Saturday, August 30, 2008

Martini Wisdom

Beneath the delectable lines of all that art direction and the rather showy drinking, there are powerful themes in Mad Men. An episode from the second series came my way recently in which one of the main characters sleeps with a woman who isn't his wife. A few days later he calls her. She asks him where he is. He says he's at home with his kids. "Ah yes," she says, giving the knife the barest twist. "When I've been out and been bad I like to come home and be good."

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Glass ceilings and halls of mirrors

On the news last night I saw a film of Barack Obama sitting in somebody's living room. He was watching TV. From time to time he applauded what he saw. What he saw was Chelsea Clinton introduce "her hero", who turned out to be her mother. Then we saw her father applauding as her mother was featured in a film with her own mother. Then Hillary Clinton, who is not running for anything this time, made a speech about glass ceilings and pledged her wholehearted support of Barack. Everybody applauded even though they know she doesn't mean it because she wants him to lose so that she can have a shot in 2012. And what's even stranger is there are signs that none of this pantomime actually changes the mind of the people who will decide this election, regular people worried about their mortgages.

Meanwhile, in other news, Russia is invading a troublesome neighbour in order to defend the rights of an allegedly oppressed minority. Anyone watching "The World At War" this weekend on BBC History can be forgiven for pricking up their ears at that one, which was the favourite fig leaf of both Stalin and Hitler. When I was a kid they used to run a show called "All Our Yesterdays" which was just old newsreel introduced by a brilliantly jaded old hack called Brian Inglis. I think they should bring it back. Just two minutes at the end of a weekly news bulletin would be enough to point up the difference between government's accounts of the world and the world as it actually is.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Podcasts are like life

Podcasts are really interesting things. If you listen to one regularly you develop a strange affinity with the people on it and tend not to like it when there's any kind of shuffle of the personnel.

I'm a big fan of The Game, the weekly football podcast from The Times. Actually I'm a big fan of The Game as it was two seasons ago when it was chaired by the indefatigable Danny Kelly and featured Gabriele Marcotti, who makes Geoff Boycott seem self-effacing, Alison Rudd, who used to sing a football song every week, and Bill Edgar, an anorak's anorak. It was perfect because it didn't try to get clever. It just put the week's football events through the same mincer every Monday. I would have paid 70p a week (the price of The Times) to listen to it but nobody has yet worked out a way of taking that money off me.

At the beginning of last season Danny Kelly left and they put Marcotti in charge, which was not playing to his strengths. At one stage he was so aggressive I thought Kevin Day was going to hit him. They introduced interviews, most of which didn't work. The appeal of the podcast is it sends a gust of opinionated air into an arena in which most speech is a waste of breath. With rare exceptions its talks with standard "football folk" were the dullest part of the show. Alison Rudd disappeared and instead we got a rotating cast of football writers from the papers, most of whom don't begin to understand podcasting and give the impression that they regard it as an effete distraction from their real job of heaping ink on paper. But nonetheless I listened.

Now the new season arrives and they've got Phill Jupitus in to present. Phill's very good but you can't help but think that they went for somebody who's built upon the same lines as Danny but lacks the latter's zany attack and willingness to fill any space with his own opinions. The other thing about getting somebody like Phill in is there's presumably money involved, money that nobody in the podcasting world appears to be getting back in either sponsorship or advertising. I'm still here with my 70p but for that I might insist they get Danny back.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


Overheard in a lift just now.
South African: What did you make of Paris?
Australian: Pretty everage.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

If not Becks, who?

David Beckham's appearance at the closing ceremony of the Beijing Olympics made me ponder a couple of things.

If you want a man to appear on top of a double decker bus with a small child and do something vaguely symbolic involving a ball, he's certainly your man.

But if for any reason he were unavailable, who the hell else would you call?

We hear a lot about the transformation of sportsmen into superstars, how even young names today can parlay their images into big money via massive advertising campaigns for anything from pop to pumps, about how sportsmen today enjoy a level of fame that would have been unknown to earlier generations of athletes.

But if Becks had not been able to do the gig, who would you have called? There isn't another footballer who would have been able to command that degree of recognition and affection. Is there anyone from another sport? I can't think of any. Maybe they aren't as famous as they think they are. They think they're in the same business as Becks. Fact is, they're not on the same planet.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

"Which war is it today, Sir?"

Visited Berlin for the first time this week. When I was growing up I never had to learn the recent history of the place. It was just one of those things you absorbed. You only realise how strange it is when you try to explain it to a teenager of today. Sitting outside Starbucks on Unter Den Linden looking at school parties having their pictures taken with people dressed up as Russian soldiers and reflecting on the fact that only the other week Barack Obama (born in the year the Wall went up) appeared in front of 200,000 people by the Victory Column, you wonder at how tourism seems to take over when actual memory fades.

In the early 80s I worked in an office on Carnaby Street. I remember being amazed at how Scandinavian teenagers, who were not born at the time that the street enjoyed its six months of fame, would nontheless find their way there to buy rubber policeman's helmets and tartan bum-flaps. Reluctant crocodiles of teenagers are a common site in the centre of every major city in the world as the educational trip industry conquers the world. I did it myself in the days when it was a bit rarer. I don't remember learning anything at all.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Everybody hurts

Yesterday was an extraordinary day at the Olympics. Usain Bolt's unreal 100m run, Rebecca Adlington's second gold in the pool, the coxless four's agonising overhauling of the Australians and a lot more. There's a lot of 20/20 hindsight on the radio about the power of positive thinking, the importance of discipline and coaches who say "if you really want to win an Olympic medal you should be prepared to shoot your favourite pet". The coxless four said they were close because they'd spent seven days a week in each other's company 365 days a year for four years. But do all these examples of athletes' unbelievable dedication actually prove anything? Every race I watch I find myself looking at the person coming last and thinking 'they must have worked every bit as hard as the person who came first.' As my mother would have said, 'you all deserve a medal'.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Holiday reading

I get up every morning and cycle for the bread in the teeth of an Atlantic gale. The rest of the day is spent dodging the weather. Not since a holiday thirty years ago in the long-gone land before children have I read as much as I have this week. It's one of those things that repays practice.

First, Through A Glass Darkly, Nigel Jones's biography of Patrick Hamilton, from which he emerges as a charmless snob - but we expected that, didn't we? He goes to the Daily Worker to write pieces in praise of Stalin. His mate Claud Cockburn already does so under the name "Frank Pitcairn". I love the idea of public school educated intellectuals sitting in pubs trying to come up with prole names for themselves.

Then Duncan Hamilton's "Provided You Don't Kiss Me: 20 Years With Brian Clough" which is entertaining enough but still can't come up with a reason for why he was so special other than the fact that he was a quote machine. I wonder whether he actually was any great shakes as a coach or just happened to find himself attached to the right group of players at the right time. Nobody knows what coaches do in the first place which is amazing when you consider how much ink is spent speculating about it.

I wish somebody would write a decent post 9/11 thriller. Richard Flanagan's "The Unknown Terrorist" isn't it. The only thing I can remember about it is that in Australia men's swimming briefs are known as "budgie smugglers".

I read the first part of Ian McEwan's "On Chesil Beach" in the New Yorker ages ago. I read the novel in about the same time as the action it describes. Because of the nature of the story's, er, climactic event, it may never be filmed, I fancy.

By this time I'm getting into my stride and I approach Janet Frame's autobiographical trilogy "An Angel At My Table" intending to read her childhood memoir and see how we got on. I ended up reading all three because since she's been so honest it seemed rude not to stay with her. Michael Holroyd says it's one of the great auotbiographies of the 20th century and I wouldn't disagree.

"Moondust" by Andrew Smith is a quest to meet the men who walked on the moon before they all die. The quest is not as interesting as the amazement you feel that they managed it in the first place and the wonder at the inexperience of the people charged with making life or death decisions. During the launch of Apollo 12 the rocket was hit by three lightning strikes, which caused all the electrical systems to go haywire in a way that none of their drills had envisaged. Before aborting the mission the Controller turned to John Aaron, the man in charge of the electrical system and asked him what to do. Aaron said "Try A-C-E", which is a bit like hitting "reset". They did and all their signals came back. But here's the thing about John Aaron. He was 24.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Stay tuned for these messages

Over the last hundred years we've grown used to seeing hard news interspersed with adverts for consumer products but there is something about this page from the Mirror site this morning – where the harrowing news about the couple who were murdered in the Caribbean is interrupted by commercials for air freshener and washing-up liquid – that may well have the marketing man tearing his hair out.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

In praise of Radio Four

Driving down from Yorkshire today through the driving rain of an August morning we listened to three excellent Radio Four programmes back to back. Actually, the second programme was put together through the efforts of Norwegian Radio which had managed to get Leonard Cohen to talk, and talk beautifully, about his early days as a musician and his affair with Marianne Ehlen, the woman famously featured in a towel on the back cover of "Song From A Room". This was then intercut with an interview with Ehlen to make "Leonard and Marianne", an affecting portrait of how life felt to the pair of them when the going was good and, as Leonard recalls, sleeping with your friends was simply good manners.

Before that was Excess Baggage, which featured interviews with Richard Guise, who has cycled up the West Coast of Scotland, and Andrew Mueller, who has travelled to the world's most prominent trouble spots to see what they were like. I was very impressed that whenever Mueller feels tempted to complain about London's squalor and institutional fatigue he reminds himself that it's that underrated civic virtue, indifference, which makes it a more tolerant and liveable place than most.

After that came Andrew Rawnsley and "Beyond Westminster", taking advantage of the fact that the House isn't sitting to look at the growth of single-issue pressure groups and confront the inescapable fact that they're often the enemy of good government.