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Sunday, May 31, 2009

In praise of Mollie Panter-Downes

Before this week Mollie Panter-Downes was just a name I noticed in the footnotes of books about the Home Front in the war. She was an English writer whose wartime despatches to the New Yorker have proved invaluable source material for historians trying to pin down the mood of daily life in those days. She also wrote short stories. Sometimes very short stories. These are collected in two fondle-worthy editions from Persephone that I've devoured in the last few days.

Apparently she was one of the few writers whose copy that magazine's fastidious style police never had to change. Her style is as easy to read as magazine fiction ought to be but manages to be haunting and picturesque at the same time. Whether or not she knew it, she was describing the lives of her subjects at the same time as they were undergoing permanent change. People were moving out of houses they could no longer afford, finding themselves living cheek by jowl with people they would never normally encounter, enduring the terror of the Blitz (she talks about a bomb on its way down as making "a hole in the air") and later in the war missing the companionship it provided. She's particularly good on the fact that the English class system is sustained as much from below as it is imposed from above and what she calls in one story "the dignity of all human affection". Marvellous stuff.

Working outdoors

Today's the day I moved that old card table down to the bottom of the garden to see if I can trick myself into working like Somerset Maugham or Roald Dahl.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Cripes! Publicity! I'll be unbearable

Mr Hepworth's blog, "and another thing" (www.whatsheonaboutnow.blogspot.com) is an excellent glimpse into world-class thinking about music, business, publishing and the general world of media; supplemented by excellent jokes and observations about a professional life lived adjacent to celebrity culture.

More here.

Listening to old interview tapes

I'm very impressed that Lynne Truss is on Radio Four's Archive Hour tomorrow night presenting "Did I Really Ask That?" in which she plays the cassettes of her old interviews with the likes of Arthur Miller and Tom Stoppard. I've never had the nerve to let anyone hear the tapes of my interviews with the members of Racey, let alone Bob Dylan. It would be like hearing your twenty-year-old self trying to talk a girl into coming back to your room. It makes me blush to think of the forced laughter, the exaggerated surprise, the mute toleration of a really boring answer, the agonising, crab-like approach towards a difficult question and the blood pumping in the ears when you finally get a quote you can use. It's not conversation, much as it would like to be. It's more like tickling trout.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

There are bargains to be had

Last night I watched "Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor: The Link" on BBC-1. Four thoughts.
1. Fascinating though it was, the amount of actual content in this hour-long programme could have been got through in about ten minutes. The rest was taken up with shots of scientists looking through microscopes and those sudden zooms that are accompanied by "whoosh" noises.
2. This is the most complete fossil anyone's come across ever. It's 47,000,000 years old and they can still tell what was in its stomach.
3. A Norwegian museum bought it from a private collector for just $1,000,000. That's about the asking price of an Edwardian semi in suburban London.
4. I'm always amazed at how "reasonable" precious things can be.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Can editors change their spots?

This piece by economist Robert G. Picard is called "why journalists deserve low pay". The nub of his argument is that journalistic skills are being commoditised out of existence and therefore hacks have to find new ways to add value. He makes the point that in the early days of newspapers journalists were far more involved in the selling of their services than they are today, when most of them like to think that what they do is somehow beyond grubby commerce, even as economic forces indicate that if ever there was a time to get on one's bike this is it. He says:
Journalism must innovate and create new means of gathering, processing, and distributing information so it provides content and services that readers, listeners, and viewers cannot receive elsewhere. And these must provide sufficient value so audiences and users are willing to pay a reasonable price.
I think his analysis is sound - and he's the first person to point out that change is more likely to come from journalists than management - but his proposed solutions are as woofly as, well, everybody else's, inspired by a Micawberish belief that something will turn up rather than a passionate belief that it will. He points to the fact that Newsweek is switching its focus from news-gathering to analysis and suggests that America's big local papers should develop a reputation for covering particular areas. I can't see either kind of change being anything like radical enough.

Editors, who are a form of journalist, have particular challenges in the new dispensation because their historic strength has been a skill in creating a balanced package. Now that people can access elements of that mix, what price the amount of sweat and expense that goes into the fashioning of the package? Magazine editors spend most of their time deciding what they're *not* going to do and trying to arrive at a mix that the majority of people will like. They then find that whatever they've arrived at is too much for some people and not enough for others. This is made more difficult by the fact that their readers, being the most engaged in their particular area, are the people most likely to tap into other sources themselves. The people who value your mix most are also the people who would feel most qualified to mix it themselves.

Every month I get emails from some readers of The Word, who are the most engaged readers of anything in my experience, saying how much their enjoyment of the magazine would have been increased if only it didn't also have a certain element. I can well understand how you might want more of something but fail to understand how you could similarly want less of something, particularly since the magazine operates in a steadily expanding universe of stuff and therefore the chances of one's personal favourites being featured must be getting less all the time.

I subscribe to The New Yorker. One of its chief delights is that it's impossible to predict what's going to be in it. I wonder whether magazines of the future might be more of a mystery tour than they are today. In a sense it seems inevitable. If that's to happen it needs some brave editors and some even braver readers.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Reporting unreported street crime

On my way to a screening in the West End the other evening I stopped for a cup of tea. Looking out of the café window my gaze was interrupted by a young man coming round the corner running very, very fast. I watched as he shouted after a middle-aged bloke walking down the street towards the British Museum. When he caught up with him there was a confrontation that looked for a moment as if it might turn into violence. But then the older man sheepishly put his hand in his pocket and handed over the phone he'd presumably just stolen from the younger. The young man departed, presumably satisfied. Nobody was bothering to alert the authorities. The man in the cafe said it happened every day.

Ten minutes later I was walking on the edge of Covent Garden when a young man came tearing out on an alley, galloped across the road and disappeared behind a council truck. The minute he was hidden from view a young woman came running out of the same alley. At first I thought it must be what they used to call "high spirits" between boyfriend and girlfriend but then I wondered whether he'd just stolen something from her. She ran across the street and went in the opposite direction. Which made me wonder. If she really was pursuing a thief on her own, how was she proposing to regain her property? And if she needed some help, whatever happened to crying "stop thief!"?

Monday, May 18, 2009

When the recession hit the heritage industry in the small of the back

When English Heritage, the four-part series which has recently finished on BBC-2, was commissioned, it was presumably intended as a sceptical look at the heritage industry, enlivened by the eminently lampoon-able figure of EH's boss, Simon Thurley. The arrival of the recession midway through filming proves the great truth of documentary television; what's bad news for the subjects is always good news for the film makers. The series looked at four projects.
1. Apethorpe Hall
A splendid hunting lodge, once used by James I, had been neglected for twenty years and abandoned by its last owner. EH move in and spend £3m getting it ready for sale to a suitable billionaire. The catches? Said billionaire would have to spend another £7m making it habitable and then let the public in 28 days a year. Then the stock market crashes.
2. Park Hill Estate
A huge late-50s council block in Sheffield, which is unfit for human habitation, is deemed of special architectural interest by EH and restored with the services of a trendy developer. EH want to turn it into chi-chi apartments and "business units". People in Sheffield want it knocked down. Halfway through the work the developers can't raise enough money to complete the work because property prices have tanked.
3. The Queen, Her Lover and His Castle
Kenilworth Castle was once the home of Robert Dudley, favourite of Elizabeth I. When she was visiting he spent a fortune building a garden to impress her. No traces of this garden remain. Posterity only knows about it through a description in a contemporary letter. EH embark on rebuilding this garden (including fountain and aviary) on the basis of this description. They are attempting to replicate a temporary structure knocked up in the 16th century to satisfy the demanding safety standards of the 21st. Nobody can decide who's paying for the steel reinforcements on the timbers and so work on the site ceases.
4. Full Steam Ahead
King's Cross station is being restored. For a whole year there is no work on the revised booking hall because EH insist some brackets should be retained from the previous structure. The station is closed so the Victorian pedestrian bridge can be removed. EH want it preserved but they can't find anyone who wants it. Therefore the bridge ends up in a car park in Cambridge.
If any of this sounds remotely interesting I urge you to catch it on the Iplayer. It's brilliant, if slightly bitchy, television. If you're going to watch just one film make it "The Queen, Her Lover and His Castle". Pay particular attention to the scene where, in order to establish the appropriate design for the fountain in the imaginary garden, they hire two male models, wrap them in loincloths, put them on a fork-lift truck and have them holding a bowl aloft. A dozen people stand around, some of them presumably quite well-paid, cooing appreciatively and taking pictures with their digital cameras. This for just one tiny detail of just one of thousands of projects. I think we may well look back at this film in years to come and wonder that public money was ever spent on capricious projects like these and on a scale that would give even Hollywood pause.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

You can take the girl out of Blue Peter......

I first met Konnie Huq when she used to come in and work at Q during her school and university holidays. When she turned up at Blue Peter years later it was because she was capable as well as attractive. Being Asian certainly didn't hurt either. The strange mathematics of television means that an attractive woman presenting a childrens programme will acquire an erotic halo they wouldn't have if they were fronting "Fornication On 4". It's the contrast that appeals to the male imagination.

Obviously when she was presenting the programme she wouldn't have been allowed to take up the many offers to pose for so-called glamour pictures. Now that she's on the point of taking up another presenting gig she's been persuaded to do just that for FHM. (Mind you, female TV presenters always claim to have been persuaded. Nobody's candid enough to admit they're flattered.) And, in a major upset to the form book, she finds they've flagged it as a Blue Peter special. "It was so inappropriate," she says, employing the adjective of the day. "I mean, kids can walk into a newsagent and see that and think it is something about the show." Well, that's what's going to happen for the rest of your career, Konnie. Just ask Valerie Singleton or Janet Ellis, both of whom have probably got to the point where they don't mind anymore. Anything that keeps you famous so long is not to be sniffed at.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

An evening with the quality

This evening we went to the presentation of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize at Tate Britain. The winner was "The Armies" by Colombian author Evilio Rosero, translated by Anne McLean, who explained that British publishers often have to take a punt on a novel in a foreign language before they've actually read it. This had never occured to me before but is bleeding obvious when you think about it. Hospitality was provided by Champagne Taittinger of which I can't speak highly enough.

Turning the house upside down

The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters is full of laconic zingers. Last night I was reading about the occasion in 1972 when Chatsworth House got a bomb threat. It promised the bomb would go up in half an hour. One of the house guests went and moved their new car to make sure it wouldn't be affected by any blast. Never mind the Velasquez, thought the Duchess Of Devonshire. They evacuated the house and rang the police, who arrived twenty minutes later.
"Do you want us to search the house?" they asked.
"It may take you more than ten minutes," she said.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

We just got this email at the office

I can't decide whether it's real or a supremely clever piss-take, possibly written by Chris Morris.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Please sit still while teacher counts you

The story that had my jaw dropping this weekend concerns London Metropolitan University, which could be fined £40,000,000 for overclaiming student numbers in order to qualify for government grants. The Vice Chancellor, who was, incidentally, paid more than the Prime Minister, has taken early retirement, presumably on terms that most of us can only dream of. In the wake of that there's talk of 500 staff redundancies and London Met not being "fit for purpose". There's a massive finger-pointing exercise going on at the moment involving all your old favourites: personal animosity, class war, race, union power and tactical score-settling. When the smoke clears we might just glimpse the real malaise which the figures only hint at.

The Higher Education Funding Council For England found that London Met had a total dropout rate for the year 2006-7 of 30.6%. London Met reckoned it was only 2.3%. Even allowing for accounting disparities that's a discrepancy you could drive a bus through. In 2007-8 the University claimed funding for 15,306 students. HEFCE said there were only 10,613. It further reckons that over a five year period they overpaid London Met £36.5 million. That's one university managing to mislay a third of its student body but still claim for them.

Obviously some inquiry will focus on how these claims came to be made and how many people had to turn a blind eye to them but what we really need to know as a society is this. Who is taking the piss out of the taxpayer most? The students who sign up and then just wander off in increasing numbers? (What is the real drop out rate and what does that mean for "education, education, education"?) Or the academics and bureaucrats who are so focussed on funding that they collude in what in the private sector would be called fraud? Either way it's a bigger scandal than MPs expenses.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

MPs expenses: let's hear it for muckraking journalism and ink on paper

Whatever you think of the rights and wrongs of MP's expenses, one thing is clear. Without a newspaper, in this case The Daily Telegraph, this story would never have surfaced. The only one of the broadcasters that might have been bothered with it, the BBC, would have required balls of steel to take it on. All the bloggers in the world wouldn't have been able to access the data and, if they had, they wouldn't have been able to make the same splash about it. It's a grubby story but newspapers are, at their best, a grubby trade. Maybe you won't miss them when they're gone. That could be the most disturbing thing of all.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Richard and Judy: we're apathetic as hell and we're not going to take it any more

A few years ago I was rung up by a researcher for Richard and Judy's afternoon show on Channel 4. Would I come on and talk about Live Aid? I said I was busy at the time. They kept ringing me. Eventually they offered payment and a car to take me back and forth. You can always tell a programme's budget by the cars they send. If they're driven by a middle-aged man in a suit, the interior smells of air freshener and today's papers are in the back, there's money involved.

Never having watched Richard and Judy I didn't know how they did things and when I got there I was surprised to find I was one of three people who had been brought in to contribute to an item that was five minutes long at the very most. In the ensuing discussion I managed to get away one sentence and I'm not generally crippled by shyness. Even in that brief exposure it was clear that the show was its own reality. Guests, who tended to be served in batches of three, were there to bolster the main point of the programme, which was looking at Richard and Judy. The outside world existed largely to give them something to raise their eyebrows at. Afterwards I was given a "goodie bag", containing, among other things, an autographed picture of the golden couple. It was like spending an hour on a planet whose hierarchy was completely unfamiliar and yet rigorously observed by the natives.

Six months ago they left Channel 4 and took their programme to digital channel Watch. Noting the weakening of the old channels they obviously felt that the new digital landscape would afford them opportunities to make some serious money as performer/producer/rights owners. It wasn't as easy as they thought. Yesterday they ran up the white flag and tore up the contract six months early, noting that their old audience had found it difficult to follow them to a small channel. In TV circles they gleefully point to one show which only managed 11,000 viewers.

Maybe this proves that while TV fame may spread very wide it doesn't go all that deep. It could also encourage the networks to face down some of their more demanding talent. If these people want to take their talent out into the marketplace and deal direct with the public they may find that they're nothing like as bankable as they imagine. And if they have to go back it will be on much reduced terms.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Is Rupert Murdoch the only person talking sense about the internet?

Rupert Murdoch says he's looking into how he may be able to charge for access to News International's web sites. His experience charging for content on the Wall Street Journal site makes him believe this is possible. The experience of the last year, where advertising revenue on his titles dropped by 21%, probably makes him believe this is inevitable.

I'm sure Murdoch's corporate heirs don't share his confidence but they're too implicated in the policy of investing billions in the internet to be caught blinking first. When they first began building massive newspaper sites and putting all their daily content on to them it was against the background of an expanding advertising market. There were people who thought that print was doomed but Doomsday was distant enough to probably occur on somebody else's watch. Things have changed in the last 12 months. Local papers in major American cities are closing almost weekly. Nothing quite so dramatic is happening here but there isn't anyone in a senior capacity on a British newspaper who believes that they can continue investing in both print and digital. Nor is there any serious person who believes that abandoning the former for the latter would be anything other than suicide. Nor can there be even the most junior contributor who can have failed to notice that budgets on newspapers are being drastically hacked back.

I'm sure Murdoch is old and wise enough to know that if some kind of payment is introduced it will be difficult and painful. He didn't get where he is today without being a realist. He's a sight more realistic than all the people on The Guardian site who have been heaping derision on his plans. Displaying the remarkable unanimity of the truly clueless they stop just short of calling him old and out of touch. Information wants to be free, some of them claim, parroting one of the most popular clichés of this most cliché-rich environments. Well, information doesn't feel one way or another about freedom. It's simply that the self-destructive land grab the newspaper groups have indulged in in the last ten years has encouraged people to believe that they didn't have to pay for information. So they didn't. Once the traditional information providers decide that they can't make any money giving all this away for free they will either go out of business or stop altogether. Anyone who thinks that information vacuum is going to be filled by citizen journalists or the BBC or some unspecified "new model" has their head in the sand.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Thirty-five years B.C. (before computers)

I don't know why I'm posting this. Nobody on the web is old enough to be able to answer the question that occured to me while standing in a bank queue the other day. But anyway.

What did banks do before computers?

Nowadays we accept that the teller will be able to tell everything about us after a few clicks. It wasn't always thus. What did they do in the mid-70s when you wanted to know what your balance was? I remember going into banks and asking that very question. How did they answer it? Did they disappear into the back and come back with the answer on a scrap of paper? I seem to remember that they did. And if so, where did they get that information from? Was there a Sgt Wilson figure somewhere in a morning coat sitting behind a huge ledger recording the comings and goings on everyone's account with a quill pen?

Nowadays we take it for granted that everything that can be recorded is being recorded somewhere, generally without actual human intervention. The idea that there was a time when nothing happened unless a human being was commanded to make it happen is something I already find amazing.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

More damage than Goering

Last night's "Romancing The Stone" on BBC Two confirmed my prejudice about major architectural projects: they're run by people in interesting spectacles, people who are keen on having things that look good on their company website but no intention whatsoever of living in anything they build. This episode was about Park Hill flats in Sheffield, one of those Le Corbusier-inspired abominations thrown up everywhere during the 50s. It's fallen into disrepair. The council wanted to knock it down but English Heritage decided it had special architectural merit and should be preserved. A trendy developer called Urban Splash was brought in and they hacked it back to its skeleton. Then came the credit crunch, the decline in property prices meant Urban Splash couldn't raise the money and work stopped. The skeleton was left, waiting for the wind to make it unsafe.

Everybody who appeared in the film, from the posh bloke from English Heritage to the Minister for Yorkshire and The Humber (there's a job that needed creating) was encouraged by a laughing voice off-camera to ascend the ladder and knot their own noose. The most telling thing about the whole film was what it omitted. Apart from an archive clip at the beginning where a toothless old lady born in the 19th-century described Park Hill as "heaven", there was no mention of who had lived there in the past and, more importantly, who might live there in the future and how. I thought Le Corbusier's theory was that form followed function. If so, why didn't they start with some idea of who the customers were going to be? Further reading tells me that it's the usual plan: upmarket apartments and business units. I think one of the planners in the film mentioned an organic supermarket, surely the mark of a man who has a First Class return ticket in his waistcoat pocket.

I learn from a friend in the property game that Britain is now full of redeveloped old buildings turned into sun-kissed City Living spaces for young professionals. They were having difficulty moving them long before the recession and so the council use them for their problem clients. The more the council do this the less desirable these places become for the young professionals. It's brutal but it's the truth. Do the men in interesting glasses ever have these kind of discussions?