Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Play up, play up and play the game

I was looking at my brother-in-law's copy of The Sportsmans Who's Who of 1957. The foreword included a quote from Milton which gives you an idea what world this came from.

A fair number of the people listed played more than one sport. Fred Titmus didn't just bowl off-breaks for England and Middlesex. He also played inside-right for Hendon in the Athenian League.

Many of them were amateurs and therefore they provide a home address rather than that of a club. Eric Dominy of 18, Hamilton Way, Finchley learned judo in a German P.O.W. camp from which he managed to escape. Hubert Doggart of 66 Kingsgate Street, Winchester played test cricket for England versus the West Indies but could only manage to play for Sussex in August. He also wanted to mention that he played squash, rackets, rugby fives and soccer for Cambridge as well as turning out at inside-right for Corinthian Casuals.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Lloyd George clearly didn't know my grandfather

This is the picture known in my family as grandfather with Lloyd George. Since he's in the top left while the former Prime Minister is trying to get away to resume his pursuit of some young filly we may assume that their legendarily close relationship was going through one of its chillier periods. I don't suppose there's an expert on liveried servants out there who might be able to date or place this picture?

Saturday, July 25, 2009


I don't hold the bien-pensant view of Jeremy Clarkson. If anything I'm a fan but the story about him describing the Prime Minister as a see you next Tuesday during a Top Gear audience warm-up does shine another light on what happens when that unique admixture of money, celebrity and yobbishness goes off as it does all the time these days.I can't imagine any public context in which I would use the c-word about anyone, from the Prime Minister to the lowest in the land. If I was employed by an organisation and used it in front of that organisation's clients I would expect to be fired on the spot and wouldn't expect any redress. If you were in charge it would definitely happen.

So what possessed this educated, upstanding member of the bourgeoisie to drop the c bomb in front of an average bunch of licence-payers, most of whom probably wouldn't dream of using that word even if they hit their thumb very hard with a hammer? It's not a heat of the moment thing or you would hear rock stars use it on stage and footballers in post match interviews. It doesn't escape. It's deployed. So why did Clarkson do it? Was he momentarily struck by the terror of the man who knows he's meant to be funny but has nothing funny to hand? Maybe it's the increasingly desperate pursuit of that low "hur-hur-hur" of (largely male) approval that can usually be elicited without need for material that is actually funny. I was talking to Danny Baker about this very thing earlier this week. He didn't do "hur-hur-hur" because it wasn't his sense of humour and women didn't like it. Nonetheless he noted that it was the easiest way to do material that broadcasting bosses considered acceptably "edgy".

Friday, July 24, 2009

Pets win prizes

I watched a programme on BBC1 last night. That doesn't happen often. It was called "The Rat Pack", about as bog-standard a piece of slice-of-life telly as you can imagine. The BBC may be overpaying certain of its stars but it's good to see that they can still make a series like this for the change they found down the back of Graham Norton's sofa. It was about two brothers whose business was ridding hysterical Londoners of rats. But really it was about their dog Charlie, a Jack Russell who had found, late in life, a true purpose to existence; clamping rats in his teeth and shaking them until their necks broke. The producers made it clear at the top of the programme that this was going to happen and so you had to hang around for the money shot, which came, as ever, near the end. It only worked out because one of the brothers took the precaution of putting the rat in a bucket, thereby making it near impossible for Charlie to fail. You can only conclude that TV viewers have no problem with cruelty to animals, providing it's the right animal dishing out the cruelty and the right one on the receiving end.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

You won't believe what happened to me when I called BT

I've been buying broadband from BT for ten years now. During that time they've irritated me by changing the name of the service from BT Openworld to BT Connect to BT Yahoo. Everything, in fact, except BT Meets The Upsetter At The Grass Roots Of Dub. I have three BT lines. A phone line, a burglar alarm line and another number that carries the broadband. Because I have only one point that delivers this last line I wondered if I could transfer the broadband to the main phone line, which has more sockets. I'd put off doing it for a couple of years because I couldn't bear the draining, uncomprehending conversations with distant call centres, the cost and upheaval of engineers or the risk that I would be left with no phone lines at all.

I was talking to Fraser about it. He said it ought to be possible for them to just switch it over. Fearing it couldn't be as simple as that, I put it off for a further couple of months. Eventually, I took my courage in both hands and called the BT Broadband queries line which connected to somebody in Bangalore who gave me another number to call in sales. They then put me on to the change of address section who said they could switch over the line but it might take seven days. Over the next seven days I received a series of automated phone messages promising that the process had been instigated and then a final call noting that the deed had been done. A couple of days later an actual human being called and asked if it was working. It was.

So there you are. The story of something working as it should and good customer service. I couldn't let it go unremarked.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

No more heroes

I grew up surrounded by men who'd fought in either the First or the Second War. Some must have served in both. None of them talked about it much, partly because they had the traditional ambivalence of old soldiers and also presumably because they didn't wish to appear to be taking the limelight of somebody more worthy. Old combatants rarely show off about it. If anything they're slightly embarrassed to have survived. At his death at the age of 113 First World War veteran Henry Allingham was widely referred to as a hero. I'm sure he would have been appalled to be called any such thing. It seems that the less experience of military service anyone in the media has the more ready they are to dust off the h-word for anyone who's done what they would have modestly called their duty.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Why is junk always so poignant?

I've spent the day listening to the Test Match and, in a very half-hearted way, trying to throw out a lot of junk. Here, in the words of Julie Andrews, are a few of my favourite things.

The box is one of many packed full of unmarked cassettes. For ten years I did a radio show on GLR. I used to slip a tape into the machine before each one so that I had a record for my own reference. I didn't bother recording the dates. It probably wouldn't have made any difference had I done so. I don't even have a functioning cassette player to play them on at the moment. This is a classic Stuff Dilemma. I can't bring myself to throw them away but I am very unlikely to ever listen to them.

The huge VHS cassette of "All The Presidents Men" was the one I got when I joined one of the first video rental libraries. In those days you had to pay a joining fee, a sum on each rental and you had to buy the first cassette. This cost me £40 and this was in the mid-80s.

The pipes were my father's who died twenty-seven years ago. They've got his teeth marks on them.

The Birds

The only thing I took away from "Jurassic Park" was the advice that if you wanted to get an idea of how prehistoric creatures behaved, look at birds. There are herons living in our very un-exotic London suburb and when you hear their wings beating above, generally early in the morning, it can seem like you're about to get a visitation from the distant past. I snapped this one on a neighbour's roof this morning.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

A portrait of the artist

I went to the first day of the Lord's Test today and found myself in a small section with this beautiful view. It was to the side of a balcony on which the photographers with long lenses perch, lining up ball after ball in the hope of getting the one that tells a story. And alongside them in their eyrie was cricket painter Jocelyn Galsworthy who spent the day dabbing away at a canvas. Seems a pleasant way to make a living.

Suffer the little children to come unto me for I've been checked by the ISA

I'm delighted that a bunch of well-known childrens' authors, with Philip Pullman and Michael Morpurgo at their head, are refusing to cooperate with a body called the Independent Safeguarding Authority in being "checked" prior to giving readings in schools. It needs a case like this to draw attention to the damage being done to all of us by the all-pervasive belief that children:
a) survive their childhood thanks only to the ceaseless vigilance of adults;
b) are at most risk from the people who are set in authority above them;
c) can be protected from predators by a cursory records check.

I've been going into schools from time to time over the years in a professional and parental capacity. In the last ten years I've grown sadly used to the feeling that I am likely to be seen as a sinister interloper unless I'm properly badged and certificated and in the presence of a licenced teacher with a stun gun. It's that depressing presumption of guilt that Pullman is objecting to. I think he and his colleagues may bring about some change. Good luck to them.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

It's the mothers I feel sorry for

"It rips out my heart a little every time, the sight of those young men’s fresh, hopeful faces, and the knowledge that yet another mother, somewhere, has just had her heart ripped out for eternity," writes
Melanie Reid in The Times of the deaths of young soldiers in Afghanistan. Meanwhile in Muswell Hill the mother of backpacker Jamie Neale must have feared she would never get to know what happened to her son. (Once the relief over his return has flooded through the system I fear he'll get a public kicking for his stupidity.)

Is it strange that we instinctively feel the grief of mothers must be more painful than anybody else's? This is particularly the case with the mothers of men of that age, who seem programmed to put themselves in harm's way whether in uniform or in the fleece of a gap year tourist. Last week I spoke to the 28-year-old Patrick Hennessey who's written "The Junior Officers Reading Club" about his time with the army in Helmand province. He assured me it was common practice to tell one's mother that the fighting was taking place far away from where you were operating. I have a friend whose son is out there now who's probably spinning his mother the very same line.

Mark Ellen reckons the most poignant song ever written may be Anna McGarrigle's "Heart Like A Wheel". He may be right, just for the line "when you bend it, you can't mend it". I don't know whether the Arabic tongue deals with hearts differently but the other day I read this line in Louise Richardson's "What Terrorists Want". It's the mother of a suicide bomber speaking. She said had she known what he was going to do "I would have taken a cleaver, cut open my heart, and stuffed him deep inside. Then I would have sewn it up tight to keep him safe."

Monday, July 13, 2009

And Deliver Us From Inappropriateness

No single word pops out of the mealy mouth of modern management more frequently than "inappropriate". It manages to avoid being specific about the transgression while suggesting that the person using it has moral standards significantly higher than everybody else's.

And now it's "inappropriate" behaviour involving a researcher that has got Hardeep Singh Kohli suspended from his roving reporting role for BBC's The One Show. Somebody reported somebody else and before anyone could stop it the corporation's disciplinary procedure had swung into action and he's being hung out to dry for six months - and this is where it really sounds as if the captain of the second eleven has got pissed and thrown up at the back of the coach - "to reflect on his behaviour". Honestly. Wouldn't we rather be dismissed in shame than sent off to reflect on our behaviour?

A couple of thoughts occur:
1. In the media the standard interpersonal stuff which makes every work environment interesting is often further, er, enlivened by the presence of fame, money and influence. Part of me thinks that if you don't want to tangle with what's involved when highly competitive show-offs work closely together for long periods of time you should get a job with, say, the Church of England. But then I've read "Barchester Towers" so I know that it goes on pretty much everywhere. And the researcher who was on the receiving end of the "inappropriate" behaviour didn't formally complain. Which makes the whole incident even more puzzling.
2. What with this and the Carol Thatcher case you do wonder who's supposed to be managing The One Show. Local difficulties like these shouldn't turn up on the front pages. In my experience if you have to instigate a disciplinary procedure you've lost control. This particularly applies with freelance contributors. Surely you take them for a walk and warn them how they might be coming over to people. If that doesn't work you just don't ring them any more.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

What were once vices are now habits

The 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots provides an occasion to quote from this Time magazine piece from 1966 back when the world was, by repute, swinging.
[homosexuality] is a pathetic little second-rate substitute for reality, a pitiable flight from life. As such it deserves fairness, compassion, understanding and, when possible, treatment. But it deserves no encouragement, no glamorization, no rationalization, no fake status as minority martyrdom, no sophistry about simple differences in taste—and, above all, no pretense that it is anything but a pernicious sickness.
In the 60s the only homosexual I was aware of was our local butcher and that was because he was said to be in court from time to time. On the bigger stage there were certainly no openly homosexual actors or musicians, let alone politicians. Stonewall triggered a movement which eventually arrived here as the Gay Liberation Front. At the beginning of the 70s I was in a scummy flat in Turnpike Lane with a number of flatmates, one of whom had come out in a most flamboyant way. Our flat became a meeting place and crashpad for members of the GLF Youth Group, a movement which combined self-righteousness with copping-off opportunities that guaranteed its success. Within six months I graduated from not knowing a single homosexual to knowing hundreds of them, their language, their hang-outs, their mating habits and quite a bit about the mechanics of sexual congress. Had any of those people at the time been told that the first wedding my youngest daughter would be invited to on her own would be the civil partnership of a gay couple, I suspect they would have been amazed, as much by the fact that the couple were women as anything else.

This is the odd thing about change. It's deucedly unpredictable. We don't march in lock step towards the light. There are all sorts of curious mis-steps and wrong turnings. Gay Liberation was triggered by Stonewall. It might never have happened. Actually, the group who appeared ripest for liberation at the time were schoolkids who were loudly demanding the right to ruin their own lives, marching in the streets and waving the Little Red School Book. That's one emancipation movement that's gone backwards if anything. In the last forty years the argument that children should be shielded from real life has prevailed, often with the happy support of the children themselves who have benefited materially just as their own independence has been reduced.

When I read pieces like the Time editorial above I can't help thinking that some of the opinions held by people who think of themselves as moderate and liberal will appear equally ludicrous in ten years time.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Nobody sings like Mama Cass

Today I am mainly listening to Mama Cass. There don't seem to be any voices that are lovely in the Mama Cass way anymore. I hear belters, divas, the peddlers of empty melisma, the ones who gargle to denote high emotion and faux-naïf pixies by the score, but I don't hear a woman with a voice that can make you sit up straight and take on the day with a smile on your face like Mama Cass did on "Getting Better".

Everybody has to convince us that they're mining some inexhaustible source of inner pain. There may well have been some of that going on with Mama Cass but she didn't let it show. The best thing a singer can do is make people feel better and the first person she needs to make feel better is herself. Nobody did that better than Mama Cass on "Getting Better". It's not perfect. It's got slight slips and even wanders off the note briefly. Nobody's gone back and fixed it. It's the sound of somebody making the best of things, which we don't hear often enough. And what a love song Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill provided her with. Few people can sing the word "groovy" without parenthesizing it. Mama Cass could. Just as great songwriters can pack a line with a lot of syllables great singers like Mama Cass manage to sound as if they're discovering that line for the first time. "Now there's something groovy and good 'bout whatever we've got". Indeed.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

It's the Ashes. Look away now.

Everyone above a certain age remembers "No Hiding Place", the episode of "Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads" where they sought to avoid learning the score of an England international until the evening's highlights. It seemed a bit of a stretch even then. Nowadays if you want to avoid knowing what happened in the last minute of a major sporting occasion you have to remove yourself from society entirely. Now that the Ashes has begun it's an all-day hazard once again. During the 2005 Ashes I was working in an office with a window into an adjoining room in the corner of which was a television. That meant I only had to glance up to get a rough idea of what was happening. I couldn't see detail but I nonetheless developed a way of reading the play just from the camera angles the director was selecting. Wide shot with lots of green meant a boundary. Close-up meant batsman was having torrid time. When the games were taking place overseas I followed the ball-by-ball coverage on the excellent Cricinfo. Sinister patterns begin to appear. A dot ball took no time to come up on the screen. If the page was taking a while to refresh that could mean a wicket. The reporter was busy filling out the details. It's like the off-screen yelp of the football-watching ex-pros on Jeff Stelling's programme or Alan Green saying "we're going to go to White Hart Lane in a moment" on Five Live; an entirely new form of the thousand natural shocks that sport is heir to. Compared to all this agonisingly mediated information actually being at a match is a breeze.

Contrast all this with Charters and Caldicott in Alfred Hitchcock's "The Lady Vanishes". This pair are trying to get back by train from some unspecified Mittel European country on the brink of war in time to catch the last day of the Test Match. The progress of the train is of course interrupted by disappearing women, the always distracting Margaret Lockwood, shoot-outs with secret agents and regular passport checks by fascist jobsworths. And yet they never lose their faith that they will be returned to Victoria in time to scoot across town to Euston and take the train to Manchester that will get them to Old Trafford in time to see the last day's play.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

An Art critic writes

The problem with the whole fourth plinth business is that plinths are traditionally occupied by larger-than-life figures. Once you plonk an actual human being on a plinth - even one dressed as a fish - he all but disappears.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Another internet music play gets a free ride from the City pages

All stories about music companies get disproportionate space on the financial pages because they provide the section editor with an excuse to run a picture of a glamorous woman singer under a headline about being "on song". There was a classic on the front page of the Sunday Times's Business Section yesterday: Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas under "Going For The Big Notes", which announced a story about Spotify seeking to raise another £30m. In this I wish them well but I wonder if a little bit of the page area devoted to Fergie's frock could have been used to ask the odd question.

Spotify costs the end user nothing. Its revenue comes from either advertising or monthly subscriptions. Since it's signed up more than 2m users since last October you might say that the company's proud claim to be doubling revenues monthly is not quite as spectacular as it first appears.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

You really don't need a weatherman

An economist on the Today programme just apologised in case he and his fellow professionals are confusing us with the latest round of figures about public spending. How could we possibly be confused? We don't know the numbers. We don't need to know the numbers. It's quite sweet that politicians of all sides think it's about the numbers, as if we can be dazzled by a little book cooking, or "re-prioritising" as some government spokesman had it the other day. If you want to know how it's going you don't look at the figures. You look at their eyes.

My grandmother was no economist but even she could have told you that when the government has borrowed as much as ours has, unemployment and its attendant costs are rising steeply, the pound is in bad enough shape to frighten anyone who buys a bottle of Chianti, let alone goes on a holiday abroad, almost a million young people are not in work, education or full-time training, the one source of taxation income, financial services, is on the bones of its arse and according to the World Bank and the ratings agencies Britain is getting a reputation among the lenders of money of a particularly bad-risk sink estate, then the fantasy that public spending won't have to be reduced and taxation won't have to rise is one that you couldn't get past Pollyanna, let alone the supposedly sensible British public.

When every business or household in the UK is planning for no-growth, decline or armageddon, the idea that the present government is going to have a leetle bit of a look-ette at the figures after the election gives you an idea of what an empty charade that's going to be. Either they think somebody else will be looking at the books after the election (which is certainly what the polls believe) or their research has told them that we'd prefer not to have our pretty little heads clouded with the awful truth. I find this kind of collective delusion a lot more frightening than the truth could ever be.

Friday, July 03, 2009

You can call me Al

There was an interesting exchange on the radio yesterday between Jack Straw and Ann Widdicombe about the rights and wrongs of releasing Ronnie Biggs. What made it interesting was that they were referring to each other as "Jack" and "Ann". This is the first time I've heard British political adversaries address each other in such familiar terms without one of them being at death's door. Perhaps they're both retiring at the next election. It was made even more unusual by the way they referred to the subject of their discussion as "Mr Biggs", which must be an indication of just how ill he is.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Mrs Slocum: the joke goes on forever

I don't suppose I've actually watched "Are You Being Served" for many years. The beauty of this kind of comedy is you don't really have to watch it as long as you carry it around in your head. It's like the Carry On series. The predictability is what makes it work. The plot is only there to provide excuses for the characters to behave in stereotypical ways.

Mrs Slocum (what a wonderful name that is) embodied a stock character that you can find in English literature as far back as Chaucer. She was the lady of a certain age who kow-towed to her superiors, lorded it over her underlings and yet remained immensely vulnerable to flattery, particularly of a romantic nature. Mollie Sugden was a master of this kind of characterisation. Her lines came front-loaded with flowery pretension before souring into fish wife abuse at the end. She was high and low in a very English way. You could smell the face powder and the "products" in her hair but she could probably look after herself in a scrap in a dockside pub.

Of course a dockside pub is as much of an anachronism as Grace Brothers itself, which had probably gone out of business by the time the series was first launched. If there are any Mrs Slocums still around they're not wearing corsets or sitting at home with their pussies. Nonetheless the joke embodied in that character, just as the joke attached to the characters played by Charles Hawtrey or Sid James, chuckles on down the years.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The banality of evil (a continuing story)

The horror of last night's Dispatches on the massacre in Mumbai didn't come from shots of the station concourse covered in brains, first-person accounts of those who were lucky to escape with their lives or even security camera footage of the gunmen cutting down guests at the luxury hotels. It came from recordings of the phone conversations between the murderers and their controllers back in Pakistan.

The squaddies with their fingers on the triggers may have been country boys who were temporarily distracted from their bloody work by the size of the computer screens in the buildings they moved through but they were being issued with their instructions by people far more frightening. Anyone inclined to believe acts like these are organised by people temporarily setting aside their finer feelings in pursuit of a sane political goal should hear this monster as he choreographs each move in his own personal festival of carnage. A slit throat here, a bullet in the back of the neck there, capricious mercy for a Turkish muslim followed by words of comfort for a Jewish woman (each Jew, he tells his team, is worth fifty ordinary corpses) who in due course he intends to have despatched.

He's sitting in a room with a bunch of fellow mobsters who are watching the events on live TV. Occasionally he has to seek advice from the rest of his management team and we hear him calling over his shoulder "should they kill them now or later?" At one stage a gunman answers the phone with the words "peace be with you." It's the kind of thing no scriptwriter would dare hand in for fear of vulgarising an event so terrible and writing a role no actor would dare play.