open the curtains and exclaim "Oh!" in precisely the same voice.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

VIP coming through

Walking down Upper Street yesterday afternoon at four I passed the Prime Minister going the other way. To the summit in Watford, presumably. I've seen the PM's motorcade on a few occasions. There are police cars fore and aft but the main body consists of two black Range Rovers and two black Jags. I suppose the idea is that the potential assassin doesn't know which one contains the target.

It's nothing compared to the American President. I was in Sydney, Australia when Clinton was visiting and everywhere I went in that quite small city my progress was held up by his endless motorcade, plasma trucks and all. I eventually gave up and returned to my hotel room overlooking the harbour. I opened the curtains just in time to see Clinton and John Howard's boat pushing off from the adjacent dock. Looking around for someone to wave at, they waved at the only available person, which was me. I waved back.

A few years later I was passing through Green Park on a summer's evening and made to cross the Mall just as a limo bearing the royal standard came off the roundabout in front of Buckingham Palace. I was the only pedestrian on the Mall as the car went slowly past me. The passengers were the Queen and Prince Philip. They waved. I waved back.

Friday, April 04, 2008

If age but could and youth but would

This morning, in an attempt to impart to my youngest a few tips about comprehension that might prove useful in her upcoming GCSEs, I suggested that we go for a walk. She arrived at the front door in sandals and bare feet. Between both parents it was suggested on no less than six separate occasions that such footwear might lead to pain. This was batted back with everything ranging from a mild "I'm fine" to an indignant "Do you think I'm stupid?"
As I've observed before, we nag kids because we know it doesn't work. Halfway through the walk she had to sit down on a park bench such was the pain. When she got home she spent half an hour with her feet soaking in the bath. When I left this afternoon she was lying face down on the bed having extensive surgery on her blisters. By now she will have worked up to the need for a pair of brand new surgical shoes.
Age is about the steadily-dawning anticipation of consequences. Being 15 is about not daring to think of those consequences in case they stand in the way of one's immediate desire.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Charles Dickens's desk

They're selling the desk and chair that Charles Dickens wrote "Great Expectations" on to benefit Great Ormond Street hospital. They estimate it might realise up to £80,000. Is that really such a lot for something with such associations? Obviously it's beyond my budget but in a world where people pay fortunes for football shirts allegedly worn by Michael Owen on one particular Saturday, is it really that much? There are a lot of wealthy individuals and institutions around. This is the desk on which our greatest novelist wrote our greatest novel. This is the ink stain he contemplated as he sucked his pen. This is where he laid his head and probably sucked his thumb when inspiration failed to arrive.
Tell you what, I'll put a fiver in to start the ball rolling.