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.