Monday, April 30, 2012

A bad day for Her Majesty's Football Press

Today is another bad day for Her Majesty's Football Press. They've been backing Harry Redknapp with one voice for the England job and now it looks as if it's going to be Roy Hodgson. When you consider that they spend their lives in press conferences they are tin-eared when it comes to reading corporate signals. A couple of months ago I heard David Pleat, a man who does know how boardrooms work, saying on Five Live that he thought the FA were keen on appointing a man who would have a plan for all the age-ranges and would be prepared to base himself near the FA's new football centre at Burton. If this was true Harry Redknapp was never going to be the man. And so it proved.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Don't critics get the horn?

There's a book at the top of the best sellers called Fifty Shades of Grey. I haven't read it but I want to to because lots of people have told me it's rubbish. They can't agree what's rubbish about it. Joanna Biggs in the Literary Review said it was "insanely badly written" while Jenny Colgan in The Guardian thought it was "eminently readable". The reason these people and lots of others have gone out of their way to point out its shortcomings - through think pieces in the big papers and waspish exchanges over Sauvignon Blanc - is that it's what when I was at school they called a Mucky Book. Nowadays they call it erotica. Its purpose is to give people the horn, just as the purpose of house music is to make people want to dance.

This all seems straightforward. So straightforward that I've never been able to understand why people who've been to university in general and critics in particular always claim that while things like this give the rest of us the horn, it doesn't have the same effect on them. Oh no. They always pretend they find it funny, which is pretty condescending of them when you think about it.

They were the same with The Joy Of Sex, Nine and a Half Weeks, Bouquet Of Barbed Wire, Pirelli calendars, Madonna's Sex book, Emmanuelle, all the rest of the salacious phenomena that the rest of us went out and bought, watched, read or at least stole surreptitious glances at in our millions. It might have the rest of us walking like tripods or squirming in our seats but it simply doesn't make a dent in the steel pants with which these people's critical acuity has apparently armoured them.

It doesn't make sense. Even the most in-bred food critics can appreciate a McDonalds once in a while, can't they? Not everything in life has to be run through the same elevated filter. Some things in life you're just supposed to feel. Or is it possible that they did feel it and they're not telling the truth about what they felt?

Saturday, April 28, 2012

John Le Mesurier: It's All Been Rather Lovely

Like all these BBC-4 biographical films, which are really clipshows under another name, this was 40% longer than it needed to be. It did have one good joke. Clive Dunn remembered John asking a policeman where he could find Alcoholics Anonymous. "Do you want to join, sir?" "No," said John. "I want to resign."

Thursday, April 26, 2012

What *didn't* we have in the 70s?

Alternative comedians
Mobile phones
Your wage paid by cheque or money transfer
Clean air indoors
Much choice on TV or Radio
Time shifting
Minutes silences at football games
Everyday fireworks
Bottled water
Organic food
Proper coffee
Cosmetic surgery
Life coaches
"Products" for men
Personal trainers
Oyster cards
Automatic ticket barriers
Surveillance cameras
Cheap weekend flights to Europe
Channel tunnel
Computer games
Smokeless coal
Colour pictures in newspapers
Call centres
Unleaded petrol
Hair extensions
Cycle helmets
Plastic zips
Skimmed milk
Sunday opening
Drinking in the afternoon
Live football on the TV
Lite bites
Nouvelle cuisine
Urban foxes
Attack dogs
Leaf blowers
Women vicars
Four by fours
Outdoor heaters
Women drinking pints
Low tar cigarettes
Hen parties and stag weekends
Stretch limos
School proms
Airport security

Monday, April 23, 2012

Isn't there something slightly camp about four blokes in a TV studio *all* wearing open-necked shirts?

Every week all the panellists on both Match of The Day and Match Of The Day II are all wearing shirts. There's not a jacket, not a sweater, not a polo shirt, not a cardigan and not a tee shirt between them.

How does this work? Can't be by accident. There must be a policy of some sort. Somebody must either ring up the members of the panel before they do the show and say "can we just check? What colour shirt will you be wearing?" or there must be a wardrobe department with lots of freshly ironed plain coloured (can't do stripes on TV - they "flare") smart shirts in lots of different sizes standing by.

I'm interested in two things:
1. Why has somebody decided that open necked shirts are the only appropriate way to dress the MOTD panel?
2. Has it never occurred to anyone that four blokes in freshly pressed shirts just look a bit camp?

Sunday, April 22, 2012

A terrific read and a terrible story

A couple of months ago I caught "A Good Read" on Radio Four. The guests were Rachel Johnson and Martin Kelner. She chose Still Missing by Beth Gutcheon and he chose London Belongs to Me (Penguin Modern Classics) by Norman Collins. They both enthused about each other's choices so I read them both. I really enjoyed both of them but the Beth Gutcheon story is one of those rare books that you go round recommending to people. My oldest daughter devoured it, as did my wife and the other day I marched a friend into the offices of the British publisher Persephone and insisted he bought a copy. A week later he was thanking me.

It was written in 1981 and it tells the story of a six year old boy who goes missing on his way to school. I wouldn't dream of telling anyone what happens at the end. Suffice to say it's one of those books which rescues the word "gripping" from the land of hyperbole.

The other day I was looking in the New York Times when my eye was drawn to a story about the New York police digging up a basement in a building in the SoHo district. This was in connection with the still unsolved case of Etan Patz, a six year old boy who went missing on the way to school in 1979. He still hasn't been found and the anniversary of his disappearance is now America's Missing Children Day. I wondered whether this might have been the inspiration for the story. It turns out it was. The Patzes and Gutcheons were neighbours at the time and the author knew the boy.

If you were a writer and you suddenly found yourself near the centre of a terrible true-life incident like that, you'd be pretty much compelled to write about it. You just would, wouldn't you?

When a film was made of the story in 1983 there was some publicity suggesting that it was unseemly to write a work of fiction based on a case which was still so open and painful. His parents, who are no doubt as well known in the US as the McCanns are over here, have never moved from the house. You just wouldn't, would you?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Levon Helm and the true nature of singing

The American Civil War is the key event in their history. More Americans were killed during that war than in every subsequent conflict the nation was involved in, up to and including the Korean War. The events of 1865, when the Confederate states were crushed, starved and then humiliated, aren't reflected in many rock songs. It's amazing that Robbie Robertson, a Canadian, had the nerve to write one about it. Levon Helm, who came from Arkansas, which is as Southern as you get, always said he took him to the library to make sure he got the historical detail right but his greatest contribution to its authenticity was in singing it. For that alone he was its co-author.

"Virgil Cain is the name and I served on the Danville train/Til Sherman's cavalry came and tore up the tracks again". That's what the Federal troops did to make sure that the Conferederates couldn't re-supply. Every time the railway line was relaid they ripped it up. Levon Helm sings it like a man into whose soul a certain amount of iron has just been introduced. As somebody said to me the other night, no other record inserts you into an historical moment as quickly and as dramatically as that one does. And that, Simon Cowell, is singing.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Everything on TV becomes TV drama

I've avoided looking at any courtroom footage of the Oslo murderer, just as I avoided seeing any footage of Fabrice Muamba keeling over on the White Hart Lane pitch. I don't need to see either. I don't need to be further inflamed or shocked or moved. I don't need television telling me what to feel. I know what I feel about both events and I can imagine what I would feel if I saw either.

I can't say I'm in favour of the televising of British courts. Anything on TV - football, parliament, pop music - very quickly becomes TV. Once he's playing for the cameras even the Oslo murderer will find that some people will warm to him. If we only saw him as one of those courtroom illustrations it wouldn't happen.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Finding the sweet spot in the argument about the Universal-EMI merger

I'm sure Martin Mills, the chairman of Beggars Group, has reasons for not wanting the merger of Universal and EMI to go ahead (and they may be good ones) but I'm not sure that it's because it stands to squeeze out "edgy, left field artists". According to an interview in the Telegraph he says:
"When one party has the ability to be so dominant, it's going to be difficult for anything outside the mainstream to come through. It [puts pressure] on the space on shop shelves and magazine front covers for less mainstream artists."
To which we might say, which shop shelves is he talking about and, while we're about it, what magazine covers? If you've got a record that people want, Tesco will find room for it and the valve that really controls access to public exposure is operated by BBC radio, not by any magazine. But record execs never go on the record about the BBC. Off the record they rarely talk about anything else.

The "edgy, left field" argument is a classic example of the kind of argument businesses and pressure groups employ on public forums like the Today programme, not because they really believe it but because they know it will play into the larger narrative of the uninformed. The uninformed are always looking for a baddie and a goodie. This kind of argument rarely says "we would like things to stay as they are because we're doing fine, thanks". Instead it says, "if this change takes place then an entire culture will be brought down and this cute puppy will be drowned". That's the kind of argument that plays to the sweet spot. It's surprising how often it prevails.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Record reviewing and the Control Sample

Everybody putting out a record knows the odds are stacked against them. Of course they don't know just how tough those odds are.  If they saw even the puny amount of CDs that I get sent for review they'd give up. If they saw how many a Radio Two producer gets they'd tell all their friends to give up as well.

But that's not the whole of the problem. They think they're competing against the other records that came out the same month. What they're really competing for is our attention, which is just too terrifying to think about. And our attention doesn't have to be restricted to what came out this month. Even assuming that we're in the mood to listen to or buy a record that attention is most likely to be occupied by something we already like.

And this a problem that the acts of today have to face which the acts of the 60s and 70s didn't. Unless they're working in new genres such as hip hop it's likely that whatever they do will have already been done first and better by somebody thirty years ago. In fact they've probably been "inspired" by the very record that outshines them. When Joni Mitchell made those first few records nobody had been down those paths before. When Laura Marling sits down to write songs she knows that wherever she goes lots of people have been before and quite a lot of them were pretty good.

As I write this I have at my left hand a copy of Burning Spear's 1976 album "Man In The Hills". I've actually only just heard this record. Until recently I never went further than "Marcus Garvey". Anyway "Man In The Hills" is brutally good.  I keep it close at hand as my Control Sample. Not far behind it is a copy of "Revolver" and Nick Lowe's "The Old Magic", both of which could easily be Control Samples.

The presence of the Control Sample means that I have to decide whether I'd rather spend the next forty minutes of my life reaching a further level of intimacy with something I know is worth the investment or risk it on something untried from my huge great box of new stuff (right), most of which, I have learned through experience, will never be fit to dust the shoes of those three great records. That's why lots of the time the Control Sample wins.

Obviously I'm just an unfeeling brute who has been made calloused and cynical by the amount of listening I've had to do over the years. But my attitude to hearing something new is just a more pronounced version of what the listening public feels. They're not just measuring your record against what else is at this week's starting gate. They're measuring it against the riches of pop history, all of which is just a click away.

Maybe the acts should start measuring their records against their own Control Samples while they're making them.

Friday, April 13, 2012

What about 50 things we did before we were 12 that we'd hate to find our kids doing?

All the papers today have got the list of 50 things that today's kids really should do before they're 11 and three quarters. This got me thinking about all the things I did in the course of my perfectly average suburban upbringing that I would have been horrified to catch my own kids doing when they were young. Here's just a few of the obvious ones.
1. Taken one of my dad's stubbed out cigarettes, crawling under my bed and lighting it.
2. Going "chumping" in the run-up to November 5th. This basically meant removing anything that would burn and wasn't nailed down.
3. Jumping off the rear platform of a moving bus at the age of seven having missed a stop.
4. Using garden canes as arrows and firing them at close friends.
5. Standing up on swings in the park.
6. Going to the pictures on my own.
7. Playing cricket in the garden - with a proper cricket ball.
8. Sitting in the drivers seat and playing with the wheel while my dad went into a shop. Was the engine running? Of course it was!
9. Eating a stick of celery into which a full salt cellar had been emptied.
10. Using a lowered clothes line to remove a playmate from his bike during a war game.
There are millions more and I wasn't unduly reckless.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Remembering the Early Learning Centre and the most popular kids toy of an era

Sad to read about the closure of more branches of the Early Learning Centre.  Almost thirty years ago, when our eldest was a toddler, a visit to the Early Learning Centre was a feature of the weekly visit to Brent Cross. In those days if you needed something you had to go out and get it. For her a trip to the Early Learning Centre meant she got to spend a few minutes in the Cozy Coupe, which was by far the most popular kid's toy at that time. The mere mention of the place had such a galvanising effect on her that we used to whisper out of the corner of our mouths about "the ELC". Still do in fact.

While we browsed the Ahlberg books or bought some felt tips, she had to wait her turn with the other youth for a quick spin round the shop. Getting her out of the vehicle was never easy. Years later we inherited our own Cozy Coupe from a friend. Can't tell you the hours, days and weeks of pleasure our kids and their friends got out of it. 

Monday, April 09, 2012

What do you give to the man who has everything? A pass for the Masters

Former England cricket captain Michael Vaughan interviews Tiger Woods at the Masters golf and gets a pasting on the internet because he underestimated the number of times Woods had won the tournament. It seems a pretty minor mistake to make but it's made worse by the fact that he's famous for something other than golf.

I would imagine the BBC sent him to Augusta because attendance at the Masters is a perk for the man who has everything. Didn't they send Gary Lineker in the past? People as connected as these can get a ticket to anything: World Cup Finals,  a box at Cheltenham, the last day of Wimbledon, anything but the Masters. The Masters is different.

I know this from my own experience. In 1996 I was sent there to write about it. (Not that I'm Michael Vaughan.) I had a great time. It's the only golf tournament of any description I've been to.

It was only afterwards that I realised that there are people all over the world who go to bed every night and dream of going to the Masters. That's why Michael Vaughan is being given such a tough time today. That and the fact that the modern BBC believes that fame in one area can be traded for ratings in another.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Now you can "live in sin" with records before buying them

Since Spotify my music consumption has settled down into a new pattern. I use it as a way to listen to anything I don't have a copy of or to make playlists of things I feel like listening to regularly. But when I've decided I really like a record I have to own it. It seems only fair. This reverses the usual process whereby I bought albums and then convinced myself I loved them. Now I decide what I really love and then buy it. It's a big change. It could have the same effect on album buying as cohabitation had on marriage.

Friday, April 06, 2012

The importance of reading what you don't understand

On Woman's Hour a head teacher apparently said there's no point presenting young children with texts that they don't understand. Michael Rosen wonders why not and points out that his kids were always reading things they didn't understand. That's how they learned.

I have always read things I didn't understand. I still do. In my twenties I would read Herbert Marcuse or Richard Brautigan and didn't get more than one sentence in ten. I did the same with NME and Rolling Stone and the underground press. I groped my way towards an imperfect understanding of all kinds of things. If it had been easier I probably wouldn't have bothered.

I've always pretended to know more than I do. Seems better than pretending to know less. I often think my education has been as much about picking up fragments as anything else. I think Rosen's point is important. A man's reach should exceed his grasp or what's a heaven for? Which is, funnily enough, the only bit of Robert Browning I know.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

How the Daily Mail fishes in the New Complaining Classes

Before the Internet I didn't see the Daily Mail much. Now I see it a lot. I look at their site a few times everyday because I know that if anything's happening it'll be there, generally presented in a mean-minded way.  (That's how gossip works. Isn't there a line in an old Bette Davies film that goes "if you can't think of anything nice to say about anyone, come sit by me"?)

But I mostly hear about the Daily Mail from the people who disapprove of it most. It's the daily drum beat of Twitter - what have they gone and done now? These people can't wait to tell me what's the latest and how I should feel about it. There was some story yesterday about a woman claiming that people hated her because she's so beautiful. I didn't read it but thanks to them I know all about it.

This is why the Mail is the most-visited newspaper site in the world - because it's found that it can do just as well out of provoking its opponents as in pleasing its fans. They're all clicks. As my old colleague Danny Kelly used to point out, some people are so easy to fish in you just have to show them the rod and they're doing sit-ups on the bank.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

When tongue in cheek becomes foot in mouth

There's an interesting story about Noel Edmonds tracking down the person who started a "Noel Edmonds must die campaign" on Facebook. The culprit was traced, naturally, to a university.

I don't like the law concerning itself with what people think or, except in certain circumstances, what they say but I think Edmonds is quite right to call out this person for being, if not actually murderous then at least incapable of finding the language that properly reflects his feelings.

He could argue that he's only parroting the language of the times. An increasing number of people see the world in binary terms, where things are either "brilliant" or "crap". The people calling things brilliant don't really think that, nor do the people calling things crap. Only by grotesque overstatement can they get anyone's attention. If this boy did want to kill Noel Edmonds he would be criminally insane. If he didn't want to then he had no more business saying so on Facebook than in bellowing it through a megaphone on the street.

I know it's all "humour" but, really, even humour is about the nuances.

Monday, April 02, 2012

We should all grow as old and enthusiastic as Bill Cunningham

Watched Bill Cunningham New York [DVD] last night. Cunningham is a photographer in his eighties best known for On The Street, a regular section of the New York Times devoted to pictures of interesting-looking people wearing interesting clothes interestingly on the streets of Manhattan.

Cunningham gets these pictures by racing about the streets of the city bare-headed and dressed in the blue smock worn by Parisian dustmen on his twenty-eighth bike (the other twenty-seven were stolen). The beautiful people vie with each other for his attention but he really doesn't know who they are. When he started working for the Times he vowed he would never taken even a glass of water from the people whose events he covers. All he cares about are the clothes and the way people wear them. During Paris Fashion Week he sits on the front row, only lifting his camera to his eye if he sees something that interests him.

Whenever I watch anything about a photographer I latch on to a hint in the vain hope it will improve my footling attempts. The great paparazzo Ron Galella, for instance, never looks through the viewfinder, preferring to engage his subjects eye to eye and holding his camera at chest height. In this film Bill Cunningham says many of his best pictures are taken in bad weather because on those days the subjects are too preoccupied with the wind and the rain to worry about him.