Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Is this Johann Hari business the death rattle of the old way?

I wonder if this current to-do about Johann Hari using quotes from previously published sources in interviews is one of the dying twitches of traditional journalism. If I've understood it correctly he inserts quotes from elsewhere if they seem to make the point better than the interviewee did when his own recording machine was turned on.

I'm sure the interviewee doesn't mind this because it makes him sound more eloquent. The reader probably doesn't mind either because for them clarity is all. But I think most journalists would consider this sharp practice, particularly if the quotes are not flagged up with something like "as he said in an earlier interview". He may well have said it but the fact is he didn't say it to you.

Interviewing is like fishing. Sometimes you get a bite. Most of the time you don't. In fact increasingly you're going to a lake that has been intensively fished for some time before you got there. Interviewees don't have an endless supply of original things to say. Mostly what you get is what they've been saying to the person who interviewed them half an hour ago. You may get a slight variation but the essence remains the same. All that makes your encounter distinct is your ability to write a more nuanced account.

The current pretence that each encounter is in some way exclusive is dear to the hearts of editors and journalists, who think of themselves as competing in the traditional fashion. The new way, in which all information and opinion merges into one giant Wiki, is the way of the future. And where do big-name columnists and the newspapers who pay them stand in that world?

Friday, June 24, 2011

People in glass houses have difficulty re-engineering their businesses

Whiskery old joke. Country bumpkin sitting on five-barred gate is asked for directions by holidaymaking couple trying to find their hotel. "Well, I wouldn't start from here," he says, which is absurd and profound at the same time.

I've been thinking of this in a week which has been dominated by stories of major media and entertainment groups spelling out their strategies. EMI is for sale once again, the Guardian and Observer are contemplating a predominantly digital future within five years, the BBC wonder whether they should close a channel or change the daytime output of BBC-2.

All of these are strategies for survival, not expansion. They're the right thoughts to be thinking. But here's the thing. All the thinking about these momentous issues is being done inside massive new architect-designed corporate HQs which have been built in the last ten or so years. The media boom of the 90s provided them with the cash to build their own temples and imbued them with the belief that the expansion would go on forever. But they never dreamed that they would be thinking such frightened thoughts inside them. Ever since these companies - and many other media and publishing firms - moved into their airy new offices they've been shedding the staff they were intended to house and looking nothing like the masters of the universe the temples were intended to exalt.

Like the man on the gate said, you wouldn't start from here.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

It's the smoking ban that did for Galliano

If this does prove to be the end of John Galliano's career then he may well go down as the first victim of the disruption that the smoking ban has caused in the lives of celebrities. The facts appear to be: Galliano, while pissed, went to the outside smoking area of fashionable Paris bar La Perle and was more than unpleasant to a few other drinkers, some of whom filmed his behaviour on a mobile.

You can't do much about the behaviour but you can keep it in the family. Had it not been for the smoking ban he would have remained in the bar with his fashionable friends and not been exposed to the chance of meeting people who didn't think he was fabulous and, what's worse, might engage him in conversation. These days if you want to find a celebrity don't go looking inside places. Try instead the goods entrance of one of London's luxury hotels or the fire escape outside its most expensive restaurants. They'll be there - probably sans minder - running the risk of rubbing shoulders with chummy from the accounts department and just possibly some patient soul with a video camera from The Sun.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Why you should use your full name and nothing but your full name

Laura Kuenssberg is leaving the BBC to become the Business Editor of ITV, leading to speculation that her Twitter handle @BBCLauraK (with its 58,832 followers) may have to be changed to @ITVLauraK. I even wonder whether some enterprising soul at the independent broadcaster might have already asked the BBC how much they want for that list or whether some coding genius is working on a way that old Twitter names could be subsumed into new ones.

In the course of a long and no doubt distinguished career somebody like Kuenssberg can expect to work for many different organisations (as well quite a few that remain the same and yet change their names) so it doesn't make any sense for her to sell or lease her identity to them. It's enough to sell or lease her services.

On a less exalted level I've always told my kids that when they start work they should use their full name in every interaction. There's no use developing strong recognition as "Jane from Acme Magazines" because it's obvious that one day you won't be that any more and you'll have to start all over again, identifying yourself with some other organisation. Build your own brand. It'll last longer than theirs.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

People used to go to rock festivals to escape the things they now find at rock festivals

I’ve never been a big festival goer. I watch with interest as the people I know who are big ones for Glastonbury stiffen as the big weekend approaches. In the world I inhabit, where some kind of privileged access is what people are used to, the jockeying for position started months ago. Have you got the right kind of ticket with the right kind of pass and the right access to the right car park or camp site? Have you got the right equipment? Bin bags? Wellies? Wet wipes? Plastic bottle full of ready mixed gin and tonic? Insurance? Insect spray? Anxiety pills?

I seem to remember that in the late sixties and early seventies people set off to festivals with a tenner in their pocket and a carefree skip in their stride. Nowadays they seem to take with them all the comforts and anxieties of home. A friend of a friend’s daughter turned up at Glastonbury a few years ago with a pull-along suitcase and some hair straighteners. I thought this was funny until I saw, at last year’s Latitude, a special tent where one could go and, for a fee, plug in your hair and beauty aids.

What’s even more surprising is that while the original festival goers set off to the country intent on shrugging off the hierarchies and strictures of everyday society and getting back to the garden, nowadays people go to the country in order to obey the festival organiser's rules, codes which are far more draconian and much less amenable to reason than any they would expect to deal with in their daily life. If ever you think the law of the land is unreasonable, think again. Try arguing with a festival steward over whether you’ve got the right wrist band. That’s when you learn about unreasonable authority and how a dog's obeyed in office. But nobody seems to mind. They accept it as the price of taking part. It particularly amuses me how my daughter and friends keep the wristbands on for months afterwards – as if they’d like to prolong their weekend serfdom.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The long memories of would-be rock stars

At a 60th birthday party in a suburban garden yesterday somebody uttered the words that always send a chill down the spine of this old hack.

"I was in a band once and you reviewed us."

If ever you're tempted to worry that nobody is actually paying any attention to what you write, then all you need do is make the glancing acquaintance of any musician you have ever described in less than glowing terms, no matter how long ago. They'll quote you verbatim, even, as in this case, if thirty-two years have elapsed since you loosed-off your one-liner in a singles review at the end of a no doubt trying day and thought no more of it.

Mark Hodkinson has done an excellent piece in the new issue of The Word where he finds a bunch of uncelebrated indie 45s in a record shop and goes in search of the people who made them a quarter of a century before. What he finds in almost every case is that this record was the most important episode in those people's lives.

The former musician I met at the party had a refreshingly clear-eyed view of his own distant brush with rock stardom. "As soon as we'd been on Top of The Pops, I realised it was all rubbish," he said. Most musicians you meet are not quite so reconciled. They all sport one item of clothing or jewellery which hints that, no matter how straight and settled they may appear today, there was once a time when they were on the highway to hell. They can all explain in very simple terms what deal, what TV strike, what distribution cock-up prevented them from being as successful as the handful of successful acts.

And, what's more, they're usually just about to put out a record or put together a tour. Which they hope you'll review.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Clarence Clemons and the greatest pose in rock history

The death of Clarence Clemons means that nothing can ever be quite the same any more in the world of the E Street Band. He wasn't the most original saxophonist but his playing was integral to their sound. He wasn't the most animated live performer but Springsteen gave him the starring role in the band's inner drama.

I still can't get over the fact that when it came time to shoot some pictures for Springsteen's third album "Born To Run", he just turned up at the studio of Eric Meola with Clarence. Not on his own, not with the whole band, just with Clarence. He knew what would make not just a great shot but a defining shot. Whenever you saw him live after that there would always be a moment or two when they would snap into that pose. It could be that photo session was the most important day's work he did with the band.

It's a common misconception about big rock stars that they leave all the image mongering to somebody else, that they're only interested in the music and that they're above manipulating the people around them. Not so.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The sad story of Darren Burn

I'd never heard of Darren Burn until Pete Paphides dropped in to the Word podcast to talk about his collection of old music papers. Thanks to Gavin Hogg I got hold of a DVD of the Man Alive documentary that was made about Darren in 1973. At the time he was an 11-year-old schoolboy living just up the road from where I live now and attending City of London.

His father was Colin Burn, a promotion man working for EMI. When EMI decided they needed to be competing in the Donny Osmond market Darren's mother Joanna put him forward. He could sing, he looked cute and he was a bright lad. His first single was a cover of Gene Pitney's "Something's Gotten Hold Of My Heart". He was given the big label treatment, much of which was captured in John Pitman's film "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" for Man Alive.

The record wasn't a hit and Darren had to go back to school where his classmates called him "top of the flops". The Man Alive film, which is very disapproving of everyone at the record company for exploiting the child, really can't have helped. In the eighties the BBC caught up with him for a "Where Are They Now?" slot. He was unemployed and living on his own in south London. All the youthful twinkle had been replaced by a cold bitterness. He blamed his mother for using him to further her own show business ambitions. A couple of years later he was dead following an overdose of anti-depressants.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Please come along to True Stories on July 5th

True Stories Told Live started life when I was talking to Malcolm Gladwell about where he got his experience of talking in public. He told me about The Moth in New York City. "It's a load of people in a dark room drinking too much and listening to people tell stories," he said. Clearly London could do that just as well.

I talked to Kerry Shale and Kate Bland about it. Kerry's an actor, Kate's a radio producer and they're both based in Islington, which made it easy for us to meet up. I spent ages looking round at potential venues. Initially I had the idea that there must be some kind of old gentlemen's club we could use. Nothing worked. Either there were too many restrictions on use or the venues were too big, too small or too difficult to get to. I was on the points of giving up when I got an email from John Rensten who had just finished turning the Compass on the corner of Chapel Market into a pub/restaurant. I went and looked and found to my delight it had a small but pleasant room upstairs with a very basic sound system in it.

We did the first one in September 2009. I told the first story and the other "turns" were all mates that we'd cajoled into telling theirs. The audience was made up of mates of the storytellers. Since then we've done one every month, it's sprouted other True Stories events in Brighton, Cambridge, Hebden Bridge, Stroud and Cardiff and we're regularly turning away scores of people. We run it on a guest list basis. People sign up to our mailing list, we invite people to apply to come and we put together a list, mainly made up of people who've never been before. We don't want to have the same people month after month. It's not about stars, although some of the turns are well known. Imelda Staunton came to watch and said to me afterwards "this is the best night out ever." You can get a further idea here.

Apart from the warm feeling of starting something that works, why do we do it? Not for money, that's for sure. We don't charge anything for admission at The Compass and we give our time (the three of us plus Meg Rosoff) for free, as do the turns. We'd like to think that there might be a radio format in it at some stage but that's out of our hands. Because we want to get the funds we would need to improve our very basic website and also look at taking what we've learned about live storytelling into other areas like schools, we're having a fundraiser on July 5th at The Crypt in Clerkenwell. We've asked six of our favourite turns to come back and tell their stories that night. The tickets, which cost £22, include some very drinkable wine and some very cold beer.

If you've always wanted to see what TSTL is all about and been unable to get in, if you've been and feel this is something that deserves more support or if you just fancy a genuinely unique night out, which starts at 7.30 and finishes no later than 9.30, please come along. You can buy tickets on line here. Thank you.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Is Newsbeat suffering from Crowded Cabin Syndrome?

John Myers' independent report on Radios One and Two came up with one eye-catching fact. Newsbeat, Radio One's news service, employs 52 full-time staff. I've no idea how busy they all are but that figure caught my eye because it seems to demonstrate how all institutions grow first and then post-justify the increased head count.

According to my old colleague Trevor Dann, who used to be part of the management, in the 80s Newsbeat had just 15 staff. That means its staff has grown by a few hundred per cent in a period when the number of listeners has gone down by, well, quite a lot. Newspapers have responded to the same decline by shedding staff. Newsbeat seems to have gone the other way.

I'm sure you could point to lots of things that keep them all busy: the digital station that they also have to do work for, the website and the increased sophistication with which all forms of news are put together. But still that wouldn't account for a staff of 52 in what it increasingly a small-portions world. I can only assume that it's succumbed to Crowded Cabin Syndrome.

This is inspired by the scene in the Marx Brothers "A Night At The Opera" where more and more people come into the room and nobody leaves. Crowded Cabin Syndrome particularly affects the media because media folk have one key objective - staying in the media. Thus when junior employees get bored with doing mundane tasks they take on even more junior employees to perform them. Senior staff, unless they're exceptional, have nowhere else to go so they stick around longer and longer.

In the private sector this growth is reversed every few years by bankruptcy or corporate takeover. In the public it just keeps on growing until somebody commissions somebody else to write a report to tell them what they shouldn't need to be told.

Monday, June 13, 2011

My J.R. Hartley moment

I can remember most of the plays I was in at college but "Lunchtime Concert" by Olwen Wymark has slipped my mind. It was directed by Tim Evans who lives Out East nowadays and occasionally chides me on Facebook about forgetting it. The other day I was walking past French's Theatre Bookshop so I popped in and asked the young woman behind the counter, probably a drama student, if she could look it up. She looked and said it was out of print. "It was published in 1969," she said with the air of one for whom this may as well have been just after the Relief of Mafeking.

"I know," I said. "It was around that time I was in it."

She looked at me and tilted her head to one side, as one would with a very old person. "Aah," she said. "Have you tried Abe Books?"

I can imagine her meeting her boyfriend in the pub after work. At some point in the evening, when the conversation really flags, she might say "do you know, I had this old bloke in this morning and he was trying to find a script to a play he was in in 1969. Can you imagine that?"

Sunday, June 12, 2011

You can take the girl out of Yorkshire and apparently take the Yorkshire out of the girl

The sculptor Barbara Hepworth came from Wakefield in Yorkshire and went to the Girls High School. At the age of 16 she went to Leeds College of Art and then on to the Royal College in London. She didn't return to Yorkshire and spent most of the rest of her life in St Ives. One thing that nobody seemed to mention when they opened the Hepworth Wakefield recently was what happened to her Yorkshire accent. Her father was a prominent civil servant and so it's likely that as a teenager she may have had a genteel Yorkshire accent but it must have been a Yorkshire accent nonetheless. It wouldn't be surprising if in the years living away the tone of her speaking voice had changed but that wouldn't account for her apparent transformation into the dowager we see and hear in this clip from 1968.

It's even more marked when you contrast with that other sculptor contemporary Henry Moore who went to school in nearby Castleford and was also at Leeds with Hepworth. His voice has obviously changed by about the same time but you can still hear the Yorkshire in it.

It's one thing to change your voice. In the case of Barbara Hepworth she seems to have adopted somebody else's entirely.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Graham Linehan was right

I've been away so I didn't hear the interview with Graham Linehan on the Today Programme which led to him accusing the BBC of promoting a style of debate where there are "no positions possible except diametrically opposed ones". I'm not sure it was wise to try to make that point in a live radio programme but I do sympathise with his point of view. I've been amazed at how often I get rung up to offer some anodyne views on some release or anniversary to find that the BBC have also lined up somebody whose job it is to oppose me. "On the other line, here's somebody who doesn't think Bob Dylan should have a 70th birthday" - that kind of thing.

I suppose it's inevitable that in radio and TV they confuse drama with debate. That's why I never watch programmes like Question Time. They're all about what Matthew Parris calls "boo words and hooray words". Boo words are spoken by boo people. Hooray words are spoken by hooray people. I'm particularly glad that I didn't watch last night's show in which Germaine Greer made some remarks about a link between girls' talent for flirtation and their relationship with their fathers. This seems like the kind of observation which would be almost commonplace if made round the average suburban dinner party table. It only becomes incendiary once it's voiced in the adversarial bear pit that TV favours. I don't get indignant or energised when I hear people being shouted down. I'm just embarrassed for all of us.

TV and radio don't care whether the debate creates any light. Just as long as it creates some heat.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

How to write

Found this little gem in a New Yorker piece about the value of a college education. It comes from Professor X, the author of “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower”, which is about the difficulties of trying to get non-academic students to perform traditional academic tasks such as writing essays.
“I have come to think that the two most crucial ingredients in the mysterious mix that makes a good writer may be (1) having read enough throughout a lifetime to have internalized the rhythms of the written word, and (2) refining the ability to mimic those rhythms.”
Seems as good a working definition as I've ever heard.

A Low Expectation Holiday

We've just come back from five days on Harris in the outer Hebrides. I often fantasise about starting a travel firm called Low Expectation Holidays. It would offer things like: mooching tours round military cemeteries in Flanders during February, days spent wandering round sites loosely associated with the Beatles, drives through the featureless industrial wastes of New Jersey and short trips to the Hebrides. My target demographic would be glass half-full people, the kind of people who treat good weather as a pleasant bonus rather than a civil right. This is the way you have to approach the Hebrides. When the sun does shine up there, people say, "why can't it be like this all the time?" The obvious answer to that is that if it were sunny all the time it would be overrun with tourists from all over the world and would no longer offer the peace and solitude that makes it so precious.