Monday, February 28, 2011

Could you all stop buying these jackets?

This is a Barbour quilted jacket. I bought one before Christmas. It keeps the cold out in the morning but isn't so heavy that you swelter when going home on the Victoria Line. I'd seen smart Spanish-looking men wearing them. I saw Dave, the transport manager in our building, wearing one and he said he'd recommend them.

Hence I got one. Since then I've hardly worn anything else. Problem is I'm clearly not the only one. There are increasing numbers of them out there in the world. There are quite enough of them indoors as well. In a fashion wave which is unprecedented in our family, my son, his girlfriend and now one of my daughters have also bought them. Theirs are not identical but they're close enough that if we all go out together we look like a sponsored shooting party. Now the other daughter says she wants one too. Enough, I think.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Why do they make it so hard to read art exhibitions?

To the Museum Of London to see their exhibition of London Street Photography. The pictures, which start with tiny, murky pictures from the 19th century and end with large, colourful shots from the 21st, are displayed around one large room. The information about the picture - what a hack like me calls the caption - is placed well below the picture and is often stacked on top of information for the picture below (right). This means that even a shortarse has to look up to see the picture and then peer down, often into near darkness, to see that this picture on the left is of recruiting sergeants photographed near Westminster Abbey in 1877.

The exhibition designer, like 95% of designers since the dawn of time, will no doubt say that it's important not to clutter what is essentially a visual experience with distracting type. I would counter, like 95% of editors since the dawn of time, that an event like this is meant to be read just as much as it's meant to be looked at and that if you separate the caption information from the picture you reduce understanding and enjoyment by 57%. (I made that bit up.)

It's the same in magazines. If given their head 95% of designers will make the pictures as big as possible before stacking up all the caption information and squirreling it away in the corner of the page. The posher (or the more amateur) the magazine the greater the chance that this will be the case. It's something that never happens in picture magazines like Hello or Heat because they know that when people look at a picture they immediately want to know who, when, where and why. Ideally they want to get all that information at once, not in a tiresome double movement.

I don't expect exhibition designers to follow exactly the same discipline but there's something to be learned, particularly in spaces where the low light makes anything but 24 pt illegible.

By the way, I learn from an 1877 book about street life in London that in those days all recruiting activity took place in an area near Westminster Abbey. Fascinating piece about it here.

Friday, February 25, 2011

An awkward lunch in the city

Having lunch in a cafe at the bottom of an office block the other day I witnessed a familiar scene. A young woman, presumably on maternity leave, had returned with her baby to have lunch with another young woman, presumably one still working in the office above. The second young woman made the appropriate admiring noises in the direction of her friend's baby but you just knew her heart wasn't in it. At the end of the lunch she stood there patiently while her old mate gathered up the baby's extensive travelling kit and got ready for the road. They said their fond farewells. One skipped towards the lift, the other started to negotiate the revolving door.

I suspect this was the last time they would meet like this. On reflection the mother would not consider it worth the trouble. The working girl, who found the whole thing a bit boring, would find a reason to put her off if she suggested it. One's got a new centre to her world. The other one hasn't. In the half hour it took them to have lunch you could sense them both realising this.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The difference between life and sums

Just caught a bit of a Panorama about Ireland's economic problems. The banks, they say, "got it wrong". The government also "got it wrong". Thousands of citizens also "got it wrong" when they bought houses that they couldn't afford even when they had jobs. "Got it wrong" seems such an inadequate expression when you're trying to describe human behaviour in general and human folly in particular. I can see how a child might have "got it wrong" when failing to carry ten in a simple sum. But "got it wrong" seems to suggest that somewhere is a Big Book Of Human Affairs which you can consult for the right and the wrong answers to every question in the adult world.

"Got it wrong" seems to have grown in popularity in the last ten years. It's particularly popular with media commentators who apply it to everything from Gordon Brown's tax plans to a football team playing three at the back. What they fail to take into account is that in most cases where people have "got it wrong" they've been aware of the possibility that they might have "got it wrong" but were hoping that over time events would work out in such a way as to make it appear that they had actually "got it right". They were guilty of hoping for the best, which is what most of us do every morning. Let's hope all the media organisations that those commentators work for don't turn out to have "got it wrong" themselves.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

On looking through a load of old pictures

I've just spent a few hours sorting through hundreds of old family slides with my sister. Once they're hidden away inside unmarked Kodachrome containers, these pictures can spend decades unlooked-at. For every twenty pictures you find that recall people and occasions that you remember, there's one which throws up somebody you have forgotten altogether or another featuring a person you don't remember being there at the time. Once somebody reminds you it's as if you've come across a hidden track in the LP of your life. It makes you realise there are whole episodes of your life you have written out of the official record that you keep in your head, whether through forgetfulness, embarrassment or old-fashioned shame. It also makes you realise that when people tell you about their life, they're only telling you the version they're comfortable with.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Take your P.A. music and shove it

We were at Twickenham yesterday. When Chris Ashton swallow dived over for his fourth try music once again barked through the P.A.. My son, who's twenty-three, turned to me wearily and said "I don't need Mark Ronson to tell me to celebrate".

I'd like to introduce him to the misguided soul who's responsible for tarting up the basic Twickenham experience - 30 players, 80,000 souls, the smell of mud and Guinness and, in yesterday's case, sunshine - in the mistaken belief that he's somehow making the game more appealing to the young. There were lots of young people there yesterday - university students with prematurely flattened noses, small children with their Italian dads, teenage girls on a spree, young Milanese wearing gladiator's helmets - and from what I could observe they weren't remotely impressed by the fact that one Lee Mead sang "Jerusalem", that flame shot out of some barrels when the England team came out or that paratroopers abseiled from the roof of the stand with the match ball.

I'm sick of saying it. Anyone who thinks that major sporting occasions need to be made more exciting should be disqualified from having anything to do with major sporting occasions. But I'm just a carping old git. Instead it's about time the young people they purport to be appealing to marched on the offices of these people behind a banner reading "Take your fatuous notions of excitement, your celebrities who wouldn't be recognised if they were busking on Twickenham railway station, your preposterous pyrotechnics that render the field of play invisible, your utterly, utterly pointless P.A. music that the crowd always drowns out anyway and give us instead either a military band or a male voice choir. We are the crowd and we provide the excitement. You don't. Butt out."

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The great thing about American rock bands

I went to a music industry showcase in a club the other night. The first act was British. You didn't have to hear the actual words they spoke to know that. You could pick it up from their body language alone. Anything that was said between the songs came over as if it had just popped into the singer's head and swiftly petered out. It was as if they hoped that if they apologised first then the audience wouldn't be too hard on them if the song didn't go too well. When they looked at each other it was to exchange sheepish glances as if they had woken up to find themselves doing something faintly embarrassing. You wondered how they'd ended up in show business.

The act who came next were a bit more experienced but just as unknown. The difference was they were American. That meant that they meant business. There was nothing apologetic about their body language. They had clearly all had experience of standing up in front of strangers and saying "I'm your server this evening and I'd like to tell you about the specials". They didn't try to banter. Anything they said had been said before. Nobody looked round to work out what was going to happen next. Because they'd all presumably served at least some time doing covers in a bar band, they could probably have whipped out a decent version of "Eye of The Tiger" if things had got really sticky.

I've been watching live rock bands for more than forty years now and it's the one thing that hasn't changed. The Americans haven't come to play. They've come to work.

Monday, February 07, 2011

On sending kids to school dressed as fictional characters

Tracey Thorn was tweeting this morning about how irritating she finds the fashion for schools encouraging children to come dressed as fictional characters in the hope that this will encourage them to read. My wife, who's a teacher, gets equally tense when this day rolls around in her school calendar. It's nothing to do with reading. Literacy, possibly, but not reading.

For years now schools have been busting a gut to externalise the reading experience. They pretend that reading's exciting in the same way that games are exciting. It's not. There is no indication that covering the classroom walls with pictures of fictional characters is likely to make children want to go in a corner, shut themselves off from human society and lose themselves in the book that the character came from. I'm not sure there's any connection. It seems to me that the two experiences are entirely different. One is social. The other is solitary. One is easy. The other is quite hard. It's not like listening to a story. It's more like telling yourself a story. There is a whole world of difference between reading Tolkien and watching some expensive re-enactment of its most action-packed moments. Reading is hard.

The really hard thing about reading is starting. It involves deciding that there is nothing else you could be doing with your time that is better than lowering yourself into a book. This applies whether you're nine or ninety. It applies to you this evening as you decide to spend an hour watching some adequate TV programme rather than turning it off and reading that book that you know is considerably more than adequate.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Elton John knows the secret of publicity

There's an interview with Elton John in the new issue of The Word. It's largely about his life-long obsession with records. (Elton belongs, like I do, to that generation of people who grew up wanting nothing more than records and he's always interesting on the subject.) Near the end of a long interview with Rob Fitzpatrick Elton threw in a few unsolicited comments about Cheryl Cole, Simon Cowell and the fakery involved in a lot of modern pop. We punted some of the more quotable jibes at the Daily Mirror, who went quite big on them. Then the Mail picked them up and the next thing we know and the internet being what it is those jibes are everywhere from Los Angeles to Mumbai. Elton's PR doesn't mind at all.

The interesting thing is how often Elton looses off a few rounds in the direction of a newsworthy name. It's often interpreted as him just being unable to entertain a bitchy thought that he doesn't speak. I wonder if it's actually an old stager knowing that the best way to increase his public profile exponentially is to be prepared to have a pop at someone else who's famous. In the same week he's given an interview to Rolling Stone in which he lays into Billy Joel about his drinking. Not long ago it was George Michael's fondness for weed. I can remember times when it was Michael Jackson's addictions, Madonna's miming or Eminem's problem with homosexuals. In the dim and distant past he used to take aim at Steve Harley or Alvin Stardust.

There will be an exchange of fire, a period of truce and then, in all probability, a high-profile rapprochement, probably in the form of a duet. (He's probably already sent a million pounds of flowers to Cheryl Cole with a "they twisted my words" note.) I have no problem with it. The world of entertainment would be a marginally duller place without Elton. But here's the thing. He's a lot more shrewd than we give him credit for.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Could football clubs ever pay fans to turn up?

There's been a lot of talk in the last couple of weeks about football losing its soul, as there is any time one club signs a player for a record amount, another one professes undying loyalty to a team before leaving and a club threatens to change its location to somewhere it can accommodate more paying customers. I'm not getting into any of those debates. Most mysteries about football can be simply unravelled with reference to Bill Clinton's dictum "It's the economy, stupid".

The reason that the English Premier League is the most widely-televised and, as a consequence, most profitable league in the world isn't because of its quality. It's because of its excitement. Most of that excitement comes less from the happenings on the pitch than from the reaction of the people watching. I'd go so far as to say that 50% of the value of the experience for the TV viewer, and hence the advertisers and hence the TV companies and hence the owners of the clubs, who with each passing week have less in common with the world of sport and more in common with other "rights-holders" such as Disney, comes from the thunderous soundtrack provided by the crowd. When a crowd opens its throat at Anfield or St James's Park or White Hart Lane it produces a note that no other entertainment experience can come anywhere near. All the years of enmity, disappointment and bruised pride come rushing to the surface. It's the Wagner of prime time television. It can make even the dullest game a quite acceptable way to sell beer, cars and gym pumps, which is after all what it's about.

So why should those people pay so much for providing that 50%? We've seen a lot of changing business models recently, many of them forged more in hope than expectation. Newspapers give their news away. Bands who used to tour to sell records now release records in order to tour. Cinemas are out-of-town retailers of carbonated beverages. Nothing remains the same. Is it possible that in the future some Premier League sides will stop charging spectators exorbitant admission prices and will instead start wooing them with discounted tickets in the hope of the "atmos" they might provide? And might they then decide what kind of spectators they would prefer to have making noise on their behalf? In 1968 the average age of a Manchester United fan standing at the Stretford End was 17. These days it's over forty. In ten years it will presumably be over fifty. That's not going to make it any livelier. As crowds get older they grow less demonstrative, as Bono is reminded every time he looks across the orchestra pit.

Of course, no business is stupid enough to give away what it has previously been successfully charging for. (Newspapers excepted, of course.) But I reckon that at some point in the next five years somebody will start talking about "inverting the model".