Monday, June 30, 2008

Red Harrison

I was thinking about the voice of Red Harrison, who died last week in Australia. He was 75.

Radio Four rarely carries much Australian news but in the past when it did it was delivered via Harrison's distinctive voice, which had the resonance of an Anthony Hopkins marbled with the slightly querulous overtones of a retired newspaper man who had seen too much human folly. I've been reading about his funeral the other day. They sang Jerusalem and played the Dambusters March.

Harrison had one of those voices which couldn't help but be moving, no matter what he was talking about. He sounded as if he belonged in a world where communication was rare and consequently precious. Here's a clip of one of his reports from Australia.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

A month's a long time in African politics

The voting public are a fickle lot. A month ago Zimbabwe's presidential elections came so close they had to go several recounts. Polled again this week the people apparently came out 85% in favour of Robert Mugabe. Obviously, they just needed to have a think about it.

Now that he's been sworn in he can jet off to Egypt to take part in an African Union meeting. Either he can't have read Martin Meredith's "The State Of Africa", which demonstrates that since independence most of Africa's leaders have shown marked reluctance to let go of power no matter what the electorate might say, and have tended to be at the greatest risk of being deposed when they made the mistake of going overseas on business.

Persuasion is no longer a valid option. It's to be hoped that some of his fellow African leaders have the decency to use the occasion to at least shame him.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Kids With Guns

We were talking about toy guns in the office. As a child I carried a gun all the time. When we went to chapel one Christmas morning I insisted on wearing my newly-acquired cowboy outfit. I was even allowed to keep the gun with me as long as I closed the holster.

Then I had a plastic space gun. When you pulled the trigger it lit up at the end. I saved up for a black Colt 45. When I got to the toy shop they only had the silver one left. I choked back the tears of frustration all the way home.

Then there was a Winchester repeating rifle with a lever action. There was a Tommy Gun. You pulled back the ratchet which was then released noisily as you pulled the trigger. I also had rubber knifes, pirate cutlasses made of some presumably unsafe compound and a Zorro fencing foil with a rubber sucker at its pointy end. I wasn't unusual in this. All my contemporaries had the same interest in weaponry. It was considered just one of those things that boys did.

I'm sure there must have been one or two of us who grew up with an unhealthy interest in real guns but it's difficult to believe that it had much to do with early conditioning. When I think of it we were a peacable lot. It wasn't because of any hippy doctrine. The "peace" philosophy came much later. We just didn't see the point. There was the odd playground punch-up but I have no memory of any child carrying a real weapon with a view to either using it or deterring anyone else from doing the same.

Many of the kids who've been raised in the last thirty years have had their access to so-called "war toys" restricted by disapproving parents. The rising incidence of violent crime among teenagers seems to fly in the face of the neat theory that if you deny them this grisly tackle in their formative years they are more likely to grow into peaceful citizens. It doesn't seem to work like that.

Some of this stuff is just hard-wired into the male of the species. When our son was tiny he bit a square out of a slice of toast until all that was left was an L-shaped crust and then pointed the business end at his mother. At the time he'd never had any toy gun and he hasn't grown up with any interest in weaponry.

My theory of youth violence is it's all about prestige. I read an account by a sociologist who described gang behaviour as being all about "parading". It's "get out of the way of my bike", "did you scuff my trainers?" or, in its most chilling form, "are you looking at me funny?" Once adopted these are the kind of stances that cannot be retreated from.

Of course such "fronting" has always gone on. But back in the day the indignation might have been real but the guns weren't. These days it's likely to be the other way around.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Germany 3 Turkey 2 BBC 0

Tonight was not one of the BBC's more distinguished nights.

It was passing strange even before the signal was lost. 5Live's desperate need to pass on information as soon as they have it was manifest in the first half when John Murray interrupted his commentary to tell us the verdict in a deeply sad murder case; a second later he had to change gear from sober news reader to rattle-twirling Turk-for-a-day as the unfancied side went into the lead. The effect was distasteful.

The intermittent loss of signal underlined once more the great truth of TV sportscasting. This is that the person not there knows more than the person who is there. You would have thought that the BBC would have left one person at home in front of their TV whose job it was to tell them when they were broadcasting, with what signals and to whom. It was evident throughout the evening that they didn't know.

Finally there wasn't a voice anywhere on the network prepared to concede that the reason Germany had won was because they had scored three perfectly legitimate goals to the Turks' two and that while their performance was far from distinguished it was not dreadful. Had a British side gone through under the same circs they would have regarded it as a hard-earned victory.

Asked beforehand if he thought the Germans would be complacent, Hansen said "The Germans do arrogance but they don't do complacency." He presumably forgot to add that they don't like it up 'em.

Monday, June 23, 2008

What magazine editors should consider before they appear on video

In the near future magazine editors will be hired as much for their ability to "front the brand" as to decide what goes on page 60. Now that cheap video has come together with cheap broadband a few of them have been tempted to go in front of the camera. It's not as easy as it looks. How come?

10. In young people's magazines the editor is generally old enough to be the readers' mother. Seventeen is America's leading teenage girls magazine. Most of the team who pop up here in this hectic tip-athon are in their mid-twenties. I'm guessing the editor-in-chief is a bit older.

9. If you let daylight in on magic, well, you can see just what arm-twisting, log-rolling and bogus sincerity is involved in getting a celebrity as earth-girdling in her fame as Jessica Alba to do anything. Here she meets the hundreds of interns at Seventeen magazine. And my, aren't they a wonderful reflection of the diversity of America?

8. Although women's glossies promote messages about being comfortable in one's own skin and finding one's own personal look most of their editors refuse to appear in front of the camera. This is because they are consumed with uncertainty about their personal appearance that borders on self-loathing. If you find an editor's video message from the big glossies I want to see it.

7. The youngest and blondest member of the editorial team will always find themselves charged with the job of fronting the video. I've no doubt Valerie Jamieson is more than qualified to introduce New Scientist's round up of science clips but if Tomorrow's World ever comes back, they won't see her for moondust.

6. At Word magazine we take the belt and braces approach by having the new issue clip fronted by anyone who could be described as either young or blonde.Rob Fitzpatrick and Kate Mossman go where neither Mark Ellen nor I will tread without a makeover. Note high quality production values, achieved through Fraser's camera phone. Which is a reminder...

5. Anything that has an opening titles sequence featuring tumbling logos over copyright-free music means that the production company is trying to do something to justify all that money you're paying them through your nose.

4. There's nothing in media quite so nauseating as a hack telling us how fabulous it was to meet a fabulous person. Peter Castro of People reporting back on his encounter with Jennifer Lopez's twins is a classic of the genre. It also proves that if you hire a TV pro to front your video all it will achieve is to make your hack look even geekier.

3. Men's magazine editors should never appear on a camera because they always look as if they're getting less sex than the readers. Somebody should tell the editor of Loaded. Just have done.

2. Confidence is a great thing. Graydon Carter of Vanity Fair is the perfect representation of his brand. He looks like an educated man dedicated to gossip who has had a fair number of lunches in the pursuit of said gossip. His little intros to the new issue of Vanity Fair are further distinguished by the appearance of the Vanity Fair Orchestra.

1. But really, this is how you do it. Runners World magazine celebrate their industry award with a clever, watchable, funny self-administered pat on the back. It's fronted by an editor who has not been hit by the ugly stick and features all of the team, young, blonde and otherwise. For the moment this is the gold standard.

To the lighthouse

To Southwold yesterday. It was a delight being there. Reminded me that what I really want is to live near a small lighthouse. Also reminded me that you can't have a grief-free day out in the South of England. On our return the roundabout where the A12 met the M25 was completely grid-locked and the queue must have been going back for miles. By taking evasive action we eventually got on to a North Circular Road that appeared to be closed entirely in one direction. By the time we got home it takes about an hour to shake off the frustrations of the journey. Given that, and the price of a tank of petrol, is it worth it?

Saturday, June 21, 2008

*Now* he tells us

Interesting piece in the Guardian by Daniel Taylor about Cristiano Ronaldo. Arguing that Manchester United should just let him go he cites a few occasions on which he and a number of football writers have witnessed and been shocked by Ronaldo's back-stage behaviour and paints a picture of a spoiled multi-millionaire who is used to getting his way at all times. Recalling the scene created by a petulant Ronaldo on a day the club was commemorating the victims of the Munich air crash he says "It was such an unpleasant scene the journalists decided not to write about it". This confirms what you have always suspected about sports writers - that far from competing they put their heads together and agree their party line. And they only spill the beans when they have nothing to lose by doing so. The comeback from readers on the Guardian site will, I think, surprise him. People are starting to feel shortchanged by this kind of cosiness.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Twenty20. Where's the tragedy?

To Lords yesterday evening. We were invited to a hospitality box to enjoy champagne, dinner and the lengthening rays of the sun over the loveliest lawn in the world. (Thanks, Chris.) The match was a Twenty20 encounter between Middlesex and Sussex. The first time I saw one of these games it was between England and the West Indies at the Oval and there was plenty of hitting the ball out of the ground, the sort of thing the marketing men love.

This one was a walkover for Middlesex. They batted first and Sussex never looked like making their total. This meant that the match was more of a non-event than even the least eventful traditional game of cricket could ever be. The beauty of cricket is the tension. This had none. Obviously the world game is now being reorganised in the light of the success of Twenty20 and you can see the reasons why, not least that people can turn up after work and get home in time for News At Ten. But I wonder whether a game can develop in the long run if it doesn't have that essential drama.

All the great world games have a tragic dimension that keep us coming back. Rugby is like war in that momentum is all. In the sense that the defences nearly always win, football is like life. In Test cricket even the greatest reputation can be undone through a microsecond of miscalculation. Golf is man against himself. And so on. But Twenty20? It's a laugh, which is a good thing now, but it's not enough in the long run.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Teenagers, the mobile phone and the lure of the better offer

One of the characteristics of people under thirty is that, having grown up with the mobile phone, they have never felt the need to plan. Teenagers no longer rendezvous. They swarm. They set off to meet each other and change their meeting point according to some strange new form of mathematics that can calculate where the majority of them will be at any given moment. They set off to Camden and call you an hour later from Shoreditch.

There's nothing particularly wrong with this except where it runs up against the traditional form of life planning used by the rest of us. This involves such things as calendars, invitations, tickets, bookings and commitments. For years we used to spend New Year's Eve with the same family. This wasn't a three-line whip. This was what all generations wanted to do.

But when Millennium New Year's Eve was beginning to loom the young people, by then older teenagers, wouldn't commit. They were bound to be doing something special. So-and-so was having a huge party. Wotsit was hiring the Orient Express. They couldn't possibly miss that. As the months went by the plans became more ambitious and less concrete. In fact they weren't plans. They were daydreams. Nobody was prepared to say what they were doing in case that meant they missed out on something better.

The upshot of all this was that at five o'clock on December 31st they were all on the phone to each other having the same conversation. "I dunno. What're you doing?"

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Read them and weep

If you've just seen a bloke coming out of Kings Cross station wiping the tears from his eyes that was probably me listening to the end of "If You're Reading This", a Radio Four documentary I caught up with thanks to the Speechification podcast. It's a simple idea and it's probably been done lots of times before. It's about those letters that soldiers write and then put away against the day that they don't come back. The last ten minutes consist of an interview with the parents of a 19-year-old English soldier killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan. The mother talks about the letter he wrote and the karaoke night organised in her son's memory but won't read the letter out. That, she says quite correctly, is mine.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Czech Republic 2 Turkey 3

Another extraordinary game tonight. I don't know if we'll sleep in north London tonight if the sound of car horns right now is anything to go by.

Next to this Wayne Rooney's wedding just started looking even wetter.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

We think it's all over

The football has been fantastic at Euro 2008. Last night's game between Holland and France was the most fun I've had watching an international match since that game between Argentina and Holland in the 98 World Cup. There's ten minutes of highlights here if you're interested.

But every time the BBC go back to the studio my ardour is dimmed by the dullness and complacency of the punditry the Corporation has seen fit to put there. The energy drops immediately Lineker fills the screen with "What a thoroughly entertaining forty-five minutes", uttered like a man called upon to enthuse about attending speech day when none of his children have won anything. He tosses up a soft ball to Alan Hansen who then makes an observation of such plinking obviousness that your attention immediately wanders to the subject of how they arrive at a dress code for these occasions. What does this particular encounter call for, boys? Smart suits or light-coloured shirts with huge collars? But even Hansen's insight is piercing compared to the one which inevitably comes next. Alan Shearer has apparently passed up the manager's job at Blackburn because he feels duty-bound to treat the nation to his views about international football. Maybe we should get up a petition assuring him that we'll muddle through somehow. Martin O'Neill is obviously worlds better but he's shrewd enough to have read the situation and realised that trying to raise the game of this particular bunch of log-rollers would be like trying to bring up the subject of the crisis in Zimbabwe in the golf club bar.

And thus it continues, nudged along by some leaden banter, until it's time to go back to the live commentary. The nation long ago Dolbied out the actual words employed by John Motson, reserving its amusement for the nervous laughs that follow his attempts at a joke and the involuntary barks of excitement which accompany anything that occurs in the goalmouth, but occasionally he makes a pronouncement of such monumental, transcendental fatuity that you can distinctly hear the shades of John Arlott and Peter Jones muttering darkly into their ambrosia from the depth of their leather chairs in the commentators' Valhalla.

He'd already shown himself equal to the lyricism that the occasion called for by making the observation "good skill" when Thierry Henry twisted the Dutch full-back's blood but he saved his best for last when Sneijder made it four with a looping shot from outside the area. "The Dutch have gone goal crazy!"

Dear God.

Friday, June 13, 2008

"Wise guy on line one"

The welcome return of Danny Baker to Five Live's 606 football phone-in underlines how in this interactive world we're all reliant on the sparkiness of audiences. Suddenly the bar is raised and it's not easy to find people who can clear it. It wasn't easy to get the average Five Live listener coming up with limericks that contained a rhyme for Switzerland and his call for contributions from people who had an irrational antipathy to certain competing nations solicited not much more than "France. Because they're French." It was only when his old listeners came on the line, readily identifiable through their "Ahoy Ahoy" salutation, that the idiosyncratic aircraft of his humour began to lumber into the air. As soon as it reaches cruising altitude Euro 2008 will be over and Five Live will presumably resume their efforts to turn the estimable Tim Lovejoy into something he's not, a radio broadcaster.

When you open up the lines the best you can actually hope for is a ready-made experience or gag. I heard such a one this morning. Nicky Campbell was asking for contributions from people who had married their childhood sweethearts. "I've been married to my wife for thirty years," said one. "I haven't spoken to her for the last twenty. It seems rude to interrupt." How have I never heard that one before?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

"Excuse me, you've left behind your state secrets"

I use public transport and I'm an averagely observant person. Therefore I'm obviously disappointed that I've yet to stumble upon a briefcase full of documents labelled "Top Secret". Yesterday's story about the Cabinet Office official leaving the Joint Intelligence Committee reports about Al Qaeda on a train further boggles a mind already fairly boggled by the previous story about the lost MOD computer that had the personal details of 135,000 people who'd applied to join the Services, the hard drive that had the names of three million driving test candidates and the MOD laptop that was pinched in McDonalds.

The fact that nobody has yet reported finding equally sensitive material from the private sector suggests either that, say, Tesco executives are not daft enough to leave a laptop containing all the name and addresses of their club card members in Burger King or that members of the public are turning up such commercial gold dust all the time and can't be bothered to hand it in.

Can I suggest that until the Civil Service is confident enough that it doesn't have a load of staff who habitually leave stuff on trains or in their cars they cease putting the words "Top Secret" at the top? I've always believed that the easiest way to get anything ignored is to shout it from the rooftops.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

In praise of "The Supersizers..."

Somebody told me that the BBC now name their programmes with search engine optimization in mind. Maybe that's how they ended up with "The Supersizers Go....", a terrible name that undersells the only appointment TV in our house at the moment.

It's the standard approach - a spoonful of celebrity sugar makes the medicine go down - except Sue Perkins and Giles Coren aren't quite red carpet material, probably by their own choice. In each show they travel back to some bygone era and live with its diet for a week. This provides ample opportunities for kitchen gore. We've seen chefs attempt to hold back the bilious tide while trying to recreate recipes for which their forebears won medals. We've seen how during the Restoration dining was a gross display of wealth and power. We've seen how long an eel continues objecting after it's been chopped in two.

Last night they went back to the 70s, to the land of Black Tower hock, half a bottle of spirits for each guest, food covered in gelatine and cigars on Concorde. The learning was that despite the apparent heaviness and fattiness of the fare, people were actually slimmer in those days. This could be, as Coren pointed out, because in those days there was something called manual labour.

Perkins and Coren are a brilliant team, as charming and funny as anyone on British TV. They're both fast talkers but they manage not to step on each other's lines or upstage each other. Presumably they don't need a scriptwriter to come up with observations like "Advocaat. A drink made from lawyers." Whatever they're presented with they attack with relish and aren't afraid to enjoy things that are bad for you.

And I know they send themselves up but am I alone in detecting a distinct strain of what breakfast TV producers call sexual chemistry? And I know they're both spoken for in different ways but there are some people who turn into flirts as soon as they hear the words "turn over".

You can watch it here.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Italian takeaway

What I loved about last night's game between Holland and Italy was the rare sight of an Italian side being given the hurry-up. Two-down at half-time is not a situation that they are at all used to dealing with. Usually they wear the seen-it-all look of men who are confident that the result at the end of the ninety minutes will be close and in their favour. Seeing them forced to inject some urgency into their time-honoured way of doing things was the first really interesting spectacle of this championship.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Quote of the week

"Everybody in politics lies. But the Clintons do it with such ease, it's troubling."
I wouldn't pay much mind to that kind of sentiment were it not for the fact that it was expressed by David Geffen, a veteran of the music and the film business. Makes you think.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Every man in his station

The Management has finally accepted that attempting to go anywhere at the weekend by car in the South of England is stressful, expensive and laughably slow. Therefore when we want to see friends in Hampshire today we took the train from Waterloo. On days like today this provided a good place to view what Elvis Costello called "London's Brilliant Parade". It was Derby Day and so the punters were gathering on the concourse. There were burly Al Murray-alikes in short sleeved shirts hoisting pints of lager, faintly blowsy young women in high heels that would probably be shed by the third race and the furtive figures of serious racegoers, their pocket seams struggling to contain form books. A very smart hen party was assembling under the clock, each member dressed in a variation on a theme of red and black.

We waited in the queue for tickets. In front of us was a ruddy faced retired gentleman of the shires, resplendent in his town uniform of hounds tooth check jacket and dazzling shoes. In front of him were two loudish Americans who were trying to get to Southampton to join an ocean liner. I turned round and was confronted by an actual toff in full morning attire, top hat included.

Sometimes London doesn't let you down.

Friday, June 06, 2008

In praise of Anthony Lane

The film critic who makes most others read as if they're typing in boxing gloves. In the New Yorker he has this to say of "Sex And The City":
You cannot simply shift a load of television actors onto a movie screen and expect them to command its greater expanse; only one in a thousand will be able to summon that mysterious confluence of presence and reserve on which stardom relies—the will both to offer oneself to the camera and yet to keep back the hidden, unguessable sources of that self.
Alongside that 99% of reasoning about film, let alone writing, is just hot air.

Mixed signals on the way to work this morning

1. At the station. A woman carefully goes through every page of the giveaway magazine "Sport" to make sure there's nothing in that will traumatise her nine-year old boy. Meanwhile he waits patiently and looks up at her expectantly.
2. On the platform. A woman with a seven year old boy who's wearing one of those anti-pollution face masks.
3. On the train. A woman with a well-dressed two year old boy. He turns to look out of the window and puts one of his feet on the seat. She immediately smacks him once on the backside. He starts crying, more out of shock and embarrassment than pain. She lectures him in some East European language for about ten seconds and then tries to cuddle him into submission. He, being male, is immediately placated. So she gives him a Milky Way.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Londoners Diary

To the Orange Broadband Prize For Fiction ceremony in the ballroom of the Festival Hall. I've no idea why I was invited. On the rare occasions I've expressed any view on this it's been to question whether we still need a fiction prize for women novelists. On the basis of the remarks from the stage it's precisely this kind of male observation that is most valued by the organisers because it helps keep the siege mentality at simmering point. Anyway, the occasion was notable for:
  • the man from Orange making the best judged sponsors speech I've heard in a while
  • the main prize going to the estimable Rose Tremain
  • the candidates for Best New Writer being described as "three great women who've written great books"
  • the sun arrowing over the Thames as I crossed Hungerford Bridge on one of those evenings that make you think "dull would he be who could pass by" etc etc
  • The rapture on the faces of the cloakroom staff as they watched the paparazzi shoot frame after frame of token showbiz person Geri Haliwell

I'm no Home Secretary but...

...if the story in today's Times is true about 42 people having been caught trying to break into jails in the last five years, isn't it reasonable to assume that a certain number must have evaded detection. Are they still there? Have they come back out? Have they been released?

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

I'm no economist but....

....the first thing I heard this morning on the Today programme was a representative of the fishing industry saying "it no longer makes sense to fish because the cost of the fuel is greater than the value of the catch."

I thought to myself "I wonder if I'll remember this day."

Monday, June 02, 2008

I blame hen weekends for divorce

One of the many sobering facts in the first volume of David Kynaston's "Austerity Britain" is that in the 1930s the UK divorce rate was around 6,000 a year. By 1950, thanks to wartime upheaval, it had gone up to 20,000. That's partly because more people (425,000) got married for the first time in 1940 than in any other year since records began.

The UK divorce rate is now running at over 150,000 a year. I wonder whether the divorce rate rises in direct relation to the increase in fuss around the business of a wedding. In Barcelona the other weekend we came into contact with stag and hen parties from all over Europe. Bleached blonde girls from Carshalton wearing deeley-boppers at breakfast in the hotel, young Frenchmen dressed in nappies at the Park Guell and burly Brits in their late thirties striding round the Gothic Quarter in matching tee shirts.

Our daughter assures us this is now an obligatory component of the pre-match ritual. It's not something you have a choice about. It's important that you be seen to publicise your decision, particularly among your friends. When we got married nearly thirty years ago there were two ways to do it: you either organised it as a family occasion or you simply went to the Register Office and then told people about it afterwards. I know a few people who did this. I get the feeling nowadays that would be seen as passing up a unique opportunity to draw attention to yourself.