Wednesday, April 29, 2015

When did school mottos become 'mission statements'?

"We class schools, you see, into four grades: Leading School, First-rate School, Good School, and School. Frankly," said Mr Levy, "School is pretty bad...” 
There's a good adaptation of that book, Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall, on Radio Four at the moment.  Waugh was a cynic about most things, but schools in particular. It doesn't matter what the masters at Llanabba Castle do, in Waugh's world it's all about the boys and the boys will put any amount of energy into avoiding work.

That's obviously one extreme. Yesterday, on passing a school minibus, I got a glimpse of the other extreme. Beneath the name of the school was this motto:

"Igniting the spark of genius in every child."

I know no organisation every outperforms their aspirations and all that but, as Waugh would have said, WTF? The above sentence is not a coherent thought. It's a bunch of words put in a line and nudged in the direction of a sentiment. And because it's a pious sentiment, one of the kind we all theoretically buy into, everybody sits back and applauds when really they should pelt it with fruit.

Honestly, why is everyone from school governors to the people who provide dry cleaning services trying to tug our heart-strings by using emotive words like "genius" and "passion" when any rational being knows they have no part in what these organisations do?

Think back to your school days. However good, bad or indifferent your school was, there probably wasn't a lot of genius ignition going on. Where's the school whose motto is "teaching kids things"?

If there's one thing I thank my school for teaching me it was how to take a sentence apart and examine how it works or doesn't. I use that every day. In fact my old school should change its motto to "calling people on their shit since 1591." In Latin.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

In praise of the Health app and Instapaper

It was Matthew Parris in the Times who alerted me to the fact that the iPhone in my pocket has an app which is measuring how far I walk every day. As soon as I discovered this I became, like him, obsessed with trying to maintain my average. At the moment this is 9,257 steps a day, in case you're interested. On the days when I don't have any reason to leave the house I go on long circuitous walks round the neighbourhood to try to keep up.

I've been using another gismo a lot recently. Instapaper is a site and app where you can store long reads from magazines and newspapers to read at your leisure. Since I never read anything longer than 300 words on a screen that's a fair bit of stuff. I've just added Kate Mossman's piece about Bruce Hornsby where it sits alongside an Esquire story about the early days of Silicon Valley, another about the ownership of the copyright of "Happy Birthday" and David Simon's interview with Richard Price.

I read these stories on my phone on the tube. Most of them will last as long as it takes to travel from Oxford Circus to my home. If it weren't for Instapaper I wouldn't read them at all.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Leaving a record collection in your will is like bequeathing a minor stately home

When I made my first will, thirty years ago, I asked an old friend to be an executor. I had a lot of records. He had a lot of records. I figured that if it came to it he'd either take them or know what to do. A lot's changed since then. CD made vinyl seem passé. Then CD turned out to be even more passé. The world turned digital, fewer people had space for lots of stuff and my friend moved to Australia.

The other day my son asked me what I was planning to do with it all and I didn't have an answer.
He's far-sighted enough to know that it's going to be a problem. None of the kids are going to want more than the odd souvenir. They're all moving house at the moment and it's clear they don't have the same attachment to stuff we had at that age. No reason why they should. On the other hand they're sensitive enough to know that several thousand vinyl LPs and as many CDs can't just be chucked on to the council tip.

In the light of all the vinyl fetishism around Record Store Day I asked on Twitter whether anyone had made arrangements for their record collection in their wills. A few said they'd said that friends could have their pick. Some had specified that particular records should be left to particular people. That's probably OK if you don't have a massive quantity. The problem with a large collection is it's simultaneously precious and a pain in the arse. Bequeathing it is like leaving somebody a dog or a minor stately home. Not everyone wants the responsibility.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Whenever I buy fast food I feel like Peter Mandelson in that chip shop

On the way back from Laugharne on Sunday I was seized by one of those hungers only a hamburger could answer. We found one in a spookily quiet service area in South Wales.

I was glad it was quiet because the queue in a fast food outlet is one of those everyday situations in which I'm never quite sure how to behave.

I find myself in a queue at Macdonald's or Burger King or Nando's about once every eighteen months and every time I suffer the same anxieties.

How will I ask for the right thing? These brands offer such a bewildering range of exotically-named options that I can never find the simple, unplugged version, which is usually the thing I actually want.

How will I make sure I don't get too much? If I stagger back to the car carrying a bucket of coffee and a free child's toy my wife will tick me off.

Are the other customers sniggering at how strange I clearly find it all? Do I look like Peter Mandelson in that Hartlepool fish and chip shop, pointing at the mushy peas and asking for "some of that delicious guacamole"?

Of course the fast food outlet is full of traps for the electioneering politician. The menu is made up of stuff you spend your time telling people not to eat. It's staffed by people who get paid next to nothing and probably don't vote. It's usually foreign-owned. As Ed Miliband found, it's difficult to eat cheap food in an elegant manner. And finally and most crucially, your behaviour in a fast food outlet marks you out as slightly posh. Which, being a career politician, you most definitely are.

I see Hillary Clinton (above) dropped in on a fast food place this week. There's a funny piece here speculating how she might have tried to bridge the great divide.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Farewell to Percy Sledge, singer of the most inappropriate wedding song of all

Soul songs used to be just like country songs. They were about something. They had plots, moments of jeopardy, shattering climaxes as a result of which the singer learned important lessons. Usually too late to do anything but write a song about it.

Percy Sledge, who has just died at the age of seventy-three, played the part of the cuckold. His signature hit, "When A Man Loves A Woman", is about a man who is so blinded by love that he can't see what a bad lot he's just married. Given that, it beggars belief that people still regularly ask for this record as the first dance of a newly-married couple.

Percy repeated the trick with "Take Time To Know Her". In this song he takes his new love to see his mama. She tells him not to rush into things. To take time to know her, in fact. Does he listen? What do you think?

Monday, April 13, 2015

The romance in a sitcom like "Veep" proves we're not as cynical as we like to pretend

Great New York Times thing about the highly-charged but platonic love affair at the centre of the brilliant "Veep". Short clip here.

Julia-Louis Dreyfus plays vice-President Selina Mayer. Tony Hale is Gary Walsh, her "body man", whose job is to be no more than a pace behind her at all times, carrying her professional and personal necessities and steering her round the thousand hazards littering the path of her every day. He's the only person in the world she can trust. It's no exaggeration to say he worships the ground she walks upon, and paces out every bit of it to make sure she doesn't come to any harm.

Funny that romance only seems to get on the TV under the guise of comedy. It was the affair between Jim and Pam that kept "The Office" going so long. The love between Homer and Marge is what gives "The Simpsons" its heart.

The more cynical the world in which the comedy is set - and the characters in "Veep" make the people in Armando Iannucci's "The Thick Of It" look like the folk in "The Vicar Of Dibley" - the more our need to believe they're capable of something better.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

I remember when fitness wasn't a thing

Passing a small car park near my home on Saturday I found it full of people in their thirties exercising under the eye of a couple of military-looking fitness instructors. This was taking place within yards of a couple of gyms, which were also full to bursting.

In my lifetime no change has taken place which is more dramatic and far-reaching than the renewed emphasis on fitness. I cannot tell you just how uninterested people used to be in exercise and diet. When I was in my twenties I didn't know anybody who ran, swam, cycled or went the gym. The only gyms were sinister-looking places above shops from which came the sound of boxing glove landing on punch bag. Nobody had trainers, either the footwear or human variety. It was not, to use a modern expression, a thing. Anybody seen indulging in any exercise for the simple reason that it might improve their appearance or prolong their life would have been thought conceited.

Since then a behavioural wave has swept the country which can only be compared to the temperance movement of the early 19th century. Our local swimming pool, which used to be somewhat down at heel, has been transformed into a fitness centre and is now thrumming with activity even at 6:30 in the morning. Visitors from the early 70s or even the 80s would not be able to believe their eyes.

Changes like this always make me wonder the same thing. What's going to change in the next forty years that will render the world we now live in just as unrecognisable to us on our hundredth birthdays?

Monday, April 06, 2015

Got a spare million to bid on the song that invented pop nostalgia?

I'm not surprised Don McLean's putting the hand-written lyrics of "American Pie" up for auction tomorrow. I am however amazed that he knew where they were in the first place. 1971's a long time ago. If I had to put my hand on anything important from that year, such as my degree, I'd be in trouble.

I don't know how they establish the provenance of hand-written lyrics. Apparently this was in a file at his home along with various other working drafts he's stored over the years. Since I shan't be bidding I don't have to decide whether to believe it or not.

What's interesting about "American Pie" in the light of 1971 is it's one of the very first shoots of a force which was about to become very powerful in pop music - nostalgia. From the point of view of the Sixties the Fifties were yesterday and therefore not all that interesting. As soon as the Seventies began the Fifties were far enough away to seem like the vanished world of Lost Content. McLean's song mined that seam very profitably. Nobody knew what the song meant but they liked the way it felt.

There were a few other straws in the wind that year. 1971 was also the year of the first workshop production of "Grease" in Chicago. Originally this was hard-hitting and gritty. By the time it was on Broadway it provided the same cosy look back as you would have found by then in "Happy Days", "American Graffiti", the Carpenters doing "Yesterday Once More" and Ringo Starr in "That'll Be The Day".

What nobody in 1971 suspected was that anyone in the future would be interested in holding on to anything from the year 1971. That must have been doubly the case with the lyrics of a song that dealt with the past. In 1971 it was only just beginning to dawn on the music industry that the past might be more interesting and hence more valuable than the present. If I was working for the "American Pie" auctioneer I wouldn't be building it up on the grounds that everybody's fascinated by the song's meaning. I'd be pointing out that "American Pie" marked the beginning of pop nostalgia. That's very significant.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Comedy is all casting

The casting of "The Office" is more than half the value of the series. They're all just slightly off-centre, which probably helps explain why they've ended up in this dead-end paper company. For instance, I think Ricky Gervais pointed out that Steve Carell is perfect as Michael Scott because he's "almost handsome".

I've just been reading a profile of the casting director of this and many other comedies and it helps explains why Andy Buckley is so good as Dunder-Mifflin's CFO David Wallace. Wallace doesn't have any funny lines. His job is to turn up at moments of corporate jeopardy and play the heavy father. He tries to be stern but he can't quite bring himself to do it. He is completely believable.

It turns out that Buckley was a jobbing actor who gave it up to work in the finance industry. The casting director Allison Jones bumped into him after he had switched careers, took his card and this led to him getting the part, which he did alongside his day job. The reason he looks like a serious businessman is because that's what he is.