Saturday, February 28, 2009

Swindled by the shaving industry once again

My wife bought me the wrong razor-blades. Easy mistake to make. They're sold in sealed packages that ensure you can't see whether the fitting on the back matches the razor. And you don't know you've bought the wrong one until you've ripped it open and can't return it. So then I went to the shop and, after spending five minutes going through the options, bought what appeared to be the right one. Took it home, ripped it open, only to find I'd also bought the wrong one. Now I have more than £10-worth of useless blades. Never mind. I'll go and by a razor that fits the blades. I set off for the shop again and stood there puzzling over the options. The male chemist offered to help. I explained that I wanted a Sensor razor to use my Sensor blades with. He explained that they didn't make the razors any longer but they still sold the blades. So I had to buy a completely new razor which came with one blade to go with my ten useless blades. Some people waste their time hating the banks or the arms industry. One day a piece of technology will come alone that will supplant the monopoly of the shaving companies and destroy their businesses. I shall be cackling the loudest.

Did anybody ever drink like they do in TV drama?

Watching the BBC's "Margaret" makes we wonder how come I've never been in a work context of any kind where somebody's said "you need a drink" and reached for a bottle of Scotch on a silver tray to pour me three fingers of Glenlivet into a crystal tumbler. Is this a dramatic device based on something that people used to do or is it, like people marching down a corridor pursued by aides answering questions, something that began life as a device and has now turned into something we think we should be doing as well?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A pox on corporate web sites

Going to the theatre in Hammersmith tomorrow night so we're looking for a Wagamama where we can eat first. This ought to be simple. Searching on the interweb leads us to a corporate site which invites us to choose a continent and then, having narrowed down the world to manageable land masses, wonders whether we are interested in eating noodles in Leeds or London. Slowly and agonisingly – how much I hate drop-down menus – it's evident there isn't one anywhere near. When the web design company presented this no-doubt expensive website design to the Wagamama board, did anybody say "and why would any of our customers ever be interested in finding our restaurants by continent?" They could have added "and why do we have a pointless Flash animation featuring a jumbo jet?" and will anyone be persuaded by our slogan "positive eating and positive living", let alone interested in what's going on in our "noodle news" section? But they didn't. They just said "that's brilliant", signed the cheque and never looked at it again. I've looked at it four times because that's how many times it's crashed my browser.

It's all got to go somewhere

People never used to pick up dog crap. There again, maybe there weren't as many dogs as there are now. Coming through Clerkenwell yesterday I happened upon one young couple apparently obeying the new etiquette with a plastic bag. The attack dog she was wrangling on the far end of a stout chain had just relieved itself and she was bending down to clear it up. As I overtook them and walked on I heard him mutter "Now throw it over the wall". (The path runs alongside the high wall surrounding an old primary school building turned into flats.) I couldn't bring myself to look round to see if she had complied. All the way back to the office I couldn't help wondering if some poor soul on the other side of the wall was also wondering what they had done do deserve this noisome visitation.

Monday, February 23, 2009

It takes a lot of flunkies to get one beautiful person to the Oscars

During the awards season there's an over-supply of pictures of photogenic people dressed up to the nines. I'm a bit bored with them and so I prefer to shift my focus to the people behind them. They fall into three groups:
1. Anxious-looking women with clipboards, laminates and ear-pieces who have spent months wondering what to wear in the depressing certainty that nobody will be looking at them at all.
2. Muscly blokes in dinner jackets whose job is to protect the talent from an attack from a sniper or, even worse, a journalist with an unsanctioned question.
3. Super-camp stylists who occasionally scurry into shot to ensure the starlet's train doesn't get caught in her stilletos.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Who killed the Oscars?

They're giving tonight's Oscars ceremony a facelift. There's talk of the presentation having a theme. What? Other than the Oscars theme? I'm feeling embarrassed already. Apparently, in keeping with the times, it will be more restrained. That memo didn't get through to Angelina Jolie who's trying to get hold of a $20 million necklace to wear on the night.

TV audiences have been dropping steadily over the years and the producers would like to restore an element of surprise. It's strange because all the elements they're trying to change - the tight focus on a couple of films as potential winners as pre-selected by lots of lesser awards shows in the run-up, the parading of all the starflesh on the red carpet beforehand, the leaking of details of the show in the press - have been deliberately introduced by the industry in an effort to maximise the evening's impact and ensure its subsequent box office clout.

Some business academic ought to put a name to the process by which businesses, in seeking to extend their control over a golden egg machine, invariably kill the goose. Witness the death of the singles chart. Slaughtered by the fell hand of the music business, the very people who most needed it to survive.

Friday, February 20, 2009

And what has Spotify ever done for us?

If there's ever an internet music play that appears too good to be true, it's Spotify, which has taken over the world of The Word in the last week or so. Effectively, the Spotify player means you can stream music from the world's biggest jukebox, stocked with tracks provided with the blessing of the record labels.

What's the catch? Your listening will be peppered with advertising. If you pay a monthly fee you don't have to put up with that. At the moment they're rolling it out a bit at a time and you have to be invited to take part. You could try following this link to a playlist I've set up and see how you get on. You might even be able to add things. Please don't add whole albums. It quickly becomes tiresome if people do that.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

What has Twitter ever done for us?

I've never seen anything take off as quickly as Twitter appears to have done in the last couple of weeks. It seems a classic case of the way that ideas now spread. They travel through circles of friends. You join because you know a few friends who have joined it already. If you didn't know anyone who had tried it nothing else would ever possess you to give it a go. Here's mine.

I've come round to the view that people are now drawn to many things - books, bands, magazines, particularly magazines - through friends. In that sense propagating a magazine today is less a question of introducing the magazine to new readers than was formerly the case. Instead it's like expanding your circle of friends. You do it through baby steps and close encounters rather than by giant strides and big gestures.

I also wonder if the current financial situation has provided Twitter with the perfect moment. Right now people want to hold hands, even if it's via a screen. It costs nothing. And for those who are coping with unemployment it's the perfect way to say "I'm still here."

Monday, February 16, 2009

ITV: a lesson from history

I feel sorry for anyone who's livelihood might be affected by the cuts that ITV is said to be contemplating in the light of the fall in its advertising revenue. I also remember how ITV used to boss the market when it held a virtual monopoly over TV advertising in this country. In the early 80s I was involved in the launches of mass circulation magazines supported by TV advertising. In cases like these you had to be able to buy the first break in, say, Wednesday's "Coronation Street". Of course, you'd have to pay top dollar for the privilege. Nevertheless, as your advertising agency would explain to you, you had no guarantee that the ad would actually appear. If one of their bigger clients, such as Proctor and Gamble, came along in the late afternoon and wanted that slot instead, they would have no compunction about replacing your ad with theirs and your whole, carefully planned campaign would be holed below the waterline. That's irrelevant now but, well, I remember.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

If you've got an hour, this could cheer you up

Today I heard a wonderful thing. It was a lecture called "Speaking In Tongues" given by Zadie Smith in New York. I'm too stupid to be able to capture any more than ten per cent of what she has to say but I found even that percentage inspiringly sane. She starts with what it was like to be a girl from Willesden who went to Cambridge and came out with a different voice and goes on through Eliza Doolittle's desire to get a new voice in order to work in a florist via Cary Grant's transformation from Archie Leach to Pauline Kael's "the man from Dream City" to a timely examination of Barack Obama's brilliant way of knowing how to adopt different voices to speak to different elements of America. (She could have added Bob Dylan's transformation from Jewish storekeeper's son to the eternal hobo outsider but that would have just been for me.)

In the second half she celebrates equivocation and looks at how our greatest poet, Shakespeare, was forever nipping back and forth over the frontiers of belief. (In this she credits Stephen Greenblatt's "Will In The World" which you should read if you have the slightest interest in, well, that kind of thing.) She wonders why we expect politicians to exhibit the very certainty which is our least appealing characteristic.

I don't know what the weather is going to do tomorrow but if it's anything like fine I think you should download this recording of her delivering this lecture, put it on your iPod and go for a walk long enough to listen to it. If you don't come back feeling slightly better about mankind, well, at least you'll have had some exercise.

Why I Twitter

Well, you've got to, haven't you?

Friday, February 13, 2009

How the media works (latest in an endless series)

A well-known Radio 4 programme just called me. They wanted to do a story about the magazine ABC figures and needed a comment. I took my "tell me what you want me to say and I'll tell you whether or not I'll say it" stance. It turns out that out of these thousands of figures, all of which tell a story to initiates but may as well be in Aramaic as far as outsiders are concerned, they had identified two threads.

One was fairly well-based. However once the broad brush had done its work it was bound to be wildly misleading. What's the point of me going on the radio to say, what you've just said is not the case for these reasons? That's going to mess up their neat and tidy narrative and make me sound very pedantic.

The other was a thread about an initiative that somebody's trying to get off the ground. I'm prepared to bet my house it won't work but again what's the point of going on the radio to pour cold water over something that most people have never heard of and will never get to hear about? That will make me sound bitter. So I politely declined, leaving the producer a bit miffed.

The media - particularly the broadcast media - has a series of dance steps worked out. What it's looking for is a partner who's prepared to follow. The last thing it wants is somebody who's going to stop and say "why are we doing the waltz when we should be doing the foxtrot?" Some of this frustration is unavoidable. Elvis Costello was talking about this in a recent issue of Word. He found the tedious thing about being interviewed is that the interviewer always came along with a preconception that wasn't true. Then he started his own chat show and discovered he was doing the very same thing himself.

I'm sure this says something profound about the media but I don't know exactly what

The lead story on the Mail's website today credits The Sun.

The widow's mite

Last night I had a drink with somebody who runs a small charity with magazine attached. He was explaining how a lot of their income comes from people who make a bequest of a small percentage of their modest estates. If that estate turns out to include a house in the south-east of England the small percentage can amount to a significant sum. That certainly applied before house price inflation went into reverse. Because many of his subscribers were elderly he was accustomed to the call from a widow informing them that their husband had died and the subscription should stop. These calls came about a year after the death. This chimed with the experience of one former colleague of mine who was editor-in-chief of a well-known magazine with a reader profile on the far side of 65. He reckoned that at any given time about 10% of his subscribers were dead. Their subscriptions hadn't been cancelled because their widows couldn't yet face cutting that particular chord.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The best insults descend from a great height

I think Rowan Pelling was on to something in the Daily Telegraph today:
You have to be careful what you say nowadays. A teacher is facing disciplinary procedures at a school in Hampshire after she told a 13-year-old that her itsy-bitsy skirt made her "look like a slut". The problem, it seems to me, was not the nature of the insult, but the language it was couched in. My old headmistress, who had once been a missionary, used to tell brazen girls that they looked like "painted Jezebels". The more elevated the language, the greater the freedom to abuse: that's what I learned at school.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Sofa, so good

We bought our first house nearly thirty years ago. The couple we got it from were divorcing. Because neither of them had the room to house it, they bequeathed us a beaten-up old sofa. We were delighted. At the time any furniture at all was a bonus. When the kids subsequently came along the old sofa was put into one of their bedrooms. They jumped on it without mercy. Scores of over-stimulated little visitors would climb on its back. Its possibilities as a trampoline, bus and shire horse were explored with some rigour. We didn't mind because we hadn't paid for it. We deduced from the fact that we obtained it for nothing that it must be on its last legs. Kids were ill in it - and probably on it. They had stories read to them on it. I've lost count of the number of times we've fallen asleep on it with some spark-out child cutting off the circulation to an arm. It's been terribly mistreated and yet through all that it has remained the most comfortable item of furniture in the house and the house after that.

Until a couple of months ago we thought that was mere sentiment. Then we got an upholsterer round to examine our furniture and see what was worth improving. He looked at a few different sofas and eventually pointed at the old one. "That," he said, "is a very fine piece of furniture. If you could buy something like it today it would cost a lot of money." He explained all the design features that made it so comfortable. This was an unexpected bonus. It was like suddenly finding out that chocolate was good for you.

We paid for it be reupholstered. Today it came home, no longer to be covered in discarded shoes, empty cereal bowls and copies of Heat in an upstairs bedroom, but to take pride of place in the sitting room. It's expected to be receiving visitors in due course.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Hedgehoppers Anonymous

We've all visited some holiday island where the landing strip at the airport didn't seem to give the pilot much room for error. That's nothing compared to St Maarten in the Caribbean where an arriving jumbo could probably take the flake out of your 99.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Tell me, what attracted you to the famous multi-millionaire?

A.A. Gill was on the radio just now talking about how modern men should guard against gold-digging women. The Today Programme's attitude was "does that kind of thing still go on?" which just how naive we've become. You only have to look around you to see the thing still going very strong indeed. Find a rich man and, quite often, you'll note that he is accompanied by a woman who is younger and more physically attractive than he is. What's surprising is how surprising we seem to find it. Chaucer would have taken it for granted. Darwin wouldn't have batted an eyelid. Jane Austen would have said "Durrr?"

Randy Newman, who deals with all the subjects too obvious for most songwriters to notice, touched on this recently in a song called "The World Isn't Fair", which is supposed to be addressed to Karl Marx. Here he describes going with his second wife to the parents meeting at his young children's new school:
I went to the orientation
All the young mommies were there
Karl, you never have seen such a glorious sight
as these beautiful women arrayed for the night
just like countesses, empresses, movie stars and
And they'd come there with men much like me
Froggish men, unpleasant to see
Were you to kiss one, Karl
Nary a prince would there be

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The art of tea

Tea is an underrated meal. Matter of fact, it seems odd to call it a meal. Today being a family birthday, we had tea at the Wolseley in Piccadilly. There was tea in proper teapots. Arrayed on one of those triple decker spinner plates were sandwiches with the crusts removed, scones with jam and cream and a medley of little cakes. Afterwards we wandered up Bond Street and looked in the windows of shops that were safely closed. Once home we opened presents and ate some absurdly expensive Beaufort cheese with a bottle of Nyetimber. This is sparkling wine from Sussex. I am in a position to tell you that it's very good indeed. Knocked sideways by its quality, some of our party have already turned in. I shall do the same once this Everton and Liverpool game is over. This may, of course, be early by your standards. But that's the great thing about tea. It's at tea time.

Technology is still all a blur

It's the fifth anniversary of the launch of Facebook. Isn't it also the 30th birthday of the Mac? How these things can go from obscurity to ubiquity that quickly has gone from breathtaking to commonplace. These things spread so fast that very soon you can't remember what life was like before they came along. At the same time you can't remember when they came along. I feel we need a new vocabulary to describe the effect such phenomena have on our memory.

My past life is marked out by academic years, the stages of the career of the Beatles, the arrival of punk rock, the ages of my children and the launches of magazines. I don't have a mental timeline that I can consult for the arrival of the mobile phone, the desktop computer, the internet or Facebook. As the snail said after he was mugged by the tortoise, "It all happened so fast."

Monday, February 02, 2009


Taken in the local park this morning.

The rise of the words "not appropriate"

When did the expression "not appropriate" become the all-purpose signifier of disapproval? I just heard it again on the news. It's increasingly applied to everything from intemperate outbursts by radio presenters to child abuse. It's a favourite of apologising officials. There's something very mealy-mouthed and prim about it, isn't there? Presumably it was adopted to avoid an overly-judgmental adjective like "wrong".

Sunday, February 01, 2009

The world hasn't gone mad but this woman and her doctor may have

Alan Bennett famously said "All families have a secret. The secret is they're not like other families". Too true. I wonder what he'd say about Nadya Suleman, the mother of the Los Angeles octuplets. As this woman recovers in her hospital bed and negotiates with America's biggest magazines and TV shows, fragments of information emerge about her personal circumstances.

We start with the most remarkable of all. She's not on welfare. Which is pretty remarkable when you consider she's already got six children, doesn't work, has recently completed her studies into child development and lives with her mother who is divorced and recently fended off personal bankruptcy. Mother says Nadya has always been "nuts about children". Move on. She had the previous six children by in vitro fertilisation. The father was not her husband. She was recently divorced from him. He's gone to work as contractor in Iraq. Move on.

So then there's the next eight children. I'm a bit hazy about how these things work but one must assume that at some point she went along to a medical professional and said "You know the six kids I've already got? Well, I'm so tickled with them I'd like some more." And one must assume that the medical professional said "Of course. Let's try eight, shall we?"

There's an entire book to be written about how this comes to pass in a country where most people dread having to go into a hospital, not because of the MRSA but because of the cost. Anyway, the cab driver side of my brain sides with Arthur Caplan, a bioethics expert from the University of Pennsylvania, when he says "anyone who transfers eight embryos should be arrested for malpractice." I might add that my wife always says "some women have children to give love, some have children to get love." Well, she shouldn't go short with fourteen of them.

I don't know what all this means. Oh, hang on, I do. As Paul Simon pointed out years ago in song, some folks lives roll easy, some folks stumble and fall through no fault of their own. What he should have pointed out in a final verse is that some folks have a deep seated desire to make their lives more complicated than they already are. And these are infallibly people whose lives are already very, very complicated.