Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Even six year olds have bad days at the office

I was walking up from the station the other night when ahead of me I spied a mother in her early thirties and a girl of about six. The mother, I deduce, had just got off the train from town and was picking up the girl from a child minder and hearing about the day at school as they walked home.

The girl had blonde hair in a pony tail and was wearing a cardigan over a school summer dress. She walked with that sweet solemnity of kids that age. Mother was burdened with her own stuff plus the child's. Standard stuff. As I got closer I could hear the conversation:

Mother: So why did the teacher get cross?
Child: (inaudible)
Mother: And did Robert get into trouble too?
Child: (even less audible)
Mother: And what about Kirsty? Was she told off as well?
Child: (not even a bat could have heard what she said but she was clearly saying something and breathing quite hard)
Mother: So why didn't you explain? She would have understood.

By this time I had drawn level and was overtaking. I looked across at this little girl's face and saw a look I've seen occasionally in the past on the faces of my own children when they were little. It indicates that something had snapped that day in the child's fragile ecosystem, somebody had spoken sharply to someone who wasn't used to being spoken sharply to, it was all a terrible misunderstanding and all of a sudden black uncertainty had darkened the normally sunny, carefree disposition of a small child

I found that looking at that girl's expression upset me far more now than it ever used to do at the time. I wanted to put my arm round her and give her a squeeze. Knowing how the smallest things loom large for young kids it wouldn't have done any good at all. It would have made me feel better. Are these the first pangs of a potential grandfather?

Monday, May 23, 2011

75% of footballers play away

Once the current fuss about super injunctions has died down and we realise we have built a world where the tabloid newspapers suddenly look like models of restraint next to Twitter Nation, we should think about this. Given the recent revelations about carnal actitivy on the far side of the red rope, does it not seem likely that a working majority of rich, famous and fit young men must at one time or another have been unfaithful to their partners, whether married or not?

It doesn't matter what figure you put on it - I think 75% would be realistic, 90% not impossible, 25% laughably naive - it seems childish to think that they're not. Footballers, actors, rock stars, deejays, TV personalities - they're all bundles of hormones and ego. They also don't have to go far to be surrounded by young women happy to help them discharge some of that fissile matter. Some of them do it all the time. Some of them stray occaionally. Hardly any are innocent.

I've met hundreds of rock stars and would swear on a stack of Bibles that at least 90% of them have been unfaithful. And if you don't believe me, go and ask anyone who's been married to them. They consider their promiscuity a fact of life. So why are we so outraged? What we think of their lifestyle weighs about as heavily as what we think about China's environmental policy and is about as likely to bring about a change. In fact it says a lot for our credulousness that we are shocked when details occasionally finds their way into the daylight.

Maybe we only pretend to be shocked because we like to pretend to be disgusted. It makes us feel superior. It's no use asking them to grow up. They don't have to. We're the ones who should grow up. The sooner we stop pretending to be shocked the sooner the problem may go away.

What the Queen could teach the Obamas

I note that Michelle Obama is due to visit the school across the road from the office again. When she first came, soon after they moved into the White House, hundreds of local people waited patiently at the top of Chapel Market to see her. If you know the area you'll realise that it's not the kind of place where people normally turn out for public figures. After three quarters of an hour a motorcade appeared made up of blacked-out vehicles, most of which were duplicates of the one behind. It drove straight into the school gates. The waiting crowd saw literally nothing.

Around about the same time I was walking through Green Park one summer evening when I arrived at the Mall to find that the police had stopped the traffic because the Queen was going from Buckingham Palace to Lancaster House. I waited, completely on my own, on the pavement as a couple of outriders drove ahead of a large limousine with the royal standard on top. It was one of those vehicles which has been designed so that the people outside it can see the people in it. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh smiled at me – not at a crowd but at me – and waved. I smiled and waved back.

All heads of state are equally concerned about security. But all heads of state also have a duty to be seen. It seems the Queen understands this better than the Obamas.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The pathetically grateful interviewer

It's not surprising that a fashion writer from the Daily Telegraph is so star-stuck when meeting Kate Moss that she files a piece that reads like an over-excited text between teenage girls. One of its more coherent lines, as she describes a brief roundtable chat with a couple of overseas journalists, is "I am standing in front of Kate!"

There's always a tendency with these kind of encounters to describe the drama of the meeting rather than to relate anything that happens to be said. The PR is always "harassed", the subject is always "running late" and room is usually found for the line "and with that she was gone". We'd better get ready for a lot more of this kind of thing as celebrities find they can get by without the press and brands like Mango take their advertising budget and give it instead to somebody like Kate Moss.

However, if the BBC's Andrew Marr is to be given only eighteen minutes to interview the President of the United States, I'm not sure I wish to be made aware of it - not to the extent of reading a piece on the BBC website about just how nervous the interviewer was beforehand and how relieved he was that it turned out OK in the end. What is this? Jackie?

Friday, May 20, 2011

Talent borrows, genius steals - and sometimes it's a Big Job

This afternoon, while recording a Word podcast to mark Bob Dylan's 70th, we were talking about the lines that he borrowed from other songs and how the images that seemed to spring from his psychedelic imagination were often flown in from earlier traditions. An instance is the line about "the railroad men drink up your blood like wine" from "Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again" which he got from Bascom Lamar Lunsford's 1924 song "I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground" which contained the lines "'Cause a railroad man they'll kill you when he can/And drink up your blood like wine."

When I was at school I learned T.S. Eliot's "Journey Of The Magi", which begins:

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.

Reading Adam Nicholson's excellent book God's Secretaries about the men who made the King James Bible I learned that one of their leaders was Lancelot Andrewes who preached a sermon one Christmas Day in the early 17th century which began with these lines:

"A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, in solstitio brumali, the very dead of winter."

Eliot didn't try to pass this off as his own but nonetheless starting his poem with it, and such a large chunk of it, got him off the mark and provided the rhythm that makes the poem work. I wonder whether he blushed as he read it back. Probably not. Think I'll start doing the same.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

There are three great books about The Beatles

Stumbled upon my copy of Michael Braun's "Love Me Do" yesterday. I'm not sure you can get it at the moment, which is a shame. This is a 1995 reissue of the original book which came out in 1965 and was written in 1963-4. Braun was an American journalist who went on the road with the Beatles when nobody beyond the showbiz columns was interested in them. In his introduction to the 1995 version he wrote that what interested him was they were "a new kind of people". John Lennon later said that Braun's was the best book about The Beatles because "he wrote how we were, which was bastards".

They don't come over as bastards, just four blokes from unremarkable backgrounds (flicking through it I come upon the bit where Lennon says Ringo had only been to school for two days thanks to his childhood illnesses) who suddenly find themselves bulleted into a position no humans had ever been in before and somehow deal with it. It's not the most joined-up narrative. Instead Braun just records what people said amid the chaos.

It's as if the window is just closing on their real lives and henceforth we will only be able to see them through clouds of myth. It starts in the bar of the ABC in Cambridge.

In another corner John Lennon is sipping a coke which he keeps replenishing with Scotch.
"How long do you think the group will last?" somebody asks.
"About five years."
"Will the group stay together?"
"Don't know," says Mr Lennon and pours another Scotch into the coke.

The other two important books about The Beatles are Ian Macdonald's Revolution in the Head: The Beatles' Records and the Sixties, which is all about the music, and Peter Doggett's You Never Give Me Your Money: The Battle For The Soul Of The Beatles, which is all about what happened afterwards.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

I don't understand people (part 27)

I once asked my mother if my father had been present at the births of his children. I was teasing her because I knew he wouldn't have been. "In fact," she added, "if he'd even suggested it I would have been horrified."

Funny how behaviour changes. What was once exceptional becomes first optional and then compulsory. We now live in a world where Test cricketers return from Australia for the weekend to witness the birth of their third child because they simply can't risk the opprobrium of not being there.

Similar case today. Somebody I know was contacted by a freelance who was wondering if they could get more work because she's expecting a baby and her partner has cut down his working hours in order to help her out. This meant there was a shortfall in the household income that needed making up.

We were reflecting that a coal miner in the 30s would have been unlikely to come home and tell his pregnant wife he was cutting down his hours underground in order to help her out. Had he dared he would have been chased back to the pit with the rolling pin of beloved cliché.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

If you cry at the end of Toy Story 3 you really should grow up

I didn't take notice of the reviews of Toy Story 3 when it came out. I knew I'd see it, just like I saw and enjoyed the previous two. And The Incredibles. And Shrek. And lots of other kidult hits. Finally got round to watching it last night after sending forth a daughter to buy it in a shop - for £20, which is a ridiculous amount of money, whoever's setting that price.

Really enjoyed it. How could you not? Approaching the end I was dimly aware that there had been much talk about how the ending made grown men and women cry. There had been widespread debates about whether this was OK. I was waiting for it. Right until the end I was braced for it, particularly since the theme was sacrifice, which always makes men cry.

How was it? Well, it didn't come close to making me cry. In the ranks of tear jerkers I have watched it ranks as no more than touching. So why the fuss?

Is Toy Story one of those juvenile things that we never grow out of? There's nothing wrong with that but we don't have to build it up into something it isn't just to make ourselves feel comfortable with our inner child. Instead of admitting that it's we who are child-like we pretend that the child-like thing has somehow become more adult because, you know, it works on so many levels? Like Doctor Who? And Kylie? And the Eurovision Song Contest? And, it seems, an increasing number of things which are pitched at juvenile adults.

Friday, May 13, 2011

What do pretty girls do?

In 1985 I was working with a friend of the musician Tim Finn. At the time he was living with the actress Greta Scacchi. She was 24, the coming film beauty.

One day I came back from buying cigarettes to find both of them sitting in my office. The impact of a genuine incandescent screen beauty in three dimensions at close quarters in your basic everyday surroundings is like nothing else. It's almost like Jessica Rabbit materialising to Bob Hoskins. You realise that there are everyday good looks and then there are the kind of good looks that can comfortably occupy a massive screen.

She's now in her 50s and playing Bette Davis in a play in the West End. She gave an interview today in which she said she hadn't turned a head in ten years. In the pictures she looks handsome but unglamorous, as if she can't bear chasing after what's gone. Contrast that with Jane Fonda who appeared at Cannes yesterday looking fit to put Bob Hoskins eyes out on stalks. She's 72 and clearly hasn't given up.

Reminds me of that wonderful old song by Kirsty MacColl called "What Do Pretty Girls Do?" Well, some of them fight it and some don't.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Anticipation: a language women speak that men don't understand

Earlier this year my wife had a birthday of some significance. It's the kind where she inevitably says "I don't want a present". This is clearly code for "I do want a present". I'm not that stupid.

I couldn't think of anything. Jewellery is a language I simply don't speak. When consulted for advice the eldest daughter said "Well, she's always wanted one of those custom-made bags from Very Expensive Bag Shop." The pair of us went to VEBS and inspected the options. They were very impressive. Even I could tell that. I asked how long it would take them to make one of these bags and get it monogrammed. "Between two and three months," said the lady. It was days until the birthday. It wouldn't do to turn up at the birthday dinner with an I.O.U.. We beat a retreat from the shop and thought again. We couldn't come up with a better idea.

I rang a female friend of the family and put my dilemma to her. She had no hesitation. "Get it," she said. "She won't mind the wait. Matter of fact she'll enjoy the anticipation." Now this advice flew in the face of everything I've ever thought about buying or receiving presents. I don't know a single male who can bear getting a present that he can't rip open and over-use on the spot. But that's males.

I ordered the bag, paid for it and got in return a beautifully embossed envelope with a nice written promissory note inside. I presented this on the evening of the birthday. It went down better than I could ever have hope. Two months later the shop rang to say the bag was ready for collection. I rang the wife, who works near the shop. "The bag's ready! You can go and get it tonight!"

She didn't get it that night. Or the next night. Or the one after that. A week later, when the time was right, she picked it up and brought it home in one of those bags big enough to carry a car in. She's unwrapped it, fondled it, hugged it to her and shown it to a few close friends. She hasn't taken it out yet because the right occasion hasn't presented itself.

Anticipation. It's a foreign language. I wish it hadn't taken me this long to learn it.

P.S. I told my wife that her eldest daughter had suggested that she had always wanted one. "I never said a word about it to her," she replied. This may indicate that the daughter has even more patience.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Whatever happened to the fish knife?

This morning we had tea from the remnants of the breakfast service my in-laws were given when they got married after the war. Apparently the cups are shaped like that to ensure that the tea cools quickly.

We have inherited all manner of cutlery and chinaware which was given to our parents (and even, in some cases their parents) upon their marriage. We have sets of fish knives, forks and slices, often encased in velvet lined cases as if they were dueling pistols. We have sugar tongs. We have silver-plated cake stands. We have what would now be called "solutions" to every serving problem that might have faced the domestic hostess in the days of Macmillan.

Looking at this arsenal of equipment you might be forgiven for thinking our parents were big entertainers. They weren't. Nor were most people in those days. Aunts in hats would be invited to tea from time to time but dinner parties were unknown and nobody ever came round to Sunday lunch (which was of course Sunday dinner). Who was all this stuff supposed to impress? I'd find it all a lot easier to understand in the world of "Come Dine With Me" than it was back then.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Smoke and mirrors at the White House

I only want to draw your attention to two aspects of the Obama/Osama business. It was pretty clear from the moment this picture was released that that group of people were not watching the events unfolding over in Pakistan. We know that cameras are mounted on pretty much all items of expensive military kit nowadays but in order for those people in the White House situation room to be able to watch anything intelligible from the compound in Abbotabad the special forces group would have had to drop out of the sky with a couple of Winnebagos full of directors and vision mixers. They would probably have needed to find the nearest Starbucks and get the coffees in before any violence began. What those people are probably watching is a link to CIA headquarters where the operation is being controlled from.

The second interesting detail I picked up from the New York Times account was that Obama was keeping an eye on the unfolding operation while "rehearsing" for his appearance at the White House Correspondents Dinner. This annual event, which takes place in front of a room full of gorgeous actresses and not gorgeous hacks, is now one of the biggest occasions of the Washington year. The President shows up and reads a load of self-deprecating jokes about himself from a teleprompter. Obviously this needs preparing for but I don't think Lincoln "rehearsed" the Gettysburg address. Had he "rehearsed" it that would have suggested it was a "performance".

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Calm down, dear. They're only concert tickets.

Today's You and Yours on Radio Four was all about whether it should be against the law to sell a concert ticket at more than the face value. The lines were jammed with indignant members of the public who had been in one way or another stymied in their efforts to get a ticket for this or that musical, theatrical or sporting event. They blamed it on the touts, the secondary ticketing sites, the acts and their fellow concertgoers. To listen to some of them talk you would have thought they'd been denied their civil rights.

I don't know where this ticket-buying mania has come from but in the last ten years I've seen it turn into a national sickness. I meet people at dinner parties nowadays who are desperate to get tickets for festivals or big name gigs and they're the kind of people who would have had no interest twenty years ago. They don't go to small gigs. They only go to big ones and they're always amazed that millions of other people just like them are struggling for the same tickets as they are, with predictable consequences.

During the last ten years we've seen ticket prices more than double and it seems to have had no effect on demand at all. As soon as there's a prestige event in the offing people seem to be prepared to spend anything to make sure they can get in. A young person I know recently asked me if I could help her get tickets to see Dolly Parton at the O2. They're £75 each. That means that if she and her boyfriend went along they would be spending the best part of £200 to see an artist they don't own a single record by, have never seen before and may well be disappointed by. These are people in their twenties who can't afford to be splashing money around like this. I've known teenagers with no festival going experience who have spent a hundred pounds on festival tickets that didn't turn up. How did they get so desperate?

I paid £100 for me and the GLW to see Leonard Cohen at the same venue a couple of years ago. I only did that because I knew I was going to enjoy it. He was worth it but I wouldn't be queueing up to spend the same amount of money the following week to see anyone else and I'm probably not going to pay it to see him again. There was a time when I could get a press ticket to most musical events by picking up the phone. Those days are gone. Record companies are having to pay the same inflated sums that the public are paying and therefore they're not flinging tickets around. It doesn't bother me at all. If you can't get into the big gig, go to the small gig, go to the pub or stay at home and read a book. Calm down, for crying out loud.

Monday, May 02, 2011

I was a victim of Grand Theft Auto

It's only when you have your car stolen from outside your house that you discover, from friends, neighbours and faintly bored professionals, just what an imaginative, energetic and bare-faced lot car thieves are.

A friend of ours recently came home from work by car to discover her husband's sports car pinched off the drive and the lights on in the house. She went in to find the house had been ransacked. She rang her husband, who was overseas, to tell him. He suggested she quickly look in the drawer where they kept the second key for the car she'd come back in. It wasn't there and - by the time she got back to the phone - nor was the vehicle. The thieves had obviously been waiting for her to come back with the other car so that they could pinch that one as well. They'd passed the time waiting for her by burgling a house across the road.

Other friends living not far away were also relieved of two vehicles in similar style a year before, only this time the gang, which was fronted by adolescent boys, unlikely to suffer the full force of the law, came back the following day to take the second car.

Our loss was nothing like as dramatic. Nonetheless we lost a 15-year-old Mercedes Estate with plenty of miles on the clock. The police shrugged and gave us a crime number. The insurers gave us less than a thousand pounds for it. A man from the motor trade guessed it would have been on its way to Africa or Albania within twenty-four hours. He pointed out that every part of that car is worth around fifty quid and therefore it would be cannibalized for spares. More fool us for lovingly and expensively caring for it.

One of the kids wanted to know why nobody could find it. After all she's grown up with the modern miracle of number plate recognition whereby the screen at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel always greets us with "Good morning, Mr Hepworth". With such technology available it ought to be possible to know where every recently pinched car in the UK is at any given time. I suspect it's one of those cases where the sheer amount of information available overwhelms the human element. In truth nobody really wants to know. The police either can't be bothered or aren't geared up for the effort. The insurance companies just want to settle. It's just one of those constantly grinding bureaucratic processes which everybody prefers to leave well alone.

Another neighbour found this when he was victim of the old fishing rod through the letter-box ruse. He got one of his two vehicles back. After he'd settled with the insurance company over the other one he started getting parking tickets for it. He went to the address on the tickets and found the vehicle, where it had clearly been abandoned. He then spent considerable time on the phone and banging on desks at the offices of the local authority, police and insurance company trying to get somebody to take responsibility for the car, which was no longer his. All concerned made it clear that they regarded him as being rather tiresome.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

What TV is always looking for - and it's not talent

I caught the last ten minutes of "Britain's Got Talent" last night. This featured a 12-year-old boy called Ronan Parke (left) who has clearly been identified by the producers as the winner of the competition. Before he began singing his mother said "I do hope people like him". After he'd finished the judges said "you don't need to bother going back to school" and "you're going to be a big star".

You don't have to be a child guidance counsellor to suspect that any one of those statements could do harm to a young mind. As I was watching the carefully contrived montage - cut to the proud parents, the audience apparently rising spontaneously to applaud mid-song, the boys' shocked and delighted expression - I thought, we're going to see this bit again, probably when it all goes wrong.

Earlier yesterday I was talking to a friend with thirty years experience in a senior capacity in television. His opinion on television and "real people" was simple: don't ever go on television unless you are prepared to be manipulated. That's because manipulation is what television, at any level, does. He also pointed out something that I'd always dimly sensed but never thought about - when producers are reviewing what footage they've got the only thing they're looking for is an edit point. They're not bothered about the sense of the story or its relationship with the truth - they're looking at how they can stitch that bit to this bit in a way that maximises the energy of the whole.

On the occasions I'm interviewed for television I always start by saying "tell me what you want me to say and I'll tell you whether I'll say it". This saves a great deal of time. I've also worked out that if you're going to be on BBC-1 you have to make your answers half the length they would be on BBC-2 which is in turn half the length they would be on BBC-4, which is half the length they would be on Radio 4. However even I've been amazed at how BBC-1 or ITV-1 will chop even the pithiest answer in half if they can find an edit point. That's because, as my friend points out, they're not attending at all to the sense of what you say. They're responding to the energy with which you say it and wondering how they can cut and paste it into their own little national grid.

The Ronan Parke item last night was not a performance. It was a little drama about a performance, as predetermined and carefully scripted as an episode of Glee. Talking of which, I don't think the competitors in shows like Britain's Got Talent should be lured there on false promises of musical stardom. I think they should be paid for their appearances much as actors would be. After all that's how they're used.