Wednesday, December 30, 2009

In praise of working standing up

I'm in the middle of writing a very long article. In an effort to galvanise myself and guard against the usual web-based procrastination - check the Test score, check the email, check Twitter, etc - I worked standing up for three hours this afternoon. That meant composing a sentence, then advancing toward the laptop and tapping it in before walking round the room to compose the next sentence. I don't know whether it's any good but I do know I got more done than I would have done in the same period if I'd been sitting down.

Ideally I'd like a work surface around about chest height. Then I could work either perching on a stool or standing up. I'm convinced I would get more done. I've recently concluded that I can't really think without being on my feet. When I have to really think I have to be walking. When I have to think and compose I have to be walking quite a long way. I'm sure there's some simple physiological explanation for this involving blood and the brain.

Lots of radio DJs like to broadcast standing up. Since radio is all about attack that makes a great deal of sense; so much sense that you wonder why for years studio design made this impossible. If you wanted to stand up and broadcast it was difficult to reach down and work the faders. Similarly we tell anyone who wants to take part in True Stories Told Live that they have to talk standing up. It's impossible to command a room of seated people unless you're standing up and you can't project the amount of energy you need from a sitting position. Unless, of course, you're Ronnie Corbett.

Monday, December 28, 2009

His eyes so dimmed with joy and pride.

I took this picture this morning while mooching around the City. It's an alley off Fleet Street, the kind of narrow entrance in what was then the publishing district where Charles Dickens dropped off his first unsolicited piece of writing, "A Dinner At Poplar Walk", in 1833. He later recalled:
" first copy of the Magazine in which my first effusion - dropped stealthily one evening at twilight, with fear and trembling, into a dark letter-box, in a dark office, up a dark court in Fleet Street - appeared in all the glory of print; on which memorable occasion - how well I recollect it! - I walked down to Westminster Hall, and turned into it for half-an-hour, because my eyes were so dimmed with joy and pride, that they could not bear the street, and were not fit to been seen there."
I don't know any other writers, from the highest to the lowest, who haven't experienced just the same combination of elation and embarrassment on first seeing their name in print.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

At last, a rock novel you can believe

At some point during the last week - it may have been at a party - somebody said I had to read a novel called The Last Mad Surge of Youth. A couple of days later, while clearing out the office pre-Christmas, I found a copy. I began reading it on Christmas Eve and finished it before lunch on Christmas Day. It's the best fictional account of young men forming rock bands I've ever read. It's not perfect. Nobody seems to be able to write endings any more but that's a small quibble. Nobody has done a better job than Mark Hodkinson of describing the grubby milieu of bands struggling to make it in indie rock, the vainglorious posturing of those who find themselves at the top and the inevitably tragic effect their success has on the people around them. There is nothing in it that doesn't ring true, which is probably a first for novels set in the world of the music business.

It's set in an unspecified northern town in the early 80s and in the comfortable Home Counties at the present time. Punk rock has made it possible for teenage boys with a modicum of talent and an excess of self-belief to stage their own mad, heroic assault on everyday life simply by getting a Peel session and getting on the cover of the NME. It hinges on the relationship between the leader of the band - who turns into a drunk and megalomaniac - and the mild-mannered old school friend who left the band because he didn't have the level of demented certainty the trade demands. It understands that what drives people to make it is the urge for recognition that nothing else in their often drab backgrounds could provide.

The author has a great ear for the ridiculous claims routinely made for new performers in the febrile world of indie: in one passage he "quotes" from the feature that accompanies the star's first appearance on the cover of the NME:
"The sun shines into the eyes of John Barrett. They narrow to filter the light. A smile forms at his lips. He is handsome and scruffy-dangerous like the kid at the fairground spinning the Waltzers, born hip and burning red-hot. The T-shirt he wears has been pulled at the neck and falls twisted on his shoulders. He doesn't care. I ask whether he can believe it: the US of A, the world - all his."
I've read that kind of thing thousands of times. I may even written that kind of thing from time to time. This book makes you consider the consequences.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Good answer. What was the question again?

Mag+ from Bonnier on Vimeo.

This clip of some work being done for the Swedish publisher Bonnier is doing the rounds at the moment and causing considerable excitement. It's certainly a very polished presentation. While I'm glad that somebody is doing innovative work in the magazine industry, I can't shake the feeling that it's being done from the wrong end, so to speak, and often by people who have a tenuous grip on the magazine experience.

It's not that the work doesn't have a value. It proves it's possible to replicate all the various elements of a magazine. In many cases you can enhance the basic magazine formula of words, pictures and a crossword with moving pictures, hyperlinks, searches and lots of other bells and whistles. But is anybody asking for that? Is anybody looking at the basic magazine proposition and thinking, 'if only it did *this* as well'?

The experience of the last twenty years teaches that the version of the future proposed by the research and development wing of companies rarely coincides with what the market turns out to want. I've yet to see any evidence that you can persuade the person who currently reads Vogue or Heat that the experience of consuming the same thing via an electronic device is preferable. They may be talking about how they could use such a device to receive daily, even hourly, updates but I haven't heard anything about genuine advantages like that. Instead I hear a lot about taking the basic magazine experience and translating it to a screen. It's as if the magazine business believes it can move from one to the other without essentially changing the thing it provides.

The Guardian iPhone app, on the other hand, seems like a good idea to me because it fits neatly into an interval in our lives. Just as the podcast flourished because there are so many men out dog walking, jogging or driving cars and the web boomed because everybody is sitting in front of a computer doing anything to avoid working, this little app provides the ideal amount of content for the person stuck on a bus wanting to pass the time with a couple of stories. It doesn't need to do any more than that.

The next generation of magazines would be better off working out when and where they're going to be read than designing clever interfaces that may end up attracting the universal admiration of people who aren't magazine readers and never will be.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Does live music have to be seen to be made?

To the O2 to see Pet Shop Boys and marvel at the staggering number of great records they have made. Most of the music is actually coming off an invisible hard disk. Neil stands still and sings. Chris stands behind a podium which could be a Hostess trolley for all we can see of what he's doing with his hands back there. Terrific as the show is, it's difficult for an audience to demonstrate its enthusiasm as it normally would when the show continues as if on castors. The audience likes to feel it can influence what's going on on stage by applauding bits of the performance it particularly likes. Clearly, such observations are the maunderings of a survivor from an earlier age. However it's clear that other people feel the same atavistic impulse, judging by the way the applause swells when the dancers do something spectacular. They are clearly doing something that we know we could never do ourselves. Our traditional expectations of a concert involve music not merely being done, but being seen to be done.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Can you ever wear a sheepskin coat?

On cold days like today you realise that even your most Gore-Tex-lined Mulberry parka isn't quite enough to keep out the cold. It's on days like today that the GLW points out that we still have her father's old sheepskin coat in the wardrobe. I put it on and go out for a walk. I return with my idea of warmth redefined. A sheepskin coat provides a different kind of insulation. It makes you realise how cold you are in every part of your body not covered by the coat. Plus it has the built-in feature that all men have been looking for, pockets made to thrust your hands into. It makes me look at John Motson with a new respect. The problem of wearing a sheepskin coat, of course, is you become one of those men who wear sheepskin coats.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Courtney Love is nobody's fool, apparently

In the same week that Courtney Love is denied custody of her daughter by a California judge, the new issue of Dazed & Confused drops. On the cover is said mother in very few clothes. Inside is an exclusive interview which is headlined "Nobody's Fool". Since this is the woman who seems to have managed to alienate, either permanently or temporarily, everyone from her former fashionista friends (she recently had to shut down her Twitter feed after calling some designer "a nasty lying hosebag thief") to her only daughter, I think we may fairly say that she is quite a big fool, albeit a rather pathetic one. But in the world of glossy magazines there is no fawning testimonial that journalists will not trade for the prospect of a one-on-one with a big name. Chuck in the naked pictures as well and you could damn near write your own copy. I remember Paula Yates giving a cover exclusive to "Red" magazine at the time she had been, let's say, out of the public eye for some time. She gave them an interview and pictures. They said she had got her life in shape. She was dead not long after. If she was showing signs of being on the edge they weren't reported in the feature. In this world where appearances are all you're either faaaabulous or dead. If Humber Wolfe were living at this hour he might want to take his famous poem and append something specifically about the style press:

You cannot hope
to bribe or twist,
thank God! the
British journalist.
But, seeing what
the man will do
unbribed, there's
no occasion to.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The list

This is a Bruce Springsteen set list from a show in Vancouver in 2003. After the soundcheck he writes a list for that night's show. This is photocopied and distributed to everyone from the musicians to the lighting men. I must have picked this up backstage.

Of course, if it were a classical concert the evening's programme would be prominently displayed outside the venue and written in the programme. Only in rock and roll is there such a huge drama made of what people choose to play.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

George "Porky" Peckham and the maker's mark

I walked by this place in the West End today. It's still a lovely building despite that vile white and blue sign somebody has jammed into the facade in order to declare their tenancy. I knew it as the workshop of George "Porky" Peckham, who was the mastering engineer trusted by the music business to get as much of the signal of their recordings from the tapes to the grooves of the stamper from which the records - particularly the singles - were manufactured. When I was working for Beserkley in 1976 I went there a few times to get singles mastered. When he was finished he would ask you if you wanted a message in the area between the run-out grooves and the label. I can't remember what the records were or what I asked for. If he was particularly proud of his work he'd sign off as "a Porky prime cut" or something similar. I've been told that the map artists of the Ordnance Survey do something similar, concealing their signatures in the contour lines in order to declare their authorship and to guard against forgery.

Noisy adolescents at the theatre

The marshmellow test was first devised at Stanford University for testing the patience of four-year-olds. A marshmellow was put in front of them. They were told they could either eat it immediately or wait until the interviewer returned when they would get two. It turned out to be a strong indicator of their ability to become self-disciplined as they got older.

I was thinking about this last night when I went to the theatre and found myself sitting next to a party of ten adolescent boys on some sort of school or "youth group" (if we still have such things) outing. They had two supervisors but that didn't seem to make a lot of difference. I would guess they weren't delinquents or school refusers. They were just kids who had never once in their lives been called upon to sit still and shut up and so they didn't. They ate, drank and muttered throughout the first act. Ten minutes before the interval one went to the lavatory, then another and then a third. This in spite of the pleadings of one of the supervisors. At the interval the supervisor apologised to me. What am I supposed to say? "Oh, that's alright"? "You know you are bloody incompetent"? The usher had a word with him. He had a word with the boys. A couple of them refused to sit where he put them and left the auditorium. The play restarted. After ten minutes the supervisor, clearly rattled by the non-appearance of the lads, went after them. He returned ten minutes later on his own. Given what I know about teachers' responsibilities on school trips nowadays this was a big surprise. The two major fidgeters being removed, the rest of the party were quiet for the rest of the play.

I know all the arguments for taking kids to the theatre or art galleries and I know they particularly apply to those kids who are not likely to be taken there by their parents. However I don't believe that civilised behaviour suddenly blossoms when children can see the reason why they should act in a civilised fashion. Children are not naturally well mannered and considerate. Nor can they always be reasoned with, as these well-meaning adults were attempting to do. If you have to be told that you are being an annoyance to other people - many of whom have been looking forward to their evening out for months - then it's probably too late. If these kids are used to interjecting throughout lessons and other apparently formal occasions, then it's no use believing that they're going to stop once they're in a theatre. If you let a child take a Subway sandwich and a bottle of Malibu into a theatrical performance he will ingest it, probably noisily.

Later in the evening I was talking to a friend who's an experienced head teacher. She said that at her school children were lined up prior to going on a visit and told that if any of them stepped out of line the head would be called, she would come and find them wherever they were and take the miscreant straight to their parents. It seemed to work. On the other hand a younger friend who had a contemporary working as a young teacher in Wallsend said it had become customary to append a "thank you" to any request made of a child because doing the same with "please" risked a refusal. I think the former approach does the child a lot more favours than the latter.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Was it having to look so good that made Tiger go so bad?

A couple of weeks ago Tiger Woods was the ultimate straight arrow in the eyes of the world . He didn't often go looking for personal publicity but when he did it was to project an image of a devoted family man that would have brought a blush to the cheek of Ned Flanders. How that's all changed. In just two weeks we've travelled from brief fling through string of cocktail waitresses to group sex with prostitutes at breathtaking velocity. In the infidelity stakes this equates to 0-60 in about three seconds. However he emerges from this - and the signs are that he'll soon go "on the sofa" to throw himself on the sponsor's mercy - it won't be as a straight arrow. The public doesn't like being trifled with in this manner much more than his wife does.

I'm reminded of River Phoenix, who projected an image of a clean-living, saint-like figure who probably thought vegetables were screaming when they were pulled out of the ground and then died on the pavement of Hollywood Babylon's main drag after taking a lethal cocktail of drugs at a seedy rock club. Obviously only small children think public personalities are the same as private ones but they're usually *based* on the private one. They're not a complete contradiction of everything the image supposedly stand for. Maybe they were both trying to respond to the market's need for perfect role models, which is something that men in particular have trouble with. They are expected to evince attitudes that weren't expected of earlier generations of men. Men of my father's generation simply had to appear strong and silent. Sporting heroes of the past weren't called upon to cry in public and to dedicate goals to newly-born babies. I think a lot of this is a hollow pantomime. Maybe it's the pressure of trying to appear so very, very good that makes them go so spectacularly bad.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The great thing about being a cynic is you're never disappointed

A year ago this week I suggested that Uma Thurman's engagement to New York financier Arpad Busson might be under review since he lost a fortune thanks to Bernie Madoff. It's just been announced that it's all off.

Friday, December 11, 2009

How the music business is swapping places with the TV business

ITV have announced that they're going to make the hit show The Vampire Diaries available to buy on iTunes before they broadcast it. And if David Simon decided to make a bumper special episode of The Wire, having learned what he's learned about the DVD market, what do you think he'd do with it? Licence it to a TV company or sell it for £12 in HMV? And actually, if DVD was the primary way of people seeing it rather than the secondary or tertiary viewing, who's to say that he wouldn't get £20? I know he's motivated by things other than money but the market is saying something very interesting at the moment. Some people will pay for genuine high quality unique content. And I'd even suggest they would rather pay for the privilege of seeing it upfront than wait to watch it on broadcast TV like everyone else. Before The Wire was shown on mainstream TV in this country people talked about it in just the same way they used to talk about a cult rock album. Speaking of which...

While the TV business could be looking towards the model that used to do so well for the record companies, the music business seems to be moving in the other direction, away from ownership towards streaming, which is sort of what the TV business used to do, albeit not on demand. I recently cancelled my Emusic subscription and transferred it to Spotify, which means that I can hear pretty much what I want when I want. I know there are holes in the catalogue but those will be filled and the irritating streaming dropouts will be a thing of the past. With Spotify an interesting new divide opens up in your listening, between the things that you are happy to hear and the things you feel the need to own as well.

In both cases it's no longer about the stuff. It's about when and how you get the stuff.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

They're investing in "digital magazines" and ignoring the elephant in the room

All the world's big magazine publishers are hurriedly spending a lot of money looking at ways they can deliver their magazines in some kind of digital format. Note that is not the same as delivering magazine content in digital format. Any clown can do that. That's where the newspapers have really gone wrong. By making their material available for free they have enabled Google and everybody else to unbundle it from its context and lost a fortune in the process.

That's not an academic argument. It pertains to business. When you were selling a page of advertising in a glossy magazine you were selling two things: access to the readers and access to the environment of that particular title. Once you take the content out from between the covers you are no longer getting the benefit of that environment. There's a legendary piece of research done years ago which showed people the same outfit in Vogue and the Daily Express. Respondents thought that the first dress was worth far more because it was in Vogue. They used to call this The Presenter Effect.

The reason that magazine publishers are looking at so-called "page-turning" technology is they are trying to keep their advertising in a controlled environment. The big publishers are spending fortunes to avoid the fate of the record industry. We've started making each issue of The Word available in a digital format to people who subscribe to the paper magazine. It's very early days but it seems to be appreciated. The idea is it's an enhancement of the magazine experience rather than a replacement. We've done a very Heath Robinson demo of how it works.

At the same time Apple are said to be working on something called the Tablet which will do for magazines what the Kindle is doing for books. Time Inc have got so excited about this that they have already demoed a version of Sports Illustrated in this format. As you'd expect theirs is better than ours because it wasn't done on the computer in the owner's loft.

They're still avoiding - either because they haven't thought about it or they prefer not to - the key issue, which is "how can you deliver the core magazine experience, which is essentially sitting back and reading, on a screen?" They show you plenty of neat ways you can manipulate the content and lots of ways they can make the swimsuit issue more like a TV programme, but they avoid that central issue. What if you want to read it?

If this technology ever really took off the first thing you'd be wanting to do is reformat the magazine to suit the technology. One of the first page-turning magazines, the lads mag Monkey, discovered this very quickly. It has hardly any reading in it because there's no room for it. Instead it's videos and interactive games. Digital tends to quick reads, small pictures and interaction. Paper tends to long reads, big pictures and contemplation. If you take that on board you can devise complementary experiences. What you can't do is hammer one into the shape of the other.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

You don't have to be mad to father a world-class tennis player, but it helps

Simon Mayo is a very good interviewer but he didn't have to work too hard with Andre Agassi, who was his guest today. When you're used to the evasions and clich├ęs sports stars all too often offer instead of answers, it was startling to hear a subject who was candid and didn't once hesitate or say "you know" or "kinda". He told the story that lots of athletes hint at - of a parent, in his case a waiter from Iran, who was desperate for his son to escape his own lot, even at the cost of his sanity. Agassi said his father hadn't read the book. I'm not surprised. People as driven as that don't want to know the truth. They just want to know what they need to do to succeed. A successful tennis agent says he doesn't look for talent. He looks for crazy parents.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Alan Bennett, Harrogate and the ladies who ran the world

"Dinner At Noon" is a documentary Alan Bennett made for the BBC's Byline series in 1988. I was enchanted by it at the time and until last night I'd not seen it since. It's about the guests in the Crown Hotel in Harrogate. None of them are named, we don't get to know their back story, there is no jeopardy. As Bennett says, it's about "types". We eavesdrop on the people with the magic markers in the meeting rooms, sipping champagne at a wedding reception in the Bronte Room, addressing a meeting of the Environmental Health Officers in the Elgar room and ultimately doing the thing that elderly Yorkshire people like doing most of all, sitting in the lobby and having tea while eavesdropping on the other guests and speculating about what might have brought them there. Bennett's parents did it, so did mine. Actually, I do it as well. As he says in the beginning it's not a film about people behaving, it's a film about people trying to behave.

It lingers on one particular "type" that has always fascinated Bennett - the over-fifty ladies who seemed to drive everything in that part of the world in years gone by. In their working lives these ladies were head teachers, queens of typing pools and office managers. They put no less effort into their spare time where they acted as church secretaries, principals of light operatic societies, fund raisers, tin-rattlers, hospital visitors and holders of tapes for egg-and-spoon races. Some of the older ones had probably delivered babies and laid out the dead. Although they didn't own a pair of trousers between them there was nothing they couldn't do.

At social gatherings they would turn up armoured in their best hat, have two glasses of Spumante and then go looking for a chair in the corner where they would swap highly detailed gossip with their fellows. They had that factory girls' trick of suddenly dropping their voice in the middle of a particularly choice item so that the meaning could be carried by the sound of their tongue against their lips. They knew *everything* and could be trusted with most of it. People think Bennett's satirising these people, who were represented in drama by Thora Hird. He's not. He has immense admiration for them. I do as well. One of the less appealing characteristics of the feminist movement of the last thirty years is its claim to have recently invented The Strong Woman. They never met my Auntie Lily.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The idle fops of the past

To St Paul's Cathedral tonight for a performance of Handel's "Messiah". Plenty of time to contemplate three things:
1. Christopher Wren was one of the few - if not the only - architects to design a cathedral and then live to see it finished.
2. Handel wrote his masterpiece in three weeks.
3. What did people like that do in their spare time?

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

They really don't need no education, OK?

"50,000 failed by schools," says the headline in the Evening Standard announcing another story about standards in schools. I don't doubt that the standards are broadly as they describe but I think the children should be given at least a bit of credit. I like to feel that the failing I did was largely my own lack of work and I wouldn't seek to share the credit/blame with the school I went to. Children are capable of a lack of interest in education, no matter how it is packaged and delivered, that is quite breathtaking. Respect.

Men About Town

It's at this time of year you see rich, famous men out shopping on their own in Mayfair. I've just spotted Andrew Marr, Alan Davies and Sir Stuart Rose in and around Bond Street. They've all got that haunted look of men who've been sent on a dangerous mission without proper instructions. You can spot them from a distance by their clothes, which are distinctly this season. The seasonal chill was warded off in each case with a thoughtfully-knotted scarf, which probably ran three figures.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Things you think on their birthdays

The odd thing about your children's birthdays is you often remember them better than they do and for different reasons. For a start you remember the birthday that they only arrived midway through but then you also remember the pressure of the children's parties, the smell of sweat in church halls, the gatherings of parents grazing on cocktail sausages and Chardonnay, the four-year-old's birthday that was overshadowed by the death of a close friend, the time you got a call half an hour before the start time to say the magician had an accident and wouldn't be there and the time you took a minibus-full of sixteen-year-olds to the Smash Hits Poll Winners party.

J. Alfred Prufrock measured out his life in coffee spoons. Parents do something similar with candles.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Why the Kindle will not take the world by storm

I wrote a column for the December issue of The Word predicting that the Kindle wasn't going to work. This got plenty of reaction, the most interesting being an email from, I think, Simon who made a point I was too stupid to make: reading is an activity that doesn't require a reproduction device so why introduce one? This argument adds to the feeling that the argument around the Kindle and the belated development of a machine for reading magazines is driven more by land grab fever amongst publishers and retailers than it is by any consumer demand. We've decided to make the Ceros "e-dition" of The Word available to subscribers. It's a bonus, not a substitute. Anyway, here's the original piece:

HEADLINE: The electronic book substitute is a solution where there is no problem. It's not going to work.

Readers, I am about to do something so stupid you may wish to avert your eyes. In the following 800 unretractable words I shall promise that something new, exciting, hi-tech, an innovation which will get unprecedented publicity and be backed to the hilt by some of the shrewdest investors in the world, is not going to work.

I am speaking of the Amazon Kindle. And the Sony E-Reader. And whatever comes next in the shape of a machine delivering traditional print products such as books and magazines in digital form to be read off a screen. They won't work.

Oh, I can understand the appeal. You probably want one for Christmas. *I* want one for Christmas. It's another new toy. We heart toys, don't we? I can certainly see the appeal for Amazon and Sony. Just as the only people who made money in the Californian Gold Rush were the folks who sold the shovels and Google now own the world of media without producing any media, what company wouldn't want to control the means of reading rather than the infernal books themselves?

I can see practical benefits for the user as well. You can go on holiday with an unlimited amount of reading stored in or accessed via a nice little device you can slip in your suitcase. You can call up any reading matter at any time if you want to. Then there's the march-of-time argument. The average British child already spends five and a half hours a day looking at a screen, which means we'll soon have adults for whom paper is an anachronism and therefore this is our only hope of getting them to read anything at all. I can see them as a means of delivering some newspaper content but I can't imagine the luxuriousness of a glossy colour magazine, whether it's Vogue or this one, reduced to a screen. It would be like putting velvet behind glass. However, that won't stop publishers trying. There are strong resource arguments for them. Just think how many forests might be saved if your daily newspaper was squirted on to a hand-held device rather than on cumbersome, commuter-inconveniencing paper. That's a good feeling, isn't it? Then there's all the printers and distribution workers made redundant. That's a less good feeling.

I shall not rehearse all the touchy-feelie arguments around boarded-up bookshops and abandoned libraries because those places are at the mercy of larger forces. No, let's focus on the thing itself and its claim to be the iPod of the written word. People saw beyond the iPod's novelty and immediately felt they couldn't live without it. With hindsight people are saying it enabled us to get rid of our bulky CD collections. I don't think it's as simple as that. It didn't provide a solution because most people didn't feel they had a problem that needed solving.

If the Kindle is going to rage through society like the iPod did it's going to have to confront the fact that reading is not an essentially rational act. Lots of us buy books we don't read, or at least don't read the whole of. We do this because we believe even showing the inclination to read a book is a virtuous act, like cooking. It shows a willingness to become absorbed, further prized in an era when most entertainment only asks us to be distracted. People have an emotional investment in books which they have never had in CDs. As Anthony Powell pointed out, books furnish a room as nothing else does. We value them as much as objects as for their contents.

Now try this experiment. Take this magazine and then just flick through a few pages. Go forward ten pages and go back ten pages. Note how many words, pictures, adverts, charts, headlines and graphic elements your eye flits across and your brain lightly registers, how many mental placeholders you set down, how many things you promise yourself to return to or avoid altogether, how you almost inhale content and context at the same time. That's because there never has been and there never will be a means of negotiating one's way around written content that is as flexible and efficient (let alone as satisfying) as the combination of hand, eye, paper and ink you are using right now. This is not an emotional argument. It's a profoundly practical one, which will not be trumped by all the wordsearch in the world.

Last but not least, a lot of books and nearly all magazines are read on public transport. In the act of reading something with the cover pointing outwards we advertise ourselves and our attitudes. It's the most complex and powerful sign language we know. An attractive woman makes herself twice as attractive when she is seen reading an interesting book. How can a brushed metal blank or a piece of nice smooth plastic begin to compete with that? We live in a culture of display, where people pay more for a ringtone than for a record. It's the worst time in history to be hiding what you're reading.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The difference between writing and typing

"There's a feeling of power in reserve, a power that drives right through the bone, like the shiver you sense in the shaft of an axe when you take it into your hand. You can strike, or you can not strike, and if you choose to hold back the blow, you can still feel inside you the resonance of the omitted thing."

From Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

The most expensive I.T. problem in history?

When there's an I.T. breakdown in any working environment nowadays, people react as if there is darkness over the whole land and the veil of the temple has been rent in twain. They get indignant, they cluck, they tsk and say, 'how can I be expected to work under these conditions?" They don't relax and say, it's not so long since the communications technology we use every day seemed hilariously improbable, when a message travelled as fast as you could type or fax or walk across the office and pass it on. They don't, er, chill.

In circumstances like these I feel sorry for the poor souls who have to sort the problem and embarrassed for those who are standing around as if they were Alexander Fleming thwarted in his discovery of penicillin by the fact that they can't send an email.

We've all seen this happen. Just imagine what it was like for the poor souls who were responsible for the Stock Exchange trading system yesterday. This went down for three hours in the middle of a bad attack of worldwide jitters brought on by Dubai's announcement that it might not be able to meet the repayment schedule on its massive debts and on the day when America's financial markets were closed for the Thanksgiving holiday. They were tearing their hair out all over the world while some bloke in cargo pants presumably fiddled about under a desk making sure a plug hadn't come out of a socket. Given the fact that centres like Frankfurt are waiting for any opportunity to press their competing claims to be the world's financial centre this particular outage could potentially cost trillions. Whatever those are.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

What has Borders ever done for us?

So Borders has gone into administration. Everybody in publishing has seen it coming for a while. As was the case with Woolworths a year ago the credit insurers withdrew their backing and the big book companies had to stop supplying them on the grounds that they wouldn't get paid. It's bad news for 1,000 employees, I don't doubt it's heartbreaking for the management, who bought the company from the previous owners a year ago, and also the book publishing companies. This closure puts even more power in the hands of Amazon. At the moment this offers a splendid service for bookbuyers but sooner or later the temptation to flex its muscles is going to be irresistible. Before I bought Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall" recently (list price of £25) I checked the discount prices at Borders and Waterstones before getting it from Amazon for £8.99 with no delivery charge. It takes a lot of coffee aroma to compete with that. The result of all this price competition is those tables groaning with three for two offers on paperbacks. You can afford the money for these books but with the best will in the world you can't afford the time to read them all.

Magazines will suffer equally from Borders problems. Since launching in the UK ten years ago the company has given a staggering amount of space to magazines, many of which couldn't possibly be finding buyers. There was no doubt some economic sense behind this. Magazines attract people into shops. Men killing time while their wives are in The Gap next door. Children who need entertaining. As a consequence it appeared to become a dumping ground for every cult title from every part of the world. A couple of years ago, when somebody launched a popular art magazine, I assumed it was the first one. I went into Borders in Charing Cross Road and discovered there were at least twelve.

If you're a Borders shopper and feel like putting food on my table by buying a subscription to Word at very advantageous rates there's a link here.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Don't Look Now

After an appointment in Primrose Hill I returned to Islington via the towpath of the canal. With the sun shining every prospect pleases and only the cyclists who come tearing up behind you are vile, especially when there's no barrier to stop you falling into the black water if you edge the wrong way. At Camden Lock three police divers were getting ready to descend into its Stygian depths in search of what? Somebody who staggered one step too far? A gun?

What a job.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

On being a hack

"I couldn't make the grade as a hack. That, like anything else, requires a certain practiced excellence."
F. Scott Fitzgerald

Monday, November 23, 2009

Transcript of phone call at 8.50 this morning

"Hello. I'm calling from ***** at the BBC. We want to do something on Mariah Carey including a magazine with her new record and we wondered if we could talk to you about it."
"Tell me what you want me to say and I'll tell you whether I'll say it."
"Why are the record company doing it?"
"In the hope that people will buy the album rather than just downloading the odd track, I imagine."
"Surely Mariah Carey doesn't need to do that to sell records?"
"If she's like most people in the record business she's selling barely half of what she sold ten years ago so I think she'll try anything. And why shouldn't she?"
"It's a magazine with adverts in it. Isn't this just a barefaced attempt to make money?"
"What's wrong with making money? Isn't it the music business?"
"Do you know anyone else I could call?"

Friday, November 20, 2009

Will journalism ever become a trade again?

A few weeks ago I was contacted by a representative of a well-known quality newspaper. They'd read my blog and wanted to know if I would be interested in doing one for their website. I was flattered, of course, but not flattered enough to do it for no money, which is what they proposed. What with this blog and True Stories Told Live I reckon I'm up to my quota of unpaid media work.

It wouldn't actually have taken much money to persuade me to do it. I'll write for food, even if it's only bread and water. Actually if they'd proposed some kind of payment-by-traffic deal I would have given that a whirl. Not that I reckon that would make me rich but it would be interesting to do something in media where your destiny was in your own hands. Like selling something out of a suitcase on Oxford Street. How quickly would I surrender to cheap populism then? And how badly would it hurt if it didn't work?

It's something I was thinking about as I wrote Wednesday's piece about journalists and why they resist becoming more entrepreneurial. A hundred years ago journalists, like actors, used to be not very reputable sorts who did whatever it took to put bread on the table. They would essentially ply for hire. It's only in the last few decades that journalism (as opposed to reporting) has been seen as a profession, with all the attendant pretensions, rather than a trade, like plumbing. Secure inside the profitable corporations that owned old media, the journalists of the last twenty years never had to worry that their commercial value might be set by the end-user rather than some notional market. They lived inside the bundle. Sales of that bundle were driven by TV campaigns or cover-mounted DVDs rather than individual pieces of writing. Not even the biggest name columnists commanded as much reader loyalty as they liked to pretend and the average inky foot soldier knocking out football match reports, crime stories or product reviews was happy with a situation where they were not personally responsible for any fluctuation in the bundle's fortunes.

Now that the bundle's coming undone they don't know whether to stick or twist, to hope that the old days are going to be restored or to take up their tool bag and start selling their services door to door.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Where are the young entrepreneurs pointing the way? They can't all be writing columns

The trade magazine Media Week closed this week. It was started by friends of mine twenty-five years ago. This being an average week in the midst of media meltdown the story of its closure was bundled in with arguments about the Times paywall or the BPI's attempt to disconnect file sharers to form the narrative of the hour. The narrative of the hours broadly goes like this. The old fools of traditional media are tearing around trying to plug the holes in the hull of their sinking ship while enormously clever commentators, of whom there appear to be an unlimited supply, point out that what they're doing is inappropriate, inadequate and too late.

I'm beginning to find the commentariat more wanting than the dinosaurs they come to mock. At least said dinosaurs are saying 'we don't know how things are going to work out but we know we can't go on giving everything away'. The commentariat, on the other hand, seem to be saying 'we don't know how things are going to work out but we know that whatever you decide is definitely wrong. Meanwhile, keep giving everything away and, er, something will turn up.'

That's fine in principle. People committed to change have always pointed out the shortcomings of the powers that be. The difference this time is the new generation have no skin in the game. They're all either working for monopolies or charities or making their living peddling their blithe certainties to confused companies. They have no personal investment in the future. Indeed the thing they have a huge investment in is the present uncertainty. If they were realy confident the future was going to work out the way they predict they wouldn't be wasting their time trying to preach about it. They'd be out there starting the News Internationals and Dreamworks and EMIs of the future. But they're not. That's the one thing missing in this present uncertainty - examples of small independents doing things in a completely new way. And making money by doing it.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The wind will change and you'll stay like that

The combination of cheap digital cameras and Facebook has been responsible for a world-wide over-supply of party pictures. They're all over the internet, particularly on the social networking sites: tight groups of young people bunching together to get into frame, the telescopic arm of the person on far right indicating that there is no actual photographer, heads jammed up against each other, mouths arranged into either a parody of glee or a self-mocking pout. I note that this last has become such a staple that somebody has dedicated a website called Stop Making That Duckface to its extinction.

The pose is interesting. The few pictures I've got from the days of box Brownies and Instamatics suggest that having one's photograph taken was a moment fraught with tension. Nowadays it's gone so far the other way that few photographs are taken with even a second's thought. The whole process is a send-up. Nobody takes a simple straight-up picture in which the subjects aren't gurning and you can decipher the context in which it's taken. When this generation of twentysomethings, who must be the most photographed in the history of mankind, look back in middle age I fear they'll see what appears to be one big image, featuring nobody in particular, having fun nowhere in particular, making that funny face at nobody in particular.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

"Nurse, can you help me with the Times crossword?"

They were talking on "Any Answers" just now about the plan to ensure that nurses do four-year degree courses. An experienced nurse said "If we're to have the kind of intelligent, caring staff we need, it's important that they have degrees." Hovering in the background of this argument is the widely-held suspicion that this attempt to ratchet up the perceived status of the nursing profession may result in staff who don't want to do the dirty, tiresome side of the job.

Does anybody buy the idea that because somebody has done a degree rather than traditional vocational training then that must make them: a) more intelligent; b) better at the job? I'm sure there are increasing technical demands on nurses but I'm not sure drafting in more university students is going to make that any better. Some of the most stupid people I have ever met went to some of the finest universities. Some of the most capable left school as soon as they could.

Just look at other professions which have been through a parallel process of gentrification. Most of the journalists and editors whose retirement or deaths have been marked recently didn't even get to be in the sixth form, let alone university. Many of the people I was taught by at school had only a basic teaching qualification. Some of them may have had none at all. They ranged, as any bunch of professionals do, from geniuses to those who were barely competent. Education had nothing to do with the distinction. I have friends who are very experienced teachers. Their view is that today's young teachers, who all have degrees, are more polished. This is not the same as saying they are better.

I spent years in a big company interviewing people for jobs and I never once looked at their educational qualifications. The tiniest bit of experience, whether it was professional or a student rag, counted far more than a wearying list of the modules they had passed (for passed read "sat through".) The thing that counted most of all was the glimmer of aptitude that you could detect within two minutes of a personal meeting. Will they be doing that with potential nurses?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Storytelling and the Frank Carson theory

We had the second True Stories Told Live event last night. It went very well. There's a report here. I assume that everybody in the audience is asking themselves whether they could get up and tell their own story. My daughter reckons she could never speak as the people did last night. On the other hand Russell Davies feels he could but isn't entirely sure he's got a story to tell.

The second concern is more challenging than the first. Some people have personal experiences which are truly exceptional; everybody has personal experiences that are noteworthy. I suppose what makes a storyteller is their ability to shape those experiences into a compelling narrative. I have a story based on something that happened to me thirty years ago. I think there's a story in it but I've spent hours trying to work out how I could tell it in a way that would make sense to the audience and also retain the vital element of surprise. I still haven't got there. Probably never will.

I think storytelling is all a matter of working out a shape. The best talkers are the ones who suspect they've already gone on too long. The worst are the ones who don't really know how they intend to finish. I'm sure I've trotted this one out before but there is no observation about public speaking as profoundly true as the one that goes "if you want me to talk for two minutes it'll take me two hours to prepare; if you want me to talk for two hours I can start any time you like."

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Things you learn by going to the Cenotaph rather than watching on TV

1. The Royal Marines have a hell of a band.
2. Elgar's "Nimrod" is a hell of a tune.
3. For most of the people doing the marching this is a grand day out.
4. Armies aren't just made up of the elite Guards regiments, many of whose members are still impressively ramrod-straight at 75.
5. Wars are also fought by an assortment of stock comic shapes and sizes who return in later years wearing a bewildering range of different-coloured berets above bulbous noses, their basic forces uniforms energetically customised in a way that means nothing to the onlooker but everything in the world to the wearer.
6. The silence at eleven is complete enough to allow you to hear the wind in the trees on Whitehall. The crowd are a lot more varied than you might think. There are young people and tourists alongside the usual preponderance of military families. In their shared ability to stand still and shut up they may be a self-selecting bunch.
7. The very last veterans in the parade, after the Sally Army, the Bevin Boys, the St John's Ambulance and the Boy's Brigade, were a group from the UK Border Agency. I don't know how I'd feel about that.
8. Near the end I spotted a couple among a Legion group. They were probably about my age. They were dressed slightly differently from those around them. I wouldn't be surprised if they were art teachers. They both had their coats open to display tee shirts. Printed on the front was a picture of their soldier son and his dates. The second one was 2007.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Why "Jump" by Van Halen is the greatest record ever made

I was playing "Jump" by Van Halen and twittered to the effect that it is arguably the greatest record ever made. Some people took exception with the tone of people who couldn't believe that the greatest record ever made could be made by such a bunch of poodle-headed clowns rather than, say, the Stone Roses. Some challenged me to prove it. This I shall do.

Pop music celebrates acting on instinct. When we're young we're too self-conscious to do it. When we're older we're too terrified to do it. The most terrifying, vertiginous, joyous moment for a young man is when, in the nick of time, generally at about five minutes to midnight, he gets the girl to dance with him. "Jump" is about a man with many miles on the clock, down on his luck, with his back against the record machine, trying to persuade himself that he's got to take the same step. Years of inhibition and fear are holding him back. The music is pushing him forward. The music will win.

Case proven.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Calm down. It's only the European Champions League.

Forgive me if I don't get tearful at the prospect of Liverpool not going through to the knock-out stage of the European Champions League. I don't expect Liverpool fans to get upset about any of the humiliations borne by Spurs in the average season. Watching ITV Sport's coverage of last night's game against Lyons last night and listening to Five Live's post-mortem (interestingly, it was a draw, not a drubbing) you'd think this was an event with far-reaching consequences for every man, woman and child in Britain rather than the sort of thing that is bound to happen in the hurly-burly of competitive sport. The ITV interviewer told Jamie Carragher it was "unthinkable" that Liverpool wouldn't go through. Being a professional athlete, I'm sure Carragher doesn't regard anything as "unthinkable".

It could that the greatest triumph of the Top Four teams is the extent to which they have managed to get the sporting media to identify its own interests with theirs. The prospect of one or more of these clubs having its snout removed from the trough of TV revenue, even for a short time, is something that deeply concerns those companies and people who have made massive investments in space and airtime devoted to these same clubs. If they lifted their heads for a moment they would see that the overwhelming majority of us, being British, would quite like to see these clubs fail for a change. The fact that most of them are foreign-owned companies with scarcely any British employees means we don't even have to feel guilty about it any more.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Never in the field of human acting

Last night I caught up with HBO's Churchill film, "Into The Storm", on the iPlayer. I'm a sucker for Churchill TV films. I've seen all sorts of people play him - Patrick Wymark, Robert Hardy, Timothy West, Nigel Stock, Albert Finney, any British actor with jowls and a growl, in fact - and I've heard Richard Burton recite his speeches so often I confuse them with the real thing. (There's no such thing as the real thing with Churchill's speeches because they were generally re-recorded after the event, a bit like a Kiss live album.) I thought it was rather good. It contained the odd wrinkle that isn't in the authorised version. A heart attack while on a visit to Washington that has to be kept from everyone, including his wife, for instance. He's seen giving Bomber Harris every encouragement to attack German cities while Attlee (played by a Scot!) looks conscience-stricken. But the essentials of the myth remain in place. The weather of summer 1940 remains bathed in golden sunshine. He spends a lot of time in the bath. The gimmick this time was that the star and director were both Irish. Funny that England's sustaining myth should be kept alive by a couple of Irishmen working for an American TV network. I note that Timothy Spall is next up to play the bulldog, this time in a satire called "Jackboots On Whitehall". I'll be there.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Every home should have one

Last week we visited the factory set up by designer and silversmith David Mellor in Hathersage.

I have come to the conclusion that I have no feeling for small delicate items like knives and forks. I do my best to inspect them politely but I'm yawning inside. I'm the same when I'm looking in a jewellers' window. It's speaking a language I can't begin to understand.

However, I was pleased to note that Mellor also designed big fat, useful things like traffic lights. I want one.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The dirty work Obama had to do in his third day at the office

In the days following Obama's inauguration the papers and airwaves were choked with sentimental nonsense about how this untried lawyer from Illinois who had never had to make a decision that might effect anything beyond his own career, was going to deliver us all from evil. I won't embarrass any of the people who went into print at the time with their Pollyanna predictions. I hope they've thought better of it since. This childish optimism is still working its way through the system, as the recent Nobel embarrassment proves. I'm sure Obama wasn't stupid enough to believe any of it. I'm sure he realised, just as Tommy Carcetti in "The Wire" did, that there is no such things as a fresh start in government.

I was thinking of how he must have felt when I read Jane Mayer's piece in The New Yorker about Predator strikes in Afghanistan where prominent Taliban commanders are lined up in the sights of camera mounted on drones flying two miles up in the sky and the President is called into the situation room to give the order to strike. There's a likelihood that they might have the wrong man in the sights. There's a near-certainty that some civilians will be killed at the same time. They may well be children. On his third day in The White House the new President had to OK just such a strike. On his third day.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Why you can't talk to a TLA

The headline in The Times says "Shock as figures show Britain still in recession". Those expressing the shock are the usual non-specific commentators "City and Downing Street". It doesn't come as a shock to anyone down in the fray rather than surveying it from the battlements. The Today Programme spoke to a couple of people in business and asked them if there was anything government could do to make things easier for them. One said the nation could do with an industrial strategy. The other, who ran a three-employee office furniture business, modestly pleaded that since government is now the only organisation spending money, it might be nice if his company could sell some of its goods to them. He explained why this was no longer possible: "We used to deal with the NHS, specifically the PCTs, but now there's an OGC which will only deal with companies turning over £20m and you have to have all the ISOs."

That sentence sends a shiver down my spine.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

In praise of Jane Bown

I've been looking at the Guardian's splendid gallery of the work of photographer Jane Bown from the 1940s to the present day. It features a cavalcade of statesman, artists, pop stars, actors, poets and sportsmen that's unlikely to be matched by any collection in the future. It recalls a time when you could photograph celebrities in the wild, as they were being interviewed, rehearsing or killing time, when their hirelings didn't demand photo approval or that the pictures be taken by a close personal friends or someone unfeasibly expensive. Ironically, most of the pictures that project their charisma come from this period rather than from the era of total control.

Her astounding picture of Samuel Beckett (above) was one of five snapped in the alley outside the Royal Court, the Beatles appear unaware of her as they pass the afternoon in a dressing room in East Ham while Richard Harris sits in his hotel suite with his robe perilously loosely-arranged. It's interesting to see these arranged chronologically. In the mid-90s you can see the arrival of a generation who are more bothered about how they look than how they come over. From Morrissey onwards all her subjects seem to see her coming and compose their features in readiness. She reflects in the commentary about how easy she found Bjork. "Possibly too easy," she says.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Why a remake of "Brief Encounter" would be even briefer

I watched "Brief Encounter" again this morning and can report it's lost none of its power. They've remade just about every other classic film from the golden age but not this one. It must have passed through some agent's mind. With Kate Winslet, maybe, and possibly Hugh Laurie. But then they will have screened it and realised immediately it would be impossible. The film turns on the question of whether happily-married but bored Home Counties lady Laura will cheat on her husband with the equally-married Alec. Here's a key exchange.
Alec: We know we really love each other. That's true. That's all that really matters.
Laura: It isn't all that really matters. Other things matter too. Self-respect matters and decency.
A contemporary audience wouldn't have any patience with Laura. It would demand that she surrendered immediately. It would probably regard her insistence on decency as another word for hypocrisy. To expedite proceedings the scriptwriters would probably give her an alibi in the shape of an abusive husband. The dilemma would be dissolved in no time. The film would last fifteen minutes, tops.

Friday, October 16, 2009

One git doesn't mark the collapse of civilisation

An extraordinary story has passed through the Twitterverse (London section) this morning. It concerns a London Underground member of staff who has been caught on a passenger's video camera behaving appallingly to a member of the public. Jonathan Macdonald has posted a sober account of this incident on his blog together with video. That seems reasonable and responsible behaviour to me and will no doubt result in some kind of disciplinary hearing.

What disturbs me is the tenor of the comments beneath his post. If you set up any kind of digital pillory nowadays, the people who are first on the scene seem to have difficulty identifying where a genuine grievance finishes and non-specific rage about the world begins. Too many people seem to treat this incident as an excuse to vent on everything from pony tails to political correctness, from Boris Johnson to fare rises, from the economic climate to London Transport training budgets, rather than accepting it for what it is, an isolated example of very bad behaviour. I've been travelling on the tubes for 40 years. Most of the tube employees I deal with are polite and helpful, albeit sometimes lacking in polish.

Sometimes a git is just a git and not a symptom of anything.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

This is what happens when the Today Programme send the radio car

For a start it's not so much a car as a van. The driver, who's also the engineer, turns up at your house about forty minutes before the appointed time and looks for a place to park. He then cranks up an enormous transmitter mast which is as high as the houses. Looking out of their windows the neighbours assume that it's a TV detector van and nervously check that their TV licence is up to date. About ten minutes before your item is due the chap comes and knocks on your door and conducts you into the tiny studio in the back of the van. The two of you sit there with headphones on and eventually your item starts. They say that cunning old foxes like Michael Heseltine always chose to be interviewed via the radio car. Not only did he get more time in bed but he also took advantage of the absence of presenter eye-contact to keep talking far longer than he would ordinarily be allowed.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Where the Kindle really falls down

I wish somebody would give me a Kindle or an Ereader or whatever they're called. I'd love to have a go. That's not to say that I believe they're going to take over like iPods have done. I can see why companies would want to see them adopted. I can see why some early adopters might want them. But I can't get my head round their one major shortcoming. Most books and magazines are read in public. In the act of reading something in public with the cover facing outwards we are advertising ourselves and our attitudes. We do it so much we don't even think of it anymore. It's the most complex and powerful sign language we know. It explains why I wouldn't wish to be seen reading a book that was repackaged to reflect the TV adaptation of some classic. It explains why there is nothing on earth more powerful than an attractive woman on the tube with her nose in a serious book, or at least a book that isn't obvious. It explains why that middle-aged lady sitting across from me is reading a dog-eared leather-bound edition of the Psalms or that young black man is wielding a copy of a book about being a young black man. A couple of years ago I read Ian Fleming's "Casino Royale" in a handsome retro edition. I felt like dangling a sign on its spine saying "Of course I read James Bond long before most of you were born and I'm catching up with this because I've never read it and I'm told it is the essence of the original character. Do I look like the sort of person who's reading it because I've seen the film?"

Reading a book in public is an advertisement for ourselves or the millions of other selves we would like to adopt. How can a brushed metal blank or a piece of nice smooth plastic begin to compete with that?

Friday, October 09, 2009

The dark secrets of the side of the road

The discovery of what Melanie Hall's father distressingly described as "a bag of bones" beside the M5 made me turn back to something I'd just been reading in Joe Moran's book "On Roads".
"If you're ever on the run from the law, I would strongly recommend that you hide in the motorway verges of our oldest motorways, like the M1 or M6. There is just enough room for a tent in the half-century of undergrowth and you could surely live like Stig of the Dump, undisturbed for months or years, in this uninhabited wilderness just a cone's throw from the road."
Stuck in a traffic jam on the M1 last week I was looking at what he calls "this liminal land" and wondering what kind of strange world might have taken root there over the years. The only sign of life visible from the road is the occasional hovering bird of prey. I never see them dive. It's as if they're trying to pretend they're doing something useful.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Bringing them all back home

We've got family friends whose son is a young army officer. Six months ago he was posted to Helmand province. I've only met him once as an adult although I remember him as a lad. It's pathetic that I should feel that this gives me some personal contact with what's going on in Afghanistan. Now that we know which battle group he's with, we pay attention every time one of those radio news items starts with the words "the army has confirmed...." One of our daughters wears a wrist band with 2 Rifles on it. None of us has the remotest clue what they're going through but I have a fraction of an idea what agony it must be for his parents and even that thought keeps me awake sometimes.

He's just finished his tour and returned and, as you can imagine, they're beside themselves with happiness. But it won't be long before they start to think about the chances of his being sent back. And if you've done any reading about this conflict - if you haven't, I'd recommend Anthony Loyd's piece in The Times or Patrick Hennessey's "The Junior Officers Reading Club", both of which are written by former soldiers who know whereof they speak - you'll realise that the men are often worryingly keen to get back, either because of ambition or solidarity with their comrades.

I'm not concerned about the rights and wrongs of how we got into this fight but I do feel increasingly soul weary about the idea of kids from leafy Surrey and not so leafy Govan being sent to be used as target practice by a foe that has only one simple objective, to kill a British soldier. And I know I'm not the only one. For once there doesn't even seem to be a newspaper beating the drum and there's a perceptible feeling in the country that these kids have been sent on mission impossible. Unless there's a radical, painful and no doubt embarrassing change of policy this will be still going on in five years time and some of the 20-year-olds losing their legs will be the same schoolkids you might see in the bus station tonight. Come the election I wonder if it will be a bigger issue than the economy.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Words muttered over the grave of Gourmet

Conde Nast in the US just announced the closure of four magazines. One of them is Gourmet, which was launched in 1941. The worldwide tribe of foodies is up in arms, blaming the loss on the insensitivity of Conde Nast management with the connivance of consultants from McKinsey. They only interrupt their thundering against these Philistines to say that of course they hadn't read it for some while since it was taken over by some vulgarian. Closures of magazines are invariably greeted by tear-stained tributes from people who stopped reading them some while before, bitter anonymous postings by people who have just lost their jobs and think-pieces from people who haven't a clue about the economics underpinning such businesses, particularly when they're based in the United States.

Jay Rayner in the Guardian refers to the lavish multiple-dollars-per-word way Gourmet was put together but doesn't seem to feel that this was part of what rendered it unsustainable. American magazines, particularly the ones that they habitually refer to as "upscale", are massively risky bets where an annual subscription is effectively given away in order to achieve the "rate-base" that advertisers have been persuaded to pay for. This is a wager that might work out as long as advertising is going up but will be quickly found out in hard times. In really hard times such as we're going through at the moment anything even slightly marginal plunges into the red overnight. Gourmet is said to have seen a 41% decline in advertising in the last year. That's not just a bad year. That's structural.

Friday, October 02, 2009

"Very courageous, Mr Lebedev"

I remember the days when there were two evening newspapers in London. I think I'm right in saying that the Evening News, unlike the Evening Standard, published on a Saturday which meant that if you were leaving the West End after six on that day you would get the football results printed in a stop-press column on the front. The News disappeared years ago and now, in a move that nobody appears to have seen coming, Alexander Lebedev has announced that the Evening Standard is going to be free. Of all the times to make this move, this is by far the oddest. Not even the most cockeyed optimist thinks the advertising recession is going to stop any time soon and there are those who think that we may have seen the end of the kind of advertising that traditionally financed newspapers and magazines. It appears that Lebedev is saying goodbye to circulation revenue of £15m a year in the hope that by doubling his circulation he can make it up in advertising. That's as good a working definition of an optimist as I've seen in a long while.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Why is government wasting its time *pretending* to do things?

When John Major was Prime Minister somebody stole the radio from my car. I reported it to the police who said there was nothing they could do. They gave me a crime number and I claimed on the insurance. Some years later, when Tony Blair was Prime Minister, somebody else stole the radio from my car. I reported it to the police who said there was nothing they could do. They gave me a crime number and I claimed on my insurance.

The only difference was that this time somebody rang up asking how I felt about the experience and, hilariously, enquiring if I needed counselling. For me that difference seemed emblematic of a shift that had taken place in the way we were governed. Neither government offered an improved outcome but one of them wanted to know how I *felt* about things. You couldn't help feeling that there was some Peter Capaldi in the bunker beneath Whitehall who was constantly calculating how people in marginal constituencies felt about everything apart from the weather.

After that I began to note how the rhetoric of government has gone one way while the experience of being governed took another path entirely. I had another glimpse of that disconnect today. In the same week the Attorney General has had to answer some embarrassing questions about the immigration status of her Tongan housekeeper I have had to supply a TV production company with a copy of my passport so that they can pay me a small, one-off sum. Among the things I had to copy and supply was the cover of my passport. Go and look at yours. I think you'll find that one is indistinguishable from another. They apparently require all this because they need to know whether I have the right to work in the UK. They need to know this even though I have supplied them with a VAT number.

I can only assume that a new arm of some mammoth bureaucracy is creating a lot more work for lots of other people - in this case the production company, me, my accountant - in order to guard against something untoward happening. In doing this it probably won't prevent that thing happening but it will certainly make life more complicated, expensive and tiresome for the rest of us.

Sometimes bad is bad

The papers and news programmes today are frothing at the mouth about the mother who killed herself and her daughter after suffering terrible harrassment from local delinquents. What were the police up to? Why didn't the council know what was going on? Why didn't somebody do something?

The PM is about to make a speech at the Labour Party Conference in which he will promise more legislation about combating anti-social behaviour and giving "problem families" something euphemistically called "support". Seems to me we have had lots of legislation to deal with isolated but no doubt upsetting outbreaks of what you might call bullying. Statutes are introduced, usually at great expense, and years later it's decided that the statute was not the appropriate measure. The Dangerous Dogs business was a classic case of this. It doesn't appear to have reduced the number of pinheads with threatening dogs on chains larging it in Chapel Market. I know this might seem like a counsel of despair but are we fooling ourselves in thinking government can do anything to make some people behave better?

Monday, September 28, 2009

The film that goes on giving

The last time I watched "This Is Spinal Tap" I didn't laugh much but I watch all the later Christopher Guest films – "Waiting For Guffman," "Best In Show" and "A Mighty Wind" – again and again. Last night it was, once again, the last-named. In every case the first time through I thought the film was a bit of a disappointment and gradually came to love it like you come to love certain albums. They're the polar opposite of the average 21st century Hollywood film, which tells you more than you need to know in the first fifteen minutes and then leaves you determined never to sit through it again. It's the apparent lack of ambition that allows these films - which are all, I note, about people on the frontier between the amateur and professional realms - to sink in gradually. Maybe it's because Christopher Guest knows you're going to come back more than once that he allows everything to unfold in such an unhurried fashion.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Once we were gods

I wonder whether Sol Campbell's week-long misadventure at Notts County is only the first of a series of personal/professional crises we're going to see as the first generation of born and bred Premier League superstars reach the point where they can't play at the gold standard any longer. Footballers have always had to face the day when their knees wouldn't hold them any longer and their lack of pace was cruelly exposed by some kid who was playing in a park not long before. The difference with this generation is that they were paid fortunes and treated like royalty throughout their careers. Facing mortality at the age of thirty-five must be particularly hard to take for the golden generation. Retired footballers used to lose their nest eggs on chains of sports shops. The money made by today's superstars will probably go the same way. It may take longer to go but it will go nonetheless.

How to get your own back on millionaire sportsmen

I have blogged in the past about the frustrations of spending money on cartridge razors. Those are the ones that use Tiger Woods and Thierry Henry as pitchmen, run TV ads that imply they're as hard to manufacture as jet fighters and minutely change their design regularly in order to get extra pounds out of you and leave you with a bathroom cupboard full of obsolete blades. On the advice of a friend (this sounds like an advert already) I sent off for a Merkur razor and a bunch of blades of the kind my father used to use. I've had it a few weeks now and, well, it works. I wouldn't claim it shaves closer (that probably takes a lot of practice) but the warm feeling I get out of knowing that I'm not helping fund some stupid advertorial in GQ featuring John Terry gives me no end of satisfaction.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Why nobody should read a press release ever again

Just now I got an email from a junior at a PR company. He'd obviously been given the job of double-checking their email database. His email enquired, with a baldness that must have been unintentional, "is this the right address or do you just ignore everything that's sent to you?" I have so far resisted replying to him and saying that the answer to both questions is yes. Every day I get 50 emails from PRs that go straight into the trash unread. This is not just because I'm a cynical old hack. Anything that is addressed to me specifically and contains some piece of information that's of interest to me, and not just anybody, I read. The rest get a scan of a subject line and then I pull the lever.

It wasn't always thus. When press releases arrived on paper they were actually read before being thrown away. They were sent to media outlets in the hope that these media outlets would choose to publish their contents. Media outlets read them because they often contained interesting information. When they began arriving on email two things changed: 1) They were distributed far and wide with no thought of cost; 2) their contents were no longer of any interest to the media outlets to whom they were addressed. Press releases used to have a relevance because they meant that for a while the media knew something that not everybody else did. That is no longer the case. At the precise instant that the PR tells me The Flaming Lips are going to release a new record then that same information is going to be available to, at the very least, the guy who runs the Flaming Lips fan site, for whom it's the most important announcement since the Armistice. All the people who care most about this news will know it already. When you send out any piece of information on email you are effectively publishing it. You're putting it on your corporate website, for instance, where people who are interested will find it. You're putting it in a place where people can pull it towards them. Why should you expect a media organisation to fulfil their old role of pushing it towards people? If the media are interested in that information they will link to it. If they're not they'll ignore it. So why is anyone still bombarding me - and thousands of other people - with this information? Could that be because a client's paying them to? And the money that they're paying the PR with, is that the money those same clients previously spent on advertising?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Affluenza in Winchmore Hill

I don't buy into the relative poverty argument that surfaces on the Today programme every year. I'm not sure of the significance of the fact that there's a greater wealth gap than ever before between an Albanian beggar on Oxford Street and, say, Roman Abramovich. I can't see where that gets you. My working definition of real poverty in the first world comes from Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson. Caro describes a school Johnson taught at in the Texas hill country during the twenties where they had to have a major fund-raising campaign in the local community to buy the basketball team a basketball. It's never about money. It's about what you have or don't have and the expectations that flow from that.

I've just returned from Sainsbury's where I was kept entertained by a 19-year-old who was talking on his mobile as he pushed the trolley round with his mum. Being English I am obviously compelled to make a guess at his background from his accent. He had a pierced ear and was dressed by Hackett. I am guessing that a generation ago his family would have described itself as working-class. His great-grandparents might have rented a radio and holidayed at Southend. In the course of a ten-minute conversation with his friend he recounted which three pubs he and his friends had been to last night, which ones they planned to go to tonight, which clubs in Essex various people were deejaying at, how the Freshers Ball at his "uni" was being held at Pasha and it was only £15 and how he and some mates planned to find a cheap hotel in Brighton so they could stay over when they went clubbing there the following weekend. The fact that they had access to cars was taken for granted. I guess they had most of the things they wanted.

His was clearly not a life of simple pleasures. It's highly geared, as they say in the city. There's something about hearing this round of pleasure being airily outlined on a device that twenty years ago would have been the sole province of merchant bankers that brings home to you just how massively the expectations of ordinary people have grown in the same period. And is the future going to inevitably disappoint our friend on the phone, will he find a way to continue to pay for it or will he be marching in the streets within the next few years, wanting to know what happened to the Good Life?

Friday, September 18, 2009

True Stories Told Live

The inspiration for True Stories Told Live was Malcolm Gladwell, who told me about a long-established story-telling club in New York called The Moth. I mentioned this to everybody I ran into who might be interested in such a thing and nobody could see anything wrong with the idea; that idea being that a bunch of people gather in a bar to listen to a a few people tell true stories. Along with my confederates, actor Kerry Shale and radio producer Kate Bland, I spent months combing London for an ideal venue. Everything was either too big, too noisy, too expensive or too restricted in some way. In the end I went to see John Rensten at The Compass, a pub at the end of Chapel Market which has recently been refurbished as a pub/restaurant, and he offered the use of a very nice small room they've got upstairs.

Thus we kicked off on Wednesday night with our first invitation-only evening. Kerry was MC, I began – on the basis that I couldn't ask anyone to do anything I wouldn't do myself – with a story about my suit, Sue Elliott talked about tracing her birth mother and being traced by her sisters, Chris Difford talked and played a song about going back to Ireland with his mother, Andrew Collins wondered whatever happened to carsickness and Dragan Aleksic described a misadventure involving an art gallery. Some people were quite experienced speakers, others had hardly done it all and when you've got to do up to fifteen minutes without notes it can take quite a bit of nerve.

The reception was warm enough for us to plan another couple between now and Christmas.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The thing that Gareth really has to fight against in "The Choir"

I watched most of The Choir last night. I've never seen the beginning of this programme but I've seen the end of it lots of times, so successfully does it sink its hooks into me. The current series is about Gareth's efforts to encourage the locals to sing in South Oxhey, an unpromising overspill estate near Watford. He has some success, thanks as ever to some middle-aged women who are among nature's joiners, a few kids who are genuinely keen on music (and being on TV), a smattering of people using the choir as a way to ward off personal crises and a few charismatic locals who have been frogmarched to rehearsals so that the producers can depict their "personal journey".

The refuseniks refuse on the grounds that people like them (i.e. working class people) don't turn up and sing in choirs. This is patently untrue. In the north of England and in Wales and probably in other parts of Britain there's a long tradition of working class people doing precisely that. But thanks to some combination of social atomisation and the dictatorship of cool the people of South Oxhey have come to believe that these things are not for them, that their role in life is to work, raise kids and watch TV. In each programme Gareth's biggest obstacle is not their lack of musical aptitude or interest. It's their crippling English self-consciousness.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Mind your language

A pleasant little local restaurant has changed management and stuck this flier through our door. I've removed their name to spare their embarrassment. It's fair to assume that English is not the first language of the new management. I'm sure they're aware of that. Why they didn't get someone English to run an eye over this flier before it went out I cannot imagine.

In praise of Philip Hoare's "Leviathan"

Yesterday afternoon my family were either at rock festivals or in bed sleeping off colds or hangovers and so I repaired to the sofa, covered my knees with a blanket to ward off the sudden chill and read the second half of Philip Hoare's "Leviathan". I'm not really a nature boy so the fact that I was so captivated by a book about whales should be worth some of the usual asterisk-studded superlatives. One of the things that makes the "creative non-fiction" category so seductive for writers is the way it allows them to stretch out in many different dimensions - history, literature, philosophy, science and others - simultaneously but I don't know any who've managed to do it in such a triumphantly non-boring way as Hoare. I can't recommend it too highly.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The thing that doesn't make sense about the BBC cutting money for "top talent"

Bruce Forsyth is the latest BBC star to announce that he's taken a pay cut. The explanation is the same as it was for Chris Moyles and Alan Davies. These are hard times.

There's nothing wrong with their action. It's the explanation that doesn't make sense. In this climate if you're running a commercial operation, or one that relies on conventional tax revenue, you're only too aware that times are hard. People running commercial media organisations are taking pay cuts because revenues are down. But I can't see why the BBC's revenues would be down. Their licence fee income is the same as it was pre-recession and - to their chagrin - much the same as it will be after. The only reason to cut Bruce Forsyth's fee now is because you can. And you could have done that before. But you didn't.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

David Beckham has forgotten more about show business than the rest of football will ever know

I went to Wembley last night and saw England qualify for the World Cup Finals by beating a below-par Croatia team 5-1. With ten minutes to go Fabio Capello did what the commercial interests demanded and brought on David Beckham. Far as I could see he barely connected with the ball. At the end the team applauded what remained of the crowd, a third of whom seem to have left before the whistle. As they made their way off Beckham was the only one to take off his (presumably sweatless) shirt and give it to a girl in the crowd. That's the kind of thing that endears him to the sponsors. He's always thinking.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Billy Liar, your train is still waiting

We watched the film of "Billy Liar" on Friday night in honour of its creator Keith Waterhouse. It's a terrific film, directed by John Schlesinger and starring the marvellous Tom Courtenay. Whether as a novel, a stage play, a film or as inspiration for artists like Morrissey, the story of Billy Fisher, who dreams of going up to London and making his name in show business, sits in the back of the mind of anyone who was brought up in the north and ached to get away, particularly in the 60s. The fantasies into which he disappears seem dated now, as does the idea of a grammar school boy going straight into a dead end job rather than being "at uni", but for all the fine talk about devolution there is still something about getting on the train for The Smoke that's as powerful as ever.