Monday, September 29, 2008

The Bad Samaritan

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Pictures of war

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

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

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

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Roxy Music's not-so-secret ingredient

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

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

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Holding Robert Hughes's coat

When the venerable art critic puts you down, you stay down. This is him in the Guardian on Damien Hirst's recent rights issue:
One might as well get excited about seeing a dead halibut on a slab in Harrods food hall. Living sharks are among the most beautiful creatures in the world, but the idea that the American hedge fund broker Steve Cohen, out of a hypnotised form of culture-snobbery, would pay an alleged $12m for a third of a tonne of shark, far gone in decay, is so risible that it beggars the imagination. As for the implied danger, it is worth remembering that the number of people recorded as killed by sharks worldwide in 2007 was exactly one. By comparison, a housefly is a ravening murderous beast. Maybe Hirst should pickle one, and throw in a magnifying glass or two.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Some favourite records

Met somebody at a party at the weekend who asked me what music was worth listening to. Recommendation is a hazardous business. Sharing a taste is one thing. Being on the same wavelength is another thing entirely. Anyway, these are some of the records that have given me the most pleasure in the last few months:
Loudon Wainwright: Recovery
Redoing a lot of his best early songs with Joe Henry, the producer of the moment. Speaking of whom...
Joe Henry: Civilians
Love that dry, basement sound and the string bass
Various Artists: Take Me To The River
Three CDs of classics of Southern Soul - arguably the greatest compilation ever compiled.
Bon Iver: For Emma, Forever Ago
Makes me wish I was a sensitive 19-year-old.
Mulatu Astatke: Ethiopiques Vol 4
Gorgeous Ethiopian jazz.
Burial: Untrue
The sound the Victoria Line makes after everyone's gone home.
Lykke Li: Youth Novels
The Swedish Kate Bush.
Sir Victor Uwaifo: Guitar Boy Superstar
Brilliantly lo-fi music from 70s Nigeria.
She & Him: Volume One
Actress Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward make the record Cass Elliott never got round to.
Mary Gauthier: Genesis (The Early Years)
The female John Prine.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

At home with The Sopranos

I've been watching, very belatedly, Season Three of "The Sopranos". One of the most impressive things about these sprawling HBO dramas is not the extremes of behaviour portrayed. It's the everyday stuff the characters do, particularly the daily acts of shabbiness of which we're all capable. In "The Telltale Moozadell" it's Carmela Soprano's birthday. Her teenage son buys her a DVD of "The Matrix". He sort of apologises for not wrapping it but then says it's more personal that way. Then daughter Meadow comes home from University announcing that she's booked her mother in for a special all-day beauty treatment at a smart new salon. And to keep her company she's booked herself in as well. Oh, and she's put it on her mother's credit card. Now that's family life.

Heather Mills Maths

Heather Mills regularly embarks on media initiatives to rehabilitate herself. In each case she digs herself a slightly roomier hole. Even more than most famous people she just can't resist the opportunity to talk about herself. That must be why she does it.

She has a new publicist. She's taking legal action against the old one, rarely a good sign. This new person, called Joe Dolce, has steered her in the direction of the Daily Mail. Say what you like about the Mail, they're always prepared to give people the space to make an idiot of themselves. This is a long read.

There are many gems here, some of them arithmetical. Take the revelation that she took sixty close friends and family on holiday to the Caribbean island of Necker. Even if we were offering them a free holiday I think most of us might have difficulty mustering that many close family and friends.

This weekend she's cooking 1,000 vegan meals for poor children in the Bronx. She claims this is at a personal cost of a million dollars. Now even if she were to take the more expensive option and actually buy the meals rather than cooking them (assuming there is a quality vegan outlet in the Bronx), that would mean she was splashing out a thousand dollars a head. That's a lot of noodles.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Sex And Ye City

There's something about this still that sums up "The Duchess" and its "Grazia"-style take on life among the aristocrats of the 18th century.

A lazy Sunday round at the love nest of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and her love toy Charles, the second Earl Grey, means just lounging around, chilling out to the latest Mozart CD, brushing croissant fragments from their Heal's bed linen while reading the gossip pages of the Bath Chronicle. Later in the day they will mosey down to the Pump Room to dally over a leisurely glass of seltzer with mates...

We shall fight them at the cocktail hour...

"The Irregulars" by Jennet Conant sounds like one for the reading list. According to the Wall Street Journal...
"Ms. Conant tells the story of a handful of young, handsome, cosmopolitan British officers sent to Washington before Pearl Harbor -- at Prime Minister Winston Churchill's direction -- to ingratiate themselves on the social scene, subvert American isolationism and advance the British cause through good manners. America at the time was officially committed to neutrality, though World War II was raging in Europe, not least in Britain during the Blitz."

Somebody has to have bought the film rights for this.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The bullshit factor

"Americans fully expect bullshit from their politicians. It only matters that it's the right kind. And Sarah Palin, as we learned last night, is frighteningly full of it."

That's Bob Moser in "The Nation". It's easy for Brits to feel that this kind of thing doesn't apply to us. As a breed our leaders can't be bothered pretending to curry favour with us. They're secure in the knowledge that they know better than we do. I quite like that about them.

But they all ask us to buy into the greater bullshit, which is that they're in a position to do much about things. John McCain says he's going to clean up Washington. Barack Obama says he's going to free the better angels of our nature. Gordon Brown says he's keeping an eye on what Russia is up to in Georgia. (Got that, Mr Putin?) David Cameron is going to make people more polite. It's all the kind of hot air that they think will play. It bears no relation to what they will actually do when it comes down to grisly reality. Ask Bush and Brown whether, even in their worst nightmares, they expected to have to nationalise building societies. Tommy Carcetti would be laughing, were he not a fictional character.

If they were genuinely candid they would admit that they are volunteering for a short ride on the bucking bronco that Harold Macmillan called "events, dear boy" and if they're very lucky by the time they are thrown they won't actually have done anything.

School's out, apparently

A travel company crashes, leaving thousands of holiday makers stranded all over the world. TV crews rush to the airports to record interviews with tearful ticket holders. Families traveling with children make particularly good telly. There turn out to be a surprising number of these and the kids are anything from primary age to teenagers. This is irregular, as head teachers will note, because this week is the first of the new school year when nobody's got an excuse. Even the most laggardly establishment has re-opened its doors and even the most demob-happy one hasn't yet broken up for half term.

The main reason people take their kids out of school during term time is to take advantage of off-peak holiday deals. Given the timing this week, that must mean that most of these kids have missed the beginning of term and were planning to turn up ten days late with a deep tan, complaining they'd been sidelined by the flu. It's a strangely emotive issue. Parents caught red-handed get indignant rather than apologetic, blaming holiday companies for taking advantage of the school calendar (and its mere thirteen week holiday "window") to profiteer at their expense; that or the local education authority or heads for their lack of understanding.

Given the number of package holiday companies and airlines that are going bust I think they may have overestimated how much fat there is in the holiday business. Last time there was a furore about this the DoE was forced to issue a statement saying "we have no legal powers to fix holiday price setting." What nobody does is blame themselves. Of course we did it once, with one child when she was quite young, for just a couple of days and with the tacit approval of the head. Doesn't make us any less guilty.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The only good bloke in showbiz

Had lunch with an old radio hand. Talk fell to whether it is really the case that all stars are monsters drunk on ego. He had previously had the same conversation with a very senior executive in BBC Television and put this same question to him. This individual had in the course of a long and colourful career dealt with every major star in the light entertainment firmanent. He was challenged to name one who wasn't capable of behaving like a twat. He furrowed his brow and thought hard for quite a few minutes. Then he brightened. "Rolf Harris!"

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Mobiles on the underground

I can't believe that they're really going to make it possible to use mobiles on underground trains. They're starting with Glasgow, a system with so few stations you would have thought that people would be able to wait until they'd completed their journeys to make a call.

Presumably they're already measuring up London. I think it's potentially disastrous. The only thing that gets millions of people back and forth to work in London every day is the Metropolitan Omerta. It's this code of silence that keeps Londoners sane. I may have my nose jammed up against your armpit but the fact that I am not talking to you is the best guarantee that I will not engage in any acts of open aggression against you. Out of town visitors are instantly recognisable because they're talking, usually to say something like "I couldn't do this every day". (To which all Londoners assent between gritted teeth, we wouldn't wish you to.)

Imagine a rush hour train in the stifling heat of the Victoria Line. That's bad enough. Now imagine that carriage full of people engaging in gormless phone conversations with unseen friends, business colleagues, boyfriends, insurance companies and call centres in Mumbai. I genuinely fear for the thin skin of restraint once you add that kind of provocation.

I think this is an issue that our new mayor should take the lead in. "Progress" stops here. If you want to talk, walk.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The growth of unique names

Very good piece on Salon which looks at the fashion among African-American parents for inventing unique names for their children, a practice that has brought us Beyoncé, Lashawn, Deontay, Taraje and millions of others. It finds that this is not all that new and increasingly it's not exclusively black either. It makes me wonder whether in the near future it'll be possible to pick out the middle class on the basis that they will be the only ones who will choose names that have been used before. There's a moral here about their investment in continuity that I'm too tired to explore.

Monday, September 08, 2008

A music film. And about music too

Most music documentaries aren't about music. They're about career or personality.

I've just watched "A Trip To Asia: On Tour With the Berlin Philharmonic" and it's a revelation. These are utterly accomplished players who've been hired by what is, by any measure, the best band in the world. However they accept that they're not creative musicians. They are instead, as one of them describes it, "reproducing musicians".

They talk about the need to bring all their different egos and personalities together into the tiny area in which they have to operate and the physical ecstasy when it all works. It's the nearest I've ever got to how musicians think.

Survival of the fittest

I read today that Fabio Capello didn't want to risk Emile Heskey (30) for the whole game against Andorra because that way he would be too tired to appear against Croatia four days later. This is in the same week that top class tennis players at the U.S. Open are expected to play a final just twenty-four hours after a semi-final. Anyone who's watched people like Nadal and Murray compete from close-up is amazed that they're still standing after the knock-up, let alone at the end of three, even four hours during which they're pushing themselves to a scary level of intensity. Why can't they use some of the tennis training methods on the footballers?

In the same weekend I have to say I was impressed to see 52-year-old Angus Deayton last a full forty-five minutes ploughing up and down the Wembley pitch during the Sport Aid England vs Rest Of The World match.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Bulletin from "You Couldn't Make It Up" Desk

A week ago there was only one famous Palin. This is an actual sentence from Newsweek this morning.
Among the allegations that were raised against Wooten by Palin's sister: he had Tasered his ten-year-old stepson and shot a moose without a permit.

What happened to sleeve design?

In years to come, when travelers from Mars pick through the debris of our shattered society, one of the questions somebody is bound to ask is, why did rock bands allow the covers of their CDs to be designed by people who didn't seem to understand the first thing about the principles of the packaged goods business? I noticed these four pre-releases on my desk just now and they set me thinking.
  • Let's start with the top left. If a CD becomes separated from its case, how the bloody hell do you identify it? Would a company selling DVDs allow you to do that? No. And why not? Because it would be profoundly irritating for their customers. Which it is.
  • Top right. One of the jobs of design is to maximise the chances of a little casual purchase by providing people with an element that they can get some kind of purchase on. Here you've got a band name that provides no clue and an album title that tries your patience. In this context if you then expect people to be intrigued by your conceptual gag as well then, well, you have a lot to learn.
  • Bottom right. Go and look at the books in Borders. What's the first principle of book jacket design? That you be able to make out the name of the book and its author. Now, can you read this? It was eventually identified by somebody holding it in front of me and telling me its name. Call me old fashioned. This shouldn't be necessary.
  • Bottom left. If you're a former member of Captain Beefheart's Magic Band then you should know that the marketplace is infinitely more crowded than it used to be and it's no longer tolerant of the occasional injection of the grotesque. Somebody has to reach for this in the rack and take it to the till. They are more likely to do that if they don't find the image on the cover repellent.

Friday, September 05, 2008

The last refuge of the PR

My favourite moment in "Money For Nothing", last night's BBC Three programme about the iniquitous growth of store cards, came when presenter Rebecca Wilcox was being filmed on Oxford Street trying to explain to shoppers why they shouldn't use them. Top Shop's PR, obviously having been called in by the store's manager, was filmed bearing down on the crew and telling them they couldn't film the exterior of the shop because they didn't have permission. Like Chinese policemen, PR people often do this. It's the single dumbest thing a communications professional can ever say.

When the traditional wheedling, arm twisting and corruption don't work, PRs are very quick to pretend that they have some sort of Law, moral or actual, on their side. They compose their features into that "you've gone too far this time" mask and act like the parent whose about to use a sanction so dreadful that it's going to hurt them more than it hurts you. In truth they're doing this because, if they thought about it for a moment, they must realise that they don't have a leg to stand on. Whenever PRs are wielding embargos or those exclusivity agreements they are always trying to get inexperienced hacks to sign, I energetically encourage them to seek redress through the law. I would love to see them explain to a judge why employees charged with getting as much publicity as possible for their paymasters suddenly decide they don't want anyone to photograph their building.

This sort of idiotic behaviour is always counter-productive, as I'm sure the police chief in Denver must have realised when he saw this clip of his men moving on an ABC reporter trying to film people arriving for a Democratic party fundraiser at the recent convention.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Funny thing, football, particularly this week

An unusual thing is happening in football this week. Usually the amount of speculation is out of proportion to the number of actual events. But this week, what with the transfer window, the Manchester City takeover, the Robinho transfer, the actual departure of Curbishley and the likely departure of Keegan, events have been ripping along at such a speed that the commentariat has barely had time to comment.

It seems that with the advent of a handful of owners for whom money is no object and a larger number of very rich blokes trying to keep up with them, and in all probability ultimately sell to them, the days of the traditional British manager are numbered. If you want some light cast on the new thinking going on in football clubs Five Live's interview with football broker Kia Joorabchian is a good place to start.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Robinho: there'll be tears

Can I be the first to point out that Robinho's thumb-sucking goal celebration is already the most embarrassing party piece since Robbie Keane dropped his gunslinger act? The fact that Real Madrid eventually sold him because, according to Ramon Calderon, it was impossible to have a conversation with him that didn't involve him crying indicates that we have some rich entertainment in prospect.

Ken Campbell

Ken Campbell has died. I remember seeing him being interviewed on TV in the 70s. He said something like "Anything that doesn't have some humour doesn't have any truth." Made a big impression on me.

Monday, September 01, 2008

How to write (latest in an endless series)

From Anthony Lane's first letter from the Beijing Olympics in The New Yorker:

To leave your hotel in the morning and have your bag and your person searched before you board a bus to the Olympic Green, as if it were a plane, is no hardship; indeed, from a professional point of view, to be felt up and patted down with such eager regularity has given me the first, helpful hint as to what life was like for Jean Harlow.