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.

Friday, September 04, 2009

The Welfare State seen through the bottom of a glass

Watching Benefit Busters on Channel Four, I can't help but wonder what William Beveridge and other architects of the Welfare State would have made of such hopelessness amid such apparent plenty: the rooms full of unemployed teenagers amusing themselves on mobile phones, looking up jobs on the internet and then buying fast food on the way home. It would have badly shaken his faith in the idea that the state should help people back to their feet, this apparent emergence of a group of people who, on being assured that somebody is standing behind them when they fall, fall all the more readily.

The programme is about the government's attempts to get the long-term unemployed back into work by paying private companies to sort the malingerers from the unfortunate. I don't know who to feel most sorry for: the people with genuine sickness issues, the staff whose job it is galvanise the "demotivated" or Kieran, who claims a bad back sustained in a post-clubbing balcony climb makes it impossible for him to do anything much outside watching daytime TV. None of us are in a position to say whether he's shamming or not. What's abundantly clear is that he has persuaded himself that the world owes him a living.

I don't side with right or left over what to do about this. The withdrawal of benefits is not going to turn the shameless into useful members of society. Similarly throwing more money at the problem isn't going to solve it either. And the emergence of a million NEETs doesn't say much for the effectiveness of "education, education, education" in bringing about a change in the long term.

At the same time idleness is costing the state a head-spinning amount. I can't get my head around government spending but I do occasionally try to look at it in terms of beer. There's somebody I see regularly who hasn't worked for twenty years. There was no doubt a time when they could have done. That time is passed. I assume they're living on benefits. I see them in the morning on their way to the shop to buy four cans of Special Brew. In the late afternoon I see them going back for another four. I calculate this person drinks 56 cans a week, which adds up to nearly three thousand cans a year, and in the absence of any other means of support I have to assume that this beer is paid for by the public purse. I make that £3,750 a year on Carlsberg Special. That's a lot, of course, but that's not the most worrying thing.

What causes me to take a grip on a firm surface is the realisation that the average male living in the North West of England earns £21,100 per annum and pays £3,670 a year in tax. Therefore this person's tax would not be enough to pay for the beer that the government is buying for my neighbour. Something's got to give.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Are people starting to talk like their jobs?

When George Bernard Shaw said it was impossible for one Englishman to open his mouth without making another Englishman hate him, he was referring to the way tone of voice and accent communicated class distinctions. In "The Tailor Of Panama", John Le Carré describes a character as "like all Englishmen, branded on the tongue".

If you listen to as much speech radio as I do you're increasingly struck by the way that occupations seem to have developed accents and ways of speaking.

Top lawyers and civil servants still have the wintry drawl of the old-fashioned upper class. Scientists and naturalists, on the other hand, sound provincial and tentative. The latter group also seem to have a greater than usual tendency towards nervous tics.

Anyone who's made their living selling something to young people talks down their nose and avoids the consonants at the end of words. Actors talk quietly in an effort to muffle the natural richness of their voices. Rock stars never use sentences and will just reel out a ribbon of uninterrupted vocal noise in the key of "I" until you fade them out. Trade union leaders shout. Football managers seem to be the one professional group who cling fiercely to their regional accents as if their dressing room authority depended on it.

The majority of voices heard on the radio have been called upon to field some little local difficulty, whether it's penal policy or the flavour of yogurt, and they all tend to adopt the same non-specific, "I should point out" voice of redbrick reason. They have a rare skill for discussing a subject while killing further interest in it.