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Monday, March 31, 2008

Podcasts: not just hear for the nice things in life

Walking to and from the West End just now I listened to two podcasts, each of which featured one sobering fact,
The first was in Radio Four's Analysis on the management of drug addiction and it goes like this:
  • Heroin was invented by a British scientist in the 1870s to get people off opium.
The second came from the same network's File On Four programme about sovereign wealth funds.
  • Chinese reserves of the dollar rise by five hundred billion dollars every year.
Sleep well.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Art for Art's sake, Money for God's sake

This morning I was dragged to the William Morris collection in Walthamstow. Whenever I visit an art gallery I realise what a verbal person I am. My wife looks at the exhibits and reads the captions afterwards. I do things the other way around.
The building was Morris's home and the permanent collection seemed to do a good job of providing an introduction to him. I preferred looking upstairs at the work of Frank Brangwyn but then I'm a sucker for a good propaganda poster (left).
Since visiting I learn that the place is under threat of curtailment, if not closure. I sympathise with the councillors of Waltham Forest who have to line this up against all their other outgoings and decide whether it's something they should be funding; on the other hand we turned up expecting to pay and were told to put our money away. I think Morris, who spent most of his life trying to make sure his mother's mining shares could continue to underwrite his adventures in socialism, would have taken it.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

When I was dressed by HM Government

Returning from dropping my son off at Victoria at an unearthly hour of this morning I was amazed to see that Laurence Corner has closed. This shop near that corner of the Euston Road that always seems to vie for the title Windiest Place In London has been there ever since I've lived in London. For those who didn't know it it dealt in what used to be called "army surplus" and eventually grew into an assortment of items that were roughly khaki in colour and looked as if they could be some use on a camp site.

I may have bought the odd thing at Laurence Corner but the 60s were the true army surplus era for me and I did most of my surplus shopping in Yorkshire. When I was sixteen fashionable clothes weren't really available in the shops and if they had been I wouldn't have had the budget to buy them. It didn't matter. The army surplus store was where the grammar school boy with boho pretensions would shop by choice in those days. It was here that we bought double-breasted Merchant Navy greatcoats, strangely frocked black oilskin coats such as a trawlerman might wear to go on deck in the North Sea, ex-Korean War fatigue jackets which, if you were lucky, would have a name like "Kowalski" printed on the pocket, canvas shoulder bags in which field medics used to carry morphine, voluminous, itchy off-white polo necks that were standard issue on the Arctic convoys, pale fawn collarless military "grandad" vests, webbing belts with buckles that were impossible to lock and berets such as Robert Lindsay subsequently sported in "Citizen Smith".

Our fathers, who had been given these exact items of clothing to wear free of charge when they were conscripted into the army in 1940, would shake their heads and wonder why we chose to dress this way and yet in every other respect showed no military inclinations whatsoever. They would be even more amazed if they could see us now, eagerly devouring history books about wars they fought in in search of the very same authenticity by proxy that the accident of our birth has made us lucky enough to avoid.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Let us now praise Nancy Banks-Smith

I stopped watching "The Apprentice" some while ago. I loved the early series but the central problem, that no talented, ambitious person without a serious personality disorder would really want a job with Amstrad, now gets in the way of my enjoyment of the programme's genuine insight into how teams function. I take my pleasure second hand now via the peerless Nancy Banks-Smith whose review in The Guardian today combines bone-dryness and stiletto acuity in scientifically calculated amounts. Here she is on the contestants and their hilariously inflated job titles:

This year's crop are not crippled by false modesty. "I rate myself as probably the best salesperson in Europe" (Jenny). "There's nobody at my age who has achieved what I have" (Lindi). "People come up to me and say, 'You're arrogant!'. I say, 'You are 100% right. What are you going to do about it?'" (Michael). And, my particular favourite, "I don't play games. Every-body wants me on their team" (Simon).

They all had jobs which, like the peace of God, passeth all understanding. Helena, for instance, was a global pricing leader, which probably trumps
Sara, an international car sales strategist.

I can see them now.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The driving force

The death of Neil Aspinall has been announced.
He was 66. It was only a year since he had retired as the head of Apple Corps. He'd worked for his school friends the Beatles for 45 years. When Lennon and McCartney asked him to come and drive their van he had to give up a potentially secure career as an accountant to take them up on the offer.
Most members of the inner circle are gone - fellow roadie Mal Evans, PR man Derek Taylor, manager Brian Epstein and two members of the group - but nobody knew as many secrets as Aspinall. Up until last year he clocked in every day at their West End HQ, guarding their legacy, warning off corporate raiders and orchestrating reissues like the massively lucrative Anthology series. There can't be many people in any business who have worked for the same employer for so long. He was in the van, in the hotel room, in the studio, on stage and in the meeting room with them when anything of any significance took place.
And he never blabbed, which was remarkable for somebody of his generation and inconceivable for anyone who's been entrusted with that degree of confidence since.
The fourth sentence of the report of Aspinall's death on the BBC website goes as follows: "Despite no musical training, he sang in the chorus of 'Yellow Submarine'."
Half an hour ago it was headlined "Beatles guru dies".
They've just changed it to "Beatles ally dies".
Watch this space.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

How they took the good news from Mexico to Montreal

Driving round the M25 this morning I caught the first part of Nick Barraclough's "Border Radio" programme on Radio Four. This concerns the inimitable but frequently imitated Wolfman Jack who broadcast in the 50s and 60s on America's equivalent of the pirate stations, the so-called "border blasters" that sent powerful signals into the United States from transmitters just over the Mexican border. Some nights when the ionosphere was right the signals would "bounce" from the upper atmosphere and back to earth, so that they could be heard as clear as day as far away as New York and Canada. That's how the young Robbie Robertson and Bob Dylan got to hear strange sounds coming out of the south, records they would have no chance of hearing on their restricted local stations. I'd always feared that this was just the kind of myth that appeals to people like me. It turns out to be true.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Public rhetoric and the Wimbledon effect

Barack Obama is clearly a brilliant public communicator - better than Hilary Clinton, almost as good as Bill - but even in this speech he has not conquered the central problem of using a conference teleprompter, which I call the Wimbledon effect. He's using two transparent screens placed either side of him like so. This means he is always looking either to the left or to the right, never straight ahead, much like the crowd at Wimbledon. His gaze moves from left to right and back again regularly, apparently to talk directly to the crowd but actually to make sure that he delivers every word of this highly nuanced speech perfectly. It has the effect of making him seem relaxed, which is what's required of a TV performance, and after all this is what this is, but maybe it lacks drama. There are no climaxes, no halts apparently to let the idea sink in but actually devised to allow the speaker to organise himself. I know this is neither a fair nor an appropriate comparison but it's worth looking at it next to Martin Luther King's Lincoln Memorial speech. King looks down at his text, up at the sky, down at the crowd, then back to his text and so on. It's only when he has got near the end and he's clearly back to a familiar riff about "the mountains and molehills of Mississippi" that he seems to abandon the lectern and let fly like a great soloist.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Man about town

Last night the Word's crack quiz team came a creditable joint third in Time Out's London quiz. Highlights included Mark Ellen attempting to work out on a piece of paper how many journeys began and ended at Victoria in an average year and Andrew Collins trying to remember the name of the character who was written out of EastEnders but suffered the indignity of seeing his dog remain.
It took place in a bar at the University of London Union. Glad to see they're doing their bit in the battle against binge drinking. Three pints of Guinness and two of lager cost £11.10 and they were doing shots of Drambuie for a pound. Which is nice.
BTW It's very nice of Clive James to say something flattering about my piece on The Wire though he reckons the white out of black design of this blog makes it hard to read. Normally I'm very careful about this kind of thing but I've never had any trouble dealing with it. Anyone else reaching for the pince-nez?

Monday, March 17, 2008

Pissing off

I don't hold the view that we are surrounded by examples of terrible behaviour. Every so often, however, we see something that stops us in our tracks.
On the way home this evening I cut through a small modern shopping precinct in Islington. Approaching me among the shoppers and schoolchildren on their way home was a small, shabbily-dressed individual.
He was about forty.
In his hand he was holding his penis.
He was urinating as he walked.
Chaps, that's not easy, is it?

Friday, March 14, 2008

Out of Africa

Peter Godwin's "When A Crocodile Eats The Sun" is a compelling book, the kind you read in a few days. Godwin was brought up in Zimbabwe and the book is about his return to look after his elderly parents as the country slides into chaos and random violence. He quotes from a conversation he had with the scientist Jared Diamond about why Africa is the way it is. Diamond points out that the Islamic movement from the north halted as soon as it hit the region of the tsetse fly. He also argues that Africa is handicapped by the fact that it has no indigenous pack animal. If the rhino wasn't an intractable, territorial beast he reckons the Zulus would have conquered Europe hundreds of years ago.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

"Are there any questions?"

In the current issue of The Word Andrew Collins writes about going back to his old college to make a speech and how he was shocked at the fact that when they asked for questions there were none.

I went to Manchester yesterday for "a speaking engagement" and as usual the host asked if there were any questions. There were enough to make it respectable but in my experience if people have sat still and listened throughout then there's an expectation on their part that they'll be released into the wild the minute you've finished. I sympathise. The questions you're asked in public tend to be the ones where the interlocutor feels he can use your presentation to win an argument he's been pursuing within the organisation for some time. The more interesting ones are put to you in the bar afterwards.

Andrew was talking about his disappointment with the fact that a section of the population as traditionally voluble as students didn't seem to have much curiosity in them. I think there's something in his point that they don't want to be seen to stand out from the crowd or run the risk of making a fool of themselves. One of the explanations for the widespread adoption of the high rise terminal into speech patterns is that it turns categorical statements into requests for agreement, thereby smoothing out the edges of argument.

More worrying was an experience I had at a university not long ago. I was asked to take part in judging some final project work from students on a specialist publishing course. They had come up with magazine ideas in groups and looked at them from all the usual points of view: editorial, advertising, costs, distribution etc. We in the notional Dragon's Den had to interrogate the project. Believe me when I tell you we weren't particularly tough. If we had been these people would have crumpled into tears. We just asked the kind of questions you would get asked in a standard publishing company. Where would you put this in WH Smith? How do you expect the competition to react? What if you can't get this advertising? They didn't have any convincing answers and I didn't expect them to. What was dismaying was the surprise that was written on their faces that they were being asked at all. I got the usual thank-you for taking part letter from the person in charge of the course, who said that none of them had ever been asked difficult questions before.

It seems to me that your time at university should be largely devoted to the asking and answering of difficult questions. You're in an environment where if you're wrong it's not disastrous. You're at a time of life when you might change your mind. Rehearsing the arguments is surely how you learn. From what I know of it this rattling of cages is what the most old fashioned universities devote most of their time to. This place, on the other hand, was as redbrick as can be but the students were few enough and in small enough groups to be taught that way. I still can't see why they weren't. Nobody ever learned anything by devoting most of their time to wrestling with PowerPoint.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Wire: can a TV show really change the way you think?

This is my column from the April edition of The Word.

I don't know if The Wire is the best TV drama ever but I've watched the first four series of this story set in the decaying port city of Baltimore and that's enough to decide it's one of the few TV programmes that has changed the way I look at the world. I felt much the same after listening to Another Side Of Bob Dylan. I don't think it happens with music any more. The world's problems are too complicated to be diagnosed by even the best folk singer.

"The Wire" begins with a tight focus on undercover police mounting a surveillance operation on a drug dealer's business. It pulls out to examine the parallel hierarchies of dealers and law. The shot then widens to allow us to see how the drug economy works, how successive generations join "the game" as pre-adolescents, graduate to running their own corners (incentivised by a generous bonus scheme) and, if they're lucky and don't do too much jail time, end up in the officer class. Or dead.

But it's still only beginning. "The Wire" then pulls out further and you see how the characters are hemmed in by the modern city, how crime results in "white flight" and a dramatic drop in the tax base, ending in a situation where the city's schools are fifty million dollars in the hole and even the new broom in the mayor's office can't pay the police to clean up the streets, other than by taking money away from the schools and thereby putting more kids on the streets.

"The Wire"'s long lens retreats again as the action switches to the port, where long established white working-class elites are under threat from emerging economies in the East and the "cans" they handle could contain anything from Apple Macs to 19 year old hookers from Eastern Europe. It's to the great credit of the show's devisers, who have personal experience as teachers, police and crime reporters, that they don't offer a simple solution.

For African-American actors "The Wire" must be as significant as the advent of sound. It provides them with twenty key characters who are as complex and imperfect as the people their white counterparts have been playing for years. For once not hidebound by the need to present "positive images" they play havoc with the archetypes: the overweight drug lord repairing a toaster at his pawn shop, the police captain putting on his uniform to help his estranged wife get elected, the ruthless killer who expects respect for the Sabbath, the youth worker who can't stop hitting on his charges' mothers, the lieutenant in the crack gang studying economics at night school. The casting mixes real people with actors to disorienting effect. It's only among the DVD extras that you learn that the churchman, with the voice like Brahms and molasses, is played by an actual retired gangster.

If "The Wire" proves one thing it's that even ostensibly "cutting-edge" entertainment, with its desperate need for cleansing moments, whizz-bang climaxes, spectacular violence and roles in which the actor can look good, has failed to do justice to the way we live now. Not that "The Wire" is a headline chaser. Its text is human weakness under duress and the ancient truth that in the midst of life we are in death. Characters die, disappear or are disgraced just as you are getting used to them. They turn up in the least expected circumstances and no explanation is forthcoming. Terrible things happen and nothing occurs to make them alright again.

When the cop breaks the child's fingers to stop him stealing more cars, when the well-meaning teacher is forced to coach his class through meaningless exams to keep the school's results up, when the bad mother begs the police to put her teenage boy inside "to make him a man", when the monstrous police boss bullies his officers into "juking the stats" so that the mayor can pretend he's winning, when the nice guy politician sends his wife home and suddenly shags (there is no other word) that nice woman he runs into at a fundraiser, when the tiny Jewish lawyer slaps the young black thug he's just sprung from custody and says "when will you people learn?" you know that for some part of the world we live in, near or far, like it or not, regardless of political stripe (as if that could make any difference), this is the way it is.

For that alone, for painting that picture in a way no other medium could, The Wire could be the best TV drama ever. What's certain is that watching it is the most educational thing you can do this year and you'll never react to those overnight news reports of gang killings with quite the same dumb exasperation again. No pop record I've heard recently comes close to equalling its impact.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

"Will this do?"

We all know fashion magazines are not like life but would it kill the people that work on them to make it clear to the readers from time to time that they recognise what a farce it is and they're actually on their side and not the PRs?
The cover of this week's edition of Grazia proclaims "Kate Moss talks to Grazia".
Now clearly she didn't say anything of consequence because that would have been splashed all over the cover but even low expectation readers like myself were surprised by how little was lurking under the slug "Grazia world exclusive" inside - to wit, three pages of product shots of the new Top Shop range with comments on each item below that purported to come from Kate. Now it could be that when Kate opens her mouth such pearls as "it's such a pretty top. Its kaftan feel and fluid silk gives it a beachy feel" pop straight out. Or it could be this was written by a PR, retyped by a hackette and then flung in the general direction of what they clearly believe is a fairly undiscerning public by people who really should know better.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

In praise of "The Archers"

I hold the view that a balanced life has only got room for one soap opera and that should be something you can attend to while doing something else. Hence, I have followed The Archers for longer than I care to remember. This last week or so it's been attempting to drum up interest in a conventional soap cliffhanger (will local nob Brian Aldridge disinherit his kids in favour of his "love child"?) by running trailers all over the network and generally trying to act like "EastEnders".

So far so predictable. But then, right in the middle of this, they dropped one of those plot twists that The Archers does better than anyone - a genuine everyday tragedy. The baby expected by young couple Roy and Hayley suddenly arrived three months early, was successfully delivered but then whisked into neo-natal care and wired up to monitors. We stood there in the kitchen and listened to the last five minutes, hardly daring to breathe.

They've done this before with established characters when the actors wanted out. John Archer was killed in a tractor accident. Betty Tucker had a heart attack. In both cases it was out of a clear blue sky, which is how these things happen in life, and it happened to somebody that you'd had a long-term relationship with. I know this sounds stupid but Clarrie and Eddie Grundy got married around the time that we did and their kids are around the ages of two of ours.

So for the next few weeks we shall be pressed up against the window of the neo-natal unit with Roy and Hayley. And, this being The Archers, there's no guarantee that it's going to have a happy outcome.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Yorkshire Bitter

Last Orders, last night's documentary by American film maker Henry Singer about a working men's club in Bradford, was a genuinely haunting piece of TV. For a start it was content to keep the camera on its subject long enough for them to get a complete sentence out. One of the old men charged with trying to keep this enterprise alive as everything seemed to be conspiring against it actually said "I wish I could be happy again", which is more than your usual soundbite. The young men didn't want to come anymore, the heavy industry had vanished, the supermarkets were offering cheaper beer, nobody was interested in the clubland turns or the Strictly Come Dancing evening and now the smoking ban had hit them like a 2 by 4 in the solar plexus. Every week the committee met to find that they had run at another loss and so they needed to draw on the club's savings to pay the bar staff and the number of jowly, stubbly men chewing down the pints of Tetley's in the cheerless bar area was reduced further by the death of one of their number during the filming.
Rumbling away in the background was their not very well disguised tendency to blame everything on the immigrants, whether they were Pakistanis who have been there since the early 60s or the East Europeans who have arrived recently. One of the offspring of a regular sat in front of a Union Jack on which somebody had inscribed an upside down swastika and said he would vote BNP - but first he needed to register. He didn't look as though he'd get round to it.

Friday, March 07, 2008

"Here, please, after you, no, I insist.."

On the Piccadilly Line this morning, sitting sideways, I looked up from my book to find my eyes adjacent to the midriff of a young woman and right in the middle of one of the most pressing social questions of the day.
Is that midriff pleasantly rounded in a manner that Rubens would have appreciated? Or is it three months pregnant?
Do I allow my eyes to travel further north to see if she's looking at me in a meaningful way suggesting that I should give up my seat to her?
Or, knowing that I'm due to get off soon, do I sit tight and keep reading?
And what do I do if the bloke next to me makes the decision that she is pregnant and gives up his seat to her?
And why am I suddenly really tense and reading the same line again and again?
I suggest a system of badges. Possibly a huge rosette saying "Hooray! I'm pregnant!"
Or would these go the way of disabled parking stickers and end up being appropriated by women who just fancy taking the weight off their feet?
Or maybe men could wear a badge saying "Will stand if need-be. Please ask".

Thursday, March 06, 2008

The missing page

Just heard Margaret Hodge, Minister for Culture, on Front Row talking about how our public libraries could learn a thing or two from Borders or Waterstones - and using the expression "wanna" rather more than I'd like a Minister of the Crown to do.
She reckons that if they installed an espresso machine, introduced 24 hour opening and had an online ordering service then things would be better. Can we take that as a tacit acceptance that public libraries currently have tumbleweed blowing through them and it's about time the public and the government had a grown up debate about what part - if any - they should play in the national life? She's seen people buying three for two on Oxford Street in a highly engineered retail environment and wants to know why we can't have that vibe in East Cheam's public libraries. Dear God.
Do these children believe what's in their latest press release? Nobody will utter the truth. Knee jerk defence of the public libraries is at its strongest amongst people who would never dream of using them. Libraries flourished in an era when people couldn't afford books even if they could find them. That's not true anymore. The only way that councils can get any footfall in the places at all is by promoting the DVD section, which fulfils very little cultural/educational purpose. I couldn't believe it when I was working in the West End a few years ago and the mobile library would park up at lunchtime in order to make sure that office workers IN THE WEST END OF LONDON could borrow the new Tom Cruise.
Dickens must be spinning.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

And the point is?

In the same week that Vanity Fair publish their portfolio of pictures in which people like Keira Knightley, Gwyneth Paltrow and Renee Zellweger repeat the poses of stars like Grace Kelly in classic stills from Hitchcock movies, Lindsay Lohan decides she's going to channel the spirit of Marilyn Monroe by repeating her last session with original photographer Bert Stern.

Which makes you think two things:
1. How insecure must these actors be that they need to dress up as stars of an earlier era?
2. Could you make an actual film for the price of the catering bill for these sessions?

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

"Looking for business, darling?"

The day after Paul Raymond died it's good to be reminded that the old Soho still exists in pockets. This morning I went to interview Mike Leigh about his wonderful new film "Happy Go Lucky". Leigh is arguably Britain's foremost film director, a man who sits at the same table as Scorsese, Coppola and Almodovar when the great and the good gather.
I fancy if I went to interview any of those it would be in a loft overlooking some great river. To get to Leigh's office you had to go to the second floor of an address in Greek Street. On the first landing there actually was a handwritten notice announcing "French model".

Plug

This afternoon I'm on A Good Read on Radio Four. It's presented by Kate Mosse. The usual anchor is Sue McGregor. She asked for some time off because she needed to have a rest from having to read at least two books a week. Don't blame her.

Monday, March 03, 2008

The never-never

Just finished "Never Again", Peter Hennessy's history of Britain between 1945 and 1951. This is in the same week that the clamour is rising once more for a referendum on membership of the EC.
The Labour government of the time kicked into the long grass the idea of membership of what was then the Iron & Steel pact between France and Germany because they didn't want to return to where they'd just finished a war, they were too preoccupied with the problems of the pound, they were committing themselves to a war in Korea and, to quote Ernest Bevin, "the Durham miners would never stand for it." How quaint that sounds now.
France and Germany were in such disarray that they just got on with it. That's the way it is with positive action. Having no choice concentrates the mind wonderfully. Ever since then it seems that every time a nation is asked to vote on membership they vote against. Somehow it's the posture that can never be proved wrong.