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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A year in 40 seconds

One more cup of coffee

I took part in a conference a couple of months ago. It was one of those events where you don't expect to get paid and it's not exactly of any promotional value either but you do it nonetheless. This was the kind of job that used to be recognised by a case of wine. Times seem to have changed. What I got was a thank-you and this card, which entitles me to lots of free coffee at Caffe Nero during December. I've been out and about more than usual during December but not once have I been in the vicinity of a branch of Caffe Nero while I had this card with me. I lent it to my wife. She was too busy to use it. I lent it to the kids. They forgot. And tomorrow is the last day of December and I still haven't used the damned thing. It's starting to get to me. The heart bridles at the thought of an unused discount in a way I find strangely unsettling. I may very well take a special trip to the West End tomorrow just to make sure it gets used at least once.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Don't judge your father by the standards of today

I've been reading Chocolate and Cuckoo Clocks, an anthology of the work of Alan Coren. It's been put together by his children Giles and Victoria. In the foreword they worry about whether to include anything from their father's most successful work, "The Collected Bulletins Of Idi Amin". These "letters" ran in Punch in the early 70s when Amin, the first Third World bogeyman to present himself as a rich subject for comedy, was all over the papers. Coren portrayed Amin as a ludicrous monster, part Sanders of The River and part crooked businessman. In retrospect that was about the size of it. However, the time has long passed when you can have a white man putting the words "dis", "dat", "dose" and "upsetting de popperlace" in the mouth of a black man, not even one we all agree was A Bad Lot. Giles and Victoria spend a lot of time discussing the rights and wrongs of this. They know what a major part of their father's work it was. The collected edition of the Amin letters sold a million copies and probably paid for the Coren children's education. It was very funny then. It goes without saying that the broadness of its humour would not pass through today's narrow gate.

Edwardian thriller writer John Buchan rarely cracked jokes but because he had some of his characters say unflattering things about Jews, last night's BBC documentary John Buchan: Master Of Suspense had to spend five minutes deciding whether it was still OK to like his books. This is the kind of agonising that increasingly besets the business of looking back even a couple of generations. It's as if contemporary chroniclers are gazing at the recent past from the shores of a Utopia on which they've recently arrived, finding it impossible to believe that recent generations had laboured in such darkness. Can it be that our own kith and kin used to think like that? Well, people did think that like that. My own mother once described the colour of a coat as "nigger brown". She would have been horrified if you had told her this could be construed as a racial epithet. I noted this at the time but wasn't shocked for thirty years. I'm not shocked now but I do raise an eyebrow and it makes me wonder what elements of contemporary speech and manners will be equally incendiary in the future.

But for now I wish people would just relax. The kind of attitudes exemplified by Coren's 1973 humour or Buchan's 1918 thrillers don't speak of bad people any more than today's desperate avoidance of anything that could be construed as racism or any other ism is the sign of good ones. I wouldn't find the unchallenged liberalism of today's conventional wisdom quite so irritating if it weren't so ready to draw attention to the apparent shortcomings of earlier generations, people who lived in a less comfy world than ours has been. Up till now.

And people still wonder why we're obsessed with the Sixties

Patti Boyd models Mary Quant.

The Rolling Stones provide background.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

And suddenly, you're dancing

Talking to Paul Morley on Christmas Eve, Bruce Forsyth said he could tell a good dancer from the way they walked. Fred Astaire had a remarkable walk. It was like a pre-war version of the pimp roll but executed by a body that couldn't be made to do anything inelegant. It's interesting how many of Astaire's routines begin with him ambling into shot and then slowly turning a walk into a dance. It's this transition from business to pleasure in a few paces that most people find most difficult when taking to the dance floor.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The most demanding performance of the musical year

The annual Christmas Eve carol service from King's College Chapel begins with a boy soprano singing the first verse of "Once In Royal David's City". I learn from an interview with a couple of former choristers that all the boys actually practise this number. The actual singer is only chosen when the red light goes on to begin the broadcast. The choirmaster points at one boy and off he goes. No time for nerves, presumably.

Happy Christmas.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Could you turn it down a bit? It's not big and it's not clever.

Loud music is a bit like free speech. Take it just that tiny bit too far and you want to kill someone.

Mark Ellen and I were talking to Katherine Whitehorn about loud music. As a member of the pre-rock and roll generation, she was keen to know what people of the rock and roll generation thought about the fact that everywhere we go nowadays we are exposed to music at a level that would have considered intolerable to the people who'd got their idea of noise from hearing actual munitions being dropped on their heads.

It was very difficult to get over how we felt. Obviously we have spent the last thirty years with headphones clamped to our ears and thereby we are by any measure clinically deaf. Nevertheless in the last few years even I have been forced to beat a retreat from both live gigs and clubs where the level of the music was actually making me feel ill. I cannot imagine what it would do to somebody of Katherine's generation. I have left branches of Abercrombie & Fitch with teenage shopping list unfulfilled thanks to the hammering my ribcage was taking from the sound waves coming from the speakers.

The world must be getting louder and people must be getting deafer. There is no other explanation.Loudness is a form of inflation that has been raging for years. It is driven not just by technology but also by humanity's incorrect belief that there is a notch on the volume knob which, once achieved, will bring about a massive explosion of human delight. They are all seeking this plateau of delirium. It never happens. It doesn't exist. Delight comes from within, not without.

In shops the rising tide of volume is driven by the staff. They are bored out of their minds and play music loud in order to persuade themselves that they work in a club and not a haberdashery. At office parties it's driven by people who have drunk slightly more than everyone else and believe that cranking the "sounds" up sufficiently will make everyone else do the thing they don't actually dare do themselves - dance. Party goers try to make themselves heard by talking louder. DJs respond by turning it up even louder. Far from increasing the sum of human happiness in the room they clearly reduce it and inevitably shorten the party.

I have talked to a number of people about the recent Leonard Cohen shows. The praise they universally volunteer is this. "It wasn't *loud*." Is it possible that this marks the moment the worm turns?

Friday, December 19, 2008

How they deal with difficult neighbours in Kenya in the year 2008

This shot, taken from The Year 2008 In Photographs, shows Masai warriors dressed in modern sportswear deploying with their bows and arrows on a hillside in Kenya.

They are not doing this for historical re-enactment purposes. This is a live dispute over territory. Twenty people have been killed in the last few months.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

In defence of football chairmen

I've just heard John Williams, the Blackburn Rovers chairman, being given a hard time by Mark Saggers on Radio Five for sacking Paul Ince and replacing him with Sam Allardyce. The "they didn't give him enough time" lobby, headed up by people who have no investment in the eventual outcome of the crisis that triggered the sacking, strikes me as plain naive.

If you're chairman of a Premiership football club you are responsible for one thing and one thing only - keeping the club in the Premiership. You have but one lever at your disposal that might, just might, have some effect on this. That's the replacement of the manager. Thanks to the strange, folksy ways of this industry, it's the only course of action that might make a difference. And even if it doesn't, the tribe are unlikely to blame you for it.

Therefore the chairman has to do it. Woe betide he does it too early, woe betide he does it too late. He has one window and that's the pre-Christmas period. I believe John Williams when he said that it has been a horrible week for him and he really wanted Ince to work out. Which he probably would have done, but by then they would have dropped down a division. And nobody forgives that.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The umpteeenth Crusade is enacted on the Victoria Line

I've always believed that the most dangerous time to be on the London Underground is between two and three in the afternoon. If you're going to encounter loons, this is the time of day. First thing in the morning the loons are prettily aslumber. By going home time they have gone home. But between two and three they are inevitably abroad and the absence of crowds affords them the elbow room in which to operate.

Yesterday afternoon at this hour I noticed an older chap making his way down the carriage. He was pausing at each passenger and making the sign of the cross over their head. The smile on his face made it impossible to work out whether he was a drunk, a nutcase or an over-zealous priest putting his commuting time to productive use. As he reached the middle of the carriage a passenger, who may have been a Muslim, waved him away in an agitated manner and then, when he persisted, moved right down the carriage as if he had been bothered by a swarm of bees.

For a few seconds I wondered whether there might be An Incident, the kind of thing that might have culminated in a discussion on Newsnight with the Archbishop of Canterbury on one hand and Iqbal Sacranie on the other and eventually lead to the introduction of a law forbidding any shows of religious faith on public transport.

But then we arrived at Warren Street and I got off.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Uma Thurman's fiance might want to make some changes to the wedding list

Arpad Busson, the financier who is engaged to Uma Thurman, has just lost hundreds of millions of dollars in the Madoff swindle.

When's the happy day then?

Magazines, the recession and the decline and fall of "expense it" culture

There are already a lot of media redundancies and next year there are going to be a lot more. Clearly, this is not easy for anyone. For those who have reached a certain level of seniority in a large company it involves adjustment as well as hardship. They miss not only the salary and the sense of purpose but also the perks and fringe benefits that have come to shape their "lifestyle". These can range from the trivial to the hugely expensive. Given the present march to austerity it seems that in the future both kinds will seem equally exotic.

When I first began working for a large publisher in the late 70s there was something called a "reading allowance". This had been arrived at in an agreement with the unions during a government pay freeze. It resulted in everyone in the company filling in an expenses sheet every month and claiming around five quid to pay for the newspapers that they allegedly needed to pursue their job.

Advertising sales people were originally given company cars to enable them to visit clients in distant towns. Then the editors were given them to cover stories. In time everyone above a certain level had them. They were usually treated with the disrespect of found money. Staff living in inner-city areas didn't much mind getting them stolen because it was always somebody else's problem. People used to complain when the revenue starting treating them as a "benefit in kind" and taxing them. Such people have, of course, never known what it is to pay a garage service bill from their own pocket.

I used to work with a boss who said he would discuss anything at staff meetings - the share price, the company's equal opportunities policy, even his own salary - but he wouldn't stand there and try to referee discussions about either company cars or staff toilets. Experience had taught him that people were incapable of being rational when talking about either.

Once a publishing company starts dealing in premium-priced advertising it is a fact of life that its staff begin to travel shorter distances more expensively. Advertising directors (or "publishers", as they quickly insist on being known) can no longer get from Mayfair to the Ivy without being conveyed in a black car. Fashion people adopt the Fashionista Salute whereby their right arm shoots up to hail a cab as soon as a revolving door has propelled them into the outside world.

The appeal of working in the luxury businesses, and the magazines that maintain their illusions, is that even the foot soldiers are temporarily licensed to behave as if they are Donatella Versace. Afraid of appearing insufficiently prestigious, their employers allow them to get away with running up expenses that wouldn't be acceptable in the widget industry. I knew of one senior woman working in this area who used to have her hair titivated by a professional every single morning. At the company's expense.

A magazine's expenditure becomes a function of its success rather than its requirements. The tiny handful of titles that make enormous amounts of money begin to balk at anything that looks like penny-pinching. "You mean to tell me that with all this money we're making you're arguing about a few cab bills?" is generally how the conversation starts. After that it gets ugly and sometimes culminates in someone leaving the company.

By then you have a large executive class who are competing to spend the company's money. They are motivated less by the legitimate requirements of their job and more by the desire to gain the same prestige that somebody else has got. This is at its worst when it comes to air travel. There once was a time when the most senior executive of one organisation travelled in coach. Then more and more people started to fly on business and some began to noisily announce that they had not turned right in a plane for years. This has the effect of making the most senior staff determined to enjoy the same prestige as their juniors.

The same inflationary spiral results in everyone joining private members clubs at the company's expense where they all entertain each other on the company credit cards that they have all been given before taking the company's car service home. Meanwhile their company car, which by now is some kind of SUV that never actually goes anywhere near the place of work, is being used by their partner to ferry their kids back and forth to school.

Once you have been used to doing things in a certain way it's very difficult to claw any of it back. One in ten cars in the UK are company vehicles, a much higher proportion than anywhere else. Try taking those back from people on the grounds that they're not used for company business and anyway they're polluting the planet. Then see what rancour ensues. The same applies to most perks. People in this country are unlikely to take the "easy-come, easy-go" attitude. They are more likely to react as if you're stripping them of their civil rights.

I was thinking of all this while reading a piece called "A short history of perks at Time Inc", which details all the staff benefits, official and unofficial, that the staff of America's biggest publisher used to enjoy when the living was easy and the cotton was high. These, believe it or not, included a drinks trolley that used to be pushed round the editorial floor on press days, which makes you wonder whether "Mad Men" might have been underselling things.

At this time of year I also remember when companies used to send cases of booze to key decision makers in the hope that they could count on repeat business. The main beneficiary of this in the company I used to work for was, back in the 80s, the person who handed out the print contracts. I once met the boss on the way back from a visit to his office. "Don't go in there," he said. "It looks like a bonded warehouse."

Lloyd George Knew My Father

Unlike feudal, class-bound Great Britain, the United States of America is still a country where people can rise to the highest offices in the land by dint of their own efforts and regardless of their humble background. In which spirit I'm glad to see that the person fancied to take over the Senate seat of the previously unknown Hillary Clinton is JFK's daughter Caroline Kennedy.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

What fresh hell is this?

I'll tell you one odd aspect of being a bloke. Every now and then you see some product or service being advertised and you ask yourself, what the deuce is that when it's at home? I snapped this while out walking this morning.

What you have to do to get noticed in today's highly competitive busking business

I took this on Upper Street the other day.

He's on a tightrope and he's playing the violin.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Fear of flying: a new twist

This is the picture accompanying a piece in the new Vanity Fair about a mid-air collision that took place over Brazil in 2006. It's actually an illustration, which is obvious when you think about it. When you read the piece, which is good but three times as long as it needs to be, you realise the accident happened so fast that in its wake the occupants of the private plane weren't even sure that they'd struck a commercial airliner. The element of the story that has been occupying my thoughts since reading it is this: the two planes collided because they were directed to the same part of the sky at the same height but in opposite directions. If this had happened twenty years ago then there would have been room for error and they would most probably have missed each other. Modern navigation equipment means they wouldn't.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Does Robert Peston think he's FDR?

I fear that the BBC's Robert Peston is succumbing to that peculiar form of self-importance affecting BBC reporters who suddenly find themselves at the centre of a huge story. Commenting on the effect of Congress's decision not to bail out the auto industry just now, he said "it's going to be a tough day but we'll get through it".

"We"? Whatever happens to GM workers or shareholders, Robert, I think it's reasonable to assume that your position and salary will not be affected.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

All I want for Christmas is a tree - and I've got one

We have one of those Christmas trees that spends the year out in the garden and is brought inside for a couple of weeks at this time of year. We don't have to pay for a new one. We just have to summon the energy to bring the one we've got indoors. Therefore it's no use the five guys selling Christmas trees in Chapel Market trying their patter on me.

They looked a little tense to me, as if they're concerned that their stock isn't showing much sign of moving. A tree has always been the last element of Christmas I could do without. Maybe I'm unusual and it's actually one of the first things that people looking to cut back would decide they don't need.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

"How much pain can you be in?"

Today Josh Lewsey announced his retirement from international rugby. This is a good enough excuse to show this clip of his tackle on Matt Rogers, my favourite moment in the entire history of England/Australia sport. I particularly love the way the Australian commentator laughs.

And today's solution to economic meltdown is...

One of the bracing features of the current economic problems is there is more discussion of genuinely radical courses of action than usual. In today's Guardian Simon Jenkins reckons that more good would be done giving everybody a thousand pounds and forcing them to spend it than in spending the same amount of money trying to unfreeze credit.
Get people to spend by giving them money, and just stop them saving it. Give them non-cashable vouchers for domestic goods and services that expire in three months. Drive them to the high streets, supermarkets, restaurants, entertainments, garages, anything that is not saving and has an employment multiplier effect. Only firms should be able to bank the vouchers. Demand must feed straight into business revenue, because revenue is collateral for credit. Without revenue, boosting credit is pointless.

I'll buy that.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Because we may not be the young ones very long

Today I was having my hair cut at an establishment in Kingly Street. I looked out of the window and saw a cheerful figure coming down the road. He was in his sixties but very well-preserved with a thick mop of silver hair and he was carrying a guitar in a case. To my surprise, he came in to the barbers shop and spoke to the woman cutting my hair.
"Are we still OK for Thursday?"
"Yes. Four o'clock."
"OK, I'm just off to rehearse. See if I can still remember the chords."
And he set off into the sunshine, swinging his guitar case as he skipped along.
Bruce Welch of the Shads, off to do the Royal Variety Performance.

Blabber 'n' smoke

An anti-smoking campaigner on the radio this morning, commenting on the display ban, said, and I think I'm quoting him correctly, "smoking exacerbates social division." I think he meant "poor people smoke more". This is really, really not the same thing at all.

Monday, December 08, 2008

The Me Generation

A year or so ago, thanks to Speechification, I caught an episode of Alan Dein's superb "Don't Hang Up". The idea of this series was to ring phone boxes late at night and interview anyone who answered. One of the voices on this programme belonged to Hannah, a 14-year-old girl living the feral life on Margate sea front. Understandably concerned and fascinated, Dein has subsequently tracked her down and done a programme about her. It contains the elements you might have predicted: a violent stepfather, a teenage mother, drugs, drink and a series of failed interventions by police and social workers. He interviews Hannah at length. She betrays the classic symptoms of a contemporary malaise that teachers talk about all the time: noisy assertiveness masking a desperate lack of genuine self-esteem.

The same theme is echoed in Tim Adams's excellent piece on the Karen Matthews case in The Guardian. Having observed the trial he concluded that Matthews seemed incapable of putting anyone's needs, not even her children's, above her own for even a moment. It's a rare case of a Guardian writer suggesting that the liberal establishment has done people like Karen Matthews no favours by excusing the way they go about their lives. He mentions Bea Campbell's contrasting of the media's differing attitudes to the Matthews case with that of Madeleine McCann.
Campbell's argument may not have been true - can any couple ever have been subjected to more media scrutiny about their lifestyle than the McCanns? - but it appealed to the class warriors on the blogs. The McCanns were traitors to their working-class roots, with their medical careers and their aspirations for their children and their Mark Warner holidays. Karen Matthews, who had never worked a day in her life, became an unlikely role model for working-class solidarity.
Right now there's a discussion about the case on Woman's Hour. Actually, it's not so much about the case as about what Woman's Hour listeners are supposed to think about it. It features someone called Anastasia. Bet she's never been to Dewsbury Moor. I have.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Tale Of The Unexpected

Next Saturday our son is due to return after six months in Brazil. We haven't seen him in that time. Unsurprisingly we were planning the coming week with his return in mind. Something to look forward to in the midst of the usual pre-Christmas melancholy. Big reunion at Heathrow on Saturday.

Yesterday morning the entirely unexpected happened. I was in my workroom at home. I heard a noise behind me and there he was, big grin all over his face.

He had decided to come a week early. His sister was in on the secret, as were most of the under-30s in London, and she had gone to pick him up from the airport. His mother and I were, it goes without saying, knocked sideways in a way that we rarely are. Ever since it happened we've been trying to recreate that moment of open-mouthed astonishment in our heads. Twenty four hours later we're still shaking our heads as if dazed.

Meanwhile the young ones have been walking round with the proud look that young ones wear when they manage to put one over on you comprehensively. Wouldn't have it any other way. Today we are killing a fatted calf.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Does it really take talent to be "The Talent"?

The discussion on the Today programme about the implications of Selina Scott's successful action against Channel Five over age discrimination was a collectors item for those who study the difference between what TV says and what it does. Both Joan Bakewell and Clive Jones of GMTV were piously pressing the case of older women and making tsk noises about the fashion for the team of silvery-haired male plus nubile female. I think the man from GMTV said that they made their hiring decisions based on "talent and creativity". Any job that required less of either quality than reading the news off an autocue would be hard to imagine.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

If you build it, they won't come

My previous post refers to the difference between what people say and what they do, particularly when it comes to media. I should expand.
  • In research women's magazine readers will always say that they wish the models on the fashion pages were older and rounder. When they are provided with pages of older, rounder models, they immediately stop buying the magazine.
  • Similarly people always say they would like the magazine to feature clothes that are more within their price range. Once that is provided they point out that if they wanted clothes like that they would simply go and buy them.
  • Everybody thinks they've got broad taste in music. Actually, they haven't. "Broad" just means "what I like".
  • Both sexes say they would like to have a magazine that is for older people. But they never regard themselves as older, even when they are.
  • People say they want practical, cookable recipes and not beautiful arty pictures of food shot in foreign countries. They lie.
  • People say they're not interested in celebrities. From The New York Times to The Sun, the evidence is clear. They are more interested in celebrities than anything else in the world.
  • Nobody really wants "Top Of The Pops" back.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The theory and practice of magazines

At City University yesterday I listened to a series of magazine proposals put together by students on their post-graduate journalism programme. This morning I sat through a two-hour meeting dealing with a real life magazine.

The contrast was marked. Yesterday afternoon all of the proposals were distinguished by the not unreasonable belief that you could believe what people told you in research. This morning's discussion was conducted by the light of experience which tells you that while people's opinions are one thing, their behaviour is another altogether.

This cognitive dissonance, which no doubt applies equally to the marketing of margarine or Mercedes, seems particularly pertinent in magazines. As soon as you ask people to tell you why they buy a magazine they will always point to the rational benefits (the listings, the in-depth features) while glossing over the sensory aspects (the naked woman on the front, the encounter with the celebrity inside, the stupid cartoon).

The entry-level professional will tend to work on the principle that if you build it they will come. The more experienced the professional the more likely they are to suspect that, actually, they won't. And of course you can't prove it. But you can show them your scars.

Monday, December 01, 2008

New media

Tomorrow I've got to help judge some students' work at City University.

To get in the mood I've just been looking at the pictures from the Guardian Student Media Awards which took place last week. I was expecting lots of serious coves looking as if they've been dragged away from their inky toil to accept a bauble to which they attached no particular importance. Instead I got lots of young chaps wearing ties and girls frocked up to here.