Sunday, November 30, 2008

Turning Mumbai into myth

Terrific Clive James column on Radio Four this morning about "The Baader Meinhof Complex" and how the movies can't help glamorising terrorism, reducing complex, terrible events to a set of easy-to-read symbols and ignoring facts and people that don't fit within that narrative.

This chimes with today's news coverage about Mumbai which is already all about Indian cabinet ministers resigning, the possibility that some of the murderers may have come from the UK and the question whether the murders at the Chabad house were aimed at Jews or Israelis. "The first would be an anti-Semitic attack, the second a political one." says one poster. Is that how the victims saw it?

Friday, November 28, 2008


I've got the events in Mumbai on in the background. The caption says "Warzone Mumbai" so the newsmen are evidently having a ball. The Indian SAS seem to enjoy swaggering about in their Robocop uniforms as much as the young men with the machine guns relished wandering around in their best Versace tee shirts slaughtering indiscriminately. The pundits are out in force speculating excitedly about why the "terrorists" or "militants" or "Islamists" did it.

Strikes me that the quicker you try to look for their motives the quicker you forget that this is murder of the most depraved sort. They didn't much care who they killed. They just wanted an impressive number.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

"And dad would thrash us to sleep with his belt...."

Snapped this in a remaindered book shop in the Charing Cross Road this afternoon.

The "horrible childhoods" category is what I believe is referred to in some quarters of the book retail trade as "the boo-fucking-hoo section".

The "jolly childhoods" category is probably some member of staff's effort to cheer themselves up.

I feel they should be supported.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Is speech the future of live performance?

To the Lyceum last night to hear Malcolm Gladwell perform extracts from his new book "Outliers". I know this doubled as a press reception but nonetheless they seated two houses of 2,100 apiece to hear a bloke explaining the ethnic theory of plane crashes and the English roots of male aggression in the Deep South of the United States. With no PowerPoint.

Gladwell makes very good money out of speaking. He's not the only one. When I spoke to Clive James recently he told me that he now makes his living out of the live circuit. In New York City the trendy club to go to is The Moth where prominent people entertain a roomful of drinkers for fifteen minutes by speaking without notes.

You can see why this would appeal, particularly to middle-aged couples. Any band, other than one you are related to, is a terrible gamble for all but the professionally involved. The cinema seems exclusively aimed at teenagers. The theatre costs a fortune. You don't want to be shouted at by comics. Therefore why not go along to hear someone's interesting opinions or experiences elegantly expressed with the promise of a few jokes on the way? It seems like perfect recession entertainment.

On which subject I see that whereas six months ago we were being told that we didn't save enough, we are now being encouraged to spend like drunken sailors. An economist on the radio this morning described this as the Paradox Of Thrift. i.e. If we all save the economy will seize up. If we all spend the economy will overheat. So, after you.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The irresistible offer

In the last ten years I feel something profound has happened to alter the equation between people on one hand and stuff on the other. This ad (left) was on Facebook just now. It offers you the chance to win an iPod. Not one of hundreds of iPods. Just one iPod. But hold hard. There's more to it than that. This iPod comes pre-loaded with forty (that's right - 4-0) of Michael Parkinson's favourite tracks. Go to his website for details.

Oh darn. They've all gone.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The BBC doing what it does worst

The BBC Trust report on Editorial Standards and the Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand affair would make a good little drama. Something for BBC Four, maybe.

The BBC has always been run by well-intentioned, clever, admirable people. They would probably have difficulty prospering in a commercial organisation; however they are ideally suited to the demands of a bureaucracy. At school you can imagine them organising societies while the cool kids were busy having ill-advised sex behind the cricket pavillion. Dashing they are not. Dash is not called for.

Ever since I've had anything to do with the BBC, its executives have seemed to have a kind of crush on the cool kids. Their role as custodians of the biggest train set in media and entertainment has provided them with the chance to play with those same cool kids. This would never have happened otherwise.

The problem with the cool kids is that they soon want you to prove your cool by letting them drink your dad's Scotch or borrow his car. If you balk, you're not cool. This is particularly difficult to take because you know they're right. You're not cool. You used to run the Film Soc.

The blow-by-blow of the Brand/Ross affair tells the tale of a sequence of events in which nobody wanted to grasp the fizzing cartoon bomb of responsibility and tell the cool kids that what they did was half-baked, tasteless and only funny for those who were in the studio at the time. Instead responsibility was passed up the line in the hope that somebody would be prepared to be the wet blanket. And nobody wanted to do that where the cool kids were concerned.

Consequently somebody has to go in and bat for them. They can't build a defence on the grounds that these people are courageous, unconventional, ahead of their time, highly principled or even particularly funny. Of all the dumb reasons to lose your job, defending the cool kids is about the dumbest.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The BBC doing what it does best

Today's the day the BBC Trust report back on the Brand/Ross debacle. It's widely expected they'll announce their retreat from their proposed network of local video sites at the same time. This morning's Today programme contained an excellent feature about the dilemma that Manuelgate has thrust the Corporation into.

Old generation licence fee payers, like Charles Moore, resent being asked to subsidise material that offends them. New generation licence fee payers, like Emily Bell, wonder how long people will be happy to pay the money for a TV licence when the TV is no longer the machine through which they access most of the BBC's output. Other media organisations wonder whether there are any areas that the BBC doesn't see itself getting into. Members of Parliament question why senior BBC management seems to get paid more than its counterparts in the private sector.

Chief Operating Officer Caroline Thomson was given the John Humphreys treatment over these and other questions. I'm not sure that she put any of them to bed but the fact that a BBC programme did this item, and did it so well, is a very strong argument for the licence fee. You can listen to it here.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

"Homeless with two cats"

There's a young homeless woman outside a supermarket in Holborn with a sign that says "Homeless with two cats". I can't get it out of my mind.

There was no sign of the cats in the shop doorway but then there wouldn't be, would they? Having observed that cats tend to regard a single home as not entirely adequate and usually make sure they are fed somewhere else as well, I am surprised at the loyalty of creatures who are "kept" by somebody who has nowhere to keep them.

But then I thought, is this one of those marketing messages that has been proven to get round human defences? Can it be the case that people will pass by a fellow human in need but will turn and reconsider once they find out that there are a couple of cats involved? And does it only work when you refer to multiple cats? It doesn't bear thinking about. Nonetheless, I have been.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

You can always tell a Yorkshireman - but not much

Last night's Richard Macer documentary on BBC Four was about Milner's, a tiny department store in the Yorkshire Dales town of Leyburn. Milner's specialises in garments with elastic waists for farmer's wives in their sixties and fitted curtains and blinds for their houses. The film, which is one of a short series, was also about the always poignant business of generations changing hands. Here boss David Milner had to be driven towards retirement to allow his daughter and son-in-law to take over.

But what kept me glued was its unflinching depiction of that readiness to squabble that seems so much part of the disposition of a lot of people in Yorkshire. David and his family were capable of arguing about the most trivial matters. The angle of a light, the precise wording on an invoice, the number of chairs they needed for their fashion show. All families can do that. But only in Yorkshire are people so determined to pursue their point no matter how much embarrassment is caused that they are prepared to let a man with a camera stand right between them as they have a raging fight about a matter so trifling that it's clear it's merely a cipher for a struggle that goes much deeper.

I'd recommend "The Department Store", particularly for anyone who's enjoyed the films of Molly Dineen.

Monday, November 17, 2008

They've all gone to look for America

I caught fifteen minutes of Stephen Fry In America last night. I feel I've seen no end of prominent British broadcasters wander around America with a film crew in tow: Clive James, Michael Palin, Alistair Cooke, even Jonathan King. There must be plenty of others that have slipped my mind. Memory may be playing me false but it seems that now they spend less time finding out anything about the places they're visiting than they ever did. Last night Stephen was in Alaska. I gathered the following:
1. It's cold;
2. It's beautiful;
3. The Inuits hunt whales;
4. Some of the fish are very ugly;
5. Stephen Fry has been there.
Then he went to Hawaii. I learned the following:
1. It's warm;
2. It's beautiful;
3. The Hawaiians resent the tourism;
4. The sunsets are very beautiful;
5. Stephen Fry has been there.

Then I got a bit anxious watching Fry interview people. In real life he is probably a very good listener but that's not his TV persona. He looks like a hyper active kid who's been told to fold his arms and sit still. We expect him to be spouting forth while other people listen to him in wonder and admiration. And he's very self-conscious about his size and shape. He lacks the streak of fearlessness that made Palin so good at this kind of thing. When he was lowered in the cage to be filmed swimming with some apparently docile sharks he really couldn't wait for it to be over.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The future of dogs

I have nothing against dogs but I do not wish to own one. I think now may be the time to rationalise the numbers of such pets. This could be organised in a way that would be beneficial to both mutts and mutt-lovers. All public parks should have dogs tethered at their gates. Anyone taking a turn around the lake for a constitutional would be free to unhitch said dogs and take them for a stroll. At the end of this perambulation they would be returned to their place, refreshed by the exercise and having widened their social circle. It's an arrangement I can see myself taking advantage of.

For those who don't want to actually interact with the dogs but simply wish to look at them for a short while when they're at their most appealing I can only hope that Puppycam is but the first of a series of similar services. I've visited it about twenty times today.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

We love you

To the 02 Arena for the first time to see an immaculate show by Leonard Cohen.

The audience didn't behave like crowds of 20,000 tend to do. When the house lights were extinguished there wasn't the usual delighted cheer. As far as I could tell there was only one person in that whole crowd who felt the need to announce their location with a war whoop. People applauded instrumental solos when they were distinguished enough to demand it. What conversation there was was kept to manageable levels, suggesting these people had all been to libraries or funerals and were therefore familiar with the principle of shutting the fuck up on occasion.

Inevitably they took pictures on their mobile phones but that's a form of madness too far advanced to turn back. And, inevitably also, some person felt moved to wait until there was a silence and then shout "We love you, Leonard!" What possesses such people? Do they imagine that this makes the artist feel secure? Or does it increase their worry that out there in the dark lurks the odd person who might turn up in their kitchen in the middle of the night with a knife or dedicate their lives to drawing full-sized portraits of them?

I've been at James Taylor shows where women shout this. To be fair, women have the decency to say "I love you, James", thereby at least claiming personal responsibility for the sentiment. Taylor has an elegant way of deflecting such compliments. "That's very nice of you but I think it's best we don't know each other."

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Madame Tussauds and the inexplicable nature of tourism

Back in the 50s, when there was only one channel of TV and we were easily impressed, I was taken to Madame Tussauds near Baker Street. I was a bit frightened by the Chamber of Horrors. Actually, I was frightened by the idea of the Chamber of Horrors. I'm not sure I even went in. Even to my eight-year-old eyes Madame Tussauds was a tacky proposition. The notion of a good waxworks had limited appeal. The idea that in the heart of one of the greatest cities in the world there was a particularly poor one was inexplicable even then. If ever there was a tourist attraction that should have shrivelled and died, that should have been rendered risible by the march of time and the advance of technology, it's Madame Tussauds. And yet, every time I go past there I am amazed that it continues to draw huge numbers. People from all over the world, where they presumably have their own museum of bad likenesses of their own celebrities, continue to flock to its door.

This is even more amazing when you consider that a ticket for an adult is £25. The blow of this is presumably softened slightly when you learn that a child is a mere £21. If it still seems a bit steep to you, then you can take a family for a bargain £85. Couple of cokes and the tube fares and you've spent £100.

Wandering around London you often run into tourists wearing that over-tired, faintly disappointed expression of visitors all over the world. It's the look that says "where am I again?" and "when can I go and buy something that I could have bought in my own high street but for slightly more money?" These people are already at the end of their tethers. How a visit to this mausoleum on the Marleybone Road does not push them over the edge is a puzzle. How Madame Tussauds was not burned down long ago by mobs of angry visitors who have paid out thousands of pounds per tour party to gawp at a few rotten wax figures I am at a loss to know. How it continues to get the traffic in 2008 is genuinely amazing. Could it be that quite a few of those twenty-five pounds go to the tour companies who deliver the people to its doors? Are people enjoying themselves in an ironic way, like visitors to Graceland? If it didn't cost so much I might go in and find out.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Our friends in the North

"It's been tried in Canada and it works very well," said David Cameron on the Today programme just now. I don't know what he was talking about. It doesn't matter. What interests me is the reference to Canada. Whenever anyone in public life in the UK is proposing a radical solution to anything they always point to the fact that it's been tried in somewhere in the North: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and now Canada. They never say it's been tried in Spain or Brazil or Sri Lanka. It's always somewhere snowy. Is that because they have detected that we associate cold places with wisdom and rectitude?

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Suicide not painless

People usually regret letting television into their personal lives. Michael Portillo's Death Of A School Friend (which is on the iPlayer for the next five days) may be a rare exception. This is the story of Gary, a classmate of Portillo's, Clive Anderson's and Jeffrey Perkins's at Harrow County Grammar School in the late 60s, a bright boy who suffered from undiagnosed depression and committed suicide two days before his sixteenth birthday.

Gary's parents and younger brother, having endured the forty years since without talking about their agony, agreed to participate in a film about him, in the hope that it might persuade any young person contemplating suicide to reconsider and also to help them in their own ceaseless grieving. It's a powerful, humbling piece of television that should be shown in schools. Seeing how Gary's absence crushed the life out of his parents and even afflicted their relationships with their unborn grandchildren, you can only conclude that the dead get off lightly.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Still life

People say the web is increasingly about video. Maybe it is. Nevertheless, the most eloquent media coverage of the sub-prime crisis I've seen is this sound and pictures presentation from Magnum's Bruce Gilden. It's called "Foreclosures" and it's made up of pictures of boarded-up boxes in Florida together with the life stories of the people who used to live in them. You should watch it. It takes eight minutes.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Their name liveth for evermore

I see the Commonwealth War Graves Commission have announced they are going to undertake the maintenance required to make sure that the names of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers remembered in their cemeteries and memorials are re-inscribed so that they are not washed away by time and the weather. It's the Forth Bridge of the stonemason's art.

The last time I went to the memorial at Thiepval, which bears the names of 73,357 British and South African men who died on the Somme and have no known grave, a mason was busy adding new names in a corner. He told me that they had to do this kind of thing regularly. This is not because they've found a previously undiscovered body (although that does happen) but because they find that there's been a tiny slip in the usually faultless bureaucracy. A name has been double-counted or the spelling isn't right. This is a different Arthur Smith from the other twenty Arthur Smiths on this panel or maybe they've got his regiment wrong. The dedication to correcting this kind of thing is moving in itself.

The cemeteries of the Somme and Flanders are unique, not just for their vastness. If you haven't gone, you should. An entire generation of young men from Britain (and from what was then the Empire) left home for the first time in their lives, set up camp in one particular part of the countryside and subsequently died. So there they remain. Most of them didn't fight in the traditional sense. They were just there to be shelled, as were the Germans. The books in the entrance to the cemeteries record the names of their parents and their addresses: Railway Cuttings, Primrose Cottage, Sea View, Alma Street, the Meadway, the Vicarage and so on.

Before the First World War there had been no call for memorials on this scale. In 1920 it was agreed, following a public debate, that bodies should not be repatriated and that the so-called Silent Cities be created and maintained at public expense. And they are. How long for is an interesting question.

Meanwhile the dead from Afghanistan and Iraq are flown home. Here's a remarkable piece from the New Yorker in 2004 explaining what happens today when the dead come home.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

What Obama should know about power

Presumably Barack Obama hasn't had time to watch all of "The Wire". If he can only manage one it should be the episode from Season Four called "Unto Others". It begins with the scene (left) where Tommy Carcetti, who's running for mayor, has a talk with former officeholder Tony.

Tony explains to him what it was like on his first day in the job. There he was, installed behind the big desk, when his aides came in one at a time bearing bowls of shit. This one's from the unions. This one's from the blacks. This one's from the Polacks. It becomes clear that his role as mayor is to eat up each bowl.

That's what office must be like.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

What British TV won't face about the American election

It's American election night. BBC reporters are in position from sea to shining sea. Channel Four and ITN are there as well. Why?

What are they going to bring us that we won't get via the CNN site or Huffington Post or the New York Times? What early intelligence on the winners and losers are they going to bring us ahead of ABC or NBC? Which of the movers and shakers are going to speak to the BBC before they talk to CBS or MSNBC? Which noteworthy events are going to take place in front of the BBC's cameras? Anything that happens will be on YouTube within seconds. That's how it's been throughout the campaign. We've watched most of it via Flash video.

Of course any BBC political reporter worth their salt will not pass up the chance to be where the action is but they can't justify their expenses like they used to. They won't be first with the news. Their presenters will be telling us what they've just read on the very same websites that we're looking at.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Why you can't make sport *more* exciting

When I turned in last Saturday night Juande Ramos was the manager of Spurs and they had two points. I woke up Sunday morning to a text from my son saying we had a new manager. Since then they have played three games. They've won two of them and, in incredible circumstances, drawn the other. Of course all these were down to the most extraordinary combination of luck and renewed belief but they do underline, if it were needed, why football has such as grip on the national psyche, eloquently expressed this week by Danny Kelly's microphone-shattering screech of "I *love* football, Stan!" on Talk Sport.

Contrast this with the hollow farce of the England cricket team's participation in the million dollars-to-the-winners Stanford match in Antigua. The local team won and got the cash. Good luck to them. But if Stanford or anyone think they will seed interest in the game this way, they're mistaken. Stanford is the man who thinks Test cricket is boring. This alone should disqualify him from having any part in the game's future. It'll be a long time before anyone shouts "I *love* Twenty20, Aggers!"