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Sunday, March 01, 2015

When rock stars played Scrabble

The more I look at 1971 the more it seems like a vanished world. I've Always Kept a Unicorn: The Biography of Sandy Denny by Mick Houghton is an oral history made up of interviews with people who knew her and worked with her and it's full of telling details of that same old world.

I've just been stopped in my tracks by one such detail.

Sandy Denny and Trevor Lucas liked to play Monopoly and Scrabble.

There they were, a swinging young bohemian couple with famous friends and a Chelsea address, and they chose to spend their time playing Monopoly. (Bruce Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt were doing the same at the same time over in New Jersey.) And when there wasn't a board around they invented word games. That's where the title of Fairport Convention's third album  "Unhalfbricking" came from.

This tells you one thing about life at the time and probably how that era came to produce so much vital music.

There wasn't a lot else to do.

In those days young, hip, long-haired people never watched television. They couldn't afford a set and there wasn't much to watch on it if they did.

Of course they lived full lives - drinking, socialising, fornicating, playing, plotting and all the rest that you might expect - but they didn't live with the low level distractions which are an inevitable by-product of plenty and progress. That is what made them so productive.

Next Monday, March 9th, Mark Ellen and I will be talking to Mick Houghton, who wrote the book, as well as Simon Nicol and Ashley Hutchings, who started Fairport Convention in 1967.

It's at the Slaughtered Lamb in Clerkenwell. It starts at 7:30 and is over by 9:00. You can find out more and get tickets here.

Friday, February 27, 2015

In praise of Bluetooth headphones

It was Johnnie Walker who got me interested in Bluetooth headphones. I bought the same Sony MDR-10RBT model as he did and I'm pretty pleased with them.

I have to listen to a lot of radio previews in a week to write about them for The Guardian. I can pair these headphones with phone, tablet, laptop or iMac and can then wander fairly freely while still listening closely. The signal starts to break up if you move too far away from the source but within reason the connection works very well.

If you've got them paired with your phone and you get a call while listening you can press a button on one headphone and immediately you're through. Not sure I'd use them if I was working in an office (might feel too much like a minicab driver) but at home they do the job.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Great advice for writers and editors from The New Yorker

I've no idea by what act of creative accountancy The New Yorker manages to keep going but I'm delighted it does. To mark the magazine's 90th anniversary they've published this podcast which features lots of the magazine's key people talking about how the magazine is written and edited.

It's full of good thoughts. The secret of editing is not to come up with the best article but to come up with the best article the writer can write.

I like the one about the editor who told James Thurber not to bother improving his drawing because "if you get any better, you'd be mediocre".

I also like the other one about the editor who when she wanted to be abusive would scrawl the word "poetry" on a proof.

I think she was also the one who said "if you can't say it clearly it doesn't exist".

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Sometimes the kids aren't alright

I heard the head teacher of Bethnal Green Academy talking on the radio. This is the school attended by the three girls who've run off to join Islamic State.

He was at pains to assure everyone his school promoted values of fairness and tolerance. I don't doubt it. However I wonder whether some of his pupils were listening any more than we were back in the sixties when an earlier generation of head teachers lectured us about the value of self discipline and being smartly turned-out.

The Bethnal Green head's voice was the voice teenagers hear so often nowadays that they must imitate it behind their hands. It's the voice of the prevailing wisdom, the voice they hear on the radio all the time, the voice of public statements, the voice of everyone from vicars to pop stars, the voice of adults promoting peace and togetherness so insistently that a few of the people listening inevitably start to crave the opposite.

It was always the way. As Marlon Brando's character in the "The Wild One" said, "What am I rebelling against? What have you got?"

Saturday, February 21, 2015

When advertisers in newspapers knew where to draw the line

Looking through 1971 numbers of The New York Times, I'm struck by three things:

How much page real estate was taken up by ads in those days.

How much of the ad space was bought by the major department stores, the retailers, rather than the brands themselves.

How most of the ads were illustrated rather than photographic.

Friday, February 13, 2015

What Shakespeare thought about Twitter

Jon Ronson's piece about Justine Sacco, the woman whose life and career were destroyed by a tweet, is unsettling reading.

She's the PR who posted what was supposed to be a dry joke about AIDS while on a trip to South Africa. She got off the plane at the other end to find she had lost her job, broken her family's heart and was the number one target of a digital lynch mob, none of whom had heard of her a few hours earlier.

In tracing how a little local difficulty turned into an international mob in full cry, Ronson turns up the guy you might call the First Shamer. Sam Biddle ran a technology blog and had 15,000 followers so when he re-tweeted the item and pointed out that Justine was a PR, it was bound to get some traction. But he can't possibly have predicted the catastrophe that befell her.

Key line in the piece for me is "social media is so perfectly designed to manipulate our desire for approval". Justine thought she might be doing that with her first tweet. Sam knew he was doing that by re-posting the item.

It's funny, really. All these modern young media people with their carefully cultivated "take me as you find me" facades and underneath they're all like kids desperately trying to buy their way into the cool corner of the playground by knocking somebody else's cap off. (I went to school a long time ago.)

The language people use on-line to express their approval or disapproval of things people write is full of the language of the playground: they talk of  "take-downs", of "nailing it", of skewering and burning and otherwise having the last word.

What they're really trying to do is make a name for themselves by rubbishing somebody else's.

Shakespeare described that sport this way.

"Who steals my purse steals trash...but he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him but makes me poor indeed".

How many characters is that?

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Why Google may not be here for ever

Piece about Google in The New York Times suggests that they won't be able to dominate the market for brand advertising the way they have done the market for search advertising and finishes with this quote from Ben Thompson who blogs at Stratechery:

“This is the price of being so successful — what you’re seeing is that when a company becomes dominant, its dominance precludes it from dominating the next thing. It’s almost like a natural law of business.”

That's certainly true in my experience.

It's not that the incumbent market leader doesn't see the next big thing coming along. It's just that they have prospered by developing such a particular view of the world that they can't deal with people who see it differently.

At first the new thing doesn't appear to be in quite the same business.

Then it doesn't appear to be operating at a profit and therefore surely cannot last long.

Then your lunch has gone.