Friday, March 29, 2013

Doctor Beeching got his way because of my dad

It's been fifty years since the Beeching Report proposed scrapping a huge proportion of the railway network.

I'm a big user of public transport and I can get as sentimental as the next Englishman about the passing of the Slow Train.

I'm also old enough to remember the world the Beeching Report was published into and it was a world which believed profoundly, passionately that the future was all about the motor car.

We hardly ever travelled by train as kids, partly because they were dirty and had a reputation for not running on time but also, I suspect, because our parents associated them with wartime.

In the sixties the family car went from being an unimaginable luxury to a basic right. It was the mobile phone of its day but its consequences were much more far-reaching. My father's preferred family entertainment was taking us all "for a run", which meant going for a drive. Driving was something he only ever associated with pleasure and freedom.

If it did enter anyone's head that even the massive number of motorways being built in the 60s and 70s would never be enough to accommodate the exploding number of vehicles in private hands or that petrol would ever be as costly as it is now, they didn't say anything about it. Had they done so I suspect they would have been shouted down.

That's the problem with planning for the future. People can only ever imagine a slightly better version of the present.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The best records are the ones in your head

In the summer of 1972 I had to go home to Yorkshire to help out at my father's business. He was laid up with a back problem and I had to keep his small textile firm ticking over.

The work was dull, dirty and repetitive. There was no stimulation from the outside world. I dreamed my way from one break to another. The only possible distraction came from a transistor radio over at the other end of the warehouse. It had a crackly medium-wave signal and I didn't control the volume.

That was the year the Eagles "Take It Easy" came out. For some reason it was impossible to buy. On the basis of a handful of radio plays, I developed an obsession with it. That obsession grew in inverse proportion to the number of times I heard it, which was very few.

I'd listen particularly intently during the couple of Radio One programmes that I thought might play it. I'd concentrate hard when they were throwing to the records they intended to play in the next hour. Whole days went past without my hearing it.

In the absence of the actual record I recreated the sound of the intro in my head. There was an acoustic bit, overlaid with a chord from an electric guitar, following which it folded swiftly into a brisk groove which seemed to tumble towards the opening line. "Well I'm a-running down the road trying to loosen my load...."

It was quite thrilling to replay the record in my head. When it actually came on I almost blushed with excitement. I wanted to hear the whole of the record but it was that beginning that I really yearned to hear. On one occasion I came back into the warehouse and it was already playing, which was somehow worse than it not being on at all. It was like missing the opening of a film.

Last night I went to a preview of a new documentary about the Eagles, which comes out in a month's time. "Take It Easy" is used a few times. That intro still does it to me every time. It's partly for now and partly for 1972.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

"Lose the arms next time, Danny love"

Danny Welbeck probably was clipped by the Montenegro defender. He probably should have had a penalty.

The mistake he made was in going down like a second-rate actor, arms away from his body, flailing at the empty air. It's the same mistake that got Gareth Bale booked for simulation more than once this season. It makes even a genuine case look like a con. It's got "is he watching?" written all over it.

If you trip over in the street your hands shoot out in front of you to try to break your fall. They don't imitate a dying swan.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The secret of taking perfect pictures of your kids

I found this last night. It must have been taken fifteen years ago. I obviously said, "all right, if you will insist on pulling those bored expressions, just turn round and look at the view."

I think it's my favourite.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

But she doesn't have a lot to say

The measure of true celebrity is you always learn something you never knew before. The one thing I learned from ITV's documentary Our Queen was that it's not her habit to say either hello or goodbye when meeting people.

It makes sense. People are always lined up waiting for her and so it would clearly be ridiculous to expect her to explain herself. Similarly when she withdraws she can't say "well, it's been wonderful but one must dash" or any similarly pat line.

It also saves time and breath.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Don't miss the next Word In Your Ear

The Word In Your Ear thing seems to be quietly growing. We used to do them almost every month when the magazine was publishing.

Alex Gold organised them and it was he who nagged me into starting them up again. We did one in November with Skinny Lister, Danny Baker and the Dunwells and we had the second one on Monday of this week with Chris Difford and Boo Hewerdine playing, Tracey Thorn talking about her book and me and Mark Ellen telling some whiskery stories.

We did it at the Old Queens Head this time because there's more seating available and there's a projector set-up that we could use. It worked quite well. People seemed to have a good time.

I'd like to think that in our unbelievably modest way we're trying to do something that's a bit more than the average music gig where you get, in my opinion, too much music and not enough variety. Using a bit of the True Stories Told Live experience and a bit of what we learned when doing the Word podcasts we'd like to think that there may be ways to skin the music magazine cat in a live event kind of way.

Anyway, a step at a time. The next Word In Your Ear is at the Lexington on April 22nd. The acts we've announced so far include Katy Carr. Her mother's family came from Poland and her music and stories explore that side of her heritage with particular emphasis on that country's experiences in the middle of the last century. Katy's made four albums, the latest of which, Paszport, has been nominated for an award by the world music magazine Songlines.

We've also got The Soho Hobo, otherwise known as singer/songwriter and man about Dean Street Tim Arnold plus his crack band, singing songs inspired by London's square mile of sin. They will be joined on the evening by special guest stars Gary Kemp and fan dancer Miss Giddy Heights. How often do you see either of those things? Let me refresh your memory.

Further additions to the bill will be announced in due course but if you want to make sure of your place by booking an Early Bird ticket you'll have to do it before Monday. Here.

If you want to be kept informed about other Word In Your Ear shows, email to be put on the list. You can follow Word In Your Ear on Twitter @WIYELondon.

Friday, March 22, 2013

It's fifty years today since The Beatles became icons

The Beatles first LP was released fifty years ago today. The cover was shot by Angus McBean, a celebrated theatrical photographer of the time, known for his surrealist style.

He didn't do anything weird with "the boys". They met him in reception at EMI's HQ in Manchester Square, he looked up at the stairwell and said "why don't you go up there and look over?"

They did. McBean lay on his back in reception and shot a few frames. Job done. An image was created in those brief moments that resounds down the years.

The Beatles restaged the shot themselves for the cover of their Red and Blue hits albums at the end of the decade. The Sex Pistols posed in the same place for the same picture. When EMI left Manchester Square it took the staircase with it and installed it in new offices in Hammersmith.

I can live without the album, which is weedy compared to what was to come. But the cover of that record is the first thing The Beatles did that you could call "iconic".

It wasn't the last.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Why I still don't think the Kindle will replace the book

It's been drawn to my attention that in 2008 I wrote a column claiming that Kindles wouldn't happen. I think my key point was that half the point of reading a book in public was so that other people could see what you were reading.

Leaving aside the fact that it would be a pretty poor column if I filled it with verifiable fact, I was clearly wrong, as many millions of Kindle sales will attest.

And yet.

I've got a Kindle and would recommend one to anyone who does a lot of reading for the simple reason that they speed up your reading. If I've got to read something in a hurry, they're the only way to go. They don't lose your place and - don't laugh - they don't require both hands to support them. You can read one standing up in a crowded carriage on the Tube or while eating cereal.

On the debit side they're shoddily produced, inadequately proof-read and often very hard to navigate. A friend the other day was arguing it was impossible to read Hilary Mantel on the Kindle because you needed to be consulting the cast of characters at the front of the book. (I read Wolf Hall as a book and Bring Up The Bodies via reading machine and I found the second one easier because I was reading it more often and therefore keeping to the thread.)

As far as authors are concerned e-books are a mixed blessing. They may increase your pool of readers but those readers won't be paying you very much money. That's why they'd rather sell you this nice autographed hardback.

In recent months when I haven't been commuting daily I've gone backwards, buying and reading more paper books than I did in the couple of years before that when I was first smitten with the Kindle.

I'm already operating a three-tier system. Some things I want as books. Other things I'm happy to read on Kindle. Some very special things I need to have on both.

I'm doing the same with music. Most things I'm happy going to Spotify for. If I really like them I want the CD. If I love them I have to search out a version on vinyl. It's like the difference between dating, going steady and marriage.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Really useful things we learned without understanding

Education's a political football. The arguments around it are always depressingly binary. Today it's about promoting the value of rote learning. The counter-argument is that committing facts or words to memory without understanding; a) is without value; b) somehow gets in the way of so-called creative thinking.

I'm a sample of one but many of the most useful things I know I learned by rote, often without understanding. These include:

  • Multiplication tables
  • The alphabet
  • The words of William Blake's "Jerusalem" (and subsequently a million pop records)
  • Wilfred Owen's "Strange Meeting", TS Eliot's "Journey Of The Magi", the beginning of Macaulay's "Lays Of Ancient Rome" and half a dozen speeches from Shakespeare
  • The words of at least twenty hymns
  • The capital cities of the countries considered significant when I went to school
  • "I before e except after c when the sound is ee"
  • "Thirty days hath November etc"
  • "Willie willie harry stee etc"
Have I, er, forgotten anything?

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Here's something the internet can't do that a magazine can

There was a piece in the Guardian Weekend called "they don't make them like that anymore" which was made up of a number of layouts showing the historical development of various different products, in this case women's swimwear from the 1900s to today.

Contrast is the whole point of the piece so you have to see them all together. You edit between the big picture and the close-up by simply moving the magazine closer to you.

This story couldn't be done anything like as effectively on a screen. It serves as a reminder that it will be a long time before they come up with an interface as sophisticated as the one between hands, eyes and paper.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Good news! I've discovered what's wrong with TV

As Cyril Fletcher used to say, I am indebted to Ian Penman (@pawboy2) for the discovery of SoLost*, a series of short films dedicated to "getting lost in the American south". It answers the need I wrote about a couple of days ago for a source of documentaries short enough to watch on the iPad while preparing breakfast.

I was talking to an independent producer this week who told me that commissioning editors on TV and radio nowadays expect the pitch for a programme to be in the first five minutes. Then it struck me that that's what's wrong with so many TV and radio programmes. They're not programmes. They're pitches.

 * Advice for home workers. Don't start. You'll be there all day.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A Pom condescends to sympathise with the Australian cricket captain

Four members of the Australian cricket squad have been sent home from their tour of India. The team lost the last test match in embarrassing circumstances and were all asked by the captain Michael Clarke and coach Micky Arthur to come up with a few points explaining what they thought could be improved in time for the next one. Four members failed to come forward with anything, presumably after nudging, and were therefore sent home.

Somebody used the unfortunate word "presentation", which summons visions of Powerpoint, flip charts and Ricky Gervais.This has resulted in jibes about "homework" from sportsmen, who like to see themselves as above this sort of thing, despite the fact that they live in a far more institutionalised world than we adults.

I can see why Clarke and Arthur asked the members of the team to come up with the points. It wouldn't be because they thought they would include any piercing insights they hadn't thought of themselves. They would have asked each of them to come up with some points to make it clear that each of them "owned the problem", as management speak might infelicitously put it. If you don't own the problem you can never own the solution.

It's easy to lampoon the techniques and language of modern management, particularly if it helps get you off the hook. People are doing it in offices all the time. But what underpins the overwhelming bulk of modern management is simple common sense which has been to university. If Clarke and Arthur find themselves in the same situation in the future they should simply bark "because I bloody say so". Then they'll get their way. Mind you, after this week they may not have to.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Memo to TV: if you've got something to say, spit it out

There was only one "creative" decision taken on The Word podcast. I took it and I'm very proud of it. I decided that we wouldn't have the conventional beginning or ending. Instead it would just fade in on the sound of people talking and end pretty much the same way.

At the time it appealed to us because it meant we didn't have to prepare an intro. Then we found that listeners liked it because it helped bolster the idea that the conversation was continuing in perpetuity. Which, in a sense it was, in the office.

One of the reasons I like podcasts so much is that, unlike conventional radio and TV, they get to the point. This morning I was looking on the iPlayer for something to watch for ten minutes. Everything seemed to begin with a prolonged intro section which was dedicated to suggesting that you were going to see or learn something in the ensuing half an hour which would be worth the sacrifice in terms of time. I wasn't convinced.

I watched a few YouTube clips instead. I find I increasingly do that. I like long-form TV. I like short-form TV. I've got no time for the inbetween kind. That's the kind they make the most of.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Is Ron Sexsmith the politest man in rock?

In the same week Justin Bieber committed the unpardonable sin of going on stage at an hour which was more convenient for him than it was for his young fans it was interesting to go and see Ron Sexsmith, who appears to be at least a contender for the title as the politest man in rock.

Last night at the Albert Hall he repeatedly thanked the audience for coming. He thanked his parents, who had come from Canada to be in the audience. He thanked the fans who had travelled from different parts of the world. There was a special mention for an Irish fan who was too ill to travel. He thanked his band and said "my name is on the marquee but they've worked just as hard as I have for just as long". Finally he thanked the soundman and the crew, who don't get thanked nearly enough.

There's not enough of this kind of thing.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Does Time Inc's change of mind spell the end of "synergy"?

Time Inc has abruptly pulled out of merger negotiations with publisher Meredith and decided to put its magazines into a separate company from its film and TV assets. This is presumably for valuation reasons. You can't blame them for that.

What will probably pass without notice is that this may mark the point at which major media companies stopped talking about "synergy", when the biggest one of all admitted that there was nothing to be said for having their magazines under the same umbrella as their TV company.

"Synergy" used to be a key buzz word for TV companies buying print publishers or vice versa. It was the plausible sounding element in the attempt to make two and two add up to five which is at the root of most corporate moves.

In the fantasies of media moguls your magazine journalists feed stories into your radio stations and create stars who then sign book deals with your book division which are then adapted into block busting movies by your studio.

I'm sure there were cases where it worked out like that but I know there were many thousands when it didn't. The people who create intellectual property work for their own satisfaction, glory and profit rather than for the greater good of the company, no matter how well-disposed they might be towards that company.

All the different media disciplines have very different cultures. The people who work within them are not sharers. They resent the people sitting just the other side of the partition badly enough, let alone the ones across town with the better offices and different job titles.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

When a full cinema rose to applaud a *film* of Alvin Lee

Woodstock was big but "Woodstock" was bigger. The many millions in London and Leeds and Lyon and everywhere else in the world who bought tickets to see the subsequent film got a better, drier, more visible and audible entertainment experience than had been available to most of the people who were in Bethel when the festival took place.

Alvin Lee died today. Lee led the Nottingham blues band Ten Years After who (unlike The Band and Creedence Clearwater Revival) were bright enough to sign the contract with the makers of the film. "Woodstock" made them. No act has been more identified with one performance of one song on one day than Ten Years After were with their 11-minute performance of "Going Home". It was as fast as rock and roll can get while still being rhythmic. In the film it was shot close up with Lee's Roman profile occupying the greater part of the mile-wide screen while the other members of Ten Years After were consigned to the splits. It was a young man's fantasy come to life. I bet the boys who were to go on to form the Ramones were watching.

I went to see the film repeatedly. One Saturday afternoon at the Odeon Leicester Square the whole cinema applauded at the end of "Going Home". Actually applauded a band who weren't there. I do believe some people may even have stood.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

A press release from Planet Alt

I just got a PR email that went like this:
"Painting a layered and hazy, John Fahey-indebted landscape, the Lambchop and Silver Jews associate comes across as travel-weary cartographer and six-string virtuoso all at once." —SPIN
Recorded and mixed at Beech House in Nashville and co-produced by Tyler and Mark Nevers, Impossible Truth features guest appearances from Chris Scruggs, Luke Schneider, Roy Agee, and Lambchop compatriot Scott Martin. 2010’s Behold the Spirit, William Tyler’s first album under his own name, was celebrated by Pitchfork as “the most vital, energized album by an American solo guitarist in a decade or more” and established him as a critical favorite, the picker who, according to his friend and tour mate M.C. Taylor from Hiss Golden Messenger, “connects the dots between Sandy Bull, Richard Thompson, Bruce Langhorne, and Reggie Young.”
Of the album, Uncut raves: “This terrific record feels less like an exploratory folk session, more like a virtuoso guitarist and arranger using the tools of a folk musician to reconsider and deconstruct rock music.” And Pitchfork writes: “Without pandering in the slightest, Tyler wields his staggering fingerpicking technique as a means of presenting something accessible and lyrical.” Popmatters included the album in their "Listening Ahead" feature, while Spin chose William as one of their "5 Artists to Watch" in February. 
It struck me that this may be one of the most pseudy unsolicited communications I've received from a PR. Nowadays they have more namechecks than a stud book. The line "connects the dots between Sandy Bull, Richard Thompson, Bruce Langhorne and Reggie Young", which is borrowed from M.C. Taylor from Hiss Golden Messenger (with whom we are all obviously familiar) is a particular beaut.

I know far too much about music and even I would have to go and look up most of those names.

It's a classic of its kind: quotes within quotes, references within references, reviews within reviews, talk of reconsidering and deconstructing and all, one suspects, pointing you towards music which is essentially about other and probably better music. It makes you wonder whether so much of the music produced by the "alt" industry aspires only to be a footnote to music made long ago.

Monday, March 04, 2013

What happens after the great retail clear-out?

Not long ago Oxford Street had ten book shops. Now it has none - unless you count WH Smith.

Not long ago it also had half a dozen places you could buy records. It now has just one - and a sorry, understocked specimen it is at the moment.

Records and books are fast disappearing from our retail environment. You no longer encounter them on the way to get a sandwich. They enter most people's lives as noughts and ones or via the sturdy cardboard Amazon package.

I wonder whether they'll come back. Obviously not on the same level but maybe at a level enough to sustain some manufacture, distribution and retail, many notches below the mad over-supply of ten years ago.

We always cherish things just as they're about to slip away altogether. People had been gaily chucking away vinyl for years before they realised that this redundant, fragile format was about to be reborn as a soulful antique. When I did a programme for Radio Four about bootlegs a few years back there was reputedly only one record deck in the whole of the BBC. Now they're ordering them up like there's no tomorrow. Even CDs are now starting to feel just a little bit precious, which never happened before.

This is bound to be more the case as new CDs and books become less visible and more expensive, as they're surely bound to do as the number of retail outlets shrinks and Amazon, having taken control of the market, decides to push the price.

I was in Waterstone's in Piccadilly on Saturday, which is a pretty civilised place to buy books. I saw a book I was interested in. It was £9.99. I looked it up on the Amazon app on my phone. They had it for £6.89.

On two occasions recently I've walked out of independent book shops which didn't have what I asked for and hadn't heard of it either, stood on the pavement outside and ordered from Amazon from my phone. Both times I was thinking "I hope they're watching."

In Waterstone's I bought the copy in the shop. It's a nice environment, easy to navigate and the staff were pleasant. But more important than they, they had it. That's the clincher.

I don't expect to be able to find comprehensive book stores on every corner. A handful in the centre of London would probably do me fine. I would be perfectly happy with that.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

So Star Wars has replaced literature. That was a good swap, wasn't it?

Barack Obama made a remark the other day which referred to Star Wars. The tendency to draw analogies between real life and Star Wars is a marker of one of the great chasms between the generations.

When I saw the film all those years ago I was already too old to find it much more than noisy and confusing.

I didn't go on about it. I felt that if I did the decent thing and forgot it, everyone else would do the same.

It didn't work out like that. People now liken things to Star Wars as earlier generations likened things to characters in literature. I smile knowingly but I don't know what they're going on about.

And now Barack Obama makes some comment about a "Jedi mind meld" which turns out to be a conflation of Star Wars and Star Trek and I find it vaguely depressing that the most powerful man in the world has the room in his brain for anything quite as tiresome.

Thinking of this it struck me that I may have crossed another generational rubicon. You spend the first part of your life thinking the world is in trouble because it's run by the older generation. Then you wake up to find that the world is in trouble because it's run by the younger generation.

Friday, March 01, 2013

We may have the best radio in the world but we don't have this

Harper High School is a two-part programme from NPR in the States. I heard it via the This American Life podcast. It's the kind of radio you don't get in this country, not even from Radio 4. It sets out to discover what it's like in a school on the south side of Chicago where they've "lost" (how the language of warfare clings) over twenty students in the last year.

The teachers and social workers of Harper High patrol the halls relentlessly exuding positivity. One of them, Crystal, says "let me appreciate you in advance" as soon as any student doesn't directly refuse to comply with an instruction. This is the kind of school where they have to offer students a cookie for turning up at a class on time.

Even the police around Harper High reckon it's impossible to escape being allied to one gang or another. It's not to do with drugs. It's to do with where you live. The kids are frightened, which is why they sound depressed. One boy, who has gone back into his shell after accidentally shooting and killing his brother, says "I don't like to remember". His words are those of a toddler. His voice is that of a man.

Harper High School flips the picture presented by British teacher recruitment advertising. You know that one - "work with the most exciting people in the country". At Harper teachers are the ones who sound like the brightest, most questioning people in the world. The children are the ones who sound closed off, beaten down by life. They walk down the middle of the street, not merely to annoy the traffic, but because experience has taught them it's the best place to be if the shooting starts. A star football player says he has learned that when you hear a shot you should go down as if you've been hit. It's safer than running. If you run you will definitely be shot.

One of the reasons Harper High succeeds is because because at no stage does a government spokesman or a representative of the teachers union or an academic pop up to try and explain it all. The relative looseness of the format allows them to break off and explain complex sequences of cause and effect without needing a single interviewee to stand them up, as would probably happen here.

Because the programme is not committing itself to coming up with a solution, because it doesn't fit into any pre-existing current affairs strand, because it's only setting out to answer the "what's it like?" question, it can do at least a tiny bit of justice to the exhausting complexity of the problem.