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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Finally Elton gets someone he can't fire

Having greatly appreciated the glimpse of the home life of Elton John vouchsafed in "Tantrums And Tiaras" I wonder about Elton John and David Furnish adopting a baby. That's nothing to do with their sexual orientation, wealth or, certainly in Elton's case, age.

From what I could see in the film Elton lives surrounded by more delicate, expensive, sharp edged and potentially hurtful objets than you'd be likely to find outside of Harrod's furniture department. He has so many precious photographs in his Atlanta place that he needs a full time curator to take care of them. When he goes on holiday he takes a tennis pro with him. He is accompanied everywhere by a wardrobe capacious enough to offer three separate drawers devoted to sunglasses.

The introduction of a mewling infant into this temple of self is going to be interesting at the very least. Elton is one of the world's great record collectors. We must assume he has a copy of the Loudon Wainwright song "Be Careful There's A Baby In The House" and has taken its last verse to heart:

"Be careful there's a baby in the house,
And a baby is better than smart
It can waddle through all the stuff you do
Never mind your big head start"

Friday, December 24, 2010

Have we got enough bitter lemon?

Mum and Dad weren't big drinkers. However I remember that in the run-up to Christmas every effort was made to ensure that we were as well stocked with different varieties of alcohol as we were with food. Dad would wonder whether he needed to buy a fresh bottle of Cinzano while Mum checked that there was enough Lamb's Navy Rum to splash over the Christmas pudding. Then they would order a wide array of "splits", the small bottles of Schweppes Ginger ale or Indian Tonic that would be needed to administer drinks to everyone's requirements. They were terrified that somebody would ask for a Gin & It or Whisky Mac which they might not be able to provide.

Nobody caters like that any more, do they? I've just done our booze audit. We've got champagne, fizz, white, red and beer. Anyone who isn't happy with that can, quite frankly, whistle. Funny how while we've been growing fussier about food we've become less fussy about drink.

Happy Christmas.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

I don't want to spoil the party so I'll go

It was the office party yesterday. It started with a very pleasant lunch. I left about four, exhausted by holding conversations at high volume and starting to feel the tell-tale effects of what an old colleague used to call "wine poisoning". I dozed on the bus home and was in bed before ten. Obviously the younger members of the firm were still partying at five this morning. This hasn't stopped them getting in for nine o'clock this morning, which is admirable.

Age is the dawning anticipation of consequences. At the age of 18 you're too focussed on the pleasure to think about the consequences. At my age you think of the consequences before you think of the pleasure. The minute you think about the consequences you leave, a decision you very rarely regret. If you're worried that you might not be able to exercise your judgement when the time comes then you order a cab to arrive at an appointed time. If you're paying for it yourself you take it.

You never regret it.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Anthony Howard and Brian Hanrahan

This weekend brought news of the deaths of two prominent journalists. In his long career Anthony Howard was the editor of the New Statesman and The Listener and a deputy editor of the Observer. I knew him best from TV. Ever since I can remember he was the bloke they brought on to late night politics programmes to comment on the latest plots at Westminster. Inevitably dressed in a pinstripe suit with a spotted tie and a decent collar he looked as if he’d come straight from dinner at Rules. He talked like a mandarin out of a John Le Carré novel. He spoke the esperanto of Whitehall fluently. What I came to value most was the fact that, unlike most political journalists, his experience went back before Margaret Thatcher. He could draw parallels between what was going on at the moment and the careers of RAB Butler or Reg Prentice. He must have spent his life reading political biographies. The New Statesman’s tribute to him includes his recommendations from this year. I shall follow them up.

The death of Brian Hanrahan was announced this morning. Hanrahan was one of those BBC lifers whose quiet professionalism built the corporation’s reputation. He is best known for having said “I counted them all out and I counted them back again” as the Harriers left the aircraft carrier during the Falklands War. I know him as the bloke who lived round the corner from me. We used to take the same bus occasionally. I often thought about engaging him in conversation but you don't, do you? Don’t exactly know what I would have said. Now he’s dead at 61.

Condolences to the families of both.

Friday, December 17, 2010

You're always more popular when you're past it

I’ve been reading about this year’s reunion of Suede. The band, who were a going concern between 1992 and 2003, announced at the beginning of 2010 that they were getting together for just one show. This was so successful it turned into a full tour, much of it in far bigger venues than they would have played back in “their era”.

The excited reception they’ve been given by their fans, many of them now in their forties, reminds me of the way that 60s heroes like Eric Clapton and Neil Young became far more popular in their middle age, when they were past it, than they were in the first flush of their creativity. When Neil Young was writing “After The Gold Rush” he would have been lucky to sell out Hammersmith Odeon. When he was putting out “Fork In The Road” he was headlining Glastonbury.

This is because the market gets bigger all the time and you can’t achieve mega-fame if you’re only appealing to one generation. Time means your original constituency is joined by later generations of heritage kids, the people who weren’t on board first time round and the people who want to see you because you’ve finally achieved legend status. Add in the fact that a middle-aged audience has more money to spend and less entertainment options and you’ve got the reason why Suede ended up at the O2 and acts like Take That sail blithely on into middle age.

But there’s another factor. It’s not just the scale of the reception. It’s also the fervour of the reception. No crowd is quite as passionate as a middle-aged crowd celebrating what used to be before it’s too late.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Now that we don't have to buy them we're all newspaper readers

I tweeted a recommendation of a very good column by the Daily Mail's Martin Samuel. Somebody tweeted back that, "while I never read the Daily Mail", the column was very good. Which can only mean that he read it and therefore it's not strictly true to say that he "never reads the Daily Mail".

It strikes me that these days it's as anachronistic to describe yourself as a militant non-reader of a particular title as it is to call yourself a reader of another one. Being a reader of a newspaper in the old fashioned sense implied buying a newspaper at the station on the way to work and then reading it in public in such a way that it advertised something of your social status or world view.

Now that the newspapers have done us the enormous favour of giving away all their content for free we have no need to announce ourselves as a reader of one or another. Instead we go merrily clicking over the wide savannah of the internet oblivious to the jurisdictions we may be crossing. There's strong evidence to suggest that the Daily Mail website became the most popular site in Britain because it is patronised equally by people who would describe themselves as "readers" as "non-readers". What both groups have in common is they read it.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Kindle's making me read more

Having had my Kindle for a month now I can confirm that it makes you read a lot more. That's not novelty so much as convenience. It's thin enough to carry in a jacket-pocket. This means that you can take it out, not just on trains or in normal commuting situations, but also when standing outside a shop waiting for the GLW or queueing for the Channel Tunnel. If you've done things right it's kept your place and so there's no scanning back and forth to see where you'd got up to. At the bottom of the page is a percentage reading, showing how far you've got in the book, which provides a spur all of its own. I might set the book aside at 39% but I'm more likely to wait until I've read 40%. Of course you can do the same things less scientifically with a traditional book. But I probably wouldn't.

Friday, December 10, 2010

People who miss deadlines

It is a golden rule of publishing that the higher the frequency of the title the more efficient is the magazine. Weekly magazines are easy to work on because the workflow is steady. It has to be. If they stopped pedalling the bicycle would fall over. Monthlies are less efficient because each month starts with a week of idle pondering and ends with a week of frantic production. Quarterlies are so inefficiently produced you may as well do each one with an entirely new staff.

When it comes to individual contributors the golden rule is that the busiest people are always the first to file their copy. The promptest will deliver the night before the work is due. The tardiest will get in touch before the end of the deadline day and try to negotiate a postponement. You’re almost embarrassed to talk to them because they’re not ashamed to ask.

The very best people are never ill, elsewhere or detained on family business. If they are they don’t tell you about it. They know that when you say Friday you mean it. They don’t see it as a starting point for negotiation.

Lateness is clearly a state of mind, though what exactly it denotes is not easy to explain. There’s certainly an element of arrogance about it. The late contributor always assumes that other people’s promptness has made their own lateness less of a problem. It also seems to show a terrible lack of confidence. It’s like bands who spend years in the studio. That’s because they like making records but can’t bear finishing them. When they finish them they know they will be judged. They don’t like that one little bit.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Have Americans tourists got quieter and have we got noisier?

The noisy American tourist used to be a staple of British comedy in the 50s and 60s. Garlanded with cameras worn over noisy Hawaiian shirts, he was generally called Hank or Elmer and smoked a cigar. But the thing that got the British goat, and supplied the tension that led to the comedy, was that he talked so loud you couldn't avoid hearing him. The thing everyone agreed on was that Americans were all mouth. This was taken to be the expression of their new-found economic virility.

Last night I took a number of trains into the West End, which is doubly busy in the pre-Christmas period. On one train were four American university students, presumably over here as part of their course. They talked quietly and their demeanor was, if anything, faintly apologetic. It struck me that I hadn't heard a noisy American in London in ages. You can attribute that to the reduced amount of tourism from that part of the world and the fact that the last ten years have made Americans acutely aware that their nationality can make them a target, but it's certainly happened.

On the other hand, while the visiting Americans have got quieter and more polite an increasing number of Brits seem incapable of recognising that not everyone who's sharing the public space with them wants to hear everything they have to say and consequently talk louder and, though they probably don't realise it, more aggressively than ever. And in most cases they have pitifully little to shout about.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

You don't think they decided that today, do you?

I've sat on company boards for the last twenty-five years and I've never seen one occasion when a serious vote was taken without the chairman either: a) being pretty certain of the outcome or; b) having already prepared some means of deferring the decision if it looked like it might go the other way. All the important board meetings I've been involved with were preceded by quiet consultations during which likely outcomes were rehearsed and discussed. The idea that such an experienced bureaucrat as Sepp Blatter would go into a meeting like today's choice of World Cup venues without having a fair idea of how it was likely to turn out is a bit far-fetched for me.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

iPad magazines remind me of "Stonedhenge" by Ten Years After

In the late 60s every rock band suddenly wanted their album to be in stereo. To convince themselves and whoever was paying that they'd put the expensive new technology to the best use they would always have at least one track where the stereo panned from left to right and back again. Some kind of nadir was reached on Ten Years After's "Stonedhenge" when drummer Ric Lee used the stereo "picture" to play "Three Blind Mice". It's a trick that wore out its welcome very quickly.

I was reminded of this when looking at Project, the all bells and whistles iPad magazine from Virgin Media. Jeff Bridges, the "cover star", moves, for instance and every "page" has buttons and panels which scroll or expand or plunge you into a gallery or otherwise animate the experience. It has so much functionality that it needs a "spread" to explain it all. Like the other ambitious iPad magazines I've tried so far, it's so full of functionality that you can't access its primary function, which is to be something you can read. The very reasons that advertisers find this new medium attractive, the chance that you will brush your finger on a button and find yourself watching a TV ad, are the same reasons I never go back to these apps.

On the other hand I can easily see the appeal of those apps, such as The Economist, the Daily Telegraph or New York Times, that simply take the publication's material and arrange it for the screen. As a means of accessing a magazine that you already have a relationship with, they seem to do that job pretty well and the publishers are either making them available for free or providing free access to subscribers. I'm sure there are iPad developers who would call their policy timid and would criticise the publishers for not taking advantage of the manifold possibilities of the medium. Well, they would, wouldn't they?

I fear at the moment we're in the psychedelic stage of iPad magazine development, where the digital equivalents of stereo panning, extreme reverb, phasing and backwards tapes are being used to distract attention from the fact that in the end it's all about the tunes.

Have the middle classes gone downmarket?

My ears pricked up the other day when Ed Milliband said that Labour had to to get back to doing something for "the middle classes". This seems like the latest step in the Americanisation of British politics. Most of my voting life British politicians have avoided mentioning the middle classes in anything other than a sneering voice, for fear of summoning up images of napkins and gravel drives. When American politicians talk about the middle class they're referring to regular folks. Homer and Marge.

I was thinking about this when I was watching the football in a pub at the weekend. It was full of middle-aged blokes drinking pints and swearing quite freely. I'd guess most of them had not gone to university, but owned their own homes, which their fathers probably didn't. Maybe they're the middle class that the coming generation of politicians is talking about. If that's the case then a lot of alternative comedians (and there's nothing more middle class than an alternative comedian) are going to have to start re-thinking their arsenal of slights. In the 70s "middle class" meant Tom and Barbara Good in "The Good Life". I suppose in my head it still does.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Don't tell me to go to the cinema, Simon

Tonight we went to the cinema. It was a cold night, this is no longer a cheap evening, even at the Barnet Odeon, and because the Odeon chain's credit card booking system seem to have an an aversion to my web browser, I wasn't even certain we were going to get in. However we did, and there among the trailers and the adverts for beer, was a very polished commercial in which Simon Pegg and Nick Frost congratulated us for coming out to the cinema rather than just waiting until the film came out in DVD. Only in the cinema, they said, could you enjoy the film as it was meant to be seen, with a big picture and the best sound.

Now it's probable that when Simon Pegg and Nick Frost see a film it's in a nice preview theatre in Soho with airplane seating and proper projectionists. They don't have to sit, as we did tonight, in a room that feels like a strip club. They don't have to watch an expensively shot commercial for Orange being screened in the colour pink, proof, if proof were needed, that nobody is actually running the programme and making sure that we are seeing things as they are meant to be seen. They don't have to put up with the sound of the special effects from the Harry Potter film coming through the plasterboard dividing this strip club from the slightly bigger one next door. And nobody accidentally switches on the house lights fifteen minutes before the end. And is presumably so far removed from the experience of the customer that they remain on. The members of the audience just laugh. What are they supposed to do? Go off and complain? It would be a day's march before they found anyone.

As we exited at the end one woman was asking the youth in the foyer whether there was a manager she could talk to. He was busy doing what most cinema employees spend most of their time doing - putting carbonated beverages in a refrigerator. I didn't help her because I wanted to get home. On the way back my daughter said that the last time she'd been there she'd had to point out to a member of staff that the roof was leaking. Compared to that our experience had fallen within a range of acceptability.

Complaining about the contempt with which cinema chains treat their customers is as bootless as pointing out that people swear at football. Despite the blandishments of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, I shall henceforth vote with my feet, which will remain in the "up" position. At home.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Television is all about faffing around

I did a filmed interview for TV the other day. It's good to be reminded every now and again that TV is a visual medium.

The interview set-up was in a small office with a door that led into a larger outer office. The previous interviewee had been filmed in a different room in the same building. Obviously I couldn't be shot in the same place in the same way because TV grammar being what it is the viewer would have concluded I was in some way associated with the previous speaker.

To move even the simplest camera, sound recording equipment and lights from one room and set it up in another never takes less than an hour. The cameraman finally got me lined up. These were the early shots in a documentary for a proper TV channel and so they had to decide on a style. I was leaning forward. They liked that and so they composed the shot that allowed me to do that. The background was the outer office, carefully lit and artfully unfocussed so that it apparently looked like nowhere in particular. They spent a lot of time looking through the lens at the things behind me.

If you'd been doing the interview for any other medium the very first thing you would have done is shut the door to ensure that you weren't disturbed and the interviewee was not in any way inhibited by the thought of being overheard. But TV abhors a wooden door, particularly when it can have an arty blur. So the door remained open and the production assistant was sent into the outer office to shush anyone whose work might be picked up by the microphone.

There were lots of similar faffing around. When they had me lined up they decided it might be better to have the questions coming from off-camera left rather than right. So they moved everything - sofa, camera, microphone, me - and tried it from that angle. Then they worried about a straight line somewhere in the distance. Then they worried about whether you could see the lights properly. Finally we started.

The time spent filming was maybe a fifth of the time spent faffing. This delay wasn't because the people were in any way incompetent. It's just that TV is one long faff. It has to be. One of the most curious aspects was that later in the interview the cameraman kept jerking the lens away from me, as if he was having trouble with the tripod. I wasn't sure whether to keep talking or not. It turns out he was just providing some of that jerky quality that they now put into interviews to give the impression of looseness.

Over the years my slight exposure to TV has left me wondering how anybody could have the patience to do it for a living. More profoundly it's also left me with the firm conviction that nothing that you see on television "just happened". TV is more planned than Bach. If anything had "just happened" the camera would undoubtedly have been looking the other way. And they would have done it again, this time with better lighting.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The best TV talking head ever?

The American Civil War - a film by Ken Burns is a masterclass in historical documentary making. It shows that a good script, extraordinary photographs and well chosen sound effects can easily ace corny dramatic reconstructions of officers writing their diaries and looking pensively out of the window.

But above all it has wonderful voices: Morgan Freeman as Frederick Douglass, Garrison Keillor as Walt Whitman and Sam Waterston as Abraham Lincoln. Providing the context, on camera, is Shelby Foote, probably America's best-known Civil War historian. His contributions must have delighted the producers because they are perfectly measured in length, packed with the ideal balance of dry fact and poignant anecdote and delivered, from beneath sad eyes, in a voice that sounds like it comes from the same time as the melancholy events it describes.

He died five years ago. A fan made this for remembrance.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Notes after three glasses of wine with an old mate

One day, if you're lucky, there'll be an occasion, possibly a Sunday lunch, maybe during one of the big festivals of the year, maybe just one of those unheralded days that crop up at the beginning or the end of summer, when you'll find yourself hosting Jane Austen's definition of a good party. She said that was too many people in too small a room.

It won't be perfect.

Somebody will be late. Something will burn. A child will refuse to eat something. There won't be enough chairs to accommodate boyfriends, girlfriends and whoever else turns up. At some stage it will strike you that everybody's talking over everyone else and you've drunk too much red wine. Somebody will turn off your precious playlist of Sunday lunch music.

At that precise point, if you'll take my advice, you'll stop, breathe, listen and savour the moment. Because that moment, right there, is what it's all about. It never gets any better than that.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

When is it OK to call someone a slapper?

We had an interesting discussion in the office yesterday about the word "slapper". Somebody had used it in a feature about footballers and their marriage difficulties. It said that since the Sunday newspapers started paying out to anyone who could produce a story about having slept with a footballer, "every slapper from Newcastle to Newquay knew that they could get rich".

Eyebrows were raised about the use of that particular term. Couldn't it be replaced with something more decorous such as "gold digger" or "floozy"? Well, no. Slapper means a woman who will sleep with lots of men. There is no male equivalent because the idea is deeply ingrained in our culture that most men will, if given the chance, sleep with lots of women. You can't tweak that prejudice out of existence.

The etymology of "slapper" is unclear. It's not in my 1991 Shorter Oxford Dictionary. It doesn't appear in the usual American Dictionaries on-line. In Jonathon Green's Dictionary of Slang it's traced back, possibly to "schlepper" which might mean a slovenly person or one who paints her face. For me it's always evoked the sound of Chaucerian flesh on flesh. Although Green has it down as "a promiscuous woman", which seems about right to me, he also thinks it might mean "prostitute". I'm not convinced about that. As Mark Ellen pointed out, "prostitute" suggests the calculation of a professional and is increasingly replaced by the almost approving "sex worker".

Somebody further objected that "slapper" could be taken to denote class. I'm not so sure. I think it's a term that can be applied as freely in the smart wine bars of Chelsea as it might be in Wetherspoons. Then somebody said that by referring to Newcastle we might be conjuring up a vision of Viz's Fat Slags in the Bigg Market. Of course, since slappers are sprinkled among the population without any particular regional bias, that must say more about our prejudice about Newcastle than the writer's supposed prejudice against the place or its inhabitants.

And so on. In the end it was decided to leave it alone because we know what slapper means and it is the perfect noun for this context. We might not like to feel that we're the kind of people who would use the term, of course, but that's our problem.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

I know what I like

I can't get on with the new batch of torchy female solo artists. I'm talking about the ones that seem to waltz effortlessly on to big radio playlists and are acclaimed as the voice of the year before the year has actually begun. Duffy, Rumer, Pixie Lott, Lissie and so on.

I think it's the songs.

Because most of them work alongside factory songwriters, old hands who have spent years kicking about in no-hoper bands but have a Ph.D in what works, their songs are constructed artfully enough. They have all the surface characteristics of catchiness without actually being catchy. Not at least to me.

I've never written a song so what do I know? I have however listened to billions of songs so I have a point of view. It seems to me a good pop tune has a perfect balance between familiarity and strangeness. The lyric offers you a ribbon that's easy to take hold of and invites you to pull that ribbon to find out more. A good song lifts like a curtain, surrendering its meaning at a pace that the listener can keep up with. The great records aren't just catchy on the surface. At the same time they're hinting at the promise of further layers of catchiness to come.

I'm not picking on Lauren Pritchard. She's simply the latest to get this treatment. She went to Hollywood when she was 16 and for some reason lived with Lisa Marie Presley. She starred in an off-Broadway show. She was in a pop duo. She fronted a reggae band. And now she has a contract with one of the few major record companies and is getting The Treatment. Colleagues of mine like her record Wasted in Jackson She'll probably do very well. I just don't get it. This is her first single.

I've got a strong suspicion that there's no tune in this song. There's a lot of very musical work in there but not a tune you could hum to yourself. The lyrics are difficult to catch, particularly at the beginning. There are no great pop songs that don't have good opening lines. Further into the song the stress doesn't seem to fall where it should. The hook line is "no painkillers make it go away", to which the casual ear wonders why there's such a long "no" and the pedant wonders "make what go away?" It continues. "If I tried to over-dose it wouldn't bring no change," which is a really strange line in that it neither echoes everyday speech nor helps the tune along.

To prove to myself that this is not just an old scrote's prejudice against the new generation, I do like Amy Lavere's record Anchors and Anvils, which came out last year. She's a similar age and background. She has a song called "Killing Him Didn't Make The Love Go Away", inspired by something a woman said after she'd killed her husband. I love this song because it explains something to you and it's all about the performance not the production. After one listen you come away knowing what has happened and how the woman feels. After two listens it has imposed its pattern on you, you're anticipating the chord change on "he said he'd give her the sun and the moon/now all she's got is this eight by eight room" and the cheap poetry of the title is embedded in your memory.


Pop music changes regularly. If you listen to a lot of it you retune your ear to adapt to those changes. It's only occasionally you find yourself wondering if everybody's out of step but you, whether everybody else has settled for songs that are well-made when they really ought to be stopping you in your tracks,

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Watching "Fela!" up close

Last Saturday I went to watch a preview of "Fela!" at the National Theatre. It's a production that's come from Broadway but all of the cast except the lead were hired and rehearsed in London. With a live band on stage, a twenty-strong troupe of dancers, ramps extending towards and through the audience, the entire arsenal of National Theatre sound and lighting at its disposal and the wide open spaces of the Olivier Theatre to roam in, this is about as technically demanding as a performance can be.

I was fortunate enough to watch from the front row. One of the delights of seeing anything - whether it's a theatrical performance, a rock show or a sporting event - at such close quarters is that you can see the performers dealing with the tiny practicalities of their trade. You see the looks exchanged between them. You can tell that chair has been moved because something is about to happen in the place where it stood. You can see somebody being handed a prop that is about to play some part in the action. You notice when somebody covers for somebody else. At certain angles you can see performers in the wings getting ready to come on. When Sahr Ngaujah came downstage drops of his sweat fell into the front row.

During previews the cast are getting ready to face first the press and then the general public. They've done their technical rehearsals and their dress rehearsals. The previews are about ironing things out and getting up to speed. The only thing which appeared to go slightly awry on this occasion was a piece of the set that refused to move. The actors and the lighting crew were so quick to adapt it's unlikely anyone beyond the first few rows even noticed. When the show had moved on I could see from my angle a technician attacking it with a screwdriver. Apart from that you would never have believed they hadn't been doing it for months. It was their first preview. The level of accomplishment beggars belief.

I love doing anything with actors because they always assume things are going to go wrong. They rehearse and rehearse even the tiniest things, not so much to make sure they don't as to ensure they are mentally ready when they do. I'm sure that's a lesson that applies far beyond the theatre.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The strange allure of documentaries from your childhood years

To the NFT to see A Day In The Life: Four Portraits of post-war Britain by John Krish. These films were made in the late 50s and early 60s for organisations like the N.S.P.C.C. and the N.U.T.. They cover the last tram in London; an old soldier living on his own; a bunch of children from deprived backgrounds taken to the sea for the first time; a day in the life of a secondary modern school in Watford in 1962.

It's strange how the chronology of your own childhood helps you date things. I could tell when each of these films was made by looking at the kids' haircuts and styles of clothes. I can look at anything from the 60s or 70s and narrow it down to a two-year period quite quickly. Land me in the 80s or 90s however and it's a blur. Childhood stays in your memory very precisely, arranged by academic years, girlfriends, pop records and other useful markers. You only regain the same kind of accuracy when you have children of your own. You look back and work out the chronology of events by referring to their lives. "That must have been 1993 because so-and-so was at such-and-such school."

In some respects the past is spookily familiar. "I Think They Call Him John" is a pretty agonising film from 1964 about widower John Ronson, leading a lonely life in a high rise flat. On Sunday evening he puts on the D.E.R. television set to accompany his ironing. It's "Sunday Night At The London Palladium". We don't see it but I did recognise the voice of the presenter. Bruce Forsyth.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Watching a Chapel Market funeral

Round the corner from the office in Chapel Market is a pub called the Alma. Britain is full of pubs called the Alma. This one's for hard drinkers, many with market connections. Customers are usually hoisting pints of lager at nine o'clock in the morning. It's been like this long before the licensing laws were reformed. The smoking ban meant the pub's patrons, all of whom are smokers, were suddenly extruded into the daylight as if in a sock that had been turned inside out. People who had spent their days in the darkest corners were forced to drink and smoke outside. None of these people look healthy, which is not surprising if they're drinking and smoking all day. Quite a few of them seemed to have lost limbs, presumably not at the Battle of the Alma.

Every now and then you'll see a small poster run off a home printer and placed in the window. This will bear a picture of a man who looks 75 but was probably in his early 60s and announce that Patrick or Jim or Michael has died and that his funeral party will be either departing from or terminating at the Alma. When we went out for something to eat yesterday lunchtime one of these parties was taking place. Through the window we could see and hear a musician singing "The Fields Of Athenry" through a portable P.A. while the regulars lifted pint after pint and the horse-racing flickered silently on the TV above the bar.

A knot of mourners watched the proceedings from outside so that they could smoke. We sat down in the chip shop opposite. One of the mourners, a 12-year-old boy, wearing a buttoned-up suit and sporting a huge star-shaped stud earring, came in, bought a saveloy and then went back across the road to re-join the mourners and eat it.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

How did Dad become the family whipping boy?

I got a haircut yesterday. It was a bit shorter than I intended but I'm happy enough with it. I walked into the usual banter at the office but none of it was actually unkind, even from old friends and colleagues who are extended a free pass in that area.

It wasn't the same when I got home. The three women in my life looked at me and said "Oh my God!" This wasn't said in a good way. Later on that evening they were still tutting at me. Their central objection was that it was too short. Obviously there's a remedy for that.

Now clearly if the shoe had been on the other foot and I had reacted in anything like the same way when they came back from the hairdressers I would expect to be accused of everything from sexism through rudeness to mental cruelty.

I'm not looking for any sympathy but I do think it indicates how Dad is the only member of the contemporary family that the other members no longer think they have to be careful with. Everybody else is surrounded by an eggshell area to which they are entitled by virtue of having given birth (which is serious) or being a teenager (which is a passing condition) or having a hangover (which is fleeting).

Not Dad. Dad is, as Bruce Springsteen pointed out last week, furniture. Dad is the only person in the world whose clothes you can criticise, whose head you can pat, whose gut you can prod without the slightest chance of any come-back at all. But those people should watch out. Because I've got a blog now.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Obama swallows the bitterest pill

Everyone expects Barack Obama to get a bloody nose in today's mid-term elections. That's what traditionally happens to presidents. I'm sure he expected nothing less when he was elected all of two years ago. Nonetheless he must surely be bitterly disappointed by the number of his top people who have announced that they are planning to leave. Rahm Emmanuel, his chief of staff, is just one. To put this in West Wing terms this is like Leo McGarry buggering off at the end of Season Two because things were getting a bit too hot. There are more.

I expect all Obama's media admirers, who gushed over his election as if it were a hinge moment for civilisation, to melt away the minute he has to do what people in government have to do, make some unpalatable choices. I expect many of the voters to have the attention spans of mayflies. But this sudden disappearance of so many of the people who were professionally connected to him is further proof that no wing of politics has a monopoly of the basic human virtues. I used to know a grizzled old press baron who when asked what he considered the most important virtue would bark "Loyalty" . At the time I thought he was overrating it. I don't any more.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

I still like a book

I've just finished In Europe: Travels Through the Twentieth Century by Geert Mak. I was so impressed with it I've bought a few copies to give away as Christmas presents.

This is the copy I've been carrying around with me for the last couple of weeks, with the receipt I've been using as a book mark. It's an 800-plus page book so I felt the usual sense of achievement that I was not merely getting through it but also enjoying it. I liked feeling it in my hand and putting it on the bedside table at night.

I've also bought myself a Kindle, which clearly has a place for anyone who does a lot of reading. But if I'd read "In Europe" entirely on the Kindle I would miss not being able to look at it. If you've invested this much time in something you like to be able to see it and touch it.

I'm the same with music. Downloads are fine if all you want to do is listen. But if you really appreciate something you want to own it.



Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The gas poker - a truly blood curdling piece of domestic kit

When we moved into our house twenty-three years ago it had no central heating. There was a coal-fired boiler in the kitchen that the elderly couple we were buying from kept going all the time. Of course as soon as we moved in it went out. The only device that could get it started again was a gas poker. I explained to this to the gas engineer we had working in the house yesterday. Nice bloke, in his thirties, I should think. "What's a gas poker?" he asked.

I explained it was a device such as you might use for poking the fire but if you connected it to the gas mains and applied a match to it flames would shoot out of holes in the side. Then you pushed it under the fuel on the fire until it got a glow going. That's a gas poker, I said.

He gulped and handed me a safety leaflet.

Monday, October 25, 2010

What the Walkman took from us

Sony have announced that they're stopping production of the Walkman. They presumably think that having sold 220,000,000 units they would be pushing their luck carrying on. I can clearly remember my first encounter with the miracle that was the original Walkman. It was 1979 and I'd gone to Stewart Copeland's flat in Shepherd's Bush to interview him. The Police had just come back from Japan and he produced this blue house brick of a tape player and handed the spongy earphones to me. "Put these on," he said to me with the air of a man who'd been performing the same party trick with all kinds of people since his return. I can't remember what music it was playing but I can clearly recall my breath being taken away by the realisation that all this sound was emanating from such a small device. Compared to that one giant leap the move to the iPod was just a minor adjustment. The Walkman changed things so completely that I still don't think that we realise the full extent of its impact thirty years later. With its arrival music stopped being what it had primarily been since the dawn of time, which was a social thing.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Clarence Shaw

I just received the latest edition of my school's old boys magazine. It carries the obituary of one Clarence Shaw, who died earlier this year at the age of 93.

Clarence was a miner's son. In 1936 he became Head Boy of the grammar school. He got a scholarship to Oxford. He married in 1939, the same year he enlisted as a private in the Royal Artillery. During the war he served on convoy protection duty. He was torpedoed twice. On the second occasion he survived two weeks in a lifeboat before rescue. By the end of the war he had made Captain. When he was demobbed he trained as a teacher and entered the profession. He retired in 1980 as the Headmaster of a school near Barnsley. He had six children and liked to read the classics in the original Latin and Greek.

Just saying.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Marianna Palka points the way to a post-PR world

This morning I got an email from Marianna Palka. To my shame I'd never heard of her. In 2008 The Guardian called her "the young British director who's taking the world by storm". She made and starred in a film called "Good Dick". Anyway, she's on her way to the UK from Los Angeles to do some press and she says she's an admirer of my work and wonders if I could advise her who might be interested in interviewing her. It's not unknown for the admiration to be flannel and her PR will know better than me who's interested in interviewing her.

What interests me is the direct, specific approach. Every day I go through my inbox and delete about a hundred PR emails unread. The PRs who send them probably don't care because what they're really bothered about is being able to tell the client that they've informed me and a few thousand others. Job done. Invoice in post. The only ones I read are those that have subject lines of particular interest to me or appear to be clearly aimed at me alone. By sending this kind of email Marianna Palka has acquired the most valuable currency in The Attention Economy. She's got someone to stop and think about her for half an hour. Shame (for her) it has to be me.

This is not unprecedented. I've had a few approaches recently from PRs saying that this or that artist is a big fan of the Word Podcast and would love to be on it. Frankly, I don't believe them because if the artists were that bothered they would get in touch themselves. That way we might believe them. Why, in this day and age, would you send any kind of message through an intermediary?

Anyway, if you are a hack and she sounds like your kind of story, Marianna's clearly an exceptional cove. She was born in Scotland, moved to New York to act at the age of 17, she's already written, directed and starred in her first feature film and she's not yet 30. Best of luck to her.

Inside the cosy world of our top politicians

Having seen a brief clip, I can't wait to view the rest of "Mandelson: The Real PM". This fly-on-the-wall documentary follows Cabinet Minister's grandson Baron Mandelson in the febrile run-up to the last election. How he got away with it I'll never know.

It's made by his personal friend Hannah Rothschild, the sister of financier Nathaniel, in whose company Mandelson made his controversial visit to the yacht of Russian tycoon Oleg Deripaska, where he also bumped into Baronet's son George Osborne. All these guys must have been bantering with each other for years now, at smart parties as well as at despatch boxes. One can only be thankful that they met Deripaska because that must have been the only time that year that they'd had dinner with anyone who'd worked on a building site.

The film promises to illustrate what a narrow gene pool our top politicians are drawn from nowadays. I don't think the makers will notice but we will. As politics becomes more and more about TV it favours people who are above all things polished. During the Labour leadership election, which was contested between candidates who had all been to Oxbridge, institutions which are world class at polish, I couldn't help but wonder if David or Ed Miliband would ever have found their way to Doncaster or South Shields if they hadn't had them lined up as safe seats. Bet they're the only people from Primrose Hill to make regular visits.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Kids today really don't know they're born - and nor will the next lot

It's nice to feel like a member of an oppressed minority now and then. Bit of indignant hurt peps you up no end. In the course of an interesting debate about university top-up fees on The Guardian site somebody pops up with what is becoming a familiar refrain - since they clearly grew up in an era of plenty and didn't have to pay to go to university, why don't the baby boomers pay for all this?

I have my Baby Boomer membership card and therefore I feel the need to respond.

I came from a direct grant grammar school which every year sent a handful of boys to Oxbridge. Although this was a selective school not everyone went on to higher education, not by any means. These were the days of 13% going on to take a degree. Some left at 15 (you could do that in those days) to work as office boys or to take an apprenticeship. And this wasn't a simple economic calculation. It depended on their inclination, prospects and temperament. I knew miner's sons who stayed on and went to university. I knew kids from well-off families who got out the second they could. I went away and came to London. I did a four year B.Ed course which finished in 1972.

While I was studying my tution and board was paid. I had £40 a term for everything else (bolstered by what I managed to save from unpleasant manual labour done during the vacations). I went to the pub where I drank mild because it was cheaper. I hardly ever went into London because I couldn't afford it. The pictures maybe once a month. Clubbing obviously wasn't invented, nor were premium lagers, clothes with logos on them and designer drugs. I didn't know what a cab was. At the end of term I would go to the end of the M1 and hitchhike home.

I'm not complaining. I had a great time. I didn't work particularly hard. I loved it all and learned a lot. When I left I walked straight into a job on the recommendation of a lecturer (one of many examples of my not realising how lucky I was) where my pay was £1,500. A year. That's with a degree and London weighting.

It goes without saying that £1,500 went a lot further then than it does now. But it couldn't buy, for instance, a holiday. I did without holidays until my late twenties. When the NME wanted to send me to Hamburg for one night (you can't imagine how thrilled I was) I didn't have a passport. We got married when I was twenty-nine. On my stag night six of us went to a pub in Islington and had five pints. Our wedding was paid for by parents. It was lavish for the era. There were fifty guests. Our honeymoon was three nights in France.

Today's twentysomethings have grown used to mobile phones, Sky subscriptions, cabs, clubbing, an occasional trip to a fancy restaurant, stag weekends, Hollywood weddings and multiple holidays. In 1979 this would have been an unimaginably luxurious life. I don't think we even knew the word lifestyle. I don't begrudge them any of it. I understand only too well about debts and employment and house buying. I don't resent what I didn't have. What I do resent, what every older generation always resents, is being told we had it easy by somebody who wasn't there.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The most beautiful sound ever made by man

People talk a lot of nonsense about singing, particularly around X Factor. Sam Cooke had one of the most beautiful voices God ever gave to man. This is my favourite example of it. It's on the end of an ancient album called "Two Sides Of Sam Cooke". They call it "Humming Track". I've seen it on various CDs as "Happy In Love". I think it was probably recorded in the same session.

What is it? I don't know exactly but it sounds like Sam singing to himself far from the microphone, tapping his foot, possibly to impress a woman. I couldn't find a Spotify link so I got the disc out and recorded it. It's quiet so you have to lean towards it. It lasts less than a minute. Here it is. Let me know if this has wasted your time.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Magazines and the iPad - on second thoughts

Every magazine publisher at the moment is faced by a new problem, on top of the other ones. Do you or do you not invest in a version of your magazine for the iPad? If you listen to the futurists you have no choice. If you're adventurous you go for one of those all bells and whistles remakes such as Wired. (If you watch this little video review you can see how reviewers fudge the awkward issues – such as how do you actually read the thing? – to focus instead on the video and navigation.)

My favourite magazine, The New Yorker, has just launched their own app which means they're inviting subscribers like me to pay another $5 a week to get a version of the magazine for a tablet. Judging by the comments, I don't think I'm the only one who thinks that's a bit much. But I can see why they've done it. They have to recoup their costs and they probably reckon Apple is planning to do to the magazine industry what it has already done to the music industry, but with less lubricant, in which case it's better to set your price high.

Problem is things like this are insanely expensive to produce, aimed at a user base which is a fraction of the magazine's universe and by the time it's proven (or not) as a medium the publishers will be thousands of pounds in the hole. The only people guaranteed to make money are the developers. The only people to make money out of the Gold Rush were the people who sold the shovels. It's an old joke but it still holds good.

If you're less adventurous you could put your magazine on a platform like Zinio, which provides a PDF-like facsimile of your pages and has an interface that allows you to "turn" the pages. But even this costs money. Above all this is less about technology than behaviour. I don't feel in my water that people will inevitably use their iPads to read complete magazines on. At the moment they're using magazines to try out their iPads with, which is not the same thing at all.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Are we running out of funny?

Last night I caught five minutes of the new Harry Enfield & Paul Whitehouse show. There was a sketch about two old duffers in a gentlemen's club (good to see comedy doing its bit to preserve long-dead social history) which involved the repetition (and I do mean repetition) of the words "is he queer?", a sketch about some semi-criminals with an attack dog which involved the repetition (and I do mean repetition) of the words "shut it" and one called Mr Bean, Psycho which was about throwing a grenade into a crowded lift and then stepping in to the blood stained compartment. (I bet somebody at the BBC was more worried than most about the threatened "Mumbai-style" attack yesterday.)

It was clever, accomplished, edgy, humorous and exactly the kind of thing we have come to expect from two of TV's most popular comic actors. Unfortunately, it wasn't funny. I know funny. Funny makes you laugh. Funny has surprise on its side. Funny is - correct me if I'm wrong - the only thing that actually matters in comedy. It's like tunes in pop music. If you've got a tune you can do anything. If you haven't got a tune there's nothing you can do.

Maybe there's not enough funny to go round any more. Makes sense in a way. You've got all those channels that are looking for funny. Funny can't be an infinite resource. You've got the movies immediately signing up anyone who so much as raises a smile on TV. Then they're writing books that promise more funny. Then there's the internet. And adverts. And Twitter. And then there may be the fact that they've told all their jokes. There was Victoria Wood the other week complaining about the fact that nobody at the BBC seemed to care about her stuff anymore. But then, as people pointed out, her last big TV spectacular wasn't actually funny.

Look, I remember Morecambe and Wise. They were funny for about 20% of the time. The rest of the time they were merely comical. Seems to me we've got too much that's comical and not enough that's funny.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Dear Zachary is a film you should see

I've had a DVD of Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father on my desk for months now. I was told I should watch it. I didn't. I'm always being told I should watch things, hear things, read things. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't. You know what it's like. You have to be in the mood for something and when are you ever in the mood for a home-made film about the tragic death of a young doctor in Pennsylvania?

Yesterday afternoon, when it was pouring down and I had an hour to pass before an appointment, I put it on. After 15 minutes I realised it was having such an effect on me I was watching it standing up. I watched half of it last night and have just got up early to see the rest of it. By the end I was tearing up, although not as badly as the people being interviewed.

I thought about many things after watching it: how there's a level of intimacy that professional film makers and writers can never achieve which a film like this does; just how often in the wake of a senseless loss we hear the words "all protocols were followed"; how parents feel something for other parents that's unlike any other fellow feeling; how whatever you're doing this weekend really doesn't matter very much at all.

You should watch it.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Dear woman with two-year-old in smart Islington coffee shop

It’s obviously up to you how you raise your kids. You’re relaxed enough to let your tiny daughter wander towards the open door leading on to Upper Street. You’re obviously confident that if she does decide to totter outside towards the traffic you could bolt across the crowded café and intercept her in time. I don’t expect you to bother about people like me who look on anxiously.

If anything terrible happened you would be legally responsible. I can’t help thinking that I would be to some extent morally responsible for not making a scene and insisting that you keep her at your side.

But what’s more likely is that nothing terrible will happen. But at some stage it will nearly happen. If that puts the fear of God into you then it can only mean that you have never contemplated the possibility. And if you’ve never contemplated the possibility, what kind of parent are you?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

When did the kids stop being alright?


Saw An Education.

While watching the early scenes where teenage Carey Mulligan and her father Alfred Molina have tense exchanges over where she wants to go, what she wants to wear and how she wishes to behave, it struck me that an awful lot of films used to hinge on similar confrontations. From Billy Liar to Back To The Future, the same drama would be played out over the dinner table. Just as good always conquered evil in these films the fears of parents would always prove groundless. The parents were always out of touch and over-protective; the kids were always alright.

I don't see that anymore. If the kid gets her own way nowadays I feel she's likely to end up sobbing on her parents' shoulder. When did that change? Or is it just that I changed and started seeing things from the parents' point of view?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

My solution to anti-social behaviour

A couple of mornings ago I was on my way up Pentonville Road when I saw a cyclist coming down the hill on the pavement towards me at some speed. This in itself isn't surprising. The local yobs believe it's their right to cycle down the pavement. As he got closer I could see he was going very fast, looking unusually wild-eyed. As he flew past me I heard the three separate sirens of three separate police motorbikes tearing down the hill after him. Since they were understandably traveling by road rather than pavement they were a bit slow in following him as he took the inevitable right alongside Grimaldi Park (recently restored at some expense) into a warren of housing developments.

The sight of this pursuit seemed like the classic illustration of modern law enforcement: disproportionate effort being expended to no great effect. I can't imagine they caught him. It seems particularly timely this week. Everybody who depends on public money is making their pre-emptive strike to protect themselves against spending cuts. Today it's the police saying that if they get cut back then anti social behaviour will get worse.

Not sure if it's entirely a good idea to say this because people might point out that over the last twenty years, when we've been mainly governed by lawyers and policy wonks, we've been making new things illegal at a staggering rate and increasing police numbers along with them but our streets don't feel significantly safer. The other night I took a short cut through Somers Town, the area round the back of Euston station where some of Dickens's most deprived characters lodged. Clearly I don't expect it to be like St John's Wood but I was staggered by how threatening it felt, largely because of the number of attack dogs that were tugging their owners (male, female, old, young) around the area on the end of chains. Some of these creatures had clearly been in fights. They had all been picked for their terrorising qualities. I can't imagine how terrifying it must be to raise children around such animals.

In 1991 we had the Dangerous Dogs act, which no doubt cost a fortune from some budget somewhere. Since then we seem to have, if anything, more dangerous dogs. Is that right? I've long been a believer that governments generally manage to achieve the opposite of what they set out to do. If there was a reliable relationship between money spent and result achieved, then the amount spent on "combating anti-social behaviour" would have ensured that the local delinquents would all be lacing daisies in each other's hair by now.

Surely riding bikes down pavements belongs alongside keeping dangerous dogs in confined spaces and using your phone while driving a car in the category of behaviour that might be best addressed by some massive public awareness campaign on the scale of the AIDS campaign of the past to put over one simple, resounding message - stop behaving like a tit.

Slogan could do with some work, obviously.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The agony of Not Reading A Book


Some people need a Personal Trainer. I think I need a Reading Manager.

Having just finished Mayflower: A Voyage to War and Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, then read a couple of chapters of Why England Lose and some of At Home: A Short History of Private Life while waiting for the kettle to boil, I'm passing through that brief interregnum when I'm not officially Reading A Book.

Looking at the teetering stack of books I've either bought, been sent, been loaned or plucked from the pile of review copies in the office recently I can't decide whether this is a delight or torture. Maybe it's a combination of the two. And by the way, what about those people who read the new Jonathan Franzen novel or Tony Blair's memoirs the minute they come out? Haven't they got a prior commitment to something else? You can't just break off one book and start another, can you?

As far as this pile is concerned it's not a question of working out what's any good. I don't doubt they're all very good. It's more a question of what do I feel like? Or should that be what *will*I feel like? If I've just come off some non-fiction, would I be best continuing in the same vein or is it time for a change? I've never been able to read fiction in the same way since Danny Baker pointed out "it's all made up".

And how do you get started without making a big deal of it? How can you just slip into reading something without being haunted by those same inner voices that used to haunt first dates (a long time ago), the ones that clearly say "this isn't going to work out." I always have to handle the changeover from one book to another carefully for fear I lose the knack for reading. I can remember periods of my life when I hardly read books at all and I worry about them returning.

A Reading Manager might be a good idea. A cross between a friend and a teacher. Somebody who is always a few steps ahead and is in a position to provide reassurance when things aren't going well and a clip round the ear when I'm starting to drift. I may advertise. Watch the press.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Magazines on the iPad. Maybe pictures aren't the point.

After a few weeks the iPad feels like a neat domestic device. It's ideal for keeping at the end of the dining table to settle arguments or check train times. It's perfect for sitting on your lap when you're not that bothered about what you're supposed to be watching on the TV. It slots into all sorts of intervals in daily life. We listen to the Archers podcast last thing at night on it. I'm sure it will have lots of similar uses.

However I've justified my purchase on the basis of it being touted as The Future Of Magazines. For the last year crystal ball gazers have promised that the iPad's large screen and fabulous display would mean it can finally equal the visual impact that magazine editors hold so dear.

I've downloaded a few, ranging from customised edition apps like Wired and Popular Science to "page-turning" facsimiles such as you can get for Wallpaper or Esquire. Only time will tell whether these will outlive the novelty stage.

However I'm already wondering whether pictures on the iPad will ever have the same impact as they have in a glossy magazine. This is partly because if you get the pictures big enough then you have to cheat on the grammar of the traditional magazine by drastically reducing the number of words on the spread. It's also because the pictures are behind glass rather than under your fingers. Once we're looking at a screen we expect to be able to choose what we want to see big, not have it dictated to us by an editor.

It could be that what the iPad does best is provide another means of navigating material on the web through traditional news readers and very clever things like Flipboard. Which would be no help to anyone.

Still. Early days.

Friday, September 10, 2010

At what point does tooling about on the web turn into a media project?

I started this blog in January 2007. Why? Because I was curious about blogging as a means of communication which offered such immediacy. That and the fact that I've got a restless nature. And the additional fact that in most mainstream media work you have to devote so much effort into persuading other people to let you do something that by the time you get permission you're exhausted.

Starting a blog is an odd thing. There's a curious early period when there clearly isn't anyone reading it and you feel as if you're miming a pop song in front of the bedroom mirror and you're terrified your mother will burst in. Then a few people drop in, presumably drawn there by the fact that they know you. Either that or the desultory nature of the contents.

Because I spend my working life doing things which have to fit into certain slots, it's the very amateurishness (in its literal sense) of blogging that appeals to me. In the real world nobody is going to ask me to write about sport or the way people behave on public transport so in the blog it goes. Like I say at the top the blog is for "stuff that won't go anywhere else".

But then you start to notice that some things are more popular than others. They attract more traffic and more comments. Then the temptation is to do more of those posts and less of the other kind, to try to anticipate what people might like. You get the same thing with Twitter. Somebody with a lot of followers re-tweets something you've written and the next thing you know you've woken up to fifty new followers. This is nice but then you wonder, what are these new people expecting? I've got a terrible feeling that I'm not going to provide whatever it is that they want.

It's at this point you have to say you don't care what people want – not that they know what they want anyway - and write a completely self-indulgent post like this one. Feels better somehow.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Why we care about Wayne Rooney's problems

On the way home I listened to The Guardian's Football Weekly. They touched on the Rooney business. The consensus seemed to be that it's none of our business what goes on between Rooney, his wife and one of the hordes of young women who make a career out of sleeping with Premiership footballers.

True enough. It is none of our business. But then somebody said that he had no interest in what Rooney did when he wasn't playing football. That's not true. We are very interested. That interest may be unworthy and impossible to justify but it's there just the same.

Part of this may be a desire to see the rich and famous brought low. I wonder if it's also fuelled by the fact that in our atomised way of life we spend less of our time gossiping about neighbours, family members and work colleagues, as earlier generations might have done, and more time cackling over the misfortunes of those we will never meet and somehow assume are beyond hurt. We're not going to stop, of course, because gossip is in our bones. As the old movie line goes, "if you can't think of anything nice to say about someone, come sit by me."

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Can you still embarrass the K.O.T.?

Yesterday I watched Shaun Attwood giving a talk to a sixth form in south-west London. He's written Hard Time: A Brit in America's Toughest Jail about his experiences of incarceration in the Arizona prison system and so his story majored on buggery with broom handles, white supremacist gangs, the challenges of defecating in front of witnesses and casual brutality of every sort.

If anyone had been allowed to give this kind of talk in the schools of my day they would have been met with blushes, sniggers and probably interjections of the "sir, that man just said 'foreskin' variety." I can remember spending a lot of my teenage years nervously patrolling the frontier between the formal language of the adult world and the Rabelaisian badinage of the sixth form common room, worried that I might unknowingly give myself away.

It's not like that today. These 16 and 17 year-olds sat there and lapped it all up with barely a blush. This chimes with my experience of the Kids Of Today. They're a lot more difficult to embarrass than my generation were. Or maybe they're just embarrassed by different things.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Why Morrissey says these things

All discussions about whether Morrissey is a "racist" (whatever that means) are a waste of ink, breath and, in some cases, money. What's more interesting about his latest blurt in The Guardian is that the choice of words - "you can't help but feel that the Chinese are a subspecies" - suggests that he started to say one thing and then said another.

Unless Morrissey is more familiar with zoological taxonomy than I'm giving him credit for he may have started that sentence gaily accelerating towards saying that the Chinese were "sub-human" before a self-censoring synapse intervened and persuaded him to say "sub species" instead. As he said it there must have been a Homer Simpson thought bubble above his head admitting "I don't have a clue what this term means - why didn't I just say they were horrible to animals?".

Why does he do it? Most of us have never known the erotic thrill of being invited to say anything we like into a tape recorder. Just imagine that feeling. It's powerful medicine. For an egomaniac like Morrissey it's a reason for living. And for a personality like him, who only knows what he thinks when he hears himself saying it, it's a permanent invitation to get himself into trouble.

The Guardian prints the whole interview and then editorialises about how shocking it is, so they get to have it both ways. The twitterati will huff and they will puff. Funny how "Disgusted Of Tunbridge Wells" seems to have so quickly given way to "Appalled of Stoke Newington".

World turns. Chinese wonder who this Morrissey is.

Friday, September 03, 2010

And did those feet cling to this windowsill?

Walking down Carnaby Street yesterday evening I spotted this above a shop. Since Don Arden was an impresario whose reputation was mainly founded on the legend that he dangled a business associate out of a window by his ankles and the "Small Faces" (inverted commas in that context look like the mark of a local paper) always said that they never got paid at any stage of their careers, it seems odd that his place of business should be marked in this way.

Better maybe that the building be recognised for its other legendary tenant - "Smash Hits" magazine during the 1980s.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

I am a bit of a girl

The other night I sat down with daughter two to watch Mean Girls. I've been meaning to do this since I discovered Tina Fey. I was barracked in some quarters for watching "a girls film". I'm impervious to such criticism because I am happily reconciled to the fact that I am a bit, if not a lot of a girl. I can't work out if I've always been a bit of a girl or whether it was something that happened to me during the time I worked for a large publisher.

Magazines tend to be a female dominated medium. Working on or near women's magazines provides you with ample opportunity to talk airily about things that are a closed book to most men and the experience leaves you with views where most men don't have views. It also makes you more comfortable with nuances and to appreciate the wide disparity between what people say and what they mean.

I don't say this to get on the right side of women. There's quite enough inter-gender toadying going on. But I do it to have more fun. I have discovered that I prefer the company of women, if that doesn't sound like Jonathan Ross.

I get on fine with male friends but I tend to regard them as being above and beyond their category. About twenty years ago I was discussing middle-aged men as a taste group with a colleague who was also a middle-aged man. They're hopeless, he said, because unless you're talking about the subject in which they're the world's foremost expert they're not interested.

I said this was a bit harsh. Experience has taught me that he was only a bit harsh.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Has record reviewing gone mad?

I was talking to a fellow hack last week. Said hack was due to review a new album for one of our more august newspapers. The only way the record company would let the hack listen to the record was if one of their employees came round to hack's place of work with an iPod containing said new album, found a spare office somewhere, sat them down, clamped the headphones on and then played them the record while the drone looked on to make sure they weren't uploading it to the internet.

This ritual, which introduces into the carefree world of pop picking a formality more usually associated with registering a death, is the most absurd thing I've heard of in the increasingly ludicrous and security-obsessed world of pre-release reviewing. I won't tell you the name of the artist in this case lest it should embarrass my friend, who's only trying to earn a living. It ought to embarrass the newspaper, who are prepared to give space to a review based on so glancing an encounter with the record. It probably won't embarrass the record company who are one of those who have worked themselves into such a state of hyper-tension about piracy and pre-release leakage that they prefer to send journalists links to password-protected streams rather than CDs.

Personally, I'm too old and set in my ways to play along. If I have to listen to a record under those conditions I'd really rather not hear it at all and, if they've got any sense, they won't want me to because I'm likely to take out my anger at the process on the poor bloody record. One thing is certain. Whether you're sitting in a meeting room under the gaze of a PR or tethered to your computer auditing a stream, anything much less conducive to the proper spirit in which pop music should be enjoyed would be difficult to imagine. It encourages the rush to judgement which usually comes up with the wrong answer.

Of course, record companies don't care whether critics are wrong about their records provided they're favourably wrong. They know that the first past the post review system forces critics to come up with an opinion before they have one. They hope that based on a hack's often premature opinion people may buy the record. This all conspires to deceive the public. Reviewers trying to justify their continued employment tend to have crisp, quotable opinions when what they really think could better be summed up in a Gallic shrug.

Time was you bought the record and got to know it afterwards. If you'd bought it on the basis of some review and it didn't seem to live up to the claims - I bought Patto's Roll 'em Smoke 'em on the basis of a review that called it "the missing link between Abbey Road and the Mahavishnu Orchestra" and I still haven't forgiven the bastard who wrote those words even though it's 38 years ago - then you persuaded yourself that you liked it. This created a tradition of self-deception which ran like a silver thread through the collective memory of the rock cognoscenti.

We don't have to do it anymore. Now we can get to know records over time and decide if we want to stream them, download them or even buy them on the basis of how we feel. There's no rush. The records aren't going anywhere. The record companies should calm down and so should the papers. There are no verdicts. Just opinions. If they're interesting opinions we'll still have them next week.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The charisma of a forty-year-old piece of window dressing


This large piece of hardboard is a reminder of just how important record sleeve art once was. This was put in the window of the old HMV shop in Oxford Street in 1973 to mark the release of "Burnin'", the second Island album by Bob Marley and The Wailers. My old friend and colleague Steve Wright rescued it when the display period was over and it took pride of place in various hippified pads in north London. It used to look down on Saturday nights as we returned from the pub to sit round smoking and listening to the new John Martyn album. Anyway Steve moved to Australia and ten years ago when he died a friend and I had the job of sorting out the stuff he'd left in Holloway. We found the Wailers hardboard and, rather than see it on a skip, I took it home. It did stints in the office and at university halls of residence. It has holes in the corner where a cord has been threaded to hang it from a picture rail. It's still in one piece after nearly forty years. Son wants to keep it and is therefore going to get it framed, which seems the most sensible way to ensure its survival. Odd the things that survive.

The Beatles - as brought to you by Miner's make-up


While making a half-hearted attempt to tidy up in my work room at home I came across this copy of The Beatles' "Hello Goodbye" from 1967. The B-side is "I Am The Walrus". That's another reminder of this group's uniqueness; no other act before or since has scattered its jewels so freely. Anyway, the Miner's make-up ad which was printed on the bag, as it was on most of the Beatles classic singles, attests to the fact that brand tie-ins on pop records have been going on for a long time and aren't some post-Simon Cowell abomination.

I used to get the bus to school. When we came home we passed Shaw Cross Pit just as the miners were coming off shift. They'd been in the pit baths but they still had coal dust round their eyes. I can remember wondering if there was a direct relationship between the eyeliner applied by girls prior to going out and the black outline that remained on the miners' eyes all the time and whether the make-up manufacturers had deliberately named themselves after the miners. I never voiced this thought at the time. Can't believe I'm doing it now.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Was this the first gay magazine?


The first gay magazine that I remember was "Jeremy". This caused enormous excitement forty years ago among the college friends I had who took interest in such things, but had yet to officially decide they were gay. Before that they used to buy "Films And Filming", a magazine that combined learned features about distinguished lighting cameramen with yay-high pictures of film actors like Terence Stamp, Bjorn Andresen, Malcolm McDowell and (as is the case here) Sean Connery in torrid states of undress. The magazine was obviously run by a gay publisher or someone who had worked out you would sell a lot more copies of your Eisenstein retrospective if you wrapped it in a picture of David Hemmings dressed as a gladiator. I found this old copy in the office today and it made me very nostalgic for the days when you could be apparently publishing one thing while actually publishing another.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

I wouldn't buy a £50 ticket in a £30 economy

Happened to catch a tea interval conversation on Test Match Special between Jonathan Agnew and the bloke in charge of the Oval during yesterday's England-Pakistan test match. The subject was the poor attendances we've seen during internationals in other parts of the country finally starting to affect the London matches. The Bloke, who was very reasonable and perfectly happy to accept criticism, admitted the evidence seemed to be pointing to the fact that the prices might be too high. The cheapest ticket to attend a London Test for just one of its five days was £50.

He let slip that he'd always believed that if people would pay £30 they would pay £50. This is a classic example of how prices rise in a boom. The people setting the prices - whether they're the people running the Oval or the managers of your favourite indie rock band - keep pushing the price until they feel the market begin to push back. They do it in bigger increments all the time. It's not hard to see their reasoning. They've got to make up for massive shortfalls elsewhere, whether it's the drop-off in record sales or attendances at county matches, and they argue that £50 for six hours of top class sporting entertainment seems reasonable, certainly compared to whatever you have to pay at Chelsea or Arsenal or the Grand Prix.

This is not how the customer sees it. The customer, generally male, sees it as £50 each for him and possibly his wife; then maybe another £50 for two offspring; add in the general expenses of a day out (transport, parking, food, drink, unforeseens) and it's not hard to spend £200 on what could turn out to be a weather disrupted day of no great distinction without any winner at the end of it. And here it's not like football. Our man could spend £200 and return home with a family which is less happy than the one he went out with.

It's the same with rock bands. You might be able to demand £50 for your absolute favourite performing at the top of their game in a perfect venue. Problem is that a lot of the time you're delivering the act you've always kind of wanted to get round to seeing performing a ho-hum set in an unsympathetic venue with rotten sight lines. People don't go home from an unsatisfactory day or night out saying, oh, well, you have to take the rough with the smooth. They go home feeling angry and swindled.

Part of the answer, of course, is for the £50 ticket to go back to being £30. At £30 you might be prepared to take the risk. For £30 you might be prepared to give the event the benefit of the doubt. It ultimately makes a kind of sense for the promoters too. Already in the USA this summer they've been slashing the prices of tickets for big stadium shows because they have to get people in there to buy the tee shirts and to pay for the parking. Otherwise they're stuck with hugely expensive real estate with nobody in it. There's a piece about this in the latest issue of The Word.

While the web has had a deflationary effect on most things over the last few years, with live entertainment it's pushed prices in the other direction. This seems to be at an end. You can't go on charging £50 when everybody out there knows it's a £30 economy. Not unless you're going to be able to guarantee the experience.


Monday, August 16, 2010

The fathomless stupidity of the Football Association

I've long suspected that the Football Association, with its rotating cast of chief execs, long-established reputation for appointing bottom pinchers to senior positions and inability to produce a football pitch with grass on it, is the worst-managed organisation in the world. Last week's announcement that the next England manager would definitely be English confirmed this supposition beyond reasonable doubt.

There may well be good reasons for appointing an Englishman. There is not one good reason for announcing this is what you intend to do at some point in the future. Where does it get you? It means that you can't have a conversation with any candidate from another country. It means that the three English managers who could claim to be qualified for the job know that they've got the whip hand in any negotiations. And what are you going to do if Fabio Capello wins the European Championship? Why in the name of all that's holy would any organisation show their hand in this fashion?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Complete Smiley is the ultimate mile-melter

Yesterday we drove back to London from the south western tip of Brittany. It takes about thirteen hours, which can be tedious. This time the journey was considerably lightened because we listened to ten hours of The Complete George Smiley, Radio Four's dramatisation of all the John Le Carré novels that feature his hero George Smiley, "the last illusionless man". It's over twenty hours of running time in total.

It makes great radio drama because most of it involves characters who choose their words with surgical care. Hearing great actors like Simon Russell Beale, Brian Cox and Eleanor Bron delivering lines like "a nation's secret services are the only real expression of its sub-conscious" or "between us we'd make one good man" is a rare treat. The plots are easier to follow than in the TV adaptations or the original books because on radio they have to be. Every now and then there's a "doof-oof-ratatat" interlude indicating that somebody has been shot trying to escape. A voice quickly and plausibly tells us who it was.

We haven't finished it yet. The thought that we might do so makes the prospect of driving to Glasgow in a couple of weeks time a bit less of a chore.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

I envy the people who stay late at the beach

On holiday in Brittany we end each day with a post-prandial walk on the beach. No matter how late we leave it there will be some family group still down there, making sand castles, playing volleyball, swimming or doing something else that most people stopped doing at the end of the afternoon.

Ever since I can remember I've envied the people who were still on the beach long after the rest of us had made whatever concession we needed to make to getting ready for dinner. I can remember looking out of the window of hotel dining rooms and seeing a handful of kids still out there playing, the whole beach to themselves. How did they do that? How could their parents be so relaxed?

I've concluded it's an attitude of mind. The people who are still on the beach at nine o'clock aren't worried, like most of us, about making their leisure fit the dictates of a clock. They're not terrified that Junior will never go to sleep if he doesn't get fed by a certain time. They're not haunted by the fear that they will arrive at the restaurant too early or too late. They're not suffering the agonies of the rest of us by trying to make everything perfect. They're built for holidays in a way that most of us, sadly, aren't.

Friday, July 30, 2010

The real Barbara Hepworth

This young flapper, who looks as though she's learned the secret of life and is keeping it to herself, is the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, as she was about to embark on her brilliant career.

As a girl she attended Wakefield Girls High School. Forty years later, my sister, who is also called Barbara Hepworth, sat the entrance exam for the same school. One of the teachers chirruped brightly to my parents, "we can only hope she'll do as well as her illustrious namesake." My parents, who didn't stay abreast of the visual arts, smiled thinly and pretended they knew what the teacher was going on about.

Anyway, the Hepworth Wakefield is a major gallery opening next year. I've tried to interest them in getting my sister to cut the ribbon. They've not bitten so far. Mind you, she hasn't agreed either.

What musicians are thinking when they look at the audience

I was talking to a young musician friend recently. He plays in his own band but also goes out regularly doing covers in pubs. "You've no idea," he said, "how difficult it is to get people to listen."

I've been thinking about this ever since. Maybe part of the reason I've been able to persuade musicians like Chris Difford, Mary Gauthier and Barb Jungr to come along to True Stories Told Live and just perform for ten minutes is because they know how precious somebody's undivided attention is. In some ways they're happier playing to a listening audience for ten minutes than competing for the attention of a bigger, paying crowd for much longer.

I'm always amazed by the resilience musicians show in walking out in front of people who would clearly be happier drinking, eating, talking or being entertained by someone else. I try to put myself in their shoes and imagine how the world looks from the other side of the monitors. I often wonder why they don't just walk off.

I was thinking about this again this morning while looking at Amy Rigby's excellent blog. She's an American musician who's married to Wreckless Eric. They live in France and play wherever they can. This never was an easy life and it's harder than ever right now. There's no record company, no management, no structure, no career path, just a life. Unlike many musicians Amy Rigby is perceptive enough to notice the audience and candid enough to write about them. This is a show the other night:

Today I'm recovering from our gig at the Site Corot last night. Held in an unused auberge in a lovely spot near a river, next to some old glove factories, it took five meetings and three months to organize. Many people showed up, having been told we were either a) a "rhythm and blues" group or b) country music. They stayed for about three songs and the rest of the set we played to our usual ten friends and the few assorted French people too polite to desert us. But the river made a nice sound and we still remembered how to play.

The dread and anticipation, the inevitable misrepresentation, the evening that peters out before it is meant to, the embarrassed silences, the battering taken by the confidence: sounds like nothing so much as a blind date.